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The Safety of Objects 03.15.03 ticketticketticket

Maybe everyone's not OK. Maybe everyone is as crazy as I am. Maybe that person walking their dog is imagining what it would be like to leap into the air, crash through a nearby upstairs window and spin around so fast that everything in the room turns to butter. Maybe they imbue inanimate objects with soul and voice. Maybe they don't want to throw away their old socks for fear of hurting their feelings. If The Ice Storm, American Beauty, and The Safety of Objects are any indication, all is not well in the American psyche. These films tell the story of otherwise unremarkable suburban American lives that, just below the surface, border on the bizarre. The Safety of Objects is he most recent in this growing genre of well made explorations of madness in the mainstream. As each successive generation of writers and filmmakers matures, we are afforded a glimpse into the darker recesses of their apprehension of the culture that formed them. Are we seeing beneath a mask that has always hidden this lurking madness or is the madness growing? While none of these films attempt to answer that question, they certainly make us wonder whether we are spiraling downward into the abyss or simply have more lights with which to see what has ever been before us.

The Safety of Objects is primarily distinguished by the overwhelming presence Glenn Close brings to her tragic character, Esther Gold, the mother of a brain dead son (Joshua Jackson seen in flashback). She masks the horror of her son's presence in the home with chit-chat and routine. The father (Robert Klein in a near cameo but strong role) and sister (Jessica Campbell growing into a significant screen presence) are less adept at the charade and provide powerful counter tension to Esther's pretense. The balance of the cast is playfully introduced in the opening credits as porcelain-like dolls emerging from their homes stiff and immutable. Dermot Mulroney is Jim Train, a shallow and work obsessed lawyer, Mary Kay Place (always a delight) as a health nut one notch above desperate, Patricia Clarkson as Annette Jennings, the suffering single mom, and Timothy Olyphant in a subtle and rewarding role as Randy.

Each of these characters are joined by the car crash that killed one, left another brain dead, and a third, Randy, uninjured. They also share a common obsession with objects, the lifeless body of a son, a doll, a car, a job. Objects are imbued with meaning, purpose, imagined life, in the quest for safety. But safety from what? Is it guilt from which these folks seek safety? Leaving this central issue unresolved is the only flaw in this otherwise wonderfully realized character study.

My question remains. Am I as crazy as these folk?

Saints & Sinners 12.12.05 ticketticket

In September 2002 the NY Times became the latest in a growing list of daily papers to publish civil union announcements in their Wedding Section. The paper chose to re-title their Wedding section, Weddings/Celebrations. Two years later, Edward DeBonis and Vincent Maniscalco submit their announcement and the paper is stumped. Edward and Vincent are Catholic, you see, and they intend to avail themselves of the Church's Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. While the struggles of the Times are central to Saints & Sinners, especially the Times reluctance to anger the powerful Roman Catholic lobby, the more poignant story is of the personal battles Edward and Vincent face. Their families, formerly accepting of the couple, split over Edward and Vincent’s decision to share in the Sacrament of Marriage.

With even civil unions under siege in some states, Abigail Honor and Yan Vizinberg’s documentary film is a timely and intelligent look at the obstacles confronting same-sex couples looking to formalize their relationship through marriage. It was only a year ago that referendums banning same-sex unions passed in eleven states. Saints & Sinners does little to explain the fear that drove so many to the polls last November but it does much to reveal the depth and complexity of the issues surrounding this latest battle in the seemingly endless struggle for civil rights.

Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic 01.01.06 ticketticket

Once we're past the awkward opening musical number and uncomfortably settled into Sarah Silverman's stand-up routine, Jesus is Magic quickly establishes itself among the top tier of stand-up films. Alongside Richard Pryor: Live in Concert and Eddie Izzard's Dress to Kill, Jesus is Magic breaks down barriers, shocks, unsettles, and makes you laugh, especially when it hurts. Ms. Silverman knows no topic too lurid or inappropriate to escape her unusual blend of innocence and sex appeal and razor wit. Not for the weak hearted, the too young or the too old. The rest of us are fortunate to be around when she is.

The Savages 01.02.08 ticket ticket

Standing outside the nursing home to which they have just committed their estranged father Lenny (Philip Bosco), Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) not kindly tells sister Wendy (Laura Linney) that yes, they all smell the same, and yes, this is where people go to die, and yes, it is horrible. It is horrible. We have become so disconnected from each other that we readily accept the proposition that the answer to aged parents is to consign them to a ward where strangers will care for them while they waste away and die. Unless you are very wealthy, though, you must first strip them of everything they own so they qualify for government assistance. The pathetic attempt to store away something for their old age, a piece of property, a savings account, some stock, must all be divested. It's quite legal, even encouraged. Once accomplished, reapply and they'll be taken in by the local home for the destitute and dying. There's a good chance that once there they'll lose their watch and any nice furnishings you might supply, but you'll be free to go to work every day or care for the kids that will one day turn you out.

Saving Face 05.28.05ticketticket

Alice Wu's first feature effort, Saving Face, tells the story of a Chinese-American lesbian Wilamena (Michelle Krusiec) and her unexpectedly pregnant Ma (Joan Chen), Saving Face starts slowly and builds to a frantic and charged conclusion reminiscent of The Graduate. On the surface, Saving Face is a classic comedy of manners as Wil and her mother struggle to overcome the conventional mores of their very traditional extended family and community. Below that surface, Saving Face touches on the struggle to listen and ultimately answer the call of your heart. Michelle Krusiec holds her own while Joan Chen delivers yet another brilliant and understated performance. We last saw her in Gurinder Chadra's 2000 What's Cooking and we're glad she's back.

I made reference recently to the ostensibly Asian preoccupation with "face" and posited that the Asian "face" is a universal plea for dignity and honor. The longer I consider the concept the more difficult it becomes to separate face/dignity from the preternatural sin of pride. But for that crooked nature we would still be lounging about the garden, walking humbly with our God. It is not money or power or sex that steers us so consistently from the path of the righteous, it is the simple vainglory that we are better. Smarter than you, more beautiful than her, stronger than him. Without it we empathize, with it we criticize. It is as common as a wish, as natural as a sigh, and as deadly as a fourteenth century flea.

Saving Silverman 02.24.01ticketticket

Three of the best comedic actors filmdom has to offer come together to make a stupid movie. Jack Black, Steve Zahn, and Amada Peet have each distinguished themselves previously. Jack Black in High Fidelity, Steve Zahn in Happy, Texas, and Amanda Peet in The Whole Nine Yards. That between the three of them they couldn't figure out this was a disaster is a bit disappointing. Neal Diamond makes a cameo. Like that would help or something.

The Science of Sleep 10.15.06ticket ticket

If death is the overwhelming fact with which we all must deal then why is its sister - sleep - relegated to the playpen of consciousness? We attend thinking Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) may shed light. Alas, we are naive as Monsieur Gondry is more interested in relationships than dreams. The three of us all had bizarre dreams the night after seeing The Science of Sleep but that was likely due more to the surrealism of the film than any thematic element. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stephane to Charlotte Gainsbourg's Stephanie. I will see this again if only to study Ms. Gainsbourg. She is a profound talent seen only briefly in the magnificent 21 Grams. Stephan has some trouble distinguishing between waking and dreams and we share in his confusion from time to time. Stephanie is always clearly in his dream or his reality, never in between or in doubt. We don't appreciate the depth of Stephan's disturbance until late and this may be a weakness in the film or a facet of the narrative. No matter, what we care about most is Stephan and that is a mark of Bernal's strength as an actor and Gondry's deft storytelling. What is most appealing about the film is Gainsbourg's performance. None of this, sadly, takes us any closer to understanding sleep or dreams. Think I'll eat some spicy foods and go to bed, I'll let you know what I find...

School of Rock 10.04.03ticketticket

When Mike White, author of Orange County, a muddled mess of a movie about the spoiled children of the privileged and The Good Girl, an intelligent and sensitive look at the failed dreams of a small town girl, teams with director Richard Linklater, whose film "Slacker" codified the Generation X subset that bears its name and whose film Waking Life takes the pseudo intellectual conversation to heretofore unattainable plateaus of meaninglessness, combine their profound but inconsistently realized gifts in an effort to showcase the Slacker generation's only inspired comedic voice, Jack Black, hope and fear run high.

Dewey Finn (Jack Black), fired from the band he founded and threatened with eviction by the only friend he has (Mike White as roomy Ned Scheebly), takes a gig as a substitute at the city's snootiest private school. Signing up his ten year old charges in his new band, he sets his sights on the $20,000 first place money in the upcoming Battle of the Bands show. He teaches the kids rock and roll, solves their self-esteem issues, brings the kids and their parents together while loosening up the tightly wound principal Rosie (the always delightful Joan Cusack), teaches himself what's really important in life, brings peace to the Middle East and cures cancer. Although the band comes in second, a real School of Rock is born and Dewey rocks on to middle age. Jack Black's energy carries this shopworn story (originally told with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Broadway Melody of 1938) and Joan Cusack is as good as it gets. The kids are darling. An OK time is had by all.

Scoop 07.31.06 ticket ticket

Scarlett Johansson smacking gum while she bemoans not getting the story for her school newspaper because she got drunk and slept with the object of her interview is alone worth the price of admission. I am utterly smitten with her talent and role selection. She, Samantha Morton, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslett have displayed sufficient ability, intelligence, and integrity that we should turn our fates over to them and do what we're told. If only David Mamet and Woody Allen would write the script for our lives all would be perfect. In the meantime, turn off the news and see Scoop, it will help you forget you live in the real world, at least for a couple of hours. Splendini, indeed.

The Score 07.13.01 ticketticket

Forty years ago, Truman Capote wrote a lengthy profile of Marlon Brando for The New Yorker magazine. After reading it, I understood why Brando has so little contact with the media. Capote tells us Brando would whisper in an effort to thwart his co-stars attempts to eavesdrop, from their upstairs hotel room, on his conversation. It seemed unlikely, at the time, that Red Buttons and his wife would have much interest in what Marlon and Truman were saying. In a sad bit of foreshadowing, we read that Brando eyed, ("are you going to eat that?") Capote's dessert during the interview. I found myself trying to look past the grotesque to glimpse the gift Marlon Brando once possessed. What a bizarre character he has become. We read Brando refused to perform if the director of The Score, Frank Oz, appeared on the set.

DeNiro and Edward Norton round out the male leads in this Topkapi retelling flawed by a seemingly endless series of nonsensical plot developments. Seems the French government (we hear only "they") shipped a priceless French national treasure (an ornamental scepter designed for a sixteenth century queen) to Quebec hidden in the hollowed leg of a grand piano. That the piano would have collapsed is overlooked. The piano gets impounded in the Montreal customs house because of an insect infestation. Canadian customs decides to burn the piano because they are so afraid of the insects. No pesticide exists in all Canada strong enough to kill these critters. Jackie (Edward Norton), posing as a retarded janitor's assistant, has been casing the joint for three weeks in anticipation of stealing the priceless treasure that somehow only he knows about. He's pretends to physical and mental challenge to fool the staff but can't resist the temptation to slip out of character whenever no one is looking. One would think regularly dropping one's cover is unwise, but this is the same staff that waits fifteen minutes before deciding to go look at the basement, "the most secure lock-up in all of Eastern Canada," when the cameras suddenly go out. Our hero-villains gain access by pushing up on the manhole cover in the bottom of the basement vault. You and I are prevented from doing the same because we don't have a cool map of the Montreal sewer system.

In case you don't know the Topkapi formula, the first third of the film is given over to getting the bad guys to agree to work together while establishing each one's motivation for the heist, the second third to the planning and technical aspects of the job, the final third to the gripping suspense of "will the guard keep reading the paper or will he look at the video camera" as the string section plays faster and higher. Norton and DeNiro keep this retread from separating, but just barely.

The Scorpion King 04.20.02ticketticket

As a good friend once remarked when I was going on and on about some stupid thing some stupid person did, "you certainly pick an easy target, John." Of course, The Rock's (Dwayne Johnson) second foray into mainstream cinema (he has sixty plus credits for a nearly endless list of WWF videos) is as predictable as any action hero movie has ever been. He beats the bad guy, gets the girl, and lives happily ever after. The bad guy is Memnon (Steven Brand) and he is on a mission to establish a thousand year reign of peace through discipline. Sound familiar? The girl is Cassandra, the sorceress (Kelly Hu) and, held against her will, she contrives to save The Rock upon their first encounter as she "sees" he will help her escape the clutches of the evil one. Happily ever after, is of course, The Scorpion King. I was a bit troubled how they plan to make the jump to The Scorpion King of The Mummy, where The Rock first appeared. The Mummy's Scorpion King is a thoroughly evil fellow, as I recall. But I digress.

Michael Clarke Duncan plays Balthazar, the big mean guy with the heart of gold and a big scar across his right cheek. It looked like makeup forgot the spirit gum and just sort of slapped it on, the edges of the tape reflect the light. Am I too critical? Some of The Rock's boyish charm shows through and that helps make it bearable. It is a WWF movie after all, what with Mathayus (Scorpion King to you) flipping as many guys as he slashes with the sword.

The opening scene has some poor fellow wandering through the frozen tundra when a ninja star thunks into his forehead. People around me gasped when it went in. We heard more of it than we saw, you know. The dull knife into a melon foley work. Since no blood spurts and no entrails fall out, the PG13 rating was protected. We do see women ravished by the winning army, women as hookers, women as harem objects, an assassin as good guy, children as cute thieves, and mayhem as the order of the day, but nothing to warrant an R rating. Nobody actually made love or used a cussword or anything. The Sorceress never did find any clothes that went all the way around her hips, though, and that was really cool.

Scream3 03.09.00 ticketticket

Paula Poundstone explains the need to finish off the remaining two Pop-Tarts in a freshly opened package, "just to tidy up, really." Scream3 is just to tidy up. It is a schlock job of the first degree. We are exposed to countless potential suspects only to have a long lost half-brother appear out of nowhere. Honestly, you'd think these guys could do a little better for the millions and millions they make off this. But then, I don't expect AC/DC to make better music just because they make a lot of money. Or Windows to be a stable platform just because Microsoft spent three hundred billion in the first quarter. Or Detroit to make safe cars just because everyone in the country bought one. Oh well.

The Sea Inside 02.17.05ticketticket

Distracted by a beautiful woman, Ramon Sampedro dives into a familiar cove just as the riptide is dropping the water's depth by half. He crashes into the sea floor and wakes up when a friend pulls him out. He spends the next three decades as a quadriplegic petitioning the state (Spain) to recognize his right to die. The Sea Inside isn't about Spain or quadriplegia, it is about whether we should have the right to end our lives at a time of our choosing. That this is a question for governments to answer is a testament to our inability to structure a relationship between the state and us that makes sense. Not unlike the inane law that prevents us from voting for the same person over and over, the laws against suicide are rooted in the belief that the state knows better what is good for us. As we need the state to keep us from electing the same person too many times, we need the state to remind us that wse have insufficient judgement to decide to end our life. We do give the state the right to kill us, though, and that seems to make perfect sense. This life that is too precious to be ended willingly by us can be ended by the state if our behavior violates the social contract in a particularly heinous manner. So, we surrender the right to end our own life but allow the state to end it if it so chooses. And we haven't even considered war.

I'm getting ready to go run (walk) in the park in a few minutes. I will be joined by hundreds of my fellow citizens, some of whom want to be fit, some to be among friends, some to relax, but I fear, a large percentage are out there to do everything they can to avoid death. Struggling, panting, grimacing, aching, in what is surely a vain effort, for most at least, to stave off the deterioration of their heart muscle and the narrowing of their arteries. To prolong life, to eke out a few more months or years spent misunderstanding people, hurting those they love, watching too loud commercials on television, laughing at others misfortune, consuming and consuming and consuming, generating waste and spoiling the environment. Because we are afraid, afraid of death, afraid of what we don't know about life and afraid there may be nothing awaiting us on the other side.

Javier Bardem will have to win an Academy Award someday, he seems to get nominated every time he acts. He is a prodigious talent and mesmerizing to watch. Belen Rueda, Lola Duenas, Mabel Rivera, and Clara Segura are beacons as the women who love him and would be enough to make me want to stick around, but then I can walk to the window if I want. And that's the whole point, really. I'm not him or you and have absolutely no right to control whether you live or die and should not, and did not, surrender that right to a state.

Seabiscuit 07.27.03ticketticket

It's almost impossible to go wrong with this story. And yet. Somehow, against all odds, Seabiscuit is DOA. Maybe it was the PBS narrative over black and white stills of the Depression. Maybe it was the strained first half hour as Gary Ross attempted to intro the three characters and their disparate lives. Mr. Ross may have been seeking to weave, but it felt more like duct tape. Maybe it was the overfull theater. Or maybe I'm just not a horse person. No matter. A good movie that could have been great.

Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire, and Elizabeth Banks were all sufficient, Chris Cooper superior and William H. Macy electric. The horse race scenes were a little blurry for me, too many shots were overhead (an impossible perspective that can only make an esoteric point like the soul leaving the body and invariably distracts), and the historical narrative was beside the point. It was a refreshing change to sit through an entire film without anything blowing up or anybody getting shot.

Secret Life of Bees 10.26.08 ticket ticket

I wonder what it means that I remember so few books. I watched a scene from Atonement the other day and was particularly taken by the blocking in the scene where Robbie confronts Briony and Cecilia acts to keep Robbie from striking her sister. I was watching because I had come upon it near the end and couldn't remember the vehicle employed to reveal the awful truth of Robbie and Cecilia's fate. I couldn't remember reading the book at all but I'm told I did. Interesting how much of one's consciousness can be transferred to another, isn't it? I never know where the car is parked when I'm with someone else. Alone I find myself scribbling notes or maps so I can find it later. The worst thing is I fear this is a function of advancing age and I'm all too keenly aware of it. But I digress. I recalled a scene or two from The Secret Life of Bees but had no recollection of any of the characters. Alicia Keys as June Boatwright was captivating but then she must be if Bob Dylan is searching for her clear through Tennessee (what IS that line from Thunder on the Mountain about).

I had certainly forgotten that so many horrible things happen to so many broken people in this story. A reminder for us that real life is filled with misery and pain. And few of us can wander off down the road and find three strong women to take the place of our too fragile mother - broken again and again by too young parents, a too shallow husband and two too sensitive children.

Seducing Dr. Lewis 08.01.04 ticketticket

A dying Quebec island village has a shot at getting a factory if they can find a doctor to take up residence. The entire town takes up the challenge and 119 of the 120 citizens begin an elaborate ruse to convince the good doctor this is the town for him. The lone hold out is the beautiful mail clerk. She'll have none of it. A simple and delightfully funny distraction of a comedy. What an interesting people the French are. From giving rise to the first great unifier of Europe, Charlemagne, to the Sun King and Versailles to the slaughter of the Revolution, the rise of Napoleon and the obstinacy of DeGaulle. Yet they delivered this lighthearted comedy to our shores while we're busy renaming their fried potatoes. They think Jerry Lewis is the greatest comedian of all time and drink 60 litres of wine per person per year. I think I'll move.

Serendipity 10.20.01ticketticket

It would seem someone attacked this movie after it was done and injected two "comedy" skits in the middle an otherwise enjoyable diversion. John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale play two star-thwarted lovers who met one enchanted evening in New York and lost track of each other afterward. Thrown off the track might be more accurate. Kate's character (Sara Thomas) believes a little too strongly in fate. When the wind whips her phone number from John Cusack's (Johnathan's) hand, she declares the mishap fate and the two part company. Years later, Johnathan is about to be married when fate again steps in. Cusack and Beckinsale are charming and fun. Johnathan's obit writer buddy, Dean is played by the typically funny and energetic Jeremy Piven. Chris from Northern Exposure (John Corbett) plays a goofy piccolo playing New Wave artist. We're all happy to see him out of Chevy land and in a feature film even if the character is tissue paper thin.

The comedy skits star Eugene Levy as an obnoxious department store clerk and Molly Shannon as a goofy restauraunteur friend of Sara's. Levy's department store clerk routine is just tired. Molly Shannon tosses in a lesbian joke from out of nowhere. I can almost hear the studio exec - "If we could just punch up the laughs a little, let me see..." Maybe Serendipity - the Director's Cut will cut those two.

If only Saturday Night Live had died of natural causes when Chevy Chase left the first time. Think of all the mediocre stand-up comics we would not have to tolerate.

Serenity 10.23.05 ticketticket

I read somewhere this was a cheesy film. The reference was to the special effects which were apparently done at a cost under 200 million dollars. I found the reliance on character refreshing and now understand the cult status of this multi-faceted story. The central character is a deeply disturbed and profoundly gifted young woman named River Tam. Prima ballerina Summer Glau (where else could you learn those kick spin moves?) is River and without her this would be a very ordinary sci-fi film. With her, though, it becomes unusual and, for those of us who consider ourselves gifted and disturbed, a must see. The background of The Alliance and the Resistance is fairly common these days but the drive by The Alliance to make a better world seems closer to our current political climate than science fiction.

A Serious Man 11.15.09 ticket ticket ticket

A friend observed how pleased she was that car manufacturers solved the radio theft problem. Praise God, I responded. Yes, she said, aren't you glad God has begun to address the car alarm problem? If only he would solve that starving children thing so I could watch my shows without having to look at those dreadful images of emaciated children. Some ex-friends shared their version of God's mysterious ways by relating their receipt of a Parmesan grater just when they wished for one. I'm regularly told to have a blessed day or advised how blessed some acquaintance feels. For many, the search for meaning in this life is answered by the Lord God's collection of novellas. For others, the existential dilemma is resolved in the revelations inscribed in some gold plated china. For some, no answer is the answer. The Coen Brothers, lest you didn't get Barton Fink or The Big Lebowski or O Brother or No Country, remind us they belong to the latter group.

Larry Gopnik, a middling professor struggling for tenure, is assaulted by a series of personal disasters. Larry, the serious man, seeks answers from a series of increasingly august rabbis. He is met with meaningless platitudes and absurd parables. His life just falls apart. No reason, no moral.

Listening to NPR this morning I hear the story of a man who died stuck upside down in a cave. They almost had him out and the rope broke. The next story was of two men breaking into the house of a paraplegic, wrapping a t-shirt over his head and stealing his stuff.

God's will.

Sex and Lucia 08.27.02 ticketticketticket

Lucia (Paz Vega) falls is love/obsession with Lorenzo (Tristan Ulloa) who unknowingly fathered a daughter, Luna (Silvia Llanos) in a one night stand/swim with a total stranger/Elena (Najwa Nimri). Luna is being looked after by Belen (Elena Anaya) and her mother the porn actress (Diana Suarez), who both live with Carlos/Antonio (Daniel Freire). I don't get all this straight until more than halfway through. Not because the writer/director Julio Medem can't tell a story, because he can, but because "this is a story with a hole at the end that takes you back to the middle where you can change your path, if you want, if you have the time." Well, I had the time, one hundred eighteen minutes to be exact, and if I could tune out the man eating his popcorn with lips apart and wait out the mother-daughter couple embarrassed by the sex and confused by the story, giggling and whispering for thirty minutes before finally leaving, and I was ready for a little magical realism.

The day had been filled with realism of the ordinary ugly and pathetic sort. Bush sucking up to the Saudis in case we need an airstrip or two from which to smart bomb Sadaam and earn daddy's love, finally. The born-again FedEx lady on her day off bringing her coyote-victim three-legged cat in to show and tell. People running in the door slapping themselves so they won't get West Nile.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, master of magical realism, describes it as telling the fantastic tale with a brick face, a trick he learned from his grandmother. He tells us he couldn't manage it until he began to believe the story. Once he mastered it, he was able to pen One Hundred Years of Solitude, the best novel of the past fifty years.

While Sex and Lucia is no Hundred Years, it is a strong breath of fresh air in cinema. It starts in the middle, jumps back six years and brings us up to current in an intricate and elegant mix of waking dreams, imagined trysts, real passion, and tragedy. Reminiscent of 1959's brilliant Suddenly Last Summer, with Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, at its heart Sex and Lucia holds a dark and terrible secret, a secret slowly and delicately revealed. Lorenzo is a writer and much of the story is told from his keyboard. He fades in and out of his story, and we follow, never sure what is real and what is his story. In one electrifying scene, Lucia lays into him and there is no doubt about this reality. Her anger is palpable, her words fast and furious. I was so captivated by her furor I neglected to read some of the subtitles. When her anger is finally spent she says, "I'll never let myself talk this way again" and I believe her. She is magnificent.

Much of the story takes place on a Mediterranean island where Lucia goes to make sense of Lorenzo's disappearance. The water, sand, sun and moon are surrealistically beautiful. Characters meld into the landscape. The story, the people, the island swirl and mix. The result is hypnotic and transfiguring. Sex and Lucia will take you there, if you want and you have the time. Take it.

Sexy Beast 09.01.01 ticketticketticket

A retired English heavy is summoned out of retirement by a horrific character from his past. Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) is the beast from the past come to "offer" Gal (Ray Winstone) one last job. The job is a "no risk" proposition involving a dozen or so gangsters breaking into a fortress of a vault. Gal appears to have "gotten away with it" and is living a life of luxury in Spain with his ex-porno queen wife Deedee (Amanda Redman) and former co-worker Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and his wife Jackie (Julianne White).

The director, Jonathan Glazer, comes from the world of television commercials and he has not escaped that medium with Sexy Beast. Every moment of his debut film is charged and challenging. From editing to angles to color, it seems the viewers focus must not be allowed to wonder. The opening scene has a boulder crashing into Gal's pool from the cliff above. It barely misses him as it flies by. A portent of things to come. There are no breaks in this movie and when it ends we are relieved. The dramatic, and visual tension is exhausting.

Ben Kingsley delivers one of the strongest performances of his career. When he returns from the airport to tell Gal "no," spitting out and repeating the word like a semi-automatic weapon with an unlimited magazine, we know we are watching an inspired performance. He is as menacing a character as they come. He is made even more menacing by the convincing work of the supporting cast. Gal learns Don Logan is on his way from a visibly shaken Aitch and Jackie. We fear this monster before we've even seen him. When he does appear, he is walking too fast through an airport wearing clothes too tight. He even talks too fast. Everything about him is too something. We can't wait for him to go back where he came from. But like the boulder in the opening scene, once it shows up, you know a crash is inevitable.

Shadowboxer 08.05.06 ticket ticket

Is Stephen Dorff always the most evil guy in the room? He's probably the world's nicest guy yet he's almost always stuck as the psycho killer. Macy Gray screaming into and kicking apart the gate remote is the high point of this dark, dark film. Helen Mirren plays a dying hit woman and surrogate mom and girlfriend to Cuba Gooding (Mikey). They're freelance murderers for hire until she (Rose) decides to adopt their latest target. Go anyway, Macy Gray is worth it, you can leave after she dies and email me if you want to know what happens. What the heck, here's what happens. Rose shot Mikey's dad (her former lover), adopted Mikey, contracted cancer, adopted an assignment (Vanessa Ferlito) and her aborning son, dies after making Mikey promise to take care of assignment and son who, seven years later, shoots his own father who is about to kill Mikey whose own father was killed by Rose, remember? Moral: guns don't kill people, sons and lovers do. Sounds like a D.H. Lawrence novel. Hey wasn't he the guy that saved the Bedouin from British rule?

Shadow of the Vampire 02.03.01 ticketticket

Everyone is in the shadow of Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich in this, the umpteenth retelling of the Dracula story. This one is different not only because two of the screen's greatest talents are on display, but because this is about the making of a vampire movie. Trick is, legendary film director F.W. Murnau (who in 1922 really did make one of the scariest Dracula movies, Nosferatu), played by Malkovich, hires a real vampire (Count Orloff/Max Schreck played by Willem Dafoe) who begins feeding on the crew. The struggle between Orloff and Murnau consumes the picture.

British Eddie Izzard (one of the funniest comedians alive) plays the male lead in the film Murnau is making. The original cut was over two hours in length, this version is just over an hour and a half. Much is lost on the cutting floor. Cast members, (Izzard in particular) disappear without so much as a mention, their death scenes cut to pare the film back to 90 minutes. Count Orloff's demise comes as he is exposed to sunlight. Instead of seeing his body consumed, we see him freeze-frame as the film melts in the projector.

Was it real or was it Memorex? If this was an attempt to explore the lines between fantasy and reality, we can only hope much more was lost in the effort to cut the film's running time than the deaths of some of the crew. Was there film in the camera at the end? Was Orloff really a vampire or just a crazed ex-actor? Was Murnau a monster? He was called Doctor by the crew. A German doctor willing to waste the lives of innocents in the name of science. Was he a Mengele proto-type? The possibility for story lines is endless. The failure of this film is not in the absence of a story line but rather too many story lines and no clear narrative.

Shaft 06.16.00ticket

Evil white guy thwarts justice. Ends up killed vigilante style by victim's mother. In the meantime, Hispanic drug dealers are made to look like stupid bumblers. Excuse me?

Stereotypes so profound they stand out like a guy wearing a knee length leather coat in New York in the summer. If this were a Saturday Night Live spoof of Shaft it couldn't have been more "right-on." Can't we please just let the past die? It is so embarrassing.

Can Samuel L. Jackson act? His characters seem to alternate between understated (the double dealing appraiser in The Red Violin) and overstated (Jules in Pulp Fiction). If he isn't dispassionately pensive he's screaming into the camera. Vanessa Williams, as Shaft's former partner, is the only believable character in the film. Her discomfort is palpable. Christian Bale plays a psycho killer, again. You'd think after American Psycho, his agent would help him diversify.

"Oh well, whatever, nevermind."

Shall We Dance? 11.15.04ticketticket

Vern's (Omar Benson Miller) girlfriend (Mya of hit song "Case of the Ex") was an unexpected and pleasant surprise as were Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci. Maybe I was distracted when Shall We Dance originally hit the screen in mid-October or maybe I wanted to snub what I perceived to be a schlock Hollywood remake of an intelligent and sensitive Japanese film of the same name and story. Masayuki Suo wrote and directed the 1997 Shall we dansu, a thoroughly delightful romantic comedy seen by nearly seventy five Americans. Bored businessman (Richard Gere) spots a beautiful woman gazing out the dance studio window and decides to stop and explore. The beautiful woman (Jennifer Lopez) is an instructor but not his. He stays, keeping his new Wednesday night life a secret. He meets some interesting characters, including a co-worker (Stanley Tucci), another secret dancer, the poster girl for tacky, Bobbie and an irresistible Vern and wholly resistible macho-man Chic. He reluctantly pairs up with the gauche and charming Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter) and the window beauty, Paulina, offers to help ready the pair for the upcoming dance contest. Meanwhile, wife, Susan Sarandon, hires a private eye (Richard Jenkins from HBO's Six Feet Under) to find out what hubbie is up to.

Shall We Dance? American version has its own charm and transcends my shallow schlock remake assessment with delightful performances from Omar Miller, Stanley Tucci (always good), Sarandon, Gere and Lisa Ann Walter. Suo's screenplay makes a smooth translation from Tokyo to Chicago and Peter Chelsom, experienced romantic comedy director (Serendipity an Town & Country) keeps the multiple story lines moving almost to the end. Shall We Dance? meanders to a weak conclusion fifteen minutes later than it should have. The last fifteen minutes don't wipe out the hour and a half of fun preceding, though. Had Shall We Dance? ended within five minutes of the dance contest this would have been one tight and altogether enjoyable film. It came close. Rent the original (and no, the 1937 Astaire/Rogers film bears no relation other than title) and you'll see what I mean. A surer hand and cleaner ending made the 1996 Shall we dansu? the superior film.

Shallow Hal 11.11.01ticketticket

From the team that brought you Dumb and Dumber (puppy trucks and pink tuxedos), Kingpin (a one armed bowler's prosthesis comes off while bowling), and Something About Mary (crotch accidents abound), comes Shallow Hal (fat and ugly women are people too). There is no way I can like this picture, right? Surprise! It is delightful. Jack Black makes this most unbelievable premise work. Moreover, he appears to do so almost effortlessly. His enormous comedic skill has been evident since his appearance as a drug addled orderly in Jesus' Son. As a record store flunky in John Cusack's High Fidelity, he was inspired. This, his first starring role, was a high risk one. Despite Gwyneth Paltrow's legitimizing presence, Shallow Hal walks a fine line between a send-up of shallowness and real meanness. Collapsing chairs, buckteeth, and gracelessness abound. The message is clear, albeit delivered with a heavy hand, what really matters is our spirit. Unlike another similar feature, Shrek, Shallow Hal doesn't sell out. Although a local gym looms large midway through, Gwyneth does not drop two hundred pounds on a stationary bike.

One of Hal's instructors in what really matters is a burn victim in the children's ward of the local hospital. His reaction to the child demonstrates an acting skill that prevents these and similar treacle scenarios from crossing the border into maudlin. His is a powerful talent. Jason Alexander and Gwyneth Paltrow, of course, do not disappoint.

Shanghai Noon 06.07.00ticketticket

"Everybody was kung-fu fighting. Man they were fast as lightning."

So goes the refrain from a 70's pop tune. So goes Shanghai Noon. Everybody was kung-fu fighting. Jackie Chan is almost as full of personality as energy. Owen Wilson is funny. I'm sure Lucy Liu can act, if she ever gets a role.

Wait for the video and your next babysitting assignment.

Shattered Glass 11.12.03 ticketticket

"I want to tell you something but you've got to promise me you won't tell a soul, people would think I'm crazy." This from the new sales manager, a guy the sales reps nicknamed pimp daddy. He wore shiny suits and socks that matched his shoe colors, colors like lime green and sky blue. He drove an old beat up Explorer, rusted and smoking. Carried a bag cinched up on a strap so that it fit under his arm like a holster. This was one strange guy. But nothing had prepared me for this story. He was sitting in first class waiting for the door to close when George Harrison runs in and plops down next to him. George's CD player was broken so my friend loaned his and they became good friends on the flight to Hawaii. So close, in fact, that George volunteered to play for my friends wedding, after giving the bride and groom-to-be a helicopter tour of his expansive Hawaiian property. Amazing, huh? A couple of years later this guy calls to see how I'm doing.
"Not bad," I volunteered, "and you?"
"Well, you won't believe this. You know how I've always wanted to make furniture, right? I bought a bunch of tools and set up shop in my garage and I've been making tables and chairs like crazy. Really great stuff too, I have a real talent for it," he says.
"That's great," I say.
"Yeah, the Smithsonian called the other day and asked for a piece. So, a table I made just last year is sitting at the Smithsonian. Cool huh?"
"Wow bud, that's great. Hey I gotta go, Osama Bin Laden needs some cash for a cab. I'll call you later." I changed my number the next day.

I've had occasion a few times recently to confront people about truth and lies. I try to get them to understand that if I can't believe what they're saying, everything else just sort of stops. Journalists have a special responsibility with regard to the truth. In much the same way lawyers answer to a higher calling as keepers of the law - a sacred duty in a society based on the rule of law - journalists are keepers of the political truth. The truth about what happens outside our immediate experience. We certainly can't count on politicians for an accurate representation. We hear Iraq is safer than ever as more soldiers die than on any previous day. We hear the economy is sound and getting stronger as most of us work harder than ever just to stay even. And when they talk about each other lies have replaced discussion of issues as ad hominem attacks have moved discourse to the gutter.

Journalism became unhinged when money took over. USA Today heralded the descent though we didn't see it at the time. We scoffed at the pictures and graphs but didn't see the underlying cancer. As Rupert Murdoch began buying media outlets and US television networks went from independent ownership to subsidiaries of GE and DisneyWorld entertainment was replacing information as the driving force behind the fourth estate. Next came the explosion in vituperative radio talk shows and TV has now fallen in step. A few bastions hold out, National Public Radio and The Atlantic Monthly come to mind. But they are the clear exception. Ratings are the measure of success. Integrity is a distant second. The norm is sensational and if real life can't provide sufficient sensation, we'll create it. Reality television departed from reality almost the moment it was born. Watching a handful of women compete for an eligible bachelor is the hot ticket one week and by the next we're watching women compete for a pauper they've been tricked into believing is wealthy. The problem here is not that television is tasteless and tacky, it is that our information sources have become compromised in the hunt for ratings and profitability. The fourth estate was once regarded as a bastion against politician's propaganda and government-speak. As philosopher Edmund Burke explained at the turn of the last century, any force powerful enough to speak to the nation rivaled the government itself in its ability to influence public opinion. Journalists once took that power as a sacred responsibility and strove toward accuracy and bias-less reporting. Spend a few minutes watching Fox or CNN news these days and it's clear that what was once considered reporting has becme pandering. The fourth estate has gone from a check in the check and balance to court jester.

Despite this sorry state of affairs, the film Shattered Glass surprises and disturbs. The story of young hotshot journalist Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) and his wholly manufactured feature articles written for The New Republic magazine, Shattered Glass takes us into the back offices of today's journalistic elite. Glass was an enormously popular young star at a magazine peopled by young stars. Charming and solicitous, Glass created fascinating story after fascinating story and delivered them to his editors, and the reading public, as factual accounts of child computer hackers and jaded young Republicans. Even imaginary supporters of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program became fodder for a Glass fantasy as fact article. The film begins with Glass speaking to a high school journalism class about his meteoric rise to fame. We soon learn another version to the one being spun by Glass exists. The film alternates between Glass' version and the truth. We see Glass manufacture lies as quickly as his editors can ask questions. Then an on-line version of Forbes Magazine attempts a follow-up to his child hacker story. Not a single fact checks out and the manufactured story quickly dissolves. Chloe Sevigny plays an editor at The New Republic who can't bring herself to believe the magnitude of the lies. She suspends her natural scepticism in favor of the sweet and charming Glass. Peter Sarsgaard in a performance that must surely catapult him to the first rank of film actors, is the newly promoted New Republic editor confronted with the debacle. His normally understated style is perfectly suited to the character and the trainwreck he inherits. Hayden Christensen is charming and sympathetic, as evil so often is. His collapse is painful to watch. His comeuppance should be a source of joy but because we too are charmed by Glass, we find ourselves pulling for him. The truth takes a back seat to our "humanity." It can be hard and it can be easily subverted.

This is a cautionary tale. In the scrolls discovered in the 1940's in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea, tales are told of the great battle between the Righteous One and The Liar. Some sources attach the name of James, Christ's brother, to the title The Righteous One and The Liar is said to be the apostle Paul. The documents were written by an obscure sect of Jewish extremists called The Essenes. Paul was in trouble with The Essenes for claiming a visitation by the Messiah in which secret knowledge was imparted to him. Paul's letters, along with the four "official" Gospels, formed the foundation of the New Testament. Had the Essenes (and James) prevailed, Christianity might not have made it beyond the shores of the Dead Sea. James taught that salvation was to be found in good works, Paul maintained faith alone was sufficient. One has to wonder where Christianity would be today if its rewards were only bestowed on those who earned it though acts? Truth does matter. It must be protected. At all costs. There's just too much to lose.

Shelter 04.16.08 ticketticket

I Good, low-budget films often seem effortless. They're not. Like the polished public speaker or the unkempt drop-dead gorgeous object of your desire, much work goes into slick or sexy. To pull off a finished product as compelling as Shelter, quite a lot of work is required. Start with a story that is worth telling, generate a script that tells that story well, add actors that can convince you they are who they pretend, include a cinematographer that can capture the scene and the actors, and bring it all together in the editing room. The story is about coming of age and coming out, and courtesy of Jonah Markowitz's script and direction, it broadens to touch universally accessible issues of family, parenting, and sacrifice. Zach is torn between his art, his nephew, his long time girlfriend and his best friend's older brother. Tina Holmes, a familiar face for fans of "Six Feet Under," and her 1998 debut "Edge of Seventeen" keeps it real as Zach's single-mom older sister. Trevor Wright as surfing, skate-boarding, tag artist Zach and Brad Rowe as Shaun, the older brother of Zach's testosterone fueled best friend, make for two characters about whom we care and care deeply. The story is deep, the script smart, the acting compelling and the cinematography brilliant. The opening sequence of Zach skateboarding through San Pedro is beautiful. Shelter is the all too rare film where each of the parts is polished to perfection and the finished product shines like a diamond.

SherryBaby 02.04.07 ticketticket

I was on a jury that sentenced a man to ten years in prison for aggravated robbery. Aggravated means a gun was used. He supposedly pulled a gun on a teen-ager having a burger at 2 AM and stole the kids car. The discussion in the jury room was over whether the guy would have any chance at a life after the sentence. We figured he would be near forty when he got out so ten years seemed right to us. The DA disagreed and told us so. My life would be largely wrecked if I spent two years in prison. Imagine losing your job, house, and car all at once and trying to get it all back. You might as well be Middle Eastern for all the hiring of ex-cons that is done. Minimum wage isn't enough to live on, much less buy a car or a house on.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is Sherry Swanson, on parole for theft. The film opens with Sherry on the bus headed home. She pulls a cassette player out of the paper bag that holds what wasn't shipped ahead to the halfway house. That's all you need to know, really, as the opening scene prepares you for two hours of sadness and heartbreak. The saddest thing was hearing her complain that she thought getting out of prison would be heaven and finding out quickly that it isn't. Fighting a not too distant heroin habit, a sister-in-law who sees her as an interloper in her own daughter's life, and a groping father, the odds seem impossible. She has a brother who loves her and she meets a recovering addict who isn't horrible to her. Outside of those two, it's up to her whether she can recover her life or not. I don't see how anyone does. Most don't.

The Shipping News 01.02.02 ticketticketticket

Quolye (Kevin Spacey) drifts from menial job to menial job. He describes watching the printing press for hours on end as "the best job he's ever had." When his sleazy wife (Cate Blanchett) leaves him and sells their daughter to a black market adoption agency, he can't imagine how he'll go on. His Aunt (Judy Dench) arrives to pick up her brother's remains and drags him off to Newfoundland to build a future. Everyone in this movie is suffering some soul-searing wounds they are trying to overcome. Whether and how they manage to get on with life in the face of overwhelming tragedy, cruelty and sadness drives this story. Scott Glenn, Pete Postlethwaite, and Julianne Moore round out the cast. Everyone is superb, Spacey above all. Everything about this film works and works magnificently. From screenwriting to acting to cinematography to directing, this is as good as it gets.

Don't be put off by Annie Proulx junkies who claim the movie doesn't deliver the book. Although she is arguably the most exciting writer in fiction today, it is sufficient that The Shipping News (the movie) is based on her phenomenally dense characters and fascinating story. The movie isn't the book and the book isn't the movie. Again I say, don't mix the medium. If you want more Proulx, read more Proulx. If you want a pathos filled two hours in the cinema, and you want to see Kevin Spacey, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore and Judi Dench show you why acting really matters, see The Shipping News.

Shopgirl 11.19.05 ticketticketticket

Fortunately I started and stopped Steve Martin's novella so I came to the film version with no expectations, other than to see what has been billed as an award level effort from Claire Danes. She is marvelous. Anyone who saw her in My So Called Life knows this. What I wasn't prepared for was another weighty drama from Steve Martin. He plays Ray Porter, wealthy symbolic logician smitten by shopgirl, Mirabelle Buttersfield (Danes). Flitting about the perimeter of Mirabelle's life is Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman of I Heart Huckabees) someone her age. Porter is as old as Mirabelle's father. He happens along when she's wondering if anything will ever happen in her life. She's moved from Vermont to LA and all she has to show for it is this lousy Saks job. In walks Ray Porter and everything changes. This is a story of love and the inability to love, about sadness and about relationships. It is subtle, profound and passionate. And not too funny.

Shrek 05.26.01 ticketticket

What's wrong with Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Dr. Evil, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Wayne's World) is what's wrong with Shrek. No soul. A mass of amusing slapstick along with some totally topical banter. Humor that works if you're "in the know." No pathos only punchlines, ridicule, and scatology.

The title character is a large green ogre with a heart 'o gold. The ears are no doubt about merchandising and copyrights. The first link on the Shrek website is a product guide.

Shrek goes on a mission to rescue the Princess. Will Shrek defeat the dragon? Will the Princess and Shrek fall in love? Will the evil Lord of the Realm be vanquished? Will Charlton Heston be reelected to the NRA presidency?

The "message" Shrek delivers is all about beauty not being skin deep and not judging a book by its cover. Interestingly, though, the evil Prince is ridiculed because he's short. References are made to his need to compensate. Everything works out in the end because the beautiful princess turns out to be a green ogre as well. Hmm, does this mean a beautiful princess and an ugly ogre couldn't make it? That would be because beauty is, in fact skin deep?This works, you see, because... it's OK, don't you know because ultimately, we, uh... Oh well, guess the writers missed the theme meeting.

Who said this was a clever movie? Oh, right, special effects animation - PDI/Dreamworks to give Disney a run for their money. Which studio will hire the most gifted geeks? Another soul-less effort directed by studio impresarios cast in the Gordon Gecco model.

Shutter 03.21.08ticket ticket

If you can tell me what makes this film different or better than any of the half dozen other films with slinky pale Japanese girls stop actioning their way from the land of the dead to the land of the living you're a better man than I. Yet two more Americans travel to Japan to encounter the restless spirit of yet another innocent Japanese girl unable to cross over to the land of her ancestors because someone did her wrong. Maybe we have a theme here.

Americans poison the well of Japanese innocence and pay the ultimate price. The ultimate price is to have some dead girl's ghost crawl up them in bed and scare us half to death. But the Americans as poisoners, now there is a theme worth exploring. Could it be that our decision to wrench Japan from its thousand year history and remake it as a competitive capitalist economic power doesn't sit well with some Japanese? Have they lined themselves up on the Axis of Evil? Do they hate not just freedom but profit as well? What did we ever do to the Japanese? After all, didn't they launch an unprovoked attack on us?

Ever since we began making the world "safe for democracy" back in the early part of the Twentieth Century, American foreigh policy has held firm to the tenet that to be like us, or to at least do what we tell you, is the only safe bet. Open your markets to us or the World Bank won't answer when you call. America's superpower status has been used to bludgeon the rest of the world into American clones or puppets. We could have elected to feed the hungry or house the homeless. But there isn't that much money in those propositions.

Sicko 06.30.07ticketticket

This is a movie about people with insurance. And the insurance companies that fight to avoid paying claims. Tons of horror stories, insiders who spill the beans, corrupt congressmen, and evil pharmaceutical companies make up the bulk of Michael Moore's latest attempt to play Old Testament prophet to a country lost in a sea of wrong. Hope he‚s successful. I've given up hope. We‚ve become a nightmare. The world fears us with good reason, we've invaded a country who did not attack us (remember Pearl Harbor?), our President pardons one of his buddies who took the fall for the Vice President who outed a CIA agent because her husband exposed a lie, the Veep's former company is handed a billion dollar no-bid contract to rebuild the country we devastated, the head legal authority lies constantly and provides legal cover for us to torture people, we openly ignore the Geneva Convention, open our parks to logging and drilling, and on and on and on. Science becomes a debate, the Bible ascends to fact, the Supreme Court no longer cares what is fair. How can we ever get back from this? Economic collapse? Revolution? It‚s all so depressing.

Sideways 11.13.04ticketticket

We've got to draw the line somewhere and, if it's all the same to you, I'll draw it at Sideways. Character One, Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) takes Character Two, Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a week long trip to Napa Valley for a more sophisticated bachelor party. Jack is marrying Christine next Saturday and Miles wants to show Jack a good time sampling some of the finer varietals Northern California has to offer. Jacks plan involves sampling of a different type and Jack prefers the newly met Stephanie (Sandra Oh) over even the finest Pinot. The gregarious Jack and the depressive Miles hook up with Stephanie and her bud Maya (Virginia Madsen) and we can hardly wait for the inevitable reckoning to come. With the exception of one uncomfortable scene with Jack switching personalities the acting is good. Giamatti is charismatic, Oh and Madsen accomplished and the odd scene with Church is more the writing than the acting. With the exception of some odd split-screen mechanics early on, the direction is invisible and the story moves along quickly.

The line I want to draw demarks the Characters. About the only bad press the seminal comedy Seinfeld ever suffered was directed at the awful nature of the characters. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer can't hold a candle to the ugly people featured in Sideways. Miles drops by his mother's house to say happy birthday and sneaks upstairs to steal a few hundred dollars mom has stashed in an Ajax can. Jack is intent on having sex with anyone unlikely to file charges. My problem is not that the lead characters in this story have faults but that the faults are presented without comment. Stealing cash from your mom is pretty bad and serial sex within days of your wedding isn't much better but the writer/director chooses to present these guys dark side without a hint of condemnation. In fact, right after Miles steals the money his mother asks him if he needs any cash and Jack's infidelities are covered up with a faked car crash that earns him sympathy and attention from his bride to be.

Maybe my disdain for this morally bankrupt story is mixed up with my shock and awe over the tremendous faith the majority of the population puts in a President who can't seem to do anything right. The pollsters tell us Bush's strong morality earned him four more years as our leader. The lies about connections between Sadaam and Al Quaeda and WMD aside, this President has personal responsibility for the deaths of over a thousand and the maiming of several thousands more innocent American young men and women in an unnecessary war. He condemns the genocide in Darfur but does nothing, gives tax breaks to the rich, cuts social service programs for the poor and commands the respect and admiration of good Christians everywhere.

In a world where we can no longer tell good from bad and right from wrong a film featuring two morally deficient men should be an enormous success. After all, they're just like you and me, right? Hope not.

Signs 08.03.02ticketticket

I spoke to a woman last week who speculated what the "twist" in M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, Signs, might be. She thought it might have something to do with religion, as the lead (Mel Gibson as the former Father Graham Hess) lost his faith before the "signs" began to appear. I hoped she was wrong. While The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable both "twisted" their way into the top films of the past two years, they were both much more than clever. Both eschewed the digital mania gripping Hollywood and told their stories through their characters. Signs does the same.

This is the story of the Graham family, widowed father, brother, and two children. They are practically the only actors on screen. Broadway star Cherry Jones plays the local law and M. Night casts himself as a veterinarian. But the people we get to know are Graham, his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and Graham's children, Morgan (another incredibly cute and talented Culkin, Rory) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). Crop signs appear in their cornfield and simultaneously, as they soon learn, all over the world. They move the TV into the closet (that's where it lives in our house) and Merrill goes with it. We see more of the Hess family reaction to what's happening than we actually see. Shyamalan shows us the skies over Mexico City via the flickering television image. News anchors tell us what we need to know about the bigger picture. Our experience is personal and immediate. It comes to us through the abject terror we see in Joaquin Phoenix’s inspired reaction to ten seconds of hand held video shot at a Brazilian birthday party and delivered via satellite to American television news. We see it in Mel Gibson's physical recoil at a glimpsed shadow in the corn field.

Signs has virtually no musical score. I saw it during a thunderstorm and thought, until I left the theater, the thunder I heard was on screen. Almost all the action takes place in the Hess' farmhouse. The sky is an unbroken gray, the nights are pitch dark. What we see of the world beyond we see on a TV screen, and it's unsettling at best. What we feel, though, we feel through the Hess family. A family torn by tragedy and struggling to find their way forward.

Shyamalan is a master of the psychological thriller, his films evoke universal themes in subtle ways from a small and familiar cast of characters. Signs is his most powerful movie yet.

S1m0ne 08.28.02ticketticket

Oh sure, Catherine Keener, Winona Ryder, Al Pacino, who wouldn't go see a film starring even one of these folks. But all three equals must see! Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, the same fellow who wrote The Truman Show, an interesting look at the ultimate evolution of reality television. In S1m0ne (OK, that's it - way too hard to type, I now revert to Simone) Niccol continues his exploration of technologies subversion of our humanity. Gattaca, with Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law, was his first. A futuristic thriller about genetics and an attempt to perfect the species. Simone is the same object (technology running roughshod over humanity) from a different perspective. Simone is a computer generated creation whose fame soon outstrips the wildest imaginings of her progenitor. The artificial creation takes on a life of her own, so to speak, and the resultant comedic and ironic twists and turns are sufficient to power several feature films... in movie hell, maybe.

Act one has Elaine Christian (Keener) terminating her ex-husband, Viktor Taransky (Pacino) when his star (Ryder) walks out on her contract because someone else has a bigger trailer. The pastiche of scenes that make up Act One are as contrived and forced as any I have ever seen. The dialogue is pretentious and overblown, the constructs juvenile, the editing choppy, the acting unconvincing. The balance of the film is a trifling better than the first act, in the same sense that cuts are better than burns (fewer nerve endings are effected in cuts). The "message" we are left with in this mess is "fake is OK, just don't lie about it." That would seem to be a compromise of Mr. Niccol's message from his earlier works.

Sin City 03.16.05ticketticketticket

And I thought graphic novel meant an expanded text-heavy comic book format. If Robert Rodriguez's latest ultra-vi viddy is any indication, it would seem graphic refers to the level of violence. Replete with slashings, punctures, decapitations, hacked off limbs, hacked off women, hatchet blows, blown-up people and cannibalism, Sin City takes sin and graphic to a whole new level. Sin City is simultaneously a work of great beauty and a source of great revulsion. Color is used sparingly and for emphasis and the result is when it does appear it shines with an otherworldly brilliance. Much of the gore is sufficiently stylized, blood is a ghostly white for example, that we can pretend some distance from the horror. Pretending distance is what we do, of course, when we drive by the beggar on the corner or ignore the grocery sacker or grieve more for the California mud slide victims than the 160,000 yellow people.

Here's what's missing - hope. The three intertwined story lines leave us without any hope. Maybe that's the point. I certainly have about given up hope for a better world. So why should I complain if a truly brilliant filmmaker chooses to portray a world virtually devoid of an expectation for a better tomorrow. I certainly don't think tomorrow will be any better than today. Maybe on a personal level, but for the world, for all of us, not much chance. And maybe that's the point, this is the world we're heading for, out of control politicians selling ever bigger lies, corrupt institutions, barbaric behaviors, selfishness taken to the level of faith. Certainly Rodriguez, perhaps more than any filmmaker today, can present that world in all its ugly, brutish glory. And that he has done, in this the most appallingly violent and visually stunningly movie I've ever seen.

The Skulls 04.07.00ticket

This paranoid tale of Secret Societies and the lengths to which they will go to protect their secrets is a fast-paced and entertaining film. Based on Yale University's Skull and Bones club (their most famous member is former President Bush), the membership of the Skulls includes a Senator and prospective Supreme Court Justice. The Senator and potential Justice battle for leadership of the organization (good guy Senator vs. bad guy Justice) and guess who wins. Turns out the Secret Society is really OK but has gone wrong under bad leadership and can be righted by a good leader. "If it's secret and elite it can't be good," claims the reporter who is soon killed for prying into the Skulls secret chamber.

Two questions, first, why do such organizations exist? Second, is there any justification for the lunatic fringe's claims that these societies control the world?

First, why do they exist?

Historically, secret societies were religious, mercantile, or fraternal in nature. Christianity is an example of the secret religious order. Secrecy was required to prevent persecution or slaughter of the adherents. As fas as most of us know, satanic cults are probably the only current secret societies that are religion based. Of course, if the society is really, really secret, we won't know anything about it! Mercantile or trade secret societies were formed to protect trade secrets. If everyone knows how to cast bronze, for example, the value of those who know the secret drops precipitously. By creating a secret or otherwise closed society, entry into the trade, and the value (or supply) of masters, can be controlled. The fraternal order exists more for social than financial or security reasons. The fraternal order is largely a group of people (usually men) who pledge to be each others friends. Although entry into and visibility of these fraternal orders vary widely, the common denominator is a pledge of loyalty or dedication to each other. These are groups of people bound together by compulsory friendship.

Second, is there any reason to believe the lunatic fringe?

To understand the fringe's penchant for blaming Secret Societies for the world's woes, one must understand something of group dynamics. The exclusivity of the group bears a direct relationship to the closeness of its members. As the group becomes larger, exclusivity is compromised. The creation of ever smaller groups with ever more restrictive guidelines to entry is necessitated to enhance the bonding of members. This progressive exclusivity furthers the isolation and rejection of those excluded. A natural reaction to exclusion is, of course, hostility toward the excluder. This hostility will often take the form of accusation and suspicion. That these elite clubs foster a predilection to privilege should not shock. Further, to the extent that we are surrounded with people like ourselves, those characteristics that make us who we are will be reinforced. Should those characteristics be negative, the negativity will be strengthened. In short, exclude me and I will resent it.

For those of you that don't often visit the lunatic fringe, hang on. What follows is an example of one lunatic fringe group's construct of how the universe is organized.

Imagine a pyramid-like structure. At the very top are unimaginably old aliens from a place called Lyrae. Humans are descendants of these aliens. Over 150 billion humans live in the eight galaxies closest to the Milky Way. Directly under these aliens in the universal pyramid power structure are the Global Elite comprised of such organizations as The Illuminati, the Black Nobility, and the Committee 300. The Global Elite rule over another sub-set of Secret Societies - the Masons, Skull and Bones (from Yale University), and the Knights Templar. This tier rules the Bilderberg group which, in turn, rules all nations and The United Nations, which in turn, rules the media, which rule you and me. The Tri-Lateral commission fits into all this somehow but just how isn't clear. At the root of this mania is the belief that we are not in the least responsible for what happens on our planet.

The truth is altogether more frightening and disheartening.

The world is at the mercy not of aliens from Lyrae but of you and me.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow 09.21.04ticketticket

Take 1 - It seems the Coens aren't the only brothers in town these days. Writer/director Kerry and Production Designer Kevin Conran deliver a delightful distraction in the form of a cartoonish and intelligent action comedy Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Gwyneth Paltrow as intrepid reporter and love interest Polly Perkins matches wits and an occasional right cross with brave, dashing and capable Joe (Sky Captain) Sullivan, Jude Law. Aided by super co-stars Giovanni Ribisi as boy genius Dex Dearborn and an eye-patch wearing Angelina Jolie as British flying ace, Captain Francesca Cook, this team of almost super heroes takes on the dreaded Dr. Totenkopf and his army of monstrously robotic evildoers. The result is as smart, funny and fast-paced as anything you're likely to see for a while.

The concept is novel, what would a thirties movie serial look like with the benefit of today's computer graphics? The answer is smashing. There is enough of a love story working in the background to keep adults interested and enough action and suspense to keep the children squealing with delight.

Take 2 - Does our predilection for heroes do us more harm than good? Take the screen's latest example, Joe (Sky Captain) Sullivan played by the talented Jude Law. Sky Captain is called on in the film's opening moments to stop an all-out invasion of super size robots that fly, stomp terribly hard (thanks to Sense-Surround Sound your seat actually vibrates with their footfalls), and have a deadly laser beam weapon. Single-handedly he dispatches these evil robots with a single World War II vintage fighter and a keen depth perception. We later learn he's a mercenary, fools around on his girlfriend and isn't above a good right to the jaw of an unsuspecting woman (for her own good, of course). This is the not too well hidden undercurrent in the Conran brothers debut piece. Certainly the Conran's aren't inventing a stereotype, just borrowing one for their different and well-made homage to the screen serials of the 1930's. The only real thing in this slick drama are the actors, the sets are all added post production. The whole thing has a cartoon feel and nothing is to be taken too seriously. Blessed with a PG rating, though, Sky Captain is likely to be seen and loved by a whole generation of children. Children who will learn that one brave fellow can save the whole world and get paid for it. Save the world, by the way, from a mad scientist who is himself trying to save humanity from its inevitable self-destruction. Maybe we should take another look at the film rating game with an eye less cocked and an ear more attuned to message than language?

Slumdog Millionaire 12.21.08 ticket ticket

I was explaining Slumdog to a friend at dinner last night and he asked if people broke out in song during the film. A reference to Bollywood, the Indian film industry that features morality plays disguised as 1950's musicals. Slumdog is more Hollywood than Bollywood and gives us an unsparingly painful look at life in Mumbai's great slum. A slumdog is a resident and millionaire is a reference to India's version of Regis Philbin's Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Jamal Malik is the Slumdog Millionaire and the film opens with him being tortured by local police. No way a slumdog could have ascended to the 20 million rupee level without cheating. In proving he knew the answers we are flashed back to Jamal's childhood, adloesence, and young adulthood.

We see the formative forces of religious intolerance, class subjugation, cruelty, greed, sacrifice and love. Each carries a lesson that provides Jamal the required answer on his march to become a millionaire. The force with the greatest power, though, would seem to be chance. Director Danny Boyle is not a fan of the meaningful panoply of life (28 Days Later, Trainspotting and Sunshine don't exactly end well) and Slumdog Millionaire is no exception. Reaching the final answer of the final question, Jamal turns his fate over to chance. Getting there is all the fun/horror, though, and the sure and certain knowledge that chaos rules this universe shouldn't stop us from doing the same.

Small Time Crooks 05.29.00ticketticket

The last time I saw a Woody Allen film I left the theater expecting to see him standing at the back shaking his head at how stupid we were for paying money to see this schlock. The film was Deconstructing Harry. I was so disappointed I haven't been back until today. I heard Small Time Crooks was funny. The audience agrees. One woman in particular howled through most of the movie. What she, and most of the audience, laughed at hardest were Frenchy (Tracy Ullman) and Ray's (Woody Allen) attempts to elevate their station. Their new-found financial success is put to work buying them a crash course in culture. They fail, of course. Most of the laughs are at Frenchy's futile attempts at sophistication. Ray rejects all this "hoity-toity" behavior and pines for long gone turkey meatballs.

There is a cruelty at the heart of this comedy. These small time crooks will never rise above their station and everyone knows it. We get to laugh at their efforts to be something more. This sort of humor from the urbane, jazz playing clarinetist from New York City crosses the line into ridicule. When Woody Allen makes fun of himself, the humor is shared, when he makes fun of others, it seems pointed and mean.

When the humor isn't mean it lapses into lame slapstick. One scene has Ray trying to sneak upstairs only to be called back three times. After the first one, I shifted in my seat in preparation for the anticipated repetitions. I wasn't disappointed. Sure enough, he is called back three times. The audience laughed. I was saddened. This is the same writer who penned some of the funniest lines in the history of comedy. The tired routines of Small Time Crooks made me tired. Woody Allen looks tired, and bitter. A shame.

Smart People 04.11.08ticketticket

Everyone but Thomas Haden Church appeared to be playing against type. Ellen Page was a buttoned-up Republican, Dennis Quaid a pot-bellied elitist, and Sarah Jessica Parker an up-tight doctor. Having used the terms buttoned-up, up-tight, and elitist to describe three of the four main characters in Smart People, the mechanism for character reversal is clearer now than when I was in the theater. And just in case the reversals to come were not sufficiently defined, we were serenaded at critical junctures by a soundtrack with "will you love me," and "I know I've hurt you" as first line intros to clunky folk ballads. Smart People was apparently made with Dumb People in mind.

Most of these characters weren't anyone you'd want to spend five minutes with except for the pot smoker and then only if one were partaking. It's hard to feel anything for the snob/slob professor, harder still to like the neo-con daughter. I felt more for Transformer's Optimus Prime than these pitiful souls.

Smokin Aces 01.26.07ticket ticket

Guilty pleasure means something you enjoy but know you shouldn't. Like chocolate before breakfast (rarely) or watching Roller Derby instead of the moon landing (I watched both actually, back when you had to turn the dial on the TV to change channels). The trailer put Smokin Aces clearly in the guilty pleasure category, as if dropping the "g" wasn't enough. The best thing about it was Alicia Keys (is Dylan singing about her in Thunder on the Mountain?). What a surprise to see her as a cool hit person. And Jeremy Piven, Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Jason Bateman and Wayne Newton for heaven's sake. The narrative was a little thin and the conclusion from another planet but that's like complaining about the score in the Roller Derby game, this is not why we watch. Why do we watch? What makes a dumb film like this fun? It was. I was thoroughly entertained. And not proud of it.

Snakes On a Plane 08.29.06ticket

Even Airplane II was too late. In order for a comedy to work there needs to be an element of the unexpected. The Aristocrats failed because it was the same joke told two dozen times. That it was supposed to be the most obscene joke ever didn't help as obscenity has become so common as to render it mundane. Airplane was the original absurdist film and it worked because it was such a surprise. Airplane II was dead on arrival as were Police Academy One through Five, Naked Gun One through Spy Harder or whatever drivel followed it. As with Eight Legged Freak one cannot set out to make a cult classic bad film intentionally. Samuel L. Jacksons' glee over not agreeing to a sequel in his original contract thus opening the door to heavy demands for Snakes Two is indicative of the crass commercialism that birthed this attempt to make money. The insincerity of both Eight Legged and Snakes soaks through and spoils everything. Not worth the price of admission, not worth two hours of my time, not worth any more thought.

Snatch 01.26.01ticket

If your cup of film tea oozes with gratuitous violence while using jump cuts and scene sub-titles as narrative, features a matinee idol (Brad Pitt) playing a mum-loving Gypsy boxer, and all the bad guys except the heros (only slightly less bad than the bad guys) get killed, this is your movie. If however, you can't afford the ticket price, go the local emergency room at 1 AM on Saturday morning, stuff some cotton in your ears so you can't understand most of what is being said, and soak up the scum.

This is a story (I'm fairly sure) about a jewel heist and illegal boxing. The characters have names like "Bullet Tooth" and "Brick Head." The director of this energized flotsam just married Madonna. Maybe he was too distracted to notice he was making a movie that would be seen by earthlings.

Snow Angels 04.23.08 ticketticket

I've always thought Kate Beckinsale under appreciated. Sam Rockwell as well. The two of them appear in this sad film of addiction, struggle, and desperation. They play a separated couple in a dismal small town in the frozen north. Everyone is damaged and most everyone soldiers on. Rockwell's character, Glenn, is a recovering alcoholic living with a newfound faith in his buddy Jesus. Beckinsale's slings hash all day and looks for relief in her best friend's arms at night.

Someone wrote a note on the board at work the other day, "Is God testing us?" When I saw it I couldn't help but answer God was not particularly interested in us. Watching starving mothers swirl sand, dirt and a little butter into sun dried wafers for their children to eat seems to me to put the lie to any sort of supreme being in communion with his people. Mysterious ways aside, the sadness and pain filling this life is far in excess of any message of love and redemption we might grasp for. Snow Angels tells this story, see it if you can bear it.

Solaris 11.29.02ticketticket

Psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) gets a call from an old friend. The old friend is on a spaceship in orbit around the planet Solaris and he needs help. Something very odd is happening on board. Dr. Kelvin arrives to find his friend dead and only two of the original crew remain. One, Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis) refuses to leave her cabin and the other, "Snow" (Jeremy Davis), clearly the front-runner for Tripped Out poster child of the millennium, talks but makes no sense. Chris goes to bed and dreams of his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). The next morning, she's still there. Solaris, you see, makes dreams come to life. No wonder the crew has failed to return to Earth. Except there is no evidence of Gordon or Snow's dream visitors. The why and what to do about it make up the balance of the film.

Adapted by Steven Soderbergh from Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel, Soderbergh directs and films. He does hire others to handle electrical and catering duties but this is as purely a Soderbergh production as we are like to see. Why he declines to credit himself as cinematographer (he uses the pseudonym Peter Andrews) is a mystery. Even without the beautiful shots of the purple planet Solaris, this is a visually stunning film. Jeremy Davis (last seen in CQ) delivers an utterly mesmerizing performance as the spaced out space pilot. Viola Davis manages to make us as scared as she's supposed to be and Natascha McElhone's ethereal beauty adds to her superior performance as the dead, nee alive, Mrs. Dr. kelvin. George Clooney does not distract, which is saying a lot considering the incandescent talent surrounding him on and off screen.

The story, like all great science fiction, frames questions about humanity, consciousness, and life. And like all great fiction of any genre, framing the question is the best for which we can hope. The answers, should they exist at all, are beyond the words of the writer.

Soul Survivors 09.09.01ticket

It's a safe bet this movie season that anyone who appears to die in the opening act may not be dead and anyone who appears to live may not. With this in mind I paid my money, bought my popcorn (small, no butter), bottle of water, and settled in for a thoroughly predictable scary movie. I walked in as the opening credits were playing and had to stand in the dark to let my eyes adjust. It looked like the second row had a bag in the aisle seat but I couldn't be sure so I stood waiting for a better lit scene to help me out. I had just about decided the bag was no obstacle when it moved. The bag was actually a t-shirt on a fellow with a dark complexion. He got up and moved to the middle of the second row. I was afraid that my standing there so long made him uncomfortable. It was as afraid as I would get for the next ninety minutes.

Two teen couples attend a boring party and decide to go to a more exciting one. The more exciting one appears to be populated with Gothics that dance really great. Lots of cauldrons, excuse me, barrels of fire, adorn the property and a good time is had by all. At least until the green eyed monster raises its head and our couples go screaming off into the night. They are passed by a trio of particularly grisly characters - the big guy with dirty long hair and bad acne, the guy with the facial mask, and the K.D. Laing look-alike. The troublesome trio rounds the curve ahead of our fighting foursome, does a 180 and stops dead. CRASH! Over they tumble, it looks like curtains.

We spend the next eighty minutes guessing who is dead and who isn't. By the time the truth is told we wish they were all dead. The really insufferable part is we have a Catholic priest named Jude (patron saint of lost causes) along for the ride. He is so full of compassion and care he is about to burst. St. Francis has nothing on this handsome hunk, except maybe for a riotous youth.

Anyway, when the house lights came up I saw it was only me and the scary t-shirt in the theater. He caught up with me as I exited and said, "wow, what a movie, it really threw me." Now here is the really scary part - he votes!

Spanglish 12.14.04ticket ticketticket

"Five," I said to the girl with the clipboard positioned at the theater exit. She had struggled to keep the press row clear as the theater let more people in than they had seats to offer. About halfway to my car I worried that she might think five was out of ten when I meant five out of five. Or three of three if you use my website ticket rating system. Maybe not ten out of ten, though, as that would be reserved for a handful of classic films. Spanglish may very well be one of those but I don't think we'll know for a while. James L. Brook's other writer/director credits are As Good As It Gets, Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment and they all three qualify for ten of ten status. I've seen parts or all of these three over the years in TV reruns and there are no false notes, no areas in need of improvement, they all deal with the pain and joy of the human condition (no nobler topic, yes?) and each makes me sob and laugh uncontrollably. Spanglish is in that category of great film but I'd have to let some of the emotion wear off before I could confidently give it a ten of ten. Nine of ten certainly, and five of an indeterminate number without hesitation.

The fellow sitting next to me was busy keeping the girls in his party entertained. He tended to bounce in his seat as he spoke as if he were thrusting selected words forward for emphasis. He slapped his hands together at the end of every sentence, the physical manifestation of an exclamation point. I spoke to him about halfway through the film because he kept asking the air, "what is it, what's wrong."
"He's waiting for the review," I told him.
"Oh, the review, of course, of course."
I think he really enjoyed Spanglish, the audience did the clapping thing at the end which I find odd. The people who made and acted in the film aren't there to receive the clapping so who are they clapping for, the projectionist? I might say that nice lady with the clipboard but I've heard audiences clap when it wasn't a preview. Maybe it's a spontaneous expression of appreciation and joy. That would be nice, wouldn't it?

I knew Adam Sandler (John Klasky) had it in him, ever since Punch Drunk Love. Tea Leoni as Klasky's seriously dysfunctional wife Deb fulfills and exceeds the promise she first made in Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending, Paz Vega is a delightful discovery and brilliant as the impassioned and principled Flor Moreno, Shelbie Bruce is perfect as Flor's daughter Christina (their scene together with Christina interpreting for an angry Flor is absolutely priceless), and Cloris Leachman as Deb's alcoholic mom steals nearly every scene in which she appears. The diamond at the heart of this collection of precious stones is Brook's script. It is tender, hilarious, moving, clever and rich with the conflict and compassion that make life worth living. Don't miss this one.

Spartan 03.21.04 ticketticket

David Mamet has become Tom Clancy with a college degree. Spartan is an international espionage/kidnap thriller sex/spy thing with really cool guys in it, some bloody gunwork, some male bonding stuff, mainly inconsequential women, but the dialogue is really snappy. In other words, it's a literate Tom Clancy novel. It falls apart about two-thirds in, though, as our hero, a mature and weighty Val Kilmer, decides to rescue the girl on his own. William H. Macy is utterly wasted as a shadowy government figure. All the government figures are shadowy except for the guy from Married With Children. Tia Texada does appear early on and late as the only woman with any redeeming qualities. Derek Luke continues to do well (we last saw him in the superior film Pieces of April) but Val Kilmer was the real surprise. He appears to have gravitated beyond the good looking guy role and certainly holds his won with the crisp Mamet dialogue. Mamet needs a stronger editor for his work, though, the story spirals out of control, just to get some more action stuff in it would seem.

Spartan does seem to an anti-Bush film, though as the President is portrayed as someone entirely in the hands of the handlers and the handlers are amoral sleaze bags. Mamet does seem to have a rather dark view of things. But considering the state of the world today, maybe he's right.

Spellbound 06.07.03 ticketticketticket

Jeffrey Blitz, producer and director, delivers a fascinating, tender, intimate and surprisingly non judgemental look at the odd world that is the National Spelling Bee. We hear from the first (1925) winner of the contest and some later winners, each of whom seem to have survived the intense competition and gone on to normal lives. Blitz's story follows eight children through the regional and finals. We get the impression these kids will also fare well. Except maybe Harry. If the other kids are a little odd, Harry is plainly bizarre. So many tics as to be a Tourette's candidate, Harry is hard to watch and we fear for him. His mother sems a good fit, though. She is genuine and earthy without being crass. On the other side of the adult coin we see Angela's parents' employers, a dreadful pair of Texas farmers who make salt of the earth sound like poison. Angela's parents are Mexican immigrants and we get to know them, mainly her father, through Angela's brother. The balance of the kids become known to us more through their parents and peers than them.

This is documentary film making at its best. We get close enough to feel what the subjects feel. And it's real. Wow.

Spiderman 05.04.02 ticketticketticket

A superhero with human frailties, a love story of sacrifice and loyalty, and humor elevate this action/adventure story above the norm. We have Stan Lee to thank for the flawed superhero. Before Marvel Comics and Stan Lee, there was only DC Comics. DC is the home of Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League of America, a sort of xenophobic amalgam of all DC's superheroes. Superman is so purely good, in fact, that an anti-Superman had to be created, Bizarro Superman, in order to imbue the character with some human element. And then came Marvel Comics. Along with the deconstruction of previously unassailable institutions (the Church, Fine Art, and Government), the comic book genre was exploded and reworked in the same humanistic vein that redirected artistic and political expression. Marvel Comics introduced superheroes with human shortcomings. The Fantastic Four had the Thing, a super-power superhero with an anger management issue and The Flame, an impetuous and sometimes dangerous teen-ager. The Silver Surfer was a sad wanderer with no place to lay his head, and Spiderman suffered from guilt and ego compensation issues.

The casting of Tobey Maguire as Spiderman ensured this superheroes feet of clay would be visible to all. Maguire's performances in the Cider House Rules and Wonder Boys made him the perfect choice for the Peter Parker/Spiderman created and sustained by Marvel. Maguire has perfected the "innocent but wary" pose. He does not disappoint. Kirsten Dunst as "girl-next-door" Mary Jane Watson and Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin enhance an already winning casting job. J.K. Simmons is perfect as the curmudgeonly Jonah Jameson and Rosemary Harris is Aunt May. Macy Gray makes a surprise appearance and only disappoints because she is on screen so briefly. Her profound performance in Training Day makes us eager for her next dramatic role.

The love story between Peter Parker and Mary Jane is marked by tenderness, compassion, loyalty, longing and, ultimately, sacrifice. The sort of sacrifice few of us are called to make and even fewer would ever choose.

The humor is light, sophisticated and self-deprecating. It is the gentle humor not often seen in film these days. Most satisfying is the filmmakers declination of the scatological, an interesting and admirable choice considering a big part of the target audience is the teen crowd.

Special effects are taken for granted in these digitally enhanced days but the web-slinger is brought to almost believable life by Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.

An altogether successful effort. Hooray for Hollywood!

Spiderman 2 07.02.04 ticketticketticket

A movie about doing the right thing. A new and refreshing concept. Especially when doing the right thing involves great personal sacrifice. Spike Lee did it many years ago, but his Do the Right Thing involved doing the right thing simply because it was the right thing to do. If I can see the right thing, I'll do it. But if doing it involves giving up something important, the right thing can become less clear if not less compelling. Sixty Minutes this week told us of a young soldier driving his flaming truck further down the highway to keep from stopping the entire convoy. The right thing to do but at great personal cost as he was burned horribly in the doing. Spiderman 2 takes us a step further though as our hero acts not in heroic inspiration but after long hours of reflection. Spiderman 2 starts with a very bad day for Peter Parker. He's broke, failing school, failing at both his part time jobs, and estranged from his best friend. He's moving to the conclusion that his Spiderman alter ego may be responsible for all his woes. And to top it all off, his spider strength is on the fritz. One hilarious but slightly too long scene with the gifted Hal Sparks (Queer as Folk star who debuted in film in Chopper Chicks in Zombietown) has Spidey riding an elevator down from the roof.

Sam Raimi is surely be the action film director par excellence and Spiderman 2 is among the most thrilling action films yet made. Several times during the film I noticed myself relaxing after a particularly thrilling scene. Dr. Octopus (an inspired choice in Alfred Molina) and Spidey fight it out on a rushing elevated train. In one scene, we see the two at close range going at it hammer and tong. As is invariably the case with the close-up action shot, the effect is more disorienting than thrilling as bodies and angles flit across the screen almost too quickly to make sense. Raimi then pulls back from the shot and allows us to see the two atop the elevated train in perspective. It is an inspired sequence and ends with Spidey stretched across the front of the train trying to keep it from plunging into the river.

As with the first Spiderman, though, this is more story than thriller. And the story is one that, especially these days, we all need to spend more time with. How to determine what's right? How to know if we're wrong? Will we have the courage to change if we are?

Spiderman 3 05.20.07 ticketticket

Jon Stewart of the Daily Show had it right. The third one is tricky. The second one can answer questions raised in the first or give some talented new director a jump start. But the third one is tough. The third Spiderman is tired. Outer space goo and an open pit particle accelerator are featured. An effort is made to broach pride but it is entirely subservient to special effects and sappy scenes. Tobey even said he'd consider a fourth. Artistic integrity will disappear with Kate Winslet's retirement.

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