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Finding Forrester (2000)
Almost Famous Wonder Boy Forrester Writes With Familiar Quills
A few minutes into Finding Forrester, a young writer opens a book he's been writing only to find someone has read it and has even made some suggestions. At one point, he comes across a message that reads, `Where are you taking me?' I love when I'm watching a movie or reading a book and that particular question comes up. It rarely happens these days. Usually, I'm saying, `I know where you're taking me. Now, let's hurry up and get there.' Finding Forrester takes both phrases and combines them into one sentiment: `I know where you're taking me, but I'm with you anyway, because I like the moment.'
Gus Van Sant's latest drama concerns a young writer, Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), who lives in the Bronx hood. The film opens almost like a ghost story would, where four friends dare one another to go and visit the neighborhood creepy-old-man's house. Jamal, curious as all great writers must be, takes the dare, walks into the old man's apartment, has quite a scare and accidentally leaves his backpack behind.
He returns the following day to retrieve it. Through the little peakhole in the door, the old man (Sean Connery) orders him to never return again. Jamal goes home to find the old man has read his words. Intrigued, Jamal returns to get more feedback from this ragged old hermit. The old man, named William Forrester, suggests he write a 5,000 word essay on why he should stay the hell away from the apartment. Not one to turn down a challenge, Jamal returns the next day with the essay, and there begins an unlikely friendship between the two faster than you can say Scent Of A Woman.
Jamal also deals with problems at school. His teachers and faculty see him as an enigma. He tests well, but his grades have been low. He plays basketball with the grace and wisdom of Michael Jordan, and he writes like Hemingway, but he also has limited income and little opportunity. An upscale Academy wants him to join their school, all expenses paid. There, he befriends a young girl, Claire (Anna Paquin), and catches the skeptical eye of Professor Crawford (F. Murray Abraham).
Meanwhile, Jamal receives writing lessons of life from Forrester, who has only written one book, but it has been studied in high school and colleges for the past 50 years. In turn for the writing lessons, Jamal teaches Forrester to step out of the apartment once in a while for some fresh air. Forrester insists early on, `What we write in this house, stays in this house.' At this point, you know where the film will take you.
The magic of Finding Forrester comes from the chemistry of the two leads. Films such as this usually do sink or swim on chemistry, and here it basically takes center stage with its otherwise thin storyline. Forrester, in his best role since The Rock (of which it may seem eerily similar), does not upstage newcomer Rob Brown. The two give each other equal time on the playing field, each one winning their share of arguments and one-two punches. They argue the use of `and' and `but' in literature. They compete against each other while watching Jeopardy. Eventually, of course, a bond breaks, and Jamal `is sick of all these lessons,' and he leaves.
We wait for one scene throughout Finding Forrester where Professor Crawford and Forrester meet in a classroom. We know from the get-go that it will happen, and we feel certain that it will be near the end, much like Al Pacino's showboating in the aforementioned Scent Of A Woman. Unfortunately, Van Sant cuts the scene short by doing a montage of Forrester reading Jamal's words and the students looking inspired. I would rather have actually heard the words, so as to know why the kids felt inspired and why Jamal received so much attention for writing those words in the first place. Like this years Wonder Boys, Forrester would rather you concentrate on the writers rather than their prose.
The end also feels a bit tacked-on (I won't give it away), and Van Sant's use of the True Romance-sound-alike score sounds as though the audio recorders forgot to remove the temp track. Still, while Finding Forrester does take us on a familiar journey, it does not sell its audience short. The movie has sharp dialogue, smart characters and a desire to teach a few things about words and language.
But like all writers, great or otherwise, it could still use a few lessons.
Cast of Chocolat Satisfies Sweet tooth
We all have our vices. Vices make us complete human beings. We can surpress them and deny them, but we can't quite run away from them. Does it not strike you as a little humorous when someone looks at a menu, knows exactly what they want, but then decides not to get it for fear they will not only offend their God, but offend their own nature? Lasse Hollstrom's latest film, Chocolat, knows all about that person.
Juliette Binoche stars as Vianne Rosher, a chocolate shop owner who not only gets people to talk about their forbidden fruits, but also has the ability to make people happily indulge in them. She, along with her daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), moves into a quiet French village during Lent and opens her chocolate shop. The townspeople look in the window, admire the confections for a moment, then walk on by.
One diabetic woman, Amande (Judi Dench), decides to stay for a little while. Vianne puts a colorful ceramic plate on the table and spins it around. She asks what Amande sees in the image. Amande tells her and Vianne presumes to know exactly what kind of confection Amande would like the best. We could only dream of such customer service this time of year.
Amande's young grandson, Luc, an aspiring artist, also can't seem to stay away from the chocolate store, in spite of the wishes of his churchgoing mother (Carrie-Anne Moss). Actually, the whole town goes to the same church and it doesn't take long before the Mayor (Alfred Molena) has his say against the shop, since many of the chocolates have been carved into the shapes of naked women and have names such as Nipples of Venus. The chocolates also seem to be changing people's behavior. A sexless, joyless married couple all of a sudden can't keep their Butterfingers off each other.
The non-churchgoing Vianne eventually becomes the center of the town's controversy, but she soon has company after the arrival of the river rats, a group of Irish merchants who travel by boat to pawn off whatever they can, much to the dismay of the townspeople. Here, Vianne meets Roux (Johnny Depp), and they become fast friends and, well, you know the rest.
The story of Chocolat could be described in one sentence-Footloose, only instead of dancing, it's chocolates. However, in this film we have some magic realism to deal with. Unfortunately, the film does not quite develop its own `magical' ideas. It gets bogged down by the usual story elements an d sub-plots we often see with this kind of story. We get the battered wife who finds solace in Vianne's shop and we get the burning of a particular place (here, a boat) to further drive home the point that outsiders will not be tolerated. I would have liked a little more `magic.'
On the other hand, we do get some magic in the form of the performances. Juliette Binoche actually smiles and acts charming, as opposed to the sorrowful and pensive roles in which we usually see her. What a relief to finally see her carrying a picture with warmth, confidence and wit, as well as beauty. The guitar-twanging Johnny Depp (reuniting with his Gilbert Grape director), with a ponytail and an Irish accent, compliments her with a rugged look and easygoing charm that makes his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants character a perfect soulmate for Binoche.
I recommend stopping by the candy counter or sneaking in some Fannie May confections before the movie starts. This film does for chocolate what Big Night did for Italian food. In spite of its flaws, Chocolat makes for a far more rewarding and satisfying film experience than Hollstrom's last feel-gooder, the over-rated Cider House Rules. In the end, something about this film won me over. It could have been the irrisistable theme of great food being as close to Godliness as one could get. It could have been the sights of chocolates being created and turned into glorious, statuesque works of art. It could have been the enjoyable cast, each member dealing with their hidden anguish and repression. Or it could have been all of the above, combined with the captivating and alluring grace of Juliette Binoche.
We all have our vices.
Proof of Life (2000)
Forced romantic sub-plot, mis-casting kills Life
***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** Why does every movie have to have a romantic sub-plot? Can't some writers/directors concede to the fact that some stories work perfectly well on their own without having to force an awkward first kiss between the two leads? Lately, it doesn't seem that way. The Grinch would be an example, as well as Taylor Hackford's latest thriller, Proof Of Life, a sometimes compelling story with two of the biggest actors working today, one mis-cast, the other right at home.
Proof starts off with Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) describing his methods for freeing a man from hostages, as we watch it happen. Meanwhile, in Latin America, Peter Bowman (David Morse), an engineer, gets kidnapped by anti-government terrorists. His wife, Alice (Meg Ryan), and his sister, Janis (the annoying Pamela Reed), tries to enlist the help of a hostage negotiator. Terry Thorne arrives, but since he works as a freelancer, the insurance will not cover it.
Terry, not one to give up on a case due to a technicality, returns to find Alice has crackpot negotiators trying to convince her to pay over $600,000 to the terrorists. Thorne and his team (one of them played by David Caruso) chase the bad-guy negotiators out and proceed to do in their way. But first, they tell Janis to go home to her husband and kids, so as not to get in the way of the movie's plot.
Morse's scenes as a kidnapping victim has little going for it on the originality scale. He tries to get one of the kidnapper's relatives to help him, but to no avail. He meets another victim who has been in their clutches for over nine months. They try and help each other out by making escape attempts, but they don't quite go according to plan. I liked the scenes involving Morse's kidnapping and torture, not so much for the mostly-subtitled and stilted dialogue, but for the atmosphere. The fields and mountains look ugly, muddy and grim, making an interesting contrast to the same location in a beautiful picture-postcard wide shot.
The first problem with the film has to do with the casting of Meg Ryan. Over the years we have grown used to her as Nora Ephron's romantic-comedy voice-box. Occasionally, Ryan turns up in a dramatic role that does suit her (When A Man Loves A Woman, Courage Under Fire), but here I just didn't buy it. This may seem shallow, but I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that she has not changed her look since 1995's French Kiss. Imagine Harrison Ford playing his role in The Mosquito Coast while still wearing the Indiana Jones get-up. She just didn't convince me, but that also has a lot to do with Hackford's direction. What does Meg Ryan do the night her husband has been kidnapped? She makes a salad!
Russell Crowe, on the other hand, does okay. He plays it cool, but without being smarmy. His character has been doing this job for years at the expense of his wife and kids. He tries to keep an emotional distance, but finds it difficult since most of the job entails human suffering on both sides of the spectrum. Even in the film's Rambo-esque 3rd act, Crowe keeps his character balanced, almost stoic. In another movie, he would make a perfect strong-silent-type/romantic lead.
I would like to have seen a complete scene in which Crowe demonstrates his ability to haggle with the terrorists. Instead, Hackford uses two or three montage sequences, in which we watch Crowe babble into a microphone while Ryan watches admirably. We only get glimpses of how good a job this guy does, but we get very little as to why Ryan falls for him, and vice versa for Crowe's affections toward her.
I also liked the film's ending, however forced its build-up had been. In the end, the guy does not get the girl since, obviously, Ryan and Morse have been waiting two months to embrace each other. I like it only because too many movies these days feel it necessary to complicate these matters even further in order to arrive at a `satisfactory' ending. I also like it because we only have Crowe's contemplating facial expressions to bring the movie home, rather than a few lines of superfluous dialogue.
Much has been said about the real-life relationship between Ryan and Crowe, and whether or not their off-screen chemistry will resonate on screen. I have to say it does not. The main problem with the film has to do with the relationship between these two characters. It would be much more convincing had the writers built up to a deep friendship, as well as letting the scenes between the two linger a bit longer. Many of the scenes feel rushed. At the screening I attended, one could feel the collective sense of O-Puh-lease! amongst the audience when they finally did kiss. Writers/directors will hopefully take that as hint to leave romance to the romantics.