Robert's Picks: Highly Recommended Films Viewed in 1999
Analyze This. USA. Dir. Harold Ramis. I remember Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, as a breakthrough film for Ramis and his brand of comedy. I loved DeNiro's acting and character in Analyze This. I've long felt that Billy Crystal (like Robin Williams) have extraordinary comic talents, but in the filmic medium their runaway tendencies need to be controlled by the director and channeled to support the collaborative endeavor. Crystal is restrained in the film (until a confrontation with the Mafia in a late scene), and the interaction between DeNiro and Crystal is hilarious. The film settles for good, not great, but that's okay. As an entertainment, it was delightful.
Besieged. Italy. Bernardo Bertolucci. I almost didn't see this film. Ebert gave it a negative review, but a close friend had seen it and told me it was well worth viewing. I agree with the latter assessment. I enjoyed Bertolucci's directorial style here. He used an unusual jump-cutting style throughout. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But I appreciated the risk he took in using this approach. The film often was reminiscent of a silent film (without subtitles). Several minutes would pass in scenes where the two main characters said little but reacted to each other's presence. I could see them struggling to define their feelings towards each other. A beautiful young woman (Thandie Newton), whose husband was imprisoned by a dictator before she fled to Italy, now does housekeeping for a reclusive British pianist to help pay for her Medical School education. The scene that caught my imagination was when he clumsily declared his love for the young woman. At that moment I thought, "This is not working. This is not believable." I was wrong, because as the film moved on, the relationship between this man and woman matured and became subtle and complex. By the end of the film, I completely understood the motivations of these characters. I believed in them and empathized with them. The ending is reminiscent of the ending of Limbo (see on the previous page)--and thus requires a final act of commitment on the part of viewers.
Bringing Out the Dead. USA. Dir. Martin Scorsese. I am of two minds about this film. In some respects it includes the high-octane, risk-all school of filmmaking Scorsese is famous for--especially in the great transitions between scenes and the in-your-face shot selections and editing strategies--but then one of the cornerstones of the film, the relationship between Nicholas Cage's character and Patricia Arquette's character, did not draw me in and encourage empathy and insight into character. I did not feel the chemistry between the characters in their many scenes. This film is familiar ground for Scorsese aficianados--Schrader remade Taxi Driver with his film Light Sleeper (1992), and Scorsese is reworking the same film in Bringing Out the Dead. I was teaching Taxi Driver the weekend this film opened in the Twin Cities. A strange and compelling serendipity. The first two shots of the films resonate in my memory. The first shot of both is the vehicle moving across the frame. The second shot is an extreme close-up of the protagonist. But what a difference 25 years makes. What a difference between a taxi cab, metaphor of loneliness and alienation, and an ambulance, metaphor of rescue, salvation, and regeneration. Then the extreme close-ups. The difference between our getting inside of Travis Bickle, the ultimate loner and rage-filled man, and getting inside the mind of a man who has devoted six years of his life to helping people. As soon as we hear the voice-over of Nicholas Cage we are confident that it will be worth our while to devote two hours listening to his story. We want him to experience that transformative moment when he will become whole again, when he will become healed. As for Travis, his transformative moment occurs when he acts out his rage and creates a bizarre and unholy altar of death in the prostitute's hotel. In short, Bringing Out the Dead is a film worth viewing, particularly on the level of understanding how a man's unconscious need to save other people almost destroys his psyche. In the last scene, when he is paired with the Tom Sizemore EMT character, we gain another insight into the Travis Bickle connection. In that scene Sizemore beats a homeless man in an abandoned building, thus acting out his rage at the filth and scum of the city (a la Travis Bickle). But the Nicholas Cage does not participate in this beating. There is hope for him. And that has to be enough in the world of this film.
Cookie's Fortune. USA. Dir. Robert Altman. I've never been a big Altman fan, but this film worked for me. Altman realizes a gallery of warm-hearted, down-home characters, and I was impressed with the sweetness and simplicity of their interactions. Patricia Neal has a brief role as a cantankerous but loveable matriarch, and Charles Dutton plays her longtime companion with ease and understatement. The setting, the acting, the screenplay--all work in harmony. The plot evolves and the characters interact, and only in the last scenes, which depict Glenn Close's psychotic decline, does the film evoke anxiety in the audience.
Cradle Will Rock, The. USA, Dir. Tim Robbins. I appreciated the high-energy, fast-paced-action approach taken by the director in this film. It was a visual treat. Unfortunately, the characters were little more than pasteboard cut-outs. Despite their one-dimensionality, it was still fun to see them romping through the film. I enjoyed the variety of characters, the plainly liberal bent of the storytelling, and especially the last scene--the forbidden performance of Cradle Will Rock in a sold-out theater. What a tour de force! Still, when I reflect on the film a week or two later, it doesn't seem to satisfy as much as I thought it could satisfy. Sadly, the idealism and rage bottled up by the filmmaker seems to cloud this effort. The depictions of Orson Welles, Nelson Rockefeller, Diego Rivera? But why quibble? This is not a film about in-depth revelation of character in the vein of Topsy-Turvy. It's a film that uses one-dimensional characterizations to serve its political slant. What this country needs is more resistance to censorship! What this country needs is more political art! Trust the little guy, John Q. Public, the starving artist, the ones who have their pulse on this great country. All true, but I don't want to lose sight of the fact that I enjoyed watching the film, was moved by its fast pace and energy, and moved by its hopefulness.
The Dinner Game. France. Dir. Francois Veber. This film starts slow, because it is based on the stage play and limited, for the most part, to the action that occurs in the main character's apartment. He has one obsession--a dinner game that is played every week with his closest friends and associates. At that dinner they invite what they characterize as a group of idiots, and then take delight in listening to the obsessions of those men and women. Of course, they never tell their guests the real reason they are invited. Now these hosts are well-educated, upper-middle-class French. What they all need is to be brought down a notch--and that is the case for our main character. One of his friends discovers an idiot, and the main character invites him to his apartment to discern whether or not he deserves an invitation to next week's dinner. A film farce like this works when the screenplay is inventive, when the actors are perfectly cast, and when the plot moves quickly and inexorably toward a comic climax. All the ingredients are present, and all the ingredients work in this film. After 45 minutes of set-up, the comic plot elements begin to pile up, and the last 30 minutes of the film is sheer hilarity. This is harmless entertainment, and yet it packs insights into the human condition. Our main character has to learn a lesson--one does not go around characterizing others as idiots--and yet the lesson must not take for the film to work. So with a last comic touch, and a last disaster (at the hands of his guest), the main character screams, "You idiot!" and we all laugh. The actor who plays the guest is a lumpish middle-aged man with a round face and thinning hair--his face is filled with expression, the trademark of a great comic actor. He played the role on stage, and he plays it well here. Viewers have to accept a slow start, a slow but steady arranging of the comic elements. But if you're patient, it will be worth the wait.
Dr. Akagi. Japan. Dir. Shohei Imamura. Another film that starts slow. Eventually, however, viewers are rewarded by the dynamics that result from interactions between idiosyncratic, endearing characters. Dr. Akagi is known as "Dr. Kidney," because most of his diagnoses are "hepatitis"--based on his belief that the Japanese are suffering from an epidemic of that disease at the end of World War II. I recall one critic complaining that he got tired of Dr. Akagi running hither and yon, from patient to patient, throughout the film. He reminded me of the physician in Camus' La Peste, who stays in Morocco to care for plague victims. The motto of both men was, "One does what one must do." After 30-45 minutes into the film, I felt transported to that place and that time and watched Dr. Akagi pursue his obsession--finding the cause of the disease. Most interesting was his relationship with a young prostitute, who was sent to work with him as a means of keeping her occupied--and thus not drawn to life on the streets. In some respects it would have been interesting to see a film about this character. She becomes a devoted fan of Dr. Akagi's, and she even declares her love for the old man. I marveled at the old man's sensitivity, his patience, his steadfastness. He was a model elder, a mentor for those younger than him. The ending of the film (as I expected, it revolved around the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima) is forced, the metaphors too blatant. But the director succeeds most by creating a community, and peopling with eccentric, obsessive, fascinating characters. He did the same in his earlier films, Black Rain and The Eel--both are highly recommended. Perhaps this film was a tad long and scenes too often drawn out. Perhaps the ending was unsatisfactory, to some degree. Still, it offers more than the average fare we are so often exposed to.
The Dreamlife of Angels. France. Dir. Eric Zonca. I almost walked out of this film. For the first 30 minutes I could not care less about the two aimless young women who befriend each other and who smoke several packs of cigarettes in that length of time. But I got over my concerns once the plot kicked in about 45 minutes into the film. One of the two women turns her life over to a lover, who dominates her and then drops her. The other woman begins to explore her inner life through a preoccupation with the diary of a young woman who now lies in a coma in the hospital. The last half of this film was spellbinding. I was completely caught up in the second woman's story, and by the end of the film in the relationship between the two women.
Get Real. Australia. Dir. Simon Shore. This film has what it takes to be a great film. It has an endearing lead character--a young man struggling to maintain his dignity as a gay teenager in a society hostile to gays and lesbians. It has an intelligent and perceptive screenplay, with characters speaking believable dialogue and interacting in complex situations. It has a style of direction that is non-obtrusive yet stylish--with nary a montage thrown in to sell the soundtrack. It has a great sidekick for the lead character, a young straight woman who is head-over-heels in love with the main character, and yet remains supportive and loyal as a friend--and at the same time true to her own instincts as a woman. It is a love story--in the best tradition of that genre (shades of Romeo and Juliet--star-crossed lovers who are not supposed to fall in love with each other).
The Last Days. USA. Dir. James Moll. This documentary follows the stories of Holocaust survivors and recounts the impact of the Holocaust on the Hungarian people. The film was produced by Steven Spielberg, and it furthers the work of the foundation he has established to gather the oral histories of Holocaust survivors. The director selected the right people for this film, and then he made excellent use of their oral histories. Each of the survivors makes a journey back to the concentration camps and relates significant and touching details of his or her story. The documentary moved me deeply, and I think it provides a significant addition to Holocaust studies.
Lucie Aubrac. France. Dir. Claude Berri. I have admired the work of Claude Berri since his two affectionate memoirs, My Mother's Castle and My Father's Triumph as well as his masterful companion films Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. I enjoyed Lucie Aubrac, although it lacked the depth and range of the latter two films. This is a partly a woman's film (a film about a strong woman who took control of her destiny), and at the same time it is a wonderful film about the bonds of intimacy between two people who love each deeply. The film starts slow, but after Lucie's husband (both are French Resistance fighters against the Nazi occupiers) is arrested by the Nazis, the focus on her attempts to free her husband provided a great deal of tension and character development (for both main characters). The tension mounts until we reach the climactic rescue attempt--I was on the edge of my seat. I walked away feeling satisfied, but not stirred to the soul. The film is memoir-like, and Berri treats his subject, Lucie Aubrac, almost reverentially. Not a great film--but a solid effort and one worth viewing.
Magnolia. USA. Dir. P. T. Anderson. This film was too long. Certain scenes and certain segments were downright brilliant, but then certain scenes and certain segments were excessive, obvious, overtly sentimentalized, and even cloying. But it was too long. Someone needs to tell this director that "cut" means more than "stop filming." It means cut all that is excessive and unnecessary so that what remains is tight and focused. What was best in this film? Almost everything about every scene that Tom Cruise was in rang true to me and was first-rate social criticism, revelation of character, and confirmation of the power of this man's acting. The Tom Cruise sections were the heart of this film. I also thought the pairing of characters did not play out as well as he may have thought it did. But I did appreciate the pairing of the cop and the male nurse--two male nurturers, who were central to the themes being explored. Anderson seems to be saying that today's generation is looking for confirmation (evidence) of faith issues. You see--the urban legends. You see, the rain of frogs. But I don't need a rain of frogs to be a person of faith. I don't want evidence of faith. Then it wouldn't be faith, would it? I watched The End of the Affair a day after seeing Magnolia. Now there is a film about faith that transported me to a different world, and one I believed in (not as an article of faith--but as in "credibility" or "reality.")
Much of my complaint here is in the problems of the screenplay, the director as screenwriter. Anderson needs to explore scripts written by others, perhaps adaptations of fine stories or novels. He has the special directorial gifts I am looking for, and I admire him for the innovations he brought to bear here. I absolutely loved the rain of frogs. It helped me bring closure to the film. But I would have compressed the quiz-show kid's stories (both boy and middle-aged man), and I would have cut other excessive scenes (cop losing his gun, pharmacy confrontation stand out as examples of gratuitous film-making). The rain of frogs brought closure because the characters needed a drastic distraction to take their minds off the narrow tracks they had fallen into. The rain of frogs was a kind of "Zen moment" when the Master cuffs the student in order to help the student "see" what is right in front of him. Or when the Master pours the cup of tea so that the cup is overflowing. "Now do you see the truth?! It's right in front of you!" Again, part of this film is sheer greatness; part of this film is pure excess. I hope this is not a generational lament. I want to follow Anderson's work, and I think as he matures (and makes different choices as a director) he may become one of our great directors. In this film we learn almost everything that is going on in his mind. He empties his head, spills his pot of tea, perhaps. But as a Zen Master--well, he's not quite there yet.
Notting Hill. USA. Dir. Roger Mitchell. Another film that settles for good instead of great. The film is entertaining, palatable, easygoing, direct, and easy to watch. My favorite scenes were the dinner scenes between the Hugh Grant character and his family and friends. A great film would have made these interactions more central to the story, and thus to the emotional development of the main characters. As it is here, the relationship between the Hugh Grant character, a bookseller, and the Julia Roberts character, a movie star, never develops with credibility or tension. They have to fall in love, then out of love, then back in love, etc. In doing so, their characters are forced to bend to the formula. And that's not how it happens in real life. Still, I enjoyed the film, but wished it could have been better. I also began to realize that Julia Roberts can act, something I would never have expected when I saw her in Pretty Woman. Upon second viewing I thought the film deserves to moved up a category--there is more to it than the slick, well-lit reaction shots of the two principals (although there are plenty of them). I appreciated the eccentricity of the characters, and I particularly recommend a great montage sequence that shows the changing seasons along Notting Hill. How was that done? The sequence begins with a shot of a pregnant woman, and it ends with that woman more than a year later with her baby. Many nice touches like that in the film. The second time around I concentrated on the endearing characters, and that helped me get past the fluff.
Pushing Tin. USA. Dir. Mike Newell. The title refers to the work of air traffic controllers--not the ones in the airport towers, but the ones who control traffic between the various airports. The stress level of this occupation is incredibly high, and the film focuses on the competitiveness between two hot-shot controllers, one established, one new to the site. The acting of John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton makes the film work. They play off each other's strengths, and despite a hackneyed climax, the overall effect is stunning because viewers come to believe in these two characters. At the same time the screenplay has enough subtlety and nuance to be convincing. My first impression of the Thornton character was negative--he seemed even more warped than the Cusack character. But as the film went on, I began to view Thornton's character with more insight and understanding--a sign of a good screenplay, able acting, and fine direction.
Stir of Echoes, A. USA. This is a better film than The Sixth Sense, but I predict that it will not be seen by as many people because it lacks the star power of Bruce Willis and it lacks the hype of the ending-that-must-not-be-given-away. Otherwise, these two films are very similar. Both films posit that there are ghosts in the world, and those ghosts want something from us living people. In The Sixth Sense, the psychiatrist tells the boy halfway through the film, "Maybe you shouldn't be afraid of the ghosts." But in this film, the main character's son, a little boy, tells him early in the film, "Don't be afraid of them"--because both father and son are seeing the same ghost. But since the father is seeing her for the first time, he is--to put it mildly--"freaked out." The child has been seeing and conversing with this ghost for a long time. We see him doing so in the first scene. This interchange between father and son is a great plot point--and it helps this film succeed. In The Sixth Sense the ghost-to-living-person messaging system seems to lead to the climax (part of how that film tricks the audience). In this film, the ghost-to-living-person messaging system almost breaks the spirit and body of the main character, almost ruins his marriage, and is the whole point of the film--it DOES lead to the climax, and that climax is effective and scary. In both films, I kept wondering, "Is this it? Is that all there is to the plot?" But in the case of this film that was enough for me. It didn't try for a home run--it just simply scared me and made me want to find out what the main character, Kevin Bacon, was supposed to do with his life. There were many echoes of Close Encounters in this film--especially the digging holes in the backyard scene. The child actor in this film was not in the same league as the little boy in The Sixth Sense, but he was still quite effective. Kevin Bacon was wonderful in his role (although I never bought his blue-collar accent). The use of setting--placing the film in a Chicago neighborhood dominated by the El, worked much better than the more symbolic urban setting in The Sixth Sense. Quite simply, this was a better movie. The Sixth Sense scared me for the first 45 minutes, and then it bored me. This film scared me a lot longer and with a convincing screenplay and able direction.
Straight Story, The. USA. Dir. David Lynch. This was a relaxing, straightforward, mostly unsentimental look at one of the strangest episodes in Middle America in the last decade--the story of Alvin Straight's journey on a lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his brother, who had suffered a stroke. The film is peopled with original characters, and it was refreshing to see the main character interact with them on the road. One of the most effective aspects of the film was in its portrayal of old age as a time of continued seeking for closure, resolution, and insight. Old people are not finished growing as human beings, and this film shows the way old age is loaded with more than regrets, aches and pains, and missed opportunities. Not since Harry and Tonto (1974) and Kotch (1971) have we had a road film where the main character is an old person who is complex, unpredictable, an original character. There were times when the film verged toward the sentimental and the obvious in its emotions and themes, but for the most part I felt comfortable settling into my seat and enjoying the ride. I give credit to Lynch and to his cinematographer for creating a mood and sense of place.
Toy Story II. USA. Dir. Pixar Animation. The kids in the audience loved this film, especially at the end when the penguin character burst into a Sinatra-like song and the Barbie dolls began dancing in the background. But this kid has mixed feelings about Toy Story. The Pixar Animators have figured out how to animate wooden and plastic figures, but they are not even close to animating human beings. Too often the boy Andy, his mother, and the evil villain of the film (a short, stubby goateed man) make appearances, and each time they appeared I cringed at the unbelievability of their animation. Skin tones, facial expression, wrinkles, the ease of movement of the human skeleton--all of these are works in progress, as far as I'm concerned. But the animation of the toys was a thing of beauty. The voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Joan Cusack were perfectly inflected and thus added immeasurably to the film's success. Each of the major toys has its own individuality (quirks, idiosyncrasies, strengths, weaknesses). The plot is typically packed with action sequences, but the studio managed to sneak in a song that will undoubtedly be nominated for best original song at the Academy Awards next spring. So: I enjoyed the film, but I kept wondering if I would have enjoyed it as much if it had been animated in the traditional way instead of being computer-generated animation. Perhaps I am wondering how far Pixar can go with this technology. What if they solve the computer-animation of the human being? What comes next?
Xiu Xiu, The Sent Down Girl. China. Dir. Joan Chen. Here is a director to watch. Her visual style was excellent. I enjoyed the use of transitional shots of the changing skies, a recurring image of a huge tent perched on the hillside, and superb close-ups of the two main characters, Xiu Xiu and a Tibetan horse herder she lives with in the tent on the grasslands of China's interior. The film begins with a graphic that explains another instance of communist idiocy--sending children out to the hinterlands in order to spread the communist influence--or is it to relieve the economic pressures on the urban poor? Who knows? This policy occurred in the decade before the Cultural Revolution of 1976. Early scenes were wonderfully realized, and they focused on the family's grief at losing their younger daughter to this policy. She is shipped from the city to the hinterlands with thousands of other children. Later in the film, we learn that many of those children figured out how to return to their homes (through the use of bribes or connections with local communist bosses). Moral corruption is everywhere in this film--except in the relationship between the sent-down girl and the Tibetan herder. When he was 18, Tibetan revolutionaries "took away his manhood" (as the locals say)--and so he is no sexual danger to the young girl. But other men are dangerous and before long she is seduced, later raped by various men--all because her prospects are hopeless, and she fantasizes that these men will help return her to her home. Of course, they don't help her. But the horse herder, devoted to her, and very much in love with her, does comfort her, stand up for her, and listen to her. The weakness of the film was the screenplay--in terms of its plotting possibilities. The film's story was two one-dimensional--almost like a two-character play. There was no hope for this young woman. She didn't stand a chance against the communistic political system, and the male-dominated culture. Thus, the screenplay did not develop sufficient tension to suggest alternatives. When her sexuality was uncovered, the plot was triggered, and the end of that plot was predetermined. I look forward to seeing more work from Joan Chen, but in her next film I hope the writing of characters and plot will offer more than this film did.
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