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SORORITY BOYS / (2002) 1/2* (out of four)
Believe it or not, I was actually looking forward to Sorority Boys. I hoped it would be different from the recent explosion of aimless sex comedies considering the ample comic opportunities.
Unfortunately, five minutes into the movie, when a Jell-O dildo crashed threw a window, I realized my expectations were incorrect. At this point, I knew this would be 94 minutes of pure, aimless sex comedy. Sex can be funny, sometimes, but not as often as Hollywood likes to think. Am I the only person getting sick and tired of these pathetic attempts at humor?
The surprising thing about Sorority Boys is how much potential the story actually has. Harland Williams, Michael Rosenbaum, and Barry Watson play three members of Kappa Omicron Kappa fraternity who find themselves evicted from the KOK for stealing party funds.
Somebody has a video tape of the incident, but very few people know it exists, and their ex-fraternity pals will not allow them back inside to retrieve it. After learning that the Delta Omicron Gamma house needs new members, they disguise themselves in drag in order to stay somewhere and concoct a plan to prove their innocence.
Even with potentially funny situations directly under its brow, the movie's humor resorts to characters tumbling down staircases and silly lipstick jokes. The script, by Joe Jarvis and Greg Coolidge, desperately lacks imagination. The plot is so handicapped of ideas, it becomes wound up in a love story so out of place, even the actors involved look as if they think it belongs in a different movie altogether.
Although we've seen guys in drag before (in much better movies), this film is not without unique humorous intentions. In one scene, two characters sword fight with large dildos; in another, the men in drag lead the DOG members against the KOK's in a game of football-they are the first three to hit the bench due to injuries.
Again, these are funny concepts, but director Wallace Wolodarsky doesn't find a punch line. The idea of two guys fighting with dildos is funny, but watching them actually fight for five minutes is not. There is no moment when the audience identifies with the humor and laughs. The visualization of the jokes are so utterly stupid; the audience couldn't laugh at these sight gags if they wanted to.
Sorority Boys simply expects us to laugh at the utter stupidity of the characters. But that doesn't work when the movie is equally as stupid.
BANDITS / (2001) ***1/2 (out of four)
Barry Levinson's clever romantic comedy Bandits makes stealing money look fun and simple. I can see it now: young, influential criminals holding up entire banks with magic markers. Certain things in this movie make such perfect sense, we wonder why nobody's thought of them before.
Even the casting makes perfect sense. Who better to play a handsome, spontaneous ladies man than Bruce Willis? And who could portray an intelligent, hypochondriac better than Billy Bob Thornton? Together, these two characters make the perfect man. Of course, it's only a matter of time before a woman becomes involved and finds herself split between the two.
But Bandits is anything but your average run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. Willis and Thornton play Joe Blake and Terry Collins, two criminals in a high security prison. As the movie opens, they escape from prison in such a way that probably makes the other prisoners hit themselves on the head and ask "Why didn't I think of that?"
Just as soon as they switch getaway cars, Joe and Terry rob a bank to finance their upcoming adventures. After hooking up with an old friend of Joe's, a wannabe stuntman played by Troy Garity, the criminals devise a foolproof plan to rob banks: they take the bank manager hostage the night before a heist, sleep over at his house, then go into the bank with him the next morning before business hours. No unexpected holdups. No complications. Just take the money and leave before the first customer arrives.
The Joe and Terry dream of escaping to a tropical location and opening a margarita bar. Their success as bank robbers eventually puts them at the top of the FBI's most wanted list. Things become even more complicated when Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett) runs into one of the crooks and wants to become a part of their lifestyle. When she falls in love with both men, the situation really starts to heat up.
Oscar-winner Barry Levinsion gives Bandits a humble sense of reality. He doesn't place Joe and Terry on a pedestal and treat them like superheroes; he actually opens the film revealing their presumed demise. Although in interviews he explains that he was initially unsure how to handle the material, his uncertainty does not show in the final production. He has found the perfect blend of romance, action, and comedy to satisfy all tastes and styles.
Bandits opens with a bookend revealing parts of the film's finale. This doesn't really work. Normally, this technique is used when a movie is more about a journey than what actually happens at the end. Although Bandits is indeed more about a journey, the movie's structure does not support such an opening. It doesn't provide us with enough information to work effectively, and, after a final twist at the very end, this technique seems pointless since it doesn't reveal the actual ending, anyway.
Nonetheless, Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Cate Blanchett deliver fine performances, forming a charismatic, unlikely love triangle. Troy Garity, gleeful and eccentric, steals all of his scenes in memorable supporting role. Despite the various structural flaws, the cast alone is enough to redeem Bandits as an above average comic adventure. It's one of the year's most fun surprises.
MONSTER'S BALL / (2001) **** (out of four)
When I finish reading a great book, I don't close it right away. Treasuring the story's emotional grasp, I just sit there and hold it for a minute, enthralled, sensing the character's lives are continuing even as I put the book away.
"Monster's Ball" is a similar experience. The film contains so much truth, vigor, and so many harrowing moments, I just stared at the screen through the ending credits. Even after a second viewing the conviction did not diminish. It really says something about a movie when you know what happens and you're equally as mesmerized every time you watch it.
Most movies about depravity are really about entertainment, but director Marc Forster avoids preachy speeches, big sappy moments, and melodramatic music. Even during the movie's most important scenes, Forster does not overplay the material. He knows that careful, quiet dialogue, and long, silent pauses speak louder than lengthy emotional summaries.
Consider a scene where a character checks his father into an old folk's home. It does not feature long good-byes or conclusive hugs. Instead, it projects unflinching, raw emotion. "You must love him very much," reassures an attendant to the character who replies, "No I don't, but he is my father "
The character, Hank, is played by Billy Bob Thornton, who makes his Academy Award-winning performance in "Sling Blade" look like SNL material. Hank, bitter and racist, lives in a Southern country house with his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), and father (Peter Boyle).
Hank and Sonny work as prison guards on death row. Sonny desperately wants out of the family business, especially after an unpleasant emotional reaction to the latest execution. When Hank explodes at him for his mistake, Sonny teaches his father a lesson he will never forget.
The film eventually becomes a story about the relationship between Hank and the widow of the man he has just executed. She's played by Halle Barry, who was paid an extra one-million dollars for doing an extended sex scene completely nude. This is a gradual, yet sudden relationship that is not based on physical attraction or love, but emotional need and depravity.
Forster makes interesting editing choices. During certain scenes, he cuts back and forth between separate occurrences while the central action fills the soundtrack. Especially unique is how he handles a sex scene. While two characters engage in some of the most graphic stimulated sex of last year, Forster flashes images of a caged bird before us. A metaphor of shattered innocence or repressed emotion, perhaps?
Actually, Forster fills "Monster's Ball" with metaphors, including the title itself. He even includes a moving soundtrack of timid rhythms and sudden beats, symbolizing the characters complex states of mind. Forster's haunting, daring feature reminds us why we all love the movies.
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS
/ (2001) **1/2 (out of four)
It's easy to enjoy a movie when we love all the actors involved, and "The Royal Tenenbaums" places charismatic, top-notch performers in even the smallest of roles. Perhaps this explains the film's overwhelming positive consensus-it's not so much of a good movie as it is a well-cast movie.
In a role he was born to play, a very funny Gene Hackman stars as Royal Tenenbaum. He's the aging separated husband of Etheline (an eccentrically elegant Anjelica Huston) and the father of three previously successful children (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow).
Unfortunately, the kid's have lived dysfunctional lives since their parents separated 22 years ago. Now, Royal understands his mistake and wants his family back. But Etheline, currently in a relationship with her business manager (Danny Glover), wants no part of her ex-love. Royal concocts an excuse: he's dying and seeks redemption.
Like all Anderson's films, this is a vivid character study. It includes some harshly funny, but also touches the grim realities of life. The story, by Anderson and Owen Wilson (who also acts in the film), gives the Tenenbaums plenty of dimension and heart. But there are so many characters to keep track of here, we are pulled in far too many directions.
Few of these characters have much to do on screen. Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Billy Murray, Danny Glover, Luke Wilson, Seymour Cassel, and Ben Stiller all fight for our attention, while the relationship between Etheline and Royal takes center stage. We care about the later characters, so much that the others feel like intrusive. They certainly contribute to the unique style of the movie. But they quickly outstay their welcome, eventually becoming an intrusion.
Speaking of relationships, "The Royal Tenenbaums" complicates itself with far too many. The various connections don't become overwhelming because Anderson knows who is who and who is with who and why, and he keeps the dialogue very casual. The film never loses it's sense of humor. Thus, as confusing as it is, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is always an easy movie to watch.
Some of these relationships have great truth, but they are mixed within the jumble. Anderson tackles way too much material in a single film and his talents with style and characters cancel each other out. We're left with a movie that juggles so many characters and so many emotions, that we don't know what to think.
"The Royal Tenenbaums" is the third feature film by Wes Anderson, following "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore." I haven't liked any of his movies, but I admire his inspiration and acknowledge his talents. He's a fine filmmaker with refreshing style and a passionate vision, yet his work has yet to make a connection. I eagerly await the moment he learns to blend good filmmaking with good storytelling.
JIMMY NEUTRON: BOY GENIUS / (2001) ** (out of four)
"Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" is artificial energy. It's like drinking a pot of coffee or consuming sugary products-you get the instant buzz, but it wears off fast and the long term results are minimal. Instead, why not consume fruits and juices, which will give you sustained energy and healthy nutrients. Or, in this case, watch a movie that will entertain beyond the external exuberance.
"Jimmy Neutron" is the sugary junk all kids love. With colorful images and high-spirited enthusiasm, what youngster would not like it? They will get a 82 minute thrill, but when the ending credits appear they will probably never think about the film again.
The film does identify with kids well. We meet a boy genius, Jimmy Neutron, who has moronic parents and lots of homemade gadgets and gizmos. He is not the coolest kid on the block, but he is really smart and is kept company by a chubby friend and a mechanical dog.
One day aliens abduct all the neighborhood parents. The kids jump for joy. Who needs those annoying, restrictive, old fogies who won't even let them go to concerts on school nights? But soon enough, Jimmy and the rest of the kids realize they need their parents, and it's up to Jimmy to lead the army of children to save their folks.
Jimmy Neutron was first introduced in a 1995 animated short as "Johnny Quasar." He's everything every kid wants to be: creative, resourceful, genuine, and energetic. I might have enjoyed this character as a kid. But then again, I might have enjoyed this entire movie if I was10 years old. But I'm not. And I didn't.
The movie is heavy on enthusiasm, color, spirit, imagination, and action, but it never puts those variables to use. It attempts to unitize its strengths on a comic level, but it lacks a punch line. Although there is plenty of silly material here-parents do the chicken dance, alien creatures do strange things, a massive chicken attacks the kids-but none of these things evoke laughs. The material is prime for comedy, but the movie never tells the joke.
For instance, the kid's have an old granny, teacher with a very strange voice. At one point, this woman shrinks and becomes the target of a worm. This situation could be funny, but the ideas themselves are not. It's not enough to have a teacher with a strange voice-the movie needs to tell a joke about her strange voice. Laughs need perfect timing, and this movie's watch is off.
And we don't really care about anything that happens in the film. Although, on an external level, the film will entertain younger viewers. This is the kind of movie that kids could watch once a week. Well, I guess that's one use for this movie. Parents, here's the thing you've been looking for to keep your kids occupied.
GHOST WORLD / (2001) **** (out of four)
For those of us who tire of standard teen movies, here's the film to brighten our day. It's a monkey wrench in the cranks of the tedious genre that features actors in their mid-twenties portraying stereotypical high-school characters shamelessly indulging predictable plots of frivolous romance. Where most movies set in high schools find resolve in romantics, "Ghost World" dares to be different.
Yet it contains all the usual ingredients-aimless main characters, one-dimensional side characters, high school graduation, moronic parents, sexual revelations, a romance-but it tastes different. This movie doesn't believe high school is the root of youth complications; it knows that school isn't where the confusion lies-it's after graduation when the complexities begin.
The movie opens as a high school senior dances along with a music video. Sounds like a typical teenager? Well, not really. The music this girl listens to isn't exactly mainstream. Nothing about Enid (Thora Birch from "American Beauty") is ordinary.
The same goes for her best friend, Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). She is slightly more focused than the aimless Enid, but, as they graduate from high school in the opening scenes, neither of them know what they want out of life.
Rebecca and Enid find interesting people to follow, exploit, and embarrass, just for their own leisure, but even this loses its edge. Making the most (or least) of their situation, the girls stumble upon an outstandingly pathetic personal ad. As a joke, they respond. However, when they meet this man, Enid becomes infatuated with him.
In their post high school days, Enid and Rebecca find themselves slowly drifting apart. Rebecca is eager to get an apartment and get on with her life, while Enid lives by the day, following one infatuation after another. As their attitudes gradually change from cynical to sober, Enid and Rebecca's emerging differences become blatantly obvious, but painfully realized.
"Ghost World" refers to the world in which these characters live, a town slowly being overcome by shopping malls and coffee shops; a town that slowly loses its distinctions and becomes a ghost of what it once was.
My small town of Mason, MI speaks for itself. Once a minuscule farming suburb of the state's capital, it's now a breeding ground for new subdivisions, factories, stores, gas stations, trailer parks, and businesses. Before you know it, it will be a densely populated city like the capital itself.
"Ghost World" makes harsh points, but it never loses its sense of humor. Enid is so full of bitter cynicism that we have to laugh. She indulges the dialogue. It's often tactlessly frank, savoring every opportunity to bash, thrash, ridicule, or insult anyone or anything for any reason.
Society tends to repress our caustic desire to insult a fellow man, but "Ghost World" doesn't hesitate. It takes a lot of risks, but never steps in the wrong direction. It connects us with these characters. They are so casually antisocial that we can't help but to love them. At times, the movie doesn't require dialogue. It simply examines the character's surroundings. We get to know these people so well, we know exactly what they're thinking before they say it. They are a part of our instincts to react on impulse.
But a character is only as good as the actor behind it. "Ghost World" features enormously engaging performances. Brad Renfro gives his nobody store clerk a raw blandness. Illeana Douglas injects a kind of controlled eccentricity into her role as an art teacher. Steve Buscemi creates a hopeless record player collector out of repressed emotion, and lack thereof.
Scarlett Johansson gives Rebecca a dry, depressed mood. Thora Birch steals the whole show with a straightforward, fearless performance. Although the movie never defines the relationship between Enid and Rebecca, the actors themselves make it clear. They create an enticing charisma that gradually turns to an awkward tension.
"Ghost World" captures part of our journey from childhood to adulthood with poetic grace and cynical wit. Though it's not really a coming-of-age film, where a young character finally takes a place in the world. Enid never finds her place, decides her future, or chooses a path. By the end of the story, she simply becomes aware of her possible options. This movie is just the beginning of her story.
LIFE AND DEBT
/ (2001) *1/2 (out of four)
Documentaries are probably the easiest kind of movie to make-no demanding actors, expensive special effects, enormous filming crews, or massive budgets. However, covering such specific topics, documentary movies are probably also the hardest kind of film to make entertaining.
Michael Moore does it best when he injects a cunning wit into his documentaries like "The Big One" and "Roger & Me." 1999's "Barenaked in America," detailing a Canadian band, also entertained audiences while still supplying interesting information on the subject. "Life and Debt" does not do this. It contains an appropriate style, but lacks interest.
For most of us, when we think about Jamaica, we think of a popular vacation spot. Who wouldn't enjoy it's beautiful locations, warm weather, and welcoming atmosphere. American's can even enter with a delusion of wealth since thirty Jamaican dollars equal approximately one US dollar.
But "Life and Debt" does not exploit the location as an exotic locale, it examines how the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other aid organizations have changed the Jamaican economy over the past several decades. The movie examines how agriculture, industry, government, and culture have been restructured by import-export systems, forcing the locals to live in poverty and work in sweatshops.
Director Stephanie Black does not take the normal approach to such material. She injects a sarcastic style into the scenes. An effective reggae soundtrack-including songs by Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Mutubaruka, and Peter Tosh-seasons the film. Unfortunately, despite the filmmakers' attempts, the spices do not rid the stuffy scenes of a stale aftertaste.
Author Jamaica Kincaid, whose book "A Small Place" inspired the film, guilds the audience on a tourist's journey through the visually stunning country. On a technical level, this is a good documentary; it makes good points about the topic. It surprises us while proving wrong our assumptions about Jamaican.
If you are interested in this kind of thing, this is definitely the movie to watch. But if you're not particularly interested in this topic, it's difficult to care about currency, economics, banana production, the country's poverty, etc. I found myself daydreaming, looking at my watch, dozing off. For me, this was a tedious, tremendously boring experience.
Though we can't accuse this movie of miscommunication. After watching the movie, we will all see Jamaica in a new light that is, if we are still awake.
AMORES PERROS / (2001) **1/2 (out of four)
I've never seen a movie like "Amores Perros," and there's good reason for that. Few filmmakers would touch this kind of material, not because of the subject matter-it doesn't cover anything overly controversial-but because it is so dismal. I don't mind movies with depressing themes. "Requiem for a Dream" ranked as my favorite film of 2000. But there's a difference between grim and unpleasant, and this movie is as repulsive as they come.
How unpleasant? Because of the film's graphic dogfight scenes, The Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals filed a complaint to the British Board of Film Classification. Now, a disclaimer stating that no animals were harmed in the making of the movie comes at the beginning instead of being buried in the end credits. This is to assure audiences in advance that the dogs aren't tearing each other to shreds.
This might be reassuring if the movie wasn't so well made. Movies should convince us of the content, and "Amores Perros" does. The dogfights look so real, the animals might as well be ripping the flesh off each other's backs. We don't want to submit ourselves to such horrific images.
Many praised this movie for its relentless audacity and perverse nature. Why? Just because an artist takes risks doesn't mean he deserves acclaim. We all should encourage filmmakers to try new things and explore unique subjects. But sometimes an experiment fails. This is one of those times.
The movie opens with a car chase. Two lowlifes dodge heavy traffic, escaping several dangerous thugs. As the passengers shout obscenities, a dog bleeds to death in the back seat. The scene concludes when the driver smashes into another vehicle at high speeds. This accident forever changes the lives of those involved.
We cut to a scene where more lowlifes gamble at a dogfight. Their dog tears the other dog to pieces. Soon afterward, we are happy to learn that another dog has killed their beast. What kind of movie evokes this kind of pleasure?
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu inventively structured his film by overlapping and intersecting several narratives. Throughout the 153 minutes (!), we meet the characters who were in the car crash. Although the film does get progressively interesting as each of three scenarios reveal something new about the story as a whole, the gritty nature of the production makes it anything but fun to watch.
In English, the title means "Love's a Bitch." This movie doesn't justify those words. It certainly shows the downside (way down) of life, but it wouldn't know love-or emotion in general-if it bit it in the nose. It's about behavior beyond reason. Reaction without impulse. For a movie to portray separation from love, it needs to know what love really is.
When two people have sex, it's raw and cold. Yet an uplifting melody fills the soundtrack. "Amores Perros" doesn't know a thing about passion. This director obviously has a big grudge against the world. If filming his aggression helps him work out these issues, that's fine. But why expose the rest of the world to this brutal therapy?
Perhaps I'm too hard on the film. It's engaging at points. Its themes gradually take solid form. It's obvious Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a talented, fearless filmmaker. The movie leaves us with a lot to chew on. By the end, we are oddly touched and amazed how everything fits together, but we don't know what to make of it all.
LANTANA (2001) **** (out of four)
"Lantana" does not embody a story like most movies; it isn't about anything in particular. It's a movie about characters. Not larger-than-life super heroes, but characters who succumb to temptation, cheat on their wives, doubt their spouses, make mistakes and suffer consequences. In other words, "Lantana" is about real people. Normal, imperfect people like all of us. Not that everyone behaves like the characters here, but few films capture transgression with such compassion and sympathy.
Set in Australia, a colorful pallet of characters paints a vivid, coherent psychological portrait of infidelity, deceit, and estrangement. At the center of the film is four couples, immersed in guilt and depravity for different reasons. Everybody has something to hide. The conflicts of these people illuminate the personal crisis of a police detective (Anthony LaPaglia) as he investigates the disappearance of a local woman.
Apart from the investigation, the couples have little connection with each other. They do have one thing in common, however, that none of them communicates with their loved ones. "Lantana" proves communication enforces commitment, but a lack thereof results in disaster. This sincere, uncompromising picture places the lack of communication at the center of family problems.
The film won various Australian Film Awards for its performances, screenplay, and direction by Ray Lawrence. Lawrence clearly intended the title-referring to a tropical shrub with beautiful flowers that hide dense, thorny undergrowth-to represent the characters' private lives hidden behind an outward appearance. He's got the wrong metaphor. These characters do not appear sunny on the inside, outside, front or back. They don't wear masks or attempt to cover their frowning states of mind. They are unhappy people, and the movie never pretends otherwise.
Those qualities make the characters absorbing. Instead of providing them with outlets and opportunities to hide their faults, the film pokes, prods, and starves them of their happiness until they reach a breaking point. For some, the breaking point results in an explosion of anger. For others, it's subtle and personal. "Lantana" investigates real people who deal with real situations and encounter real consequences.
None of the characters are model citizens, yet we care deeply about each of them. When someone cries, we feel sorry for them. When someone begs for forgiveness, we try to forgive them. When someone questions their spouse, we are concerned with both sides of the marriage. These people make big mistakes; the results of their mistakes are never certain. The movie does not neatly pull things together at the end. It doesn't allow the characters an easy way out. These characters must dig themselves out of their problems.
"Lantana" is one of the most compelling, involving films of the year. It's based on a play called "Speaking in Tongues" by Andrew Bovell, who also wrote the fluid screenplay. I want to see this play. If these characters feel so alive, so real, so tormented on screen, think of their power in person.
CATS & DOGS / (2001) ** (out of four)
In "Cats & Dogs" you get a cat and mouse chase movie, except the dog replaces the mouse, and the feline's goal is not just to catch the opponent, but to claim world domination.
That's a pretty weak concept for a bid-budget, special effects action film, especially when the production features the best technology has to offer. The movie uses more than 800 visual effects, and 200 animators, designers, compositors, sculptors, and technicians. With so much going for it, "Cats & Dogs" should have utilized these tools to bring a great story to life. It does breathe life into a plot filled with energy and gusto, but it sure isn't great.
Unbeknownst to humans, cats and dogs have always fought for world domination. A power-hungry Persian cat, Mr. Tinkles (wonderfully voiced by Sean Hayes), has broken a truce between the species. He plans to lead an attack against man's best friend.
Jeff Goldblum stars as Professor Brody, a scientist allergic to dogs. He conducts experiments in the basement of his house, hoping to invent a cure for man's allergic reaction to dogs. Mr. Tinkles designates the Brody home as ground zero for his global battle plan.
Initially, the folks at Warner Bros. considered doing the film as an animated feature, but they finally decided on a combination of live action, cutting-edge technology, complicated puppetry, and computer animation.
The results are splendid. Each animal has their own vivid personality, complete with facial expressions and physical gestures. The special effects do not overwhelm the film. Lawrence Guterman, the film's director, doesn't exploit the amazing special effects, but focuses on creating believable animal characters.
Sadly, however, the sight of a talking cat eventually wears off, and that leaves "Cats & Dogs" with little interest. It might entertain children with high energy action and talking animals, but a movie cannot run on those things alone. Perhaps the film could have worked as a comedy, but it lacks any form of wit or impulse. "Cats & Dogs" thinks its concepts are funny and entertaining enough, which is probably why it puts so little thought into the story.
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