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a bold prediction
Two days after seeing this film, I can't remember a single tune, but I'm still happy. And still thinking.
This is the kind of movie that provokes both happiness and thought. And happiness and thought are especially welcome in an unhappy country that seems--finally--to be nearly ready to emerge from its Cheneyesque "There's only one way to be OK" mindset. That was also true in the early '60s, the period depicted in this film. I remember that time very well, and am most eager to leave it behind me a second time.
I hope to return with a more thoughtful and thorough review, but for now I will offer one bold prediction: John Travolta will be the surprise winner of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for his remarkably sweet, funny and straightforward portrayal of Edna!
a 10 that hardly anyone will see
I'm blown away. In a world where the IQ targets of movies have been declining for nearly four decades, where the iconic Coming of Age story has descended from the wit of The Graduate to the banality of Friends, where Whale Rider has seemed the best since Flirting because Hollywood keeps lowering the bar, I have just seen a wonderful film called Summer.
Summer, from Canada, appears to have been shot for such a small budget that it puts to final rest the adage `You get what you pay for.' True, you can plainly see how little was paid in cheap filming medium and a few editing gaps, and the filming locations are appalling in their ordinariness (isn't most of the inhabited world?), but this film is outstanding for two reasons. First, the story: Coming of Age, AKA Who Am I and How Can I Become Who I Really Am?, the all-time Third Best Plot (the Best Plot being Love is Everything, the Second Best being Goodness Will Win). For a first film on a subject that's been done so often, it manages to be funny, touching, really insightful and very much worth watching. And second, the acting is extraordinary.
This movie is about three kids, no four kids, no six, no. it's about all kids, actually. At least the ones who graduate from (whatever) and find themselves facing The Cold, Cruel, Scary World. Charlie (Michael Rubenfeld) has succeeded due to his belief in boldness. Stefanie (Karen Cliché) worries that her chosen profession (acting) is not one where one meets lots of good people. Miller, (Joe Cobden) is lost, so unsure of his path that he just wants to play for a summer or maybe longer.. And, Ella (Amy Sloan), Miller's girlfriend, faces The Cold, Cruel, Scary World by attacking it before it attacks her. They beautifully illustrate ways that young people face their second toughest decision (the first being Who Will I Marry and third being Where Will I Live? both of which get some play in this movie as well).
The time is the Last Summer Before It Starts. They hold court at a swimming pool the size of a small world that is their turf until it is taken over by a `pool Nazi.' (The rendition was so cartoonish that this character didn't belong in this film). They drink to excess (none of them smoke, which I found really refreshing; no tobacco industry product placements here). They make new friends, couple and uncouple, listen to the best recorded music in recent films for young people and face crises in ways that determine their trajectories. This isn't a film that will appeal to those who thrive on car chases, explosions and computer-animated fantastic martial arts feats. The kids aren't crude or inexplicably mindless; everything they do and say reveals their conflicted intelligence and appeal.
Miller is the emotional center of the film, a kid who is facing the choice of working in an antiquarian bookstore or going to another city to do something big and bold in business. Ella, played by an actress so attractive and fresh it's hard to believe that she hasn't been sucked into the Hollywood black hole yet, wants to be a physician and feels the need to start working towards it Right Now, even if that jeopardizes her relationship with Miller. As a result, Miller feels driven into the orbit of a woman who sends red flags up in everyone but him. His apology is one of the most nakedly touching I have ever seen on film. Yet it is topped by another-delivered by someone who was was, to that point, the film's least interesting character-who also makes a bad choice of the heart, and takes the stage and humbles herself before friends and strangers alike in a monologue of almost Shakespearian power even if its subject and delivery are 100% today.
In the end we are left feeling that we have become friends with some remarkable young people, and are the richer for it. What more can you ask from a movie, especially a first feature film shot for so little money, the kind that screens in very non-prime hours on small audience-share TV stations? A movie that isn't available on DVD? But however overlooked, Summer is a gem, clearly a 10, one I dearly wish there were a way to share with my wife and my three twentysomething sons.
Road to Perdition (2002)
Ebert and Berardinelli missed this time
Who am I, an amateur moviegoer, to say that two pros, Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli, are wrong? But amateur means lover--one who does something for love, not for money. I love really good movies, and I think that these usually on-target reviewers are wrong in calling Road to Perdition a three-star film. Titanic was, maybe a three-star film (or, on rethinking it, two-and-a-half). Road to Perdition is not only a four-star film, it is the best one I've seen since American Beauty, which, not coincidentally, had the same director. Look at it any way you want, from technical details to cinematography to acting to a story that plums the human dilemma, this a remarkable movie.
Road to Perdition is a movie about fathers and sons, a topic of eternal and profound importance, whether we're talking about every male's individual story, why ghettoes have endemic problems or why whole nations go to war. Road to Perdition addresses painful questions such as which counts more in a father's heart, blood or loyalty? Or in a son's heart, a father's decency or his simply being a father? It answers these questions with subtle but powerful truth, beautifully unfolded, as befits three wonderful actors, two Oscar-winners (Tom Hanks and Paul Newman) and one who will be (the boy to watch is Tyler Hoechlin).
Besides profound, timeless story and brilliant acting, it is a perfect period piece; the factories, homes, roads, signs, clothes, accoutrements are perfect period pieces. They could have been full of anachronisms and I would still have been deeply moved by the story, but the people who did these things got it right, down to the sweat stains on Hanks' collar and the protagonist's bicycle. So did the director and cinematographer; the film has a mood that derives from the darkness and heavy rain outside (reminiscent of Kurasawa's unrelenting rains)and the dark interiors that were once our home and workplace environments.
I found yet another thing fascinating. Gangsters, from the 20s onward, whether Italian, Jewish, Irish or Russian, are always depicted as crude and inarticulate. In this film, the Irish mafiosi and Frank Nitti are depicted as far more sophisticated and intelligent than those we see in the canonical fims and television series such as the Godfather, the Sopranos, Ghost Dog, the TV Untouchables, etc. Were they Tony Sopranos or more like the criminals who ran Enron, Arthur Anderson and WorldCom? I don't know, but now I'd like to.
Every movie has to have some errors of continuity, and found a few concerning the season. The story occurs in late-winter, but at times in-between, the trees are leafed out in late-Spring or even summer glory. Similarly, the fields are winter-sere in some scenes but the corn is growing to near summer height in others and plants are flowering. Clearly the scenes that made the final cut were not filmed in order, or in the six weeks that the story covered.
I don't want to tell the story here; an appropriate rendering (without revealing too much) appears in Steven Holden's NY Times review, which is much more more insightful than Ebert's or Berardinelli's. But I will venture a guess: Road to Perdition will be a strong contender at Oscar time if the Academy has any integrity left in it.
The brilliant science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon said "90% of everything is crap." That is certainly true of movies. But Road to Perdition is a movie that deeply touches the heart and mind. If you don't see any other film this year, see this one. Then, after you've thougth about it, see it again.
an overlooked gem!
How refreshing it is to see a film that is beautifully acted, directed and filmed that really has something important to say! Maybe the last time Hollywood did that was American Beauty. That's why I was delighted to happen upon Outside Chance, produced in British Columbia and filmed in Manitoba, far from the schlock, glitz and artifice of Hollywood. This is a "small" movie big enough to be worth seeking out.
On one level, it is a poignant, funny, warmhearted, intelligent exploration of the tensions inherent in being a stranger in a strange land, in this case, being Jewish in a prairie town in Canada. The leaders of the Jewish community (with good reason) don't feel they have been welcomed by the dominant community of non-Jews in the town, and they struggle to maintain their cultural uniqueness while endeavoring to avoid being seen as "different." But these desires inherently conflict, and they come to the surface via the interactions of the community, the 12-year-old protagonist (a boy who is the movie's truth-teller), his Christian friend and incipient girlfriend (who is also his two-hands piano partner), and a Lubovitcher Hasidic rabbi, who offers wisdom that excites the boy's mind and heart while conflicting with the community's wishes. The story looks unblinkingly at both the nontrivial weaknesses and enormous strengths of Jewish culture, yet could just as well have been about Vietnamese in America, Pakistanis in England or Greeks in Australia.
On another level, it is about the struggle to be true to one's individual nature, as opposed to what society expects of us. The boy has to confront the question "Does honoring your parents always mean complying with their wishes." The rabbi faces the question of how he wants to fulfill his life's mission.
These are serious questions, handled with a deft, light touch, in a script with just the right amount of warmth and wit, in a place that is somehow both familiar and strange, far from the usual Hollywood sets. Oh yes, and the klezmir music is wonderful!
Clearly a 10.
Woody Allen meets the Farrelly brothers
We humans think we are unique and that there's nothing else like us, but a viewer who could see us objectively would find that we really share a lot with our relatives, including jackals, bower birds and dung beetles. Do it straight and you have Desmond Morris's TV documentaries. Do it with tongue in cheek and you have "Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But were Afraid to Ask)" meets "There's Something About Mary." It's really funny for anyone who's ever paused and thought about our moder version of the mating dance or anyone who has logged gazillions of hours watching nature documentaries on TV (I have done both). Although its budget must have been awfully low (deduced from from the poor sound, lack of innovation in camera work, uneven editing and zero advertising), my wife and I found ourselves laughing aloud again and again. It even has some fair acting and very good embedded values.
The basics: decent male seeks to mate, finds exceptionally desirable female, suffers rejection, is persistent, starts courtship with her (against all odds, because she's a higher status female in the mating dance), snatches victory from defeat in a mating battle with two larger males, finds she is even more desirable than her appearance indicated, vacillates and almost loses her, then produces offspring. The narration by David Hyde Pierce of "Frasier" is a hoot throughout, Carmen Electra is not too bad playing a young woman sweeter and less self-assured than her exceptional (presumably altered) physical appearance usually indicates, MacKenzie Astin is really good as an unusually decent, rather bumbling guy who nonetheless lies about his parents, blames his honedy when she screws up and has a serious commitment issue. Best of all are the adventures of the male's sperm as they try--against al odds--to achieve the biological imperative that shapes human and virtually all other behavior.
If you're lonely and want to feel better about the world, if you have someone you'd like to get closer with, or if you just want a good belly laugh, this one's well worth renting.
On the Beach (2000)
uneven, thought-provoking, poignant; worth seeing
After an emotionally tough day, I saw a broadcast of the new On the Beach last night, and had strongly mixed feelings. I was born two years after The Bomb, and grew up during the most hellish years of fear about nuclear devastation. It left an indelible impression on me, having reached its greatest crisis when I was at my most vulnerable age. The risk of all-out nuclear war increased after the original novel and movie in the '50s, peaked in the '60s (the subject of many bad dreams when I was in junior high and high school), was still a nightmarish worry in the '70s, declined steeply in the '80s and then--thanks in no small part to the disorder following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new availability of Soviet fissile materials and scientists--increased in the '90s. And although technologies change and antagonists shift, human nature is eternal. Now India and Pakistan detonate bombs within days of one another, and China is turning up the heat on Taiwan. I am getting disquieting feelings of 1962 again.
That is the background against which the remake of On the Beach is played. It is an uneven film, mixing flashes of brilliant and poor editing, excellent and bad acting, scientific inaccuracies and gorgeous scenery, and four love stories, two of which I found compelling. But I found it both poignant and thought-provoking despite its faults.
I didn't know Armand Assante. I missed Belizaire the Cajun, Gotti and whatever else he's done (that's the peril of having a life aside from being a movie reviewer!). But I had the distinct impression he stole his portrayal of a US Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine Commander straight from Al Pacino's character in "The Scent of a Woman." Sad to say, Pacino did it a lot better. Assante was over the top in much of this movie. So was Rachel Ward--to much and too one-dimensional in her aging party girl portrayal. Bryan Brown was a disappointment--especially compared with his wonderful job in Gorillas in the Mist--but the writing for his character was ridiculous (He is portrayed as a super mathematician who also happens to be a race car driver serious enough to own both a Ferrari and a Formula I car who's a total dunce at love. I am a scientist, and although I have colleagues who are brilliant and dunces at love, none has even a touch of the Mario Andretti in us.) By far the best acting job--despite writing that made her denial seem hysterical--was Jacqueline McKenzie. If she gets good opportunities, she'd going places in film.
The movie strains credulity in its geopolitics and science. I have some difficulty imagining how Australia avoids being a target in an all-out nuclear war. A puncture of a radiation suit should be fixable by slapping a hand or some duct tape on the material to keep contaminated air out, and would give a modestly risky, not fatal exposure at radiation levels depicted in the film. But the San Francisco scenes of devastation were silly; nuked cities don't have standing buildings or bridges looking like that, and radiation levels that would kill people in a few days would kill conifers too; they're about as sensitive as we are.
There are four main love stories in the film. The triangle between the climate modeler and sub commander with the party girl (unconvincing), the one between the sub commander and his crew (medium), the one among the Australian naval officer, his architect wife and their daughter (wonderful) and the one between the camera and the Australian coast (wonderful). Along with the very disrurbing possibility that nuclear weapons will be used by nations or terrorists in our lifetimes, the latter two love stories are what gives this film its emotional resonance.
I also found the sub commander's comings and goings irrational. He changed courses and locations so many times in this movie without clear reason that I wondered whether he had the male equivalent of PMS. Someone with divided loylaties--in this case between his crew and his lover--showing such indecision was more silly than touching.
Despite and because of the problems, I gave it a 7.
The Terminator (1984)
It's about transformation
I just saw a horrifying, touching, very good movie again; it's The Terminator. Now to talk of it as great film, to compare it with American Beauty might seem idiotic--it's an almost unrelentingly dark, violent, frightening action movie, after all--but strip away the relentless action, strip away the technophobia, strip away the blatant dislike of cops and modern youth, strip away the poignant love story and, at its core, it's about an immature, essentially mindless girl becoming a strong, determined woman. That's a theme more movies should have if we want girls to have strong role models.
In the course of a few hours during which Sarah Connor realises that she is running for her life from a soul-less machine in human flesh that is implacably and violently determined to kill her, she transforms from a girl who can't balance her cheque book to a woman who can order a wounded, beaten man to "get on your feet, soldier." She is clear-headed, not panicky, focused in crisis and incredibly courageous. And it's not that she has lost her essential femaleness but that she's grown up.
It's relentless, heartless violence appals and fascinates me. It's gritty depiction of our society as a prelude to an even more horrific one in 2023 darkens my heart. It's quickly developing love story touches me. Its humor makes the dark places in me smile. But most of all I am touched and fascinated by Sarah's precipitous transformation. As a good life exercise, ask yourself this: Would you have the courage to do what she does?
9.5 out of 10.
American Beauty (1999)
an adult movie in the truest sense
We have food, homes, toys, activities to keep us busy and yet some of us come to see that this is all meaningless, that to be really satisfied with what we have and what we do, we have to be who we really are. That is the message of American Beauty. It's a theme that has been explored before in film, sometimes beautifully (The Graduate, Grand Canyon), but nobody has done it better than Mendes in American Beauty. Through the eyes of an adult, it explores what it means to be a person--an adult man numbed by a cocoon of empty comfort, a teenage girl struggling in the depths of estrogen poisoning, a woman who has relinquished the joy of life that she had when she was first falling in love and tries to fill it by selling more houses.
American Beauty is a grand, multilayered, nuanced symphony without even one false note. Every detail felt true, both the "real" ones (the pretty,full-breasted teenager who feels so ugly that wants to have breast enlargement, the exquisite Nazi platter in the collection of a repressed, retired Marine colonel, the condescending downsizing expert that Management installs to increase the bottom line) or the more symbolic ones (the god-like view of the suburb where the action takes place, viewing the world through a digital videocamera, the recurring and fascinating use of red rose petals).
Fascinating movie, and profound, with the message that we can transcend the system we have unwittingly created for ourselves and find out and become who we are. It can be the catalytic event of saying "I quit." It can be having a 1970 red Firebird, the car we lusted after but could have only dreamed of when we were kids. Or it can be having the longstanding object of our lust in the most vulnerable possible position and backing off, showing compassion rather than taking what seemed so desirable and easy.
At its core, this is a simple plot: a man caught in a box escapes it. But how he comes to his senses, what he sees along the way, and the profound sense of fulfillment upon escaping makes this poignantly funny, darkly comedic tragedy a triumphant affirmation of life. Spacey, who was very good before, is absolutely brilliant, his subtle expressions telling volumes about his trials and transformations. If there is any justice, he'll get the Oscar for Best Actor. Bening is superb, having the courage to eschew the charismatic charm of her role in The American President to take on and ace the least attractive role of her career (even less than the one in Valmont).
There's even a question that remains unanswered to make us think long after the powerful, emotionally layered denouement: was the seductive nymphette lying about her many sexual conquests or about her virginity?
Either way, and for the sophisticated yet life-affirming message, the plotting, the cinematography, the acting and the direction, American Beauty elbows its way into my already crowded 10 Best Movies List.