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mercury-26

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68 reviews in total 
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41 out of 47 people found the following review useful:
2000's hidden gem is also its Crown Jewel, 30 March 2001
10/10

Never mind `Traffic'. Forget `Gladiator'. To find 2000's finest, most nail-on-the-head perfect film, you'll need to look a little deeper. A small film that only enjoyed limited release in theaters and isn't getting much attention on DVD either, is Keith Gordon's latest, `Waking the Dead'.

Back in 1992, there was another under-appreciated independent film called `A Midnight Clear' that had the misfortune of being released alongside the likes of `Unforgiven' and `Last of the Mohicans'. For reasons I can't fathom, this brilliant film seemingly did nothing to help Gordon's career. His budgets stayed small, but he continued looking for the most daring and fascinating material. In 1996, he released `Mother Night', another war-themed film, only this time set in the aftermath of WWII.

With `Waking the Dead', Gordon outdoes himself. He casts Billy Crudup as Fielding Pierce, an ambitious Coast Guard officer who'd like to be president--and he means it. His world is turned upside-down when he meets Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), who just wants to feel like she `lives on the planet'. Fielding and Sarah could not be more different, yet they cannot live without each other. Each is the antithesis of the other, which dooms their relationship and intensifies their love at the same time.

The film begins with the announcement of Sarah's death, and continues pulling you back and forth in time. Employing this storytelling technique and maintaining the momentum of the story is a difficult task. While we see Fielding wrestle with her memory, we're shown the powerful connection these two had during her life.

What's more, Fielding begins to see visions of her. Some of these visions are so real, he begins to believe she's alive. The hauntings come just as he begins campaigning for the U.S. House. It begins to affect his life and threatens his campaign. The question of whether Sarah is really alive is the dramatic carrot Gordon dangles in front of us. It's then we realize that she was his conscience in life and remains so in death. Gordon pours it on right until the very last frame. He gets the best performance of Connelly's career out of her, plus a jaw-dropping performance out of Crudup that's worthy of an Oscar. Whoever was in charge of plugging this film for awards nominations must have fallen asleep at the wheel (though I see it did win an Independent Spirit award for its script).

That this film or others in the same situation get no recognition is definitely for the best. The more popular a film becomes, the more idiots that come out of the woodwork to second-guess it. So best to leave it to be discovered by those willing to seek it out. It is 2000's crown jewel.

Grade: A (but only because there isn't a higher grade)

Jesus' Son (1999)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
The year's weirdest film, 11 March 2001
3/10

I like an offbeat film as much as the next guy. Heck, the weirder the better, I say. But this film crosses the line even for me. At least I could actually sit through this entire thing, unlike its older (even weirder) cousin, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas". I compare the two films because they're both drug-trippin', hallucinatory affairs. Both of them, for some reason, drew big names out of the woodwork to get involved. The star of "Jesus' Son" is Billy Crudup, along with the relatively unknown Samantha Morton. But also on board is Holly Hunter, Will Patton, Dennis Hopper, and Denis Leary in small roles.

These films' defining stamp is that they are told in an intentionally haphazard manner. Put simply, this makes a film that's difficult to watch. Both films are based on novels (I've read neither) and I can safely say this storytelling style befits the page more than it does the screen. It's supposed to make the experience more challenging for the audience, leaving them to try and piece this collection of strange occurrences into something that means anything. Let's just say I don't prefer this type of movie-going experience.

I didn't find anything particularly great about this film, nor did I find anything to be at all endearing. The result is an unsatisfying hour and a half of movie watching. Don't use drugs. Don't bother with "Jesus' Son".

Grade: D+

Is the Academy brave enough to vote this Best Picture?, 6 March 2001
9/10

When was the last time you found a martial arts film beautiful and touching? Ang Lee wants to give you something that holds your interest because of its visuals. The story is tailored around the many fight sequences that it contains. The difference, as it turns out, is that these people are allowed to live and breathe and have depth. Lee is not afraid to stop and explore his characters in a way that action/adventure films never do (chicks and dudes alike will enjoy this one, but probably for different reasons).

The result is a completely unique cinematic experience. It didn't blow me away like it did for some. I haven't heard many people talk about how comedic this film really is. Lee can't help but borrow this trait from the Bruce Lee or even Jackie Chan school of filmmaking (the fight scenes were orchestrated by `Matrix' choreographer and long-time Jackie Chan collaborator Yuen Wo Ping). In this case, the humor is more obscure. For example, the climactic fight scene (which will go down in history as one of the best ever) between Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and her would-be apprentice Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) begs for laughter. They fight in the middle of an arsenal. Lien keeps grabbing larger, more imposing weapons to use against the magical, indestructible sword Jen has stolen. It lasts quite a long time and by the end, still you wish it would go on.

Then there's the ‘Peter Pan' aspect of the combat these warriors use. It didn't work for me much of the time. To Lee's credit, though, at least he's attempted to create something fresh. At times, you can almost see the cable it's so obvious. At other times though, the effect is so cool you can't believe what you're seeing. I rule in favor of its incorporation, but wish they'd used it more sparingly.

`Tiger' deserves the acclaim it's received as much as any movie this year. What makes `Tiger' so appealing is that it's not trying to be an Oscar contender, nor any other kind of contender. It's like Crash Davis (you know, from `Bull Durham'). It just wants to Be. Same can be said of all the films nominated for a lot of hardware this year, `Traffic', `Gladiator', `Almost Famous' for example: they just ended up being really good. For one reason or another, they were weeded out of that vast pool of worthy films (well, not so vast this particular year). `Tiger' is certainly worthy. If it cleans up on March 25, I'll be happy for it.

Grade: B

Quills (2000)
Torture, 4 March 2001

Why is everyone falling over themselves over this film? Just because it's a period film starring Geoffery Rush doesn't automatically mean it's good. Truth is, "Quills" is not good, and I don't mean that it just needs a spanking. Its mission is to rise to the level of its subject matter by creating scene after scene of people being naughty.

That the Marquis De Sade's imprisonment, torture, and silencing symbolizes the right-wing censorship of the entertainment industry today is a bit too obvious. No one deserves to be tortured for their personal beliefs or art, but the Marquis is almost made out to be a heroic figure, a saint. In truth, he was a very sick man, and not even a very talented one, judging from the little of his writings the film exposes us to.

There is still much controversy over the degree the entertainment industry is to be held accountable for acts of violence it inspires. "Quills" wants you to cherish the freedom of expression we have in a free society. What left me cold throughout the experience of watching "Quills" was that the garbage that the Marquis was dumping on his society. I had to ask what made this drivel so worthy of the struggle. If only the Marquis had actually been a good writer and not just a pervert with an overly active imagination. I suppose the point is that freedom of expression is freedom of expression, no matter what that expression happens to be.

The Marquis' captors made the mistake of trying to silence him. The more they tried, the louder his voice got. They made a martyr out of a man who didn't deserve to be.

Grade: C-

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Unforgettable, 4 March 2001
10/10

The idea behind this film is one that was just waiting to be utilized. So great is this material for cinema, once the idea is actually executed, more is the shame if it's not done with a sure hand. I'm pleased to report that "Shadow" is one of 2000's finest. I still giggle at the genius of the its premise, that the mysterious star of the 1922 vampire classic "Nosferatu", Max Schreck, was a real vampire! True, after his debut, Schreck went on to make many more films. But "Shadow" offers a tasty 'what if' scenario that's irresistible.

F.W. Murnau, the obsessive director of "Nosferatu" doesn't feel he can make a realistic enough vampire movie with an actor in the title role. While traveling through Transylvania Murnau meets Count Orlock, an actual bloodsucker and makes a deal with him to star in his new film. Because the director has cast a genuine monster as his lead, his cast and crew start to disappear until finally...well, not exactly. Orlock isn't the kind of vampire we've come to imagine because of Hollywood, but a simple recluse living alone in a castle. That's the coup that director E. Elias Mehridge and writer Stephen Katz pull. There is no attempt to make this a horror film. It's as scary as the old black-and-white silent horror films are to us in our computer effects-driven era of movies. Most of the time these films are good for a laugh from a modern audience. But the directors of those old films were always after something dark, deep, and meaningful. The screams they produced were simply a side effect.

The problems that Murnau encounters arise out of Schreck's very real vampire needs. For starters, he's cast a man who is not an actor. "Shadow" is not a comedy, but it's funny seeing Murnau's idea of a vampire clash with Schreck's. Schreck can't possibly act like a vampire. He IS one. The first scenes they use him in (he'll only appear at night of course) are disastrous. He doesn't follow direction, doesn't follow the script, and just acts weird. Willem Dafoe, under tons of make-up, perfectly portrays a guy who obviously doesn't get out very much. Eventually the cast and crew change their opinion of Schreck from believing he's awful to seeing him as a very committed method actor (the producer and writer witness him catch a bat in mid-flight and eat it).

Mehridge goes out of his way to bring the audience something completely original and succeeds. Even though "shadow" is based on the making of another film, every image, every word of dialogue seems painstakingly crafted to give you something you've never seen before. Mehridge is definitely one to watch.

Grade: A

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
interesting and funny, 3 March 2001
9/10

Small town values. What is that anyway? Mamet is careful not to step on them, whatever they happen to be. Rather than ridicule them, with his latest film (the first comedy he's directed since 1988's "Things Change"), Mamet skims its charm off the top and lets the audience have a taste.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Joe White, a playwright-turned-screenwriter who's been recruited along with his script to work on a film for the first time. Joe is not unlike the title character of the Coen's "Barton Fink". He's a fish out of water, in a place that goes against everything he believes in. At the same time, the film world is something he needs desperately. Joe falls head over heels for the town and one of its most known and loved faces, bookstore owner Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon). It's like he's living in two worlds simultaneously, one pure and simple, the other corrupt and shameless.

The town's residents are taken by the Hollywood glitz and glamour, but aren't corrupted by it as the film's marketing would suggest. They understand the temporal nature of the situation and want to make the most of it while it's there. Unfortunately for Ann, they'd rather walk through a shot in the film as extras than follow through with the speaking parts they have in the play she's putting on.

The moral dilemma that Joe finds himself in fuels the rest of the story. It's interesting to see how little truth and integrity matter when money and deadlines are involved (which is in no way exclusive to the film industry). "State and Main" is about any person who finds themselves between a moral rock and a hard place.

Grade: A-

The Gift (2000)
Haunts you, 3 March 2001
8/10

Sam Raimi's work here shows a lot of growth. He's on his way to perfecting the psychological thriller, taking a step up from the also great "A Simple Plan".

Cate Blanchett is Annie Wilson, a small town clairvoyant and fortune teller who reads tarot cards for a group of regular customers. She claims she can't do it for financial gain or it won't work. So any compensation she receives for her services are conveniently called 'donations'. If there is any benefit to her at all, her gift doesn't work. It's not just money either. She can't tell her own fortune, for instance, because her emotions block the way.

The main question the film wants the audience to ask is, by telling people their futures, is she really helping them? Her clientele are among the town's most fragile, desperate, afraid. In a way, she's taking advantage of them. At the same time people like Buddy (the amazing Giovanni Ribisi) need her like a drug. She's become his guardian angel, protecting him from himself. Another client, Valerie (Hillary Swank), comes to Annie often to see if her future holds anything better than her abusive husband Donnie.

The first plot point is the disappearance of Jessica King (Katie Holmes). Having no leads and no suspects, the skeptical town authorities go to Annie and ask for her help. Not only is the woman missing, Annie finds, but she's dead. A suspect is found, tried, and convicted, but Annie's name and profession are dragged through the mud in the process. What's worse, Annie begins to fear she may have helped to convict the wrong guy. From this point on it becomes a pretty good whodunnit, with many possible suspects. The big secret isn't revealed until nearly the last scene.

Much of this strikes you as cliche', using a lot of small hicktown stereotypes to move the story. But Annie's character is so original and interesting, all is forgiven. Everything around her needs to be the way we'd expect in order for her character to be the outcast. Her 'kind' is not exactly welcome in this small, Southern, church going community.

Raimi's usual flawless direction also makes a huge difference. It's not until long after you've left the theater that you realize why he's chosen to show you the images he has, in the order he shows them in. "The Gift" is a truly haunting experience.

Grade: B

Gossip (2000/I)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
shameful, 28 February 2001
2/10

Well, it begins promising enough. After that though, it makes a slow descent, then a nose dive into cliches and predictability.

It's yet another film that panders to the Gen X crowd but fails to understand what this audience is really looking for, namely, material much more interesting and sophisticated than this. "Gossip" is a made-for-tv movie with swearing in it.

The film is about a class project that (supposedly) turns deadly. Its central characters, roommates, pick out two people they don't like, a couple who both come from rich families, and decide to start a rumor about them. The idea is to see how long it takes for the gossip to spread through the campus and back to them. It works, but not without unexpected, devastating consequences. Someone needs to tell this writer that a college campus does not work the same way as a high school campus (a misconception he got from "Revenge of the Nerds" apparently). Not everyone knows everyone else in college. By the time they enter college, heck even by the time they're seniors, they've grown up anyway. These characters all behave like ninth graders.

Like I said, it begins interestingly enough and actually engaged me for the first 45 minutes. After that it becomes an episode of Scooby-Doo, complete with the climactic scene where everyone gathers in one room to uncover the real culprit. Instead of ooh-ing and aah-ing at its cleverness, you'll be covering your face in shame.

Grade: D

Elmer Fudd saves the world, 20 January 2001
8/10

It's hard to imagine. The fate of the world in the hands of the Kennedy brothers and some joe named Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner, sounding eerily like Elmer Fudd at times). These three were apparently the White House inner inner circle.

My own knowledge of the events is fuzzy. I hate to call this film educational, but it's now the account of the Cuban Missile Crisis that I will remember. It makes me want to read more about it, to see what's true and what isn't. Hopefully others won't be so quick to accept the film as gospel and look upon it as what it really is: entertainment.

Like any Hollywood movie with a Kennedy in it, Jack and Bobby are treated as infallible protectors of everything good. No other president has more stories surrounding him, more speculation about his personal life and beliefs. When Bruce Greenwood (in the best performance of the film) tells O'Donnell, kiddingly, that he wishes "someone else were president", we'd understand if he meant it. Hollywood has us believing the world would be a better place had JFK survived longer than three years in office. Kennedy's clashes with the military establishment is used for drama in "Thirteen Days", but doesn't take over the story. It's the cat-and-mouse game, the fact that these three men seem able only to trust each other, that makes the film so compelling.

The Crisis is so important because it's the one time in history where the world really seemed to be on the brink of nuclear annihilation. There was a chance, however small, that something could go wrong. "Cooler heads" might not prevail. "Thirteen Days" takes you inside of it, giving you things like the White House staff's reactions to Adlai Stevenson's "til hell freezes over" declaration to the Soviet U.N. delegate. Even if things didn't happen exactly this way, you see what it must have been like. Accurately depicted is the weight of the situation. You can feel the life-or-death quality of each decision these men faced.

Lest we forget that there are still enough nuclear weapons in silos around the world to destroy it twenty times over, the film is some timely food for thought.

Grade: B

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
a musical journey, 17 January 2001
10/10

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is unmistakably a Coen brothers film. I first noticed the common denominator between all their films when I was watching "Fargo" for the first time: These guys' films feel like they're made up as they go along, even if they're not. Fortunately, the results are always good (aside from the disappointing "Big Lebowski").

I suspect they employed their usual 'anything goes' strategy to "O Brother". This time though, whatever story there is seems to take a back seat to what the boys really hoped to accomplish with this film. In the liner notes to the film's soundtrack, the Coens describe the film as a sort of valentine to the music of the pre-Great Depression era. "There are very few scenes in the movie that don't have an in-screen musical element to them," says Joel. Thinking back on the film, indeed, a scene not driven by music or built around music is hard to find. While the boys manage to piece together a quality story by merrying up folklore with the bonafide history of the South, it's all about incorporating the music, somehow, some way. "O Brother" is about as close as there is to a musical that isn't a musical.

To quote the liner notes again, "Before a single frame of film was shot, these musicians and others created the 'canvas' upon which the colorful saga of O Brother Where ArtThou? would be painted". So first they had their theme, namely, spirituality. The condition of the soul. Sin, punishment, and forgiveness. The Coens must have felt that as long as they abided by this theme, the story would take care of itself. Any story about the old South could be about the thick mist of good and evil spirits that inhabit it. It's the American home of both God and Beelzebub, of more angels and demons than any other region. One of the film's best sequences features escaped convicts Delmar and Pete (Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro) wading into a river to be baptised and cleansed of all sins. In the very next scene the convicts (Nelson, Turturro, George Clooney) pick up a hitchhiker (aptly named Tommy Johnson, played by Chris Thomas King) at a crossroads, who tells them he's just sold his soul to the devil so he can play the guitar and make lots of money. The four of them then proceed to the next recording studio and cut a hit record together. Fantasic!

"O Brother" is a playful, flaccid romp through the backwoods of Mississippi. I couldn't help but imagine how much fun these guys were having making this thing and the attitude is contageous. It's the year's funniest film. Ethan's too smart for his own good sometimes though, and a lot of it flies right over your head. The humor takes you by surprise but doesn't shock you.

"O Brother Where Art Thou" won't be looked back upon as a Coen brothers masterpiece. It's no "Fargo" or "Miller's Crossing".

Grade: A-


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