Dan In Real Life 11.18.07
The most interesting thing about this film, besides seeing Emily Blunt again and Juliette Binoche jealous (I've never seen that as I recall and it was delightful), was the little clique of teens in the front row. Waiting for the film to start I watched the one hundred plus folks dribble in with a preponderance of old people, some date couples and then about ten teens. They split up on the first two rows. Three of them acted up throughout, fake laughing at the funny scenes, fake crying at the poignant ones, and silent at the heavy dialogued ones. I almost pitched my empty water bottle at them. Someone did launch a cube of ice that nearly missed the old lady sitting by me and clanged into the rail. They stayed in their seats after the film (how stupid can you be) so I had a chance to speak with them. Speak may be an exaggeration. I quietly dressed them down in colorful language only to notice they were really, really, young. They seemed so shocked that someone would speak to them like I did. Guess their parents gave up long ago.
Dancer In The Dark 10.13.00
Rod Serling used to come on-screen after the opening scene of each Twilight Zone episode and tell us how the character had just stepped/flown/fallen/driven into the Twilight Zone. Five minutes into Dancer In The Dark I was looking around for Rod. A most unusual movie, starring a most unusual person, Bjork, an Icelandic folk/pop singer.
She plays Selma, a single mother saving every penny she makes at the factory (and odd jobs like inserting bobby pins into cardboard displays) for an operation for her son. She is losing her sight, from the same congenital defect which her son suffers, and has to fool the factory's eye doctor (Stellan Skarsgard) so she can continue to work the dangerous drill press. From this tragic beginning, things quickly move downhill. Selma is saved from the crushing sadness of her existence by music. Music she hears on the factory floor, the passing train, echoed footfalls, the air shaft in the wall. Any rhythmic sound source is likely to elevate her to the world of musicals. Dancer In The Dark is, on top of everything else, a musical. Music by Bjork, lyrics by Lars von Trier and Bjork.
Lars von Trier is the writer and director. The same Lars von Trier that co-authored the Dogme 95 manifesto, the ultimate extension of the Independent Film movement. Witness the Oath of Chastity:
"I swear to submit to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed by DOGME 95:
1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a "work", as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.
Thus I make my VOW OF CHASTITY."
Copenhagen, Monday 13 March 1995
On behalf of DOGME 95
Lars von Trier
Ostensibly founded as a corrective action to the "cosmeticisation" of cinema, the Dogme School (I hope calling it a school won't make me the target of Dogme terrorists) seeks to return cinema to a more "genuine" base. One is put in mind of John Waters' latest, Cecil B. Demented. A group of anti-mainstream cinema terrorists seek out and attack anyone guilty of producing mainline cinema. This isn't real, folks, it's a movie! Lighten up, please.
The signatories to the Vow of Chastity are not precluded from making mainline cinema, but they must obey the ten rules of the Vow to qualify for the Dogme label. Certainly much of the Vow is at play in Dancer In The Dark. Hand held, on location, precious little editing, no optical filters in evidence all contribute to the immediacy and harshness of the film and story.
Bjork is believable and compelling as Selma. Catherine Deneuve as Kathy, Selma's friend and protector is equally so. Deneuve's polish and presence serve to underscore Bjork's rawness and distance. We can relate to Kathy, Selma is a world removed.
Dancer In The Dark is a world removed. We certainly haven't heard the last from Bjork. An overwhelming talent, she challenges and confounds.
Having just learned the science of triangulation from the evil Sister (superbly played by Jodie Foster) at the Catholic School, Tim (a delightfully bad Kiernan Culkin) and Francis (Emile Hirsch) cut down a power pole and watch it fall within a foot of them. This is scene one and we know something bad is bound to eventually happen. Vincent D'Onofrio plays Father Casey, a chain-smoking cussing headmaster. When they aren't planning the next dangerous event, the boys are busy drawing scenes for the comic book they hope will eventually carry them out of the middle class wasteland in which they live. Francis falls for a girl (Jena Malone) with a dark secret. The guy behind me in the theater finally quit giggling when the secret came out. He rushed from the theater before the credits were really rolling. Me and the other five stayed until the final roll. The crowd wound around the block for the 7:30 PM showing. Hopefully they were cued up for Altar Boys and not the wholly unnecessary (thanks New Yorker capsule review) remake of The Importance of Being Earnest.
A good portion of this movie is given over to the comic book characters the boys have invented. A very effective device for conveying the angst and surreal life of a teen-age boy. This was an altogether satisfying experience if ultimately somewhat depressing. They do lead dangerous lives, altar boys, and thankfully, this story was not "ripped from today's headlines." The too easy target of the Roman Catholic Church was spared cheap shots.
The guy exiting the theater ahead of me played air guitar to the angst/anger driven heavy metal soundtrack too loudly blaring from the screen. As he reached the end of the narrow, carpeted exit hall he punched the wall several times, shook back his pretend long hair and threw the doors open. Exiting into the brightly lit concession lobby, he immediately resumed his secret identity, shoved his fists of steel into his jacket pockets and shuffled off to watch TV in the back of his mom's SUV. Fitting, I thought, not only is this rambunctious kung-fu movie pointed at the under sixteen set, nothing about it remains with the viewer longer than it takes to get home. Except Bullseye. Colin Farrell plays a quite evil fellow in the employ of the dreaded Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), hired to dispatch a former Kingpin partner. Bullseye likes throwing stuff, darts, little spinning blade things, walking sticks, even paperclips. You have to hear about the paperclips. Some guy in a bar says something disrespectful so Bullseye produces a jumbo size paperclip, straightens it the way a magician would produce the ace of spades, one hand drawn slowly across the other, breaks the clip into five segments and throws them really hard at the bar guy. Each one embeds itself in the poor fellows throat to a depth of at least a quarter inch causing him to die somehow. Like the Kiss of the Dragon thing, sort of a diabolical acupuncture secret. Anyway, Bullseye is kind of fun and kudos to Colin for playing across type as a psycho-killer-throwing-things guy.
I guess Daredevil has been around forever as a comic book character so the kids that go see this probably won't be bothered by the Batman rip-off of "parents killed before my eyes so I devote my life to seeking justice for the downtrodden" theme. Even down to the thug that killed his parents becoming his archenemy when he grows up. And I guess the kids will understand why he has a cornucopia of Darvocet, Vicodin, and other narcotics that he eats before laying down in his sensory deprivation tank. I get the sensory deprivation thing because he can get no peace in the workaday world what with his four remaining senses so incredibly acute. Oh yeah, he lost his vision when he caught a face full of radioactive bio-waste. Like Spidey and every other ordinary guy and gal crossing paths with radioactive waste, he becomes a super-hero. I say we ditch the Superfund clean up thing and bottle the stuff for sale. I'd buy a bottle if it makes me have super powers and stuff, even though I, too, would be a reluctant super-hero, what with all my conflicted feelings about justice, vengeance, right, wrong and stuff. But the super-hero thing seems to be a real babe magnet so maybe it wouldn't be so tough...
The Darjeeling Limited 10.20.07
I know the Owen Wilson character in Wes Anderson's latest effort, a self-possessed brother ready to tell any and every one what to do and how to do it while clearly barely able to maintain his own. Convinced of his own superior wisdom he is blissfully unaware of those to whom he dispenses direction scoffing behind his back. Scoff to his face and he becomes the sensitive victim of your cruel barbs. Tiresome in the extreme. I've managed to avoid mine for years now, only brought into proximity by tragedy. Our shared familial connections are all gone now so I may never see him again. Sad, sure. Unwilling to expose myself to his blustering? Sufficiently so to suffer the sadness.
A few years back a friend asked me to install some sort of ranking system for films. I'm not sure if that was because she didn't want to waste time reading about bad films or if when she read some reviews she couldn't tell if I liked the film or not. As I am often conflicted about film, both in the general and specific, I minimized the choices I had to make when inserting those little tickets adjacent to the film title. One means do not see this film, three means you must see this film, and two is everything else. As I start this review I have three tickets next to the title. For only one reason, Heath Ledger. Because it is so sad and creepy to watch his performance knowing he died before the film's release, I may end up striking one. His is an iconic performance. Like Anthony Hopkin's Hannibal Lecter (Ledger said he used it in his realization of the character), Brando's Godfather, Streep's Sophie, or DeNiro's Bickle, the character enters your consciousness in the film and will likely remain there forever.
Christopher Nolan last worked his predilection with the occasional difficulty discerning the line between good and evil into his brilliantly constructed film Memento. In The Dark Knight he has nearly all the characters representing the correct side of that line often step over it and a few don't come back. Only one or two of the bad guys step over but probably because he doesn't think we're ready for the truth. Much of the horror of our history was visited upon us by people convinced they were acting righteously. If someone believes they are doing what is right, how are they any different from someone else doing what they believe to be right? As difficult as it might be at the moment, try comparing Osama Bin Laden and Dick Cheney. Both are directly responsible for the deaths of innocent people. Bin Laden with the Towers attack, of course, and Cheney for engineering a war against a country that did not attack us. To those dead innocents, do the justifications and explanations of either man make any difference whatsoever? Those who remain get to parse intent and historical justifications, and ultimately each of us is left to make our own subjective judgement about who was right and who is wrong. Hand carved stone tablets, golden plates and implanted dreams aside, is it that simple? Is one right and the other wrong? Can they both not be right and both wrong?
The character of The Joker lays claim to a position outside the duality of our traditional scale of judgement. He purports to represent chaos. He represents it well, disrupting the plans of police, criminals and ordinary Gothamites. But it isn't the character that is the focus, it is the actor. Nolan's treatment of the long running philosophical issues underpinning ethics and morality breaks no new ground, nor does it deepen our understanding of our own choices. What does elevate The Dark Knight from the genre of comic book and graphic novel film is the performance of Heath Ledger. The saddest part is the loss of Ledger's ability to conjure a character so clearly and believably that we can see the world the way The Joker or Ennis sees it. Left to my own imagination I am the poorer for it.
Well now I've heard everything. The tooth fairy is actually a nice old lady that sneaks into children's homes and replaces their last fallen baby tooth with a gold coin. She does that because she really loves kids. Or used to. The townsfolk in Darkness Falls hung her when they suspected she had something to do with a couple of kids' disappearance. The kids turned up safe and sound so she's really really mad now and lurks in the shadows slashing children to death ever since. Only the ones that peek at her, though. If you don't peek you still get a gold coin. The peeking business is about she was horribly disfigured in a fire that burned up her house. She crafted a porcelain mask to cover her scarred face and also to keep the light out. After the fire she became enormously sensitive to light of any sort, of course. You know how it is with really badly burned people. They hate light, or something.
Now one little boy peeked at her and survived. His mom didn't. She was killed on general principles apparently but that's sort of a side point. Not really germane, if you will.
So, for the balance of the movie, our hero (a really cute guy that might actually be an OK actor), the guy whose mom was murdered, takes anti-psychotic meds, buys every flashlight he can lay his hands on and tries to save another little boy who also peeked. His big sister is really a dish so we get a little sexual tension, but not much.
Let's see, what else? Nothing really, except there is a lighthouse in town and they have really bright spotlights so maybe if they can lure the mean old lady into the beam of the lighthouse... Oh, oops, sorry, you haven't seen it yet. So what are you waiting for?
The Davinci Code 05.20.06
The only time any character displays anything close to emotion Audrey Tatou confronts an albino monk and asks him if he murdered her grandfather. Everyone, and everything else is subsumed to Brown's story of the great cover-up of Jesus and Mary's baby girl. It made for a tolerable read in novel form as you rushed forward to find out who did it or what was the answer to the puzzle. Of course great swaths of the Christian world are up in arms over the heresy. Mainly the literalists, though, the ones that believe God wrote the Bible as our instruction manual. Sort of like a VCR engineer writing the instructions for setting the clock and then watching from the ceiling as you struggle to make the conflicting and parable ridden sheet work, offering no further help of course. Setting the Time is like the man who wanders into a dinner party, it reads, and asks a guest what's for dinner. The guest replies he knows not what the host plans to serve yet declares it sumptuous. The man decides to drink the oil set out for the salad and leaves without eating a bite. This is what it is to Set the Time on your VCR. But I digress. I left near the end but wanted to get to the men's room before the crowd. The theater I chose is like most these days, two of the six urinals were covered by a large garbage bag and the toilet's electric eye had been put out by some vandal. Much like the Paradise from which we were thrown. Because Eve listened to a talking snake and convinced her man to disobey God's only rule, not to eat from the featured tree. The one at the center with the big, bright red fruit hanging from it. Chill with me God says, just don't eat from the tree I planted at the very center of this fine garden I put you in. After I fashioned you from dirt and reverse sneezed you into life. But I digress. Jean Reno is good as a sweaty French cop. Even Ian McKellan comes off flat in this ponderous "thriller" of a film. Now maybe if I had no idea what the story was and I wasn't prone to believe the Sun stopped in its track (or the Earth stopped spinning if God had written Joshua post Copernicus) so daylight could be extended to allow more Gentiles to be slaughtered by the invincible Hebrew army, then I might have sat enthralled by the mystery. I still wouldn't recommend it to anyone. The book or the movie, or the Church, for that matter.
The Day After Tomorrow 05.28.04
One of Aeschylus' lost plays was discovered by a Greek shepherd boy in the late 1950's and sold to a visiting archaeologist for the price of a new staff. The archaeologist returned to his native southern California and, with the help of his Greek speaking uncle, translated the lost masterpiece.
Act one introduced us to all the characters in their native environments. Act Two showed us a wandering philosopher exchanging nasty notes via carrier pigeon with the wife he still loved despite the distance that had grown between them over the years. Toward the end of Act Two our hero is thrown to the ground by a mighty jolt. A vision from the Dionysian oracle traced the earth's sudden violence to an overabundant effluent stream from his beloved Athens. Arriving breathless in the city, he tried to tell the city fathers his vision. As Act Two closes we see him rending his tunic at the steps of Apollo's Temple as passers by laugh him to scorn. Act Three opens with the great Athenian quake of 237 B.C. as our hero's prognostications are tragically played out. He saves his estranged wife and child and as the dust settles in a brilliant flaming sunrise the following morning, he eyes the peninsula across the Aegean and makes ready to sail to the new frontier to start again, wiser and with greater respect for mother earth.
Our Californian archaeologist took his uncle Irwin to dinner to celebrate the translation. The valet parking attendant was the last person to see archaeologist Abraham Allen alive. Early the next year, the disaster film was born at 20th Century Fox studio.
Forty-four years later, the crowning glory of disaster films made its way to theaters everywhere. Dennis Quaid plays the climatologist estranged from his wife trying to convince a cynical government that 21st century effluent in the form of green house gases is about to bring a sea-change to the planet's climate. The oracle is played by the great English actor Ian Holm. The story is true to Aeschylus tried and true formula for disaster films and the special effects take Plato's dancing shadows on the cave wall into glorious CGX Technicolor. Multiple F5 tornados rake downtown LA as a two hundred foot wall of water swamps poor besieged New York City. Superstorms converge and suck supercooled air from the troposphere to the earth's surface ushering in a new Ice Age. This is one very cool movie. Look at the story as the line you wait in for Star Tours and you won't be disappointed. Jake Gyllenhaal and Ian Holm were the only two characters we care about, but this isn't a story about people so don't go expecting much when they're on screen. Go for the cool disaster scenes. Well, what I really mean is go to help spread the word that SUV's are killing us. People actually guffawed when the speech came about burning fossil fuels. Abandon all hope, ye who enter the 21st century. Truth is as long as we're air conditioned and can see above the traffic, we just don't care, do we? But I digress.
I probably shouldn't have seen The Day the Earth Stood Still so soon after seeing the latest Indiana Jones installment. Some seemed enamored of the film makers recognition of the age of the lead character, as if that were reason enough to see the sequel times four. The Lost Ark of the Temple of Crystal Skulls reminded me of all the other Indiana Jones films. Maybe because it was all the other Indiana Jones films. Old dusty caves, jungle chases, big dumb jack-booted bad guys, wise cracking Indy, ancient relic imbued with unearthly powers. Sure there's nothing new under the sun but do we have to revel in the sameness of it all? Well yes, if there is a buck to be made. This is how I'm thinking when I buy a ticket to the remake of a film from my childhood.
Buying the ticket I am sandwiched between an old woman wanting to make sure she gets her senior discount and an old man hitting on her. I know you, he says to her, I know you because we are both human beings and we have much in common. He asks me if I'm seeing Slumdog Millionaire. Not today but I'm sure I will though. He and the old woman are both attending the seniors only showing of Slumdog Millionaire.
The crowd attending the third showing of the day of The Day is commenting loudly on the previews. This is not a good sign. These are the people who think of the theater as an extension of their living room. I occasionally read of the experience of seeing a film in the theater as if it were something to be desired, the shared experience with my fellow humans in the dark and all that. For me the appeal is in the size of the screen and the absence of commercials. Sharing an experience in the dark with my fellow humans is pretty low on my bucket list. Especially when my fellow humans are regularly checking their glowing cell phones, shoveling fistfuls of popcorn into their gobs, unwrapping thousand calorie taste treats, and twitching about in their seats like children in need of a bathroom. But then I'm not a big fan of my fellow humans.
Neither are Klaatu and Gort. Klaatu has come as a representative of the other life supporting planets in the galaxy (or universe, we aren't told) to warn us to quit messing around with the planet or face extinction. Just like the original, except the original was about nukes and the remake has been updated to be about the Clean Water Act. And the original Klaatu was played by Michael Rennie while the remake's Klaatu is Keanu Reeves. Michael Rennie had the gravitas for a galactic emissary but Keanu, well, God love him, is Keanu.
Michael Crichton died recently and one has to wonder if The Day shouldn't have credited him for the Andromeda Strain-like assemblage of top scientists to deal with which The Day opens. Or the Swarm-like cloud of metal locusts out to cleanse the planet into which Gort morphs. But Crichton surely wouldn't have allowed the dreadful scenes of medical malpractice or the embarrassingly bad math to make it into the final product. Here we have our first alien life form shot and we send in a sole surgeon to save him, no team of doctors, just an old sawbones. And post surgery, we have some intern watching the monitors. I get better care at the local clinic. And the math, my God the math. The object is first picked up just outside the orbit of Jupiter traveling at four times ten to the thirty-seventh power meters per second and headed for Earth. I'm no astrophysicist but anything to the thirty seventh power is a pretty big number. I'll be right back, I've got to open Excel and do some calculating. Whoa, even if they were saying miles per hour and not meters per second, ten times four to the thirty-seventh power would put the object at the Earth in something like a nano-second or a billionth of a nano-second or whatever. But no matter. Imagine you really do have an hour, like they said in the movie. Would you helicopter your brain trust of scientists to the collision point? In the same film where the Secretary of Defense is calling all the shots because the President and Vice-President have been whisked away to a secure location. A location so secure they can't communicate with anyone outside and have turned everything over to the female equivalent of Curtis Lemay? Who then assigns a Colonel to take over security measures. The Colonel sends a couple of drones in to blast Gort and, when that doesn't work, says to the assembled enlisted folks, "anyone got a better idea?" I do. Have someone with the equivalent of a high school education proof the script. Bad medicine, worse math, and typical government decision making aside, The Day the Earth Stood Still does have some really cool special effects. Download the trailer and you can watch them over and over again while you wait for the day you qualify for the senior discount to Slumdog Millionaire.
For those of you who've seen the previews for Dear Frankie and think you have the whole story already, there is more to it than the previews tell. Anyone who's seen an independent film in the theater in the past six months knows Frankie's mom Lizzie, the perennially pained Emily Mortimer, arranges for the drop dead sexy and soon to be matinee idol Gerard Butler to play Frankie's missing dad. Frankie's dad is the only part of this film not introduced to us in movie trailers thus far. We've been seeing previews for Dear Frankie for a couple of months and the US release is not scheduled until Fall. One can only wonder at the machinations at Miramax that surround this ordinary film. Now ordinary isn't bad, mind you, a rose can be ordinary and still beautiful. And Dear Frankie is both beautiful and thorned. Emily Mortimer's performance leads the beauty parade and we are occasionally impaled by the heavy handed effort to help us "get it." Underestimating an audience is always a mistake and Dear Frankie makes more than one point only to come back to it with megaphone in one hand and roman candle in the other. Witness Butler's (we never to get his role's name) reaction to a bit of hard news he gets from Lizzie. if a double take is one turn back, what do we call six turns? Comedy? Awkward to the point of distraction, certainly. Director Shona Auerbach's first feature is alternately touching and touched. Had less of the story been revealed in trailers, this might have been an almost entirely pleasant experience. Since we know almost everything that will happen before the lights dim, though, we're more likely to notice the unsure hand at this story's center, marking and underscoring the plot elements until they are almost all we see. We can only hope that in memory this sweet story will blossom the way it might have.
I guess you could blame this on the writer. Adam Resnick's credentials include David Letterman, The Larry Sanders Show and the unforgettable Cabin Boy. Ever been to a concert where the band somehow comes to believe the audience is really taken by the song they're playing? They keep doing the "one more time" thing. It can be really embarrassing. Especially when the house lights come up and the audience has gone home. Death to Smoochy goes through at least four "one more times" before concluding with Smoochy on Ice summarizing the narrative for us, "one more time."
In case you haven't seen the trailers, Robin Williams plays Rainbow Randolph a kid show star who loses his show to Smoochy, Edward Norton. Catherine Keener plays Nora, a hardened executive producer for Kidnet. Robin Williams is so far over the top he can be seen drifting into space arm-in-arm with Paul Reubens. Norton manages to make his absurd character at least watchable. Harvey Fierstein plays a mean heavy. Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich) is fun when she's being nasty but when we see her heart soften and her ways change over a shirtless Edward Norton I started waving my handkerchief over my head. This choppy mess reminded me of a two-hour skit from Mad TV. Some funny lines but no sense of propriety and no narrative skill whatsoever. Could the credits be telling us something? Two producers, two more co-producers and four associate producers. What was that about? But really, who cares? Death to Death to Smoochy.
Tilda Swinton opens The Deep End with a crystalline demonstration of acting prowess. She has driven to a Reno nightclub, The Deep End, to try to stop the club's manager from seeing her son, Beau. Her breathless, desperate appearance snares us in the first seconds of this powerful drama and we plunge headlong with her into a deepening and darkening pit of fear and despair. As if caught in quicksand, every attempt to extricate only serves to sink her further. This is a well crafted story of suspense and sacrifice.
The real power of this film, though, is in the stellar performance of Tilda Swinton. Like her fellow Englishwoman, Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds), she is a towering talent and one only wishes her body of work were larger. Both these actresses are capable of making a good film great and a great film classic.
Deja Vu 12.19.06
Action film director Tony Scott takes the science fiction plunge. With Denzel Washington on one end and James Caviezel on the other, the science fiction takes a back seat as these two do battle over a ferry boat of innocents and the lovely Claire (Paula Patton). Aided by Rutgers accidental bending of the space time continuum, ATF detective Carlin (Denzel) takes a peek back in time and quickly unravels the terrorist plot to blow up the ferry. We spend thankfully little time fretting over the philosophical issues as we have only hours to solve the crime and save the girl. Director Scott keeps us moving and guessing while threatened beauty Patton keeps us looking for the full two hours.
Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, the music of Cole Porter, great combination. As is eggs, lemons, and butter. Mixed up right you get hollandaise, mixed up wrong and you get eggs, lemon and butter. The yolks have to separated, the butter clarified and whipped into the lemon and eggs over an indirect heat. Not that complicated, really, but more often than not, not done correctly. The problem with De-Lovely is in the telling of the story. Only rarely do we lose ourselves in the life of one of music's legends and almost never, and here is the real crime, do we get to lose ourselves in the music. From the opening scene with "Gabe" (Jonathan Pryce) and Cole (Kevin Kline) we know we are going to see his life in flashback with editing and commentary from the aged Porter. The pieces of Porter's life we are witness to are spliced between observations from Porter and some smug chiding from Gabriel (yes, the Archangel).
Porter's bisexuality is revealed in almost clinical fashion, his relationship with wife Linda (the brilliant Ashley Judd) served up in sorrowful slices (her pain and Porter's regret always present as bookends for each episode), and the music covered by some unlikely artists (Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morisette of all people). A good story unfolds, this one falls out in a tumble. Still, it's the best we've got on one of the past century's most gifted and complex musical giants and should be seen for that reason alone.
Martin Scorsese is a brilliant filmmaker and all his films are must sees. When he's plumbing the depths of his bad guy obsession his films can be simultaneously riveting and repulsive. The Departed qualifies on all counts, must see, riveting and repulsive. DiCaprio is Scorsese's new DeNiro and he is the centerpiece of the latest Scorsese descent into death. Cormac McCarthy says any writer unwilling to deal with death isn't serious. If this is so then McCarthy is as serious as any writer has ever been. His latest, The Road, deals with nearly everyone's death in a post-apocalyptic world of cannibalism and ash. Not far removed from McCarthy's world of dead people is Scorsese's world of people fixing to be dead. No happy endings (no surprise), awful lot of brains blown out, and an awesome display of acting from DiCaprio. You have to wonder where the anguish and anger he shows us in his interview with Wahlberg and Sheen come from. Watching Vera Farmiga as police shrink watch her boyfriend Matt Damon talk to Nicholson on his cell made us want to see much more of her.
Scorsese seems to have a visceral hatred of snitches. Rats abound in The Departed and we have trouble telling the difference between the good and bad guys at first. They all end up bad guys by the time all the blood is let. Scorsese works hard to make us sympathize with DiCaprio's character and if we can see past the anger and beatings administered by him we do care more for him than anyone. I couldn't tell if Nicholson's charm was innate or Scorsese's manipulation but we shouldn't like the head bad guy, right? Even when he does his rat impersonation? Right? Maybe Martin is talking to us about honor, about being true, about the damnation visited upon the liar. Or maybe he's just saying the world is an ugly and violent place, life is brutish and short and we should be grateful for any illusion of peace we can muster.
Of course, I paid the six bucks to see it so maybe I'm the mark!
The Devil's Backbone 12.26.01
The Devil's Backbone 12.26.01
Haunting. It's the next day, and scenes from this scary story continue to creep into my thoughts. Complex and detailed characters populate The Devil's Backbone. Marisa Paredes and Frederico Luppi as Carmen and the Doctor deliver potent and memorable performances as the pair heading up a Spanish orphanage at the height of the Spanish Civil War. Ignigo Garces and Fernando Tielve are two orphans, Jaime and Carlos, set against a scheming and amoral Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). Carlos is about as cute as they come and a convincing actor.
This is a strong story, even without the supernatural. Add in the ghosts and the curative power of rum in the place of formaldehyde and this is one frightening and sticky piece of work. Not a happy tale but terrifically told. The tragic and complicated characters mixed up with mysticism call to mind the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Like Marquez's stories, The Devil's Backbone comes as a delicate package, once unwrapped the contents spill and stain, inking indelible images. The pool, the ghost, the Doctor's vigil, Carmen's leg, Jacinto's anguish. They will be with me for a while.
The Devil Wears Prada 07.16.06
I'm glad I waited to see The Devil Wears Prada. What better time than a day when Israel is re-bombing Lebanon back into the stone age and Newt Gingrich is featured on American network television offering his prescriptions for American hegonomy into the next century to take in a feature about the fashion industry. Lots of great music what with Madonna's Vogue and Alanis Morrissette covering Seal's Crazy. Surely Anne Hathaway, a classic beauty, won't try to get away with yet another ugly duckling to swan after this, her third. Because I got HBO for Six Feet Under I know who Adrian Grenier is (he stars in the heavily advertised HBO series Entourage) but I don't think I would have otherwise noticed him. Meryl Streep was great, of course, as was Stanley Tucci. Thanks for the diversion, back to the terribly depressing real world (not MTV's Real World).
The diaries of Nijinsky. Really. Read by Derek Jacobi against a backdrop of flying birds, crashing waves, and dramatic reenactments, the diaries tell the tale of Nijinski's descent into madness. Not descent, really, he seemed quite crazy from the outset. The modern diagnosis would probably read something like acute schizophrenia with paranoid delusions. Interesting enough stuff and thankfully, not over long. Even at ninety minutes, though, the countless shots of the crane flying to and fro put me to sleep. Really. The opening shot of the funeral in the woods and the nymphs and satyrs falling into funereal cadence was the best shot of the film. The balance reminded me of the disaster films of the seventies with their twenty minute stories stretched into ninety with endless treks through the jungle or the decimated city streets gazing furtively at the erupting volcano or approaching comet. Nice reading by Jacobi, though, I wouldn't have gotten nearly as much from it had I just read it.
I once avoided children's movies. I didn't read C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, I read the Lord of the Rings in my youth. Someone I know (an adult) suggested I read Lewis' fable of Narnia. A child dragged me to see the "children's" movie, Babe. Expecting the worst from both, I was stunned by how much I enjoyed them. I came to Dinosaur expecting the worst.
I've rented Armageddon four times just to see the Arc de Triomphe damaged but still standing after the Paris meteor crash. The meteor crash in Dinosaur, and the ensuing fallout, are at the leading edge of special effects. The aerial scenes of a prehistoric planet lousy with dinosaurs were riveting. I've always thought of the dinosaurs as a handful of creatures. Seeing them in great herds was enchanting. Visually, this is a fantastic movie. The story is formulaic and the characters a bit too anthropomorphized. Wisecracking monkeys and a wise British accented grandmother I can do without. The story is a bit sappy but moves fast enough to avoid treacle. Most of the characters are caricatures, the evil leader unwilling to listen, the loving mother, the brave, sensitive hero. The voice over in the opening scenes tells us how very little things can make all the difference and then we are treated to characters that bludgeon with personality. Do I ask too much of a children's movie?
At times, though, I thought I was at the IMAX watching film from a million years ago. The recreation of a dinosaur dominated planet is breathtaking.
District 9 08.15.09
We moved back from California in early 1990 following the protracted collapse of the remarkable company for whom we both worked. I couldn't get an interview, much less a job, so I spent the summer watching the First Gulf War on CNN. Second only to the Watergate Hearings, the CNN troika of Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman reporting the first night's rocket attacks on Baghdad made for riveting television. The first President Bush looks better in retrospect than he did at the time, as one is compelled to look past the hideous relief provided by his son. As the war coverage dwindled to endless loops of Schwartzkopf briefings I resumed my search for employment in the guise of a management consultant. An employment agent I knew pointed out I would not likely see any results from contacting company managers as they usually view management consultants as a threat. Get to the owners, she advised.
The artist in Julian Schnabel is clearly apparent in this brilliantly painful film. Beautiful cinematography perfectly framed competed with the incredible story of Elle editor Jean-Do Bauby. Bauby suffered a stroke leaving him completely paralyzed. By winking his eye at the letter he wants to select from the alphabet read to him by an assistant he composed the book upon which the film is based. Max von Sydow is devastating as Bauby's father, Marie-Josee Croze the speech therapist presents one of those rare perfect moments in film as she reacts to Bauby's initial spelling effort, and Emmanuelle Seigner is perfect as the mother of Bauby's children. The real story here is the real story, though, this vital playboy of a journalist persevering to tell us his story from inside his Diving Bell of a body. Can this please make me less whiny?
I would do almost anything to avoid gym class. I was thrilled when our family doctor diagnosed scoliosis. Nevermind this was the same quack that had my parents giving me little tumblers of wine before dinner to build up my appetite. No matter, finally, no more gym class! Instead I was to perform special back strengthening exercises during P.E. The other guy with an excuse from gym was Jeff, a blind wrestler. Jeff would walk the halls swinging his wooden briefcase, the one he got from his uncle in the old country, in giant sweeping arcs, effectively carving a private lane for himself as he went from class to class. He tricked me into wrestling him once. He was incredibly strong and mean and hateful. I'm not sure therapy will ever truly exorcise the demons born under Jeff's sweating torso. But I digress.
Dodgeball is a peculiarly American "sport" pitting hapless children against bigger stronger hapless children haters. The object is to hit the other players with a thrown ball. It is an awful game, good for nothing but humiliation and pain, and one surprisingly funny movie. I don't know if it was the fast pace, Ben Stiller's brilliant characterization of the gym monster, the timely and surprising cameos (Lance Armstrong and David Hasselhoff among them), the politically incorrect humor, or Vince Vaughn's too cool Peter La Fleur, but what should by all rights been an awful film was fresh and funny.
The physical therapist cocked her head left, narrowed her brow, wrinkled her nose and asked, "Did you really go see Dodgeball?" Yes, I said, and so should you.
It's hard to believe this is the same pair that was so fun to watch in Good Will Hunting. What are Matt Damon and Ben Affleck doing in this awkward, inane mess? They play two angels trying to re-enter Heaven (God expelled them) through a loophole. The loophole was created when Christ told the Apostles that what they bound on earth would be bound in Heaven and what they loosed on earth would be loosed in Heaven. The Roman Catholic church (the current day incarnation of the Apostles - according to the Roman Catholic Church), represented by George Carlin, offers dispensation to any who pass through its portal - as represented by a parish in New Jersey. These two renegade angels, then, will take advantage of this offer if they can, but God's word will thereby be invalidated and all existence will cease. Whew! This story by the same writer/director responsible for Clerks (1994). Clerks is the story of two wasted (in every way imaginable) clerks in New Jersey. The film was recognized at Sundance with the Filmakers Trophy. You can't really blame the Sundance festival, after all they are reacting to a Hollywood that produced 15 Halloween movies about an immortal mindless murderer and a Hollywood that turned out Die Hard, Die Harder, Die Harder Goes Hawaiian...
Dogma's writer/director Kevin Smith appears to be writing to the level of the clerks in Clerks. Every other scene has a character explaining the virgin ascension or cardinal sins. Ever hear of the Yaseetimmee scene? It's that moment when the stupid people have the moral explained to them, it's from Lassie, "you see Timmy, the rancher had to shoot those men because they didn't understand the importance of private property."
Painfully done, overlong, uneven. No one, fortunately, appears to take anything about this movie seriously and that may be its only redeeming value. What possible purpose did the close-ups of the Angel's shot off wings serve?
Alanis Morissette plays God, isn't that ironic?
Dogville is the story of a Depression-era American village. The story is told by pioneering director Lars Von Trier, co-founder of the Dogme film movement, dedicated to a stripped down method of movie making. No special effects, no artificial lighting, no artificial action (see Dancer in the Dark for a fuller explanation). Although Dogville is not a Dogme film, it certainly carries on the stripped-down tradition. The entire film takes place on a single stage where the city's streets (all 3 of them) and the resident's homes are drawn in chalk. Characters enter and exit through imaginary doors, everyone is on stage all the time, whether they are involved in a scene or not. The narrator, a flawless John Hurt, fills in details and offers a wry commentary. One is put in mind of Wilder's Our Town, but no one would claim Dogville as theirs.
Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany play the leads as Grace and Tom. Grace arrives late one night on the heels of gunfire heard in the distance. Tom offers her shelter from the gangsters that chase. The town then meets to discuss protecting her and agrees to giver her two weeks sanctuary. Tom suggests, and Grace agrees to offer her help to the townsfolk to help win them over for additional time. We then meet the town folk played by Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Chloe Sevigny, Blair Brown, Stellan Skarsgard, and Lauren Bacall. Ben Gazzara and Lauren Bacall by themselves make the three hours worth it. Every performance in Dogville is superb, to single one out over the others is impossible. No matter the heavy handedness evident in von Trier's delivery, this is one incandescent display of acting talent. More than once we are subjected to a lengthy "conversation" between characters that serves the same purpose as that dreadful mirror scene from 25th Hour where Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) delivers Spike Lee's venomous diatribe as if it were material to the film.
Phenomenal talent aside, the power of this film is rendered in the story, and the story is very dark. The town reluctantly agrees to shelter Grace for two weeks. As the danger in hiding Grace grows, the town looks for quid pro quo from Grace. Her offer of help becomes an obligation and the obligation becomes ever more personal as the men of Dogville seek favors from Grace. The nice folk of Dogville reveal themselves to be craven and mean. Von Trier seems to be saying they needed no motivation, only opportunity. As if cowardice and cruelty are our natural state while courage and altruism arise only as means to an end. Dogville makes this appalling point seem inescapably true and if history is any measure, von Trier is right.
History is filled with institutionalized greed and destruction. Our organized institutions - government, church, - business, operate on principles more aligned with the Dogwood citizenry than the Thessalonians. War, the Inquisition, and child labor mark the pillars of our "civilization" while sharing, generosity, kindness and sacrifice are usually associated with individuals. Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Siddhartha demonstrate the capacity we humans have to rise above our baser instincts. Unfortunately, that capacity rarely makes it above the level of the individual. Once we organize into groups, whether its a clan, tribe, faith, nation or Dogville, our behaviors drift toward the wicked. I have in the past cited great works of art and music as evidence of some more beautiful truth lurking in the recesses of our soul, Dogwood has made me wonder if maybe I'm wrong. Hope not.
It's been a week and I still don't know what to make of this film. I'm glad Mickey Rourke is working steadily again and I've been a fan of Keira Knightley since Bend It Like Beckham. Director Tony Scott has a long and impressive resume and though he seems overly taken with the music video surrealism he learned making the George Michael video several years ago, he makes a coherent and interesting film out of the unlikely story of a female bounty hunter. Edgar Ramirez as Choco, member of the bounty hunter triad, is a surprising and powerful presence that helps the film through some of its slower moments.
My ambivalence is driven by the glorification Scott seems to rain down on this ultra-violent and bizarre true-life character. The daughter of Laurence Harvey, the story is she gave up a modeling career for the life of a bounty hunter. Maybe it's my sheltered life that's prevented me from knowing more models turned female bounty hunters but I'm a lot more curious about what would drive such life choices than I am about her skill with numb Chucks. But that's me.
In a vain attempt to stop time and prevent change, Timoteo (Sergio Castellito) tells his daughter and then his mistress, "non ti muovere," Don't Move. The daughter has been in a bad bike crash and Timoteo, a surgeon, flashes back over the past 20 years as he paces about the waiting room. Sergio Castellito we last saw in the outstanding Mostly Martha. This time around he directs and deftly. Don't Move is told in a complex weave of flashback yet we are never at a loss for context. His love interest is Penelope Cruz in a Theron type makeover playing a not terribly attractive lower class wreck. From her bow-legged walk to her gap teeth, she distances herself from her signature beauty and shows us a depth of talent we might have otherwise overlooked. Castellitto is equal to her power on screen and the two of them are mesmerizing together. Add to that a spare and smart script and Castellitto's direction and the result is a mini-masterpiece of a film.
The story is ostensibly Timoteo's. He exists in a loveless marriage until a flat tire brings him to Italia's (Cruz) door. Their relationship begins the same way Luke and Lara's began in General Hospital, with a rape. He returns to her and leaves some money the second time. Obsessed with her, he eventually takes her with him to a medical conference and begins to contemplate divorce from wife Elsa (Claudia Gerini). Things don't work out as he plans and things end badly for he and Italia. We are left to come to terms with Timoteo's markedly immoral behavior. He rapes Italia but she seems to get over it, should we? Can we sympathize with this man locked in a sad marriage? Is Italia a victim? Is he? And what of Elsa, we don't like her much but should she be treated this way? Is the heart so in command that morality, even decency are relegated to secondary importance? Love creates a train wreck in these characters lives and we try to make sense of the debris. Is the answer in his cry of Don't Move? What is he telling us, change is the cause of his misery? It was change that brought Italia into his life, or was it chance? The daughter is injured on her bike because she failed to fasten her helmet. Chance? Or carelessness? Is carelessness at the heart of these characters tragic lives? Certainly carelessness marked Timoteo and Italia's relationship. Only Elsa appears to have a carefully constructed and controlled life. But we don't like her, she appears lifeless, even cruel. She suffers less than her husband and her mistress, or at least appears to. Her life is only minimally disrupted. Her pregnancy comes at just the right time to hold Timoteo, was it intended to do so? Hers is a planned life and things work out for her, but it is a passionless life and therein may be the message Castellitto means to send. Let your heart rule and you will likely have it broken, rule over it and it will stay whole but hollow.
Little girl (Skye McCole as Jessie) is kidnapped, bigger girl (Brittany Murphy as Elisabeth) is locked up in a mental hospital, big girl (Famke Janssen as mom) is confined to her bed with a broken leg. Jennifer Esposito as NYC Detective Sandra Cassidy gets to wander about making all sorts of clever connections between apparently unrelated homicides but ends up strapped to an ambulance gurney shot in the stomach. Does our storyteller have a problem with women?
Based on Andrew Klavan's novel of the same name, Don't Say A Word takes us though a day in the life of a successful psychiatrist compelled to retrieve a secret from the disturbed mind of a young woman in order to free his daughter from the clutches of an evil jewel thief. One of Klavan's previous works, True Crime, takes us through a day in the life of broken-down alcoholic journalist Steve Everett (Clint Eastwood) out to prove the innocence of a death row inmate mere hours before the scheduled execution. Everett is in trouble with practically everyone because he can't stop sleeping with other men's wives. Does our storyteller have a problem with women?
Klavan's misogyny aside, Don't Say A Word is filled with outstanding performances from some of today's underexposed stars. Brittany Murphy makes a convincing nut case and Jennifer Esposito lights up the screen. Famke Janssen is more than eye candy (she was a model in a previous life) and Oliver Platt as another psychiatrist is his usual charismatic self.
The difficulty with this otherwise well told story lies with two key characters motivation. The bad guy, we are to believe, is obsessed with and spends ten years chasing a ruby. This criminal mastermind pulled off a successful broad daylight robbery of a downtown New York bank but can't seem to get on with his criminal career without this one particular jewel. I mean it's pretty and everything but the Hope diamond, it's not.
The other shortfall is in Brittany Murphy's character, Elisabeth. She has successfully fooled countless psychiatrists into mis-diagnosing her "illness" so as to remain incarcerated in NYC mental institutions for over a decade. Suddenly, in an afternoon, she drops her pretense and agrees to help the charming Dr. Conrad (Michael Douglas) recover his daughter and save her from the bad guys. I don't think so.
I hope no one I know saw me seeing this one. When I read it borrowed heavily from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome I almost didn't go. But I did. Almost walked out when the car chase started but I didn't. Note please the other titles penned by writer/director Neil Marshall - The Descent, Dog Soldiers, Combat, and Killing Time. The quintessential guy film. Babes, rock and roll, car chases, gore, evil government. Evil government? Most macho guys are Republicans aren't they? How did evil government work its way in there? The hero in these testosterone treats usually works for the government, right? A cop or army guy bucking the wimpy bureaucrats to save humanity to be sure but the government itself is honorable. Not here. Doomsday is the story of Scotland being sealed off from the UK so the virus doesn't escape. I couldn't help thinking of our Mexican wall when I saw the thirty foot armored wall across Scotland being welded shut. Mexicans equals deadly virus? Surely not intentional but then one wouldn't have to cast far to hook some ugly symbol of our times. Witness the Bentley stored away in a bomb shelter. Reminds me of the guy I met outside the camera store. Wanted to know about the Prius. Told me he bought a BMW something or other but doesn't drive it. He just wanted it. Sixty thousand so it can sit in a garage. I gave my last five to the homeless woman outside the pharmacy last night. That makes me better, right? I'm having trouble staying on point but then I don't have a lot to say about this sort of pandering filmmaking. I bought a ticket, though. And I stopped by the ATM to replenish my cash after I gave the old woman my last. This pig outside the camera store and me - we're the same guy really. Coasting along in the top percentile with cars and cash and judgments for others.
Renee Zellwegger is a huge talent. Still sensitive, still scared, she gives every role everything she has. Maybe sometime soon cynicism will deaden her spirit and she'll take some dreadful dud on just to pay for the villa on the Spanish Riviera. Or maybe not. Maybe not.
Why in the world would anyone attempt to remake Pillow Talk? A classic of time and place, a remake is utterly condemned to fail. One might as well rewrite Catcher in the Rye. I mean, it's been done, and done brilliantly. Why copy? The obvious answer is, sadly, money. Money and a distressing lack of creativity and courage on the part of the studio.
The sets were properly sixties, Technicolor everything. David Hyde Pierce did a fair imitation of Tony Randall (who gamely appeared in a cameo). The clothes were reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn's delightful paean to fashion, Funny Face. Oops, I hope I didn't give anyone the idea that Funny Face should be redone. The audience was light and varied. As the pink The End faded in, half the crowd was immediately up and headed for the exit. Cue music and out pop Zellwegger and McGregor (truly gifted but poorly cast as Rock Hudson) for a musical finale. The people headed for the exits all stopped dead and riveted. They didn't move a muscle until the final note and the credits were rolling. Down With Love might have worked as a musical. Now there is a reason to remake Pillow Talk, changed, enhanced, different. Another missed opportunity in a sea of them. Oh well.
Multiple choice question: Why in the world would any self-respecting person see yet another version of Dracula? (a) Because it was billed as Wes Craven's Dracula; (b) Because the previews looked interesting what with the new flying people special effects used so often in The Matrix and so wisely in Crouching Tiger; (c) Because it's the post holiday lull in movie releases; or (d) All of the above?
Answer is, of course, (d).
(a) The guy responsible Nightmare on Elm Street (Freddie Krueger), Scream, and The Hills Have Eyes (much scarier than the Elm Street or Scream series) deserves a modicum of attention. A reasonably good filmmaker in a cheesy genre but, as it turns out, he just put up the money; (b) the flying people effects are already tired but it looked like it was made on real film stock and you never know till you pay your dime; and (c) there really is nothing else to see till the new releases.
The most interesting thing about the movie (turn away I'm going to tell the secret) is the answer to the "who is Dracula" theory. Vampires hates crosses, silver can kill them, and they are burnt by the sun. Hmmm, cross, silver, sun. Crucifix, 20 pieces of silver, The Son - aha! Dracula is actually Judas Iscariot, condemned to eternal life outside the presence of God, Hell for sure. Theologically screwy but clever twist, yes?
Nikos Kazantzakis' 1955 novel, The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorcese's film based on his book is rented and destroyed by fundamentalists hell-bent on saving the world from any portrayal of Christ other than the one they know to be the real one) painted Judas as a zealot trying to force Jesus' hand and bring on the war against Rome that Judas mistakenly thought the whole Messiah thing was about. Judas' betrayal of Christ, in Kazantzakis' book and Scorcese's film, backfired horribly and Christ was crucified, not the result Judas hoped for. He couldn't live with the guilt and that's why he hung himself. The Rolling Stones commit the same theological error in their song Sympathy for the Devil when they have Satan insuring that "Pilate washed his hands and sealed his (Christ's) fate." Christ's crucifixion was not the result of evil working through Judas or Pilate but was rather the manifestation of God's plan to reconcile his people (all of us) to Him thorough a second Adam. This Adam (Christ) lived as man and did it right this time, paving the way for our ultimate reconciliation to God through Christ's sacrifice. This is another stumbling block for the literalists in that when they read "the way to the Father is through Me" (Christ), they hold that to mean unless you "know" Christ you cannot get to Heaven. Christ's sacrifice in and of itself, reconciled us to God. We are not obligated to jump through additional hoops (like asking people if they're saved, etc.) to earn our way in.
Whew, hope I got that right, heady stuff!
Back to Dracula 2000. Sad to see Christopher Plummer in such a schlock fest. Oh well, we've all got to pay the rent.
Drag Me To Hell 06.09.09
Scary movie. Alison Lohman plays a "do what it takes to get ahead" loan officer. Hope she gets what she deserves. Talk about the evil dead...
While Stephen King is frequently original and can be as scary as the masters (a short story he wrote for the New Yorker a few Halloweens ago about a child's encounter with the Devil, for example), he is too often unable to escape the big kid that haunts his work. Big scary worms with way too many teeth in way too many rows to be a product of any planets natural selection process and a propensity for the scatological detract from what could have been a wonderfully scary and uncompromised Saturday afternoon trip to the movies. An extra sensory savant, an Army over the edge, dastardly tricky aliens, four good friends playing at Mighty Mouse, a dream cast and the occasionally brilliant writer/director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill and Grand Canyon) were promising ingredients sadly spoiled by gas and gash. Borrowing from Alien (evil toothy things that grow inside) and Outbreak (good Army guy thwarts crazy Army guy) didn't hurt Dreamcatcher's provenance nearly as much as borrowing from the likes of South Park and Beavis and Butthead.
It wasn't the scene where two of the world's top Formula One drivers steal the next generation of Formula One cars and chase each other through the streets of Chicago. It wasn't the fact that they ended their joy ride in the middle of a downtown street and conducted a conversation by the fountain and the police never showed up. It wasn't Sylvester Stallone's imbedding quarters in his rear tire by sliding over them at 200 MPH in his first practice run following a seven year exile. It wasn't the overwhelming onslaught of Marlboro, Target, Miller Lite and Motorola advertising. It wasn't even the race where number one and number two in the World Championship standing abandon their cars to jump into a lake where some moron landed his race car upside down in order to save him from the impending fuel explosion. It wasn't the female journalist falling for Sly in twenty one seconds. It was Burt Reynolds' face lift. That's what made this film truly horrible. Please shoot me if I ever...
Who is fooling who and who cares. By the end of this dreadful exercise in banter as dialogue I certainly didn't. I did begin to wonder about Julia Roberts actual birthday (is she really just 42?) and I did long for Clive Owen to come out on top (could any secret agent be so oblivious?). Let me think (it's been nearly two weeks since I saw it), what was this about? Oh, yes, a film built around an identical conversation that occurs thrice during the film. What a clever device. wow.
Eastern Promises 09.29.07
Fortunately I was prepared for the over the top graphic displays of throat cutting thanks to a review in The New Yorker. Cronenberg, for some legitimate reason I'm sure, includes the most graphic sort of violence in his films. In this film of Russian mobsters in London he has lots of excuses and uses them all. The gruesome nature of several scenes tips the balance for me into the realm of shock horror and away from an otherwise interesting story told by a beguilingly threatening Viggo Mortensen and compellingly damaged Naomi Watts. For the life of me, though, I couldn't see any reason for the film to be made. Like the pointless portraiture of the Renaissance or the mounds of Madonnas at your local museum, one longs for a more meaningful subject. Cronenberg's talent seems wasted on the likes of The Fly and Scanners and put to better use in his Crash and Dead Ringers. I'm just not that interested in the tattoo history of Russian mobsters. I'm sure there's a reality TV show about it anyway.
How do any of us survive our parents? The abusive, dictatorial throwback of a father is finally confronted by his wife, toward the end of this film, as she declares she will not stand by and watch him crush each of their children in his vain effort to show the world what a good man he is. Her accusation is as complicated as his motivation and almost as complicated as real life. He is an Islamic Pakistani man, she is a middle class English woman, and together, barely, they raise six sons and a daughter in 1970's England. The story is the father's story. His hopes for a slice of Pakistan in urban England are crashing around him. How he deals with this reality, or doesn't deal with it, makes this a film worth seeing. Well acted, well told. If only it weren't set in the 70's. What a mistake of a decade!
In 1946. Stalin invites all expatriates home to Mother Russia. He selects the ones he needs to rebuild and imprisons the rest. One in ten survive. A Russian doctor (Oleg Menshikov), his French wife (Sandrine Bonnaire), and their son are among the few. They are assigned to a single room in an overcrowded and dilapidated house. The house is the former home of the "supervisor," an elderly woman who harbors insufficiently secret resentments toward her now landlords, the government. While showing the doctor, Alexi, and his wife, Marie, around, she runs down the rules. Alexi interprets for Marie. The reality of their new life in Russia is almost imperceptibly drawn on Alexi's face. The son asks if Mommy likes it here. Marie doesn't answer and Alexi walks outside. Marie finds him crying in the alley and comforts him with, "you couldn't know, we'll go home to France." They don't. Alexi has been told by the Secret Police of the consequences should he or his family prove anything other than model citizens. This all in the first twenty minutes of the film.
East-West is a powerful and exceptional film of loyalty, devotion, and sacrifice. The full-length black leather coat makes the Russian Secret Policeman look like the evil Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Despite the all to frequent tendency to two-dimension the bad guys, the real story is of Alexi's devotion and sacrifice.
When a character in a film asks, "to what shall we drink" and is answered "death," I worry that IÕve stumbled into an Ingmar Bergman revival. I had intended to see The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite), nominated for best film and winner of best screenplay at Cannes in 2007. Written and directed by the same man who six years ago delivered the freshest romantic comedy since The Philadelphia Story (2002Õs In July), The Edge of Heaven is a long way from the desolation of BergmanÕs Nordic vision.
The man responsible for both films is Fatih Akin, the German born son of Turkish parents. AkinÕs films often reflect the challenge of preserving an identity in the face of powerful and contrary cultural imperatives. He uses this "stranger in a strange land" backdrop as the starting point from which to weave a rich tapestry of thematic elements around an intriguing, intricate and novel plot.
The Edge of Heaven is told in three parts, The Death of Yeter, The Death of Lotte, and The Edge of Heaven. The central character, Ayten, Yeter's daughter and Lotte's lover, careens between Turkey and Germany fomenting revolt, avoiding arrest and generally wreaking havoc. Yeter's lover's son, Nejat, embarks on a quest to find Ayten and maybe more.
It is through AkinÕs dense thematic tapestry where The Edge of Heaven ascends from good to great. The abiding significance of mere chance to direct and control our fate, the struggle for identity in an alien world, sacrifice, repentance, and finally, the power of death to wrench open the doors we thought long sealed infuse a captivating story with richness and meaning rarely encountered in film.
A sad pointless little film, An Education introduces us to a passel of amoral folk dedicated to having fun. Unlike the wastrels in more classic tales of the idle rich (as told by Fitzgerald or Thackeray) these hedonists practice their meaningless lives at the expense of recently widowed little old ladies, professional educators, and those whose love and sacrifice they callously disregard. The young woman who casts her education aside (she's Oxford bound) does so because she fears boredom. When confronted with the criminal source of her paramour's lavish lifestyle she bolts only to change her mind (literally two minutes later) upon hearing his heartfelt justification - he isn't as clever as she and stealing from others is the only way he can continue to have fun. Had this sordid tale been set in the USA they would have made ideal guests on the Jerry Springer show.
Peter (Stipe Erceg) and Jan (Daniel Bruhl) break into villas in Berlin, rearrange the furniture and leave behind an accusation, "You have too much money." Jule (Julia Jentsch), Peter's girlfriend moves in with Jan and Peter and immediately takes a dislike to Jan. We know where this is headed. Jan and Peter's protest of bourgeois capitalism is soon complicated by Jule and her debt. Julia Jentsch made The Edukators in 2005, the year before the release of her breakthrough work, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. She is yet another European actress on a par with the best cinema has to offer and she makes The Edukators compelling viewing.
You don't set out to make a cult classic. They happen. Like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or Night of the Living Dead, they appear well below the radar screen and build an audience over time. Mars Attacks was an attempt to create this phenomenon and it shows. Kitsch is not made, it is appraised. Intentional kitsch is hollow. Eight Legged Freaks is a shameless effort at creating kitsch. Shame on all involved. Make your money selling images of Christ in trees and leave the movies to movie makers.
What is it with the blind martial art masters? If there is some deeper meaning to making the great master blind would someone please tell me. I've never been much of a fan of Terrance Stamp anyway. That aside, I wonder if there is something wrong with the fascination with comic book heroes. Marvel Comics certainly mined that vein for all it was worth, Daredevil was dumb (oh yeah, another blind person) and the only thing that makes this spin-off of Daredevil worth seeing is Jennifer Garner. And not for the reasons you think, I think we're seeing a great talent just beginning to blossom. Hopefully her film choices will take her a little way from super buff heroine but we can only hope.
The move on the porch in the rain was tops, unfortunately it came early on and disappointment settled in in the ensuing fight scenes. I saw an interview with her last night and learned she did her own stunts and worked really hard. She is just tooo precious in real life, seems to get a real kick out of what she's doing. It shows in the work. I'm a fan. But don't forget this is a movie based on a second or third tier comic book.
Gus Van Sant makes two types of films, those that might be confused with someone else's work, and those unique and distinctive to Van Sant. Type one includes Good Will Hunting, Drugstore Cowboy, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, type two include Gerry and now Elephant. Both films carry us through ordinary events toward a devastating conclusion. In Elephant we see several high school kids in a typical day. I forget how miserable that age was. No one respects you, the world looks really ugly, you're a physical and emotional wreck, everyone is constantly telling you to get control of the life over which you have utterly no control. Reading back over this I'm not sure how much things have changed in the decades since. The story begins with John (John Robinson) taking the keys away from his drunk dad (Timothy Bottoms) so he can get to school in one piece. He's late and gets detention from the quintessentially condescending school authority figure. The school is in Oregon and this day two students come to school heavily armed. We meet them early on, on their way into the school carrying duffel bags of guns and ammo. Van Sant flips back and forth during the day, constantly switching perspectives from one student to another. The multiple stories cross during the day and with some really nifty camerawork and editing we see several scenes from multiple perspectives. They all lead to the event and it's scary. Scarier still is our time with the two killers. They plan the murders as if they're planning a trip to the local park. They are calm and collected as they pick out their targets. It is unsparingly gruesome.
What makes Elephant different and valuable is the pedestrian manner in which Van Sant presents the two killers. They aren't hysterical, they're not even particularly angry. We see them watching some old Hitler footage but they barely know who Hitler was. Sweet looking Eric (Eric Deulen) plays some beautiful Beethoven at home the morning of the event. He struggles with a passage, stops and flips off the page of music. It's as angry as we see him. I'm not sure what Van Sant is telling us here but it is chilling to watch.
Amy Adams has been a favorite since Junebug. There is a charming story of her Junebug co-star encouraging her when Adams felt she would never gain a wider success and getting in an "I told you so" when Adams was nominated for Best Supporting. Now she gets star turn in Disney's cartoon/musical/fantasy along with Patrick Dempsey and Susan Sarandon. Dempsey went through a much more serious period of self-doubt and emerged intact while Sarandon has to be one of the more grounded superstars around. Must have been an entirely healthy experience for all involved. Certainly was for the audience. Seeing this film immediately after Before the Devil Knows You're Dead did make the positive aspects of Enchanted stand in starker relief than they might have. Enchanted is ultimately all about Amy Adams, though, as it is impossible to imagine any other actress able to imbue her character with the sincerity and charm necessary to pull off the construct. Pull it off she does and I could watch again and again, as I have Adams' scene from Junebug when she first meets her new sister-in-law. It is a moment of pure perfection in acting. The story is a mix of Snow White andd Cinderella and we can't help but lament the disappearnce of the Disney imagination. It's all been a rehash since Walt left in much the same way Apple will likely brown when Jobs leaves and America died forty-four years ago.
I couldn't help wondering what the Kennedy clan thought when, about halfway through this blockbuster, their Hollywood star was hauled up as the crucified Christ in the alley behind St. John's church. We are told that only a pure heart can defeat evil. Arnold plays a boozing ex-cop scarred by the brutal murder of his wife and child. Now he's a bodyguard for the rich and evil. Pure at heart? I couldn't make the leap. The obligatory "Satan tempts Christ in the desert" scene takes place in Arnold's apartment. Al Pacino (Satan) tempts Keanu Reeves (Christ) in The Devil's Advocate in the same strained manner. If we have to endure this scene to make the allegory complete why don't we go for the minimalism that works so well in the Gospels? Arnold, like Christ, emerges purified and sets out to save the innocent girl (Christ reconciling us to God?).
Jesus with a Glock 9mm, oh dear!
Director Michael Apted's most significant work will likely be remembered as his ongoing documentary of fourteen British subjects. The documentary began in 1963 with fourteen seven-year-old children. Every seven years since, at fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight, thirty-five, and forty-two years of age, he has returned to this group and talked with them about the changes the years have brought in their lives. Interspersed with interviews from years past, every new film is a revealing and touching look at what it means to grow. As a feature film director, Apted is responsible for Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorky Park, Nell, and now, Enigma. Each of these, his best films, share a common trait, they take us close, intimately close, to their subjects. We can feel their breath in our face, their suffering, their relief, their joy and sadness are palpable. Whether Apted's gift for the personal springs from his documentary film work or some other, more internal source, it is a welcome and refreshing change from the digitally enhanced lives ever more frequently frequenting the silver screen.
Asked by friends about this film I have described the cast as Kate Winslett and a whole host of English actors. In all fairness, although Ms. Winslett is brilliant as the bookish Hester Wallace, the star of this film is Dougray Scott as Tom Jericho, the tortured genius of Bletchley Park, the British version of the Manhattan Project. Bringing the best and brightest together in a giant code breaking effort, the British broke the German encrypting machine, Enigma. Jericho is portrayed as the man behind Colussus, the worlds first "thinking machine." That accounts for his genius, the tortured part comes from his broken love affair with Claire, played by Saffron Burrows the statuesque beauty from the groundbreaking Timecode. Superspy Wigram is played by the devilishly elegant Jeremy Wortham. A British Admiral (Colin Redgrave) arrives at Bletchley early on and steals the show in his fifteen minutes on screen. The Admiral is there to find out how long it will take the super-geeks to break the new code, the superspy Wigram is there to find out who is leaking information to the Germans. All the ingredients are in place for this excellent suspense thriller.
The screenplay is written by Tom Stoppard. You can tell it's Stoppard when Wigram leans into Jericho to explain why his loyalty is in question, "You're the genius who broke the code and you're the only one here who was ****** into a nervous breakdown by the blonde who has now disappeared."
Slim (Jennifer Lopez) has had "Enough" and beats her abusing husband, Mitch (Billy Campbell - Mr. Sensitivity from Once and Again) senseless, after getting a couple weeks training from a Special Forces retiree, paid for by her dot.com mega-moneyed estranged Dad after unsuccessfully trying to hide from said husband and his accomplice, Robbie (Noah Wyle - Mr. Sensitivity from ER), with Joe, her "bad in bed" former boyfriend Joe (Dan Futterman - Mr. Sensitivity from Judging Amy). OK, all done. Enjoy!
Oops, forgot Juliette Lewis (Ms. Sensitivity from Born Again Killers) as Slim's girl-buddy, Ginny. And Seattle, a ferry ride, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and a car chase or two. No sex, good amount of violence, lots of gratification for women wanting the upper hand (or bejeweled brass knuckles). OK, now, Enjoy!
I had no idea. Traders on tape calling power stations and suggesting shut downs!?! Wholesale energy prices increasing by 300% overnight, rolling blackouts, the end of the otherwise promising political career of Gray Davis and the ascension of yet another movie star to the Governor's mansion!?! I thought Enron was about 20,000+ people losing their jobs and many times more losing their savings. These tragedies were secondary to the real story - a deregulated energy industry in the hands of a few power/money mad oligarchs. Sounds more like Russia after the fall than America's seventh largest company collapsing. Smartest guys in the room indeed. What these guys did was lie and steal on a scale so massive that no one could get their arms around it until an insider blew the whistle. The great engine of our economy is no longer a tangible product or even a service, it is the price of stock. Since no product or service is involved, no external measure is applied (no customer), hence business actions are evaluated on a single basis, increased stock price (see A Business Primer).
Incredibly, we hear Ken Lay decrying the reduction of his net worth from 200 million to a measly 20 million. As a citizenry we are shocked and dismayed that such a tragedy could befall a great man like W's Kenny Boy. Where is Robespierre when you need him?
Although I admit to only seeing the last hour of this made for teen, made for sequel dragon flick I got to see all the big name stars that somehow made it in, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Robert Carlyle, Djimon Hounsou and the voice of Rachel Weisz as the dragon. That it ends with the unveiling of a big bad mean dragon coming out from behind a big bed sheet smacks of sequel. That twelve years separate the boy from his romantic interest means they better hurry. No need to tell me when it happens as I don't think I'm liable to spend another hour of my waning time in another dragon movie.
A couple in the row ahead of us reacted to this movie in much the same way that little children react to Toy Story. When someone did something terrible, these folks booed and hissed as if Snidely Whiplash himself were tying Nell to the tracks. When someone did something good they cooed like they were watching a baby take its first steps. This movie pushes all the buttons. Big bad faceless evil company, lawyers, dying children, jealous co-workers, the only thing we didn't see was an endangered species saved from extinction. No, wait a minute, that frog she fished out of the water... Are we so desperate for uncomplicated good guys beat bad guys themes that we'll swallow this pabulum and call it meat? I try so hard not to be cynical. This movie makes it impossible.
Who are these people and why do they keep manipulating me?
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 03.20.04
Ever said, "I wish I'd never met you?" In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the wish comes true for Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey). The ever original Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation) delivers another penetrating look at he way we relate, or fail to. Joel maintains a running internal dialogue wherein we learn he's a pretty miserable guy. Clementine is just loopy. We meet the two of them on the beach, Joel too miserable to make it to work and Clementine just seems to be frittering.
Kate Winslet nails another offbeat character and Carrey makes good on the promise made in The Truman Show. He has recovered from The Majestic and leaves no doubt about his ability to carry a dramatic lead. Mark Ruffalo is brilliant as a semi-slacker tech geek. Michael Gondry directs the brilliant cast (Tom Wilkinson plays the inventor, Elijah Wood a tech assistant and Kirsten Dunst the receptionist) and delivers some flashy special effects as we see memories recalled and deleted.
Without spoiling the terribly clever construct, I can tell you Eternal Sunshine is about how enormously difficult it is to establish and maintain intimate relationships. In Kaufman's world, no one is really cool, no one has it together, and no one understands anything about anyone else. This is a world most of us know only too well. What Kaufman does for us is lay these truths out for us in a non threatening way without judgment. The result is more than we have any right to hope for in a motion picture experience, living is made a little easier.
One would think with all this talent Evening couldn't miss. But it does. I turned to my seat mate about half way though and said, "this is barely a step above a Barbara Cartland romance novel." I thought if I had to look at Vanessa Redgrave on her death bed one more time I would smother her myself. When Meryl Streep does finally appear and craws into bed with Ms. Redgrave the microphone somehow manages to get in between them. When you can hear the tongue leave the roof of the mouth in preparation for forming a sound, you are TOO CLOSE. Every breath, every parting of the lips, every movement of the head on the pillow were all faithfully rendered at a decibel level equivalent to a garbage disposal. The final insult was delivered when these two characters see each other for the first time in forty years and no mention is made of the brother who died at their last meeting! Instead their conversation centers around the hunk they both loved back then. Patrick Wilson is cute enough but really, no one is that cute. No, final insult was the final shot of the film. A shot of, guess what, Evening! Yes, a sunset. So that's why this is called evening. Aha! I can die content.
Everything Is Illuminated 10.09.05
By the time I exhausted My mom's fading memory I had three lower case g's by four people I'd never met. They had all died a century and more before I was born and from them I had inherited a gene here and a chromosome there. Maybe great great great grandmother Nellie had dirty blond hair and a propensity for arrogance. More likely I have as much in common with them as the guy who lives across the street. The day of the hurricane he was out with a push broom hurrying the water to the drain on the corner. Every holiday he sets up a slide projector and beams Happy Valentines or whatever onto the side of his condo. Not that there is anything wrong with that. It's just not something I would do. And that is the point. What is it about our ancestors that they hold any interest for us? What do we expect? Were they famous or infamous? Rich or poor? Did the Bishop preside at their funeral or were they cremated by the city along with the days refuse? Does it make any difference either way? Are we somehow validated by our parents parents? Or condemned by the great uncle?
Everything is Illuminated tells the story of one mans search for the woman who saved his grandfather's (and by extension, his) life. He runs into some memorable characters and a surprise or two along the way. It is brilliantly colored and beautifully filmed. Not everything is illuminated, however, and some parts of this memorable film will remain mysterious. Why did the old man toss the coat and walk away? Why did he finally walk away? What did the woman do to save him? If this was all supposed to be magical realism we should have had a clue early on. Maybe I missed it.
Two anti-establishment types join forces with an established but quirky scientist to take on supernatural forces in the face of opposition from stupid entrenched bureaucrats. They save the world (or a small portion of it) and gain recognition and respect from the community and the government. Sound familiar? Ivan Reitman put five years between Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II and another ten years between Ghostbusters II and Ghostbusters III, doh! I mean Evolution. Responsible for some of the most original comedy film entertainment of his generation, one can't help but wonder why he would resort to recycling earlier successes. In the words of the immortal Hip-Hop genius Nelly, from his timeless tune, Ride Wit Me, "Hey, must be the money!"
Julianne Moore takes a turn at some physical comedy while David Duchovny begins to distance himself from The X-Files (hey Dave, stop fighting aliens!). Orlando Jones is funny, Dan Aykroyd is not, and Seann William Scott (star of Dude, Where's My Car and Road Trip) will continue to copy Sean Penn's Jeff Picolli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High until someone puts him out of his misery.
Beam me anywhere but here Scotty.
Exorcist: The Beginning wasn't half bad for the first half hour. Once Father Merrin (the accomplished Stellan Skarsgard) reaches the dig and we meet Sarah (Izabella Scorupco) The Beginning goes bad. The story meanders around the dig and the clinic for a nearly interminable hour, accomplishing nothing but using up some film and that hour I'll never get back. Once the Devil appears in full possession color and facial scratches, Exorcist: The Beginning falls into the pit. Father Merrin chases the Devil around and about a cave for a good fifteen minutes, throwing holy water and commands while the Devil alternately recoils and shoves him. About as frightening as a parent at Little League. Oh yeah, the Nazis make an appearance, several actually, and in black and white, sort of Spielbergish replete with a little innocent girl. had I known this was the same director (Renny Harlin) who brought us Driven I might have saved myself the price of admission. Driven I described as "truly horrible." That's pretty strong, even for me. Exorcist: The Beginning wasn't as bad as Driven. It was bad alright, but Stellan Skarsgard made it tolerable. The Devil made it silly.
Now, here's the truly horrible thing. There were at least a dozen children in the theater. Children children, not adolescents. And they were with their parents! I plead guilty to not standing up and hollering at these pathetic excuses for parents. I should have but I just didn't. And that was the worst thing about the whole experience.
The super close-up of the lighting of a cigarette would have a place in The Insider but in this movie it's just another gimmick. This is a gimmick movie, from the imagined daughter, to the sound rifle, to the ending. And if it were just a gimmick movie I might have enjoyed it. Instead I have a huge problem with this movie.
The object of our protagonists obsession is a woman we initially meet in the act of stabbing an unsuspecting lover to death. Within another twenty minutes, she has murdered another fellow on a train ostensibly for a $5,000 jewel he carries in a matchbox. She steals a fur coat off a baggage cart as she leaves the murder scene. We learn later, her father abandoned her on Christmas day. Ah ha! Now we know why she murders people. Her first parole officer "taught her to survive." We can only assume that means murdering men as a means of income. This is a thoroughly horrible human being. We are clearly supposed to feel sorry for and understand and forgive her psychopathic behavior. Our protagonist does. He begins following her around for months. She falls in love with a blind wine magnate whom our hero inadvertently murders in an effort to stop the wedding. Before he accidentally kills him, though, he beats him up while warning him that our heroine is using him for his money.
My problem with this movie is the director's unveiled effort to make us like these characters. Or at least understand and feel compassion for them. They are, nonetheless, utterly without any redeeming qualities. They are victims, to be sure, but does victimization justify? Explain, perhaps. Justify, no.
I don't suppose it really matters much, but I can't decide if Bush is a dangerous idiot being led by the bookish Wolfowitz and the diabolically arrogant Cheney or a Christian Fundamentalist remaking the world the way God would have it. Color me prejudiced but it's hard for me to believe anyone who repeatedly demonstrates the inability to construct a simple declarative sentence has enough brain cells to hatch much of a plot for world domination. What would fit the evidence is that he is a Christian Fundamentalist whose faith is being used by the smarter and manipulative puppet masters Cheney/Wolfowitz. In the end it doesn't really matter which scenario is right and matters even less whether I figure it out or not.
Moore's take is that 911 provided the excuse for this administration to invade Iraq and dramatically erode our civil rights through the passage of the Patriot Act. He doesn't spare what he sees as the inept Democratic leadership and tells us at least one thing we didn't know. A series of African-American members of the House of Representatives made to protest the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of African-Americans in the Florida polls. In order for the objection to be debated prior to the Senate's certification of the 2000 presidential election, at east one US Senator had to sign the objection. None did. Moore doesn't tell us why and that would have made an interesting sidebar to Fahrenheit 9/11. What he does do right is spare us the scenes of the World Trade Center collapse. Instead, we hear the screaming jet engines and explosions on a black screen. What we do see are the faces of New Yorkers looking up at the burning buildings. The next ninety minutes is taken up with shady connections between the Saudis and the Bushes, the Bin Laden family and the Bush family, where George W's money came from and the "real" reason we went into Iraq.
Moore returns to Flint to find a mother who lost her son in Iraq. The human side of this big picture conspiracy becomes the more moving one as we listen to his last letter home and follow mom to the White House. There she is accosted by a truly despicable woman. "Where did he die, where did he die?" this horrible woman repeats in scornful disbelief. Here is an obvious Bush supporter. A woman that would probably agree with Rush Limbaugh's appraisal that the prison guards at Abu Ghraib were just "blowing off steam." A woman who likely believes, as does teen pop idol Britney Spears, we should accept what our President tells us. Sweet, albeit dangerous naivete. Where do these people come from? The ones that think we were right to launch the first unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation on the basis of lies and double talk. The ones that think there is no connection between Halliburton's windfall contracts in Iraq and its former CEO our current Vice President? The ones that think Iraq is going to work out, that Afghanistan will become a bastion of democratic ideals? The ones that believe our worst environmental president in history favors clean air and water over corporate profits. But I digress. And I worked really hard not to this time.
Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 seems a little rushed. Too many threads in the conspiracy fabric were left dangling. Some of the energy left the film as we spent more time with the grieving mother. When she bends over sobbing, the camera bends down with her. A little distance from this woman's pain would have been a relief. But maybe that's the problem, we allow distance between our country's bomb and the inevitable result of angering still more Fundamentalists. I heard a report the other day that Al Qaeda turns down nine out of ten volunteers. As long as we continue to act as if our unchecked power is license to fashion a world to our liking, Al Qaeda's recruiting offices are likely to remain full.
The Fall 06.09.08
A Russian remake of the 1981 Bulgarian original Yo Ho Ho. A fairy tale. The Russian remake is set in 1920's Los Angeles where Roy and Alexandria have landed after falling. She from a tree picking fruit, he from a railroad bridge over a river. The opening sequence is the scene immediately after his fall/jump. We see everything in super slow motion as help is summoned and rope tossed. The first of many visually stunning images. The Fall may be about something more important, the redemptive power of love or the sin of suicide or the power of illusion but the energy and focus of the filmmakers seems to be on visual imagery. The beautiful butterfly coral, the orange sand dunes, the sandstone castle all take your breath away. But like postcards of the wine country or National Geographic photo essays, the images can be strikingly beautiful or just striking but the substance is in what the images represent, the laborers who work the vineyards or the children displaced by war. What underlay the magnificent imagery of The Fall is a mystery to me.
Arthur and his boyfriend were hanging onto the VW bus as it took off up the hill. The teen-age boys were still hurling insults and eggs as the van carried them to safety. It was the mid-seventies in the Castro district in San Francisco. Gay bashing was not getting much press back then, but these boys were not done yet and this story would find its way into the national media.
It was Arthur Dong's first experience with the anger and violence of gay bashing that would inspire him to produce the award-winning documentary Licensed to Kill. Filmed shortly after Matthew Shepherd's beating death in Utah, Licensed to Kill takes us into the prison cells of men convicted of murdering gay men. Talking with Arthur from his Los Angeles office recently, I asked him about that experience. "I met most of those men seconds before the cameras rolled. For many, it was the first time they talked of their crimes at that level." Arthur was surprised at the frequency of references to family and religion. Determined to understand what bred the contempt for homosexuality that led these men to murder, Arthur Dong turned his camera on three conservative Christian families with gay and lesbian children.
Family Fundamentals takes us into the home of Susan Jester, daughter of Kathleen Bremner, a Pentecostal church leader in San Diego, Brett Mathews, son of a Mormon Bishop, and Brian Bennett, who, from 1977 to 1989 served as chief of staff and campaign manager to outspoken gay rights critic, Bob Dornan. Susan, Brett and Brian share shattered families in common. Susan no longer talks with her mother, Brian talks with his surrogate father Dornan through a call-in radio talk show, and Brett gets weekly letters from his parents with suggestions for a cure. Filmmaker Dong easily moves between Kathleen Bremner's living room, Brian Bennet's bedroom and Brett Mathew's hotel. Ms. Bremner hosts a meeting of the ministry she founded for parents of children who have "become gay." The mother of a man who died from AIDS talks of wanting "them all to die" and then wanting to "save" just one. Brian shows us photos and memorabilia of his time with Dornan while defending him as a complex and multi-faceted man. Dong cuts to Dornan condemning gays and lesbians from the floor of the House of Representatives. In one of the films most touching scenes, Brett comes to terms with his estrangement. Hoping for reconciliation, he flies home for his grandmothers wedding. His family agrees to participate in Dong's documentary but refuses the moment he arrives. When his parents recommend electric shock therapy, Brett loses hope and packs his bags for home. The moment is relentlessly recorded by Dong. I asked him about the obvious difficulty of remaining detached as he films. "Remaining silent at those moments is the hardest thing. I can feel the pain and have to let it happen. If I let myself be drawn in, I'll soon have nothing left."
The contrasts are stark and drawn without comment. We see the Kathleen Bremner talk of compassion and condemnation in the same eerily even tones while her gay grandson describes the pain of her condemnation. Bennet's tearful description of his break with Dornan is followed by the Congressman's almost glib recollection of events. Brett's anguish is played out against his father's letters calling him to heal his homosexuality.
In our conversation, Arthur talked of being baffled by "this fundamentalist god that has taken hold of our culture." Mystified by the mentality of "us versus them," he hopes his films can spur dialogue across the chasm that separates us. To that end, he formed an advisory board for Family Fundamentals, drawing individuals from Christian Fundamentalist as well as gay and lesbian organizations. I asked him if his board meetings were a challenge. "I wish I could afford the airfare to bring them all together in one place," he answered. He plans to conduct town hall type meetings in "cities where it might help carry the message."
A message forged twenty-five years ago in the Castro district of San Francisco. The same boys that attacked Arthur and his boyfriend bludgeoned an Episcopal priest later that same night. The pain and violence born of judgment and intolerance does not discriminate. Family Fundamentals shows us the damage done within what were once loving families.
It's A Wonderful Life in color. Tea Leoni is in Donna Reed's place and Nicholas Cage in Jimmy Stewart's. In the original, Jimmy Stewart contemplates (with the aid of an angel) what life would be like without him. In the remake, Nicholas Cage (with the aid of an angel) contemplates what life would be like if he'd made different choices. That seems familiar. Oh yes, Bill Murray did the same thing in Scrooged. If only he had been less ambitious he might have married Karen Allen and lived happily ever after. Less ambition, more love. Less greed, more generosity. Wait a minute, I know that theme. A Christmas Carol! Dickens! Watching a preview for the Coen Brothers upcoming film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I was reminded that the Sirens calling the hero away and the one-eyed monster were once used by Homer in another blockbuster epic, The Odyssey. Is there nothing new under the sun?
Retread complaints aside, Tea Leoni and Nicholas Cage are great fun to watch. Who wouldn't go back and choose Tea Leoni if they could!
Glenlivet must have paid a fortune for their product placements. Every time our hero became a little stressed he broke out the 25 year-old scotch and hammered back six or eight ounces. "You must have needed this every day," he exclaims of the anti-Jack, while holding a Glenlivet bottle aloft. For a moment I thought we were looking at a remake of The Thin Man with Nick (Dick Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy). Awakened by a crazed murderer in their hotel suite in the middle of the night, Nick Charles prepares martinis before re-retiring to bed. At least Nick and Nora's gin bottle was not held lovingly aloft for a close-up.
I wonder, do the producers have any problem contrasting the film's theme of unselfish love and generosity with setting up the hero as a booze hound in order to make some extra bucks?
For some inexplicable reason an intelligent comedy peopled with gifted comedic actors suddenly lurches into the silly, nay stupid, world of The Three Stooges. Chasing each other around a house littered with casserole laden stumble bums, The Family Stone drops like one through the floor of intelligent comedy into the basement of banal slapstick. Until that point it had promise. Sarah Jessica Parker, playing against type as a tightly wound prudish workaholic joins subtle straight man Dermot Mulroney, an upwardly mobile (up from The Hot Chick to Wedding Crashers) Rachel McAdams, a surprisingly overwrought Diane Keaton, a well cast Luke Wilson and the delightful Caire Danes work well together in the unfortunately seasonal The Family Stone. In one of the more jarring and badly advised about faces in screen comedy history, about an hour and a quarter in, everyone begins to flail about in a nonsensical orgy of pointless physical attempts at humor. Slipping on pudding, crashing into gift laden tables, running cars in !surprise! reverse and even drunken dirty dancing, The Family Stone appears to be taken over by the moribund spirit of Buster Keaton and crammed giggling into the grave occupied by few films so awful. Enough already it ends soon after. Please no sequel. Please. Please. Please.
Much has been made recently over the slump Hollywood seems to be in. Ticket sales are down, attendance is down, DVD's are up, the era of the theater is threatened. Hollywood breathed a sigh of relief this Monday as the revenue from The Fantastic Four exceeded all expectations and brought in just under $55 million in its opening weekend. Some fellow whose job it is to track such things commented, "Comic-book movies, if properly marketed, are exactly what mainstream audiences want to see..."
A friend of mine said she saw War of the Worlds and didn't like it. "All those alien laser beams barely missing Tom Cruise, too hard to believe," she complained. Unlike some, who believe Tom Cruise should be lasered for disparaging the psychiatric profession, my friend simply lost her suspension of disbelief early on and so the whole film was wasted on her. I rarely have that problem. Even when I know the slow creep up the stairs is only there to heighten what passes for suspense these days, I still jump when the monster appears from behind the bedroom door. I get hypnotized along with the subject in films where hypnotists appear. Maybe that's why I'm such a big fan of movies, I'm ready to believe anything. But I digress.
What bothers me is the money counter's comment about comic book movies being what people want to see. I think he's right. More distressing, though, is what that tells us about the general population. When Westerns were king we could believe audiences longed for a simpler time when right and wrong were more clearly defined. When musical comedies were guaranteed box office smashes we could choose to believe audiences needed an escape from the terrifying reality of the Cold War and nuclear holocaust. What do we tell ourselves when comic books top the public's wish list? That we need super heroes in this time of ubiquitous terror and world leaders who take their cues from a literalists interpretation of the Bible? A couple of guys came up my driveway this weekend as I was in the garage doing laundry.
I think the same mental failings are at work in the fundamentalist who buys into a God that writes books on how to live and the moviegoer who prefers a comic book hero to a real life character. My guess is the person bowled over by The Hulk or The Fantastic Four has more in common with the fellow who believes the Bible or the Koran to be the work of God than the person who thinks the Koran and the Bible were penned by confused mortals struggling to understand their place in the world. Like the Witnesses in my driveway and the rest of the literalists who believe Jonah spent three days swimming in the digestive fluids of a whale, a too large percentage of our population would rather see a super hero vanquishing evil than an ordinary person struggling to understand what makes people so angry that they're willing to die to send a message.
I find the internal conflicts Sam Bicke wrestles with in The Assassination of Richard Nixon to be infinitely more interesting than the two-dimensional struggle Dr. Reed Richards has over his inability to express his feelings for Sue Storm, aka The Invisible Girl. Sam Bicke was the fellow Sean Penn portrayed in the recent non-blockbuster movie The Assassination of Richard Nixon. We see Sam Bicke descending to a place where he is willing to die in the process of murdering Richard Nixon, just to send a message that even the little people can be powerful. Now here is a film worth thinking about.
I do remember looking forward to the next issue of The Fantastic Four as a child. The Human Torch was always making me mad and The Thing both scared me and elicited my sympathy. I never cared for The Invisible Girl much and, like the Torch, found Mr. Fantastic's stretching abilities more gross than exciting. My interest in the Fantastic Four was short-lived as about the same time I began to learn about the real world and found characters like Charlemagne and Machiavelli more entertaining than the Silver Surfer and Spider Man.
Cool special effects, of course, but unlike Sam Raimi (Spiderman's director) Tim Story fails to plumb the depths of Stan Lee's always conflicted super heroes for the more universal conflict between doing the hard/right thing and the easy/wrong thing. The result is a simple and entertaining film. Now I like entertaining as much as the next guy but I think it's a shame that Hollywood gets bailed out of a weak season by a film as simple and two dimensional as The Fantastic Four. I only have to look as far as the national news to understand why. GOOD vs. EVIL, film at eleven.
I've got to stop going to see comic books made into movies. As soon as I see Transformers, I'm done. I refuse to see another X-Men or Spiderman or FF4-3. Escapist entertainment certainly has its place, as does candy, but neither really does you any good despite making you feel fine at the moment.
FF4-2 introduces us to one of the cooler comic book villains/heroes, The Silver Surfer, but does so with no respect for the character or us. He tells Sue his story and we all jump over to his side even though he is busy bringing ultimate destruction to the planet. The back story of the Surfer is far more interesting than what we get, Sue and Reed in love, Johnny and Ben fighting/macho bonding, Dr. Doom playing Snidely Whiplash, everyone trying to separate Surfer and board. The back story would be far too complicated to deliver to the screen so we are left with the dregs of Fantastic Four lore. Too bad, but how much can you expect from a peppermint stick?
"We're looking for something like what we had in the Heights. Turn of the century wood frame Victorian." This in answer to a question asked at our going away party of where we planned to live in Southern California. On the way home I was challenged, "Why in the world did you tell them that?" "What?" I answered, no idea what this was about. "That we lived in a Victorian house." "It was Victorian, wasn't it," thinking I might have the style wrong. "We lived in a garage apartment!" No way. Really?!? Oh my God, you're right.
I was not trying to impress, not consciously, at least. I had recalled the house as a wood frame Victorian style. It existed all right, but our landlords, the Judys lived in it. Judy I was intense and driven, Judy II the polar opposite. The interplay between the two was worth every minute. The house I recalled was theirs, not ours. These days, I often wonder how much of my past has been similarly altered. Did my second grade teacher Mrs. Montgomery really have us all holding hands to teach us about the conductivity of electricity? Did Sandy Lively ask me to go steady or did I ask her? Was there ever a Sandy Lively at all?
I haven't yet found any incidents that are entirely made up. Dressed up, sharpened, made more attractive, yes, but fabricated from whole cloth, no.
We often hear about the idyllic fifties. A simpler, happy time. Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, Leave It To Beaver. The new television brought these white, carefree, whole families to us as icons if not role models. Mom was always in a dress, often with petticoats, the kids squeaky clean, and dad brought home the bacon without ever having to work nights or weekends. Houses were huge and problems were small. Was it really that way? Or is that they way we would like to remember it? Both my parents worked, the kids shared bedrooms, problems seemed insurmountable.
So, what is the reality of that era? Happy and carefree or bubbling just below the surface, ready to boil over in the sixties as cultural and social revolution. Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes latest gift to cinema, would have us believe the latter. As the title suggests, this story of hidden and not so hidden lives and prejudices, is a lot closer to Hell than Heaven. We see the seamy underworld of homosexual hideaways and the snarling face of bigotry rise to the surface of what began as a picture perfect fifties period piece. With the flowing script of the opening credits and brassy over-orchestrated score, we are taken back to a time before our writer/director's birth. Mr. Haynes is drawing on something other than his memory to paint this Rockwellian landscape of smiles, parties, and fifties small-town life. Dad (Dennis Quaid) works late a little too often, though, and the replacement gardener is a little too buff to make us think this happy life will last.
Far From Heaven is beautifully rendered, brilliantly acted, and smartly told. Julianne Moore is magnificent as the suffering spouse and Dennis Quaid powerful and compelling as the sexually conflicted cause of her grief. The talented and under utilized Patricia Clarkson is Cathy's best friend "L."
Dennis Haysbert plays the gardener, and his character is as perfect as we would like the fifties to be remembered. He has a business degree, a profound appreciation of Modern Art, looks like a million bucks, and is raising his daughter alone, having been widowed a couple of years back. He has taken on his father's business and meets Mrs. Whitaker (Julianne Moore) as he assesses her back yard. Despite his profession, we see him only in the cleanest of freshly pressed attire and not once with a tool of his trade. Mrs. Whitaker is the idealized homemaker, always elegant, never a bad word for anyone, ready to forgive her oddly wayward husband, featured in the local society paper. Things are a little too perfect. Like the opening tracking shot of David Lynch's Blue Velvet, the colors are a little too vibrant, the small-town scenes too perfect. The fifties of David Haynes, like the suburbia of Lynch's Blue Velvet, is drawn too sharply to pass for real. Where the contrasts in Lynch's masterpiece are drawn to delineate the false sense of security we too often too willingly accept, Haynes over-done fifties landscapes are more distracting than defining. The heavy Bernstein hand on the score is clearly about invoking the noir of the fifties but instead comes across as tinny and overly loud. This is memory embellished, the fifties as icon, unreal and distanced.
As a story of lives shaped and squashed by a judgmental and Puritanical society, Far From Heaven works. Its relevance is unfortunately neutered by Haynes' too stylized portrayal of an era beyond his experience.
Fast Food Nation 11.23.06
The stellar cast had little difficulty overcoming the docu-drama feel of Richard Linklater's latest salvo. His scatter gun approach to film making has thus far brought us such disparate works as Slacker, Before Sunset, Waking Life, Bad News Bears and A Scanner Darkly. From a tribute to the underachiever to romantic, hopeful love, from a verbose search for meaning to a Little League remake and a cartoon vision of an apocalyptic future, no subject is too exotic or too mundane to avoid Linklater's fragmented yet singular vision. Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Patricia Arquette, Esai Morales, Bruce Willis, Ethan Hawke, and a becalmed Avril Lavigne show us the seamy side of beef that underlie and link the illegal immigrant trade with the marketing of the nasty garbage that passes for dinner in most American households. Fast Food Nation is a broad indictment in a target rich environment; so many subjects come under Linklater's unrelenting gaze we almost miss the young man left to die in the desert as his countrymen scatter in the glare of INS headlights. The importation of illegal workers to work the slaughterhouse is only one of many ugly truths illuminated in Linklater's study of The Big One, a fictitious stand in for the ubiquitous fast food chains that supply the fattest nation on earth with their dietary staple, the cheap, fat laden burger. Coming on the heels of Super Size Me one can't help but wonder how we continue to wolf down secret sauce and indeterminate meat by-products with little regard for the long term health, and social impact of food substitutes thrust down our gullets by marketing wizards who've convinced us we can "have it our way" and wash it all down with a Big Gulp. All for under two dollars! Bring the family!
Atanarjuat is the fast runner. Faster than his big brother and faster than the three Inuit's chasing him across a melting ice shelf. This is the story of evil personified. Evil comes to this subsistence level culture and wreaks havoc over two generations. Filmed on location by an Inuit, starring Inuits, dedicated to Inuits, set to Inuit music, this is Independent Film taken to its logical conclusion. Reality cinema unlikely to make it on Fox.
These folks eat raw everything. By everything, of course, the exclusion of anything reliant upon photosynthesis is understood. Rabbit is at the top of the Inuit menu. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner usually consist of hammered seal flesh. Fire is apparently only used to light the igloo interior. Cooking would presumably melt the home, hence the seal tartar.
Our horizons are broadened by such work. The mystical life of the Inuit is as rich as their diet is poor. Their world is inhabited by spirits and ancestors reincarnate. As differrent as anything we've seen since Dancer in the Dark, another product of the frozen north, Icelandic folk singer Bjork. What about that endless expanse of white inspires such richness in its people?
You never know. It might have been OK. But, of course, it was terrible. Really, really terrible. Ready? A crazed serial killer (the talented but unfortunately heavy Stephen Rea) kills a hemophiliac girl. She wants revenge (now she's dead mind you) so she takes advantage of the little known secret power of the Internet to harness and return energy (karmic, electrical, kinetic, hydroelectric) by becoming a website developer and killing everyone who logs on to her site. She kills them by rolling a white ball toward the viewer (symbolizing the energy harnessed by the internet) that makes the victim bleed as if they had a hemorrhagic fever. She was a hemophiliac, so this is irony? poetic justice? gibberish?
The real purpose of this website from the beyond is to encourage a good hearted person to find her dead body. She (the hemophiliac victim of the serial killer, in case you've lost the thread here) swallowed a lipstick container with the address of the serial killers favorite killing place, a deserted power plant - more irony right? So as soon as this good hearted person logs on they get the same white ball treatment as all the bad folk, but, if they follow the clues to where her body is dumped and then hang around the morgue while the autopsy is performed so they can get the lipstick case with the killers locale inside, and then find the serial killer and kill him, all within forty-eight hours - the time it takes to die after you get the white ball treatment - they get to live and the world is again at rest. The secret Internet power source is used to unveil a serial killer in his evil lair, a power plant? Maybe the lipstick container with the note was "planted" to lead us to the "plant." Yes, that's good, more irony, or is that onomatopoeia? Anyway, the evil serial killer is rooted out (sorry) and his energy precipitously depleted.
FearDotcom is filmed mainly in the dark with lots of swirling colors and scary images. Bondage, torture, and screaming are prominently featured. About the only good thing is its length, barely ninety minutes.
Yes, you never know.
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