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Life and Debt (2001)
Read it and weep, globalization supporters.
This is a really tragic and shattering film. I saw it a few days ago in New York at a lower East side cinema. It is a very honest and yet artistically distinguished portrait of the demise of a Caribbean nation - Jamaica. Interspersed with the cold, hard facts of how the international community has loaned the country money at predatory interest rates, and then dumped products on Jamaica's undeveloped markets, thus destroying native industries, are scenes of tourists enjoying Jamaica's bounties, oblivious to the nature of the natives' distress.
The woman who made this film narrates it herself, and she wrote a book on the subject before she made this film. So her credentials for knowledge about the subject are very strong. She employs a few cinematic flourishes, such as the blurred-edge-of-screen effect when she shows poor Jamaicans digging about in a garbage dump. The soundtrack is replete with great reggae songs, including the potent and topical title track.
Basically, this film is more important in its 90 minutes than about a hundred typically vapid Hollywood productions stacked back to back. This film teaches you something about the world - about the exploitation of the weak, about the myth of the "helping" nature of the IMF and the World Bank, and about the everyday lives of desperately poor third world people. All proponents of "globalization" should see this film, and then be required to defend their views to the people who have been victimized by globalization's cruel and relentless march. Similarly, everyone who works for the major media in the US should see this, and should be ashamed of themselves for defending the policies that have contributed to the downfall of a proud and beautiful people such as those of Jamaica. And silence is the major defense employed on behalf of such policies.
Forever Mine (1999)
Very bad screenplay, spectacular Gretchen Mol.
"Forever Mine" is not a good film. The script is highly formulaic and dull, the characters are one-dimensional, there are several holes in the plot, and the ending manages to be both cliched and unsatisfying. It is worth watching only for two nude scenes from the wonderful and lovely Gretchen Mol, who hasn't done much of that at all. If you're a fan of hers, you won't be disappointed here.
Watching this cheese, I was reminded of "Strange Days", where Joseph Fiennes' brother Ralph was locked inside a picture almost as bad as this one. The Fiennes brothers certainly can act, and Joseph does his best here to keep the wooden lines fresh. Gretchen Mol lights up the screen no matter what she's in, but one can only wonder why these very good actors are stuck in such a bad movie. Weren't there any more intelligent scripts around to do than this one? Ray Liotta is strictly on auto-pilot for this film.
The story here is simple - jealousy, adultery, revenge, etc. Movies like this put some basic elements together, and then count on the magnetism of the stars to enlist the audience's attention. But if the characters have nothing but stupid lines to say, how can we care about them? 4/10, and only Mol's scenes make me go that high.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Wake up and see it, America.
"Dancer in the Dark" is one of the most difficult, depressing films I have seen. IMDB users know the main plot line, so I won't repeat it. This is a worthy film that makes important points. Some reviewers have criticized the plot as soap-opera-ish and unrealistic. I didn't find it hard to fathom. Events like these happen to people all the time.
What many reviewers have not discussed much is how 'Selma', played by Bjork, has so many obstacles in her life. Selma didn't ask for these, but has to deal with them nonetheless. She is handicapped, is in a male-dominated culture, and is an immigrant from a Communist (1964 Czech.) country. Selma is poor, a daydreamer, maddeningly principled just when she should not be, and has a dependent - a son. Yet I didn't find her situation removed from reality. The working poor of the world have a very tough life. Gary Oldman's "Nil By Mouth" is a valid comparison for lifestyles.
In this film, we see how the American system treats a poor, defenseless woman - horribly, mercilessly, unthinkingly. Among its other messages, it spoke to me as an indictment of capitalism and American culture. It illuminates in a cold light some deadly characteristics of American society: the crushing poverty many live in, the narrow-mindedness of many people, the lack of concern of companies for their workers, the government's neglect of the handicapped, an ignorance and distrust of foreigners, sexism, materialism, religious fundamentalism, and a morbid obsession with violence. One could continue for a long time. Director von Trier shows how these societal flaws twist and wreck ordinary people.
I liked the musical numbers, as they provided a welcome contrast to the relentlessly gloomy reality of Selma's situation. When Selma bursts out in song and people around her dance as well, we see the joy in her heart - which cannot be realized in real life. The dance sequences are also expertly choreographed, and I found them infinitely more expressive of the human condition that 'Matrix'-style martial arts tricks.
von Trier's style and subject matter remind me of Stanley Kubrick's. Both directors have a completely personal style which stirs great passions and divisions among viewers. They are experimental, meticulous and intense to a fault. Both are concerned with human cruelty and dehumanization. Both directors also reportedly inspire great loyalty among their actors.
I think this is a relevant film for America, and the world, today. We still have essentially all the same problems that I enumerated above in America in 2000 that we did in 1964, when this story takes place. I hope audiences can get past the abrasiveness of the hand-held camera technique. True compassion and bravery is needed to see this film, but we need that in life, anyway.
The Ninth Gate (1999)
Confusing and disappointing.
I have a bachelor's degree in history, yet I couldn't make heads or tails of "The Ninth Gate". The plot is somewhat interesting for the first hour, despite some obvious cliches. In the last half-hour, the movie falls apart. I was really disappointed because I like Johnny Depp a lot and was hoping for a good movie on this interesting subject.
My take on what went wrong with this film is that Polanski tried to make a mainstream movie, with the requisite amount of sex and violence, about a subject which is unconventional. We didn't need the over-the-top scenes of hellfire and burning buildings toward the end, but someone must have thought we did.
The plot was also ridiculously complicated for the last half-hour. Two of the main characters (Frank Langella and Lena Olin) are betrayed, as act completely uncharacteristically in order to serve the convoluted and histrionic final scenes. Don't bother with this poor film. 4/10.
American Psycho (2000)
Who cares ?
I watched this because it has Samantha Mathis, my favorite actress, in it. What a waste of time, as others have said. There is not one intelligent character in this film. I defy anyone who has seen this to name me one.
The women are all pretty and dumb. Samantha, Chloe Sevigny and Reese Witherspoon are given nothing to do. Willem Dafoe, one of the world's smartest actors, plays a private investigator who is presented with dozens of clues to Patrick Bateman's guilt, and he acts upon none of them. If he were a real PI, he'd be starving due to his lack of skill at his profession.
The ending is likewise anticlimactic and bad. This is a professionally shot and well-acted film, I'll give it that. Christian Bale gives a very good performance. But why do we need to see this person's life ? What is next - a character study of John Wayne Gacy ? 3/10.
With Friends Like These... (1998)
Mostly enjoyable comedy.
This is a pretty good 'slice-of-life' comedy. It revolves around four male actors who become captivated by the prospect of auditioning for the part of Al Capone in Martin Scorsese's next production. The Los Angeles actors' lifestyle is chronicled here, with several ironic references to familiar themes: nobody can keep their mouth shut, times are tough, and everybody is out for themselves.
"With Friends Like These" has flaws. It doesn't have as many laughs as it should, and the 'feel-good' parts of the film don't come off quite right. There is some comedy here, and some drama, but the the two aren't integrated well. The characters are knowingly painted as self-absorbed, except for Amy Madigan's character, who has a penchant for charity work. What saves the film is a fairly good script, some good ensemble work by the cast, and a brisk tempo that keeps the film hopping along.
The film's second half is better than its first, and I enjoyed the end quite a bit. David Strathairn is one of the great underrated American actors, and he has a lot to do with the film gaining momentum. Elle MacPherson is good too, as she is given something to do besides just look ravishing. She always does that well, but it's nice to see her get a chance to act.
Other nice touches were Scorsese himself appearing in one of the pivotal final scenes, and some nice work between Strathairn and his girlfriend, played by Lauren Tom. This film isn't a classic, but it is about people rather than robots or a serial killer, and it doesn't insult the intelligence of people over 20 years old. Rating 7/10.
Brilliant and passionate.
I saw this film in Washington, DC in 1995 and have since purchased the tape. It is a blast of African pride and anti-slavery vigor from Ethiopian-born director Haile Gerima. Gerima is a professor at Howard University in DC and his films confront the issues of race, integration, and violence in Africa and America. "Sankofa" is available through Mypheduh films (Gerima's production company) in DC.
The story begins and ends on a small island in West Africa, where 'Mona', an African-American fashion model, is in the present day. The middle of the film consists of Mona, through magic realism, being transported back to a slave plantation in 18th-century America. For those of you who wonder about what it was like to be a slave back then, under those barbaric and intolerable conditions, this is your chance. "Sankofa" is not for the faint of heart. Yet its violent scenes are never overdone, and the film's final 'message' is a positive one.
It's a shame that this film at this time has an IMDB "rating" of only 5 or so, because 31 of the 44 votes cast have been "10"s, including mine. I guess this film has alienated a few people, but most powerful films do that. A very important film from a gifted and underrated director.
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
Brilliant and heartbreaking.
Barbara Kopple sets her gaze on a Kentucky coal miner's strike and comes up with a true winner. All the elements of a classic documentary are here. The story - rich corporation versus poor working people - is as old as time itself, and is no less salient or important now than it was 25 years ago.
The cable network Showtime recently made a film called "Harlan County War". This film seems to be an adaptation of "Harlan County USA", with more emphasis on one person - Holly Hunter's character - as she rises to prominence in the union. "Harlan Cty. War" owes a lot to "Norma Rae" in this respect. I saw most of it and was generally pleased. The story is still moving, despite flaws like a sugarcoated ending and Hunter's garbled Kentucky accent.
Fire Down Below (1997)
I can appreciate the sentiments of those who didn't like this film, but I did, a lot. Seagal looks very sleek and I thought the romance between him and Marge Helgenberger worked. The action wasn't over-the-top, but I thought it fit the plot.
As for the plot, sure, it's predictable. But most Hollywood movies are anyway. At least this one tries to say something constructive. I thought the scene in the church halfway through, where Seagal makes a speech to the congregation, worked very well and was the emotional center of the film. Most Hollywood movies don't touch social issues with a ten-foot pole. I give this one some credit for trying to do so.
All things considered I'd recommend this one. Thankfully it isn't shot in New York or LA. It has its limitations but I think on the whole the film works.
Pump Up the Volume (1990)
Fun and interesting.
I have read some of the comments about "Pump Up the Volume" here, and can't say I disagree with many of them. I happen to like the movie a lot, but I can see how some might find it silly or stereotypical in places, or just not their cup of tea.
To me, though, this film does a great job of touching on a lot of issues in its 95 minutes. Many of the characters are funny and memorable. The editing is very crisp and the soundtrack is excellent. Unlike 90% of so-called "teen" movies, this one doesn't rely on guns, violence or gratuitous sex.
No, "Pump Up the Volume" raises questions - about our society, about being young, about questioning authority. It doesn't pretend to have neat solutions to difficult problems any more than Christian Slater's character does in the film. But it tackles more stuff than most movies, and you can laugh to it. That alone puts it head and shoulders above most movies made for teenagers. You'll sure finish this film with more to talk about than after "Ferris Bueller."
Slater is very good as Hard Harry, the pirate DJ. I have a huge crush on Samantha Mathis, my favorite actress. I think she's great in this film and is a wonderful actress.