Artificial Intelligence (5.5)
All The Pretty Horses (5.5)
Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch) (5.0)
The Anniversary Party (6.0)
A Beautiful Mind (6.5)
Black Hawk Down (6.0)
Bread and Roses (6.5)
Bread and Tulips (4.5)
The Business Of Strangers (6.5)
The Center Of The World (5.0)
The Circle (6.0)
The Claim (5.5)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (5.5)
The Curse Of the Jade Scorpion (6.0)
The Deep End (6.0)
The Devil's Backbone (6.5)
The Dish (5.5)
Ghost World (6.0)
The Gift (5.5)
The Golden Bowl (6.5)
Gosford Park (6.5)
In The Bedroom (7.0)
Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back (6.0)
Joy Ride (5.0)
Jurassic Park III (5.0)
The Luzhin Defense (6.0)
The Man Who Cried (5.5)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (6.0)
No Man’s Land (6.5)
Mulholland Drive (5.5)
The Pledge (6.0)
The Princess And The Warrior (6.0)
The Road Home (6.0)
The Royal Tenenbaums (6.5)
The Score 5.5)
Sexy Beast (6.0)
Shadow Of The Vampire (5.5)
The Shipping News (5.5)
Sidewalks of New York (5.0)
The Tailor OF Panama (5.0)
Training Day (6.0)
Under The Sand (6.0)
The Widow Of St. Pierre (6.0)
With A Friend Like Harry (6.0)
Artificial Intelligence (5.5) crams one helluva lot into its 145 minutes
as it strives to be many things, indeed succeeds at being a couple of them,
but is, unfortunately, ultimately remarkable mostly as a special effects
spectacular, and a fairly juvenile one at that. Dubbed by one reviewer
as a cross between Frankenstein and Pinocchio it could just
as easily be seen as a mixture of Planet Of The Apes and Something
Wicked This Way Comes or combinations of several other films.
The story is fairly equally divided into three almost distinct parts: a
tender love story, a special effects extravaganza and a drawn-out, almost
tedious resolution of all that has gone before.
Sometime in the future, global warming has resulted in, among other things, serious flooding, the increased use of robots and, in the few surviving advanced and still wealthy countries, the very strict regulation of births. One of the leading manufacturers of mechanical “people,” “mechas” as they are called, accepts the challenge of going the next step, that is, of creating a loving child. The result, young Haley Joel Osmont, the kid actor from The Sixth Sense, is delivered to Monica and Henry, whose own child is on life support and very unlikely to survive. What follows is the best part of the film, about forty minutes during which Mom is totally won over by young David, portrayed by Haley. Haley accomplishes the neat trick of being both a perfect but still lovable child. Circumstances, in the form of some forced plot devices, force Mom to abandon David. David reacts to rejection with some of the most powerful child acting ever done. Face it: if a supposed robot is played by a charming young kid actor who doesn’t appear to be very “mechanical” it is not too hard—it is to be expected really —to work up sympathy for him. The second third of the film is the aforementioned special effects extravaganza, literally a circus built around the reactions, spelled T-O-R-T-U-R-E of mechas, of many fearful and biased humans to the existence and proliferation in their midst of these soulless machines. Much of this is unfortunate.
There are good parts to this film. In addition to the heartrending mom and child/robot story, several issues are presented and the surface of several other issues is scratched—not the least of which involves the attitude of some humans toward the robots which is quite reminiscent of the apes and humans in Planet Of The Apes.
Haley Joel is a marvelous actor. (And, I consider myself to be ultracritical of almost all child actors—this kid is The Exception!) It is more than a little surprising then that Jude Law, as Gigolo Joe, a mecha sex machine who befriends young David, brings the robot role off better than Haley Joel. Perhaps much of the credit for Law’s turn should be given to his use of exaggerated movements and facial expression combined with better makeup or something, but, regardless of how he did it, Law is entertaining and effective.
One of my biases may well have
contributed to my critical reaction to this film. During much of the story
David is accompanied by an admittedly very cute little mechanical teddy
bear. I don’t know what this film is rated nor what age audience may see
it, but I cannot get over feeling that this inclusion of a cuddly little
creature is an attempt to grab the four and five year old audience. I don’t
care to be included in this effort. As a matter of fact, I resent it. It’s
like a slap in the face and kind of undermines my “faith” in the film and
prevents me from giving it the benefit of the doubt as to other features.
All The Pretty Horses (5.5) is a beautifully photographed, very faithful recreation of the novel about some decent young people for whom one can really root. The story says much about honor and friendship as well as both the differences and similarities of two neighboring cultures. The film has a couple of touching scenes, one of them a real heartbreaker, several really good performances, mostly by supporting actors, an appropriately villainous villain and a scarily effective prison sequence going for it. That’s the good news.
In 1950 John and Lacy, teenage Texan ranch hands, leave home, ride to Mexico to express their independence, seek their fortunes and do what cowboys have been doing in films for generations. Along the way the two meet up with the even younger, sad misfit (and likely chronically abused) Jimmy Blevins. The two take in Blevins. Their good intentions (John’s intentions really; Lacy is not convinced) lead to disaster, including a term in a Mexican prison. Between meeting Blevins and prison there are incredible Mexican vistas and a stint at the ranch of Don Hector with whose lovely daughter John falls hopelessly in love. In so doing John runs astray of Mexican standards of honor and virtue. And for this several of the young characters suffer. In the face of it all John stoically maintains his code of honor. Matt Damon as John, though much older than the character in the book, is a likable young man and probably a pretty fair actor. I felt that Henry Thomas as Lacy gave the better performance. Bruce Dern and Reuben Blades deliver excellent performances. Penelope Cruz is beautiful as Don Hector’s daughter.
This is a not a bad film at
all. However, it is yet another film which seems to “just miss” being much
better. Maybe it had been better. I read that the original version ran
around four hours, that the studio or whoever calls the shots cut it to
the just under two-hour final which I saw. I think that these cuts showed
in what feels like some missing or cutback scenes. Though I was not crazy
about the book I looked forward to the film. My major criticism of the
book was its, I believe, unrealistic portrayal of such young boys as being
so mature. Aging the boys or at least having older actors portray them
probably improved the story. This film is recommended especially to those
who enjoyed the book and want to experience the story again.
Amelie (6.0) is a charming, feel good almost whimsical delight of a lightweight effort featuring a lovely newcomer who carries off a major role as well as any actress possibly could. Though the story is set mostly in modern day Paris it commences with a ten-minute prologue giving our delightful young heroine’s background. Same as with the balance of this subtitled production this introduction has a voiceover that gives the likes, fears and idiosyncrasies of each character introduced. Brought up by a cold and unimaginative father after the premature death of her neurotic mother, Amelie somehow manages to achieve maturity with both a terrific imagination and a fine sense of responsibility for her less fortunate fellow human beings. Her early life time epiphany as well as plot takeoff point involves the great good feelings Amelie receives from reuniting an elderly man with a small box of toys and other childhood treasure that he had lost as a child many, many years before. Thereafter she concentrates on performing similar good deeds for the usual zany assortment of characters who inhabit her neighborhood and patronize the small Montmartre brasserie where she works. Happily, this usual assortment has the fortunate difference that in this French production there doesn’t seem to be the heavy-handed way of developing these folks so typical of many American productions.
Co-star of this film is Paris itself from the great monuments, Amelie’s Montmartre neighborhood, several train stations and other City Of Light Highlights.
Though this is a “small” film
with a minimum of special effects it does features some special camerawork,
set design and other effects of such a kind which might be expected from
the director of such features as The City Of Lost Children. Though
not quite as good as many critics said it is this film is still highly
Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch) (5.0) which saying might be true, but one could never tell from this film. There is simply precious little love to be found in it. This movie does have lust, carnal desire, and greed. It even has love of money and love of material things, but not a bit of normal, personal, healthy love. It also has the distinction of both 1) Achieving an acceptable rating and 2) not having any of that single most important element a good movie must have and that is even one semi-major character about whom I cared the least little bit upon leaving the theater. It also features the gimmick that Quentin Tarantino apparently popularized in Pulp Fiction, that is, “non-linear” presentation of scenes, meaning that events portrayed in the film do not appear in actual, narrative sequence. Also, scenes are repeated, usually from a different character’s perspective and in a different story or thread of the plot.
The plot contains three stories, each of which takes place in modern Mexico City and each to some degree centering on the characters’ dogs. The first tale involves a family, two brothers, their mother and the older brother’s wife and child, who are living on the edge of poverty and squalor until the younger brother puts the family dog into pit fighting or whatever they call this alleged sport in which humans urge and force their dogs to fight one another to the death. Several of these scenes are so gross that the producer has put the usual end-of-film warning about no animals really being hurt in the production of the film right in the beginning, before the credits. The second tale features an upscale middle-aged married man whose obsession with a younger model is equaled only by the model’s sick obsession with her terrier. She and he are both severely punished for their actions. Their punishment includes her dog’s falling down under the floor in something like what I suspect Stephen King would have happen to one or more of his “bad people.” The third tale features an older, down and out, incredibly filthy street person whose face seems to carry ingrained dirt. The crappiness of his fingernails equals that in the claws of Willem Dafoe’s vampire in last year’s Shadow Of The Vampire. This street person actually appears in the film’s first two sections but is “featured” only in the movie’s last one third. His avocation is hitman. There may even be some attempt to create sympathy for this guy as he has been estranged from his family many years but by the time this attempt is made during the film’s third hour, I was pretty much tuned out.
So why is a motion picture with so many shortcomings given a decent rating? Well, it does have much to say about having to pay for one’s bad deeds, one’s mistakes by means of some kind of very primitive justice. And, especially the first part of this film seems to me to portray life as it very likely exists in Mexico today and thereby satisfies part of my curiosity, perhaps some personal need I have, to experience our huge but almost entirely unknown to me neighbor, Mexico, albeit vicariously. And, though the characters are drawn almost entirely unsympathetically, they are well drawn. The acting seems to be quite good although, as is usual with subtitled films, I am never certain of the acting since who knows how closely what the characters are saying matches the brief subtitles?
The Anniversary Party (6.0), and narrowly missing a higher rating, is both a good, rare example of the old “ensemble film” but also, unfortunately, as far as my tastes go, yet one more film with a viewpoint that Hollywood and films are the center of everyone’s universe.
Sally and Joe are contemporary thirty-something, Hollywood beautiful people types. He is a writer, she an actress, living in an expensive house in Beverly Hills, Brentwood or some such place. They had been separated, are now re-united and they certainly appear at least at the outset to be all lovey-dovey. The are having a few friends over to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary, their reconciliation and the “green lighting” of production of Joe’s film of his recent book. Joe will also direct for the first time. It seems fairly common knowledge that the book and now the film are based upon Joe and Sally’s rocky relationship. The first piece of bad news to upset their idyll results from Joe’s not only casting Skye, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, in the Sally role but Joe’s also having invited Skye to the party along with his also having unilaterally invited their neighbors whom they dislike. This invitation is a peace offering. Otis, Joe and Sally’s dog, has been driving the neighbors crazy with his barking.
The plot revolves around the principals’ terrific insecurities: Sally is an over-thirty actress and Joe, a novelist, has never having written a film script nor previously directed anything. The guests include ex-lovers and Sally’s very dissatisfied current director. It is rounded out by some other pretty damn humorous characters, people who are so funny that one can pretty easily forgive their conversing in sentences that sound much more like a film script than the way real people talk. This is possibly because the script is so damn funny. The ensemble cast is excellent, particularly the female members, many of whom are quite easy on the eyes. In addition to Gwyneth it includes Parker Posey and Phoebe Cates who, even at forty-something, still looks good. Phoebe Cates reunited with Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sally? Looks like old times at Ridgemont High!
What are the problems with this film? Why did it miss a better rating? I had an assortment of relatively minor problems, many of which are personal to me in the sense that, I suspect at least, most people would not downgrade a good film based thereon. For example, late in the film virtually everyone, with little dissent or debate, decides that it would be a good time to pass around the extasy! Now, I am willing to believe that Hollywood is full of junkies. It is also quite likely that these rich, creative people believe that they are, if not above the law, then perhaps an “exception” to the law with respect to “victimless” crimes like using drugs. Lastly, you get no argument from me that peer pressure is a powerful force even at thirty years and over. However, it is far too much a leap of faith for me to go from there to a point where I believe that all these people are promptly and happily lining up for their hit. OK, now that I am in nitpicking mode I am not too crazy about stories totally revolving around Hollywood types. It simply is not my thing and it has been done thousands of times before much as, it seems to me anyway, that so many of those TV sitcom characters work in TV—what else? It is such a closed circle that I get claustrophobic after an hour or so inside of it. Finally, it is another of these many films that, toward the finale, go from good comedy to poor melodrama, a change of pace for which I personally do not care.
In spite of my nitpicking this
film is recommended.
(5.0) is a not unfunny comedy, with three fine actors, several good lines,
a couple of clever situations, some lovely Oregon Coast scenery and one
compelling character. However, it is nothing special and nowhere near two
hours - its running time - funny. Joe (Bruce Willis) and Terry (Billy
Bob Thornton), an unlikely pair of prison inmate friends, make a daring
escape therefrom; well Joe makes a daring, if totally spontaneous, escape
– Terry just kind of literally goes along for the ride more because he
hasn’t finished their conversation than for any other reason. Terry is
by far the more humorous of the two. He is hypochondriac, allergic, second-guessing,
uncertain, bitching and moaning excuse for a twenty-first century American
male yet, at heart, still more than a little loveable. They improbably
keep on evading the law not by any planning so much as by dumb luck and
ridiculous disguises. (Actually, the disguises, which feature plenty of
toupees – look who the two stars are - are pretty damn funny though I am
not certain if the “real” characters, i.e., the undisguised Joe and Terry
are supposed to look as funny as they do). They take to robbing banks in
order to finance their dream of opening up an upscale nightclub and restaurant
in Mexico. Along the way they encounter the usual assortment of Hollywood
nutcases, the closest of whom is bitterly disappointed runaway wife, Kate,
played by the very talented Cate Blanchett. Therein lies my greatest criticism
of this film – my disappointment that Cate, one of my favorites, could
not redeem this OK script and these pretty darn funny situations.
A Beautiful Mind (6.5) as a touching tale of mental illness and the role of love in helping its victim to survive its horrors is damned near as good as its considerable hype promised. This film also gives Russell Crowe as John Nash, 1994 Nobel Prize winner, the opportunity to play a role that greatly expands his range from that he displayed in the likes of last year’s The Gladiator.
We first encounter a young John Nash in 1947 as a super brilliant but awkward, aloof and anti-social PhD candidate in mathematics at Princeton University. He is a misfit with almost no trace of social skills. One associate characterizes him as “balancing chips on both shoulders.” His roommate Charles, an English Lit candidate, is depicted as his only friend, the only person John can talk to and this requires great effort on the part of John, who is clearly Charles’ social opposite number. In spite of all this the late forties post war environment turns out to be one of great challenge and opportunity for one of John’s special analytical and code breaking talents. John incidentally is searching for an “original idea,” a quest is almost guaranteed to be stressful but which doesn’t fully explain the pain ahead.
There is some temptation to say that the first 60 minutes or so of this 150 film waste a lot of time upon introduction and character development and that nothing really happens until the movie is almost into its second half. It would be tempting but not true because it is not until the second half that we learn that some of these characters have been figments of Nash’s imagination, delusions and symptoms of his schizophrenia. Indeed when his breakdown finally comes and the diagnosis delivered, my temptation, like Mrs. Nash’s, was to blame the physician who first suggested that he was delusional or hallucinating for not understanding things. The director encourages the viewer’s misunderstanding by portraying Dr. Rosen as being almost Nazi-like in his seeming lack of sympathy for Nash.
The dramatic highlights are probably those revealing him in the mental hospital, being restrained and enduring fifty shock therapy treatments. Things are only slightly better when he is sent home still tormented by major demons, caught between the marginal benefit of his medication and their awful side effects, not the least of which is impotence and being unable to respond to his faithful and loving wife Alisha.
The story and Crowe get better and better as the film goes on. I had no trouble whatsoever working up tremendous sympathy and compassion for this poor soul as well as for his long suffering wife and their son. I personally related to his fight against his real demons and feel as though the way the writer and director handle his hallucinations both during the depths of his illness and his long struggle back was first rate. The best scenes along with those showing Alisha’s caring nature were those scenes intermittently depicting his relationships with his imaginary associates as well as what these actions looked like to the folks at Princeton. Princeton and its people come off quite well; they are depicted as compassionate and ultimately effective not so much because they “know the right things” to do so much as because they are caring and want to do the right things.
This film is highly recommended to just about everyone.
This review is based upon what
I saw up there on the screen for 150 minutes though the film is based upon
the old “true story.” I have read at least one article that questions if
this is actually the true story or if perhaps more than the normal amount
of poetic license has been taken here. I do not pretend to know where the
Black Hawk Down (6.0) is an excellent war film, no more, no less, which can easily come across as Black vs. White. The movie does a fine job of exposition at the beginning. This explanation was necessary for me inasmuch as I had either completely forgotten or been totally unaware of, likely the latter, the incident upon which this narrative is based, and everything else about what was going on in Somalia in 1992 and 1993.
Somalia was torn by civil war and the strongest warlord was intercepting and using for his own power purposes the food that United Nations relief was flying into Mogadishu, a city long since almost entirely devastated by years of civil strife. At the point of this tale the United States Army’s involvement was supposed to be only as part of this multinational UN peacekeeping force and not as combatants per se. However, the plot centers upon the rescue mission of soldiers attempting to rescue comrades who have been shot down while trying to bring out military captives.
All but the first twenty or twenty five per cent of the over two hour running time is devoted to almost nonstop war action. The beginning of the film works mightily though unsuccessfully to introduce the several soldiers as individuals, to give the otherwise cookie cutter and similarly uniformed troops depth and unique personality. This background includes establishing the not so friendly rivalry between the Army’s Rangers and Delta Force, neither of which I could keep straight even as it was being related.
This film succeeds or falls upon its depiction of late twentieth century urban warfare. In my opinion it succeeds mightily with state of the art weaponry and constant action sequences. By definition any successful modern warfare flick will contain much blood and many body parts. This is certainly true here.
The set design, though simple and repetitive, is nothing short of brilliant! If this is not what a civil war torn third world city actually looks like then it should be. I have seen a couple of third world cities and this certainly seems to show what one would look like if it had been continually bombed out but still had something to draw some people to it such as the free food promised here. I have no idea how much of this set is computer generated and how much is “real” in the Hollywood sense of the word but it is extremely effective. Some of the war is seen back at the command center by the generals by means of audio and visual communications. Again I have no idea how much of this accurately reflects the state on art military communications and how much Hollywood made up.
Sometimes it seems as though the writer might be trying hard not to give this story a point of view, that is, that rather than being, for example, pro war, the story just reports the facts. This is not entirely accurate. The story expresses points of view. Though going to great lengths to suggest that America’s involvement in Somalia was strictly altruistic and at least strongly implying it was no –political, the beginning voiceover comes right out and acknowledges that our involvement included a commitment to “take out” the country’s chief warlord.
This film is enthusiastically
and unreservedly recommended to all war movie fans especially those with
strong stomachs and who are able to leave their politics at home. Others
may wish to exercise some discretion about seeing it.
Blow (5.0) though not a terrible film, simply does not work for me. For two hours it tries to create sympathy for George Jung, who parlayed greed, arrogance and stupidity into just about what one would expect—heavy prison time. “Based upon a true story” George’s dad was a hardworking, loving father who could never satisfy the materialistic demands of his shrewish wife. In 1969 George and his buddy, Tuna, shake the dirt of working class Massachusetts from their shoes and migrate to southern California which seems to be populated entirely by beach loving pothead stewardesses. George and Tuna go into the business of, first retail, then wholesale selling of marijuana and generally enjoy the free love, sex and rock and roll of the time and era. George thereafter experiences an epiphany telling him that it will easy and even more profitable for him and his small organization – “family” if you will - to export their product back home to the Boston area where its untold thousands of students have plenty of money and nothing better than marijuana to spend it on. The film would have one believe that George’s little organization was kind of one big happy family until his woman, Barbara, dies young of cancer. It did not convince me.
After a period as a fugitive George has the good fortune, if you will, to learn while in prison that there is a budding cocaine trade out there which is waiting his own special talents, the aforementioned avarice and stupidity. He kind of stumbles into the right people at the right time. The film tries to get one very excited about the fact that there was once a time when cocaine was the cutting edge experience for the talented, the celebrities, the rich and famous. Here again it misses with me. Who cares how the beautiful people change the details of their hedonistic practices from one decade to the next?
Much of the second half shows George and his fellow criminals being so wildly successful that their biggest problem is where to stash their cash—the quick answer is Panama. George marries another cocaine dealer’s girlfriend with the one tragic but very predictable result that she is snorting the profits even while she is pregnant! Her defense: “I did quit smoking.” Can you say, “Deserve one another?”
Why not a much lower rating? Well, though I do not like or believe what this film is trying to say, it is not a badly produced movie. The final scenes attempt to create some sympathy for George as his daughter deserts him. This attempt does not pass even the minimal test for logic. Much of the acting is quite good. Ray Liotta is real and convincing as George’s decent, hardworking, long suffering Dad. Rachel Griffiths is Mom with her many weaknesses. And she helps to answer the question “Why is George so damn obsessed with material things?” Johnny Depp shows off his considerable talent well. The guy who played Pee Wee in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is OK in a semi-minor role. The big dollars spent re-creating the Sixties and Seventies show.
Bread and Roses (6.5) Though promoted strictly as a labor relations exposé, this is really a human relations story containing several extremely powerful, well acted scenes. It certainly has important things to say about the need for twenty-first century Los Angeles office building janitors to have a labor organization, the stronger, the better. And, this time labor issues are inextricably wound together with the plight of Mexican immigrants. The film’s strength is that has even more important things to say about how immigrants are bullied, brutalized and generally taken advantage of, than it says with its very pro-labor stance.
The harrowing opening scenes show illegal immigrants being treated like animals by the criminals whose well-paying job it is to bring them into California. Maya, an attractive, frightened young woman, arrives this way but has the additional misfortune of her sister Rosa’s not being able to promptly pay the thugs the full cash cost of the journey. These bastards’ position, that non-payment basically gives the smugglers the right to take their compensation out of her poor, illegal body, is graphically shown. When Maya is reunited with Rosa and Rosa’s family her ambition is to join Rosa in working as a janitor in one of the city’s modern high-rise office buildings. Initially, the best Maya can do is get a job serving drinks at a bar where the clientele believes that the price of a drink also covers freedom to hit on the servers. Some of these lowlifes also seem to be suffering from what used to be called “hand trouble.” Maya prevails upon sister to spring her from this nightmare and to improve her status to janitor. The shocker here is not so much Maya’s being forced to kick back to her supervisor for the position so much as the manner in which this guy, an anglicized Mexican, bullies and brutalizes his underlings, generally treating them like dirt in his profanity-laced, threat filed tirades.
Along comes Justice For Janitors in the person of one of the most sincere, competent and loyal labor organizers ever to pin on a union button. Sam Shapiro quickly gets involved with the workers. He has all the answers and apparently, is totally honest and straight and, a rare character indeed, likeable as well. Sam knows all the sordid history, such as how the workers are now actually paid less than they were fifteen inflation filled years ago. Among other highlights is the manner in which the script shows to what extent these newcomers are in thrall to the bosses and how greatly the threat of retaliation scares them.
In addition to a much, much too quick and too pat plot resolution, the film’s shortcomings include Maya’s catching on to the extent of workers’ exploitation in her new country way too fast and far too unrealistically. There is also some bad editing or something—because, although the story is logical, the scenes do not always seem to be arranged in the most effective sequence and the drama is rarely always up to the high standards of the best scenes. My nitpicking aside, this film is highly recommended.
Note: I like this film’s
point of view: given the choice between the working person on the one hand
and Big Money on the other, give me the proletariat every time. However,
aspects of this story tend to oversimplify some things that, in turn, tend
to self-servingly skew some facts. In particular, the story brushes aside
the distinction between building tenants, here admittedly fat-cat lawyers,
and owners, by conveniently telling us that these guys have equity in the
building, not impossible by any means, but an infrequent and self-serving
combination used here for dramatic effect.
Bread and Tulips (4.5) is a kind of ordinary feel good story which the critics and most women apparently liked a good deal better than I did. I is the old tale about the middle aged housewife whose husband has taken her for granted (and worse) throughout the long course of their marriage. Her two almost grown sons’ attitudes and behavior is not a huge improvement on hubby. Talk about “taken for granted”. Forty something Rosalba is literally forgotten at a rest stop during a family vacation in their native Italy. And, then husband has the gall to blame her! So much for the first fifteen minutes of the film. Not at all surprisingly, Rosalba’s reacts with enthusiasm and emotion when she suddenly decides to finish her vacation solo in Venice one of the many places she had never seen until now. It is not surprising either that when her story comes out it is revealed that she never really worked “outside the home” as Dr. Joy Brown says and that she married and had her family rather young. Finally, who could now be surprised when, in Venice, she meets the usual assortment of heartwarming and eccentric characters. Why the almost universally good reviews from the usual “respected critics?” I am developing a theory. The theory goes that for whatever reasons, Hollywood’s own redundancies and other shortcomings are my guesses, there are more small foreign art films trying to go mainstream now. And, apparently, critics feel that it is in the public services for them to praise these attempts more extravagantly in order to presumably give them wider appeal and to somehow make up for their ignoring such films for the last fifty years or so.
I cannot recommend this very
ordinary film on any basis.
The Business Of Strangers (6.5) uses three performances two of which are truly outstanding to turn the neat trick of making a good movie without one single likeable character. As a matter of fact the main people in this film don’t have a likeable bone in their three bodies. The theme is somewhat reminiscent of The Company Of Men from a few years back but with the gender roles reversed and the “victim” damn near as terrible as the tormentors.
Julia is a middle aged twenty-first century businesswoman selling software to big clients, constantly dashing through airports and running from office meetings to lonely hotel rooms and bars. The film does an excellent job of capturing what is to me the impersonal, cookie cutter and super-unappealing landscape of business travel. Julia dropped her husband twelve years ago over the issue of having children - she didn’t want any. Her secretary with whom she is in constant cell phone contact is, we learn, also her best and perhaps only friend. Julia is terribly insecure. As the film opens Julia fears that she is about to be fired – her boss has requested a meeting – and has asked Nick, a headhunter, to meet her at her hotel.
Paula, the bright, perky and independent twenty-something support person for their software company, misses Julia’s first meeting through no fault of her own. A stressed out Julia fires her on the spot. Later, after her “firing meeting” turns out to be a promotion meeting, an understandably improved in mood Julia not only re-hires Paula who has missed her airplane and is at the same hotel but also pays for a room for her on her company expense account, buys her dinner and kills the evening with Paula at the hotel gym, pool and bar –mostly the bar. Their conversation gets pretty heavy fairly quickly. Turns out fast that Paula is not just independent but rather tremendously cocky and inappropriately noisy – she has her face in Julia’s medicine cabinet on her first trip to the powder room. Before the evening is too far along she knows more than the viewer about Julia’s business. There is also a great deal of sexual ambiguity here. I could not tell whether or not Paula was trying to tease or come on to Julia nor what Julia’s reaction to this might be.
When Nick who has also missed his plane returns to this same hotel for a drink he encounters an almost rejuvenated Julia but a suddenly taciturn and then worse Paula. Paula confides to her that a few years before Nick had date-raped and devastated her best college friend. Thereafter the story sinks without exactly deteriorating for about twenty minutes into revenge mode. I have seen worse revenge theme flicks just about all of them as a matter of fact are worse.
Stockard Channing for whom I ordinarily do not much care as Julie makes this film. She conveys all the right emotions especially the early insecurity, the later sexual ambivalence and the ultimate revenge. Julia Stiles whom I have seen in, I think, only one other film, last year’s State And Main, is fine as Paula. The actor who plays Nick is adequate.
This film is highly recommended.
The Center Of The World (5.0) This film’s rating might easily have been much lower if not for its realistic plot resolution. This is a story about a not very likeable, but ultimately sympathetic, couple that is put forth as specimens of modern day, mixed-up humanity. The movie, but not the story, begins with a youngish man and woman checking into a ritzy, glitzy Las Vegas hotel. Their conversation is limited and, apparently at least, they are self-conscious. The two seem not well acquainted and behave awkwardly with one another. He suggests that they go outside and do the tourist thing. She reluctantly, or at least unenthusiastically, agrees. What follows is a very effective ten-minute or so montage showing the two taking in most of the town’s attractions and sights. Though this sequence might have been produced by the Chamber Of Commerce strangely it made me feel as though I would never want to set foot in the town. Flashbacks then identify the couple and tell us how they got there, what their relationship, non-relationship really, is and what the deal is between them.
Richard is a stereotypical, multi-tasking thirty something computer nerd/geek who can simultaneously play a game on one laptop, watch voyeuristic videos on another, talk to his broker, eat pizza and who knows what else. He has had no time for women, his old friends nor ultimately for his business partners who are about to go public with a product Richard has developed for them (he is also apparently a genius!) Among the women he has had no time for is Flo whom he regularly runs into at his morning coffee stop. When they finally get to talking Richard is fascinated to learn that Flo is a lap dancer but that her avocation is only a means to an end – Flo is really a musician, you see, and there is no other work available. For the record, I am not buying this, or a few more story points either, but, based upon the comments of two respected critics, I string along.
Well, it seems that just now Richard is suffering from burnout, or whatever the twenty- first century term for this syndrome is, and he needs to get away, get relief, get well, well - something! Richard proposes that the two of them spend a first class three days in Las Vegas for which he will both pick up the tab and generously compensate her (He has also apparently received a handsome pre-IPO advance.) She replies with what the lawyers call a counteroffer incorporating such “terms” as “no small talk, no commitment, no affection,” nothing, in fact, personal whatsoever and limiting her “availability” to him to between 10 pm and 2 am these three days. His timing for this getaway, incidentally, is particularly inappropriate for Richard’s partners inasmuch as he is bailing out on his promised participation at this very time in a dog and pony show for prospective investors.
There are several very erotic scenes showing their activities during Flo’s times of availability. Much of the rest of the film’s short, 86 minute running time, is filled by scenes suggesting that the two might be human after all and even, at times, strongly hinting that, God forbid, Flo might just be a bad woman who needs a good man or, even worse, that she is the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold. Either of these endings would have made my rating plummet. Instead, the resolution, such as it is, shows Richard getting pretty much what he deserves and Flo winding up with what she has worked so hard for.
Why spend $9.50 for this movie?
Certainly not, for example, because I am buying the distinction Flo makes
between what she is doing and prostitution! Well, the two critics I respect
most convinced me that this story has something to say about how little
time people today have for personal relationships, much less commitment.
Even though these critics were more convincing than the film turns out
to be, this is not too bad a movie. And, yes, it is very erotic! This movie
is cautiously recommended.
The Circle (6.0) though slow-moving, has a lot to say, and does so powerfully, about the plight of women in modern-day Iran. It is not a straightforward story with beginning, middle and ending but rather four stories about several women told sequentially, with some overlap. Each woman represents one or more of the conditions and problems of being a woman in that society. The movie opens with a blank screen and a series of at first unintelligible sounds which eventually are heard to be the sounds attendant to childbirth and concluding with the baby’s first scream. There follows a tracking shot showing the baby’s grandmother learning, to her horror, that her daughter’s child is unexpectedly female—the ultrasound had said it would be a male. In just a few minutes it shows the poor woman’s disbelief, frustration, anger and unhappiness. She fears, apparently with justification, that her son-in-law will now divorce her daughter for the sole reason that the baby is a girl. In rapid succession the story shifts to two other women and eventually, one at a time, to several other Iranian women. Most of them have been in prison for unspecified crimes. There is pervasive fear of being hassled and/or picked up by the seemingly ubiquitous authorities. Another just learned that her husband took a second wife, a fact of life in this country, while she was “away.” The life of an unaccompanied woman is a nightmare of bureaucracy and much worse. Identification papers are an absolute requirement for such simple things as buying a bus ticket. There is a presumption that a woman on the street unaccompanied by husband or other family member is there for the purpose of prostitution which is strictly prohibited, rigidly enforced and severely punished. Many things which Western women have taken for granted for years are totally denied these creatures. Smoking on the street and failing to wear the chador, the Arabian veil, are frowned upon and subject a woman to censure or worse. The women portrayed do not always appear to have specific agendas, though their thoughts seem constantly elsewhere. One woman is pregnant and unmarried and looking for an abortion which seems to be a practical impossibility in this society without the permission of a husband and both grandfathers. Two of them are trying to just get out of town. It becomes clear that simple survival is a real struggle in a very hostile, very male dominated world. The penultimate segment features a mother determined to abandon her small daughter in the hope that the state welfare system will take better care of the little kid than she can. The only hint of balance in the treatment of the two sexes comes when the police give a prostitute’s male client a pretty damn hard time also. However, he eventually gets off while the woman is put in prison.
Iranian films are different
from most American films and might even be characterized as an acquired
taste. They all seem to be low budget and shot by one camera. Dialogue
is spare and subtitled. Much of the emotion is conveyed with facial expressions
and body language. The five or so Iranian movies I have seen are centered
on ordinary, working class people who are simply trying to survive. Even
with these limitations this film powerfully captures real angst, torture
and passion. Its viewpoint is extremely personal, yet universal, but not
political per se. It is impossible to see these realistic women without
feeling deep emotion. This film is recommended to all with the caveat that,
like other Iranian movies, it requires patience.
The Claim (5.5) asks what would happen if the head man in a small town were suddenly faced with the return of his wife and daughter whom he had “sold” twenty years before. Sound familiar? It should. It is “inspired by” Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. This time round the drama has been relocated to the Sierra Nevada gold fields of 1867 and the man is not the town’s mayor but kind of the unofficial strongman of a very rough and tumble mining camp that would some day like to become a town. The story takes off from the simultaneous arrival in Kingdom Come of Dalglish, surveyor for the Central Pacific Railroad, and a mother and her twenty-year-old daughter. Dalglish’s mission is to determine the town’s future or lack thereof by establishing the route of the railroad and whether this route will pass through Kingdom Come and help it to become a real town or bypass it and render it just another ghost town. Dillon, the local strongman, lavishly entertains Dalglish at the whorehouse/saloon/ casino run by Dillon’s squeeze, Lucia. Her establishment and perhaps those of a couple of her competitors seem to be the only industry other than gold mining in the in the area. Mother and daughter turn out to be Dillon’s wife and daughter whom Dillon had swapped for a gold claim from a fed-up miner in a gut-wrenching scene shown in flashback. Ultimately, Dillon learns the truth and is forced to confront his past. Unfortunately for him, this confrontation occurs just as he is confronting his present and future—the Central Pacific has elected to skirt Kingdom Come.
The storyline here is a fascinating albeit kind of far out and deep down really not too credible. Could a man only a little over 100 years ago really sell his wife and kid? Even in a rough tough milieu like this? However, if it is good enough for Thomas Hardy, it is OK with me. The characters work well with the material but really do not enhance it much. One of my potential favorites, Sarah Polley as Dillon’s now grown daughter, Hope, stands out. She and Dalglish become somewhat enamored of one another but she spends much of the film looking understandably confused. Nastassia Kinsky is not bad as the mother who convincingly suffers from an unnamed Hollywood disease. It was her sickness that finally motivated her to seek out Dillon and do whatever it took to make him look after his child at long last.
This film has dark, gritty
atmosphere aplenty which I find quite attractive. However, most elements
of the story have been done before and in some pretty good movies. The
primitive, temporary mining town is very reminiscent of the one in Pale
Rider. The general complexion, if you will, seems like Unforgiven again.
One reviewer suggests comparison with McCabe and Mrs. Miller which
is most likely flattering but, never having seen McCabe, one upon which
I cannot comment. There are the snowy and wild Sierra Nevadas constantly
looking over the characters’ shoulders in a role played by the Grand Tetons
in Shane. There are the miners struggling through waist deep
snow in gale force winds reminiscent of so many frontier films. In short
this is not a bad film at all and it is recommended.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (5.5) is NOT, and let’s say this at the outset, as great a film as its many superior reviews might lead you to believe. It is certainly not one of the year’s best films. However it is many things, among them, not a bad film that combines martial arts and another genre or two into one film. Most of the elements of the story, such as it is, are quite derivative of many other stories. The plot includes the search for a magic sword, revenge for the killing of one’s master, and the tired old fighter ready to hang ‘em up but who comes back for one more battle. There is also a little of the old Zorro-like legend thrown in too. And there are two tender love stories and great panoramic vista shots of China or whatever country was standing in for it. Lastly, there is the old martial arts mumbo jumbo, er, I mean philosophy, thrown in.
In an ancient but not specified
period in China, Li, a martial arts master who wants to hang up his magic
sword, asks his lady friend to deliver it to an old buddy. Lady friend
meets governor’s young daughter who is a delicate young virgin by day and
a martial arts champion/masked avenger by night. There is also a super
villain. In fairness to the film there is more plot than this but this
movie is not about plot. What it is about is that the entire plot serves
only as background for much spectacular flying up walls, over rooftops,
through the air, fighting/martial arts with swords and many other weapons.
I am no judge of martial arts or of their portrayal on screen. Frankly,
I have avoided these films. But I have seen more films than I wanted to
that depend way too much on special effects. Having said all that, here
is my take on the action in this movie, which, incidentally, is oftentimes
male versus female and frequently female versus female. To me it looks
like a burlesque of itself. It is almost cartoonlike. Worse, the first
two fight sequences were filmed at night and appeared to be, worse yet,
more akin to video games—another medium that I am not fit by experience
to judge. Subject to all the above, this film is recommended.
The Curse Of the Jade Scorpion (6.0) is good/average Woody Allen just a shade below 1999’s Sweet And Lowdown. This is typical (and as used in this context typical is good) Allen fare in that the film introduces several kooky characters, not the least of whom is Allen’s character, here a fast-talking know-it-all—a wisecracking, successful, but deep down terribly insecure, possible misogynistic, insurance investigator. Allen’s excellent support here probably has everything to do with the fact that he also directs. He seems to bring out the best in Dan Aykroyd while Helen Hunt is her usual competent, cute self. There are also very good turns by several in an ensemble cast of office cohorts that includes Wallace Shawn as a co-worker, friend and amateur magician. The set design recreating the early forties is outstanding
C. W. Briggs (Allen) is afraid to death that Fitz (Hunt), an efficiency expert hired by his company, will expose his unscientific, unorthodox but successful, seat-of-the-pants crime solving methods, expose him for the “dinosaur” he is, and thereby threaten his comfortable environment and lifestyle. His methods include the use of illogical hunches and such typically Allen-esque and hilarious methods as his use of a blind beggar as chief informant. In several very humorous confrontations the Fitz usually concludes by characterizing the overmatched Briggs as a ferret, inchworm or roach. In a plot device also fairly typically Allen these two are hypnotized and used by a master criminal as dupes to commit a series of crimes. Alas, and also typical of Allen, once the hilarity is established there is little room for further story development. In other words, the second half of the film drags somewhat. (I think but I have not checked that Allen’s films these days are longer than the old quickies. One might argue either that the more recent Allen films, that is, all but the real oldies, tend to drag because most of the humor is in his introductions/character and concept development portions so that there is then more of the “rest,” of the “slow part,” which tends to make them seem even longer).
This is a simple recommendation.
If you like Allen this is a must see for your annual fix. If you don’t
like him or are lukewarm, then don’t bother.
The Deep End (6.0) fits very nicely into my definition at least of film noir. It is a fine example of the genre. A key element of film noir usually has the protagonist making one small, well-intentioned and presumably innocuous, mistake, then being forced to make increasingly larger errors in trying to cover up this mistake and/or to advance an essentially good purpose. That the protagonist here is a strong-willed, contemporary woman portrayed by one of today’s most underrated actresses only adds to the considerable merit of this movie.
Forty-year-old Margaret lives with her three children and father-in-law in an upscale, lakefront home in a suburb of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Husband, whom we never meet, is a career naval officer and is somewhere far, far away in command of a warship. Her oldest child, 17-year-old Beau, is romantically involved with a much older, sleazy guy, Reese, whom, in the film’s opening scene, we see Margaret trying to buy off. In spite of sleazy Reese’s apparently agreeing to be bought off, next thing we know, he is again trying to seduce young Beau. The maybe not-so-tragic result of all this is Reese’s accidental death. Margaret discovers his body and, fearing trouble for Beau, she hides it in the deep end of the lake. Enter into Margaret’s life a pair of blackmailing lowlifes with horrible evidence of Beau’s involvement with Reese.
Margaret is thereafter cast in the role of long suffering and put upon almost superhero. The facts that 1) she does not tell Beau anything and 2) Beau is clueless, spineless, stupid and disinterested in what are now Mom’s problems, only emphasize what a strong person she is.
This is one of those films where the preview, which I had seen two or three times, seems to telegraph virtually the entire story. It is surprising then when all the scenes previewed occur in the film’s first half hour or so. Then comes the big surprise, the one that makes this film more than I at least had anticipated.
Tilda Swinton carries this entire film. She appears in virtually every scene and certainly convincingly portrays a realistic character who is under the kind of strain this script called for. One of her many great scenes is one in which she tries to focus upon her daughter’s ballet recital while totally pre-occupied with getting out from under the terrible evil the script has visited upon her.
This film is recommended to
The Devil’s Backbone (6.5) is an excellent, well-acted, symbol-laden portrayal of underdogs fighting back against the bullies. During the Spanish Civil War orphans of some leftist fighters and sympathizers are dropped off at an orphanage at what appears to be a former fortress which stands alone (probably symbolic of leftist isolation or something) in the middle of nowhere or, more precisely, the middle of what appears to be farmland which has suffered the One Hundred Year Drought. In the courtyard thereof is an unexploded, now defused, fascist bomb which fell the stormy night that young orphan Santi disappeared. The place is run by leftist loyalists, the kindly old Dr. Caesares and middle-aged Conchita, widow of a freedom fighter and now keeper of a stash of gold which is reserved for the cause. Into this mix and more is almost literally dropped young Carlos, an orphan who has been told that his soldier father has “gone away” for a time.
Carlos faces challenges and bullying from the older boys, especially one Jaime who is, in turn, bullied by the adult Jacinto, an orphan who has stayed on to work at the facility. There is much desire and some romance among the adults but Jacinto’s main goal we learn early on is to get the gold. In the course of Carlos’ fighting for survival he is sometimes visited by the ghost of the missing Santi. Though too much of the early part of the film is somewhat cluttered by the old being stalked by the bad guys in the dark while the ghost is watching, the payoff is very much worth waiting for. The adults mentioned as well as others are portrayed excellently. Their feelings are more often than not quite subtle and even the bad guys are shown as multi dimensional. And, there is something about the portrayals of children in foreign films. While so often young actors in English language movies flat out cannot act – Haley Joel Whathisname notwithstanding - this almost never seems to be the case in subtitled films. The kid actors here masterfully display a full range of convincing childhood emotions.
This film is far better than
simply a revenge tale with a ghost story background. Its essential strength
lies in its ability to show feelings of complex individuals in spite of
the language gap, that is, regardless of the fact that it is subtitled.
It continues to amaze me that actors and directors are able to convey such
depths of emotion with simple body language and facial expressions and
just a few words, obviously many less than the actors are saying, printed
at the bottom of the screen This film is highly recommended.
(5.5) is a low-key, feel good, comedy, which is strongly reminiscent to
me of such notable British, farces of thefFifties and sixties as The
Mouse That Roared and I’m All right, Jack. Though there are
a few belly laughs, this film features mostly understated comedy. Its atmosphere,
the manner in which the story centers upon a small town caught up in something
much bigger than itself, is also related to The Englishman Who Went
Up A Hill And Came Down A Mountain of a few years ago. The “much bigger
thing” in this movie is Apollo 11, 1969’s first manned flight to the moon
and Neil Armstrong’s 1969 first walk on the moon. The movie is based (loosely
no doubt) upon a true story, the role a few Australians played in televising
the walk with the help of the world’s largest satellite dish which supports
the world’s biggest telescope in out-of-the-way Parkes, New South Wales,
Australia. NASA has asked Australia to use the dish but only as a backup,
as a Plan B for Armstrong’s space walk in the event the dish in California
cannot be used. The film captures the manner in which these people are
extremely happy and flattered by their roles at a time (though only 32
years ago) when all was much more innocent Down Under. While not exactly
the old “if it can go wrong it will,” enough does go wrong, including a
power outage and a freak windstorm, to challenge the dish team and community
leaders. The comic high point is likely the team’s faking a transmission
from Apollo 11 for the benefit of no less than the visiting United States
Ambassador to Australia! This film is recommended.
The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition (unrated documentary) And the best part is that this story of very high adventure is all true! If it were fiction I for one would be tempted to dismiss it as unbelievable. Not only is it true but a good many of the early scenes are very primitive moving pictures of the actual expedition. The balance of the film shifts fairly effectively between the “talking heads” format, recent spectacular current color scenes of some locations and a few reenactments. These took virtually nothing away from the impact. Liam Neeson is a masterful narrator.
In 1914 Lord Shackleton led 28 British civilian volunteers on his third expedition to Antarctica. The South Pole had already been reached by Amundsen. Nevertheless, Shackelford was determined to lead the first party across the entire continent of Antarctica. The expedition was unfortunately doomed if not from the start then from very early on. Basically, their ship became icebound and stayed that way for seven months. Thereafter there was no choice but to abandon the attempt and try to save the crew. Shackleton himself comes off as almost Godlike in his heroic, self-sacrificing efforts. The extreme weather on the continent, the surrounding oceans and the desolate islands where they went in search of civilization and rescue was indescribably horrible. A mere statistical abstract of the temperatures, wind velocity, distances traveled, and paucity of diet would make fascinating reading by itself.
The presentation benefits from the social and historical perspectives it furnishes. The crew was made up of many levels of the then English social strata. The era, we learn, is the end of the great era of exploration. The fact that World War I commenced immediately after the party leaves England emphasizes the world’s change during their absence.
This documentary is recommended
to, among others, history buffs and fans of high adventure.
Focus (6.0) addresses some important, always topical, likely universal issues in a dramatically satisfying way though it does so with more than its share of shortcomings.
Toward the end of World War II Lawrence Newman, an Everyman kind of character lives in working class Brooklyn, minds his own business and doesn’t make waves. He lives with his mom in a house that he paid for by his dull and steady work for over twenty years at a New York City insurance company. Though he is a Christian some not terribly credible circumstances lead to his being mistaken as Jewish by almost everyone. He ultimately experiences firsthand the ugly brutality of discrimination and worse. One scene depicting such discrimination is somewhat reminiscent of the confrontation the Gregory Peck character has at the “restricted” resort hotel in Gentlemen’s Agreement. It also seems that at this time most of his neighbors are very willing followers of a Father Coughlin-type bigot and his Union Crusaders who is preaching against an anticipated post war power move by “internationalists” and other such code terms for the Jews. Sometimes it seems that the only reasonable person in his entire neighborhood is Finklestein, the long suffering operator of a what in Jersey City at this time we called a “candy store.” During the course of Newman’s trials he romances and marries Gertrude Hart, also a Christian who has also been mistaken as a Jew. Ironically, early in the film Newman himself had declined to hire her because of this. Gertrude has also experienced the same kind of prejudice but has reacted more pragmatically to it.
The film is well acted almost all around and conveys a real warning of the seriousness and perhaps more importantly the magnitude of this kind of menace. As Finkelstein tells Newman late in the drama these people the Union Crusaders then and bigots and bullies generally, are not so much after the relatively few Jews as much as they are out to take over the entire country. Though this film is undeniably “preachy” at times I personally have little objection on that count, feeling as I do that at least some of this kind of preaching is appropriate in every time period. It also helped me to know that the story is based upon a novel by Arthur Miller who also wrote The Crucible which might or might not have been heavily influenced by other persecutions during this era.
The excellent but very limited set design re-creates a 1940’s Brooklyn neighborhood damn near as well, and is quite reminiscent of the Brooklyn set in the film version of Sophie’s Choice. This set limitation results in a feeling of a kind of “staginess” which in the beginning enhances the film but later on grows obvious enough to hurt the production.
William H. Macy as Newman turns in a masterful performance. He is onscreen virtually every minute, frequently staring in mirrors and subway train windows in an apparent effort to find out who he really is. David Paymer as Finklestein and onscreen a lot less than Macy might turn in an even better performance. Laura Dern looking especially attractive is almost hopelessly miscast as Gertrude. Not only does she not as one reviewer pointed out look “like the stereotype of a Jew” for which the story has her suffer but it is hard to swallow her character’s affection for the ordinary, almost scrawny looking Everyman Newman next to whom in at least one critical scene she appears to be a giant.
In spite of these limitations
this film is recommended highly.
Ghost World (6.0) which is based on a comic strip or cartoon book, a fact I learned only when reading its reviews, is a well written and well directed, belly laugh funny film with some truly hilarious minor characters. This film is easily the funniest one I have seen in at least two years. And I suspect I did not get much of the humor, which is aimed at a much younger audience.
The story follows Enid, a somewhat nondescript young woman wearing oversized, horn-rimmed glasses and combat boot-like footwear, through the summer following her senior year in high school: Note that this is not the same as the summer following high school graduation inasmuch as, in spite of the movie’s opening with a graduation ceremony, Enid’s diploma has a note attached reminding her that she has failed art and therefore must attend summer school to earn her diploma. This real bummer for Enid turns out well for the viewer since her summer classes constitute some of the funniest scenes in a film crammed with funny scenes. Though Enid has one sometimes friend—the almost as funny Rebecca—Enid is your basic loner and, by many definitions, also a loser. While appearing perhaps to be simply hanging out, Rebecca and Enid are in reality doing their own routines, their own “bits.” The film basically follows them around while they do their thing. Among other bits their thing includes calling in phony answers to some pathetic newspaper personal ads. In the course of so doing they encounter cranky, eccentric Seymour, another of life’s major losers and a guy who could easily be the subject of a funny film or two himself. It doesn’t hurt one little bit that Seymour is portrayed by Steve Buscemi in a role, which, if it wasn’t written for him, constitutes inspired and perfect casting. He is a collector of blues records who hangs out with a bunch of equally dorky fellow misfits. The story ultimately turns into a kind of love story between Enid and Seymour because, as Enid says, Seymour hates all the same things that she does.
One of the movies’ many major accomplishments is its making one care for the Enid character in spite of the fact that she is, if not an upper class, at least a middle, perhaps leisure class adolescent who, in addition to being pretty darn negative, sports a somewhat superior attitude herself. I found myself caring deeply for Enid, sometimes even identifying with her, certainly always rooting for her.
This film is recommended to
everyone but especially to those between fifteen and thirty years old.
(5.5) Though nothing special, this film does showcase the very special
talents of Cate Blanchette as Annie Wilson, the likable, striving widowed
mother of three young sons. The title refers to Annie’s ability to see
things such as secret events that have already occurred as well as the
meanness and bad intentions in the hearts of many neighbors in her poor
Southwestern town. Annie uses this gift to eke out a living consulting,
I guess one might call it, with local people about their problems. The
story’s major weakness is that it requires too much faith, not the kind
of faith necessary to believe in Annie’s talents, but the kind of faith
necessary to swallow some fairly incredible developments in its murder
mystery plot. Annie has been consulted by, among others, Valerie, the terribly
abused wife of quintessential redneck Donnie. Donnie threatens Annie, telling
her to leave his wife alone and to mind her own goddamn business, etc.
When Jessica, the local slut who has been fooling around with Donnie, and
almost everyone else in town, disappears, Jessica’s father prevails upon
the disbelieving sheriff to ask Annie to use her powers to help find Jessica’s
body. They locate the corpse, on Donnie’s property of all places! Donnie
is quickly accused of the murder and put on trial where Annie is a key
prosecution witness. The way the trial scenes are played it seems more
like Annie’s credibility and character, rather than Donnie, are on trial.
The writer asks the viewer to believe that 1) The sheriff would ever ask
Annie for help under any circumstances, 2) The defense attorney would focus
on Annie for any reason with the possible exception of obfuscating issues,
and 3) The real killer, having gotten away Scot-free, would now terrorize
Annie. Having leveled these criticisms let me now say that this is otherwise
not a bad film. I recommend it to fans of Cate and to those who believe
they can live with its shortcomings.
The Golden Bowl (6.5) is typical Henry James in that it concerns a rich American expatriate in Europe in the early twentieth century. Older, widowed Adam Verver, characterized in the film, though not in the book, as the “first American billionaire,” has retired to devote himself to the full time collection of beautiful works of art for eventual export to a museum he will endow in America. His daughter, Maggie, has been his fulltime companion for the years since his wife’s death. Though there is no indication of anything sexual, their relationship has been so close and so intense as to almost border on the unnatural. In spite of all this, as the film opens Maggie is about to marry the impecunious Italian prince Amerigo. It is almost as though Amerigo has been rescued by Adam for Maggie just as Adam has collected so many other works of art and things of beauty, that is rescued them from other formerly wealthy and titled European families. Maggie is pleased when her friend Fanny suggests that their mutual friend Charlotte, a poor but beautiful young American, might make a fine companion for the much older Adam, and a kind of substitute for Maggie, who now married is soon the mother of a son. Fanny spares Maggie the knowledge that Amerigo and Charlotte had briefly been lovers several years prior to Amerigo’s marrying Maggie. Notwithstanding Maggie and her father’s continuing to carry on as closest of friends, Adam marries Charlotte. The film goes to great lengths to emphasize that all the time Adam continues to be obsessed with his things of beauty. The stage is now set for much intrigue and betrayal. Though there is some of both this film is more about how such situations might possibly play out in seemingly innocent Victorian times.
Henry James is not for everyone. His books are wordy and almost painfully indirect. The Golden Bowl is no exception. Films of his novels have the additional burden of maintaining interest in spite of the fact that there is almost no action; nothing much “happens.” In the book Fanny and her husband spend many, many pages alone together commenting upon the behavior of the main foursome. In showing these dialogues in the film these two come on like kind of a Greek chorus. The surprise here is the effective transfer of a 576-page novel into a 135-minute movie.
Acting here is mixed. While reading the book I could never tell what Adam knew nor where he was coming from. I felt Nick Nolte to be a peculiar choice to play Adam but he pulls it off pretty well. Uma Thurman and Kate Beckinsale as Charlotte and Maggie respectively are both more than adequate (and gorgeous) in their roles. I don’t much care for Angelica Houston who plays Fanny nor do I like James Fox who plays her husband though these two, particularly Fox, are well cast. Jeremy Northern as Amerigo is just another English actor straining to mimic an Italian accent.
The period work in recreating old Europe seems to be superior. Old New York is effectively recreated late in the story by use of archival footage which is supplemented with new footage which is made to match the archival part.
This film is strongly recommended
to James enthusiasts. Others may want to think twice.
Gosford Park (6.5) is an extremely well acted by an ensemble cast drama about the everyday life, interactions and tensions of some English aristocrats and a houseful of their servants in 1932 rural England. It observes the casual almost always selfish, sometimes cruel and frequently savage nature of Lord William McCordle and his upper class houseguests toward their servants during a 1932 shooting party weekend at his country estate. It also shows the often petty and selfish territorial or turf disputes between Lord McCordle own house staff and his guests’ personal maids and valets.
It was a treat for me personally to see come to life so many scenes which seemed to be right out of some of the Edith Wharton and Henry James fiction I have been reading so much of this past year. It is also helpful in understanding this film to keep in mind both that these 1930’s attitudes were the result of hundreds of years and, many generations of feudal and then distinct servant classes and that these were also times of great social change. Some of the film’s most amusing scenes are of those showing servants’ instant transition from fawning, almost groveling, subservience in their masters’ presence to laid back relaxation, more often than not with a cigarette, the instant they get back to the kitchen or pantry. Instant personality change. I never tired of it. The servants frequently refer to their masters with such irreverent sobriquets as “the Old Man” or worse and warn new servants to watch out because “he has hand trouble.” I suppose this to be a reflection that we only get from a film the prejudices we bring in but I found the masters to be totally unsympathetic though the Maggie Smith character was very humorous. Emily Watson whom I love and Helen Mirren whom I am not crazy about both turn in excellent performances here as servants.
Though admittedly this film
is not everyone’s cup of tea I recommend it highly to anyone who after
reading this even suspects the movie might be enjoyable. Regretfully, this
is also one of those British films where I had a lot of trouble understanding
what was said due to the thick English the accents. It may have been much
better than I thought.
(5.0) is a typical, unnecessary sequel with too few good moments but
just enough shock value to make it minimally entertaining but nowhere near
as good as its predecessor, Silence Of The Lambs. It is set ten
years later and Clarice Starling is a veteran, hardboiled FBI operative
who has gone from the Hannibal Lecter affair on to bigger things in Washington.
These “bigger things” are introduced, if not celebrated, by a typical,
bloody Hollywood shootout in the film’s opening moments. Julianne Moore
makes a credible Agent Starling; little is lost by not having Jody Foster
reprise the role. Hannibal is hiding out in someone else’s identity in
Florence, Italy. His “only surviving victim,” the grotesquely deformed,
superrich and naturally vindictive Mason Vergel is very effectively (over)
played by Gary Oldman who is fast becoming a great Hollywood character
actor. Most of the film’s first hour is concerned with an Italian policeman’s
efforts to collect Vergel’s reward by exposing Hannibal to Vergel’s bounty
hunters so that Hannibal can to taken alive to suffer the awful tortures
the lonely and demented Vergel has conjured for him. It is giving away
very little to say that both the policeman and Vergel are overmatched.
It is somewhat reminiscent of Silence that some of the best scenes in this
sequel involve Hannibal’s escapes. The film wastes far too much of its
two-plus hours with FBI politics and Agent Starling in the FBI archives
looking for clues or whatever. There are all kinds of indications, including
the very unsatisfying denouement, that suggest that Hannibal has developed
the hots for Clarice. And, there are the predictable double entendres,
mostly from Hannibal, and mostly, of course, about eating. Why not a lower
rating for a film about which I am so critical? Well, as anyone who enjoyed
Silence already knows, Hannibal is a great character and Anthony
Hopkins does a terrific job portraying him. Vergel is also a tremendous
new villain. And the producer has surrounded these two with some wonderful
atmosphere. This film is recommended but only to those who enjoy this kind
of atmosphere and characters such as these.
Heist (6.0) is a superior film and I am not terribly fond of caper films. It succeeds mostly because it creates strong and interesting relationships among some intense though not especially likeable characters. This production is better even than last spring’s The Score, which had a better cast and better acting. As is invariably the case in films of this genre, too much time for my taste is spent focused on the plotters’ enacting elaborate plans which make very little sense until the caper actually comes off. In these movies I find myself frequently saying things like ”Oh! That’s why 45 minutes ago they were in the bar pretending to be different people with that security person.” Fortunately, there is not too much of this stuff, less probably than on an average TV episode of Mission Impossible. It also features the old “one last big job” theme which is derivative of The Score and countless other caper flicks.
The “Good Guys” here are Joe, Bobby, Pinky and Fran, played by Gene Hackman, Del Roy Lindo, Ricky Jay and Rebecca Pidgeon, respectively – the first three being veteran thieves while Fran is Joe’s pretty and much younger wife. The bad guys are led by Danny DeVito’s Mickey and a bunch of faceless, yet still evil looking, characters. At the outset in the course of a diamond theft Joe has been “made,” that is, photographed by a security camera that he cannot destroy before getaway time. Knowing that his criminal career is thus on the wan, but having other interests including sailing and his aforementioned young wife, Joe decides to hang ‘em up. His fence and financier, Mickey, refuses to pay Joe his cut from the diamond theft. Nor will Mickey let Joe hang ‘em up until Joe agrees to execute the already scoped out and planned by Mickey “Swiss air job.” And, Joe must accept Mickey’s inexperienced, hot-tempered nephew, Jimmy, into Joe’s group as a kind of security against another caper film standby, the old double cross.
Gene Hackman is at his best here and this is meant to be saying a lot. He, Lindo and Jay work terrifically together – one can really believe that the three are professionals who have been pulling off jobs forever. There is absolute trust among them. DeVito delivers one of his increasingly rare good and believable performances. As the film goes on Rebecca Pidgeon’s Fran becomes more and more the focal point as she (seemingly) continues enamored of Joe while constantly fighting off the advances of stupid, horny Jimmy.
The caper scenes themselves are awfully well done.
The dialogue/repartee is totally superior. Some of the insults between the good and bad guys make this production damn near worth the price of admission by themselves. Apparently, delivering these kinds of lines is one of DeVito’s few talents.
This film is recommended even
to those who do not care much for films of this kind.
In The Bedroom (7.0) and 2001’s best film, scrutinizes the marriage of a middle aged couple before and after the violent, premature and possibly preventable death of their twenty year old only child. Matt and Ruth are a general practitioner and a high school teacher respectively in a lovely picturesque small town in contemporary coastal Maine. They disagree strongly, but not at all violently or even especially vocally, about their son Frank’s affair with Natalie, the older married but separated mother of two young boys. Natalie’s jealous and sometimes violent husband, Richard, is still lurking around town. As a matter of fact, his family seems to own much of the town. While in the act of protecting Natalie from Richard’s unwanted and physical interferences with her life, Frank is shot to death.
The film’s strength is not its story which is not bad at all but rather its depiction of the relationship between Matt and Ruth as they both deal with Frank’s death and react to the increasing reality that Richard, who is quickly given bail, will very likely do no more like five years for manslaughter rather than life for first degree murder. There follows a series of incredibly well acted and realistic scenes, the first of which show Matt and Ruth hardly interacting at all, followed by confrontations in which the two dig up all manner of feelings and bitterness which have probably been present for years in their marriage and which might not have even surfaced were it not for this tragedy. Who was too passive and who was too aggressive interfering with raising their child? Did Matt really get off vicariously on his son’s relationship with an attractive and much younger than Matt woman? Whose idea and responsibility was it that they never had other children? What will they do, if anything, about Richard’s apparently “getting away with murder?” There are many similarities in theme and atmosphere to 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter.
Though the film kind of sinks
into melodrama in its last reel or so it is fairly good melodrama which
does little to lessen the impact of all that has gone before. Its few negatives
include too many fishing scenes for my taste and overdoing somewhat the
charming old Maine local color. The film is highly recommended.
Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back (6.0) is, face it, 95 minutes of shtick, 95 minutes of very funny, very juvenile humor. It verges on heresy to even suggest it but these guys might come as close as anyone to replace the irreplaceable Three Stooges. Just as The Scorpion is for Allen fans, Silent Bob is even more so strictly for Kevin Smith fans.
The story, largely a send-up of Hollywood and several other things, follows these two after they leave their comfortable position in front of the Leonardo, New Jersey convenience store made famous in Clerks and other Kevin Smith films. The plot, such as it is, has them undertake stopping Hollywood production of a film based upon comic characters they had created and for which they have received neither recognition nor reward. In the course of their hitching to Hollywood to do this they run into the usual assortment of unusually funny characters. The dialogue consists mainly of relentless pothead and homophobic humor and unceasing Hollywood and television references, many of which totally escaped me. (Twice I was tempted to turn around and to ask the two hysterical teenaged Bob and Jay wannabes sitting behind me the meaning of some of these TV references.) There were numerous “guest appearances” by actors and actresses from other Kevin Smith films. Among these male guest actors I recognized only George Carlin and Matt Damon; according to the credits I failed to recognize Ben Affleck which is particularly embarrassing since he plays himself. I did not recognize any of the women though there were names like Shannon Dougherty which I had heard before. In addition there are (apparently) numerous inside jokes about these characters’ other films and TV shows. It is almost scary to consider just how funny all this stuff must be to the younger generation people who get all the inside stuff.
This film is highly recommended but only to Kevin Smith fans.
Joy Ride (5.0) is a teenagers/horror/chase flick, which, according to my “respected critics” is better than average for the genre. I wouldn’t know. Though I understand that stupid kids are the rule in the genre the teenagers here, while not especially bright, are not all that stupid either. Nor are they especially likable or heroic. The villain of this piece is a truck driver who chases two teenaged boys through most of Utah and Wyoming after the two play a nasty joke on him. They try to lure the driver, whose CB moniker is “Rusty Nail.” into a make-believe tryst with their made-up woman companion. Turns out their “victim” is the driver from hell. Not only is he a psychopath but also, apparently sensitive about his sexually ambivalence, vindictive as all get out. As so often happens in films of this kind the guy, whom we almost never see, is also almost unstoppable and all knowing though the reasons for his omniscience are rather vague. He knows enough to find out who his antagonists are, to locate them and to kidnap their girlfriends’ friend. Not surprisingly, there are holes in logic here which are big enough to drive RN’s semi through
One thing that this film has going for it, sort of, is atmosphere. Though ostensibly set in the present, the protagonists manage to eschew the Interstate Highway System with its cookie cutter rest stops and modern state trooper patrols in favor of the much more atmospheric, and threatening, old western bars. Modern intelligent policemen are replaced with bumbling sheriffs right out of the nineteenth century.
The chase scenes are much more than a little reminiscent of 1971’s Duel, which I always remember for having starred Dennis Weaver, (Chester of TV’s Gunsmoke), but which the critics always cite as Stephen Spielberg’s first film.
There are a snappy line or
two and lot of this big bad old tractor trailer chasing the boys’ increasingly
dented and beat up 1971 Chrysler down dirt roads and through corn fields
but not a helluva lot more.
Jurassic Park III (5.0) This film only rates this high on the strength of its fine state-of-the-art special effects. Plot is minimal; star power, non-existent. It is interesting, and possibly revealing, to note that at least two reviewers commented favorably upon this picture’s short duration; it is 90 minutes long.
The story consists entirely of some real cardboard characters trying to rescue a kid from the island where all those pre-historic beasts have been artificially revived or whatever. You don’t want to know how the kid got there. Suffice it to say, I had a major problem with his old man telling the kid’s mom that the kid’s being there was no one’s fault.
This flick very obviously aims at the teenage audience by making a fourteen-year-old boy not only cute but clever, resourceful and plucky too. This is accomplished in the traditional Hollywood way of giving the kid lines that only an adult would speak. To me all this aiming at the kid audience is a real turnoff.
What was good about this “summer movie” (and, I use the term in its only, that is, pejorative, sense?)? Well, the plane crash is really bang up, pun intended. The chases are pretty well done. And the detail of the monsters as well as their integration with the “real” stuff keeps getting better with each film in this series.
This film is strongly recommended
to fourteen year olds.
The Luzhin Defense (6.0) movingly presents the touching story of Alexander Luzhin, a withdrawn, confused and, not so much anti-social as perhaps “non-social” but ultimately sympathetic, would-be chess champion. His story is told through the eyes of the woman who is fascinated by him and in his flashbacks to his own childhood.
Beautiful, gentle, well-to-do Natalia and her mother are vacationing at a luxury resort in 1920’s Lake Country, Italy, when unkempt, chain-smoking, rumpled-suited and very much preoccupied Alexander gets off the train. Well, he is escorted from the train inasmuch as he has been planning chess moves, with which we soon learn he is obsessed, and he was unaware that this is his stop. Except for chess—he is here to compete for a championship—he is also unaware of just about everything else. When at dinner that same evening a young boy approaches his table for an autograph, Alexander vacantly orders the soup and fish.
Natalia’s interfering mother, who has her sights set much, much higher for her daughter, is aghast at this attraction to Alexander and reacts by pushing another more suitable young man at Natalia. For whatever reason—and one of the film’s shortcomings is that Natalia’s reasons are never too clear—Natalia takes an immediate liking to Alexander. At one point her parents compare her affection to her childhood habit of collecting stray animals, not a very good explanation but the only one put forth. This lack of explanation is somewhat unexpected here since this film is directed by a woman who has made at least two pretty fair “women’s films” and also because it does a very credible job explaining Alexander’s peculiarities. The film does a convincing job explaining in flashback how young Alexander was ignored by his apparently mentally unstable mom and his cold, philandering father. Upon his mom’s death we see in flashback that an unscrupulous mentor was only too willing to take Alexander under his dirty wing and to use him by betting on him and winning in his chess matches. When Alexander goes into a ”slump” the mentor drops him like the proverbial hot potato. Still not satisfied, the mentor comes back for the championship to further torture Alexander who has regained his winning ways.
The acting of the two stars, John Turturro and Emily Watson, goes a long way toward making this film as good as it is. Turturro brings off Alexander’s idiosyncrasies probably as well as any actor alive today. Natalia’s parents are appropriately snooty and old-fashioned. Stuart Wilson as Valentinov, the horrible mentor, plays his role more than a bit too broadly. And we never learn what his motivations are, why other than for just the sake of meanness, he is still trying to dominate poor Alexander. The actor who plays his big rival for the chess championship does very well, coming on as a larger-than-life kind of Babe Ruth of chess character.
One need not understand or even be interested in chess to enjoy this movie. Though chess is the constant backdrop against which the movie is set and is of consuming importance to its main character, the script doesn’t really get into the game’s mechanics at all. One interesting feature, I thought, is the manner in which at times during a match the camera illustrates what is happening inside Alexander’s head by quickly flashing different scenarios of the moves and countermoves going through his mind in such a way that a layman may in some small way appreciate what we have all heard about these players planning moves so far in advance.
(6.0) is a compelling story, with much to say about jealousy and gossip,
which ultimately says that if you want to regain your dignity the best
place to do so is the place where that dignity was lost. And this film
delivers that message without missing a beat while simultaneously achieving
the neat trick of being, first, a pretty darn funny coming of age comedy
and then a serious, almost tragic drama. In 1940, small town Sicilian males
of all ages are very much aware of local beauty Malena, the lonely wife
of a Nino, an Italian soldier who is off fighting the fascists’ war. Twelve-year-old
Renaldo is especially enthralled as are his slightly older and more experienced—at
least that’s what they tell him—friends. The first half of the film—and
this is one of its faults—is filled with scene after scene offering only
slight variations of statuesque Malena’s walking through town being ogled
by seemingly every man therein. Most of the jealous women in town speculate
incorrectly and gossip about Malena’s love life. Things stay pretty much
under control—except for Renaldo’s emerging, raging libido—until the war
situation worsens, bringing with it news of Nino’s death, food scarcity
and much tension. At that point, fueled mostly by horrible jealousy, things
quickly get out of control. Malena, literally forced by jealousy and other
circumstances, compromises her virtue. Worse yet she associates with German
soldiers now occupying Sicily. She suffers horribly from the inevitable
backlash, which occurs immediately upon Sicily’s liberation by the Americans.
Though all the elements of tragedy are in place the story winds up with
a positive, hopeful conclusion. This film is recommended to all except
those who simply do not like subtitled films.
The Man Who Cried (5.5) has several good dramatic story elements and some pretty fair, though cheaply done, period atmosphere but fails to really click due to either less than stellar direction or poor cast selection; I suspect the latter. This is especially unfortunate inasmuch as two of my favorites, John Turturro and Cate Blanchett, have major roles.
In 1920’s Russia, young Fegela and her widowed, devoutly Jewish father are enjoying a poor but almost idyllic rural life. Poverty and other circumstances force the old man to consider seeking opportunity in America. Others convince him that it is better to leave his daughter in Russia with the loving Jewish community while he seeks his fortune, and he leaves her there against both his will and his better judgment. There follow, in rapid succession, war, exile and several kinds of disaster, all of which leave the youngster in England, re-named Susie, with an affectionate but not really understanding Christian family and in a cruel atmosphere where Susie is perceived as different. She grows up to be Christina Ricci, an aspiring singer who is still yearning to find dear old dad. Someone, apparently not a student of geography, convinces her that 1940’s Paris with its musical theater opportunities would be a good steppingstone to America and her father.
In Paris she comes under the influence of flirtatious, ambitious and worldly Lola and is smitten by the dark charm of the Gypsy Caesar. Lola has her sights set on the rich star of their productions, the superegotistical Dante. Eventually, some typical cardboard Nazis arrive to do their evil thing to, among others, of course, Jewish people and Gypsies. Though there is plenty of atmosphere and mood as well as a fair amount of love, tension, loyalty and betrayal during these Paris sequences, I found more interest, drama and warmth in the film’s final few minutes, after Susie arrives in America and starts tracing her father.
Though most of its elements have been done many times before this is not a bad story at all. The main reason it does not come off much better is the casting, really the choosing of a fine set of actors to play roles for which they are either not particularly well suited or in which they are not well directed. Christina Ricci cannot carry a major drama. Period. John Turturro, a great actor, as Dante, relies too much on either simply exaggerating all the emotions, chewing scenery or both. Another fine actor, Cate Blanchett, seems to have been poorly directed or something. I got the feeling that she might have played this part far better if she had never met the director and had simply “winged it.” (And her makeup person manages the awful trick of making a really fine looking woman look less than pretty from just about any angle.) Finally, Johnny Depp as Caesar, goes to the Gypsy well once too often—make that twice (he wasn’t all that good as a Gypsy in Chocolat either).
This film is recommended only
to those who read the above and who still want to try it anyway.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (6.0) is much more than just an excellent example of the old film noir genre. It is even more notably a terrific aggregation of some truly remarkable minor characters. Filmed at a consistently slow pace in spectacular black and white and set in 1949 in a nicely re-produced western United States small town, it has a compelling cast led by Billy Bob wearing yet another outstanding toupee. The story explores the old noir staples of little people being caught up way over their heads in plots of revenge, blackmail and murder with some overtones of Lolita thrown in. Everything that can go wrong with their little schemes invariably does go wrong, usually in the most ironic way.
Billy Bob narrates and plays quiet, chain smoking Ed Crane, second chair in his brother-in-law’s barber shop. Though second chair means “dead-end” and though Ed is also caught in a loveless marriage to Doris, Ed doesn’t seem particularly unhappy, nor does he seem to be too happy either. He knows that wife Doris is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave, but this doesn’t really seem to bother Ed all that much. Though it may explain why he tries to blackmail Big Dave, thereby setting off all the misunderstandings and fireworks. It might be truthfully said that from the time the blackmail note is typed nothing goes according to anyone’s plan. For starters, four people die.
There are no “minor” characters in this film, only some very good actors, speaking well written words, playing well drawn folks (synonym) but just not appearing on the screen as long as Billy Bob--Frances McDormand, who plays Doris and one or two others. Almost every one of these characters is a sleaze, fatally flawed or both.
The superior set design and photography capture the small town ambience very well and in such a way that the viewer feels Ed is not rally a part thereof, perhaps that Ed does not really even exist or that he, as the title has it, “never was.”
I do not generally notice, let alone comment upon, photography, an area in which I have no talent and almost as little appreciation. This film with its indescribably beautiful images is the exception.
So, where are the weaknesses? Why not a higher rating for such a good film? Well, though what there is of the story is very well done there is simply not one whole helluva lot of story there. The bigger shortcoming is that I really did not care one whole lot about the characters – they are not drawn deep enough to be known well enough to care about. Also, to the extent they are knowable they are not especially likeable and for the most part pretty much get what they deserve.
The production might be faulted for its consistent slow speed but even the extraneous stuff is so well done that it adds a dimension, makes the film both more enjoyable and well done.
This film is highly recommended.
Momento (6.0) Though a gimmick flick, it is an interesting one, and one which is somewhat reminiscent of last year’s two-gimmick film, Run,Lola, Run. The gimmick here is that the film plays backwards! No, the reels are not literally played in reverse so that characters are walking and running backwards. Rather, each scene is logically and chronologically the predecessor of the scene shown just before it. It is a fine trick and it works quite well. Not surprisingly, this requires some getting used to, takes concentration and is confusing. This format pays an immediate dividend though, as in the film’s opening scene, the viewer immediately finds out whodunit as our protagonist, Leonard dispatches a fellow named Terry. However, because of the format, the killing makes no sense whatsoever and there is no clue yet as to who the hell these people are. We learn soon enough that Leonard is suffering from short-term memory loss since the brutal rape and murder of his wife. Now, while searching for his wife’s killer, he is able to recall everything up to just prior to that devastating event. But, immediately upon falling asleep, he forgets everything since then. It is amusing to see how, after some characters catch on to Leonard’s “condition,” they know enough to repeatedly re-introduce themselves to him And, Leonard is not without his own resourceful coping mechanisms, including his taking Instamatic pictures of each character, of his car and even of his hotel, which pictures he annotates for subsequent (or is it prior?) identification. He even has his body tattooed, sometimes via the “do it yourself” method, with especially vital clues to the identity of his wife’s killer. He has hung a map of the city with pictures, notes and arrows all over it on the wall of his hotel room. Immediately upon awakening Leonard searches his pockets for notes he has written and stashed in anticipation of his awakening. More than one bad person realizes how easily someone with his problem can be taken advantage of. None of the other schemes is quite as benign as the hotel clerk’s renting and making him pay for two rooms. (Perhaps the reason this clerk does not simply rent him one room but bill him twice is that, early on—right near the film’s end—one character has told Leonard to always get receipts.) At any rate there are some excellent plot twists played out against a compelling but seedy Los Angeles atmosphere. This film is recommended with the following caveat: PAY ATTENTION!!!
Note: I have not tried
to examine this film for internal consistency with respect to time sequence.
I strongly suspect that it is far from 100% perfectly consistent and, perhaps,
if I see it again—I did see Lola twice—I will try to do so. I suspect,
however, that such an effort might result in damage to my brain.
No Man’s Land (6.5) has as much to say against war as any film in recent memory. It might even be compared in its theme but not in its impact to the greatest of all anti-war films, Paths Of Glory. This story relates what happens when two wounded combatants, one Serb and one Bosnian, are thrown together in a bombed out trench between battle lines during the 1990’s Yugoslavian War. The catch here is that a third wounded soldier has been deliberately booby-trapped and that any attempt to rescue him will be disastrous.
The film opens with the ambush of a replacement infantry squad going the front. (I never did keep straight in either history or in this film who were the Serbs and who were the Bosnians.) The two squad survivors wind up in a trench, one apparently dead and the other wounded. Two enemy soldiers come up to reconnoiter and quickly booby-trap the “dead” troop with what the director goes to some pain to identify as American made bomb. After a brief cat and mouse scene followed by a gunfight the two enemy survivors, only one of whom is armed, face off arguing over which side started the war each, of course, blaming the other. When the unarmed soldier questions the position on this, the armed troop, whose reply is likely meant as a metaphor for this war and/or war in general, is along the lines of he is right because he has the gun. Not surprisingly when the enemy grabs the gun he repeats the same argument for the same reason.
The United Nations peacekeepers are ultimately called in more to be mocked, it seems, than for any other reason. The international media also get involved but strictly to be shown up first as sensationalists and then as being absolutely bloodthirsty
This film is not without a few moments of hope but they are short-lived and the film’s ultimate outlook is anything but optimistic.
This film is highly recommended.
Mulholland Drive (5.5) is a well-made David Lynch film; and this, the David Lynch reference, is meant to say quite a bit about the movie which is not at all easy to describe or to otherwise comment upon. The film takes place in modern Los Angeles and Beverly Hills or some similar very upscale residential area. The main plots revolve around two gorgeous young women, Betty and Rita, and a movie director, Adam. As usual in Lynch movies there are many characters, most of them at least fairly strange and whose relationship to the main characters and the plots is frequently not clear. The mood ranges from the sunny and optimistic to the very, very dark.
At the outset dark, mysterious
looking and beautiful Rita escapes from some sinister forces by the neat
expedient of an unplanned spectacular car crash from which she emerges
almost unscathed save for that old standby movie malady, traumatic amnesia.
Rita literally stumbles into an apartment complex which might have been
featured in films for any time period in the past fifty years about this
part of the country. (The major use of this and another similar complex
together with the facts that Ann Miller plays a role and most phones were
of the old rotary dial system leads me to suspect that Lynch might be trying
to make some comment or create an uncertainty about the story’s otherwise
apparently modern time frame.) One unit of this apartment complex is occupied
by wholesome looking, well scrubbed blond Betty looking would-be movie
star just arrived from back East and temporarily set up in her aunt’s home.
Betty takes in Rita who quickly confides in her that she doesn’t know who
she really is. The two undertake to discover Rita’s true identity. As is
fairly typical in these movies but probably not in real life the women
decide not to go to the police. Interwoven with this plot are scenes featuring
Adam who is being really heavily leaned on by some Mafia type hoodlums
who insist upon his casting their nominee, apparently Betty, as the star
of his next film. There
There has been, I think, only
one Lynch film that made anything approaching complete sense to me;
this is not the one. This film is recommended but only to those who do
not require a comprehensible ending and other David Lynch fans.
Novocaine (6.0) Though containing many of elements of film noir which several reviewers have dubbed it, in my opinion this is much more a Steve Martin vehicle and a good one at that. First of all, I am a Steve Martin fan and I feel that, even though much of his stuff is by now repetitive and predictable, there has been too little good Steve Martin schtick lately. This is high caliber example thereof.
This time round Steve is Dr. Frank Sangster, a dentist who seems to have it all including a thriving practice and an adoring assistant/fiancée, Jean, played by a better than ever looking Laura Dern (I’m a Laura Dern fan too.) His fatal mistake/temptation appears in the person of off the wall Susan Ivey played by Helena Bonham Carter (OK, I’m an HBC fan too, even a beat looking HBC as she appears here.) Susan is seeing Dr. Frank ostensibly for pain relief of the root canal variety but it soon becomes evident that the pain relief she is really after is of the stealing doctor’s pain killer prescription drug type. Both these characters have brothers, Dr. Frank’s a not too nice and pretty stupid brother and Susan's a less nice and even stupider one.
Martin manages the difficult
task of making seem real what is happening on at least one level, that
Dr. Frank is “real” while simultaneously still being Steve Martin who is
simply pretending to act semi-seriously.
(5.5) is a small, strange perhaps, or at least different, well acted,
but ultimately not completely satisfying film. It concerns relationships
between men and women, family dynamics and especially what happens when
the patriarch is amoral, callous and manipulative. It is almost not important
that the “family business” is assassination. The film would very likely
have worked damn near as well, perhaps even better, if they were farmers
or storekeepers. Forty-five-year-old Alex is prompted by vague misgivings
or something to seek the help of a psychotherapist to whom Alex freely,
matter of factly even, admits that he is a hitman although his wife, Martha,
believes that he runs a mail order business. Turns out that his father
taught him the “trade” if you will from a very young age and that Alex
never had a choice about it or anything else as far as the manipulative,
domineering Old Man was concerned. We see, in flashback, that the Old Man
started seven-year-old Alex off by teaching him to shoot squirrels. The
Old Man’s wife, the Old Woman, has been consistently 100% supportive of
her husband and the “family business.” When Alex expresses to her
his doubts about continuing as a killer she lectures Alex on how hard the
Old Man worked to build up the business just as though she were talking
about a gas station or a milk route. It is probably not giving away too
much to reveal that the next victim the Old Man orders Alex to kill is
Alex’s psychotherapist. Good acting makes this film! Donald Sutherland
plays the Old Man as completely immune from most human feelings, least
of all guilt about his deeds. That he leads an otherwise normal life, even
having the nerve to complain about other family members, only adds to his
evil. It is significant, though I am not certain exactly of what, that
one of the most horrible scenes in the film is one in which the Old Man
chastises his seven-year-old grandson by, among other things, calling him
“stupid.” And, it is telling that Alex sits still, obviously uncomfortable,
but still for this, while Martha defends the kid and goes back at the Old
Man. William H. Macy is more than effective as the sometimes almost Zombie-like
Alex. The women in the cast, including Tracey Ullman as Martha and Neve
Campbell as a twenty-three-year-old with whom Alex becomes involved, are
both excellent. I cannot make up my mind about the performance of John
Ritter, whose acting I do not much care for, as the psychotherapist but
I will leave it that he is not so miscast as I first thought. The plot
holds few surprises though there is one twist that I frankly did not see
coming but that I suspect most people would see. Though this film might
have been even better but it is nonetheless recommended.
Pinero (5.5) is the extremely moving but ultimately not terribly satisfying and sometimes confusing, almost vague biography of Miguel Pinero, the talented but self-destructive poet and dramatist who emigrated from Puerto Rico to New York City in the late twentieth century. Its major weakness, but perhaps its strength also, is the confusing manner it changes from black and white to color and back again, switches time periods, presents flashbacks, dream sequences and bad dope trips, and a lot of déjà vu about dramatic presentations including rehearsals therefore. (It didn’t help my appreciation that I thought, incorrectly it appears, that I had figured out the “code” that is that the present was always in color and the past or flashbacks in black and white.) For example, poor Miguel is in prison so much – some of his best drama including Short Eyes was written in prison and is about prisoners - that when the crimes were shown on screen I was never certain which incarceration was for which job. A similar kind of quick sketch format which worked so well delivering rapid humor in The Royal Tenenbaums does not create or sustain pathos in this flick.
The more powerful scenes include one which has Miguel stumbling through I guess it is a crack house obviously wanting only one thing a quick fix. It is somewhat similar to Samuel Jackson’s behavior in Jungle Fever. Another real downer of a scene has Joseph Papp introducing Miguel’s play in Manhattan while at the same time he is out on the street scalping his complimentary tickets.
Among Miguel’s minor problems was an identity crisis. Though his folks had migrated because of bad conditions and lack of opportunity in Puerto Rico and had done so when Miguel was quite young, as an adult he retained a strong sentimental attachment to the island. In some of its best scenes Miguel return to his home only to be confronted, and probably justifiably so, about his lack of Puerto Rican identity.
There are many, many powerful scenes showing his alcohol and drug abuse. There is even a pretty fair attempt to demonstrate the underlying causes for these and for some of his other anti-social behavior. One of the problems I had with this film, certainly not one of its own making, is that there always seems to be a surfeit of films very similar in at least substantial portions about troubled, often by mental problems and substance abuse, artists. See 1999’s Permanent Midnight for one recent example. No matter what happens in the movie it just usually seems, to me at least, that I have seen it all before.
In spite of these imperfections
I recommend the film.
The Pledge (6.0) though previewed so as to make it appear to be a revenge/detective story is really the tale of one man’s arrival at old age, loneliness and, very possibly, uselessness. Inasmuch as this man is played by Jack Nicholson at damn near his best, right up there just below his roles in Chinatown and Five Easy Pieces, together with a fine supporting cast and a neat twist at the climax, it makes for pretty darn compelling drama. Jerry Black, the Nicholson character, is a 63-year-old police detective in contemporary Reno, Nevada who is retiring after many years of faithful service and two bad marriages. The film quickly establishes that Jerry is lonely and likely an alcoholic who hasn’t a clue what to do with himself now that the time spent at and the structure provided by his job is about to end. On his last day of duty, rather than simply walk out the police station door, and as if almost to put off retirement's new and unknown reality, Jerry volunteers to help investigate an especially gruesome crime, the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl. In the course thereof he promises the child’s mother and father, the "pledge” of the title, that, “upon his soul’s salvation,” he will find the killer.
Jerry is the center of this entire film. The camera focuses on him first as he observes his former police colleagues employ very questionable tactics to extract and record a confession from the most obvious suspect, a dimwitted, emotionally troubled young Indian who had committed a similar crime. Jerry is not at all convinced of this man’s guilt. However, and largely because the suspect conveniently commits suicide, the case is closed. Next, rather than going to Mexico fishing—his only possible "outside interest”—Jerry stays back in beautifully filmed Northern Nevada to talk to survivors and anyone else who might have a clue as to possible past crimes by this same killer. Eventually, in order to keep his eyes open to search for the killer or at least for some clues, he opens a gas station and convenience store along the road that his research tells him is likely to be used by the killer. Though totally obsessed with his investigation Jerry is not a bad guy at all. So it is not really strange when, eighty minutes or so into the movie, he takes in a young abused woman and her seven-year-old daughter. It is really scary though when it appears more and more possible that Jerry is using the child as "bait" for the killer. In his excellent review of this film Roger Ebert speculates whether Jerry’s adopting Little Chrissie might not be using this kid as “bait” to trap the killer. The way I saw this presented I would have to answer a resounding “Yes” to Ebert’s awful speculation. Speaking of Ebert it was his review that tipped me off that this film is really a character study film, and not a police manhunt drama.
This film is recommended especially
to Nicholson fans.
(6.0) is the fairly well done biography of the 1940’s and 1950’s genius
expressionist painter and, unfortunately, alcoholic and manic-depressive.
With Ed Harris, who also directed, as Pollock and Marcia Gay Harden as
Lee, his long suffering girlfriend then wife, mentor, critic and liaison
with reality, get maximum value from their roles. Harris in particular
brilliantly captures both Pollock’s wild mood swings and his aging from
a young genius to a middle-aged shell of the person he once was. He also
captures the creative process probably as well as any actor could. It shows
interestingly enough how these paintings were created—Pollack never used
brushes but sticks, which “never touch canvas.” Though Pollack’s mood is
not always down and the scenes showing the creative process are interesting,
if not fun, to watch, this is not a fun film. Nothing too much “happens”
other than Pollock’s engaging the New York City art crowd and then eventually
enjoying a short period of artistic and financial success. The real story
of this film is the way in which it shows how difficult it must be to live
with much less to love such a character. Their early struggles with poverty
both in the Village and later in very downscale Long Island don’t help
either. The tension is constant. Lee’s at least partial response to Pollack’s
moods is to absolutely refuse to consider having children with the guy.
The film features some really true Forties and Fifties atmosphere, though
Greenwich Village doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. It also has
an eclectic mix of actors including an almost unrecognizable Amy Madigan
as Peggy Guggenheim and Val Kilmer in a tiny role. One note which doesn’t
ring true is the casting of beautiful Jennifer Connelly as Edith, Pollack’s
extramarital love interest. By the time Lee has split and Edith shows up,
Pollock would not seem to be in any condition to attract a young woman
half as gorgeous as Jennifer. This film is recommended unless you just
cannot take one more downer.
The Princess And The Warrior (6.0) tells an excellent story on the surface level story but ultimately is much too enigmatic and dense on its various sublevels.
Generally, I do not comment on a director’s past work. In this case it is probably significant, appropriate and helpful to mention at the outset that this film was directed by Tom Tykwer whose last picture is Run, Lola, Run, and that the star here is Franka Potente, Lola in the other film. There is a lot of Lola in this picture and I can say with almost no fear of contradiction that anyone who liked Lola will also like this film. Among other Lola-like strong points here are a couple of chase scenes shot from on high with a fast moving aerial camera. This story is however one helluva lot more complex. The reviews said that an understanding of all that happens in this film requires a strong belief in fate or coincidence or both. Suffice it to say though, that although this film is enjoyable, much of what transpires, especially in the last fifteen minutes or so, is way beyond me.
In modern Germany, Franka’s Sissi is a psychiatric nurse in a mental hospital that is probably depicted too realistically for comfort. It is quickly established that she is a very caring individual who probably has more than an appropriate amount of empathy for at least one or two of her poor, tortured patients. The parallel story of guilt-ridden Bodo intersects, Lola-style, with Sissi’s story, when Sissi is hit by the truck that Bodo has used in a getaway from a petty robbery. In an incredibly harrowing scene he saves her life by performing an emergency tracheotomy on her under the truck. After she recovers Sissi and one of her patients work ingeniously to locate Bodo to try to thank him. After Bodo rejects Sissi, she and we learn from Bodo’s older brother, guardian and would-be partner in crime that Bodo has been feeling this incredible guilt since his wife’s violent death, which occurred during an argument with him. Before too long coincidence or fate intervene sufficiently to the point where Bodo is hiding out in the hospital by pretending to one of Sissi’s patients.
This film has much going for it. Though there are only a few minutes of chase scenes, the photography and unique urban scenery which made Lola so unique is very much in evidence here. And the plot, though ultimately much too impenetrable, is a good one. There are characters about whom I for one cared quite a bit. And, there are dramatic scenes of confrontation and other things which work quite well. I suspect that the clues are there but I know that I for one did not pick them up. A second viewing would likely reveal much that a first viewing did not.
This subtitled film is still
recommended especially to fans of Lola.
The Road Home (6.0) is a simple, extremely moving, tender love story between two likable young people told in flashback and brilliantly photographed, sometimes and color and other times in black and white, in rural, mountainous northern China. The photography is so good that there are shots in which there seems to be no distinction between foreground and background, that is, both look equally clear. There is not even a hint of violence or sex and politics exists only somewhere in the distant background.
The film opens in modern times with Luo returning from the city to his native rural mountain village to console his mom after the death of his dad, the village’s longtime schoolteacher. Elderly Mom insists upon observing her people’s ancient tradition and giving her husband’s body the usual march home from the hospital where he died so that he “will not forget his way home.” The middle two-thirds, the section shot in color, is devoted to Mom and Dad’s love story back in 1958.
20-year-old Dad had come from the city where he could not find work and, though he had no training as a teacher (he did not even know what kind of work he would be doing when he emigrated), he quickly becomes a masterful tutor in the village’s tiny brand new schoolhouse. Eighteen-year-old and 100% innocent Di, who herself has never been to school, is absolutely smitten by him and she tries every way within the society’s approved and strict codes of behavior to avoid a (normal for the times) pre-arranged marriage and catch his attention. Eventually Di succeeds and the young couple is hopelessly in love. Ultimately, he is called back to the city, perhaps to answer for having taught ideas not approved by the government during this time of China’s Cultural Revolution. Di waits faithfully for him on the town’s only road, the same one over which forty years later his body is carried home in a blizzard by his former students and other loving townspeople during the film’s concluding fifteen minutes. I found myself touched by and rooting wildly for the young lovers and admiring the poor simple folks who rallied round their former teacher and fellow citizen and his family. If this film has any drawbacks it is that its story is a bit too simple and its characters a little too straightforward.
This subtitled film is highly
The Royal Tenenbaums (6.5) is a very, very funny motion picture. Perhaps it might even be much more than that but I cannot really say since I was much too busy laughing and chuckling to notice, much less scrutinize it for, message(s) which might be included in there somewhere. The story totally revolves around New York City’s Tenenbaum Family, the father Royal, mother Etheline and their three children, Rich, Chas and Margot with assorted in-laws, neighbors and grandchildren. The film packs much too much biography, particularly into its first half or so, to try to recite here. However, this is not about biography so much as it is concerned with the way these life stories are presented and the hilarity of the details thereof.
This movie creates its own picturesque and attractive little Tenenbaum Fiefdom in some recent but non-specific era up there on the screen. The center of this domain is the homestead complete with turrets from one of which flutters a Tenenbaum pinion.
The plot – and this is most assuredly not a plot-driven film – centers on Royal’s feigning terminal illness so that he can once again be re-admitted to to Tanenbaumville and reunited with his three children who have long since flown from this crazy nest. Some of Hackman’s best work as Royal has him back home reclining in a hospital bed with tubes in both arms but casually chomping on hamburgers, drinking martinis and dispensing questionable advice.
The format is a non-intrusive voiceover with short scenes, quickly shifting episodes and time periods with an abundance of funny banter. The basic family story has Royal leaving the house and becoming totally estranged from the family when the kids are still quite young. Etheline alone raises and protects the three offspring like a mother lion. Each of the children is a precocious genius who grows up to be an eccentric underachiever with emphasis most definitely upon “eccentric.” The humor is in the detail. Some of the film’s most hilarious details are shown in scenes right after Pop bolts showing in quick flashes the three little kids doing their things which range all over and include, in part, Rich’s behaving like a young Bill Gates and Margot writing plays and discovering and breeding a new breed of rodent.
I am very tempted to compare the tone of this film to The Hotel New Hampshire but in all honesty I don’t really remember that 1984 film all that well. I am also tempted to credit all or most of the large ensemble cast with superior acting. Upon reflection though I think that it is more a case of a brilliant performance by Gene Hackman as Royal supported by several pretty good acting jobs. Gwyneth Paltrow does a fine job creating the Margot character. However, all she really does is basically looks like a ghost and act like a zombie - or is it the other way round? - for 100 minutes.
This film is highly recommended.
The Score (5.5) is a well-written, well-acted, fast moving, fine caper movie, no more and no less.
This production’s biggest asset is its great cast. Any DeNiro film is off to a head start and this one is no exception. Even better, it also has Marlon Brando who turns in a surprisingly good performance in spite of what at least some of the critics said about his acting. Personally, I have no problem watching a Brando who is no longer the same person who played so well in films like A Streetcar Named Desire, On The Waterfront, Julius Caesar and many other fine films, nor even with his no longer being The Godfather or the weird colonel in Apocalypse Now! He can and does deliver a fine characterization here even if he is three hundred or so pounds and no longer has the sex appeal he once did or perhaps any sex appeal at all for that matter. Finally, this film features Edward Norton in a pretty meaty role, two roles, really. Neither he nor DeNiro may be at their best here but they are both so good that either one can carry a film by himself.
DeNiro is Nick, a veteran safe cracker who carefully plans his every move, never takes a chance and who never violates his code, one of the most important tenets of which is to never do a job in his adopted hometown, Montreal, where running a jazz club is not just his cover but his real passion. Though Nick works for himself and plans and runs his jobs alone, Brando’s Max character is Nick’s connection, banker and fence. Norton’s character is the up-and-coming would be master criminal, Jack, who has scoped out a huge score in the Montreal Customs House, the proverbial “impregnable fortress” that no one can crack. In one of the film’s neatest turns, Jack’s alter ego is Brian, a likable retard, who has ingratiated himself with the Customs House staff and planted himself in the place for the planning and entree which Nick will ultimately require. Nick has a girlfriend who adds absolutely nothing to the story or the film in general.
The film features some not at all unexpected friction between Nick and Jack as well as a lot of needless-to-the-plot attention to the story of Nick and his girl.
Why not a higher rating for
such an admittedly good film? I personally am not crazy about caper movies.
They are limited in scope and story and tend to be repetitive or derivative
of all the many other caper films and this one,
Sexy Beast (6.0) is a very good film based almost strictly upon the great, if narrow ranging, acting of its entire cast. A good deal of the acting is of the shouting variety but in this story it is effective and entertaining.
Gal, a middle-aged English gangster, has retired to a swimming pool, a villa and the good life generally in idyllic and picturesque Spain. He enjoys his days frolicking with devoted wife Deedee and his evenings sipping wine and eating fine food with friend and fellow retired gangster Aitch, who is, in turn, joined by the devoted Jackie. Gal gets word through Aitch that Don Logan, a master criminal still very active back home, wants to recruit Gal for the old one last score, the penetration and looting of the proverbial impossible-to-rob bank. Rather than try to describe Logan it is much easier and absolutely accurate and helpful to simple say, as did one of the critics, that,in terms of striking fear in the hearts of grownup tough guys, Logan is Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects! Logan is masterfully portrayed in an about-to-go-right-over-the-edge way by Ben Kingsley. When Logan arrives is Spain there is much shouting, intimidation and bullying. (All this shouting loses surprisingly little considering the English accents are so thick that less than half the words are understandable.) He bullies men and women alike and might even prefer bullying the women—he seems to get off on it. Logan will simply not take “no” for an answer.
Without giving away a great deal of the movie it may be revealed that there is a pretty fair and extensive vault-cracking sequence with a new twist.
Though many of the gangster types back in the England scenes are fairly one dimensional, this fits right in with the plot and is does not detract much at all from the film. The bullied women come across as really being both frightened as well as disgusted, in other words, fairly realistic under these circumstances.
This film is recommended to
those who can take all the noise.
Shadow Of The Vampire (5.5) speculates about what might have happened had the actor who portrayed the vampire Count Orloc in the 1921 German silent film Nosferatu really been a vampire who had made some hellish pact with the director for an ultrarealistic performance in return for who knows what. Though this is not a bad film of its kind (and, what kind is that?) the result is that the creators of this 2001 fable are stuck with some facts that interfere with their really going anywhere with this admittedly intriguing premise. Nosferatu is a real film that is based strongly upon both the Dracula legend and Bram Stoker’s book but with the name changed because Stoker’s widow would not permit its use. It was directed by Herr Murnau and starred Max Schreck in his only film role—guess that he really got typecast, huh?—which fact fits in nicely with the real vampire premise. For long periods this film focuses almost exclusively on scenes of filming the older movie and, in so doing, uses darkness and bleached out colors to create some great atmosphere. This same gimmick, that is showing an old movie being filmed, was used more sparingly yet to much greater effect two years ago in Gods And Monsters. The two lead actors are terrific! John Malkovich, for whom I do not much care, is excellent as Murnau. However, Malkovich is a distant second best actor in this film. Willem Dafoe is at his creepy, scenery chewing best as Schreck, the scrawny, bald, shrinking, slobbering, pointy eared, freak/monster with his filthy two-and-a-half-inch fingernails. Unfortunately, the writer has painted himself into a corner from which the plot resolution, such as it is, permits no logical exit so that the conclusion is something of a non-happening. This film is recommended only to fans of the vampire genre.
Note: According to The
New Yorker magazine review, which I read after seeing this film, Schreck
did, in fact, appear in films after Nosferatu.
The Shipping News (5.5) is not a bad film at all and might likely be an even better novel. However, in spite of its having many elements of a decent story and suggesting some fine fictional family history it is a bit too somber, much too self-important a character study and more than a little too soap opera-ish.
It tells the story of Quolye, a not unsympathetic underachiever whose father had set the tone for his son’s entire life when he damn near drowned him as a boy while ostensibly teaching him to swim and to survive in life via the old “throw him in the deep end” method. The only explanation for this action is the old man’s later quote to the effect that no one ever gave him anything in life and that the boy would probably be better off etc., etc. Quoyle seems to live his entire adult life under the shadow of this early trauma.
This poor drowning child literally morphs – underwater no less – into Kevin Spacey who cannot seem to hold a job or any interest in anything. Along comes Petal, brilliantly played by Cate Blanchette, to sweep Quoyle into marriage and heartbreak. Petal starts out as a kind of an exotic, weird, no good, ditzy character and rolls straight down from there. Not the least of her bad habits is her constant cuckolding of Quoyle. Put it this way: her attempting at one point to “sell” their offspring Bunny is strictly in keeping with her character. At least she has the decency of being straightforward and upfront about both her extra marital affairs as well as about her lack of interest to say the least in Bunny. I have not yet – three days after seeing this film - decided whether Cate Blanchette turns in a truly wonderful performance or if the makeup and wardrobe people have done a superior turn here.
Soon after Petal leaves the scene and upon the off screen deaths of his mom and dad, Quoyle is confronted by his paternal half-Aunt Agnis who convinces him to bring Bunny along and to relocate to his ancestral Newfoundland home. This Canadian Province initially looks horrible and improves only slightly as the film winds on. The three of them settle into that seacoast house that is featured in the previews but long after the house had been moved to this location. Incidentally, this house moving scene is a flashback and not nearly as spectacular as the still photos and trailers seem to promise. The substance if you will of the film now begins with some nice but stark scenery, several fairly good but rather stereotypical characters of the local color variety and the promise of more back story and exposition than it actually delivers. As a matter of fact the ghost story mumbo jumbo at least threatens to outweigh the fairly good family background part of the story. The Newfoundland characters particularly the ones at the little newspaper where Quoyle finds work are at least somewhat interesting. After seeing this movie however Newfoundland moves way up on the list of places where I would not want to live.
Spacey delivers though nowhere near his Usual Suspects peak. His character is simply not interesting enough to fill up a two hour-plus feature film. I do identify with his non-swimmer status though it was my brother, George, not I who learned to swim involuntarily at the deep end of the pool. As mentioned already Cate Blanchette turns in a fine though relatively short performance. I don’t share the critics’ enthusiasm for Judi Dench who is Agnis. Julianne Moore, as Quoyle’s main squeeze, Wavey, not only isn’t too good but she doesn’t even really look all that good.
This film is nonetheless cautiously
recommended to soap opera aficionados.
Sidewalks Of New York (5.0) is a kind of a poor man’s Woody Allen ensemble piece. Though it has with more than its share of laughs, virtually all of them about marriage and sex, and some physically attractive characters, it is ultimately unsatisfying for a number of reasons, mostly because it shows only the selfish and not especially good side of these ten or so people. Set in contemporary Manhattan and featuring some outer borough versus Manhattan “in” humor, it effectively uses the talking heads format for about 20 per cent of its 106-minute running time. These heads, the film’s character,s are filmed in front of familiar city backgrounds (including, unfortunately, a pre-Septembe r11 view of the World Trade Center) and answer unheard questions about their love lives. Their interrelationships almost complete an imperfect circle.
Just jilted and clueless Tommy falls for sweet Maria who has divorced philandering Ben who now has a crush on young Ashlea the sometimes lunchtime diversion of much older and awful Griffin whose second wife, real estate person Annie is showing bachelor apartments to this same Tommy. And the story goes like that with a few friends and relatives from outside the immediate circle thrown in. There are some truly funny lines as well as a humorous situation or two in this story. And the acting is not half bad which given the number of speaking parts is saying something. There are only about two kinds of characters here, nasty people and those with no one but themselves to blame for their problems. While I’m complaining about and panning this film I might as well get another pet peeve off my chest and that is the way in which this film, like so many other “New York” films, show characters doing almost menial labor but still enjoying a lifestyle only a couple of notches below that of Donald Trump or some such billionaire. Nineteen-year old Ashlea works as a waitress yet lives in a brownstone opposite a park and apparently has not yet found the subways because she hails taxicabs whenever she has to go somewhere. No wonder all the Southern and Midwestern college grads run to the city as soon they get their sheepskin!
Songcatcher (6.0) is both a well made story of a search for lost musical links and also a fairly successful gay love story. And, how bad can a film which features the ballad Barbara Allen twice in its first few minutes be?
In the early twentieth century, musicologist Lily Penleric, Ph.D,. leaves her university teaching post after being passed over for a promotion she felt she deserved and which had been denied her at least in part because her married lover was too gutless to stand up for her. For no particular reason she travels to the hills of western North Carolina to visit her younger sister, Elna, who runs a school there with her associate and clandestine lover, Harriet. Lily soon learns that many of the love songs sung in the mountains are the same ballads, in a different form, which arrived in the “Outland” via different routes from England and Scotland. She sets out to scientifically record—Edison had just invented the recording machine—and to preserve these ancient love songs against great odds. First of all there is the hilly terrain—almost everyone with any musical talent seems to have settled on a mountaintop. One of these folks is earth grandmother Viney Butler, an old matriarch who can aim a shotgun or deliver a baby with equal ease. Some people, primarily Viney’s grandson, Tom, the love interest here, suspect that Lily, like the coal interests who are buying property on the cheap, is just exploiting these folks but for a different resource. Lily is not the world’s most understanding person. On the contrary, she is mostly played as an obsessed academic who is not always in complete touch with the folks whose music she is studying. This characterization adds more to the film’s realism than it detracts from the story.
The final thirty minutes or so sort of lurches between melodrama and serious drama as the lesbian plot comes to the forefront with uneven or mixed results.
Whether these mountain people are the honest and simple good people they are depicted to be, this film has much more than its share of “feel good” quality. And, the music is very nicely and seamlessly woven into the story.
this is an enjoyable film and it is recommended to all except those whose
tastes in music simply will not abide the fare here.
Tailor OF Panama (5.0) Though not as good as some critics say, this
movie does have its black comedic moments. Awful, amoral Andrew of British
Intelligence, having just messed up another assignment, is re-assigned,
exiled really, to modern day, post-Noriega Panama. Almost upon arrival
Andrew sets his sights on Harry, an upscale tailor, maker of fine “Saville
Row” suits for the rich, influential and powerful of Panama, as a possible
source of information to be bought and passed on to his superiors for a
price and hopefully to resurrect Andrew’s career. Andrew cares not at all
whether the information he gathers is true or not, who gets hurt, what
is right or wrong and is much more interested in a little female diversion
than in human rights or British interests. One reviewer characterizes Andrew
as an “opportunist and a user.” He gets no argument from me. Harry’s
dirty little secret is that he is not the Saville Row expatriate he claims
to be but rather an insurance fraud arsonist who has done time. As a matter
of fact he learned the tailor trade in the “joint.” His beloved late partner
is, in fact, his Uncle Benny, whose warehouse Harry had torched for the
insurance money. Harry though is basically a decent sort. He loves his
wife and two kids and enjoys life and his niche in the city. He is not
however ultimately above trying to make a few dollars off Andrew’s scheme—he
also owes the bank a lot of money. Whereas, Harry has a conscience—his
two best friends, Martha and Michie had opposed Noriega and had suffered
for it and Harry wants to help and to protect them—Andrew, if he ever had
a conscience, has long since misplaced it or perhaps had it surgically
removed. Andrew’s scheme to invent “the silent opposition” and to sell
to British Intelligence a fantasy cooked up by Harry that the Chinese,
Nationalists and Communists, working together, will buy the canal from
the Panamanians, goes way out of control really fast when the Americans
buy it, the scheme/fantasy that is, not the Canal, and come in guns blazing.
While Rome, I mean Panama City, is burning, Andrew is making a pass at,
make that attempting to rape Harry’s wife, hardly too much of a surprise
inasmuch as Andrew is a total heel and Mrs. Harry is played by Jamie Leigh
Curtis. The resolution of all this, to the small extent that anything is
resolved, is far from satisfactory (and even farther from happy.) This
all sounds better than it plays up there on the Big Screen. This film is
Together (4.5) might have the dubious distinction of being the most widely overrated by the critics film that I have seen in a long, long time. Set in a communist collective or commune in 1975 Sweden this film is a subtitled, slow moving, claustrophobic attempt at showing why such living arrangements by and large failed to outlast that decade. In spite of major shortcomings this movie does have a few surprisingly fine characterizations which evoke considerable sympathy and pity thereby saving it from being a total waste.
The film probably does a decent, but not especially entertaining, job of showing commune life. This includes demonstrating the enormous practical difficulties of getting the work done and paying homage to the principle of everyone’s doing his or her own thing with respect to romance with the other members, ostensibly without regard to the reality of their feelings. When one couple breaks up after too much experimenting the story has a gay guy chasing the husband and the commune’s resident lesbian similarly chasing his wife.
At the outset Elisabeth, the
sister of one of the commune’s leaders, leaves her abusive husband and
takes her two young kids to live in the commune. Her bitter, disappointed
husband is left behind. The film’s major strengths are its presentations
of the disappointment of these two young children and the loneliness of
the husband as he makes friends with another similarly lonely soul. But,
as so frequently happens in film portrayals of young teenagers, especially
those smitten by first love, the children behave much, much more like the
adults who wrote the story and directed the film than they do like real
kids. This is one of my pet peeves. There is also another one of my pet
peeves and that is a totally from nowhere upbeat conclusion. In spite of
this film’s having gotten good reviews from virtually all my most respected
critics there is no way that I can recommend it.
Training Day (6.0) is a bleak and violent police drama with one helluva twist: Denzel Washington plays the bad guy!!! Denzel is Alonzo, a charismatic 13-year Los Angeles Police Dept. veteran who currently heads up a six-man narcotics squad. We observe him here through the ideas of young Jake, the idealistic but ambitious straight arroew, first day on the narcotics beat policeman with a scant nineteen months experience in uniform. We first see Alonzo, Jake’s mentor, as a kind of macho, surly, arrogant, irreverent, street tough guy. We soon see Alonzo’s bad side as the next few scenes demonstrate that in addition to his being an unorthodox loner he is also a crooked, inhumane and sadistic son of a bitch. Early on he steals evidence and beats up a couple of thugs, a part of his job which he seems to enjoy way too much. A couple of time during the course of the film Alonzo explains and tries to justify his behavior. His rap is mostly a combination of the likes of the heard before old saws, such as these criminals only understand superior force and power, street justice ultimately is the best, if not only, kind of justice and the victims will be better off if the fate of the street pushers, etc. is not left up to the bleeding heart courts, etc. Alonzo also pleads that it is much better ultimately to use the street pushers, (“use” including taking their money and product) in order to get to the higher ups.
Jake, who is no fool but is perhaps a trifle naïve, goes very quickly from amusement to bewilderment to disgust and anger at Alonzo’s increasingly bizarre behavior. If Alonzo is not a lot smarter than Jake he is much, much more experienced than Jake is, particularly in this street milieu. As is so frequently the case i, modern police dramas the scenes invariably show almost exclusively the seamy and violent underside of society, including continuous dishonesty, corruption, lawlessness and all manner of other criminal activity. There may not have been one single honest policeman depicted except in the most minor and incidental role.
Why, given all these negative
qualities, is the film rated so highly? Well Denzel is one really great
actor though, strangely, and perhaps because he almost invariably plays
the good guy, I suspect that other actors – none of whose names readily
come to mind - could have been more convincing as Alonzo. Ethan Hawke,
though maybe his role is written as a bit too innocent and naïve,
is just about right as Jake. There are some powerful minor characterizations
mostly by African American males as criminals or other violent and borderline
types, but also in a restaurant meeting scene among Alonzo and some department
higher ups. The most powerful scene is one that places Jake in harm's way
in a manner quite reminiscent of Al Pacino’s character’s predicament in
the Miami Beach Motel in Scarface.
Under The Sand (6.0) starts off with a middle aged/older couple in modern day France going through the day-to-day routine of beginning their vacation at the French seashore. They make the long drive, arrive tired and hungry, open the shutters on their large comfortable looking vacation home, eat dinner and go to bed. Next day the two go to the beach. Marie is tired and relaxes on the blanket while Jean elects to try the surf. He never returns! Understandably, she goes into near panic mode first asking other bathers if they have seen Jean, then going to the life-guards on the next beach—there are none where they were—and ultimately has the police come on the scene, all with no results.
Throughout these opening scenes—they take less than twenty minutes—and knowing from reviews that Jean was going to disappear—I searched for clues. What seemed to be wrong? Where were the flaws in what seemed to be a perfect, if ordinary, relationship? He is somewhat older than she. She is slim and in excellent shape while he looks like candidate for a heart attack. She seems to be almost carefree while, upon examination, he would appear to be anything but. As they turn off the light and go to bed it is she who seems momentarily interested in making love as he quickly falls asleep.
She returns home from the beach and calms down considerably, returns to her job—teacher at a Paris University—and resumes life with their old friends. Pretty soon, and very prematurely especially in view of Marie’s steadfast though quite matter of fact insistence that Jean is still alive, at least one female friend is actively pushing an eligible middle aged guy on Marie apparently as a “replacement” for Jean. Even more surprising after she initially rebuffs this “candidate” Marie gives him a chance. Still more surprisingly this “tryout” is even chaperoned by Jean’s friendly ghost or spirit or some otherworldly character with whom Marie spends much of the film’s remaining time chatting.
The quality if this movie is in its detail and topnotch acting. Charlotte Rampling as Marie totally carries it. Nothing happens on screen that is not seen and interpreted through her eyes by, among other media, words, body language and facial expressions. She is on screen for virtually every frame and deftly covers the entire range of emotions in her performance. Though the other performances are fine and both male leads are quite effective, they are damn near inconsequential since they are virtually a backdrop to Marie’s performance.
Widow Of St. Pierre (6.0) is a nicely told, exquisite love story set
in a situation where the protagonists’ doing the right thing will certainly
result in personal disaster for them. In 1850, on a French island off Newfoundland,
the Captain of the garrison is a somewhat aloof, rather standoffish type
with a beautiful and compassionate young wife. When Neel and another drunken
sailor senselessly kill their former ship’s captain they are expeditiously
tried and sentenced to death. Since French law requires that the sentence
must be carried out by guillotine and there is none in this most remote
outpost of French influence, the doomed Neel must await his fate as the
Captain’s prisoner while a used guillotine is imported from far-off Martinique.
The captain and his wife, motivated by compassion and hoping to help Neel
maintain his dignity, ask Neel if he will help them care for their flowers
and perform some other tasks for the community in return for some better
treatment. Without the temptation of drink, Neel is a changed person. In
almost no time Neel and Madame are traveling, without benefit of security,
to the neighboring island to assist sailors’ widows with such good deeds
as roof repairs. Neel proves himself absolutely worthy of the trust placed
in him. Well, almost absolutely. In short order, one of the younger widows
is happily pregnant by him! Meanwhile, the Captain is fully and lovingly
supportive of his wife, support which is perfectly justified, as the narrow-minded
community leaders gossip and challenge him about Madame’s behavior. Ultimately,
Neel’s reformation is so complete, that when the guillotine finally does
arrive no one on the island will be his executioner. Neel’s transformation,
indeed his outlook and appearance, are all more than a little reminiscent
of Jean Valjean. What does not ring totally true is the rapidity of Neel’s
transformation. Nor is his motivation satisfactorily explained, whereas
Valjean’s reformation not only took years but was also much more reasonably
explained. In spite of these couple of unflattering comparisons this film
With A Friend Like Harry (6.0) might well stand for the premise that a killing or two rejuvenates the murderer’s spirit and/or that, if family members are in the way of one’s happiness or peace of my mind, then one should at least consider knocking off the offending relative(s).
In present day France Michel, Claire and their three small daughters are traveling in their rundown, non-air-conditioned old car to their roomy but also rundown, old country home. The scene is realistic: the kids are tired and cranky and Michel and Claire are in fairly foul moods. At a highway rest stop Michel runs into Harry, who is absolutely convinced that he and Michel went to school together twenty years before. Michel has absolutely no memory whatsoever of Harry but he is convinced when Harry recalls a poem Michel had written in school, a girl they had both dated and other details which only a classmate would remember. One thing leads to another and before the film is twenty minutes old Harry and his agreeable girlfriend have ditched their trip to Switzerland and joined the family in the country. One can only appreciate how well this story is being told by seeing that Harry is so darn friendly, helpful and ingratiating. And the above is done so as to seem fairly realistic. Before long Harry has bought the family a brand new SUV over their realistic objections and started encouraging Michel to resume the writing that he abandoned right after school. Pretty soon a couple more characters, including Michel’s ultra-officious mom and dad, are introduced and the murders start. Much later the really nasty things are introduced.
Why give a film dealing with
such nastiness a high rating? Excellent question. The answer is that this
film is so well acted by French actor Sergi Lopez as to make me want to
stay around and find out exactly what motivates him and makes him tick.
Also, it is so well written that it continues to hold interest, much like
a Hitchcock film even after the next move has become fairly obvious. The
actors portraying Michel and Claire are similarly outstanding. Though the
plot sounds like recycled Hitchcock, whom I do not especially like, it
works unbelievably well. In spite of the fact that Harry obviously harbors
some mysterious and most likely evil agenda, the performances make it interesting
and believable. Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, certainly not surprisingly,
this is one of those stories where one must decide for himself what makes
the characters tick. This is OK too in this film, which is highly recommended.
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