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Mystic River: Clint Eastwood at His Best, 31 January 2004

Clint Eastwood's latest film, Mystic River, is a classic murder mystery with a contemporary twist set in the gritty working-class streets of Irish South Boston. The characters too are simple people, but with complex, deeply repressed emotional lives. The film represents Eastwood in top form. He captures all the tension and mystery of the classic whodunit, while adding a complex overlayer of psychological repression, crippling emotion and contemporary social issues like child abuse.

The performances by the cast are each extraordinary in their way. Even the wives of the lead actors, whose roles are less central to the action, lend the film a great deal of its mysterious, magnetic power. Laura Linney, with perhaps the smallest role of the main characters has an extraordinary Lady Macbeth-like monologue with Sean Penn's character in which she both goads and cajoles him into denying any sense of guilt for the crime he has committed, while at the same time exhorting him to take his rightful place as "king" of the neighborhood. She oozes both seduction and evil as she whispers sensuously and insidiously into his ear as they lie supine in their bed.

Marcia Gay Harden too has a wonderful scene in which she attempts to confront Tim Robbins, her husband, about a crime she suspects him of committing. As Robbins explains himself unconvincingly, the look of silent desperation, disbelief, and revulsion on Harden's face is priceless and the mark of great acting.

Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, who play boyhood pals who witness a horrifying act of kidnapping and sexual abuse, each give commanding performances.

Tim Robbins at the bar on the fateful night Many reviewers, including Charlie Rose, noted the amazing physical and emotional transformation that Tim Robbins engineered for his character. Here a 6 foot 4 inch actor slumps his shoulders, shuffles his gait, and slows his speech to become the adult lost soul that his character is (after being abused as a small child) has become.

Penn's character is pivotal to the action. He is a man who acts as if he's sure of himself and everything in his world. He basks in friends and family--especially his teenage daughter--and is a mini-Godfather in his community. From his convenience store, he seems to control a small empire. But his life is actually much more complicated and full of self-doubt. His first wife died of cancer while he was in prison. He put himself there because he would not 'rat' on the crime's real perpetrators. Externally, he has everything in life; internally he profoundly doubts himself and the life he has led.

Grieving Sean Penn restrained by policemen

The film's plotting is masterfully misdirected. For part of the film, you're led to believe that a teen aged boy committed the murder around which the major action swirls. Then suspicion falls on a lead character. It is this suspicion which traps Penn's character into a fateful act of vengeance that wreaks profound tragedy on all the other characters.

If you have not yet seen this film, PLEASE DO NOT READ BEYOND THIS POINT as I will give away some crucial plot points.

Notwithstanding everything good about this film, there were a few plot points which I found unconvincing:

1. I could not believe that a 12-year old deaf boy could or would shoot a teenage girl with a gun.

2. I did not believe that Marcia Gay Harden's character would essentially inform on her husband, conveying her suspicions about his guilt to the father of the murder victim (thereby ensuring her own husband's death).

3. I did not understand the ending in which the two surviving main characters enjoy a community parade with their families. Was this Eastwood saying that they have made a pact with each other to bury the crime and move on with their lives? Is Tim Robbins' character the sacrificial lamb whose death allows the sins of all the other characters to be forgiven? If so, this is not explained and remains too obscure for the viewer to understand.

4. Why would Kevin Bacon's character, an upstanding State police officer, knowingly allow a guilty man to walk the streets and remain free?

5. Why, after promising one of the main characters his life if he confessed to an alleged crime would Sean Penn's character have reneged on his promise and exacted the ultimate revenge?

Despite these plot weaknesses, I thought Mystic River was a masterful film and fully deserving of winning the Oscar.

21 Grams (2003)
Lost Souls in a Grim Land, 31 December 2003

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Spoiler Alert! My wife & I saw "21 Grams" and were extremely disappointed. I'd been enticed by Elvis Mitchell's glowing review, "Hearts Incapacitated, Souls Wasting Away" in the New York Times:"It's too early to call it a crowning work of a career - this is only his second film - but it may well be the crowning work of this year." I think not. The film's premise might have made a deeply powerful piece of art. Casting too, promised many wonderful performances from the likes of Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro.

In the film, a woman's family is wiped out by a hit and run driver. Her dead husband's heart is given to a dying heart patient who is drawn to her because of her tie to the heart donor. But the execution of the concept in this film is not successful for me.

Let's talk about tone: this film is GRIM, GRIM, GRIM. I have nothing against 'grim' in films. Some of the greatest films are fundamentally grim. But this one is unrelentingly grim. There isn't a single character major or minor for whom I felt any sympathy.

Let's take a single scene featuring Benicio del Toro's ravaged ex-con turned angry Christian. Sitting at the dinner table, del Toro's son smacks his sister. When she tries to hit her brother back, del Toro tells her menacingly that she must learn to turn the other cheek when someone hits her. He jumps across the table and holds his daughter's face and screams at his son to hit her. When the petrified boy refuses, del Toro bellows at him to hit her. He finally does. But then both daughter and son collapse in tears and his wife leaves the table, disgusted to console them. Nice fellow, don't you think?

Now, let's talk about implausible plot developments. Just after the funeral, the widow declares that she doesn't even have a desire to press charges against the hit and run driver saying: "What would it prove?" Yet after meeting and falling in love with Sean Penn's character, she suddenly develops a burning, unquenchable thirst for revenge: "We've got to kill him," she says. A little discongruity you say? Sure is.

And in the climactic scene in which Sean Penn, del Toro and Naomi Watt each struggle with a loaded gun, Penn's character decides to end the fight by shooting himself in the heart. If I killed myself in the middle of every argument I've ever wanted to stop, I'd have at least nine lives if not more.

Finally (and this to me was one of the more annoying features of the film), the editing. It appears the film editor and director wanted to jumble up the scenes so that you couldn't tell when the action took place. Is this Sean Penn scene after the heart transplant or before? Is this Naomi Watt scene before her family's death or after? Unlike "Memento," in which the action is shown in reverse chronological order, the jumbled chronology in "21 Grams" seems willful and perverse, as if it were thrown into the film to throw the viewer's 'center of balance' off.

We left the theater feeling very unsatisfied.

The Hours (2002)
a glorious film--Ed Harris & Nicole Kidman are immense!, 19 January 2003

Would it be a contradiction in terms to say that a film essentially about depression could be a beautiful, elegant & eloquent work of art? "The Hours" is one of the most intense works of art I've ever experienced. A note of warning: whatever the greatnesses of this film (& they are many) there are many things this film is not: it is not happy, falsely optimistic, sentimental or anything that almost every other Hollywood film is. It is brutal, it is cruel, it is, well goddamn depressing! That's all there is to it.

But if you do not see this film because it is hard or depressing, then you will be missing one of the great films of this yr. or any other.

Ed Harris' performance as a poet dying of AIDS is harrowing to the Nth degree. His dying, fiery blue eyes are penetrating. They are frightening to behold. His final speech to Meryl Streep's character is moving beyond words (if you can say that about something that is, in fact, made of words).

Nicole Kidman rivets as Virginia Woolf in the darkest throes of her depressive illness. The scenes she shares with her niece, Angelica Bell, are achingly sad & beautiful: in one they together bury a dead bird, after which Virginia lays her body down calmly next to the bird's as if to share its fate. In Virginia's final scene in the film w. Angelica, the young girl sits in her lap & asks her what she was thinking. Woolf replies that she was thinking of killing her heroine & then thought better of it. But Woolf adds that she now must kill off someone else. The blazing glance that she gives her niece after this statement is fearless, profound & frighteningly acute acting on Kidman's part.

Everyone connected w. this film should be deeply proud of their accomplishment. They have made something moving, powerful & deeply troubling.

Another warning: if you suffer fr. depression or know anyone who has this film will be even more disturbing. So be prepared for a tough, intense experience, but one more than worth having.


Long awaited new Scorcese film lets you down, 6 January 2003

First, let me say that even a Scorcese near miss is more interesting, more challenging than 95% of Hollywood "successes." As a director, Scorcese is always pondering the deep questions about human existence & presenting it onscreen in a terribly compelling way.

In Gangs he set out to make a great epic on a scale w. the David Lean films like Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia . No question, the cinematography is extraordinary. You feel you are right in the midst of the streets of old NY, a place that once was but will never be again. You can almost smell the food fr. the stalls, smell the horse dung in the streets, etc. So Scorcese succeeds in establishing the tone of the great epic films. But what about characterization & plot? Here he falls down in my opinion.

Yes, Cutting is an extraordinary character--totally compelling & riveting for every moment he is onscreen. He is the film's anchor. But where are the other characters? Di Caprio is miscast in his role as a sullen youth seeking to avenge his father's murder. Nothing compelling about his performance at all. And Cameron Diaz, beautiful, touching Cameron--where is her character in all this? Almost never to be found I'm afraid. She has a few good scenes, but then Scorcese seems to tire of her & she disappears for the rest of the movie. Too bad.

Other problems: IMO the real drama here is not the rivalry bet. the 2 gangs; but rather the Civil War & Draft Riots raging through NYC & the nation simultaneously to the gang violence. Scorcese does provide some background on the rising level of ethnic & class tension in the city. BUt he doesn't connect the Civil War to the action at all. And the Battle of Gettysburg took place only ONE WEEK before the Draft Riots & all Federal troops dispatched frantically to NY came fr. Gettysburg. Scorcese focuses on hatred bet. Know Nothing German immigrants & Irish Catholic immigrants. But the hatred & violence shown to Blacks was much more severe & should have been acknowledged more seriously. After all, the Draft Rioters focused their most serious vehemence against Blacks who were murdered & humiliated in horribly disfiguring ways.

Why doesn't someone do a film about the Draft Riots? That would be a great drama.

9 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
An incredible musical document!, 1 January 2003

This is a remarkable film on the War Symphonies of Shostakovitch & covers roughly the period 1936-1952. There is a seamless quality to the music & interview footage with ea. commenting incisively on the other.

The most powerful & amazing feature of the film is its depiction of the terrifyingly fragile existence that Shostakovich led during this period; thinking that his every breath (& certainly every new piece of music) might be his last if Comrade Stalin disapproved (as he sometimes did).

It is hard to find to view, but worth every cent of effort. Contact Bullfrog Films if you'd like to buy the video (it ain't cheap!)


1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Achingly beautiful & sad, 9 December 2002

My wife & I just had the good fortune to see "Far from Heaven." It is a wondrous, but terribly, achingly sad film. Much has been written about the connections between this film & Douglas Sirk's tearjerker melodramas of the 1950s. If I were to use shorthand, I'd say that while "Pleasantville" was a great satiric/parodic sendup of the period; "Far from Heaven" functions as a tragic/dramatic reflection on it.

What is interesting about Todd Haynes' screenplay is that the dialogue & plot developments are not merely a reflection of the 1950s, they are an extreme or slavish parody of the period. In the characters language, you hear the exaggerated civility & stilted bonhommie that characterized the period (at least in our subsequent & reflected observations of it). Wives call their husband "darling" with a smile in one scene, while in the next scene they weep in despair as the same husband asks for a divorce because he comes to realize that he is a homosexual. Of course, this alienation & strangeness is just what Haynes was after to reflect the rigidity & social stratification of the era. But I found the "taking it to extremes" nature of the dialogue to be a bit precious or off-putting in places, even though I understood that the device was their for a good purpose.

In one telling scene, Dennis Haysbert & Julianne Moore's character talk about their relationship in the context of their society's fascination with "surfaces." They say that their hope is that not everything has to be seen only for its surface. Sometimes, they hope, things can be seen from the inside & for what they really are. Of course, they are really talking about the race divide & whether whites & blacks can ever cross it either in everyday life or in romance.

By the end of the film, the answer is clearly no, as everything in Julianne Moore's life--her family, her love of Haysbert's character--has disintegrated before her very eyes and leaving her with nothing. By the way, Moore's performance (as is true of almost everything she is in) is commanding & mesmerizing. She is truly a treasure. Randy Quaid has the thankless task of playing an unhappy, workaholic dad & husband who is a closet homosexual. Unfortunately, his character is merely a foil for Moore. His character is never really developed into a real human being with whom we can feel some empathy.

The final scene of her car leaving the Hartford train station as the camera pans a newly budded springtime apple tree; mirrors the opening scene in which the camera pans a flaming red fall maple tree. The ironic message is that the fall colors, which so beautifully mimic Moore's beautiful costumes & the films other interiors portend the slow death that Moore's character will suffer; while the spring blooms (symbolizing hope?) contradict the absolute hopelessness of Moore's character & her future. So perhaps we can say that the spring blooms really reflect a hope that this horrible 1950s culture will gradually open up in coming years (even if not soon enough for Moore's character)?

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Daring film with flaws, 4 November 2002

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I just saw "Center of the World" on cable & it knocked my socks off. You just don't see films these days either in theaters or on cable that represent sexuality as boldly as this one. The characters (with one exception) are compelling & the drama & self destructiveness of their relationships are evoked indelibly. The filmmaking is great w. wonderfully evoked scenes of sexual fantasy & erotic dreams.

The two leads give powerful performances. Their symbiotic relationship is described in a complex way; & their sexual chemistry is deeply evident. Wayne Wang is to be commended for boldly going where most Hollywood directors refuse to go in these times of sexual correctness & sexual Puritanism.

I am glad to hear that the dvd contains two alternate endings to the film, because the one I saw on cable was pretty lame. After enduring a debilitating & ultimately unsatisfying relationship, it appears that Peter Sarsgaard's character hasn't had enough. He goes back to the same exotic bar where he first met Molly Parker's character & asks for her again. Their tryst seems to almost repeat their earlier relationship. Why would someone go back to the scene of their humiliation as if nothing had happened? Nothing had been learned? It's just not plausible to me. Also, Carla Gugino's character, a weirdo slutty character doesn't make much sense to me. The film doesn't make very much of her. Yet she has this weird scene where she comes on to both leads almost simultaneously. What was Wang's point in this scene? To me, it just stands out like a sore thumb.


28 out of 32 people found the following review useful:
Fascinating film!, 23 May 2002

I guess the cable companies have rediscovered this film in light of Robert Blake's legal woes. And I'm glad they did. It's an extraordinary example of filmmaking. Though not w/o its share of mistakes & weaknesses, they are all honestly come by.

The film covers several genres & comments upon them in interesting ways: it is a Western w. conventional themes (turned upside down & inside out) of Indian savages vs. white civilizers; it is a historical drama that chronicles the rise to power of the industry elites in late 19th century CA. (illustrated in the subplot of Pres. Taft's visit to the Riverside Inn). While this is a Western, it might be better termed an anti Western. Every character (including Blake's Indian) is weak, vacillating & morally changeable, which makes for a wonderfully complex tale.

Blakes dialogue gives us the film's title: "Well, at least they'll know that Willie Boy was here." He says this in responding to Katherine Ross' comment asking why he is willing to keep running, even though the whites will eventually trap & kill him. This scene conveys the film's elegaic tone about the death of the "romantic" West & the rise of the homogenized, white, industrial CA. that would arise in the 20th century. Willie is compelled to stand up for his own individuality even though in actuality few will mourn his passing & even fewer remember that "he was here." But Polonsky, the filmmaker, tells us that someone will indeed remember Willie beyond those tracking him down & exterminating him: Polonsky himself & the viewers of the film. Really cool stuff!

Another powerful layer of history is Abraham Polonsky's involvement. As a Hollywood 10 member, the script seems to comment indirectly on the Hollywood Blacklist era. Blake the hounded Indian is much like the renegades of the Hollywood 10. Willie Boy tries to stand up for the principle of honor & freedom in the face of insurmountable social odds. Yet, he is never seen as a romanticized or one sided character. Even Willie Boy is pig headed, monomaniacal and self-destructive.

I think Blake does a great job in this role. It makes you remember how good he could be in film roles (remember "In Cold Blood?") before "Baretta" came along. And it makes you weep for his recent descent into hell & wonder at what might have been if his life & career had taken diff. turns.

I didn't mind Katherine Ross as much as some viewers. She was much less bothersome & stereotypical than in some of her other roles ("The Graduate" & "Butch Cassidy"). During the film I was actually realizing how much I liked her in her role which surprised me.

I highly recommend this film.

Extraordinary film...but not at first, 13 March 2002

This is an extraordinary film, but that's not what I thought after watching the promos on TV. It appears to be a 30s high society drawing room farce w. nice period costumes, hints of naughty sex & such, and a mystery whodunit. Even while watching the film, I continued to feel this way. But by the film's conclusion, I realized that Altman has created an extremely subtle & complex film filled w. lots of plot twists & turns that throw you completely off the scent. He plays on all the cliches of the genre: the murdered aristocrat, the suspect servants & aristocrats, a beautiful old English country house to make it appear that this is just another genre film. This couldn't be farther fr. the truth. Altman has composed a sly, corrosive commentary on the English class system in which he completely turns the genre on its head. The aristocrats are totally secondary characters in this film. The entire film is carried by the servants. They are the main characters, they drive the plot & completely dominate the denouement. At the conclusion, again reversing the convention, the murderer is revealed but the crime is not "solved" in a conventional sense. Be very careful in noting the plot developments because you may not notice the subtle references which reveal the killer at the end. If you don't follow the action closely, the "solving" of the murder might not even be apparent to you.

Altman wants to tell us that the wealthy classes only think they're important. He punctures their sense of self importance & tells us if we really want to see humanity, we must pay attention to the workers, the poor, struggling folk who make the world turn.

Watch & enjoy!


2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
The amazing Amalia Rodrigues!, 23 February 2002

This is an extraordinary film musically. It made me feel awful that Rodrigues died in 1999, before I had a chance to see her live. To know that she performed a marvelous Lincoln Ctr. concert in 1991 & that I might've been there, but wasn't is painful beyond words.

I just purchased my first Amalia recording. While the musical recording is fantastic, being able, in this film to SEE her face & its tremendous expressiveness & passion as she sings these songs of terrible sadness is wonderful. Sort of like seeing the face of Mary as she cradles Jesus in her arms in the Pieta. Watching her on film, reminded me of being witness to a similar extraordinary concert performance by Mercedes Sosa in the mid 1990s at Lincoln Ctr. As I sat listening to Mercedes sing, I felt I was in the presence of a tremendous spiritual & musical force that contained awesome primal power. Some of "The Art of Amalia"'s musical segments are touching, such as Caetano Veloso paying tribute to Amalia & singing one of her songs solo in front of a packed concert hall. The musical segments also convey the incredible international sweep of her musical repertoire & the bonds she created w. fans throughout the entire world. There is one segment in which she claims that she has played in every single town in Italy that has a stage!

In another section, Amalia talks about her bout w. mouth cancer & how she came to NYC to commit suicide in a hotel. Yet, through watching Fred Astaire film videos she gradually persuaded herself that life was worth living & turned away from killing herself. Amazing! Later in the film, she quite bravely & directly admits to the interviewer that though she might've conquered the world musically, her personal life was one of pure sadness. She admits that she has never been happy. This is unbearably sad to hear, but perfectly in keeping w. a singer steeped in the fado (which she translates as "bad destiny" or "bad luck") tradition. Also, one longs to hear more about her personal life: what was in that made her so sad? what were her disappointments?

"The Art of Amalia" is a little disappointing in other major areas. My quibbles: to show 20-30 full songs in the film yet to only provide an English translation for the very last one seems a waste (unless the film was only intended for a Portuguese speaking audience, which I can't imagine). To see the profound pain on her face as she sings & not to understand the lyrics is a let down. As for the other minuses: there is almost no biographical material about Amalia's family background. There is one 20 sec. snippet w. her singing w. her mother (it's absolutely grand). There is one short reference to her parents moving fr. the countryside to Lisbon. I would've loved to see film footage of the village she came from. The interviews such as they are are almost solely w. Amalia herself (& a few close friends). She is a good, but not great subject. There are no interview subjects who are experts on fado or Portuguese culture & society, so we get no depth of understanding of her musical roots.

In short, this is a wonderful film that everyone interested in Amalia should see. But it's not a perfect or definitive work on the subject.

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