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Director's Cut: More Not Always Better, Alas
27 February 2003
These comments address the recent release of Cinema Paradiso: The New Version (aka, the director's cut).

I've been a longtime fan of this film, and as early as 1994 when I lived in London rumors were circulating about an extended version of the film. Imagine my excitement when the DVD was released with both version of CP: the original theatrical release and the one with the added footage. However, after viewing the longer incarnation of CP, I'm afraid to report that the added bits softens, and in some cases deadens, what was so originally powerful about CP in the first place: the sense of unrequited or unexplained loss of love.

This new version sets out to explain much that in the original incarnation of the film was left tantalizingly unanswered. For example, Alfredo's sardonic speech about the guard falling in love with the princess ended with Alfredo saying he had no idea what the story meant. Left without a moral, the tale is potent precisely because its moral is uncertain. In this newer version, we see Toto having an epiphany and boldly declares the story's meaning. Suddenly, the piquant ambiguity of Alfredo's tale vanishes--as does much of the film's. We see Toto lose his virginity, and certain familiar conversations are expanded many, many minutes. Too many minutes, sometime.

Exposition and explanations are really the only new additions to this picture. Most important, and for some most alarming, is a very detailed discovery of what happened to Elena after she left Toto for the last time--the so-called expanded "third act." I was always intrigued by the image of an older woman at the end of the final credits of the original version--I just KNEW that was Elena! I had always thought I wanted to know what had become of her, hence my desire for this cut of the film. But now that I know, I think I'm better off not having known.

The elder Salvatore seemed more potent to me when his present life was wracked with deeply unsettling what-ifs. This version fills in all the blanks and leaves little to uncertainty, and to me this robs the film of its very essence: the notion that for many of us, life is filled with questions that will never be answered, can never be answered. This newer version now suggests the opposite, and makes the older Toto look like a morose stalker.

I'll keep this DVD because I treasure this film, despite the additions. Fortunately, the original version is included, so from this time forward I'll keep the DVD platter on Side B. I, for one, prefer the mystery of unanswered questions because that rings so much truer to life and the spirit of this masterpiece.
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Time to put this series to bed
3 September 2001
It was inevitable that with the box office of The Lost World somebody would try to squeeze at least one more episode out of the Jurassic Park franchise; and boy is this one squeezed, except that there's no blood left (pardon the pun). Every tired cliche has been trotted out once more, and you get the feeling like the writers even felt bored of the whole process. Even the music seems stale: the grandeur of John Williams' score sounds lifeless and canned, totally drained of wonder.

I don't think a plot rehash is necessary, because what there is of a plot is quickly dispatched with so that we can get what we paid for: cool looking dinosaurs, lots of screaming, running around, last minute escapes, and special effects galore. Suffice it to say that when Sam Neill is tempted back to the dino islands by a huge wad of cash via William H. Macey, it's as if you're REALLY seeing Sam Neill the actor being handed wads of cash by the JP people, his reluctance to do a sequel overwhelmed by all the good films he could do with this paycheck. In fact, you pretty much know who's going to survive based on salaries in this movie. And the rest of the film has a similar taint to it: gouts of money thrown at the film to make it look decent and fistfuls thrown at the audience in the hopes that the audience will throw money back. It's only partially works.

The film starts out quite well, actually. There's some suspense, a child in peril, and a bickering divorced couple. And once we get the requisite stranding on the spooky island, there's quite a bit of tension built up. But soon all the neato creatures get introduced early on and JP3 rapidly uses up its arsenal of tricks, and when the film ends its more like a tree falling in the forest, you almost don't even notice although the thud is resounding.

For JP movies I am willing to toss a lot out the window for a good thrill: take away character development, pacing, plot continuity even, but at least exhilerate me! Alas, JP3 does none of these things. See it if you must, but consider yourself warned.
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Moulin Rouge! (2001)
A stunning, visual feast
12 June 2001
At the risk of sounding overly bombastic, "Moulin Rouge" is the best film I've seen all year, perhaps the best one I've seen in over a year. It is operatic in the best sense of the word, being at once massively outlandish and deeply personal. It is clear that a lot of people took career risks in choosing this film, and although "Moulin Rouge" may not rack up a huge box office, I think this film will become a classic alongside his other two films "Strictly Ballroom" and "Romeo + Juliet."

In the showing of "Moulin Rouge" I saw last week, at least 5 people walked out. At the same time I heard audience members audibly gasping at the films visuals and talking back to the screen. The source of these strong reactions? Baz Luhrmann's confidence in his garish cinematic vision and the commitment his actors have in him. The cast fills their roles with relish, even when the entire scene totters on the edge of overkill--but oddly enough, it is the focus that sets "Moulin Rouge" apart from other films these days. Whereas some actors sleepwalk through their roles as they collect their paychecks, everything about "Moulin Rouge" is done in earnest.

This movie is the anti-"Pearl Harbor," because instead of being a hodgepodge of market-tested ideas, "Moulin Rouge" presents a bold vision and dares the audience to accept or reject it. I, for one, accepted it with delight. A telling comparison: Luhrmann has Nicole Kidman and Ewen MacGregor sing the film's love song. Very daring. For "Pearl Harbor" Michael Bay chose Faith Hill. Very safe. Too safe. Can you imagine Ben Afleck belting out "There You'll Be"?

"Moulin Rouge" glitters with such bold decisions. It is a sumptuous feast for ear and eye featuring gorgeous costumes, intricate sets (Nicole Kidman's boudoir in a gigantic elephant is a case in point), and outlandishly choreographed dance numbers are paraded with frenetic relish. And the music, the MUSIC! As you probably know by now, Luhrmann has thrown into his period piece a collage of musical snippets from, among many bits, "The Sound of Music," Madonna, The Police, and Elton John. In most cases, no one song gets performed without intersplicing. Witness Luhrmann's audacity: the opening number includes a melding of Labelle's "Lady Marmalade" with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." And here's the spooky part: it works.

The entire movie plays this way, and for the most part it works. Most surpising is that "Moulin Rouge" has a solid, deeply sincere emotional core. Although the film professes to be about love, I'd add that it is equally about loss. The Moulin Rouge is a playground where adults pretend they are children with the added spice of sensuality.

All the performances are excellent, but the hidden gem is Jim Broadbent as Zidler. Broadbent for years has been doing majestically understated supporting work, from "Brazil" to "Enchanted April" to "Topsy-Turvy." In "Moulin Rouge" he manages to be both repulsive and endearing. His spirited rendition of "Like a Virgin" is classic. Too bad it's not on the soundtrack.

Expect to be overwhelmed by "Moulin Rouge" in the most unexpected, delightful ways. It will make you wonder why other films can't or won't dare to be that bold.
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A visually stunning film; Underplayed and masterful
11 January 2000
In a year filled with such groundbreaking films as The Matrix, American Beauty, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, Magnolia, and others, inevitably there will be films of equal--if not superior--merit that will get lost in the shuffle when it comes time to hand out the slew of cinema awards. I fear that Snow Fallings on Cedars will be such a film. The cinematography is simply stunning, the screenplay draws on the narrative strengths of film--montage and arresting visual images--and the acting is understated in such a way that magnifies rather than diminishes the emotional power of its subject matter. And yet the combined force of so many excellent and well-made movies and critical ambivalence will certainly prevent many people from seeing and appreciated this intricately woven film.

A common misconception I've read in the reviews that have panned Snow Falling in Cedars is that the film is, in the words of Newsweek, "a potboiler screaming to get out." Nothing could be further from the truth, as the central motivation for the film isn't just a courtroom thriller. True, the centerpiece of the novel is a murder trial, but in the novel the trial was a set piece designed to showcase many broader issues: culture clashes, racism, and the how cultural misperceptions lead from small misunderstandings to the brink of miscarriages of justice. In fact, to make this film a "potboiler" would be missing the whole point, which I think many reviewer have.

Director Scott Hicks made the correct, though commercially less viable choice, of centering Snow Falling on Cedars on the impressions, memories, and regrets of all who come together in the courtroom. Hence the very visual, impressionistic style. One need not haul out a host of horrific images of the Japanese internment to capture exactly how unjust and morally indefensible it was. Hicks simply evokes shades of Schindler's List in the way the Japanese residents are rounded up, tagged, and unceremoniously carted off in US military trucks, while in the foreground waves a 48-starred American flag. The image is at once simple and powerful.

The film's narrative style weighs heavily on this kind of storytelling. True, it may not make immediate sense, but as the film progresses the images begin to layer upon themselves and begin to reveal their fragility and beauty. The acting from all quarters, especially Ethan Hawke (who has spent so many movies in goateed slacker mode), is understated and judicious. There are no histrionics, no scenery-chewing bits that have "Oscar moment" flashing all over them. And to witness Max Von Sydow's masterfully underplayed defense summation is to experience the rare instance where you truly see a fine actor steeled in his craft.

Find the time to see this film and you will find yourself rewarded with an impressionistic, quietly invoked film written in the language that cinema was meant to speak.
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Why?? WHY?? WHY!!??
15 October 1999
With all the talent converging on this film, you'd think that someone could have stepped back and said, "I think we got a stink bomb on our hands--let's try and fix it." But no, the film went ahead, and unfortunately (fortunately for all involved, however), "Double Jeopardy" was released during that time of year when studios dump their unsalvagable projects, and this film managed to be one of the pieces of flotsam that floated to the top.

If you've seen the trailer or the TV ad for the film, rest assured that you know the entire plot. I was hoping against hope that the film would be a little more engaging, somewhat more endearing, and much more action packed than the commercial, but I was disappointed on all counts. And because of the plot-revealing ads, all traces of suspense are swiftly bled away, leaving you to play "connect the scene" until you've seen the last scene (and yes, it is the one with Judd aiming a gun at her husband). The film traipses along without rhyme and less reason, hoping to distract you from the glaring plot holes by adding periodic kindling to your rage for revenge and giving Tommy Lee Jones wisecrack lines to deliver in his patented deadpan.

I can't even begin to ennumerate the volumes of non sequiturs, plot inconsistancies, sketchy leaps of logic, and loose ends scattered about this film. Ashley Judd wakes up on a boat covered in blood. Fine. How do the authorities know it is the blood of the husband she purports to have murdered? Weare not told, though such a procedure is mandatory. Yet the film demands that you assume the forensics team overlooked that detail The prosecution offers as evidence a tape of a distress call allegedly made by said husband, "I've been stabbed." But if she was really stabbing him would she allow him time to make the call? Shouldn't we hear her somewhere in the background trying to finish the job? Of course not. And so on and so on, ad absurdum. In its attempt to raise your miscarriage of justice dudgeon, the film makes the trial, and all subsequent injustices, howlingly and vapidly ludicrous. Even the bad guy, played unconvincingly by Bruce Greenwood, can't even take a lesson from past movie villains. His inexplicable relapse into the Auric Goldfinger school of "I-am-going-to-put-you-in-my- machine-of-death-and-leave-you-to-die-Mr. Bond" is inexcusable. Why do bad guys always leave the death of their foes up to fate?

Judd tries hard, real hard, to be an emotional center and to give her quest the gravity it deserves. Unfortunately, the film won't give her time--it's too busy rushing her through the post-murder grieving, the trial, the jail time, and the parole in order to get the the real business of the plot: the incredible (as in "not credible") quest to track down her undead (meaning, of course, "not really dead") husband. Even turning off your brain doesn't work here: the chases are banal, what remains of the suspense is tepid, and the only thing that really looks great is the not-so-subtle plug for Armani and Judd's dazzling entrance to a swank Nawlins shindig.

But the logical fallacies don't end here. Somehow, this flick has made a lot of money and has raised Judd's salary to something like $8 million. But coming from a film where a fat roll of twenty dollar bills appears fortuitously in a tomato garden, I suppose anything can happen.
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A delightful surprise
11 August 1999
"The Iron Giant" is the kind of animated film you wish there was more of. It respects the audience's intelligence, it has genuine emotion without resorting to schmaltz, and best of all it balances fantasy (well, science fiction) with believability. I think Warner Brothers animation has out-Disneyed Disney by adding thoughtful writing to clean, understated animation. What a concept!

The story is deceptively simple: Iron Giant falls from the sky at the dawn of the Space Race and befriends a young boy. But within that framework we get a double story, one for the grown ups and one for the kids, but the message is essentially the same one: paranoia and violence begets violence. I appreciate very much, as others who have commented, that no one burst into incongruous song and that there were no cutesy animal sidekicks. I should add that there were no clever yet implausible plot twists, nor were there any stock characters. The bad guy gets a little overheated, true, but he is never the embodiment of all things evil. The townspeople are your average small town Americans, not bumpkins. Mom is, well, mom-ish, caring but neither shrewish nor prone to whimpering outbursts. And our hero is plucky but not annoyingly precocious.

A BIG plus for this film is how well it weds the computer animation to the hand-drawn animation, a feat that the Big Mouse hasn't mastered yet. Even as recently as "Tarzan" it is glaringly apparent what parts are computer graphics and which aren't, and the contrast is very distracting. "The Iron Giant" makes a virtue of streamlined animation that draws your eye to the beauty of its color and motion.

It was a very VERY distinct and unusual pleasure to be treated to a film such as this. Give us more . . . please!
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Dick (1999)
A limp film. Could it have possibly been WORSE?
9 August 1999
In all my years of film-going, only once have I walked out on a film, and that was the dreadful "Stay Tuned." Fortunately, the cinema refunded the ticket and I went to see "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" instead (a minor improvement). That film is "Gone With the Wind" compared to "Dick," a comedy so unfunny that it nearly became the second film I ever walked out of. "Dick" was so unfunny it was even impossible to laugh AT it, let alone laugh with it.

Granted, paying to see a movie with a title like "Dick" suggests that it will be filled with inane "dick" jokes and wind up a huge letdown, and yet I had high hopes because of the notable cast (Daniel Hedaya, Bruce McCullough, Dave Foley, Kristen Dunst, etc., etc.) and a premise that at least promised something fresh. What the film delivered was, as portended, four woefully predictable "dick" jokes, comic timing suffering from jetlag, and a premise that wore thin after the first five minutes. In short, it was the Watergate scene from "Forrest Gump" stretched--nay, laid on a rack and mangled--over 90+ excruciating minutes.

As soon as you understand that the two main characters--airless, insipid squealers who gasp and roll eyeballs incessantly--will participate in every major Watergate event, you begin to mentally check off the plot as it progresses: 18 and a half minutes erased from the Nixon tapes, CHECK; the Deep Throat meetings with Woodward and Bernstein, CHECK; John Dean getting a change of heart and testifying, CHECK. The process drags out more languidly and about as engaging as the real Watergate affair with about as much laugh-getting to boot. And though it posits to be an amusing re-deconstruction of the events leading to President Nixon's resignation, it turns into a paint-by-the-numbers, choose-your-own-adventure, fill-in-the-blanks comedy that says very little and entertains even less.

Even the film's strong point--the aforementioned cast--is bewilderingly unproductive here. The most disappointing of all is Harry Shearer as G. Gordon Liddy. Trapped as he is behind the thick Liddy moustache and strait-jacketed in this numbingly morose screenplay, Shearer mumbles a few lines, tries desperately to leer from behind the prosthetic nose and eyebrows, then disappears. Dave Foley, one of the comic masterminds from Kids in the Hall (two others, Bruce McCullough and Mark McKinney also appear in this film--ah, the blessings of nepotism) fares badly as well. His H.R. Haldeman occasionally lends a much-need lightening of the funeral plot, but the funniest thing about him is the buzz-cut he sports--perhaps the films funniest bit of all. And then there's Daniel Hedaya as Richard Nixon--oops, I mean "Dick." (Ha ha how amusingly funny.) He manages to play a solid Nixon, avoiding the pitfalls (such as overdone make up, rubbery nose and false teeth a la Anthony Hopkins) while preserving the essence (the vacillations between human tenderness and coarseness). I seem to be forgetting someone . . . oh yes, the two stars of the film, those over-bubbly teenagers. Can't remember their names, perhaps because I have repressed their performances. Nothing could be farther from funny; nothing could be more painful than having to endure their deliverly that ran the gamut of "hyperactive" and "super-hyperactive" with an occasional "pouty" tossed in.

This film seemed to be a bad excuse to string together a 70s soundtrack and parade outrageous period clothing, both of which seem to be the norm these days for films and TV shows set in the "Me Decade." But the clothes and the music wind up being an ersatz substitute for true characterization and plot, a kind of extra-plot shorthand that the producers hope will compensate for anemic writing.

The only possible use for this film is years down the road when any one of its talented cast appears on David Letterman or Conan O'Brien. This dreadful cinematic excretion will be dragged out to embarrass and hopefully humble the stunned guest star. The sad thing is that the real bad guys in all this--the writers and producers--will be far from the cameras gaze, possibly cooking up another disaster such as this.
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Quite good; not perfect, but good
9 June 1999
With all the voices and opinions and critical ravings about The Phantom Menace, I am sure that one more voice weighing in ain't gonna make that much of a ripple. But I am a committed fan (in the sense of being devoted, not insane), and I feel the need at least to declare publicly my admiration for Lucas' latest work, and also a few of my concerns.

Overall, Episode One ranks above Episode Six, about par with Episode Four, but certainly nowhere near the grandeur and wit of Episode Five. Phantom Menace reminds me of something someone said of Citizen Kane: A hollow masterpiece. PM is technically brilliant, yet it is so technically brilliant that it lacks a certain "human" warmth. To me, the best moments were those intimate, interpersonal moments--Padme giving Anakin a blanket, Qui-Gon placing his hands on Anakin's shoulders in the Jedi temple, and ESPECIALLY all those moments with Shmi Skywalker, Anakin's mother.

In an interview in Premiere Magazine, Liam Neeson gave a telling anecdote that illustrates my point. First, he noted that Lucas was reticent to give the actors any motivation for lines, expressions, or anything. In other words, Lucas simply expected the actors to say lines devoid of emotional content, as if the post-production could somehow invest emotional motivation. Neeson revealed that it took him a long time to convince Lucas to allow Qui-Gon to place a hand on Shmi's shoulder after he convinces her to allow him to take Anakin away to Coruscant. That hand on the shoulder was probably the BEST moment in that film, a sign of human connection in a swirling clash of galactic politics gone awry.

Traces of post-production fiddling is evidenced most forcefully with Jake Lloyd's Anakin. Watch carefully his scenes at the dinner table, sitting with Qui-Gon at night, and saying goodbye to his mother. Those scenes were clearly doctored in post-production; I believe Lucas took different takes of Lloyd saying lines and splicing those with Pernilla August's. Pay special attention to Anakin after Shmi says, "He can help you, he was meant to help you." Anakin's face is clearly digitally manipulated to turn sideways. The first time I noticed it (it was the fourth time I've seen the film) I was taken aback. It was so blatant I began to wonder what other bits were modified that way.

On the plus side: Lucas can weave a wonderfully rich narrative tapestry. I love that all this begins with a trade dispute. A trade dispute! Complete with procedural wranglings in a galactic senate rife with corruption and bureaucracy (watch for the cameo appearance of Spielberg's ETs) and a sinister Darth Sidious pulling the political strings. It's the perfect smokescreen to disguise the rise of an evil empire. Every step of the plot has the look of careful craftsmanship; every twist and turn of the plot had relevance.

The costumes are outstanding, especially Queen Amidala's Asian-influenced wardrobe. John Williams has certainly outdone himself with the soundtrack, particularly "Duel of the Fates," which introduces choral voices into the Star Wars musical repertoire, ominous voices that sometimes hiss and sometimes howl the forboding Sanskrit text. The production design and cinematography (both real and CGI) create vistas of unparalleled beauty and richness: from the Italianate arches and domes on Naboo, to the art nouveau-inspired underwater air-globes of the Gungans, to the dramatic cityscapes of Coruscant. I can see Academy Awards next year for all these achievements . . .

Despite its many drawbacks, I am drawn continually to rewatch The Phantom Menace: for its artistry, for its lines ("There's always a bigger fish"), for those rare human moments, and to soak in this latest addition to the Star Wars text. Yes, the wrapper might be a tad bit flashier than the present inside, but its a gift given with a lot of heart and the best of intentions.
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Better than I had anticipated
29 May 1999
This is a fairly decent film with a really lame title. The film's opening is even misleading, starting with some pretty raucous gay sex--so from the outset it appears as if the film is going to be yet another dull explorating of the trials of gay life in the 90s. And there have been a lot of those films lately. Fortunately, director PJ Castellaneta is more wily than he lets on, and allows the film to evolve into something more intricate and at times very touching.

The film manages to balance a cast of widely different characters and maintain a sense of order without devolving into a who's who of politically correct character inclusion. You have the straights, the gays, the lesbians, the bisexuals, blacks, whites, latinos, and the film even manages to present Christianity in positive tones, albeit with a few well placed jabs now and then. The scripts evenly doles out its emotional weight, never straying into farce when it would be the easy thing to do, nor does it list grind into maudlin sentimentality when it would also be the easy thing to do.

The story revolves around the lives of a coterie of friends of various sexual orientations and temperament. "Relax" follows their development with humor and insight, sometimes relying too much on an intrusive voiceover by the main character, Vince. The emotional centerpiece of the film is a gay bashing where the victim suddenly gains the upper hand. This moment threatens to overwhelm the final half of the film because it raises a crucial question that the "Relax" never adequately, answers (nor did I feel it should have answered), which is, In a world where one is oppressed by violence, to what degree is violence--retributive, eye-for-an-eye violence--an appropriate response?

This is just one of a number of issues that the film raises and leaves for your consideration. Perhaps it is just as well, since it seems like to dwell overly long on these issues would overwhelm the rest of the film; indeed, Castellaneta felt it necessary to remove Vince from the main thread of the film, whereas he was hitherto the central character. In his place, Jennifer Tilly takes over, and she takes the film to its conclusion. Tilly usually goes for the quirks or the sex appeal of her film characters, but this time around she plays a woman whose quirks don't overwhelm her personality, merely compliment. She makes the film.

It was also nice to see a gay film that didn't trot out the familiar, banal diatribes against Christianity. Granted, the gay Christian couple does come across as a little hokey at times, they are never portrayed as weird, evil, judgmental, or exclusionary. Indeed, they are a fitting completion to the the microcosmos that revolves around Tilly's maternal presence.

I came to the film with few expectations and came away rather pleased. There are still a few drawn out moments that could have been trimmed, but the overall package of this film was a surprising delight.
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Simon Birch (1998)
It has a lot of heart, but not enough to overcome its many flaws
6 May 1999
It's hard not to like a movie that has such likeable qualities: a cute dwarfish boy who believes he has an unspecified mission from God, an equally radiant buddy who's always there, a mother figure in the form of the highly under-rated Ashley Judd, and all that gorgeous faux-New England scenery (the film was shot in Canada). The problem with "Simon Birch" can be encapsulated in Jim Carey's unheralded appearance as the film's narrator. With his best "I-desperately-want-you-to-like-me" voice, he sweetly intones his lines earnestly and with a great sense of anticipation, however he never really transcends a vapid flavor of Jack Handey-ness about his presentation. In fact, the whole movie resembles an extended "Deep Thoughts," from the scenery down to the sentiment that at times out-sacchrine's sacchrine.

To its credit, "Simon Birch" has some earnest moments that actually work. Like the John Irving novel it was based on ("A Prayer for Owen Meaney"), the film has many fascinating plot twists and developments, but it is essentially a character exploration, and to that end Irving (and "Birch") will reveal or hint at key plot developments early on so that you are free to enjoy how the characters evolve. And there are many fascinating characters to examine: Simon himself, his friend Joe (Joseph Mazzello), Joe's mother, Joe's grandmother, Simon's parents, and so forth.

The central failing of "Simon Birch," ironically, sits squarely on Simon's shoulders. The boy is cute, no denying that, notwithstanding his often preternaturally awkward, chitchatty preoccupations with breasts that becomes annoyingly omnipresent. The film revolved around the question of his divine calling: he knows God has a purpose for him, he tells everyone so. And yet when the fateful moment finally arrives, you've been so set up for something, well, truly miraculous that what actually does occur makes you go, "oh, is that it?" The payoff for this set-up is something that could easily be relegated to good fortune or ideal timing. The film even goes a long (and often ridiculous) way to set things up so that Simon can become the hero he becomes, but once again, the moment isn't so much "divine" as it is, well, fortuitous and nothing more. Maybe what "Simon Birch" is trying to say that ordinary heroism is itself divine, but if that is true, it swathes that ordinary heroism in so much sentiment and patent unordinariness that you are sure exactly what the message is. The movie is too concerned with making you cry at the end to consider its own ambiguous message.

Joseph Mazzello is also becoming a potential problem. I enjoy his work, from the brat in "Jurassic Park" and the genuinely affecting tyke in "Shadowlands." But as he's grown older, he hasn't shown too much development as an actor. Granted, he's young still, but he is beginning to show the limits of his range. His "Simon Birch" character is virtually indistinguishable from his "Shadowlands" and "The Cure" characters. He's seems to rely too much on his cute factor and the movie's cute factor to get him through some tough acting spots, and it is beginning to show.

The best actor of the bunch, Ashley Judd, also has the least amount of screen time. Though her limited time is woefully inadequate to her talents, she manages to show grace and dignity with what she has to work with. Judd is one of those rare actors who looks equally appropriate in a period piece as she does in contemporary films (and even sci-fi, as evidenced in her work as a recurring character on Star Trek: The Next Generation), and I trust that she will find better showcases for her as yet untapped reservoir of talent.

And thus "Simon Birch" collapses on itself because of too many good intentions spent on too flimsy a premise. Jim Carey, on his eternal quest for screen-cred, will have to keep mugging wistfully in more pictures before he gets its just right. "Simon Birch" could have used a lot more sincerity.
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Go (1999)
A wonderful wild ride; sometimes too clever, sometimes not enough
29 April 1999
"Go" reads like a very very good sophomore offering by a very very good up-and-coming director. You can almost see a bright future for everyone involved in the film, from the director (Doug Liman) to the screenwriter (John August) to all of the young actors. The script is clearly the winner, with witty dialogue and a convoluted plotline (or plotlines, depending on how you view it) centered around a dozen or so GenX-er Los Angelenos on Christmas Eve. The film slickly moves you from one plotline to the next, as you follow one minor disaster leading to other minor disasters.

The film being a "sophomore offering," of course, has some drawbacks. Yes, it is tangentially derivative of "Pulp Fiction." And yes, it does scrounge a bit from this teen flick and that. In some cases, certain plotlines wrap up too neatly, and in other cases the plotlines don't converge nearly as neatly enough. But what the film may lack in originality it certainly makes up for with style and quirks.

The real discovery in all this is the cast. Sarah Polly stands out (listen to her mild Canadian accent slip through once in a while) as the world-weary checkout gal who's first and only foray into drug-dealing unleashes a legion of trouble for her. Desmond Askew (wonderfully punny name) is this Pulp Fiction's Tim Roth, glib and cocky as his well-ordered world whirls and crumbles around him in a neatly choreographed disaster. As the sinister drug supplier, Timothy Olyphant is particularly menacing, exuding equal amounts of danger and innocence, sexiness and insecurity. The characters in "Go" never become cardboard parodies of themselves, and they never dissolve into charicatures of themselves for the sake of plot or atmosphere.

So watch the film, soak in the plot, atmosphere, and the characters. At the risk of sounding glib myself, by all means "Go."
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Exotica (1994)
Amazingly beautiful, haunting film
29 April 1999
I can't remember seeing a film as intriguing, complex, and beautifully photographed as "Exotica." I nearly didn't watch it because the video cover advertized it as an "erotic thriller" and the image on the front is of Mia Kirchner doing her strip-tease bit. Granted, "Exotica" centers around a "gentleman's club" of the same name, but to call this film a simple erotic thriller is to miss out on a lot, on too much.

"Exotica" follows four seemingly unrelated storylines: a man sitting alone at a table in a strip club, another man smuggling exotic parrot eggs into the country ("Exotica" takes place in and around Toronto), two apparent strangers walking in a field of green, and a young girl who plays a flute in an empty house. Egoyan begins with these vastly different puzzle pieces then slowly, inexorably brings them together.

Atom Egoyan is one heck of a masterful director. He is the epicenter of this cinematic symphony that leads carefully from movement to movement until the finale bursts forth in equal measure of catharsis, discovery, and tragedy. Plot to him is like tapestry weaving. He threads narrative, characters, time, and setting in such complicated iterations that one is at once nearly overwhelmed by the intricacy and awed at his skill, a testament to his brilliance as well as his belief that a film-going audience is actually intelligent.

At it's heart, "Exotica" is a tragedy of circumstances. Or better yet, a collision of tragedies of circumstances. Indeed, the film isn't so much about tragedy as it is about those who survive tragedy and the toll a single event can exact for the rest of the lives of those who survive. Exotica, the gentleman's club, serves merely as a focal point where all these individual tragedies radiate to.

Equally haunting in all this is the music. Mychael Danna's score sets the film's tone: dark, "exotic," deceptively simple but savvier than it lets on. Also worthy of note is the music in the club itself, a blend of American house funk and Middle Eastern tones, warbled in Arabic.

I highly recommend this film. Ignore the naked women who sashay from time to time in front of the screen (difficult as that may be at times) in the scenes shot in the club. The really interesting stuff occurs at the margins of the film, as the gulf separating the storylines begin to vanish, and the final scene gives you the keystone to a horrifying clear vision of a sadness so overwhelming that no one in the film escapes unscathed.
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The Matrix (1999)
Productions values great, but Keanu is still wooden
1 April 1999
This is one of the few movies out there where the entire film actually matches the intensity and "cool factor" of the trailer. From the vast CGI landscapes down to the shell casings of bullets falling in slo-mo, The Matrix presents everything you want in a techno-thriller. The costumes are especially appealing, a bleak Armani vision tempered with flashes of Gaultier. All shades of blacks, greens, and washed out whites permeate.

Two drawbacks, and I would argue that they are serious drawbacks (with a possible third looming in the background), make The Matrix a less than ideal actioner. First, nothing--I repeat NOTHING--can excuse Keanu Reeve's dour performance. His career path is inexplicable: how does this guy get work on what some people call "acting"? The audience I saw this with laughed at his vain attempts to say serious dramatic lines, and even his dry attempts at humor ("I know kung fu" he utters in disbelief) drew laughs at him, not with. Fortunately, Lawrence Fishburne and company make up for him. Second: a lame plot twist near the end of the film completely wrecks the nicely wound storyline. Granted, one must give this film a lot of leeway; but what it asked me to swallow in the end I could not do. I was willing to forgive the long, monologue-ish exposition parts that linked the really groovy special effects sequences, but that bit in the end (you'll know it when you see it) was unpardonable. Third: the ending leaves no doubt that, barring a minor box office meltdown, there is a sequel in the offing. . .

So the film looks GREAT, sounds great, and for the most part unravels a complex plotline (with the one exception) with surprising finesse; I don't usually expect this craftsmanship in a special effects movie. As long as you can ignore Keanu, and the nearly 2.5 hour running time that drags once in a while, this movie is worth a matinee.
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