Love Actually (neutral): Director Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones' Diary) assembled a fairly strong ensemble cast for this entertaining but trivial assembly of loosely-coupled vignettes. One of the better stories follows a lovestruck prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, charming as ever, in one of his less believable roles. The most serious story is of a couple troubled by infidelity; Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson put in solid performances but have to be said to be "slumming it" here. Less-successful episodes include a widowed father (Liam Neeson) and his lovestruck eight-year-old, and a pair of naked body doubles shyly introducing themselves while simulating intercourse on a movie set. Overall, this is a decent date flick, but not a reason to rush to your local multiplex.
Under the Tuscan Sun (neutral/+): Diane Lane anchors this loose adaptation of the best-selling account of an American writer who impulsively buys an Italian villa. Part melodrama and part travelogue, Under the Tuscan Sun follows the painstaking renovation of the derelict villa, with its many setbacks and the difficulty of working in a foreign country, and parallels it with the slow recovery (equally demanding but equally possible) of the bruised human heart. Lane and the lushly-photographed countryside are both luminous although the plot is at times clichéd. This is a good date flick, especially for travel fans and Italophiles.
Pieces of April (+/++) is a heartwarming story about a damaged family coming together. April, long the black sheep of the family, invites her family to her apartment in a seedy neighborhood of New York City for Thanksgiving dinner. As the family gathers for the long drive, skeptical about the prospect for a family occasion hosted by their punked-out eldest daughter, April struggles with a broken oven, motley neighbors, and her own total ineptitude in cooking. Ultimately, familial love triumphs in a delicately-filmed final sequence. I recommend this quality indie production for all adult audiences, with one caveat: Pieces of April will definitely cause problems for filmgoers sensitive to shaky handheld camera.
Lost In Translation (+/++) is a low-key, refreshingly adult romance starring Bill Murray and directed by Sofia Coppola. An over-the-hill movie star (Murray) travels to Japan to appear in a commercial. Hanging out in the hotel bar between shoots, he meets the young wife of a photographer, also stuck in a foreign country with little to do. The two of them set out on a disorienting tour of Japanese nightlife. Lost In Translation reminds me of one of my favorite romantic films, Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, both in its avoidance of romantic-movie clichés, and in its use of exotic location. Handheld camera warning.
The Quiet American (neutral/+) is an earnest allegorical retelling of the Vietnam War debacle, set in the waning days of the French phase of the war and based on the novel by Graham Greene. Michael Caine turns in an extraordinary performance as Thomas Fowler, a debauched British journalist working just enough to stay near his Vietnamese mistress. Brendan Frasier co-stars as Pyle, a can-do young American whose eagerness to remake Vietnam (and Fowler's mistress) leads to entangling alliances and ultimately disaster. Caine’s casting is beyond dispute; Frasier is wooden, but perhaps intentionally so. The mistress character disappoints; she seems mysterious, but the mystery (if any) never unfolds. The Quiet American is a decent film, but would be unlikely to garner this much attention without its eerie similarity to the current Iraq situation. Interestingly, the novel itself predates the Vietnamese-American War, and the first film version is from 1958; I don't know how much the novel resembles either screen version.
Chicago (+/++) is an exuberant new musical based on the stage musical by Bob Fosse. Renee Zellweger gets top billing as a ditzy blonde whose dreams of stardom lead her to murder. Zellweger is good as always, but is held back by her limited dance skills. The real energy comes from Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose career started in song-and-dance, and singer Queen Latifah, belting out the blues as a corrupt prison matron. Richard Gere is competent but forgettable as the lawyer over whom Zellweger and Zeta-Jones compete. The sultry and captivating dance numbers are strictly stage pieces, Fosse-esque if not literally taken from Fosse's choreography. I greatly enjoyed this film, but I do wonder why the producers couldn't find more actors/actresses with dance credentials.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (++) continues the ground-breaking adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy work. Director Peter Jackson paints the epic battles of Middle Earth larger than life, filming with a master's skill in the preternaturally gorgeous wildernesses of New Zealand, and making good use of an ample budget and the latest special effects. The Two Towers continues the grand deeds of Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas and (played very much for comic relief) Gimli, in the style of the great mythological heroes of antiquity.
This is a film with two hearts. The first is the grand battle between the good humans of Rohan and the evil orc army of Isengard at the fortress of Helm's Deep, and the second, is the interplay between hobbits Frodo and Sam and the corrupted but pitiable creature Gollum/Smeagol as they make their way toward Mordor. As with Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson does not hesitate to streamline the plot of the books as needed to build a movie series which stands on its own. The plot of Tolkien's second book presents somewhat more challenge to a movie adaptation than the first, with its action divided between different characters operating in two or three places at a time. Those who saw the first film (or who have read the trilogy) should be able to follow along well enough; neophytes may not understand much of the action but should still enjoy the spectacle.
Those who follow up the experience of the movie by reading the book trilogy will fully appreciate the creation of a detailed world which largely founded the entire genre of fantasy fiction.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (+) is a roller-coaster ride through the world of Harry Potter and the wizarding boarding-school Hogwarts. Like the first movie (Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone), director Chris Columbus (Home Alone) sticks close to the flow of events in the children's book phenomenon from which the series is adapted. Also like the first film, the sheer number of characters and plot points make this more of an action film than a tour of JK Rowling's detailed world. I would have preferred to see the film adaptation reduce the number of characters and adventures to give each more screen time, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Filmgoers unfamiliar with the books should enjoy the nonstop action but are unlikely to understand much of what is going on. Devotees of the books (like myself) should have a richer experience, but will still see only fleeting images of their beloved magical world.
Far From Heaven (++): Art film director Todd Haynes (Safe) works a curious magic with his latest and most accessible outing, the melodrama Far From Heaven, infusing a modern ironic sensibility into an homage to the Fifties Douglas Sirk melodrama. The most boldly-drawn character is the setting itself, the Stepford Wives world of moneyed suburban Connecticut, where upscale housewives rule over exquisite and palatial homes and gossip over highballs while their husbands run the world from unseen offices and drinking establishments. Haynes bathes this world in the gold-washed haze of a Connecticut autumn, an excess of tamed nature and flawless fifties period kitsch. Julianne Moore anchors the film as a well-coiffed homemaker, plastering the image of the perfect hostess over an empty marriage and purposeless life. Over the course of the film, she is pushed by crisis and longing beyond the boundaries of her sheltered life. Dennis Quaid plays her husband, a stiff advertising executive who gives up everything to follow long-hidden urges. (Some have referred to this as Quaid's breakthrough role; personally, I think he doesn't hold a candle to Moore here, but this role certainly marks a step up in his flagging career.) The characters' language and mannerisms are a sort of parody of nouveau riche America's view of itself, where "gosh-darn" is the strongest profanity and fraternizing with the coloreds is eccentric and shameful. Far From Heaven's achievement is to duplicate this mythic structure, then deliberately introduce cracks into it, letting raw human longings pierce through the facade its' characters strive so hard to project. In the hands of a lesser actress than Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven would surely have been a stale and fruitless experiment. Her subtle work injects emotional depth into the contrived melodrama, adding modern punch to what could otherwise have been a pointless rehashing of outmoded stereotypes.
Star Trek: Nemesis (neutral) is a straightforward actioner which should appeal to the core Trek fan base and also satisfy the popcorn crowd. It fills the screen with a maximum of spaceship combat and a minimum of cumbersome plot, and should confuse no one even at its lean 116 minutes screen time.
Die Another Day breaks no new ground in the hoary James Bond franchise, but its mix of action, effects, and juvenile wordplay should satisfy fans of the series. The Bond series seems to be attracting escalating talent for its secondary roles, even as the plots get sillier and more effects-driven. Recurring characters M and Q are now played ably by Judi Dench and John Cleese; Dench seems to know that she's slumming but plays it straight nonetheless, and Cleese hams it up in his inimitable fashion. What's more, the lead Bond girl this year is no less than Halle Berry. Berry, just off her unlikely Oscar for Monster's Ball (Die Another Day was already in production) plays Jinx, Bond's unpredictable American sidekick/competitor. In a first for a Bond girl, there is talk of Jinx becoming a recurring character, or even getting her own Spinoff film. As for Pierce Brosnan as Bond, well, he's not the worst to Fill those shoes, but he's no Sean Connery either.
With this film, director Lee Tamahori (The Edge) completes his transformation into the quintessal Hollywood transplant, filling the screen with effects and mindless violence, and saddening the hearts of those few hardy cinephiles who remember his brilliant but grueling debut film Once Were Warriors.
Spiderman, directed by Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness), is the most comic-book-like of any of the comic-book-based feature films I have seen so far. Raimi injects a heavy dose of punch and flash into the action scenes, both the fight scenes, and Spiderman's gravity-defying jaunts through the urban canyonland of New York. Tobey Maguire (The Ice Storm, Cider House Rules) is surprisingly at home, bringing his earnest teenager shtick successfully into this new territory. Raimi's heart is not in dialogue, however, and some scenes with Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin drag a bit. Many scenes appear framed to look just like drawings from a comic strip, which works well in the action scenes, but less well in the close-ups of Green Goblin. Overall, Spiderman is a solid summer blockbuster appropriate for teenagers and teenagers-at-heart. (Previews promise an upcoming feature-film adaptation of The Hulk, improbably directed by Ang Lee!)
I sat down ready to like this much-maligned sci-fi venture by Steven Spielberg, but in the end it was just too awful to bear. The problem lies in the portentous, mawkish, unwieldy script. Several times in the last 45 minutes, I found myself thinking that the film should already have ended, and why was it still going on? The plot is so disjointed that many voiceovers are needed, violating the "show don't tell" rule of cinema. A thorough editing job might have salvaged an decent 90-minute feature from this 145-minute monstrosity; probably Spielberg's stature prevented the studio from making the cuts A.I. so richly needs. (Perhaps we need a Phantom Edit, or a re-release titled "A.I.: The Studio's Cut"?) That said, Spielberg gets some luminous visuals into the film, and there are some moments which work emotionally even if they lack in subtlety.
Italian for Beginners is a gritty working-class Danish ensemble comedy, the first of the ultra-cinema-verite Dogme95-compliant films to be properly called a comedy. I've never much liked Dogme95; its strict rules on camera technique almost always result in films which make me nauseous on the big screen. Italian for Beginners is easily the most watchable and least nausea-inducing of these films, by parts both funny and heart-warming. Still, I can't recommend this film to casual filmgoers. See Amelie instead.
This weepy melodrama features Kevin Kline a repressed architect's assistant with terminal cancer who tries to repair his relationship with his troubled son (Hayden Christiansen, Anakin Skywalker in the upcoming Star Wars Episode II). This is a pretty predictable enterprise, but it works vis-à-vis weepiness, and the acting is good. I found the smirky sex-comedy elements a little off-putting.
Shot low-budget and somewhat grainy, Mira Nair's new film Monsoon Wedding follows a colorful New Delhi wedding through the usual TV-movie travails. It's watchable, reasonably well-acted and filled with local color, but ultimately doesn't need to be on the big screen. Catch it on video.
Panic Room is a taut, well-constructed thriller about a divorcee (Jodie Foster) and her young daughter hiding in a "panic room" from a motley band of home-invaders. Forest Whitaker puts in an especially good turn as the conflicted antagonist. Director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) adds some interesting "Hitchcock-ian" camerawork, but the most important contribution is the tightly-paced script from David Koepp (Apartment Zero, Jurassic Park).
Wit (the Mike Nichols / Emma Thompson adaptation) is a well-acted and engaging TV-movie adaptation of the noted play, although unquestionably a severe downer. It concerns the struggle of a severe and ascetic English professor (Emma Thompson) with terminal cancer. Her detachment and razor-sharp intelligence are put to the test by the debilitating effects of disease and chemotherapy. Some moments of this film may be difficult to watch, especially if you have any personal history with the subject matter.
The Royal Tenenbaums gathered a great deal of acclaim this year, but I wasn't impressed. The A-list cast (Genen Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller and others) do manage to breathe some life into the self-consciously clichéd and improbable scenario, mostly by chewing the scenery. I enjoyed the film, more or less, but I can't help wishing that these talents had been put behind better material.
Monster's Ball is a small, experimental melodrama about a death-row prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) and the wife of an executed prisoner (Halle Berry). The film was vaulted to national attention by the star power of the leads and their strong performances. Thornton does his best white trash imitation, while Halle Berry cries and shrieks through her emotionally overexposed role. Speaking of overexposed, detractors may note the dictum that an Oscar-winning performance for an actress is when she gets naked; that she does, but there is some real acting going on as well.
No Man's Land is an extended parable on the Balkan war, set mostly in an abandoned trench between the lines during the siege of Sarajevo. A Bosnian and a Serb solder play out in miniature the suffering, frustration, and mutual recriminations of their peoples in the war that brought the word "ethnic cleansing" to the world. This is an earnest little film with a clear educational intent; it tried to be evenhanded but clearly originates from the Bosnian perspective. The filmmakers reserve their strongest bile for the generals of UNPROFOR, the United Nations forces which protected shipments of humanitarian relief but did nothing to get between the warring factions.
I went to see No Man's Land because it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Presumably the Academy voters chose this film precisely to get people to see a mostly-Serbian-language film which wouldn't otherwise have gotten much play outside of Serbia. I don't regret seeing it, but there is no question that Amelie is a better film in almost every category. I will grant that the final image of No Man's Land is one that will stay with me for a long time.
The recent adaptation of Fellowship of the Ring, as directed by New Zealand's Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures), is a lush and engaging epic which IMHO more than does justice to the book. (I will refer to this film as LotR through the rest of this review.) The hundreds of millions of dollars New Line put into this project are all on screen. All the settings, from Hobbiton through Rivendell and Moria, are richly rendered with a combination of live sets and computer graphics. Jackson also makes good use of the wilds of New Zealand, pulling back to show sweeping wide shots of the distances the Fellowship must travel.
While this is clearly a "director's film," credit must be given to the cast of actors, both for their performances and for their perseverance through the extraordinarily long shoot. Ian McKellen presents a strong and idiosyncratic Gandalf. Ian Holm is an impeccable choice for Bilbo Baggins, in fact it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Gandalf, Aragorn, Frodo and Sam get the bulk of the screen time, the other members of the Fellowship are perhaps a bit short-changed.
Much was made in advance of the technology which would shrink the halfling-actors relative to the set and other actors. I suspect this may not have worked out as well as was hoped. The standard pre-computer-graphics camera trick is to show only one actor's face and another's back in any shot, and this trick was clearly in heavy use in the early scenes in Hobbiton. It was a little jarring at first (at least to my practiced eye), but it didn't bother me after a while.
Inevitably, with their near-simultaneous releases, LotR will be compared with the recent adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Harry Potter is clearly a children's film, and this works to its disadvantage. LotR has much more of a sense of fear and real hazard, where Harry Potter (like Star Wars Episode 1) pulls away from anything which might scare small children. Howard Shore's soundtrack to LotR is unremarkable and sometimes heavy-handed, but still better than John Williams' score to Harry Potter. Finally, perhaps because Harry Potter is newer and its author is still alive, Harry Potter hews much closer to a literal reading of the book than LotR. While Harry Potter as a book has much more of a cinematic pacing than LotR, it is still weighed down by extra baggage which Peter Jackson was willing and able to jettison.
Even after all these decades, the Lord of the Rings trilogy has a band of devotees who will doubtless pick out all of the movie's departures from the book. Perhaps I am one of these devotees; I must admit to feeling saddened after seeing an LotR-themed Burger King commercial. That said, none of these changes particularly disturb me, in fact I think they are for the better. The LotR books are centered first around language and setting, and second around Joseph Campbell-esque myth. The plot of the books is still gripping, but definitely needs to be tightened up by a script editor in order to move to cinematic form. Tolkien's LotR book trilogy was a labor of love, which I'm not sure was ever touched by a book editor.
Here is a list of differences I picked out. Spoiler warning…
And now for a nitpicking possible continuity error in the movie: How does Gandalf retrieve his staff when he escapes from Orthanc? In the movie, Saruman takes Gandalf's staff, and Gandalf doesn't seem to have any chance to recover it; yet Gandalf has his staff at Rivendell. (In the book, Gandalf does not give details of his capture at Orthanc, and wizards' staffs generally have less prominence.)
I do have to wonder how the fractured narrative of The Two Towers (the second of the three books) will translate to the screen. Nonetheless, I can hardly wait...
Amelie (currently playing at the Egyptian, Redmond Town Center and Galleria 11) is a darling confection which I recommend for any adult moviegoer with a tolerance for subtitles. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet was previously co-director (with Marc Caro) of Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. Delicatessen (I haven't seen City of Lost Children but have heard similar things) is a visually audacious film but lacks characters about whom the viewer can care. Amelie adds this critical element, in the form of eccentric young Amelie (Audrey Tautou), a shy and withdrawn young woman whose fantasy life provides rich material for Jeunet's visual imagination. Amelie's baroque plots to improve the lives of her neighbors and co-workers stretch credulity at times, so you may want to approach this film from a "magic realism" perspective. And speaking of magic...
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (currently playing absolutely everywhere) is a good film, and of course you will see it anyhow if you haven't already. Hogwarts, Quidditch, and the rest of JK Rowling's world are well-realized visually, using the latest computer-generated effects (perhaps a little too obviously in the case of the Quidditch match). The adult actors give solid performances for the most part, especially Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, and even the bit parts attract some major talent (John Cleese as Nearly Headless Nick). The child performances are also good, both the leads and the lesser roles. The film script hews close to the book, almost on a scene-by-scene basis, accounting for the 2 1/2-hour running time. The magic and pacing of the book translate well to the screen.
So what's not to like? First, I felt that the lead child role (Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter) was underplayed. Harry just felt a little flat. (Perhaps this is inevitable for an audience identification character.) More generally, the film suffers from the same problem as Star Wars Episode 1; it isn't scary or dark enough. With one exception (Hermione and the troll in the girl's bathroom), Harry's travails are more cute than emotionally involving. Some of the "zinger" lines delivered by the child leads contribute to this cutesy feel. This is where the influence of director Chris Columbus (Home Alone) is most strongly felt, and not in a good way. Finally, the score (John Williams) is a lost opportunity. They could have created something unique, developed a "Harry Potter" theme which would stay with us throughout the series. Instead, it sounds just like every other film score, and you come away remembering nothing of it.
Really, these are pretty minor complaints. The film may just be aimed at a younger audience (again, like Star Wars Episode 1), for whom truly scary scenes would be just too much. The movie version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a faithful rendition of the bestselling book, and an enjoyable and well-paced flick to boot. It's just no Wizard of Oz. I have high hopes for the rest of the series.
Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure is a rousing 45-minute adventure which makes good use of the giant IMAX screen at the Pacific Science Center. I have seen three IMAX films in the past months (Journey Into Amazing Caves, Something Something Panda Adventure), all of which seem to fit into the same general formula. This is probably the best of the three, possibly the most adult-oriented, though all are suitable for children.
Waking Life is a quirky, introspective, very cerebral movie. Director Richard Linklater (Slackers, Dazed And Confused, Before Sunrise, SubUrbia) filmed a series of dreamlike sequences, mostly intense philosophical conversations, then had team of animators color animation over them. I compare it to the best Philosophy 101 lecture you could ever attend. Waking Life isn't for everyone, but fellow fans of My Dinner With Andre should like it. Of course, Linklater is among my favorite directors ever; I would watch his home movies.
[5/27/99] Classic Reviews: An Internet correspondent recently pointed me to a series of reviews I wrote for the UUCP moderated newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews in 1991-1992. These reviews are much more in depth than my more recent work. Links:
Did You Know: You can buy a Landmark Discount Card good for five admissions for only $26 ($5.20 per admission)! These cards can be used in any Landmark theater Monday through Thursday, or Fri-Sun before 6pm, or anytime at the Varsity Filmcalendar showings, and up to two people can take admissions from the same card for a showing. The Landmark theatres are: Broadway Market, Egyptian, Guild 45th, Harvard Exit, Metro, Neptune, Seven Gables, and Varsity.
Here are a few movie reviews for films other than those I saw at the Seattle International Film Festival:
I strongly recommend The Straight Story. It is not a "Lynchian" movie in the usual sense (depravity and violence); rather, it shows David Lynch's technical mastery in the context of an uplifting and affecting story. Richard Farnsworth is magnificent, as is Angelo Badalamente's soundtrack.
The new drama American Beauty is an investigation into the seamier side of American suburban life, following in the footsteps of Blue Velvet, Welcome To the Dollhouse, and The Ice Storm. Actually, American Beauty is rather derivative of Ang Lee's The Ice Storm in many respects (not least its plotline), adding a little surrealism and sly comedy (which The Ice Storm was notably lacking) and subtracting some of the cinematography. As has been noted by many reviewers, American Beauty is a remarkable showpiece for the talents of Kevin Spacey, with strong supporting performances all around (although I wasn't very fond of Annette Bening here). American Beauty should play well with fans of the aforementioned films, although it probably doesn't measure up with the best of them. IMDB link
This three-hour WWII film may not have been been intended as the artfilm answer to Saving Private Ryan, but with its release so soon after Spielberg's latest masterpiece, it is difficult to interpret it any other way. Set in the Pacific theater during the harsh fighting on Guadalcanal, THE THIN RED LINE is more of an unambiguous condemnation of war. Director Terence Malick (1970s wunderkind whose last film was Days of Heaven in 1978) contrasts the inhumanity of the soldiers' duty with a Margaret Mead-like idealized picture of Polynesian tribal life, and with impossibly beautiful nature scenes surrounding the carnage. The characters wax philosophical rather frequently, and frankly I had some trouble keeping them straight. THE THIN RED LINE contains some memorable images and may come to rank among anti-war classics such as Gallipoli, but I can't elevate it to the level of Saving Private Ryan, owing to its unnatural dialogue and relative lack of moral complexity. IMDB link
GODS AND MONSTERS is a well-acted, somewhat stagy character study. Famed British actor Ian McKellen portrays James Whale, a homosexual movie director best known for his Frankenstein movies, in his waning years. Lynn Redgrave and, interestingly enough, Brendan Frasier provide solid backup. I can't rave about this (as some have) but it did keep my interest. IMDB link
This British drama features Jane Horrocks (best known for her role in the TV series Absolutely Fabulous) as an emotionally disturbed girl whose learned talent to imitate singing stars is exploited by a sleazy producer (Michael Caine) with the help of her floozy mother (Brenda Blethyn in a role similar to her earlier Secrets And Lies). In the spirit of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, this is a dark work portraying the desperation of the British lower classes. IMDB link
LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is destined to be a controversial film, but those who can escape feeling offended will be richly rewarded. The first half is a classic vehicle for the Italian actor Roberto Benigni (NIGHT ON EARTH), a loud and clownish comedian whose work as actor and director recalls Chaplin and early Robin Williams. Benigni plays Guido Orefice, a working-class everyman courting the wealthy fiancée of an Italian Fascist heavy around 1930. This part of the film is quality slapstick comedy which could easily have been made sixty years ago, with only a few hints of the darkness to follow.
The plot flashes forward about eight years, with Guido and his wife living comfortably as shopkeepers with their son Giorgio. What was previously only hinted at is now painfully central: Benigni's character is Jewish, and the political tides have brought German influence and anti-Semitism into their lives. As they are deported to a concentration camp, Guido desperately tries to recast their deportation as a voluntary father/son excursion, and to keep Giorgio adhering to the rules for survival without frightening him. In one emblematic scene, Guido "translates" the camp guard's clipped instructions from German (which he doesn't understand anyhow) into Italian as the rules of a children's game, such as "Don't even think about asking for a lollipop. We ate them all!" Comedy, suspense, and horror flow together as Guido juggles his own struggle for survival, the need to keep Giorgio out of trouble, and the ongoing deception which is, perhaps, all that keeps both their souls alive.
The juxtaposition of bittersweet family comedy and Holocaust horror is very disconcerting, I expect purposefully so, and some of the popular response doesn't seem to be able to get past this. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL also falls short of the level of realism in even Schindler's List (notwithstanding the disclaimer added to LIFE... that it is only a "fairy tale"), and the idea of a (partial) comedy set in the camps is offensive to easily-offended modern tastes. I can only say that I found this film to be both profoundly funny, and also a moving tribute to the possibility of humanity in the worst circumstances. It may not be for everyone. If you go, try to go in thinking of it as a film about family set in the Holocaust, rather than as a film about the Holocaust. Images from LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL have stayed with me for months, which is why I consider this to be one of the best films of 1998. IMDB link
INSOMNIA is a smart noir-ish police drama set in the midnight sun of northern Norway. Jonas Engstrom (Stellan Skarsgard from BREAKING THE WAVES), a Swedish homicide investigator, is sent to Norway to investigate the murder of a young woman. When the investigation goes tragically wrong, Engstrom finds himself trapped in a web of deceit. IMDB link
PI is a low-budget horror flick with a brain. The protagonist, Max Cohn, is a renegade mathematician pursuing patterns which he believes will unlock the secrets of the stock market and perhaps much else. As he draws nearer, he is pursued by greedy investors and Jewish numerologists, although we are never sure just what is real and what a drug-and-migraine-induced paranoid fantasy. This gory black-and-white artfilm is difficult to watch and definitely not for everyone, but I enjoyed it. PI reminded me somewhat of Peter Jackson's HEAVENLY CREATURES, although the latter is visually a much more interesting film. IMDB link
THE AVENGERS is really as bad as you have heard. Fellow Serious Fool Bill describes it as "Batman and Robin in London." The plot is eminently predictable, and the dialogue loaded with atrocious groaners of one-liners. Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman do their best but cannot capture the essential camp of their roles as superagents John Steed and Emma Peel, although John Broadbent puts in a good turn in a smaller role. A few scenes are visually interesting, and the special effects are grand and eye-catching; the effects are somewhat sterile though, obviously purely computer-generated, depicting a London oddly stripped of people, automobiles, everything but buildings. Perhaps fans of the old TV series will catch some in-jokes I missed, but even so, that would hardly merit spending time and money on this stinker. IMDB link
LAND GIRLS is a Masterpiece Theater-style drama about three young women who help out at a British farm during World War II. The basic premise has promise and the film is well-acted, well-directed and well-photographed. This could have gone somewhere but unfortunately the plot stays with the predictable romantic entanglements.
This smart little thriller is the latest from David Mamet (House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross). Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) is an meek scientist who has developed a valuable "process" for his company (this "process" is the MacGuffin around which the story centers). Joe becomes involved in an ever-more-elaborate web of intrigue involving wealthy financiers, Caribbean getaways, the Feds, and his down-to-earth secretary Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon). The dialogue is quick and witty, and at under two hours, THE SPANISH PRISONER is over almost too quickly. Steve Martin provides the only sour note with his flat performance as the enigmatic and wealthy Jimmy Dell.
SLIDING DOORS is a clever, high-concept romantic comedy, definitely a good date flick. The high concept is the "butterfly effect": how might your life be different if some little inconsequential thing had gone differently? In this case, we follow Helen's life (Gwyneth Paltrow) if she does, or doesn't, just get on a subway train before the door closes. Will she catch her scumbag boyfriend (John Lynch) in bed with another woman? Will she recover her career and self-respect? Will your date get all gooey over Helen's knight-in-shining-armor whom she may or may not ever meet? There are some surprises along the way, but you can be sure this is a safe choice for your female companion.
MEN WITH GUNS, director John Sayles' latest film (LONE STAR, RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN), is a mostly-Spanish-language polemical drama set in an unspecified Latin American country. Federico Lippi (ECSTASY) stars as a wealthy doctor searching for the students he sent on a program to help Indians. As he travels through the backcountry, he learns of the hidden war which has claimed the lives of his students and dominates the lives of the villagers there. The purpose of this film does not appear to be entertainment so much as education, to teach about the persecution of Indians and the low-intensity warfare which dominates the lives of villagers in several Latin American countries. MEN WITH GUNS is engaging but very heavy-handed, and should be considered quality agitprop akin to EL NORTE.
THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION is an enjoyable romantic comedy and date flick. Jennifer Aniston ("Rachel Green" from the TV series FRIENDS) stars as Nina, a young social worker torn between her overbearing boyfriend and the gay roommate (Paul Rudder) to whom she is attracted. When Nina becomes pregnant, she sets a course into the uncharted waters of parenthood-by-choice. I found the ending a little forced, but the plot is bright and modern and the performances are fine, especially that of Nigel Hawthorne (THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE) in a supporting role.
THE BUTCHER BOY is an unappealing Irish drama about a young boy who becomes a psychotic bully and murderer. Stephen Rea (THE CRYING GAME) stars as the boy's drunkard father and also as the elder version of the boy. Director Neil Jordan (THE CRYING GAME) achieves neither the poignancy of STAND BY ME, nor the wicked comedy of THE YOUNG POISONER'S HANDBOOK. The lack of a character with whom one can identify is compounded by the impenetrable Irish dialect which makes following the dialogue a chore.
Robert Duvall (NETWORK, APOCALYPSE NOW) wrote, directed, and stars in this actor's tour de force and quite properly earns his Oscar nomination for best actor. Duvall plays "Sonny" Dewey, a manic, fervent, oddly childlike preacher and evangelist. "Sonny" loses his wife (played by Farrah Fawcett), family and church all at once, and in a moment of anger commits a crime which sends him on the run. Landing in a small and distant town, he uses all his hustle and charisma to build a new ministry as "The Apostle E. F.".
Much of THE APOSTLE consists of revival meetings and ecstatic Baptist preaching. As a Jew, I have had little exposure to this and found it be the most interesting part of the film (although the final sequence could have been trimmed a bit); it can be a little uncomfortable at times though. THE APOSTLE avoids the cliches about hypocritical, power-crazed evangelists; "Sonny" is nothing if not geniune. As my date remarked, "I don't think I've heard the name 'Jesus' spoken in a film in a long time, except as a cuss-word". Amen.
THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS is HK veteran Chow Yun-Fat's debut English-language film. Tyro director Antoine Fuqua turns out an adequate but unimpressive actioner set mostly at night in a generic Chinatown. Some of the action sequences, notably a shootout in an active car wash, try for the poetry of classic HK action such as John Woo's THE KILLER or HARDBOILED, but don't come close. Reflecting the film's HK roots, the plot is minimal, something to be gotten over with quickly between action scenes. For a directorial debut, THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS covers very little new ground, and at 86 minutes runtime it isn't a minute too short. The advertising emphasizes John Woo's role, but he was only executive producer; while the format of the film is similar to John Woo's work, his magic is notably absent here.
JACKIE BROWN, the new film by Quentin Tarantino, is an enjoyable homage to the blaxploitation genre of the late 60s / early 70s, and more particularly an homage to blaxploitation star Pam Grier (COFFY, FRIDAY FOSTER). The script, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, is a classic criminal drama about a crooked flight stewardess (Grier) and a bail bondsman (Robert Forster) playing the cops (Michael Keaton) against a gun-runner (Samuel L. Jackson). JACKIE BROWN isn't as fast-paced or as witty as Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS or PULP FICTION but it does stand up as a character study. The biggest weakness of JACKIE BROWN is that Tarantino is too worshipful of Ms. Grier. In particular, he lets the camera linger on her too long; Ms. Grier is a fine actress, but the tracking scene of her walking through an airport terminal, lasting several minutes through the entire opening credits, is more than any actress could make interesting. Mr. Tarantino seems to intend for this film to bring back Pam Grier in the same way that Pulp Fiction brought back John Travolta; whether this works will tell us a great deal about the state of race relations in Hollywood today.
THE TANGO LESSON, by British director Sally Potter (ORLANDO), has some wonderful dance moments but is really too self-indulgent to fly. Ms. Potter wrote, directed, and stars in this film about a British film director who decides to make a film about ... well, about a film director who decides to make this film. Pablo Veron, as the dance instructor (also has choreography credit), is a marvellous dancer and has considerable screen presence. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Ms. Potter, who spends much too much time onscreen and has no presence at all. There are a few memorable dance scenes, and I give Ms. Potter credit for learning enough tango herself to dance credibly with Mr. Veron, but this isn't enough to redeem the film. Hopefully Sally Potter will decide to hire an actress in her next film (Tilda Swinton starred in ORLANDO). See SHALL WE DANCE? instead of this film.
The basic material of THE SWEET HEREAFTER is as affecting as one can imagine -- the aftermath of a schoolbus accident which claimed the lives of most of the children of a small Canadian town. Ian Holm plays Mitchell Stephens, a lawyer who comes into town to collect clients for a lawsuit against any available deep pockets. The shattered survivors are suspicious of this interloper and hesitant to assign blame for their catastrophe. His masterful emotional manipulation convinces some to sign up, but others stand against him.
The film starts slow, and director Atom Egoyan's (EXOTICA, THE ADJUSTER) sparse, posed visual style is not for everyone. The emotional power of the film builds in its second and third half-hour, and overall this is the most moving film I have seen this year. THE SWEET HEREAFTER reaches more than pathos, it delves into the nature of community, parenthood, and responsibility. This is not an easy film to watch, but it richly deserves the raves and awards it has received.
WAG THE DOG, from director Barry Levinson, is the funniest and most cynical political comedy since (and possibly including) Bob Roberts. Dustin Hoffman carries the film as Stanley Motss, a vainglorious Hollywood producer called upon to "produce" a war in Albania. Robert De Niro is weaker but still solid as secretive fixer Conrad Brean, who invents the war (he calls it a "pageant") to keep the media and public distracted from the President's latest sex scandal for eleven days until elections. The script, co-written by David Mamet, is loaded with memorable one-liners. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits also deserves credit for the soundtrack, as does Willie Nelson for being Willie Nelson on-screen.
CHASING AMY is not a date movie! This romance about a twentysomething cartoonist (Ben Affleck) winning over lusty lesbian Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) offers many observations on the nature of love, some sidesplittingly funny, but it ranges into the uncomfortably vulgar a few too many times. Director Kevin Smith (CLERKS) creates some inspires moments but he needs to work on his dialogue; some of the characters monologues are too practiced and self-important to be believable. CHASING AMY is not a perfect film, but with the right company it could make a good rental.
What a hoot! CITIZEN RUTH takes the oh-so-serious minefield of the abortion debate and makes it into a farce. Laura Dern, looking as unglamorous as is possible for Laura Dern, plays Ruth, a paint-sniffing jailbird with several illegitimate children already living with relatives. Charged in effect with "fetus endangerment," she becomes a pawn in the abortion debate when the "Baby-Savers" (a thin disguise for Operation Rescue) learn of the authorities offer to clear some charges if she "gets rid of the problem." The comically earnest Christian pro-lifers take Ruth under their wing but cant keep her away from the model glue. Ruth is then "rescued" by lesbian Goddess-worshiping pro-choicers who are similarly unable to see her as a person rather than an issue. The film portrays the zealots on both sides with kindness and humor, although I cant help thinking that they took some unfair shots at the head of the Baby-Savers (played by Burt Reynolds). Look for CITIZEN RUTH at your favorite video store.
Also: If you are in the mood for political comedy, look for WAG THE DOG, coming soon to a multiplex near you. Ive only seen the trailers, but this looks like a must-see.
Fans of Allens previous work of this ilk (ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN) should enjoy DECONSTRUCTING HARRY, but the film can be difficult to follow and is not for everybody. The plot centers on Harry (Woody Allen), a thrice-married, philandering, pill-popping, neurotic wreck of an author in the spirit of Philip Roth. He has just published a satirical novel, a barely fictionalized account of his own life; his wives, ex-lovers, and family are all furious. Two sets of actors play all the major roles; the first as real people, the second as fictional characters modeled after the real people. This whole enterprise is really too "meta" for words and I had some trouble keeping it all straight.
As usual, everyone wants to appear in a Woody Allen film, and he gathers much of the best talent (Judy Davis) and biggest box-office names (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, i.e. Elaine on the sitcom Seinfeld). Even the secondary roles get big-gun names. Many of Allens usual favorites (Richard Benjamin, Julie Kavner) are also present.
Allen experiments here with a different visual style than his usual, using jumpy cuts rather than long flowing Steadicam. He also creates an inspired Zelig-esque low-tech special effect; watch for Robin Williams in an inspired if "unfocused" role.
It is difficult to interpret DECONSTRUCTING HARRY other than as a plea for understanding for Allens troubled and all-too-public personal life. At the same time, the cynical might ask whether the timing of Allens marriage to Soon-Yi Previn was itself chosen to gather publicity for the movie itself. The extent to which the character Harry is modeled on Allen himself is debatable (see Allens comments in a previous posting in this folder), but Allens life and art are definitely intertwined in complex ways.
SWINGERS is a low-budget comedy gem about five guys in LA and the art of picking up women. Mike, still getting over the breakup of a long relationship, is befriended by Trent, who tries to teach him how to get a womans phone number and exactly how many days to wait before calling. Over the next few weeks, they and their friends move from Vegas to Beverly Hills, from diner to nightclub, from one party to another, trying out their lines and comparing notes. SWINGERS is very reminiscent of DINER, set a few decades later.
This latest effort by one of my favorite directors, Richard Linklater, shares the suburban-loser-generation milieu of his breakout debut, SLACKERS. SubUrbia was originally a stage play by Eric Bogosian and still shows its origins; most of the action takes place behind a convenience store. Five slackers are forced to confront their alienation and aimlessness when a former friend, now an MTV rock star, comes to visit. SubUrbia is more openly a "message" film than Linklaters earlier works, and definitely tends more to drama than comedy. I cant say I found it as affecting as those earlier works.
Also: If you havent yet seen BEFORE SUNRISE, Linklaters heartwarming and romantic third film, get your sweetie and rent it today!
Directed By Steven Spielberg
Starring Etc: http://us.imdb.com/Title?Amistad+(1997)
Amistad is a three-hour historical drama centered on a revolt on a slave ship and the ensuing legal proceedings. The inevitable comparison is with Spielberg's Schindler's List:
Both films are instructional historical dramas focusing on past racist atrocities.
Both films have received / will receive criticism for their fast-and-loose portrayal of historical facts.
Both films have received / will receive criticism for making the central character not a member of that race.
Both films have a somewhat artificial happy ending.
Both films feature music by John Williams.
Some parts of Amistad have the Spielberg feel, in particular the disturbing early scenes in the dark hold of the slave-ship, and some other scenes depicting the slave trade. However, most of the film is a costumer courtroom drama.
I can't claim to be able to be able to compare these two films fairly; I don't have the same visceral connection to the horrors of slavery as to the Holocaust. That said, one relative weakness in Amistad is the predictability of the plot. In Spielberg's earlier work, he seems to understand that twists and surprises are essential to maintaining audience interest, but the plot of Amistad plays through like clockwork.
Spielberg obviously has his pick of actors, and gets the best, including the latest hot property, Matthew McConaghey. I can't claim to be as taken by Anthony Hopkin's portrayal of John Quincy Adams as some reviewers, this quaint doddering old man with sappy background music just didn't interest me. Djimoun Honsou, on the other hand, entirely earns his accolades as Cinque, the magnetic leader of the slave rebellion.
All in all, you will probably want to see this.
Directed by: Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs), Alec Baldwin (Glengarry Glen Ross)
Written by: David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross)
The Edge is a Jack London-style adventure about three men lost in the wilds of Alaska. Hopkins and Baldwin do fine, although neither is stretched much by the simple characterizations. Mamet's touch for dialogue shines through occasionally but not often enough. Still, this is a well-paced and well-filmed adventure.
The release of The Edge also serves as a reminder to get to your video store and rent Tamahori's earlier film ONCE WERE WARRIORS, a harrowing low-budget drama from New Zealand about a Maori woman and her abusive husband.
Ulee's Gold is a quiet low-budget melodrama centered on Ulysses Jackson (Peter Fonda), a taciturn Florida beekeeper struggling to keep his family together. I can't claim to be as impressed by this film as some other reviewers, but Fonda does turn in a strong performance.
I saw of preview of this stinker on Tuesday night. It stars John Cusack as the "professional killer", Minnie Driver as the love interest, Dan Akroyd as the heavy (and he has indeed gotten pretty heavy), and I think Alan Arkin as Cusack's psychiatrist. Grosse Point Blank tries to be a light-hearted parody (of what I'm not quite sure) but never really goes anywhere. Minnie Driver is excellent but cannot redeem the material. The less said about Akroyd the better. Grosse Point Blank tries for a John Woo-style ending but this director just doesn't have the touch.
Starring: Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman.
Someone once said that the main problem scripting a romantic movie was to keep the boy and the girl apart for 90 minutes. Many films have resorted to identity confusion to achieve this, and The Truth About Cats And Dogs runs even sillier than most. This isn't on the level of, say, Sleepless in Seattle, for two reasons:
Nonetheless this is an enjoyable film and a creditable work overall, supported by a strong performance by Janeane Garofalo whom I expect we will see again.
Director: Henry Jaglom
Starring: Victoria Foyt (Jaglom's real-life wife), Viveca Lindfors, others
The overall format of Last Summer will be familiar to any fan of Henry Jaglom's Eating: a group of neurotic but creative people (in this case, a theatrical family and their friends and hangers-on) gather together in a grand house, where they will bare their innermost secrets to one another and the camera. Where other films manage perhaps a half-dozen peak emotional moments, Jaglom packs in dozens of them, one after the other, like a series of casting auditions strung together. Still, the plot does hang together, and the quality of acting is simply on another level from almost anything else you are likely to see. Jaglom has a talent for giving his actors space to work. One vignette in particular, an encounter between a young playwright and his too-close-for-comfort sister, must be seen to be believed. Try to see this before it closes.
Director: Mike Newell
Starring: Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Georgina Cates
Those looking for light, uplifting entertainment similar to Newell's better-known works "Enchanted April" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" should look elsewhere; An Awfully Big Adventure is as bleak and depressing a movie as I have seen in some time. It centers on Stella (Georgina Cates), a teenager and aspiring actress being raised by her aunt and uncle in working-class Liverpool. Stella falls in love with stage director Meredith Potter (Hugh Grant), a debauched and thoroughly nasty exploiter more interested in young men than young women. Along the way, she allows herself to be seduced by travelling actor P.L. O'Hara (Alan Rickman), who is portrayed in a mostly positive light despite taking his advantage of this young girl.
An Awfully Big Adventure is strongly reminiscent of the bleak TV-movies of Mike Leigh ("Naked"). In particular, non-native English speakers should be warned about the impenetrable Northern British accents which I could not break through for about the first third of the film.
I cannot recommend this film for most audiences, but I, for one, found it to be moving and uplifting in its own way.
Starring: Matthew Modine, Randy Quaid, Paul Reiser (yes, the television Paul Reiser)
This modest production is in effect a quality TV movie on the subject of divorced fathers and their relationships with their weekend-custody children. All three stars turn in creditable performances, and the plot is lively and occasionally moving. On the down side, the plot is predictable, the background music is manipulative, and the visuals are cut for TV rather than the big screen.
I don't know whether Bye Bye Love will actually get a theatrical run or whether it will go straight to video. Either way it is an inoffensive evening's entertainment and may actually strike a chord with some viewers.
I loved it! BoB is mostly a _way_ over the top farce centered on an ill-fated 1920s Broadway production financed by a mobster. Dianne Wiest leads the cast (both the real cast and the plot cast) as a flamboyant over-the-hill actress. (The contrast with Wiest's washed-out performance as a psychiatrist in The Scout could not be more welcome.) All but one of the actors/actresses seem to be having a great time parodying their roles and chewing scenery right and left. BoB also has a serious side, as Auteur Allen briefly explores the dark soul of The Artist, but don't let that bother you; I kinda liked it, myself. The sole serious performance (and a top-notch performance at that) is by Chazz Palminieri, as a hit man who discovers a new side to himself.
I don't know that we really needed Yet Another Baseball Movie, but this flyweight offering from Albert Brooks is tolerably entertaining and inoffensive. Brooks stars as a disheveled NY Yankees baseball scout trying to save his career, Brendan Frasier co-stars as his unbelievably talented but mentally unbalanced recruit, and Dianne Wiest is wasted in a small and uninteresting role as Frasier's therapist. The Scout also features excellent comedy from the actors portraying Steinbrenner and the Yankees business manager, and plenty of baseball cameos.
This catastrophically bad arthouse flick stars Judy Davis and Peter Weller as a yuppie Hollywood couple with some serious attitude problems. Judy Davis tries to save this film, but the plot is unbelievable, the direction is pretentious, and Weller isn't really very good. The producers seem to have tacked on some extraneous sex scenes to spice it up, but New Age is still boring and occasionally annoying.