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White Trash America, Here is Your Citizen Kane
I think that, deep down in the darkest, slimiest part of their heart, everyone likes Jerry Springer just a little bit. While his show is undeniably offensive and stupid, it also gives us a chance to see that, relatively speaking, most of us have it real good. When you look at the trailer park livin', dollar whiskey drinkin', incest lovin' people on the Springer show, it makes even your worst day seem like a walk in the park. Jerry is performing a public service, and we should be grateful. He ditched a political career to host the show, just for us.
What we should not be grateful for in any way is the piece of garbage movie "Ringmaster". "Ringmaster" shows what life is like for people who wind up being guests on the show, or so they would like us to think. The movie follows the pre-requisite Springer story line: Love triangles. One triangle involves Connie, her daughter Angel, and her husband Rusty. The other involves Starletta, Vonda, and Demond. When the two hapless groups meet up in LA, their lives intertwine and collide head-on, all culminating in an explosive episode of the Springer show. It's like what "Short Cuts" would be if Robert Altman had had a severe crack habit.
"Ringmaster" is true to the show, as it is stupid and offensive from start to finish. It also makes me very glad that I don't live in the squalor it's characters do. But the movie has a problem. It's billed as a comedy, but it just isn't very funny. What laughs there are to be had are few and far between. Maybe some people watch this and laugh non-stop. If you think blow jobs and rape are funny, well then I guess you're one of those folks. Personally, I laughed two or three times and spent the rest of the movie in utter awe of the agonizing horrors of white-trash life.
The Jerry Springer Show just isn't meant to make the leap from TV to the silver screen. What's funny in an hour long show (less, when you count commercials) isn't necessarily going to be funny in a ninety minute movie. Movies have to tell a story, and that's something else "Ringmaster" has trouble with. The story is threadbare. There are so many plot holes and continuity errors that any attempt at telling a cohesive narrative is quickly put asunder. And even if there weren't such problems, how much fun can you pull out of a story of stereotypical people in a stereotypical story? Even the Hollywood formula couldn't make this better. "Ringmaster: is so bad, it even screws up the best part of the Springer show: the Final Thought. Somehow, even the smartest and simplest aspect of the show wound up blowing harder than the slutty women the film is built around.
The worst offender in all of this is Springer himself. He's such a bad actor that he can't even play himself convincingly. Watching Springer play Springer is sad. It's like he was going for a 'What if Woody Allen played Jerry Springer' vibe, and he failed. Miserably. He went to the trouble of producing this disaster, the least he could do is try to make it just that much better.
Not that I'm saying everyone else in this movie put in an award worthy performance. Just the opposite. They all suck. Not so surprisingly, no one in this movie went on to greatness. The best any of them was did was Molly Hagan landing a job on a Nickelodeon sitcom. Apparently, Nickelodeon has no problem with hiring a woman who starred in the most vile film of the '90's to star in a children's program. It makes you wonder what kind of things the other adults on that channel have done in their pasts.
Here are my Final Thoughts: What we have here is a group of people with no self respect and a man with money to burn, who have met and put their resources together to produce a film that shows how much they hate themselves and how little they think of the intelligence of their viewing audience. Should we accept people who make movies that treat us like severely brain-damaged lumps of goo? I say no. Somewhere out there, in this crazy, mixed up world, there is a perfect movie for each of us. We just have to keep looking for it. Until next time, take care of yourselves and your loved ones. And don't ever watch "Ringmaster".
The Sound of Music (1965)
1 Fanciful Nanny + 7 Mildly Retarded Kids = The Worst Musical Ever Committed to Film
If you don't already know, let me tell you: I don't like musicals. I find them to be grating, poorly made, horribly uninteresting affairs. I've never quite understood the logic behind someone breaking into a song and dance routine and singing about their deepest, most secret feelings. If you're secretly in love, it might be best not to do a Bollywood number entitled "I'm in Love!" right in the middle of town. It kind of kills the secret. Also, musicals are always so damn fanciful. Why not do a realistic one? I can just see a musical with a number called "I Just Had an Abortion, and I Feel Fine". That, my friends, would be Academy Award gold.
But no, musicals are never realistic. They tell stories about inner-city gangs who fight with their words and Plies', or nightclub whores for hire with TB who have hearts of gold. And, somehow, people eat this stuff up like it's going out of style, and fast. Honestly, if you've seen one musical you've seen almost all of them. So why do people go to them in droves?
One musical in particular perplexes me most. "The Sound of Music" tells the tale of a naive nun who leaves her convent to raise seven children with a collected IQ so small that, if brains were gas, they couldn't power a motorcycle around the outside of a penny. Together the nanny and the kids sing and sing and sing pointless songs like "Do Re Mi" and the titular track, "The Sound of Music". There's also, "My Favorite Things" in which it is revealed that brown paper packages tied with string make people happy. Well, I suppose the brown paper and string couldn't possibly be as boring as this film.
"The Sound of Music" is not one of those films that is so bad it's good. It's one of the ones that's so bad it makes me want to burn the theater to the ground. If anything, it's the most offensively numb portrayal of World War II ever made. Here we see World War II as a swirling, candy-colored vortex of happiness. Instead of death and terror, the Nazis bring sunshine and lollipops to the world of Maria and the Von Trapp kids. Even in the middle of being chased by Nazi tanks, the Von Trapp clan have time to stop and sing an ode to their beloved hills. Apparently, Hitler had a soft-spot for musical numbers. Why else would the Nazi's stop chasing them long enough to hear "The hills are alive..."?
Look, it's not like I'm saying I wanted a hard-hitting WWII epic, but I would prefer to not have my intelligence insulted. Even the simplest things in this movie are insultingly stupid. Look at Papa von Trapp. He's an Austrian naval officer. Sincewhen does Austria, a land-locked area, have the need for a Navy? Where is this guy sailing, the Olympic pool at the nearest five-star hotel?
The addition of Julie Andrews into this horrific misfire only makes things worse. Of all the movie musical stars, Julie Andrews is the worst by far. She can't sing to save her life and she has the acting range of a less skillful Keanu Reeves. When you're less than Keanu, you know it's time to pack your bags and leave the business. The kids are no better. They're the kind of kid actors who strive way too hard to be cute. They are what I call Lipnickian children, in honor of Jonathan Lipnicki, the world's worst child star.
"The Sound of Music" was directed by Robert Wise, the recently deceased director of such films as "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and the original "The Haunting". Somewhere in between those two classics, Wise managed to create this steaming turd. How a fine director like Wise got dragged into a project like this is beyond the realm of understanding.
I don't know if Wise ever apologized for making this, but he should have because true fans of his other works would never have seen this coming and, if they're like me, they were not happy. Look at it like this: if Michael Bay, crappy action movie virtuoso, were to direct "Wicked: The Movie Musical", do you think fans of his "Armageddon" (should they exist) would be pleased?
Bitter. Dark. Perfect.
Were it a chocolate bar, Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" would be dark and bitter. Just the way I like it. Staying closer to the source material than the 1971 version did, "Charlie" gives Roald Dahl fans reason to rejoice. No longer is Willy Wonka the sunny, cheery twit that Gene Wilder crafted. In the hands of Johnny Depp, Wonka is a twisted, depraved, and sadistic man. He takes great pleasure in the thought of putting spoiled children through pain and suffering, and he doesn't mind admitting that he hates grown-ups of all stripes. This is how Wonka should be.
Another improvement over the original is the Oompa Loompas. Their original back story, not told in the first film, is told here. Also they sing the songs from the book, not that garbage from the first film. The musical numbers are inspired, ranging from Bollywood musical to rock and roll to pop ballad. Deep Roy, who plays every Oompa Loompa, does a fantastic job of giving the characters life and making them a little scary even if they are only one foot tall.
We also have Tim Burton's stunning vision to bring the quirky tale to life. The factory is a candy-colored den of nightmares with boiling hot rivers of chocolate and torturous uses for seemingly benign candy making machinery. But the interesting thing is that Burton makes the factory as pathetic as it is menacing. Willy's mechanical greeters at the gate explode and his pipes burst and the very mention of the word "parents" brings everything to a screeching halt.
Willy, as it turns out, had a dentist for a father, and thusly never knew the joy of candy until he ran away. And when he tried to return home, Willy found that his father had left and taken the house with him. So Willy locked himself away inside his factory, where he developed a complexion so pale that he actually seems to absorb light like a black hole. He retains the maturity of an infant and the mentality of a candy-addicted twelve-year-old, making him a societal pariah even though everyone adores his confections.
No, Willy Wonka is not a pleasant character. He's not meant to be. He's meant to be a depraved freak who learns to grow up with the help of the world's most mature little boy, Charlie Bucket. Freddie Highmore is incredible as Charlie. He gives the character so much emotional weight that he easily blows the previous incarnation of Charlie right out of the water. Depp hand-picked Highmore for the role, and it's obvious why. Highmore shows the potential to be as talented an actor as Depp, with just as glorious a career.
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is a film that will put a smile on the face of older fans of the book, and nightmares inside the minds of young newcomers. And that's how Roald Dahl would want it. The story may be bitter and dark, but it will leave a good taste in your mouth. This is one of the year's finest and perhaps Tim Burton's best.
PS: Some folks might say Depp fashioned Wonka after Michael Jackson. I say Jackson fashioned himself after Wonka. Either way, they're both kind of sad.
Wedding Crashers (2005)
Hide the Bridemaids
"Wedding Crashers" is an oddity. It's a film I appreciate, but not one I particularly like. It has all the makings of a great comedy: witty dialogue, raunchy humor and Owen Wilson, a genius actor. All these pieces mesh perfectly, and yet I just was not thrilled. By the end I had the odd feeling that my soul was completely drained, and I lurched to my car like a zombie.
The film makes good points about the nature of relationships and expertly satirizes guys like it's titular characters, men who go to weddings uninvited to score chicks. There was even a wonderful scene early on featuring costar Vince Vaughn delivering a rapid-fire speech about the "does she or doesn't she like me" nature of first dates that deserves applause as a short masterpiece.
The real failing, I think, is having Owen Wilson's character, John, fall in love. The first portion of the film, showing John and buddy Jeremy actually crashing weddings is hilarious and quick paced. Then John meets Claire Cleary, falls in love, and goes on the worn-out mission of one-upping her secretly evil boyfriend, Sack. The laughs quickly fade in favor of straight-up romance, returning only occasionally to liven things up. Jeremy's story line of being raped by his obsessive wedding date and, later, her gay brother is good stupid fun in the style of "There's Something About Mary" and other films of its ilk. The main story, which amounts to John making moon-eyes at Claire and Claire returning the sentiment as Sack schemes, would be an average romantic movie on it's own, but it drags down what was a great comedy.
The acting is hit-or-miss. Vince Vaughn is superb as the beleaguered Jeremy. His physical comedy is tempered with his verbal wit to perfectly balance the two. Isla Fisher is also great as Jeremy's obsessed wedding crashing victim Gloria, who goes all out to get her man even though he's decidedly done with her.
Owen Wilson, one of my favorite actors, is listless and dim as John. Romance is not Owen's thing at all, and it kills me to say he was horribly bad. But that's what it is. Rachael McAdams and Bradley Cooper are stereotypical and mundane as Claire and Sack. They phoned in their performances and, man oh man, it shows and it hurts.
Christopher Walken, who is normally hilarious, is forced to check his comedic persona at the door to play the straight-laced Commerce Secretary Cleary. Walken could have saved this film if he'd been allowed to show his zany side.
I really do appreciate every aspect of the film. It has great comedy, fair enough romance, and some brilliant acting to cover for all the bad stuff. I just can't bring myself to give it a fresh rating. Maybe romance and comedy just don't belong together (that would explain "Just Married" and every Julia Roberts film aside from "Sleeping with the Enemy"). I thought 'this is pretty good', but I didn't feel it.
"Wedding Crashers" is what you'd call an 'aborted masterpiece'. It starts strong, and then shoots itself dead half-way through. The second half of this film reminds me of a line from Errol Morris' "Gates of Heaven": "There's your dog. Your dog's dead. But where's the thing that made it move? It had to be something...didn't it?" This dog died too soon, and I'm not sure what happened to the thing that made it move in the first place. It's a captivating mystery.
Must Love Dogs (2005)
The Hardest Trick is Making Him Stay
"Must Love Dogs" is a charming flick about dating in the age of matchmaker websites. It's a light and effervescent film that doesn't try to be anything but what it is: a romantic comedy. There's no piercing satire of internet romance. In fact there's not any statement about internet romance. It's just a new starting point for what is, basically, the same old romcom formula. Woman meets man. Woman falls for man. Man falls for woman. Trouble arises.
But while it follows that formula "Must Love Dogs" feels different, thanks to Diane Lane and John Cusack who are both in top form here. Lane is pitch-perfect as Sarah, a divorcée who can't seem to get back into the dating game. Eventually her sister, Carol, sets Sarah up for internet romance. Cusack plays Jake, the man that Sarah meets after Carol adds "Must love dogs" to Sarah's profile. He doesn't own a dog, but he does love them. He also soon comes to love Sarah, although his nervousness about internet romance causes him to constantly flub his compliments. He is also recently divorced and is still smarting over the way his wife left him. Cusack is a master actor, and he does some of his best work here. He gets the sweetness and sadness of his character across just right.
Of course, there winds up being another man in Sarah's life. It's Bobby, the father of one of her students. Bobby is separated from his wife temporarily, but Sarah can't see that that means he just wants to get laid and not to form a lasting relationship. Jake sees Sarah and Bobby together, and decides to stay far away from her afterward.
Sarah's family members get their fair share of time. Carol is the nosy sister who knows everything, sometimes before it even happens. Patriarch Bill is also in on the internet dating craze and is balancing three women at once, and all three know it and accept it. One of those women, Dolly, winds up in some internet romantic trouble when a teenage boy with dyslexia misreads her profile and thinks she's sixteen instead of sixty-one. Dolly also acts as the voice of experience for Sarah. Dolly's been married many times, and divorced at least three. Stockard Channing is fantastic in this role, making Dolly a rock for Sarah as she struggles to figure out her feelings.
What I really like about this film is that it's actually very funny. Unlike, oh say "Wedding Crashers", "Must Love Dogs" balances romance and comedy and lets them co-exist on screen. While they may be the same jokes we've heard a thousand times before, the cast of "Must Love Dogs" is talented enough to make them seem like brand new. I laughed a lot, and for that I can offer nothing but praise.
It doesn't break any new ground, but "Must Love Dogs" is worth seeing. If you've seen a romcom, then you know how Sarah and Jake's story will end up. It's the journey towards that end that matters, and "Must Love Dogs" is a delightful journey.
Tanner '88 (1988)
Only in America
During the 1988 presidential campaign, Democratic hopefuls spiritedly canvass the country and jostle for their party's nomination and the honor of opposing Republican Vice President George Bush when congressman Jack Tanner emerges from a long political hiatus to challenge such opponents as Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. The Tanner campaign appears at all the events and interacts with many important figures. What no one seems to realize, or particularly care about, is that Jack Tanner doesn't even exist. Michael Murphy stars in this hilarious and biting satire of media-age politics - relevant now more than ever.
Renegade filmmaker Robert Altman and Pulitzer-winning Doonesbury cartoonist G.B. Trudeau created the Jack Tanner character, but they couldn't hope to predict the frenzy he'd create. Politicians were eager to meet him, and more than happy to pretend they knew him. If it would make them look good, of course. Everyone from Pat Roberston to Bob Dole happily talked to Jack and his crew, knowing he had a media blitz surrounding him. The catch is they didn't know why he had a blitz around him.
Altman and crew were constantly filming Michael Murphy as he took the Tanner role and ran with it, frequently improvising, as Trudeau couldn't keep up with the goings-on well enough to script half of what Murphy did. What Trudeau did script was the behind-the-scenes action of the Tanner campaign. Campaign Manager T.J. Cavanaugh (masterfully portrayed by Pamela Reed) and her slew of assistants hustled and bustled in their HQ, desperately trying to spin everything Jack did to make him look 'For real', so as to match his slogan. Unfortunately, as T.J. put it, 'things happen to this man'.
Tanner has a lot of problems both in front of and behind the camera. First there's the camera-man Deke, who reads Jack's diary and puts his personal thoughts into campaign commercials and, after being fired, joins the NBC news crew that is assigned to follow Jack, which gives Deke even more chances to ruin Jack's life. Secondly there's the fact that Jack has fallen deeply in love with Michael Dukakis' (fictitious) campaign manager, Joanna Buckley. Thirdly, Jack's daughter, Alex, bounces between free-spiritedness and megalomania, both of which make Jack look bad. Last, but not least, is the fact that Jack never takes a definite stance on anything except drug legalization. This makes him look like more of a hippy than a politician.
Over the course of six hours and eleven episodes, Altman and Trudeau use their characters and the real politicians to weave a brilliant fable about the state of politics in a world where image means more than qualifications and standards. Pathetic as it may be, it's true. In most of the encounters Jack has with politicians it is quite clear that these people have no idea what is going on, yet they still pretend to be completely in control. When we put them in the White House, do they know what they're doing or are they just pretending to be completely in control? "Tanner '88" is a mockumentary that actually has a point, and makes that point very well.
Der Untergang (2004)
The Last Days of Hitler and the Fall of the Third Reich
'Please, retain your faith in the final victory! If you lead us, we will follow!' By the time these words are spoken to Adolf Hitler it is far too late for him to be able to reassure the hysteric woman who said them. He knows, as all his Generals know, that World War II is over. And Germany has lost. However, as his mental stability declines Hitler will forget this and try, once again, to win. Moving forces that exist only on his map and calling in strikes by planes that were destroyed months earlier, Hitler fights until his last to protect the crumbled remains of what was once his evil empire. He pores over models that represent the new cities he believes he will build, and no one has the courage to tell him that his Aryan Xanadu will never exist as anything but these models.
This is "Der Untergang (The Downfall)". The film is inspired by the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler's last secretary and oblivious follower. Traudl stands at the Fuhrer's side and refuses to move despite lacking all knowledge of him, even his Holocaust. The confused young woman watches in horror as Hitler's Generals turn their backs on him, and she weeps when she finds the remains of her leader's brains scattered across a wall following a fateful gun shot.
"Downfall" has a tricky goal: to show the human side of Hitler. No, it's not about making you sympathize with him. It's about showing that he wasn't some superhuman. Bruno Ganz's performance as Hitler, one of the towering performances in cinema history, exposes faults in the Fuhrer. Physically, his hands twitch uncontrollably and his back is hunched as if burdened with a massive load of shame and humiliation. Mentally, he rants about wanting to speak to soldiers he knows are dead and he fabricate stories about Nazi forces hiding in Prussia, waiting to rush in and save Germany from encroaching Russian armies. As he tells these stories to his friends and confidants, you can see he is telling them to reassure himself, and not his friends.
Then comes the final collapse. Hitler shoots his wife, Eva Braun, and then himself so as to prevent being captured and forced to face the music. Magda Goebells poisons her children, and then sits down to a game of solitaire before facing her own death. Joseph Goebells tries to salvage the German army, but finally gives in and shoots his wife and himself. Slowly but surely, every one of the Nazi officers in Hitler's bunker commits suicide.
Traudl finally accepts that it is over, and joins the German army as it moves to the front lines to surrender. Finally, she passes through the Russian front. While she may have lived in freedom physically, it is doubtful she ever escaped the mental image of what she saw, and the horrible truth she learned about her Fuhrer's crimes.
While we may have heard many ex-Nazi's and Nazi sympathizers claim to be oblivious to Hitler's true evil, Traudl Junge is the only one I'd ever believe. When the real Traudl appeared on screen at the end of the film and said she never knew of the Holocaust until the war ended, I felt sympathy for her and I understood the power Hitler had to blind young people and lead them astray.
"Downfall" has been surrounded by controversy since it debuted at the Toronto film festival last year. Critics said it sympathized too much with Hitler, which is obviously not true when you watch it. Others said it goes too far in it's depiction of Hitler's last days. Perhaps some people can not handle the sight of exploding heads and severed limbs, but to say this film goes too far is insane. How should this film depict it's subject? With sunshine and lollipops? World War II was brutal and, as such, so should any film depicting it be. Some people won't be able to handle it, but that's why we humans have discretion. We can decide what is okay for ourselves, and we can say no to whatever we think is bad for us. You don't have to watch this film.
"Downfall" is a vivid, graphic, firsthand reminder of the depth of Hitler's evil. It's makers are simply spreading the message that trying to forget evil will not change it's affect on us. Why shouldn't we depict Hitler in art the way "Downfall"'s makers have? It might be easier to live without thinking of him and seeing his human traits, but it wouldn't be any better to live that way.
This film should become required viewing for history classes.
The Interpreter (2005)
The oppressed people of Africa finally have a voice. The voice of a white woman from Australia. Nicole Kidman's character in "The Interpreter" hails from Matoba, an African country ruled by a cruel dictator. She claims to have heard about a plot to assassinate said dictator. When she is questioned, she admits to hating him, and goes off on a diatribe about oppression, genocide, and the lies this dictator told to gain power in the first place. She does this over and over for two hours.
The real problem is that she has no point. She just rambles like the standard crazy hobo on an NYC subway who talks to pee stains and smells like a municipal dump. The whole movie is like this. It starts off being about an assassination, than goes to a hunt for a prowler, then goes over to terrorism, and then it snaps back to the assassination and comes to a confusing, pointless, and infuriatingly insipid conclusion. It's like when the hobo finishes his story about the monster in his brain with "I need about three-fitty" and you know he's going to use it to buy crack and alcohol.
Nicole Kidman is about as convincing as an Afrikaner as Woody Allen would be as an action star. Her faux-British accent and pasty white skin make it seem more like she's an incredibly pretentious Canadian woman than an oppressed and fed-up Matoban. I find it hard to believe that Sydney Pollack expects us to buy this act. It's kind of insulting, but the fact that he directed this sludge is punishment enough for him. "The Interpreter" is an embarrassment for Pollack who can, and has, done better. I've seen Richard Simmons infomercials that would look like Hitchcock compared to this movie.
I'm guessing that the United Nations regrets allowing Pollack and company to film in their building. "The Interpreter" is about as flattering to the UN as Joan Rivers is to people on the Red Carpet at the Oscars. The security breaches seen in this film make it look like the UN is run by monkeys with bad crack habits who spend eighteen hours a day passed out on the couch covered in Cheez-Doodle dust. I'll bet Pollack didn't tell them too much about the plot when he first pitched the idea. There's no way he could have gotten in otherwise.
As a whole, "The Interpreter" is a bad joke. Even in individual pieces it's laughably awful.
This is the cinematic equivalent of "Why did the chicken cross the road?".
Howards End (1992)
A Scathing Critique of Classism
"The poor are poor, and one's sorry for them -- but there it is." Henry Wilcox is determined to prevent Margaret Schlegel from inheiriting his wife's familial estate, Howards End. Margaret doesn't even know that she's supposed to inheirit anything from Mrs. Wilcox, since their relationship was brief. When Margaret winds up married to Henry, the former Mrs. Wilcox's will is finally carried out, but not without plenty of objection by Henry's spoiled children.
At the same time Leonard Bast, a banker, has fallen on hard times. After taking bad advice from Henry, Leonard has been left in a low-paying job, believing that his previous place of employment is going out of business. Instead, the place booms. Margaret and her sister Helen, who set up Leonard to receive Henry's advice, feel responisble and Margaret demands that Henry give Leonard a job. Henry's refusal leads to great tension in the Wilcox household.
Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson star in this Merchant-Ivory production. Their fantastic chemistry, later used to brilliant effect in "Remains of the Day", a Merchant-Ivory masterpiece, is evident throughout. Hopkins has a way of making even his posture pretentious and condescending. He bends at the waist, as if looking down on everyone, and his sense of overwhelming confidence makes him easily hateable. Emma Thompson is just the opposite. She is warm, welcoming, and open to everyone.
It is when the two meet that things get really interesting. Thompson's Margaret is someone that Hopkins' Henry can not bring himself to look down upon, and his confidence breaks. The conversation in which Henry proposes perfectly shows Henry's true self: unconfident, bad with words, and afraid to be turned down.
"Howards End" is a great film; a scathing critique of hypocrisy and classism, and at the same time a tale of a man who is too afraid to be himself, and a woman who refuses to be anything but herself. It's richly and densely layered, with a complex story. Under the direction of James Ivory and with the incredible acting ability of everyone involved, Howards End is a triumphant adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel.
2005's Boldest Film
"I'm going to be a mommy," says Aviva, the multi-faced protagonist of controversial director Todd Solondz's "Palindromes". After her parents force her to have an abortion at the age of thirteen, Aviva runs away and hopes to get pregnant again. What she doesn't know is that the doctor at the clinic slipped-up, and left her sterile.
Solondz has never been one to go mainstream, or make "fun" movies. His works, such as "Welcome to the Dollhouse" (which "Palindromes" is a kinda/sorta sequel to) are uncomfortable to watch. Why? Because they are more truthful and honest then we expect a movie to be. Solondz shows real-life issues in lower and middle class American families who face the harshest realities, and he pulls no punches. This is not your typical multi-plex fare. Not at all.
"Palindromes" is about Aviva, cousin of Dawn Wiener from "Welcome to the Dollhouse". Dawn has just recently killed herself (no surprise there, really), and a five-year old, and black, Aviva vows to never be like her cousin. Eight years later, Aviva (now white, teenaged, and overweight) has her first sexual encounter and gets pregnant. Her mother (Ellen Barkin, in a truly inspired performance) tells Aviva (still white, but now skinny and with red hair) that she will have to have an abortion. Aviva is devastated, as she longs to be a mother. Following the botched procedure, Aviva runs away and embarks on a transformative journey.
You've likely guessed that the transformation here is physical, not spiritual. Aviva changes appearance from chapter to chapter, but the person she is inside never changes. Whether she's a skinny white girl or a massive black woman Aviva is still a lost little girl, adrift in a world she can't understand. All she has to go by are her warped perceptions of love, which lead her to the arms of a pervert who likes to go out and kill abortion doctors in his free time.
"Palindromes" leans heavily to the side of pro-life. Solondz vilifies abortion clinics and pro-choicers to an almost extreme degree. Here are examples:
Aviva's mother refers to an unborn child as being "like a tumor". Aviva is shown a dump where aborted fetus' are haphazardly thrown away. The clinic botches the abortion. Aviva's pro-choice family includes an accused child molester.
I was rather shocked at first, being a pro-choice person myself, but I can not deny that Solondz has created a powerful indictment of the practice of abortion. I'll never give up the pro-choice platform (everyone has a right to choose, after all), but now I'm not so sure I'd ever personally want an abortion for any of my loved ones.
Solondz also shows that unwanted children don't necessarily have to be aborted, and that they can have good lives if adopted or sent to foster homes. When Aviva meets Mama Sunshine, "mother to all of God's children", we are shown a household where disabled and sick children can lead happy lives. Mama Sunshine has taken in blind children, crippled children, limbless children, and retarded children, and she gives them all good lives. It makes you wonder if Aviva couldn't have given her child a life like this rather than having to be forced to kill it.
At the end of it all "Palindromes" ends appropriately. IE: as it began. There is a wonderful scene in which Aviva's (supposedly) perverted relative makes a speech about how no one changes, how life is essentially a palindrome. It makes us wonder if the effort Aviva went through to change things was worth it, when we know where she'll always end up. Or do we? Does life have to be a palindrome? Or is there a way to change that, once and for all?
This is the year's boldest, most provocative film. It is fearless in it's search for answers, and it requires the viewer to be fearless if they are to get anything out of watching. Please see this film. And don't be afraid to question yourself afterwards.
"Palindromes" is not a film with answers to the questions, it's a film with questions about our answers.
Uncle Nino (2003)
My Teeth Hurt. This Film is Too Sweet!
Here's a movie that couldn't find major distribution, and for a good reason. "Uncle Nino" is so bland, unoriginal, cliché, stereotypical, and in-your-face wholesome that I almost forgot I was watching a movie and not a live action episode of Davie and Goliath with an Itailan kook in place of the dog, and Joe Mantegna in place of the lobotomized dweeb kid.
"Uncle Nino" follows the conventional 'family discord' plot: Mom and Dad (Mantegna and Anne Archer) are too busy with work to raise the kids. The kids, therefore, are rebels. Fourteen-year-old Bobby (Trevor Morgan) TP's houses with the members of his band, called "Carp" for one of the most ridiculous reasons I've ever heard, and together they commandeer Bobby's garage. This is, of course, to the chagrin of Bobby's parents. Twelve-year-old sis Gina (Gina Mantegna. Ah...nepotism) wants a puppy, stays at her friend's house all day, and watches Animal Planet all night. Yes, in the world of "Uncle Nino", watching Animal Planet is a sign of rebellion.
Then the kooky Italian Uncle shows up, and fixes everything. How? Apparently foreigners are magic. Or at least they have a never-ending supply of money to provide pets, garden make-overs, and anything else necessary to an ailing family. Nino joins Bobby's band and makes them sound good; he gives Gina a puppy and warms mom's heart; he plants a garden and reminds dad of his childhood. If you think I have in any way ruined this film for you, then you need to get help. If you can't see the ending coming from the first frame of the film, you are severely, cripplingly retarded.
"Uncle Nino" makes sure to throw in some lessons about fate, mortality, and every other subject that it's writers obviously don't know jack about. They tried to give us a dramatic moment when Nino visits his brother's grave for the very first time. Nino was in prison when his brother died, and after that he waited thirty-six more years to come. Why? Let's turn to resident fatalist Joe Mantegna for an answer: "Maybe you weren't supposed to come to America when he died, so that you could come now. I know that without you here, I'd never appreciate the best things in my life." Oh shut up.
The real answer why he didn't come is this: he messed up. And then, when he was free from prison, he just didn't care enough to come, and forgot. Then, thirty-six years later, he remembered that he didn't want to rot in hades for eternity, and he came to try and get a good word in with his apparently saintly deceased brother.
Okay, so maybe I'm being too cynical, but the movie does little to make me think otherwise. I wanted to like "Uncle Nino", really I did. The uncle character is funny at times, and probably deserved to be in a better film than this. His earliest scenes, wandering through an airport for the first time in his life, are sweet and comical. But as soon as the American family shows up, the sweetness hits an overload level and the comedy all but dies.
I was rather amazed to find that this isn't director Robert Shallcross' first film. "Uncle Nino" is so sloppily handled and so full of cliché soft-focus shots that I thought I was hopped up on morphine and drifting in and out of consciousness. I had to blink my eyes a few times before I realized that it was supposed to look so fuzzy in those scenes. Good grief.
I don't think I need to get into how atrocious the screenplay is. I've already said enough there.
The acting is less than TV quality, except for Pierrino Mascarino, who makes Nino as charming as he possibly can. Alas, he can't save this film. Joe Mantegna, in my mind, lives in the shadow of his Fat Tony character from the Simpsons. I can't help but see Tony on screen in place of Mantegna. Maybe if Joe did something to, you know, surpass Fat Tony he might have something. The rest of the cast is just...I'm not even going to dignify it with a comment.
"Uncle Nino" is a TV movie of the week blown up onto a big screen. Try as it might to be special or different, it is neither. It's just like any other sitcom family movie. I'll give it credit, though, it gave me a few smiles in Nino's early scenes. If only it had been like that all the way through. If only Nino had gotten a better script. If only, if only...
Naked Lunch (1991)
And Here I Thought "Fear & Loathing" Was a Trip
"Exterminate all rational thought. This is the conclusion I have come to".
So says Bill Lee, the central character of David Cronenberg's adaptation of William Burroughs' bizarre novel "Naked Lunch". The film takes the novel, replaces the characters with Burroughs, his family, and his friends, and then gives them all the names of characters from the book anyway. Once you sort that conundrum out and stop thinking rationally you can begin to understand the film. But only begin. I don't think there is any way to fully understand "Naked Lunch".
Bill Lee is an exterminator who, along with his wife, has become addicted to bug repellent powder. One night, while on a bit of a bender, Bill accidentally shoots his wife, Joan, in the head during a game of William Tell. Following this, he uses the powder to go on a seemingly endless trip, ripe with sinister cabals, talking bugs, and journalistic endeavors.
What the film theorizes is that this is actually the tale of how Burroughs wrote the book "Naked Lunch". Indeed, Burroughs did shoot his wife the way Bill does in the movie, but one wonders if Burroughs actually went on the trip we see in the film. "Naked Lunch" is akin to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" in it's over-the-top depiction of drug use as literary inspiration. "Naked Lunch" is actually a bit weirder to me than "Fear and Loathing", but I guess that's the same as saying one Queer Eye Guy is gayer than another. How can you be sure and, in the end, what's the difference? I'll skip over trying to compare Burroughs' trip to Dr. Thompson's. I think my brain would explode if I tried.
David Cronenberg, cinematic master of the macabre, struck gold with "Naked Lunch". Here we have one of Cronenberg's most fully realized fantasies. It's sick, disturbing, and confusing and, in these ways, it almost reaches the level of "VideoDrome", Cronenberg's true masterpiece and the most outright disturbing film I've ever seen. The creatures that Cronenberg dreamed up (based, of course, on Burroughs' warped ideas) are incredible. The seven-foot-tall Mugwumps (modeled after the physical appearance of Burroughs) creeped me out, and the half-beetle/half-typewriter creatures with talking sphincters are some of the grossest creatures I've ever seen on screen. These are things that Cronenberg delights in.
Peter Weller finally escaped from the shadow of "RoboCop" with this film. Ironically, the characters are similar. Both Robo and Bill Lee are monotone speaking, emotionless people. The difference being that Robo is made from forklift parts held together with duct tape and glue and Bill is human. Or at least I think he is. Nothing is certain in "Naked Lunch". Weller captures William Burroughs expertly. Judy Davis shows her range in the dual role of Joan Lee, Bill's wife, and Joan Frost, Bill's imagined lover. Joan Lee is drug-addled and loose; Joan Frost is uptight and needs to be taught how to be free. Davis makes the two women so different that it's almost impossible to tell it's the same actress in both parts.
If you like Burroughs, see this film. If you like Croneberg, see this film. If you want a simple, pleasant film...stay far away. :Naked Lunch" is a pornographically perverted look at the complexities of drug abuse and the difficulties of the writing process. I don't use the word pornographically lightly. This is as extreme a movie as I've ever seen, especially coming from the Hollywood system. It's icky, it's gross, it's disturbing. It's also a masterpiece.
The Most Loving Portrayal of Jesus I Could Imagine
Condemned by Fundamentalists upon release, delayed by outcries from hypocrites and liars, and boycotted in any city where it played "The Last Temptation of Christ" is one of the most controversial movies ever made. Instead of showing Christ as a fearless and perfect person, "The Last Temptation" depicts Him as a person who fought his destiny and wished to be just another mortal human being. Religious groups who couldn't (and still can't) accept the fact that Jesus was human were shocked by such ideas and refused to see the film or read the landmark novel on which it was based. They'll never know that they attacked one of the most honest and loving depictions of Christ.
The Christ we see in the film is not based on the teachings of the Gospels, or any scripture for that matter. Instead we get a portrait of Christ the man, not Christ the Savior. We get to see his faults, his fears and anxieties. Then, we get to see him overcome those and find the strength to fulfill his destiny. The Last Temptation of Christ is not afraid to say that Jesus was weak before he became the Savior, and that makes the film all the more satisfying. This is a tale of redemption, courage, and love like no other.
There is no reason to miss this film. Not everyone will like it, but at the very least it will let you see another perspective of the story. And even if you can't accept the story, you won't be able to deny the greatness of Scorsese's direction. From the epic crowd scenes, to the intimate one-on-one conversations, to the stunning final shot (which was actually caused by an overexposed section of film, but is beautiful nonetheless), you will be awed by Scorsese's work here.
Also stunning is the work of the two leads. Willem Dafoe inhabits the role of Christ perfectly, bringing perfectly controlled emotion to each and every scene. Harvey Keitel as Judas has been the subject of debate because of his NYC accent. That was on purpose (Scorsese used accents to denote the descent of characters. American accent = Israelite; British accent = Roman), but it doesn't even matter. Keitel is brilliant no matter what his accent is.
Honest, human, loving, and unafraid, "The Last Temptation of Christ" is one of the great cinematic achievements of all time. Martin Scorsese crafted with this film his most personal masterpiece, and perhaps his greatest masterpiece ever.
A Not-So Unfortunate Film
This is a film I almost didn't see. After the ridiculous maketing bonanza that surrounded this film's arrival, I had no desire to see it. There were Lemony Snicket's drinks, Lunchables, Happy Meal Toys, regular toys, and so on. It disgusted me. Now, many months later, I caved in to see it at the local second-run theater (Bless it) and I had one heck of a good time. "Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events"" is a surprisingly great film! The film is told from the perspective of Lemony Snicket, a journalist assigned to chronicle the unfortunate lives of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. The three children were orphaned by a mysterious fire and immediately sent to live with Count Olaf, who is either their third cousin four times removed or their fourth cousin three times removed. Whatever the relation, Olaf is as bad a guardian as he is an actor (he's notorious around town as the worst actor anyone has ever seen). Olaf plans to kill the children and take the family fortune, unaware of the legal loopholes that prevent such a plan from working.
The kids use their talents to overcome Olaf's dastardly plots. Violet is an inventor, Klaus is a know-it-all book worm, and Sunny is a teething infant with a strong bite. Together, their talents allow them to overcome anything.
Jim Carrey makes Olaf one of the most flamboyantly evil villains of recent years, and one of the most fun. Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, and Kara and Shelby Hoffman as the three Baudeliare kids are superb. Aiken and Browning give mature performances, and the Hoffman twins are hilarious as the biting baby. Meryl Streep turns in a funny performance as Aunt Josephine, who is afraid of being killed by her every earthly possession.
While it is uneven in spots, "Lemony Snicket's" is undoubtedly fun. This is a unique film with a great sense of style and fantasy and featuring great performances all around from it's cast. It's weird and funny and worth your time.
A Masterpiece. In Other Words, a Typical Effort for Wes Anderson.
"Rushmore" was the first entry in Wes Anderson's "Searching for a Father Figure" Trilogy (followed by "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"), and what a wonderful way to start. "Rushmore" tells the story of Max Fischer, Rushmore Academy's most extracurricular student, and it's least scholarly. Having devoted his time to joining clubs, starting clubs, and writing plays, Max has no time to study. When he befriends a lonely tycoon and meanwhile begins seducing a widowed teacher, Max's life gets only more complicated.
"Rushmore", like Anderson's other films, exists in a world where whimsy is the norm and everything and everyone is more complicated than you might expect. Anderson's trademark style of filling every inch of the frame with details is exhibited here and, as always, it makes repeat viewings required to be able to catch everything. Also prevalent is Anderson's deliciously quirky dialogue and character development. If you love Anderson's other films, there's no way you'll be disappointed by this one.
What makes "Rushmore" stand out from the rest of the "Father Figure" trilogy is the fact that the main character actually has his dad around. The Tenenbaum kids didn't see their dad for two decades after their parents split and Steve Zissou lost his father figure to the dreaded, possibly non-existent, Jaguar Shark. Max's dad is present and loving and devoted. It's the fact that Max doesn't want to be like his dad, a simple barber, that leads Max to search for a new father figure. This is what gives the film it's sad and poignant core, another trademark of Anderson's works.
The casting is perfect from the lead roles down to the smallest of bit parts. Anderson sees importance in each and every character that appears in his films, and he always finds just the right person to fulfill the requirements to bring each character to life correctly. Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray (an Anderson regular), and Olivia Willams are spectacular and dazzling as Max, Mr. Blume, and Miss Cross respectively. Their nuanced and complicated performances bring all of their scenes to brilliant life. Seymour Cassel is also wonderful as Max's dad Bert, giving the film added emotional weight.
So yes, "Rushmore" is wonderful. It's not Anderson's greatest (that would be "The Life Aquatic"), but it's excellent nevertheless. Alternately sad and funny, poignant, whimsical, and ultimately beautiful, "Rushmore" is a must-see instant classic from the most promising talent in modern cinema.
War of the Worlds (2005)
No Wonder Tom Cruise Went Crazy...
...After this, how could he not? Cruise's PR tour for "War of the Worlds" has been infamously disastrous. Cruise seemingly went crazier and crazier with each show he appeared on. No movie has had PR this bad since Bill Cosby publicly begged people not to see "Leonard Part Six", his own personal disasterpiece.
Well, there's a reason Cruise is acting the way he is. It's the movie. "War of the Worlds" is so vapid, shallow, redundant, and pointless that it becomes almost palindromic: it starts out dull, and it ends dull. The middle part isn't just dull, it's insipid too. This film is so full of plot holes, enormous leaps of faith, impossibilities, and continuity mistakes that I wonder if Spielberg even hired a script supervisor.
Here's the plot: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, and some other kid I've never heard of (so far as I remember) run away from gigantic alien machines that have been buried under our feet for millions of years. I'm not sure how we never noticed them while laying pipelines and subway tunnels down, but this doesn't matter to Spielberg. Along the way the trio encounter crazed people running for their own lives, a plane crash with no bodies in sight, which is never explained, and other general destruction. This is "Armageddon" without the giant rock.
The movie carries on like this for two hours. I got so bored I was begging for a gun to magically appear in my hand so that I might shoot myself in the face and end the pain by the time Hour One was three-quarters over. You can imagine how desperate I became as the film progressed.
I've seen films with mistakes and plot holes, but "War of the Worlds" seems to be based on them rather than just having them. A plane crashes straight into a house where Cruise and company are hiding out, and yet it doesn't crush the van in the driveway, allowing them to drive away. Mind you, the entire neighborhood was flattened by this crash. The crash has no victims. Dakota Fanning's character remains clueless, despite looking the slimy martian bastards in the face, until the very end of the film. The rest of the time she asks why "the terrorists" are attacking. Does she think that people who had to steal jet planes to attack us only four years ago could possibly have ten-mile tall machines of mass-destruction, and just neglected to use them previously? Does this film have any right to draw comparisons between itself and the worst attack ever led on US soil? Spielberg apparently thinks he has that right, and for this he should be shunned, fired, and banned from all Hollywood studios. It's a disgusting thing to do. He knows it, and he doesn't care. Steven Spielberg is not only a hack director, but a sick freak as well. I will never ever regret saying that. I'll also never regret vowing to never ever see another of his films ever again. I may just throw out my as yet unwatched copy of "Schindler's List" in protest.
The only good thing about this movie is the special effects. Well, at least for a little bit. The first appearance of a martian machine climbing out of the ground is impressive. But once it started killing people just so Spielberg could use sights of genocide to jerk our tears, I became completely disgusted with the movie as a whole. "just so Spielberg can use sights of genocide to jerk our tears". Frankly, this sounds like a possible plot description for "Schindler's List", so maybe I'm not wrong to throw it out. Anyway, it's not like I can recommend the film based purely on the look of it's effects. That would be like giving Jennifer Lopez an Oscar for "Enough" just because she's attractive.
"War of the Worlds" is a shameful, vile film. Not only does it assault our senses, but it also insults our intelligence and uses allusions to a national tragedy to tug our heart strings. Steven Spielberg is a despicable person for making this, and the cast should be ashamed to have appeared in such a movie. The only people who can be proud are the special effects team, who made the creatures come to life beautifully. It's too bad they're used to progress such an evil plot.
"Back and Forth. Forever"
I used to think that there could only be one transcendent movie in a decade, or even in two. Transcendent films just don't come along very often. But here we are in the 00's, and that old belief of mine has been shattered. "Cinderella Man", the best movie of the year, was the first transcendent film I'd seen this decade. I thought that was it. But then came "Me and You and Everyone We Know", a magical and breath-taking and, yes, transcendent debut for writer/director/star Miranda July. I've never seen a film quite like this, and I've never seen a film that made me feel the way this one does.
"Me and You and Everyone We Know" is a quirky look at contemporary life. Christine is a performance artist and Elder Cab driver. Her art is unknown and her cab driving job is mostly mundane. One day she meets a lonely and confused shoe salesman named Richard. Richard is coming off of a divorce and is struggling to connect with his sons. His attempt to impress them with a pyrotechnic display badly burned his hand, and his distraction with Christine drives him and the boys farther apart. He decides to cut his connection to Christine.
Richards younger son, Robby, is in the middle of an illicit internet romance with a stranger. The elder son, Peter, is fascinated by the ten-year-old girl next door, who is already preparing a dowry for a marriage she doesn't think will come for at least twenty years.
Heather and Rebecca are two neighborhood girls who are the object of a perverted man's obsession. Amused, they practice sex acts on Peter before going to the dirty old man's door. They think they are mature, but learn that they are just the opposite.
While watching, I was reminded of tapestry films like "Magnolia" and "Short Cuts", but "Me and You" is different somehow. It's more realistic and personal. It's like someone actually turned the people in their neighborhood into movie characters. The people in "Me and You" aren't glamorous or especially smart or funny. Their average people with average problems. This is the stuff that happens every day in the real world. We just so happen to be lucky enough to sneak a peek at a neighborhood that isn't our own.
The fact that this is Miranda July's first time doing anything filmic is stunning. She brings her vision to life both in front of and behind the camera with such assurance and confidence that one could easily think she was an old hand at it. Her style of dialogue, her method of acting, and her ability to perfectly construct a scene are what most directors and actors wish they had.
Take for example the scene where Christine and Richard walk down a sidewalk together. Christine talks about how the sidewalk is like the path of their relationship, and every step represents months and years. Just before reaching the end, the two separate and go their own ways, but Christine can't stop looking back over her shoulder. While it doesn't sound like much in theory, it is incredible on the screen. After you see it, you will look back and think "that was a perfect scene." It's one of the most perfect scenes ever filmed thanks to the excellent writing and direction and July's performance as Christine (credit is due to John Hawkes as well, who makes the perfect sounding board in the scene).
"Me and You and Everyone We Know", much like July's performance art, depicts the beauty of just being alive. It left me with a heightened sense of the beauty in the world around me, and that is something few films ever do. No other film I've seen has dared to do what this one does, and "Me and You" should be lauded for that. This is the kind of film you wouldn't find in Hollywood or in you local Multiplex. It's better and more special.
Miranda July is a promising talent. If she can continue on the path she has begun, she will have a long and successful career. Trust me. This film is going to get a lot of attention at the Independent Spirit Awards, and it's going to put July on the map.
What Lies Beneath (2000)
What Lies Beneath: "This is a Passive/Aggressive Masterpiece"
Claire and Norman Spencer have a perfect marriage. Being happily married and raising Claire's college-bound daughter Caitlin makes them seem like a perfect couple in their quaint lakeside Vermont community. When Caitlin leaves, however, Claire starts experiencing strange phenomena that continually increase in intensity. What starts out as creaky floors and toppling pictures soon evolves into ghostly apparitions in the bathroom and paranormal attacks against Claire. Is Claire really under attack by a ghost? Or is she, as Norman fears, just completely crazy?
Zemeckis' foray into the thriller genre resulted in a great combination mystery/horror film. "What Lies Beneath", despite what the critics may have said, is a scary film. Director Robert Zemeckis isn't afraid to let tension build for close to an hour before giving us the first genuine jump-out-of-your-seat moment and, when it's as good a jump as this one is, it's worth the wait. In fact there are several "jump scares" in the film and they really are frightening. "What Lies Beneath" nearly had me hitting the ceiling with some of the scares it provides. That means Zemeckis did something right.
Robert Zemeckis always wanted to make a Hitchcockian thriller, and for the most part "What Lies Beneath" is just that. Zemeckis even makes sure to throw some Hitchcock references (Psycho, Rear Window) into the film as an homage to his inspiration. There are some excellent shots in this film that would make Hitchcock proud. The use of glass floors, for example, to let us get up close and personal with dropped objects or fallen characters is used effectively and just enough so that we don't get too much of a good thing. Zemeckis' choice of houses is also extremely Hitchcockian. It's a beautiful lakeside estate during the day, but at night it's like a monster looming in the distance: shadowy and imposing.
The only un-Hitchcockian aspect of the film is Zemeckis' use of CGI to obtain some shots. Not that I'm saying they're bad shots, they certainly are not that, but Hitchcock would find a way to do them without digital trickery were he alive today. Then again, Hitchcock was an unparalleled genius when it came to trick shots like moving a camera through a solid wall or floor. Zemeckis pulls off these kinds of shots in his own way, and they're still great.
A Zemeckis trademark is his ability to get great performances out of his cast, and "What Lies Beneath" is no exception. Michelle Pfeiffer is allowed to go completely bonkers in what should have been an Oscar nominated performance. Pfeiffer makes herself seem truly frightened, and she portrays Claire's mental breakdown very well. Harrison Ford is kept subdued and nearly monotone throughout most of the film, providing great surprises later on when his true emotions burst to the surface. I could imagine an Oscar nod for him too. Man, where was the Academy that year? The two personalities, one unbridled and afraid, the other disbelieving and confused, play off one another perfectly to create an aspect of marital discord that adds wonderfully to the film's complexity.
With plenty of twists and turns (which I dare not reveal) to keep you guessing to the end, great acting, virtuoso camera work, and some truly frightening moments, "What Lies Beneath" is a thriller that ranks with some of the best of them. This is another film that Robert Zemeckis can be proud of.
Divorzio all'italiana (1961)
Baron Ferdinando Cefalu is very much in love with his cousin, Angela, and wishes to marry her. The only problem? He's already married. Since divorce is outlawed the Baron decides to get rid of his wife with a lesser crime: murder. "Divorce, Italian Style" is a pitch black satire of a chauvinist society and Italy's hypocritical judicial system.
Marcello Mastroianni, best known for his starring role in 8 1/2, is delightfully woeful and sarcastic as Baron Cefalu. His expressions and his nervous tics provide several good chuckles. Daniela Rocca is perfectly annoying as Baroness Cefalu, making it quite easy to take delight in her husband's murderous fantasies. Stefania Sandrelli is quite good as Angela. Her scenes with Mastroianni are especially passionate and, since this was one of Sandrelli's earliest films, they show a real talent in the making.
While I did laugh at "Divorce, Italian Style" (as well as that amazing Criterion cover art), don't expect a straight up comedy. It does make a serious point about the failings of Italy's judicial system. I will also admit that watching Baroness Cefalu drown in quicksand was an unpleasant sight, and not funny at all. Watching her get blasted into space = side-splitting laughter. Watching her drown in quicksand = uncomfortable.
However, don't be detered from this film. If you've never seen any of Mastroianni's films this is the one to start with.
The Honeymoon Killers (1970)
"Honeymoon Killers" tells the true story of Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez. Fernandez was a con man who met lonely women through "Lonely Hearts Friendship Clubs," married them, and then robbed them blind. Martha was the lonely, food-addicted woman who started as Ray's victim and became his one true love. They continued Ray's scam together, but Martha's jealousy towards Ray's "wives" led her to introduce murder to the equation. "Honeymoon Killers" is a startling story of true crime in the midst of true love, and the power of a passion that transcends all bounds.
Leonard Kastle's first, and only, film is as off-beat and sick as they come. That said, I think it's a brilliant piece of art. Utilizing stark black and white photography and superb performances from Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco, "Honeymoon Killers" is an extremely realistic, fake documentary-like film. This is great faux-cinema verite.
"Honeymoon Killers" is the most captivating and unforgettable film I've seen in a long time. This is highly recommended. Very highly.
Scener ur ett äktenskap (1973)
The Tragedy of Emotional Illiteracy (Review is about the 5 Hour Version)
Johan and Marianne have been happily married for ten years. Following the rough choice to abort their child, the marriage begins to fall apart. Theirs is a marriage of convenience anyway, so it is no surprise that they have looked elsewhere for love and comfort. One day, Johan runs away with another woman, and the process of divorce begins. "Scenes from a Marriage" (Scener ur ett aktenskap) is an intense and personal look at the sanctity of marriage in a world where divorce is in vogue.
"Scenes" begins with Johan and Marianne being interviewed for a magazine article about their perfect marriage. Johan is confident in his happiness. He loves his wife, has fathered two children, and has a well-paying job. Marianne is sure of nothing, other than that she's happy. She tries to talk about her future, but the photographer cuts her off for a picture. She never gets to finish her thought. One wonders what she would have said if she'd gotten to same amount of time to speak as Johan did.
During the course of an epic five-hour ride, the two will switch places. Johan will become uncertain of what he wants, and Marianne will become liberated and truly happy. It's what happens in between that fascinates. "Scenes from a Marriage" focuses on the in between moments in life. Most of the time there are only two characters on screen at a time. Filmed in an intimate, documentary-like style, the film gives us the feeling that we're watching a home movie about the down time in the couple's life. This is when they real emotions come to the surface. Johan reveals his passion for Paula, the woman who has seduced him away from Marianne. Marianne, reserved in public, let's her anger, pain, and jealousy flow freely when they are alone together.
It is this that makes the film work. The film was written and directed by Swedish master Ingmar Bergman, a man who knows how to create arrestingly real drama. Bergman knows that the little moments in life are utterly more fascinating then the overblown public moments that most movies show. By allowing us into these personal moments, Bergman allows Johan and Marianne to become like old friends to the viewer, and that makes the story all the more impactful.
The performances by Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson as Marianne and Johan are nothing short of revelatory. Let's face it, most actors don't shoot for the stars in television productions. Ullman and Josephson treat "Scenes" like any one of their theatrical films. This approach is much appreciated. I only wish they could teach American TV actors a thing or two. Ullman and Josephson deliver more meaningful and powerful performances in the course of five hours than half of the American network line-ups could provide in 5 seasons.
Take, for example, the scene where Marianne discovers that she is the last person to know about Johan's infidelity. The camera gets in close on Ullman's face to reveal all the little details of her expression. Ullman's face is a mask of horror and shame. Her eyes are crying out in despair much louder than her voice can.
There is another fantastic scene in which Marianne who, in the ultimate irony, is a divorce lawyer listens to a client discuss her loveless marriage. The comparison to Marianne and Johan's marriage is undeniable. The look on Marianne's face as she sees her future self in her client is hard to describe, but undeniably affecting.
Johan has less emotional depth, as one of the main plot points is that Paula saps the life out of him as the relationship progresses. However, look at the earliest scenes of the film, where he is overflowing with happiness. The joy in his eyes and his voice are so real it's hard to believe that the whole thing was carefully scripted by Bergman rather than improvised by Josephson.
It is said that, following the initial airing of "Scenes from a Marriage" on Scandinavian TV, the divorce rate in Scandinavia grew immensely. More surprising is that Ingmar Bergman was, and still is, delighted by this fact. The film does provide somewhat of an argument for staying together (Johan and Marianne bounce back and forth on th divorce issue several times) and ultimately, as far as I understand, says that even the most strained relationships can be helped. I suppose it is all up to individual interpretations.
I think that "Scenes from a Marriage" is a film about communication. The lack of communication, and the inability to communicate at all, are the major contributing factors in the breakdown of Johan and Marianne's relationship. It isn't until the divorce papers come that the communication begins. A lack of communication with their own emotions prevents the two from seeing any way out other than divorce--they simply assume that it's too late and that all is said and done. It doesn't have to be that way, and "Scenes from a Marriage" will provide a wake up call to anyone who thinks it does.
Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
"Manos" The Hands of Fate: "There is no escape!"
There is no denying it: '"Manos" The Hands of Fate' is a terrible, terrible film. With, seemingly no plot, and some of the worst acting ever caught on film, '"Manos"' is an incomprehensible mess. It doesn't help that it was filmed on a silent-film camera and that the voices were dubbed in by a team of only three voice actors. Add the inept direction of Hal P. Warren, and '"Manos"' hits excruciating levels of awfulness. But I'll be damned if I couldn't take my eyes off it for a single second.
Starring Torgo, a strange grounds keeper, '"Manos"' is supposed to be a horror film about a satanic cult. Hal Warren lets us know Torgo is evil by giving him a near-crippling knee deformity. OOOOHHH...SCARY. Torgo mumbles and stutters incoherently about his master, who wouldn't like having guests at their one-room motel. Mike, Maggie, and their daughter Debbie wind up said motel and then...basically nothing happens for the rest of the film. The plot moves so slowly and laboriously that it's better to just sit back and watch without thinking. At all. By doing this, I managed to make it through this awful movie and find out the "mysterious" ending, which I genuinely can not understand. Maybe it's better that way.
The problems with '"Manos"' are numerous. Warren couldn't frame a shot to save his life, the actors couldn't act if you put a gun to their head, and the sets are cheap and poorly made. The film begins with an endless driving sequence, which was supposed to be the opening credit sequence. However they forgot to add the credits, so we're left with ten minutes of nothing. The two policemen in the film spend all their time hunting down a teenage couple who like to make out on the side of the road, and when the cops do investigate Torgo's motel, they do so by walking two steps in each direction. The dubbing is off. WAY off. And I do believe this is the film that originated "Hey! I can see the zipper on his back!"
'"Manos"' has gained a cult following thanks to a spectacular episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Joel, Crow, and Servo provide their trademark witty remarks throughout, and also take time to remind us that we are indeed watching '"Manos" The Hands of Fate'. They can't believe they have to watch this, of all films, and neither can their tormentors, Frank and Dr. Forrester (and they picked the damn thing!). It's amazing that such a terrible film could turn out what some consider the greatest episode of MST3K.
So, why did I give '"Manos"' a point? Because it's fascinatingly bad, and provides an important lesson in how not to make a film. This movie is so bad, that it warrants serious studying, just to find out why it wound up so bad. The documentary "Hotel Torgo" should provide some answers, and I hope to get the chance to see it.
Should you see '"Manos"'? Yes, but only the MST3K version.
The Master commands you!
"You think you know who you are. You have no idea."
Paul Haggis has proved that he is a great writer with his adaptation of F.X. O'Tooles works into "Million Dollar Baby", one of 2004's finest films. Now he proves that not only is he a great writer, but a great director as well, with "Crash". Like the 'tapestry' films of Robert Altman, "Crash" is a complex film, interweaving many different characters and stories to create a portrait of life in a big city.
"Crash" takes place in Los Angeles where racism and blind hatred affect everyone's lives, whether they be taking it or dishing it out. What "Crash" suggests, like Altman's "Nashville" and "Short Cuts", is that the problems the characters have derive from a lack of connections with each other. None of these characters take the time to meet each other,or learn about each other. All that matters is the color of their skin and how deep their wallet goes.
For example, Sandra Bullock's Jean, the narcissistic wife of the DA. Jean finds it perfectly OK to turn and run from people of other ethnicities, and to treat them all like low-life thugs. She even suspects her Latino locksmith of being a gang member, and wholly believes that he will sell her keys to other gangs. If she had taken the time to meet him she would have known that Daniel is actually a family man and a model citizen. But she doesn't know him, and she doesn't care.
Or, how about Matt Dillon's Ryan, a cop who pulls over a black couple and molests the wife, Christine, on the side of the road. Not because he hates them for being black, but because of his frustration in trying to deal with a black HMO agent just minutes earlier. Ryan's father is suffering from a urinary tract infection and can't sleep due to the pain. When he contacts the HMO to see if they'll cover pain medication, Ryan winds up talking to a black woman who tells him the medicine isn't covered. Ryan later visits her office and tells her there are at least five or six white men who should have her job and don't, thanks to affirmative action.
There are many other stories and characters in "Crash", too many to cover in detail here. The black and Latino detectives/lovers with severe racial tension between them; the eloquent, pseudo-existentialist carjackers (my personal favorite characters); the Persian shop owners who are mistaken for Arabs and treated like terrorists; the Asian immigrant couple who wind up in two separate car accidents; the list goes on. There are so many diverse people to meet here, it can seem overwhelming. With so many characters, it is amazing that writer/director Haggis manages to give them all time to become three-dimensional characters in the film's 113 minute running time. What's more amazing is that he manages to tie up every story so well. By allowing the story lines to bleed into each other, Haggis makes the connections they so desperately need.
The film's climax gives the audience a chance to see that every bad person can be good, and every good person can go wrong. It all depends on who they meet, and how they connect. It also reminds us that these characters will probably wind up the way they were before they crashed together, but they'll at least be wiser for what they experienced.
It's been a long time since a film stood out and demanded attention like "Crash" does. "Crash" is a big, bold film that will grab you instantly and won't let go until it takes you on one long, complicated, and powerful journey through the mess we call life. With Oscar-caliber performances, a brilliant screenplay, and a master in the makings at the helm, "Crash" is a major contender for film of the year. This is a sure-fire best picture nominee in my book, and you can quote me on that.
I've decided that my reviews should range somewhere between 500 and 1000 words from now on. Maybe more, but certainly no less. The only issue is that I now have a movie to review that causes such anger and disgust in me that I can't even bring myself to begin justifying it by describing the plot and discussing the acting. I just want to tell you that I hate it.
Irreversible is a film that exploits irrational anger and fear to try and stir it's viewers' emotions. By showing the downfall of two men and a woman from good people to soulless monsters and a victim, Irreversible tries to show how a beast lives in each of us. By telling this story backwards, writer/director Gaspar Noe thinks he makes the film artsy and provocative. It's really just confusing, infuriating, and pointless.
And there I go, delving deeper than I want to. This film doesn't deserve an intelligent review. It deserves to be launched to the center of the sun, and quickly forgotten. The same should happen to Gaspar Noe, for only a perverted and twisted mind could invent such a disgusting pile of filth, and we don't need people like that here on Earth. We're fighting to get rid of them every day at home and abroad. Forget about bombing Iraq, we need to invade France and take out Noe.
"Irreversible" is a homophobe's delight of a movie. Basically it suggests that gays will rape our women and, therefore, we must kill them. Of course, since the movie is backwards, we don't learn of this so-called "justification" until after we've watched a man be brutally beaten about the head until his skull liquefies. At the end of the day, it makes no sense, and should get the perpetrators executed. Rape is not a justification for murder. It justifies jail time and psychotherapy. But this man has no brain left to have analyzed. And that's perfectly OK with Gaspar Noe.
Well screw him.
I hate Gaspar Noe. I hate his film. I hate the people who acted in it. I hate that some people are calling this a masterpiece or a work of art. Even I can take a dump and call it art. Irreversible is the cinematic equivalent of that.
That right there is 381 words. I still have at least 119 to go. Let's see...
If you want to watch a skull-rape of a movie that will leave you 50 IQ points dumber, than watch this film.
If you have an irrational fear of gays, than this is right up your alley.
If you prefer a film that makes sense, isn't hateful, and doesn't pose as something it isn't (I.E. art) than you can join me in watching, oh, anything else.
This review is not informative, I know. But the best information I can give you is this: stay away from "Irreversible". Stay away from any other movie this one touches on the store shelf, for it may well have infected them. Do not think about this movie. Do not breathe on this movie. Do not even look at it from across the room. Don't even touch it with a thirty-nine-and-one-half pole. Go punch yourself in the face. You'll learn more from that, and it's way more fun than watching "Irrversible".
That's 560 words. 560 more than it deserves, and 560 words I'll never get back. But at least someone will learn to avoid this film by reading those words. That makes it alright.
Battlefield Earth (2000)
Sometimes there are bad movies. Sometimes there are awful movies. And once in a lifetime there's "Battlefield Earth", a film so incomprehensible, dim-witted, and so torturously heavy-handed as to become equivalent to getting beat over the head by Paul "Big Show" Wight. And I want no part of that.
"Battlefield Earth" is a film that so avoids even trying to be just decent that one wonders why they even bothered to make it. If you hate the project so much that you won't even bother to put effort into it, than you should just skip it and save L. Ron Hubbard the humiliation of watching his book become this garbage.
"Battlefield Earth" the movie is a simple, and by simple I mean insultingly stupid, tale of aliens conquering earth in the year 3000. While Mr. Hubbard's book was a fascinating fable, the film is just the opposite. It's so much more focused on special effects (terrible ones, at that) and putting John Travolta's made-up face on screen that story apparently became the third or fourth priority for director Roger Christian.
And what an awful director he is. Not once is the camera looking straight-on at the action. Every single second of this film is Dutch-Angled, and for those of you who don't know what that means, just imagine a fight scene from the old Batman TV show. Now you have the idea. The angles are so insane that the camera practically winds up upside down. It's like being on a boat on a really stormy sea: nausea-inducing.
The film's "special effects" amount to cheap explosions, and someone tossing a bucket load of rocks and dirt across the screen. That's basically it. Maybe they should be called "Special Ed Effects." No, wait. That's an offense to Special Ed.
The alien invasion depicted in the movie is so unfrightening and boring that I wonder why I didn't just shut this junk off. If you are seriously frightened by Terl, then you are in need of serious help. The character of Terl inspires laughter rather than fear, and that pretty much ruins the whole movie. He's the main character, and you spend the whole time laughing at just how pathetic he is. That tells you something, because even the dude in "Enough" at least didn't make me laugh.
One can't really blame John Travolta for being so bad in this film, since the script gives him zilch to work with. If ever there were a potential career killer, this movie is it. Travolta hasn't impressed me since "Pulp Fiction", and this movie doesn't help. This film has taken all of his dignity. I needed to watch "Saturday Night Fever" twice and "Pulp Fiction" three times to wash the bad taste of "Battlefield Earth" out of my mouth.
Forest Whitaker has seen better days as well. Luckily, he turned in a fantastic performance in "Panic Room" a year after this to redeem his honor. Travolta hasn't even done that much yet. It's time for Travolta to either shape up or go home, plain and simple. It's too painful to watch him sink to such pathetic lows.
So, what do we have? Poor direction, awful acting, and a story so difficult to figure out, and so insulting to your intelligence once you do, that it's better to pretend there is no story. The only thing qualifying this as a "movie" is, well, movement. Yup, the pictures move. That's all it has going for it. Loud, explosive, and annoying, "Battlefield Earth" is the equivalent of a screaming, hungry one-year-old baby that just went in it's diaper: an assault on the senses and, to everyone other than those who created it, annoying.