One particularly horrific and unexpected scene dominates my recollection of this complex French thriller. Daniel Autiel and Juliette Binoche play a struggling middle aged couple attacked by an unseen video terrorist. I warn you away from this film for two reasons, the awful image planted by one grisly scene and the thickness of the plot. Maybe I'm the thick one but I don't think so. I'm not altogether clear what the point was and that shouldn't be. We all have done things we shouldn't but should we all pay such a high price? What is the filmmaker telling us by visiting such awful retribution on these muddling folk?
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is imbued with four times more raw talent than his peers. It is this enormous disparity that creates the opportunity for "stealing" scenes from his more experienced or more famous but not equivalently talented peers. The disproportionately gifted actor can be burdened by a feature role, however, in much the same way that a rare chocolate can be burdened by a featured role at dinner. A small piece following the main course compliments the fine dining experience. Eight ounces following the salad course, though, and things become unstable. There is the chocolate that is so good that all other considerations melt away. Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park and Charlize Theron in Monster were that good. Hoffman in this film is that good and yet Truman Capote's self-designed caricature unfortunately continues to distract. By contrast, Hoffman's portrayal of Dan Mahowny in Owning Mahoney succeeds in part due to Mahowny's normalcy. Capote's bizarre personality construct presents an enormous challenge for the audience in terms of suspension of disbelief. Only infrequently was I able to lose myself in the story and Hoffman's character, too often I was acutely aware of Hoffman's "portrayal."
The tragedy of Capote's entanglement with his subject in In Cold Blood is the real story of former high school classmates writer Dan Futterman and director Bennett Miller's film version of Capote. The tone is dark and Capote's famous wit is too briefly in evidence. Miller's Capote restricts itself to the period immediately following the murders that provided the material for In Cold Blood. We learn that Capote took an active role in their defense by arranging for more competent legal representation. In a chilling moment between Capote and Lee, he reveals his belief that he and Perry are of the same stock, 'as I walked out the front door of my childhood home into sunlight and fame, Perry snuck out the back in shadow and shame.'
Catherine Keener as Harper Lee and Chris Cooper as KBI agent Dewey provide relief from the spirit crushing weight of murderer Perry's (Clifton Collins) dependence on and belief in Capote. The film ends with the epithetic text that so crudely sums a life, "he died of complications from alchoholism." In truth, he was killed by In Cold Blood.
Captain Corelli's Mandolin 08.19.01
When the credits ran and John Madden's name rolled up as the director, many questions were answered. For example, who in the world would think dressing up Nicholas Cage and John Hurt in Italian accents was a good idea? What silly person would present the Italian Army of World War II as a happy-go-lucky bunch of opera singers? Why, when I came back from a trip to the bathroom, did I believe I returned to a different theater than the one I left?
Of course! The former football coach, color analyst, and Ace Hardware pitchman, who took trains to the games he coached or covered for CBS because of his fear of flying, had launched yet another career - movie director.
Wrong again! This is the John Madden responsible for two of the most entertaining films in recent years, Shakespeare in Love and Mrs. Brown. Not the former football coach, after all. More questions now present themselves!
How can an accomplished director like John Madden make such a mess of things? Not that Captain Corelli's Mandolin is entirely without merit. We are treated to a close-up tour of what must be one of the most beautiful settings in the world, the Greek islands. Irene Papas, as Drosoula, Mandras' mother and Pelagia's (Penelope Cruz) future mother-in-law, is convincing. Perhaps, as the only Greek with any lines, she manages to look believable by comparison.
Certainly Christian Bale (American Psycho) as Mandras, the love-struck illiterate Greek fisherman, is a stretch only a casting director from Burbank could make. Nicholas Cage looks lost alternating between happy drunk Italian partying with prostitutes and fierce Army Captain organizing his troops for battle. Only the complete lack of character development prevents us from shouting at the screen when he decides to return to Italy and leave the great love of his life. The enormous talent of John Hurt, as Pelagia's wise father Dr. Iannis, is wasted in his caricature of a role. One can't help but imagine he's playing at Zeus in a modern Greek tragedy, orchestrating events and dispensing wisdom at every turn. If only he could have been at Potsdam!
After some initial hard feelings, the invading and occupying Italian Army decides to throw a dance for the townsfolk to show all concerned that a little thing like war needn't stand between these two great peoples. Sure enough, the town shows up and a good time is had by all. One of the girls in the town pecks the cheek of a German officer and is later hung for her traitorous ways. This is the same town where the city fathers announce they would rather surrender to that same German officer's dog than the despicable Italians. How these tables get turned is a mystery. As is the odd scene near the end where several townspeople prostrate themselves writhing on white sheets while the town Priest sprinkles them with Holy water. No one bothers to explain this odd staging, not even the narrator, Dr. Iannis, who occasionally refers to himself in the third person.
About an hour and a half into this hodge-podge, I excused myself for a moment and came back to find the Germans blowing up everything in sight, massacring unarmed Italian soldiers (an all too true story), and the spurned lover Mandras) rescuing his fiancˇe's new lover. I thought I'd come back to the wrong theater. When I noticed the myriad loose ends laying about the seats, I knew I was back in Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Oh yes, the mandolin. It is Pelagia's song, composed on the mandolin, that makes Pelagia fall in love with Captain Corelli. Years later, she receives a recording of Pelagia's song in a plain brown wrapper from Italy. No note, just the record. And, it's been recorded with a guitar instead of the mandolin. Why? No one knows. Like the final scene of the whole town meandering down the hill to the voice-over of the good doctor/Zeus. Where were they coming from? Where were they going? Was this a wedding? Post party parade? Funeral? Who knows!
Pixar finally skids off the track with the tired retelling of the value of working together toward a common goal, or the hollow reward of fame or the value of friendship or the evil of the Interstate or the importance of DOT regulations against driving more than twelve out of twenty-four hours or... Compare Toy Story's depth and variety of characters with the shallow and trite caricatures from Cars and it is easy to see something's been lost at Pixar. Originality perhaps, or soul maybe. Even the little kids drifted off after a half hour of this stretched thin morality tale.
Casino Royale 11.20.06
If James Bond can be blonde and fall in love, why can't he play Texas Hold 'em instead of the more complicated baccarat? I've suffered through nineteen James Bond films to enjoy this one almost as much as number three. I lost interest in the franchise when Roger Moore decided to play Bond tongue in cheek. Each successive Bond stand in has been playing off or against Sean Connery's inspired portrayal until now. Daniel Craig, the most gifted actor to take on the role since Connery, seems to have left all the past behind. Easy to do when you're playing the originating role. As Casino Royale opens, Bond has yet to earn double "O" status. He wastes little time in executing the second kill required to qualify for his "license." He is soon chasing after a bad guy with Crouching Tiger like gifts as he bounces off walls and climbs vertical beams leading Bond on a chase through Mozambique's shopping district. It ends badly as Bond elects to kill his suspect rather than see him escape. On "vacation" in the Bahamas, Bond encounters a banker to the axis of evil and sets about to undo his financial empire. The rest is pretty girls, casinos, and cool. We do get a more fully developed James Bond than we've seen before and not all the credit goes to Daniel Craig. This was the first Bond novel of Ian Fleming and, as such, many of the Bond conventions were yet to be developed. The character is more of a cipher and Craig fills him in nicely. Great fun despite some particularly uncomfortable interrogations. Stop now please and take the franchise out on a high note.
Cassandra's Dream 01.19.08
Watching Colin Farrell play a conflicted weakling was worth seeing Woody Allen remake his last two films. Scoop and Match Point are slick crime dramas that remind us crime is bad, male-female pairings are train wrecks waiting to happen, and what else? Oh yes, beautiful young ingenues are beautiful young ingenues. I guess if I could make any movie I wanted I too might tend to fall into the tried and true and cast about for the hottest young thing available. Except I would be too self-conscious about how pathetic I would seem. But seeing an artists' work through the lens of their personal life is a corrupt way of experiencing the work. A criminal shame it is that Van Gogh was diminished when I read his surreal stars were a function of glaucoma. Should Riefenstahl's Triumph of Will be dismissed because it painted an heroic Aryran culture? Well, maybe. No, wait a minute, that's just wrong. The work is the work. Maybe it's interesting to know where it came from but did Michelangelo have to be a Roman Catholic to make the Pieta? He could have been a Scientologist and the Pieta would still be the Pieta.
I thought if I heard "WILSON!" one more time I would scream. Stranded on a south Pacific island with a few FedEx packages, FedExec Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) paints a face on a volleyball he recovers from one of those packages and names it Wilson. His silent companion for the next five years, Chuck develops a close relationship with the volleyball. When he abandons it in order to stay with the raft he crafted to carry him back to civilization, he crys out to Wilson twenty-four times. Count 'em, twenty four times. Much has been made of the decision to make a film with Tom Hanks, or any actor, as the sole occupant of the screen for the majority of the picture. Director Robert Zemeckis pulls it off by first treating us to one of the most harrowing scenes in all filmdom as the FedEx plane carrying Chuck and a crew of four is forced to ditch. Recovering from the adrenaline rush of watching the plane crash and Chuck's escape from the sinking craft, we hardly notice we are alone on the island with Chuck. By the time we start getting antsy, Zemeckis (and William Broyles, the screenwriter) keep us occupied with Chuck's activities adjusting to the island and life alone. He opens all the packages (except the one with golden angels wings painted on it) and makes interesting use of all the items (with the exception of some legal documents).
The use of symbolism and irony is, at times, a little heavy even for the most dim-witted of us. Chuck discards the oars on his makeshift rowboat (finding oneself by letting go), must choose to leave his volleyball pal in order to re-attach himself to his life raft (discarding the false in pursuit of the real), he survives the crash because he is out of his seat trying to recover the antique watch his fiance gave him before he left. The tide washes in half a portable toilet from California that Chuck uses as a sail on his raft. Hmm, plastic refuse from California saving a stranded Southerner, what is Broyles telling us with that one? All in all, this is a powerful and moving film about connectivity and isolation and getting on with life. Continue to breathe is the lesson Chuck learns from his experience, you never know what the tide will wash in.
Oh yes, Helen Hunt is, once again, compelling. We don't get the chance to sympathize much with her character, though, all she had to do was suffer through the initial loss of "the love of her life" only to turn him away again because she married in his absence. Now there's a story. Alas, we won't get that story from Broyles and Zemeckis, guys through and through.
Spielberg, the master storyteller, makes writing bad checks look like fun. The true story of Frank Abignale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), Catch Me If You Can takes us from East to West Coast to France in the pursuit of better check stock and pretty girls. In lukewarm pursuit is FBI dufus Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the Keystone Cop of the sixties.
Everyone I know loves Tom Hanks and hates Leonardo DiCaprio. Why I don't know, as Leonardo is cute as a button as the youngest and most successful con man in history. I have a feeling the same people that say they hate Leonardo are the same people that deny seeing (and loving) Titanic. I thought Titanic was a dreadful movie. The person I went with actually said all of aloud "If she jumps I'm going to be sick," as Gloria Stuart (Kate Winslet's aged persona) climbed the railing to toss the naked necklace after her dead Dicaprio. But I digress.
Catch Me If you Can is fast fun for anyone not troubled by the glorification of the criminal behavior of a sociopath who, by the way, hurts people as well as companies and banks. Is this the evolution of Spielberg's love of movies about the adventures of little boys? He says he turns down the big movies these days (Spiderman and the Tolkein trilogy, he gives as examples) in order to do work that challenges. He is most assuredly up to the challenge of making cute criminals captivating.
Patti Hearst's grandfather (Edward Hermann) takes some friends out for a cruise on his yacht. Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), and Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) comprise the guest list of significance. As the lesser mortals board the boat, Glyn, an author and narrator of our story, turns to Chaplin and says, "for every one of us there are two of them." Based on Steven Peros' play (he plays Glyn's driver delivering her and one line, "very well, ma'am," in response to her insistence that they pretend to be invisible so as to avoid being the first to arrive) and directed by the formerly languishing Peter Bogdanovich, The Cat's Meow is the story of a mysterious death aboard Hearst's yacht. As Glyn tells us in the films black and white intro, no one will ever know what happened as the death was hushed up by the most powerful media mogul in history.
Bogdanovich's feature film debut was The Last Picture Show, filmed in black and white, starring Cybil Shepherd at twenty, and compared to Orson Welles' debut work, Citizen Kane. Kane was a pseudonym for William Randolph Hearst, the most powerful media mogul in history. Huh? Is this some cosmic synchronicity? Bogdanovich cratered after several flops in the seventies and has had trouble landing a feature film directorial job since suing his studio over "artistic" differences for Mask, starring Cher. He married his former girlfriend's little sister after the girlfriend, Playboy Playmate of the Year (Bogdanovich once frequented Hefner's Playboy mansion) Dorothy Stratten, was murdered by her estranged husband. That story was the subject of Star 80, with the always scary Eric Roberts as the murderous husband and Mariel Hemingway as Stratten. He thinks his predilection for twenty-year-olds may stem from his mother being twenty when she nursed him though a simultaneous bout of scarlet fever and mumps. My mother nursed me through scarlet fever and the mumps but, thank heaven, not simultaneously or I too would forever seek teen brides. But I digress.
When The Cat's Meow opened in black and white my first thought was, "oh no, he's relapsed." The intro fades to color as the story commences, though, and we set sail along the California coast. Edward Hermann plays Hearst as a nearly mad tyrant (which he apparently was) and Dunst is a hard to believe Davies who can't seem to make up her mind whether to sleep with Chaplin or not. Izzard is captivating as Chaplin and Jennifer Tilly reprises her ditzy self as Louella Parsons. Cary Elwes is the struggling Hollywood mogul-wanna-be Thomas Ince everyone loves to hate. Bogdanovich is clearly a master director and when he's plying his trade without distraction he can be brilliant. This comeback smacks of safe and if it restores him to the ranks of active directors we can only be grateful.
It's entirely possible that I will see this film again some day in the future and revise my opinion. Until then I will put this in very small category of films so bad as to be nearly unbelievable. The only two possibilities, other than this being a complete failure of a film, are that it was intentional (unlikely) or I just didn't get it (only slightly more likely). The sad truth is, I fear, Catwoman is one of the most poorly written films in history. Unfortunately we have no one in particular to blame as three people are credited with the story and two more with the screenplay. Bob Kane (of DC Comics) gets credit for the character of Catwoman but something uniquely horrible happened between the comic book and the screen. I might be able to list the litany of errors but let's just call it stupid and be done with it. Stupid beyond belief. A face cream the villain created just happens to be addictive and causes horrible disfiguring side effects to anyone who stops using it. If you keep using it, though, you're skin becomes impenetrable and hard as marble. Sharon Stone plays Laurel Hedare, the aging wife of the face cream company founder George Hedare (Lambert Wilson, the Frenchman from the Matrix trilogy). She's kind of fun, as is Halle Berry as Catwoman/Patience Phillips. Benjamin Bratt plays Patience's love interest and he seems to be getting better with age. The problem here isn't the cast, the problem is the writing. The direction, by some stranger from TV named Pitof. He's been a visual effects supervisor with the exception of a little French film called Vidocq. I'm not a big fan of the one name thing, it seems a little affected. If you're going to be a one name person, though, I would think you'd want to give it more thought. Pitof? Pronounced pit off? Why not Ditchdown? But I digress.
The Cave 08.28.05
This must be a genre but I don't know the classification. Group of people go on an adventure and all but one or two are killed. The only interesting aspect of such a film is guessing which one or two will survive. Usually it's the underdog or misunderstood male and the demure or talented but untested female. Underdog wins the day and untested exceeds all expectations. Of course, the two are romantically involved by the time they escape the dread curse or evil monster or psychopathic killer. More often than not there are a slew of stereotypes that can be used to flesh out the party. There's usually a minority representative, a macho jerk, a macho woman, a geeky scientist, a geeky computer guy, a beautiful yet incomplete female and the inevitable handsome yet shy and misunderstood hunk.
All these stereotypes are on display in The Cave, a useless bit of melodrama piped full of swiftly sawing violins and battering drumbeats. Running down narrow caves with the beast hot on your trail is bad enough but all that dramatic music is enough to send your spelunking heart rate monitor into apoplexy. I came late and left early as should anyone foolish enough to waste a perfectly good Sunday on this mess. At least I didn't pay for my ticket as I gained entrance to the theater to watch an even more dreadful film, The Brothers Grimm.
Cecil B. Demented 08.25.00
What do Bill Dana, Yakoff Smirnoff, Vaughn Meador and John Waters have in common? Times passed them by. Bill Dana's Hispanic, Smirmoff's angry young Russian, and Meadors JFK lost relevance as the culture moved on. Waters once fresh perspective has become as stale as the culture he parodies.
Turning his formerly prescient, now cataract-covered critical eye on film itself, Waters takes a shot at Hollywood. "Death to those who support mainline cinema, power to the people, punish bad cinema," his guerrilla cinemaists shout. Yeah, OK, does that include this tired trailer of a film? I've met the enemy and he is me!
Independent film YES, Hollywood NO! Alright John, move on. And get out of Baltimore for Heaven's sake.
The Cell (Madness) 08.24.00
From the bizarre ranting of the oracles of ancient Greece to the chillingly ordinary conversations of Ted Bundy, the world of the insane has fascinated those of us occupying a more mundane plane of existence.
Our interest in their world has not, however, given rise to a definition upon which many can agree. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas' famous quip on pornography reveals, "I can't define it but I know it when I see it," insanity has eluded our best efforts at definition. The legal world draws ever-sharper lines around the insanity plea without ever attempting a description of the condition itself. "Inability to distinguish right from wrong" hardly serves to open the window on this most frightening of human conditions. Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad and Ken Kesey, among others, have attempted to convey the vista purveyed from the windows of insanity.
Songwriter Bob Dylan spins a series of bizarre and apparently disconnected images in an effort at portraying the madness of a character in his song, Desolation Row.
Shaky and disjointed camera angles, flames and wind are the best the revolutionary director Quentin Tarentino can offer in his film Natural Born Killers.
Edvard Munch's 1893 painting, The Scream, conveys madness as well as any artistic effort, before or since.
The problem is, of course, we cannot relate. The sort of total disconnect that comprises madness is a state of being with which none but the initiated can relate. And the initiated aren't talking. At least, not in a language we can understand.
What, then, is madness?
Is it a nightmare world inhabited by weird, shifting figures? Does the world of the insane resemble ours in every detail? Do "faces look ugly?" Are colors the same?
And what of its origins - chemical, biological, behavioral? Will the next series of psychotropic drugs rebalance serotonin once and for all and make the mad mundane? Will we find the madness gene on our genome map? Is Mommy dearest really to blame after all?
The Cell looks at madness from both sides. Jennifer Lopez, actress, singer, dancer, portrays Catherine Deane, a child therapist with a particularly keen empathetic sense. Teamed with the latest synapse mapping technology of The Campbell Center (the usual massive empty ultra-modern edifice that personifies medical research to those of us unaware most research facilities are closet size office/labs), Catherine is asked to carefully creep around the mind of a crazed but now catatonic serial killer (suffering from Whalen's Infraction - a schizophrenia inducing virus contracted in-utero) in hopes of learning the whereabouts of his latest would-be victim. She agrees and we are off on Hollywood's latest attempt to portray madness. This one is different. The opening sequence of the film has Catherine, dressed in a blinding white outfit, walking along the ellipse of a huge burnt orange sand dune en route to a mind-meld with her comatose young patient. The surreally vivid colors of the desert sands and blue sky are a portent of "life in the mind," where this film spends more than half its two hours. Vincent D'Onofrio plays Carl Stargher the insane serial killer, all too convincingly (remember "the bug" from men In Black?). Carl's world is horrific and some scenes entirely too searing for normal minds. Some of those images I could just as well do without, thank you very much.
The film is directed by Tarsem Singh and this is his first feature film. His previous claim to fame is as director of REM's Losing My Religion. Feathers abound in both films. This is a visually arresting film of enormous complexity and richness. Tarsem occasionally crosses the line between story and set. Several scenes bring to mind the gilt edged darkness of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Unlike Kubrick's largely empty visual cornucopia, The Cell asks some difficult questions. What are we to do with the insane? Is terminating their apparently tortured lives, either through drugs or worse, right? Can anyone know for certain? We once thought the madness displayed by ancient Greek oracles to be a sign of communion with the Gods.
An interesting lapse in the story line involves FBI lackey Gordon Ramsey (Jake Weber). Ramsey is a whining and befuddled counterpart to the clear-eyed dedication of Vince Vaughn's Special Agent Peter Novak. Twice, Ramsey takes a call on his cell phone from some mysterious other. Both calls are clearly bad news and we begin to suspects Ramsey may somehow be involved in the crimes. Nothing is explained and nothing comes of these mysterious calls. Some important elements must have ended on the edit room floor. Too much attention to flowing robes, too little focus on continuity.
Alas, for all its oddity and visual richness, The Cell brings us ultimately no closer to understanding this most altered of states.
The screenwriters attribute Stargher's madness either to the abuse of his father or Whalen's Infraction. Stargher's inner landscape is inhabited by both a stylized superhuman version of himself and Stargher at ten, a frightened child desperately seeking escape.
It's environment, it's biological, the insane are hopelessly out of reach, the insane are frightened children.
The Center of the World 05.20.01
Molly Parker (Sunshine, The Five Senses and Wonderland) and Carla Gugino (Snake Eyes and Spy Kids) are two of the most gifted and mesmerizing actresses in film and their two scenes together are the high point of this otherwise bottom dwelling feature. In an effort to escape the relentlessly depraved and depressing scenery of The Center of the World I walked into the feature playing in the adjoining cinema - Amores Perros. Two scenes were being jump cut together, one an armed robbery, the other a dog fight. One of the dogs is killed and his owner picks up his torn and lifeless head. The audience titters. I half expect Heronyomous Bosch's brush to fall across my head.
It is hard to believe the same person who directed The Joy Luck Club (Wayne Wang) directed this seamy story.
Molly's struggles with money-for-sex are easier to understand than Saarsgard's (the dot-commer renting Molly for a Vegas weekend) adolescent sexuality but both themes are ultimately bankrupt in the context of this posing porno film. The multiple and extended "sex" scenes are degrading and entirely prurient. One particularly onerous shot in the opening minutes was enough to make me consider leaving but I stayed. Mistake.
The title either refers to an on-line computer (Saarsgard's definition) or the vagina (Parker's definition). If we want to make these definitions mean anything, we're on our own. Any contribution to the effort originating in the film is buried beneath too many lurid images.
Faceless evil compels otherwise good people into acting badly. Lawyers are the root of all evil. Do what your AA sponsor tells you to do. Always exchange information at the scene of an accident. When in doubt, blame God. Pick your theme, the filmmakers did not.
The trailers would have you believe this is about road rage and revenge, a real "movie for men who like movies." Not twenty minutes in we get shadowy legal deals, marital affairs, recovering alcoholics and conflicted upwardly mobile yuppies. The yuppie is Gavin Banek (rhymes with Affleck), the recovering alcoholic is Doyle Gibson (Samuel L Jackson) and the marital affairs are the enormously talented Amanda Peet in a more serious role than normal, and Toni Collette as Banek's conscience. Well, sort of. She talks like a conscience but acts like an accomplice. In much the same way this film talks like a moral tale but acts like a script in need of an editor. Is Gavin a good guy or bad guy? Is Doyle a reclamation project or a time bomb? Is this a movie or a pilot for an East European television series?
Charlie's Angels 11.03.00
This is one of half a dozen movies a year that creates a mini-whirl of media frenzy prior to release. Another dozen or so attempt to force a mini-whirl of media frenzy while several dozen get the standard pre-release publicity - trailers, some talk show appearances, the occasional fifteen second television spot. The combination of some legitimate hostility on the set (Lucy Liu apparently scuffled with Bill Murray), Drew Barrymore's larger-than-life persona, our obsession with all things 70's (TV series called That 70's Show is Exhibit A), and gender consciousness, all served to make the mini-whirl genuine.
Now comes the movie. Million dollar special effects. Lots of things blown up. Much karate posing.
The original series had Charlie plucking the Angels from LAPD desk jobs, the movie has only Drew leaving the police department, after she punches out the sergeant in boot camp. Lucy Liu quits her job as an astronaut and Cameron Diaz appears unemployed but making money as a Jeopardy champion. The portrayal of men is interesting. The chief bad guy is cruel and insane. His henchman speaks nary a word, carries a sabre and smokes. Every other man is ineffectual and a dufus, except Charlie, of course. It would seem in order to pass PC muster, these Angels are positioned as infinitely superior to any pitiful man. But wait, Drew can't keep out of the sack and Cameron Diaz goes all girlie around a cute bartender while Lucy Liu tries to cook and explain her way past her dolt boyfriend's perceived problem with her role as a super crime fighting heroine. We get to see Cameron Diaz dance in her underwear before coming on to the UPS delivery man, Drew Barrymore fool a stupid chauffeur by partially exposing her breasts, and Lucy Liu plays a dominatrix in leather to a bunch of short-sleeved nerds in a software factory.
As it turns out, then, this is a slick version of what was once described as "jiggle TV." The Angels, by the way, don't have last names. They are Dylan (Drew), Alex (Liu), and Natalie (Carmen). Like any of this matters.
I certainly didn't expect to laugh as much as I did. Charlie Wilson's War is hugely funny, filled with brilliant one-liners and four actors at the top of their game, Tom Hanks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Julia Roberts. Incredibly based on a true story of a wealthy Houston socialite, a party animal US Congressman and a disgruntled CIA case officer who team up to arm the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. The audience was composed entirely of old people and the theater was nearly full. Odd. Mike Nichols directs an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. Sorkin was responsible for A Few Good Men, The American President, Sports Night, and The West Wing so the enormously clever script should have come as no surprise. Nor should have Hoffman's brilliance, Adam's blinding charm or Hank's sure-footedness. I'm told Ms. Roberts channeled Joanne Herring perfectly. Emily Blunt sneaks in almost unnoticed but that would be impossible.
Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle 07.06.03
First of all, this is the sequel to a remake of an old television series famous for being about babes. You have to enter into this with the same level of expectations as you would a serious conversation about morality with a Texas state legislator. If you can, you'll have a wonderful time. If you can't, then you can have a field day with the sexism, exploitation of women, and the gratuitous sex and violence. Carmen Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu seem OK with it so who am I to argue.
The addition of a revived Demi Moore didn't hurt matters, Bernie Mac was not as bad as I feared, cameos by John Cleese, Eric Bogosian, Carrie Fisher, Bruce Willis, Jaclyn Smith (an original Angel), and Pink made for delightful distractions. The pace was MTV fast (McG, aka Joseph McGinty Nichol directed), the action sequences were as good as anything Matrix Redux gas to offer and the humor (bad puns and all) made this rate high on my list of summer entertainment. Like any of this matters, but that's the point, right?
I have always avoided movie musicals. Probably related to having seen a Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald film in my formative years. He (Eddy) towering over her (Jeanette) trying not to poke her eye out with his Mountie hat, singing in that faux baritone that sells so well on late night UHF. I'm still not a fan and couldn't tell you if Rod Steiger played Curly or Mo in Picnic, or was it Oklahoma. Nonetheless, I rank West Side Story near the top of my all-time list, thought Sleeping Beauty (the Disney carton version a few years back) was fabulous, and was terribly impressed by Bjork's Dancer in the Dark.
I heard mixed reviews of Chicago and went not expecting much. Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere were thoroughly entertaining. The music was lively, the lyrics clever, and the dancing delightful, especially Gere's tap-dance and the If You'd Been There number. The story was entirely contrived and predictable, but isn't that the definition of movie musical? A good time was (or should have been) had by all.
The Children of Huang Shi 06.20.08
What the Japanese did at Nanking in 1939 defies belief. I read an account of the ordeal a few months back and was depressed for weeks. Using it as a backdrop for a story of heroism and sacrifice reminded me of Vonnegut's use of Dresden as the backdrop for Slaughterhouse Five. Certainly we all somehow benefit from knowing the depth of depravity to which we are capable of descending. But as backdrop? Some things are too horrible to use in this way. Dresden as the poster child for the mindlessness of total war and Nanking as the end result of demonizing the enemy deserve better than footnote treatment in feature films.
This is the story of a journalist (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) leading a group of orphaned Chinese children seven hundred miles along the Silk Road (Huang Shi) to safety. Yun-Fat Chow, Michelle Yeoh and Radha Mitchell help the story and journey along but the children elevate the film above pedestrian status. Filmed largely in China along the Silk Road (the market route between the East and Europe used by traders, bubonic rats, and the Khan clan) scenes of overwhelming majesty fill the screen. Painting the Japanese as inhuman monsters (they earned those adjectives in Nanking) and the Nationalists as bumblers (they were), and Mao's fledgling Communist revolution as nearly invisible (oh, really) must have been the price extracted for allowing the Australian film crew access. Little matter.
The real story here is what can come from sacrifice. Not a lesson we teach anywhere I've been. Even a religion based on a single act of sacrifice has become a faith of wealth and self satisfaction. I was surprised recently to see my church busy giving the bum's rush to the homeless in the neighborhood. And feeling good about it. So much defies belief these days...
Children of Men 01.04.07
We worry over the thermostat, the weather, whether we have the right jacket for the evening, the right carbs, the right car. By we I mean you and me. If you have a computer screen in front of you right now these are likely the things that worry you most often. Certainly not food or water or bullets or beatings or life itself. Oh sure, we get hungry sometimes, we wonder what it all means, what if we get sick, what if we die. But these are not the things that occupy our lives. For the rest of the people on the planet, food is critical, medical care non existent, violence surrounds. This is the world we live in, maybe not the life you lead, but this is reality for billions.
Alfonso Cuaron throws us into a not unlikely future where civilization is failing. New York has been nuked, Madrid is in flames, London is under seige. Big black buses cart non citizens to camps. It is Iraq worldwide, bombs go off regularly, gunfire is almost constant, people are shot because they are in the wrong place. The government is fighting everyone. Better dead than opposed, the natural progression of the with us or against us mentality. A handful try to hold their lives together but is clearly too late. Cuaron holds us here with little relief for almost two hours. It is enough, and too much. A singular accomplishment in filmmaking. A cautionary tale which will pass us all by, as it must. After all, we've got to pick up dinner on the way home. And write a few words about a visual experience of the hell that awaits us all, if we live long enough. Thankfully, I won't.
I deliberated on the way to the ticket window whether to ask for two for chocolate or shokolat. I used the American pronunciation. Maybe my non-magical frame of mind was responsible for my inability to succumb to the charming story of a woman and her daughter traveling from town to town dispensing magical cures, wisdom, and justice with ancient chocolate recipes. Maybe it was the cold dreary day, maybe the audience tittering at the town mayor begging for understanding before the altar, maybe the weak story line, maybe the statue that smiled, maybe the "who says I can't use a skillet" line delivered by the abused housewife after laying out the abuser with a skillet, I don't know.
Not Judi Dench's mastery, nor Juliet Binoche's charm and beauty, not even Johnny Depp as an Irish beatnik, can transform this trifle into something truly nourishing.
Maybe it's the history of The Terror in their background, maybe it's Napoleon, or maybe it's the beautiful language and affinity for wine, but the French sure seem to know how to tell a sweet story in the midst of horror. Amelie and A Very Long Engagement come immediately to mind. All three films find a core of beauty, hope, even redemption in the midst of serious personality disorder, war, and brutal orphanage, respectively. It's as if the French have figured out that, yes, life is cruel but they don't stop there, they push on to a more refined and subtle truth.
Certainly The Chorus' magnificent choral soundtrack underscores its redemptive message as the angelic voices soar from behind the locked gates and dingy rooms of this nearly forgotten home for bad boys. The seemingly pedestrian nature of the choirmaster/supervisor furthers The Chorus' complex theme as our protagonist doesn't win the Medal of Freedom or marry Gwen Stefani. What he does do is create a choir from the bedraggled mass of boys under his charge, finding the harmony amid chaos, bringing redemption to the damned. We should listen more carefully to the French, I think, they may have more answers than we'd like to believe.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe 12.22.05
For the sake of full disclosure I should advise I am a huge Tilda Swinton fan, I've always had a thing for angry women and I didn't read the Narnia books until I was in my thirties. They were marvelous and I devoured them but like a sweet drink they didn't stay with me long. I say all this because when the White Queen (Swinton) leaves the screen the whole thing deflates rather quickly. A talking lion, no matter who does the graphics, is stil a talking lion. But an angry White Witch is as thrilling as any big battle between fawns and dwarves, nay ten times more thrilling. She is bewitching and beguiling and I don't blame Edward a whit. I would betray my blood in a hearbeat if the White Witch but asked.
Chances are you know someone who worked on this movie. Nearly a thousand names show up in the credits. Filming was done in the Czech Republic with actors from Mexico, Spain, Italy, the UK, and Finland! I have to confess to having no particular affinity for any of the Pevensie children. Ben Barnes acquitted himself adequately as Prince Caspian like the kids, I wasn't much taken by him. Little time was spent on character development and even less on the underpinnings of the Narnia Chronicles - its allegorical nature. This is an action film, a Die Hard for the under twenty set. Adults attending to see the books of their childhood brought to life will leave strangely unsatisfied. I say strangely because I didn't figure out what was missing until I was on the way home. The movie has no soul. It's the Matchbox Twenty of the film world.
When I asked the lady in the booth for a ticket to Prince Caspian she looked blankly at me for a second and asked, "you mean The Narnia Chronicles?" Telling. This is a franchise. Who can name the various titles of Willis' Die Hard series? And who cares? They're just Die Hard movies - lots of action, a little wry humor, the bad guys get what they deserve and the good guys go home with the girl. Caspian has action galore and the wry humor was alternately delivered by a sarcastic dwarf and a swashbuckling mouse. Peter Dinklage plays the sarcastic dwarf and may be the only character for whom we feel any empathy, in spite of the post-modern sarcasm. The opening sequence has Price Caspian escaping from his evil uncle's assassins on a wild ride through fields and forest. Until he gets knocked out by a low hanging branch. His forehead meets the branch at a full gallop. He awakes hours later with a cold compress covering a perfectly unblemished forehead. Is he the noble hero or Wiley Coyote? No matter, he'll come in handy later for some sword play. And some longing glances at Susan Pevensie. Writer/Director Andrew Adamson covered nearly all bases on this one, action, humor, romance. He did leave out sacrifice, honor, temptation, and redemption but that would require way too much dialog and distraction. What with a ten second attention span, who has time for such superfluous thematic elements?
The Chronicles of Riddick 06.12.04
Alannis Morrisette had a hit not too long ago called "Ironic." She warbles through a litany of awful things that might happen to you or me and refrains them as ironic. When a fly lands in your Chardonnay, when it rains on your birthday, when you hate flying and your plane crashes, etc. etc." Now I'm certainly no accomplished songwriter but I can look up ironic in the dictionary and a fly in your wine isn't ironic. Irony is "...a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used." Now a fly in your wine is bad but not ironic. This was running through my head when the Necro's repeated their mantra - you keep what you kill. I saw an armadillo on the way home from the movie and thought about taking it home but then it really belonged to that guy in the Ford F150 than ran over it. I think what the Necros mean to say is, you inherit the things that belonged to those you kill. Not exactly British common law but then whoever said the Necros were law abiding? Actually, the Necros, short for Necromonger (Universan Latin for death advocate) are on their way to the fabled Underverse. Underverse, as Dame Judy Dench explains, is the place where the Lord Marshall, as the only one to go and come back, gained his superhuman powers. Those powers seem to consist of moving really fast and sometimes speaking in a really deep echoey voice. He has a really cool helmet but the actor, Colm Feore, doesn't seem up to the role. He seems more the embezzling type but then even Darth Vader wasn't so tough without his helmet.
As everyone surely knows by now, Riddick (Vin Diesel) originally appeared in Pitch Black as an evil prisoner type that helps a few fellow travelers escape some carnivorous crickets with night vision. Riddick has night vision too and we learn in Chronicles that his unusual nature is attributable to his origin species, Furian. Furians are the only folk the Necros are afraid of as they are this universe's version of the US Marines. One of the people Riddick helped escape from the cricket planet summons him to his home world to stave off the impending invasion of the Necromonger. The Necros arrive in a comet like apparition and their ships descend through the atmosphere like giant darts, stabbing the victim planet at five hundred mile intervals. In the opening credits we see the point of such an arrangement as they do a sterilization thing when they leave. They are visiting to draft recruits who are then Necromized by two tiny electrodes in the neck. You now know everything you need to know and can go see The Chronicles of Riddick for the only legitimate reason, the very cool special effects. Not that the dialogue is bad, it's not. It is utterly superfluous, though. This is an action film with a sufficient variety of action settings to relegate the story to the background. It didn't have to be that way. The filmmakers decided to mention some things in passing and then focus on the action sequence. Like the Furians, for example. We don't hear what happened to them or how Riddick came to be one of the last wondering Furians. Or what Underverse is about, or lady Dench's people, the Elementals, or even the Lord Marshall's history. But then if Universal is looking to make this the next Star Wars they want to generate more questions than answers. If this is the master plan, they better get busy making Riddick someone we care about. Hunkness is not enough to carry a franchise, we need to fall in love. With the character, the story, the cute little robots or their equivalent. In the words of a once great Secretary of the Treasury, "I knew Luke Skywalker, Luke Skywalker was a friend of mine, and you, Mr. Riddick are no Luke Skywalker."
Heck, you're not even Han Solo.
Are the only people worth their salt the ones who flaunt convention? Are our mores regressive and destructive? Are these the questions that Irving would have us consider?
The Cider House rules are burned when the occupants of the Cider House determine that the rules do not apply to them. "Written by someone who didn't live here. The rules that apply are the ones we make for ourselves."
This in a film with an incestuous father, adulterous fiance, adulterous best friend, drug abusing and law breaking Doctor, a pretend doctor, and a whole home full of abandoned children. The rules these folk make for themselves harm more than protect.
Or does Irving speak to the power of love? A power that can be either uplifting or destructive, or both. Love in this story ranges from incestuous love of father for daughter, the illicit love of a fiance for another, the pathetic love of fiance for war-injured future husband, the love of abandoned children for caregivers, the love of God twisted and used as a weapon.
What brings Homer back? Love to be sure. But which love? His love for the "Princes of Maine" or their adulation of him?
How sad that it takes a film to make the horror of The Great Depression real. Ron Howard, one of our best storytellers, does exactly that in Cinderella Man. Fifteen million unemployed sounds like a lot until you see Hooverville, the shack city erected in Central Park. Stock market collapse sounds bad until you see Renee Zellwegger, as James J. Braddock's wife, run outside their basement hovel to cry over their youngest boys fever and cough. She can do nothing for him, they have no heat and no access to medical care. Back then, less than three generations ago, there was no health care for the poor, nothing between the power company and the impoverished family, nothing to protect families from being thrown into the street. The homeless were everywhere, the social fabric was coming apart from the strain of too great a number of disenfranchised.
Sounds familiar doesn't it? There isn't a controlled intersection in this city without a beggar with a sign. More than a third of the population use the Emergency room as their doctor's office. And it's only going to get worse. As oil prices continue to rise and the economy reacts with inflation or stagflation or recession or depression those on the edge will be pushed over into poverty and homelessness. And we have no system to deal with it. As long as Rupert Murdoch and the hacks at Fox continue to frame the discussion, we can expect the response from the government to be minimal to nonexistent. The gap between the rich and the rest of us grows daily, the chasm between the rich and the poor widens with each passing hour. The minimum wage allows a family of three to remain above the poverty level but God forbid they have a second child, it means poverty. While the average Congressman's salary has gone up from $135,000 to $162,000 (that is almost $78.00 per hour, a true gross times the minimum wage) since the last time the minimum wage was hiked, the chance of raising the minimum wage to poverty level is as likely as a family of four moving from homelessness to a cheap apartment. The minimum wage is currently $5.15 an hour, that's about $900 a month. If you spend a third of that on shelter you are left with $600 a month to feed a family of four. That works out to about $1.67 per meal per person. And that leaves no money for clothing, school supplies, medicine or birthday cakes. Compare that $1.67 with the $73 dollars a person per meal the average Congressman can spend. But then Congressmen eat for free when they're working so it's not really a fair comparison. I use the Congress because that is the body that refuses to increase the minimum wage to the poverty level, an increase to nearly $8.50 an hour. And these are "good times!" Imagine what a depression would do to the living conditions of those living at the edge. It would make a lot of us look like the Braddock family, shivering in the dark. But I digress.
Ron Howard is a great storyteller. Whether the story is about astronauts (Apollo 13) or firemen (Backdraft) or genius (A Beautiful Mind) or boxers, his empathy for others is transferred to the screen and magically to us. Where Scorsese (another first-rate storyteller) distances us from his subjects - who could empathize with Henry Hill (Ray Liotta in Goodfellas) or Sam Rothstein (DeNiro in Casino) or Vallon or Cutting (Dicaprio and Day-Lewis from Gangs of New York) - Howard brings his characters to us and we welcome them. Scorsese is no less watchable than Howard but he is less moving. As awful a person as Russell Crowe appears to be, he is a profoundly gifted actor. Although Renee Zellwegger, apart from the scene referenced above, does not appear terribly challenged by this role she is still great fun to watch. Paul Giamatti seems a little out of place but that may be due to the power of his role in Sideways. Jethro's dad (Max Baer) can't have been that bad, but it makes for good cinema. Maybe that's a flaw with Ron Howard's films, they make too good cinema. Or maybe I'm just a sap. Who knows, or cares? I enjoyed Cinderella Man and you should too.
City of God 02.14.04
Never having been much on commercial holidays, I went to see City of God on Valentine's Day. Valentine's 2004 that is. City of God premiered at Cannes in 2002, such is the fate of living in this backwater media town of four million. But then what matter that I see a movie like this now or later?
I went expecting to see the irony of the two Rio's, the beautiful and wealthy juxtaposed against the grinding poverty and street life of the lost boys of Brazil. What we saw was children with guns, children murdering and stealing, children dealing drugs. First time director Fernando Meirelles shows us the City of God through Rocket's eyes, a child with an aversion to physical work and a hope to one day escape the slum. The City of God is peopled with many characters, of a psychotic murdering drug dealer, his kinder gentler partner who shares Rocket's dream of escaping the slum, a "Tender Trio" of teenage hijackers, a gang of ever younger boys, and the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Rocket narrates as we jump back and forth from an opening scene confrontation to the seeds of the gangs sown in the 60's, revealing and weaving each characters story into an unforgettable bloody broadcloth. The City of God was a public housing project built in the 60's. The story takes place in the 80's as the projects have descended into the hopeless poverty that dominates so much of the worlds population. Survival is a daily grind made easier by drugs, gangs, and guns. Escape seems impossible. Two characters move to the edge and we pull strongly for both. This is masterful storytelling, no portion wasted, no scene orphaned. Like another story told out of time sequence, Memento, this complex and dense tale unwinds effortlessly and without distraction.
Tragically based on a true story, in the concluding credits we see actual footage of an interview from the 80's with one of the gang leaders as he complains of apathetic police and mindless murder. The high ground in this wrenching tale is standing over a fallen gangster, snapping pictures for the paper.
The Claim 06.18.01
At the end of this film, Mr. Dalglish (Wes Bentley, the drug dealer from American Beauty) tells Hope (Sarah Polley, from Go, eXistenz, and The Sweet Hereafter) that Mr. Dillon (recovering alcoholic from My Name Is Joe) was like a King, pioneering the Old West, starting a town and ruling over its people. King Lear would be more like it. Twenty years ago, Mr. Dillon sold his wife and child for a claim. The apparently worthless claim yields several hundred pounds of gold and Dillon becomes a millionaire and town ruler. The only pioneering would seem to be the sale of wife and child for the chance to become rich and powerful. He spends his time visiting his gold (King Midas now), whipping wrongdoers and running the saloon/brothel with his partner Lucia (Milla Jovovich of Joan of Arc, The Fifth Element, and Maybelliene commercial fame). All is well enough until the day his wife (Nastassia Kinski) comes to town with their now grown daughter in tow. They arrive on the stage along with Dalglish, the railroad surveyer. He is to decide which path the railroad will take.
Mr. Dillon tries to put the past right. He can't, of course, and there's the tale. Told in the grays and whites of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Winter. A hard story about hard people in a hard time.
The Class 03.27.09
Earnest young teacher confronts a roomful of children of immigrant parents in an inner city Parisian public school. No magical turnaround of a struggling school by a dedicated drum major or devoted ex-Marine beauty or a tough basketball coach or community service soccer player. In other words, a foreign film. Had Hollywood intercepted this message we would have seen yet another inspirational tale of how, with the honest dedication of a handful of caring adults (or even just one with a good support group), a cohort of desperate dead-end youths could rise above the grinding poverty and crushing social blocks to lead their people into the promised land of economic independence and limitless commercial consumption.
By the end of The Class I was hoping for just such a Hollywood ending. These children were disturbingly real and their opportunities grimly limited. What does motivate those few noble souls who immerse themselves in the lives of these children despite a social order that long ago wrote them off and an economic engine designed to squeeze their meager resources for an extra dollar or franc on the bottom line? How bad would it be without them? The hope that education offers to the children of our disenfranchised populations is a bit more than the hope offered by the NBA or NFL but only a bit more. In an economic system elevating corporate and individual greed to a level that may yet destroy us all and a media culture celebrating "self-made" millionaires like Trump and Madoff while gazing with awe and wonder at the likes of the Hilton and Kardashian spawn, what hope can there be? Thank you Francois Begaudeau for your book, screenplay and on screen presence in this reality check of a film.
Funny, there were things I would have thought I would like and things I would have thought I wouldn't about Mike Nichols' Closer but they seem to have been reversed. In my mind at least, Julia Roberts always plays someone I like but there wasn't much to like about her character Anna. Seeing Natalie Portman as a grown up sex object I would have expected to be a positive experience but it wasn't. Not that she isn't, she is, but I was so uncomfortable with who she was or had to be that I wanted it to stop. I didn't expect Clive Owen to be as powerful an actor as he was and I expected Jude Law to be tougher than he was. This is probably all a testament to Nichol's direction or the strength of the play by Parick Marber upon which it was based. Closer is an intense and painful story of what can go wrong in love or, more accurately, lust. A 21st century Virginia Woolf.
In a Summer filled with digital Japanese fighters shooting digital American soldiers and 80's pop paeans masquerading as movie musicals, Francis Veber, author of La cage aux folles (The Birdcage) delivers The Closet, an intelligent, funny, and touching look at the power of perception. Where La cage had gays pretending to be hetero, The Closet has a hetero (Francois) pretending to be gay. Oddly, he doesn't change a thing to create this entirely different persona. Some faked gay photos arrive at his office and his co-workers can't line up fast enough to share their "I knew it all along's" with each other. Francois' boring world flips upside down as this previously meek and insignificant accountant becomes the talk (and toast) of the town. Veber presents profound and telling truths about living gay in a hetero world. Starring Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu.
A post-apocalyptic world where mainly men remain. Alpha-male assertiveness dominates, everything heard is derided, civility collapses, small bands swagger, idle conversation is loud and punctuated by forced, chopping laughter. My seat back is regularly thumped by passers by and not an "excuse me" is to be heard. This is the theater I sidle into to see Cloverfield. The film begins with a video test signal over a Property of the Department of Defense background. The video was found in "sector 477, formerly known as Central Park," we are told and it begins with some guy filming his girlfriend's apartment. It's her dad's actually and from the view it must be one of those cool towers you see advertised in The New Yorker. I'm likely the only one in this particular crowd making that connection as my theater mates probably prefer picture magazines. But enough about testosterone overload. Except the guy making the video is eventually asked by his sister to collect testimonials at his brother's going away party. He turns the camera over to his idiot best friend who tends to focus on pretty girls to the amusement of the theater audience. During the party a huge thump occurs and everyone rushes down to the street to see what's up. The head of the statue of liberty comes flying into the street where they stand and we're off to the races. The next hour is a testimony to The Blair Witch Project with a bloated budget. It is very exciting and I loved nearly every minute. After all, I am a guy. By the way, during the movie, two or three guys made their way to the bathroom past my aisle seat. They were most courteous, whispering excuse me and sorry each time. Could I be wrong again?
Code 46 08.27.04
Code 46 is an international law necessitated in our future by the widespread use of in vitro fertilization. What with all these eggs and spermatozoa flying around one needs to know whether or not one is about to liaise with someone a little too close in the genetic pool. Code 46 comes into play in this smart and moving story when an investigator, enhanced in his trade by a voluntarily assimilated virus for empathy, makes an unexpected connection to a suspect in his investigation. He is Timothy Robbins, as elegantly comfortable an actor as we are liable to see these days, and she is Samantha Morton, as inspired and charged an actress as any in a generation. Their connection is the sort we all long for, the lightning bolt that struck a young Al Pacino in The Godfather, the instant and undeniable crashing together of two apparently disparate souls. The love story here trumps the ugly future undercurrent.
In this future, sunlight is so deadly that we have flipped day for night, large portions of the population have been ejected from the safety of the cities, no one can travel without papers, and everything about us, down to our genetic code, resides on a computer database instantly accessible to the "authorities." Tim Robbins plays authority William, investigating the theft of the precious papers that declare their lucky holder to be one of the god people, free to travel and live under "cover," away from the deadly sun. This is a future of John Ashcroft's dreams. The line between the haves and have-nots is clear and unmistakable and the have-nots are out of sight and out of mind, condemned to the barren, wasted countryside. A condemnation that occurs on no more than the intuition of an investigator. No need for courts or juries in this efficient future. The world has been neatly sewn up by a technology that monitors and controls everyone. The bad guys are without cover and the good guys are in absolute control. Just the way it should be. The way that allows teen-agers to be held in a prison camp in Cuba without counsel, without charges and without a hearing. But I digress.
Coffee and Cigarettes 05.29.04
If Coffee and Cigarettes is a compilation of multiple shorts from Jim Jarmusch going back ten years or more starring actors from his films, I want to complain about not seeing Winona Ryder, Gina Rowlands and Rosie Perez from Night on Earth, Forrest Whitaker from Ghost Dog or Neil Young from Year of the Horse. I will happily settle for the rich field of iconic talent laid before us, though, as we watch Warhol superstar Taylor Mead, Iggy Pop, Tom Waites, Cate Blanchett, Robert Benigni, The White Stripes' Jack and Meg White, Joie and Cinque Lee, never old Bill Murray, and several other talents in meandering conversations over cigarettes and coffee. No great truths are revealed, no positions taken, no murders, no sex, just strange, funny and occasionally tender conversations. Great fun, delightful diversion.
Cold Mountain 01.01.04
I called my mom a few years back and asked what she was up to. Watching PBS, she said, a show about Abraham Lincoln and The Cause. The Cause, I asked? The Cause, she answered. Mom, are you talking about the Civil War? Uh-huh, she hummed. My God, I thought, The Cause? Mom wasn't some southern belle. She grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. Racial and ethnic slurs were forbidden. She was born when the roaring twenties were just beginning to roar so how she ended up with The Cause in her vocabulary is a mystery.
In high school the dean of the history teachers, a Mrs. Mixey, would lecture the assembled junior class every year on the truth of the Ante-Bellum south. A place of loving affection and generosity toward the gentle Negro. Slaves were rarely mistreated, she would expound, for who would mistreat their own property? The whole concept of slavery was omitted from her lectures as her point was that the Negro's didn't have it as bad as we might have heard. I failed her class, mainly because I didn't do the work but partially, I like to think, because I called her a racist in front of my classmates, most of whom thought I was rude beyond measure. Cold Mountain is the story of a southern soldier who walks away from The Cause to make his way home and his sweetheart. A sweetheart he kissed once, on his way out the door to battle. Jude Law is the soldier and Nicole Kidman his sweetheart. She is later helped along by a country girl played brilliantly and memorably by the surprising Renee Zellweger. Ms. Zellweger develops a walk for her character that immediately transforms her natural beauty and elegance into the earthy and physical Ruby Thewes. Jude Law is overwhelming as the shy but driven Inman. Nicole Kidman as the Charleston belle Ada Monroe holds her own against these two powerful screen personas. Giovanni Ribisi appears briefly as a scoundrel, Donald Sutherland exits early as the Reverend Monroe, Phillip Seymour Hoffman comes and goes as a challenged man of the cloth, Natalie Portman shows up for an evening, and Ray Winstone plays the sinister Home Front Marshall Teague. I would be hard pressed to find a stronger or deeper supporting cast in any film in recent memory.
Charles Frazier's book, upon which the movie is based, is one of the most captivating and moving novels of the past decade. The long distance walk, the vivid characters, the driven love all flow from Frazier's pen and into our consciousness, forming indelible images of loneliness, loyalty, treachery, sacrifice and longing. It is the longing that so imbues Frazier's main characters with their humanity and the longing that offers the greatest obstacle to filmmaker Anthony Minghella. Minghella's The English Patient offered a similar challenge, one to which he was also up. Ada's letters are heard in voice-over and go a long way to bridging the gap between novel and screen. It is her letter's that set the context for Inman's relentless trek home. It is an Odysseian scale journey punctuated by bizarre and tragic characters and haunted by the specter of the Home Guard The Home Guard was a rag tag bunch of miscreants charged with maintaining order and hunting down deserters in the dying South. In one powerful scene, as the two women come upon a gruesome reminder of the presence and proximity of evil, Ruby announces that God will not long let this world stand. It is a plea and a prayer. The losers in this war were losers twice over, at the hands of the soldiers of the north and their own at home. This was an evil they happily and arrogantly brought on themselves. All to preserve a way of life built on the enslavement of others. The Cause indeed.
I admit it. I needed some help and some time with this one. An Iranian film, in every sense foreign. The film opens with a black screen illuminated by the words, "To the Glory of God." I know it read Allah in Arabic, why the sub-titler decided to use the western God instead of Allah is anybody's guess. The symbolism that I recognized was constant and meaningful. Allah knows how much I missed. The cultural gulf that separates me from the country farmer of Iran is greater than I could have imagined. I have more in common with the homeless guy on the corner.
In any event, this is a beautiful film of a young blind boy nearly and eventually abandoned by his father. The opening scenes show him waiting, with the rest of his blind classmates, for his parents. Turns out he only has one parent, a father bent by a hard life into a mean-spirited shallow shell of a man. The child, Mohammed, locates a baby bird fallen from its nest with his hearing and sense of touch. In a remarkable scene, he climbs a tree with the baby bird in his pocket and returns it to its nest. Get it? You will.
If you ever want to get out of your world for an hour or two, see this film. It is about heartbreak, love, loss and redemption. What more could you want in a movie?
Some time after he walked away from his hit TV show, Jerry Seinfeld decided to discard all his old and work up all new material. Then he filmed the process. The result is Comedian. Although many different comedians make an appearance (in a particularly poignant moment in a film full of poignant moments, Ray Romano listens in uncomfortable awe as Jerry describes starting from scratch) screen time is dominated by Jerry and Orny Adams. Adams is as intense and insecure as anyone this side of the psych ward doors can be.
In what has to be a revelation for most of us, the thought of starting fresh is anathema to comedians. The struggle to work up five minutes of good material can take months. Perfecting the delivery of that material takes years. Seinfeld starts with five minutes and over the course of the film, in comedy clubs throughout the northeast, adds bits until he has nearly forty-five minutes. Early on we see him lose the thread in the middle of a bit. The audience thinks it hilarious, a part of the bit. We know better. It is painful and embarrassing. After months of popping in on comedy clubs throughout New York, he finally develops enough material to go on tour. If conversations with his peers are to be taken at face value, the accomplishment is monumental.
Near the end of the film we see Jerry in conversation with Chris Rock. Like virtually all the conversations that take place in Comedian, this one is in the semi-darkness of a booth in the back of a comedy club. Chris Rock tells Jerry he saw Bill Cosby do two and a half hours of "killer" stuff without intermission. This after we've watched Jerry grind away for months to come up with forty-five minutes.
In Cosby's dressing room before the show, Cosby tells Seinfeld he belongs with the greats, that he has been to the plate and hit it out of the park. On his way home Jerry tells us he's looking for something but isn't sure what. He'll keep looking, he guesses, until he finds it.
The Music Man, The Rainmaker, The Sting, The Usual Suspects and Catch Me If You Can are all variations on this sub-genre of the crime film. Con men, their charm, their elan, their skill at making fools of us, we love them for it. I've always wanted to be one. Who wouldn't? We see them as ultimately redemptive, Harold Hill brings the sleepy town alive with imagined music, Bill Starbuck jerks Lizzie Curry from her Old Maid destiny and delivers her a charged new life, Gondorff and Hooker get the best of an awful man and balance the scales, Verbal Kint gives every meek frightened man hope and courage, and Frank Abagnale makes us all want to go back and do it again with fearless imagination.
The ugly sad truth is seen less often and the result is less box-office and less fun. The Grifters with John Cusack is the grittiest of the confidence films. Anjelica Huston as his damaged and damned mother serves as a reality check for anyone contemplating the con as a way of life. House of Games with Joe Mantegna and Lindsay Crouse in their career best performances may be the smartest of the confidence films. Certainly the most hypnotic, steeped in the atmosphere of the back alley, electric with Mamet dialogue. And no one escapes that house.
So what is the appeal? Is tricking people so compelling? No one likes being tricked. Any of us with half a conscience couldn't do it to others. But boy do we love the tricksters. Edward Burns signed up for his turn at the con this year in the imaginatively titled Confidence. Nothing distinguishes this film from the ordinary but Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of the scary, seedy mobster, King. Another remarkable portrayal created from Hoffman's enormous closet of characters. Burns is not particularly charming, more in the Mantegna than the Lancaster or DiCaprio vein. The obligatory moll, Rachel Weisz, seems particularly obligatory, contributing little if anything, to the story. Andy Garcia keeps his head above water but only just. Franky G (?) as Lupus (no one comments on his name, in itself a remarkable oversight) shows some promise and Paul Giamatti overplays his character to distraction. Despite the overwhelming mundanity of its parts, Confidence kept me in the theater till the end. Coldplay's new hit single, Clocks, was my reward. What it was doing there over the closing credits, I'll never know, but it was nice to listen to.
The Constant Gardener 09.02.05
Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) gets nailed in a press conference by Tessa (Rachel Weisz) and they continue their conversation after the news conference concludes. They marry and Tessa continues her private war against the pharmaceutical giants until she is finally killed. Justin begins the search for her killers with one eye on the couple's best friends. Tessa may be alittle too friendly with one of her male buds. This is an old fashioned who done it with some modern villains thrown in. Fernando Meirelles directs and Cesar Charlone films that rare conversion from book (John LeCarre) to film where the finished product far outshines the original work. This is an achingly beautiful film of hyper-colors and surreal landscapes. The camera is again held by a shaky hand as if the one doing the filming was afraid of what was around the next corner. The last time we saw this style was the equally painful City of God.Drugs play a big role in both films but in Gardener they're the legal kind, the kind that makes billions for the stock market. The hand held work in City of God gave it a street cred not available or warranted in The Constant Gardener. In The Gardener the gritty realism works against the story, not for it. Superior to almost anything out there at the moment.
I'm certainly a big fan of Tilda Swinton and she made the whole experience almost worth it. As the unbalanced archangel Gabriel she was captivating. She wasn't onscreen nearly enough. Racel Weisz and Djimon Hounsou help out when she isn't but dear, dear Keanu is at the center of this latest comic book turned blockbuster. Gavin Rossdale (Bush lead singer and Gwen Stefani's flame) was a surprise but more distracting than additive. OK, that's the cast. Well, except a horribly miscast Peter Stormare as Satan. He doesn't show until the end though and that helps. I did almost walk out about halfway but the nice couple on my right and the punks on my left made me decide to stay. When you decide whether to stay or leave a film depending on whether you want to disturb your seat-mates something is wrong.
What was wrong with Constantine was the story. There's some agreement between God and Satan to stay out of the affairs of humans but that gets violated when the Knife of Destiny is found. You know, the tip of the sword that penetrated Jesus' side on the cross. Anyway, this is a super powerful knife and the finder rules things or something. This is explained in text before the movie starts. Oh yes, apparently there are some extra chapters of Corinthians that tell an alternate version of the world's end. Now I would think that would be found in Revelation and not one of Paul's pastoral letters but then what do I know? So, this alternate version has someone from Heaven helping to bring Satan's son forth to do terrible things. Cue Gabriel. An Archangel that goes crazy? I have some trouble with that one. Does that mean Archangels, and I suppose Angels, can get depressed too? Can they be kleptomaniacs? Or suffer substance abuse issues? Is there Prozac in Heaven? Some mish-mosh precedes all this with Rachel Weisz as a conduit and a lot of talk about suicide being a mortal sin and some other stuff about bugs and Holy Water in the sprinkler system. And there you have it: the latest weak comic plot with 100 million dollars behind it. Why haven't I seen Bad Education yet? Good question.
This might have been about the expected "pay back" the next Republican president will get from the "vast left-wing conspiracy." Real or imagined, deserved or not, an awful lot of people have spent an awful lot of time and money digging up dirt on Bill Clinton. Hillary's allegation that a vast right-wing conspiracy exists and is dedicated to the destruction of the Clinton Presidency is hard to dismiss in the face of the seemingly endless lawsuits and harassment this administration has endured. The unfortunate reality of politics suggests that the next Republican president may endure a similar endless series of attacks in the form of retribution. The cycle will have begun and we should expect presidential (if not all) politics to sink ever lower into the quagmire of character assassination. Enter The Contender. The story of a petty but powerful congressman, Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), bent on blocking the nomination of a woman, Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). When Laine was a freshman in college she apparently engaged in what we would now call unsafe sex, several times, in one evening, in a fraternity house. When confronted in her confirmation hearing with the sordid tale she stoically refuses to respond. Her past and her private affairs are no one's business but hers. We are left to draw our own conclusions about the truth of the allegations. Well, almost. We do see glimpses of photos taken at the time of the orgy, some thirty years earlier.
Jeff Bridges plays the President as a big kid. His favorite thing about being President is that he can order any food he wants and the White House chefs will instantly prepare it. He tries to stump them several times but fails. Gary Oldman is scary and utterly convincing as a small minded pedagog run amuck. Christian Slater makes an appearance as a young idealistic congressman. His scene in the White House waiting on the President is electric. He moves from Wilson's painting to Kennedy's to Truman, clearly in awe of his surroundings and these great men.
The film moves between political thriller and preachy morality play once too often. The swelling strings at the beginning of a stirring speech is just too pat to play.
It does make a strong case for the absurdity of the double standard that condemns a woman for sexual activity while winking at the same behavior in men. Further, we do get to see small minded politicians get their comeuppance. At least the twelve people in the theater with me did. Eleven were liberal democrats and one thought it was a boxing movie. The people who need to see this sort of thing never do. They're too busy plotting Gore's downfall, or Bush's.
I've about given up on the news media. CNN crossed the line some time back and though they aren't as bad yet as the fools at Fox, I still have to work too hard to separate spin from fact. Al Franken appears to have gone off the deep end and thinks he can duke it out with Coulter and Limbaugh and set the record straight. Thoughtful discussion is all gone, the talking heads have become shrieking heads. The reality is the same it's always been, we never really know what's going on unless we experience it ourselves. And even then you and I will see the same event differently. There was once hope that we could approach something like objectivity but it's probably always been an illusion. Still, I thought the news media was there to inform, not convince. Either pretend you're objective or tell me you're a right-wing fascist or a left-wing anarchist, but don't try to trick me into believing you don't have an agenda.
Jehan Noujaim's documentary film about the Arab satellite station Al Jazeera takes us inside the newsroom of what our government says is a militant and relentless propagandizer for radical Islam. What we see is what we always see when we see for ourselves - a bunch of people not unlike ourselves trying to do the best they can in tough circumstances. They're all Muslims and they are covering a war waged on a neighbor. One young newsman complains that it's impossible to smile when he's interviewing a US military spokesperson. "How can I smile," he pleads. That same US military spokesperson, a delightfully unguarded and articulate fellow, comments on his own disappointment over reacting matter-of-factly to broadcast images of dead Iraqis but becoming sick over broadcast images of dead American soldiers. We get to see Rumsfeld denouncing Al Jazeera for hammering the region with anti-American propaganda while listening to an Al Jazeera news anchor berate a producer for bringing a nutcase for interview. The nutcase is an "analyst" ranting about US conspiracies to take over the middle east. The Al Jazeera folk we see come off as a sincere, conflicted, brave and frightened group of journalists covering a war they think should have never been waged. We're all coming to this conclusion these days. Even after Bush's commission says there was no link between Al Quaeda and Sadam Hussein, Bush says there was a link. Russia's President Putin jumped in late yesterday to say he had reported such links to Bush. Maybe Bush will reveal some evidence linking the Chechnian rebels to Osama and return the favor to Putin. Some days it seems we've stumbled into a tea party given by the Mad Hatter. Noujaim's documentary takes us back up the rabbit hole for a quick look around. But we aren't allowed to stay and that's the saddest thing.
And a rollicking good time was had by all. Children of my children will see this on Mystery Science Theater 4000 someday in the future and laugh at the silly science and melodrama. I wonder if I will ever find myself diving just in time under the closing hatch. Once, just once, I want to push the jettison button. Heck, I'd even settle for lecturing the government's top authorities on the impending doom they brought down on us all by their damned insistence on matching the bad guy's super bad WMD's. (That's Weapons of Mass Destruction in case you're reading this in some post Iraqi/North Korea/Iran world.)
The Core refers to Earth's molten core, which as a result of the government's super-secret earthquake WMD, stopped spinning. As everyone should know, the result is a denigration of the Earth's electro-magnetic field with the obvious consequence of super-electrical storms and open-air microwaving of the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, Oakland, etc. etc. The Coliseum (the original) gets blasted into a million chunks of rock, birds fly into windows, planes crash, general havoc abounds. The first half of The Core is classic disaster film, the second half, Voyage to the Center of Earth with better graphics. Most of the pseudo-Phallic shots of the "ship" soaring through magma might have been dropped cutting the film to a more manageable 100 minutes, but The Core was still fun. Who said fun couldn't be inane, even stupid?
Coyote Ugly 08.06.00
I knew I wasn't in the target audience for this paean to the dreams of youth when Violet Sanford (newcomer Piper Perabo - no doubt her real name) turned to her Australian fry cook boyfriend of forty eight hours and confessed her career path of songwriter was at least partly attributable to her mothers love for "Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Simon and Garfunkel." That the writers thought it necessary to attribute the authorship of Bridge Over Troubled Waters clearly meant I was not among my peer group in this theater.
I confess. I'm jealous.
Ah, to identify with a beautiful young woman living alone in New York City, singing on the roof of her sixth floor walk-up, playing her electric keyboard without fear of muggers or rapists. Still better, to become the star among a group of hardened women bar tenders by singing a drunken brawl to somnolence. Better even than that, to be invited to the Bowery Room to sing my self penned anthem to independence. Oh the heck with it, to overcome my stage fright when my fry cook boyfriend throws the breaker in a packed New York nightclub so I can sing in the dark without the fear that caused my mom to abandon her career, (well as it turns out she abandoned her career to raise me, how sweet, thanks dead mom) now that is a youth I would give anything to identify with.
Coyote Ugly isn't as bad as all that, though, at least she wasn't picked up by some rich industrialist and saved from a life of Texas Two Steppin' to the cat calls of a passel of drunken New Yorkers. Instead, she went from pizza waitress in New Jersey to the next Britney Spears in under four months.
Britney who you say? Hah! Got ya!
These films within a film should have been titled, "The Making of Barbarella: Famous Directors and their Progeny." CQ, in addition to being the title of the film we review, is the title of a cheesy sci-fi film in search of an ending. The original director of CQ, the film within the film, (Gerard Depardieu) falls in love with the film's star, Dragonfly (Angela Lindvall), who he met on a protest march in Paris, and is replaced by a schlock artiste who is in turn replaced by the film's editor, Paul Ballard (Jeremy Davies). The films flamboyant Italian producer, Enzo di Martini, does the replacing. Ballard inherits the nearly finished story of a beautiful secret agent enlisted by Earth's Chairman (John Phillip Law) to thwart the plans of revolutionary leader, Mr. E (Billy Zane). Barbarella, for those born after 1970, is the story of a beautiful secret agent (Jane Fonda) charged with saving the world from the evil designs of Duran Duran (not the rock group). Along the way she saves an Angel (John Phillip Law). Barbarella was produced by flamboyant Italian Dino de Laurentis, and directed by Fonda's first husband, Roger Vadim. There are probably another fifty references to Barbarella and Fonda and Vadim I missed, but you get the picture.
CQ is written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola's son, Roman. Beyond the homage to Barbarella, CQ is about editor Paul Ballard's search for meaning through film. He steals film stock from the studio and films every second of his life. An imaginary panel of critics occasionally appears and hacks away at Ballard's artistic endeavor. Ballard's girlfriend is a French flight attendant (the gifted Elodie Bouchez) who delightfully punches through Ballard's self-absorption. "What eef eats boring?" she asks about his self-documentary. Dean Stockwell makes an appearance as Ballard's father and, over a drink in the airport bar, muses over the possibility that Paul could have a half-brother, the product of an affair. Ballard uses this to help cobble together an ending for the film. His father's fantasy, based in the reality of his real affair, is borrowed to help end the fantasy film. His father doesn't make an appearance in his autobiographical documentary. Ballard can't seem to sort out CQ, his autobiography, his real, and fantasy life. We occasionally struggle to tell the real from the imagined but this is after all, an homage to a film within a film with another film thrown in for good measure. Pretty complicated storytelling for a novice director, even one with such a pedigree.
Amy Smart is the only reason I saw this movie, I would have paid to see it as I have almost every film she's made since Rat Race. Jason Statham as Chev Chelios (no kidding) is injected with a poison that will kill him as soon as the adrenaline flow slows sufficiently. He can stave off the inevitable by insuring a continuous adrenaline rush. He accomplished this by killing the brother of the guy who poisoned him, leading the cops through a mall, he crash lands on an escalator in the films best sequence, and consuming large quantities of nasal spray, energy drinks, and convenience store vitamins. His doctor, the delightful Dwight Yoakum, isn't much help and even the bludgeoning heavy metal sound track coupled with an endless stream of jump cuts can't keep Crank cranked. Amy Smart's appearance helps and as she sits across from Statham in a diner hiccupping her way through his confession I am reminded of why I fell for her back in 2001. She revives the flagging film as well as her boyfriend Chev and I happily sat through the balance of this wrenching celebration of the energy drink. I think I saw a credit for Rock Star (a caffeine and sugar enhanced kool-aid concoction) at the end that helped to explain much. Founded by the son of talk radio maven Michael Savage, Rock Star is a proud sponsor of the Girls Gone Wild video franchise. That Chev drank Rock Star to stay alive makes one wonder how much of the film was bought and paid for by the marketers of "energy" drinks that hold out the promise of helping you to "party like a Rock Star." I wonder if caffeine enhanced sodas count as a gateway drug to methamphetamine? Can we banish them as such? But I digress...
"Hold the elevator!," she hollered across the lobby. I threw my arm into the door without thinking. "Going down?" an observant passenger asked. "Oh, nevermind," the hollerer muttered. Not even a thanks chump. Later, in the garage I watched a woman hurrying toward the elevator as the doors were closing. I let them close. I read a poem to the folks who attended the movie discussion I hosted last week. It was by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A German theologian who returned to his homeland to protest the National Socialism of Hitler. He died in a concentration camp three weeks before the end of the war. The poem was about his inner self, scared, lonely, sad as contrasted with what people percieved him to be, brave, compassionate, joyful. Which am I, he asks? Paul Haggis' film Crash asks this question of Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Dashon Howard, Ryan Phillipe, Sandra Bullock and a surprising Ludacris. As homocide detective, street tough cop, ambitous assistant DA, compromised Hollywood producer, naive rookie cop, bitter wife, and black activist thug respectively, this stunningly powerful cast answers Bonhoeffer and Haggis' question - you are both.
Girls on a road trip are so much more fun than boys. They sing, they dance, they generally have a good time. They hardly every vomit, they never make jokes about bodily functions, when they burp they express surprise and embarrassment rather than pride, and when they find meaning it is in friendship. This MTV/Britney Spears vehicle was surprisingly wholesome. Although Brittany may be a bust as an actress, she sings and dances enough to make up for it. Zoe Saldana and Taryn Manning can act, though, and they carry the film. As Lucy's (Britney Spears) childhood friends and reluctant road trip partners, these two are fun to watch and make this otherwise thin story watchable. Anson Mount is Lucy's love interest and reminds us of a younger Billy Crudup.
Interestingly, the previews were all about sex and college. My guess is the audience (pre-pubescent girls and their moms) was a bit taken aback. Who makes the decision about what previews go with what film? Late middle aged men is my guess.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 12.23.00
A beautifully filmed, powerfully acted, compelling story of loyalty, honor, evil, and betrayal. Combining the special effects pioneered in The Matrix, cinematography of the caliber of Snow Falling On Cedars, and martial arts staging of unparalleled sophistication, this extraordinary film sets the bar for kung-fu movies so high it is hard to imagine how it will ever be equaled.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 01.13.09
With Lars von Trier's effect-less DOGME films on one end and Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express on the other, Button falls somewhere to the right of center. In the first quarter of this two and a half hour epic, Brad Pitt's character Benjamin Button appears ancient and Brad Pitt doesn't appear at all. His head is replaced by a digital image. The CGI folks did use a database of real Brad Pitt facial expressions in their creation so one could argue (badly) we are seeing Brad Pitt on screen. The film opens with an ancient Cate Blanchett as Daisy, Button's great love. She lies in a bed in New Orleans as Katrina approaches while her daughter, played by the sublime Julia Ormond, reads from Button's journal. We see the film in flashback with Button reverse aging and Daisy aging normally. Based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story no one I know had ever heard of, it is a love story set against the surreal backdrop of a man who grows younger over the span of the twentieth century.
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