Like The Usual Suspects, The Machinist might be better the second time around. Once you know the secret, odd scenes make more sense and the complexity that drives the film will, I think, fascinate rather than perplex. Not that The Machinist wasn't riveting the first time around. Christian Bale's first appearance was startling, emaciated, almost skeletal. We soon learn he hasn't slept in a year and the odd things that begin piling up make us uneasy and eager for answers. We get the answer ultimately and it explains, satisfies, and closes this dreadful exercise in madness. Dreadful in its genuine meaning for everything about The Machinist makes us shrink down in the seat and wish the theater were just a little warmer. Christian Bale demonstrates a dramatic range only hinted at in his previous roles. Jennifer Jason Leigh is adequate but has trouble sharing the screen with the overpowering Bale.
Not for the feint of heart and most assuredly not for someone with a secret to hide.
The dancing version of Spellbound , Mad Hot is more concerned with the group than the individual but the power and charm of the children bursts through in all its radiance and beauty. We follow three New York City public schools on their path through the qualifying rounds enroute to the championship. Their instructors are delightful, none more so than the fifth grade teacher who breaks down talking about her charges growing into young gentlemen and ladies. A shame we can't all stay ten forever.
The woman exiting the theater in front of us groaned repeatedly.
This is the same guy responsible for Boogie Nights. I should be careful, I did not see Boogie Nights, and it might be a good movie, but Burt Reynolds? Now there's a fellow worth watching. Have you seen him in the diamond commercial? Doesn't the poor man have any friends to tell him how stupid he looks?
Wildly successful first film earns the director the right to do anything for the second. OK, I get it. I just wish if a movie is going to be that bad it wouldn't be that long.
What was that tortuous rambling "I loved my wife" scene with Jason Robards about? And who cares? The only character anyone could possibly care about was the cop simpleton. Everyone else was a pathetic victim or victimizer. The theme "you may be through with past but the past ain't through with you" bludgeons the viewer repeatedly throughout. I went straight home and took a shower.
And the frogs, My God, what was that about? Our signal to let our people (read past) go?
What a horrible mess of a movie. Scene after awful scene. It looked like the director wanted to get everything he'd ever seen or knew about film into one movie. Might as well take all your favorite foods and plop them in a blender. The same result, a sickening mess.
Groan, groan, groan...
I was so uncomfortable with this truckload of treacle I could barely contain myself. When the entire town follows Luke (Jim Carey) and his former flame down the middle of the street the lady behind me leaned forward and asked me if I needed a doctor. All I could get out was a hoarse cry for a lobotomy. I fear nothing else can erase the memory of this awful event. Unless, maybe I can get blacklisted, drunk, crashed, and taken for a missing war hero. Oh no, that would just be amnesia. Hey, maybe there's a movie here.
Calling this sloppy sentimentality would be to honor it. It is pandering and insipid. Shame on all involved.
Great acting by Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber. Totally wasted on a someone's really stupid idea to remake a very clever film from forty years ago. There were no surprises here, just updates. Commies become multi-nationals, Korea becomes Gulf War, hypnotism becomes brain implant. About half way through I was afraid the movie had stopped. Talk about building slowly to a disappointing finish. And dumb. No, not dumb, stupid. Dumb doesn't know any better, stupid is as stupid does and boy was this stupid. One example, the nominee for Vice-President checks into a hotel and unbeknownst to any security personnel the room next door is actually a state of the art operating theater, not a hotel suite at all. Wow. Denzel was brilliant, though, and I'm glad I saw it for that reason alone.
It was almost two hours in before Denzel (Man on Fire) actually combusted. Until then he anguished and sweated and smoldered but no actual flames. He prevails upon his old Army buddy (Christopher Walken) to get him a bunch of guns and grenades and rocket launchers and kindles himself into a Man on Fire. He's burned up because the little girl he was guarding was kidnapped and killed. Sadly for us, the little girl (Dakota Fanning) was the high point of the film. Denzel was good, of course, and Walken is always fun to watch when he isn't scaring the daylights out of you, but the only character we really care about is little Miss Fanning. When she gets 'napped the life sort of ebbs away from the movie. Her mom (Radha Mitchell) was absolutely dreadful. About two-thirds of the way through she suddenly discovers her Texas dialect. Dad, J Lo's new boyfriend Marc Anthony, is simpering and painful to watch. The direction is very MTV with jump cuts in and out of color and lots of zooms and jumpy pans. It all looks very immediate and thrilling but it isn't. It is overlong, overwrought, overblown and should be overlooked.
Why does comedic genuis live so close to madness? Johnathan Winters, Freddie Prinze, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Andy Kaufman. I have heard it said that comedy is about pain. Is great comedy about great pain? Pain so great that it unhinges its victim?
Hard movie to watch.
Johnny Depp plays a gypsy, a gypsy who oblutes his hands before meals, rides his horse everywhere he goes, loves children, hates injustice and oppression, works for Harry Dean Stanton's opera company and often looks meaningfully into the distance from which we learn of his painful past, his agonizing search for truth and beauty, his unswerving dedication to family ("all children are my children for we are all one"), and the suffering he must endure for the sake of love. Oh yes, and he cries. Cries when the love of his life (Christina Ricci as a diaspored Russian) leaves recently occupied France for America. He is The Man Who Cried. Unless it's Susie's (the name the evil empire English assign to her at the British version of Ellis Island) father, who emigrated to America, stopped singing because the world was unjust, moved to Hollywood, married a nice Midwestern girl, became a famous producer of musicals, and suffered a nervous breakdown because the production of movie musicals stressed him out so. Stopped singing and became a movie musical producer. Hello? Anyone home in the writer's guild?
Cate Blanchett plays a gold-digging chorus girl who takes up with the evil Italian opera star played by John Turturro. She is, as always, worth watching. This film, sadly, is not.
Let's play a game of pretend. Pretend Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, a barber in Santa Rosa California circa 1950, in the feature film The Man Who Wasn't There. Pretend the filmmakers take us on a philosophical journey into the heart of alienated twentieth century man. Pretend Ed Crane plays an Everyman so stultified by his environment, so dead to emotion, so disconnected from his fellow human beings, that he stands helpless as a cold and violent universe collapses in on him. Pretend that our existential hero helps us to understand ourselves and our world though the magic that is great cinema. Is this Becket? Camus?
Allrighty then, stop pretending and welcome this, the latest installment in the Coen Brothers bizarre and twisted body of work. Sometimes brilliant, occasionally insightful, periodically disgusting, often confusing, frequently inspirational, and always entertaining, these two aliens are responsible for some of the most original films of the last fifteen years. Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother..., and now, The Man Who Wasn't There. Is this film a serious attempt at existential exposition? It's hard to tell with these guys. Just when you think there onto something, kapow! a cream pie right in the kisser.
Their films careen wildly from insidiously clever repartee to gruesome murder to outrageous slapstick. Is there a cohesive message? Is the lack of one their statement? Like H.P. Lovecraft, the master of supernatural horror, we can never be sure where they're coming from or where they're going, but the ride is usually worth it.
March of the Penguins 08.04.05
These precious little birds live in sub-zero Antarctica and trudge sixty miles to their mating grounds to pick out a mate and lay an egg while attempting to stave off starvation and death by freezing. They keep from freezing to death by huddling coming together in a huge penguin huddle, circulating the outer ring of birds inward in a constant roiling motion. This is done by the dad penguins all the while holding their one egg on the top of their feet and covering it with their distended and empty belly. The dad penguin does this while the mom marches back to water where they feed enough to regurgitate sufficient quantities of food to keep the baby penguin alive once hatched. All this is caught on film by some rather dedicated documentary film makers. Patrick Marchand does the undersea filming while Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison film on the ice. Luc Jacquet directs the project and we are the beneficiaries. Mr. Jacquest was one of three cinematographers on a Swiss film from 1993 titled The Congress of the Penguins. Would seem Luc is obsessed with the world of the penguin.
I can't watch a film like this without comparing the subject to us. Whether it's bees or ants or penguins, I invariably find us to be losers in the comparison. I'm a big fan of the language, tool usage, opposable thumb, indoor plumbing, all the things that distinguish us from the lower levels of the taxonomy table, but compared to the complex dance bees do to advise the hive the latest flower find or the strength of the ant or the sacrificial life of the Emperor penguin, humans come off wanting. Bees don't kill for entertainment (hunters), ants aren't threatening the ecosphere of the planet (all of us) and penguins have yet to develop the means to annihilate all life through nuclear firestorm (governments). I do marvel at whatever bizarre twist evolution took to deprive penguins of the ability to fly. Flying to their mating ground would be so much easier. But then we wouldn't have this marvelously diverting and inspiring film with which to while away a Saturday afternoon.
Well of course it's by the same guy who did The Squid and the Whale. Noah Baumbach infuses Margot (Nicole Kidman) and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with so many neuroses one wonders if he isn't maybe the illegitimate son of Woody Allen. Margot at the Wedding was my first choice today but when I arrived at the theater they told me the first showing wasn't, "on account of we're switching something out for the closing." One of three theaters in this city showing something other than mainstream film will close New Years Eve. So I raced across town to catch the first showing of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. When I got to this theater it wasn't on the marquee so I bought a ticket to Kite Runner. I'm sure it's a fine film but I read the book and can't see it translating well. The Taliban are likely to be featured and all we need is some more anti-Muslim propaganda. Not that anyone need go far to make the Taliban look bad. The problem is most people see Taliban and think Muslim. Just like most see Joel Osteen and think Christian. God wants you to be happy and successful. That's why he sent the flood, why he showered his most faithful servant Job with every affliction imaginable, why he killed Moses off before he could get to the Promised Land and why he gave up his son to torture and death while sparing a philandering Abraham's son in a test of loyalty. So you can realize your full potential in the marketplace of feeling good. But I digress.
In spite of being uncomfortable for most of this film I left the theater wishing more people had been there to see it. Maria is a stubborn, beautiful, bored, young Colombian woman unwilling to settle for the life set before her. She quits her job in a flower sweat shop when her boss won't let her go to the bathroom. She appears to be the primary means of support for her mother and single mother sister. Maria is on the way to the same fate as her sister when she takes a job as a mule, transporting swallowed balloons of drugs to the US for more money than she's liable to earn in a lifetime of legitimate work. On the way home I almost rear-ended a VW van that stalled in front of me. A medallion on the back had an evolution fish mounting a Jesus fish. I was appalled but shouldn't have been. People that have such a clear idea about right and wrong and who is and who isn't abound these days. They all seem wrong to me. Life is way too complex and seeing what's right hard enough without assessing what the other guy is doing. Point being you have to be able to turn away from the immorality of Maria's choice of paths out of her dead end life. Is it more right for her to condemn herself, and her child, to a life of miserable poverty because she shouldn't be part of a system that feeds the drug habits of the rich North Americans? See what I mean, it gets way too complicated. So, sit back and get lost in the rich, beautiful and painful story of another Maria full of grace.
The singular accomplishment of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette is the rendering of a two dimensional historical figure and time into real flesh and blood. Kirsten Dunst's performance is powerful but it is Coppola's direction and Lance Acord's cinematography that brings the teenage queen off the tired page that's been her home for the past century and a half and into our experience. Coppola wastes no time in throwing us into the madness that was pre-revolutionary France. She wants us on Marie's side as she reacts to the absurd structure and strictures of the French court at Versailles. This is ridiculous, she complains early on and we couldn't agree more. The pressure to consummate the arranged marriage to Louis Auguste (the only miscue was Jason Schwartzman as Louis) is almost too much to bear for the sixteen year old Marie and we become fans immediately. Coppola spares us yet another version of the French Revolution as we see only a grumbling mob near the end. Marie silences the mob with a balcony bow. Her reaction to their sudden silence tells us everything we need to know. She can't believe what she sees. We can, though, and therein lies the brilliance of Coppola's work.
Clothes were much cooler then. Skinny belts over pleated wool slacks. Polyester was still around the corner. People smoked without shame and drank whiskey like water. Drugstores sold all sorts of awful stuff over the counter and you could tell cars apart. It was that short frame after we conquered evil and before we recognized it in ourselves. Against this backdrop we meet husband Harry (Chris Cooper), wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson), best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan) and love interest Kay (Rachel McAdams). Harry wants to leave his wife because her love is only manifest in the physical realm, she tells us herself she thinks love is sex and the rest is mere affect. She is devoted to him because he needs her so. Best friend Richard is a charming cad soon smitten by the drop dead gorgeous Kay a tragic widow getting over her war dead husband and only interested in making Harry happy. More than once we hear about the futility of building happiness on the misery of others. Kay can't be happy with Harry if it means breaking Pat's heart, same reason Harry can't be happy with Kay. Pat has her own subterfuge going but she can't make anything of it if it means making Harry miserable. Richard, though, can steal Kay and break Harry's heart because it turns out Harry is planning a mercy killing to break free of Pat. He practices on the family dog, a lovely Irish Setter. Whoa, wait a minute. Is this Blue Velvet? All bright and shiny until we look beneath? Turns out sad widow, dutiful wife, spiritual love seeker and charming cad are homewrecker, adulteress, murderer, betrayer.
As those handsome young men put down their combs to load live rounds at the National Guard barracks in Kent and tupperware maven Monsanto was busy working on the mother of all herbicides the rest of us watched as Woodstock gave way to Alatamont and Kennedy morphed into Nixon. Is this the parallel writer/director Ira Sachs was drawing in Married Life? If he were he couldn't have landed better instruments to tell the tale than Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson. Two of the most accomplished and subtle actors of their generation, they unfold our intertwined good and evil with invisible effort. Brilliant, painful, thoughtful work.
A franchise is indeed born this night. Master and Commander: The Battle for the Thames and Master and Commander: The Caspian Sea Pirates and Their Kazakhstanian Money Men are already in the works. We shall follow Captain Lucky Jack Aubrey from Portsmouth to the shadow of Big Ben where he battles the enemies of Parliament. He then tracks their shadowy backers, the Kazakhstanian Money Men in a navigational whirlpool, err wind, that takes the Captain and his boys down the Volga to the Caspian Sea and beyond. Maybe we can work that whole thing into the title, or maybe we'll just call it MC Hammers Again.
Russell Crowe is marvelous as the heroic Captain Jack Aubrey. Paul Bettany as the battling naturalist ship surgeon is delightful. All the leftenants, midship persons and able bodied ship folk are convincing as the sweaty smelly mass they surely must have been. The battle scenes are ferocious, there's even some old fashioned swashbuckling. Maybe I shouldn't take this so lightly but I can't help asking, so what? Apparently, no detail was too small to be realistically recreated. They located old button makers to make the buttons and ancient cobblers to make the shoes. Even the hats were made by some firm that's been making them for centuries. So it makes a good history lesson I suppose, what it was like in the British Navy in 1805, for instance, what sort of surgical instruments were used back then, the way sailors slept in hammocks, but at the end of the day I don't think I'm any better off for the knowledge. Maybe the stuff about honor and duty and friendship is worth pondering but it's all so guy. Like Tom Clancy, dweeby armchair soldier writing about sacrifice and danger and stuff, it smacks of testosterone implants. Artificial at its heart, real looking around the edges.
Good movie, really exciting, good acting, worth the price of admission. Not sure I want to see the Captain Jack action figures at the Kroger store next month. But I digress.
I read something in the NY Times this morning attempting to explain the uniquely powerful impact of film by linking it to our dreams. I have some pretty unusual dreams, or I simply recall them more clearly than most because I sleep so poorly, and I can't make that connection yet. Certainly looking at Match Point as illustrative of this point would be a mistake. There is nothing uniquely powerful about the construction and execution of Woody Allen's latest film. Powerful, certainly, but not in the sense that it touches our subconscious. It is, as are Allen's best films, an intellectual exercise and a masterpiece.
RhysMeyers and Mortimer are excellent but the film belongs to Johansson as a hopeful American actress over her head with the Irish Rhy-Meyers as gold digging tennis pro Chris Wilton married to mousey Mortimer as Chloe Hewett. Three scenes in particular remain as fresh as if I just saw them. In one she shows us a side of the mouth nibbling actress insecure over her blown audition (priceless), in another she has had a few too many drinks and talks about her self too much (charming to pain), and the third an hysterical girlfriend (frightening and unforgettable).
The film starts with a Rhys Meyers voice over about the role luck plays in life. The rest of the film then explores the overwhelming power of lust and the ease with which it can brush aside our best laid plans. Luck reappears in the final scenes and we're left wondering if anything we do is really, after all the hormones and happenstances have their way, in our control.
Maybe it's my dull sensibility but it sure seems that Ridley Scott veers between the great and the mundane. From GI Jane to Alien, 1492 to Gladiator, Thelma and Louise to Matchstick Men, Scott lurches from the utterly unremarkable to the sublime. Matchstick Men is humming along on the powerful performance of Nicolas Cage as a Tourette's/OCD poster child playing off the inspired acting of Sam Rockwell's seamy greed as his grifter partner when a scam goes awry. A chase through an airport parking garage ensues and we're all rendered breathless. I hear gasps from the row behind me, my heart is racing. Not that this is a measure of a great film but it is an indicator of a good film. And Matchstick Men is a good film. I do think we've taught enough bunko artists for the time being, though.
Keanu Reeves is perfect for the role of Neo, a character not sure what he should be doing or why he should do it. Reeves has mastered the slightly puzzled put-upon look last seen when our President answered questions from the print media. The print media, you see, tends to ask question of substance while the Fox/CNN crowd ask questions designed to elicit snappy phrases they can play and replay over and over between commercials for their other programs.
The Matrix was a breakthrough film. The Matrix special effects were dazzling and different. The Matrix Reloaded's special effects are, well, reloaded. "Bullet time" (super slow motion shots of bullets rippling concussion waves through the ether as their target impossibly dodges) is longer and, disappointingly played over and over. The same scene, Carrie-Anne Moss (looking markedly older) falls while Uzi-ing an agent falling after her, is seen three times that I counted. Lots of sword-play, plenty of high kicks and some cool space-ship creations dominate the thin story line. The story line, for those determined to avoid this new movie fave, has select humans awakening to the reality that reality is a dream induced by the machines that dominate us. Outside a little clever banter between a Counselor (Anthony Zerbe) and Neo, precious little time is devoted to the philosophical underpinnings of the story.
Toward the end we meet The Architect, an old smug white guy filled with mumbo jumbo about anomalies and perfection. This protracted scene pretty much destroys the romance and mystery of The Matrix and replaces it with a grad student's version of chaos theory. A shame too, but then sequels based on special effects novelty shouldn't raise expectations in the first place. Oh well, there's always Terminator 3, with a girl as the new bad guy...
Redemption. Where the Matrix dazzled with special effects and Reloaded dozed under the weight of what a friend explained as the burden of trying to explain everything, Revolution celebrates faith and belief and love. See Neo as a Christ figure or Siddhartha and Machine City as Heaven ("it's as if it were made of light," Neo tells us) or as the Wachowski brothers dis on our computer culture or a heroic quest, The Matrix Revolution succeeds in making us care about the outcome. Sure the battle scenes in Zion City went on too long and the Trinity/Neo parting stretched Keanu Reeve's acting abilities past the point of no return, and Mr. Smith's challenge in the final fight was a little embarrassing but these are the flaws of overreaching and hence forgivable. I would have to have a script and many hours to unravel all the Matrix has to offer. This is a rich series, capped with a triumphant finale. Hooray for Hollywood!
Mean Creek 09.02.04
The lights came on and I immediately knew I was not getting out of this one. I had topped out at one hundred fifteen somewhere between the intersection of 225 and Wayside Drive. I pulled to the shoulder and stopped as quickly as possible. By the time I got out of my car and headed back for the cop car they had slid to a stop and were out with guns drawn. I threw my hands in the air and shrugged. They were really mad. Mainly, I think now because I had made them risk their lives to catch me. Never occurred to me at the time. I had imagined a wreck but what with the seat belts and padded interior in the 1971 Mach One I knew we would only be shaken up. Shaken up in a crash at over a hundred. Uh-huh.
One of the benefits of age is the capacity to measure the significance of a decision before it's too late. Not that we manage all that well to measure accurately even now, but certainly better than then. The hardest thing about watching Mean Creek is knowing these decisions are going to end badly. The easiest thing about watching Mean Creek is the joy in discovering a whole new crop of gifted actors. Each one of these kids is brilliant and none more so than Brandon Williams as Kile, Martin's older brother. Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan and Carly Schroeder make up the group set on teaching the school bully a lesson. The bully is a heart-breakingly pathetic George, played to astonishing perfection by Josh Peck. Jacob Aaron Estes wrote and directed Mean Creek, telling the story through a hand held and some clever videotape. But this is not about clever, it's about tragedy and loss of the worst kind, the kind we bring on ourselves. It is a wonder I made it this far.
Remember reading complicated stories in school and spending endless hours discussing them with your friends? Well, you should have. If you miss it, or never did it, go see Memento. Ostensibly about a man with no short-term memory in search of his wife's killer, this complicated story is made more complicated in the telling by director Christopher Nolan. Nolan shows us the last scene of the film first and then reconstructs the events leading up to it in choppy flashbacks.
Like another dense mystery, Michaelangelo Antonio's Blow-Up, Memento deals with the ultimate philosophical question - the nature of reality. Leonard (Guy Pearce) can't make new memories and so must rely on his instincts and polaroids. He takes pictures of his car, people he meets, the hotel he's staying in, all in an effort to make his world make sense. Even then, he is compelled by events to question everything. In questioning everything he learns he can create a new reality of his own choosing. If this is true, then is any reality any more "valid" than any other? Not your everyday movie theme.
Guy Pearce is powerful and convincing. Carrie-Anne Moss though, as Natalie, the 'helpful' barmaid, steals every scene in which she appears.
The geisha creates a world of beauty and elegance through the application of her training. Training in music, literature and the art of conversation. She dances, serves, listens, and entertains. World War II effectively ended the time of the Geisha. Although the title remains, the art is long past. Memoirs of a Geisha takes place in 1930's Japan and concludes shortly after the end of World War II. Chiyo/Sayuri, along with her big sister, is sold to a struggling Geisha house. Separated soon after, Chiyo is groomed to take over management of the house. Her rival for the position is the established Hatsumomo, a ruthless and cruel Geisha, willing to stop at nothing to insure Chiyo's failure. Chiyo has her heart set on a peripheral figure, the Chairman. A successful business magnate, the Chairman drifts into and out of Sayuri's young life. And then the war intercedes.
Ken Watanabe plays The Chairman, Li Gong the diabolical Hatsumomo, Michelle Yeoh is Sayuri's mentor and Ziyi Zhang. Rob Marshall (Chicago) directs and Spielberg produces. Originally, Spielberg optioned the rights to direct Geisha but stepped into the producers role as he contracted Marshall. The result is a visually stunning if emotionally distant film. Marshall's eye for color and form is unparalleled; from the cherry blossoms to the snow dance, Geisha is a profoundly beautiful film. Perhaps it is the strangeness of the world of the Geisha, or Japanese culture in general, but the level of emotional investment never approaches the buy-in of the surpassing beauty of the film. Zhang and Yeoh last came to us floating on the wilow branches of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon another film of surpassing beauty that compelled our hearts as well as our eyes. Can Ang Lee make that much difference? It would seem so.
Men In Black II 07.05.02
The best thing about this movie is its length, eighty-eight minutes. In the era of two and a half hour multi-movies A.I. was really three in one, and Pearl Harbor should have been titled Pearl Harbor: The Events Leading Up To It, The Event, and The Events that Followed Plus a Love Triangle Thrown In) it was a delight to sit through what used to be a Movie of the Week time period. After all, Men In Black is based on a comic strip and this was a sequel. There isn't that much story to tell and after a half hour or so we move into Alien Overload. Elaine's Puddy (Patrick Warburton) make an appearance as "K"s (Tommie Lee Jones) replacement and "J" (Will Smith) has developed a reputation for neuralyzing partners. Neuralyzing, for the uninitiated, means wiping the mind clean of any memory of Men In Black or aliens. The Men In Black protect us from bad aliens in the universe and allow good aliens to live freely among us, provided they follow the guidelines. MIB I featured a really bad alien that threatened the planet. MIB II features a really bad Laura Flynn Boyle threatening to anorexorize Earth. The filmmakers have her regurgitating her dinner (a Central park rapist). I was flipping channels the other day and stopped on a movie she did years ago, before she began starving herself. She looked fabulous. The kind of fabulous reserved for the great beauties of Hollywood legend. What a shame she went anorexic.
Men of Honor 11.21.00
Robert DeNiro as Master Sergeant Sunday, a hard drinkin' hard fightin' red neck rascist and Cuba Gooding as the dutiful and dedicated sharecropper's son, Carl Brashear. They join forces agin' the "modern Navy" to remind the pencil pushin' wimpy "modern Navy" bureaucrat of the Navy's greatest tradition - honor. This movie belongs to Robert DeNiro as he delivers another masterful performance. I once saw Richard Burton read from the Los Angeles phone book. It was compelling. Great talent can almost always rescue mediocre talent. The mediocre talent in this film is everyone but Cuba Gooding and Hal Holbrooke (as the crazy super-rascist base commander).
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
A truly horrific scene greets us in the opening minutes of this powerful film. Normally ascribed to gratuitous violence, this scene lays the groundwork for the clearly unbalanced Joan we see later in the film. Joan is played by Milla Jovovich, an utterly captivating actress from the world of super models. Dustin Hoffman's laughable casting as the voice of conscience aside, this is certainly the most believable Joan story to date. We see the mythical Joan of Arc as a schizophrenicc, fueled by a religious fundamentalism. Much is explained by this take on her life. The Church gets the usual, and deserved, slaps for burning Joan at the stake.
The Mexican 03.14.01
A romantic story attached to a hand crafted pistol (The Mexican) sends Jerry (Brad Pitt) to Mexico after the pistol and the fellow who has it. Jerry's girlfriend Sam (Julia Roberts), breaks up with him when he leaves for Mexico instead of taking her to Las Vegas as promised. Leroy (James Gandolfini) is sent to hold Sam hostage against Jerry's return. J.K. Simmons plays some sort of messenger/Jerry-damage-control-guy and he figures in somehow. There you have it. Two hours and three minutes later you can leave the theater. Unless you want lots of Julia Roberts close-ups or maybe Brad Pitt being dumb/goofy cute. Gandolfini does well. Gene Hackman makes a cameo and reprises the "wise bad guy with a good heart" for the gazillionth time. The real bad guy (the NBC exec from Seinfeld) has an unlimited supply of sub-bad guys to send on errands.
Jerry sees Sam off at the airport and we watch (from Jerry's perspective) the last passengers board the plane. Our view is obstructed so we don't actually see her board. Cut to Jerry while we watch (in the reflection of the glass doors of the terminal) the last few passengers board again. Oops, Continuity! Then, we pan back and forth across the unobstructed and completely empty tarmac. Suddenly, Sam appears at the door. Wait a minute, is she supposed to be supernatural? Or are these guys AMATEURS? The director, Gore Verbinski, is the guy responsible for the Budweiser frog commercials. That explains EVERYTHING! The multiple retellings of the romantic legend from various perspectives is used to make sure we remember what the characters are doing. Once the story is introduced in the first fifteen minutes, the narrative stops. If this were submitted in film school as a screenplay it should get a D. That it made it to the big screen with Roberts/Pitt/Hackman/Ganolfini is, and forever will be, a mystery to me.
Michael Clayton 10.13.07
Ah, integrity. How rare. Almost as rare as Tilda Swinton. We see her early on in a sweat in a bathroom stall. Whenever she appears on screen I sit up straight lest I miss something. She always delivers. This time she reaches inside her blouse and rubs her sweaty armpit. Exactly the sort of thing one would do but never let anyone see. I was dumbstruck. But, back to integrity. George Clooney cracked a rib recently in a motorcycle accident and some of the hospital nursing staff where he was treated apparently dug through his file and passed around phone numbers of family. To which Clooney says he hopes no one gets suspended. He once got in the face of a director giving a grip a hard time. And now he's off to try to get us to do something about Darfur. My goodness. The movie. Director Tony Gilroy, of a half dozen sterling scripts in recent memory, directs for the first time and who could tell. I thought Michael Mann must be behind the camera until the credits rolled. Brilliant in every way, Michael Clayton is a don't miss.
Anita Bryant extended the fifteen minutes she was awarded by the Miss America pageant by waging war on gays and lesbians. Supporting poisonous propositions to validate marginalization based on sexual preference, she was regularly featured on the nightly news extolling the virtue of male on female sex and warning of the dangers of any variation. The media, in their usually misguided effort to present "both sides" of a story, gave her pretty face plenty of time and alternated with the most outrageous drag queens available. The general public was presented a "balanced" view of a lopsided and morally bankrupt argument based on exclusion. From Jews to women to blacks to gays, those who align themselves with the excluders are always on the wrong side. Not just wrong but criminally wrong. Always fascinating is the tendency of those who profess a faith based on a man for whom inclusion was the greatest good (on that which hang all the law and prophets is the directive to love) take the lead in proclaiming the need to exclude a particular group from the circle of righteousness. How blind do you have to be to reject a subset of humanity on the basis of genetic makeup?
Milk is the story of our first openly gay elected public official. Harvey Milk was elected to a city supervisor's position in San Francisco in the 1970's. He fought tirelessly to protect the civil liberties of his people and was eventually shot to death along with the mayor by a disturbed fellow city supervisor. For those with no sense of history or appreciation of what civil liberty warriors won on their behalf and at what price, Milk is required viewing. Sean Penn has affirmed his place among the greatest actors of his time and a supporting cast with the ever surprising Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna and James Franco make the rich social milieu of seventies San Francisco all too real.
As I write I am looking out over San Francisco Bay on Christmas morning, pre-dawn. The lights of the Bay Bridge fade into the fog and I can see a dimly lit ocean vessel creeping across the bay. I hear the city council recently attempted to ban another irresponsible corporation from doing business in the city. Of course the Haight was the mecca for the hippies, of course the Castro was the mecca for the gays. Of course Harvey Milk found a home here. What magical properties lurk beneath this city that invite and empower the best of us to call to the best in us and each other?
Million Dollar Baby 01.07.05
The last time I went to this theater on the weekend I tripped in the middle of the street, fell to the concrete, smashed my nose and cracked a tooth. I had my hand in my pockets when I started down and didn't get them out in time to break my fall. But I got a taste of what it'll be like in another 20 years. I'm not looking forward to being feeble. My mom fell and broke her hip a year ago now. We had just moved her down from her childhood home where she'd gone to take care of her parents as they aged and died. She was only here a month when she fell. She never made it out of the hospital. My dad died of ALS. The nerves die and the muscles atrophy over the course of several months or years. In my dad's case it was months. I was 16 when he asked me to disconnect the lung machine that was keeping him alive. I couldn't do it. They moved him to a wing of the VA where he could see a little strip of grass between his wing and the next. He died about three months later. These are the thoughts I wake up with this morning after seeing Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby. As I write this I'm listening to Neil Young's The Needle and the Damage Done. Two Sundays ago a tidal wave killed 150,000 people on the other side of the planet. What sadness, what overwhelming sadness. Not Eastwood's intent I'm sure. Million Dollar baby is also a story of triumph. Maggie Fitzgerald, a thirty-one year old waitress/boxer from trailer park Missouri shows up at Frankie Dunn's gym looking for a trainer. Frankie and Maggie shadow box for weeks until Frankie agrees to take her on. The film cranks into high gear for the next hour as we see Maggie training and finally fighting her way into a title bout. The fight ends disastrously and if you want to avoid waking up like I did this morning, walk out of the theater when she hits the canvas. If you don't, call me and I'll remind you that you did see an actress that comes along once in a generation, maybe, in a role of extraordinary strength and beauty. Hilary Swank is a phenomenon, from the charming shrug she gives Frankie because she can't help knocking her opponents out in the first round to her shattering request of Frankie. Eastwood, the master of the understated performance, gets better and better. The two of them deliver a masterpiece of film that will insinuate itself into your heart and eat away at whatever joy it finds there, leaving you with this awful sadness.
Minority Report 06.21.02
The ultimate big-brother terror. Arrested for what we will do in the future. The Department of Pre-Crime is run by a really cute guy (Tom Cruise) with a drug problem (the drug is called focus, wish I could get my hands on some). His squad receives wooden balls carved with the names of the perpetrator and victim. The carving is done by the thoughts of three pre-cogs, short for pre-cognitives. The pre-cogs float in a protein filled bath and are looked after by a dirty looking hippie type. The unit has reduced murder in Washington D.C. to zero and is about to go national. Max von Sydow is the "father" of the project and the cute guys mentor. Suddenly one of the balls comes down with our heroes name on it. Uh-oh. The movie shifts into high gear and off we go.
Director Spielberg's cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, is responsible for the look and feel of Minority Report. The diffuse over-lighting nearly washes out all color, creating a hazy dreamlike texture. Everyone's clothes are shades of gray or black, except for the wooden balls and the eyeballs. Eyeballs play a part in the future as identity is determined by retinal scans. To disguise yourself you need to switch eyeballs with someone. Comfortingly, in the future zip-lock bags appear to have stopped their evolution of closing styles.
Miss Congeniality 12.22.00
William Shatner, Michael Caine, and Candice Bergen, all play queens in Sandra Bullock's latest smart choice of films. The four of them turn a good script into a sparkling comedy. Bullock's comedic talent expands with each effort. Benjamin Bratt (from television's Law and Order), as FBI agent Eric Matthews plays straight man and partner to Bullock's Gracie Hart.
If it weren't for the obligatory "why I am who I am" break a third of the way through, this would have been an even better film. For some inexplicable reason, the filmmakers believe we need the characters to tell us about themselves. This too frequent underestimation of the audience distracts and detracts.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day 03.12.08
The sad little movie that tried too hard. Someone (director Bharat Nalluri or screenwriters David Magee and Simon Beaufoy) was clearly on way too much coffee or Adderall when they saw their first 40's romantic comedy. Trying to replicate their experience, they cleared the top five minutes in and never looked back. Amy Adams is brilliant but she's no Kate Hepburn and love her though I might, Frances McDormand is no Myrna Loy. It didn't help that we failed to cast a male lead with sufficient gravitas to hold the frantic Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) in focus. I was worn out by the end of the first reel. Do they still use reels?
Scarcely a moment goes by in this slick kung-fu action thriller when one is not aware that John Woo is hard at work directing, and directing, and directing. 360 degree tracking shots, zooms in and zooms out, slow motion, and swooping aerials dominate almost every frame. Does this make us part of the action? Do we feel the thrill of the motorcycle chase? Are we afraid our hero will fall from that cliff? No, no, no. Rather, we are treated to a tour de force not of drama or story or feeling, but of a well developed skill-set. John Woo is certainly the most technically accomplished action-film director alive today. Circling around the front of a speeding motorcycle to watch Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) shoot the bad guys from the right then the left, the slow motion Flamenco dance, the cliff hanging opening sequence, and the car/motorcycle chase are all evidence of Woo's ability to squeeze the most out of the camera. Take this scene, for example. Ethan and his soon-to-be girlfriend, Nyah (Thandie Newton), are racing along winding mountain roads when she loses control and heads for the cliff. He slams into her car to save her and the two of them spin in double axle tandem while exchanging longing glances. She comes to rest at the cliff's edge, falls out of the passenger side, grabs the arm rest at the last second and is suspended thousands of feet in the air looking down at the canyon and certain death. He jumps out of his car, grabs her wrist and pulls her to safety. They trade glib quips before surrendering to the passion kindled by her near death experience. The camera work is dazzling. The scene is laughable. Sean Connery pulled it off with tongue firmly in cheek. Tom Cruise doesn't. Even his hair doesn't help. Not since Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has hair played such a prominent role. It whooshes left and whooshes right coming to rest over his brow. Such hair! But it isn't enough to overcome Woo's heavy hand on the camera. The camera is never motionless, the longest scene without an edit is the final scene and it lasts nearly ten seconds. The triumph of technique over creativity.
Alfred Hitchcock filmed Rope without a single edit. The camera angles were fixed. The action, confined to a single apartment, was mesmerizing. When Hitchcock took the camera hundreds of feet up in The Birds, the viewer saw the tragic and terrifying world of people from the birds cold and distant perspective. The story was advanced. Therein lies the difference. The oohs and aahs from the audience of Mission Impossible II are followed by, "how did they do that?' The answer is, sadly, John Woo filmed some amazing action sequences and then brought in a screenwriter to develop a story. Really. That is what actually happened. Story as afterthought. Uh-oh.
I'm sure it's just the movies I select these days but I see more stupid stories with great casts than I used to. "It was great, very exciting," was my answer last night. But like the coke float I had an hour ago, I barely remember it now and I'm sure it's done more harm than good. I'm not sure it was even entertaining as I never successfully suspended disbelief long enough to even enjoy it as escapism. Oh well, a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you're talking about real money. My god I think I saw a Star Trek Eleven in the works. Has there ever been a franchise that justified the money sunk into it? From Taco Bell to Star Wars, they should have all stopped after the initial adventure, and for some, should have never started.
If you've seen the previews, you've seen the film. No surprises. When the alien sheds a tear over the holographic image of its home planet's destruction, it reminded me of the educational cartoons shown in elementary school in the fifties. Jiminy Cricket explains how hot the sun is, I mean it's just too cute! The hand-holding circle reminded me of children's camp.
The film is rated PG. One of the astronauts, to compel the crew to abandon his hopeless rescue, removes his helmet in the vacuum of outer space. We are treated to a lingering close-up of this hero's frozen and cracked face as his partner watches him drift away to the planet's surface. The scene certainly doesn't match up with some of the more grisly shots offered up in R rated films but horrific it is. I'm not a big fan of the way film ratings are employed (sex bad, violence not so bad) but if we're going to use them...
Mister Lonely 07.07.08
What is it about film that makes us demand clarity and narrative cohesion? We make no such demands of painting. Or poetry, or music. Goya's The Third of May stands as a masterpiece without the accompanying narrative detailing Marshall Murat's directive to round up and shoot all those guilty of protesting the French occupation of Spain. Or the awful irony of the slaughter of Spanish peasants at the hands of their French brothers in revolution. Eliot's The Wasteland is a powerful poem of desolation and isolation even if the reader doesn't grasp the myriad literary allusions. Whether Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is about LSD or John Lennon's daughter's drawing of Lucy in the sky has no effect on the surrealist images or crystalline beauty of the song.
The opening scene of Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely presents a Michael Jackson character, red shirt, white gloves, white surgical mask, aviator shades and yellow helmet, towing a puppet monkey with tiny wings behind him while riding a micro motor bike, all in super slow motion. An entirely mesmerizing scene, seen again at film's end. All this to the tune of the Bobby Vinton doo-wop classic Mr. Lonely. Mr. Lonely is an achingly sad song. Spend the dollar and download it sometime, it will give you an entirely different perspective of the 50's. Perspective certainly plays a key role in Mr. Korine's altogether different film. I've struggled with it for two days now and have concluded it doesn't make sense, there isn't a connection between the island of impersonators (Diego Luna's Michael Jackson is joined by Samantha Morton's Marilyn Monroe and a host of others) and the Werner Herzog (as a burned out priest) gaggle of South American missionary flying nuns. This isn't a comedy. It is an exquisitely painful walk through the lives of seriously dysfunctional people, from a sadistic Charlie Chaplin to a cruel agent to a desperate drunken priest. The luminescent talent of Samantha Morton draws us in and makes us care so Harmony Korine's twisted world view can break our spirit. I still don't know what it means. I do know it hurt, it makes me sad, and I will remember it. Take a few minutes and look closely at Goya's Third of May, or read the first line of Eliot's The Wasteland, or listen to the awe and wonder of Lucy in the Sky and know it was taken from us for no reason at all, you'll feel the same and be better for it.
Many years ago I went on a weekend retreat with forty people. We all met Friday evening and did the introduce yourselves thing. All the while I was thinking of ways to get out of there. These people were losers, big time. I couldn't imagine a more dreadful group to spend a weekend with. By Sunday afternoon the group had somehow transformed into a delightful bunch of people. The lesson I learned that weekend was one that has stayed with me. I am one judgmental dismissive creep. The group hadn't changed at all, of course. I had simply gotten to know them. They turned out to be a lot like me. Not the creep me, but the me that struggles to do as little harm as possible while trying to figure out the next right thing.
When I read about this awful woman, Aileen Wuornos, my interest in her was short-lived. Prostitute turned serial killer. Nasty little world of truckers and cheap hookers. The mug shot confirmed it for me. Hideous and miserable creature. Nothing for me here. Or so I thought. Charlize Theron, in a performance that ranks with Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry, Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy and Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, accomplishes the unimaginable. She takes a character who, in every apparent way, shares a commonality of spirit with no one outside a small collection of twisted serial killers and opens her heart to us. In that opening we see a tortured and burned soul desperate for normalcy, aching for affection. Theron's Wuornos breaks our heart as she sees hope in a future we know holds nothing but tragedy and doom. Aileen finds love in Selby (Christina Ricci) and decides to make a fresh start. She will quit tricking and get a real career. Maybe a veterinarian, she mulls. Someone behind me laughed. That this tortured and pathetic woman's plight was found humorous by some faceless fellow in the theater helped me to understand how some can take pride in a society that marginalizes and wastes a significant percentage of its population. Where does a woman raped and abused as a child, compelled into prostitution to survive, and spurned by "legitimate" society go for help? The neighborhood faith based program?
This is a performance of a lifetime in a film of extraordinary power. A power that makes relegating the downtrodden and the failed to convenient isolation nearly impossible, for behind that hideous mug shot is a life that shares our dream of warmth and security. A dream unattainable for her. Wuornos' failure is our failure, her crimes our shame.
Monster's Ball 02.09.02
I was nearly reduced to tears by this film's ceaselessly grinding sadness and misery. When Letecia (Halle Berry in an outstanding performance) opens her screen door and we see the Sheriff's eviction notice nailed to the door frame, it is clear that no one escapes this little patch of Hell in southern Louisiana. Peter Boyle as Buck Grotowski surely earns an Academy nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The bile and meanness drip from every gesture and sound he makes. This is one of the great performances of the past several years. Billy Bob Thornton as his son, Hank, is hard pressed to hold his own on screen with Boyle's dynamic portrayal. Heath Ledger, from The Patriot, is excellent as Hank's miserable son. The only mis-fire in this cast is Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs, he is not up to the task of playing a death row convict, in spite of his arrest last year on suspicion of shooting some nightclub reveler. Mercifully, his role is limited and terminated early.
This is Hank and Letecia's story. Hank is a prison guard and Letecia Musgrove the widow of the executed Puff Daddy, Lawrence Musgrove. The two of them attempt to find some semblance of solace in each other. The events and people in their lives seem to conspire to ensure that solace remains out of their grasp. Will their seemingly doomed relationship succeed? Can they transcend the lowness and hellish lives they lead? This forlorn and fading hope kept me in the theater until the end and surely prevented me from throwing myself in front of the nearest train. Talk about your lives of quiet desperation.
Monsters, Inc. 11.05.01
Monsters, Inc. 11.05.01
The company, headed by a fat, vest-wearing, cigar-smoking monster, is running behind in their quota of screams. Monsterville is powered by the screams of children and rolling blackouts are threatened. The top scream inducer is a loveable giant, Sulley (John Goodman) assisted by the wisecracking and driven Mike Wazowski. They are being pursued for the scream lead by the nasty serpentine monster Randall (Steve Buscemi) and his assistant Fungus (Frank Oz).
This is a busy but coherent children's movie that parents should enjoy. Other than casting some veiled aspersions at the power companies, it appears thankfully free of hidden agendas. The people who delivered Toy Story I and II, Pixar, strike again. The film is preceded by a cute Pixar cartoon, just like the old days.
Monsters vs. Aliens 3D 04.04.09
Flipping channels yesterday I stopped on HBO's The Making of Monsters vs. Aliens 3D and heard some intriguing tidbits about the nature of the 3D experience. This time, we were told, 3D was an integral part of the story and not just a gimmick. Reese Witherspoon, Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert and Hugh Laurie would lend their voices and distinct personalities to the characters. OK, I say to the TV screen, I'll go. After all, why wouldn't I believe Katzenberg and crew that this would be different? What did they have to gain by... oh. Right.
Unlike Toy Story and its themes of loyalty and caring for others or Nemo and familial bonds or even and its topical message of environmental responsibility, Monsters vs. Aliens is a paper thin story wrapped around a gimmick. The opening scene, for heaven's sake, has a fellow playing paddle tennis with the tethered ball zooming out at us. This after hearing for nigh on thirty minutes about the commitment these folks had to moving past the 3D as gimmickry. I almost walked out. Should have. A handful of wisecracks for the benefit of the adults carting their children to see one of the miniscule number of G rated films are interwoven in this cartoon for the under seven set. Oh and the price is two bucks more per ticket if you see the 3D version. I may as well get SUCKER tattooed on my forehead.
Moonlight Mile is the story of Joe Nast's (Jake Gyllenhaal) struggle to deal with his fiancee's murder at the hands of a schizophrenic stranger. The writer/director Brad Silberling was dating the actress Rebecca Schaeffer when she was shot and killed in 1989 by a schizophrenic stalker. This may help to explain the lack of melodrama. The previews led me to believe this was pure tearjerker material. The theater was almost entirely filled with women so the marketing wizards succeeded in their quest to paint this as a "chick flick." Their success is a huge crime, though, as this is a thoughtful and significant look at how we deal with tragedy and truth. There is much more to the story than the marketing folks would appear to indicate with their schmaltz clips. The writing is honest, the characters are real, and the story matters, to all of us.
A relative newcomer, Ellen Pompeo, surprises with a fresh and charming portrayal of the local postal clerk. Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, and Holly Hunter each contribute in a big way, but the movie belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal in a performance of stunning clarity and power.
Mostly Martha 08.25.02
Mostly Martha 08.25.02
Two things, no three, distinguish this film. One, Martina Gedeck's (Martha) face. Two, cuisine. Three, messed up people are people, too.
Sadly, Martha Gedeck is someone we starved Americans have missed out on for years. She is one of a handful of actresses with a face that can communicate everything. Like Patricia Arquette, Ingrid Bergman, and precious few others, Martha Gedeck has somehow gained sufficient control over her facial expressions that she can warm, terrify, or break hearts without a word. She is extraordinary and utterly winning in her role as a seriously neurotic chef.
My kitchen is about as wide as a crepe and as long as a vienna sausage. The two of us can cook together but only if one of us hasn't eaten in a month. The kitchen in Mostly Martha is huge. The food is exquisite. It is, I am sure, more a function of my inability to learn more than "pommes frittes" that caused my culinary experience in Germany (this is a German film surprisingly full of air and light) to compare so poorly with the one I saw on screen.
The film opens with Martha in a therapy session. She is telling the therapist what sort of mushrooms work with pigeon and which don't. When he asks her why she comes to therapy she answers, "my boss made it a condition of my work." Martha is a mess. She slams a bloody piece of meat on the table of an unsuspecting patron when he dares to suggest she overcooked his rare steak. She doesn't go anywhere but work and home. She has problems with authority and anger. She regularly hides in the walk-in cooler when things get too stressful. The writer/director (Sandra Nettelbeck) makes her neuroticism an endearing quality and not an object of our ridicule. A difficult maneuver but deftly executed.
As is the story and the film.
Way too much empty foreshadowing. Zooming close-ups of tree branches jump cut to an opening door. All for naught. When the Mothman does appear, we get plenty of warning. It is as if the director came from the Bizarro world of suspense. Give us plenty of warning for the "scary" scenes but don't show us anything really scary while filling the balance of the film with zooming jump cuts and "what's that behind me" shots. If Richard Gere raised up from the sink to look in the mirror once he did it a thousand times and guess what was staring back at him every time? Richard Gere! This even after Gordon (Will Patton in his patented intense/dangerous role) tells us about looking in the mirror and "whatever it was that looked back wasn't my reflection." The Mothman Prohecies leaves more first act Chekhov guns laying around than the Iraqi's surrendered in Desert Storm.
There are two bright spots in this throw-away movie. I say bright spots because the sun never does seem to make it over the horizon in Point Pleasant and no room is lit with more than a grimy 25 watt bulb. Laura Linney and the rejuvenated Alan Bates breathe life into this corpse while on screen, but they only prolong the inevitable.
The Motorcycle Diaries 10.24.04
Certainly a beautiful film, The Motorcycle Diaries takes us on a several thousand mile journey on the back of a sputtering motorbike belonging to Alberto Granada, good friend of Ernersto Guevara de a Serna (Che Guevara) as they take one last fling for fun before settling down to their respective professions. Alberto is played by Rodrigo De la Serna and Che by Gael Garcia Bernal (from Y tu mama tambien). Gael Garcia Bernal had no trouble with the romantic pre-revolutionary Che and comes across as sensitive and caring with a sharp edge of honesty about him. Alberto is little more than foil for his friend but we like him more than the soon to be radical Che. Che Guevara is so hopelessly shrouded in myth and mystery as to make any attempt to get at his truth pointless. This story, based on his journals, gives a view we haven't seen before and beats the T-shirt version hands down. This is a handsome idealistic youth hard to reconcile with the ruthless revolutionary commandante murdered by the CIA in 1967. Maybe that's a leap beyond any storyteller's skills but who says the two have to be reconciled. Taken as a story of a young man coming to the realization that the world isn't fair and injustice abounds it does its job subtly and without pedantism. For this we are thankful. That there may be more souls in the waiting to be transformed by the reality of the injustice and greed of the world we can only hope. These days I fear there aren't enough to make a difference, but I digress.
We were seated at a long table, about thirty of us, inside what used to be a bank vault. Bob was on my left. Everyone else worked for the company in some capacity, supervisor, dispatcher, receiver. Receiver was what we called the people who answered the phone. My favorites were a married couple, Lee and Abie. Lee was full blooded Cherokee, or so she said. Abie was full blooded Mexican. Between them they weighed over six hundred pounds. Nobody messed with Abie because he'd been there since Noah and knew everything, and was on the high side of three hundred pounds. Nobody messed with Lee because she was a crazy Indian, or so she had us believe. She dispatched only once and summoned several drivers to the lot to settle things. She went back to receiving.
At the end of the dinner everyone received an envelope. Each envelope contained one half of a hundred dollar bill. When Bob opened his he said loud enough for all to hear, "cheap trick!" The moment was ruined. Any hopes the owner had for revving us all up to capture the other half of the hundred vanished in Bob's cynicism. He was right, of course, it was a cheap trick. The owner hoped to motivate us to achieve his goals over the next six months with a hundred dollar carrot. It worked for many. It never worked for Bob. He would never be manipulated.
I thought of Bob as I heard the sounds of recognition and approval when the next eighties hit emanated from the screen. This retrospective of American pop music was roundly appreciated by all. Only problem I had with it was it was supposed to be a Paris nightclub at 1900. Maybe we are to believe pop music of the last turn of the century elicited the same feeling as pop music of today. Maybe we are to see how easily manipulated we are.
But then I remember what I thought when I got the Moulin Rouge press kit.
It comes with a warning that the recipient must not attempt to resell or auction the material contained within. What does this mean? Is Nicole Kidman so hot that we will auction her photos on Ebay? I guess she must be, right? How dumb are we supposed to be?
From page three of the Press Kit: "It is this constant referencing and re-referencing that we hope allows a modern audience to decode the historical setting. The ease with which the audience understands the story is crucial. In this musical we are not revealing the characters or plot slowly and invisibly, but quickly and overtly." This is director speak for, today's audiences are too dull to understand what we are doing so we must hammer them early and often so they can follow the story. How close does the close-up need to be show us the blood in the kerchief? Does she have TB? OMG! What will happen?!?
Director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet) is attempting to make the musical fresh again, as his co-writer Craig Pearce explains, "...we deal in big, strong gestures. The scenes have to build to such an extent, with the characters getting so high on the energy, that they can't do anything else but SING!" If Baz and Craig think they are reinventing the musical they need to watch Gene Kelly do Singing In The Rain. What they have created is closer to Malcom McDowell's version from Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.
I just have to find a way to see Toulouse-Lautrec in a new light. The impish fun lover, staging a musical a la Mickey and Judy. Oh please.
Really cool special effects. Really cool special effects. Really cool special effects. And, before I forget, really cool special effects. Loved the binoculars, loved the scanners, loved the escape crossbows. There is a story in between scenes of really cool special effects, but mainly, really cool special effects are what make Mr. & Mrs. Smith worth watching - for about ten minutes.
The cost of production would have fed all the people in refugee camps in Africa for six months. But, after all, there were some really cool special effects.
Joan Plowright made what would have otherwise been a treacle bore watchable and moving. Rupert Friend as her too handsome foil only distracted. The supporting cast all occupied caricatures, thinly drawn and clearly extraneous. When Ms. Plowright was on screen the forced dialogue and ham fisted direction dissolved and she was able to bring her character to life. The power of a great talent to alter and lift an otherwise pedestrian piece of work is always inspiring.
The first ten minutes were impossibly strained as the camera alternated between uncomfortably close and frozen in a corner. Seeing the feet step out of the car to a pan up revealing the character insures only that we remember we are at the movies. The empty suitcases supposedly full (the aging bellman lifts the largest bag and holds it in front of him as he ascends the steps to the hotel, a feat only executable with a weight of less that ten pounds) and the pointlessness of the African cab driver's smiling repartee were forgotten once the work of the film was turned over to the acting of Ms. Plowright. Only then did we care and only then were we willing to turn our feelings over to her exquisite care for an hour or so.
The Mummy Returns 05.05.01
Indiana Jones returns as Rick O'Connell Brandon Fraser. Patricia Velazquez is Imhotep's deliciously evil lover and Rachel Weisz is Rick's wife and the reincarnated Nefretiti. The Rock (World Wrestling Foundation hero and probable future governor of some lost western state) is The Scorpion King. Enough exotic characters to make even this sequel to a lower-medium size hit worth watching.
Well, not really. The special effects are impressive but how many times can we watch bugs erupt from the desert floor, faces appear in sand storms (or tsunamis), and skeletal remains take on flesh before we ho-hum this (and techno-film making in general) into oblivion.
In place of character development we have caricature (the wisecracking hero), in place of story we get action (we move from locale to locale for nearly half the film for reasons never explained), instead of a movie we get computer animated graphical representations of a movie. Oh well.
There is a rumor that Spielberg was approached by several "serious" directors shortly after he acquired the rights to Schindler's List and asked not to direct the film. Seems Spielberg was perceived as a lightweight with insufficient gravitas to make such a meaningful film. Empire of the Sun notwithstanding, Spielberg's work at the time consisted of friendly space aliens and dashing archeologists. Since that time Spielberg has given us the definitive holocaust film, revived interest in The Good War and made us afraid of space aliens again. Now comes the little heard story of Israeli revenge for the death of their Olympic athletes. Eric Bana, in a role finally worthy of his extraordinary acting gifts, accompanied by veteran emperor Ciaran Hinds, the new James Bond Daniel Craig, the incandescent chameleon Geoffrey Rush and Israel's preeminent earth mother Ayelet Zorer, takes us into the mind of a man assigned the murder of a dozen people. Bana plays Avner, a low level Mosad agent suddenly promoted to assassin. In the enlightening scene of Avner's first kill we see him nervously asking his intended victim his name - twice. His victim, a Palestinian intellectual and author gently tries to get Avner to lower his pistol. He succeeds only temporarily and jarringly dies in a barrage of pistol shots. Crashing to the floor his blood mixes with the milk he was carrying as Avner and his compatriot run from the scene. Ciaran Hinds as cool, conflicted clean-up specialist Carl calmly retrieves a discharged shell casing. The casing makes a second appearance at the celebration the team enjoys later that evening. Toasting their first kill, Spielberg introduces us to the conflicts, internal and external, that will drive the balance of the film. These are men drinking to their successful murder of another. Bana stands apart struggling with the reality of what he has done. Daniel Craig is wholly unconflicted and can't wait to get on to their next kill. Robert, France's Mathieu Kassovitz, the team's bomb maker, is nervous, Carl thoughtful, and Hans (Hanns Zischler) philosophical. They are now all painted by their act, changed and moving in directions they no longer control.
This, then, is the story Spielberg would tell, not of justice or even revenge but of damage and destruction. Nothing is made right, balance is not restored, safety not attained. Although we do see one scene with a thoughtful Palestinian trying to explain their violent struggle as a search for home not unlike the Jews thousands year sojourn, the humanity we see is the humanity of the Israelis. This is their story and Spielberg, our master myth weaver, tells it well and soundly, the Palestinians are secondary actors in this drama. We do meet a very interesting group of French information peddlers. They reject governments and operate in their own carefully constructed moral sphere of righteousness. Selling names to the Mosad hit team for $200,000 each, they turn a deaf ear to the murders that follow their leads until one hit turns into a military operation. A violation of their contract with Avner, a meeting is held at the family retreat to which Avner is delivered in a blindfold. After a heart to heart with "Papa" (a perfectly weighty Michael Lonsdale), Avner leaves with Papa's blessings.
What sort of intricate machinations must one develop to make murder possible while condemning dishonesty? The same sort of thinking I suppose that allows us to bury thousands of Iraqi soldiers under a bulldozed sand bank while accusing those who disagree of treason. The fundamentalist icon Pat Robertson suggested Venezuela's Chavez be shot while good Christian folk explain the New Orleans debacle as nothing more than what sinners deserve and AIDS as God's judgment against homosexuals. If I thought it would do any good I'd grab these idiots by the throat and give them a good shake. But I digress.
Munich is a profound film presenting a dark chapter in our history in a dim light. Spielberg allows the story to talk to us and it speaks in the tortured face of a man who does what he knows is wrong for a cause he knows is right. More than his victims die in the process.
Murder By Numbers 04.19.02
Surprisingly, the most interesting character in this Leopold & Loeb/Rope remake is neither of the murderers but the emotional wreck of a detective. Clearly and deeply disturbed, Cassie Merryweather (Sandra Bullock) lurches from inappropriate sexual acting out to petulance and mean-spiritedness. Between emotional crises, she tries to solve a murder. Two southern California spoiled rich kids have planned the perfect one. They are out to prove the philosophical treatise that true freedom is only found in deliberate violation of the social contract. As their high school philosophy teacher is only too eager to point out, more on this "school" of thought can be found in the musings of Nietzsche. Nietzsche occupies a dark corner of the world of philosophy reserved for really unhappy people, like these two high schoolers. When Cassie announces all they really want is attention we are all too eager to agree. This is Columbine. Do these kids have something to say or are they victims of parental neglect, psychopaths or mere sociopaths? Murder By Numbers misses an opportunity to explore this, richer theme.
Instead we see Cassie attempt to right her capsizing personality. She gets little help from her new partner, Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin), and no help at all from the murderers Richard (Ryan Gosling) and Justin (Michael Pitt). Ryan Gosling is particularly chilling while Michael Pitt never quite convinces. Ben Chaplin is accomplished if not spectacular. Sandra Bullock continues to take chances. She produced this film, probably because no one else would cast her in the role. She succeeds, as does the film, despite a little overreaching in the final act. But then endings are always difficult.
Music and Lyrics 02.19.07
"If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Good advice. Like most of the good advice I've given or received, unheeded. Nothing criminal here, just disappointing. I was curious to see two TV stars of recent memory in Mr. Lawrence's MacArthur Park cake of a film until I learned he was spawned by the media of the masses. I watch as much TV as anyone I suppose but if I'm not flipping channels in the middle of the night combating my worsening insomnia it is films I tune in. With the exception of Grey's Anatomy, The Soprano's (late comer), and Rome (reluctant viewer) it's still, as the Boss once penned, 57 channels and nothing on. Even VH1 has succumbed to the video verite plague, led by the ridiculous Flavor Flav, and the wasteland's current programming does more to convince we are in the last days than any reality disconnect of our recovering drunk frat bum of a president or evil twinings of his second, our generation's Richelieu. But I digress.
The best things about Music and Lyrics were Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant. Grant is in danger of being reduced to nothing more than his witty rejoinder and Marc Lawrence's script insured this film would do nothing to save him. Ms. Barrymore again inhabited the good hearted flighty soul that is becoming her brand. Both are sufficiently charismatic to rise above the miasma of a story line and kept Music and Lyrics from morphing into Bad Music and Stupid Lyrics but only just.
Must Love Dogs 08.06.05
Yet another dynamite cast made sodden by a screenplay penned by a precocious junior high schooler and direction that clunks - loudly. Diane Lane, John Cusack, Stockard Channing, and Elizabeth Perkins must have been hoping that writer/director Gary David Goldberg could recapture the magic he wove a generation ago in the terlevision series Family Ties. Remember Alex Keaton? Michael J. Fox played an arch-conservative precocious youth to hip parents Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter. Had Mr. Goldberg only stopped there I wouldn't have spent an awkward two hours in the theater.
The director, Joel Zwick, is a television director. The male lead, John Corbett, despite having escaped Wheeling West Virginia, may never escape his Northern Exposure typecast. The female lead (and author), Nia Vardalos, is a novice. A member of N'Sync plays a cousin. This movie has a lot stacked against it. Here's a clue, though, that all may not be as it seems. It's been out forever and is still playing.
We were the only people in the theater when an elderly woman walked in and spoke directly to us. As she slowly ascended the stairs, the sound system popped to life. "What was that," she asked, startled. By the time the ads started (used to be previews, now it's ads and some weird organization promoting niceness and friendship) there were about a dozen. Three young women sat behind us and had a thoroughly wonderful time. We imagined they were Greek as they laughed at all the right times, especially at the "big loud family" jokes. After the credits, when the lights came up, the elderly woman announced her satisfaction with the movie. We agreed.
Eastwood has a penchant for featuring music in his films. That's what made the huge melodramatic swell of strings and brass as we panned up from Jimmy Markham's (Sean Penn) dead daughter all the more disorienting. I must be missing something. Some symbolic significance to the overloud music. I alertly waited for the next overloud music thing. I waited until almost the end. As people die in Eastwood's much heralded Mystic River, the music blares. OK, but I'll be damned if I know why. Now Sean Penn, Tim Robbins (Dave Boyle), and Marcia Gay Harden (Celeste Boyle) all deliver phenomenal performances. The plot certainly keeps us occupied. The cinematography is beautiful, the dialogue crisp and clever. On all the major crucial scales Mystic River scores near the top. Nonetheless, the flaws are fatal. The music is a flaw and a big one, but not fatal. Like the new romantic interest with the dreadful laugh. Hard to get past, but you're willing to try for the right one.
I probably would have made it but for Laura Linney's (Jimmy's second devoted wife Annabeth) speech at the end. She declares Jimmy a big brave king type fellow ready to do anything to protect his family. Full of action, fearless, committed. Now he's kind of bummed out because he killed the wrong guy. No big deal, his intentions were good. The cop (Kevin Bacon) knows but doesn't seem too disturbed by the knowledge. Now I have to rethink this whole thing.
The more I replayed the more I shook my head. Way too much stuff that didn't make sense. Our dedicated detective confronts a life long friend about murdering another life long friend and one minute later is laughing on his cell phone as he drives away. The victim of a nightmarish childhood sex abuse crime moves back to the old neighborhood to live. An otherwise loving wife rolls over on her husband for a crime he didn't commit and rolls over to a guy who she knows will probably kill him. Maybe I haven't lived long enough or maybe I haven't seen enough episodes of Elimi-date or maybe I'm just too critical, but Jimmy Markham is no King Lear and Mystic River is no masterpiece.
Innocent babies, violent nature, sports competition, computers, sex, advertising, violence. This appears to be the message/progression of the highly unusual visual banquet, Naqoyqatsi (Nay-COY-katsee, from the Hopi word for life as war). The music varies between hypnotic and overwhelming. No words are spoken, everything is image - animated, historical, familiar, bizarre, transparent and obtuse. The overall effect is more impression than signal. An extremely interesting ninety minutes. A little heavier editing would have served it well, but then it would be relegated to the short film category and come and go virtually unseen. A refreshing change from characters and story and appropriate as we seem bound to fall uninterrupted into the abyss of war, again.
I was flipping channels the other night around 3 in the morning and stopped on an IFC special about the evil wrought by the Hollywood blockbuster. Toward the end we were told to stop going to movies aimed at fifteen year old boys. Only then would Hollywood return to the golden age of meaningful film. (Pearl Harbor) was repeatedly cited as an example of empty blockbuster drivel. Pearl Harbor was terrible allright. And National Treasure, witb lots of wisecracking and lots of stuff blowing up, was entertaining in a way the overwrought Pearl harbor wasn't. Maybe it's Nicholas Cage's charm, or Diane Kruger's lighter than air performance, or the not so bad, bad guy, Sean Bean.
But candy this was, I won't remember much if anything three days from now, jusy a warm place in my heart for a silly treasure hunt with the Knight's Templar. Candy is good, you just can't live off it. I love a good piece of chocolate, savored slowly with a premium coffee. National Treasure was a 2 pound bag of M&M's though and that's the problem. Tastes great going down but fifteen minutes later you're asking why did I do this. It was fun, though, while it lasted, and I'll probably do it again someday soon.
What a waste. I stayed until the story careened into The Book of Secrets, passed down from President to President and containing all the secrets of the world. Like the 18 minute gap in the Nixon tapes (like we need to know anything else about that paranoid criminal) and the location of the ancient lost Mayan City of Gold. Lord Have Mercy, as if George W. wouldn't be selling it on e-bay the moment he leaves office. A too long car chase almost drove me from the theater and I stayed as long as I could but even Ed Harris couldn't rescue this mission. I should have known when a Goofy cartoon was shown prior to the film's start.
Yet another story of the protoguardians of good and protoperps of evil. Surely this is a sign of our collective weakness and disassociation that these films keep coming. If we felt we had control over our lives and our planet maybe our stories would be more about us and less about some unseen superhuman forces that represent good and evil fighting a battle in our stead.
Our political impotence aside, it was good to see a creative and entertaining film from Russia. I worry so about the Russians when I hear they can't feed or pay their soldiers to keep watch over their nuclear stockpiles that it surprises me to see a decent film product from them. Some interesting camera work and good acting enlivened what would have otherwise been just another supernatural tale of vampires and their kin.
The enigma of confidence films, Nine Queens is a swindle inside a sting wrapped in a scam. The depth of deception is not what recommends this film, though, the script and acting are. Marcos (Ricardo Darin) meets Juan (Gaston Pauls) and the two of them set out to fleece Vidal Gandolfo (Ignasi Abadal). Juan is the novice trying to get enough money together to bribe the judge hearing his father's case (another con man), Marcos is the experienced hustler with no mercy and no conscience, and Vidal is a corrupt government minister being deported tomorrow morning. Or so it would seem. Double crosses fill the air thicker than bullets in a Die Hard sequel and everyone is on the grift. Well, nearly everyone.
Marcos has a sister and little brother working in the same hotel housing the about to be deported minister. The little brother seems to be the only character not working an angle. The sister is played by Letecia Bredice and is suing Marcos over their grandparents estate. Her constant state of rage keeps the film moving through what would have otherwise been the films only sluggish moments. The script, especially the interchanges between Juan and Marco, which make up the bulk of the dialogue, is electric.
Ricardo Darin is simultaneously magnetic and repulsive as the charming and soulless senior partner, Juan is relentlessly charming as the junior con with a conscience (he returns the purse of a woman he only conned to make a point to Marcos), and Letecia Bredice is intimidating and sexy as Marcos' Furie of a sister. They all keep us guessing who is conning who, all the way to the end. No one emerges from this crooked quagmire as a hero, though. Everyone, from the purse snatchers and pick pockets to the bank's Board of Director's and the government is smeared with the same dirty bunko brush. Where is Joe Friday when you really need him?
Charles Manson's gang murders several people in the hills outside Hollywood. One of the victims is a pregnant Sharon Tate, fresh from a starring role in Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, a movie about the empty and wasted lives of some Hollywood actors and agents. Tate's husband, Roman Polanski, had recently completed Rosemary's Baby, a seminal work of horror and Satanic worship starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. Years later, Polanski pleads guilty to unlawful intercourse with a minor and fled the country for France. Arguably one of the finest directors of his generation, when this tortured soul chooses evil as the vehicle for his latest film, attention must be paid.
Frank Langella bursts in on a coven of would-be Satanic minions busy chanting ancient words to conjure Satan himself, strides through their black satin robed midst repeating his own derisive chant of, "mumbo-jumbo, mumbo-jumbo." He later attempts his own spell with no otherworldly results. The horned one makes no appearance in this movie. The Ninth Gate does appear to have something to do with sex, women and the serpent. Our hero does appear to play a key role in some larger plot but we aren't explicitly told what. For our purposes, here, we'll take the simplest approach.
Early on our hero is characterized as a mercenary. A crooked appraiser of rare books, he "steals" a four volume edition of Don Quixote from the children of a collector. The victims are themselves portrayed as a greedy soulless couple eager for their share of their father's estate. The choice of Don Quixote, who, of course, fought imaginary foes, lends credence to our supposition that the director is painting a picture of a world populated not with evil supernatural forces but only with our need to believe in them. Some apparently supernatural effects are presented (one mysterious character appears to float or fly at times) but the intent is unclear. This characters role is itself unclear. We are, at different points in the film, led to believe she is working for the good guys, then the bad. It appears what Mr. Polanski has to tell us about evil only underscores our incapacity to truly understand its nature. Like the useless card turned up in poker, "no help here."
I drove to work in a thick fog. I've been going a different way lately, one that takes me off of the hideously ugly interstate and onto surface streets. Some of those streets traverse a neighborhood that killers favor for dumping dead bodies. Once through it, though, I take a six lane surface street through what we call mixed-use neighborhoods. Mixed use means anything goes and that's the way most of this city developed. Churches next to nail parlors next to strip clubs next to homes. Good for business, horrible for the people. Almost to the office and it was still dark, very foggy, and I see what looks like the moon through the mist. How beautiful, I think. As I draw near colors become visible and I see I'm looking at a Burger King logo one hundred feet in the air, glowing for all the world to see. I stepped into a Burger King over the weekend for the first time in many years. I was taking a friend to see his father, my friend wanted coffee and wasn't particular about its source. I looked at the menu over the ordering counter. I'm sure there wasn't a thing up there under 1,500 calories. That, by the way, is more than half the daily allotment for most people and that's before the sixty-four ounce soda and giant fries or whatever. While on the way my friend and I lamented the deterioration in proper manners that seems to have gripped young people in the west. he lives in Bali these days and says the children there are universally respectful and appropriate in their behaviors. He and I, we agreed, were much that way as young people despite what might have been in our hearts or politics. I say it's because all the institutions are corrupt and broken. The church is obsessed with sex when it isn't preying on innocents, the schools have all but collapsed as vouchers and private schools complete the movement back to segregation, elections are hijacked by dumping voters off rolls and getting the reactionary Supreme Court to stop the counting of votes while we have begun to wage wars on people who never attacked us. But I digress.
No Man's Land 02.08.02
We got to the theater a half-hour early and went to the end of the back row to talk and wait for the start. A few minutes into our private moment, two couples noisily entered. Seeing us, they couldn't help but express their disappointment that they were not going to be alone. "You can't come in here," I shouted down to them. "We're from Bosnia, we have a right to be here," one of the girls answered. We all laughed. She told us she had heard this was a really funny movie. In fact, I had seen it billed as the next Catch-22. Joseph Heller's profound and profoundly funny novel of a Captain Yossarian's desperate efforts to be declared mentally unfit to fly any more Word War II bombing missions would be a tough act to equal.
Although there were a couple of chuckles in the script, the comparison to Catch-22 must have been based on a comparison of No Man's Land's UN General with General Dweedle from Catch-22. The main character in No Man's Land is anything but existentially conflicted. Branko Djuric as Chiki, the Bosnian soldier desperately trying to save his friend Niki from death by booby trap, delivers a passionate and wrenching performance. Nothing about his character is remotely humorous. He is passionate about his side's justification for fighting. His side is, by the way, the side fighting against the Serbian forces of Slobodan Milosevic in their efforts to ethnically cleanse "Greater Serbia." Milosevic is on trial in The Hague this week for crimes against humanity. Beyond a reporter's reference to the ethnic cleansing, though, neither side is portrayed as particularly evil. Everyone appears to be indicted by writer/director Danis Tanovic. This is an anti-war film and everyone involved, from the peacekeepers to the media to the warring factions is guilty through Tanovic's lens.
I have more than once been accused of picking easy targets. It is a fair accusation and one I have taken to heart. The Notebook, hence, presents a dilemma. This is a film steeped in the tried and true formulas of emotional manipulation. Afternoon rain showers, birds in flight, aging love, achingly beautiful poetry readings, even a mixed race hoedown. I could be wrong but this would have to be one of those exceedingly rare occasions in the time and land of lynching when blacks and whites came together for a little front porch good time country music. There I go again. Next I'll be complaining about the utterly unbelievable mother-daughter reconciliation or dad's silly moustache. Maybe director Nick Cassavetes was going for the realism he discovered in a 1930's newspaper photo or maybe no one noticed, but when it's oddly misshapen form makes an appearance it's about all we can see. Or the scene where Noah carries Allie upstairs with his pants around his ankles, or even how unfortunate it is that the son of pioneering actor/director John Cassavetes has chosen this vehicle for his creative expression. OK, that's just mean now.
Notes On A Scandal 02.09.07
The new guy at work hid the fact he was related to another guy at work. I called everybody in and gave the speech. The one about telling the truth. How all that matters in any relationship is the truth. Work, family, love - soon as you can't believe what is being said everything starts to fall apart. Why? What puts credibility at the heart of everything? Because we know so little for certain? All the time honored questions go unanswered, why are we here, how did life originate, what makes us who we are, why do I care so much about music and so little about sculpture? Answers are scarce for those of us not deluded by the latest evangelical wave. So whether I can believe you or not becomes critically important. Still not sure I understand why, but I know this, if I don't believe what you say I am ultimately alone. Maybe that's the key, the need to be with others. Of anyone I know I think I would do best in solitude, but I don't choose it. I choose to be with you, but only as long as I can trust you.
Notes On A Scandal puts two of the best actresses of any generation together to explore trust and the evil glue of kept secrets. Violated trust and broken promises destroy everything in this tense terrible drama, just as they do in real life. A cautionary tale few of us will heed. Of course.
Steve Martin, Laura Dern and Helena Bonham Carter. That's enough for me to go. Throw in Kevin Bacon as an actor preparing for a role as a cop and I'm thoroughly entertained. This offbeat murder mystery/comedy is just a little too offbeat. The resolution is grislier than I would have expected, it felt like something out of Stephen King or Anne Rice. I was sufficiently relieved to see Helena Bonham Carter out of her monkey suit to suffer the weirdness. Did you know she lived at home until recently?
The Number 23 03.07.07
I completely forgot I was watching Jim Carrey. Quite an accomplishment. I've never forgotten Robin Williams or Eddy Murphy. But Carrey so completely inhabits a role that his primary persona, the brilliant comedian, disappears. Virgina Madsen and Danny Huston help, they are as talented as nearly anyone on the screen these days, particularly Madsen. Only luck separates her from the first tier of actresses, she hasn't come across that singular role capable of catapultion. Yes, I made that word up. Your point?
The story is interesting but then I never figure films out. I have a friend who always knows. She is a thoughtful film partner as she won't lean over and say, "the gardner is her father." Interesting variation on a premise we've seen only once or twice before. Very entertaining if ultimately not helpful in illuminating why we are here. Not that there is anything wrong with that! There can't be, it's all I don't do!
Nurse Betty 09.09.00
Nurse Betty departs Kansas for LA in search of her ex-fianc»e, daytime soap heartthrob Dr. Dave (Greg Kinnear). In hot pursuit are Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock as two hit-men in search of their boss' stolen merchandise.
Nurse Betty is really two movies in one. One works, the other doesn't. The one that works, not surprisingly, features Rene» Zellweger as Betty. She is traumatized by her run in with the evil hit men and leaves not only Kansas but the real world. She is tragic and hilarious. In a close-up with Kinnear, her face is all feeling while his is chiseled and cold. It is a wonder that women are attracted to men at all, and clearer than ever that Eve's punishment in the Garden, "to lust after man," was far crueler than man's simple obligation to til the soil. But I digress. Rent Zellweger's The Price of Rubies or watch Jerry Maguire again, or even the dreadful Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation; she was clearly graced with more than your average measure of talent.
The part of this otherwise delightful comedy that does not work is, thankfully, the minor part. Morgan Freeman is, as always, engaging and believable. Chris Rock is, as always, cynical tired. Surely there is more to him than the one plaintive note we have heard to date. Enough with the racial schtick already.
The "twist" doesn't work, seems pointless, and Freeman's character is not properly motivated to take the turn he does. The violence, early on, is excessive and, as usual, gratuitous.
In spite of its shortcomings, this is a different story, fun and funny.
I really wanted to like this movie. Every one of the stars (except Andy Garcia who takes himself way too seriously) is so charming and fun. Soderbergh directs. The original was so cool and clever. The preview teasers were promising.
Oh well. One particularly funny trailer had Clooney answering the Parole Board's question about his plans for work if released with "what do you guys make?" Incredibly, that scene isn't even in the film. The original had the crooks sharing membership in a military outfit. Their repartee and camaraderie were thus easily explained. The remake inexplicably omitted this useful device. Instead, the crooks come together off a list Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) keeps in his head. Good bye camaraderie. Hello goofy eccentricity. Two weirdo brothers from Utah, one unintelligible explosives expert and a ghastly caricature in the form of Elliot Gould. Beyond the characters, though, plot elements fail even the simplest tests for believability. Cutting power to the city, for example, jumps from blasting an underground cable complex to the theft of an electro magnet pulse generator. Only one of its kind in the world, our bad guys steal it from a Cal tech lab guarded by two rent-a-cops. When the power does go off, we can't help but notice no one has any uninterrupted power supplies. Even my PC at work stays on when the power goes off, how come the world's most sophisticated security system goes down? The vault door is apparently blown by five well-placed cherry bombs.
The cinematography is probably the film's high point. Don Cheadle as the aforementioned unintelligible explosives expert is a pleasant surprise. Brad Pitt and George Clooney don't quite measure up to the Dean Martin Frank Sinatra precedent but they're still pretty good together. Pretty good is a sad comment on a film with all the potential this one had.
I am, as always I suppose, of two minds about this picture. I was, for two hours at least, thoroughly entertained. I will most likely be, once I collect my thoughts, disappointed. The press leading up to Ocean's Twelve's release has been nearly overwhelming. Magazine covers, interview shows, even mall openings have been grist for this media mill. Giving up front end salaries, Hollywood's hottest are ready and willing to work the paparazzi circuit if there's a chance of adding a zero to Twelve's gross. Should I be offended? Folk who would normally shun the publicity circus once their check has been cashed now embrace the buzz-makers. So what, you say. So what I echo. What matters is the material, the product, the end result, the rest is just so much air. So what about the finished product?
Remember the first, or rather the second Ocean's Eleven from 2001? As Clooney, Danny Ocean, reveals the objective, young Turk Matt Damon, as Linus Caldwell, blurts out "pretty much a smash and grab job, eh?" to the derision and scorn of the group. This go-round it really is a smash and grab but without the smash. This hundred million dollar heist is just a grab. The object of the grab is replaced by an ultra-cool hologram, courtesy of even cooler Eddie Izzard. At the heart of Ocean's Twelve is a wager. Francois Toulour (played by the spooky Vincent Cassell) is willing to pay off the Eleven's pursuer, Terry Benedict, if Ocean will agree to settle the argument over who owns the title, world's second greatest thief. Number one belongs to the mysterious La Marque, more about him later. The number two slot is up for grabs, though, and if Ocean's Twelve can win, Toulour will pay Benedict just under two hundred million (interest, of course) to walk away. Benedict found the Eleven courtesy of Toulour, but that's another story.
In the three years since the original job, Benedict has stayed busy collecting Hollywood memorabilia in the form of the Seinfeld puffy shirt and a cane once twirled by Gene Barry as the dandy Bat Masterson. That too is another story. The real story of Ocean's Twelve are the fun cameos and the even more fun Julia Roberts twist that have been substituted for narrative and character development. We do see a bit more about Rusty (Brad Pitt) and Linus (Matt Damon) and Catherine Zeta-Jones joins the cast as an Interpol detective cold on their trail but the balance of the cast, including Clooney, fades. In exchange we get Bruce Willis, Albert Finney, and the aforementioned Eddie Izzard. And one ill conceived scene with Vincent Cassell Tango-ing his way across a room full of randomly ranging laser beams. Stacked up against Zeta-Jones laser avoidance Yoga from The Entrapment, Cassell's aerobics come off silly and stupid. But not much could stack up against Ms. Zeta-Jones and come off well. But that is yet another story. Maybe I keep wandering off because this is a film in search of a story. In spite of all my complaining, it was fun while it lasted.
The Coen brothers strike again. Raising Arizona, Blood Simple and Fargo are three of the better films of the past fifteen years. The Coen brothers take their offbeat predilection so far off the beaten path in Oh Brother as to altogether lose sight of the trail. The Coen's skewed view of the world can give rise to some wonderfully funny, and touching vignettes. Holly Hunter's cop character in Raising Arizona for one, Joel Coen's wife, Frances McDormand's cop character in Fargo for another. All too often, though, these guys slip over the edge into a scary world occupied by maxi-evil characters and shot through with pointless violence. The mad motorcyclist from Hell in Raising Arizona and the wood chipper scene in Fargo come unpleasantly to mind. What are they trying to tell us? Anything? I think I might get as much from bird watching, though, and I wouldn't have to contend with so many grisly images.
Outside a rousing hillbilly song and a dazzling KKK dance number, Oh Brother is nearly bereft of entertainment value. George Clooney acquits himself well, Holly Hunter is always excellent, and John Turturro plays his usual angry guy. Using Homer's Odyssey for a vehicle provides plenty of action and characters but little else.
Oliver Twist 10.03.05
I don't know where to draw the line between cinematographer and director. The stark and desperate beauty of nineteenth century London is as much a character as Fagin in this most recent and best yet retelling of the Dickens masterpiece. The muddy streets, dirty air and meandering mobs are nearly as threatening as the broken government in Dickens indictment of a corrupt and socially bankrupt empire midway through its long inward collapse. Nothing and no one is clean in Dickens' dark vision given new life by cinematographer Pawel Edelman and director Roman Polanski.
Precipitous divides between the classes give little hope for a shared and better future. We see the upper class in their decadence and insensitivity as back room board members all too eager to seal young Oliver's fate and we also see them as kind benefactor coming to Oliver's rescue. The former are many, the latter but one. Oliver's appeal for "more" upsets the delicate balance by which the subjugated abide their fate. Threatened with lynching and booted from the poor house, Oliver is taken in by Fagin and his troupe of petty criminals. Ben Kingsley imbues the archetypical Fagin with a complexity of character that elevates him beyond the trademark sneer and into a fully developed and nearly impenetrable mask of conflict and compassion. It is in Fagin that Dickens' story becomes other than a simple morality tale. Dickens' pedantic indictment of his culture becomes a more shaded and subtle exploration of good and evil through Fagin. He morphs from victimizer to victim and villain to hero, and back again. Twist as representative of our innocence is an easier character to track. Dickens' story is a rich and rewarding one for all its ugly truth of a decadent England. Polanski and Edelman bring it to thrilling and awesome life while clearly marking its themes of class struggle and injustice. The clothing and speech may have changed but the story is sadly timeless.
Hoo boy, keep Trinity Broadcasting Network away from the expensive cameras!
Most difficult scene to watch - Michael York (satanic one worlder) in conversation with one of WB's heartthrobs. The dialogue was so awful I was embarrassed for the actors. One of the two Prophets sent by God carries such a heavy accent he can barely be understood. What happened to Pentecost, I thought we were supposed to hear in our own tongue, not our own tongue as spoken by a Lithuanian.
The Omen 06.13.06
It would be an interesting exercise to watch the two films side by side. Spearing to decapitation to fall from the banister, the original and the remake differ little. The acting is first rate in both. I think the kid was scarier in the original but little matter. What else to say? Liev Schreiber is as talented as they come, David Thewlis is the guy we all secretly want to be. Julia Stiles never misses. A good movie for a rainy Saturday afternoon.
I can't help but wonder if One Hour Photo was intentionally paced to take a full hour before developing. I swear if it moved any slower in the first hour it would have stopped. When it finally does get going, it goes fast. But never so fast as to compensate for the dreadfully slow first half. Sure, Robin Williams in a tour de force, but it's a tour we've taken twice already this year. And we had Al Pacino (Insomnia) and Edward Norton (Death to Smoochy) to keep us company on the first two tours. One Hour Photo gives us Connie Nielsen, no slacker, but not in the same league with Norton or Pacino.
I could have spent more time with the science of developing, that was some cool stuff. As if we don't already have enough to worry about, now the guy at the one hour photo is after us. What will they think of next? A website that can kill? Oh me oh my, that would be feardotcom...
One Night At McCool's 04.27.01
Nothing about this otherwise light-hearted sex comedy will prepare you for the ending. Well, almost nothing. Michael Douglas, as the aging topuee'd hit man, uses a few too many colloquialisms in describing sex between Matt Dillon and Liv Tyler. The Priest's reaction to John Goodman's confession is a little too heavy-handed. The casting of Andrew Dice Clay as twin brothers, one dressed as a Bandito outcast, the other in short-sleeved white shirt and too-short polyester slacks. Things are too off center, like a space alien's version of a sex comedy. What had been an almost funny movie suddenly turns gunplay grisly. It just doesn't fit.
Liv Tyler is, of course, gorgeous and, thankfully, not starving herself.
First came the classics of Shelley and Stoker followed quickly by Poe, HP Lovecraft made a brief appearance, science fiction had an extended run when The Bomb made ants, lizards, and even rabbits huge, Stephen King dominated for two decades, and lately it's been the Japanese. We've been remaking their scary movies for years now. One Missed Call is a remake of Chakushin Ari, The Grudge was originally Ju-on, Dark Water was Honogurai Mizu, and The Ring, Rasen. We've seen the Japanese before in the original Godzilla and a horde of flying monsters that followed but the recent imports have focused on ubiquitous electronica. The latest, One Missed Call, has a cell phone as the instrument of terror. You get a call from recently deceased friend time stamped two days hence. You always miss the call and the voice mail is way scary. There are two more Japanese sequels to One Missed Call and enough loose ends in the US version that we can expect to see Two Missed Calls and maybe even Three Missed Calls. Jumping out of the dark was held to a minimum, thank goodness, I hate that adrenalin rush. The fast-forward, chopped-up, moving towards you hooded creature appears yet again, another borrowing from the Japanese. Part time LA disc jockey Shannyn Sossamon (A Knight's Tale) and Edward Burns (indie film maker and actor) pair as the leads. It helps.
Open Water 09.03.04
I wasn't ready for this. As much as has been written and as many previews I've seen and I was still not prepared. Almost from the beginning, I was looking for ways to prevent Susan and Daniel (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) and from getting into this mess. Once in, my legs were actually straining to help them get to the relative safety of the buoy. I was prepared for the interminable scenes of them in the Open Water looking about for their boat. They never happened. Instead of hoping a scene would be over out of boredom with it, I was hoping each scene would end so these two could get closer to rescue. Even Jaws didn't make me want to stay out of the water. Open Water did. I'm just glad it's over. Superior filmmaking.
Orange County 01.31.02
So many messages, so little time...
Before Moses and the Tablets was Hammurbai and the Pillar. Hammurbai, absolute ruler of Babylon, ordered his law reduced to a series of hieroglyphs and carved into a pillar on the outskirts of town. Not everyone could read hieroglyphics, though, so some enterprising young scribe set up shop at the foot of the pillar of Hammurbai and offered his services explaining the Code to any interested passerby. History's first lawyer, and our first experience with the law as document. Back then, there were no checks and balances, no Hobbesian concept of "the consent of the governed." These would come four thousand years later. But Hammurbai's Code was the beginning of the law as something separate, something above the territorial imperative, above the whims or interpretations of the individual, an objective reality.
The fabric of society is held together by the threads of this objective reality. The law, or the rule of law as opposed to the law of the ruler, represents the social mores and moral imperatives that allow us to live in relative harmony in society. Without law, and the will to abide by and enforce the law, we revert to something less than civilized. This preciously delicate construct between the members of a society, to abide by and be subject to rules of behavior, exists at the behest of each of us. Should any member or group decide to no longer recognize this construct, the social contract, or law, is broken. Society, through the application of the law, attempts to being the recalcitrant party back into harmony with the society.
The creation of laws and their application in the system of justice is the province of lawyers. Lawyers write the law, lawyers defend and prosecute violations, and lawyers interpret and apply the law when they assume the role of judge. Like physicians, the functions performed are so critical as to require the participation of the State in licensing this select group of women and men. Like Bishops of the medieval church or the Senators of the Roman republic, lawyers are the keepers of the keys to our system of justice, and by extension, our social order. They hold the secrets, possess the power, and wield the influence to protect or to do great harm. Lawyers are entrusted with the responsibility for making our system of justice viable and legitimate. They are, therefore, held to a higher standard.
I tend to watch movies directed at children and youth with an eye toward subliminal messages. In much the same way lawyers bear a special responsibility for protecting the law as well as their clients, filmmakers targeting the particularly impressionable bear a special responsibility for content as well as form. Orange County is about a high school senior's efforts to get into Stanford. Contemplating the recent drowning death of his friend, Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks, Tom's son), class president and good timer, finds a book half-buried in the sand. The book has a profound effect on him and he sells his surfboard and begins to write. The book's author, Marcus Skinner (played by Kevin Kline) teaches at Stanford and so Shaun decides Stanford is the only place where he can develop as a writer. The school counselor (Lily Tomlin), however, sends in the wrong transcript and Shaun is rejected. He spends the balance of the film trying a variety of schemes to get into Stanford. Jack Black plays Shaun's parole violating, drug-abusing brother Lance, John Lithgow the father, Catherine O'Hara is mom, the school principal is Chevy Chase, Ben Stiller appears as a fireman, and Harold Ramis the admissions dean at Stanford. Interestingly, the marketing for the film hardly mentions these mega stars. Instead we get a picture of Hanks with orange slices under an inverted picture of Black with an orange stuffed in his mouth. Directed by Jake Kasdan (the son of Lawrence Kasdan of The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist, Grand Canyon, and French Kiss fame) Orange County is fast, slick, and funny when Jack Black or Catherine O'Hara are on screen. O'Hara plays the drunk mom. She is terrific in the role. Jack Black continues to deliver comic performances of the first rank. When neither of these two are on camera, the film limps along, jolted to occasional life by a cameo.
At the heart of the story is Shaun coming to terms with his belief that he must escape Orange County to become the writer he is meant to be. The overt messages are well intentioned if a little muddled. Settling for a community college when you qualify for Yale might bear some reflection. The less obvious cues, however, are more suspect. The drug abusing brother, for example, doesn't work, seduces the secretary with but a raised eyebrow, commits arson, and nearly kills everyone driving under the influence. Jack Black, of course, makes it all look like great fun, much the same way John Belushi once did. No consequence drug abuse, like the mothers no consequence alcoholism are dangerous signals to send to young teens.
I don't believe we should restrict access to such films. The rating system, as it currently exists - violence OK, sex bad - is enough of a mess. Instead, we should implore filmmakers to appreciate the magnitude of the influence they can exert over impressionable minds. There is nothing attractive about the drug abuse in Pinero, for example. Lance, Shaun's druggie brother, gets the girl, escapes the police, and is home in time for dinner.
Original Sin 08.06.01
About eleventy million too many shots of Angelina Jolie's lips. Toward the end of this dreary and uneven failed attempt at suspense, the entire right side of the screen is taken over by the lips. Have we never seen pouty lips before people? Injected or not they don't bear up under this kind of relentless close-up. Angelina Jolie is more than her lips. As long as she's playing an in-charge, out-of-control, sexually loaded super character (Girl Interrupted, Lara Kroft, and now this), that is. She has this part down to a "t." Only when she shows us weakness and indecision does her acting become stilted. Interesting, because, if what we read in the papers is true, she's all about weakness and indecision. But we stray from the film.
Angelina Jolie, as Julie Russell, lures Antonio Banderas, as Luis Vargas, into a false sense of security and marriage, wherein he gives her signature authority over his fat bank accounts, only to learn (gasp!) she's bad. Off with the money she goes, closely followed (or led) be her partner in crime, the even badder Billy. Seems Billy and Julie became fast friends and lovers years ago in the orphanage. Ever since, they've been breaking hearts and building bank accounts all across the Western Hemisphere. Now this Billy might pass for a scoutmaster caught rolling through a stop sign, but he is wholly unconvincing as the twisted Faustian with an iron grip on Julie's soul. Billy Bob (Angelina's real-life hubby) might have made this character believable.
Will she quit her evil ways or not is all this hollow hulk has at its center. Nothing more inhabits this film. Except the lips. Oh wait, I almost forgot, multiple personality disorder is tossed out as an afterthought. "Bonnie" (or "Betty" or whatever) makes an appearance in Julie's jail cell confessions to the innocent young Priest - gee, wonder whether she'll take advantage of him?
Original Sin is about as original as sin and infinitely more dreary.
Belonging to the category of horror film that has given rise to such classics as The Exorcist and The Devil's Backbone, The Orphange is scary in a sticky way. Not normally afraid of the dark, there are times when I rush back to bed and pull the covers up. Light helps, but turning on the light is giving in to an irrational fear. Scurrying back to bed from a darkened kitchen is not something I've done in a while but I expect I will in the next few nights. The Orphanage is the story of Laura (the incomparable Belen Rueda), an orphan who buys the orphanage where she spent her happy childhood and reopens it as a home for a small number of disabled children. Before she can make that happen, though, her own adopted son falls under the spell of an orphanage that appears to hold more secrets than Laura remembers. The Spanish coast makes for some beautiful cinematography and the old home is magnificent but the camera is wholly entranced, as are we, by Ms. Rueda. An exceptional story helps as does a guest appearance by Geraldine Chaplin but this film belongs to Belen Rueda, an extraordinary talent.
I recall watching Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut and thinking she was bereft of any acting talent. I was too disgusted by the pop music cheap trick of Moulin Rouge to pay much attention to her in that role. Seeing her in The Others, however, I am compelled to confess to grievous error. Either she is, in fact, an overwrought mother with a missing husband and two sickly children or, contrary to my poor judgment, a terrific talent. The children, especially the scared son, Nicholas (James Bentley), are excellent. Elaine Cassidy as the mute servant-girl, Lydia, is gifted. Last seen in the wonderful thriller, Felicia's Journey, with Bob Hoskins, she makes this otherwise invisible character come alive.
Chilean director Alejandro Amenabar unfolds the complicated and twisting plot with a deft hand. She eschews the easy scare and works patiently to build a whole body of mysterious characters and circumstance. Rip the dust covers off several stored pieces of furniture in almost any other horror film and one of them would reveal a dead, deadly or decaying face in full close-up. Ms. Amenabar instead uses the scene to build suspense and develop Kidman's character, Grace. Not without a sense of humor, though, she has Grace back into the outstretched hand of a dressing dummy. Relax, she seems to tell us, the scary stuff isn't quite here yet. The best of the scary stuff that makes up most of this smart film is, as Hitchcock used to show us, all in the mind and not the screen.
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