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13 Moons (2002)
Deliberately bizarre story, strong acting, chaotic
This movie is definitely unusual, but it doesn't seem to believe in itself or in the worth of its story, so by the end it falls flat and can only really be evaluated as a farce. We start out with Steve Buscemi and Peter Dinklage as a couple of clowns struggling through their jobs on some cable-access kids' show. Eventually we are introduced to a number of other characters whose lives all intersect over the course of one night (a la Magnolia/ Short Cuts/ Crash).
Buscemi is always a solid character actor, but here he seems somewhat confused about his motivation and I can't really blame him. Rockwell is known as a very hands-off director, and I have to say that this movie seems to have just derailed on him, despite some touching visual concepts and decent, potentially explosive backstories. The scene in the swimming pool in which a priest who is going through a crisis of faith teams with Steve Buscemi to teach a sickly young boy how to swim is just so overstuffed with tropes as to completely destroy the viewer's attentiveness to any throughline or narrative thrust. The subplots are all individually interesting and are handled with at least a fair amount of investment and decent performance by nearly everyone involved. But they only intersect in odd ways that seem to desire to make some sort of larger statement but only end up in chaos, and perhaps a vague statement about everyone coming together to help solve their shared problems. But really it seems that Rockwell's strength is in showing people who are insane or in the absolute gutter, and so any kind of humanist impulse that he has is only articulated vaguely and without enough buildup to be moving. That being said, there are a number of intriguing minor characters in the film, and as I've mentioned it is filled with acting talent.
It's almost like this is a movie where you want to extract assorted moments and enjoy them as if they were short films so that you don't have to cringe painfully at their inability to flow in the overall storyline. The brief moment where Ernie Lee Banks, as a zoo's night watchman, argues honestly with the bail bondsman and his son is touching, almost like something out of Magnolia. The character played by David Proval is taken almost directly out of the bail bondsman character in Jackie Brown, a film by Rockwell's friend Quentin Tarantino. That being said, Proval does a decent job with the muddled and cut-rate character he is assigned by the screenplay.
I tried hard to like this movie but in the end it is so riddled with head-scratching loopholes and mistakes and poor transitions that I could only call it gutsy at best. I wouldn't call it great, and not even "good". Rockwell's use of hand-held video cameras didn't bother me, and if anything it was visually interesting. I guess the ending of this movie, without giving it entirely away, made me wonder if Rockwell was merely trying to "make up for" the dark comic sense or atmosphere of decay that permeates the rising action of the film. In any case, it just does not seem to flow and it does not fit organically with the rest of the bizarre story.
8 Mile (2002)
Well-crafted and engaging
I'm an Eminem fan and have enjoyed his music going back to his first major label CD, The Slim Shady LP. I read a lot of advance press for this movie when it was first coming out that stated that it was very good, and that even those who were not Eminem fans might enjoy the movie for its engaging pace or for its powerful depiction of realistic urban life or etc. I was still somewhat skeptical about seeing this, because I worried about Eminem's acting ability. Plus I thought he might be releasing it simply to promote his career in hip-hop. I found myself enjoying the movie on multiple levels. I mentioned that I'm a fan of hip-hop and specifically of Eminem. Thus, I was able to enjoy the rap battles and casual freestyling done by Eminem and his 8 Mile crew. I also found it to be refreshing in its realistic depiction of the experiences of "B-Rabbit". We see him living miserably with his sleazeball mother and his young sister in a trailer, and we see him working thankless factory jobs for low pay and with little job security. The movie takes the time to show us the mundane aspects of Rabbit's daily life, rather than inflating him to superhuman status merely because of his aspirations to leave the trailer park life behind or because of his skill at rapping. One thing that honestly came as a complete shock was the inclusion of a gay co-worker at the factory at which Rabbit works. I wonder whether they included this character in order to soften the public image of Eminem, who had previously made homophobic remarks in his songs and implied a sense of homophobia in his public statements. This character is depicted as being a nice guy, who covers Rabbit's shift, and he does not exist as the butt of any homophobic jokes (at least as far as I observed). The ending is unique, I won't give it away, but let's say that it doesn't take a textbook approach and I enjoyed it for its bold choice to be different from Hollywood format. The depiction of the 8 Mile neighborhood seemed realistic enough, although I've never actually been to Detroit so I suppose I am not familiar enough to say for sure. The supporting actors give decent performances, and their characters are written well enough to allow them room to really act. I had worried that this movie might become simply a close-up on the main character and might therefore force other characters to deal with poorly developed backstories. But that wasn't the case. Most supporting characters had well thought out parts. Although B-Rabbit's mother did seem a bit hazily written, just generally sleazy and revolting but not quite specific enough to convince me that this was a viable character. I would recommend this movie to Eminem fans (although I'm sure most have already seen it by now) and also to anyone who has an interest in the way life is lived by 20something people in the tougher sections of American cities. It's not a glorified world of gunplay, but guns are a part of their lives, and few of them have found happiness in their work or personal lives.
25th Hour (2002)
One of the best movies ever set in New York City
This movie took on a difficult task: it was one of the first feature movies to depict life in New York City in a post-September 11th America. It succeeds in capturing an intriguing, if not exactly typical, slice of New York City life in our current society from the perspective of a number of different characters. Edward Norton gives an excellent performance, on a par with his other great work (such as The Score, etc.) and Barry Pepper is very good as well. I enjoyed the interactions between the former high school buddies, especially because of how different they had all turned out. This represent life in diverse New York City, as well as any place in the US very well. The friendships people make in high school often endure well into adulthood even when the people go off and do extremely different things in life. Philip Seymour Hoffman is great playing an English teacher at a prep school who finds himself attracted to one of his students. He balances things out by providing a subplot that focuses on a slightly less intricate problem than the one (ones) faced by Edward Norton's character. Spike Lee did an excellent job directing it, and the editing seems hip and innovative without being too innovative and distracting from the plot or something. This is truly a great movie. It will be enjoyed for years to come, and will probably come to be considered one of the best and most insightful snapshots of the decade that we are currently making our way through in American society (I guess the 2000's is what we call it.).
21 Grams (2003)
Intense character study
I found this movie very moving and very well written. The performances are almost all great, especially the leads. Several disturbing scenes are shown without being "milked" too much for their gut wrenching impact. This keeps the movie from playing out like an episode of CSI or Cold Case. I generally am a sucker for movies with non-linear exposition, and this one sure has it. It would be interesting to hear if Tarantino has seen this, and if so whether he felt that the non-linear exposition worked or not. As I said, the lead actors all give excellent performances. Penn is great, playing another introverted, restless, and ultimately well-meaning guy. Naomi Watts does a brilliant job playing a widow who lost not only her husband but also her children, and who struggles to maintain a normal lifestyle. Benicio Del Toro's character is trying to lead an upright life but seems to be in recovery from alcoholism and possibly other personal problems. I enjoyed watching the interactions between Del Toro and the other members of his born-again religious group, because usually born-again Christians are depicted as completely nutty in movies, and here they were shown to be mostly earnest. The minister or priest seemed to be trying very hard to encourage Benicio Del Toro to live life the right way, but he still finds himself struggling to maintain his job and family life during the movie. The separate narrative threads eventually all intersect and it manages to work without seeming overly showy or aesthetic. That is to say, I was still very involved in the storyline even as the characters come together and the narrative threads interweave. The director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is quickly becoming one of the most mentioned names in drama, and he will most likely provide his audiences with some other interesting work in years to come. I've also seen Amores Perros, which I thought was pretty good too. 21 Grams seems a little more daring in my opinion, so I think of it as the better movie. Overall, it was an extremely provocative film with some great and nuanced performances.
200 Cigarettes (1999)
New Years Eve in the hip New York 1980s
This was a good time. It's a relatively light movie about a bunch of early 80s hipsters on New Years Eve in New York City. There's a couple that are only friends now but used to date if I remember it right. Ben Affleck is a bartender and a law student. There's a lot of famous folks in this ensemble cast. There's also an Elvis Costello cameo. You would think that there would be more movies that center around New Years' Eve parties, cause New Years Eve is such a big deal to a lot of people. It's an occasion that often stirs up emotional turmoil, and it involves a lot of strangers meeting at parties, so one would think it would provide plenty of fodder for the screenwriter. But I can't think of many other movies that take place on New Years' Eve. This movie does a really good job at capturing the setting, and they also do a pretty good job at jumping back and forth between tangentially related plot lines without letting any of those plot lines dominate too much. One girl tries to throw a party unsuccessfully but I honestly don't remember what becomes of that plot line, it's been a good while since I've seen this movie. The acting was competent. Good little movie overall.
The 13th Warrior (1999)
I don't remember too much from it
I only remember bits and pieces of this movie, which I saw in theatres back when it was out. It has Antonio Banderas in the lead role, and I remember that he travels through medieval Europe settling arguments or some such. Anyhow, I remember that it has some connection to Beowulf which I find pretty boring as well. I saw this movie the night before I went away to college for the first time. So I guess it's a tad nostalgic. But I don't think the movie was very good really. Antonio Banderas has been better in some other movies, but he's relatively weak in his performance here. One bit of trivia on this is it was in theatres the same year that a movie called The Thirteenth Floor was in theatres. The two movies have plots that are totally unrelated to each other, but their titles are obviously similar. Overall, I don't think it was that good of a film.