13 Ghosts 10.26.01
Well, it's Halloween. Time for this year's scary movie. This one is a little too violent. The sliced in lengthways thing was nasty. On the other hand, the really gruesome wraiths (get familiar with the term, you'll be hearing a lot more about it if the Lord of the Rings remake is halfway faithful) were not as scary as they should have been. Must be something about distancing oneself from real people that allows us to look at truly horrific apparitions in a film without discomfort, while some evil person meeting an ugly end disturbs us. If they're not real people I can not or will not let their fate or face get to me. Sort of like the dehumanization process we go through in war. The enemy is not human, they are evildoers or mindless, consciousless slaves to a tyrannical leader. Killing them is not like killing one of us. But I digress.
F. Murray Abraham is Cyrus, the chief ghost catcher. His nephew Arthur, Tony Shalhoub, and his children inherit the glass house built by Cyrus. As we know from the previews, the house is actually a giant machine and its devilish purpose is revealed near the end. Matthew Lillard plays Cyrus' unwilling accomplice and puts his elastic countenance to good use in his near constant state of terror. Rah Digga has a few too many stereotypical wisecracks for my comfort, but she provides some comic relief. Embeth Davidtz plays a ghost fighter any breeder male would die to have on their side in a pinch.
I was fascinated to learn the dead have their own set of rules by which they must abide. Where one gets that particular bit of news is a mystery, though. Maybe in a casual conversation with The Juggernaut or Hammer or Torn Prince. As for me, I'd rather spend an evening at cards with the Angry Princess.
One the scarier bits of reading I've done was a short story in The New Yorker a few Halloweens back ab out a young boy lost in the woods coming across Satan in a rumpled suit. Stephen King's description of an otherwise normal man (otherwise than the smell of sulfur and the red coals for eyes) was scary enough to make me turn on lights and make sure the dogs were in the room with me. Only a couple of other writers have done that, Ann Rice describing an evil woman laying in bed with an unsuspecting husband and H.P. Lovecraft taking us into the mind of a madman. I was pleasantly surprised to see King's name in the opening credits of 1408 and wasn't disappointed by what followed. I don't even like the "boo" type of scary movie (as opposed to the other three types (see scary movies) but 1408 was several notches above the norm for this category. Add latest fav Mary McCormack, subtract Samuel L, add brevity, subtract the director of the dreadful Derailed and you win, barely. Barely is good enough for me these days, what with the latest out of our criminal government. So Bush pushed to get Wall Street open by Friday, September 14, 2001. Pushed Whitman at the EPA to make everyone feel safe about the air. And then shoved the thousands with respiratory disease from working at Ground Zero right off the table. Thank you for your service, now go away and cough up blood quietly please. And Cheney smugs his way to infamy and riches. The real horror story is all around us.
15 Minutes 03.12.01
Now this is clever. Two Eastern European thugs on a murder and mayhem spree film their crimes in order to get rich off the movie rights. It'll work because, as Frasier says, "If it bleeds, it leads." Hey, wait a minute, I'm here watching this movie with all this gratuitous violence about people who'll pay to watch gratuitous violence. Oh the irony. wow.
The producer brought in to try to lift the standards of Frasier's "Top Story" show (read "Hard Copy") (I'm sorry, it's Frasier and it'll always be Frasier and that's that), covers her eyes at one point and peeks out from between her fingers to watch the disgusting violence. Does this mean it's OK for me to be here after all? Thanks Mr. Director Hertzfeld, I feel justified in watching this gratuitous violence. When will I learn to check out a director's previous works BEFORE I see a movie? Hertzfeld did the Joey Buttoffuoco TV movie, a Barbara Taylor Bradford "novel" and a "sock-u-mentary" on Don King the boxing promoter.
Despite the deep sense of justice I felt watching Las Vegas crater I had already become innured to this, the mother of all disaster movies. Seeing John Cusack and Amanda Peete repeatedly stay a hairs breadth ahead of a cracking planet quickly grew tiresome. World's end, ho-hum.
I'll ascribe my failure to love this film to my occidentalism. How funny, I just made the connection between this and In The Mood For Love (same director) and I made the same comment about that film as well. OK, new start.
A beautiful if confusing film of one man's failure in love. Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung Chiu) is a charming but apparently heartless ladies man working his way through a series of intriguing women only to look back in an anguished sadness over the love(s) that got away. Reminds me of all we take for granted in our youth, friends, health, education, love, freedom, safety. Maybe we only appreciate these things in their absence. What is it about youth that makes it so invulnerable to the wisdom of experience? What a waste. Writer/director Kar Wai Wong makes the waste palpable, even if you, like me, struggle with the non-linear narrative.
21 Grams 01.01.04
A work of profound complexity and beauty, 21 Grams is a masterpiece. Reminiscent of classic Greek tragedy, no one escapes unharmed, and no one understands what is happening or why. Del Toro plays born again ex-con Jack Jordan, Penn is Paul Rivers, a mathematician with a bad heart, and Watts is Cristina Peck, widow. The three become entwined in a web of tragedy and grief so thick and dark as to permit no escape. Each delivers an utterly devastating performance and the sum of their parts is made greater through the direction of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto. Lights take on a surrealistic haze and hue, whole scenes appear to be color coded, the camera is immediate and present and at times uncomfortably close. The story is told in flashback while the timeline jumps back and forth almost at random. Look for Clea Duvall in an arresting moment of grief and sadness in a hospital waiting room.
If any redemptive thread can be found in this unrelenting tragedy it is that life goes on, in spite of everything. After two hours of this powerfully effecting drama, I'm not sure life's continuance is such a comfort.
Spike Lee is an accomplished technician with a perspective so clear and so indelibly stamped in his work as to render the work subservient to that perspective. His perspective is that of an angry victim. "Damn right," one can almost hear him swear. Instead of casting light into the darker recesses of the human condition, instead of illuminating truth or even eliciting empathy, he illuminates with glaring clarity his jaundiced view of the society. We are blinded by the glare of that spotlight, not informed but bludgeoned.
In his latest "joint", Lee casts the enormously talented Edward Norton as a prison-bound drug dealer on his last day as a free man. Norton delivers a vituperative soliloquy listing every race, ethnicity and gender bias preceded by a short but meaningful expletive. Lee cuts away to shots of the Sikhs, Asians and the rest of his targets. Everyone is fodder for the Lee cannon. The diatribe did not advance the narrative and so appears to be little more than an editorial comment. The scene takes place in a public bathroom with Norton talking to his reflection in the mirror. It lasts about three minutes and serves only to distract and detract. This is a glaring example of Lee's perspective taking inappropriate control of the story. Less obvious examples are found in his stereotypical portrayal of the Russian mobsters, the Irish bar owner, the money crazed stock trader. When Lee has an important lesson to teach or story to tell, these distractions mar but do not overtake his films. As in X and Bamboozled, the jaded, angry Lee is apparent but his story survives. The story in 25th Hour is not strong enough to withstand Lee's heavy hand.
This may be Sandra Bullock at the top of her form. Unlike most of her previous roles, this one carries some range and depth. Confined to a rehab center for 28 days, she confronts her demons and emerges victorious.
Burdened with the triple curse of 3 awards as MTV's Favorite Actress, Matthew McConaughey for a boyfriend, and a "fresh and compelling sexuality," she may never be taken seriously as an actress. The film attempts to treat alcohol abuse as a serious subject. A risky effort. The audience was enormously amused when she crashed a stolen limousine into a house at 20 MPH. As she stumbled out, bloody, dazed and disoriented, the laughter grew. A rather sad commentary in itself. She spends the next 28 days in a rehab center. Through a series of flashbacks to her childhood, we learn the "cause" of her alcoholism is rooted in her mother's party-time attitude toward life. Her sister escaped the disease but not the fallout from Gwen's.
The similarities between Girl Interrupted and 28 Days were striking. Steve Buscemi played the Whoopi Goldberg role and Azura Skye played the Angelina Joile role. I can't help but wonder how two such similar vehicles make it to the screen in the same season. Is there such a dearth of material in Hollywood that this is unavoidable? Or, as the Indies would have us believe, are the studios so focused on profits that copying a successful vehicle is acceptable?
When I was a kid end of the world scenarios always involved the Russians and us in a nuclear holocaust (see Illusions). Kids these days have a wide variety of end of the world scenarios to deal with, most involving scientists developing killer viruses or genetic engineers oopsing big time. I remember the effect On the Beach had on me when I saw it. A submarine is underwater when the big one goes off. The sub surfaces to find all but Australia smoked. They head to the beach in Australia trying to outrun the radioactive cloud heading south. Really threw me. Scared me at a level I'll probably never understand. I wonder what psychic scars our kids are enduring from all the horror we've dreamed up in the last thirty years? But I digress.
28 Days is shot in grainy digital giving it an almost documentary feel. Jim wakes up in a hospital bed to find the world has gone missing, the people that is. A horrible virus has wiped out nearly everybody. The few that remain are divided into the infected and the non-infected, Jim (Cillian Murphy) being one of the latter. Fairly standard fare, the first folks he runs into explain everything, one is a girl who's tougher than either guy and pretty too, and they try to hook up with the other uninfected humans. The infected come out mainly at night, growl, spit blood and have awful red eyes. I shan't tell you more in case you want to see it. It's scarier to read the paper, though.
Oh yeah, people. The theater was about half full, Saturday morning matine. The film opens with a series of video monitors playing scenes of violence in endless loops. What looks like news footage of beatings, tear gas, immolation - the works. A chimp is strapped to a table a la Clockwork Orange, compelled to watch. Scene two has our hero Jim awakening in a hospital bed. The shot is an overhead and he is completely nude and uncovered. All is visible. I hear a small voice to my right complaining, "daddy, I can't see." I look over and a man is dragging his small child down the stairs as fast as he can go. The nudity must have done it. Not the violence, the shootings, the beatings and burnings, the nakedness did it. Oh yes, people.
I explained this movie to a friend who would only see it if I insisted. Even then I'd be begging and dragging in equal parts. I capsuled the entire plot, with only a couple of do-overs, in under three minutes. I think that's a real accomplishment. On the part of the film. That a story can be told with clarity and understanding is no small feat. I'm not sure when films became non-linear, probably with some neo-Baroque German Expressionist school of the twenties. I am purely a creature of my time. Anything made before I was born holds little interest for me. Does that make me a philistine? Do you capitalize philistine? Was there ever a people called philistine? Were they from Philly? Or Palestine? Or maybe Zionists from Philadelphia that helped David Ben-Gurion win the first Israeli-Arab war. If I replaced the -ine with -on would that reveal their true origin, in the same way people from Houston are Houstonites? That's what Amy Goodman of Democracy Now kept calling us during the endless pledge drive on the local Pacifica radio station. She kept calling for people from all the outlying suburbs and exurbs to make their presence known with a fifty dollar contribution. Or, for two thousand you could have dinner with Amy and sit in chairs and watch her do the program. That would be an interesting experience, suppressing the glee and giddiness of watching a famous person do her work when the work is describing the latest inhumanity visited on the poor and helpless. Nodding sadly over the unbridled Janjuwee while thinking, "this is so cool." Where was I? Oh, yes the sequel to 28 Days Later. Awfully intense early on as we flashback to the time when the rage virus is all the rage in England. Then forward to the peaceful repatriation of the nation as the virus has, apparently, run its course. Well, guess what. It hasn't. When all expectations are confounded are they still expectations? If you think the good guy will get away in the nick of time and he doesn't, does that mean nothing else you expect to happen will? If so, can you stop expecting the expected? And if you can, do you become childlike and innocent or jaded and cynical?
Just like Sin City, Frank Miller's other graphic novel writ Hollywood large, 300 is a visually stunning film rooted in an ultra-macho ultra-violent schtick worthy of any testosterone fueled teen. Dig deep enough and some worthy themes are found but they are straight from the Boy Scout handbook.
I read a scary article in this month's Atlantic about group suicide in Japan. One of the spiritual fathers of the movement was interviewed by the article's author and spoke of the lack of adult male role models in Japan following the Second World War. The result, he says, is a nation filled with adult children. Men who read comics and porn in public as if there were nothing wrong with it. Couple this perception with a burgeoning group suicide problem and the picture painted is dark indeed. Others in the article talk about the collective shame of losing the War and a national identity born out of an American occupation. Japan is surely a complex if not impenetrable culture and the view from the Atlantic Monthly isn't a good one. If oversexed anime and a collective death wish speak to a broken and distorted society, what conclusions can we draw from our predeliction for a genre of entertainment that gives us the Jackass and Girls Gone Wild film franchises?
3:10 To Yuma 10.14.07
Christian Bale and Russell Crowe are two of the best actors of their generation (Bale arguably any) and the chance to see them together shouldn't be missed. Even if it is a tired remake, made less tired by a phenomenal supporting cast. From the young Logan Lerman to Dallas Roberts, Gretchen Mol and a grizzled Peter Fonda as a heartless bounty hunter, 3:10 to Yuma certainly doesn't lack for acting talent. There are some odd moments with Russell Crowe as the dreaded killer Ben Wade making goo goo eyes and talk at a barmaid that looks like hopped the 8:15 to Dirt Town the moment she stepped off the Paris catwalk. Imagine a gaggle of horrible killers walking into a small town saloon and finding, oh, say Catherine Zeta-Jones minding the bar. Order drinks and discuss their latest caper? I don't think so.
40 Days and 40 Nights 03.07.02
Ignore the story line - young man with relationship problem decides to overcome opposite sex fixation by abstaining from all things sexual during Lent. Forget about the sophomoric cheap shots associated with his entirely stupid plan. Don't even concern yourself with any of the underlying sub-plots - several of his female co-workers attempt to thwart his efforts because the declination of sex is a "woman power" prerogative. Put your disappointment in Josh Hartnett's apparent inability to judge good from bad film choices aside.
What should bother us about this film is the group portrait. Not a single male character, other than our pathetic hero, is worth a plugged nickel. No woman, other than the female lead, exhibits anything remotely resembling human attributes. The men are all silly and the women full of guile. Everyone exhibits about as much depth as a coffee shop guru. Even the priestly brother is worthless.
Why, you ask? Three possible answers. One, the author thinks that way. Two, in an effort to make the two stars of the film likeable, they are made to stand in clear relief against a backdrop of co-star scum. Three, the film was captured by the al-Qaida and reshot in an effort to undermine the foundations of western society by portraying youth as morally and spiritually bankrupt.
(500) Days of Summer 07.31.09
I have no idea what Zooey Deschanel (Summer - get it?) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tom) were saying to each other in a scene about half-way through as I became distracted by Ms. Deschanel's eye. The amount of visible white in proportion to the iris is stunning. Unfortunately, all that was left to me by this point in the film was watching Ms. Deschanel. Gordon-Levitt is talented to be sure and Chloe Moretz is a treat as Tom's little sister Rachel but the dialog and what passed for a plot had long since been cast off as superfluous. By the director as well as me. Director Marc Webb's work in music videos (Green Day and teen heartthrob Jesse McCartney) helps explains much but what is Patrick Swayze doing in the soundtrack along with the Doves and Regina Spektor? Patrick Swayze - are you kidding me?
The 6th Day 11.20.00
Not terribly clear in the trailers for this film is that Arnold plays two roles. When his cloned - oh wait, if you think this might be the sort of movie (it isn't) that depends on an element of surprise to work, read no further - twin appears, I kept seeing the dollar ninety eight trailers for Van Damme's 1991 "classic," Double Impact. If you don't know what that means, consider yourself blessed. Also not clear in the trailers is the presence of Robert Duvall. Not even Duvall can turn this "Movie for Guys Who Like Movies" nonsense into a decent film.
Of more interest is the film's take on cloning. Sixth Day Laws are broken when Arnold is cloned without his knowledge. In the future, ("sooner than you think" is actually flashed on the screen in the opening moments, announcing the F-Troop caliber film to come) laws have been passed against cloning humans. For the first hour and thirty minutes, we see what an evil and presumptuous act cloning can be. Once Arnold II makes his appearance, the tone shifts and we learn maybe cloning can be OK after all. Even now, I can't tell whether this movie was anti or pro cloning. In all probability, the authors and director don't know either.
It is definitely filled with neat futuristic gadgets like remote control helicopters, holographic advertising, extreme professional football, voice activated everything, and sim-pals (life-like and life-size playmates for children). The sim-pals look like they were exposed to too much heat on the assembly line. They have a ghoulish appearance that no one seems to care about or even notice.
The director is Roger Spottiswoode of the Last Innocent Man (Tom Selleck is falsely convicted of murder!), Turner and Hooch (Tom Hanks and a slobbery St. Bernard), and everyone's favorite, Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot (with Estelle Getty and Sylvester Stallone). One certainly can't complain that Roger failed to live up to expectations. He has developed an enormously irritating "jump-cut on steroids" style. I have no idea what the effect is intended to accomplish, but scene changes were often accomplished with an alternating horizontal spin, vertical zoom of traffic on city streets far below. Maybe he's angling for some music video work?
Eminem's 8 Mile opened in a sea of hype, MTV specials, magazine covers, and positing pundits. Like Mark Maguire before him, Marshall Mathers has worked hard on his public image. Once the beacon (read bank) of fame beckoned, both these nasty characters went to work trying to be the good guy. Eminem, who rose to fame on a tide of anti-gay misogynistic lyrics, has suddenly become America's child, the same way Maguire became America's hero. Few talk about Maguire's once well known surly persona just as few are willing to recall Eminem's hate filled early limericks. Neither character repented and neither was forgiven. Both are media products, swallowed whole up by a white public hungry for white players in endeavors dominated by non-whites. Both are false, one the product of steroids, the other the product of a musical genre whose demands are limited to like sounding words. One of the few redeeming aspects of Rap was, for a brief moment, the life affirming and positive influence of Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop is in the process of succumbing to bling-bling and Narcissism. Nelly's latest hit has a woman plaintively telling him how much she loves him and will do anything for him. His hit before that told us what it was like to be "Number One." Does anyone else notice this guy is writing songs about how wonderful he is?
From the beginning, from the previews, really, we know where this vehicle is heading. Rabbit will win the local rap contest and show everyone his gift for rhyme. Along the way, we get to know Rabbit/Eminem better. He loves his little sister, is a good and loyal friend, gives his car to his lying girlfriend because he believes her when she says she's pregnant, intercedes in a verbal gay bashing, is thrifty, brave clean and reverent.
About halfway through, in a street scuffle with gangstas, one of Rabbit's crew pulls a handgun. Everyone stops fighting and expresses their amazement that anyone would carry a gun around with them. All scold the gun toter and, as he puts the gun back in his pants, accidentally shoots himself. Eminem turns full-face to the camera and says, "That, boys and girls, is why you should never play with a gun." Not really, but he might as well have. 8 Mile is more about refurbishing the Eminem persona than anything else.
A Scanner Darkly 07.13.06
About thirty minutes in Catwoman came to mind. Catwoman was one of the worst films ever made. Now A Scanner Darkly isn't nearly as stupid, in fact it isn't stupid at all. In the same way that a stitch in time saves nine isn't stupid, but imagine watching a semi-animated film about that pithy saying that lasts two hours. It is excruciating. I stuck it out and was rewarded with a film better suited to the animated short feature category. This may be a phenomenon of the rotoscoping technique - overlaying a constantly shifting animation on live action film. The film is based on Philip K. Dick's short story of his experiences with drugs. The film ends with a list of Dick's friends who died or were permanently disabled by their recreational drug use. Yes, drug abuse is bad. Pharmaceutical companies are particularly onerous in their reluctance to make life saving drugs available to those who can't afford them. And governments are to blame for not stepping in and making them available in spite of the companies greed. A stitch in time...
A Very Long Engagement 12.23.04
A Very Long Engagement is not the romance the marketing schmoes would have you believe. The scenes between the lovers Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) and Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) are limited to little more than what you've seen in the trailers. A Very Long Engagement opens with five condemned soldiers being marched through the hellish trenches of the First World War on their way to execution. We hear each of their stories, a welder, a carpenter, each plucked from their lives and dropped into the front lines of a war none chose to fight. They do each attempt to get out by shooting themselves in the hand. The French Army decides to shoot them for "self-mutilation" rather than let them go home. The method of execution is to throw them "over the top" and into the no-mans-land between the German and French trenches. Things get a little crazy soon after and who lives and who dies is not clear. Enter Mathilde, childhood sweetheart of one of the five, Manech. She is determined to find her missing fiance. A Very Long Engagement is the story of her search for Manech, replete with an oddball detective, a supportive but unbelieving Aunt and Uncle, a secret code, and the murderous widow of one of the five condemned. Clues, dead-ends, and Mathilde's undying love keep us plugged into her search for the innocent Manech.
From the opening credits, illuminated by flickering light against a shadowy muted color background, to the mud filled trenches of that hideous war, the voluminous library of government records, the view from atop a lighthouse, to the windswept fields of a small French family farm, A Very Long Engagement is a film of Voluptuously Beautiful Cinematography. The story is so packed and intense and the acting so effortless that the incredible gift cinematographer Bruno Delbonnell delivers (director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie and Bogdonavich's The Cat's Meow are previous works now deserving of a second cinematographic look) nearly goes unwrapped. When the wind sweeps the grasses in front of and between the recruiting gendarmes and the hapless French farmer and ends by lifting and swirling handfuls of hay from the back of his wagon, we know we are in the presence of something extraordinary. Alternating between gruesome battlefield images of muck and death and the sweeping beauty of the French coast and countryside Delbonnell creates a complex and stunning visual topography. Juxtaposed with the exotic and expressive beauty of Audrey Tautou, the result is a film that etches itself into our memories where it grows in power and beauty, an extraordinary accomplishment in cinema.
About A Boy 05.19.02
I must confess to having overlooked Toni Collette's performance in The Sixth Sense. I'll use writer/director Shyamalan's exceedingly clever script and deft direction as an excuse. Sadly, no such excuse can be offered for Chris and Paul Weitz's adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel. About A Boy is as predictable as the sunrise and as clever as John Ashcroft's defense of morning prayer breakfasts. In spite of these shortcomings, though, About A Boy succeeds in its mission. It entertains, warms the heart, and makes us laugh.
Hornby's other novel, High Fidelity, tells a similar story of vapid vainglory from a first person perspective. Unlike High Fidelity, though, About A Boy's anti-hero is dramatically less interesting. Hugh Grant saves the character for us through his compelling charm. Nicholas Hoult as Marcus, the boy of the title, does geekdom justice but the real standout in this ultimately satisfying film is Toni Collette as Fiona, Marcus' depressed hippie mom. She pushes everyone else off the screen and is a delight to watch.
Sappy? Sure. Fun? Absolutely.
Another clever and original product of the Kaufman/Jonze team. Their last film was the innovative and fun, Being John Malkovich. The first two thirds of Adaptation are as frenetic and fun as the first two-thirds of Being. The final third of both films, though, takes on attributes of a bad Jerry Lewis movie. As the story/gag begins to run thin it is stretched with a cornucopia of action and plot twists. Ironically, Kaufman addresses this very phenomenon in Adaptation as his self-styled screenwriter makes plain his loathing of the "Hollywood thing," sex, guns, and car chases. The end of Adaptation is, of course, sex, guns, and car chases. Had that "twist" lasted for the final three minutes, we might have giggled smugly. Instead, it drags on for an interminable thirty, burying an otherwise different and delightful comedy with its own punch line.
Storytellers errors aside, the real surprise of Adaptation was Chris Cooper. This accomplished journeyman actor lights up the screen with his portrayal of the Orchid Thief, John Laroche. His performance, not to mention the presence of Meryl Streep, Nicolas Cage and Tilda Swinton make this a movie well worth its struggling finale.
By the way, there is only one Kaufman, he has no twin brother...
Having caught only glimpses of the cartoon on late night TV, I knew Aeon Flux was some cool warrior woman from some post apocalyptic future. Now that it's all spelled out for me I think I preferred it as a mystery. Here comes all the secret parts so turn away if you prefer to be surprised. Aeon is actually Catherine, wife of Chairman Goodchild. She is a member of a secret society of Ninja babes bent on killing off the ruling authority. Their boss is Frances McDormand in a big red wig and Aeon's partner is Sophie Okonedo, an actress as talented as Charlize Theron. Unfortunately, Sithandra (no relation to Hesse's Siddhartha but it sounds cool anyway) has a procedure done that grafts an extra set of hands to her feet. Almost as gross as the little marbles embedded in the Ninja babes backs that allows telepathic cell phone calls to other Ninja babes. Seriously though, Aeon Flux is about as entertaining as a Madonna video - without the music. We can only hope it stops here. Not likely.
There is no reason to believe that the director, Charles Shyer, or the writer, John Sweet, separately or in collusion, would not be up to the task of rendering an eighteenth century period piece in believable, entertaining form. Their past accomplishments as writer/director include The Great Elephant Escape, Smokey and the Bandit, Father of the Bride I and II (not the original with Spencer Tracey, of course), Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, and Happy Days. Albeit, the author of the screenplay for The Affair of the Necklace was responsible for only The Great Elephant Escape in the foregoing litany of classic film and television productions. I found Baby Boom quite enjoyable, and although I might quickly change the channel if anyone came in the room on Saturday afternoon, I have watched and may watch again, Private Benjamin. I cannot say I am a big fan of Happy Days. Remakes of famous classic films rarely approach the original and never seem quite legitimate, like The Good News version of the Bible. Nonetheless, I wanted to give these fellows a fair shot. And although Hilary Swank may never match her performance in Boys Don't Cry I will forever go to her films in hope. My attendance to the The Gift was richly rewarded, for example, not only by Ms. Swank but by the electric presence of Cate Blanchett.
Unfortunately, like the young girl trying on her mother's dress or the little boy trying to reach the pedals of the bicycle too big, Messrs. Shyer and Sweet's object remains just out of reach. Well, perhaps more than just out of reach. As I have complained previously, the use of a narrator in film often belies a weakness in storytelling. Used as an introductory device (Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away...) it can set the stage or establish an historical context. When it is used to introduce characters, reappears at crucial points in the story and goes on and on at the end, it can only be because the filmmaker can not use the medium to deliver the message.
Christopher Walken plays a German mystic master of the Illuminati, Count Cagliostro. I couldn't decide between comic relief and slavish devotion to historical hyperbole as to the reason this utterly extraneous character was included. Christopher Walken, it would seem, can do almost anything these days from rap video dancer to Satan, but Count Cagliostro went somewhere I can not go. Swank's love interest was initially painted as a court gigolo and somehow made the leap to romantic hero without benefit of character development, dialogue, or motivation. One moment he is catering to the sexual whims of a slimy fat cat and the next he is sacrificing all for love. We never see him fall in love, though, as if a reel were somehow left out. Marie Antoinette comes to us as a catty sorority sister, Cardinal Rohan (Jonathan Pryce) as the eighteenth century version of Marion Barry (former crack-smoking hooker-hounding Mayor of D.C.), and King Louis XVI as a colorless cardboard cutout.
It might be worth watching if it is the free video you get after renting ten, otherwise hold a photo of Hilary Swank in front of your face for fifteen minutes and you will have gleaned all this film has to offer.
Greenhouse gases have melted the polar ice caps sending the Earth's coastal cities to a watery grave and radical climatic changes have become the norm. Hundreds of millions starve in the ensuing economic chaos while those first-world nations able to institute strong birth control measures are thriving. A grass roots backlash against "mecca's" (mechanical as opposed to "orga's" or organic life forms) has yielded WWF Smackdown-like circus events called FleshFairs where robots are destroyed to the cheers of an hydraulic-thirsty crowd. We learn all this in the first few minutes of A.I. from voice over narration. Narration in film usually belies weaknesses in storytelling. But this is Spielberg, the best storyteller in filmdom. Something else must be afoot. We hope.
A.I., at two and a half hours, is plenty long enough to accommodate the three films that make up its corpus. The first, most coherent, is the story of mecca-David's (Haley Joel Osmont) integration into his new human family and his orga-mother Monica's (Frances O'Connor) struggle to accept him. Monica and Martin's (utterly insignificant husband character played by Sam Robards) orga-son is in a freeze factory suffering from some incurable viral illness. When the viral infection disappears and the orga-son comes home, things get interesting.
The second film is David and Joe's (Jude Law in an inspired performance as a "lover-bot") attempt to escape the rabid dogs of the "anti-artificiality" movement and locate the Blue Fairy of Pinocchio fame. The Blue Fairy (for those carbon units hard-wired for visual, not textual data processing) grants Pinocchio's wish to become a real boy.
The third film, where Spielberg looses the reins and let's the addled Kubrick storyline take over, has space aliens finding David, two thousand years hence, trapped under a Ferris wheel at the bottom of the Atlantic ice cube praying to the Coney Island's Blue Fairy to make him a real boy. The ensuing over-exposed, hazy-filtered, wandering-through-the-empty-house-looking-for-signs-of-life scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey is replayed with Haley Joel Osmont in the Keir Dullea role. Not content with a mystical (read meaningless) ending a la' 2001, the aliens take a stab at explaining everything to us in the longest Yaseetimmee scene in film history. All that ends up explained, however, is what the aliens are doing there.
Like too many films these days, A.I. cannot seem to make up its mind what it wants to be or say. Is it a moral lesson, a science fiction drama, a philosophical exploration of what might differentiate humanity from A.I., a religious allegory, or a study of the nature of love? Free floating symbolism abounds, subjects are broached and abandoned, scenes suggest stories and themes never explored. In line with current cinematic fashion, no definitive positions are taken, morality becomes a matter of perspective, and only the already caricatured are safe enough objects for our contempt. The violence crazed crowd at the FleshFair, for example. Even this low-life crowd gets the benefit of ethical ambiguity though, as they decline to support the destruction of the child robot, David. What does this say? Who knows!
I remember writing school papers on topics for which I was wholly unprepared. If I throw enough stuff in here, I thought, I could baffle the teacher into believing I actually have something to say. It worked more often than not. A.I. does not.
Everything that is wrong with Alexander is evident in the opening credits. The text is in ancient Greek. At the end of the opening credits the ancient Greek fades away to reveal the English version, Alexander. All this is against a soundtrack that sounds lifted from Lawrence of Arabia, all swelling strings and marching brass. Now this is one terribly interesting figure, Alexander, conquered the known world by the time he was 25, was apparently bisexual, married a country girl from the nether regions of the collapsing Persian empire, ad infiniteum (that's Latin for going on forever which is kind of how Alexander felt). Anthony Hopkins narrates from the library at Alexandria, looking back forty years to Alexander's reign. The rain in India is featured as are those dreadful Indian attack elephants, a whirling Dervish-ish Rosaraio Dawson, Val Kilmer as Colin's, I mean Alexander's dad, Jared Leto as Alex's true love, and a surprising Angelina Jolie as his ageless mother. Surprising in that Colin is actually one year younger than Angelina but small matter. Big matter is Oliver Stone's meandering mess of a tribute to Alexander the Great. Stone has made some of the better pictures fo the last few decades (Wall Street, Nixon, JFK and Natural Born Killers) as well as some mediocre ones (Talk Radio, Any Given Sunday, The Doors) but this is the only one I would call a disaster. Hopkins (as Ptolemy who followed Alexander at the helm of Greater Macedonia) tells us early on that history is about man's grasp and failures. Certainly we can't fault Stone for grasping, no fear of failure here, but I am at a loss to understand his failure to make Alexander at least an interesting, if not a compelling film. A friend says the fault lies in the casting of Colin Farrell and maybe she's right. His wide eyes and anguished soul searching never do reach the level of legitimacy but that may be Stone's fault as well. One of those awful slides they show before the movie starts contains some nonsense about the crew firing off shotguns all during the filming of Natural Born Killers to keep the atmosphere edgy. One wonders what sort of atmosphere Stone maintained for Alexander. Whatever it was it resulted in a disjointed epic apparently held together by Hopkin's narration and some cheesy maps. The narrative thread felt more like a big piece of rope occasionally tossed overboard a sinking ship. A real shame because no one is likely to attempt this story for a decade or so and I'd love to see a good version. Guess I'll buy the book for Christmas.
I had heard Jude Law called Michael Caine to ask permission to reprise Caine's classic role as Alfie. Touching. That must have been a year ago and this weekend, way behind on seeing films, Alfie was pretty far down my list. Above Saw, certainly, but below The Incredibles, Birth, Being Julia and even Shark Tale. Unlike Alfie, however, I don't always make my own decisions so Alfie it was. We did sneak into the first five minutes of The Incredibles before Alfie started and it looked great. But Alfie it was. Alfie (Jude Law) is a charming and sexy English bachelor breaking hearts all over Manhattan while holding his own close to the vest, so to speak. The original, directed by Lewis Gilbert (Sink the Bismarck!, Moonraker, and Shirley Valentine are among the more than forty other films he directed over the past fifty years) and the remake, directed by Charles Shyer (The Affair of the Necklace, I Love Trouble and some episodes of the television series The Odd Couple distinguish Mr. Shyer's directorial resume) both leap the rarely crossed boundary between camera and subject as Messrs. Caine and Law talk more to us than their co-stars. Both films work, from that perspective at least, because most of us would love to be in on anything Caine or Law might want to share.
Jude Law's talent overwhelms much of what is wrong with Shyer's remake and makes the new Alfie work. To redo an enormously successful work and not mess it up is an accomplishment akin to the execution of a paint-by-numbers Last Supper. Not that a Last Supper reproduction is anything to sneeze at, mind you, but the fellow who reproduces it and gets the number of disciples right hasn't really done anything special. If that fellow overfeminizes John to the point that he begins to look like, oh, maybe Mary Magdalene, well that would be a different story. Wait, that is a different story. The worst thing about Alfie is the music. Teaming with The Eurythmics Dave Stewart, Mick Jagger gives us a soundtrack that loudly and not very poetically reworks each major scene in an almost lyrical format. The effect is so distracting as to bludgeon. Before we walk out, though, Jude Law reappears and reseduces us. Unfortunately, the film closes with Mick asking the age-old musical question or rather Mick making the declarative statement, "Old Habits Die Hard." That song appears thrice on the film's soundtrack. I think if Mick had worked in Emotional Rescue or even Moonlight Mile we'd have been better off.
I was prepared for a "birth to the Olympic torch" recounting of Ali's life. Instead, Michael Mann's Ali film begins with Ali jogging the Louisville streets intercut with a Marvin Gaye live performance and scenes from Ali's childhood. His father paints Jesus pictures, father and son board a bus and move to the back with the other "coloreds," the young Muhammad eyes a newspaper account of a lynching. When the Marvin Gaye performance concludes, ten minutes in, Ali is weighing on for the first Liston fight. The movie ends with Ali regaining the crown from George Foreman in Zaire. Mann once before took a story we all thought we knew and delivered a fresh and inspiring tale. Three years ago, he wrote, produced, and directed The Insider. Our only complaint is his masterworks are too rare.
What Mann leaves out of the story is almost as interesting as what he includes. Ali's Olympic boxing experience, two of the three Frasier marathons, his loss to Spinks, his post ring life are all missing. Instead, we see Malcolm X, Elijah Mohammed, three of his four wives, and a surprising Jon Voight as Howard Cosell. Ron Silver plays Angelo Dundee with maybe three lines in the whole show. In one scene, Dundee makes a comment at a press conference and Don King (who doesn't come off well in this portrayal) disrespects Dundee. Ali confronts King in one of the few instances where we see Ali's temper.
Will Smith becomes Ali for us and does not disappoint. He prepared for the role for months, working out six hours a day and gaining nearly thirty pounds. In what may be the most dramatic moment in the film, Smith and Mann collaborate magnificently in showing us the 'world' aspect of the world champion. He is jogging through the streets of Kenshasha, Zaire and takes an unplanned detour into a residential neighborhood. Throngs of Zairians follow as Ali encounters hand-drawn likenesses of himself defeating Foreman. The drawings evolve into Ali defeating tanks, jet fighters and helicopter gunships. Smith's face tells us volumes as he reacts to the unexpected depth of the peoples faith in his magic. We see one of the throng later during the Rumble in the Jungle bout when Ali needs some inner strength. Mann and Smith seem to be telling us the power moves both directions from Ali to the people and from the people to Ali. It is a brilliant bit of storytelling and a profound insight into the makeup of the man.
The fight scenes, always a challenge to reproduce, are electric. We see the Ali footwork, the grim determination on his opponents face, the sweat scattering headblows and the awesome quickness of Ali's combinations as if we are in the ring. The grimace with each of Forman's powerful body blows as Ali absorbs the larger man's punches make us want to scream, along with his cornermen, "get off the ropes, champ, get off the ropes." Unlike his cornermen, though, we know what Ali is doing. The "rope-a-dope" strategy encouraged Forman to wear himself out in Zaire's tropical heat. Another bit of evidence that we were, for those few years in the sixties and seventies, in the presence of the greatest fighters of all time and now share these times with one of the greatest champions of any age. Champion not just of his sport, but our hearts as well.
Alien vs. Predator 08.13.04
"What movie are you going to see this weekend," she asked.
There are several I should see but I think I'll go see Alien vs. Predator.
"Really," she asked, incredulous.
"It's the kind of movie that I'll always stop on when I'm flipping channels late at night. It's probably awful and I'll love it."
It is and I did. Predator has arranged for Alien to periodically give birth to a slew of baby aliens so Predator can have something to hunt. A really rich guy with satellites and stuff discovers a pyramid under the Antarctic ice shelf and arranges for a bunch of the world's leading experts to go with him to explore. He hires a mountain guide woman with a good heart to make sure everyone gets there and back again. When they arrive they find lots of cool chambers and a pyramid that changes form a la the house in 13 Ghosts. First thing they do, of course, is swipe some cool artifacts. Big mistake. One thing leads to another thing and pretty soon there are things everywhere and none of them are James Arness. We have to choose sides to survive and so we choose... turn away now if you plan to see it... Predator because Predator just wants to hunt and kill where Alien just wants to kill. Not clear what the message here is but I'm still opposed to hunting. yes, I know, someone had to kill the eggplant I'm having for dinner but I just can't bring myself to do it. Anyway, adequate acting, a script that wasn't stupid and some heavy ethical choices make for another late night classic. Click... click... click...
All About the Benjamin's 03.23.02
Bucum (Ice Cube) is a bail-bondsman out to take a career step up into the more dignified role of private detective. One of his "collars" is Reggie (Mike Epps) who only wants his wallet back. In his wallet is a winning lottery ticket worth sixty million dollars. He lost his wallet when taken hostage by some very bad diamond thieves. Ice Cube, along with Ronald Lang, wrote this light comedy. Reggie is a two-bit con artist and Bucum, aspirations for the life of Marlowe aside, all about the Benjamins. The Benjamins are, for the unhip, not next door neighbors, but one hundred dollar bills (Ben Franklin on the cover). Both characters have girlfriends that are in every imaginable way, their better halves. Eva Mendez (Denzel's girl in Training Day) and Valarie Rae Miller (Fox TV's Dark Angel) inspire, correct bad behavior, and generally whip these two ne'er-do-wells into shape. Carmen Chaplin, Charlie's granddaughter is the only bad influence but she isn't around long enough to do much harm. A refreshing change to the standard eye-candy roles generally assigned to the women in "buddy" films. There would seem to be more to Mr. Cube than his name would indicate.
All the Pretty Horses 12.26.00
If only John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) and Lacey Rawling (Henry Thomas) like Gus (Robert Duvall) and Woodrow (Tommy Lee Jones) before them, were real, I might be persuaded to take up the cowboy life. Unfortunately, the cowboys I have known were arrogant, swaggering, no-counts, hell-bent on criticizing everything they couldn't understand. As close as the cowboys I've known ever got to riding off to Mexico to seek their fortune was driving their new F250 pickup with off road tires over the curb and into the Taco Bell parking lot. The characters in Cormac McCarthy's novel, however, like Gus and Woodrow from McMurty's Lonesome Dove, are all about truth and fealty. They are the knights of the round table.
In a particularly telling scene, John Grady says to an evil Mexican captain, "go on and believe your ignorant ways." It is the only harsh word he has for anyone. Wish I could be like him.
The contrast drawn between the Mexican and American cultures is even sharper in the film than the book. John Grady leaves the American culture of his mother (selling the ranch so she can be an actress) and father (embittered war veteran) for Mexico, where capital punishment doesn't exist and promises are more important than passion.
Billy Bob Thornton's direction is an interesting combination of beautiful panoramic shots of hard Texas and Mexican countryside and facial close-ups. Nobody's runny nose, even Penelope Cruz's, is worth a fifteen second shot.
Almost Famous 09.23.00
To imitate or strive to match a set of behaviors or speech comprising a particular character.
In spite of our unique nature, we seek to be like someone else. Our mannerisms, our dress, our choices, our personality, formed from bits and pieces of what we've seen or read or heard about.
There was once a time when the role models available to us consisted of our immediate and extended families. Perhaps a stranger would share a tale of a man lost at sea on his return home from a distant war, or an ancient king beset by tragedy and loss. Then, as now, the first role models we encounter are our parents and siblings. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends, schoolmates and co-workers expand the circle. Long ago, the role models available to us were far more limited than the role models available today.
Today, role models are thrust at us from the television screen, the movies, and the news media. We learn the most intimate details of a dizzying array of people's lives with whom we have nothing in common. We witness behaviors in stressful and extreme conditions far in excess of anything we are likely to experience. The mother who murdered her children by driving them into a lake is seen making tearful pleas to the public to return her children to her. We see the childhood farm and family of an athlete competing in some obscure sporting event and hear stories from his father about his outsized competitive spirit. We see movie stars acting and TV stars emoting lives that are often less complex and bizarre than their own. We watch, for weeks, a handful of "ordinary" people compete for a million dollars in prize money if they can out trick their opponents.
From the religious world, a pathetic parade of televangelists offer "sleazy huckster" as an ideal. The figure of Jesus Christ has been reduced to a cryptic WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelet inviting the wearer to respond as they believe Jesus would. From Islam we see gun toting zealots enforcing their version of the Koran.
How did we get here? Has it always been this way? Was there ever a time when simpler ideals were the norm?
We live in a media dominated society, but it hasn't always been so. There was a time, little more than a hundred and fifty years ago, when film, television, even newspapers didn't exist. Around the time populist Andrew Jackson defeated the aristocratic John Quincy Adams for President, the American middle class was beginning its ascent to cultural domination. America's great democratic engine created, for the first time, a dominant social class other than the elite. The election of their first champion, Andrew Jackson, signaled the dawn of a new era. Prior to that time, classic theater, chamber music, and literature reigned as the vehicles of entertainment. Their appeal and availability was limited to the narrow upper range of American society. Within fifty years of Jackson's election, newspapers evolved from erudite opinion papers to news vehicles. The news became the topic of conversation supplanting more "refined" subject matter. The introduction of the penny papers in New York in the 1830's fed the flames of popular culture with lurid stories of sex and scandal. Newspaper circulation increased more than 500 percent. Joseph Pulitzer's New York World introduced color and graphic illustration into the journalism world presaging the soon to be developed art of photography. Photography was followed by moving pictures and television within sixty years. A once drab world of direct human interaction and simple text was supplanted by a world of heroic and comic figures displayed in graphic and colorful detail. The developments that allowed the media (first newspapers, then movies and TV) to become the primary source of information for people, supplanted family and friends as our source for role models.
A microcosm of this phenomenon occurred in the 1990's when the Cable News Network, once thought a boring, doomed exercise in twenty four hour news coverage took on minute by minute coverage of the Gulf War. Three of their heretofore unknown journalists spent endless hours hunkered down in a hotel room in downtown Baghdad broadcasting missile attacks by live satellite. Television news overnight evolved into an entertainment medium. Just as Pulitzer's New York World set the standard for the rest of the journalistic community of its time, CNN changed the face of news reporting. News became entertainment. Ideas were replaced by images, individuals by icons, and substance by style.
Take Cameron Crowe's latest effort, Almost Famous. Billed as "brought to you by the same team that brought you Jerry Maguire," it also uses "stars" as its subject matter. Where Jerry Maguire was about an idealistic sports agent in league with famous and infamous sports figires, Almost Famous gives us an idealistic journailist in league with famous and infamous rock stars. Penny Lane (Kate Hudson - Goldie Hawn's daughter) is asked by William Miller, a fifteen year-old Cameron Crowe played by Patrick Fugit, "don't you have any regular friends?" Penny responds with, "famous people are more interesting." This perception lies at the heart of our obsession with fame.
The media, in its self sustaining effort, has made famous people seem more interesting than the rest of us. Our role models, previously drawn from real people in real circumstances, have been replaced by media creations. Hulk Hogan, Jerry Maguire, and Roseanne have replaced our parents, friends and neighbors as our role models. These are not real people but outsized creations. In our effort to emulate such protean creatures we fall short. Falling short, we do the next logical thing, we worship. The famous, even fame itself, has become the new ideal. Good or bad, right or wrong become faded concepts of another time in the glare of celebrity.
Almost Famous tells the story of an average rock and roll band in the early 70's. They tour the Midwest accompanied by groupies (nee band-aids) and a young journalist (William Miller) on assignment from Rolling Stone. Phillip Seymour Hoffman makes an appearance as the jaded editor of Creem magazine (a less successful but "purer" version of Rolling Stone). He, as usual, dominates the screen. Frances McDormand plays Miller's worried, eccentric mother.
As the title suggests, this is another movie about fame and famous people. Rock and roll icons and their music form the background for Crowe's autobiographical tale. A romantic relationship (even double triangle) is thrown in, along with plenty of drug references and humor. The film is entertaining but, unlike Jerry Maguire and Say Anything (Crowe's far superior works) we learn nothing. We are along for the ride. And it's no Magic Bus.
Wow, I had no idea there were so many criminal masterminds in the world. If you were a criminal mastermind, wouldn't you send clues to the world's greatest detective, Dr. Cross (Morgan Freeman) in hopes that he would make you famous? I mean, we all know that's how those other criminal masterminds became famous. Lex Luthor and Dr. Loveless just to name two.
Morgan Freeman is eminently watchable. Monica Potter as Secret Service agent Jezzie Flannigan is pretty but really belongs in a makeup commercial. And that name - Jezzie? "Mr. President, your detail includes an Agent Jezzie, would you like to meet her?" "Uhh, Jezzie, that name's stranger than fiction."
There are so many plot twists in this thing I wish I'd had a program. The opening scene has a scary car crash and some computer graphics that look like they were designed on a Tandy 1000 (an old Radio Shack attempt at a computer).
Is the Pieta diminished by its use of an iconographic image as subject? Would we be so moved if it were just some woman holding her dying son? Is the Last Supper greater than the Mona Lisa because its about the first communion instead of an enigmatic smile? A Love Song for Bobby Long does carries off some pretty shameless huckstering I won't spoil by giving any details. I am so enamored of the acting prowess on display that such questions quickly become irrelevant. The dialogue is strong enough to pad our ribs against the elbow we would otherwise still be smarting from. John Travolta gets better and better and Ms. Johansson is on a par with the best of her generation. Watching the two of them is like seeing the Pieta up close for the first time, everything else disappears and it's all you can, or should, see.
Perhaps most telling is the title of this film, Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, which, loosely translated means The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain. If you see this film advertised you will see it as "Amelie" along with a picture of Audrey Tautou or Amelie. She looks remarkably like the woman in the new lemon Coca-Cola ads, only prettier. Confused? I was at least disoriented in the opening minutes of this film when the narrator takes us through the lives of Amelie and her parents. The parents are as crazy as loons, and the baby loon falls not far from the tree. As the narrator reveals each new horror, the audience chuckles. They must have all had a normal childhood and the bizarre events in Amelie's young life serve only to amuse. In any event, ten minutes into this film I'm thinking either the audience is cruel beyond measure or they know something I don't. This poor girl is raised by the co-poster children for neuroticism and grows up to be France's ambassador of crazy. She lives in a world of near total isolation until one day she does a total stranger an anonymous good turn. She is pleased with the results and dedicates her life to doing good for others, without their knowing it.
Oh yes, the reason the film title is so telling is that it is entirely foreign. Sharing Pay It Forward's high concept, it pulls it off in a subtle, understated, and enormously mature way where Pay It Forward thrashed about loudly, outrageously overtly and utterly without manners. Remember Kevin Spacey finally crying out the cause of his disfigurement to a tearful and sympathetic Helen Hunt. I scrunched down in my seat during that scene the way a turtle withdraws into its shell. The melodrama fired from the screen like cold wet wadded washcloths. Take one in the kisser and your heart will stop from the shock. But I digress.
Amelie delivers the same message with humor and grace. Kindness wins. Unless one is reviewing some awful, botched, sledge hammer of a movie. Then kindness must be set aside for the virulently misanthropic slash of the pen or keyboard. Slashing with a keyboard, just doesn't have the same ring. But then who ever slashed with a pen?
Kevin Spacey plays a miserable wretch who extorts a raise from his boss and lusts after his 16 year old daughter's best friend. Annette Benning plays a miserable wretch who hates her job and sleeps with "The King" of local real estate sales. The neighbors are an emotionally bankrupt, nearly catatonic woman married to an abusive, latent homosexual ex-Marine, and their voyeuristic drug-dealing son.
Well, that's the cast.
The story involves the extortionist's visions of the 16 year old, the drug dealers video habit and the final disintegration of the miserable marriage. Two of the cast "escape" this suburban Satyricon and head off for New York to deal drugs. The wife attempts suicide, and the husband is murdered. In a particularly poignant scene we are treated to the drug dealers video of a small white plastic garbage bag being blown about by the wind for several minutes. This is the same scene wherein he explains to his cynical and miserable girlfriend that life sometimes is so beautiful he just can't stand it. The dance of the garbage bag illustrates this beauty, I guess.
Ever engage in a conversation with someone that seemed on your wavelength and suddenly they say something so awful/weird/inappropriate that all you can think of is how did I get here? "You know those panhandlers make more than you and I do" or some such madness. When it happens in a Ridley Scott film it is so disorienting as to make one wonder if he checked out and had an apprentice finish. Like the difference between the scar on my neck and the ones across my midsection. The one in the neck is barely noticeable (or so I'd like to think), the result of high quality surgery, but the abdominal cross stitching, clearly the interns learning sewing up flesh, were so overdone that the scar tissue grew around them in little tubular ridges. Not to be gruesome, but I was equivalently jolted by the crashing halt to the narrative and resulting stilted thirty minutes with Frank (the American Gangster) suddenly working closely with the cop who brought him to justice. Until then, American gangster was a riveting drama with any number of possible options. And then it became Court TV. Dull, pandering and stupid. Coffee cup slid back and forth between two great actors as if it had meaning. What a waste of acting talent.
The audience titters through the first half of this film. As the murders become more graphic and heads begin to appear on refrigerator and closet shelves, the tittering dies away. It shouldn't have. This movie is silly. The characters are entirely unbelievable. The hooker that rejoins our Psycho after toddling off to the emergency room and possible surgery from the last encounter, and the Psycho himself, resemble cartoons more than people. Chloe Sevigney turns in a believable performance as the hapless secretary to our Psycho. That she transcends this dreadful material is a testament to her acting prowess. Willem Dafoe is, as always, fun to watch.
Some credit may be due the filmmakers for attempting a film based on the inner dialogue of a psychopath. The reality, however, is probably not that these folks were trying to stretch their creative reach. Far more likely, someone took the paperback book sales of American Psycho, applied the "book-to-box-office" formula, saved some money on casting (who are these people?), and threw the dice. All in all a dreadful experience that, I expect, will drop like a stone (or axe) in the next few weeks.
Before the movie even started I had to move to the end of the aisle I was on because the guy across the aisle was unwrapping a candy bar that must have been the size of the OED Large Type Edition. When it was over I walked out of the lobby and saw the ticket seller girl hunched up in the corner of the ticket booth asleep. There was a chalkboard sign outside the theater inviting me into a makeup shop for Nature's Makeover. What that means I have no idea. Next I saw a pizza box splayed open on the ground with a half eaten piece lying next to it. A trail of ants was busy taking it home to their bed. I was almost run over twice by fools as I crossed the street. Whoa, wait a minute. Have I entered Harvey Pekar's world?
I knew nothing about the underground comic book scene when I should have. I mean I had heard of R. Crumb and knew who Mr. Natural was but I never bought a comic book after I gave up on Marvel at 17. I do think I missed something but it's probably too late to go back. Like trying to be the cool old white guy in the warehouse of cool young black guys. It always ends up like it did the time I fell off the ladder. There I am in my hard shoes (I learned this new descriptor for dress shoes this week), white cotton oxford and wool slacks, looking up at these guys looking down at me. I'm an old white guy who's fallen and can't get up. How cool is this, I wonder? But I digress. Harvey Pekar had the great good fortune of hooking up with R. Crumb back in the seventies. Crumb illustrated Pekar's comic book story, the story of Pekar's ordinary life. Pekar was a file clerk at the VA until he retired recently, hoping for a few good years between retirement and death. Pekar is sort of a depressive personality played by Paul Giamatti with a fixed grimace. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor is an original work, mixing comic book with film and throwing in the actual characters from time to time. Captivating but ultimately depressing. If this sad fellow is a hero I'm a cool old white guy...
America's Sweethearts 07.25.01
Even if this weren't a funny, fast-paced, comedy starring John Cusack, Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Julia Roberts, it would still be worth seeing for one remarkable scene. Interestingly, it's another restaurant scene with Billy Crystal playing straight-man to a Hollywood beauty, hint for the Hollywood challenged - Herbal Essence shampoo has co-opted the other one. Julia Roberts (Kiki) falls off the diet wagon and loads up on pancakes and butter while ranting about her sister Gwen's (Catherine Zeta-Jones) prima donna behavior.
Unfortunately, the slapstick is a little forced and one or two jokes are done one or two too many times. The real attraction of this film (Robert's dinner masterpiece notwithstanding), is in the supporting cast. Alan Arkin as a New Age spiritual guide, Hank Azaria as Hector (Gwen's new beau), Christopher Walken as the crazy genius director, and Stanley Tucci as an amoral studio head, make up the best supporting cast in any film this year. As with Miss Congeniality's William Shatner and Candice Bergen, watching what great talents do with minor roles makes some of the comedic stretches bearable.
James Caviezel is "Catch," a ghost-like wraith who saves Sharon Pogue(Jennifer Lopez) from murder at the hands of a street thug. A relationship develops and we try to figure out what Catch's story is. We already know (or suspect) he is the guy Officer (Chicago cop) Pogue saves in the film's opening scene. Or maybe he died and has come back as a ghost. James Caviezel played an almost identical character in Pay It Forward. He really needs to lose the brooding thing, comparisons to Montgomery Clift can't do anybody any good.
Sonia Braga plays Pogue's mother and introduces us to the secondary theme of Angel Eyes - domestic violence. Pogue's dad beat up her mother years ago, Sharon called the cops and dad was arrested. Ever since, she's been ostracized by her family. When her brother beats up his wife, Sharon arrives on the scene and punches him out. The wife (sister-in-law) kicks her out of her house. Everybody in this movie is so intense, it wore me out.
Sally and Joe are celebrating their sixth anniversary. They've been separated for a year and back together for five months. They invite a few dozen of their closest friends and one set of hateful neighbors to the party. Charades, toasts, and dinner make up the first half of the party, an Ecstacy fueled nightmare the second half. Co-directed, co-written and co-produced by first timers Alan Cumming (Peewee Herman look-alike from Spy Kids) and Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Anniversary Party meanders through the lives of a dozen or so show biz folk from the canyons of southern California. Kevin Kline, Gwyneth Paltrow, Phoebe Cates, Parker Posey, and Jennifer Beals make up half the cast while less well known but equally talented folk make up the other half. A dream team of currently fashionable Hollywood filmdom. Jane Adams turns in the most memorable performance as a strung out new mother jumping out of her skin.
Some of the revelers are self-centered to the point of obsessions, some just plain miserable, some jerks and only a one or two out of the whole crowd that are anyone you'd want as a friend. An amateur version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with a few more characters.
Is nature itself evil or is it our nature that is evil? We live in a universe of umimaginable violence. Exploding stars, random world destroying collisions, gamma ray bursts, black holes. Planets with atmospheres of sulfuric acid, planets with no atmosphere, temperatures that freeze oxygen and boil tin. And then there's Earth. Our little Eden of inhabitability where one third of us go hungry and the rest of us poison the air and water with our waste. Reduce all this to one apparently happy couple enjoying each others bodies while their child falls to his death and you have Lars von Trier's latest exploration of the human condition. Not for the faint of heart. Not for the hopeful.
She was a high school graduate. Imagined herself some powerful person's executive assistant someday. Or maybe she'd start her own business. Didn't know what business, she said, but she liked the idea of working for herself. For the time being, though, she had to settle for working for me. Her job was to key data into a spreadsheet. She had to avoid the cells with formulas and execute a stored series of commands at the right time.
When a new procedure is taught in medical school the protocol is to show, do, teach. Makes sense to me. I showed her how to do the job, had her do it, then had her teach a co-worker. Looked like she had it down. About three days in she brings me the report. It looked like someone took an egg beater to the data.
"OK, say you're a brain surgeon and I'm chief of surgery. A patient comes in and you operate. The patient dies. I ask what happened and you say you don't know you did everything right. OK, well, be real careful on the next one. Next patient comes in, you operate and the patient dies. The third patient comes in and you operate and they die. Now, I've got a decision to make, you say you're doing everything right but every time you operate the patient dies. I can't let you operate on any more patients. You're so confident that you're doing everything right that you aren't likely to change a thing. That means you'll probably kill every patient you touch."
By now the tears have welled up.
I'm wondering, is she so arrogant that she thinks she can't err or so naive she really doesn't get it?
One of the service reps takes an order from a customer and keys "chg cust at passback rate."
Both these generally well intentioned folks sincerely believe they are doing the right thing when they do it. Both are intelligent. As well intentioned and intelligent as the folks responsible for the feature film, Anti-Trust.
Anti-Trust is the story of Gary Winston (a thinly veiled caricature of Bill Gates) and his nemesis, young computer Turk/Geek Milo. Seems Gary Winston (played by the gifted Tim Robbins) has managed to place a camera in every programmer's garage (Gates once said Microsoft could be put out of business by any kid working out of his garage), positioned to surreptitiously read programming code off the computer screen. When his henchmen spy a clever bit of code that might advance his project, they kill the programmer and steal the code. Eventually, Milo brings Winston and his evil empire down. Evil Empire is the title of Rage Against The Machine's most popular CD. Rage Against The Machine is an enormously popular rock band bent on proclaiming the message that the world is full of bad people. Especially the corrupt power elite at the helm of corporate America. Now this is a message worth proclaiming to those who may be unaware. In fact, if the truth be known, sometimes the rich and powerful behave in ways that are wholly reprehensible. They often act with total disregard for the environment. They manipulate the political structure and politicians in order to satisfy their own selfish interests, often at the expense of others. Doh! The big and powerful exploit the small and weak. Are the purveyors of such messages so arrogant they think the rest of us unaware? Or are they so naive they think if only they tell it, it will change?
The folks responsible for Anti-Trust are either a particularly aggregious example of the arrogance that comes from self-righteous indignation or they are simpletons a la Rage Against The Machine firmly ensconced in the belief that by screaming loudly enough about the world's injustices, justice will somehow spontaneously erupt. In either case, the movie is offensive to anyone with a modicum of persepctive on the issue at hand. Information certainly does belong to the people of the world, as our hero Milo proclaims, but the people of the world are way too busy trying to fend off cold and hunger to expend much energy taking advantage of the programming skills the young computer generation has to offer. It is arrogance of the highest order to believe that the corporate bullying of which Microsoft is unquestionably guilty is a crime on a par with the great injustices of our time. Rest assured, the millions that will go blind this year for wont of a simple anti-biotic available only to "developed" countries are not particularly overwrought that Windows tends to crash more often than Apple. The real crime here is that we have witnessed a whole generation grow up consumed by consumerism. It is not information that Microsoft is monopolizing, it's a graphical user interface. The information is out there and free for all. Windows versus Linux indeed. Get out of your garages, lay down your keyboards, unplug your Playstation II and join the world community. Your preoccupation with more RAM and higher processing speeds smacks of Marie Antoinette and her suggestion that the starving be fed cake from Parisian bakeries. There are some REAL problems confronting us, young citizens. Awaken!
Everyone should write a book about their life. Especially if they've overcome great hardships. They serve as inspirations to those of us who have yet to write a book about our lives and all the great hardships we've overcome.
Let's see, I was born into lower middle class white America
I went to public school,
I married incorrectly, more than once,
There are parts of my personality I don't like very much,
OK, OK, Antwone Fisher had it really tough. What do we take from that? If he can get past these things, so can we? Sure, I'll buy. All we need is a good psychiatrist. Hmmm. I wonder what my HMO will cover?
BULLETIN FROM DEEP IN THE HEART OF MESOAMEROICA... Idyllic village ransacked by bloody Mayan sacrificial scouts STOP Mayan Adam escapes captors STOP Chased through jungle NONSTOP Rejoins idyllic village less villagers STOP Stop Mel before next "epic" STOP Send lawyers guns money STOP
How can I reconcile this kindness, this light, this yielding spirit with that cruelty, that darkness, that evil? I know this exists, I am the beneficiary. I know that exists, I've just seen it. David Mackenzie would have us believe the two find common origin in passion. A passion that brings the somnambulist wife of The Asylum's new director to dangerous life while destabilizing one of its trustee inmates. Stella (Natasha Richardson) stirs in response to the introduction of Edgar (Marton Csokas) into her ordered and dull life as Max's (Hugh Bonneville) dutiful 1950's wife. A malevolent Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen) moves in and out of the story, preparing all for a devastating and horrible finale. Director Mackenzie's last ray of light came to us in the form of Young Adam an utterly bleak look at broken love and abandonment. His latest film, Asylum, leaves us in the same state of despair and hopelessness as did Young Adam. This time, though, he leaves us a clue about cause. Passion, he seems to hiss, passion. You have been warned.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire 06.30.01
Is the world such a terrible place that we are compelled to invent myths of idyllic times and places to give us hope of a better tomorrow? Is our tendency to idealize the past evidence of our denial of the harsh reality of today? The beautiful gowns, high collars, and elaborate dress portrayed in romanticized versions of the Middle Ages were designed not so much for the eye as the nose. Women's collars were high and tight, sleeves ended in cuffs bound with ribbon, men took to tying cloth strips around their necks, pant legs were tucked into stockings or boots, skirts hid layer upon layer of underskirts. In an era when bathing was less than a daily experience and deodorant consisted of a sachet worn on the wrist and held to the nose in close conversation, clothing was designed with a more practical application. Our myths leave such unpleasant details unsaid. But not content with merely romanticizing the past we know existed, we create a past that never did exist. The myth of the Garden of Eden, a place where we "walked in the cool of the evening with our God," helps us to understand, and accept, the daily struggle for survival, the excruciating pain of childbirth, our collective revulsion of all creepy crawly things, and the patriarchal nature of western society.
And then there was Atlantis. Referenced by Plato almost as an aside, Atlantis enters our consciousness as a great advanced civilization that inexplicably vanished beneath the surface of the Atlantic more than ten thousand years ago. A wonderful romantic tale of a great lost civilization. A sort of super-Greek world of intellectual achievement, cultural sophistication, and enlightened governance, all powered by some mysterious source. Early Hollywood versions had the Atlanteans harnessing solar power with a jumbo magnifying glass. This new Disney version places the great power of Atlantis in a twirling crystal, a living crystal that, in times of crisis, inhabits "one of noble birth." A bookish college professor's dream of finding the lost continent is finally realized in the company of mercenaries hired by his father's old friend, an aging curmudgeon. A steely-jawed muscle man and an evil, but sexy-blonde dish lead the mercenaries. The company is rounded out by a way-cool Italian demolition expert, a wizened chain-smoking receptionist and a young female Hispanic auto mechanic. Let me repeat, the top guy is a white Army sergeant, supported by a thoroughly evil blonde babe, a dark European, a jaded old phone operator and a young Hispanic woman really good at working on cars. Oh, I almost forgot one more character called The Mole, he's really good at... you guess. One can find each of these characters on three-by-five index cards in the library under "S" for stereotypes.
The quality of animation is on a par with the old Johnny Quest/Clutch Cargo cartoons. In fact it has the same look and feel as those cheesy old after-school shows (before kids came home to watch Jenny and Montel).
At least Disney doesn't miss the chance for collateral revenue generation. Visit the Atlantis: The Lost Continent website ("powered by Compaq") and click on "vacations" for a commercial or three about Disney theme parks, or go to AtlantisAdventure.com (brought to you by Kellogg) for God knows what.
A final question, why is the title, Atlantis: The Lost Empire? Do we need to roll some explanation of what Atlantis is into the title lest the uninformed public buy a ticket for Atlantis thinking it's the sequel to Titanic? Has to do with the Atlantic, you know, where the Titanic went down. And what "Empire?" Atlantis didn't rule over any other countries, there weren't any other contemporary countries! I smell a sequel, "Epcoteus: Atlantis Lives On!" Somebody give me a gun.
Because she's jealous, because she's young, because she's "fanciful," because she doesn't really know the difference or the import of a lie, Briony Tallis has her big sister Cecelia's boyfriend Robby sentenced for a crime he did not commit. Robby is an imminently noble young chap, Cecelia an imminently passionate young woman, and Briony is, well, an awful wretch of a self-absorbed tyke. She spends her life trying to atone for her lie and at the end of it pens her 21st novel finally telling the truth and setting the record straight. But she doesn't, even then, tell the whole truth. Truth would have been a better title for the book and the film but then who would have allowed themselves to be seen reading a book titled "Truth?"
Against all odds, Keira Knightly (Cecelia) seems to be developing into a fine actress. I say against all odds because it seems the really beautiful have an uphill battle in film. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt come to mind as actors about whom people say, with no small note of surprise, "...he was really quite good." James McAvoy is superior as Robby and Vanessa Redgrave finishes the film as an aging Briony.
Atonement is a beautiful film, sometimes painfully so. One particularly long tracking shot of the beach at Dunkirk comes to mind. As do several underwater scenes. Water is nearly a character in Atonement but it never serves to oblate, only to baptize, christen, and, finally, as extreme unction.
The original meaning of atone was to reconcile. The meaning has evolved over time from make one to make good. I once told a young charge that the worst thing one could do in a relationship is lie. I don't think one can ever be reconciled to a liar. Once trust is broken, repair is impossible. Patch maybe, but in a way that allows the patch to remain forever visible. Briony spends her life trying to atone for her lie. But the damage is done and can never be undone. Atonement, then, may be more about coming to terms with self. And perhaps that is the point. I'll let you know if I ever do.
Where to begin? The longest cartoon ever, yet another loving family of natives pillaged by the marauding white man in his quest for gold, oil, nee unobtainium (are you kidding me - unobtanium?!), the pure heart triumphs over mechanized evil with the aid of the creatures of the forest, love conquers all, hero and villian discard all their sophisticated weaponry to duke it out, robot enhanced-mano y elongated blue dude-mano, cliches on steroids. Movies will never be the same again, really? Movies will always be the same, the testosterone fueled epic will ever triumph over the dialogue heavy struggle for meaning. Only now we'll have to wear those stupid glasses. Call me when Pieces of April comes on.
August Rush is very sweet, Highmore was wonderful (originally seen in Finding Neverland)
An innocent from the country comes to Paris, finds work as a waitress and enters the lives of several succesful and unhappy couples, a father and son, a wife and husband, a woman and her acting, and a man and his art collection. The young waitress Jessica (Cecile de France) helps each of the films unhappy adults find their way back from their constructed and cluttered lives to a happier time, or at least the hope of one.
What makes the film work is the delightful Cecile de France.
The Aviator opens with a young mother bathing her not so young son. She has him spell the word "quarantine" as she gently strokes his skin. Mother clearly adores this child and we hear her warning him that he isn't safe and must avoid touching "those" people as they might be carrying typhus or worse. Something isn't quire right with this picture. The child will grow into the famously neurotic Howard Hughes, so averse to germs that he ends his days isolated in a hotel room in Las Vegas awash in tissue paper and bleach. Flash forward from the bath to southern California desert and Year One of Hughes' four million dollar epic Hell's Angels. He hires Noah Dietrich to run Hughes Tool and when Noah asks when they are going to Houston (Hughes Tool HQ) Hughes replies, "never, it's a pestilence infested swamp, two thousand dead from typhoid."
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Frenzy both gave us mothers to blame for their sons psychosis and Scorsese seems to be treading the same ground. We don't see any mom connections between the opening scene and the final one but the dots are obvious and Scorsese is undoubtedly asking us to connect them. Not fair, I say, and not particularly relevant. No one knows the origins of obsessive compulsive behavior and serotonin re-uptake inhibitors aside, no one knows how to cure it. Hughes obsessions were, of course, his tragic flaw and ultimately cost him more dearly than any over-budget movie or airplane. His maniacal desire for privacy, enabled by the unquestioning loyalty and commitment of Noah Dietrich (the suddenly ubiquitous John C. Reilly), likely prevents a more definitive biography, but enough is known about Hughes to allow Scorsese and DiCaprio to paint a portrait of Hughes as believable as anything we're likely to see. DiCaprio's performance is overwhelming and utterly convincing. DiCaprio, who looks nothing like Hughes, becomes him in the Senate hearings on Hughes alleged wartime profiteering. His ability to morph into the real deal is arresting in its power and thrilling to watch. Scorsese may have found his new DeNiro. DiCaprio's performance is the best in a year that has seen some remarkable performances. Scorsese has regained his master form after stumbling through Bringing Out the Dead and Gangs of New York. I have trouble imagining any other director with the ability to pull off a three-hour biography. In a testament to his skill, The Aviator felt like one hour and ended too soon at that. First rank performances by Cate Blanchett as a dead-on Katherine Hepburn, the refined and ethereal Kate Beckinsale as the earthy, street-tough Ava Gardner and Alan Alda as the slimy Senator Brewster, all playing brilliantly against type, and incredible special effects as Hughes crashes his super-fast spy plane into Beverly Hills, are parts of a whole that, when added together, make for something much greater than their sum.
Fiona (Julie Christie) is in early onset dementia and her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) is faced with life without her. They've been married for forty years or so, the last twenty five happily. He was a professor once and moved to the frozen north and away from the temptations of his young students to save his relationship with Fiona. Now she is resigned to life in a resident care facility and he isn't resigned to life away from her. Some interesting developments occur at the care facility and the film is about Grant's coming to terms with them. A beautifully filmed and perfectly presented work of the heart and its capacity for suffering and survival by the young and surprising Sarah Polley.
Away We Go 06.20.09
We each took turns pronouncing on the relative merits of the six or so coming attractions. Each ninety second selection derived from reading the tea leaves of the mall found focus group. They thought it looked dreadful. I did too but previews so often misdirect they can't really be trusted. Presented as a screwball comedy by the marketing folks it is often hilarious but more often touching. Krasinski's eternal optimist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is a beautifully realized character and the series of desperately dysfunctional people he and his pregnant girlfriend (Maya Rudolph) encounter are led brilliantly by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Allison Janney. Gyllenhaal's portrayal of new age nonsense and Janney's any age crassness will likely remain with me long after the plot fades. One of the couples they encounter lives with a deeply tragic truth revealed in an inspired scene at a Karoake bar. This is a deeply layered story of the impossibly difficult path we all must navigate in finding some modicum of meaning while avoiding the abyss and staving off the madness that surrounds us.
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