The passage from which the films title is taken, Genesis 7:1-9, uses the plural us when God proposes his language plurality scheme to thwart mankind's efforts to approach the almighty, or almightys. The Oxford Annotated refers the reader to an earlier chapter of Genesis wherein the first use of God in the plural is found... "Probably refers to the divine beings who compose God's heavenly court." The us reference has always fascinated me as I imagine a panel of Gods as in the panel from American Idol, one really nice one, Paula Abdul (Jesus), one omniscient one, Randy Jackson (Holy Ghost), and a mean spiteful one, Simon Cowell (Old Testament Jehovah). Have you read Job lately? One of the original faithful and God sets out to test his faith with a series of ever more horrific tortures. Imagine a child taking his pet beagle into the back yard, staking him out and... Well, it's enough to put three fourths of the worlds population off the whole Judeo-Christian thing.
Babel the film is three concurrent stories, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as tourists in Morocco, Rinko Kikuchi as the deaf child of widower Koji Yakusho in Japan, and Adriana Barraza and Gael Garcia Bernal as aunt and nephew in Mexico. That which unites the three is a rifle but gun control is hardly what the inspired duo of Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro Inarritu had in mind when creating this complex, dense, passionate exploration of our inability to understand each other; either as husband-wife (Pitt-Blanchett) or employer-employee (Pitt-Barraza) or parent-child (Kikuchi-Yakusho) (Rachidi-Tarchani). Passion is what binds these stories together, the passion that often separates and ultimately binds, but not before doing enormous damage.
I normally eschew any critical observations before seeing a film but I somewhere came across some "overreaching" aspersion about Babel. This is a complicated narrative with some unfortunate backward jumps in time that serve more to distract than focus but the stories are clear and straightforward. That they take place on three continents may be disorienting to those of us who see the United States the same way Europeans saw the Earth pre-Copernicus. Maybe it's the cultural swings, from Islamic poverty to Asian affluence to Mexican middle class. If Arriaga-Inarritu overreach perhaps it is because our grasp is so limited. And isn't that the whole point?
Back Stage 09.16.00
Midway through the Hip Hop documentary film, Back Stage, the CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, Damon Dash, mercilessly berates his partner for helping Def Jam Records, a competing label, to appropriate the credit for their tour by distributing leather jackets to the tour musicians. Damon Dash leaves no wiggle room for his partner, cutting off every possible angle of escape from the tirade. Dash is getting a haircut and a young (under ten) family member is present for the spectacle. The language is unrestrained and the anger and frustration is fierce and unrelenting.
Dash's company had positioned itself as the outsider in the Hip-Hop music world, boycotting the Grammy's and taking a risk no other company was willing to take in sponsoring a tour of several competing Hip-Hop acts from competing labels. Gangster rap continued to cast a pall over the industry, the image of Suge Knight still haunted the rap music world, and the future of Roc-A-Fella Records, Dash's creation, was in the balance.
Hip Hop describes both a musical genre and lifestyle. The music is spare, using percussion and bass as meter for the rhymes that dominate the music. The vocalizations are rap in nature, sampling (the replaying of bits of music or lyric from another song and genre) plays a large role but is used for emphasis. The music is merely vehicle for the message.
As a culture, Hip Hop is, for anyone looking in from the outside, difficult to describe.
Lawrence Krsna Parker, a 35 year old New Yorker known as KRS-One, one of many Hip Hop pioneers, describes the three tenets of Hip Hop as follows:
Number 1: "Eliminate the distance between yourself and the thing you are thinking about. Meaning, if you are a part of the Hip Hop culture, don't say 'I'm doing Hip Hop, or I'm a part of the Hip Hop culture.' You say, 'I am Hip Hop. I am Hip Hop culture.'"
Number 2: "Hip Hop created itself. It stands on the shoulders of past traditions of all kinds, but it created itself"..."Don't ask nobody for no help."
Number 3: "...none of us are gonna move forward until we clip the umbilical cord of these mother cultures and exist today as the society we know we supposed to exist as. Hip Hop is the only American-born culture."
As elaborated by KRS-One, Hip Hop is about being genuine, constructive, creative, and forward looking.
Epitomized by Suge Knight and Death Row Records, the misogynistic, violent, and nihilistic world of the darker side of rap stands in stark contrast to the social and political independence and constructivism as elucidated in KRS-One's philosophy of Hip Hop. Suge Knight, the founder and CEO of Death Row Records remains in prison on assault charges. Intimidation of artists and regular bouts of gun play mark his rule of Death Row. His is a world of money, power, and domination. The murder of Tupac Shakur, a once vibrant rap music figure, has been attributed to Suge Knight's reluctance to allow him out of his contract. The white rap artist, Vanilla Ice, describes being hung upside down out his hotel window until he agreed to sign his earnings over to Suge Knight and Death Row. Current rap superstar Sean (Puffy) Combs, was recently arrested outside a Los Angeles night club following a shootout between rival "crews." Guns, drugs, and violence shadow the rap music industry.
In the struggle to maintain financial and artistic control, many new rap and Hip Hop artists avoid the mainstream record labels for the likes of Death Row, Def Jam, and Rock-A-Fella labels. The move to "do it all" has further splintered the industry as individuals create their own labels, produce their own music, and effect their own distribution. The MP3 wave has accelerated this movement.
The artists in the 1999 Ruff Ryders/Hard Knock Life tour, DMX, Jay-Z, Redman, Method Man, and Amil serve as a microcosm of the conflicts within an anarchistic and conflicted industry. The life "on tour" these artists lead, as seen in the documentary, Back Stage, is closer to the "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" anthem of the musical artists of the 70's than the Hip Hop philosophy of KRS-One. Drugs are ubiquitous (mainly marijuana), women are referred to and treated as disposable sex objects, and money and power are dominant themes of the music and conversations.
Social conscience and political positions are for the stage. Earl Simmons, the X in DMX, raised in abject poverty in Yonkers, describes his hour on stage as the only hour worth living. Back Stage, life is about getting high, having sex, and macho posturing.
The image of Damon Bush berating one of his lieutenants while having his hair cut calls to mind another powerful figure from a not so different culture of power and macho posturing. Lyndon Johnson, from the bathroom, lecturing a young Robert McNamara. The more things change...
Bad Boys II 07.24.03
If you like things that go boom, you should like this movie. If you like things that go whoosh, pow, splash, crack, screech, or thud, you should like this movie. If you like sampled Hip-Hop, Will Smith or Martin Lawrence you should like this movie. If you like "bullet-time" (again now, for the cave dwellers, bullet time is the super slow motion 360 degree action sequence involving bullets and the human body) you should like this movie. If you count Will Smith in the first rank of charismatic film stars, you'll love this movie. If you think Michael Bay can direct action films better than anyone except maybe that Hong Kong guy, you'll love this movie. This film is good enough to reinroduce the Saturday matinee serial to theaters. Ten minutes of this adrenaline dripping blockbuster should be enough to hook anyone in for the next installment. As it is, I was held happy hostage for all but the last twenty minutes of this stop only for the laughs cornucopia of action.
This is a buddy film with two world class comedians at the top of their Hollywood game. Peter Stormare, as an Americanized Russian mobster, might have pushed his more famous co-stars off the screen had he shared any time with them. His performance is funny, inspired and unexpectedly rich. The only weakness came near the end, thankfully, as our creative team jumped the tracks and staged a miniature Bay of Pigs invasion. Reminded me of the latter Crosby-Hope Road pictures when plots ran thin and we found ourselves on the Road to Utopia. A road less traveled, for a reason. Minor criticism, though, Bad Boys II is still worth the two plus hours it'll take. Get Jiggy with it!
Bad Education 03.13.05
Almodovar's latest intricate web of a film, Bad Education, unravels a bit toward the end as we have to wait a little too long for dramatic resolution. Up to that point, though, Bad Education is a beautiful film of a painful, perhaps too topical subject. Told in overlapping flashbacks from alternate perspectives, Bad Education keeps us interested until we know what happened and are missing only the details. Those details are a long time coming, for no reason I can fathom, and I found myself looking at my cell phone clock to see how long we had to go.
I don't wear a watch although I've tried. I inherited the Hamilton my dad wore in the Philippines during World War II and I might have made that my watch but a toddler crashed it to the floor when told to take it out of his mouth. The watch that made it through the tropical climes of a shooting war met its end on some cheap linoleum in the kitchen of a cheap apartment. I had managed to escape the intrusion of a cell phone but was two hours late for an appointment for no good reason and was ordered by management to get one. I did and now I can't imagine how I got by without it. I do get a certain thrill from leaving it at home, as I do too often. OK, see what I mean, way too much story to tell the time.
Particularly memorable are the scenes from Ignacio's childhood, for the beauty of the soccer game, the singing and the swimming, and the terror of the late night toilet rendezvous. The film was less interesting and less beautiful in the present. One wonders if this was intentional on Almodovar's part, if so it was a masterful accomplishment in contrasting the past in memory with the present in experience. No surprise that Gael Garcia Bernal was up to the task of rendering the enormously complex character of Angel/Juan/Zahara and Fele Martinez (Enrique) and Daniel Gimenez Cacho (Fr. Manolo) were a pleasant surprise (at least for Anglo audiences).
About the abuse. The Roman Catholic Church's unrelenting attachment to the concept of a celibate priesthood is, of course, at the heart of the problem. Tragically, a small window opened in the sixties with John XXIII's call to hold the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The opportunity to address women in the priesthood, the celibacy issue, healing the Schism all were briefly on the table for discussion. Almost immediately, the Curia (a small reactionary Italian kernel of resistance to any change) began their machinations to remove any threat to their power. To the long-term detriment of the Roman Catholic Church and it's subjects, they succeeded. Now, with nearly three decades of ultra-conservative leadership (Pope JohnPaul II) and an influx of closed-minded African Bishops, no change appears possible for decades to come. Considering the alternative, a non-Celibate healthy priesthood, reconciliation of the Protestant and Catholic and Eastern wings of the Christian Church, and women at the Altar, this was a tragedy of the first magnitude.
Finally, and admittedly petulantly, I had the feeling I was unwillingly involved in a film history trivia game. Almodovar is one of the directorial first rank and might want to rethink the endless homage to directors and films of the past.
Thelma and Louise turn XXX rated psychopathic killers. Society is cruel, men are pigs, women are victimized by both. Two women, hanging from the last rung, let go and free fall into a sex, crime and murder spree way beyond any pale. Beginning with the pointless murder of a woman at an ATM, we are subjected to grisly scene after more grisly scene culminating in the obvious.
Raffaela Anderson as Manu, distinguishes herself as the catalyst of this poisonous reaction. Hers is a scary and compelling presence. Her partner, Karen Lancaume, appears to drift through her role. No small accomplishment considering the nature of the role.
The credits list three actors as rapist one, two and three, and three more actors as simply "dead body." The limits of "legitimate" cinema are sorely tested by this pornographic horror film. The writer/directors are women. Go figure. But don't go.
Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever 09.21.02
When "Directed by Kaos" rolled up at the end of the opening credits, it occurred to me that maybe I'd made a mistake. I readily admit to being a Lucy Liu fan and Antonio Banderas is never a waste of time. But directed by Kaos? The fellow's real name is Wych Kaosayananda and this is his first feature outside his native Thailand. He clearly loves blowing things up. Huge guns seem to be laying all about and neither the good or bad guys want for weapons. Guns that shoot huge bullets, guns that shoot rocket grenades, even guns that shoot little microscopic robots to swim about inside your bloodstream armed with teency little pincers and a itsy bitsy syringe. This little creature is at the heart of the mischief wrought by the hat wearing bad guy, Gant (Gregg Henry). A modern day David, Gant manages to convince Ecks (Banderas) and his wife that each other are dead so he can marry Ecks grouchy wife. Ecks, the worlds greatest spy guy (Sever/Lucy Liu is the worlds greatest spy gal) spends the next seven years wandering about in the rain, smoking and drinking. That is until the FBI needs him to rind the stolen killer micro-tic. Seems Gant has stolen the little robot tool guy and is about to turn him loose on an unsuspecting world. Now none of these folk seem to think twice about shooting up downtown Vancouver, blowing up an entire train yard, or directing smart bombs onto happy family homes. Why they would all go nuts over a little robot (it does look really cute when it uses its little hinged "feet" to paddle about the bloodstream) is a mystery. I say take a rocket launcher or assault SUV or concussion grenade to your target. It looks cool, works better in slow motion, and is more macho than a little swimming tic looking thing.
Is it possible that watching Lucy Liu fire a high-powered huge-caliber thousand-round-a-minute assault howitzer thing in super slow motion can be an erotic experience? Have I seen too much? Shall I pluck out these eyes? You go girl!
Dances With Wolves is about the horrible treatment Native Americans suffered at the hands of the US Army and government, The Killing Fields about the horrible treatment Cambodians suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and their government, and Bamboozled about the horrible treatment African-Americans received at the hands of the entertainment media. Watching The Killing Fields and Dances With Wolves is easier than watching Bamboozled. Why?
Bamboozled's often garish close-ups of actors in black-face make for painfully uncomfortable scenes. Spike Lee leaves us no room for rationalization. This is ugly, demeaning, horrific, and abusive. If he does show us any mercy, it is in having Damon Wayans play an Ivy League TV executive (Pierre De la Croix) who is responsible for bringing the minstrel show to prime time TV. Man Tan and Sleep 'n Eat are the lead characters in his failed attempt to get fired from his contract. Instead, the show is a monster hit. The mercy comes in allowing us to sluff off any responsibility for this mockery of humanity onto De la Croix's shoulders. It doesn't work, or, at least, it shouldn't. Lee turns a harsh light on the African-Americans who tolerated, benefitted, and even embraced this shameful spectacle. His indictment is not of the white man, but of all of us, victim and victimizer.
The closing scenes of historical footage from cartoons and movies of the past make the reality of racial stereotyping and denegration that filled the media in decades past almost too painful to watch.
Leaving the theater, I avoided making eye contact with anyone. What could I say, what can anyone say? The shame is overwhelming. How can we do this to each other?
As much as I try to dislike Billy Bob Thornton I continue to be bowled over by his talent. He is a powerful and compelling screen presence. Bruce Willis is a movie star from the old school and Cate Blanchett is brilliant, gifted, and apparently unlimited. Match these three with a clever story, a snappy script and good direction and you can't miss. Bandits is a treat of a film. Hooray for Hollywood!
The Bank Job 03.18.08
When Martine (Saffron Burrows) approaches Terry Leather (Jason Statham) with a plan to rob a major London bank, Terry is taken aback. We may be known for the occasional skullduggery, he says, but rob a bank? Skullduggery? Is this a pirate film? Statham's delivvery of lines like this one made The Bank Job, an otherwise overreaching story, entirely entertaining. Jason Statham is one of a kind. Harking back to the great leading men of Hollywood's heyday, Statham is charismatic, charming, and exceedingly funny. Who wouldn't want this guy on their side? His machismo is never ugly, even when he's yards over the top (Chevy Chelios in Crank comes to mind) or playing the bad guy.
The Bank Job is an imagining of the circumstances surrounding some compromisiing photos of a British Royal and a mysterious bank robbery that disappeared from London papers days after it splashed onto the front page. The Bank Job is well made, fast paced, and clever.
Cedric the Entertainer plays Joe, an old crusty barber in Calvin's (Ice Cube) shop. Near the end of the film he declares "...black people need to admit three things, one, Rodney King was wrong driving around drunk in a Honda, two, O.J. did it, and three, Rosa Parks didn't do anything bus sit her tired ass down on a bus." I was already a fan by the mid-way point of this well structured and funny movie. The dangerous and surprising inclusion of Joe/Cedric's commentary pushed it into the outstanding category. The Rosa Parks claim must be defended by Joe but no one argues with the Rodney King and OJ statements. He does declare the sanctity of the Barbershop and that all statements must be allowed there, agree or not.
Barbershop tells two stories, the one it opens with, two dopes steal the new ATM machine across the street from the barbershop, and Calvin's struggle to come to terms with the barbershop his father left him. Calvin wants to be a record producer and is about to lose the heavily mortgaged shop to the bank. A half dozen barbers make up the crew at the shop and each is a stereotype. The know-it-all who makes it up as he goes along, the wizened old man tolerant of people, intolerant of bad behavior, the kid with a limited but precious dream, the bad guy trying to go straight, the woman caught in another abusive relationship. They are each well drawn, charming characters and we immediately connect to each of them. But director Tim Story and writer Mark Brown keep the focus on the plot. The two stories move quickly and elegantly to their collision and conclusion. The dopes with the ATM try everything to break into it but spend most of their time hauling it from one "safe" location to another. Calvin's struggle with the shop is a powerful and appropriate message about the legitimacy of work and the transcendence open to all of us in even the most unlikely environment.
The former driving force behind the seminal rap group N.W.A., Ice Cube continues to demonstrate an apparently boundary less talent. In Barbershop, he surrounds himself with a talented ensemble cast and champions an uplifting and universal message. Maybe it's not All About the Benjamins after all.
Batman Begins 07.03.05
The year is 3,000 C.E. Mankind is an endangered species. Having reverted to living in caves and worshipping the stars, they live in terror of the Evil ones. The Gods departed because humans were too selfish and the Evil ones have descended and rule the planet. Turns out the Evil ones are a race of nine foot Psychlo's here to mine the planet for their Home world, Psychlo, otherwise known as the Corporation. If you can find a way to get past the stilts the Evil ones are obviously walking on, you will surely (hopefully) be caught by the realization that, these folks who've mastered teleporting across the galaxy, have taken so long to mine the Earth's minerals that humanity has had the time to revert to a prehistoric state. Forget about the fact these super advanced creatures can't find Ft. Knox, a hairdresser, or a dentist. Don't think too much about why the Psychlo's spend so much of their time "rounding up" man-animals so they can be imprisoned in large riotous groups. Accept as plausible that a grunting humanity can master flying Harrier jets in under three days. Believe, if you will, our hero figures out how to arm a nuclear device by trial and error. But know this, the man who wrote the book upon which this tour de force is based, gave up his day job as a science fiction writer to make some real money in religion. Thank the Gods!
A Beautiful Mind 12.27.01
Oh yes, Ron Howard. It's got to be good if Ron Howard directs it, right? Well, it certainly seems so. I'm not a big Russell Crowe fan. To be perfectly honest, Australians sort of give me the creeps. Did you know they actually hunted Aborigines well into the twentieth century? As a rite of passage for Aborigine males, they go off on their own in the wilds for a couple of weeks. Occasionally, a group of white hunters would follow. You know, just for the sport. But I digress.
Russell Crowe seems to have adopted the tortured spirit macho thing that Brando originated. We can only hope he isn't following the Brando diet. His acting talent is fiercely strong (The Insider comes immediately to mind) and he brings the truly tortured schizophrenic soul of Nobel Prize winning John Nash to life. Ed Harris is always good and it was nice to see Christopher Plummer in a role with some dignity again (Dracula 2000 was so sad). The aging thing is still a mess and directors should stop trying to make it work. Was that really Jennifer Connely under all that pancake at the end?
If there is a recurring theme in all the worlds religions it is that the world is broken. Christians say Christ came to reconcile us to God but not necessarily make the world whole as he anticipates a goodly number being thrown into the fire. Jews propose making the world whole through kind and unselfish acts. Hindus say we have to act in concert with and respect alll life. Bhuddists say embrace the suffering, Catholics say confess the sin, Jews say be afraid, be very afraid. Before these religions we believed the Gods were many in number, lived on Mount Olympus and fought among themselves, wreaking havoc on us mortals. And prior to that we banged sticks and screamed at the monster eating the moon, or sun, depending on which was being eclipsed. I think it was only with the advent of consciousness that we began to see the world as broken. With consciousness and a sense of self we could begin to compare, one with another, this with that. In that process we created the ideal. Why can't every day be sunny? Why do some plants have to harm us? Must be something wrong. The world must be broken. Along with this consciousness of self and others came the natural thought that we must be at the center of this drama. God created us for himself - aren't we special? Ergo, since we are the center of our universe and that universe is broken, we must be the cause. Voila - the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
None of this overtly surfaces in Scott McGehee and David Siegel's complex film of Myla Goldberg's novel Bee Season. Our search for God plays a major role as do the mechanisms we employ. But ultimately Bee Season is about trying to make whole what has been broken, relationships, family, psyche, and yes, the world. We get the world view from Richard Gere's character Saul Naumann, professor of religion. The psyche and family views we get from his wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche), Max Minghella and Flora Cross round out the family as Aaron and champion speller Eliza. Bee Season is a work of depth and profundity wrapped in a family drama shroud. We are correctly given no answers but we are compelled to ask if not contemplate the question, the highest aim of great art.
Be Cool 06.10.05
John Travolta is pretty much all that is cool about Be Cool. Although I have trouble reconciling Travolta's cool with the markedly uncool cult that is Scientology, his coolness makes everyone else look like they're trying too hard. Especially Uma. She does seem to have nothing but good intentions but I find her hard to watch. As if she were desperate somehow. Vince Vaughn is funny as Raji and Cedric the Entertainer continues to prove himself the equal to any comedic actor working today but these disparate parts don't add up to a good film. Maybe we can fault F. Gary Gray. He pulled off Friday, his only other comedy and Negotiator and The Italian Job were action suspense thrillers that worked, but Be Cool does not. It lurches about in search of a plot until ultimately devolving into an MTV video extravaganza. And, at the risk of being cruel, why didn't Beyonce make it into this film? The Moon role would have been perfect for her and it isn't like she's turning anything down these days. I think I saw her as a back-up singer in an Alpo commercial last week. But I digress.
Mildly entertaining but mainly stupid. Anna Nicole, Steven Tyler, The Rock, not even James Woods could save this tepid tale. In the end, room temperature is all Be Cool could muster. No great loss...
Artist makes movie. Julian Schnabel wrote and directed the film version of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas' life. Arenas was born pre-Castro and joined the Mariel harbor boatlift 30 years later to escape Castro's oppressive (for gays and writers) regime. This is not a film about Castro's Cuba as much as it is a film about a gay artist trying to survive an oppressive culture.
It is a visually stunning film. An overhead shot of a dilapidated convent as a balloon lifts off for America and freedom is breathtaking. Some of the most dramatic moments are entirely without dialogue. Schnabel makes full use of his medium as a filmmaker. The only thing missing was Lucy, to "splain" what Reinaldo was saying. At the risk of seeming politically incorrect, I couldn't understand a good percentage of what was being said.
Before the film started we overheard the party of the4 first part asking the party of the second, "Did you see the original?" "No," came the answer, "who's in it?" "Same cast as this one," came the nonsense reply. We exchanged privately rolled eyes and settle in. Well, it would appear that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were, in fact, reprising their roles as Jesse and Celine from nine years earlier. And the story is about a couple who met nine years ago and get another chance to see if it works. He's married, though, and she's involved with another. But they speak the same lovers language and so there's hope. Hawke is at his Taking Lives best as charming in Before Sunset as Costa was terrifyiing in Taking Lives. Hawke's is an enormous talent that will out sooner or later. The other enormous talent in this film is Richard Linklater. Here is that rarest of all directors, one with a fresh vision. From Slacker to School of Rock Linklater has something original to say and he unfailingly entertains us in the process. My only complaint is his seeming reluctance to work. But maybe that's what keeps his vision fresh and clear. Interestingly, the screenplay credits him, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. A scene here and there appeared to be ad-libbed. Hawkes facial expression when he's hugged by Delpy to test his theory that he'll fly apart belongs in the non-verbal acting hall of fame along with Patricia Arquette in Bringing Out the Dead and Jennifer Connoly in House of Sand and Fog. Before Sunset ends courageously, surprisingly and full of the best kind of hope, hope for us all. God Bless you Tiny Tim, pass the cranberry sauce!
Still more evidence that a superior cast does not, in itself, make a movie. Albert Finney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Bryan F. O'Byrne and Ethan Hawke make for an imposing lineup. They are all brilliant, of course, and O'Byrne, Hawke and Hoffman stand out. The story, though, starts out dark and turns black. None of the characters engender any sympathy from us, though, except maybe Ms. Tomei. Her character is so sketchy, though, one wonders if director Sydney Lumet is a misogynist. A previous film, The Verdict, had Charlotte Rampling getting punched out by Paul Newman. His 1957 film, 12 Angry Men, doesn't have a woman in it. Not the point I suppose but then we have to search for one in Before the Devil Knows. Dismally depressing work with only flashes of acting brilliance to redeem it. Not enough.
The statue of Mary overlooking the Bosnian countryside appears with half her face blown away. Later she'll have a tank shell puncture a hole in her heart. Don't worry, I'm not giving anything away, Mary is not the object of Gene Hackman's rescue efforts, Owen Wilson is. He's been shot down by the dirty nasty evil despicable mean low down worthless hated hating sniper-filled ranks of the horrible disgusting murdering raping soul-less Godless double-crossing tricky Bosnians.
Not that this movie is light on character development or heavy on stereotypes. Gene Hackman plays an indecisive and somewhat confused and bumbling Navy Admiral who also happens to be the Commanding Officer of all the ships in the Adriatic as well as his very own flagship aircraft carrier. Maybe the Navy's use of aluminum cookware has hastened the onset of Alzheimer's and no one in the command structure has noticed yet.
The camera work can only be described as spastic. One scene actually has a camera strapped to Owen Wilson's midsection and pointed at his face. You may know the shot, it's the one usually reserved to illustrate madness or paranoia. The background shifts while the subject's head remains apparently fixed. Another has a camera affixed to the catapult launcher. Most of the shots of Owen Wilson eluding the bad bad bad guys are done with ground level hand held. Really bouncy. I felt like I was "on the run" too. Most captivating!
The most remarkable thing was that the theater was nearly full. At 2 PM on a Saturday a week after release. Well, we are at war after all. Might as well go see a movie about good Americans abused by bad foreigners. Makes me feel better, that's for sure.
So, we find a portal that leads to John Malkovitch's head and we get to see the world through his eyes. As one of us is a puppeteer we learn we can control him. Our wife recognizes her "true" gender when she inhabits his body. She conceives her daughter through John with her lover, the puppeteer's business partner and unwilling love interest. The puppeteer takes over John full time and the business partner/wife's lover dumps the wife, choosing John/puppeteer and his earning potential. Meanwhile, the puppeteer's boss is preparing to enter and take over John's body for good on his 44th birthday (along with a dozen or so good friends). As they make their way to John's head on the eve of the 44th birthday, the puppeteer somehow enters the unborn child (his wife and lover's child through John). Then, the movie ends.
OK, I think I got it. Be who you are, if you know who that is. Assume another's identity if you don't. Wait a minute, isn't that The Talented Mr. Ripley?
Just in case anyone forgot, Annette Bening can so act. In fact, in this period piece from the rarefied world of the London stage circa 1933, she stages a performance strong enough to warrant more than one Best Actress nomination. Based on a Somerset Maugham story of obsessive love and revenge, Being Julia is as literate a script as we are likely to see this year. Being Julia opens with the now dead Jimmy Langton (Michael Gambon of Lyndon fame) lecturing our heroine on stagecraft fundamentals. Langton is her counselor throughout and lends an odd surrealism to a film that plays with the border between reality and theater. Julia's son accuses her of playing mother as if it were a role. We hear her give the same impassioned "don't leave me" speech to two different lovers. She is the consummate actress of her time and doesn't cope well with the challenge to her status posed by the young Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch). Ms. Crichton is moving in on more than Julia's stage, though, and one too many boundaries are violated setting the two on a collision course. The final scene perfectly harmonizes the "real" world and the theater as Julia brings the young Ms. Crichton's world crashing down around her in an extravaganza of revenge and satisfaction.
For those raised on MTV and crippled by a fifteen second attention span, Being Julia will seem an interminable set-up. The wait is essential and well worth it as we get to know Julia and identify with her plight to keep up with a world spinning out of her control. She catches up only briefly and for one last magnificent moment becomes its master. Would that we can all be Julia once before we surrender.
Bend It Like Beckam 07.01.03
I went to see Bend It Like Beckham for the same reasons I saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it was out forever. Not that I was avoiding either film. I've been to see less movies since my back worsened so I'm more selective. That doesn't explain Darkness Falls Darkness Falls, but hey, we all have our peccadilloes.
Bend It may only be the ninth "foreign family in Britain struggles against aculturization of their children" but the theme it all too familiar. Not that there's anything wrong with a film being of genre, of course, but we need something to distinguish one from the other. Big Fat had Toula Portokalos and Bend It has Parminder K. Nagra, both so full of life and personality they push everyone else off screen. Bend It was delightful for her presence but not much beyond. A Sikh wedding cross-cut with an English soccer game was a high point as was Joe's (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) response to Jesminder's (Parminder) accusation that he wouldn't know what it was like to be called a "Paki." "I'm Irish," he says, and we all understand.
Writer director Gurinder Chadha resurfaces after two years (her last film What's Cooking was another culture based comedy/drama), and her directorial skills remain sharp. We look forward to her moving beyond the culture clash formula. So many stories, so few storytellers...
Nicole Kidman is the teflon covered actress, nothing bad ever sticks to her. As in the TV show within this movie based on a TV show, Samantha (Kidman) scores in the nineties when everyone else barely registers. She is worth watching even in the worst of films, and this is that. And that is that.
Unfortunately it seems this film is being marketed to the Christian community. It opened in Oklahoma City of all places (the film company offices there) and imdb.com has no record of it on their normally comprehensive website. I say unfortunately because everyone should see this film. I knew nothing of the story and that's the way you should see this film. It's the way all films should be seen, actually. We sat through a preview the other day for some inane children's movie and now have no reason to see it. Some lonely girl adopts a big dog and wins the hearts of the cold villagers. I think we saw at least one scene from every act. Why go see something we have for all intents and purposes already seen? I did go see Sideways a second time and liked it better than the first. The first time I was too upset by the awful behavior of the two principal characters and I let it taint the rest of the experience. The second time I was able to enjoy the performances more and Giamatti is phenomenal. I stopped for a minute on a film he did with Ed Burns and he was equally mesmerizing. Since he's not tall and handsome, though, we aren't likely to see him in a lead role nearly as often as we should. But I digress.
Beyond the Gates is an entirely surprising film of profound import. The true story of five missionaries to Ecuador in the 1950's and the aftermath of their encounter with what we are told are the world's most violent primitive peoples, Beyond the Gates is told through the eyes of the wives, children and friends of the five. I've recently lamented over what seems to me to be the sorry state of modern Christianity. Lurching between hellfire and unlimited wealth, this faith's most vocal proponents seem ever more divorced from the message their founder delivered. The majority of the followers seem rather consumed with matters of sex or the apocalypse and far too few are focused on loving people. But that's just the view from here and more than once I've been labeled a curmudgeon, or worse. I digress again. But with good reason. You don't want to know what happens in this magnificent testament to the unimaginable power of love, just go see it and be changed.
Assuming the stories of Kevin Spacey's obsession with bringing Bobby Darin's life to screen are true, the explanation for his obsession failed to materialize in the telling of the story. Not that Darin's life wasn't special, it was. His classic Mack the Knife is one of the great popular songs of all time. Although he didn't pen such magnificent phrases as "scarlet billows" or "just-a oozing life," he did phrase them in a brilliant jazz style that makes this tune indelible at first listening. His multiple top ten hits elevated him from one hit wonder status and his Academy Award nomination placed him in a rare category of cross media smash hits. The personal tragedy that drove him into isolation was something out of One Life to Live and the love of family and friends that brought him back was genuinely heartening. In spite of the fame, melodrama, and redemption that made Darin's life unusual, it is still hard to fathom Spacey's maniacal focus. Darin's life is interesting, certainly, but I never did see the compelling or enlightening truth that would justify the extraordinary lengths and risks Spacey took in bringing the story to life. Not that it matters.
Judging the film strictly on its merits I would have to say it is a smashing success. What makes it a success is Darin's infectious tunes and Spacey's decision to make a quasi-musical. Early on we are treated to a dance number a la Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, not as athletic perhaps, but with at least as many dancers in colors at least as Technicolor bright. Somehow escaping the hokeyness factor (again, Darin's music?), the dance numbers are fun and energetic. Spacey's rendition of Darin's music is uncanny, he is a brilliant mime, and although I've previously remarked I'd rather have the real thing than an uncanny imitation (Ray), watching Spacey do Darin was great. Sadly, Kate Bosworth (Darin's wife Sandra Dee)wasn't. I didn't notice her in Blue Crush either but then maybe it's her fate to be paired with phenoms like Spacey and Michelle Rodriguez (from Blue Crush). I promise I'm not pretty prejudice, I think Paz Vega and Kate Beckinsale are both great actors in spite of their overpowering good looks. Bob Hoskins, John Goodman, Brenda Blethyn and especially Caroline Aaron as Nina are strong in their roles and help keep Spacey from looking alone in his brilliance.
The final credits give us an update on the major players and interestingly tell us of Darin's limo driver step-father, Charlie. Makes one more than a little curious about the relationship between the heirs to Darin's estate and Charlie. Son Dodd works in the music business, wife Sandra Dee never remarried and "remains in love with Bobby to this day."
In what is surely an unfortunate coincidence, Beyond the Sea borrows the narrative vehicle from Irwin Winkler's De-Lovely. Both open with the subject (Cole Porter in De-Lovely) involved in producing a film of their life. Not the first time this method was used but maybe the first time two major biographical films used it in the same year. Also in common, both films tend to lose focus and finally fail to present a cohesive picture of their subject. Finally, both films thoroughly entertain, an accomplishment that likely would have satisfied both these demanding artists.
The Big Bounce 02.01.04
Interspersed between aimless scenes and gratuitous body shots of Sara Foster (failed co-hostess of MTV's failed spin-off of Entertainment Tonight) are some lovely shots of big Hawaiian waves. Sara Foster is pretty cute, "in a slutty sort of way" (one of Charlie Sheen's lines) and Owen Wilson is pretty funny, but nothing, really nothing could save this movie. It was horrible in 1969 and horrible 35 years later. Gary Sinise, Morgan Freeman, Willie Nelson, Bebe Neuwirth, Harry Dean Stanton, and even NFL Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett couldn't lift this entirely stupid bunko comedy out of the cinematic muck from which it originated.
The attraction of the bunko film is in seeing how the bad guys trick the good guys. It's about clever. The Big Bounce wasn't clever. It was so stupid, in fact, that I couldn't tell what happened. I don't think seeing it again would help. Maybe I could read the book but it just wouldn't be worth it. If I hadn't promised myself to write a review of every movie I went to see I wouldn't even bother writing about it. In fact, now that I've made good on my promise...
Big Fish 01.03.04
I read a couple of really different books recently, The Life of Pi and Vernon God Little. Vernon God Little is a first person narrative by a new millennium Holden Caulfield and is both deeply disturbing and brilliantly captivating. Life of Pi is an altogether different first person narrative of a young boy shipwrecked with a tiger, zebra, and ape. Pi explores an alternative reality and the enrichment of experience through imagination. Big Fish follows the Life of Pi model and presents the life of one Ed Bloom through his imaginative eye. The ever charismatic Albert Finney plays Ed in old age, Ewan McGregor the young Ed and Billy Crudup his long suffering and less imaginative son Will. Steve Buscemi, Helena Bonham Carter, and Jessica Lange support the story in a big way. Buscemi's best scene is at the end of the film. We hear no dialogue and we see a highly animated Buscemi relate a story to others. It is an accomplished and awesome display of Buscemi's acting prowess. Jessica Lange is perfect as Bloom's great love and wife and Carter has two roles, one as a witch and one as a sad woman. She is superior. The film belongs to Finney and McGregor though and they are scintillating.
The heart of the story is young Will's struggle to know his father. Dad, it seems, has spun tall tale after tall tale and now, at the end, Will wants to know who his father really is. Tim Burton masterfully creates another world on screen and peoples it with strange and wonderful creatures. We feel right at home with this odd klatch of characters, though, and that is the magic at which Tim Burton is so adept. As a bonus, we get to mull over truth and fiction and even choose which one we will have. Life can be infinitely rich or infinitely poor, Burton tells us, and we get to choose. A remarkable gift and one we almost always fail to appreciate.
Kevin Spacey finally gets to make his movie. Sad guys trying to scrape some meaning out of a hard, demeaning life. Pauses in dialogue just like real life. Is it only playwrights that can capture dialogue, or are screenwriters working from a different set of rules? A young kid zealous for the Lord being told he has no character, at all. He won't until he regrets something. "I have to do something and then regret it to have character," he asks? "You've done plenty you should regret, you just don't know enough yet to regret any of it," Phil responds. Peter Facinelli as the born-again, he was the evil space guy from Supernova, holds his own with Kevin Spacey (Larry) and Danny DeVito (Phil), at the top of their form. An effective and effecting study of men at work and life.
Big Trouble 04.16.02
Of the twenty good laughs in this film, twelve are in the trailers. A shame because seen fresh, this would be a really funny movie. As it is, the most common reaction is a wry smile because I already know the punch line. It must take an awful cynic in marketing and promotion to rip off all the good gags in a film and paste them up as teasers in the trailer.
Billy Elliot 10.29.00
England sure looks like a miserable place to live. Everybody on strike all the time. People knocking back pints and relieving themselves almost anywhere. Intolerance seems to be the national pastime. They can, in spite of, or maybe because of their misery and meanness, produce some wonderful films. Billy Elliot is one. Jamie Bell plays Billy Elliot, an eleven-year-old motherless child who turns from boxing, at which he is hopeless, to dance, at which he is gifted. His father is a miserable mine worker who is "not what you'd call an expert" at the dance. His brother barely speaks to him and when he does it isn't pretty. Billy perseveres and, with the help of Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), learns the ballet. Billy occasionally dances out his rage and frustration and those scenes are remarkable for their energy and passion. A letter his mom wrote when she knew she wouldn't be around urges him above all to be himself. Billy manages to heed that advice without the dreadful introspection so many of us feel called to. In his penultimate moment he is confronted with his father's glaring, and slightly frightening disapproval. He can think of nothing to say and so he dances. Furiously and gloriously. He is who he is and nothing can change that. The alternative is collapse and capitulation.
It was ten minutes if it was one. Close up shot of Anna (Nicole Kidman) later that evening at the symphony as she begins to process the dawning belief that the ten-year-old boy claiming to be the reincarnation of her dead husband Sean may be just that. The radiating power emanating from the screen is overwhelming. The list of actors capable of sustaining that level of wordless emotional power is short indeed. Still shorter is the list of actors capable of pulling off the conceit that supports Birth. Director Jonathan Glazer half lights the entire film and adeptly helps us forget his camera. No trendy hand-helds here, no jump cuts to manufacture tension, Glazer allows his actors to tell this taboo tale. Unwilling to shrink from the obvious problems presented by a ten-year old reincarnate, Birth charges straight into them as young Sean (Cameron Bright) climbs into the bath with Anna. One of the more complex challenges is getting us to empathize with Anna. If we don't, Birth slips over the edge. Not everyone did as evidenced by one man's mumbled "what a waste of talent" as he led his wife from the theater. Lauren Bacall as Anna's mother and Anne Heche as Anna's sister-in-law certainly lend credence to the talent portion of disgruntled's comment as does a surprisingly understated performance from Peter Stormare. Cameron Bright does his part to tame the taboo by playing a ten-year-old as if he were sixty. The heavy lifting, though, was Kidman's to do and do she did in a performance of mesmerizing power and passion.
Birthday Girl 02.12.02
I guess it was when Nadia (Nicole Kidman) settled into the yard for a good old American picnic, Russian/English dictionary in hand, that the fear began to take hold. When John (Ben Chaplin) saw Nadia throwing up in the police station bathroom and was shamed over doubting her good intentions, the fear burst forth. I leapt from my second row seat, threw my arms in the air and hollered, "Oh my God, they're in love!" At least I should have. I mean, really. You gotta hear this. John, poor geek banker with a backfiring, smoking car, hooks up with a Russian bride wanna-be. Blushing bride turns out to be a serial extortionist working with her lover and his friend. The boys threaten to disfigure lovely Nadia and so John, the local mediocre bank supervisor with keys to the vault, agrees to buy them off. He goes to work the next day carrying two, not one, two, empty guitar cases. He fills them up with cash while his boss and the visiting honcho play "trust and let go" with the bank's morale guru. He runs several blocks carrying two, not one, two, guitar cases filled with cash. Alarms and sirens awaken all but the police in this quiet little British burg. Once he delivers the cash, he finds out he has been had. Then, when Nadia tells her boyfriend, the hardened criminal, that she's pregnant, he gasps, runs to the bathroom and decides to leave her.
Stay with me here, this is where it gets good. John wriggles free from his bonds, finds Nadia tied up in the next room. He's pretty mad at her so he hits her, she hits him. Together, they drive off to the police station to turn her in. Cue the throw-up scene. Spend thirty minutes in the blissful blush of new love and now, you better sit down for this, John finds and knocks out the boyfriend with a guitar, steals back the money and the two of them head off to Russia together. And they live happily ever after.
Ach die liber! Is this Scooby Doo? What on God's good earth could make anyone but a half-wit green light such a debacle? I want names. Heads will roll!
Or at least they should.
White, middle and upper class teens assuming hip-hop personas. Yet another film about identity. Like the chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy, characters regularly remind us what this film is really about. Above and behind the action (spurned lover becomes NYC detective and goes after ex-lovers new interest) we are reminded to be true to ourselves. None of the characters in this drama know themselves well enough to follow that advice. Beyond the obvious artificial personas adopted by the white kids, we see every other character from two sides. Claudia Schiffer (whose acting is on a par with Christie Brinkley's dancing) comes closest to consistency of character. Every one else can't seem to make up their mind about who they are. The DA can't decide if he wants to disown his children or help them, the basketball star can't decide if he's a crook, the gangster can't decide if he wants to be a good guy, the rapper can't decide if white people are bad or good, and the gay husband can't decide if he should stay in his pretend marriage.
Is this a tale of two personalities? Does the young white hip-hop wanna-be nail it with her plaintive plea for permission to pretend? Or, is this a more meaningful movie? Do we see duality in the mirror? Are we both sides simultaneously? Are we the murderer and the coach? Are we the lover and the betrayer? Perhaps the cop holds the answer. He "turns his life around" to become a NYC detective targeting the very people he used to be. In the process, he uses his new position to gain revenge on his ex-lover and her new beau. He seeks redemption by extorting a father's love for his son. He duplicity avails him not and he ends up alone and miserable.
The only cathartic character to emerge victorious is the murderer. Is this a message? Or, is this another example of a storyteller oblivious to the moral? What possible moral can there be in this ironic twist? I fear, if asked, the author of this tale like too many of his characters, would merely shrug.
Black Hawk Down 01.25.02
I have rarely been so uncomfortable in a theater as I was watching Black Hawk Down. Much like I felt watching Ridley Scott's other great films, Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, White Squall, and Gladiator. As if a great cloud of doom were approaching from above and behind, inexorably bearing down, bringing horror, pain and death. Black Hawk Down is the story of a military mission gone horribly wrong. I read recently that what went wrong with our attempt to capture two of the top lieutenants of the reigning warlord in famine stricken, civil war ridden Somalia was that the elite Delta force was not allowed to operate in their normal mode but was, instead, ordered to work in tandem with Army Rangers. The Delta Force would have executed this mission with less than twenty men, at night, with stealth and surprise. Instead, they were ordered to perform in daylight with a massed force of helicopter gunships screaming across Somalia's capital city Mogadishu. As a result, the entire Somalian militia was waiting for the hundred plus soldiers as they made their attempt to extract their prisoners.
One of the Delta Force sergeants (the extraordinary actor Eric Bana) explains to first time combatant Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) that it's really all about the man next to you. When the first bullet goes whizzing by you, all the politics goes right out the window, he says. Ridley Scott's direction is something akin to that first bullet. Try as you might to make this about Washington or fumbled opportunity or evil warlords, this movie quickly becomes about these guys surviving the firefight. The "fog of battle" has never been so sickeningly illuminated. Confusion reigns and death waits around every corner. This is a gripping and ghastly experience and one that no one should miss.
Blade II 03.26.02
Ghastly. The word rolled around my head like the ball on a roulette wheel, finally settling into 2-red. The latest nightmarish creature to emerge from the vile and twisted comic-book-horror-immersed minds of the current generation of movie makers took to the screen yesterday and is now firmly ensconced in the delicately etched rivulets left by the amino acids of memory. Oh but for one more electric or insulin induced shock treatment to flatten those channels forever and remove the horrific images scarring the otherwise pristine plateau that is my brain. Like the soon to be unleashed Jason X, Blade II has taken an altogether terrifying apparition and pumped it up with steroids and recombinant DNA to present an even more terrifying apparition. These vampires don't just bite into the jugular vein and drink their fill, their lower jar opens like an overripe melon to present a tenacled, neuro-toxin carrying, piranha-toothed tongue that latches onto the victim's neck and... well you get the picture. I wish I hadn't.
Juxtaposed against this awful super-vampire, though, is a kinder, gentler vampire, willing to make a deal with Blade to defeat their new mutual enemy. They come with cool wet suits and neat goggles and all the latest martial art moves. We learn of a Vampire Nation with a very old vampire leader, a ruling council, and a huge corporate headquarters guarded by about a zillion wet suited humans all pointing laser guided rifles at anyone brave enough to land on the Vampire Nation helicopter pad. Blade gets a love interest, the exquisite Chilean actress, Leonor Varela. Kris Kristofferson reprises his role as Whistler although he looks like Whistler's Mother after an all night drink and drug fete. He reminds me of a hip, hick Jack Palance, too old to be behaving the way he does. Kris and Burt Reynolds both need someone in their lives to tell them how bad they look, Burt from too much sculpting and Kris from too little.
The action sequences are well choreographed and Wesley Snipes carries the character well. It is not his fault that Blade has utterly no sense of humor. The flash and disintegrate effect whenever he shoots a vampire with his silver bullet automatic pistol looks great but was done to distraction.
Guillermo del Toro directs Blade II and keeps the action and plot moving quickly. He is a masterful director as evidenced by the evocative horror of The Devil's Backbone. His apprenticeship in special effects makeup goes a long way to explain his preoccupation with ghastly creatures. We are even treated to a super-vampire autopsy reminiscent of the original Alien.
Where to go from here for Blade? Blade III maybe? With Lil Bow-Wow as Blade's long lost bastard son? Cool!
The last time David S. Goyer teamed up with Wesley Snipes and Natasha Lyonne the world was treated to ZigZag, the story of an autistic child thief. Goyer is better known, to the extent that he is known at all, as the author of Kickboxer 2, The Puppet Masters, Demonic Toys, and Puppet Master versus Demonic Toys. No kidding. Oh, and Blade, the original screenplay based on the Marvel comic of the same name. And Blade II. Lest you think me cruel, pay careful attention to the liberal use of obscenities in Blade: Trinity. Now I'm all for obscenity, properly applied cursing can be funny, dramatic, useful, even essential. But the cussing in Blade: Trinity sounds like a young boy away at camp for the first time. Either Mr. Goyer has only recently moved out from mom's house or he is deliberately pandering to the fourteen year old boys in the audience. And doing it in such a way as to render the dialogue simultaneously silly and stupid. I don't mind not being in the target audience for a film but even Beavis and Butthead includes some material for adults.
Parker Posey is delightful as the particularly evil vampiress Danica Talos. Her sneer is as rich as her dialogue is poor. Ms. Posey does her best to vamp up her character to meet the script but she isn't on screen enough to overcome the dead weights of her dialogue and that dynamic duo of acting prowess - Kris Kristofferson (Whistler) and Wesley Snipes (Blade). Jessica Biel (Whistler's daughter) and Ryan Reynolds (ex-vampire Hannibal King) attempt to inject some forward thrust into this leaden narrative but she's too dramatic and he's too silly to do much more than account for a lurch here and a veer there.
Not that it matters, the story has a clatch of vampires waking up the vampire singularity Drake (Dominic Purcell) to help them get rid of the pesky Blade once and for all. They devise a tricky plan to get Blade to kill a human and so pop up on the human authorities radar screen. The FBI is good for another fifteen minutes of story. Add that to the ten minutes of Whistler's daughter, the five minutes of Braile reading by Natasha Lyonne, and a swashbuckling sword fight near the end and before you know it you've shot a good thirty minutes. Blow up some buildings, feature one of your heroines developing a vampire hunting playlist on her IPOD and it's a wrap. Cut. Print.
Blair Witch draws its terror from a vehicle first introduced in Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Texas Chainsaw opens with a demented pair accosting some poor waif manning the late shift at the local radio station. Leatherface (a leather mask-wearing, chain saw-wielding monster of a man walks through the door chainsaw in hand and buzzing) begins the chase that will last throughout the movie. Twenty minutes into TCM the terror is introduced and then held at fever pitch for the balance of the movie. Terror had, until this time, been introduced suddenly and dramatically or as the culmination of an extended suspense building effort. Terror was used as a device in film, but not the film vehicle itself. When Leatherface begins his pursuit of TCM's heroine, plot development stops. The balance of the film, as with Blair Witch, is given over to shrieking or shivering terror.
The devices used in scary movies are relatively few in number. The major categories are: (1) the gradual development leading to penultimate scene or scenes (The Birds or The Exorcist); (2) periodic, unexpected scares followed by relative normalcy (The Entity); (3) regular, recurring horror (Nightmare on Elm Street); and the newest, (4) extended terror (Blair Witch).
The first category requires the greatest skill as a filmmaker. Story and character reign supreme. Hitchcock's films are examples of this category at its finest. Rear Window could end before Raymond Burr comes to call on Jimmy Stewart and it would remain an outstanding film. Burr's maniacal attack merely caps what had been, until that point, a thoroughly entertaining film. These are great films that happen to be very scary. The Exorcist falls into this category. Gaslight is another fine example of this type. Tremendous depth of character and story leading to a terrifying crescendo played out between husband and wife.
The second category also requires significant plot development, but the film maker may tend to rely on the periodic introduction of terror to keep the audience interested. Barbara Hershey's struggle as a single parent provides little more than a backdrop for the terror that periodically assaults her in The Entity. Without that horror, this film would drop to a TV Movie of the Week. The measure of this category is found in a review of the characters. Special effects rather than character dominate this story.
The Nightmare on Elm Street category requires little more than the presence of good and evil characters (or forces) regularly interacting. Characters become caricatures and plot is subsumed to horror scene after horror scene. It is from this sub-genre that slasher films were born. When the technology that made Deep Impact's world shattering scenes is redirected to guts and gore, the realism may be too much for even the hardest audience. This sub-genre has unfortunately given rise to torture porn (Hostel, Saw ad nauseum). One can only hope its arc is short and low.
The fourth and newest category requires the least imagination but more skill than either the periodic scare or recurring horror. To maintain unrelenting terror without resorting to gore or mayhem requires creative use of the camera (the extreme close-ups of Blair Witch) while knowing how far audience tension can be stretched without breaking (the heated coat hangar as comic relief from Texas Chainsaw).
Armed with this knowledge, the moviegoer can fend off the heart stopping shock that previously came as a surprise. Unless, of course, the movie is any good at all, in which case the popcorn still goes flying and the date still ends with her knowledge that you are, at your very core, a scardy cat.
I think I've always thought we would be better off with women in charge. Women have so much more sense, so much less blind bravado. But patriarchal we are and patriarchal we will likely remain. Not because the latest two samples of women as leaders are so problematic, Hillary with her stubborn unwillingness to recognize a loss when staring vertically at it (staring vertically - a loverly turn of phrase used by some nameless British financial analyst referring to the glob of twisted derivatives we once called our financial system), or Palin, the result of a bar so lowered her calculated ignorance is called folksy, but because t has always been so. The most interesting part of The DaVinci Code I thought was the polarization visited on the two key female figures of the Bible, Mary Mother of God, saint, virgin and Mary Magdalene, whore. No place here for complex figures, no noble King David with his dark side, no Moses with his stammering, just saint or trash.
Jose Saramago would appear to agree. His novel, Blindness, serves as the basis for the film starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Sonia Braga's niece Alice Braga. Julianne Moore once bristled at questions about her role as an incestuous mother in Savage Grace because the questioner opened with, "As a mother…" Big mistake. Since she hadn't heard too many "as a father" queries of her co-stars she told the reporter, "I resent your question…" and explained why.
The film leaves her as the only sighted person in a world gone blind. The second female lead is a very strong Alice Braga as a prostitute who opts to wear dark glasses even before she is struck blind. The men are either ineffectual, evil, or old and pathetic. The society quickly dissolves into a Lord of the Flies culture where food and sex are the only currency.
Blood Diamond 12.16.06
I've expended no small effort to come to grips with the enormous contradictions that make up Africa. Hollywood has mined the continent for decades and almost always from the perspective of the white visitor. Blood Diamond appears to attempt to balance that tired perspective with a white smuggler from South Africa (Leonardo DiCaprio), a black Sierra Leonian (Djimon Hounsou) fisherman and a big hearted white journalist (Jennifer Connelly). Directed by Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai and I Am Sam ), two grossly manipulative spectacles), the stage is set for another Afrexploitation film. Instead, Blood Diamond is everything but the cheesy teaser it might have been. It is riveting, intelligent, passionate, and satisfying. Just in time for Christmas we get a close up look at the blood diamonds generated by African failed and failing states. A taste of what is to come as more African states collapse under the weight of the dead and the dying. AIDS is the latest in a seemingly unending stream of disasters saddling the Dark Continent. It will rival Colonialism in its power to destroy civilizations. Blood Diamond introduces us to what man has in store for Africa. Compelling and horrific, it instructs and inspires as even heroism makes a surprise appearance before the final admonition.
There must be an interesting story behind this one. Some convoluted contractual obligation or some favor called in or a late night voodoo session that worked. How could Michael Madsen and Ben Kingsley agree to appear in this dreadful film? Michelle Rodriguez is young and still looking for work so she I could understand. But Sir Ben? Does he have a gambling habit we don't know anything about?
Vampires and pseudo vampires and circus sideshows with a couple dozen exploding blood bags and some gratuitous breasts do not a feature film make. I stayed for the whole thing and then stopped by Hostel (brought to you by Quenton T don't you know) for five gruesome minutes. An excuse for torture displays does not a film make either. Once safely home I looked at a chat room on Hostel and found several people claiming to be torture victims who cite this film as either a source of psychic pain relief or their only source of stimulation. After reading their posts I took a long shower and laid down for a nap. I dreamt of being chased. You know the dream, everything you do is slow motion and the threat is hazy but terrifying. Thank you producers of these two truly bad films, you have invaded my dreams. "Depart, I command you." (Holy water splash, holy water splash, Bible thrust into the air a la Max Von Sydow). "Come Holy Spirit, come." OMG, my whole life is borrowed from film!
Clint Eastwood's latest choice of material has him playing a retired FBI agent, heart transplant patient, and crime scene detective par excellence. He's good with a shotgun, better with a thirty-eight, and irresistible to the ladies. One can only hope the variations on the misunderstood and mistreated cop theme are finite. Reminds me of an editorial in Sunday's paper. A policeman confesses his anger toward those in society critical of law enforcement. He is particularly upset with those in the media who "overblow" police misconduct. A good hearted fellow, no doubt, but if he wants to be the poster child for the racially unbiased, excessive force eschewing law enforcement officer we are to take for the norm, it concerns me more than a little when he goes to such lengths to inform the public how hard it is to restrain his anger toward those of us who no longer see every policeman as agents of our protection and service. But I digress.
Terry McCaleb's (Eastwood) transplanted heart becomes available when a young Hispanic mother of the year is senselessly gunned down in convenience store. Her sister Graciella (Wanda de Jesus) prevails upon our retired hero to come out of retirement barely sixty days after his transplant, and to the horror of his doctor (Anjelica Huston), to catch her sister's killer. Her sisters killer turns out to be a serial killer, not unlike the one McCaleb was chasing when he went down with the coronary that necessitated the transplant that came from the mother who was killed at about the same time McCaleb's time was about to run out. Sense a loop here? The two questions that sustain (albeit on a rickety life support system) this plot are, who is the killer and is McCaleb connected? We know the answer about two minutes in and can't believe it takes the lugs on screen so long to catch up. The fact that the killer speaks into the surveillance cameras after he commits his murders offered insufficient incentive to the dolts on the case to bring in a lip reader. Honestly. Things start to progress, though, when McCaleb brings KRISPY KREME donuts to the cops on the case. The three of them actually sit around the interrogation room chowing down on KRISPY KREMES for a full minute without any dialogue. Sometime in the last few years I had to start watching Coca Cola commercials before the previews and now this!?! But I digress.
The script is as bad as it gets. "I'll just see where (dead sisters) heart leads me," and "everything that was good in her is in that boy of hers" are actual lines from the script. No kidding. On page 132 of the screenplay you will find, "two guys sneak on board the boat in the middle of the night and McCaleb is awakened. He turns to Graciella (who waited until the second date and her nephew was asleep ten feet away in the next bunk to sleep with McCaleb) and in an ordinary speaking voice says, "stay here, someone's on the boat, I'm going to check it out."
Eastwood has acquired sufficient gravitas over the years to make this thing barely watchable while Jeff Daniels as marina mate and ne'er do well provides the only humor. That includes what was probably meant to be humor from an awful Paul Rodriguez as a bitter LAPD cop. "You better get an ass transplant because I'm going to tear you a new one," is another pathetic snippet of dialogue from this mess. The correct colloquialism here refers not to ass but a more specific part of the posterior. Not that there is anything wrong with it per se, but was the screenplay written by someone for whom English is a second language?
George (Johnny Depp) takes us from his from childhood with dad (Ray Liotta) through old age. We're not sure if he's narrating from beyond the grave or deathbed or Spanish villa and that question makes up most of the dramatic tension. I mean we have a drug dealer marrying a wild Columbian babe (Penelope Cruz) and pioneering the cocaine business in California in the 70's. What do you think the outcome will be? Will George retire into wealth and obscurity or will he OD or be shot by his boss Pablo Escobar or maybe the Jamaican mafia, or maybe just go to prison?
His true love (the stewardess/mule) dies of cancer early on and "everything changes," George tells us. I'm not sure what he means by "everything." Drugs (marijuana), money (thousands) and parole change to drugs (cocaine), money (millions) and prison. Now that was unexpected! Johnny Depp and Ray Liotta do change into older guys with the addition of pot bellies and some sort of cheap cake junk on their necks. Johnny Depp looks like an escapee from a two-bit horror flick at the end.
Some heavy handed and uncomfortable direction distracts as we see George and his new partner making prison plans for the future. I could swear I saw "foreshadowing" flashing in the bottom left hand corner of the screen. And was that Olivia Newton-John's "Let's get Physical" playing in the Penelope-and-Johnny-get-acquainted scene?
Blow Dry 08.17.01
Somebody help me out here. This film was released five months ago. It's already out on video and it shows up at the local theater as if it doesn't know it's been released already! What gives?
Blow Dry, a mix of sloppy sentiment and over-the-top outrageousness, stars Natasha Richardson as Shelly, Rosemary Harris as her mom Daisy, Rachel Griffiths as Shelly's ditzy girlfriend, Alan Rickman as Shelly's cuckolded husband Phil, Josh Hartnett (the Pearl Harbor hunk) as their son Brian, Rachael Leigh Cook as Josh's love interest and the delightful Bill Nighy as his Lordship the Mayor. The cast of Blow Dry is so enormously talented that even if this weren't a clever and original script by the same man who wrote The Full Monty, it would still be worth seeing. As it is, it is an entirely entertaining two hours of snickers and sobs. I haven't been so shamelessly manipulated since, since, well... ever!
Blue Crush 08.16.02
It is all about expectations.
I remember surf movies. Beach Blanket Bingo. Frankie and Annette on 4x4 platforms rocked gently side to side while a grip sprays a little water on the couple. Ocean projected behind them. "Sway left, now sway right, chin up Annette, up, up. Oh no, Mr. Avalon, you're perfect. Thanks everyone. Lunch."
Sure, Endless Summer was real. A Wide World of Sports on the big screen. Pretty sunsets, cool dudes. Dick Dale and the Deltones helped, but cameras on the beach with telephoto is as removed as smart bombers from concussion shockwaves. Not so Blue Crush.
The camera is under the board as it passes, leading Anne Marie (Kate Bosworth - Horse Whisperer, Remember the Titans) out of the pipe, left hand slicing through the wall of water for balance, looking up from below as tons of roiling water crash down from above, in the foam with Eden (Michelle Rodriguez - Girlfight, Fast and Furious, Resident Evil) as she searches for the submerged Anne Marie and fights to keep the jet ski from capsizing.
Anne Marie, Eden, and Lena (a funny and natural Sanoe Lake, real life Hawaiian surfer girl) spend their dawns surfing, their days cleaning up after the nasty guests at the islands ritzy hotel, and their nights helping little sister Penny (the hard-working - nine films in four years, fifteen-year-old phenom Mika Boorem) with her homework. Anne Marie is training for the big contest that can earn her a sponsor and get them all out of the shack they sleep in. Eden is her brooding self-appointed trainer.
Kate Bosworth does the part a great service by underplaying, Michelle Rodriguez continues to compel (the angry look is one scary treasure) and Sanoe Lake reminds of a young Penny Marshall. The script occasionally edges up to the smarmy but never crosses the line. The quarterback in town for the Pro Bowl represents the obligatory romantic interest. He looks a little small but so did Joe Montana. Anyway, the romance is a distraction, in the story and for us, the real story is the surfing and it dominates the film. Girl power versus the Banzai Pipeline. You go girl!
Well executed use of flashback. That's the only good thing about this movie. Eight breeders spend their free time drinking to excess and bemoan the lack of meaningful relationships in their lives. Sober up and maybe you'll get to know each other!
Plot - was it consensual or rape?
Sub-plot 1 - Can the weirdo in this group of weirdoes find acceptance?
Sub-plot 2 - Can the virgin maintain his virginity?
Sub-plot 3 - Will the only one with an admitted drinking problem get help?
Plot resolution - They were both too drunk to remember.
Sub-plot 1 resolution - yes, with a BDSM girl.
Sub-plot 2 resolution - no, he does it with sub-plot 3
Sub-plot 3 resolution - Nope.
Boiler Room 03.22.00
This is the story of a man, Seth, so desperate for a visible expression of love from his father that he abandons his well run and profitable business for a job more in keeping with what he thinks his father wants him to do. The well run business he abandons happens to be an illegal gambling house targeted at students. The job more in keeping with his fathers wishes is a stock swindling operation.
Seth's father, a judge, disowns him because he lies and then, a week later, offers to keep him out of trouble by making some phone calls to some shady contacts. Seth's supervisor at the stock swindling company turns on him (the most successful member of his "team") because Seth is sleeping with his ex-girlfriend.
Seth narrates the tale and, in the end, is simply off to find another job. On his way out the door he restores some poor schmuck's life savings and keeps his dad out of trouble with the FBI. What a hero. I hope I can grow up to be like him.
After all, if his dad had hugged him more he might have been a successful entrepreneur instead of a successful swindler. Wait a minute, isn't that Tom Cruise from Magnolia? And didn't Hitler's father beat him? Oh, now I get it, it dads fault! You know, come to think of it, my dad never played catch with me. Maybe I'll poison some dolphins!
Born in 1968 07.28.09
Does what comes come from what came? Oliver Martineau and Jacques Ducastel appear to answer this question in the affirmative in their nearly three hour epic tale of two generations of French gentle folk whose lives span the forty years from the Paris riots of 1968 to the election of Nicolas Sarkozy.
The redemptive power of love. Jack Nicholson played it to perfection in "As Good As It Gets." Ben Affleck doesn't. A selfish, self-absorbed and supremely successful Los Angeles advertising salesman (Ben) gives his first-class ticket away to a caring, considerate and awful author in order to sleep with Natasha Henstridge (she of Species I and II and The Whole Nine Yards) whom he just met in a bar. Do stunningly beautiful women actually check into hotels with total strangers they meet in airport bars? The awful author (his play opened and closed same night in Chicago) dies in the plane crash. Gentle Ben goes off on a six month bender because... he's so upset about almost dying? As part of his twelve-step recovery he goes to the author's wife's house to apologize for giving him the ticket that got him killed and falls in love with Gwyneth Paltrow. That's the first half hour. The next hour he spends working up the nerve to tell her who he really is. The last half hour we find out whether they work things out or not.
A Rottweiller attacks and only tears clothes. Natasha sleeps with a total stranger and a jerk. A completely self-absorbed ad salesman loses it because he escapes dying in an airplane crash. His young gay assistant isn't fired for confronting an owner of an ad firm in a bathroom. And in the most unbelievable of all constructs, Ben lives in a plexi-glass home on the beach at Malibu and has no tan.
OK, if you can get past all that, it is a good film. A date film. About the redemptive power of love.
What if you were a master spy, trained to kill and disappear without a trace? What if you could make it out if a US Embassy with fifty crackerjack US Marines on your tail? What if you could speak and read seven languages, tie a double overhead stevedore's knot and run half a mile full out before your hands began to shake? What if you were all that and woke up one day with amnesia, clueless, alone, and hunted? Where would you go?
The nearest book store, of course, where you'd buy the Collected Works of Franz Kafka and hope to figure out what happened. Well, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) would be one up on you, headed as he is to Paris with his new friend Marie (Franka Potente). Lucky Jason, well, sort of.
Whether there is any subtext in Robert Ludlum's tale about America's willingness to do the dirty work required of Kissinger's Real Politick while pretending to wear the white hat is pushed to the background by director Doug Liman's frenetic pace, stylish action sequences, and deft handling of suspense. Suspense of a type we usually see when we rent an old Hitchcock film. Multi-layered, complex, intellectual, primal and ultimately satisfying suspense.
Any lingering political undertones are thoroughly submerged in Damon's ever-charming demeanor and Potente's potent acting. We can only hope her leap across the pond is permanent. She was last here as a high school exchange student in Spring, Texas where she developed an unnatural craving for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and chili-cheese fries. I must give them another try - Reese's, not the chili cheese fries. The last time I saw chili-cheese fries was when Tara Lipinski walked past to take her seat on a Houston to LA flight. They weighed more than she did, at least at the time. But I digress.
One of the more attractive aspects of the Bourne Identity was Franka Potente and the romantic tension between Damon (Bourne) and her. She makes an early exit from The Bourne Supremacy and the film suffers as a result. It does recapture the suspense, the pace, the thrills, even the look of The Bourne Identity, but it moves closer to the pure action thriller than the more complex Bourne Identity. Not that either film is without daunting complexities. The theater should consider offering pens and pads with the popcorn.
Cinematographer Oliver Wood gave both films the same look, muted colors and never enough light. I could have done with a little less car chase and I don't think I'll ever be happy with the jerky close-up hand-helds and jump cuts in the big action sequences. At one point it looked like Bourne had melded his little taxi to the side of the Benz land cruiser while they both traversed a tunnel sideways, but maybe I'm just old.
Brian Cox, Julia Stiles, and Joan Allen were superior in their supporting roles and Matt Damon was perfect as the conflicted amnesiac Jason Bourne. My guess is Robert Ludlum has another twelve Bourne books in the offing but here's hoping we can end this one on the relative high note The Bourne Supremacy hits.
The Bourne Ultimatum 09.16.07
Well, it's finally over. Yet another shadowy evil figure rose up to replace the ones Bourne did away with in the first two installments. The final chapter is memorable for Matt Damon's wise move to minimalist actor. He is perfect for the role as he has been for most of his choices. The hint of romance between his character and Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) is as memorable as anything else in this well executed action drama as it is brilliantly underplayed by both actors. The rare example of a "franchise" film that didn't descend into the stupid or silly.
I put off seeing this for a long time assuming it was another Michael Moore vehicle that humiliates a bunch of dopey people because they're dopey or mean or trashy. It is exactly that, of course. We see some neer-do-wells in a pool hall bragging about their low lives and we see a vibrant Charlton Heston doing the "cold dead fingers" thing. Later, though, we see Heston at home talking with Moore and, as we now know, Heston suffers from Alzheimer's. The scene is very difficult to watch and Moore should have edited it if he knew.
The film is, however, much more than an indictment of gun nuts. Moore continually asks why Americans shoot so many Americans in contrast to other countries. We see some cheesy graphics detailing the number of gun deaths in England (67), Germany (111), Canada (24), and the US (11,345). As we all assume (I assume), it's because we have so many guns here. Intriguingly, Moore reveals that of the ten million families in Canada, seven million have guns. Heston, and others, suggest our propensity for murder has to do with our history, Indians and Civil War and all. Moore puts that to the lie, of course, by citing Germany. Blood all over those guys hands but hardly any gun deaths.
Unless I miss my guess, Moore is telling us it is the media. Local news programs make their living fostering fear. "If it bleeds, it leads," is, in fact, the dominant editorial disposition. Can this be? I started listening for it this week and it is certainly true that local news is all about scaring us to death. Fully half of the live spots on the local news were from in front of the trauma center or the Do Not Cross tape spanning somebody's yard. I can't quite get to shooting people from there but I think he's on to something.
Like watching one of those news stories about the child that starved to death or the old man in an Alzheimer haze who wandered into the path of a truck, this is a story that can only make you sad. A mean story of mean people and the destruction they bring. One of the acting jobs of a lifetime, to be sure. Some heavy handed direction (a little too much time lapse) and some continuity lapses distract (where did the baby go in the murder scene) but can't destroy a powerful story and overwhelming acting.
What about sexual identity makes men so crazy? Is it some deep-seated species propagation compulsion or just the terror of sex? Why aren't women as violently anti-gay as some men? Or are they? What possible difference could it make?
The Boys in the Band
AI was warned about this film. It was released almost forty years ago, 1970 to be exact. Hmm, 1970 - The Beatles released Let It be, Simon and Garfunkel gave us A Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Diana Ross claimed Ain't No Mountain High Enough, and The Kinks let us in on Lola's secret. Hollywood gave us Patton, Love Story, Five Easy Pieces, M*A*S*H, Women in Love, and Woodstock. Fellini released Satyricon just to remind us that movies were made outside California. In the world of print Dee Brown appraised us of our treatment of Native Americans in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Germaine Greer took us inside the besieged female psyche in The Female Eunuch, Julia Child used liberal doses of wine in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Charles Reich explained the counter-culture in The Greening of America and Alvin Toffler warned us things were moving way too fast in Future Shock.
Isn't it odd that in the same year mainstream media strove to catch up with the cultural revolution of the 1960's, an obscure off-off broadway play about six gay men struggled to be heard. We were ready to hear women hated men for making them hate themselves, ready to accept our genocidal treatment of our country's real ancestors, we were still coming to grips with the My-Lai and Kent State massacres, but first time playwright Mart Crowley was told he was crazy to think anyone would produce a play about gay men in New York City. Finally able to get Edward Albee to give a look (his play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf had made it all the way to the big screen four years earlier), The Boys in the Band was "workshopped" off off-broadway. Laurence Luckinbill (the bi-sexual Hank) knew they had a hit when only a week into production he saw several hundred gay men lined up for the less than one hundred seats in their tiny workshop theater. It played a year to sold out Broadway audiences. Author Crowley insisted the original Broadway cast reprise their roles in the film. Dominick Dunne agreed to co-produce and the ever ambitious William Friedkin, soon to be famous for the yet unrealized The French Connection and The Exorcist, signed on to direct. The works of Harold Pinter and David Mamet are immediately recognizable for their scintillating dialogue. It is fast and smart but has nothing on Mart Crowley's brilliant work, The Boys in the Band. The only thing dated about this movie is the vibrant colors of the costume and set. We're a bit more muted these days. A shame.
The Brandon Teena Story An audio tape is played for us about two thirds of the way through the documentary, The Brandon Teena Story. It is of the actual "interview" between a back woods country sheriff and Teena following her report of the beating and rape that preceded her murder at the hands of two bottom dwelling small time cons from Falls City, Nebraska on December 30, 1993. It is impossible to hear this recording without sharing the anguish of this poor tortured soul. In a barely audible voice she recounts the beating and rape, valiantly trying to protect what remains of her shattered self from the prurient prying of the monster that represented justice in this backwater community. I imagine reaching through the screen in a hopeless attempt to protect her from any more damage. Too late. Within seventy two hours she will be dead. Shot and stabbed to death by her rapists, along with a friend and a young man at the wrong place at the wrong time. For those who tell you the fictionalized account of Teena's story told in Boys Don't Cry, the film that introduced us to the unparalleled talent of Hillary Swank, packs a more powerful emotional punch, they must not know the difference between a punch and a knockout. Boys Don't Cry is a powerful punch, The Brandon Teena Story is a knockout. You awaken changed. The 10 year anniversary DVD of Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir's film is available this month.
If you want, this film can be about the sudden introduction of wealth beyond expectation and the resulting corrupting influence of that wealth. Or it can be about the chasm that separates us from our youth. Or even about the purity of love. But, in truth, this film is about homage. I could almost feel Humphrey Bogart confronting Mary Astor in the penultimate scene from The Maltest Falcom when Joseph Gordon-Levitt asks Nora Zehewtner if she wants the whole story or not. When she says yes we think we know the answer. But we don't. And that makes this noir new. And that hasn't happened in a while. Kudos to Gordon-Levitt as he is brilliant and obscure writer/director Rian Johnson - well done, well told.
When the so very odd Evelyn Waugh's masterwork Brideshead Revisited last appeared on screen the world was in the grip of a serious recession. The six-hour PBS version was a smashing success in 1981 in no small part because we were desperate for a little relief from a tattered reality. Nothing like a few long shots of a fabulous English country manor to take our minds off our paltry past-due mortgage. The big-screen version of Waugh's conflicted story of class warfare, stifling religion, suffocating mothers, and lost love spends most of its flashback in and out of the magnificent Brideshead, ancestral home of the shattered family of Flyte.
Patriarch Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) has long ago fled the judgmental Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) for the canals of Venice, pathetic brother Bridley spends his days collecting matchbooks, sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) floats about the edges of the manor, a self-proclaimed "family shadow," and brother Sebastian is in open revolt. Patterned after the androgynous Saint Sebastian (he's the pretty one penetrated repeatedly by arrows depicted in nearly as many Renaissance oils as Madonna - the real Madonna, not the one that made everyone wait hours for her show last month), Sebastian Flyte of Bridehead is a Christian martyr of a different sort.
Into this mess of a family wanders the hopeful Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) enamored of Sebastian, Brideshead, and Julia, in that order. Part artist, part social climber, part love-struck young man, Charles guides us through the canals of Venice, the magnificent halls of Brideshead, and the lives of a decadent English aristocracy in a vain search for...security? spirituality? status? sex? love? The only hint of an answer comes when Charles dips his atheist fingers into the holy water of the Brideshead chapel so he won't burn them when he reaches to snuff out the presence lamp (the candle that burns when consecrated bread or wine is present). Does he extinguish the light? Does he leave it burning? You'll have to watch all two plus hours of the new DVD release to know. Don't skip to the last scene, it's worth waiting (and watching) for.
Bridget (Renee Zelwegger) drinks and smokes too much, eschews heroin-chic and hates her job. She falls for the office jerk, her boss (Hugh Grant) and gets dumped for the younger waif-like girlfriend from New York. Things couldn't be much worse when her childhood playmate, a lawyer she hates (Colin Firth), announces he likes her "just the way she is." Things start looking up for Bridget. I thought I would have more trouble with Renee Zelwegger (she's from Texas) as a Brit than I did. Hugh Grant as a scummy low-life sex hound was perfect (wonder why?). Colin Firth is a huge talent and utterly convincing. The price of admission is worth it just for the scene of Renee Zelwegger drunk and lip syncing to some schmaltzy eighties love song. Good movie getting a bad rap for some occasional writing lapses.
If you've ever wondered whether American popular culture is all that different from popular culture of other times and places, compare the story and characters of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies (the novel upon which Steven Fry's Bright Young Things is based) with Brett Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero or American Psycho. Both tell the story of the disaffected youth of a still powerful yet decadent world power. Waugh's early twentieth century England compares to Ellis' late twentieth century America. Neither are political novels in the traditional sense as the reigning power structures serve as backdrop. The backdrop is crucial, though, as the characters are seen in relief against the corrupt and sterile society that spawned them. Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell) and Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer) are the above-it-all party creatures trying to work a marriage into their non-plans for the future. Their compadres are an interesting crew of favored children from youthful gossip columnist to the daughter of the Prime Minister. Things are not all fun and games, though, and life (and death) occasionally intrude on the party. Cocaine and booze abound but no one gets so carried away by their hedonism as to require rehab in the English countryside. Ellis' disenfranchised kids, on the other hand, express themselves in damaging drug addictions and murder and everyone is in need of some sort of rehab or another. The two pseudo countercultures and their protagonists, though, share the same search for relevance and meaning in their lives. Ellis' young simply have a longer road back than do Waugh's. American popular culture then, with more designer drugs and much faster cars has simply moved further down the road than their last century counterparts across the Atlantic. Nevertheless, I couldn't tell where Fry's vehicle was headed for the first half hour or so as party dissolved into party and idiosyncratic characters came one after another with little more than snappy dialogue shared between them. Once Simon Balcairn (the would be journalist played convincingly by James McAvoy) revealed his professional dilemma to Adam, though, the story suddenly leapt to life and we began to care about the fate of these bright young things.
Martin Scorsese directs. This alone makes Bringing Out the Dead worth seeing. The extraordinary directorial gifts Scorsese brings to cinema are always worth the price of admission. This movie, though, looked as though Scorsese were trying out some new technologies and testing some new effects. The face to profile cuts of Patricia Arquette talking about her father were different and they worked. The fast-forward, strobe filled ambulance scenes were different and they didn't. Nicholas Cage was certainly convincing as a burned out emergency tech as was Patricia Arquette as a struggling ex-junkie. The rest of the cast and most of the film were way over the top. The expression on Patricia Arquette's face when she asks Cage if everyone opens up to him was extraordinary. The thought that countless similar moments are lost to the edit room floor saddens. Ving Rhames delivers some inspired scenes as Cages's born-again driving partner. The music soundtrack reminded me of baseball's trendy five second snippets between batters, distracting and over loud. Scorsese plays the ambulance dispatcher, another distracting non-contributory affectation. This is a very busy film, way too busy.
I should start with what I have been telling those who have asked, "I felt like driving off a cliff after seeing this movie." Not really, I hasten to add, it's been done already by better people than I. Thelma and Louise took driving off a cliff to a new high. High can in no way describe the feeling one gets watching two of our most talented actors in a brilliantly realized screen version of a haunting short story by one of our most gifted authors. Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger will break any heart awake to love and longing. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana touch up Annie Proulx's masterpiece with appropriately sparse and painful dialogue. "Jack Twist, I swear," was as hard to hear as any line in recent memory.
Ang Lee brings the desolation and beauty of today's rugged west and the acting ensemble that includes Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams to searing life in a classic of unrequited love and loss.
Broken Flowers 08.19.05
One of the more striking aspects of Jim Jarmusch's latest effort, Broken Flowers, is the sharply defined narrative thread. Don Johnston (Bill Murray) reluctantly embarks on a quest for the author of a letter from one of many old girlfriends warning him that the nineteen year old son he didn't know he had is on the road looking for him. The film opens with Julie Delpy leaving an emotionally distant and directionless Don. I just bought the "extended cut" version of Stripes, Muray's 1981 classic, and notice it opens the same way. His girlfriend leaves an emotionally distant and directionless John Winger. After seeing two or three "extended" or "director's cuts" I think I'll opt for the theatrical releases from now on. From what I've seen so far someone should have emptied the trash after deleting. The episodic Broken Flowers has Don "checking-in" with former flames Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under dies tonight and if the new HBO Rome is no good I'm selling my TV), Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton. Tilda is his last stop and she is palpably scary as an aging biker chic with a chip the size of Saturn. Her three minutes on screen are the high point of the film. Like most Jarmusch vehicles, Broken Flowers leaves us with a feeling; it is the gestalt that matters here, not the crescendo (there isn't one), not the characters (though they are crystalline studies in dysfunctionality), and not the plot (don't plots need resolution?). The feeling is one with which I am all too comfortable, I'm missing something and I'm not sure what it is, or if it matters that I've missed it. Ah well, as Scarlett reminds us, "tomorrow is another day."
The Broken Hearts Club 11.10.00
Written and directed by Dawson's Creek producer Greg Berlanti, one has to fear anything associated with the television's WB network. Now I'm thinking maybe I need to watch Dawson's Creek. This was an enormously clever and entertaining film. Nothing adolescent or pandering about this movie.
The story is about a West Hollywood photographer, Dennis (Timothy Olyphant from "Go" and "A Life Less Ordinary"), in search of meaning in his life. In search of meaning the way one should search for meaning, without the sorrowful self-reflection and heavy drama. Dennis rejects "the J Crew" guy one night and tries to get serious about his life. He fails, then succeeds, then fails again. Dean Cain (TV's latest Superman, from Lois and Clark) is full of charm and grace as he breaks heart after heart. The balance of the ensemble cast deliver a convincing, funny, and altogether enjoyable look at friendship.
The Brotherhood of the Wolf 01.13.02
The cinematography and editing are outstanding in this otherwise lopsided story of a "beast" terrorizing the French countryside in the 1750's. The opening scenes are most promising as this unseen beast hunts down a hapless country girl and our heroes arrive to save the day. Save the day, not the girl. Warrior, doctor, taxidermist, philosopher, lover, explorer and cartographer are accompanied by Mani, the Canadian Indian. The warrior, doctor, taxidermist, philosopher, lover, explorer and cartographer are rolled into one, the greatest single man to roam the French countryside since Charlamagne. He is unfailingly charming and we pull heartily for his victory over the beast and the superstitious gentry. When he breaks out the caliper to measure the size of the bite marks on an entirely naked female victim we half expect to hear, "it is zee bite of zee Great White Land Shark." Alas, we have to settle for a knowing nod. He must be thinking, "what sort of wolf would remove any measure of clothing before evisceration?"
His Indian blood-brother, (is there any other kind?), Mani, spends a great deal of time communing with trees and animal spirits, aided no doubt by the hallucinogenic properties of a French mushroom. "Hey, I thought this was a truffle, why is your face melting, blood-brother?" Mani reveals everyone's animal spirit guide with a touch of the hand. Oddly, the mean-spirited brother of our heroes new love, a one-armed, idle, rich French cur, does not have his animal spirit revealed. Hmm? Could it be?
I would have been happier with a psychopathic man-wolf murderer than the convoluted and utterly bizarre explanation we are finally given. Having had enough of the kung-fu fighting for one movie, I spent the last fifteen minutes in the exit aisle, stretching my legs and wondering if this would ever end. I say bring back the Hallmark Hall of Fame, cut this puppy down to an hour, and end it with the French surrendering to the wolf-demon.
The Brothers Grimm 08.28.05
I guess I was the only one on the planet who did not know the premise for this hunk vehicle had nothing to do with the fairly tales of The Brothers Grimm but everything to do with a cheesy rip off. The Brothers Grimm, in this disaster of a film, are actually con artists fleecing the 18th century folk of a French occupied Germany. The French come off really badly, there's a shocker, and the German folk not much better in this dimly lit grimy mess. Of the 500 plus films I've reviewed over the past five years I've walked out of only a handful. This was one. It was just too dirty and dark and stupid to keep me seated. Having only seen about twenty minutes, I can't speak to much more than a feeling, but it was bad enough to send me out into the lobby looking for another film. Unfortunately, I found The Cave.
Funny, I don't remember hearing Jim Carrey had been born again. He produced Bruce Almighty so you have to assume he knew the subject material. Local Buffalo reporter (Jim Carrey as Bruce - not yet almighty) blames everything bad on God while living oblivious to the woman who loves him and everyone else on the planet. God (Morgan Freeman), in a take off on the "I sent you a jeep, a boat and a helicopter," punchline delivered to the drowned man who prayed to God to save him from the flood that drowned him, sends a variety of signals to Bruce, finally getting his attention by paging him on a smashed pager. God gives Bruce all his powers and takes a vacation. Bruce, of course, uses God's power to enrich his life and wreak havoc on those who've wronged him. Some of the wreaking is particularly base and crude and one can't help wonder what compels a comedic genius of Carrey's accomplishments to stoop to the gross for a laugh.
"You can't mess with free will," God tells Bruce, and creates the dilemma that ultimately brings Bruce to his knees and derails the conceit that had already run overlong. Like countless films before it, Bruce Almighty springs from a clever concept better suited to the late night comedy format. Bruce Almighty is twice cursed, though, as Bruce announces his surrender to God's will and is immediately bathed in the light of salvation. Falling victim to the fundamentalist tenet that free will correctly reaches only as far as God's will can be discerned, Bruce Almighty lurches into Swaggert and Robertson territory. This is the land where the particularly holy or wise person can illuminate the path to salvation. "Listen to me," they proclaim, as if they wear the mantle of Ezekiel or Joshua. Don't listen to anyone who says they have the answer, I say. Even when the message is dressed up in love your neighbor and do for others rhetoric. Even if it is delivered by a gifted physical comic. Even if Jennifer Anniston comes along for the ride. Even if God is a cool black man in a white suit. And particularly not if it carries a fair measure of the scatological and weak eschatological.
I think I need an excuse for choosing to see Bug. I'm off movies lately and so should be more selective in my choices. I started an essay the other day to explore the question that bugs a lot of us these days. Why aren't we more upset about things? The environment may be hopelessly threatened, our government is criminally negligent in every way it could be, thirty one million people watched American Idol last week and they're concerned about their numbers, seems it was thirty five million a few months ago, and we persevere in a war we started against a people who did nothing to us, and half the population still thinks Sadaam was involved in the attack on The Twin Towers. Around the time I began to think I was the problem I stopped writing. I don't care enough to take any action beyond typing. So where do I get off bemoaning the lack of moral outrage at the state of the world? But I self deprecatingly digress.
Bug was surprisingly good. I'm not a Friedkin fan (see Rules of Engagement) but he is an accomplished director and this was not the scary horror film it's built up to be. Scary, yes, but the horror was minimal. Ashley Judd is tremendous in the first half of the film. Psychological thriller with some nasty cuts thrown in. Brian F. O'Byrne makes an appearance near the end. His is an overwhelming talent. Michael Shannon as an unbalanced stranger is compelling. The last half hour is a bit intense for mature audiences but worth it.
The Business of Strangers 12.15.01
One morning thirty-five years ago, as I dressed for school, I combed my not very long hair down over my forehead. This was my fourth hair style. The first was wispy baldness and went away quickly. The second was a flat top. It lasted from about five to ten. The third, and the one I wear to this day, involves a part on the left (my left, your right), combed straight across and swept slightly back over both ears. Most of the time, the swept-back thing is inconsequential as the hair on the sides is little more than a half-inch long and half inch hair just doesn't sweep. I know there is a name for it but I don't know it. Traditional or standard or ordinary or some such, I'm sure.
That morning, though, I was anything but traditional. It was 1966 and I was going to school with a Beatle do. Or so I thought. Dad fairly exploded when he saw it. "No son of mine is taking part in any protest!" Protest, I thought. Wow, Dad you are so out of touch. Mom weighed in on my side as she usually did. To no avail. I was sent back to the bathroom with instructions to apply the Butch-wax. That afternoon I was dragged down to the barber shop and the flat-top, which had become just long enough to allow a comb to pass through it, was restored to its prickly state. The barber shop was Mr. Hazlewood. There were six chairs, shiny red Naugahyde with tons of chrome. They faced a bank of mirrors which faced a bank of mirrors creating the infinite image replication that so interested me as a child.
As Tom the barber buzzed my hair, Dad railed on about protests and hippies. Once before, shopping for tennis shoes, he told the salesman he wanted "none of that Japanese crap." I asked him why. He patted his bad leg, "they were the ones that did this." When he heard machine gun fire up ahead, he stepped out from behind the tank to see what was what. A .50 caliber round hit him midsection and nicked his spinal column. Sounded to me more like a dumb move on his part but the Army didn't agree and promoted him to Captain before sending him stateside for the balance of the war. I swore then and again and again I would not be like him. I would embrace the next generation, I would hold a balanced and unbiased view of the world. I think I got it half right. I don't hate Asians or Africans or Muslims. I do have a hard time embracing the next generation, though. I'm therefore cautious about sharing my view that the following generation appears somewhat shiftless. Not without cause, I suppose. Theirs was the first generation born into the dual income household necessitated by the inflation of the 70's. They held front row seats through the excess of the eighties. They reaped the cynicism for our societal institutions sown by the sixties, Vietnam and Watergate. The alienation and hopelessness that ran through Kurt Cobain's lyrics and eventually took his life seem to be cutting a wide swath through the generation born in the 70's.
The Business of Strangers features Julia Stiles as Paula Murphy, one such disaffected child of the 70's and Stockard Channing as Julie Styron, an overachieving, driven product of the boomers. She blows a major presentation because the visuals entrusted to Paula arrive too late. "It wasn't my fault, my plane was late," she explains to the steely Styron who fires her on the clients sidewalk. Styron is already stressed out over what she believes to be her own imminent termination. Instead, she's promoted to CEO. She calls family and friends to share her good news but the only person she can connect with is her secretary, via cell phone. She heads down to the hotel bar and runs into Murphy. The two spend the evening together. Turns out Murphy is an Ivy League grad and published writer. The third character in this drama is Fred Willard as Styron's headhunter, summoned when she thought her job was on the line. Willard and Murphy share a dark secret and the evening takes a wicked turn when Murphy shares the secret with her new bud, the new CEO. Stockard Channing is a consummate actress, showing us more with facial expression than the young Stiles can muster in a whole monologue.
Ostensibly, this is a story about power, corporate and sexual. Power and sex are certainly at the heart of this drama, as they are at the heart of most everything else under the sun. The more intriguing story, though, is of the contrast between the worlds occupied by these two women. One, externally powerful, internally conflicted and insecure, the other, an internal fortress fitted with an external shell of subjugation and powerlessness. They are telling illustrations of America's two generations, one, apparently powerful and in command, the other apparently along for the ride to "wherever." Which occupies the moral high ground? The boomers idealism has turned to worry over Social Security and Lexus payments while the X'ers disenfranchisement hardens into a self-centered disregard for others. Dark movie for a dark society.
But I'm A Cheerleader 08.26.00
Natasha Lyonne plays Megan, a high school cheerleader yet to awaken to her lesbian nature. Megan's parents send her to True Directions a camp for deprogramming homosexuals. Cathy Moriarty is Jane the camp commandant. The camp is a madhouse. The girls all dress in pink and the boys in blue. Pass the five stages and you graduate a heterosexual. There are no heterosexual characters in this movie any sane person would ever want to be with. At True Directions she meets Graham (Clea Duvall) and falls in love. Jamie Babbit wrote and directed this farce. It's a fun film, parts of which are disarmingly beautiful. The feel is all 50's kitsch until Graham and Megan finally get together. It suddenly switches to a warm and sexy treat while the two of them are on screen. They are fun to watch. Clea Duvall is another Ally Sheedy. Hopefully she'll make some better decisions.
The Butterfly Effect 01.24.04
Not fifteen minutes in and we've been subjected to pedophilia, child abuse (generic), animal cruelty, a dad trying to murder his son, and a blown up baby. None of which was in the least relevant to the time travel theme. Evan (Ashton Kutcher) had a pretty rough time of it as a child, which he can fix by utilizing a genetic trait inherited from his crazy dad. If Evan reads from his journals (which he conveniently started at seven) he is transported back to the time in which the journal was originally penned. What he should do, of course, is go back and invest in Microsoft and Halliburton but he decides to address the underlying causes of his and his friend's unhappiness. Well, as any Star Trek fan could tell you, that won't work. Evan is a bit thick, though, and we need to use up all the film stock we bought with the proceeds from Final Destination 2 (the writer/director's previous collaborative effort), so he goes back several times. Each time, something even more horrible happens. But then, through sacrifice, he finally manages to fix things. Now he doesn't get Kayleigh (Amy Smart, who was hilarious in Rat Race) but then his mom doesn't die of lung cancer, his dog isn't incinerated, his girlfriend isn't molested by her dad, his friend isn't committed to the booby hatch for life, and he isn't in prison for manslaughter or quadraplegicized. Oops, I sort of revealed what all goes wrong in his other attempts to change the past. But you don't want to see this anyway, that's what you have me for. I go see these dreadful things to save you the trouble. You're welcome!
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