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Apocalypse Now (1979)
The Original Was Better
What's with Francis Ford Coppola? Is he never satisfied with his own work? Currently, there are at least three versions of "The Godfather" trilogy. Now we have "Apocalypse Now Redux". Next will probably be "Tucker-A Man and His Dream Restored", the 274 minute version. And Coppola always uses the same reasoning-it wasn't the way he wanted it the first time.
Well, I have news for you Mr. Coppola-this film fan actually liked the first version of your Vietnam epic, "Apocalypse Now" better than "Redux". In fact, you made me appreciate your original vision even more than I did back in 1979.
The strongest point of `Apocalypse Now' is the images and music that create a very haunting atmosphere. It's like a bad dream, a nightmare, that's difficult to shake. School children happily gathering for playtime right before an Aircav attack, oblivious to the war adults and their politics of both sides have brought on. The patrol boat, outlined against the dark, always dangerous jungle at dusk. Passing the smoking ruins of firefights gone by. Seeing the wreckage of a B-52, wondering what kind of mission it flew and if the crew had bailed out ok. The images invoke the horror of war and more specifically, the muddled mire that was our involvement in Vietnam.
This is not to say some dialogue and characterizations were not excellent. Witness Willard's mission briefing by the General and his aide while a mysterious man in civilian clothes listens quietly, only to say four words near the end of the briefing. `Exterminate-with extreme prejudice.' We know by implication this man is with the CIA. We also know, by implication, that the moment Willard sits at the dinner table with these men, he has ceased to exist. Consider also the Sampan sequence. It's an under appreciated scene, actually more important to the characters and the film than anything in the Kilgore sequence. This is a pivotal moment that not only makes us think of what we would do in a similar situation, but also causes the crew of the patrol boat to see Captain Willard as the cold professional he really is. As Willard says after, they would never look at him the same way again. And the scene offers no answers, just questions. And finally, the entire Kurtz sequence. Here is screenwriting, acting, and directing at it's best. It's a look into the complex, intelligent mind of a man who has gone over the edge, a man who has already decided he needs to die by the time Willard arrives. Is Willard worthy enough to be his assassin? Does Willard understand him? Does Willard understand the pragmatism essential to fighting a war?
So, Mr. Coppola, what was the point of `Redux'? What was the point of adding the Medivac Playboy Bunny sequence? It did nothing to further the story or add to the characters. Superfluous, it's called. I understand you were probably attempting to add some humanity to the film, but the recording of Mr. Cleans mother talking when he was killed already accomplished this idea. In fact, the added Bunny scene was 15 minutes of boredom. And the French plantation dinner scene. On a technical note, I couldn't understand 95% of what was being said because the French accents were so thick. This would probably explain why Willard says almost nothing during the conversation. After the film was over, I went back to that scene and put the English subtitles on (I didn't think I would have to interpret English since I understand English-thank God for DVD). It was a very interesting conversation and in reality, I actually could have sat at that table for hours discussing the subject. However, to include the scene in the film was again superfluous. It served only to interrupt the narrative flow of the story. It was too intellectual for a film tone based on moods and emotion. Finally, the removal of the B-52 strikes on Kurtz compound at the very end of the film. It worked better that way. It implied the `establishment' was going to assert its will no matter the result of Willard's mission. A final metaphor of the powers that be and Vietnam. I understand the new final shot is suggesting Willard has become Kurtz, but this was well represented in the original version. And to have `The End' playing over the images of the jungle flames was much better than your revised finale. It seemed more tragically poetic.
Mr. Coppola, please recut and re-release. Overall: 1979 Version, "Apocalypse Now"-****. 2001 Version, "Apocalypse Now Redux"-***.
Only Die Hard Fans Need Apply
Yesterday, I paid five dollars to sit in a theater and view a film that could have been based on any sensationalistic, tabloid magazine story. Utterly lacking in depth and believability, I shed a tear of sorrow over the knowledge that this film had been directed by one of the most talented film makers in Hollywood today, from a screenplay by two of the most talented scribes in the business. Yes, the film I'm talking about is "Hannibal" and the power team behind the project of Ridley Scott, David Mamet, and Steven Zaillian.
However, can we really blame them for this misfire? I think the real problem started with the source material, the novel written by Thomas Harris. The plot already contained problems, problems that even Mamet and Zaillian couldn't write away. Here's an author so in love with his own creation that he's willing to throw anything on the table for the experience of keeping him alive. My circle calls this "The Jack Ryan Syndrome".
For example, FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore in a monotone performance) is willing to go to any lengths to stop Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins chewing the scenery, so to speak). She will even face certain death to stop him by handcuffing herself with him to hold Hannibal until the police arrive. Why then, after finding out where he is, does she venture to the mansion in an attempt to arrest him on her own? After all, Lecter is on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List and all she would have to do is tell her supervisor and there would have been a small army of heavily armed law enforcement officials ready to eradicate Lecter from the face of the earth.
A sad fact of this whole thing is that Hannibal Lecter, the murderer mind you, is the most charismatic, interesting character of the whole story. I found his perverse love for Clarice, a love so deep he not only saves her life but would rather mutilate himself than to hurt her, a very interesting concept. But I would rather go back to the days when we would root for the hero, no matter how flawed, and hate the villian.
And what was with Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta)? His futile attempts to bed Starling were more reminicent of male attitudes toward women in law enforcement in 1970 than in 2001.
I actually felt bad for Julianne Moore. Her performance and the look on her face hinted that she was wondering how she got wrapped up in this project in the first place. Kudos to Jodie Foster for demonstrating good judgment and passing on this one. The same goes for Jonathan Demme. I think they realized they took these characters as far as they could go in "Silence of the Lambs".
Considering the talent involved, I wish I had something good to say about "Hannibal". Since I don't, I'll leave with the suggestion that only die hard fans of the "Lecter/Starling" story apply. All others are cautioned to save their money.
Enemy at the Gates (2001)
"Enemy at the Gates" is not a film about the Battle of Stalingrad, an action film about snipers nor a romance. These are elements of a very deceptive screenplay, but underlying all, "Enemy at the Gates" is a historical political indictment against Nazism and Communism. It is a story of the lesser of two evils.
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and written by Annaud and Alain Godard, "Enemy at the Gates" is a story of two snipers (very loosely based on a true incident), up and coming Russian Private Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law) and the professional German Major Koenig (Ed Harris) sent from instructing at a German sniper training school to kill him. Along the way we meet Red Army political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) and Red Army Private Tania (Rachel Weisz). Before the last shot is fired, a love triangle will develop between Zaitsev, Danilov, and Tania.
The romance is superficial. The love triangle leaves one feeling that it is underdeveloped, that more could have been explored between these characters. In fact it could have been a film onto itself, and I had the feeling the entire romance angle could have been left out of the screenplay without lessening the true themes of the story. (Mr. Annaud, please re-edit the film and at least drop the unnecessary lovemaking scene!)
The sniper contest is very well developed, and one feels real tension as each, the novice and the professional, hunt each other through the destruction and rubble of Stalingrad. It is saved from the depths of the traditional action genre as Zaitsev is genuinely afraid of the professional sent to kill him and questions his ability to defend himself, much like being stalked by a "hitman". Because of his fear, Zaitsev questions the wisdom of letting political officer Danilov propagandize him into a "Soviet Hero".
But the film really works in the small moments when demonstrating the true ugliness of Nazism and Communism, and it's for this reason I recommend "Enemy at the Gates". Moments such as the Wehrmacht's invasion and utter destruction of civilian homes. Moments such as the ultimate fate of a boy at the hands of a Nazi. Moments such as Nikita Krushchev (Bob Hoskins in a terrific performance) ordered to take over the defense of Stalingrad and offering the relieved Red general a pistol as "another way out" (behind a closed door, it is accepted). Moments such as a Soviet High Command banquet to which Pvt. Zaitsev (now a hero) has been invited and while the general staff lovingly gaze at a huge portrait of Stalin, a hungry Russian frontline soldier greedily stuffs his satchel with food reserved for political friends and high ranking officers while nobody is looking.
The production values of "Enemy at the Gates" is very high. From the set design (it looks like they really destroyed a city to make this film) to the historical accuracy (PZKW IV tanks) to the uniforms (wool, not permanent press), a lot of care was given to details. And the music by James Horner is effective and raises the tension of the sniper duels.
I've heard criticism that it occasionally appears too quiet in Stalingrad when the snipers move around. This is unfair. A prolonged urban battle has a way of being quiet in one area while a raging firefight is going on three blocks away, especially in a city as large as Stalingrad. Director Annaud effectively captures the fluidity of battle.
Make no mistake-"Enemy at the Gates" is not a simple action film or wartime romance. This film has something to say.
Alistar McClean Would Be Proud
With Hollywood recently edging closer and closer to the realities of war ("Saving Private Ryan"), I thought the day of "The Guns of Navarone" were over, films in which the Allies always do the right thing and the Germans are always bad. Now I'm not saying the Nazi regime wasn't evil, but "Saving Private Ryan" had the guts to show us what combat is really like, that not every Allied troop was glowing in white. Then along comes "U-571" and the war genre is sent back 40 years.
"U-571", written by Jonathan Mostow, Sam Montgomery, and David Ayer, and directed by Mostow, is the largely fictionalized action story of a U.S. Navy attempt to recover a German Enigma, a cypher machine used by the Kriegsmarine (the German Army and Luftwaffe also used the Enigma) from a crippled U-Boat, the U-571.
As an action film, "U-571" is very well directed and the special effects are fantastic, some of the best sub, depth charge, and torpedo footage I've seen. The technology now exists to give us some of the most realistic effects for World War II films ever, and it made me think of how next years "Pearl Harbor" might look. However, as a realistic portrayal of events and people involved in the combat end of World War II, "U-571" falls short.
The characters are standard action fare. Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) is the executive officer of the S-33 who has recently been turned down for promotion to skipper based on the recommendation of his captain, Lt. Commander Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton). Dahlgren's (he must be a descendant of the Civil War Navy Dahlgren who the famous Navy gun of that era is named after) feeling is that Tyler, a very competent and much loved executive officer, over identifies with his men making it extremely difficult for Tyler to make the hard life and death decisions that accompany command. This will be Tyler's learning curve for the film. Harvey Keitel is Chief Klough, who is a career "sea-dog who needs the salt" and teaches Tyler something about being a skipper. The rest of the characters blend together so effectively they could have been played by one person and I would never have known the difference.
And then there are the historical problems. Several German Enigma Machines were smuggled to British Intelligence by Polish Intelligence shortly before the fall of Warsaw in September 1939. There was also a commercial version on the world market, available to any buyer for many years before the war began. For the Allies, it wasn't a matter of obtaining an Enigma Machine to crack the German codes. It was a matter of discovering which combination of cypher wheels the Germans were using at any one time. If they could get their hands on a machine or documents revealing which wheel combination was currently in use, they could read the German military mail. The Luftwaffe in particular was notorious for hardly changing the combinations and hence, the Allies read most of the Luftwaffe signal communications through the war. "U-571" implies the machine itself was important, which is not true. "U-571" also implies that the only way the Allies were going to win the Battle of the Atlantic was to obtain the machine. This also is not true. Of course accurate intelligence is very important, but it was also the advent of improved destroyer SONAR, escort aircraft carriers, better convoy tactics, and long range patrol aircraft that finally won against the U-Boat menace.
"U-571" is a standard World War II film, a throwback to the films of the '40's, '50's and '60's. I could easily see John Wayne playing the role of Tyler. Every sub cliche was pulled out of the closet and dusted off. I was actually waiting for the "hull crush depth" scene and sure enough, Mostow didn't disappoint me. Worse still, the sequence went on much longer than was entertaining and became boring. And why show the German skipper of the U-571 having one of his crewmen shoot a lifeboat load of Merchantman crew survivors because he has no way of taking care of them and has to think of his own crew first, and not have the American sailor shoot him later after he has already escaped, sabotaged the 571 and killed one of Tyler's men? Because in the screenwriters eyes, the Allies wear white and the Nazis wear black. Mr. Mostow, we are beyond that now. We understand about decisions made in combat. Finally, where are our cousins, the British?
As I sit and consider how to review "Star Wars Episode V-The Empire Strikes Back", I realize, what can be said about a film that was released 20 years ago and has become so much a part of the American culture that hasn't already been said?
Simply put, I fully agree with other user comments/reviews which consider this film to be the best (so far) of the "Star Wars" saga and even further, a fully involving, expertly written and directed stand-alone sci-fi fantasy film.
Demonstrating great skill with suspense and action, director Irvin Kershner delivered a fast paced, character driven film which grabs the viewer from the first scene to the last. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett gave us a darker side of the "Star Wars" saga with the Empire keeping the Rebellion against the ropes through most of the film which contrasted nicely and accented the few moments in "The Empire Strikes Back" when the Rebels just barely manage to hang on.
John Williams overall soundtrack is probably the best work he's done so far for the saga. It is rich and excellently underscores the edge of your seat moments of the film. His "Imperial March", introduced in the saga here in "The Empire Strikes Back", powerfully captures the oppressivness of the Empire over the galaxy.
The only comment I'll make about the special effects (even before the new edition was released) is that all of the effects hold up well twenty years later.
Overall, "The Empire Strikes Back" is classic filmmaking. Lacking the later "cute cuddly creatures", this film has probably the darkest tone so far in the saga and sports the best, most intense, lightsaber duel, equaled only by the duel in "The Phantom Menace". "The Empire Strikes Back" is a must see.
From the first frame to the last, director Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" is an excellent film destined to be ranked with the classics.
More than just a mindless action film, screenwriters David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson have given us memorable, realistic characters in the form of General Maximus (Russell Crowe), Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), their father Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), slave owner and gladiator manager Proximo (Oliver Reed) and a host of minor (yet important) supporting characters. Every character's motivation (very important to any story-for weak, illogical character motivation which undermines a film see "Three Kings") is well defined and extremely believeable. We, the viewers, are emotionally drawn into Maximus's troubles and tragedies and clearly understand all the characters reasons for who they are and what they do. Consider: Maximus's character is given depth by him explaining to his emperor (after him planning and leading a successful early battle against the Germanic tribes in Germania) that all he would like to do is return to his wife and child in northern Spain and resume farming his land. His is really a simple man who sees issues and ideas as right and wrong, black and white, which also makes him a successful military commander. There is no "grey" area, no middle ground in Maximus's view. This is reinforced throughout the film by his act of, just before a confrontation, Maximus reaches for the ground and rubs his hands with the soil. A simple visual gesture which serves to remind us that deep down, Maximus is a man of the earth.
All the elements of the 1000 year Roman Empire are addressed in "Gladiator": political intrigue, incest, violence, mental imbalance, loyalty, colossal egos, awesome good and troubling evil. Ridley Scott, the masterful filmmaker that he is, implies potential forced incest between Commodus and Lucilla and later between Commodus and his very young nephew but handles this disturbing (yet very necessary) material with taste. On a larger scale, we are totally drawn into the era of the Roman Empire, circa 180 A.D., by Scott's wonderful technical proficancy in recreating via computer effects an entire believeable ancient world which supports a perfectly written script which never made me feel as if the characters were just a group of year 2000 actors running around in Roman costumes. And a round of applause to casting director Louis DiGiano and Scott for choosing some of the most powerful talent in the business today to bring this world alive. From the awesome Russell Crowe right across the cast list, all give great performances.
Much has been made by the opening battle sequence (and rightfully so-it's fantastic-gritty, dirty, and realistic-one Roman officer to another, observing while both sides are forming for the fight: "A people should know when they're conquered". Reply: "Would you?") but "Gladiator" is much more than that. "Gladiator" is a fully involving, sometimes emotional character study masterfully filmed by Ridley Scott who once again proves, unlike most current directors, he makes feature films, not overblown TV movies.
Sometimes a production comes along (film or play) that is so good, so perfect, works on so many emotional levels and leaves the viewer feeling wonderful that there are not enough words of praise. Simply put, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" is amazing.
With music by Andrew LLoyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" tells the story of Joseph, favorite of Jacob's twelve sons, and the greatness he achieves at the end of a chain of events started by his envious brothers (Genesis Ch. 37).
I've never been a Donny Osmond fan. However, I was shocked and wonderfully surprised by his outstanding performance in the lead role of Joseph. His acting is superb and his singing is powerful. In the role of the "Narrator" (a role similar to a one woman Greek Chorus) is Maria Friedman who is a wonder to watch with a voice that's a pleasure to hear. She almost steals the show from Donny. Her midshow solo song, "A Pharoah's Story", demonstrates she has as powerful command of her voice as any of the current (or past) musical "divas". And the rest of the cast gives show stopping performances. Clearly, everyone's heart was in this production.
Webber and Rice's songs run style gamut from country to '50's rock and roll. And it all works wonderfully. Of note is the sequence of Pharoah (Robert Torti) explaining his dreams to Joseph. The scene symbolically captures the power of the Pharoah in a very entertaining and humorous manner.
As with "Cats", "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" is a filmed stage production. David Mallet and Steven Pimlott direct "Joseph" with a very energetic style and although not a feature film, can be compared very favorably with the best of the older film musicals.
I highly recommend "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat". It will lift anyone's spirits and is wonderful entertainment.
Back to the Future (1985)
A childhood fantasy come true-what were my parents *really* like when they were young? Thanks to the inadvertent help of Dr.Emmett "Doc" L. Brown (Christopher Lloyd), Hill Valley's resident eccentric scientist/inventor, some literary foundation set by Jules Verne, and the psychological theories of Freud, 17 year old Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is about to reluctantly find out.
Marty's family is somewhat dysfunctional. Though his father George (Crispin Glover) is a nice man, too nice as a matter of fact, he is desperatley afraid of conflict and rejection (a family trait that is starting to spill over into Marty's personality). He lacks confidence to even ask a girl out on a date. And worst of all, he can't stand up to his overbearing co-worker, bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), a guy that's been intimidating poor George since their teenage years in the 1950's. Marty's mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson), though a loving woman, is now an alcoholic, trying to wash away the frustration of having fallen in love with a man who is essentially a loser because she felt pity for him way back in high school. Rounding out this less than ideal family situation is older brother Dave (Marc McClure) who can't do any better for himself than work for minimum wage at a fast food joint and middle sister Linda (Wendie Jo Sperber), who seems to just hang around the house, eat, and complain.
Marty is accidentally transported back to Hill Valley, 1955 (I won't divulge how) where he must, in order to get back to the future, where he belongs, contact a 30 years younger "Doc" Brown for help. But before this happens, Marty inadvertently interferes with a crucial incident in his parents development which sends his personal time path off course along with the rest of the family. Unless this is corrected, Marty and his siblings will never be born. And if this is not bad enough, Marty's mother, not knowing this is her 17 year old son in 30 years, falls in mad love/lust with him.
"Back to the Future", a time travel sci-fi fantasy written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale and directed by Zemeckis, is the ultimate time travel movie. No detail is left unturned. For example, when Marty leaves 1985, the shopping mall where this occurs is called the "Twin Pines Mall". In the last act of the film, as a result of his interfering with the past, we see the sign has changed to read "Lone Pine Mall". The script is brilliant and the direction is perfect. The film is suspenseful, funny and exciting. My personal favorite shot is of Marty, in the first act, sitting and listening to the dinner table conversation between his mother and sister, as his mother describes how she and their father met back in 1955. Marty doesn't say a word, but he has a haunted look on his face like he is personally familiar with these events but can't figure out why. Excellent foreshadowing and a hint of the eventual time circle.
The cast is terrific. All seem to have fun with this material and give wonderful performances. It was an excellent decision by Zemeckis to have Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson play their roles as both teenagers and adults instead of having two other actors play either age.
"Back to the Future", with "Poltergeist", is the best of the early Amblin Entertainment films and ranks with the best of sci-fi fantasy. It is a film that can spark many hours of time travel discussion and debate.
"To Be Continued..."
200 Cigarettes (1999)
Straight From the Brain-In-Neutral Department...
New Years Eve, 1981. A group of everyday people in New York City are looking for love and/or lust to ring in the new year of 1982. This is the foundation for "200 Cigarettes".
Directed by Risa Bramon Garcia from a script by Shana Larsen (who seems to have watched one too many "Friends" episodes), at best "200 Cigarettes" never rises above being a non-threatening diversion for 101 minutes. At worst, "200 Cigarettes" sports a group of flat characters and pulls all the usual movie tricks to make us feel like we have been transported back to 1981, such as a non-stop soundtrack of the usual period music and bright, multi-colored clothes. Being a native New Yorker/Long Islander and 18 years old at the time this movie is set in, I felt no nostalgia at all. I saw a group of young actors running around pretending it was 1981, going through the usual motions of finding their true loves by the time they hit the big party in the last act.
But all is not lost. Christina Ricci as Val from Ronkonkama (a Long Island town) is hilarious. Her accent and mannerisams are dead on as is the relationship she has with her friend Stephie (Gabby Hoffman). Their conversations about being stranded in the City and unable to find Val's cousins house (where a big party is going to take place) are the high points in an otherwise standard relationship comedy film.
"200 Cigarettes" could have easily taken place on New Years Eve 1999 with no impact to the story. The direction and much of the writing is uninspired. Most of the characters never rise much above TV sitcom level, making it hard to care for any one of them as we are never given the chance to really get to know them. Overall, "200 Cigarettes" comes straight from the Brain-In-Neutral Department.
Sharp and Real
Generally speaking, I classify the student body of any American high School in four categories (remember, I'm speaking generally). First, we have the over-achievers. These are the students who constantly think of their individual futures, those that use the facade of caring about the image of their school being the best center of education in the world, the well being of the student body, and the professional careers of the facilty when, in fact, their minds are centered on receiving the best recommendations possible so as to be admitted to the best colleges on the road to making upwards to $125,000 a year with a minimum amount of work. These are the students who, upon discovering that their high school does not have a school song, will take the evening to write a cheer. Given a full night, they will write an opera.
Next, there are the achievers. These are the students with a sincere feeling of teamwork among the student body but also keep an eye on their individual futures. They won't write the cheer (or opera), but will sing along with gusto at pep rallies.
Following the achievers is (you guessed it), the under-achievers. These are the students who could care less about their futures as individuals let alone the school. Not only will they not write the cheer or sing it, but will take pride in publicly ridiculing anybody who does. These students usually end up yelling "Fries are up!" by the age of 25.
Finally, there are the stoners. These are the students who have burnt out so bad they wander the hallways in a fog like the zombies from "Night of the Living Dead", not quite sure where they are or what they're doing. These students usually have to be nudged when the final bell of the day rings so they know it's time to go home.
"Election", based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, adapted for the screen by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor III, and directed by Payne, captures the high school experience better than any John Hughs film of the 1980's. Don't get me wrong-"Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Breakfast Club" were excellent films. But "Election" was so close to reality it brought me back to my own late '70's and early '80's high school days.
"Election" focuses on the over-achiever, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), and the history/civics teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Brodrick), who recognizes her for what she is: the student who will stop at nothing to achieve that $125,000 a year job. Motivated by his negative feelings for Flick, a crises in his own life, and revenge for an incident involving his best friend Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik) who was a teacher also, McAllister decides to gain revenge on student Flick using the student body presidential election. I won't reveal what the incident was concerning Dave, but it is clear Tracy Flick is a stick, hell, a *bundle* of dynamite waiting to go off in the face of anyone who gets in her way. What irritates McAllister most about Tracy Flick is her attitude of "It's my way or the highway".
Sucked into the whirlpool of McAllister and Flick's relationship is Paul Metzler (Chris Klein, in a role I could easily see Keanu Reeves playing 10 years ago), the well meaning, popular jock (an achiever) who has broken his leg in a skiing accident and needs a shot of self-esteem. McAllister talks Paul into running for student body president against unopposed Flick. Further away from the revenge whirlpool but still an essential ingredient to unfolding events is Paul's adapted sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a young, under-achieving woman confused about her sexual orientation. Tammy is severely emotionally hurt by a close girlfriend who she loves but does not respond in kind, and in fact is very unkind. Downright mean, actually. The girlfriend is not lesbian and in an effort to reaffirm her own sexuality and hurt Tammy, she begins to date Paul. Tammy, in an effort to hurt her and Paul, decides to run for student body president. All of this comes as a surprise to Tracy Flick, who expected to run unopposed (and win by default).
Reese Witherspoon is excellent as Tracy Flick. She has a cute, radiant, affecting smile on the outside but has a drive and ambition with the weight of a steamroller on the inside. When she purses her lips and squints her eyes in anger because something doesn't go her way, even the strongest of the strong get a shiver up the spine. Matthew Brodrick is great as Jim McAllister, a good man with a simple way of looking at life (held in secret contempt by Tracy) who ends up making one or two bad judgment calls.
The script is dark humored, extremely funny, and insightful. Jim, speaking of his best friend Dave, remarks "He became a high school teacher because he's one of those people who never wanted to leave high school in the first place." The characters have depth and are complex. I was also impressed by how the school facility was handled by the script. They do not come off like clueless adults who are one step behind the students (as in most other high school films). Rather, they are intelligent and mature, as demonstrated by Vice Principle Ron Bell (Matt Malloy).
Payne's direction is stylish and he has a wonderful grasp on the narrative. He is very creative with the camera and exploits the visual, using freeze frames at key moments of character introduction with brief voice over narration, cutting to events in the past and returning to the original freeze frame when the intro is over. Payne also uses the freeze frame technique at key plot moments like a writer uses an exclamation point.
"Election" is an examination of what's really important in life. In some ways, it reminded me of the high school version of "American Beauty". Overall, "Election" is as sharp and real as they come.