Excerpts from my reviews. Complete reviews at www.gen.umn.edu/faculty_staff/yahnke/reviews/
Talk to Her: The film is rich in the depiction of character; and yet it is filled with ideas that makes me want to linger and explore them. The film is about transformation of characters. The film is an homage to the strengths of women, the commitment of women, and the way men can tune into that power if they work at it. The film is beautifully photographed and often mesmerizing in its use of colors, insert close-ups, montages, reaction shots, and tracking shots. The film moves gracefully from past to present in extended flashbacks that reveal the roots of two men's obsessions with different women. . . . This is a film about men who leave women; at the same time, it is a film about a woman who care deeply for her younger protégé and is steadfast in her caring even under duress; it is a film about two men who do not leave their women; it is a film about a man who returns to the woman he loves; and finally, it is a film about a man who does not leave his friend.The Hours: One of the joys of the film was the intertwining of the three women's stories-Virginia Woolf's story in the 1920, Laura's story from the 1950s, and Clarissa's story from the present. Another key to the success of this story was the use of Philip Glass's music as the basis for the score. "People stay alive for each other," says Clarissa, in an early scene with Richard (played beautifully by Ed Harris). But the cost to the women! . . . . So much about this film satisfies and makes me want to see it again. A great film always does that for you: it offers you an incredible one-of-a-kind first-time experience; but then it invites you to return and grasp more of the nuances you missed the first time around.
The Son's Room. This film is an amazing document of how a family deals with the accidental death of a child. . . . When the son dies, the film becomes an uncompromising realistic assessment of a family's grief response. The focus is on the father, who can't stop remembering beautiful images of the times spent with his son. Slowly but surely the family grieves separately and descends to the depths of their individual grief. As the family approaches the nadir of their grief, the mother opens a letter sent to her son by a young woman who was emotionally involved with the young man. But the family knew nothing of their emotional bonds. . . . One day the young woman shows up on their doorstep and the healing begins. The last scenes of the film are practically perfect. You feel the harmony in life that is possible when people regain their roles, find a measure of self-control, adapt to changing circumstances, and move on with their lives.
Y Tu Mama También. This is an adult film; it depicts sexual activity, but always does so with restraint and a respect for the humanity of the characters. It combines rich characterizations with a believable plot, a picaresque story tradition, and strong political themes. . . . Cuarón shows us the brutal class distinctions in Mexico and pulls no punches in doing so. At the same time he reveals the humanity of the poor and shows them as individuals who find happiness within the constraints imposed upon them. He does not preach and he does not patronize the poor; he shows them as fully-developed people who exist on the fringe of the elitist society. . . . . So much of my response to the film was, "Those two young men just don't get it!" And then at the climactic ménage a trois moment of the film what happens is inevitable and believable and sad and pathetic and yet believable--and too many of the viewers in the audience shouted out "No! No!" and groaned as if in pain because they could not accept what was right in front of them. There was a frightful union and then the seeds of the destruction of this friendship. And it all felt so inevitable and simply perfect for the world of this film. All these young men want is knowledge about sex; they know nothing of intimacy. At the end of the film they have been rendered perfectly normal, sanitized, individualistic, and alone.
Spirited Away. We have here the universal problem faced by a child-she needs to experience aloneness and fear and overcome them; but she also needs to have a strong presence she can turn to in time of need. There's your formula-and does it ever work in this film. The young man, Haku, has some secrets up his sleeve; but for the sake of the young audience, he appears to be a stable and caring presence, the new boy at camp, the first boyfriend, the favorite cousin, the older brother. He is a stand-in for her missing parents. . . . I kept thinking of the audience's response to the first Harry Potter film. Children can make it; children can pass these tests; children can grow up; children can survive; children are worth our investment of time, energy, commitment, and love-because they understand love intuitively and express it intuitively.
About Schmidt. A good director gives an actor an opportunity to shine, and that opportunity usually comes in the cut. Nicholson knows how to seize that opportunity and make the moment his. But the dance is one between director and actor. A film like this is a wonder to behold because of the quality of those dance partners. Add Kathy Bates'acting ability in the mix, and you have joy every time she and Nicholson are on screen together. . . . Some of the shots in this film broke new ground: a shot of an old man's veined ankle, a shot of an old woman's sagging breasts, or an old woman's armpit, or an old man's flabby double chin. I also appreciated the picaresque tradition that was tapped when Schmidt took off on his road trip and found himself eventually after a night of stargazing.
Bowling for Columbine. In some respects Michael Moore is like the Paul Wellstone of documentary filmmakers. He is a believer in social justice; he works on behalf of the little guy, the poor, disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the forgotten, and the overlooked. He is a big burly bear of a man, and yet he comes across as a Gentle Ben type of character rather than a mean and nasty type. . . . One of the reasons Moore's work succeeds is that he anchors it in his own upbringing in Flint, Michigan. He uses his hometown of Flint as a measuring stick for the rest of America. And it works because the urban decay of Flint is a metaphor for the abandonment of the American Dream. Moore makes the point that those in power in America have moved beyond that Dream and believe those left behind deserve to be left behind.Catch Me if You Can. This film works because it anchors the son's motivations in his intense admiration for his roguish Dad. In one sense the young man does what his father wishes he could have done-thumb his nose at propriety, legality, bureaucracy, and authority. But more important, the son thumbs his nose at the adult world as a means of recouping his father's losses and restoring his father's name. The key image in the film is the father and mother dancing-and then the father dips his wife in that old-fashioned way. He does so as if playing to the galleries-but his son is the only one in the peanut gallery. What is he telling his son with this move? You can have it all, my boy. You can shape the world in your image, you can dance with the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most elegant-but you will always be leading, and then at the right moment you can make that seductive move, that luscious dip, and everyone will know you are the real center of attention.
Elling. Everything about this film sings! The audience falls in love with this odd couple in a few minutes. Before long their misadventures make us empathize with them and care about their fate. Some examples: Elling agrees to walk a few blocks to a nearby grocery. He is terrified of this challenge, but he tries. He makes it to the steps of the store, where he falls down and fouls his pants. The social worker and Kjell run to help him, and passersby are kind to him, too. Immediately we realize the stakes are high for both of these men. Will they ever be ready to make it in the real world? . . . . The film is a wonderful wild ride of human character, potential, adaptation, and caring. Elling is always true to his character. He is the star of this film, the one to follow.
Gossip. Ten Swedish actresses vie for a chance to do a remake of the famous Garbo film, Queen Christina. . . . One of the central themes in the film is the disposability of women in mass media. Women are chewed, swallowed, and spit out when they reach a certain age. Each of the women in this film (of that certain age range) expressed a beauty that was both on the inside and the outside. . . . The film looks great, the acting is great, the story is complex and believable, the direction is able, the music complements the action, the motivations of characters are understandable-and most important, as the film evolves, each scene is fresh, original, and leads to unexpected actions based upon the characters' choices. Character leads and plot follows.
Rabbit-Proof Fence. I saw the film Evelyn a week after seeing this film. Both films are about children unjustly removed from their birth parent. But Evelyn, despite having an all-star cast, is a pale shadow of this film because in this case the film is really about Molly, in the way that Evelyn unfortunately was not really about Evelyn. In Rabbit-Proof Fence the unjust are totally in control. No Australian Supreme Court will listen to the parent's appeal. The administrator of the racial segregation policy, Mr. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), controls all aspects of the half-castes' lives. He is the epitome of benign Victorian morality in 1931 Australia. The idea is to breed out the blackness of his thousands of charges. That's why Molly and her two sisters are removed from the Outback and sent to state-run orphanages. . . . So much about this film has an authentic feel to it. The language of the people, the Aboriginal music, the Australian landscape as character. I was brought back to the early films of Bruce Beresford or the classic film Walkabout (1971). And one other treat. The Aboriginal actor who played the boy in Walkabout was David Gulpilil; and he appears in this film as the tracker Moodoo, hired by the authorities to bring the three girls back. This man has an extraordinarily cinematic presence-his rugged face, his gentleness, and even his somewhat stiff formality all work to his benefit and provide him with an authentic presence.
One Hour Photo. Robin Williams' presence brings people to the theaters-but his acting in the film is subdued and restrained and sublimated to the metaphoric images controlled by the director. Some examples: a close shot of Robin Williams sitting in his subcompact gas-electric car, the actor walking down a dimly lit hotel hallway, and the actor sitting flatfooted on his sofa, watching television in his dingy apartment. We come to know the character by watching the character in action-and one of the keys to this film is that Williams' acting does NOT reveal directly the status of his interior life. . . . I gained insight into a scene of brutality in the final scene of the film, and at that point I realized the truth of what I had been watching in that scene. Things began to fall into place, and I realized that this film offered me what I needed most-the real answer as to why Seymour attached himself to the husband, the wife, and their boy. Too often we see films like this one that do not offer sufficient insight into the psychological depths of the main character. Willliams is not a villain in this film; but his villainy is much more convincing than his role as the crazed killer in this summer's Insomnia. He is a sad little man, and we finally grasp what lay behind his sadness and his fantasies.
All or Nothing. Leigh's grasp of screenplay and direction is wonderful. He understands that people that live on the margins of life are basically decent, capable of love, and often misunderstood. His characters are a veritable Jerry Springer-show cohort, but without the ringleader Jerry Springer lashing out with his whip to make his animals perform. So we see them from the inside-out, rather than from the outside-in. These characters face a brutal existence, and yet they survive-sometimes against insurmountable odds. . . . What movie have you seen where a character spends all of his free time lying on a sofa and watching dumb television programs? And just think: this is not a situation comedy. It's a portrayal of reality that honors the humanity of its characters. In other words, in a film like this people are shown the way they really are: and that means they are shown as alone much of their lives. They are alone in their work, they are alone in their home, and they are alone on those sofas. This family's dysfunction is the stuff of textbooks. But in this case the textbook lives and breathes, and we understand what is going on viscerally rather than intellectually. Everyone in this family is undergoing a personal crisis.
The Kid Stays in the Picture. The best thing about this film is Robert Evans. His voice-over is superb, and often he mimics the voices of those famous Hollywood folks who are talking to him so that the archival images come alive. But there is another treat in store for film fans in this documentary: the film comes alive, too, by means of the use of powerful uninflected shots of the interior of Evans' Hollywood estate, the statuary on the grounds, and the fountain. This home is Evans' Xanadu or Kubla Khan. The house is a metaphor for his career in Hollywood: he makes it big, he buys the house, his career goes bust, the house is sold, and the kid makes a comeback, and he buys his house back. In that house the filmmakers found a visual equivalent of the man's inner life, his spirit, his soul.
Antwone Fisher. The opening scenes, which represent a dream sequence, are beautifully photographed with almost iconic imagery of the idealized African American experience. Antwone sits at a banquet table set in a large barn, and he eyes a plate of perfect pancakes as his first choice for dining. This is a film about a young man who survived against incredible odds; he overcame abandonment, brutality, loneliness, estrangement, alienation. . . . Washington is good (as usual), but Luke is often his match in the many two-person scenes. Washington stands in the shadows and lets the young man have the light. . . . The core of this film is a truth about the healing of a broken soul. And when you leave the theater, you will believe that Antwone Fisher is healed.
Last Orders. The title is a clever pun on two meanings--the last drink orders at a pub before it closes, and the last request of a man to his friends after he dies. Jack is the emotional heart of a small community of men who have spent hours of their free time at a local pub. When he dies, they learn that his last request was to have his ashes spread onto the English channel. So the film becomes a physical, emotional, and psychological journey as the men carry out their friend's last request. . . . Jack is the alpha male, the leader, the mischievous one. The others are his partners in larceny. But Jack's marriage to Amy (Helen Mirren) is one area he can not control. They are married, but they are not emotional partners. Instead, Amy is drawn to Ray, a quiet and unassuming stodgy fellow. Their relationship is perfectly portrayed--and these fine actors deliver wonderful performances.
The Pianist. Polanski recreates the Warsaw Ghetto, tells the film in a straightforward chronological narrative, and allows the actor Adrien Brody to give a fully-developed and nuanced performance as the great Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. . . . The film reveals the variety of human qualities that make up the Holocaust. There are good people; there are bad people; there are people who are faithful to their religion and to their ideals; there are people who betray their religion and their ideals. There are heroes and there are cowards. There is hope and there is hopelessness. There are so many inexplicable decisions made by people under stress. I appreciated seeing the entire scope of the drama that overtook Warsaw-everything from the family drama at the heart of the main character's story, and then the personal drama of the survivor. Would there be a Holocaust if there were no survivors? Someone has to live to tell the tale. Someone has to be Jonah.
The River. The screenplay manipulates time in a Faulknerian way: several times the film begins again, from the beginning, but a different character is followed. One unifying device holds this structure together: a moment when a sudden sonic boom occurs, a few minutes after 11:00 a.m. . . . The power of the film comes from the accumulation of the visual material. The film is essentially a collection of short stories of a variety of people young and old, some of whom interact with the others, some of whom do not. But as the short stories unfold, the dramas within each deepen and resonate one to the other, as though each is related to the other. People face struggles of love, betrayal, loss, and desperation.
Monsoon Wedding. The plot is simple: here we are in modern India and watching the preparations for an arranged marriage for a young professional woman who has put off marriage perhaps a little too long. Now she is being drawn to the altar by her nervous father who wants her married before it is too late. . . . The most intriguing plot development is that the bride-to-be and the groom-to-be fall in love before they are married. Another touch American audiences will delight in. By the end of the film I realized that what carried me along throughout the ups and downs of this particular Hindu family was the power of the expressive music used for one montage after another. Scenes of dancing, singing, and other movements were perfectly complemented by a high-energy and downright foot-tapping musical score. The sounds of this film stayed with me long after viewing the film.
The 25th Hour. The credits sequence of The 25th Hour was one of the best things about the film. This is a New York City film. We see the main character walking the streets alone, and there are constant reminders of the two searchlights that memorialized the fallen World Trade Center towers. These scenes were filmed sensitively, and the musical score nicely complemented the images. . . . Monty's two best friends are complementary opposites. The stockbroker is a risk-taker, a man like Monty who cons other people, takes advantages of their weaknesses, and manipulates people to make money. The other friend, the teacher, is a man of morals who believes there right and wrong are absolutes. Perhaps we evaluate the main character based on whether or not we are the stockbroker or the teacher.
Other good films viewed during 2002 include the following: The Cat's Meow (William Randolph Hearst gets away with murder), The Good Girl (a young wife gets her life back together after an affair with a strange young man), Harrison's Flowers (a wife finds her husband who has disappeared early in the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s), The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde is funny), Italian for Beginners (Italian for lonely Danes), The Man from Elysian Fields (a sleeper hit with Andy Garcia), Moonlight Mile (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon at their best), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (but you know about this one), Nine Queens (a Pulp Fiction spinoff), Twenty-Four Hour Party People (the music scene), and The Way We Laughed (an Italian epic about two brothers).
Biggest disappointments? Adaptation (Charlie Kaufman does not make an interesting hero), Barbershop (A good idea ruined by following too many formulas), Insomnia (see the Norwegian version), Minority Report (Action scenes overwhelm character development), Panic Room (This is what happens when production design overwhelms character development), Punch Drunk Love (Adam Sandler tries as hard as he can to escape Saturday Night Live), The Road to Perdition (Tom Hanks as a hit man?), Storytelling (If you shock the audience, all you will accomplish is shocking the audience), Sunshine State (John Sayles trips up), and The Truth About Charlie (Cary Grant, phone home). Was it a good year for movies? Hard to say. My rule is: a weekend without a good film is a weekend wasted. Actually, my rule is: We go to movies to be entertained, but we go to films to be enlightened.
The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author, Robert. E. Yahnke. The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.