Movie Reviews by Paul Preston and Mary Gent
Reviews in alphabetical order
BREAKFAST ON PLUTO (**)
Neil Jordan’s latest film is certainly his most outlandish. And here’s a guy who made “Interview With the Vampire” and “The Crying Game”. Cillian Murphy plays man-cum-woman Patrick “Kitten” Braden, a transgender of sorts in search of his birth mother. Patrick’s journey is not as interesting as that of Bree in “Transamerica” or Burt Munro of “The World’s Fastest Indian”, previously mentioned in other reviews, but there’s something likable about Kitten that makes his story worth watching. In his travels, Kitten gets a job as a costumed character, a magician’s assistant, a conspirator for the IRA, and, seriously, he has his story told by birds, whose chirps are translated into subtitles for us to read. Uh, OK… The most interesting character in the story is the Priest who took him in as a child, played by the GREAT Liam Neeson. Kitten is such a frail man/woman he is right on the border of being very annoying. But he has a real desire to find his mother, and that carried my interest. I just found the adventure on the whole a little uneven.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (**1/2)
Here’s a film that affected me only moderately in the theater, but I reflect on it very kindly. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal play cowboys whose loneliness comes (literally) to a head and leads to a gay affair. The affair plays out throughout their lives as they travel paths that simply will not allow their love to continue. This leads to sad scene of sacrifice and emotional distress after sad scene of sacrifice and emotional distress. The mere idea of this movie is what is most provocative about it. However, I find the execution of this idea to be far too laconic and stoic to garner enormous praise. The cowboy is that one last symbol of America (besides the Presidency) not to be re-imagined with a homosexual slant till now. And the time (1960s) doesn’t allow for these two young men to experience the love they have to the fullest. And, as said before, that’s sad. And as they MARRY…WOMEN, it just gets sadder. Despite top notch jobs by ALL in the acting, directing and tech departments (except maybe that score, which I find won’t leave my head, but not always for the best reasons), I think I need more kinetic stimulus in the theater, especially gay theater! (he said jokingly…)
Turn off your editor and enjoy yourself. There have been films truer to time and place. There have been films truer to dialogue of the period, but “Casanova” is Lasse Halstrom’s most lively film in years, and I had so much fun, I tossed out judgment for the two hours I followed the adventures of the world’s greatest lover. Remember when Tom Cruise was so sexually pent up in “Eyes Wide Shut” that it seemed therapeutic for him to follow it up with his sex magnet in “Magnolia”? Heath Ledger gets to follow up his repressed gay cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain” with a role as the man with the most female sexual conquests in history. Um, good for him. This film takes an unexpected look at Casanova in that it explores the years he remained fairly monogamous, and pursued a beauty played by Siena Miller. She is a real challenge for him to conquer, and a challenge is new to Casanova. The thrill of the chase is the audience’s as well. Also adding to the plot is the ongoing chase the Catholic Church gives Casanova and his sinful ways. Following it all is a great time. Heath Ledger is unassuming, yet sexy in the main role, and Jeremy Irons is hilarious, growing angrier and angrier as Casanova eludes capture. The romantic entanglements and plot twists are very engaging. I hope this movie can evade the stigma of being a “period piece” when, in fact, it is a very accessible romantic comedy.
THE CHUMSCRUBBER (1/2*)
Director Arie Posin seems to have a lot to say about the suburbs in “The Chumscrubber”, but what specifically is being said is lost in mire of excess. The GREAT Jamie Bell leads a wicked ensemble as a bored teen whose best friend (and fellow school loser) kills himself, leaving a cache of prescription drugs unpeddled. Great actors like Glenn Close, Ralph Fiennes and Rita Wilson (perhaps doing the best work in the film) can’t raise the quality of the material, which at times is pointed satire, but mostly meanders as random scenes of the bizarre. Fiennes plays the town’s Mayor who is about to wed, but instead goes insane. Reason? Unknown. Character growth due to the insanity? Not developed. The Chumscrubber of the title refers to a video game often played by the kids in the movie wherein a post-nuclear headless figure beats mutants to death with his own head. Unfortunately, the graphics in this game aren’t sophisticated enough to buy, but the worst part of the game is that it’s supposed to be some metaphor, and it really FEELS like it SHOULD BE a metaphor for what’s going on in the film, but it’s lost on me. The botched drug deals lead to one kid going nuts at the sound of a clock – HUH? – and child-on-child violence which just doesn’t resonate as either entertaining or social comment. Amongst all the noise and insanity, the story occasionally returns to the kid who feels lost now that his friend has committed suicide. When the suicide is addressed (as in a great scene where Bell & Close finally come to grips with it), the film has pockets of success. I wish the whole film were that heartfelt more routinely.
A Second Opinion…
CHUM: an intimate friend or companion, or sidekick; bait usually consisting of chopped up oily fish
ground up and scattered on the water.
I have lived my 35 years surrounded by the nuclear family on some level or another. As the years passed, the idea of “family” evolved or, in my own personal opinion, devolved. One thing is for certain, cinema will forever try to capture that unconditional dysfunction by any means necessary. Within the bubble of societal ideas of the family exists the children, and, inevitably, the teenager. Some say that teens have become monstrous parodies of their parents and that the 21st century has ushered in the teen as more violent, sexually active, aggressive and rebellious than it’s kinder, gentler predecessors. In some circles, this proves to be true. There are many more technological distractions than when I was a teen, and advances in technology is the scientific bastard son of isolation. I also believe the nuclear family has disintegrated into absentee parenting and negligent discipline due to some sort of baby boomer guilt. Whatever the problem, teens get a bad rap.
“Chumscrubber” is just the sort of birth control anyone needs if this is what the world is like for children. Because that is exactly what teenagers are: CHILDREN. Unfortunately, in this self-absorbed media driven, sexually repressed yet charged environment, these kids wear apathy as a birthright. It will never be good enough for them. They could never have enough: things, gadgets, drugs, clothes, sex, love. The movie paints a grim and somewhat nauseating picture of current suburban life. In fact, I wasn’t sure I even liked it until I realized I wasn’t supposed to. It begins with the discovery of the suicide of Troy, best friend to Dean (Jamie Bell). Troy was the king drug dealer at school, pushing all the best pills to troubled teens who need to feel good. Upon finding Troy hanging from the ceiling in his very cozy guest house while his mother is having a barbeque, Dean immediately turns, leaves and never says a word. His response later to his therapist father was that he didn’t think the adults would care. This sets the tone for what type of people we are surrounded by for the next two hours.
Hillside is the fictional upper class, track housing community that these people live in (reminiscent of the neighborhoods in “E.T.”). Brand new houses whose only flaws are the monsters that occupy them. There is a robotic, almost Stepford feel to this community and the humans that live there. Everyone has their mask on, representing well bred, polite and perfect specimens of the All-American family.
The underbelly reveals two dimensional relationships amongst the adults and terrifyingly adult like behavior from the children. Dean is an admirable character who doesn’t care that he has no friends because he would rather be by himself than belong to a group who is satisfied with torturing others. However, Dean is also troubled and has a father (my favorite, William Fitchner) who feeds him pills to help him cope, a brother (baby Culkin) who plays video games all day and a mother (thank god for Allison Janney) who puts Martha Stewart to shame. Then, of course, there are the bullies. Crystal, Billy and Lee (newcomer Lou Pucci) who are determined to force Dean into procuring the drugs that Troy had hidden in his room. In doing so, they kidnap Charlie, who they believe is Dean’s younger brother. Turns out it’s the wrong Charlie but the disgusting Billy (played by Justin Chatwin) decides to keep him anyway.
Throughout all this drama are other horrific characters such as the completely selfish and shallow design guru Terri Brately (deliciously played by Rita Wilson!), gearing up for her second marriage to the Mayor of Hillside, Michael (another creepy performance by Ralph Fiennes) who seems to have had some sort of epiphany about life. Then, of course, there is the beautiful and voluptuous Jerri Falls (Carrie Anne Moss), mother to previously mentioned delinquent Crystal, who can’t seem to come to terms with her lack of a man or her age. And finally, the belle du jour of all great actresses, Glenn Close (playing Carrie Johnson) who is simple perfection as the blonde, bubbly, repressed and grieving mother of Troy. In a beautiful exchange at Troy’s memorial she looks at Dean and tells him it is her fault, that she didn’t even know her own son. In return, he tells her about Troy and everything that he was. This struck a chord in my already broken heart. It is the same story for millions of teenagers all over this country whose parents will NEVER know them and aren’t sure they want to. And how tormenting and confusing to the child who never asked to be here in the first place.
Eventually in “Chumscrubber”, all of the organized chaos comes to a tumultuous climax as everyone’s worlds begin to take on a third dimension and the hard, cold reality of life stomps impatiently at their doors.
Ironically, I also had the pleasure of watching “Heathers” again (now that’s my generation!). For a movie that was made in 1989, it holds up incredibly well and touches on all of the above mentioned subject matter.
Case in point, time will continue to wage its war, with or without us, but the issues, regardless of the century or decade for that matter, are the same.
Claustrophobic Darwinism at it’s finest.
“The Descent” was a film I was originally apprehensive about. Reasons being:
1) I was under the assumption that this was another stupid horror film I had no idea it was a “foreign” film. Yes, I pigeon-hole the UK into the foreign film market and thank god!
2) Two, the trailer is so misleading (what else is new in America) that it looked ridiculous. For example, if I have to see the trailer for “Pulse” one more time I might actually start digging my own grave.
3) Although the trailer is shown rather frequently, there is no press on this film. Why, you ask? Simple: HOLLYWOOD DIDN’T MAKE IT. Yes, Lionsgate Films picked it up but it was made by a British director, filmed on location in Scotland and then at Pinewood Studios in London and uses an eclectic cast of unknowns (at least in America).
Okay, so those were my uneducated excuses. I, as you may or may not know, am a horror aficionado. I understand the genre and all its inconsistencies. It is not easy to make a “good” horror film. When dealing with the human psyche and fear, it takes a master to control that in a way that is convincing and horrific. So, there are always going to be horror films that don’t have the chops but are still scary in their own way and that’s just fine with me. It seems that the new school of making scary movies is undermined by CGI technology, fast cut edits and overall poor scripts. So when a film doesn’t necessarily follow these rules, then I’m intrigued and impressed. Films such as “Cabin Fever”, “Hostel”, “Wolf Creek” and now “The Descent” have given me hope that there are true auteurs of horror making good films.
From the opening scene and credits of “The Descent” (silly as it may sound), I KNEW in my bones that this was going to be good, if not great! The quiet, strange atmosphere of the credits to the misleading happy first scene was a setup for two hours of intense fear. I couldn’t have been more on target! There are very subtle references to other films (a tipping of the hat perhaps!), and I won’t get into that, but I will say the beautiful aerial shots of what is supposed to be the Appalachians are crippling and chilling, much like the beginning of “The Shining”. Setting up isolation from the beginning is pure genius.
The story is simple. Six girls get together once a year for some adventurous trip. They are strong women who aren’t afraid to take risks, as is apparent from their previous vacations. No Club Med for these gals!
One year after a devastating accident happens to one of the girls, they decide at the request of their uber-competitive friend Juno to go spelunking in the Appalachians. Sharon, who was the victim of the accident, is trying to overcome the gigantic emotional walls that have trapped her from life. Fragile though she may be, she is a fighter and is more than happy to oblige on this adventure.
Another indication of the maturity of this film was the relationship between the women. They are all just as dynamic as the next and just as ferocious in their competitive yet loving nature. There was not one gratuitous nude shot through the entire film. That separates the boys from the men for sure. The director focused on them as humans, not sex objects being led to their demise by a knife wielding madman! Bravo. Furthermore, they are bright and intelligent women. No big breasted, scantily clad bimbos here. There are, however, secrets among them and this eventually will lead to base, human alpha decisions. Competitiveness will never outweigh the immense power of emotion.
The film is beautifully shot, creating claustrophobic situations for a good part of the film. The cave shots are intense and the lighting is used from whatever tools the women have as opposed to camera lighting. You see exactly what they see, when they see it, making it all the more nerve jangling.
What it is that they encounter is a form of Darwinism at its basest. Creatures that have fine-tuned their adaptation to their enclosed and permanent residence. It begs to ask the question of altered human life that we are not even aware of.
The remainder of the film is brutal survivalist behavior. The women immediately succumb to their instincts and use them to stay alive. There is plenty of blood and violence in the nature of a gory horror film, however, in this movie it doesn’t seem unnecessary, just part of the experience you are sharing with the characters. Not for the weak of stomach! All the elements work. Tight, enclosed space isolated from the rest of the world, encountering a monster of sorts and allowing survival to overcome any obstacle without the typical American annoying soundtrack. Silence is golden here. “The Descent” is an excellent horror film and gives me hope for the future of this genre.
A total mess. Tony Scott is a gifted filmmaker. He’s made GREAT films like “True Romance” and “Crimson Tide”. Why does he feel it’s necessary to screw with EVERY SINGLE FRAME of “Domino”. He did the same thing with “Man on Fire”. Every single scene contains shots with filters, shaky-cam, slow-mo, subtitles, everything thrown into an obnoxious mix. It’s just so annoying, it was impossible for me to enjoy the film. That being said, what I was watching was the rise of Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley) from suburban kid to bounty hunter. Domino’s story seems easy to manage at first, but soon becomes a web of too many characters, not many of whom we care about. There is a climax in a popular Vegas hotel that is a thing of beauty, a la “True Romance”, but the road there is unbearable. Domino’s story is buried under Scott’s increasingly patience-testing cinema style. I really know precious little about her or bounty hunting. There is some humor in the film that works (most of Mo’Nique’s Jerry Springer appearance), but the appearance of “90210”’s Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering wears thin after a while. Their role should’ve been a cameo. I was also disappointed in the misuse of Mickey Rourke, on a HUGE upswing after his GREAT performance in “Sin City”. It seemed like he could’ve been a good father figure for Domino if Scott took TWO FREAKIN’ SECONDS to develop characters instead of developing a new level of seizure-inducing editing. Years ago, I thought Tony Scott films were too glossy. I’m talking about the “Days of Thunder”/”Beverly Hills Cop II” days when his flashy, VISA commercial look dominated the writing. He has “advanced” his style to the point of masturbation at the expense of the work of hundreds of other artists involved in the movie. The real Domino Harvey passed away last summer and never got to see this film. But she needn’t worry, the story of her life has still yet to be told.
I love The Rock, but unfortunately I’m still waiting for the first GREAT Rock movie. “The Rundown” was probably the closest, but it was mired in so much excess, it became cumbersome. “Doom” is pretty much all bad. The dialogue is bad, the action is uninspired, the sets and effects seem fast-foody and cheap. But mostly, the dialogue is bad! That really is the worst part of the film because it doesn’t allow The Rock to be as charismatic as he can be. He’s given flat, lame-o things to say that want to impress because they’re profanity-laced rather than clever. Shame. The Rock deserves so much better. Have ANY screenwriters listened to The Rock deliver a speech in the middle of a WWE ring? Brilliant. Simply brilliant. To date, however, his current material hasn’t allowed him to recapture that brilliance on screen. Actors like Karl Urban and Rosamund Pike are good enough in the film, but they can’t elevate the hackneyed feel of the whole film. There is a good twist at the end, the film handles its stars in ways you wouldn’t think. There’s also a 10-15 minute sequence that recreates the first-person-shooter POV of the video game “Doom” on which the film is based. It’s fun for about a minute or two until you realize that watching someone else play a game is never as entertaining as playing it yourself. But this sequence does encapsulate the movie as a whole, in that I never told you the plot of “Doom”, and I don’t need to. The movie’s much more focused on you watching stuff get blowed up…real good.
OK, I admit to being drawn into this sentimentalized girl-and-her-horse movie. I loved it. I cried like a child and I’m not kidding. Director John Gatins has fashioned an unabashedly emotional and winning underdog story that got me totally involved. Dakota Fanning continues her run as Hollywood’s best and most believable actress as a young girl who has unending faith in a broken-down race horse and her broken-down father. I have continually berated the mishandling of kids in movies, but this role is challenging and smart. Fanning delivers big, never being coy or “kiddie”. She’s still a kid, though, she doesn’t act beyond the character’s years. It’s a great performance. If you saw her on the SAG Awards Ceremony on TV, she’s growing up and read the teleprompter better than anyone else that night with dignity and demeanor, promising more and more years of her being a strong Tinseltown talent. Also great is Kurt Russell as her father, Ben Crane, another great role following “Miracle”. It’s good to see the days of “Soldier” and “3,000 Miles to Graceland” behind him. The script does a good job of finding obstacle after obstacle for the characters, who are trying to nurse an injured horse back to health, leading to an ending that is cheer and tear inducing. The other aspects of the film aren’t to be discounted, either. The cinematography captures excitement (the horse races) and beauty (the heartland countryside) with equal prowess. The score by John Debney is sweeping, following the tender and dramatic moments step for step. There are some clunky lines, most are delivered by Elisabeth Shue, as Russell’s wife. Stuff like, “Remember dreams? Cale does.” Those lines were quickly forgotten as I got wrapped up in the passion Fanning’s character shows from start to finish. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, then you’ll stay through ALL the end credits to wipe your tears away so, when the lights come up, nobody sees that you were tearing up.
Dammit! I want every Cameron Crowe movie to be great. His “Say Anything…” is the best movie I’ve ever seen about teenagers and “Singles” and “Almost Famous” are certainly two of the best rock n roll movies ever. It’s a shame that this most personal film of his failed to connect with me. There’s something about Kirsten Dunst that doesn’t connect with me, either. I didn’t find her “free spirit” flight attendant loosening up corporate burnout Orlando Bloom to be all that authentic. Example, Rachel McAdams did it better in “The Notebook” and even Drew Barrymore in “The Wedding Singer” was just so loveable, you wanted to date her, and you certainly wanted the main character to end up with her. I’m not so much about Dunst in this movie. I’ve already mentioned in a previous review that the best roles for Bloom are period pieces. Yeah, that’s true. He was genial and fairly empathetic in this part, but overall just a bit waify in look and emotion for the character (the developer of a new sneaker that bankrupts a company). This and the death of his father makes Bloom’s character return home to Elizabethtown, KY. There are some true Crowe-esque characters, especially a couple staying at Bloom’s hotel who are throwing an event wedding, and the brother character is fun, too. But nothing seems to happen as naturally in “Elizabethtown” as it did in other Crowe films, and not just Dunst’s performance. A memorial service at the end of the film has some garish events take place that probably seemed good on paper, but watching played out clunky, like a pie fight in a movie that didn’t have an ending. Then a cross-country coda doesn’t reverberate like it should, unfolding slowly and all-too painstakingly when I wanted resolution and fast. Susan Sarandon gives another quality matronly performance, using her trademark wit to punch some of Crowe’s better lines. This seemed like good territory for Crowe to mine after the awful “Vanilla Sky”, but “Elizabethtown” ends up being just another reason not to go to Kentucky.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE
Possession in a spiritually depressed society…
As you all are beginning to realize, I am a devout fan of the horror genre. Gore, violence, blood, psychological mind games, supernatural forces, monsters, vampire, lycanthropes, serial killers….nothing I can’t handle. But there is one corner of the genre that absolutely brings me to my knees with fright: POSSESSION. Perhaps it was my rigid Catholic upbringing or my curiosity with the book “The Exorcist” at a very tender age, forcing my parents to hide it or just the knowledge of the documented occurrences that cause me pain. Whatever the reason, masochistically I find myself drawn to these stories. With that said I broke down and rented “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” with expectations of it being mediocre at best. I was premature in my judgment. It actually is a solid film with an impressive cast and a very intense albeit sad story.
The film is a blend of courtroom drama and horror which actually seems to work. In a series of cross examinations the director visualizes the story for us. The story of Emily is based upon the events that happened from 1970-1976 to Anneliese Michel, a German girl who was thought to have been possessed by 6 or more demonic forces. Anneliese was a devout Catholic who was diagnosed as epileptic and was hospitalized in the Psychiatric Clinic in Wurzburg for two years. During this time, she began to see demonic visions or faces while she was praying. She was released and was able to finish her secondary education as well as attending the University of Wurzburg in 1973. Her condition worsened as she began to hear voices to add to the visions she was having. Being a strict Catholic, she attributed these occurrences with demonic possession. After four years of medical treatment, the Michel family turned to the church for help. They were refused the Roman Ritual of Exorcism due to the lack of evidence of Infestatio (possession) and the seriousness of the ritual itself. A local priest, Father Ernst Alt, known as a specialist in exorcism, proclaimed Anneliese possessed and received approval to perform the rite of exorcism by Bishop Josef Stangl. Eleven months before she died, a secret exorcism was performed weekly and all medical treatment was stopped.
“Anneliese presented what she claimed were six separate demons possessing her, including Lucifer, Cain, Judas Iscariot, Nero, Legion, and Belial. During her last exorcisms, Anneliese talked about wanting to die in order to save the souls of others. She stopped eating, rejected all medical help, and relied solely upon the priests to deliver her from the demons she believed were attacking her. Eventually, Anneliese’s knees were destroyed through obsessive genuflection. She contracted pneumonia and died at age 23 from starvation (by the time of her death, she weighed only 31 kilograms or 68 lbs). The autopsy report said that her death was caused by the malnutrition and dehydration that resulted from almost a year of semi-starvation during the rites.” -From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The family and priest were then sentenced to six months probation for manslaughter and negligence.
The movie places us in the present in an unknown location (Anytown, USA) and creates an atmosphere of tension and sympathy for the horrific situation. Jennifer Carpenter plays Emily with such force and dedication that limited special effects were used. Her ability to contort her body into unnatural poses lend to the authenticity of her performance. I found her face to be intangible, almost chameleon-like. I never could see what she truly looked like. A brilliant and beautiful actress that brings Emily to life.
The rest of the cast is nothing short of outstanding. Laura Linney in a truly pure performance as Erin Bruner the defense for Father Moore, played flawlessly by Tom Wilkinson, with a rigid and repressed Campbell Scott as Ethan Thomas, the prosecutor for the people.
The interesting thing about this film is the overwhelming sadness I felt while watching it. Yes there are scenes that made me want to assume the fetal position and yes there are plenty of creepy religious overtones but honestly the isolation that I experienced outweighed my fear. It felt hopeless. Erin Bruner’s character is independent and driven yet at the end of the day she goes home alone. Father Moore’s absolute conviction has led him to a cold and lonely prison cell where his only companion is the truth he so vehemently defends. And Ethan Thomas’s supposed Christian beliefs have forced him into a spiritual corner where it’s apparent he feels trapped.
Ultimately I felt that the spirituality of humanity was on trial. The faceless millions whose belief systems have been shattered by mainstream consumerism. Whose honesty has been replaced by shrewd lifestyles. Whose souls have been diminished by technology’s master plan to isolate us all from each other. Father Moore’s beautiful honesty is almost archaic in today’s society and god knows there isn’t a whole lot of room for real spirituality. Emily was perhaps a modern day saint who suffered so we would believe again. 100 years ago she may very well have been canonized and the populace would have called it a miracle. Today we call it mental illness, acting out, over dramatic behavior etc. and we actualize it away.
This movie may never be a classic like it’s predecessor “The Exorcist” but in 2006 it raises some serious questions about the spiritual crisis we are in and ultimately that is what moved me the most.
THE FAMILY STONE (***)
Sarah Jessica Parker gives her best performance in years in this family Christmas comedy that is unexpectedly affecting. Parker plays a stuffy New Yorker brought home to an ultra-liberal upstate family with a daughter who has it out for her. The film is loaded with good actors – Diane Keaton, the GREAT Craig T. Nelson, Dermot Mulroney, Luke Wilson and hottie-on-the-rise Rachel McAdams. Lots of characters, lots of plotlines – the mother’s illness, Parker’s sister visits, trysts abound and, did I mention ultra-liberal? There’s actually a brother who is gay and deaf and dating a black man, and they’re trying to adopt a child. The writing never gets out of hand till the end, when there’s a little too much slapstick used in a failed attempt to wrap things up. Once the slapstick is over, the movie returns to the tried and true writing that entertained us in the first place, and thank god for that. Despite some similar themes to your own holidays, the movies version of holidays always seems a little unrealistic. Parker’s character grounds this particular story. You feel for her (I’ve been there) and you’re amazed at how tightly wound she is (I’ve been there, too). She walks the line vividly between antagonist and victim. Great performance, good film.
FUN WITH DICK AND JANE (***)
Once again, Jim Carrey makes me laugh so much, I am inclined to put aside all rational criticism I have for movies and just say, “If you like Jim Carrey, you’ll like the movie”. That’s proved true for me. The guy is just FUNNY. Also refreshing is the advancement of Tea Leoni as a real talent. She has a number of great laughs here after a brilliant performance in the overall disappointing “Spanglish”. I hope she continues to be sought out for roles instead of filling in gaps as the wife or girlfriend. If you’re familiar with the original film starring Jane Fonda, Dick and Jane get down on their luck and resort to robbery to support themselves. I think the updating of this story to reflect the current miserable corporate trends of today works well, with loads of liberal potshots at the current government. These took me by surprise in a movie that, otherwise, never sought to be too sophisticated. The best of which is Alec Baldwin, as a crooked CEO, really paralleling Bush in dufus-disregard-for-the-little-man mode when the press interrupts him on a hunting trip. Funny. I was also happy with the way the filmmakers handled Dick & Jane’s relationship. They never really fight, despite their hardship, and that makes it easier to follow them on their wacky adventures. It’s subtle at first, but when the movie is at it’s peak, you realize that they really love each other and it’s easier to have fun with them.
GRIZZLY MAN (***)
This is my first Werner Herzog movie, and it makes me want to see more. Herzog has an unapologetic documentary style in which he firmly plants himself in the film as a character, not as obtrusive as Michael Moore, but he jumps onscreen every once in a while to interact with his subjects. This is a strange choice, but after a while, when Herzog’s voice-over is so compelling as commentary to what he’s showing us, you’re glad he’s leading us through this film. “Grizzly Man” is about Timothy Treadwell, a grizzly bear activist who lived with bears in Alaska for years until a demise at the hands of those he loved the most. And Treadwell REALLY loved these bears. Herzog compiled hours and hours of footage that Treadwell shot himself, that consisted of fascinating footage ranging from close encounters with the grizzlies to outrageous rants against those who hunt bears and ravage the Alaskan landscape. To learn more about this mesmerizing individual, Herzog interviews all the right people, from Treadwell’s family and contemporaries, to the pilots that flew him around the Alaskan hills and members of the Alaskan Wildlife Preserve. On the downside, for some reason Herzog stages scenes that don’t need it. For example, one of Treadwell’s watches is given to a fellow co-worker, and instead of just filming it, the participants in the watch exchange are uncomfortably aware of the nearby camera. There are a few questionable moments like that in “Grizzly Man”, but overall I was entranced by the life Treadwell chose to live. It’s simply fascinating.
HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (***1/2)
Here’s a franchise that gets better with each film. A lot of people are down on “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, but I thought Alfonso Cuaron’s take on the young wizards growing older was fresh after two gee-whiz passes at JK Rowling’s classic material by Chris Colombus. Cuaron made the magic at Hogwart’s seem lived in and everyday, yet still containing power and mystery. Mike Newell (“Donnie Brasco”) has the helm for “Goblet of Fire” and he gets to work within the best story structure yet for a Potter film – the TriWizard Tournament. Everything unfolding in this new story does so under the umbrella of the Tournament, and it makes Rowling’s complex plotting (this was her longest book yet) easy to follow and makes for the most adult challenges for Harry yet. Harry not only has to fight a giant dragon (a scene of awesome spectacle), but he also has to figure out who to take to the dance! Michael Gambon seems even more comfortable as Dumbledore here than his first outing, which makes sense. Some fans get on him because he hasn’t done a Richard Harris impersonation, but I like what he’s done with the role. If you look at the “Goblet of Fire” poster, Harry Potter is starting to look like a badass. Well, guess what, he IS a badass. But my favorite character has always been Ron Weasley, who was hilarious as the always-scared best buddy to Harry. Now he’s hilarious as an older Weasley who has a put-upon stoner quality with long hair, and all three young actors have become very deft in their parts. More of the world’s greatest British actors have come on board for this film, including Miranda Richardson and Ralph Fiennes. And please remember and repeat the name Brendan Gleeson. He is GREAT in everything he’s been in from “Braveheart” to “28 Days Later” and he is fantastic as Mad Eye Moody. “You Know Who” makes an appearance at the end of this film and after four films of waiting for a rematch between him and Harry, their battle isn’t necessarily breath-taking, but, like “The Empire Strikes Back”, the stage is set for what I hope will be the continuing improvement of this franchise.
THE ICE HARVEST (**1/2)
I unfairly reviewed this film among friends until now. I don’t really watch previews because I think they give too much away, but even looking at the poster for this movie, it’s touted as “From the director of ‘Groundhog Day’”. Don’t be fooled. “The Ice Harvest” is unlike any other Harold Ramis movie. It plays out more like the Coen Brothers. John Cusack co-masterminds a bank heist with Billy Bob Thornton and it leads to twist after turn after murder in a truly dark drama. I wouldn’t even call it a dark comedy, and that threw me so much that I ended up looking at the screen in such astonishment I couldn’t even wrap my brain around liking what I saw. Reflecting on it, this film is a pretty solid piece of work. I was a little confused to see some seemingly meandering scenes never really work back into the framework of the story. Again, I was just shocked to see a real lack of laughs here, I mean, they called it a film from the director of “Analyze This”! I need to see it again, ‘cause many critics praised this film. I’m sure I missed something…
IN HER SHOES (**1/2)
Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz lead the charge in this story of two completely opposite sisters who find their mother and find a way to connect with each other. Collette plays Rose, a straight-laced New Yorker who always has to save her party-girl sister’s ass. Diaz’s partying Maggie is so unlikable, it’s tough to even care for her during her sporadic moments of redemption. Such is the theme of the film, I suppose, that family isn’t easy to maintain, but sometimes it’s all you have. The material seems familiar, and not always enjoyable, but there are some good laughs when Shirley Maclaine comes aboard as the mother. She and her friends in a Florida retirement community are funny in that hey-aren’t-old-people-funny kind of way. Collette really shines here again (after the MISERABLE “Japanese Story”). She has some sharp dialogue and easily carries the load as the film’s moral and emotional center. I suppose this film could get three stars as easy as two and a half, it’s good while you watch it, but you don’t take too much away. The film is put together very well, as you would expect from Curtis Hanson (“LA Confidential”). He did a similarly solid job with “Wonder Boys”. Between that male flick and this chick flick, I guess his next project should be about hermaphrodites. “In His Pumps?”
Sam Mendes’ does great work with every script that comes his way. “Jarhead” is his latest, and I’m glad he helmed it. Here’s why. For me, there’s not so much that a war movie can show me anymore. It seems like I’ve seen a ton of war movies and they’ve ranged from patriotic themes to depressing with social comment, making the soldier seem noble and tragic. So, if I see a new war movie, all I can ask is that it’s made well. To my surprise, “Jarhead” is not only extremely well made, but it does tell a new and interesting story about war. “Three Kings” proved that the first Gulf War provides unique soldier stories. “Jarhead” looks more straightforwardly at a Marine’s involvement in the Kuwaiti conflict, from Basic Training to sniper missions. The Marine we follow is Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose book the film is based on. “Jarhead” is unique in that it is a combat-less film. Swofford’s patience and sanity are tested not due to intense warfare, but due to the inaction, the festering in the desert, the misguided cause and the goddamn HEAT. Jamie Foxx is good as a the head of Swoff’s platoon, given a load of good lines running his group of soldiers, and the cast is stacked with good actors – Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, Dennis Haysbert and more. Mendes has another phenomenal lineup of the bidness’ best working behind the camera: Roger Deakins (cinematographer of “Fargo”), legendary editor Walter Murch (who edits on Final Cut Pro!), and Dennis Gassner (Production Designer from “Barton Fink”). There are images that stuck with me long after the movie ended (particularly when it was literally raining oil on the soldiers). Mendes’ is one of Hollywood’s surest things for crafting a first-class drama. Regardless of the genre, location or theme, he nails it, that’s why I’m glad he has taken on a war film. Between Mendes’ outstanding direction and an fresh vision reflecting the new face of war, “Jarhead” leaves and impression.
JUST LIKE HEAVEN (***)
This is a sweet romance that gets better and better the more you stick with it. I was not expecting much, not really being a fan of previous Reese Witherspoon vehicles like “Sweet Home Alabama”, but her teaming with Mark Ruffalo is inspired and the laughs are quite genuine. Witherspoon plays Elizabeth, a nurse whose job dominates her life and minimizes her social life. After a car wreck, her spirit ends up inhabiting her old apartment, now occupied by widower Ruffalo. The film runs along typical lines at first, from gags where both people think they’ve broken into the other’s house, “how the heck can you see me?” dialogue, and a variety of methods in which Ruffalo tries to rid his abode of the apparition. A very unexpected turn comes halfway through the film that freshens everything up, and Ruffalo ends up helping Witherspoon deal with the tumultuous events that have taken place since her car wreck. Ruffalo is a marvel. I distinctly remember his breakout performance in “You Can Count On Me”, and have seen him in movies like “Collateral”, but I hope he finds a niche in comedy. He is hilarious, a combination of Nicolas Cage and my friend Biagio. OK, not many of you can relate to that description, but just watch the scene where he has to perform an emergency medical treatment on a stranger at a restaurant with Witherspoon giving him spiritual advice, and you WILL laugh. What’s impressive is that he turns on a dime to deliver the emotional weight required for some scenes and be a believable romantic lead throughout, and Witherspoon matches him scene for scene. Director Mark Waters finds that same balance of laughs and sentiment to make “Just Like Heaven” a great date film. The film’s ending is smart and challenging, not taking the easy way out for our characters. After “Walk the Line” and this, Reese is back on my watch list. I’ll see whatever she does next.
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (***)
Up till now in my reviews, I think I’ve said that I’m not being surprised much. Well, here’s a movie that did surprise me. It’s another movie about the Holy Land, just 2000 years or so before Munich. I’m always impressed by a movie that teaches me something, and I was not aware that the Crusades brought about such a European presence in Jerusalem. Dopey me, I just thought the Crusades moved around Europe, killing people who didn’t like the Christian way. The politics presented in “Kingdom of Heaven” are well scripted and played out and make for a rather exciting Ridley Scott movie. After watching “Elizabethtown”, I am reminded once again that period pieces like this are for what Orlando Bloom is best suited. He, Liam Neeson, David Thewlis and Jeremy Irons are doing the nobleman thing to a T, despite a script that might be just a little to sober for it’s own good. I actually wanted to see more of the religions involved in these land struggles. It’s a 2 1/2 hour movie, but the last 45 minutes are a full-out war at the gates of Jerusalem, and that’s where Ridley does his best stuff. So, if it seems stuffy for a while (and it does), hang out ‘cause this movie goes out with a bang. And, lastly, I must say that my favorite character is the King (See? Who knew Jerusalem had a King?). He is suffering from leprosy and wears an iron mask and is simply fascinating. I couldn’t even tell you who played him, but when he was on screen, I was watching him over everyone else. God, politics suck.
KING KONG (****)
My pick for best film of the year. No film this year shot so high and achieved its goals. The movie with the biggest scope and most extraordinary vision of any director in 2005. Peter Jackson has made a three-hour masterpiece, and about an hour and forty-five minutes of the movie has to be non-stop ACTION. I left this movie completely and totally FULL. Let me break it down. The biggest joy of the film has to be the passion Jackson injects into every scene. You can tell this is the film he’s wanted to make his whole life, yet it doesn’t get out of control like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, a remake with equal passion, but no refinement. Whether it’s the obsession expressed by Jack Black, doing everything possible to make his film, or King Kong desperately roaming the streets of NY in search of Anne, there’s passion in every scene. My biggest peeve with Jackson in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was his penchant for melodrama that sometimes slips into downright cheese. There are moments of that here, too, but I was swept up in them this time out, especially the second time I saw the film. Example, the comparisons to Joseph Campbell are a little heavy-handed and some shots late in the film are overdone. However, there is stuff in this movie I have never seen before in my life, and most of the latter half of the film left me breathless. 1920s New York City hasn’t looked this beautiful in the movies ever before. There are effects-heavy shots near the end where Kong climbs the Empire State Building and I know the city, the Empire State Building, Kong, and the sky are all fake, and I bought every minute of it. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that this film has the best computer graphics I have ever seen. Also, I have, if you’ve ever heard me talk movies before, continually complained about how CGI characters suck. They look false, take me out of the narrative, and, worst of all, are BAD ACTORS. Well, Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis have advanced the work they did with Gollum to create the best CGI character ever in Kong. Kong comes away in this movie as the best actor in it. That’s not to slight the great work of Naomi Watts, but I felt true emotion for Kong and his situation, and any King Kong movie where I’m rooting for Kong to kick everyone’s ass in the end is a good King Kong movie. The first hour is skillfully set up, building characters and setting up the strong theme of destiny, so by the time the crew makes it to Skull Island, they hit the ground running and the dinosaurs, aborigines and bugs they encounter launch “King Kong” into THE action movie of the decade. In the end, “King Kong” is a tragedy, and Jackson, with great love for the story, enhances the emotion to a level not achieved by the previous “Kong” films. When Anne Darrow is first offered to Kong, she’s his latest toy (and there are some exceptionally realized POV shots when Kong first carries Anne through the jungle). Through the outrageous adventure they share, their relationship becomes one of the finest love stories of the year.
LORD OF WAR
You know who’s going to inherit the world? Arms dealers. Because everyone else is too busy killing each other.
Greetings my fellow movie lovers. I will begin with another lame apology about the lack of weekly columns I am supposed to deliver. However, all excuses aside, I am still here and will deliver as often as is humanly possible.
I’ve rented quite a few movies this week. All of which were quite good. Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” (beautiful performances from all), “November” (indie film with Courtney Cox and ghost actor James Le Gros…okay movie, overdone plot line), “Mrs. Harris” (BRILLIANT) and finally “Lord of War”. I loved the last two so much that I had a hard time deciding which to discuss, but once again violence and corrupt behavior win over in my book.
I sincerely believe the fall of man was determined in 1836 when Samuel Colt developed his “revolver”, the first patented gun introduced to the world. Actually, the history of firearms dates all the way back to the 15th century but all were failed attempts at weaponry. It is no surprise then that men have dedicated their lives to the great arms race. “Lord of War” is a grim depiction of such ambitions.
We all live in a world where guns have always been prevalent. Killing machines that rest in the palms of the cowards who carry them. Revolutionaries, armies, gangs, government agencies, protective services, and, of course, individuals. Mainly men who mirror society becoming apathetic and preferring instant gratification without getting blood on their hands. It’s bullshit. I suppose what’s even further disgusting are the death dealers themselves, mercenary freelancers who peddle their wares to third world countries and into the hands of the poorest of men, women and, yes, children. And adding insult to injury, the powers that be, the biggest arms dealers of them all, hire these lone wolves, making sure their own fingerprints don’t touch the sale.
The movie opens with a distressing statement from Nicolas Cage who plays Yuri Orlov, arms dealer extraordinaire. “There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?” The opening credits then follow a single bullet from its birth on the assembly line to the journey it takes to finally pierce the head of a small African boy.
The son of Russian immigrants who settled in Little Odessa (Brooklyn), Yuri decides the predetermined restaurant business is not for him. With Russian mobsters flooding the local streets with bullets, Yuri realizes that there is money to be made in all this death. He then begins a 20-year career as an arms dealer to leaders of the world. As many gifted individuals who apply themselves usually come to find out that they are really good at what they do. As is Yuri. The movie tracks his lucrative career and the trail of blood and death that seem to follow him. His over-zealous lust for his job begins to isolate him from those he loves as he loses sight of tangible attachments with his family. In order to remain at the top of his game, Yuri has successfully learned to disassociate himself from humanity.
The movie’s ability to deliver on all levels are due to the excellent cast which includes a consistent scene stealing performance from Jared Leto as Yuri’s younger more sensitive brother, Vitaly, as well as solid acting from the innately gifted Ian Holm. The supporting cast is strong as well with a surprisingly good Bridget Moynahan and a truly sinister performance from Eamonn Walker as Andre Baptiste, the West African dictator of Liberia. And yes, even Ethan Hawke as militant Interpol agent Jack Valentine is good.
The closing credits claim that the story is based on actual events. Some say that the fictional Yuri Orlov is loosely based on Viktor Anatolyevich Bout, a Russian arms dealer and former KGB officer. He is nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”. “Bout came to officials’ attention in the 1990s, when he was accused of supplying arms to rebels in West Africa after a cease-fire agreement had been brokered. At that time he owned or was using many airlines, including Air Cess and Centrafrican, which were later forced to shut down by the authorities. He was also the official arms supplier to the deposed regime of Charles Taylor in Liberia.” – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Interestingly enough, although “Lord of War” has the auspices of a big Hollywood movie, there is no American money attached. New Zealand-born director, Andrew Niccol said no American company would go near it. “Since the film does not shy away from stating the facts about the role of the US in supplying arms, it was considered too controversial.” The $US 50 million ($67 million) budget was raised mostly in Europe, by French producer Philippe Rousselet.
The movie left me feeling sad, frustrated, helpless and disgusted. Disgusted and disappointed at the obvious Lord of War: Capitalism. I realize this should come as no surprise in the 21st century but the movie paints the glaringly obvious picture of its reality. The final statements during the ending credits were the most disturbing to me:
The US, UK, China, Russia and Europe are the 5 largest arms dealers in the world. They also hold the 5 permanent seats on UN Council.
MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (***)
Best thing you can do for any documentary is get Morgan Freeman to be your narrator. Look was it did for the narrative feature “Million Dollar Baby”. Freeman’s V.O. often adds a thoughtful and sincere layer to a story that is transfixing anyway due to the expert work of its filmmakers. Director Luc Jacquet follows Emperor penguins in Antarctica as they fight nature and predators to make the yearly trek to their mating grounds. The access the filmmakers give the audience is impressive, not necessarily unprecedented, but the work that normally gets reserved for the National Geographic Channel looks glorious on the big screen. The penguins have a wonderful humanism about them from their comical waddle to their sensitive parenting techniques that is always remarkable to watch. Part tragic, part triumphant, and, as Freeman says at the top, all love story, “March of the Penguins” has become one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all-time because, in my opinion, it has a great plot. I’ve already reviewed three movies (narratives) about characters who go on great journeys (“Transamerica”, “The World’s Fastest Indian” and “Breakfast on Pluto”), and “Penguins” is memorably in this class, but the real-story aspect of it all has made it appealing to everyone. It’s pretty much a film that’s hard to dislike.
THE MATADOR (***1/2)
A Great film! I have a feeling a lot of people would love this movie, but the limited release it’s getting is unfair to it’s star power (Pierce Brosnan – 007 for God’s sake!) and accessibility, and it may not get itself in front of too much of an audience. But if you see it on the marquee, GO! Brosnan plays an assassin in the middle of a mid-life and mid-career crisis, suffering from panic attacks that hinder his ability to get the job done. In Mexico, he meets Kinnear’s Danny Wright, who is in town for business meetings. The two get off the ground in prickly territory at first, but soon develop an outlandish friendship where Kinnear becomes fascinated by the life an assassin must lead. From there, the very stylish script by writer/director Richard Shepherd throws in one or two BIG twists that left me very satisfied. The final scene is one GREAT series of conversations and flashbacks. This movie is just COOL. Shot cool, people talk cool, and there’s loads of laughs from Brosnan AND Kinnear. Brosnan’s assassin is so affable and loutish at the same time, it’s not only a great performance, but certainly a 180 from James Bond. Hope Davis is also very good as Kinnear’s wife, equally curious about the new world her husband has discovered. There’s precious little wrong with this film, and I expect more great things from Richard Shepherd.
MATCH POINT (***)
Here’s some more familiar territory for Woody Allen – infidelity. The plot even handles infidelity in similar ways to his “Crimes and Misdemeanors” from the ‘90s. However, Allen has dipped his customary adults-in-deep-shit story into new terrain. This is the first film Woody has set and shot in London. And am I right in thinking that it’s gotta be the first movie he’s made outside of NY City in over twenty years? Much like John Patrick Shanley, an Irish writer NAILING the thoughts and feelings of an Italian family in “Moonstruck”, Woody has found the style, feel and tone of the Brits better than I thought he would. His plot is very, very, VERY meticulously put together and contains deeper themes than I would’ve imagined from him, too (the most prominent being that of luck). Twists and turns? Haven’t seen that from Woody in a while. This movie is worth seeing to catch a master back in full form, and he’s got a good cast making the material bristle. My favorite in the cast is Emily Mortimer, utterly loveable in her role, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who is such a creepy dude, you know he’s up to something. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very talky, and not so visually exciting, but this film makes me VERY curious to see Woody’s next film, which I believe he’s shooting in Spain. I can finally take the Woody Allen cookie cutter and throw it out, he’s expanding his universe, and the results are good.
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA (**1/2)
Wow, this movie really wants you to heap awards upon it. Desperately. The stars were aligned – director Rob Marshall, of the Oscar-winning “Chicago”, headlining a prestigious list of filmmakers, adapting a popular novel to the sounds of John Williams’ sweeping score. But the result is just…blah. I can easily give it two and a half stars for the look and feel of the film, but I didn’t care as much as I wanted to. It started out promising, with two sisters being sent to become Japan’s legendary Geisha girls, but it led to a series of – um, it was hard to make it – well, I tried to – OK, let me be honest. The biggest problem I had with the film was the English dialects of its Asian stars. I found that just DEBILITATING. Such a shame, ‘cause we saw great actors like Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi shining in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, speaking Mandarin. Here, visibly struggling with English, these actors lose the finesse they display in performances in their native tongue. This film should’ve been performed in Japanese, if you ask me. The trouble there is that the Japanese are up in arms because actors from China and Hong Kong have been cast in “Geisha”. So, could they even do Japanese correctly, without debilitating dialect? I DON’T KNOW! So, with all that confusing stuff aside, let me just say that I wish the English wasn’t such a chore for these obviously gifted actors. I’ve really gone on about this, haven’t I? On to other parts of the movie, the overall love story didn’t really get me. I can’t reveal it here, but it’s just creepy. I think the cinematography and score will be remembered for a long while, but the rest of it is already gone from my memory.
MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS (***)
When her London theater starts declining, bored British socialite Laura Henderson decides the best way to attract a crowd is for her cabaret dancers to lose their tops, and then some. Such is the premise of this very English comedy and Judi Dench is perfectly cast as Mrs. Henderson, anchoring the film in her trademark sharp tongue and stare (the same one used for dramatic effect in “Pride & Prejudice”). Bob Hoskins, who also produced, has one of his best roles in years as a theatrical producer who butts heads with Mrs. Henderson at every turn. Writer Martin Sherman provides crackling dialogue for all involved, and lots of comedy is gotten out of the bodacious situations of naked chicks in the theater. In the movie’s second act, there are dramatic turns when WWII hits London. It’s a bit jarring, given the first half’s frivolity, but it’s handled with the same sophistication as before. My only other disappointment with the film is the music. For a musical cabaret, I was hoping to hear a few more familiar tunes. Instead, I guess I was introduced to new songs (to me), but none were truly memorable. Wispy and amusing, “Mrs. Henderson Presents” is another fine outing for director Stephen Frears.
I’ll admit, and I’ve admitted it here before, that I am genetically predisposed to like Steven Spielberg movies. There’s something about the production value and overall prestige of his projects that I am WAY into. However, I don’t think there’s any bias in this review of one of Spielberg’s bravest movies yet. Now here’s an example of a kinetic movie! I expected a movie about the political ramifications of the Palestinian kidnappings and killings in Munich at the Olympic Games, 1972. What I got instead was a spy/espionage thriller of the HIGHEST order, filled with tension and suspense. The intrigue begins when Israel orders a retaliation against the Munich massacre in the form of an elite squad of mercenaries (not all Israeli) to take out the folks responsible. This leads to the controversy surrounding this film, and I want to address that. True, Israelis were killed at Munich, and it seems their vengeance was due. But Spielberg posits that perhaps revenge is not the best solution. This is a bold move for a high-profile Jewish filmmaker. The revenge plot, and how it unfolds on screen, is GREAT for the movie, exciting to watch. But, as we’ve all seen, violence breeds more violence in real life, and the ambiguity with which Spielberg has founded this film is impressive and certainly more challenging than the Nazis-bad/Jews-good angle that anchored one of his other masterpieces, “Schindler’s List”. Let’s face it, in the Middle East, no one is innocent, and no one has ever been innocent, and there will never be peace there, ever. Ever. Back to the movie, the assassination attempts involve botched bombings, double-crosses and more twists and turns, leading to a haunting final scene that lays it all out that politics will reign over value of human life then and now. The cast is impressive, including the brilliant Geoffrey Rush being brilliant again, Lynn Cohen is very good in a small role as Golda Meir, plus the always working and always underrated Ciarin Hinds and, good news, Daniel Craig is great! That’s good news to Bond fans. In this film he played kind of a heavy, more like a Jason Statham-type than the smooth, suave James Bond. But he seemed like a solid actor that could pull off 007. As ever, Spielberg has brought on board the best in the business, from Janusz Kaminski to screenwriter Tony Kushner, and this is certainly one of the year’s best films.
THE NEW WORLD (**)
Not so new, it turns out. “The New World” is VERY much like Terrence Malick’s last film, “The Thin Red Line”. So it comes down to this: Did you like “The Thin Red Line”. I didn’t. Didn’t like this, either. There’s something to be said for Malick’s distinct film vision, but, for me, the word wouldn’t be “coherent”. Malick has made a “dream film”, in that, as another critic put it, it seems like he gets annoyed that he has to stop to use dialogue! English settlers arrive in Virginia in tall, stately ships, and the Native Indians look on with magical wonder as the ships take to the beach. These scenes, set to a swelling, gorgeous piece of Wagner’s music, have an enchanting quality, but I became detached soon after. The film used the same technique time and again in crucial scenes as the settlers and Indians clash. That technique is long, languid shots of people, most of the time in a field, with voice-over of their thoughts, poetic, not necessarily narrative, over mostly otherwise dialogue-less scenes (same as “The Thin Red Line”). It just didn’t work for me. I was impressed that Malick is dodging traditional narrative, but it left me with no real connection to the characters. Colin Farrell and newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher looked lost in it all, asked to act a certain way, but perhaps not a certain story. I was intrigued by the second half of the story, which I imagine was drawn from history, about what happened to Pocohontas after her relationship with John Smith, a time of her legend we rarely hear about. But overall, it was a bunch of visuals and story fragments, signifying nothing.
OSCAR RANT 2006
(Honoring the best films of 2005)
Best Motion Picture of the Year:
Crash (2004) – Paul Haggis, Cathy Schulman
Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Diana Ossana, James Schamus
Capote (2005) – Caroline Baron, William Vince, Michael Ohoven
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) – Grant Heslov
Munich (2005) – Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel
Should’ve Won: “Good Night, and Good Luck”
Well, if you look at my top 10, you’ll see that “Good Night” edges out “Crash”, but only by a hair. I was just happy to see that “Brokeback Mountain” didn’t win because I was not it’s biggest fan. A bit too ponderous for me, and perhaps a story of gay cowboys could be more, I don’t know, exciting. Compared to other years, there’s three Academy picks that match my own picks, so I was pretty happy. Some years I disagree with all five nominations. I was surprised to see “Capote” in there. I didn’t think the FILM had as much hype as Hoffman did. I certainly wasn’t as impressed with “Capote” as I was with the likes of “King Kong” or even “Walk the Line”, which I thought had a chance of a nomination. “Capote” just never surprised me. It set up what would happen, then it happened. “Crash” was certainly more visceral and a much more worthy Best Picture winner. But Clooney’s tale of 1950’s repression and witch-hunting was expertly put together and would’ve won on Oscar night from what was nominated if I was the man.
And one more thing about “King Kong”, why does it get a bad rap when it had more four star reviews than “Crash”?
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:
Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote (2005)
Terrence Howard for Hustle & Flow (2005)
Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Joaquin Phoenix for Walk the Line (2005)
David Strathairn for Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
Won: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Should’ve Won: Terrence Howard
This is a great list of nominees, but, as ever, there are people missing: Pierce Brosnan in “The Matador”, Nicolas Cage in “The Weather Man”, Bill Murray in “Broken Flowers”. Maybe Brosnan deserved a nod, but I thought for sure Russell Crowe deserved and would be nominated for “Cinderella Man”. Is the Crowe backlash really THAT strong? Here’s a guy who is always good. Think about it. ALWAYS. He’s ALWAYS GOOD. The scene where he has to go to all the boxing match financiers and beg alone earned him a spot amongst these nominees. I would’ve not only nominated Crowe, but given him serious consideration for the win. That being said, Hoffman did a great job, but one could make the argument that he hit a note and carried it. Same with the stoic performance of Strathairn. Phoenix always had the “he did his own singing” argument going for him, but unfortunately, the story of Johnny Cash didn’t go anywhere musical biopics haven’t gone before. So that, for me, leaves Ledger and Howard. “Hustle & Flow” gave Howard more to do that he knocked out of the park. Ledger’s performance was SO reserved, bordering on Sling Blade, that I would go with the explosive energy and raw emotion of Terrence Howard as DJay. His clip on the Oscars practically made me cry.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:
Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line (2005)
Judi Dench for Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005)
Felicity Huffman for Transamerica (2005)
Keira Knightley for Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Charlize Theron for North Country (2005)
Won: Reese Witherspoon
Should’ve Won: Felicity Huffman, easily
Huffman’s performance asked so much more of her than Witherspoon’s role. Reese gave one of those Oscar-loving performances of a strong woman and she did it well, but have you seen “Transamerica”? Holy balls, that was a great performance! Challenging in nearly every scene, her character is instantly and always demanding your attention. Missing: Joan Allen in “The Upside of Anger” – she was, and is always, GREAT. I thought maybe Claire Danes had a chance, but “Shopgirl” was just too cold to fall in love with the way the Academy needs to. Also, I would’ve made a stronger push for Dakota Fanning in “Dreamer”. She’s the best actress in Hollywood, and if you don’t start nominating her now, get used to it in the future.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:
George Clooney for Syriana (2005)
Matt Dillon for Crash (2004)
Paul Giamatti for Cinderella Man (2005)
Jake Gyllenhaal for Brokeback Mountain (2005)
William Hurt for A History of Violence (2005)
Won: George Clooney
Should’ve Won: Matt Dillon
I have to admit, though, as much as I didn’t like “Syriana”, it was great to see Clooney win. Whatever the hell his character was doing in that movie (and I doubt even he could tell me), he was fascinating as embodied by Clooney. But I moreover am excited for Clooney ‘cause he is an excellent poster boy for Hollywood. His speech was great, talking about being glad to be in out-of-touch Hollywood, if that’s the place that’s producing issue-driven art like the high-profile films nominated this year. And he’s handsome but self-depricating, serious about his work, but humorous about life (every dig at him from the stage was followed by a Clooney classic take in the audience). Good for him. However, as performances go, in this category they don’t get better than Dillon, as the highly complex and complicated racist cop in “Crash”. A brash performance that garnered both disgust and empathy, he nailed it. It’s good to see Giamatti nominated here, but we all know that Academy screwed up with “Sideways” AND “American Splendor”, and we’ll see if they screw up again when Giamatti has another leading role. Hurt is amazing, but the part’s too small (not seeming to matter to the Academy, who gives awards to Beatrice Straight & Judi Dench for similar-size roles). My craziest nomination here would be to Andy Serkis for playing Kong. I mean, EVERY Oscar winner that won for “King Kong” thanked him. He’s crucial to the film, and what the guy provides the production is unique and invaluable. If you’ve ever seen any behind-the-scenes footage on the making of “King Kong”, you’ll see it’s a supporting performance worthy of an Oscar (plus he played the cook!). Also, can any love be shown to Mickey Rourke in “Sin City”? – he was awesome.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role:
Rachel Weisz for The Constant Gardener (2005)
Amy Adams for Junebug (2005)
Catherine Keener for Capote (2005)
Frances McDormand for North Country (2005)
Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Won: Rachel Weisz
Should’ve Won: Amy Adams
My friend Mark will tell you Best Supporting Actress, save for Judi Dench, always goes to the hottest chick nominated – Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino, Catherine Zeta-Jones, etc. This year’s no different, as Brit hottie Weisz is the winner. That being said, Weisz’s performance is excellent, but I think it borders on a lead role. I’ve said before and will say again that Amy Adams’ performance in “Junebug” is the best acting I saw in a film in 2005 – that’s any gender, any size role, she was the best. She’s certainly better than Reese Witherspoon. She’s hilarious, warm and arouses such a feeling of compassion and rises to every occasion the script demands. Keep your eyes on her in the future. There’s a GLARING omission in this category, and that’s the raw performance of Maria Bello in “A History of Violence”. As the mother of a family being tested by her husband’s past, she is vulnerable, wounded, strong & patient all at the same time. Without her multi-level performance, and the ability for the audience to feel the loss and hurt of her family through her, the movie wouldn’t work. She’s great – again. There’s also an argument to be made for Toni Collette in “In Her Shoes” and Naomi Watts in “King Kong”, both actresses straight-up delivering. Let’s not forget Katie Holmes in “Batman Begins”, a towering tour-de-force…you know I’m BS-ing, right?
Best Achievement in Directing:
Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain (2005)
George Clooney for Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
Paul Haggis for Crash (2004)
Bennett Miller for Capote (2005)
Steven Spielberg for Munich (2005)
Won: Ang Lee
Should’ve Won: George Clooney
Did I mention “ponderous”? This is not the Ang Lee of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or even “Sense & Sensibility”. “Brokeback Mountain” was just dull, folks. Go with Clooney. I say this every year, but I agree with Rob Reiner, whose “A Few Good Men” got nominated for Best Picture, but he didn’t get nominated for Best Director. He said they should announce Best Picture, and give an Oscar to the Producer & Director. This year is one of those years when the nominated films were the same for Director and Picture, but how could the year’s best director not make the best film? Again, this is screwy, so my vote is with Clooney for pic & director. And it would follow suit that I’d choose Peter Jackson over Bennett Miller for a nomination. I mean, c’mon, have you seen “King Kong”? That ain’t easy!
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen:
Crash (2004) – Paul Haggis, Robert Moresco
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) – George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Match Point (2005) – Woody Allen
The Squid and the Whale (2005) – Noah Baumbach
Syriana (2005) – Stephen Gaghan
Should’ve Won: Crash
Woohoo! For the first time I’m in agreement. “Crash” was a elaborate mix of numerous subplots that never seemed forced together. And the story of how the script came about from Haggis’ own carjacking makes it all the more flashy. I know it seems like I’m picking the script for a movie not higher on my list of the year’s best films than “Good Night & Good Luck”, and that’s counter to the whole director/picture thing I just talked about. Well, the most impressive writing in “Good Night, and Good Luck” was Murrow’s. That’s a great film, but the true genius of it was written in the ‘50s. Now, why is “Syriana” on this list? Even Gaghan will tell you he doesn’t know what the film’s about. A joke. Slide it and make room for “Junebug” (what one critic astutely observed to be the “least condescending” movie ever made about the south). Also, it’s good to see Woody nominated here in a real return to form for him with “Match Point”.
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published:
Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana
Capote (2005) – Dan Futterman
The Constant Gardener (2005) – Jeffrey Caine
A History of Violence (2005) – Josh Olson
Munich (2005) – Tony Kushner, Eric Roth
Won: Brokeback Mountain
Should’ve Won: The Constant Gardener
Barely edging out “Munich”, I’d give it to “The Constant Gardener” because those John LeCarre novels are a BITCH to adapt, and Jeffrey Caine did a great job. Never confusing, but telling a very complex story, I was impressed. I wonder if they ever gave any thought to the script for “Sin City”. I mean, the thing was storyboarded right in the comics and they transferred it to screen exactly.
Best Achievement in Cinematography:
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) – Dion Beebe
Batman Begins (2005) – Wally Pfister
Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Rodrigo Prieto
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) – Robert Elswit
The New World (2005) – Emmanuel Lubezki
Won: Memoirs of a Geisha
Should’ve Won: Good Night, and Good Luck
I was a big fan of the black & white photography of “Good Night & Good Luck”. It transported us back in time, really, REALLY captured the smoke all over every scene and matched the TV archives used in the story. I guess there’s a good reason to give it to “Geisha” – it had to look pretty ‘cause there wasn’t much else going on in the film that kept my interest. How cool would it have been to see “Batman Begins” win? There were lots of action films with good photography this year – “Kingdom of Heaven”, “War of the Worlds”, “King Kong”, and I would’ve given serious thought to “A History of Violence”. Cronenberg and his team framed alot of shots just so to tell the story just right (If you saw the film, think about the opening shot of the killers checking out of the hotel – great shot selection).
Best Achievement in Editing:
Crash (2004) – Hughes Winborne
Cinderella Man (2005) – Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill
The Constant Gardener (2005) – Claire Simpson
Munich (2005) – Michael Kahn
Walk the Line (2005) – Michael McCusker
Should’ve Won: Crash
I agree again. It’s not surprising to see another boxing movie nominated here. Filmmakers always give us exciting cuts when they film scenes in the ring. “The Constant Gardener” was just a little too jump-cutty for my liking. I enjoyed the style the filmmakers chose, but every once in a while it was noticeable. It shouldn’t be so noticeable. I always like Michael Kahn’s cutting, as he’s still doing it on film, but I’ll go with “Crash” once again because smooth editing was crucial in telling the numerous stories in the film.
Best Achievement in Art Direction:
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) – John Myhre, Gretchen Rau
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) – James D. Bissell, Jan Pascale
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) – Stuart Craig, Stephanie McMillan
King Kong (2005) – Grant Major, Dan Hennah, Simon Bright
Pride & Prejudice (2005) – Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
Won: Memoirs of a Geisha
Should’ve Won: King Kong
I was psyched to see “Kong” take 3 of 4 awards it was nominated for. Maybe that’s a sign that it should’ve been nominated in more categories. “Geisha” certainly looked beautiful, same with “Pride & Prejudice”, and that’s a better film. But “Geisha” gave us sets we’ve seen in the best Hong Kong films of the past and even parts of “The White Countess”, and “Pride & Prejudice” delivered the same stuff we saw in “Sense & Sensibility” and other Merchant/Ivory films. “Kong” showed me shit I’ve never seen before in my life. I’m a believer – give ‘em the award. I would also nominate “Cinderella Man” in this category for the great depression-era sets that put us in the middle of Braddock’s world. “Harry Potter” won the action-movie nomination in this category, and for good reason. There were also great sets in “War of the Worlds”, one of which you can currently tour at Universal Studios Hollywood, the world’s largest movie studio and theme park, where you can ride the movies! While visiting, don’t miss The Blues Brothers R&B Revue and Special Effects Stages, where you go behind-the-scenes of the latest blockbusters from… Universal! That reminds me, I’ve gotta go to work…
Best Achievement in Costume Design:
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) – Colleen Atwood
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) – Gabriella Pescucci
Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) – Sandy Powell
Pride & Prejudice (2005) – Jacqueline Durran
Walk the Line (2005) – Arianne Phillips
Won: Memoirs of a Geisha
Should’ve Won: Memoirs of a Geisha
Alright, I’ll give this one to “Geisha” because the costumes really were amazing. I would’ve also given a nod to “Good Night, and Good Luck”. I’m always a fan of the great costumes that get taken for granted, like in “Wall Street” or even “Back to the Future”, but the suits, collars, ties and cuff links of “Good Night, and Good Luck” looked great. It’s a shame this category rarely gets the token action movie nominated, ‘cause “Batman Begins” is certainly worthy.
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score:
Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Gustavo Santaolalla
The Constant Gardener (2005) – Alberto Iglesias
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) – John Williams
Munich (2005) – John Williams
Pride & Prejudice (2005) – Dario Marianelli
Won: Brokeback Mountain
Should’ve Won: Munich
Oh, dear God! Anything but “Brokeback Mountain”! That droning, Duh nuh nuh nuuuuuuuh, nuuuuuh, na-nuh. Duh nuh nuh nuuuuuuuh, nuuuuuh, na-nuh. UGH. I can’t believe it was even nominated. That score sucked. Nobody does it better then John Williams, and his “Munich” score was at times both haunting and exciting. This year, he passed the “Harry Potter” torch to Patrick Doyle, but it’s still a shame that that score never wins. The theme and the bouncy energy of that music is always worth a listen. And the James Newton Howard music from “King Kong” is super-epic brilliance! Memorable and award-worthy, if you ask me. Oh, and don’t forget “Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”! That music was excellent! They just didn’t nominate any “fun” music this year…
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song:
Hustle & Flow (2005) – Jordan Houston, Cedric Coleman, Paul Beauregard (“It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp”)
Crash (2004) – Michael Becker, Kathleen York (“In the Deep”)
Transamerica (2005) – Dolly Parton (“Travelin’ Thru”)
Won: Hustle & Flow
Should’ve Won: Hustle & Flow
This is absolutely the best song in the category. Forever, I’ve been a fan of the the song that has had the most resonance in the story. These end-credits songs mean nothing to me, but often win. Something like “That Thing You Do!” is CRUCIAL to the story, a good song reminiscent of the time period and catchy, and it DOESN’T win? BS. “Pimp” is the crux of DJay’s journey and his life-story, too. Songs like it change him from a nobody loser to an artist, that’s why it’s the Best Song. And, hell, it’s catchy. I did like the Dolly Parton song, too, but it’s just slapped on the end of the film. It’s a shame the “Corpse Bride” songs weren’t as good as “The Nightmare Before Christmas” this year. “The Producers” tried to put an extra song in their movie, but it was as uninspired as the film adaptation of the Broadway show. So, pickens were slim, but “Pimp” stood out.
Best Achievement in Makeup:
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) – Howard Berger, Tami Lane
Cinderella Man (2005) – David LeRoy Anderson, Lance Anderson
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) – Dave Elsey, Annette Miles
Won: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Should’ve Won: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
I just don’t want “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” to be an Oscar-winner, is that so wrong? Both of this year’s fantasy movies had minimal impact, makeup-wise. Is it too much of a stretch to nominate Sin City for the crazy way they made up Mickey Rourke? Or the beautiful gore of “Land of the Dead”? Or the way-better-then-CGI suit Michael Chiklis wore in “Fantastic Four”? Then again, we don’t want that to be an “Oscar-winner”, do we? Or is it just nuts to only nominate three films in this category every year?
Best Achievement in Sound:
King Kong (2005) – Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges, Hammond Peek
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) – Terry Porter, Dean A. Zupancic, Tony Johnson
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) – Kevin O’Connell, Greg P. Russell, Rick Kline, John Pritchett
Walk the Line (2005) – Paul Massey, Doug Hemphill, Peter F. Kurland
War of the Worlds (2005) – Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer, Ron Judkins
Won: King Kong
Should’ve Won: King Kong
Peter Jackson surrounded himself with the best in the business, and in creating the multitude of locations in “King Kong”, his crew also created the best sound environments for each. I first saw this film in the Universal Amphitheatre and it was HUGE screen and HUGE sound. The sound was overwhelming, and so was the movie. These are all good nominations. Usually they nominate a music-related film like “Ray”, and “Walk the Line” certainly delivered the concert feel. I’m surprised “Munich” wasn’t mentioned here. Most of the same crew from “War of the Worlds” worked on “Munich”, too, and that film delivered and audible punch, too.
Best Achievement in Sound Editing:
King Kong (2005) – Mike Hopkins, Ethan Van der Ryn
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) – Wylie Stateman
War of the Worlds (2005) – Richard King
Won: King Kong
Should’ve Won: King Kong
You’ve GOTTA give this one to “Kong”. There are hundreds of thousands of sound effects in this film added in post-production to characters and locations that AREN’T THERE. The Sound Editing makes these places and things come to life. And no film did it as effectively as “King Kong”. From bugs to trees to planes to New York City to Kong himself, the Sound Editing brought much of what we saw to glorious reality.
Best Achievement in Visual Effects:
King Kong (2005) – Joe Letteri, Brian Van’t Hul, Christian Rivers, Richard Taylor
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) – Dean Wright, Bill Westenhofer, Jim Berney, Scott Farrar
War of the Worlds (2005) – Pablo Helman, Dennis Muren, Randy Dutra, Daniel Sudick
Won: King Kong
Should’ve Won: King Kong
“King Kong” has the best visual effects I’ve ever seen, and Kong is the best CGI ACTOR I’ve seen in the movies, too. I thought “War of the Worlds” had this wrapped up for the sheer expanse of the on-screen destruction. But Kong undercut all of that with not only huge, outlandish imagery, but Kong acted, he ACTED! And the Peter Jackson/Andy Serkis team outdid themselves and what they accomplished with Gollum. Great work.
Best Animated Feature Film of the Year:
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) – Steve Box, Nick Park
Corpse Bride (2005) – Tim Burton, Mike Johnson
Hauru no ugoku shiro (2004) – Hayao Miyazaki
Won: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Should’ve Won: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
This movie is so much fun it’s ridiculous. Combine that with what you know it takes to pain-stakingly create stop-action claymation, and “Wallace & Gromit” wins hands-down. There was a noticeable lack of CGI movies nominated this year – ZERO. That’s ‘cause no one can do it quite like Pixar, but they keep trying. “Robots” looked amazing, but I bet you can’t remember what it’s about. “Madagascar” was hip & fun, but looked angular and cheap. If you haven’t seen “Wallace & Gromit”, rent it today, they’ve expanded not only the running time of their old “W&G” shorts, but also expanded the laughs, action scenes and overall dry comedy and sweetness that they’ve come known for.
Best Foreign Language Film of the Year:
Tsotsi (2005) – Gavin Hood (South Africa)
Bestia nel cuore, La (2005) – Cristina Comencini (Italy)
Joyeux Noël (2005) – Christian Carion (France)
Paradise Now (2005) – Hany Abu-Assad (Palestine)
Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (2005) – Marc Rothemund (Germany)
Should’ve won: Oh, god, can you believe I haven’t seen any of these? In a year when they’re supposedly all good (and certainly all hot-topic – war, terrorism, gangs, Nazis), I’ve failed to make it out. I bury my head in shame.
Best Documentary, Features:
Marche de l’empereur, La (2005) – Luc Jacquet, Yves Darondeau
Darwin’s Nightmare (2004) – Hubert Sauper
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) – Alex Gibney, Jason Kliot
Murderball (2005) – Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
Street Fight (2005) – Marshall Curry
Won: March of the Penguins
Should’ve Won: Oh, god, the embarrassment continues. The only film I saw in this category was “March of the Penguins”, and it was rather good. I saw it with a Q&A from director Luc Jacquet, and he told stories about the difficulty of telling this story. Between the challenge of shooting in Antarctica and making the penguin’s story accessible and entertaining for all audiences was quite a feat. That being said, I’ve heard that “Murderball” and “Enron” and “Street Fight” are all great. “Street Fight” was made almost entirely by ONE GUY! I think they all deserve viewing and I’ll get to it at some point. I must admit, though, that every year the Documentary category is full of errors that the Academy gets lambasted for. This year, they failed to nominate the year’s most critically lauded doc “Grizzly Man” – a fascinating look at Timothy Treadwell, who lived amongst bears in Alaska for years. I saw that! Does that count?! I also saw “Inside Deep Throat”, a fascinating account of the makers of one of America’s most notorious porno movies, where they are today and how they changed the face of America’s decency laws. Brilliant.
Best Documentary, Short Subjects:
A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin (2005) – Corinne Marrinan, Eric Simonson
God Sleeps in Rwanda (2005) – Kimberlee Acquaro, Stacy Sherman
The Life of Kevin Carter (2004) – Dan Krauss
The Mushroom Club (2005) – Steven Okazaki
Won: A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin
Should’ve Won: Superheroes: We Work for Tips
Um, that’s a short documentary I made. I probably should get out to see some of the films in this category, but till I do (or have easy access to), I should win just ‘cause. Who’s with me?!!
Best Short Film, Animated:
The Moon and the Son (2005) – John Canemaker, Peggy Stern
Badgered (2005) – Sharon Colman
The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (2005) – Anthony Lucas
9 (2005) – Shane Acker
One Man Band (2005) – Mark Andrews, Andrew Jimenez
Won: The Moon and the Son
Should’ve Won: Superheroes: We Work for Tips
Best Short Film, Live Action:
Si Lasti Barinn
Our Time is Up
Won: Six Shooter
Should’ve Won: Superheroes: We Work for Tips, available for viewing at the iPod Film Festival – http://www.theflux.tv/ipodfest/entries/?category=INDIE+FILM
Vote for it to win the Festival! You’re votes determine the winner!
Overall, this year’s Oscars were pretty predictable. I thought the nominations were more surprising than the winners. I was glad to see the topics of the Best Picture noms be so pot-stirring. Hollywood should shake it up a bit. But when they want to salute the all-time great hot-topic movies in a montage during the awards show, do you think they needed to include “Something’s Gotta Give”? I know, as a fan, they’ve done better, you’d think the Academy knew better.
Other quick notes –
– How AWESOME was Paul McCartney at the Grammys, showing the young-uns how it’s done?! U2 winning 5 grammys means all’s right with the world, too. Every year, the nominees are crap, except for a few decent nominees, then the decent one’s always win, thank god. How pained did Bono look having to sing with Mary J. Blige, who was WAY OVER-singing “One”. I’m sure he wanted to turn to her and say, “Um, Mary, the song’s about love, not about you”.
PRIDE & PREJUDICE (**1/2)
I almost feel obligated to give this movie three stars because it’s just so incredibly well made. Gorgeously shot, well acted, the most astonishing British locales, and snappy wordplay that must make it fun to be an actor in the film. So, why, then, 2 1/2 stars? It’s just not surprising. I wouldn’t go through the library of the world’s greatest stories and say that this one that needs to be told AGAIN. Not to mention that it’s very similar to “Sense & Sensibility”. Am I the only one seeing that? A strong-willed female lead who can’t seem to find the right mate (Kiera Knightley/Emma Thompson), British girls giggling WAY too much and all the other handsome attributes about cinematography, acting and locales mentioned above. In fact, I’m going to go one step further and do my best to get copies of both films, grab my editing equipment, and make “Pride & Sensibility”. I’ll just edit the two films together and CHALLENGE SOMEONE TO NOTICE. All this banter must make me seem like and un-savvy filmgoer. Not true. I was always entranced by the dialogue, Jane Austen’s finest characteristic as a writer. I GOT it – dowries, fathers giving away daughters, people marrying too young. Got it, but it didn’t grab me. Again, it was familiar. Here’s some Hollywood history for you: The BBC produced a five hour version of “Pride & Prejudice” not too long ago starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Helen Fielding, author of “Bridget Jones Diary” was so hot for Firth in that film that she wrote the part of Mark Darcy in her novel to echo Mr. Darcy in “Pride & Prejudice”. It then seemed only too right that Colin Firth would then play Mark Darcy in the movie “Bridget Jones Diary”, and I’m sure Helen Fielding had an orgasm. That being said, there is some character development lost in the trimming down from five hours to what we have in the current “Pride & Prejudice” that doesn’t help distinguish any of Kiera Knightley’s sisters from one another. I did enjoy Knightley, but she’s getting chirpier and chirpier by the film. And Matthew MacFayden does a nobly moody job as Mr. Darcy, but after seven hours of him on film, I still don’t see the attraction to such a dour dude.
Pretty much completely unmemorable. Meryl Streep is the highpoint of this romantic comedy, but I’m at a loss to tell you as to why she would sign on to do this movie. She hit the right note in “The Manchurian Candidate” and seems right for the role in the upcoming “The Devil Wears Prada”, but why “Prime”? The story is that of a pretty person (Uma Thurman) who dates another pretty person (Bryan Greenburg) who happens to be the son of her therapist. There are some funny moments when Thurman relates her sexual history with Streep son, not knowing she’s talking to her boyfriend’s mother, but the rest of the story seems uninspired. I often find Thurman boring when out from under the direction of Quentin Tarantino. Unfortunately, “Prime” is directed by “Boiler Room” director Ben Younger (with less bite than Younger infused into that Affleck/Diesel drama), so she’s boring again. Greenburg is also boring, not seeming worth the effort for Thurman’s character when things go south. I guess there are some comments on older female/young male relationships, but they fall flat, and there just really AREN’T ANY MORE LAUGHS. That leaves “Prime” working neither as a romantic comedy or a romantic drama.
THE PRODUCERS (**1/2)
Two and a half stars for the laughs, and no stars for the filmmaking. If you’ve seen “The Producers” on stage, or if you’ve seen the original film, you can expect to laugh a bunch when you walk into this Nathan Lane/Matthew Broderick musical. What you don’t get is much more. Director Susan Strohman falls into the trap “Rent” fell into, but worse – this movie isn’t very cinematic. Rob Marshall’s envisioning of “Chicago” (and Bill Condon’s brilliant script) set the bar pretty high for all subsequent musicals in the way that he jumped back and forth between reality and dream cabarets, and built a big, gorgeous MOVIE. “The Producers” looks like they filmed the musical Lane and Broderick made popular, without expanding the concept for the new medium in which we all now get to see it. Strohman also shows her lack of experience as a director as some scenes are rather clunky, stodgy in pace and just don’t hit the laughs that I saw on stage. That being said, Nathan Lane is GREAT, reminding everyone in each scene he’s in why a fuss was made over him in this part on Broadway. His number, “Betrayed”, is the film’s best. Broderick doesn’t fare as well, looking like he’s a bit pained to go through the dancing required to really sell a song with as inane lyrics as “I Want to be a Producer” has. It reminds you how special it was to see Gene Kelly’s permanent smile during every graceful dance step he took. Will Ferrell is also pretty damn funny, but I don’t know why the production (as did the stage musical) did away with the character of LSD, so f-n funny from the original movie as Hitler. That also being said, nothing can be taken away from Tony Award winner Gary Beach and not-recognizable-as-George-the-creepy-pharmacist-from-Desperate-Housewives Roger Bart. “Keep it Gay” is the movie’s second best number, and Beach and Bart save most every scene they’re in. A Broadway phenomenon such as “The Producers” deserved a bit better film, but you can’t deny that there are Mel Brooks jokes to be had, Just not enough of them.
Always choose the aisle seat.
Hello my fellow readers. I am once again back in the swing of things…I hope. I had originally started a piece on “Imaginary Heroes”, but as a novice with the new posting policies, the column vanished into the internet blackhole. So let’s scrap that film this week and talk about Wes Craven, Cillian Murphy and the halfway decent movie “Red Eye”.
Let’s first discuss my white knuckle fear of flying. I personally find it unnatural and unrealistic that a giant, heavy piece of steel, aluminum, metal what-have-you can defy the laws of gravity and time, making it easier on us humans to move throughout the globe. Perhaps it is the close quarters once inside the plane. Claustrophobia is a definite issue here. Perhaps it’s the events prior to boarding the plane: thousands of other humans like sheep moving robotically throughout the airport. This alone makes me want to find a dark space, assume the fetal position and stick my thumb in my mouth. It is all of these things but most importantly it is the absolute lack of control over the situation. You have to succumb to the knowledge that once that huge door shuts and you sit uncomfortably with your seatbelt tightly fastened that the next few hours don’t belong to you anymore. And that is terrifying.
In “Red Eye”, all of these elements are covered using camera angles, sounds and quick editing. From the beginning of the film it’s blatantly obvious that Wes Craven hates humans and most assuredly hates to fly. The absolute chaos of an airport is captured so eloquently in this film. That alone made me love it. Stupid humans being difficult, selfish, demanding. Stuffing their mouths with airport food and drink. The feeling of isolation and disconnectedness is deafening. We are all so unaware of each other in this day and age that, in a word, it’s disgusting. Craven is my hero because he really shoves this behavior down your throat during the film. For example, there is a scene pre-flight where a woman dumps her Starbucks iced latte nonsense onto Rachel McAdams and barely apologizes, then proceeds to yell to her husband to go get her another one! GROSS! Okay, let’s move forward. So I’m anxious already during the film and to add insult to injury a very creepy Cillian Murphy appears and I reach for a valium.
Cillian Murphy is definitely headed for stardom. He is the strangest looking man I’ve ever seen and this lends to his onscreen presence. I can’t decide if he is attractive or not. There are moments when all his features seem to align perfectly but then shoot him at another angle and those features take on an unnatural, menancing quality. Looks aside, he is a phenomenal actor and his ability to push the envelope with his acting chops is impressive. There will come a time when his presence in a film will atomatically guarantee box office success or at least audience adoration. Much like Gary Oldman. A chameleon actor who everyone loves.
The plot for the film is decent. Cillian Murphy plays hitman Jackson Rippner (“Jack the Ripper”!), who uses the very talented Rachel McAdams (who plays Lisa Reisert) as his pawn in the pending assassination of the Director of Homeland Security. McAdams position at a popular Miami hotel where the politician frequently stays lines her up to make the dirty deed a sure thing. Holding her father (a very slender Brian Cox) as a playing chip in this political game forces McAdams to help further Murphy’s cause.
Rachel McAdams is possibly headed for stardom herself, that is if she continues to make wise acting decisions. She’s solid in this film. Her ability to cry silently and without facial emotion is awe-inspiring! The relationship between her and Cillian Murphy is believable and unnerving. Imagine, if you will, putting your life in the hands of two seperate people. The pilot and a cold, sociopathic killer. I think I would die of a rather large panic attack! This made me nervous as well. The majority of the very short (1 hr 15 mins.) film is on the plane and the exchanges between the two characters are chilling to say the least. Wes Craven doesn’t spare us anything starting with a shocking headbutt to McAdams when she starts to become emotional. After the violent deed, Cillian Murphy sits up, wipes the blood off his forehead and smiles graciously at the stewardess assuring her everything is fine. Craven really amps up the coldness of Murphy’s character more than a few times. There is a moment in the film when Lisa (McAdams) begs to use the bathroom. When Jackson (Murphy) allows this, there is a very disturbing image of him in the aisle watching her that heralds back to Craven’s horror film genius.
Subsequent to this scene, she tries to get help by writing on the mirror in soap only to have him burst into the bathroom and threaten her. The hand on hand violence in this film is hugely gratifying! There is alot of physical abuse and there are no guns involved until the end.
The film delivers on many levels. It is intense from the beginning until the end. It’s not typical of Craven’s usual horror fodder, but it’s good. I felt uncomfortable for the entire 1 hour and 15 minutes. It may not be a film triumph but it was a decent thriller with two excellent actors. It further heightenend my fear of flying and, on a basic level, addressed some of the security and political issues we have faced after September 11th.
It’s refreshing to see that Wes Craven still has it in him to scare us. Now what would make me so happy is if he and John Carpenter revisted their very first films and gave us something along those lines! Now that would be horrifying!
This film version of the popular Broadway play is my first introduction to “Rent” outside of hearing “Seasons of Love” a few times. That signature song opens this Chris Columbus-helmed musical, and the audience I saw it with applauded madly when it concluded. The rest of the film, however, played to relative silence. I, certainly, was not moved again, as a bunch of noisy, unlikable “young” adults struggle to be artsy in New York City. Let me say that I am not a gangster, and don’t have to relate to a gangster to enjoy “Goodfellas”. But being an actor and artist, I thought I might relate to the main characters in this film, but I just DIDN’T, and it really affected my enjoyment of the overall experience. There’s an issue that the cast is too old now to play these 20-somethings they played onstage 10 years ago. That didn’t really bug me much, nor did the fact that these struggling artists seem to dress rather snappy in GAP outfits. Not the best choices, mind you, but it didn’t bug me. This being my first time seeing “Rent”, I was just bugged by the show! Maybe it’s gotten the “Everyone Has AIDS” treatment (“Team America”) one too many times, but I couldn’t buy these guys singing rock tunes, they usually came across cornball. “How we gonna pay the Rent?!!” they sing. Get a damn job! Is there really such a creative sacrifice in working for “Buzzline”? Make the money while you pursue your dream or you’ll starve and both your dream and housing go up in smoke, dude! Then, and I hope I don’t give anything away here, by the time we see Marc’s film at the end, it blows! It’s one of those “artsy” movies that does and says nothing. Just a bunch of damn images with dip-to-color dissolves all over the place. I expected more. It was like meeting Darth Vader finally and having him be Frankenstein. Disappointing. The strongest element of the film is how the friendships in the film work. I bought the relationships and actually got a little jealous of how tight-knit this group of friends are. I wish I had a six or seven-person core that shared the same ideals and environment. That rang true in the film. I was entranced by Idina Menzel, superhot in that skin-tight catsuit, but was turned off by her performance art piece. That performance art stuff is always so pretentious, it needed a good deflating, or spoofing, or go the other way and really hit home with powerful resonance. However, it just played to me as obnoxious. Her character isn’t worthy of her lesbian lover’s affection, and when she sings “Take Me as I Am”, I thought to myself that no one should be told that they should be OK with mistreatment. Crappy song. Director Columbus doesn’t expand the play much beyond the stage. A dream dance sequence in the middle of “The Maureen Tango” left me wanting more of that kind of expansive invention. I know I’m pissing all over a highly popular theatrical event, but is it possible that “Rent” is dated after only ten years?
This movie has been called Steve Martin’s “Lost in Translation”. If only it had that film’s charm. Dark, moody and sometimes downright mean-spirited, “Shopgirl” follows the dating misadventures of Mirabelle, a Vermont native working at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. She ends up in a love triangle between doofy roadie wannabe Jeremy (Jason Schwartzmann) and L.A. elitist Ray (Martin). Jeremy seems earnest but lacks the social skills to provide Mirabelle any real relationship. Ray provides not only MONEY, but a promise of an adult connection. Ray’s dating methods, though not particularly dishonest, are certainly cruel, and that doesn’t help the film’s entertainment value. But as an examination of Mirabelle’s maturation in L.A., town without pity, “Shopgirl” has some value, especially because Claire Danes gives a great performance in the lead role. Schwartzmann is funny, a twist in a Martin movie where normally Steve has all the gags. I’ve always liked SteveMartinland. There’s something about the tone of all his scripts that is consistent, and the dialogue, look and feel is warm and inviting. Even though “Shopgirl” is creepy a lot of the time, I still like SteveMartinland. I’m just hoping for a trip back to the part of SteveMartinland that looks more like “Bowfinger”.
Here’s another one critics lauded and I guess I missed the boat. “Syriana” is a confusing mess of a picture that claims to be a great expose on the corruption and control in the world of oil companies. One noteworthy critic said this is a plot you don’t so much understand as get enveloped in. Uh…that’s not good enough for me. Silly me for demanding a coherent script. Perhaps the most depressing part of the film is that there are scenes of real power and great writing in the middle of what I found to be a unfocused jumble. Tim Blake Nelson give a searing monologue about the importance of corruption in Big Business and George Clooney threatens Christopher Plummer in a diner scene of real power. However, overall, what the hell happened? Not sure, and, I’m sorry, I just can’t give a positive review to a movie I can’t explain. And I consider myself a pretty savvy viewer. I can hold my own in a Tom Clancy film, keeping it all straight, names, places and all. But “Syriana” sets up some engaging plots (the merger of two mega-oil companies, the double-crossing of a CIA agent), and lets them slip into a disjointed montage of a narrative. It seems like writer/director Stephen Gaghan has a lot to say, but he said it better in “Traffic”.
THE TALENT GIVEN US (***)
The Wagner family is a pretty talented family. Andrew is a Hollywood writer and his sisters are accomplished actresses, his sister Emily having been a semi-regular on “ER”. Andrew has made a film starring his family, and oddly enough, the stars of his film are his parents, who have never acted before. All the characters play themselves as Allen and Judy Wagner travel across the country to see their son Andrew. They are accompanied part of the way by daughters Emily and Maggie, and they also come across Andrew’s ex-girlfriend and his friend Billy, another actor. The thing I first heard about this movie I should mention here. It was shot for around $30,000, if I’m not mistaken, used natural lighting, donated locations, four wireless lav mics and a Panasonic DVX100 MiniDV Digital Camera. The film was directed by Andrew, and he certainly knows how to draw realistic performances out of everyone in the movie, a challenge given the experience levels of some involved. He succeeds, as does the whole film on the charm of the parents, Allen and Judy. In the film, their characters are determined to divorce, and their banter is genuine and funny. Like most low-budget films, it has to rely on the strength of the writing to be entertaining, and the Wagners have fashioned a thoroughly likeable, unique family story. Warning – Allen Wagner has had a stroke, and his speech is impaired by this, Be sure you’re paying attention to the movie so as to pick up everything he says. It’s rough at times, and if this movie is just “on in the background while you’re working on the computer”, you’ll miss out!
TOP TEN OF 2005
10. THE MATADOR – A stylish comedy with good acting and a great ending. This year’s coolest movie.
9. CINDERELLA MAN – Expert re-creation of place & time with Crowe and Giamatti at the top of their game. One of Ron Howard’s best films that completely engaged me and had me cheering throughout.
8. HUSTLE & FLOW – The most fun I had at the movies this year. It sounds pretentious, but this movie is a fascinating, modern-day look at the transformative power of finding one’s art.
7. THE CONSTANT GARDENER – A winding, tricky plot that was always gripping and coherent, never “Syriana”. I just got angry watching this. Between this, “Hotel Rwanda” and “Black Hawk Down”, the African Board of Tourism has gotta put in some OT to get me to THINK about going there.
6. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE – Four or five scenes in this movie held more tension in them than any other film I saw this year. David Cronenberg, in fine form once again, tells this unique tale with searing power and kept me on the edge of my seat. And how great was William Hurt?
5. MUNICH – What a great year for Spielberg! My favorite director comes through with a masterpiece that’s half espionage thriller and half political comment. It achieves greatness because it’s not ALL political blah, blah. It’s suspenseful, dramatic, exciting and, overall relevant.
4. CRASH – I call it “Do the Right Thing” in LA. This movie changes the way you think, no small accomplishment. A web of stories delicately woven that’s surprising, shocking and enlightening. Keep your eyes on Paul Haggis, I mean, he’s produced and written the last two Best Picture winners. The guy’s good.
3. GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK – A nearly flawless movie. In the great tradition of “All the President’s Men”, a riveting examination of a crucial time of modern American history that introduced me to the genius of Edward R. Murrow, and exposed how extraordinarily pathetic the press is today.
2. JUNEBUG – A surprising, funny, involving story of a southern family that’s just STUCK. All my upstate NY friends need to see this movie, you’ll recognize all the characters. Amy Adams gives the year’s best performance. Like other small family stories like “In America”, this film just HIT for me and I can’t wait to see it again.
1. KING KONG – Peter Jackson had the biggest vision of any other filmmaker this year, and the balls to pull it off. Action, drama, romance, spectacle, this movie had it all and I could’ve watched ANOTHER hour’s worth.
WAR OF THE WORLDS – Bad ending, but nobody, NOBODY does big-time action scenes better than Spielberg. (That’s a gauntlet throw-down Cameron, make another movie for Christ’s sake).
WALLACE & GROMIT in THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT – Aardman Studios take their classic characters and make them feature-length without losing an ounce of the original charm.
BROKEN FLOWERS – Inspired me to write my own film.
BATMAN BEGINS – Superhero movies are on an upswing (“Electra” notwithstanding).
FRANK MILLER’S SIN CITY – One of the year’s most original films and the glorious return of Mickey Rourke.
INSIDE DEEP THROAT – A documentary about the seventies that reminds you how little our government has evolved since then.
THE 40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN – The year’s funniest movie.
The WORST of 2005:
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 – Ugly, loud and not worthy of the great actors in it.
BE COOL – Still waiting for that great The Rock movie…
THE BROTHERS GRIMM – We waited SEVEN years for a new Terry Gilliam movie and got this? Who is he these days, Kubrick?
CRY WOLF – Is it any surprise this is crap?
DOMINO – Another Tony Scott film that’s just OVERDONE.
PRIME – Completely forgettable. Meryl Streep, call your agent.
ELIZABETHTOWN – We all deserve better from Cameron Crowe.
THE CHUMSCRUBBER – Interesting title, bogus movie.
SYRIANA – I saw it, but what the hell happened again? Pardon me, other critics of America, but coherence is pretty important to me.
I went into this movie hearing raves about Felicity Huffman’s performance. What surprised me was not only how much I enjoyed her portrayal of a transgender, um, individual who learns he/she has a son, but that I really enjoyed the entire movie very much. Here’s a film that, scene after scene, evokes refreshing originality in its situations. The relationships are complex and the dialogue is crisp and sharp. Huffman’s character, Sabrina, is awaiting the surgery that will make her the woman she wants to be, and put her life as Stanley well behind her. Before that life-changing event, she must deal with the son she never knew about. The film is quite funny, embracing the fact that you can’t really put a character like Sabrina in a cross-country trip, meeting loads of people from the HEARTLAND, and expect it to be boring. At the same time, Sabrina, and her son, Toby, well played by Kevin Zegers, are handled with dignity and compassion as they struggle to connect and form one of the movies’ more interesting families.
WALK THE LINE (***)
Due to timing, this movie is going to have obvious comparisons to 2004’s “Ray”, so let me say right out of the gate that it’s better. What propels this film to a higher ranking for me is the love story. The strange and pain-filled road Johnny and June Carter Cash took to come together is an engaging trip, and helps an otherwise well-trod rock biopic path. Whether it’s “VH-1 Behind the Music”, “Ray” or countless Elvis biographies, we’ve seen the obstacles Johnny Cash faced when forging his career before: a domineering father (WELL played by Robert Patrick), the death of a family member, drugs, infidelity. So it’s all the more important that this infidelity lead to Cash’s intriguing relationship with June. The movie also benefits from great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in the title roles. I’ve been dying for the always-good Phoenix to have a lead role, and he’s the perfect choice for the dark moody, soft-spoken Man in Black, right down to his singing. I’ve never been a Reese Witherspoon fan outside of “Election”, but she showed wonderful poise and infectious energy and likeability as June. All this talk just couldn’t be said of “Ray”. All I got out of that film was that Ray Charles was a drug-abusing, womanizing DICK. At least we got to see that Johnny Cash was a bit more, too. And how great was it to see the classic rock stars Johnny toured with? “Walk the Line” gives us Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Roy Orbison and more, and their tour stops and stories are fun to watch, plus Cash’s first recording session at Sun Records with Sam Phillips is classic. I would like to have seen a bit more of Cash’s attraction to the dark side and criminals. I got that he was inspired by them, but I wanted more there. Overall, though, I’m sure Johnny and June are playing duets in the afterlife, and they’ve gotta be proud of how director James Mangold weaved some good writing and excellent performances into a memorable movie we’re bound to hear from at Oscar-time.
A Second Opinion…
WALK THE LINE
“Hope you boys brought yourselves a pine box cause nobody follows The Killer.”
I realize that Oscar week is over (thank god!) and that I personally am sick of any talk of “Brokeback Mountain”, “Capote”, “Crash” (nope!) or any other over-bloated celebrity ego! However, I did watch “Walk the Line” the other night and, very simply, I was moved to tears and blown away at what a beautiful and simple film it is. I’m really glad Phillip “Capote” Hoffman won best actor, but in my own reality it went to Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance as Johnny Cash was nothing short of stunning. Everyone was caught up in the buzz over Reese Witherspoon’s performance (and let me just say I adore her and think she is one of the smartest and gifted actresses in Hollywood), but Joaquin brought Johnny Cash to life for me.
We all know Johnny Cash. We all know his songs, his swagger, that he’s the man in black. What I didn’t know was a lot! People say this film didn’t deliver on the level they expected and spent too much time chronicling his struggles with addiction and self-degradation. However, I disagree. See, these are the things I didn’t know about him. I knew nothing about his abrasive childhood or that he had a brother who died. I didn’t realize he was in the service or that he had married someone else before June Carter. I also did not know that he was horribly addicted to pills and that Elvis was the impetus for the habit! So all of these things I did not know. My question is to all the naysayers: What more do you want?
The film envelops you in a world that seems archaic and probably is. It is a world of hard living, hard working, poor families in the south who are trying to be good Christians while toiling away to feed their children. This is a time when everyone helped out, including the women and children. A time where the only distraction was the little old box radio that hopefully tuned in to another world. A simpler time. Perhaps this simplicity is what allowed Johnny Cash his outlet. His love of music was innate within him even as a child and that is what eventually saved his soul.
Watching this film, I found myself nostalgic for a time that I myself never knew. Where rock music was a new invention and offered a fresh, individual perspective on small town living. I loved the strangeness of the organized tours that these musicians went on. Most definitely the birth of the rock concert. Can you imagine attending a show where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash were all playing on the same stage?? It’s mind boggling. Young talent who carved their sounds in stone on stages all over the U.S.of A. The good old days!
Johnny Cash’s story is not atypical of many southern families of that time. A hard working father who’s stern, demanding ways often damaged his children’s psyche, fracturing their self-esteem with every ferocious word. That was just the way it was. In Cash’s case, he was indirectly blamed for the accidental death of his brother Jack, the golden child in his father’s eye. In the film, John’s father, Ray Cash (played effortlessly by the often underused Robert Patrick) tells him it should’ve been him that died. Those were the damning words for the already sensitive John. Those words, and the sentiment behind them, were responsible for his blossoming career and the downward spiral that was to come.
The pain that I felt throughout the film was that I understood. I understood why there was always a hint of sadness behind his beautiful eyes and why he was quiet yet charming at the same time. He never believed he was worth a goddamn thing, and that is the tragedy. Here was a man whose simple songs moved millions of people. They all related to those words and the driving rhythm behind them. He was singing about all of them. And yet, every night he would lay his head down in shame or frustration. He battled the gift within him daily. The other part of his pain was his eternal love for June Carter and just how long it took him to finally win her over. Ultimately, she was the reason he dove headfirst into his addictions because the rejection and his lack of self worth were just too much to bear. His demons were dark shadows that followed him everywhere. His uniform of black at first practical became a place to hide.
Lastly, what hurt the most was the lifetime of damage that a single human being can inflict on another. John’s father shattered any trust he may have had in himself. He snuffed out the light that was so special and caused his son to always question was he really worth it. To the bitter end, John’s sole demon was his father, and I honestly don’t think Ray Cash was ever really proud of his immensely successful and brave son. And that is the real tragedy. It’s a mistake parents will continue to make for the remainder of our time here on earth.
“Mister big shot, Mister pill poppin’ rock star. Who are you to judge, you ain’t got nothin’, big empty house, nothin’, children you don’t see , nothin’, big ol’ expensive tractor stuck in the mud, nothin’.”
Amongst all this pain, Johnny Cash triumphed in the end. He may not have believed in himself, but he believed in his music and that prevailed over every other obstacle. That, and his abiding love for his own angel, June Carter. And that gives me hope.
THE WEATHER MAN (***)
It’s been a while since he’s made one, but “The Weather Man” is a “Nicolas Cage Movie”. The kind you just love. Cage gives us all the things we want in a Cage movie!: the slow burn, the explosive anger and frustration, uncanny comedy and the droning voice-over I’ve loved since “Raising Arizona”. Cage plays David Spritz, a Chicago weatherman who is pummeled with challenges in his personal life from all sides: A perfectionist father who never seems satisfied by his son, an ex-wife who has moved on (which is more than David has done), estranged kids he can’t relate to, and the disdain of the Chicago public who show their contempt when his weather report goes awry. All this while his professional life is on the edge of a potential boon. This is a great role for Cage, who does one of the best downward spirals since Giamatti in “Sideways”. His handling of these situations is a series of unfortunate events combined with bad judgment. In the hands of director Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) and good actors like Cage, Hope Davis and Michael Caine, “The Weather Man” becomes a constantly hilarious and poignant story, often surprising me with the complexity of relationships. In the middle of it all is Cage doing more great work. Be sure to catch this actor while he’s on a real upswing. Outside of “National Treasure”, Nic Cage has been in more challenging projects as of late – “Lord of War”, “Matchstick Men” and “Adaptation”. That certainly beats what he was putting out about five years ago with the AWFUL “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” and “Gone in Sixty Seconds”. It’s an age old critic cliché, but if you like Nicolas Cage, you’ll love “The Weather Man”.
THE WHITE COUNTESS (***)
James Ivory and Ismail Merchant go out the way they came in. The producer/director team has become known over the years for lush adaptations of literate period dramas. “The White Countess” is no different. It takes place in 1940s Shanghai, where an American entrepreneur seeks to open a nightclub just as turmoil strikes the city. Natasha Richardson plays a former Russian countess, now reduced to menial jobs such as dance escort while her family, once spread out in a palace, is crammed in one apartment. Ralph Fiennes plays the American with the usual solid performance you expect, tinged with an odd, almost goofy optimism. The film introduces Shanghai as I have not seen it before – a cultural and social hotspot. Ivory does a masterful job (as expected) of re-creating place and time, and the plotting moves a little slow, but stick with it, ‘cause surprises abound in the characters and things pick up when the nightclub opens. Not as captivating as “Howard’s End” or “The Remains of the Day”, but a substantial cap to a great career for the Ivory/Merchant team.
THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN (***)
This is a hard-to-dislike feel-good travel story about a legendary motorcycle rider (the cycle known as an ‘Indian’) who leaves his home of New Zealand to break a land speed record at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Anthony Hopkins is easy going as Burt Munro, who has a Forrest Gump-style adventure of good luck and good disposition getting across the ocean, and across three states to compete on his antique motorcycle. He meets a cross-section of southwestern U.S. characters from a lonely widow to a medicine-doling Indian and the simplicity with which he interacts with all these characters is reminiscent of “The Straight Story”. But the trouble Burt has to overcome to achieve his dream builds more suspense than that film, and the motorcycle scenes have a high-speed energy that is thrilling. The end of this movie contains all the tension and excitement of any good crowd-pleaser like “Cinderella Man”. Director Roger Donaldson and Hopkins make the whole story easy to digest and follow, and I hope it finds an audience.