Picks: Average Fare
Beau Travail, dir. Claire Denis (France). When I saw Denis' film Chocolat (1988), I realized this director understood where to place the camera, how long to leave the camera there, and how to realize the drama of interaction through the cuts. In Beau Travail, which means Good Work, she re-tells the story of Billy Budd (Herman Melville) and places that nautical story in the context of an elite group of French Foreign Legionnaires who are undergoing rigorous physical training in Morocco. The evil Claggart is replaced by Galoup, the sergeant, and the perfectly innocent and naďve Billy Budd is replaced by Sentain, played by Gregoire Colin, whose brief role in Before the Rain (1995) showed his strong acting ability. He has a silence and stillness about him that is appealing. But Denis changes significant elements of the plot comparison between film and novella. Iin the film Sentain strikes Galoup (who is torturing one of the men); in the novella, Billy's blow kills Claggart. In the film Sentain is left to die by Galoup, but Arabs find the young man and save him; in the novella Billy is hanged by the Captain of the ship, since his blow to Claggart's head requires the death penalty. I think the Billy Budd references will be most useful to those literature majors who are familiar with Melville's work. For film buffs, the story boils down to the ways in which jealousy breeds rage in those who cannot resist its power. I would rather compare this film to Denis' earlier classic, Chocolat. Whereas Chocolat had a strong plot and engaging characters, Beau Travail loses its way with a meandering voice-over (by Galoup) and a group of legionnaires who never are able to give voice to their characters. We see numerous scenes of training. The self-discipline of the young men is overwhelming. They are not simply hunks or WWF-wannabes. Each man must be driven by forces that have brought him to this place and to this time. But we never find out what those forces are. For too long the audience is held at arm's length from the characters and the interactions between characters. There were moments when the beautiful ritualistic images of the soldiers-in-training, simple uninflected shots of the vast, empty desert wasteland, and the moving narration by Galoup held my attention. But overall the editing was mishandled, the narrative was choppy, and the fate of Sentain seemed more arbitrary than motivated by Galoup's revenge and cunning. The performance by Denis Lavant (as Galoup) showed remarkable skills as an actor. He has that chiseled cinematic face we love to peruse; but in the end the fabric of the film does not hold together. The last scene, with Galoup completing an improvisational dance at a disco, is one of the most visceral and compelling scenes of cinematic movement I have ever seen. But it can not save this film from being considered average fare. (September)
Boiler Room, dir. Ben Younger (USA) I appreciated some of the early energy in this film. For a while I thought the screenplay might take me in a surprising direction and really show me a world I had no insight into before watching the film. But the longer the film ran the more disappointed I began. Let's tick off the reasons: Matt Damon is beginning to develop as an actor (witness The Talented Mr. Ripley); but Ben Affleck is not. It is not acting to rant and rave and not be able to rise above volume and give a nuanced performance. I am reminded of Kevin Costner in Robin Hood. He just could not deliver the power in his "rousing speeches." So Affleck appears in three ranting and raving over-the-top scenes, but he doesn't do "over the top." The film pays homage to Glenngarry Glen Ross and Wall Street, but it fails to deliver the punch that those films delivered. It fails to deliver acting that lives up to the acting in both films, too. This film proves to me again that Ben Affleck is not a talented or developing actor. He needs a quieter, more nuanced role, where he can support good acting. Another problem: I loved the idea of a multicultural love affair between the main character, Giovanni Ribisi, and the young secretary. But I never believed that affair. The young woman demurred, flashed her beautiful smile, and seemed the perfect nondescript Stepford girlfriend. Another problem: I never believed the hackneyed father-son conflict--and then to top it off the climactic story of the young man's life (when he was 10 and his father slapped him for no good reason) is brought back to haunt us as the father finally recalls that story and there is a brief (and unconvincing) moment of reconciliation. Another reason: this young man never seemed to "get it." He never accepted moral responsibility for anything. He ran a casino out of his apartment and got away with it. He was the top guy in the boiler room, and he turns state's evidence for full immunity. His only concern at the end of the film? "I need to find a job." So what's the problem here? Primarily it's in Younger's screenplay--a tad too idealistic and yet also more than "off" in terms of having a moral center. We needed to see this young man hit bottom, and I mean really hit bottom. If I don't feel empathy toward the character, then the film fails to deliver its message. Come to think of it, what was that message? (March)
Butterfly, dir. Jose Luis Cuerda (Spain). Here is the problem I have reviewing this film. I could not stop thinking of Cinema Paradiso (1988), starring Phillipe Noiret as the loving old projectionist who becomes a lifelong mentor and father-figure to a young boy whose father was killed on the Russian Front in the early years of WW II (when Italy was a part of the Axis Powers). The little boy who played Salvatore in that film was a charming young actor. The script of Cinema Paradiso was a lively combination of comedy, melodrama and tragedy. The music by Ennio Morriconne soared to emotional heights--even if it sometimes was overwrought and repetitive. Of course, it is not fair to the film being reviewed to review another film. So here are three complaints about the film that summarize my lukewarm response. First, the screenplay fails to deliver the required dramatic arc in a film like this one--about a young boy who is mentored by a loving and gentle old schoolteacher during the few years of the fragile Spanish Republic (early 1930s). The scenes are episodic and often unrelated one to the other. We see the action of the film through the boy's eyes, but that technique does not deliver an emotional punch in this case. What the boy sees does not in any way add up to anything beyond a montage of picturesque folk life in pre-Franco Spain. Second, the acting in this film does not rise to the level whereby I could involve myself in the lives of these characters. The young boy, Moncho, had sad and beautiful eyes, but in most cases a curiously uninteresting and blankly unexpressive face. His reaction shots--a key to our involvement in the film--were generally lackluster and failed to engage me. The acting of the Fernando Fernán Gómez, who was characterized by Roger Ebert as a beloved Spanish actor, also did not meet the standards required for this type of performance. Perhaps my lack of response and empathy to the two main characters is attributable to the failed screenplay as noted earlier. Certainly Gomez often showed subtlety in his expressions and reaction shots. But as I watched their interactions, I never received sufficient insight into the nature of the old man's character. Perhaps the director's decision to tell the story through the eyes of the boy was a limiting factor in this case. The last scene of the film, praised highly by Ebert, seemed to fall flat to me again because it seemed unprepared for and difficult to translate. What was the old man thinking as he stood in the back of that truck? What was the boy thinking when he threw rocks at the old man? Why did the boy shout epithets that had nothing to do with the usual epithets others were shouting? In this film the turn toward Fascism suddenly burst forth in full bloom. I think of Life is Beautiful, and the way the gradual rise of anti-Semitism was portrayed through numerous scenes that followed upon each other in an inexorable sequence. The feeling of fate, or the narrowing of freedoms, was not clear to me in this film. The last scene suddenly appeared, and the film ended with the ambiguous involvement of the boy in his parents' fearful response to tyranny. (July)
The Cell, dir. Tarsem Singh (USA). This first-time director has created a film that has a special look to it, but the look of a film does not equal the meaning of a film. Meaning resides first in plot, second in character, third in editing, fourth in cinematography. A beautifully visual film, like The Emperor and the Assassin (see below) fails the test when we come away from it unmoved by character or story. The first scene of The Cell is obviously a dream-sequence, or scene from the unconscious. The character's costume, the setting, the bizarre conversation--all of us know that from our dreams. It is beautiful to look at it, but the interaction between the Jennifer Lopez character and the little boy she is trying to help is trite and unoriginal. Before I go any further, I may as well deconstruct the audience buzz on Jennifer Lopez. I was impressed with her work in Out of Sight (1998) with George Clooney. Her quirky and energetic character worked in that role. But in this film she has few significant lines and is often staged or positioned (and costumed) to show off her sexy legs or breasts. She is often backlit (to provide that golden halo look), and in one of the scenes her lips are so beautifully saturated with a lip gloss, and the ringlets in her hair so perfectly cascaded down over her eyes, that I had some difficulty paying any attention to her interaction with the male lead, Vince Vaughan. Then there are the costumes--worthy of the Academy Award' ceremony. (Perhaps it is no stretch of the imagination to connect the infamous open-in-the-front gown she wore to the awards with the various gowns she is bedecked with in this film.)
So let's be plain about this. The film is about the selling of Jennifer Lopez as a product as much as it is about telling a story. I would not have been surprised if she had a song for the closing credits. She was quoted recently as saying that she sees her music and her work in film as having a seamless relationship. I don't think she sees the irony in that statement; but the irony in it is on view in this view. If Jennifer Lopez was miscast, perhaps it is because the role was meant for the entertainer known as Madonna. I understand that the director prefers to be known only as Tarsem. (From now on I will be known only as "Robert.") Why the single word for a name? Because it helps sell the products associated with the subject of that special name. If you are Prince or Madonna, then you are special. (I am reminded of a character in Catch-22. He was christened Major Major. Get it?) In the past we had special names, too, names like Van Gogh and Picasso. But they were last names so familiar to us that we used them without blinking. But getting back to Madonna for a moment: the Jennifer Lopez character was a two-dimensional icon of love and empathy and total understanding. She was all heart, a fairy godmother character. She had no past in the film, we were told she was good at her work (but not shown it), and she exuded rather than portrayed every emotion she was called upon to evoke. When she tried to emote, she spoke in a fragile and sexy little-girl's-voice that fell flat and weak upon my ears. I never believed her character for a moment. At the end of the film the main character interacts with two versions of the mass murderer: one is the innocent child who was himself repeatedly abused when a boy, and the other is monstrous version of the killer in the form of a grandly egoistic monster who has no conscience and no remorse. After comforting the boy version, she attacks the monster version and overwhelms him. She beats him repeatedly and then skewers him with a sword. Why does she do this? At first she wants to destroy the beast, but when she realizes that her injuries to the adult have also been inflicted upon the little innocent boy, she turns to comfort the boy again. Her strength of heart is (supposed to be) shown when she drowns the boy in order to bring the monster some peace at the end of his life. But we knew in the real world that the mass murderer had fallen into a catatonic state from which he would not recover. He would never kill again, and if he were alive perhaps he could be the subject of some study for future knowledge. But in the world of this film, such an outcome is considered too messy and unresolved. We want to see our heroine beat the sh-t out of the monster and then do the hard thing--kill someone innocent--in order to bring some peace to that monster. (I can't believe I wrote that.) Such an idea is inappropriate and simplistic in the face of the complexity of the subject.
This film is about a horrible subject--the kidnap, torture, murder, and mutilation of women. The female lead in this film needed to be a strong woman, someone who could embrace the complexity of the issues relating to such foul behaviors. I remember Jon Amiel's Copycat (1995), which starred Sigourney Weaver as a psychologist and expert on serial killers who is herself stalked by a serial killer who loves to torture, murder, and mutilate women. In the climactic scene of that film Weaver's character ruins the effect the murderer is looking for when--after being bound and strung up by the man--she decides to slip her neck into the knot of one of his lacings and commit suicide rather than let him control her for his future entertainment. Now that's a strong woman. That scene brought tears to my eyes because her actions emanated from her character. When I realized what she was doing, I realized that she was the kind of woman who could think of that idea and pull it off. (Of course, she is saved before she dies!) At the end of The Cell the Jennifer Lopez character is shown returning to the unconscious world with another client, a young boy who has been in a coma for several months. (We also saw them interacting in the first scene.) She will heal the boy because she is what the director has made her--a perfect character who does not need to work within the system but figures everything out for herself and always looks good doing it. This film--other than its stunning visuals--was a major disappointment. Early in the film, when there were several scenes without Jennifer Lopez, it occurred to me that I was enjoying the film. Why not--I had Vince Vaughan and Vincent D'Onofrio to watch. They are excellent actors, and their work was utterly convincing in the film. Then scenes with Jennifer Lopez returned, and I lost interest. Remember folks: you are told, not shown, that this woman has a special talent to enter another person's unconscious and interact with them. When I think of this film, I think of it as extended and visually stunning music video--one dream sequence after another. Look at the costumes, look at the theme (women in bondage), look at the sexually explicit ambience that touches everything and everyone. Music videos are like commercials. They are miniature movies that are intended to sell products. This film represents a seamless merging of these entertainment venues--but at the cost of too much that I value as a filmgoer. (August)
Center Stage, dir. Nicholas Hytner. Perhaps it was fortunate that I sat next to a young woman in the audience. She was perhaps 16 or 18 years old. Several times during the film I noticed that her face glowed in the romantic scenes between dancers who were vying for positions in the American Ballet Theater. I was reminded of the time my wife and I saw Titanic and sat next to two 12 or 13-year-olds. They cried and cried throughout the last 30 minutes of the film--all that time I winced and winced at the maudlin and sentimental plotting and characterizations. Center Stage was not a bad film. It was a plodding film, never developing characters with any depth, but still portraying young men and women who were talented, intelligent, sensitive, mature, hardworking, disciplined, and caring. I could not help like the young men and women; but I was not terribly interested in them because of the limitations of the screenplay and direction. The best parts of the film were some of the practice scenes and several of the performance scenes. Watching dance of this caliber on the screen is joyful and rewarding. Hytner's skills as a director were most in evidence in the way dance became the main character. But when he directed the dynamics of character interaction, I was bored. I was surprised at the mediocre nature of this film, especially after seeing earlier films by Hytner--The Madness of King George (1994) and The Crucible (1996)--that showed his skills at working with complex stories and characters (September).
Chocolat, dir. Lasse Hallstrom (USA). Not to be confused with Chocolat (1988), a brilliant French film by Claire Denis. The first complaint about this film: it should have been made in French, rather than in English. This film is another example of the way Hollywood sucks up all that is idiosyncratic and original and spits it out in an easily digestible wad. Audiences in this country don't like to see films with subtitles, you say? No problem. Simply expropriate the story and import characters we are comfortable with--and voila! Now you can go to France and stay right at home in the comfort of your multiplex with stadium seating. File this under the Disney-fication of the American cultural landscape. Now that I have that off my chest, let's talk about this film. Juliette Binoche is a talented and beautiful actress. But in this film her resume was shortened, and she became only a beautiful actress. Every shot of her was filtered, the lighting a perfect complement for her face, with sometimes a halo effect around her head. No one else got the filters. She was the one. She was the embodiment of beauty; and then to top it off, she was cast as the embodiment of goodness. Halfway into the film I began to wonder if she were a ghost perhaps. Why was the cinematographer lavishing such attention on her? Somehow she was able to act through this haze of unnatural lighting.
Soon I began to realize that this film was supposed to be a fairy tale. There was a narrator (whose identity is revealed at the end of the film), there was the contest of evil vs. goodness (the most boring component of the film), and of course there was that angelic heroine who had the power to redeem the ills of every unfulfilled character in the town. The last five minutes of the film were the most tender and evocative of this fairy-tale metaphor. Unfortunately, everything before that made me groan. Let's bring out the stars! Here's Judi Dench as the miserable landlord. Here's Johnny Depp as the Irish love interest! Here's Lena Olin as the abused wife. Now I have no complaints about the talents of any of these three or about their performances in this film. At least they were not lit by those horrible filters the cinematographer lavished on the female lead. And Judi Dench was wonderful in her scene-stealing way. She WAS an old woman, and the range and depth of her work was on display. As for Johnny Depp--Matt Damon, eat your heart out! As for Lena Olin--now there was a surprise in this film. Lena Olin stole the film right from under Juliette Binoche. She played her role to the hilt and gave it nuance and depth. She was a three-dimensional character. Wait a minute. What's a three-dimensional character doing in a fairy tale? Oh, don't ask. I am not sure what this film wanted to be, or what it wanted to accomplish. The audience seemed to enjoy it while I barely tolerated it (January, 2001).
The Emperor and the Assassin, dir. Chang Kaige (China). The cinematography of this film is beautiful to look at. Every shot is carefully lit, symbolic colors dominate, close-ups of the beautiful Gong Li are impressive, the recreation of the battle scenes is awe-inspiring. I could go on, but I would be remiss if I did not say that this epic film--with its awful epic length--failed to move me. By the time I reached the climactic part 5 of the film, I was tired and wishing I could have fast-forwarded some of the earlier sections. I will start by suggesting that in part 1 of the film, where we meet the future first emperor of China, and the woman he loves, I never understood who these characters were. I missed some context that would have helped me understand how those two people came to inhabit this space, to relate to each other, to develop specific goals and personal drives. The film became more interesting when I was introduced to the assassin. I sometimes think it is easier to introduce characters who are nobodies, who have no royal lineage, and lack money and power. It is much more difficult to portray kings and queens, because we do lack a context for understanding their emotional and psychological make-up. When the emperor betrays his lover and begins to act like a Kurosawa character--thus turning his back on his former self-proclaimed lofty aims--I began to check out of this film. Still, as I watched the individual segments, I could see the director was in command of the shot selection, and the production designer provided incredibly detailed sets for these characters to inhabit. On the whole, something was missing for me as I tried to stay with the epic in all of its tortuous expansiveness. (March)
The Emperor's New Groove, dir. Mark Dindal (USA). This Disney film was disappointingly mediocre. Some of the humor worked; much of it was mundane. David Spade proved that he is as boring as a cartoon voice as he is as a live actor. The animation was lush and colorful, as I would have expected. But the story fell flat. There were not sufficient characters in this film to populate the cartoon world with the numerous grotesques we have come to expect in Disney films. Where was the hero's sidekick? It could have been a parrot. Or perhaps a monkey. Or perhaps a squirrel. There was a squirrel in the film, and that furry character afforded some worthy diversions. But for the most part it was the David Spade character and the John Goodman indigenous person who slogged along on their journey. Then there is the inkling one has in watching this film--yes, that what Disney does best is to Southern Californianize and suburbanize every indigenous population--the Indians in this film were no more than pleasant suburban stereotypes. I could imagine the kids jumping up and down when they saw their first MacDonalds, or pestering Mom and Dad--"Can we go to Disneyworld? Can we!?" There was no insight into the lives of native peoples in this film. It was all stage sets and fantasy mountains. There was little original music in the film, no original montages, and a lackluster song by Sting brought up the credits at the rear. The film got by as mediocre entertainments get by. Bring me back to classic Disney animations (January, 2001).
The Five Senses, dir. Jeremy Podeswa (Canada, 1999). Ponderous. That's the only word to describe this film. Everything about every shot and every line of dialogue and every character movement and every close-up and every tracking shot and every camera angle and every chord in the sound design and every lighting solution to every shot--after awhile I wanted to scream, "Augghh! Enough already!" This is not the first time I have had this sort of negative reaction to the way brilliant technical qualities are used in service of mediocre and ponderous characterizations and plotting. And as usual, this film could have been great. What needed to be changed? First, the characters needed to be framed as less serious, less pontificating, less all-climactic in every word and deed. The premise of the film is that some people live with an acuteness of one of the five senses; they may be all sight, or all sound, or all taste for example. The only character in the batch that interested me was the ophthalmologist who was going deaf. The other major character--the massage therapist, the artistic baker who made beautiful but bland-tasting cakes, her gay friend who had an acute sense of smell--did not interest me in the least. They were part of the writer-director's conceit--oh, I will make a film with interlocking stories of people who have developed one of their five senses but lack a balance with the other four. The problem with this approach is that each of the characters has to face an intriguing problem we can empathize with and hope for a resolution. If the film had been about the doctor's problem, I would have been much more interested in how that problem could have been resolved. But this film tried to bundle everyone's separate problems into an interlocking structure that allowed characters to cross paths but never really intersect. There was an even a subplot involving two adolescents who go off on their own to explore issues relating to sexual identity. I was reminded of the interlocking stories in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (1997), or the adolescent subplot in American Beauty (1999). But neither the structural device nor the subplot worked as effectively in this film. I am a lover of innovative and beautiful film techniques, and the way those techniques can complement the foundation of the cinema--a compelling narrative. The two are related the way the senses are interlocked in the fullness of our own lives. (August)
Gladiator, Dir. Ridley Scott (USA). Without Russell Crowe this film rates one-star. Crowe is spectacular as Maximus, the newest action-hero to be hatched by Hollywood. He has heart, sensitivity, compassion, loyalty, courage, fortitude, and daring. But even so, he is still not that far removed from a Schwartzennegian comic-book hero. He is bound by the dictates of comic-book plot. Wife and son brutally murdered, he is forever loyal to their memory and can never conceive loving another woman in her place. Even though the beautiful sister of the evil Roman emperor loves this man with all of her heart and mind, he can not love her back, because that would break the firm rules of this plotting. Maximus is not as big as Arnold, but he still can dispatch (should I say, 'decimate') ten villains in 15 seconds. (Just how did he do that? I couldn't tell. The special effects were not good enough.) He throws down his sword, as if disdainful of violence--but only after participating in outrageous acts of violence. If he was so much against killing, then why did he choose to fight. If he believed in eternal life with his family, then why not let the Romans dispatch him. What was he waiting for? Ah, the dictates of the comic-book plot. He suffers so for his men, his companions, his idea of home and country. He should have been a masked man left to die in a cave somewhere and found by Tonto. Well, he does have an African friend who survives and carries on his tradition. Oh, yes, the tradition of the sidekick. Everything Maximus thinks of works. He is flawless, a Batman or Superman of gladiators. (Now if he had been a Patton of gladiators, then we would have had a real film!) He is the perfect general, the perfect tactician. Even when he is wounded, his wound (although deep) is not life-threatening, and the injury is an excuse for showing the curative powers of the African who tends to him and becomes his Tonto.
Then there is the law of the mythic image of the hero. In comic books we cut to the next panel, where we see a low-angle of the hero, as he stands proud and defiant above the fallen villains--as if to announce, "You see, the good are vindicated. And I am the agent of that vindication." In a film we have the reaction shot which formalizes this process of mythologizing. Too often we see the gloating low-angle of the hero employed at a critical moment. The ads for the film trumpet, "A Hero Will Rise!" Leave it to the low-angle reaction shots. Another problem: the way the film is organized. The film is structured by alternating action-packed sequences with dark, quiet conversations between two characters. Every time the director cut to the dialogue scenes, the film ground to a halt. The characters spoke in seeming profundities--but in reality, soap-opera sentimentalities. Tiring, boring, redundant, these dialogue scenes never furthered our understanding of character. The Roman emperor was all villain. Maximus was all hero. No room for nuance or character development. Again, the best part of the film was watching Russell Crowe shine despite the constraints of plotting and flatness of characterization. He was a revelation. The other beauty in this film was the series of uninflected shots related to his images of life after death. The first shot in the film is a precursor to the climax. Everything about these shots of the next life were imaginative and sometimes chilling in their reality. Those shots provided more insights into this character than anything else in the film. When I was 15, I was impressed with sentimental films about heroic figures. Is it come to this, however, that we give our fifteen-year-olds only the same level of sentimentality I was spoon-fed back in the 1960s? I groan when I witness the simplistic characterizations of films like this one. I want to see truth, justice, and humanity affirmed--especially in films that are meant to provide moral lessons for the young. But this film plays at violence in the cartoon-way: all those hacked-off limbs, heads, and all those stabbed torsos are like the dynamite blasts that leveled Wiley Coyote time after time. But those were cartoons. . . . (May 30)
Hamlet, dir. Michael Almereyda (USA). There were elements of this film to admire. After all, the words of Shakespeare are compelling, and this is one of the greatest plays ever written. But the film fell flat for me for several reasons. First, Ethan Hawke's performance--as good as it was--did not convince me I was watching Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (corporation), a young man who could be king (CEO). I have had a bad taste in my mouth regarding Ethan Hawke since watching Snow Falling on Cedars. There is a shrillness in his acting (especially in the over-the-top emotional scenes) reminiscent of Tom Cruise. Still, I believe he is a fine dramatic actor (witness Gattaca and Before Sunrise). For whatever reason, the words of Shakespeare that came out of his mouth seemed flat and uninflected. I kept waiting for him to engage me as the character. Now that he almost shot his father? Now that his father showed his hand at the performance of his play (short film)? Now that he is back from England? But I never saw that transformation of character. It may be the fault of the screenplay and director. Part of the difficulty I had with this modernized adaptation was that all of the comedy of Shakespeare's Hamlet was left out. Only the darker scenes were added. But absent of comic relief (and Bill Murray's Polonius and Steve Zahn's Rosencrantz did not fulfill my need for comic relief) the film's darker moments began to accumulate and resonate as soap-opera diatribes, son against mother, daughter against father, lover against lover, brother against lover, etc. Perhaps the film's conceit (that a country is replaced with a corporation, a king with a CEO) was another part of the difficulty I had in responding to the action. To follow Hamlet I need to believe that Hamlet could be a king, has the stuff of maturity and fortitude (like Fortinbras) to become a leader of a country. Making Hamlet's father/stepfather CEO's of a multinational corporation undermined this need to grasp the essence of loss in Hamlet's special destiny. How many of us could ever become a king? The pressures, the achievement, the ambition--all are of a particular emotional level. The Hamlet we see in the first scene of this film would never become a CEO. Why bother? But to become a king--now there's the rub. I did enjoy the clever integration of digital technology in the film: the FAX machines, the digital camera and handheld monitor, the digital editing, the cell phones, even the digital counter (for hits in the fencing). But the use of guns in the film seemed out of place, out of line with the character. Guns seemed the easy choice in certain scenes. I was left strangely unmoved by the climactic scene. Poor Hamlet played out his hand and so he killed his evil stepfather. But the young man who died in the arms of Horatio was a lesser being than the Hamlets I have seen before. The ghosts of Olivier, Burton, Gibson, and Branagh watched quietly from the wings. (May 30)
Indochine, dir. Regis Wargnier (France, 1992). VCR. The major failing of this film was that the screenwriters played every scene as one fraught with dramatic intensity. After a while, however, the insistent drumbeat of dramatic intensity became repetitive and wearisome. I tired of the high drama. For example, the first scene shows the beautiful Catherine Deneuve, who plays the owner of a rubber plantation in South Vietnam (Indochine), dressed in funereal black and taking part in an impressionistic procession of boats on the Mekong River--part of the funeral cortege for the King and Queen, who were killed in an accident. We learn from her voice-over that now she will be given custody of the princess. How convenient. Like a fairy tale. Later, we see Deneuve, who is a collector of art, at an auction a handsome young sailor bids against her. He confronts her with a strange offer--pleading with her to let him have the work because it means more to him than it does to her. Oh, this was high drama! Of course, we also realize they will become lovers. But why? We never understand why this middle-aged woman would fall in love with a young naval lieutenant. But she has to fall in love with him, because later her young daughter will be saved by the young man, and when she opens her eyes and sees him for the first time--it will be love at first sight. Do you get the idea? This film is over-the-top high drama and costume drama. Poor Catherine Deneuve, who is a great actor, is relegated in this film to nothing more than a clothes horse for the gowns and hats designed for her by the costume designers. The film is another example of how great cinematography is often used in service of failed screenplays and inadequate direction. The structure of the film is based on a well-used formula: show the story of one family against the changing times of the society around them. In this case, we are in French-occupied Vietnam before Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Unfortunately, it is difficult to empathize with the main character, Deneuve, because we never find out what makes her tick. Her adopted daughter is a more interesting character because we can relate to the spontaneity and freshness of her youth and naivete. The young naval officer, however, is no more than a literary convention. One aspect of the screenplay I was moved by was the revelation of the main character's voice-over. Halfway through the film we learn she is speaking the voice-over to another character. That trick of the screenplay was creative and effective. The film tries to capture an era; but it slips into the formulas of a Cecil B. DeMille instead. (October)
Kikujiro, dir. Takeshi Kitano (Japan). Kitano has the makings of a great director. His film Fireworks (Hana-Bi) was masterfully directed. Kitano has extraordinary skill at utilizing uninflected shots in the editing track. He knows that meaning in cinema is created via the juxtaposition of shots. He also knows where to place the camera in key shots and how to let the shot run itself out in its own time. American filmmakers could learn a great deal by studying his work. Some of that directorial skill is at work in Kikujiro; but on the whole the film is mediocre, and in some ways bizarre in its failure to involve the audience. The subject of the film is an unlikely pairing of a middle-aged loser and a little boy who is looking for his mother. For this structure to work, the audience must believe that the adult is capable of change and growth, as well as redemption, and then accept his acting on specific cues to make changes and to grow as a character. It is assumed that the boy will change in grow; after all, that's what childhood is all about. But both have to become new characters, in their own ways, and based on an interdependent relationship. Films as diverse as Captain's Courageous (1937) or Cinema Paradiso (1988) have accomplished this approach. But Kitano fails to create audience empathy for these two characters. One problem: the main character (Kikujiro) is too much of a loser, too self-destructive, too violent and amoral. Audiences will have a hard time accepting the depths of his rage. In one scene, halfway through the film, Kikujiro beats a truck driver with a metal post. The violent act is shown in a long shot. Are we to think he murdered the man? Or did he simply bludgeon him to unconsciousness? We never learn the driver's fate, and it is an awkward moment in the film. Later in the film, Kikujiro interacts for too many scenes with a couple of inoffensive young men who begin to hang out with Kikujiro and the boy in a strange and interminable comic interlude. There are flashes of brilliance, of course--the touching relationship between the beginning and ending scenes, the comic editing of a scene at the races between man and boy, and an occasionally subtle interaction between the two. But this film dragged on, and it became self-indulgent and boring. Kitano wrote, directed, and edited the film. Who is there to tell him that this one did not work? (July)
Mr. Death, dir. Errol Morris. (USA). I am a big fan of Errol Morris, and I have used his classic Thin Blue Line (1988) in my documentary class. His Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997) was another of my favorites, and I ranked it in my top 10 list for that year. But this film left me cold. The subject is Frank Leuchter, Jr., an engineer, and a consultant for many states who were trying to improve their machinery of death (the electric chair, gallows, injection devices). Leuchter. is the quintessential geek who thinks that his scientific methodology will make truth prevail. But Morris has already shown us (in The Thin Blue Line) that truth is what one wishes to believe, not some objective standard that can be apprehended by the scientific method. I think many of the young filmmakers of today (particularly P. T. Anderson and Kevin Smith) could benefit by reviewing Morris' earlier works. There they would find questions of faith, truth, obsession, intolerance, rage, and values fully realized and worth pondering. I'm not sure I would point them toward Mr. Death in quite the same way. There were moments of stark horror (listening to the effects of botched executions, listening to experts on the Holocaust recounting the realities of that event). But the moments when Leuchter was on camera (in Morris' straight-ahead style) were not as revealing as in the earlier films. Leuchter. is a small man, physically and emotionally. He is the technician-cum-scientist-cum-snake-oil-salesman. Unlike the original of that latter character, he believes his oil heals the body and the soul. Of course he is wrong. He is plainly wrong, morally run aground, and pathetic. But he does not know that is the case.The Nutty Professor: The Klumps, dir. Peter Segal (USA). First things first: Eddie Murphy is a comedic genius, and his talents are used magnificently in the scenes where he plays one or more of the Klumps. This film should have been called Dinner with the Klumps, or A Night with the Klumps. All of the scenes should have featured Eddie Murphy as one or more of the Klumps. The real Eddie Murphy (playing Buddy Love) should have been relegated to either flashbacks from the first film or interior images coming from Sherman's fearful mind. When he was on the screen, the film ground to a halt. A note to one of the executive producers, Jerry Lewis: Buddy Love was not a howling embodiment of evil in the original Nutty Professor films--he was an amoral cool cat who was stuck on himself. There is a difference. Buddy Love was not mean or evil; he was vain. The way Murphy plays him in this film Buddy Love is a revolting character. The only sustained scene of comedy was the dinner table scene early in the film. Just as I was about to fall out of my seat from laughing so hard, the scene ended and the boring middle of the film loomed large. Another point: Eddie Murphy's character of Sherman Klump this time around was neither funny, interesting, or capable of surprise. The film ends weakly with Sherman run down into a feebleminded twit. The film would have been much more effective if Sherman had rallied at the end and rid himself once and for all of the fear that Buddy Love could ever control him. And what to say about Janet Jackson? She is a good singer. As for acting, she stares well. The outtakes were more interesting than most of the feature-length film. Not a good sign. Give me a night with the Klumps. Give me the comedy that arises from character. Give me something other than this film. (July)
The Perfect Storm , dir. Wolfgang Petersen (USA). In his own quiet way George Clooney is growing into his stardom as a combination of the quiet, selfless Gary Cooper and the quiet, confident Clark Gable. He is carving out his niche, and it is a delight to watch it happen. He was a joy to watch in this film. But that's where most of the joy in this film stops. Let's start with the music, by James Horner, which stopped me cold before the end of the credits. Within a few moments I knew that this film was going to be about heroes. Notice that I did not say hard-driving and hard-drinking Gloucester fishermen (based on the first chapter of the Sebastian Junger book the film is based upon). Oh, no. We are talking heroes here. And the heavy-handed, unambiguous music led the way from the beginning of the film. Oh, how I came to hate the way that music narrated the film. Then again, if we aren't talking the music, then perhaps we should turn to the screenplay, and groan over that for a few minutes. The characterization of these men was at the level of the average Budweiser commercial. Not only were these men heroes, they were REAL MEN--as in fighting, snarling, grunting, drinking, belching, working--great images aren't they? Perhaps the correct word is stereotypes. The height of activity for a man is the mano a mano confrontation--something akin to two dogs growling at each other for a few minutes until the Alpha Male is determined, I suppose. Then, after an hour of special effects that shows the men muscling their way through the storm and averting one disaster after another, the screenwriter has the gall to end with one of the characters afloat in the Atlantic and mouthing poetically a few humble words about the power of love in our lives. I also forgot the big speech that George Clooney gives to a woman skipper of a competitor's sword-fishing boat. He recites an emotional litany of all of the markers that occur to him based on the numerous trips he has made from Gloucester Harbor. He recites these markers as if they were steps on the stairway to Heaven, and reaction shots of poorly-utilized Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, with tears welling in her eyes, made me fidget in my seat. How American audiences are fed sentimentality as a main course in their films--and how they swallow it without complaint. Sorry, but I cry at sentiment, earned emotions, not someone's silly impression of poignancy. Of course, at the end of the film, we are forced to hear the same litany of place markers and sights of birds, and passing of lighthouse that George Clooney voiced earlier. Only this time we are hearing it from his soul (via voiceover). I waiting at the credits for the obligatory visual review of each of the heroes engaged in visceral manly activity--alive again, right in front of us (another tired movie cliche).
Yes, I was frustrated plenty of times as a viewer of this film. Still, there is a basic edge of adrenaline that the film runs upon. The best special effects scenes, for me, were the ones of the U.S. Coast Guard rescuing first the three people from a sailboat and then most of the crew from a ditched Coast Guard helicopter. In the climactic moment of the latter scene, the commander of the helicopter jumps from the ropes along the edge of the Cutter back into the sea in order to stay with his injured compatriot rather than leave him behind. That scene hit me in the viscera the way it was supposed to. George Clooney's quiet slipping back into submerging wheelhouse of his ship did not strike me as having the same quality of character. The Coast Guard scenes (the best recruiting tool I have seen in a long time) were about men who are professionals. They make a living at risking their lives to save others. That's the kind of heroism I can relate to. I would prefer to have seen a film not about heroic fishermen. I would have preferred to see a film about the fishermen who went down with their ship. If I had known them as individuals, perhaps I would have cared more for them. The way the film began, with a segment of life in the bar in Gloucester, did not work for me. As an aside, there are several references in the film about Clooney's boat being a swordfishing boat. That means they haul out to the Grand Banks to catch swordfish. But all the fish they caught were sailfish. Perhaps the prop department had a harder time making fake swordfish. I thought sailfish were caught off the Bahamas. P.S. I looked up swordfish in the Encarta Encylopedia. I learned that swordfish resemble sailfish, although the former is a separate family of fish. Swordfish are ugly brown creatures. Consider the problem of the production designer. Who wants to make a hundred prop fish if they are all ugly brown creatures? So forget the swordfish. Go ahead and make a hundred prop sailfish. They are more glamorous, and the audience won't be revolted by their physical appearance. (July)
Proof of Life, dir. Taylor Hackford (USA). I have noticed a trend lately in films. When there are two main plot lines in the film, the plot line that incorporates a beginning, middle, and end to it is always superior to the one that only incorporates a middle and an end. When we can follow the entire arc of the character's drama, then it is easier to understand the motivations, the choices, and the consequences of a series of actions. In this film we begin with a hotshot kidnap negotiator who equally good at rescuing people as he is dealing with the kidnappers on the phone. The film begins with an action-packed sequence showing him (Russell Crowe) doing just that--rescuing a kidnap victim after the negotiations have failed. So okay, I thought--I can handle this. Russell Crowe is moving into the territory formerly held by Harrison Ford--tough but vulnerable: a perfect combination for male and female audiences. I suppose after he makes a few more of these movies, he will move into the territory Harrison Ford recently occupied--that of the perfect father (even of the country). When will Russell Crowe play the President of the United States held hostage in Iran? That film is in the works, scheduled for release in 2002 I suppose.
Back to this film. I don't have any complaints about Russell Crowe's performance. He does for the most part what he is supposed to do. He is interesting to watch, I enjoy the quiet intensity of his performances, and he makes a great leading man. But in this film he is saddled with two problems. First, the screenplay does give him sufficient latitude to develop the emotional side of his nature. He is such a by-the-book type of guy that when he is supposed to be falling in love with Meg Ryan, he does not give the appropriate signals (visual cues) to help us understand what he is going through. It would help to know something about his past--some clue that would help us understand why he picked this woman to open his heart to. The second problem he is saddled with is Meg Ryan, who as a leading woman in films like this is terribly miscast. She was great in Sleepless in Seattle, she was too old for You've Got Mail, and she is boring in this film. Her pliant body language (does she ever stand up straight?) suggests far more weakness than her character should portray. There was no chemistry between the two lovers. I did not expect a bedroom scene; but I did expect to gain some insight into the emotional bonds of those two characters. I did not see what I needed to be shown.
Then there's David Morse. To put it mildly, he stole this film. We saw the arc of his dramatic crisis from beginning to end. The longer he was held captive, the more interesting he became. His performance (and his role) in this film makes me recommend it to other viewers. Morse was equally compelling in Sean Penn's first film, The Crossing Guard (1995). I loved his breathless acting style and his own intensity--perhaps of a different sort than Crowe's--but still intriguing. The scenes in the jungle and in the mountains were beautifully filmed--a visual treat to complement the development of Morse's saga. He learns the depths of his heart and his soul in his captivity, and that growth is shown in marked contrast to the way the love relationship between Crowe and Ryan fails to develop. What is it about filmmakers who want to remake Casablanca by repeating the ending and trying to garner the same magic that the earlier film expressed? Poor Robert Redford tried it in Havana (1990) and here it is again (January, 2001).
Remember the Titans, dir. Boaz Yakin (USA). This is a critic-proof film. In other words, nothing I can say or do will persuade you not to see and enjoy this film. The audience I was in loved it, laughed heartily at the sophomoric humor, and sighed and groaned when cued by the plot. As for me, I yawned when the audience laughed and groaned when the audience cheered. The film is based on a true story, but the character Herman Boone, as played by Denzel Washington, was no more than a formulaic heroic and ennobled version of a human being. Washington played this character on automatic pilot. There was energy in his performance; but he lacked the passion of roles like Malcolm X, Philadelphia, Courage Under Fire, or The Hurricane. But that's not his fault; and this film is not average fare because his acting was a average. The film is average fare because it is filled with formulaic stereotypical scenes and characters and a plot that is so predictable and shopworn that at one point I turned to my wife and whispered, "I wrote this when I was in the 7th grade." But you have to understand that I always whisper that to my wife when a film fails to deliver complex characters and plot. I expect more from cinema than this film was able to deliver. Its cardboard paste-out characters included the noble black star athlete) and the vicious racist white lineman and the non-racist overweight white lineman and the loving and ever-supportive wife. . . and the list goes on. (October)
Saving Grace, dir. Nigel Cole (UK). After watching this film I sat in the theatre and wondered, "Now this film did not work. But why did it not work?" I was puzzled. I wanted to like this film because I appreciated Brenda Blethyn's masterful performances in Secrets & Lies (1995) and Little Voice (1998). But good actors often have been wasted in second-rate films (witness the careers of Gene Hackman and Michael Caine, for instance), and as far as I am concerned Saving Grace is minimally average fare. This film is mediocre because it is a Waking Ned Divine (1998) wannabe. The film is crammed with English eccentrics, but in this case they are unfunny and unlovable. The sound track is derivative of numerous American film sound tracks--heavy on the montages but in this case light on interest. This tendency to Americanize the Independent Cinema is obvious and worrisome. Another example of cinematic taste being driven to the lowest common denominator. Throughout the film I never got a handle of Brenda Blethyn's character. She is a 50ish widow who finds out her husband mismanaged their finances and left her facing bankruptcy. Naturally there is a dramatic component to this plot device. She will lose her home on the Devon coast, and then what will happen to her? Her embrace of the marijuana-growing-and-selling scheme (to avoid that bankruptcy) seems tied too closely to the mechanism of the plot instead of growing more logically out of the depths of her character and identity. There she is enjoying a joint on the beautiful cliffs overlooking the sea. Everybody laughs. Isn't that cute? Not for me. Even in a comedy I need to understand character and character change. I never was able to track her character in the film. The scenes of her on Portabello Road, looking for a drug dealer, again were cute and funny, but with an emphasis on the cute. Yes, there were moments in the film when the comedy worked, and there were moments in the film when the dramatic component of comedy worked. But the whole was not equal to the sum of those parts. Something was missing. Even now as I write this, I'm not sure if I can really put my finger on it. I enjoyed some aspects of Brenda Blethyn's portrayal of Grace early in the film. But later she became as servant to the requirements of plot. Her male lead, Craig Ferguson, was the discovery for me. He shared some of the screenwriting credits, but I thought his acting was his strength--he was natural and refreshing as Grace's gardener and marijuana plant supplier. Unfortunately, the female lead opposite him, who played his lover, was not equal to him as an actor. Grace was well known in her community as an orchid grower. Now there's a scheme for raising money. Orchids can sell for thousands of dollars. Instead of orchids, however, she wins the day (and comedy wins out) with another moneymaking turn of the plot. But that ending seemed forced, a kind of last minute bailing out of a confused and becalmed plot. (August)
Space Cowboys, dir. Clint Eastwood (USA). Last year's True Crime, also directed by Clint Eastwood, should have provided fair warning to viewers who expected Eastwood to continue to explore complex characters and themes in his cinema. What we have instead is a conscious decision on his part to provide mediocre entertainment to easily satisfied audiences who love to wallow in comfortable stereotypes. So True Crime did away with that uncomfortable thing called racism, and Space Cowboys ignores the awful depths of ageism in our society. The key to this cinema: let's all relax and simply enjoy the ride. Cinema is entertainment. Don't get excited. Sit back and have a good laugh. I promise you I will never make you feel uncomfortable. Sure, watching James Garner, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, and Clint Eastwood is like old-home week at the movies. We remember them from their glory days of action-packed heroism. Those were the good old days. But in this film they are mere caricatures of former tough-guy days. Even worse, they are written as tougher than tough--a crazy kind of reverse stereotyping that is as damaging as ageism. Old people do not have to eat nails and spit rust. Old people should be allowed to be old people--a considerable mix of strength and weakness, faith and despair, love and hate, and optimism and cynicism. But the formula of this film is simple, as Roger Ebert noted in his review. We have the gathering of the old unit, then the training of the unit, and then combat. That may have worked in The Dirty Dozen, but here it flops. The worst section of the film was the climactic space scenes and the daring destruction of the evil satellite. Then there is that last shot in the film: the astronaut on the moon, the earth reflected in his visor. What will the camera do now! Oh my, a tracking shot and then a slight zoom in to a tight shot of the visor. Why didn't I feel any emotion at that glorious moment? Too late for emotion when you have wasted such a vast talent on a pedestrian vehicle like this film. (July)
28 Days, dir. Betty Thomas (USA). The key to this film is simple: There are some emotionally and psychologically devastating and dangerous places associated with the problem of addiction. But this film never went down those roads. Instead, it played fast and loose with addiction. (Compare last year's Girl, Interrupted.) It stars the whacky-girl-next-door-type Sandra Bullock, and she delivers that role to perfection. I can't help admire her talent for hitting her marks in that narrow typecasting. Steve Buscemi is wasted in the role of her counselor. In an early scene he warns her (after she falls off the wagon in treatment) that she will have to go to jail. But a few minutes later he lets her stay. As I said earlier, "We're not going down that road in this film." Instead, we get a quick turnaround on our main character's part and she joins the other lovable addicts in this summer camp atmosphere and eventually gets rid of her dead-end boyfriend and joins the real world. She rises (survives) when the required sidekick (another woman in treatment) falls (commits suicide). But I was never emotionally invested in that relationship, and so I saw it as more of a plot contrivance than a dramatic twist of plot. There were cute times in the movie, and there were times when I was moved by the interactions. Declan Quinn was the director of photography, and his keen use of color and interesting filters (particularly in the group therapy scenes) was one of the most innovative aspects of the film. I kept thinking about a dear friend who is a recovering alcoholic; I wondered what his "treatment movie" would have been like. I also wondered what his dead-drunk movies were like. Alcoholism is not funny; it's brutal and revealing. But this film did not go there. It was a few notches above situation comedy, and pleasant enough for a Saturday afternoon matinee. (April 15).
Unbreakable, dir. M. Night Shyamalan (USA). What does a director do after the smashing success of The Sixth Sense (1999)? 1) You hire Bruce Willis again; 2) You continue making films about the supernatural; 3) You bring the kid back--unfortunately, not Haley Joel Osment; 4) You save a BIG SURPRISE for the end--because if it worked in The Sixth Sense--well then. . . . ; and 5) You make a relatively mediocre film. In fact, this film is no more than average fare--except for one big reason: and that is Bruce Willis, who brings the action of this film alive by the simple force of his natural acting style. Willis is fun to watch, and he stands out in scenes with Robin Wright (playing his wife) and scenes with his son (especially the scenes of Willis lifting weights and of Willis quick response to his son's unnerving confusion of reality and fantasy--whew, sometimes it is hard NOT to give away certain scenes!). Willis makes us believe his character is a man who has failed at life, has given up the good fight, and has lost his way (by the way, his marriage is breaking up, too). The problem with this film, you ask? Well, everyone knows by now that Samuel Jackson plays a character who has suffered throughout his life with a severe brittle bone disease. Once he reveals that problem to the Bruce Willis character, and informs Willis that he has found his exact opposite--someone who had never been injured or had a virus or took a sick day in his life--then the question obviously becomes, how can Willis help Jackson, right? Perhaps Jackson wants to kidnap him and turn him over to a mad scientist group who will pick and probe at Willis and clone his DNA in order to heal Jackson, right? Oh, no--that's not what you're going to get in this film. Instead, you get all sorts of high-falutin' psychological mumbo-jumbo and learn more about comic-book heroes than you ever wanted to learn and finally the climactic moment when Bruce Willis knows who he is really is, and what does he do with it? (How about going to the FBI or White House or CIA or United Nations or the local police station--but forget those ideas!) Where does Bruce go? He goes to a large train station so that he can be filmed low-angle wearing a raincoat with his hood up (as David Denby wrote--"monk-like") and touch the people and find out what he needs to know. (By the way, amazon.com will be distributing those raincoats--they will make great Christmas presents for 13-year-old boys who need to look cool with their friends at school.) And what does he find out? There are lots of sexually depraved people in this world. And what does he do about it? He saves two young girls who are going to be raped and murdered. And why does he do that? I suppose because American filmgoers can only be force-fed scenes of sexual depravity--isn't that what sells in this marketplace? And what is the point of his heroic actions? We are not going to find out, because the writer-director has another shoe to drop (see above). And this time, Andy, I'm not going to give it away!
Now. Compare this writer-director to other writer-directors, like Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) or John Sayles' (Lone Star, The Secret of Roan Inish, City of Hope) or Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, Malcolm X), or Woody Allen (anything more than 3 years ago). If I could wave a magic wand, I would wave it over M. Night Shyamalan and make him a director and not a writer. He has the director's eye (even though he overdoes the technical stuff now and then)--and he should develop it further. But if he keeps writing stuff like this, then he is going to lose his audience. (December)