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Giamatti is Outstanding
The medium of the cinema can be entertaining as well as educational, and when it's done well, a film can be both. Such is the case with "Sideways," directed by Alexander Payne, who also wrote the screenplay, which he adapted from the novel by Rex Pickett.
Jack (Thomas Haden Church), an actor whose "star" peaked some eleven years earlier and who now ekes out a living primarily doing commercials, is about to be married. With one week to go before the big day, his best man/friend/former college roommate, Miles (Paul Giamatti), has cooked up a trip to California's wine country, where he proposes a week of friendship, good wine, good food and golf as a send-off for Jack into that most blessed state of matrimony.
As is often the case with the hand that Life deals us, however, the week does not quite go as planned, for a couple of reasons: First, though Miles proclaims this week to be about Jack, Miles is battling his own demons of depression, which have plagued him for going on two years now, ever since his divorce from his beloved Victoria (Jessica Hecht). In addition to which, although he makes his living as an Eighth-Grade English Teacher, Miles is also an aspiring novelist, who happens to be waiting for a call from his agent, who has a publisher interested in the novel Miles has been working on for more than three years. So there is an ulterior motive for Miles at work here; a wine connoisseur, he's taking Jack into country that is not only familiar to him, but is without question a "comfort zone" for Miles, who desperately needs a temporary respite from his own cares right now.
The other problem is that Jack has an inflated ego and an overactive libido, a potent combination that quickly dictates an alternate plan of action for the week. Jack, it seems, is bent on sowing every last wild oat that remains, active or dormant, within him, before his impending nuptials scheduled for the following Saturday. Soon he is involved with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works pouring samples of wine for visitors at one of the first vineyards to which Miles takes Jack on their tour.
Jack then successfully devises a plan that gets Miles involved with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at one of the restaurants Miles frequents on his visits to this part of the world. Maya also happens to be a recent divorcée who is working on her Master's in Horticulture at one of the local colleges, as well as being a wine connoisseur in her own right and a friend of Stephanie's to boot. All of which sounds like the makings of a good time for all, with one exception: Jack conveniently fails to tell Stephanie that he is about to be married.
Bad move, Jack...
In "Sideways," Payne has created a highly entertaining and emotionally involving film with characters and situations to which a broad cross-section of viewers will readily be able to relate and identify. Payne has an eye for nuance and subtlety, which makes his film- essentially a character study- a succinct examination of the human condition.
Subtlety and nuance is exactly what Paul Giamatti brings to the role of Miles, as well. It's a performance that is so real it's almost excruciatingly so at times, but it makes Miles someone you can empathize with. Giamatti creates a sympathetic character you can't help but root for on this vast wilderness of a stage we call life; it's a performance that should easily have earned him an Oscar for Best Actor.
Haden Church does an exemplary job, too, as Jack. He imbues his character with such believable self-centered shallowness that you want to laugh at him and hit him at the same time. The rub is, Jack knows what he's doing, but simply can't help himself; so in the end you may find yourself sympathizing with him anyway, because Haden Church presents Jack as someone who just does not possess the intellectual capacity to do otherwise, which somehow makes you want to let him off the hook. You realize that this is just Jack honestly being who he is. And it takes a good performance to get you as a viewer to that place.
The striking Virginia Madsen does a good job, as well, as Maya, creating a character that is a perfect counterpart to the Miles created by Giamatti. And Sandra Oh, currently riding a surging wave of popularity due to her role on televisions "Grey's Anatomy," brings some definite pizazz to her role of Stephanie, successfully displaying her character's spirit, while at the same time exposing a decidedly vulnerable side of her.
The supporting cast includes Missy Doty (Cammi), M.C. Gainey (Cammi's husband), Patrick Gallagher (Gary the bartender), Marylouise Burke (Mile's mother), Alysia Reiner (Christine) and Stephanie Faracy (Stephanie's mother).
A film that lends itself to repeated viewings, "Sideways" is one of those gems that makes you appreciate not only the artists involved, as well as the art of film-making, but the medium itself. I like this movie more every time I see it.
A Glimpse Into What Could Have Been
A pivotal moment in the history of the world has been captured by writer/director Emilio Estevez in his brilliant film, "Bobby," a chronicle of the day Senator and Presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy was murdered in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in June, 1968.
On June 6, 1968, when RFK died, the hope of a nation died along with him. It was the day that began a downward spiral of true democracy in the United States of America, which has taken us, finally, as a country, into the darkness of corporate corruption and political despotism.
Which is why this film is so important.
With this film, Estevez, rather than put together just another filmed biography, has reignited the light that was Bobby Kennedy. Rather than throw facts, figures and debate at you, he instead resurrects the spirit of the man, and in doing so captures the very essence of who Robert Kennedy was and what he stood for. And he succeeds in large measure by using archival footage of Kennedy, rather than casting an actor in the role, which allows the viewer to experience Kennedy as he really was, to hear the compassion in his voice and see it in his eyes. Listening to Kennedy deliver a speech is moving and powerful; and for those too young to remember, or for those who were not around at the time, it affords the opportunity of knowing what it was like to hear words that really meant something, coming from a politician who really cared and knew how to convey the truth of his convictions with such eloquent determination.
What a marked contrast to the empty rhetoric and falsehoods espoused by the inarticulate, semiliterate demagogue currently in power.
As the film points out, Kennedy came from privilege, and he knew it; and he felt obliged (in his own words) to give something back. He said it and he meant it. Bobby Kennedy had a vision of how truly great this country could be, and wanted to do something about it. Unfortunately for all of us, Fate intervened.
The individual stories of the many characters in the film are interesting and well presented, but on their own they are not that important, nor were they meant to be. The drama that plays out among them as that dire moment we all know is coming approaches is the drama of all of our lives; they are Everyman and Everywoman, and they are there to set the stage and lend emotional ballast to the story. And under the care and guidance of Estevez it works, as it enables the viewer to identify and relate to what is happening, and what is about to happen.
The all-star cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Demi Moore, Harry Belafonte, Laurence Fishburne, Ashton Kutcher, Lindsay Lohan, Freddy Rodriguez, Elijah Wood, David Krumholtz, Heather Graham, Joshua Jackson, Sharon Stone, William H. Macy, Martin Sheen, Shia LaBeouf, Nick Cannon, Brian Geraghty and Emilio Estevez.
In this film, Estevez does not place Bobby Kennedy on a pedestal; he does not portray him as a fallen god. What he does is capture the spirit of a time and a man who carried the hope of a nation in his dreams. Estevez proffers no conspiracy theories and no fingers are pointed in this film. "Bobby" is simply what it was meant to be: A glimpse into what could have been and never was. And it makes you long for a leader you can trust, someone you can truly believe in; for a country that stands tall and is not undermined by ersatz "patriotism." This film makes you long for the restoration of the real America.
Bad News Bears (2005)
Honest, as well as Entertaining
Over the years, the "sports" movie has become a genre unto itself, and good or bad, these films are for the most part well received by a significant cross section of the population who hold the fundamental belief that sports=America=patriotism. And filmmakers know it. That's why most of these films feature thematic variations rooted in the "Win one for the Gipper," "It's not winning, but how you play the game" and "There's no 'I' in 'team'" mentality. How refreshing, then, when one like "Bad News Bears" comes along to provide a much needed perspective on our society's preoccupation with sports in general, and amateur athletics in particular.
Based on the 1976 screenplay by Bill Lancaster and updated by screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who successfully teamed up with Thornton for 2003's "Bad Santa"), the story is about a local little league that has excluded a group of youngsters for failing to live up to their standards of physical prowess (they just aren't good enough to play with the "real" eleven and twelve year old "athletes"), the mother who sues the organization so that her son can play, the resultant team of diverse "misfits" the league must accommodate, and the man hired by the mother to manage that team.
That man in none other than Morris Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton), a former professional baseball player who once pitched 2/3 of an inning in the Big Leagues and who now makes a living by exterminating rats. "Boilermaker" Buttermaker likes to drink, frequents the local Hooters and doesn't give a fig about what anyone thinks about him. Not that he's a rugged, iconoclastic individualist; far from it. He's just a guy who refuses to play the game anymore (and we're not talking about baseball here). On the surface, he's probably not the guy you'd choose to be your kid's role model, mainly because of all the things he "isn't." Upon closer examination, however, it becomes apparent that being a hypocrite is among the things he "isn't," and it's very telling as to the man's true character.
On the other side of the fence, meanwhile, there's the manager of the Yankees, Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear), a real coach's coach, a pillar of the community (he's a car salesman) and the very personification of The Great American Role Model. He's as American as apple pie, and if there's a high moral ground in evidence here, he's on it. And, he is by all that's holy, going to take his team to the championships. His team is going to win, no matter what, because, after all, winning is everything, isn't it? Even if it means expecting your twelve-year-old to play like a Major Leaguer with a multimillion dollar contract, and publicly chastising him when he doesn't.
And therein lies the beauty of this film. Without preaching, without pointing fingers, but simply by presenting a realistic depiction of one of our sacred institutions, the "coach," the true nature of what millions of kids are subjected to in the name of "sportsmanship" year after year in this country is exposed, and with no apology necessary. At the same time it says that kids are worth more, much more, than what the Roy Bullock philosophy has to offer. The Roy Bullocks of the world will tell you that this kind of treatment "builds character." I beg to differ. And it's up to the Morris Buttermakers of the world to level the playing field. And when the rubber meets the road, I'd want my kid on Boilermaker Buttermaker's team rather than Bullock's any day of the week Director Linklater assembled a superb cast for this film, beginning with Thornton, who makes Buttermaker a very real, if flawed, flesh and blood human being, quite different from the likable caricature created by Walter Matthau in the 1976 original version. Kinnear delivers, as well, by capturing the very essence of a character that anyone who has ever been near a little league-- or any sports field-- has known in real life. And in the confrontations between Buttermaker and Bullock, Thornton and Kinnear give it a ring of truth that is beyond anything you'll ever see on any of the "reality" TV shows.
Add to that a credible performance by Marcia Gay Harden as Liz whitewood (the mother who sues the little league), and an amazing group of young actors: Sammi Kane Kraft (Amanda); Ridge Canipe (Toby); Brandon Craggs (Mike); Jeffrey Davies (Kelly); Timmy Deters (Tanner); Carlos Estrada (Miguel); Emmanuel Estrada (Jose); Troy Gentile (Hooper); Kenneth Harris (Ahmad); Aman Johal (Prem); Tyler Patrick Jones (Lupus); Jeffrey Tedmori (Garo); Carter Jenkins (Joey); and Seth Adkins (Jimmy), and you've got a movie that's going all the way to the World Series.
The acerbic humor and biting satire of "Bad News Bears" is without a doubt going to generate some mixed reviews. Some viewers will be offended by this film; others will be outraged. But that's because the truth hurts, and the fact of the matter is, there's a lot of Roy Bullocks out there, and they'll all be expecting a movie that confirms their point of view and sanctions their own sanctimonious belief that the lessons learned on the diamond, the court or the football field are all positive, the stuff that "champions" are made of. Instead, they're going to see a film that has the guts to call a spade a spade, that isn't entirely politically correct and in the end may make it necessary for them to take stock and reevaluate the real world that exists out there beyond the shells of the cocoons in which they've ensconced themselves. And that, my friends, is the magic of the movies.
The Island (2005)
Science Fiction At It's Best
This movie, because it's a "Summer, Sci-Fi/Action" flick, will probably do extremely well at the box office, if for no other reason than the fact that Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are in the cast. Regrettably, however, even after it's been out for awhile it will probably never reach as wide and diverse an audience as it deserves until it's release on DVD, when-- hopefully-- positive word of mouth recommendations will lead those who usually avoid this particular genre to it. Because "The Island," directed by Michael Bay, is a cautionary, thought-provoking tale set in the not-so-distant future that holds a mirror up to our current society and poses some serious questions about moral judgement and how unmitigated secrecy on the part of institutions and those we "should" be able to trust affects us all on a daily basis that is especially relevant in today's world.
The story concerns the survivors of a "contamination" who must dwell within a seemingly sterile, self-contained city where their happiness is paramount to those in charge, while at the same time their only hope for the future is to be the next lottery winner, which would afford them a one-way ticket to the last uncontaminated place on earth, The Island. And to tell it, director Bay, no stranger to action films with such offerings as "The Rock," "Armageddon" and "Bad Boys I&II" under his belt, has drawn upon myriad other classics of the genre and used the collective threads to successfully weave his own story and imprint it with the kind of metaphor that elevates it beyond the next action sequence or explosion. A comparison to "Logan's Run" goes without question, along with an obvious nod to "Blade Runner," a smattering of "The Matrix" and even a pinch of "Star Wars." Which is not to say this is a "copy" of any of those; it definitely is not. Bay has merely-- and wisely-- drawn upon some of the more successful elements of those films, and in most instances expanded upon them, to deliver a memorable film that far surpasses the genre's usual board of fare.
Arguably, this is Michael Bay's best overall film to date. Though he has demonstrated in the past that he knows how to do action, he has outdone even himself with this one. There is one heart-stopping scene, for example, involving a number of vehicles and helicopters that eclipses even the highly touted freeway sequence of the second "Matrix" film. The F/X are top notch, and once the action begins in earnest, he sets a pace that builds the excitement without allowing it to lay or lapse even for a second, right up to the very end. Add to that the fact that this film really has something to say, and it will make you appreciate what Bay and his company of actors and technicians have accomplished here even more.
Ewan McGregor is perfectly cast as Lincoln Six Echo, using his boyish charm, good looks and manner to lend the necessary credibility of innocence to his character. The charismatic Scarlett Johansson finds just the right note, as well, to bring her character, Jordan Two Delta, to life. Bay gives each of his actors, in turn, a moment in which to define their respective characters and underscore the plausibility of the film, and when that time comes they each succeed in a way that sustains the interest in the story beyond the action and the F/X. Excellent performances by both McGregor and Johansson.
In a supporting role, Steve Buscemi adds color to the proceedings as McCord, the man with the answers to a number of questions Lincoln Six has been asking about their environment and way of life; questions to which others in positions of authority respond with guarded circumspection, among them Merrick, one of the apparent caretakers of the city. Played by Sean Bean, Merrick is one of the pivotal characters of the film, and while Bean's performance is decent, it lacks the nuance that could have taken it to a much higher level. As it is, while effective to an extent, it is a fairly lackluster and generic portrayal.
The excellent supporting cast includes Michael Clarke Duncan (Starkweather); Ethan Phillips (Jones Three Echo); Brian Stepanek (Gandu Three Echo); Noa Tishby (Community Announcer); and Siobhan Flynn (Lima One Alpha). For most, "The Island" will be an exciting summertime diversion; but for those who pay attention to the underlying social and political significance of the story, the rewards will most likely exceed any and all expectations. And that's the magic of the movies.
This One Needs More Than Nine Lives
What a nightmare. Somebody pinch me and wake me up. That's what I kept thinking while watching this movie, which turned out to be a truly painful experience. And I'm not generally a conspiracy theorist, but after enduring "Catwoman," directed by Pitof (who? who?), I'm convinced that someone (or ones) are out to sabotage the careers of both Halle Berry and Sharon Stone (not to mention Benjamin Bratt). It's one thing to set out to make a "B" movie, but to waste such talent and beauty through sustained incompetence (yes, sustained, this movie wasn't filmed in a single day, was it? Come to think of it, maybe it was...) is nothing short of criminal (cinematically speaking).
I do not like to dwell on the negative aspects of any film, and I always attempt to seek out the positive (even most bad movies have something good in them, though you often have to look hard and deep to find it), but in fairness to Halle Berry, it must be noted how badly the script, editing, graphics and visual f/x, choreography and the director-- especially the director-- failed her here.
This misfire shouldn't allow us to forget Berry's excellent performances in such films as "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" and "Monster's Ball," for which she deservedly was awarded an Oscar for Best Actress. The extent of her talent is undeniable and evidenced by the fact that her presence alone can add the necessary spark and elevate the stature of movies like "Bulworth" and "Die Another Day." So the million dollar question is, how did she wind up in this embarrassment? She (as well as the audience) deserves better. Obviously, she put her trust in the wrong people this time around, and at the top of that list is the "director" of this mishmash, Pitof.
I guess the lesson here is that even a major star should be wary when approached with a project that's been placed in the hands of someone whose name sounds like one of those ridiculous vanity plates you try to figure out while sitting at a red light and staring at the car in front of you. To put this as nicely as possible, Pitof (who? what does that MEAN?) didn't have a clue about what to do with this film, and especially with his actors. How could this have happened? He's given all the ingredients (Berry, Stone, Bratt, big budget) to make a prize winning cake and he turns out a lump unfit for consumption.
Add to Pitof's incompetence a laughably bad script (even the ability on the part of the viewer to suspend disbelief won't help with this one), bad editing and exceptionally poor computer graphics and visual f/x that look like something left over from the Stone Age of technology (when Catwoman is bounding and leaping about it has the appearance of an early generation video game; she looks more like a frog than a cat) you have a film that should be expunged from the resumes of everyone involved.
But, like I said, even a bad movie can have a high note if you look for it, which brings me to the only redeeming aspect of this film, the performance by Alex Borstein as Sally, one of Catwoman's co-workers. Best known as the voice of Lois Griffin in TVs "The Family Guy," Borstein has a charismatic presence that, within the context of this film at any rate, outshines even Berry and Stone. Better off for all concerned had this movie been titled "Sally," with Borstein given top billing and accordant screen time.
Unfortunately, too, for all concerned, "Catwoman" will enjoy it's full nine lives on the shelves of video stores everywhere. Just keep in mind, when you come to this shelf, pick up "The Cat's Meow," "The Cat In the Hat," "Cat People." "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof," or anything with "Cat" in the title that isn't followed by "Woman." Take it from me, you'll feel a lot better in the morning.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
A Definite "Thumbs" Up.
Thanks to modern technology, another film noir classic has escaped from Hollywood's vault of too-often-overlooked or forgotten films. Albeit a minor classic, "The Hitch-Hiker," directed by Ida Lupino, is a taut drama notable for it's realism, as well as a haunting performance by William Talman.
Reputedly based on a true incident ("Penned from the headlines"), the story traces the movements of a hitch-hiker, Emmett Myers (Talman), who repays his highway hosts by robbing and murdering them. Initially, we are shown mere glimpses of Myers and his victims, which successfully sets the stage for the introduction of Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), two friends on their way to a fishing trip in Mexico, when, unawares, they pick up Myers.
What follows is a realistic depiction of what most likely would transpire when ordinary people are suddenly faced with such extraordinary circumstances. And the strength of the film lies in the fact that when Collins and Bowen are kidnapped, held at gunpoint and forced to do the bidding of their captor, they react and behave in a manner that is both consistent with their current state of affairs and believable. There are no feigned heroics or superhuman contrivances that allow the two captives to effect an escape; instead, the story plays out in much the way one would, in reality, expect in such a situation, which, when extrapolated, effectively drives home the true horror of Collin's and Bowen's circumstance.
The lion's share of the credit for the success of this film must go to director Ida Lupino, whose almost documentary-style approach to the story lends it the necessary grit and intensity. She scores double points, as well, for not only delivering a memorable film, but doing so at a time in which few women were afforded the opportunity to perform at such a level behind the camera. Lupino's success no doubt helped pave the way for the likes of Jane Campion, Jodie Foster, Gillian Armstrong, Allison Anders and a host of other women who have since proved that gender alone does not equate to excellence and ability in the director's chair.
In arguably his best performance, character actor William Talman turns in a memorable performance as the sociopath, Myers. Forget your Freddys and Jasons; Talman's portrayal creates the kind of character that nightmares are really made of. Myers is a guy you could pass on the street, or-- yes, even give a lift to if you saw him with his thumb out on the highway-- without giving him a second thought. And that's what makes him so scary; his disguise is that he doesn't have a disguise, and it's so much more effective than having a hockey mask or hands with steel fingers could ever be.
O'Brien and Lovejoy also turn in credible performances, creating characters who, like Talman's Myers, are real. Watching them, you believe that Collins is, indeed, an auto mechanic, and Bowen a draftsman; two friends off together to do some fishing.
The supporting cast includes Jose Torvay (Captain Alvarado); Jean Del Val (Inspector General); Clark Howat (Government Agent); and Natividad Vacio (Jose). The 71 minute running time is perfect for this film; rather than resort to superfluous filler, Lupino stays on task without ever straying, and in the end makes "The Hitch-Hiker" a ride that will leave you wondering what you would do in a like situation, and hoping that you'll never have to find out. It's the magic of the movies.
The Upside of Anger (2005)
An Upside to This Year's Movies
Life doesn't come with an instruction manual or a script to follow, it's basically improv on a daily basis, and as it plays out people and things often are not who or what they seem to be on the surface. It's reality, as opposed to the way you expect, hope or want it all to be; truth, as opposed to an individual perception of truth. That's life. And "The Upside of Anger," written and directed by Mike Binder, explores some hard realities that differ drastically from expectations and perceptions.
The film opens with a funeral, a somber note which in a sense prepares you for what is to follow, after a flash back of three years, at which point the story begins. Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) is at loose ends because her husband has run off with his secretary, leaving her and four daughters behind to fend for themselves. Angry, distraught and a stone's throw from bitter, Terry turns to alcohol to deaden the effects of what has been a life-altering experience. Luckily-- or maybe not-- Terry has a neighbor, Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), an ex-pro baseball player turned radio talk show host, with whom to share a drink and commiserate. Her daughters (three teens and one in college) are supportive, as well-- to a point. But they are each in their own way also struggling to understand why their father deserted them. By all accounts, this was in no way a dysfunctional, angst-ridden family, so the actions of their father is a mystery to them all. Naturally, it's a pivotal point in their lives, and before any of them can move on, especially Terry, they have to know why he did what he did. In the meantime, with or without this needed closure, life is happening to and around them.
Binder (who also appears in the film as the producer of Denny's radio show) displays an astute knowledge of human nature with this film, and how random the myriad twists and turns of life can be. He holds your attention from the opening scene (who's funeral is it, anyway?), and just when you think you know where the story is going it takes an unexpected turn. And he is in no way attempting to manipulate his audience; rather, he is giving you a reflection of the way life so often simply does not go the way you think it's going to. It's a succinct look at relationships, and of how fragile-- as well as resilient-- we all can be.
As Terry, Joan Allen sets vanity aside to create her character and turns in an Oscar caliber performance in doing so. When she gets up in the morning she looks like a middle-aged woman with insufferable problems and a hangover, a woman in the throes of coping with a traumatic experience who is desperate to reconnect with a life she no longer has and who will do anything within her power to hang on to what she has left. She's walking a tightrope over a deep abyss and she's understandably on edge, so when one of her girls tugs the rope and compromises her control and security, she quite naturally lashes out, proving the old adage you always hurt the one you love. There's a scene in which a grieving Terry draws her hands to her breast and, head lowered, utters a cry, and anyone who has ever known any kind of grief or loss in their life will at that moment know exactly what she is going through. It's a terrific piece of acting, a performance that is altogether affecting and memorable.
And, as performances go, Kevin Costner, too, puts vanity aside to create a character that is entirely convincing. Denny Davies is paunchy, his hair is thin and most of the time he looks as though he's had one beer too many. Still, he's engaging, and you get the feeling there's a complex individual hiding behind an external simplicity that perhaps helps to mask his true feelings about a lot of things in his life, including his career on the diamond. Why, for example, does he refuse to talk about baseball on his sports talk show? In it's purity, this is arguably Costner's finest performance ever.
Top notch performances are turned in, as well, by Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell and Alicia Witt as Terry's daughters, respectively, Andy, Popeye, Emily and Hadley; and by Binder himself as Shep. In the end, "The Upside of Anger" is an involving, memorable film that celebrates life and leaves you with a sense of hope, that no matter how bad things get we all have the capacity to get through it and somehow find the light at the end of the tunnel. And that's the magic of the movies.
Ladder 49 (2004)
Smoke Got In Jay Russell's Eyes
The connotation of heroism is inescapable when discussing professional firefighters, especially in the wake of 9/11. Let's face it, the person running into the burning building when everyone else is desperately trying to get out is going to be a hero in the eyes of many, and in "Ladder 49," directed by Jay Russell and starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta, it is the hero and that sense of heroism that is presented and explored.
The film follows the career of fireman Jack Morrison (Phoenix) from his rookie days through the following years as he establishes himself as a veteran of the firehouse, all under the tutelage of Captain Mike Kennedy (Travolta), who is always on hand to listen, question and impart the wisdom of age and experience to Jack, especially at pivotal times in his life.
Over a period of time, Jack learns the ropes, develops his firefighting skills, matures and, along the way, learns about life and love. When he meets an attractive young woman in a grocery store, Linda (Jacinda Barrett), and sparks fly, it isn't hard to figure out where this part of the story is going.
Visually, the film is stunning at times: The fires are spectacular, you can fairly feel the heat from the flames, which is bound to instill in one admiration for the firefighters who risk it all in the performance of their duties. It gives a perspective, as well, to the way living with danger binds them together in a special way. On the other hand, the way in which Russell presents this bonding also gives the impression that these are people who somehow live apart from the commoners, that the air they breathe is perhaps a bit more rarefied than what is available to the rest of us.
The flaw of what is essentially a decent film can be placed directly in the lap of the director, who makes the mistake of putting his heroes on a pedestal right out of the gate, for no other reason than the fact that they are firemen, and in doing so he allows what could have been a riveting drama to lapse into unnecessary melodrama, which very nearly sinks the ship early on. He makes the camaraderie of the firehouse, for instance, an exercise in cliché, while allowing his actors to struggle with the development of their characters.
Phoenix gives a passable performance as Jack, but Travolta comes across as an actor playing a role the way he "thinks" it should be played, rather than creating a real identity for Mike, and Russell lets him get away with it. In a similar role, in 1974's "The Towering Inferno," Steve McQueen put real life into Chief Michael O'Hallorhan by creating his character from the inside out, using an introspective approach to establish O'Hallorhan the man first, then O'Hallorhan the hero secondarily, and it worked. What is unfortunate here, especially, is the fact that Travolta is a much better actor than what Russell allowed him to be.
The supporting cast includes Robert Patrick (Lenny); Morris Chestnut (Tommy); Billy Burke (Dennis); Balthazar Getty (Ray); Desiree Care (Maria); and Deidra LaWan Starnes (Marlene). Firefighters and their families are no doubt going to find themselves on an emotional roller coaster with this film, and given what they live with on a daily basis, that is entirely understandable. For everyone else, however, "Ladder 49" will be somewhat entertaining, even emotionally engaging at times, but not entirely memorable.
Analyze That (2002)
The Boys Are Back, and They're Good-- Yes, Yeeeees They Are--
There was a time when `sequel' was synonymous with `less' with regards to quality, as mainly the studios wanted to capitalize on whatever was good about the original and duplicate or enhance in the follow-up the parts they `thought' were responsible for bringing in the big bucks at the box office. Which meant that usually, except in rare instances, the sequel failed to lived up to the first one and, more often than not was a huge disappointment. Happily, in the past few years that tide has seemingly turned, and as this film so aptly demonstrates, a sequel can, in fact, even surpass the original. `Analyze That,' directed by Harold Ramis, is the further adventures of Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro) and Dr. Ben Sobol (Billy Crystal), and in a word, it's a hoot. And, most importantly, this one stands on it's own; the characters are back, but the story is fresh-- it's decidedly NOT just more of the same or a rehash of `Analyze This.' As Paul Vitti himself would say about this film: `You... Yooou-- you're good, yes you are!'
All is not well with Paul Vitti, currently doing a stretch at Sing Sing; someone, it appears, wants him whacked, and it's driven him into some kind of psychotic episode from which he may never emerge if he doesn't get out of prison, and soon-- like right away. And who better to treat the `boss' than his personal therapist, Dr. Ben Sobol; or so goes the reasoning of those in high places, who actually have some ulterior motives in mind.
So Vitti is released into the custody of Dr. Sobol, who is not all that thrilled at the prospect of having a mob boss as a house guest. Even less thrilled is Sobol's wife, Laura (Lisa Kudrow). But they don't know the half of it, yet. There's a war brewing between two `families,' and Vitti, it seems, is right in the middle of it. And soon, some old faces begin showing up at the Sobol residence, like Jelly (Joe Viterelli); and if that isn't enough, the good Dr. Sobol has just been through the death of his own father, and he's grieving. And it's `a process.'
And a `process' is what brought this film so successfully to the screen, and it's gratifying, not to mention enjoyable and entertaining, when the result of a creative collaboration like this works so well. Screenwriters Peter Steinfeld, Peter Tolan and Harold Ramis crafted and delivered a script that is imaginative and fresh, and Ramis, who also directed `Analyze This,' as well as a couple of modern day comedy classics, `Caddyshack' and `National Lampoon's Vacation,' hits his stride with arguably his best work yet. His sets a perfect pace and his sense of timing has never been better. Of course it helps when you've got one of the best comedic actors in the business in there `doing lines' with the best actor-- period-- in the business. Crystal and De Niro together? Well, forgetaboudit... They take what is already great dialogue and make it ring in a way Quasimodo never dreamed possible. It's witty, extremely clever (like the reference to Ben's son, Michael, as `Clemenza') and, most importantly, FUNNY. And Ramis goes with the flow, keeping it all right on track from beginning to end. And De Niro singing? Does it GET any better than that?
As expected, De Niro slips back into his Vitti persona with facility, as does Crystal with his Sobol; the way they pick it up, as if they've been living in these guys' skins since `Analyze This,' lends credibility to the film and allows the viewer to settle in with them from the opening frames. So it's not only an entertaining film, but `user-friendly' to boot.
The single disappointment comes from the fact that the lovely Kudrow isn't afforded more screen time. She's such a welcome presence when she's on, and to her credit she makes the most of what time she's given, holding her own with her dynamic co-stars right on down the line.
A nice addition this time around is Cathy Moriarty-Gentile as new mob boss Patti LoPresti. This particular character suits her extremely well, and she runs with it; especially in her scenes with De Niro she has a captivating, commanding screen presence and it puts some real life in the exchanges between Vitti and LoPresti.
Conspicuously absent in this one, however, is Elizabeth Bracco, who did a nice job as Marie Vitti in the original. Sister of Lorraine Bracco (of TV's `Sopranos,' the hit series to which this film successfully pays homage in some key sequences and plot developments), Elizabeth seems to gravitate more toward roles in `indie' films, however, where she's carved out something of a niche for herself (as in Steve Buscemi's `Trees Lounge' in 96), a la Parker Posey and Catherine Keener. And though she's missed here, it's understandable; career wise, she's in good company.
The supporting cast includes Anthony LaPaglia (Tony), Joe D'Onofrio (Gunman), Richard Maldone (Joey), William DeMeo (Al Pacino), Reg Rogers (Raoul), Brian Rogalski (Earl) and Thomas Rosales Jr. (Coyote). Given the nature of the story and the characters, this film necessarily has something of an `edge' to it, but Ramis navigates the R-rated waters in a way that makes `Analyze That' funny, friendly AND highly entertaining. There are those who will say that it should all end here, on a successful note; personally, however, I'm waiting to hear that `Analyze And the Other Thing' will soon be in pre-production. As far as I'm concerned, you can never get enough of a good thing.
Italiensk for begyndere (2000)
Filmmaking for Beginners?
Back in the early 90s, when I was tooling about making home movies as a lark, and NEVER taking any of it seriously, I had NO idea that I had actually stumbled upon a method of filmmaking that very soon would be touted as THE method of the true, bona fide `auteur' (or, more accurately according to the tenets of the `method' used in this film, the `ANTI-auteur'), and that one day I would be watching `Italian for Beginners,' directed by (well, credit for the directing cannot be given, as it would be against the `rules,' which I will get to in a moment) and filmed in much the same-- in fact, the EXACT same-- style that I had employed back in what I now know were MY `auteur' (excuse me; my `ANTI-auteur') days. But having watched this film, the evidence is irrefutable; I know, because I've just finished watching the movies I shot back then with my trusty camcorder to get a comparison. And all I can say now is: `STAND ASIDE AND GIVE ME ROOM-- I'M ON MY WAY TO SUNDANCE!'
In 1995, Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg developed a new (?) filmmaking technique, for which they co-wrote a back-to-basics guide entitled `Dogma 95,' a manifesto for filmmakers who, by adhering to the rules set forth in the text, would become a part of the `newest' new wave to hit the industry, subsequently referred to as the `Cinema of Poverty,' and with good reason.
If you're thinking of giving this film a go, before you watch it you MUST know something about Dogma 95 to have a chance in the hot place of making it through to the end. There are ten `rules' set forth in the manifesto, as well as an addendum, a handful of items tacked on (afterthoughts?), such as `I am no longer an artist' (which after watching this film I fully understand and agree with). But the main things (rules) you must know going in are these: The movie must be filmed on location, with only a hand-held camera and using only whatever light is naturally available. And `music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.' (Somewhat contradictorily, two of Von Trier's subsequent films were musicals; his disclaimer: `The rules are not meant to limit' creativity, but to spur it on'). Rule #10 states: `The director must not be credited.' In retrospect, the wisdom of THIS rule is beyond reproach.
There IS some substance to this story, imbued as it is with elements of classic Bergman as it examines `loss' on a number of levels through the lives of a small, diverse group of individuals in various stages of disenfranchisement. Their common denominator is the class in, well...Italian for beginners, to which they seemingly gravitate, each with their own specific reasons and motivations. The class becomes a kind of focal point for them; it is here that relationships are formed or honed, and their lives begin to intersect. Now, had only Bergman been on hand to direct them.
These are everyday folks, just going about the business of living; and quite frankly, they aren't all that interesting, nor are their respective stories. The group includes Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), an obnoxious restaurant employee who hasn't as yet caught on to the `customer/employee' dynamic-- he's self-absorbed, rude and insufferable; Jorgen (Peter Gantzler) lacks self confidence; Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) a hairdresser who never seems to be able to finish a client (Hal-Finn is in her chair at least three times, but never gets past the hair-wetting phase before some crisis or other calls Karen away, sending poor Hal-Finn away each time with a wet head and no haircut); Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek) who works in a bakery, where no doubt she sells danish (pun intended; I have nothing to lose at this point); and Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), a pastor who has taken a temporary assignment six months after the death of his wife. But listening to the thoughts (and I intentionally do not use the term `ideas' here) of a randomly selected group of postal employees on the dock at 3 a.m. at the post office would be intrinsically more interesting than anything that occurs in this film. Berthelsen, especially, spends the entire movie looking confused, like he's a contestant on Jeopardy! but can't figure out why Alex keeps giving him the answers instead of the questions. Or maybe he's just trying to understand what he's doing in this film to begin with. Where, oh where, is Ingmar when you need him?
On a positive note, the performances here are for the most part quite natural, if not engaging. Kaalund, at least, makes a lasting impression with a character reminiscent of Rutger Hauer's Eric Vonk in `Turkish Delight' (aka `Turk's Fruit'), from 1973; perhaps that's why Hal-Finn is always getting in `Dutch' with his boss (again, pun intended).
The supporting cast includes Sara Indrio Jensen (Giulia), Jesper Christensen (Olympia's Father), Lene Tiemroth (Karen's Mother) and Carlo Barsotti (Marcello). There are those who are going to like, even applaud, this film; personally, I'd rather watch paint dry. To connect with this film one has to be able to embrace, or at least get beyond, the whole Dogma 95 thing. I couldn't. Okay, perhaps I just don't `get' it; to this day I still don't get the Andy Warhol `soup can' deal, either. Just know that `Italian for Beginners' is definitely NOT going to be for everyone. I do find it interesting that the `rules' are also referred to as the filmmakers `Vows of chastity,' and that in reviews of Dogma 95 films the terms `chaste,' `austere' and `pure' always seem to surface. In the great scheme of things I know it means something; what it is, I don't know. But bear in mind that the manifesto also states, `Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste!' And with that, I rest my case.