Our hero is passed over for command of his own submarine. You must be willing to knowingly order one of these young boys to their death, and I'm not sure you're ready to do that, the CO explains. Well, little does he know! Our hero, Matthew McConaughey, will order several young men, along with the CO who passed him over for command, to their deaths before he is done. This is a story about loyalty, courage, war, honor, and depth charges. And depth charges and depth charges and depth charges. I wonder how they get all those drums onto just one ship. The scenes of the ship under depth charge duress were endless. Lots of blurry camera work and shifting back and forth as the charges blew. The ship-blowing-up special effects were cartoonish and cheesy. I counted four close-ups of propellers starting, and the obligatory pinging of the sonar as the destroyer got close, then further away. And man were these guys dirty and sweaty!
Matthew McConaughey and Harvey Keitel helped this movie along, especially Harvey Keitel. I'm not sure what the point of this was other than to entertain us. The World War II submarine thriller has been done to death but I guess a whole new generation needs to be milked for their $7.00. Rent Run Silent Run Deep if you want to see the class of the submarine thriller genre, Hunt for Red October for suspense, Crimson Tide for character study or Das Boot if you want the pinnacle of dirty sweaty guys in scary close-quarters. Leave this one for the archives.
Unbreakable begins with a text scroll telling us how popular the comic book genre is. Had I not been so keen on seeing "the next movie by the guy that did Sixth Sense," I might have paid more attention. Instead, it was "yeah, great, start the movie." Big mistake. As much as I know about not sitting down to see a film with a whole series of expectations, I did exactly that. So, instead of noticing and relishing the clues writer/director M. Night Shyamalan left strewn about the place, I got aggravated with the film's pace. "If this thing goes any slower, it'll stop," I complained at one point. After the film, I asked a fourteen-year-old if comic books started slow or jumped right into the story from the first panel. "Start slow," he said. The odd angles, the agonizingly slow pace, the color codes, the close-ups that held too long. Of course, this was comic book brought to film. Unlike the Batman/Superman type that tell the comic book story in a movie format, Unbreakable was filmed as a comic book. Comic book, not film constructs, tell the story. The difference is subtle but enormous. Like the difference between H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King. King generally tells a horror story from the outside looking in, Poe and Lovecraft from the inside looking out. Poe and Lovecraft can be profoundly disturbing where King usually remains very scary. One of King's scariest stories is a first-person account of a run in with the devil. It appeared as a Halloween short story in The New Yorker a few years back.
Unbreakable is a fascinating film that grows better in memory. Superman, Batman, et cetera, were great films (at least the first in both series were, the sequels were progressively weaker) but didn't last much beyond the cinema experience. Unbreakable is haunting and the effects lasting.
One complaint - for some inexplicable reason, Shamalayan makes Bruce Willis thirty-four years old. Way too much stretch and for no reason.
Under the Same Moon 03.28.08
For reasons I don't fully understand we have become a nation of immigrants fearful of immigrants. To think 911 was a contributing factor requires believing the terrorists arrived at Logan, Dulles, and Newark airports that morning not by airline from Germany but on foot from the banks of the Rio Grande. In much the same way the invasion of Iraq was obfuscated by the evildoers as related to 911, the anti-immigrationists would have us believe "sealing the borders" will somehow help prevent future terrorist attacks. Of course, the only border we are busy sealing is the one that separates us from Mexico. The Canadian border (5,000 miles long versus the 1,800 mile Mexican border) must be a less likely crossing point for those that would do us harm. The border that gets the fence is the one allowing Mexicans, Hondurans, Colombians, and El Salvadorians to enter. Remember the Alamo!?! Oh, that's right, that was us taking part of Mexico for ourselves.
Under the Sand 08.18.01
Like Michael Moriarty in Woman Wanted and Patricia Arquette in Scorcese's Bringing Out the Dead, Charlotte Rampling illumines Under the Sand with a single extraordinary display of acting. Reading to her university class from Virginia Wolff's Mrs. Dalloway, a complex novel about the psychological unraveling of an otherwise ordinary life, she looks up to see the face of a student who, last summer, helped her search for apparently drowned husband, Jean. She (Marie) is in a pathological state of denial over her husband's apparently accidental drowning. Her reading, up to the point she notices the student, is full and clear. In an instant, her constructed world collapses and she suddenly finds herself barely able to continue the reading. She struggles through a few sentences and dismisses the class early. The transformation is electrifying and rivets us to her for the balance of the film.
Under the Sand is a taut and compelling study of the power of denial. Charlotte Rampling delivers yet another unforgettable performance. A performance that is, once again, almost too painful to watch.
Faced with a choice between a Movie for Guys Who Love Movies or a Chick Flick, I will always choose the chick-flick. Women's films almost always have a story, usually deal with emotions, and almost always make me feel better when I leave than when I went in. Not so with the Rambo trash or the Steven Seagull junk. Maybe trash and junk are too harsh. Or maybe I'm a wimp. So, let's do the girl thing and eschew the negative and highlight the positive.
Tuscan Sun features Diane Lane, an enormously gifted actress with a long and fascinating history in film. She plays a divorced author who, on the sort of whim the rest of us can only dream about, buys a villa in Tuscany. Starting anew in Italy, she quickly develops an adoring fan club of men and boys. Her old friend Patti (the very funny Sandra Oh) comes to visit when her girlfriend takes a surprise powder at the thought of becoming mom II. Some ups and downs follow. Nothing gets blown up (well, there is one really bizarre scene where a washing machine is fried by lightning) and there are no car chases (well, except one people vs. car chase). I felt better when I left. The audience was almost all on senior discount. They are so cute. They ooh and ahh like kids. Most fun I've had with an audience since Independence Day debuted years back. I went to the first midnight showing and someone had apparently spiked the popcorn with mescaline. But I digress.
Undercover Brother 06.06.02
Undercover Brother 06.06.02
Written by NPR commentator John Ridley and directed by Malcolm Lee, Undercover Brother turns stereotype into archetype, steps into the seventies, dips into conspiracy theory, and tiptoes through the minefield of race relations in America. One can't help but worry how Malcolm's cousin Spike reacts. If he laughs we laugh, if he frowns we shake our head in sad resignation. Who knows though, maybe humor will succeed where integration, riots, affirmative action, sitcoms and imprisonment have failed. OK, OK.
Using a secret mind control formula, The Man compels the "well spoken" General (Billy Dee Williams) to eschew the race for the presidency in favor of opening a chain of fried chicken restaurants. The Brotherhood enlists Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) and the battle is joined. Along the way, we meet the token white guy (Doogie Howser/Neil Patrick Harris), She Devil (Denise Richards), Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), the Chief (Chi McBride), Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle), Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams) and Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan). Chappelle and Kattan get all the best lines, Griffin the best moves, and Richards the dreamy close-ups.
Undercover Brother is funny enough to sustain it through its 100+ minutes, the soundtrack is an indispensable R&B sampler, and it avoids any semblance of meanness or spite, no small feat considering the material. I fear a sequel, though, as we never actually see who plays The Man. The joke has been told, though, and it would take Spike's skills to carry off another one. But then Spike would try to make us believe the farce. Like anyone would believe the white man would so diabolically co-opt an entire race.
Wounded Knee, anyone?
Here's the main thing. You gotta love the vampires. First, they've got the coolest name. Lychen is what you call that slick green stuff that grows between bricks and what they call werewolves in Underworld, the first movie I've seen in the theater in almost two months. Two months cause of back surgery. But that's a story for another time. I have seen a few movies on cable, like How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days (terrible), Phone Booth (OK), Die Another Day (awful), Equilibrium (dumb), Just Married (OK) and Winged Migration (beautiful). But I digress.
The next cool thing about vampires is they live in a mansion, something like what Thug Mansion must look like, dark, big overstuffed chairs and couches, lots of babes in short skirts and leather, big heavy doors that only vampires could fling open. Werewolves live underground in nasty, wet old abandoned subway tunnels. Even their labs are grimy. And, of course, the transmutation thing. I mean vampires eyes get kind of blue and their teeth stretch a bit but lichen turn into wolf/dog things. Yuch, no way man. Not me. But the real reason vampires win is - werewolves used to be vampires servants! Who knew? Vampires used werewolves to keep them safe during the day. If you have to be an immortal and eat people and stuff I think I'd want to be the guy with servants.
Anyway, all this becomes moot as soon as we learn that Kate Beckinsale (Selene) works for the vampires. She's a Death Dealer. That means she slinks about killing lychen. And she wears this fine form fitting leather suit and long leather cape. But she shoots everybody. And so do the werewolves. They both seem to disrespect people a lot but they sure love our guns. They have modified bullets that contain liquid light and silver nitrate and stuff. And they love cars, they all drive. Now these guys can fly, run sixty miles an hour, jump from six flights up, but they drive everywhere. Must be the stereo. There is some stuff about the elders and the reason for the war between lychen and vampires to make the story work but really it isn't necessary. Kate Beckinsale is on screen for all but a couple of scenes and that's what makes this work. Nelly Furtado shows up as a European elder vampire but the rest of the cast is unremarkable. They all seem like soap opera folks, not that there is anything wrong with that.
Anyway, Underworld is all about the visuals. It's raining constantly, always night, and there are some cool bullet time shots. Only one overly gruesome shot in the whole film which mars but doesn't ruin. Kudos to Kate Beckinsale for taking a chance on a film whose target audience either plays Dungeons & Dragons or is a fourteen year old boy or both. I'm still rooting for the vampires to win in the end. Sequel for sure, the voice over is Selene telling us how she'll be hunted now. Oh, almost forgot, the story is about the search for... oh, nevermind, it doesn't matter.
Ah, Underworld part deux. Kate Beckinsale is back or I would have never known. Derek Jacobi shows up at the beginning and the end, sort of an Elizabethan bookend. In the middle it's all about waiting for the next cool visual or watching Ms. Beckinsale walk away. We are bored to the concession stand by the endless drivel about why and how like anyone cares. Seems the vampires and werewolves have their own version of Abraham. Some useless filler takes us to the coven historian living in his own poor version of the originals' Thug Mansion. Evolution could have done with some aggressive editing. As long as Ms. Beckinsale stays off the cutting room floor.
All you need to know about this movie is in a list of director Adrian Lyne's prior works: Foxes, Flashdance, Nine 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and Lolita. Well, nearly all. I omit Jacob's Ladder, a Tim Robbins vehicle about secret government experiments and conspiracies. Not commercially successful, Lyne returned to the bankable director's fold with Indecent Proposal, starring Demi Moore, Robert Redford and Woody Harrelson about what an otherwise decent woman would do for a million dollars.
Six months into my first marriage, I called my wife's hotel in New Orleans to awaken her, as I had done every morning for the past two weeks. She was there training some new waitstaff for a restaurant opening. This time a guy answered the phone. "Uhh, hello," he said. "Oh I'm sorry, is this Lori Stiles' room?" My mind quickly supplied an explanation, she was already up and on her way out the door and this guy was the ride. "Uhh, she's in the shower dude, want me to take a message?" He was the ride alright. His day job was as a bass player in the band at the Holiday Inn. I should have known, of course. I had met her bailing her boyfriend, an old friend of mine, out of jail. We were married thirty days later. Met married and divorced without ever having to remember to write the new year on checks. Last time I heard from her, she called to borrow some money for an abortion. The nerve.
Something much worse must have happened to Adrian Lyne to make him hate women so. Foxes, about some nasty little teenagers, Flashdance, the height of objectification of women as male entertainment, Nine 1/2 Weeks had Kim Basinger crawling around on all fours picking up dollar bills, Fatal Attraction made John Hinkley's obsession of Jodie Foster and shooting of Ronald Reagan look nearly normal by comparison, and Lolita, well, poor Jeremy Irons as Humbert was just a sad victim of the sickening web spun by the evil Lolita. Misogynisim never had it so good.
Diane Lane steals the show, she is magnificently torn and tortured by "what she does and doesn't do." Oliver Martinez as Paul Martel, the object of Connie Sumner's (Lane's) attention, is excellent, especially when confronted by the cuckolded husband, Gere. Erik Per Sullivan plays the Sumner's child, Charlie, and is too cute for words. This is a slick and sophisticated drama made all the better by Diane Lane's profound performance. The translation from Claude Chabrol's original French suffers at times, but the miasma enshrouding the Sumner's is translated perfectly by Lyne's experienced, if jaded, hand. A dark and damning film about the naive choices we make.
Imagine you attend a lecture about the evils of pornography and featured in the lecture are little snippets of pornographic films. Or a documentary about roadside bombs that includes a section describing, in detail, how to construct one. I gave some thought to walking out of this movie about the mindless addiction to sick and twisted internet displays. Featured prominently in director Gregory Hoblit's film are particularly graphic scenes of innocent people being tortured to death over the internet. So, here we are, paying money to watch horrific films of torture within a film decrying the amoral masses willing to watch horrific films of torture. Is this a dirty trick? A test? Or something darker? Is the filmmaker attempting to legitimize his pandering to the fans of torture porn? The Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse films may have slowed the torture porn sub-genre and we can only hope Mr. Hoblit et. al. is trying for one last gasp. What made this particularly sad is the large number of older folks in the theater, drawn, no doubt, by Diane Lane. Most of them likely fell in love with her in 1979's A Little Romance. What a dreadful bookend this may make for them to Lane's storied career.
I settled into my seat at the local Landmark Theater (you know, the one that shows all the really high quality films) smugly serene in the knowledge that I was, as usual, about to be impressed by another great film on a par with The Big Kahuna or Joe Gould's Secret. Less than fifteen minutes into this movie I noticed the sound was off. Off like those awful Public Access tele-vangelists that rent a room at the local Ramada Inn and film themselves in front of "the faithful" (usually their family) holding forth about Geeezzuss. The microphone is often on the camera, twenty feet away from the speaker. The result is a hollow, echoing soundtrack. Many of the shots in Up at the Villa sounded like they were voiced over. As Rowley (Sean Penn) is walking away from the camera, his voice remains constant in volume. Correctly done, his voice would grow softer as he walks away from the camera/us. In another scene, Sir Edgar (James Fox), can be heard swallowing a sip of his martini from fifteen feet away. Guullop! goes the martini. And not just the sound was off. The knot in Rowley's tie changed positions three times in one scene. I tried to picture the director reviewing the edits for this scene and somehow not noticing. My imagination is too limited. Oh yes, the dialogue. "What kind of a life could we lead together, you and I?" "We'd have fun." Hoo boy. What a train wreck.
Kristin Scott Thomas was, as usual, fabulous. Anne Bancroft is always a pleasure to watch. Derek Jakobi (remember I, Claudius) was a treat as a hedonistic libertine. Sean Penn had moments. It was shot in Florence and the surrounding countryside. The scenery alone makes up for the price of admission.
Seeing the elegant James Fox in this mess, though, reminded me of Sir Alec Guinness' take on Star Wars. He thought the whole experience dreadful and the dialogue sophomoric.
Everyone but me seemed to like this one. Of course George Clooney (Ryan Bingham) is magnetic, Vera Farmiga an unappreciated gift to the art, Anna Kendrick lit up the screen, and the screenplay was as crisp as Reitman's directing but I never believed any of the characters. Living for miles, really? Those airport clubs are pathetic little dives, dressed up like the new Raddison. And speaking of the Raddison, George's hotels were as common as pig's tracks. Those bedspreads don't get cleaned you know. And spending your life firing people? I did that for a few years and I'm as callous as any priveleged white guy but it eats your soul. And that backpack lecture? Cut all ties with family and friends and do it because the straps dig into your shoulders? Come on! I did the "you can be a millionaire" schtick for two years and we had to hustle to get people to show up. This guy is selling nihilism and keeps getting bookings?
Reading back over this last paragraph it looks like I was Ryan Bingham, just not as cute. Maybe I'm just jealous because I never signed up for the mileage clubs.
The Upside of Anger 04.08.05
The Upside of Anger 04.08.05
The upside of anger, we are told by the talented Evan Rachel Wood is the opportunity presented when emerging from the nightmare of emotions that comprise anger. When we speak of anger in this context we are referring to a feeling so profound and disturbing that everything changes. This is the sort of anger that goes to bed with you at night and wakes up with you in the morning. It is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, blinding, deafening, explosive and debilitating. I don't know that I've ever lived there but I've visited. It is a desperate and scary place and one I hope to never see again.
The Upside of Anger is less about the message than the messengers. The message, the curative possibilities of rage, is a bit obscure but the acting dynamo that is Joan Allen makes us care less about the missing depth and more about the ability that delivers it. She is remarkable and this is her most challenging and rewarding role to date. It is a mark of the great performance that it becomes almost impossible to see another in the role. This she achieves.
I thought this was going to be all about the beautiful Yangtze River and I could learn a little bit more about China to help me appreciate it more. Well, instead it's about China's effort to build the largest hydro-electric facility in the world by damming the Yangtze and flooding an area the size of Montana, or Connecticut or whatever - some huge chunk of land. The residents have been told to leave and we get to know a sweet couple and their children as they come to grips with the end of their lifestyle as they know it. They had managed to eke out a subsistence level life from growing a handful of vegetables on the riverbank and consuming them in their ramshackle "dwelling" pieced together from flotsam, blankets, and twine. The parents confront the reality that their eldest daughter won't be going on to middle school despite the government's emphasis on education as the key to China's future. She will have to get a job. The only jobs available are on the tour boats loaded down with bloated Western passengers come to see the beautiful Yangtze River valley before it becomes lake swill once the dam is finished. The sides of the valley are dotted with huge signs indicating the level to which the soon to be dammed Yangtze will flood. Their little shack is well below the flood line. They have nowhere to go. They do end up dragging their few belongings up the side of the river bank toward the end of the film. By then, though, we are so utterly depressed all we can do is whimper quietly as the father straps a two hundred pound amoir to his back and stumbles up the bank. This is an unimaginably sad film and puts one in mind of one of the better novels I've read in years, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins. It is set against the backdrop of the impending flood of the Tennessee Valley for other hydro-electric projects from Depression era USA. Both are rich, poignant, and unbearably sad. I'm typing slower and slower as I get sadder and sadde
V for Vendetta 03.17.06
The guy next to me couldn't stop checking his cell phone, the guy in the front row sat down with his beautiful clean white JumpJordan23 suit on and proceeded to chow down on cheese nachos and a giant coke, I buttoned my shirt crooked cause it was too cold in the theater and on the way home I saw a young Asian-American walking a little poodle while twirling numb-chucks in his free hand. Not the sort of crowd I expect will go down to the Parliament building next Guy Fawkes day and stand down the police. Made the stirring and inspirational V for Vendetta fall a little flat. Not that the Wachowski brothers didn't do a fine job of gutting the current pack of neo-fascists in the White House by bringing yet another graphic novel to the screen. I am admittedly a little cynical these days what with the only good news I can see coming from the world of fiction. The non-fiction real world is such a hopeless mess I don't see how it could ever give us hope for a better life. India and Pakistan only a misunderstanding away from a "limited" nuclear exchange, the world of Islam probably rightly seeing the Christian west as warming up for a religious war, Irish gays being turned away from the St. Pats day parade, 20,000 Spanish teenagers getting hammered on cheap wine in something called a botellone, public education in the US going down the tubes as fast as George can say religious vouchers, Iraq, Iran, et cetera ad nauseum. But I digress.
Natalie Portman is brilliant and Stephen Rea helps enormously, Hugo Weaving is as good as anybody can be in a mask I suppose but this is definitely a Portman show, within the framework of the Wachowski's politics, of course.
A good friend took me to a restaurant as a treat not too long ago. The restaurant was filled with wood and shadows and leather and old people nibbling tiny pieces of meat. The service was solicitous. The food was soft and forgettable. Our waitress was in her fifties and acted like she had known us for years. This must be where old people go for their last meal, I thought. What happens to us as we get old? Another friend says she can see the doors slamming shut whenever she suggests something new. I recently agreed to go camping as a hedge against the inevitable narrowing of experience that comes with age. The fact that I do it as a hedge is probably a sign that it's already too late.
The guy from Miramax spoke to us before Valentin started. He told us we had a responsibility to tell the people disappointed with Shrek 2 and Van Helsing that there were still great films being made all over the world and we were about to see an example. That the film has been making the festival circuit for two years and Miramax is just now considering a limited US release is a question for another time. I have the great good fortune of living two blocks from a Landmark Theater and so I get to see many of the films that never make it to the suburbs. I should be grateful and stop complaining about living in a media backwater town. So I will.
Valentin is Argentinean writer/director Alejandro Agresti's semi-autobiographical sketch of growing up with an aging grandmother. The beautiful Carmen Maura plays Valentin's grandmother/Abuela. We meet her muttering to herself in bitter and angry resentment over her life and loss. Later we see her telling her eight year-old-grandson of her passion and love for his grandfather. The contradiction of these two visions of the same woman testifies to the magnificent subtlety and painful beauty of Agresti's film. The real story is not Abuela's, though, but Valentin's. He is a slightly cross-eyed would be astronaut virtually abandoned by his parents. His father, played by Agresti, reappears and we're soon thankful he long ago deposited Valentin with Abuela. Rodrigo Noya pays Valentin and he is brilliant. His tiny hand is nearly lost in the receiver of the 50's phone at the corner bar as he calls home to see if his dad has left yet. Dad is furious because Valentin told Leticia, dad's new girlfriend, a little too much. Valentin narrates a story charged by his observations. Chided by his uncle for his astronaut dreams, "you have to American or Russian to go into space," Valentin retorts, "do you think Gregarin thought he would be an astronaut when he was my age"? All things are possible for this child. He sits on the landing counting to 1,000 in anticipation of his mother's return. Sometimes he gets to 4,800 and still he counts. I stopped counting years ago. Valentin made me want to count again.
Van Helsing 05.07.04
Dracula needs Frankenstein as an electrical conduit to breath life into his spawn since a (not The) Wolfman proved inadequately conductive. Before the thousands of little Draculaites can be loosed, however, Anna, the last of the Valerious clan played by our new fave action heroine Kate Beckinsale, must be killed. I never did quite get why, something Anna's dad did made Dracula really really mad, I think. But, if she can kill Dracula before he kills her, all her family will be released from Purgatory and reunited in the sky. Cardinal Jinette, head of yet another secret Catholic society, tells us so. The Cardinal sends Van Helsing to Transylvania to help Anna off Dracula. The Secret Society's HQ is filled with an ethnically diverse crowd busy developing tools to, here the Cardinal shares the Secret Society's purpose with their head enforcer, "kill the evil mankind knows nothing about." I'm thinking if mankind doesn't know about it, who is the Secret Society protecting, the plant kingdom? The Cardinal sends along Carl (a delightful David Wenham), the 19th century version of James Bond's Q - the cool weapons guy. He equips Van Helsing with the standard issue garlic, crucifix, silver stake and a nifty gas powered cross bow that fires faster than Legolas in The Lord of the Rings. That's the plot, most of it at least.
Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) has a well-developed sense of irony and delivers nearly all the funny lines. He does a lot of tongue in cheek stuff and Carl gets some funny lines, but Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) is way over the top. Anna has no sense of humor and never gives us a wink the way Van Helsing regularly does, but then her lines don't have the ironic twist Jackman's do. It's as if two writers worked the script, one for Carl and Van Helsing and the other for Dracula and Anna.
The special effects are cartoonish and these days that's a compliment but I don't mean it that way. Dracula wanders about while he plots the world's doom. Being Dracula when he wanders about the walls and ceiling are as good as a floor. Really. He walks up a wall while discussing tomorrow's evil deeds. Reaching the ceiling he steps onto it and meets up with an upside down bride, of which he has three. Had four but Van Helsing dispatched one. Dipped the machine-bow into some holy water and cooked her. Lots of flying Dracula brides, tons of back flip double somersaults from sixty feet, a painting that comes to life, big jaw dropping vampire bite bits, and ubiquitous shape shifting, wolfman to human, human to vampire, vampire to bat, you name it, it morphs. Frankenstein's left leg is operated by some sort of steam valve apparatus and 'ol blue eyes has more personality than your average patched together corpse. Van Helsing travels as often by swinging on 200-foot cables as often as horseback. The special effects overload reminded me of a rich friend I had in elementary school. He'd get all his really expensive toys out and try to play with them all at once. Big Tiger Joe tank would drive over the little HO gauge train while a motorized Corvette circled a band of tiny iron Civil War soldiers. Taken individually they were great but they didn't sum well. I recall seeing an interview with Van Helsing's director a few weeks back. He was explaining how his film would have to be more and bigger because all the stories had been done. Well, I think he got the more and bigger allright, but the sum of the parts seems less than whole. Maybe it was Frankenstein's articulate joi-de-vivre or maybe there were just too many toys but we can only hope no sequel is in the works.
Vanilla Sky 12.16.01
One of the critics quotes for this movie actually suggested it would change your life. Now I often struggle for words when complimenting a film - outstanding, excellent, etc. are just too tired. But change your life? Another quote suggested this film would set the standard for 21st century moviemaking. Hey, it's good and slick and all that but the stop action stuff was done to death in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
Who says movies have to mean anything, anyway? Can't they just be cool and interesting? I don't think A. Conan Doyle was exploring any of life's great mysteries with The Five Orange Pips. It wouldn't seem Alejandro Amenabar had much more in mind either than a good mystery when he penned Abre Los Ojos.
Approximations of reality are everywhere in this intricate and polished thriller. Is she dead? Is he dreaming again? Did he kill her? Did she ever really die? No way you'll get a handle on this one until the end. Maddening clues abound and answers are as ethereal as Manet's Vanilla Sky. Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz are excellent but the prize goes to Cameron Diaz. She is a dominant presence and this is one thrilling movie.
Vantage Point 03.08.08
The couple behind me starting murmuring when the clock rewound the fourth time. We see the assassination and the bomb from several (six?) vantage points. Once we're through the technical wizardry, the car chase begins. Once the car chase ends, the hero gets the thanks of a grateful nation. And we're done.
Terrorists are everywhere now, I hear they're remaking Gone With the Wind as an Afghanistanian saga between the Taliban (Rebels) and the 10th Mountain (Yankees). Let's see, Rhett/Osama is Clive Owen and Jennifer Garner is Scarlett/Benazir Bhutto. Yes, I know Benazir is Pakistani not Afghan but why should this film be any different than The Kingdom or any of the other half dozen "terrorist" dramas of the last few years. If you want to explore the current war you have to get HBO or Sundance and find any of the painful documentaries about what this war and our new army is doing to our soldiers. Head injuries, filthy VA hospitals, homeless PTSD victims, and amputees don't sell tickets. Jamie Foxx and Dennis Quaid do. Tidy endings help too. Always happy to see a grateful nation thanking some guy for saving the day.
Veronica Guerin 10.17.03
Cate Blanchett stars as Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, famous for being murdered by the druglord subject of a series of articles she wrote for her hometown rag, The Dublin Sunday Independent. Another in an ever growing genre of films made because a buck is to be made. A little harsh perhaps, this is, after all, a true story and a story of some significance. The murder of a journalist is cause enough for concern in a political climate where truth depends on the teller. Al Franken gets sued by Fox TV for showing a picture of a TV pundit named O'Reilly on the cover of his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. There was a time when we looked to the fourth estate to help safeguard our freedoms. From the heady days of Woodard, Bernstein and Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post uncovering the truth of a multi-million dollar slush fund used by the Executive Branch of our government to intimidate and destroy the "enemies of the state," we spot journalism in free fall as once reputable news sources jockey for position as patriotic supporters of a "war" against terrorism. We get shrill shills screaming at each other on Sunday morning and it would appear we are less informed than ever. How is it that most Americans believe Sadaam Hussein was behind the World Trade Center attack? Bush says the link between fossil fuels and global warming needs more study and nobody laughs. But I digress.
Why was this movie made? We all know drug dealers are horrible people. Veronica Guerin's murder was a horrible thing. If Blanchett's portrayal is accurate, Guerin was the sort of person we would all want to know. There is a story here, certainly. Blanchett is a first rank actress and Joel Schumaker a world class film director. But this is a movie without soul. The facts of this brave woman's life and death are told but told without perspective, as if we were reading from Compton's Encyclopedia. A mournful Irish folk song (is there any other type) wraps this film and stands in for a missing passion. I'm sorry this terrible thing happened, and in what may be as much a testament to my own jaded soul as this cold product of the Bruckheimer production machine, by tomorrow I may not remember it.
I hate feeling stupid. Especially at the hands of someone who I fear thinks we are all stupid. Just so you won't - Vicky is Rebecca Hall, Cristina is Scarlett Johansson and Barcelona is one of the coolest looking cities on the planet what with all its Goudy architecture. I thought the whole title was someone's name...
Patricia Clarkson (unforgettable in Pieces of April) and Javier Bardem (as a hedonistic artist - a role much more suited to him than psycho-killer, qu'est-ce que c'est?) fill out the cast. As in most Allen movies, of course, it isn't about the acting, it's the dialogue, stupid.
This is a much better effort than we've seen from Mr. Allen in a while but still has the automaton feel, as if he's just going through the motions. Maybe someone should tell him to retire. But then he could play Lance (or Michael or Bo) and un-retire to everyone's embarrassment. Except the one who should be embarrassed, the over-the-hill talent desperate for one more shot of adulation. No wonder there's panic in the industry, I mean please!
The Visitor 05.31.08
A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago if I'd seen The Visitor. No, I said, it looks schmaltzy. Wrong again. The Visitor tells two stories. One is about losing touch with that which made our country what it used to be. Immigrants. The other is about losing touch with our heart.
This is as long as I've waited to review a film. I saw Volver almost 2 weeks ago and wasn't sure what I felt about it then. Still not but If I put this off much longer I will forget the film. Here is what I remember, Penolope Cruz being mesmerizing, beautiful images, and Lola Duenas. We last saw her in Under the Sea. It wasn't Cruz's beauty that was mesmerizing, it was her acting, and even then she had trouble staying on screen when Duenas was present. Almodovar is an extraordinary filmmaker, of course, and I for one am content to be entertained by him on almost any level, even when I don't think I get what he is saying. And maybe he isn't saying anything except look at this. Reading Harakuri's short stories is a not dissimilar experience. Whatever can he be telling us when the story is about a fellow who loses his dinner for forty days straight? No matter. Someone smarter than me will have to explain the underlying text but then maybe there isn't any. Maybe it's just a story and the forty days have nothing to do with the biblical forty days and maybe the dead mother who isn't really dead has nothing to do with our fear of loss. Who knows? And as long as Almodovar is at the helm, who cares?
The last time a movie hung around forever it was My Big Fat Greek Wedding . So when I noticed Waitress wasn't going anywhere I decided to see it. The waitress in Waitress fantasizes pies named for her current mood, Bad Baby pie, Falling In Love pie, Murder Earl In His Sleep pie. Earl is her scum-bag husband, a refreshingly pathetic creature compelling a promise from his accidentally pregnant wife not to love the baby more than him. Heās evil in a genuinely pathetic way. Played by Six Feet Under's Jeremy Sisco, we feel sorry for and then want nothing more than his absence from the picture. Serenity's Nathan Fillion is the sweet Doctor patsy that falls for our Waitress (the endearing and delightful Keri Russell). Truth is, we all fall for her, even the curmudgeonly Joe (Andy Griffith). I actually felt better about things after seeing Waitress, no small feat.
Waking Life 10.28.01
Have you ever overheard a conversation you wished you hadn't? Ever hear someone trying to make sense of their life in a coffee shop? Most of those of us for whom words come easily are all too aware of their shortcomings. Composed of letters that are themselves even more abstract than numbers, words can, at best, approximate truth. In the most skilled hands, and by these I refer to Shakespeare, Euripedes, Williams, and arguably less than a handful of others, and in conjunction with acting of the highest calibre, truth can be approached but never apprehended. The truth lives in places free of the constraints of words. Truth lives in the gut and heart, not the mind.
Given this, Waking Life's pastiche of dialogue and diatribe quickly wears thin. I closed my eyes early on, closing out the fascinating and intricate "animation" on-screen, and heard the words. Shallow they were. Hollow, puffed up. Worth little. This, then, is a cartoon of the highest order. Fascinating visual affect overlaying the most pedestrian of stories. Our feeble attempt to work out with words the significance of life and our little lives.
Even if it weren't about two giants in music, it would still be a powerful story of loss and the redemptive power of love. With several great songs and razor sharp performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, it becomes a must see. I stayed for the closing credits and heard the "real" Cash/Carter version of Jackson and I think I like the Phoenix/Witherspoon version better. Yes I know, sacrilege.
Of the two stories told in Pixar's latest, one is interesting and one is silly. Wall-E opens with a long shot from outer space tracking to the surface of Earth. On the way in we see a haze surrounding the planet that turns out to be reams of space junk, discarded satellites, little bits of metal. On the surface all that moves is a small roller-track robot gathering up trash, compressing and stacking it high, real high. The stacks of compressed waste are more numerous and taller than the abandoned skyscrapers. This is Wall-E and he's been at this task for seven hundred years. That's when the last of the humans left leaving Wall-E and his types to clean up. His types have all long since given up their ghosts but Wall-E crushes on. He also collects - lighters, hubcaps, whatever strikes his robot fancy. Part two begins when Wall-E meets up with the humans who left centuries ago. Seems they've been on an extended cruise and have morphed into lounging slugs with their heads buried in video screens. Humans have become rolly polly blobs unable to walk, unwilling to work. Where the post human Earth and Wall-E are rendered in muted tones and appear real, the humans are all technicolor pastels and rendered as cartoon characters. All semblance of complexity and depth disappear the moment the humans come on screen. Is this Pixar's attempt to make this moral tale more palatable by making it more cartoonish? Or did the imagination that delivered Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and Nemo suddenly die? In either event, a truly magnificent film switches off like a light and we're left with the dull glow of a Clutch Cargo cartoon.
As I told the friend who accompanied me, these films have a built in defense. The moment you start picking apart any of the huge number of inconsistencies in the story, like why did we get a close-up of the evidence of his best friend cuckolding him, or does any variety of loom produce coded versions of fate (Terrance Stamp [isn't he dead yet?] had a small version that seemed to work just as well as the big one Morgan Freeman used), or what did a couple dozen assassins do with all those side of beef, the obvious answer is, "well, it's a comic book/graphic novel not bound by such pedestrian limitations as plot or narrative." That being said, Wanted was great fun. The same way a boxed and shrunk wrapped container of bite size Butterfingers are fun. Delicious going down but the damage done at the molecular or even endocrinetic level not worth the price. Even if we did have to suffer lines like, "you're just a thug that can bend bullets." Bending bullets was a huge part of Wanted. Oh yes, and why Wanted? Because that was the headline on the New York Post the morning James McAvoy decides to ditch the account manager job and become the world's leading assassin? And my god Angelina, the tattoos! What were you thinking? Worst of all, though, was having to watch a corrupted Morgan Freeman. Like seeing Lassie play Cujo. Too painful.
War of the Worlds is scary in a way few films can claim. Panic Room and Das Boot approach this level of scary by creating a similar feeling of helplessness. The helplessness in Panic Room and Das Boot are brought on by isolation. The locked room and the submarine both isolate their subjects from help, but help is still out there somewhere. The helplessness Spielberg and Cruise reach in War of the Worlds, however, is total; it is planetary. Cruise brilliantly registers this helplessness as despair in a diner outside a ferry landing in Massachusetts. Early on, Cruise's character Ray is seems to be having fun as the storm approaches and even as the street collapses under him. When people around him start getting zapped the fun is quickly replaced by fear and then helplessness. The combination of Wells' allegory for the mindless expansion of his British Empire at the cost of the slaughter of indigenous peoples with Spielberg's mastery at storytelling with Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic with an inspired Dakota Fanning and Tom Cruise at the top of his game and the result is an instant movie classic.
The Watcher 09.10.00
James Spader is a burnt-out, migraine-suffering, barbituate-imbibing FBI agent on some kind of indeterminate leave (we should all have the FBI's benefits package) from which he returns to help hunt down a psycho killer played by Keanu Reeves.
Psycho killer pursued by conflicted cop, well now, that's a new one.
Nevermind that the FBI agent forgets to get the license plate of the psycho killer's car. Try not to notice that the police helicopters can't keep their spotlight on a man running across rooftops. Ignore the fact that a man with a .45 calibre bullet in his thigh carries an injured woman without limping.
And are the Chicago police just totally incompetent drivers? The last time I saw dozens of Chicago cop cars chasing the bad guys the same thing happened. They crashed into each other, citizens, malls, and gas stations.
I had a friend, or a colleague, or really a co-worker, once, years ago when we lived in LA. We actually lived in Long Beach, well, initially Signal Hill, which is inside Long Beach which is south of Los Angeles and north of Newport Beach. Few people will admit residency in Los Angeles when a claim can be made for Malibu or Naples or any of the dozens of tony and not-so hamlets that comprise the southern California sprawl. Driving north from San Diego the evidence of leaving the "city" behind is apparent as desert scrub and empty horizon replace the golden arches and mcmansions. Less than an hour later the arches reappear and huge suburban tracts pop up like pustular impetigo. Begin Los Angeles. Not much more than two hours and twenty-odd "tony hamlet next three exits" signs later, the desolation that is southern California's natural state again fills the windscreen. But I digress.
The Way of the Gun 09.12.00
Mean, low-life, psycho killers are imbued with personality to make us like them in spite of their murderous ways, Part II. The "clean up guy" is reprised by James Caan (good), the mobster's moll is even an Uma look-alike (bad). Benecio Del Toro is the film's only original. Go for his sake if you must see this Pulp Fiction wannabe. Bring cotton, the gun fire is at maximum volume and there is plenty of it - duh.
We hear at least three times in Gore Verninski's The Weather Man that "easy has no place in the life of grown-ups." Michael Caine as Robert Spritzer, father to Weather Man David Spritz (Nicholas Cage) says to his son, "You just have to chuck some things in this shit life." Dad is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, by the way, living in a fabulous townhouse in Chicago. That he thinks of life as muerte is as good an indication as any that this film, marketed as a lightweight comedy, is actuality weighty and painful in the extreme. As I left the theater, one of the four guests walked out behind me and remarked, "good film, huh." He was a young Hispanic man in a t-shirt with a heavy chain around his neck. Could have easily passed for a banger and here he is chatting me up about the dark existentialist drama we both just sat through. I love it when my cheap stereotypes are blown up so easily.
David (Cage) is struggling with the shadow cast by his father (Caine). David too is a father and struggles, for the most part, unsuccessfully. David's son (Nicholas Hoult) struggles as well. All three males in this family appear to have Russian roots, they all see life as pointless and hard. Therein the existentialist flavor. Speaking of the meaningless life...
My father was a war veteran who joined the Post Office when he left the Army. He retired from the Post Office and sank his retirement check into a convenience store franchise that failed. I don't think we ever had one conversation about career choices. He died before I was out of high school so maybe we shouldn't have had any conversations about working but I couldn't help comparing myself, him, and my son to the triad in the film. Nobody was happy, not really. The super achieving dad, the messed up son and his teenage son were all in varying stages of misery. Nobody ended up in happyland, they all just dealt with what they faced. As The Flaming Lips would say, "You have to live until you die."
Is it adultery if no one cares? Jack (Mark Ruffalo) is married to Terry (Laura Dern) but sleeping with Edith (Naomi Watts) whose husband Hank (Peter Krause) is sleeping with Terry. And everyone is miserable. We don't get to see what drove them all to their sorry state and maybe that's the point, nothing did. Maybe they all just drifted apart and into each other. But there has to be more to it than that, this sort of alienation can't be inevitable, can it? When more than half the marriages end up dead and the balance seem to be on life support maybe it is. Maybe finding happiness in another is the most difficult thing in life.
Author Andre Dubus penned the short stories upon which We Don't Live here Anymore is based as well as that cheery story of death and sadness In the Bedroom. Clearly this is a fellow with an insight into tragedy and loss, a car wreck lost him his ability to walk. But the truth of these characters is evident, and as anyone unhappily married can vouch for, the truth of their relationships is just as evident. We'd like to believe something was once there to be lost and we see in some isolated flashbacks that Jack once felt something for Terry. By the time we meet Jack he can only muster the occasional positive gesture. Terry, desperate to recapture what she thinks they once had, responds heart wrenchingly to every hint that life remains in their relationship. We know better and we don't know why. Where Jack and Terry are passionate and angry Edith and Hank are intellectual and cold. They all end up in the same miserable place, though, and none of them want to be there. It's the same place any of us who've been alive long enough have seen and only rarely escape.
Can't anything be easy?
Psychiatrist wife, photographer hubby, and sad son take a weekend in the snowy woods to recharge their psychic batteries. Instead they hit a deer, encounter a psycho hunter and generally short circuit. On a trip to town the kid gets a hand carved idol from a mysterious stranger. The idol is Wendigo, a very powerful spirit that looks something like Arnold Schwartznegger with antlers.
John Speredakos plays the psycho, Patricia Clarkson the psych, Erik Per Sullivan the kid, Miles, and Jake Weber the dad.
This is a vehicle entirely of Larry Fessenden's making, he wrote, directed and edited. The direction suffers from a too shaky hand-held effect. Done properly we get the impression of immediacy, overdone and we become disoriented and distracted. This is a highly stylized film with special effects juxtaposed against gritty emergency room video. Picture books come to life and snow takes form. The overall effect is an otherworldly aura that works well with Fessenden's theme of "spirits that exist whether you believe in them or not."
This film fares better in recollection than immediate experience. One scene stood out at the time and continues to in reflection. On his way out the door on an uncertain and disturbing trip, Miles selects the Wendigo from his collection of super-heroes and transformers. Would that we had such a totem at our disposal.
We Were Soldiers 03.17.02
If only the Generals and Politicians would leave war to the soldiers...
Mel Gibson leads 395 fresh faced American GIs into battle against 4,000 battle-hardened North Vietnamese and runs them back into the hills from whence they came. The story is based on the book written by Gibson's character, Lt. Col. Harold Moore. One can't help but wonder who wrote the line delivered by Sgt. Major Plumley (Sam Elliott) as he drags the fearless Colonel from the line of fire, "If you go down, we all go down." Twice Colonel Moore has to tell that dunderhead William Westmoreland he can't leave his men for a Saigon debriefing. I mean what moron would expect this man among men to abandon his boys at their time of need? I think we see the real Colonel Moore quietly sobbing with guilt and sadness over the death of so many of the men in his charge. Or maybe the real Colonel Moore was the one praying with one of his platoon leaders for God to ignore the heathen prayers of the enemy (tee-hee). Or maybe it was the loving father kissing his little girls goodbye as they slept (sniff). But I digress.
Suffice to say War is Hell. That is if Hell is that place where brave men distinguish themselves in battle with honor while dispatching the enemy with precision artillery fire. A devilish enemy surfacing from tunnels and sneaking inside your lines. An enemy led by a commander safe in his underground bunker away from the whizzing bullets. An enemy who abandons the battle when counter attacked. But I digress.
Had I stood and hollered "objection" every time I had a problem with this film, I would have been found in contempt of cinema by the time the first helicopter touched down. The story is based on a first person account of the first major engagement in the Vietnam War. An account penned by the same man portrayed as the courageous leader of the new Seventh Cavalry. One who is still angry with his fellow countrymen. In his words, "...(they) came to hate the war we fought. Those who hated it the most, the professionally sensitive, were not, in the end, sensitive enough to differentiate between the war and the soldiers who had been ordered to fight it. They hated us as well... In time our battles were forgotten, our sacrifices discounted and both our sanity and our suitability for life in polite progressive American society were publicly questioned." Colonel Moore certainly sets the record straight. We Were Soldiers is "...our tribute to 234 young Americans who died ...in the Valley of Death, (in) 1965. That is more Americans than were killed in any regiment, north or south, at the Battle of Gettysburg, and far more than were killed in combat in the entire Persian Gulf War." And that means what, Hal?
Randall Wallace (writer/producer/director), Madeleine Stowe as the Colonel's dutiful wife, and Mel help Hal tell the real story of Vietnam. A story of love, courage and sacrifice.
Hell, let's do it again boys, how about we go back to Iraq and do it right this time? But I digress.
Whale Rider 07.12.03
Slow moving only begins to describe this beautiful New Zealand location shoot. About half way through I was ready to give up hope. I could have watched the darling Keisha Castle-Hughes (Pai) all night but it seemed the story would never crest the mountain. Once it did, though, the pay off was well worth the wait. Pai's speech to her school, in honor of her stiff-necked grandfather, was one of the more powerful dramatic moments of the year. And from a thirteen year-old!
Whale Rider is the story of a small village's search for their next chief. The bloodline is in danger of being broken as the last heir is the female child, Pai. Not hard to guess the rest but the freshness of the child star Castle-Hughes and the New Zealand setting make this a must see film.
What Lies Beneath 07.28.00
This ode to Hitchcock is a very scary movie. A ghost story with several well executed turns in the plot. It's always encouraging when a big studio project with big studio stars turns out to be worth the price of admission. Michelle Pfeiffer is wonderfully believable. None of the co-stars distinguish themselves. Why does the heroine in this genre always need a goofy girlfriend sidekick? Her old music partner should have been used instead. A Ouji board? Really now!
What's Cooking? 11.26.00
An English woman, born in Africa of Indian descent, writes and directs a story of four families (African-American, Jewish, Latino, and Vietnamese) celebrating Thanksgiving in Los Angeles. Alfre Woodard is phenomenal when confronted with her husband's infideltiy. Julianna Margulies is perfect as Kyra Sedgewick's protective and supportive lover. Mercedes Ruehl is gifted as always.
Running four separate story lines in a two hour film is difficult and Gurinda Chadha pulls it off without a hitch. Exciting and fun storytelling. Her crisp and controlled direction makes this almost too busy movie work.
What the Bleep Do We Know? 09.11.04
If you're old enough you may remember Jiminy Cricket taking you on a tour of your body or the Sun or the local zoo. If you were real lucky you sat next to the 16mm and let the warm exhaust air blow across the side of your face while the sound of the film stock lightly clicking through the sprockets lulled you to sleep. Some of the nicest naps I ever had were in physical science. The animation was advanced for its time, real Disneyesque stuff. The other end of the spectrum from Disney back then was what Conan O'Brien sometimes employs on his late night program, live action mouth over animated figure. Clutch Cargo was the preeminent practitioner of this eerie quasi-animation. Even as a child I knew this was animation on the cheap. Imagine my excitement, then, when I heard about this new movie dealing with quantum mechanics. To be living in a time when physics approaches the supernatural and digital film making can render the most outrageous imaginings of the most far out physicist in a way even I could understand. No way I'm napping through this one!
What the Bleep makes about as much sense as serving quantum soup for breakfast. Leaping from pheromones to electron clouds to peptides as fast as Editor Jonathan Shaw can jump cut. Once, many years ago, I was in a car with a young fellow who had recently mastered language. He started at the beginning of his experience and talked his way through everything he knew. It was extraordinary and a delight to witness. About twenty minutes into What the Bleep, it dawned on me that Mr. Arntz and Ms. Chase (writer/directors) must have recently mastered the language of physics and metaphysics and were regurgitating it all on screen. Breakthrough concepts fly fast and furious off the screen and at the viewer. Marlee Matlin is the vehicle for Arntz/Chase's tour de fast. She is having a bad time of it with a recent breakup and ironic photo assignment and we get to work through this rough spot in her life with her as she applies the laws of quantum physics and meta-physics to her life situation and alters her perception entirely. Without Ms. Matlin this might have been a painful experience. With her it was mainly exasperating. We do learn that no objective truth exists, that most space is empty, that we are mainly water, that chemicals control our behavior, and that we can rise above it all once we know these things. Cool, but maybe What the Bleep should be shown in Dafur, they need it more than we do.
What is exasperating about What the Bleep is the lack of continuity and forward movement. Jumping from quantum revolution to spiritual epiphany and back again for two hours does not quite free me from my mundane existence. There is an attempt to tie all these reality shattering breakthrough concepts together, though, and if I hadn't stayed for the credits I would never have known that the two tying the ribbons were a chiropractor and a spirit channeler. Not that there is anything wrong with that! It does kind of put a big wink on everything, though. And maybe that's the point, God wasn't playing dice with the universe, he was developing a vaudeville routine! So lay back and have fun, or take a nap, that's where I'm headed.
What Women Want 12.17.00
Mel Gibson plays a chauvinist pig ad exec and Helen Hunt the woman who took his Creative Director title and job away. Alan Alda is the guy who gave her the job. Delta Burke and Valerie Perrine are Mel's (Nick Marshall) personal assistants and Marisa Tomei one of Nick's passing love interests. The first twenty minutes of this film are dreadful except for the "who can name the cameo first" game. We must first learn just how awful Nick is so we can fully appreciate the sensitive man he will become. The writer/director has Nick master all the traditional chauvinist traits in the opening reel.
Nancy Meyers wrote, produced and directed What Women Want. Her first film was Private Benjamin. She also did Irreconciable Differences, Baby Boom, and Father of the Bride I and II. She is the Spike Lee of women's movies. The men in her films are as two dimensional and sterotypical as the white people in Spike Lee's joints. Nick's buddy at work is a pig, the ever sensitive Alan Alda invites Mel up to partake of a "new box of Cubans," Nick's daughter's boyfriend dumps her at the Prom because she won't have sex with him, Marisa has been hurt by a string of heartless bums, Helen Hunt's first husband made her feel inadequate because he was jealous of her success at work. There were zero male characters with any depth.
Except Nick, of course. As he began to hear women's thoughts, he learns what a bad man he is and how to be sensitive and caring. He starts eating raw salad, going to Yoga class, and chatting with the girls. Women begin to swoon over this caring and tuned-in guy. The women's characters aren't much more developed than the men. Besides the career woman and the aspiring actress/coffee shop girl that's been hurt before, we have two air heads, one hateful ex-wife, four water cooler gossips, the over-educated secretary, and a smattering of minor female icons.
We are presented with a host of personas chiseled from a post puberty perspective of people. Unfortunately, the premise that one can suddenly read the thoughts of others turns into a reeling inner dialogue of one-liners and sound bites used to further Ms. Meyers message that we are all little more than what Hollywood thinks we are.
Faulkner and Joyce in Absalom-Absalom and Ulysseus, respectively, did a much better job of showing us the jumbled and bizarre world of thought. Sadly, their work was done in text and hence will be known by roughly the same number of people that will be able to recall this film's premise twenty years from now.
If I spent two hours watching a passel of rascists denigrate every ethnic group on the planet using language that anybody with even a shred of humanity would find offensive, and then, at the end of the two hour diatribe, a Native American appeared and called the rascists some rude names, should I feel like justice had somehow been served?
Peter Cohen wrote, produced, and directed his first feature film, Whipped. I wish he hadn't. I am particularly grieved that Amanda Peet, a gifted comedic actress, is associated with this mean-spirited, obscene waste of time. If you can sit through the first lunch between the three "guys" that comprise the male leads in this debacle, you should be ashamed that your threshold for trash is so low. It doesn't get any better. In the end, it turns out the girl they all fell for is just as bad as they are. Great, I am so relieved. What must have happened to Mr. Cohen in the dating world to give him such a frightfully skewed view of people?
Are we actually supposed to feel some level of satisfaction that "the boys" got their just desserts? The message here is as low as it gets. The boys aren't wrong for their jaded objectification of women and sex, women are the same way!
I found myself wishing that Cecil B. Demented would leap through the screen and throw us all out of the theater for having the nerve to watch such evil drivel.
In a recent interview, Jerry Lewis lamented the dearth of physical comics. Enter Matthew Perry. Watching him try to sit quietly on a stack of spare tires I couldn't stop laughing. Physical comedy is usually about running into a wall (Perry does it), or falling down (Perry does it), or otherwise hurting oneself (Perry does it all). In the tradition of Groucho Marx and Jerry Lewis, Matthew Perry is a physical comedian of the first rank. The movie, like most comedic vehicles, is about the comedian. The dialogue is secondary the story line tertiary. Of primary import is the comedian. Who remembers, or cares, what Day at the Races or The Road to Zanzibar or The Nutty Professor were about? What one remembers is Groucho and Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis.
By the way, Bruce Willis, Amanda Peet, Natasha Henstridge and Michael Clarke Duncan don't hurt a bit.
I watched about an hour and snuck out to see Crank only to learn Amy Smart didn't appear until almost 45 minutes in. I made it into a second showing of Wicker Man at almost exactly the point I left and watched it to the end. I shan't spoil the ending for you and no, Willow is not played by Fiona Apple but by her double, Kate Beahan. Edward Malus (Cage), a California cop, goes to Summersisle to look into a former fiance's story of a missing daughter. Sort of reminds me of my first wife calling a year after she left me to borrow some money for an abortion. Malus should have done what I did and said, no, thank you, but he didn't. He arrives on the island to find a matriarchal community that keeps men around to do the two things they can't do themselves. The obvious, of course, and to lift big rocks. The acting keeps this plodder alive to the end but it helped to take a break in the middle to see the over-amped Crank.
I want to go something mindless and fun, she said. Uh-oh, I thought. Mindless is OK, that can mean Resident Evil: Apocalypse or Exorcist: The Beginning or some other colon-titled cheapo. But "fun" can only mean happy and life affirming. And I'm OK with that, too, I just don't know if I would choose Wimbledon. Paul Bettany is a winner, though, and it'll be nice to see Kirsten Dunst in something down to earth after Spiderman One and Two.
Pleasant surprise! The tennis graphics are really cool, the story is predictable but entertaining, Bettany shows us yet another facet of his charismatic and charming character and Dunst gets to play someone a little more grown up. Wimbledon is the story of, oh nevermind, just go see it. It will make you feel better about things.
John Woo finally marries his enormous talent for action to a real story. Broken Arrow, Face-Off, and Mission Impossible II were adrenaline filled "movies for guys with no heart."
Windtalkers takes us to the Solomon Islands and Saipan where Navajo tribesmen, trained as code talkers, thwart the previously successful Japanese effort to break Allied codes. As an entirely spoken language, Navajo cannot be deciphered by the Japanese. The only Rosetta stone available to the Japanese would be a captured code talker. Nicholas Cage and Christian Slater, as newly commissioned Sergeants Enders and Henderson, are each assigned to protect a code talker and, if necessary, kill them to prevent their capture. As these Marines get to know each other, the difficulty inherent in their "orders" becomes apparent.
The film opens with beautiful shots of Arizona desert (the home of the Navajo) followed by a hellish battle in the Solomon Islands. Corporal Enders (Cage) is thrust into a command position as all the officers in his outfit are killed in action. His orders are to hold his ground and all fifteen of the men in his command die following the order he won't disobey. Eager to rejoin the war, he fools the doctors into approving his fitness for battle and he returns to action. At the first opportunity, he neglects his charge and launches himself into battle with a vengeance. Is this survivors guilt? This is the same Joe Enders that broke every rule in the book before he landed in the Marine Corps. His unwillingness to disobey his last order cost the lives of all fifteen in his command and landed him this role as a "baby sitter." This is a complex character and one from whom we do not know what to expect. He does not disappoint. The affection between Yahzee and Enders is tested again and again by both circumstance and Ender's conflicted character.
The firefights are on a par with Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. No sane person can witness this carnage and ever opt for war as a solution to anything. If real battle is half as loud as the volume in the theater, though, it is a wonder that any veteran can hear. I held my fingers in my ears through most of one of the firefights and still heard every word of dialogue. This is way too loud. Someone should do a sound check before the film starts. If the volume level is intentional, the theater should start selling earplugs along with popcorn.
The moral tale plays out as Enders grapples with the conflict between his orders and a growing affection for his charge, Private Ben Yahzee. Yahzee is charmingly and powerfully played by Adam Beach, an actor who originally distinguished himself in the little known but extraordinary film, Smoke Signals.
We get no sympathy for the Japanese from Chinese born director Woo. The Japanese are faceless fodder and cruel combatants. The atrocities visited upon the Chinese by the Japanese in the tune-up to World War II is unparalleled in modern times.
This is first-rate movie making and a fascinating story played out by gifted actors.
There are rare moments in film when an actor reveals a truth that speaks to the core of our humanity. Stanley's (Brando's) scream for Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, Meryl Streep making Sophie's Choice at the train station, Cowboy's (Jon Voight's) arm around Ratzo's (Dustin Hoffman's) lifeless body in Midnight Cowboy, are examples of these priceless artistic gifts. Michael Moriarty gives us one of these glimpses in Woman Wanted. With a single repeated word, "oh," Moriarty makes us feel his broken heart. Cudos to Kiefer Sutherland for getting out of the way (as director) and preserving this profound scene. This is a weak movie made good by the acting of Moriarty and Holly Hunter, made rare and worthy by Moriarty's disturbing portrayal of the profound shock of a broken heart.
The baby is named Alice, "...like Alice in Wonderland." Oh. That Wonderland. Thank goodness, I thought I might have to figure that one out too. Nothing is clear in this movie. It has the same hand-held 16mm feel of Blair Witch Project. Instead of the horror of a murderous forest, though, we get murderously vapid urban lives. Three sisters and a brother slog through meaningless relationships, mean relationships, and the mean streets of South London. Jack, the child, gets mugged, Nadia gets dumped, Molly gives birth painfully and alone (if you don't count her callous sister and who would), Mom comes to grips with Dads faithlessness. What if this is as good as it gets?
Molly Parker continues her 2000 tour de force (Five Senses, Sunshine and this). An enormous talent. Not entirely wasted in this meandering mess of miserable mediocrity.
The Woodsman 01.05.05
It's easier I suppose to get mad and hate than to understand and love. That's why so many self-described followers of Jesus are so busy judging and passing laws against the rest of us. But that's another story, or is it? The Woodsman, as everyone should know by now, is about a pedophile. Played brilliantly and painfully by Kevin Bacon, robbed of a best award in 1995 for Murder in the First. Real life wife Kyra Sedgwick plays Bacon's girlfriend and Mos Def the angry cop on his case. Walter has been released on supervised parole and moves into an apartment across from an elementary school. The details of the story aren't nearly as important as the story itself. Last year we learned to understand the impulses that drove Aileen Wuornos to become a serial killer. I got there, thanks to Charleze Theron's performance. But understanding the impulses that drive a pedophile? Does Hollywood ask too much? Easier to believe that evil is just evil and sometimes it sneaks in and takes over. I don't believe that, though. And not believing it I'm left with just us. For good or evil.
Writer/director Nicole Kassell shows us the painful truth that child molestation is all around us. Virtually every character in her story is a victim or perpetrator. And maybe that's the truth we need to seek out. For as long as we see child abuse as a dark secret carried out by evil monsters better off dead we aren't likely to come to grips with it and less likely to find ways to stop it. I wonder if Sedgwick, who is unassailably brilliant, is the only person Bacon could find to take on the role of the understanding girlfriend? This movie will no doubt be shunned and packed away quickly. And we will be the worse for it.
World Trade Center 08.22.06
Nicolas Cage as John McLoughlin and Michael Pena as Will Jimeno are buried under the rubble from Tower One. Their struggle to stay awake (Sergeant McLoughlin says if they fall asleep they won't wake up) and their families struggle to stay hopeful make up Oliver Stone's painful reminiscence of the day everything changed. Surprisingly little preaching and an unsentimental eye distinguish World Trade Center from the body of Stone's work. Maggie Gylenhaal and Maria Bello give the film its life and we look forward to their presence on screen to relieve the pain of watching their husbands under tons of concrete and steel. An essential piece of the story of September 11, the human and very personal tale of two of the "first responders," told from their temporarily naive and narrow perspective.
World Traveler 04.28.02
Cal (Billy Crudup) wanders away from his wife and son one fine day in search of his father, meaning, fun, adventure, frequent driver miles? Circle the answer that most applies. Or, come up with your own. Along the way he runs into a slightly unbalanced Julianne Moore as Dulcie. Crudup and Moore are two of our most talented and interesting actors. Reminiscent of Jack Nicholson and Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces, when these two are on screen together, as they are for much of this odd little drama, the story and script become secondary. The power of their talent leaps off the screen and mesmerizes.
I don't want to believe the target audience for this film is real. I want to believe that the enigmatic Chris Carter and his writing buddy Frank Spotnitz weren't writing to a specific demographic. The bad guys in this film include a pedophile Priest (who turns out to be a good guy), two gay Russians recently married in Massachusetts, an African-American FBI agent, and another Priest hell-bent on turning innocent children away from the Hospital (Our Lady of Sorrow, no less) to die alone in squalor. The only good guy, other than Scully and Mulder, is a really cute FBI Special Agent in Charge who thinks Mulder is the greatest. Imagine, you walk into a conference room full of FBI agents and laptops and the sexiest, youngest, and most charming one jumps up and introduces herself as special agent in charge. It does strain credulity, but not as much as bringing this franchise back to life for an entirely pedestrian story of crazy Russian surgeons playing Cryillic Frankensteins. At least when the TV series lapsed into the mundane we still had the alien back story to fall back on. All gone now. Just Scully and Mulder in domestic bliss contracting out to the FBI one more time. He papers the walls of his study with newspaper clippings of likely x-file stories and she is a gifted and groundbreaking brain surgeon at the local Catholic hospital. No aspect of the original story is revived or put to rest. Mulder's sister gets bandied about but it's all for naught. Like James Joyce coming back to life and adding a scene to his play Exiles. No Ulysses commentary, no epilogue to Finnegan's Wake, just a bit more of one of the lesser pieces.
I alluded to the silliness of Amanda Peete as Special Agent in Charge but where in the world did they get the idea that rapper Xzibit would work as her FBI partner. I mean, please. Even the Mulder wise cracks were little more than perfunctory. Hold up, I almost forgot, Scully and Mulder have a child that's dead. And they live together. And they kiss at the end. Had someone sent me a text message of the last three sentences I could have saved the seven bucks and spent the time doing something productive.
The comic book comes to life. Computer graphics have created a whole range of films once impossible outside animation. The X-Men are a group of mutants, under the direction of Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), determined to fight off the bad mutants, under the direction of Magneto (Ian McKellen). Ordinary humans barely make an appearance and when they do they are turned into inferior mutants by the evil Magneto. With names like Storm, Wolverine, Cyclops, and Rogue, the good guys battle the evil mutants and their less sexy monikers, Mystique, Toad, and Sabretooth.
The film sets up a potentially powerful motif with a humans only celebration set at Ellis Island. Using Ellis Island as a springboard for exploring the natural fear and rejection associated with foreigners of all types might have made for a worthwhile story. Instead, the film makers elected to remain true to the comic book format. GOOD VERSUS EVIL. FILM AT 11! I felt a little like sneaking out of the theater just before the lights came up, "excuse me, pardon me, I'm only here looking for my child, excuse me, pardon me."
Positive note - Anna Paquin consumes every scene in which she appears. She is a great talent.
Marvel comics was way ahead of its time. At least way ahead of the adults of its time. Had our parents known what Kirby and Lee were up to, they might have made us read Fantastic Four and The Hulk instead of Dick and Jane and The Hardy Boys. We certainly would have been better prepared for the challenge of finding our moral compass through the miasma generated by the mainstream media of the sixties and seventies. Opie, The Beav and Alex were not exactly role models, at least not compared with The Human Torch, Bruce Banner, or Peter Parker. The black and white perspective offered by DC Comics (Superman and The Justice League for heavens' sake) quickly dissolved in the technicolor complexity of the likes of The Silver Surfer and Magneto. The relevance and depth of the Marvel characters was readily apparent this afternoon when I arrived for the three-thirty showing of X2 and found it sold out. It was the ninth showing of this opening Saturday and not a seat was to be had! I stood in line for the four o'clock that was already fifty deep. The guys behind me were talking about which characters from the X-Men were dead and which were still alive. I haven't read a Marvel comic in thirty years but these guys were apparently entirely current. Even armed with their current perspective and in command of all the latest X-Men trivia, they couldn't have enjoyed the film any more than I did.
Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin and yes, even Hugh Jackman only added to a good story rooted in themes of inclusion and exclusion, good and evil, sacrifice and selfishness. Special effects of dazzling accomplishment and invisible direction (the best kind) made this adaptation of one of the more popular comics more than the sum of its parts. It teaches, entertains, takes us away, just the things good movies are suppose to do.
X-Men: The Last Stand 06.04.06
I've been so busy the past couple weeks I forgot to write this review! Interestingly, I can recall almost nothing from the film. At this moment I am wondering if I actually saw it or just planned to. I'll be back in a second, I want to check the trailer to see if it refreshes my memory.
Oh yeah, that's right, Famke Janssen (Dr. Jean Gray) comes back to life. She comes back as a raging ID. I knew there was something I liked about this one. Now if you're going to be confronted with a woman with no check on her basic needs I say make it Ms. Janssen or even Franka Potente, two thankfully underexposed movie stars. Must be their European roots that keeps them out of every available media. Outside of Jean's unchecked libido there isn't much to warrant a viewing of this continuing saga of mutant versus mutant. X-Men II was good as it was mutant versus human, something I can relate to. You have to view the great unthinking multitude as mutants, otherwise their Biblical literalism and social Darwinism is too creepy to imagine originating in your own species.
The way it was - the man: tuxedo, cigarette, martini, debonair. The way it is - lambs wool coat, anti-smoking advocate, fresh juice, keepting it real. The way it was - the agency: unlikeable head guy, dweeby gadget guy. The way it is - unlikeable head guy, dweeby gadget guy. The way it was - the story: really bad guy wants to bring the world to heel, bad guys either big and mean or psycho killers, bad girl secretly good girl, 007 saves world with scant seconds to spare. The way it is - really bad guy wants to bring the world to heel, bad guys either big and mean or psycho killers, bad girl secretly good girl, XXX saves world with scant seconds to spare.
Lest there be any doubt whether Vin Diesel (XXX and producer), Rob Cohen (director) and Rich Wilkes (writer) are taking us down memory lane or bringing us up to date, XXX opens with a suave white guy in a tuxedo crashing a very loud party and working his way through the mosh pit to grab the secret weapon looking thing. The very bad guys spot him immediately and shoot him in the back. Dead, he is passed overhead and all about the mosh pit flopping around like a rag doll. So much for suave. Scene two takes us to a posh California restaurant where Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) steals a Corvette belonging to a reactionary state senator named Dick. With video cameras taped to the floorboard and hood, Xander lectures Dick on what a bad man he is and drives his Corvette off a bridge. This is no James Bond in a tux sipping martinis and playing baccarat in Monte Carlo. This is an in-your-face extremist. In fact, this guy has to be compelled to save the world. The compeller comes in the guise of this film's only disappointment, Samuel L. Jackson. Had he retired after Pulp Fiction or even A Time to Kill, we might have been spared his endless reprise of Mr. Cool Dude. Even as an NSA patriot, he can't help but extrude cool. He is about as cool as Mike Myers, but that is another story.
If one can avoid the "that's not real" distraction that creeps in when X skate boards down a hand rail on a silver serving tray, or snow boards seconds ahead of the avalanche he starts, or dirt bikes down the sloping aluminum roof as it explodes from underneath, or... stop it! XXX avoids taking itself too seriously, we should emulate.
Vin Diesel's plentiful charisma shines through and carries the first third of the movie. Once he dons the secret agent role its sayonara spontaneity and welcome back Ian. The action is relentless even as the story becomes predictable. I noticed my fingers exerting a little too much pressure on the armrest at times and had to will them to relax. We end with unlikeable agency guy calling X as he makes out with the girl. Sound familiar? Perhaps, but thoroughly entertaining. And is that not the point, pilgrim?
If you think you want to see this film and do not want to know what happens, stop here. If you have seen it or if you are not interested in joining the politically correct crowd by seeing and remarking on this film's compelling tale of life amidst poverty then read on. The film opens with teenage sex. The sort of "hurry up before we're caught" kind of sex, or, as it turns out, the "who cares whether you enjoy this or not" macho approach. This is our introduction to one half of the charming teen-age pair of boys with whom we will spend the next one hundred minutes or so. One hundred minutes filled with drinking, pot smoking, meaningless sexual encounters, and finally, homophobia and death. This is a story written by Alfonso and Carlos Cuaron and directed by Alfonso. A story of two teen age boys who, when their girls depart for the summer, hook up with a righteous babe and go on a road trip. What teen-age boy hasn't fantasized this scenario? Some hot older woman willing to teach us the mysteries of lovemaking. These two teen-age boys (late twenties now) managed to bring the fantasy to reality in film. The older woman (Maribel Verdu as Luisa) has been betrayed by her educated (read elitist) husband and she is out to even the score. When she isn't crying her eyes out. Interrupted in one evening crying jag, she attacks one of our heroes (Gael Garcia Bernal as Julio and Diego Luna as Tenoch) and the dramatic tension is commenced. The first beneficiary of her largesse, Tecoch, becomes the target of Julio's resentment and jealousy. Soon the boys are at each other's throats. The film limps along to one final menage a' trois wherein the boys kiss EACH OTHER! Well, that does it, where mutual cuckolding was insufficient to break up this partnership, same sex physical affection does the trick.
This affair takes place in Mexico. Mexico City to the hinterland. Along the way, we see military checkpoints and grinding poverty. We meet a man who will be displaced by a big company. We meet the generous poor and the idle rich. All without comment. A narrator pops in occasionally to help the narrative along and gives us salient points about the boys and their future. You can tell the narrator is about to speak because the sound dies. More than once I thought we were experiencing technical difficulties. Once, inexplicably, the sound drops off except for the foley artist's clip-clop of passing horses.
Tenoch's father is a government official and Julio lives with his mother and sister. Tenoch's family is one of the privileged, Julio is of the middle class. We see Tenoch's nanny climb marble stairs to deliver his lunch. She adores the child and he dismisses her with a wave. Julio's sister is a political activist. She loans the car that allows them to make the road trip. I guess this is what passes for social commentary these days. The boys end up going back to school, Tenoch to his father's beloved political science, Julio to community college. So what do we take away? Snotty rich kid and his pal take advantage of everyone they can and then settle in for the long road to mediocrity. Their love interest dies after imparting her wisdom - "life is like the surf, give yourself to the ocean." Huh? This is groundbreaking foreign independent cinema? I don't think so.
No excuse. Three months after its release I finally get around to seeing this film. Duh. Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo play Sammy and Terry, two orphaned siblings. Terry's life is a mess while Sammy's appears neat and well organized. Terry has been in jail recently, has a pregnant girlfriend in need of an abortion (the reason he comes to see Sammy), and still carries a marijuana habit acquired in youth. Sammy is the local bank's loan officer, is raising her eight year old on her own, and maintains a neat and orderly life.
We soon learn Sammy's life is, beneath the surface, a mess. Her son is developing some major nueroses behind his mother's excessive protectionism. Sammy sleeps with her new married boss at the bank (Matthew Broderick in yet another nerdy geek role) while keeping her long time suitor at bay. Terry spots his nephew's (played by Rory Culkin, Macauley's little brother) problem and immediately begins introducing him to life and his no good biological father. These two clearly need each other. What one lacks, the other makes up. As if one person were split in two - when their parents were killed?
We're almost to the point with Sir Ben now that we more often see him acting than see the character he's portraying. This go-round he is a drunken, washed-up hit man. And as we all know so well, all a drunken washed up hit man needs to bring him around is the love of a good woman. Enter Tea Leoni. Maybe not a good woman but certainly good enough to rescue the likes of our wasted murderer Frank. This is as dark a comedy as we've seen in a while, but then the director John Dahl was responsible for one of the darker movies ever, The Last Seduction. It's so dark, in fact, that the comedy doesn't work. One scene in particular, with Frank and a really bad guy he's supposed to kill, is nothing but uncomfortable. The scene itself, while integral to the narrative, had a tacked on feel to it. If you told me seven writers were involved in drafting the screenplay I wouldn't be surprised. That seven writers completely devoid of any hope or joy could be found to work on a project wouldn't surprise me either. What would surprise me is if this film doesn't swiftly sink beneath the surface.
Young Adam 05.08.04
Fortunately, only every once in a great while does a movie come along with the ability to make us abandon all hope. Young Adam is just such a movie, or so I thought. It's the next morning now, and as I was slicing up some already tiny grape tomatoes for a mushroom and tomato omelet (the key to insuring all ingredients make it on to every forkful is thorough dicing) the two drowning scenes came back to me.
I've been on the lookout for Tilda Swinton films since I saw her in The Deep End so when I saw the ever more impressive Ewan McGregor, the weighty Peter Mullan and her in a trailer a few weeks back, I made a mental note to return when it opened. Infuriatingly, it opened for the rest of the world something like a year ago and I'm working really hard on telling the difference between what I can change and what I can't. But I digress.
In another of her many brilliant moments, Ms. Swinton (as the hard-edged Ella Gault) leans over McGregor's (Joe Taylor) shoulder to make an observation as he reads the Gloucester Bugle. She has crammed her mouth full of crackers and they spill out as she speaks and chomps simultaneously. Like Brando or Streep, some gesture, inflection, or nuance distinguishes her acting in almost every scene in which she appears, like her full tilt run to son Jim after Joe pulls him from the canal and near certain death. Jim falls from the barge that serves along with Scotland's canals as the films' set.
Joe, without hesitation, dives in to save him. Drowning scene number one. We learn later through a series of flashbacks Joe was not so willing to dive in when his pregnant girlfriend Cathie (Emily Mortimer) slips into the canal while chasing after a Joe in a hurry to leave his pregnant girlfriend. Drowning scene number two. Writer/director David Mackenzie has made sure we know Joe knows Cathie cannot swim. I had almost forgotten drowning scene number one. Without it, Joe, a Scottish waterfront drifter who moves from apartment to boat cuckolding husbands and deserting women, is as despicable a character as we've seen in a while. With it, he has that one selfless act to hold up against his seemingly limitless acts of amorality, cowardice, and deceit. Not that he feels the need to justify himself. Joe appears very nearly devoid of any semblance of conscience. "Twas nothing personal against you Les, it just happened," he explains to Ella's enraged husband. In fact, he pursued and initiated the affair and actively sought out opportunities to maintain it. Affair is too romantic a word for what we see between Joe and the women in his life. Sex is had on the ground, in the road, in an alley, in the cramped and smelly barge quarters. This is sex out of the Clan of the Cave Bear, quick and mean, without affection or even kindness. Not a soul looks good in Mackenzie's world of canals and pubs. The women are hard creatures with almost no compassion. Joe's life consists of a series of meaningless sexual trysts wherein someone and usually more than one is hurt. He caps off his craven behavior when he allows Cathie's married new boyfriend to take the rap for her murder. He thinks about trying to stop this miscarriage and in fact writes a letter to the prosecutor but to no avail. The mystery in Mackenzie's desperate tale is why we are shown the Joe willing to risk life and limb for the young boy. And what about Ella's unrestrained dash for the son Joe pulls from the canal, the only other act of selflessness and both surround the saving of a child. Are only the innocent worth saving? Mackenzie gives us no answers and closure consists of little more than a frown and a shrug. Mackenzie leaves us with - life does go on, but of what value is it?
Ziggy Stardust is back! David Bowie's androgynous Ziggy/Lady Stardust came to us first in the summer of 1972. That was the year the Watergate burglars were arrested, DDT was banned, Ms. magazine made its debut, the word "psychedelic" was in common use, and The Moody Blues' Tuesday Afternoon was in regular rotation in the fledgling FM world. It would be another year before the American Psychiatric Association would remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders and three years before CBGB's in New York would begin catering to the Punk scene.
Got the context?
Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars might as well have been from... well... Mars. Bowie's touring transvestite extravaganza featured what would become musical touchstones for a generation, "Hang Onto Yourself," "Rock n Roll Suicide," and "Suffragette City." In one magical tour, Bowie legitimatised gender bending, gave birth to Glam-Rock, and achieved rock super-stardom. The tour's final date was captured on film by D.A. Pennebaker, better known for his 1967 documentary of Bob Dylan's England concert tour, "Don't Look Back." Both films were shot using hand-helds, long before the steadi-cam made its appearance. Where Don't Look Back was filmed in well-lit hotel rooms and limos, Ziggy Stardust was filmed almost entirely from the concert floor with only ambient light.
Pennebaker's record of Bowie's iconoclastic Ziggy persona spent the years between 1972 and 1983 in search of a distributor. Initially seen in 1983 on ABC's late night rock and roll program, the film saw limited theatrical release that same year. Critical reaction to the film was generally negative as it compares poorly to the 1973 Woodstock and 1978 The Last Waltz, the twin benchmarks of concert film. Re-released on the thirty-year anniversary of the Ziggy Stardust tour, Pennebaker's original has been "remastered." The sound is better, the visuals are not.
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is an out of focus, shadow filled, jumpy mess of a film. If it were Pennebaker's intent to portray the experience of a concert seen through the haze of large quantities of drugs and alcohol, the film is a smashing success. What it is, unfortunately, is a poor quality documentary of a phenomenal artist at the beginning of a long career. This is, of course, the other problem with the film. It is an historical document. Nice to have around for research purposes, but connections to us today are stretched thin over three decades. Bowie came out in Melody Maker in 1972, big news at the time but hardly significant these days. By the time Ziggy Stardust was in wide release, Bowie had exchanged his flowing silks and thigh-high boots for pressed linen and Ferragamo's and became the Thin White Duke. Today he is busy reinventing the Internet as artistic forum. From his home page, www.DavidBowie.com: "...how long have we been 'us' now? I don't remember exactly, an awfully long time..." This month, we can look back almost to the beginning. Out of focus and dim, as the distant past should be, I suppose.
"In this corner, weighing in at seventeen pounds, the archetype of the form dominated film... Fantasia. And in this corner, at twenty seven pounds, the obscure and substantive... My Dinner With Andre."
Fantasia is entirely a visual experience. Yes, of course, the music, lovely but totally subservient to the visual experience. The pieces are totally interchangeable. Brahms for Beethoven, Mahler for Wagner, who cares? It's the visual accompaniment that matters, not the piece.
My Dinner With Andre, however, is almost entirely dialogue. Two actors at dinner talk for an hour and a half. Yes of course, William Shawn, funny and perfect for the role, but the dialogue is the thing.
And which movie have you heard of? Which do you remember? Which would you rather see?
How about some less obvious examples, American Beauty and The Winslow Boy or Cider House Rules and Pulp Fiction.
Pulp Fiction is almost entirely form. Imagine telling the story around a campfire some night. "Well, two guys, killers sort of, have this really bad thing happen by accident so they call in another even worse guy and he dissolves the body in acid and then one of the bad guys' boss asks him to look out for his girlfriend and the bad guy really messes up, again by accident. So he calls another bad guy to help him out and, well, it's really cool. And then the other bad guy quotes from the Bible when he kills sonebody and..." Quentin Tarrantino has never made a film of substance. This is not to say his films are bad. The "stories" in his films, though, are virtually non-existent. Bad guys are betrayed and seek out the betrayer (Reservoir Dogs), bad guys are people too (Pulp Fiction). The movies are fast paced (read MTV-born five second video bites and jump cuts) and interesting. The experience doesn't extend beyond the film. American Beauty is another example of form dominance. A story lives behind the visual experience, though. Nothing much beyond a mid-life crisis (unless you count a young girl's decision to move away with the local drug dealer to a new and more satisfying life). The story is not the thing here.
The Winslow Boy and Cider House Rules are almost all story. The visuals in these films consist of period-England clothes, buildings and furniture (The Winslow Boy) or New England countryside (Cider House Rules). The visuals in these films play supporting roles in much the same way the actors play supporting roles in form films.
Film is our mythology. Our method of portraying and understanding the world around us. Our heroes, our villains, our code of conduct, our search for meaning and validation, longing for love, attraction to beauty, our losses, and our victories are all played out for us on the big screen. Film has replaced the written and earlier oral traditions that helped pass our mythology down from generation to generation. The earliest myths of humanity are efforts to explain the world around us, to help us know the unknowable. We invented stories about creation to explain our very existence. The Gods from Greek Mythology help explain our variant behaviors. A god for war, a god for love, a god in charge of other gods, wars between the gods, jealous gods, these are all reflections of our own behavior. Stories shared around the fire, stories told by parents to children, generation after generation. Stories that took the form of song and poetry. Stories evolved into poetry. The rhyme and meter of poetry were originally used as memory devices to help the storyteller recall and recite consistently. The Iliad existed for countless years as an oral recitation before Homer captured it on paper in 800 BC. Film is the most current incarnation of our continuing effort to make sense of all that surrounds us.
Film is, of course, more than our mythology. It is entertainment, propaganda, and business. As entertainment it takes countless guises, from comedy to music video. As propaganda, film was used first in World War II by the Nazis and then the Americans to sell their cause to the people. As business, film is Hollywood and all that it entails, production studios, gossip columnists, profit making, the machinery of fame. Film as myth and film as business create a dichotomy that lies at the heart of the issue of form versus substance.
When film functions as myth, as storyteller, as vehicle to help us understand our selves, film takes on a substance or materiality lacking when it serves its business side. When the overarching objective is financial gain, film begins to pander to the popular. In its effort to reach and satisfy the greatest audience, the killing factors of demographics begin to take their toll. The current demographic reality dictates that the group with the most clout at the box office are 13-17 year old males. Blow it up, kill the bad guys, get the girl, and you'll keep the financial guys off your neck. Take a look at the current top ten films. Four are testosterone cocktails (Gladiator, Battlefield Earth, Frequency, and U-571), three are goofy comedies (Flintstones, Screwed and Held Up) and two are romantic dramas (Where the Heart Is and Love and Basketball).
The issue here is not that one sort of film is bad and another good. Nor is it the case that making money and addressing material issues cannot go hand in hand. Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is fluff by comparison to Macbeth or Richard III. Both are art and both enrich the viewer. But they are different. The recognition and appreciation of that difference can free the viewer to participate more fully in either. The ability to apprehend the artist's intent, although not critical to appreciation, does increase the level of participation. Participation and response are essential elements of the experience. Art is, of course, more than an individual expression. Individual expression becomes significant beyond itself when it is experienced by another. It is in that exchange that art's greater value is realized, and the more the viewer understands, the greater the value. If I know the intent of the art is to entertain and not enrich, I will release the object of my interest (the film or play or sculpture) from the obligation to enrich. And vice versa. It is this understanding, or clarity of expectation, that allows the viewer to fully appreciate and enjoy a film like "Gladiator." The Fall of Rome theme, while present in the story, is not the point of this film. The point is to entertain. If, however, the viewer expects more than entertainment, if the viewer expects to be challenged, or, in some undefined or diffuse way expects all film to challenge and enrich, then the opportunities for disappointment are endless.
By the same token, the film that enriches or illuminates, freed of the obligation to appeal to the widest possible audience, while, in the process, freeing the viewer of the predisposition to be entertained, can more fully enrich and more clearly illuminate. For a clear distinction between entertainment and enrichment, see the MGM paean to itself, "That's Entertainment." All-singing, all-dancing, "entertainment" is portrayed as that "puts a smile on your face" film so popular in the fifties. The intent here is not to denigrate the entertaining film (the film of form) or venerate the enrichment film (the film of substance), but to remark on the line of demarcation. It is this line of demarcation that can assist the viewer in aligning their expectations with the artistic vehicle in view. No one should attend a screening of "My Dinner With Andre" with the expectation that the dinner will be followed by a car chase through the streets of San Francisco just as no one, hopefully, expects Russell Crowe to discuss the meaning of the popularity of Gladiators with Oliver Reed. It is the rare film that will aim for both. Still rarer is the film that hits that mark. To appeal to the masses while challenging and enlightening is the most difficult task for the artist. Like diamonds, films that do both are few in number and dazzling in their beauty. All too often, though, the cubic zirconia attempts to pass for the real thing. And all too often, it does.
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