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9/10
Sprightly, Well-Acted Comedy/Drama That Overcomes the Threat of Predictability
17 January 2005
Director/scriptwriter Paul Weitz was blessed with a top cast for his comedy/drama "In Good Company." Here's a film that in some ways resembles and is a bit of a genre successor to "The Graduate," that 1960s iconoclastic gem. Even the new songs complement the story in the same way Simon and Garfunkel's lyrics melded with the story line in "The Graduate." Dennis Quaid as Dan Foreman is in his early fifties, a contented manager of a sports mag's ad department. His home life seems almost too good to be true. He loves his wife, Ann (Marg Helgenbergen) and gets on well with his two teenage daughters. The older one, Alex (Scarlett Johansson, in another deep and convincing performance), has a tennis scholarship to a New York State public university where the tuition isn't exactly sky high. But she wants to transfer to New York University in Greenwich Village to study creative writing where the cost is very, very steep.

Almost before you can get into your tub of popcorn Dan is struck with multiple whammies. His magazine is taken over by a mega-corporate raider, Teddy K, and a new ad department honcho, Carter Duryea (Topher Grace), only twenty-six years young, bounces Dan from his executive office while also anointing him as his designated "wingman." Earnest, inexperienced, foppish, supercilious and dangerous in that special way the inept invariably are, he poses a real threat to Dan's future. And Dan is worried about his future because Ann announces she's having a change-of-life baby.

And then Scarlett meets Carter. You need me to tell you what Dan's next mid-life crisis will be? "In Good Company" could have been just a mildly amusing sitcom. The fast-paced acting and the excellence of the cast - especially Quaid and young (she's still a teen) Johansson - kept me glued to the screen for the whole showing. And I admit to being troubled by the issues underlying and scenes showing peremptory firings. There's some ambiguity here - is that the only way for a prosperous corporation to go? Dan's pain at losing long-time co-workers is deeply etched on his face but is he more sentimental and loyal than realistic? I don't know. From the vantage point of a tenured academic with lifetime employment I found myself dragged into questions that I think Weitz meant to raise. Well, he did anyway.

Small roles are well performed by David Paymer as one of Dan's subordinates and Selma Blair who briefly shows up in the beginning as Carter's new wife, Kimberly. I always enjoy seeing this fine actress but her talent is wasted in brief roles.

And Manhattan restaurants where I eat and stores where I shop are all over the well-shot scenes and that always makes me happy.

A very good film.

9/10
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7/10
Somewhat of a Letdown
31 December 2004
Bill Murray delivered one of the best performances of his outstanding career in "Lost in Translation" and I was primed for a reputedly even stronger one in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." Instead I found a strong cast in a muddled story that reflects director Wes Anderson's indecision as to whether the film was to be a comedy, a fantasy or a serious look at relationships.

Murray as deep sea explorer Steve Zissou is nearing the end of his long-running global, big celebrity popularity as a faux Cousteau. And there are plenty of references, verbal and physical, to the late, great scientist. There's a Moby Dick element, off center really, to the story as Zissou is bankrolled to find a near mythical shark that devoured his long-time partner and closest friend. "Revenge" is Zissou's one word explanation and justification for hunting down and killing a sea creature. Not PC, of course.

Oh, and Zissou is also a Bob Ballard-type employing technology to search the ocean depths, here a motley mishmash of put-together-in-a-hurry tools. His ship's shop is a caricature rather than a clever send-up of the dependence on advances in extreme ocean-exploring technology that frequently highlight documentaries shown over and over again on cable.

Anjelica Huston is fine as Zissou's still suffering but relentlessly supportive ex-wife. Owen Wilson as Zissou's possibly own son, the product of a long-ago liaison, is an act that straddles the extended adolescent romantic and the second banana buffoon. An actually very pregnant Cate Blanchett is a reporter running away from a bad situation as a married man's girlfriend. She's confused as well she should be. What is she doing with this madcap outfit? Blanchett gives her role her customary all (could she ever do less?) but she's wasted here.

William Dafoe is first-mate, a funny but capable chap who hungers for Zissou's approval. He's funny but his interaction with both Murray and Wilson smacks mainly of a sitcom shtick.

The romantic relationships here aren't interesting or even marginally funny, they're tedious.

Murray has the ability unsurpassed by any other actor to project a knowing weariness at the vicissitudes of life, the central emotional outpouring that made "Lost in Translation" shine. Here the weariness seems to be due to having to deal with rapidly shifting tempi that reflect a confusing and, ultimately, unsatisfying tale.

There are funny moments in "The Life Aquatic..." but the whole never equals the value of its too many discrete parts. Ultimately one word describes the film: camp.

And finally in the end titles, the producer must have belatedly been informed that there's a real Steve Zissou who is acknowledged as a New York lawyer specializing in "complex litigation." Actually he practices criminal law in Queens, New York where there are lots of those cases, few of them complex. But it's never admitted that a Steve Zissou, deceased, a devoted Cousteau protégé, remains a stridently debated character in the annals and journals of ichthyology because of his early Sixties claim to have discovered the upstate New York spawning ground of the gefilte fish.

Murray can do so much better and I hope he will soon.

7/10
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The Coward (I) (1915)
8/10
Give Me That Old Time Civil War Reconciliation Flick
30 December 2004
"The Coward," a 1915 silent era Civil War flick, was designed, written and directed to be enjoyable North and South of Messrs. Mason and Dixon's line. Today it's a curiosity piece both as entertainment and as history (I'm showing it in a few weeks in my law school legal history seminar, "Slavery, the Constitution and the Civil War." Our un-hero is a finely turned out Southern lad, popular with the demure lassies and scion to the small but well-kept estate of a former colonel. The fellow lives with his parents and their two devoted slaves, a cook and a sort of valet-butler.

The call to arms, to defend the South (the South was invaded?), comes and the boy heads to the recruiting station where his contemporaries are eagerly lining up to doff formal attire and don uniforms. He chickens out, goes home and confesses to Pa that's he's chicken. No, thunders dad, no member of our family can be a coward. Get thee back and sign up.

He does so but at the first sign of danger, while on picket duty, he deserts and skedaddles home. Mommy embraces him, the slaves try to hide him and Pa has a royal fit when he finds his worthless, gutless offspring gulping down milk and cookies in the kitchen.

Determined to salvage family honor, Pa enlists as a private, replacing his son. Meanwhile, Union officers have occupied the family home and a hiding in the attic deserter overhears their battle plans. Guess how the story develops from there.

A tale of honor cravenly lost and then heroically redeemed, "The Coward" is the kind of satisfying melodrama that early moviegoers loved. The actors magnify their facial expressions to compensate for silently mouthed dialog.

Southerners watching "The Coward" could bask in the family loyalty to the Confederacy and the pliant, loving submission of slaves. Northerners saw an honorable foe whose forces but not spirit could be beaten.

A neat relic from the vaults of the silents.

8/10
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The Aviator (2004)
9/10
A Biopic About a Very Brilliant But Very Disturbed Man
27 December 2004
Hollywood loves biopics and, judging from past and recent history, the more whacked-out the subject the more resources go into the film. It doesn't matter if the average moviegoer knows anything about the spotlighted character (as in "A Brilliant Mind," how many knew about that Nobel Prize-winning genius?). Actually it may be an advantage to not sit there comparing recollected reality with silver screen confabulation.

In any event I doubt many people under sixty know much about rich inventor-cum-movie producer and director Howard Hughes. Hughes shifted gears from a fulsome dose of Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD) to full-blown madness decades before death released him from an affluent but miserable life.

Martin Scorsese is massively fascinated by Hughes and his sprawling film is a testament to the man's brilliance as well as his descent into tragically isolated insanity. Having cast Leonardo DiCaprio in the much overpraised "Gangs of New York," he recruited this versatile actor, who owes his preeminence in Tinseltown to the runaway success of "Titanic," to portray Hughes from his mid-1920s life as producer/director of the uber-over budget World War I aerial combat flick, "Hell's Angels," to the late Forties.

As portrayed by DiCaprio, Hughes was a driven perfectionist. Nothing wrong with that in a surgeon but with a movie production there's a time to wrap it up and Hughes took years to reach that point. His obsession with detail, well reflected by DiCaprio, was simply an early and useful mirror of his increasingly handicapping OCD.

That movie's success brought gorgeous women flocking to his side but the most interesting liaison was with rising star Katharine Hepburn. Cate Blanchett inhabits Hepburn, a risky role when so many both remember the recently deceased icon and were mesmerized by her out-sized, bigger than life personality. Well Blanchett did it - no surprise. She inhaled Hepburn's clipped, staccato speech and her mannerisms, not all of which were always gentle or kind, even to loved ones. An Oscar nomination, I hope, will follow.

Hughes, an experienced but often reckless pilot, germinated ideas for novel aircraft design and he had the sense, the judgment to recruit the best minds to translate his concepts into operational models. Much of "The Aviator" focuses on Hughes's drive to produce the fastest planes and the biggest for the military. DiCaprio's Hughes balances ambitious plans well laid out with the creeping advent of uncontrollable mental illness. Closeups show a Hughes who knows something is going rather wrong but he hasn't the ability to fight it (or the shrinks).

As Hughes's lover Ava Gardner, Kate Beckinsale is very grown up and convincing. She's a versatile actress and she proves it again here.

The denouement of Hughes's public life was a vicious scandal engineered by Pan Am's Juan Trippe (a smooth, venal Alec Baldwin) who controlled Maine's Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (a not as nice as we usually expect him to be Alan Alda). Trippe coveted a monopoly for international flights for Pan Am (anyone see a Pan Am plane lately?) and Hughes's TWA was an obstacle that had to be neutralized by law or acquired by coerced sale.

The Senate hearing is over dramatized but it reflects a dirty world of false accusations and behind the scenes chicanery that, I understand, actually occurs from time to time. Shocking.

Perhaps Hughes's greatest gift to mankind was not his into the air briefly only once, eight-engine Spruce Goose, but his getting Jane Russell in "The Outlaw" to the screen past the censors. Many male libidos owed much to that film's release. But the men who couldn't bare to have Russell's ample cleavage on big screens held up the movie's release for SIX years. Awful!

Jude Law who is in nearly every movie these days shows up as Errol Flynn. A forgettable performance.

DiCaprio, Blanchett, Beckinsale, Alda and Baldwin make a good team with a master director, Scorsese. Wonder what's next?

Good use is made of period newsreels and the score helps keep the dialog moving nicely.

9/10
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9/10
Fantasy, Morality, Honor-Classical Chinese Themes Blended Beautifully
26 December 2004
Director Yimou Zhang has been around for a while. In 1987 his "Red Sorgum" starring the beautiful Gong Li was a bigger hit in New York than Beijing. With young Ziyi Zhang as the mysterious, alluring and tough as bamboo Mei in "House of Flying Daggers," Zhang may well have a lustrous successor to Gong Li.

Gorgeous scenery taken full advantage of by a skilled director and cinematographer complement the fast-moving action in a story set many centuries ago in a turbulent, unstable China. A guerrilla gang (force, whatever) called The Flying Daggers wishes to terminate with extreme prejudice the existing governmental infrastructure. That's a recurrent them in both current Chinese film and that country's long history of alternating stability and near wholesale civil anarchy. Beijing's party leaders have no trouble with flicks resurrecting stories about past insurrections against tyranny as long as no parallel with the folks who gave us Tianamen Square is deducible.

The cops need to catch the new leader of The Flying Daggers but first they must know who that character is. Mei, a recently acquired denizen of an ornate brothel that seems to offer every pleasure except dim sum, is believed to be a planted Dagger. A police officer goes to the bordello in disguise, gets blind Mei to perform athletically virtuosic dances and then crudely attempts rape.

Mei gets locked up. Mei escapes with the aid of a Chinese Zorro. The undercover cop who tried to have his way with her, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), teams up with her. He's trying to find The Flying Dagger lair. Leo (Andy Lau), his superior, keeps close on the couple's trail, issuing instructions to Jin whenever he can skip away from Mei for an impromptu forest briefing.

This is a martial arts film with depth. All the expected choreography of men, women, arrows, daggers and assorted ad hoc ordnance are skillfully employed. After all, Zhang is still reaping the bounty from his well-praised and now hot selling on DVD film, "Hero." I'm sure the Chinese language also has a maxim, "Nothing succeeds like success." But "House of Flying Daggers" is much more than a kung-fu epic set in a long ago time. The actors' sensitive portrayals reflect human collisions - in this case that big problem, The Romantic Triangle - that are universal. Jin and Mei fall in love despite their concealed motives for being what and who they are. The intense fighting scenes do not eclipse the romantic story.

As with virtually all Chinese film, eroticism is displayed almost solely through taut closeups and warily surrendered stilted expressions of deep feeling. Zhang goes a little further than most directors with having his couple roll passionately in the grass but not even a side glimpse of Mei's bared breast is permitted. Politically Zhang remains safely on the same page as the party cultural satraps who can, even now, advance or screw up his long career.

The nobility of honor, an enduring and often selfless quality with an ancient lineage, is a predominant hallmark of contemporary Chinese and Japanese cinema. The struggle between doing what honor demands or succumbing to human frailty is a theme in most cultures but its outlines are often starkest in non-Western tradition. A timeless and compelling subject, it's very well projected in this movie.

I'm not a martial arts film fan by a long chalk. But when the deadly terpsichore is as well done as is the case here AND when the human story emerges so strongly and affectingly, then I can only say - yeah, I'll buy the DVD when it's released.

The score is excellent, a fusion of traditional Chinese motifs and Western-inflected melodies performed largely on ancient instruments.

Unfortunately and unnecessarily a song in English performed by Kathleen Battle, whose opera career has somewhat plateaued, accompanies the end titles. Leave before her warbling starts-it adds nothing.

9/10
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9/10
Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole: Marvelous Together
26 December 2004
"How to Steal a Million" is a mildly original, set in Paris, crime caper. It's very funny and Peter O'Toole as a private detective masquerading as an art thief and Audrey Hepburn as the daughter of an art forger are a wonderful comedic duo.

Hepburn is Nicole and her father is her amoral but loving father, Bonnet (Hugh Griffith). Bonnet paints "great masterpieces," seemingly to order. His fakes have brought him and his daughter enough wealth to allow them to live in a fantasy town house in the heart of Paris.

One of Bonnet's fakes isn't a painting - it's an "ancient" sculpture he has on exhibition and which he doesn't intend to sell. But rack and ruin will visit him if a scheduled technical examination of the piece by an insurance company's expert reveals its recent origin.

Nicole and O'Toole's Simon Dermott co-hatch a silly and improbable scheme to steal the sculpture before it can be unveiled as a forgery. Adding a bit of a side story, a fairly young Eli Wallach is a Donald Trump-sort-of-businessman who covets the work at any price.

It's a madcap adventure with Audrey Hepburn projecting her extraordinarily captivating charm while Peter O'Toole complements her with his own suave demeanor.

Now available on DVD, "How to Steal a Million" is a gem that shows why almost every moviegoer with a heart passionately adored Ms. Hepburn. It's a movie to savor on a cold night but it also will go nicely with tropical torpor.

They don't make lighthearted capers like this any more. They try and some of the films are good but the special innocence and sparkle of a movie like "How to Steal a Million" seems to elude today's directors who use techno-toys in place of wit and sublime acting.

9/10
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3/10
Potted Stephen Foster Biopic Emerges on DVD
26 December 2004
Veteran director and producer Allan Dwan, whose huge string of films includes both the utterly forgettable and the recurrently shown (for example, John Wayne in "Sands of Iwo Jima") tried his hand at a big musical with "I Dream of Jeanie." Harnessing a lead cast of singers with little past film experience and, as it turned out, virtually no future, he spun a fictional and in no small part offensive story about the great American songwriter, Stephen Foster.

Bill Shirley is the young, lovestruck Foster whose kindness to slaves includes giving the money saved for an engagement ring to pay the hospital cost for an injured little black boy. His intended is Inez McDowell (Muriel Lawrence) whose pesky younger sister, Jeanie (Eileen Christy), is slowly realizing she's in love with the nearly impecunious song-smith. Foster is in love with Inez who is revolted by the composer's Number 1 on the Levee Hit Parade Tune, "O Susannah." Enter minstrel Edwin P.Christy (Ray Middleton) to help launch the profit-making phase of Foster's career.

This is, by the musical-film standards of the early Fifties, a big production. The sets are lavish in that special Hollywood way that portrayed fakes with all the trimmings. The singers aren't half bad and the Foster songs are almost impossible to ruin.

But this is also a literal whitewash of the antebellum South. The biggest number features black-face for all on stage, an historical anomaly and a contemporary piece of unthinking racism. Were these portrayals of blacks anywhere near reality, the abolitionists would be rightly condemned for interfering with so beneficent an institution.

"I Dream of Jeanie" apparently sank into the studio's vault with barely a death whisper. Now revived by Alpha Video for a mere $4.99 it's a period piece with charming songs and repulsive sentimentalizing about the victims of America's great crime, slavery.

This was what Hollywood was putting out two years before Brown v. Board of Education. Must have warmed the hearts of some moviegoers who wore their bed linen to the theater.
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10/10
Extraordinary, Wonderful, Brilliant (I Liked It a Lot!)
24 December 2004
Director Joel Schumacher's film version of the mega-Broadway hit, "The Phantom of the Opera," is the finest movie realization of a stage musical since "My Fair Lady." Elegant, powerful, romantic in a sometimes bizarre but always gripping way and with songs that will ever be a high water mark of musical theater, "Phantom" is a wonder.

Based on Gaston Leroux's nineteenth century novel, composer and script adapter Andrew Lloyd Webber created what he now admits is a runaway hit that he will never be able to duplicate much less exceed.

Who now doesn't know the story line? In the latter half of the nineteenth century a Parisian light opera company presents glittering productions, their star being one Carlotta (Minnie Driver). Mysteriously Carlotta, a high strung diva with an attitude, is rendered song-less, her ultra-pitched normal screeching turning to infernal caterwauling that would embarrass a respectable alley cat.

To the rescue, as a result of the machinations of a slowly emerging denizen of the flooded lower precincts of the opera house, The Phantom (Gerard Butler), comes Christine (Emmy Rossum). Unknown to the house managers, parvenu entrepreneurs with ambition and no taste, The Phantom is engineering Christine's soon-to-be-riotously-acclaimed debut.

A dashing young nobleman, Raoul (Patrick Wilson), the opera company's aristocratic patron, immediately recognizes Christine as a childhood friend. A brief reunion plunges the two into feverish devotion and love. The Phantom, who because of childhood experiences, is somewhat maladjusted can't deal with HIS Christine being wooed by another and worse returning, with interest, amour.

The rest of the story centers on The Phantom's increasingly disturbing, anti-social behavior and Raoul's attempt to keep and then snatch Christine from the, um, ah, homicidal madman's obsessive attentions.

"Phantom" blazingly shows how film can complement a stage production without detracting from the very special experience live performance insures. I attended the Broadway opening of "Phantom" and I've returned several times. The visceral experience of the stage can't be duplicated through film and the show incorporates a host of special effects that virtually descends on theater-goers.

But film allows probing of emotions in ways that can not always be achieved in a theater, at least not for anyone past the first couple of rows. And not for a complex, sprawling production like "Phantom." Film makes the story intimate. The outstanding cinematography creates a kaleidescope of shifting colors closely attuned to the drama being played out. The Phantom's tortured mien in closeup is compelling, perhaps also repelling. Larger sets than can be employed on Broadway do not make the story less intimate - rather they create a fascinating make-belief world (very much as was done in "Moulin Rouge" several years ago).

The real star is quite young but experienced actress and singer, Emmy Rossum. Transcendently beautiful, her deep portrayal of Christine and her marvelous, light but lustrous voice eclipse that of the role's theater originator, Sarah Brightman. And Ms. Rossum keeps her eye on the ball - keeping Raoul whole while dealing with The Phantom - with a depth I didn't see in the first Christine.

Patrick Wilson is a fine Raoul, a nobleman deeply in love. As The Phantom, Gerard is no Michael Crawford when it comes to singing (high notes are an effort for him) but his acting is wonderful. Salaciously, irrefragably evil he also projects a wounded humanity.

Miranda Richardson turns in a fine performance as the theater's amanuensis, the mother superior of chorines. And Minnie Driver is funny - I bet she had a blast playing an over-the-top self-worshiping diva.

"The Phantom of the Opera" has been knocked by some film critics who don't get the fact that central to appreciating any opera (Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner) is the imperative to suspend disbelief. This IS an opera. Leave skepticism and analysis at the ticket booth with this wonderful film and you'll want to see it again and again.

And the soundtrack is terrific-I'm on my third listening.

10/10
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10/10
A Very Long Search for a Loved One
21 December 2004
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet in the hit, "Amelie," employed scintillating Audrey Tatou, the most expressive young French actress in film today, to portray a whimsical and charming girl-woman in search of love. With her now as a young French rural ingénue searching for years after The Great War (aka World War I or, even better, The War to End All Wars) for a probably killed fiancé, Jeunet crafted a moving, often penetrating story centering on the charnel carnage of trench warfare.

Lame as a single-digit-age child because of polio and living with relatives who took over after her parents were killed in an accident, Mathilde is befriended by Manech (Gasparad Ulliel). Mathilde, a loner separated from her peers by her disability, and Manech become closest friends. Late adolescence brings love and lust, commitment and an engagement.

But in 1917 the French Army needed fresh meat for the bloody maw that was warfare on the almost terminally static Western Front. And off went Manech along with many others who never returned.

Employing the harshest discipline of any Western army in modern history, the French Army (which gave the world the Dreyfus trial and in World War I actually used decimation to punish mutinous regiments and divisions) sentences Manech and four others to be cast into No Man's Land without weapons, without any possibility of being allowed to return but with the macabre requirement that they respond to morning roll call if alive (not a good bet). Their alleged crime was self-mutilation to get out of combat (what we call in the American military, "SIW," Self-Inflicted Wounds).

Mathilde in 1920, steely faithful in a moving and believable way, searches fervently for her fiancé whom she believes "must" be alive somewhere, somehow. Employing artful stratagems and enlisting the willing, the paid and the dragooned, her search takes her to cities and battlefields. With resort to a child's employment of magical thinking she frequently whispers tests about what will happen in immediate, ordinary circumstances with one result "proving" for her that Manech is still alive. Tatou makes this self-deception appealing and infinitely sad.

As Spielberg did in "Saving Private Ryan," Jeunet brings the immediacy of the meat-grinding battlefield to the viewer over and over again through superb if sometimes difficult to watch cinematography. Of course no film truly captures the desperation, the epidemic fatality that gripped and demoralized the French Army after years of immobile, set-piece fighting. One needs to read Robert Graves or Siegfried Sassoon for that. But Jeunet has brought to the screen the most realistic World War I trench scenes since "All Quiet on the Western Front" (the 1930 original, of course).

Tatou is an acting tsunami here, alternately beguiling and tense and always hopeful while fighting despair. Expect to see her in many fine roles in the future. She's marvelous.

The entire cast is excellent-few are known in the U.S.

A remarkable movie with an ending that will satisfy and disturb at the same time.

Tatou and Jeunet deserve Oscar nominations.

10/10
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The Sea Inside (I) (2004)
9/10
A Biopic That Asks Disturbing Questions
20 December 2004
Director and co-writer Alejandro Amenabar didn't make things easy for viewers of his taut, a bit overlong but very disturbing story, accurately based on a Spanish man's struggle to obtain assisted suicide. "Mar Adentro" ("The Sea Inside") is gripping and its impact far exceeds the time spent in the theater.

With the award-winning Canadian movie, "The Barbarian Invasions," folks got to see a family along with a coterie of devoted friends address the wish of a beloved albeit irascible man to end his life. In that movie, the center of attention suffered from progressive, incurable cancer and his descent into a terminal stage was fast. Emotional as the scenes were, death was inevitable - the question was how gentle could it be made through solicited intervention.

Ramon Sampedro (brilliantly played by Javier Bardem) is a different story. For well over two decades he's been a quadriplegic because of a diving accident. (Very sharp viewers may detect a terrible irony as to why he ended in that condition because of his improvident dive.) Once a world traveler and lover of beautiful women, he now lies trapped in an immobile body, his every need attended to by a truly devoted family who willingly surrender much of their privacy and time to sustain their beloved relation.

Rosa (Lola Duenas), a single mom of two small boys, enters the Sampedro household out of what might have been mere curiosity to learn about the paralyzed man's plight but she becomes both an emotionally supportive centerpiece for Ramon as well as an amusing but occasionally aggravating presence. A nice performance by Duenas.

The problem, of course, is that Sampedro isn't sick in the normal sense. He may well live for decades more with proper care. So his softly but persistently voiced desire to end his life with "dignity" creates a moral dilemma for friends and relatives who, not surprisingly, react from different ethical and religious perspectives.

Ramon is the poster quad of a group dedicated to changing Spain's laws concerning assisted suicide. "Death with Dignity" is their watchword. Gene (Clara Segura) is a sensitive activist who enlists the aid of pro bono publico counsel, Julia (Belen Rueda). Julia has her own health issues which carry an indefinite but catastrophic prognosis. Happily married to a devoted spouse, she bonds emotionally with her client.

What follows is an acutely sensitive interplay of values and emotions. Ramon lives with his brother and wife, their technophile teenage son, not the intellectual Ramon is, and his aged dad who can't stop grieving over his son's cataclysmic descent into absolute helplessness.

The moral and legal issues are played out through excellent acting and short vignettes including a courtroom scene in which formalism triumphs over any judicial interpretation that might take into account Ramon's feelings and views. It may be Spain but the issues are alive in most countries, including the U.S.

Especially amusing is a shouted, first floor to bedroom, debate between Ramon with a drop-in, lecturing Jesuit priest, also a quadriplegic but one whose hidebound dogma casually masks the absence of a soul.

Special kudos to Mabel Rivera, Ramon's sister-in-law-Manuela, for a wrenchingly authentic portrayal of a strong woman who holds the family together. And the same compliment fulsomely extends to Belen Rueda, Julia, who segues from objective advocate to close friend to a woman hurtling towards a dark fate.

The director imposes no value judgments allowing each character full range to express his or her feelings effectively and, at times, movingly. Like "Dead Man Walking," this movie can support any view about its deadly subject.

No one can stop a person from committing suicide if he/she is determined but the universal tragedy of the world's Ramons is that without assistance, life in a body in which only the heart beats and only the head can move is a sentence no court could pronounce on the most depraved of criminals.

The cinematography is well-matched to the story and the beautiful Galician scenes are an intended contrast to the limited views the once globe-trotting Ramon experiences from his special bed.

9/10
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8/10
A 1940 Film That Couldn't Be More Up-to-Date
20 December 2004
As I tell my law students every semester, my favorite verse is from the Book of Harry. That's Harry S Truman and the quotation is "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know." This minor gem from 1940 - "Dr. Christian Meets the Women" -is one of a six-film series starring Jean Hersholt as the kindly, gentle, wise, small-town physician who ministers to ailments physical and emotional. Christian never seems to collect a fee and there's no time spent dealing with HMOs. Malpractice litigation? That occupational hazard doesn't exist.

Christian encounters a visitor to his neat, friendly town, a "professor" who hard sells weight loss programs with the aid of a shapely assistant. He's only interested in distaff clients. Projecting himself as a man of science, he oozes the odor of a hucksterism that may be more sophisticated today but ain't no different in scope and end purpose.

Dr. Christian becomes increasingly disturbed as the many women who have been his long-time patients succumb to the charm and blandishments of this fellow who combines an exercise regimen with diet to cater to the women's feverish demand for weight loss. Oh, and he also "prescribes" (he's not a medical doctor) a substance from the earlier part of the last century that apparently isn't known today. I wrote down the name: amphetamines.

Christian, in desperate need of a vacation and falling ill himself, complains that he's never had so many townsfolk ill at the same time and it's all because of the draconian regimen eagerly, actually fanatically, pursued by the women who, for the moment at least, abandon the good doctor for the miracle-promising professor.

Change some of the dialog, re-make the movie in color and have the women desperate to land muscular mates while pursuing exciting careers and "Dr. Christian Meets the Women" would be ready for today's MTV and theater market.

All the Dr. Christian movies are better than mere "B" second features but this one resonates with an almost embarrassing relevance. Yep, Harry Truman had it right for sure.

Thanks to Alpha for releasing this flick for a mere $5.99. It's worth acquiring as are the other Dr. Christian tales.

7/10
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Closer (I) (2004)
10/10
Summary: Dazzlingly Brilliant: Nichols Takes the Relationship Flick to a New Level of Raw Honesty
10 December 2004
Director Mike Nichols took playwright and scriptwriter Patrick Marber's dissection of romantic entanglements affecting and forever altering the lives of two couples to a deep dimension of compelling complexity. Taking as a theme the devastating role jealously and lies play in peoples' love lives, Nichols crafted a drama that asks many questions including one most lovers face at one point or another - how much does a man or woman really want to know about a partner? And...can the price of forcing disclosure bring unwanted and uncontrollable relationship immolation? This is a four-character film as befits its origin in the theater. Set in London, it starts with a happenstance that by itself might augur a fairly ordinary, predictable plot. Alice (Natalie Portman) arrives from New York without so much as a carry-on bag. Unaware of the direction in which traffic move, she steps off a curb and is knocked down by a cab, fortunately receiving only minor injuries.

Rushing to her rescue is Dan (the so very-ubiquitous-on-screen-these-days Jude Law). Dan is an aspiring novelist whose first book will soon be out. To pay for tea and crumpets he pens obituaries for a newspaper. Off-handedly gallant, he takes the young woman, formerly a Big Apple stripper she later announces, to a very crowded casualty ward (as they call the E.R. in Old Blighty). Alice tells him she's left her previous boyfriend with just a few simple words, "I don't love you anymore." Her appearance reflects youth, her words suggest a lot of experience.

For the jacket of his book and publicity Dan needs his picture taken and Anna (Julia Roberts) is the society shutterbug with whom he falls instantly and deeply in lust in her studio. Never mind that Alice, now his live-in lover, will soon arrive at the studio after washing up from her waitress job.

Dan plays an asinine, juvenile prank on dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen, who played the same part on stage) to bring the doctor and the photographer together at an aquarium. It's the sort of stupid and also thoughtless "joke" now made easier and anonymous by the weapon of choice of many - the Internet. It's probably not even clear to Dan why he does this. A lot of things aren't clear to Dan.

What follows is complex interaction between the four as affections and genitals exchange places. Not casual lover swapping but rather emotion-laden experimentation with unpredictable outcomes. Very sharp cinematography and quick closeups do much to heighten tension and insure momentum. Momentum to what? This very adult, very affecting drama coheres largely because of the splendid acting of the outstanding quartet. Julia Roberts gives the most psychologically deep portrayal of her career. With a contract always short-stopping any nude scenes, Ms. Roberts' Anna is rawly naked emotionally. Dismissed by one lover as a "depressive," her divorced Anna is more uncertain about what she wants than she is clinically depressed. She's successful and yet her face mirrors the too common fear of attractive, successful women that at heart they are frauds on the verge of being unveiled as such.

Engagingly quirky and fun as the photographer in "Road to Perdition" and more recently as the amoral, predatory Alfie in the re-make of the Michael Caine classic, Jude Law's Dan is a man who doesn't know when to stop asking the wrong questions, demanding answers he shouldn't seek. Sly and seductive at times, consumed by jealousy at other points, both too sure and very unsure, Law spins Dan to near chaotic life. Perhaps he's a cad, maybe he's simply in too deep with precious little introspection - Nichols and Law give Dan a flawed character who is viewed as a curiosity but without censure.

Larry, as projected by Clive Owen, is capable of psychological cruelty, a mask for his own needs. His relationship with the other three characters resembles a well-driven car that at unexpected moments threatens to career off the road because of the driver's lapse of control.

And that leaves the truly remarkable Natalie Portman who, intentionally or not, is the central character. Ms. Portman showed the depth of her acting range in a short scene in "Cold Mountain" which signaled she was ready for major roles in other than near sitcom flicks. Her breadth of emotions in "Closer" is powerful and gripping. From ingénue in London without apparently a change of clothes to a woman grappling with love won and possibly lost, she's alternately achingly vulnerable and surprisingly - almost brutally - steely. This is an Oscar worthy performance by a young actress who will be around, impressively so, for a long time.

What makes Closer" so much more than the average relationship story is the questions Nichols poses but declines to answer. Trust, jealousy, commitment, lust, expectations, betrayal - all are interwoven in the four characters' interaction. And the unifying mystery is the question of questions. How much should any lover ask his/her partner about past relationships and even present moral if not legal infidelities? Not since the powerful Indie flick, "Chasing Amy," has that very real and often destructive but sometimes uncontrollable need to know about a lover's past been so transparently pursued.

Reactions, including comments on this board, to "Closer" are highly polarized. There isn't much of a middle ground unlike for another recent superlative relationship movie, "Sideways," where consensus seems to clump together at the high end. I suspect one reason why some viewers have hated this movie, including a few very vocal folks at the close of the screening in Manhattan today, is that Nichols makes a number of moviegoers genuinely uncomfortable seeing what so many of us, at one time or another, have endured in the quest for love. In a way, people who have never felt the heartbreak played out here, the unstoppable collision with the future, have missed something important albeit terribly hard.

Absolutely Mick Nichols's finest film but he couldn't have done it with a less gifted cast.

Fine cinematography and the score, ranging from pop to Mozart and Rossini, subtly but effectively supports the story line.

10/10
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Being Julia (2004)
9/10
A Triumph for Annette Bening, A Treat for the Audience
22 November 2004
Warning: Spoilers
[Minor spoilers ahead-nothing that hasn't appeared in most media reviews.]

Rare it is that I will put down my tub of obscenely overpriced popcorn to reach out with my arms and attempt to embrace a celluloid character but that was my impulse (controlled, of course) while watching marvelous Annette Bening in "Being Julia" bring a scintillating star of London's West End stage to vivacious life.

Ronald Harwood adapted the original novel by W. Somerset Maugham for Istvan Szabo's film about a slowly aging but still vital doyenne of the dramatic stage who confronts the challenges of mid-life loneliness and the first realization that others await in the wings to replace her.

The time: London in the late Thirties when the lights all over Europe that would soon go out still blazed brightly, especially for the leisure class and those who catered to their needs. Annette Bening is Julia Lambert, an actress in continuous acclaim, a woman whose name emblazoned on the brightly lit marquee insures sell-out audiences whatever the deficiencies of the play. Only in the England that glittered shortly before the war could an actress confidently proclaim that the stage offered the sole opportunity for true acting - the silver screen was for others. Julia's self-confidence is as remarkable as her estimation of the true reality of her profession is wrong. But she has the dubious benefit of a revered first coach's spectral presence, a well-integrated story line.

Lambert is in an affectionately cooperative marriage with actor/manager/money raiser Michael Gosselyn, played by Jeremy Irons who provides just the right dollop of frustrated husband and stern business manager. Yes, Irons can be funny in a very understated, very English manner. This is an amiable couple tied together by their profession and their joint love for their teenage son and some memories. And that's it.

A young American, Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), appears in the West End seeking work in the theater and Gosselyn obliges. An intense affair develops between the much older actress and the callow Yank on the make (meaning the stereotypical view of Americans often presented as unquestionable reality in so many British flicks). That Julia is so primed for a seduction that requires the barest minimum of effort reflects her growing fear of becoming older. Or old.

Tom is a cad and he plays on Julia's need for adoration and in-the-sack fulfillment. Inhabiting an open marriage with a man she really loves but who furnishes only the memory of earlier connubial excitement, Julia is alternately coyly strong and painfully vulnerable. Just Tom's cuppa.

A young rival also bedded by Tom seeks to find her footing before the bright lights. How Julia accommodates this pesky and obnoxious young twerp's plan to upstage and perhaps supplant the older idol of theatergoers is simply wonderful. It's "All About Eve" with a much wilier veteran actress who knows how to deal with self-worshiping ingenues. The denouement of this escapade is hilarious.

Several other supporting cast members add life and sparkle to the drama cum comedy (or is it the other way around?). Juliet Stevenson shines as Julia's dresser/aide-de-camp/guardian/friend, Evie. A dependable and loving friend but disinclined by nature to assume the duties of a lover, Lord Charles is a nice portrait of a middle-aged aristocrat and he's sympathetically portrayed by Bruce Greenwood.

And Rita Tushingham is very good in a brief appearance as Aunt Carrie and I defy anyone who remembers her from way-back-when to recognize her now. The fates have stolen her beauty, the caterers have augmented her figure.

Director Istvan Szabo, with a crew that is decidedly non-English, did wonders bringing this brisk novel to the screen. I suspect he had little to do to allow Annette Bening to blossom in and command the lead role. I've always enjoyed her acting but "Being Julia" is a quantum leap in accomplishment.

The cinematography is excellent and pre-war, tragically soon to be Blitzed, London is a nostalgic delight.

9/10
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Kinsey (2004)
8/10
Not Your Usual Biopic Subject: Flawed But Effective
19 November 2004
"Kinsey" is a fine film for serious moviegoers, many of whom won't have a chance to see a biopic about a long dead controversial sex researcher whose name is barely if at all known to younger people today. My guess is this won't hit the multiplexes for long and in some places, not at all.

Alfred Kinsey was born to parents right out of stereotypical fundamentalist, old-time (?) religion. His mother suffered a life of emotional subjugation from her bible-thumping, idiot husband who as portrayed here was a walking justification for patricide.

Young Alfred fled the dismal nest and established a narrow but genuinely important niche studying obscure insects and publishing significant but rarely read scholarship. He met his wife, a young student named Clara McMillen, and after a short courtship they married. As shown here the two virgins had less than a successful first conjugal experience, make that actually a misadventure.

Kinsey and "Mac" went on to successful copulation and he launched a lifelong dedication to studying the sex lives of Americans of every class and practice. His detailed interviews, with the aid of a hand-selected team of investigators, culminated in two tomes that shocked the country while selling very well. Kinsey created the modern, actually the first, American academy-based discipline of sex research at Indiana University. Without him where would Dr. Ruth be today?

No real need to dwell here on the specifics of Kinsey's research and his sudden burst of fame, not all of it welcome. Suffice it to note that the movie's details, including those about the doctor's bisexuality and his wife's casual acceptance of an open marriage, are largely accurate. Let's look AT the film.

With an excellent cast, director Bill Condon's two leads, Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, dominate every scene they're in, together or singly. Neeson's Kinsey, nicknamed "Prok," is both slyly manipulative and disarmingly naive and unaware of the potential firestorm his research might (and did) ignite. Neeson resembles the sex researcher and his projected mannerisms are those of a university scholar both immersed in the ivory tower and ready to take on a wider world. Neeson gives it his best which is very good indeed.

Laura Linney is superb as she ages from assertive student to young wife to wise collaborator and indispensable adviser. And a loving one too. Ms. Linney is very believable, partly thanks to understated but affecting make-up that has her age progression subtly but clearly advance throughout the movie.

Several supporting roles deserve mention. Peter Skarsgaard is fine as Kinsey's original research aide, Clyde Martin. Martin advances from Prok's classroom factotum to sharing fun beneath his boss's sheets but his loyalty to the project remains central. I enjoyed Oliver Platt as university president Herman Wells. Platt gives his character a decidedly realistic portrayal as the supportive quasi-boss of Kinsey has to increasingly deal with a multitude of off-campus critics who assail the researcher's findings about the variety and extent of American male AND female sexual practices.

And Lynn Redgrave's quick cameo scene at the very end is an unsurprising reminder of how wonderful an actress she is. Brava!

The flaws? It's one thing to do a biopic about a Nobel Prize winner's battle with insanity when the corpus of his research is clearly groundbreaking at and another to try to explain the life of a man whose research and books still attract criticism and were, in any event, the first groundswell of a new industry. While Neeson's Kinsey is complex, the real man was more so and, inevitably, "snapshots" of Kinsey's life including his relationship with his own kids are shallow and quick.

Kinsey's interviewing techniques were novel, strikingly so, but the extraordinary task of analyzing the results using a novel methodology - the real basis for his two main books on sex - isn't really explored and probably can't be in this medium. Credit goes to director Condon for a clever and effective use of voice-overs and a photo-montage superimposed on a map to project in very quick time the breadth not only of Kinsey's research but the enormous range of conduct it uncovered.

Given that in one form, open or not, many of the cats initially let out of the bag of repression and secrecy by Kinsey are now scurrying about the American political scene, "Kinsey" is timely, something I suspect the director, producers and cast didn't think much about when they started this production. But it is good to tell a younger generation that the sexual knowledge and associated freedoms they often take for granted haven't been around that long.

And don't miss the end-credits.

Not for young kids-their are brief shots of what were called in my youth "stag films," a term that has fallen into deserved desuetude in our age of gender neutral access to and often mutual enjoyment of porn.

8/10
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Sideways (2004)
9/10
Wine, Women and Woe
6 November 2004
Warning: Spoilers
[Minor spoilers ahead]

One of 2004's best releases, director/scriptwriter Alexander Payne's "Sideways" MUST break out of the limited-screens world and make it to theaters all over. Inspired directing and terrific, occasionally haunting, acting combine to make a couple of hours just slip away.

Set in Southern California, middle school English teacher and aspiring novelist, the recipient of many rejection letters, Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) takes his closest friend, Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) for a week of R&R before the latter's wedding to a beautiful young woman. An opening scene suggests - and the story later confirms - that Jack, an occasional TV actor now plying his trade doing commercial voice-overs, is definitely marrying up.

Miles, divorced for two years and still emotionally on the ropes, is a dedicated wine connoisseur, knowledgeable but unpretentious. For the week's holiday they drive to vineyard country where Miles has been many times. Tasting different vintages and golf is Miles's goal for this buddy "we may not be able to do this again soon" foray. Jack has other ideas. A handsome man largely controlled by his penis rather than either his brain or his heart, he views the trip as a chance for a week long sex-laced bachelor party for two, one (him) if that's the way the cards fall.

The guys meet two women through a winery visit, Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and Maya (Virginia Madsden). Maya is a divorcée, Stephanie is single with a little girl. Miles doesn't know how to start being single and available while Jack is experienced in forgetting his impending nuptials while laying on the charm (such as it is-I found his persona, well, disgusting). Jack also tells the women that Miles's novel has been accepted for publication and his friend haplessly accepts the lie.

Pledged not to reveal Jack's deception, Miles tries to deal with his own attraction to Maya, a potential momentous release from therapy-supported, pill-popping crutches that allow him to function as an involuntarily single man.

What makes "Sideways" work fabulously is the terrific acting of the four principals. Giamatti, not much competition for Jude Law, is an "Everyman." That is, an "Everyman" who finds it hard to accept that a love has been lost and whose grieving runs rampant past the time when it should abate. Giamatti is very believable, painfully so I suspect for many male viewers, and his special ability to telegraph feelings and moods through body language boosts his performance. Church plays Jack for laughs but many viewers will recognize a churlish, actually cruel, cad long before there's evidence to support the charge.

Virginia Madsden is a very talented actress. Her Maya, like Miles, has been divorced for a few years but she has it together. With a well-developed love of wine and a willingness to move on, she's an engaging character. And then there's Sandra Oh, one of the few successful actresses of Korean ancestry. As Patti in "Under the Tuscan Sun" she was wrenchingly real as a pregnant woman abandoned by her lover. Here she's ready for happiness and unprepared for gross deception and cruel manipulation. Oh is a veteran actress but many of her movies are not well known. She's going to be in a lot more top drawer films since the Diane Lane hit and "Sideways." I hope.

And, by the way, the scenery is great too.

This is a true adult film in the best sense of the term. Alternately very funny and affectingly sad, Alexander Payne has crafted a first-rate movie. As he showed in 1996's "Miss Liberty," he knows how to make his characters come alive.

9/10
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Eulogy (2004)
8/10
Conventional Plot, Good Acting, Sometimes Over the Top
3 November 2004
If Hollywood stopped making films about dysfunctional families there'd be a real drought in the theaters and on DVD shelves. "Eulogy" is a pretty conventional tale but it's well-acted.

The paterfamilias, grandfather, is dead, apparently by his own hand, and the family - immediate and extended - arrives at the grieving widow's home to prepare for the funeral immediately resuming hostilities over well-aged feuds and hurts. Nothing surprising here.

Zooey Deschanel as Kate is a college student who seems to be the most normal member of an eclectic and eccentric crew. Her grandmother is Piper Laurie and, have no fear, those who remember the beautiful young actress of an earlier Silver Screen age won't recognize her here. How the mighty have...aged.

Hank Azaria has a fun(ny) role as a loser with a heart.

Deborah Winger turns in a first-rate performance as Kate's shrewish Aunt Alice who exudes homophobia at a sister who arrives with her fiancé (or fiancée), a sharp, observant woman. Alice, is married to a drone who without barely a word smiles ceaselessly and seems on the verge of drooling.

Their three kids are also silent, probably disturbed big time. And two nasty pre-teen twins of Alice's brother make Dennis the Menace a choir boy by comparison.

No character here that hasn't been seen in many movies and TV sitcoms. But there's a thread of drama with the zany comedy that makes "Eulogy" a mite different if whacked out family stories intrigue you.

It's an ensemble production - see the IMDb.com main page for the full cast. But Ms. Deschanel, with her dark eyes and sharp takes at her family members' antics, is the acting center of the flick.

8/10 (barely but I laughed a lot).
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Ray (I) (2004)
9/10
At 152 Minutes, "Ray" Is Too Short (I Mean That)
3 November 2004
What an incredible, remarkable, wonderful musician Ray Charles was! Born into the appallingly vicious racism that characterized the South of his youth, in his case Florida, deprived of vision before hitting his teenage years, the precocious, brilliant, self-driven Ray Charles (he dropped the family name of Robinson early in his career) crafted a uniquely American musical idiom, a fusion of blues, gospel, jazz and...pure originality.

Jamie Foxx comes as close to being his character as any actor or actress has done in a biopic. Foxx balances Charles's developing self-confidence and stardom with penetrating but not distracting scenes of his nearly fatal devastation from drugs. Ray Charles wasn't a simple tickler of the ivories and balladeer. Foxx projects the persona of a man guilt-ridden over the drowning death of a younger brother but who was determined to climb high as a performer and also enjoy the illicit rewards - drugs and women - that can come with success.

"Ray" portrays a man of musical genius and limited personal insight. No intellectual, only through his music did Charles escape an ordinary existence. But escape he did. Wavering between loyalty to early accompanists and supporters and submitting to seduction by interests able to advance his career through new affiliations, Charles's materialism fits well in the pantheon of American success stories, especially those from the world of entertainment.

The movie doesn't chronicle Charles's full life. Director Taylor Hackford, also co-writer, starts with the child on the verge of entering a lifelong darkness and takes the adult (chronologically if not always behaviorally) into the 60s, a period of turmoil for black musicians, a microcosmic mirroring of a rapidly, often violently changing America. Charles was no Paul Robeson - he took quite awhile to announce abandoning his supine accommodation of the pathology of "Jim Crow" but when he did it the country took notice and it had an impact.

The Ray Charles many of us know from his later years was a guest of presidents and a solo performer at great events in important venues. "Ray" takes us up to that stage. Without preaching, Hackford elides Charles's transition from being number one on the "Chitlin' Circuit," the dismissive name for black venues, to his smooth, high tech, high octane shows before ecstatic and increasingly white audiences. The shift is subtle, the implications clear.

Charles's addiction took him to jail and narrow brushes with possible felony convictions. His withdrawal from heroin was horrendously painful and Foxx makes viewers squirm as his character battles demons and delusions in a thankfully successful attack on the monkey on his back.

Ray suffering, routinely betrayed wife, Della Bea Robinson, is given a front and center rather than supporting role through the joy and agony skillfully reflected by Kerry Washington. She's a fine actress.

The score? It's Ray Charles, baby!

Had Charles not died earlier this year I have a hunch he would have really enjoyed seeing "Ray." And, yes, I do mean "seeing" because Charles's blindness opened up his other senses in ways we can only marvel at but never fully comprehend.

Special kudos go to Sharon Warren as young Ray's struggling, tough and loving mother and especially to very young C. J. Sanders whose achingly touching portrait of young Ray merits a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

If Foxx doesn't have an Oscar nomination for this anguished and triumphant performance, I won't be attending the ceremonies next year.

9/10
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8/10
Sad, Depressing, Well Told Tale of Texas H.S. Football Passion Run Amok
27 October 2004
[Disclaimer: I have no interest in sports and know virtually nothing about football.]

High school football has come to the big screen in the past couple of years in two forms. One is Coca-Cola's rousing, high production values commercial, "Football Town, USA," suffered through by untold millions of moviegoers. In this bouncy, spirited attempt at thirst-creating, people of all ages and races come together for a weekend football game played by competitive but fair and clean-cut youths. Winning is important but community esprit, cemented naturally by a shared passion for the nation's best selling cola drink, is paramount.

Then there are films based on true events like "Remember the Titans" and the now showing "Friday Night Lights." "Remember the Titans," a good flick, focuses on the experience of a black coach taking over a team in a southern town still gripped by an epoch of legalized racial discrimination. The coach comes out a winner: he's high school football's version of "They Call Me Mr. Tibbs."

"Friday Night Lights" faithfully follows the book of the same name by H. G. Bissinger, a bestseller and a very good read. Bissinger spent a year tracking the Odessa, Texas Permian High School Panthers, a team that had done very well in previous years. Not a typical sports book, Bissinger acted more as an investigative reporter looking at a microcosm of the role of high school football in American community life. He accurately portrayed Odessa for what it is: a city perennially on the cusp of economic disaster, riven by racial antagonism and with an obsessive interest, make that a fanatical devotion, to securing brief moments of communal glory through the blood (often literally) and guts of teens whose success in life may well reach, then and now, its apex in the stadium.

Bissinger's book might have been a national bestseller but his appearances at Odessa bookstores were canceled because of apparently serious threats to his life. So maybe the locals didn't care for the book.

Billy Bob Thornton is superb, convincing and committed as Coach Gary Gaines who in 1998 tried to take his Panthers to the state finals to become the champs, "to win State." His Gaines is alternately brooding and encouraging, supportive and snarling as he puts his kids through a training regimen far longer than what Marine recruits go through and only marginally less taxing.

Gaines's team lives in a surreal world where at every twist and turn locals from trailer trash to state troopers to politicos accost them and wish them well while making it clear they they HAVE "to win State." Gaines can't go to Wal-Mart without being stopped by people with power who make it clear that the coach's livelihood depends on winning. Parents and relatives drive their teens to win, no matter what, partly because a championship may bring a winning scholarship and release from the uncertainty of an Odessa future.

Girls casually sleep with these "heroes" who must cope with expectations they can't be sure of meeting. All the young actors [see the IMDb.com main page for this film for their names] reflect confusion alternating with confidence. But the mania of the Odessa community is both gripping and appalling. Seventeen-year-old football players are interviewed by the news media and peppered with questions at the level of grim seriousness generally associated with reporters challenging public figures.

Director Peter Berg kept "Friday Night Lights" from eliding into a boringly typical sports film by devoting much time to the individual lives, some very unhappy, of the team members. Special kudos go to veteran cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler whose tight, quick, focused shots of Gaines and his players generate a continuing tension. In the critical half-time locker room scene which could have been a familiar stereotype, Berg goes rapidly back and forth between the Panthers and their rivals, the Carters. The effect is to emblazon the universality of the football experience for all the players. Gaines's pep talk is saved from conventional triteness by Thornton's deep immersion in his role.

"Friday Night Lights" avoids racial divisiveness in Odessa - the book deals with that quite well. Here the Panthers, an integrated team, seem to have no race-based tensions. The Carters, their final rivals, is an all-black team and there's brief allusion to the reality of the permeation of bigotry in Texas high school sports but it's really irrelevant to the main story.

Recently, Billy Bob Thornton appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart where he related the experiences of his sports coach father. Thornton opined that the extreme community interest in high school sports and in winning as the only acceptable outcome is a reality he knew about first-hand.

Gaines is a sympathetic figure as he tries to guide his players but Thornton also invests the character with an apparent, uncomfortable and unacknowledged recognition that he also colludes with the community ethos that sadly makes high school sports the apex of the team members' lives. It shouldn't be that way. Perhaps we need a "No Football Player Left Behind" spirit if not a law.

8/10
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7/10
A Visual Feast, Some Real Humor, Largely Good Acting - and an Appeal for New Cultists
25 October 2004
Director Walter Selles stuck faithfully to Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado's book recounting their 1952 adventure traveling through thousands of miles of South America, much of their adventure taking them through magnificent wilderness and provincial small towns.

Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) was about a semester away from receiving his medical degree. His jovial companion was training in biochemistry. They set off on Granado's misnamed motorcycle, "The Mighty One." Unfortunately it wasn't and most of their journey was by many kinds of conveyances other than the wrecked bike left behind in Chile. Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) really loved that bike. Very sad.

The two, a sort of Cisco and Pancho act, had a lot of fun as the book shows and the film recreates. Cadging money and food and looking for willing girls, they pulled various scams including passing themselves off not only as MDs but also as respected and acknowledged leprosy specialists.

They encounter much poverty but also many spirited people who seem to need a healthy dose of some form of democracy. Guevara, who picks up the sobriquet "Che" in Chile, the name by which he is known to history and revered in Cuba, begins to demonstrate a nascent political consciousness. Watching people shape up for hopeful but very dangerous employment by the Anaconda Mining Co. folks and encountering a desperately poor communist couple shakes up the middle-class future revolutionary. As I watched those scenes, with pithy one-line expressions of concern coupled with outrage, a little voice inside me warned "Stand-by for a big speech."

Part of the duo's plan was to work at a leprosarium on the Amazon. Arriving there director Selles focuses closely on Che's taut face as he's told that patients dwell on one side of the wide river with the staff ensconced on the other. Never mind that while a doctor says that the patients being treated aren't contagious, the actual pre-Dapsone therapeutic medical reality (especially in poor countries) was that such patients did pose a communicable risk if they were in extended contact with non-infected persons.

More than a few observers and authors have noted that Che, or the memory of Che since he's conveniently dead and no possible challenge to Castro, is Cuba's secular approximation of Christ. Here at the leprosarium the young almost-MD treats patients with a compassion and skill that suggests he might be the Healer who can walk on water (later it's proved that, at the least, this seriously compromised asthmatic can swim the Amazon).

As the time to leave the leprosarium arrives, the grateful nuns and staff throw a birthday bash for their now universally respected young genius. Even the nuns, originally somewhat hidebound by Mother Superior's rules, dance. Dancing nuns at a leprosarium! Well I never.

At the bash Che delivers a quiet but impassioned speech proclaiming that all who live in Latin America from Mexico to Patagonia are of one race with one destiny. Arrant nonsense and now Che, soon to be the Dull, Turgid Dogmatist first flies his colors unequivocally. His statement reflects all he HASN'T learned in his travels.

"The Motorcycle Diaries," divorced of politics and its mission of rewarding the living faithful and recruiting new cultists, is well-acted (only the two lead characters really matter but the rest of the cast is good). It's a fine road movie, largely genuinely funny. Scenery is breath-taking. But did I mention politics?

Che was a star of the American rebellious, left wing, young in the sixties who couldn't or wouldn't realize that whatever the defects of Batista, Castro wasn't then and isn't now an improvement. Yes, American policy towards Cuba was stupid - still is really - but the reality is that the charming, funny, caring physician portrayed here was the trusted and ruthless aide to Castro in installing a regime where individual rights, the rule of law and due process were violently swept into that country's dustbin.

An end title reports that Che's death in Bolivia was at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency. Whatever that organization's half-baked involvement was, the fact not reported in the movie is that Che was the designated exporter of the Cuban Revolution, a product most Latin Americans never wanted. Che didn't understand that.

Stalin famously remarked that with a live man there are problems and with a dead one none. Che as the iconographic representation of Castro's revolution continues to perform yeoman post-mortem service for his leader. Some young people still have his visage tattooed on their bodies and Che t-shirts are available everywhere. Perhaps in the fullness of time Che might have realized how wrongheaded and evil the Castro regime had become. Probably not-he had come to enjoy power.

As a movie "The Motorcycle Diaries" is quite attractive. As a political polemic it avoids stridency for a while before descending into the world of The Message. Old unreconstructed Lefties will love it and the great historically naive young may well believe that Che was if not Christ at least a good apostle for social justice. He wasn't.

In her forward to the new English edition of "The Motorcycle Diaries" Che's daughter, who lives in Cuba, remarks that rereading the book made her fall in love with her father as a boy. I can understand that. Book and movie capture a certain charm and the promise of a caring doctor. But Che's life went on after his peregrination. His postponed adulthood made him the fanatical messenger of revolution. Nothing to love about that.

7/10
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Stage Beauty (2004)
10/10
Dazzlingly Entertaining, A Tour De Force
22 October 2004
Before the Great Fire and the Great Plague of the mid-seventeenth century, London slowly, joyously awoke to the end of the Interregnum, that dark period of the evil regicide, Cromwell and his dull and dim son and successor. Theaters shut down during the Protectorate now reopened and the die-hard, dour Puritans either doffed their somber garb and decamped for more favorable vice-free venues or joined the fun.

Director Richard Eyre and script author Jeffrey Hatcher (who wrote the play on which "Stage Beauty" is derived) set the screen with a feast of authentic costumes and an almost palpable ambiance of a great city resurrecting a rich cultural life, at least for those of means.

But, as has been said, the play is the thing and the acting here is uniformly engrossing, indeed superb.

Based more or less on history, the film chronicles an awkward and for many painful evolution of law and theater, the two intertwined. For when Charles II was restored to the throne lost by his father (who also lost something else of even more estimable value), theaters reopened but under an old law that forbade the presence of actresses on the stage. The great female roles of Shakespeare were performed by men, some of whom were the subjects of audience and patron adulation for their skills of gender mimicry.

Ned Keynaston (Billy Crudop) is the leader of the pack, a star of the stage whose Desdemona is the height of his career. Serving as his dresser is Maria (Clair Danes), a frustrated actress who mouths the lines of Desdemona from the side of the stage as Ned wows the punters.

Maria actually gets to act behind Ned's back but in a less than first-line theater, her costume borrowed, to be generous, from the unsuspecting Ned.

What follows is a comedy and a drama as the king (Rupert Everett), at the urging of one of his mistresses, Nell Gynn (newcomer Zoe Tapper) proclaims that women may take on the roles of their sex and the cadre of female impersonators must seek new and gender authentic roles. At first amused, then devastated by a loss of roles, income and prestige, Ned slides to singing bawdy songs in drag to a somewhat low(er) class clientele in a sink run by a foulmouthed harridan. But under the protection of a genuinely odious, rotund and foul Sir Charles (Richard Griffith), Maria becomes the toast of the town for her fine acting.

Sexual attraction equally matched by a moving ambiguity permeates both the roles played by Maria and Ned and their off-stage lives. Maria is in love with Ned who is, at least, potentially bisexual while actually intimate with one of the king's favorites, the second Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin). Buckingham was, in actuality, one of the most complex characters during Charles's two decade exile and then restoration to the throne. A conniver and master manipulator, here his skills are shown as being wholly adapted to surviving in a court attended by intrigue at every turn.

Eyre projects role reversal both with Ned and Maria's theater life and their increasing personal but never simple involvement. Can he make love to a woman? Does he know himself what his orientation is? There is a certain contemporaneity to the artfully acted issues raised in this mid-1600s scenario.

Eyre could not have selected a better cast. Crudop is penetrating as a man whose whole, strange persona is transformed in an instant by a monarch's command. Everett is disarmingly foppish as the Stuart monarch but in a critical scene he reveals his deep, lasting resentment over his father's and his dynasty's fate as he orders women to be allowed to perform. Edward Fox is splendid in short takes as Charles's key minister, Sir Edward Hyde (the Earl of Clarendon but he's never identified with his proper peerage title).

Zoe Tapper may well have studied the life of her character, "the Protestant Whore" (so known and loved by the London underclass to distinguish her from the despised "Catholic Whore" who alternated with Nell for the king's company and body (forget about the queen-she doesn't even make an appearance here). She's crude, raw, vulgar, sentimental, loyal and cunning - she IS Nell Gynn.

Hugh Bonneville is the randy, compulsive diarist Sir Samuel Pepys, father of the Royal Navy, here a stage door Johnny, a voyeur. Ben Chaplin as the Duke of Buckingham is just the right admixture of randiness and a healthy regard for the penalty that can be incurred by going too far over the edge of conventionality. And Tom Wilkinson as Ned's and then Maria's stage impresario combines business acumen with a soft human touch.

But special kudos go to Clair Danes - this is her best performance to date. She runs the gamut of emotions from helpless subservience to repressive laws to sprightly awakening of her worth to deep confusion about her priorities and needs. She inhabits the role of Maria with skill and grace. An Oscar-worthy display.

The score is fine, briskly and authentically complementing the story. And for the first time ever in a movie a king of England is shown cavorting in the royal rack with his mistress while six adorable King Charles Spaniels look on.

10/10
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7/10
A Docu-Drama's Brilliant Promise But...Unbalanced by a Near Fatal Flaw
11 October 2004
Directors William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente started off with a brilliant idea for a novel docu-drama. Bring to the screen for intelligent viewers cutting edge questions and dialog about Quantum Physics (or Mechanics, if one prefers). With the blizzard of recent documentaries attacking and praising the presidential candidates or allowing a former Secretary of Defense one last exculpatory hurrah or following the fortunes of convicted pedophiles seeking to clear their names no one recently has made a film about Quantum Physics.

What we have is from a production values perspective an engagingly original amalgam of live acting, many interviews, data boards and some fine, very original animation. So far so good.

"What the Bleep..." begins promisingly with Marlee Matlin, who doesn't get too many major studio assignments, as a pill devouring, anxious, depressed professional photographer who is perplexed about life's annoying problems (her chief one being having found her boyfriend or spouse in flagrant delicto or, if you don't speak law, in the sack with a bimbo).

Interviews with a number of MDs, scholars and (here's the problem) New Age advocates alternate with animated and acted scenes. Some of the interviewees, whose affiliations are only given with the end credits, are clearly working at the cutting edge of trying to understand the nature of time and the experience of consciousness. An MD who works with patients is cautious and insightful, tethered by his clinical work to ambient reality. Several of the professors line up at varying points on the accepted knowledge to theorizing to speculating wildly continuum.

This is very difficult stuff (I have no background in physics) but a number of the interviewed academics speak plainly and whet the viewer's appetite for more.

The near fatal flaw is the false and in fact anti-intellectual attempt to ordain an equality of ideas by treating with equal time and attention a few outspoken folks whose theories are the stuff of New Age fantasy. One woman who becomes increasingly directive about her cosmic views is revealed at the end to be affiliated with some organization that is, shall we say, below the stature of the world class universities where her fellow commentators study, teach and write.

All ideas should be explored for the viewer's benefit? Imagine a documentary on the latest research in the field of evolution "balanced" by comments from creationists. Amusing? No doubt. Instructive? No, it would be distractive and inherently anti-science.

That's the problem with "What the Bleep..." The desire to balance tips the apple cart away from a deep and well-connected inquiry into some remarkable research in the world of ideas.

Unfortunately Ms. Matlin's role adds little. She is earnest and remarkable insight comes to her through a chance encounter with a little boy with an apparent I.Q. of probably 250 who engages her in shooting hoops with him in a public park. This savant takes her into a level of discourse and discovery that even for a science/philosophy flick is incredible. Actually unbelievable. It just doesn't work well.

So I was disappointed that what might have been a solid voyage to new and exciting ideas was diluted with a lame side drama and the prattling of New Age mystics (the woman referred to above glows with the bright fire reflective of either raging malaria or burning zealotry.)

7/10 (reluctantly because the intelligence of the directors comes through enough to have made this film worth watching. Once.)
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Vera Drake (2004)
10/10
Heartbreakingly Brilliant Acting: Mike Leigh's Finest Film
10 October 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Winner of the Best Film Award at the Venice Film Festival, director Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake" is the agonizing story of a stolid, working class London married woman who leads two lives. Vera is Imelda Staunton who won, most deservedly, the Best Actress accolade in Venice. To her beloved and loving family, she's the soul of gentleness, the centerpiece of a happy home. She works as a day domestic for people a few rungs up on England's highly striated social ladder.

But for many years, the exact number known not even to her, she's been the answer to the prayers of poor and lower class pregnant women who will not or can not carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. With a crude abortion kit, including a cheese grater identical to the one in my kitchen, hidden in a cupboard, she accepts referrals from childhood friend Lily (Ruth Sheen), a viper whose mendacity and viciousness Vera never suspects.

Vera's family hasn't a clue about her long-time passion to end unwanted pregnancies.

But abortion isn't the scene that launches the story of the Drake family. She has two children, Ethel (wonderfully played by Alex Kelly) and Sid. Husband Stan (Phil Davis) is a car mechanic working for wages for his brother, one step up the economic ladder although his materialistic wife threatens to upset that status with her coy demands for the latest appliances.

Vera regularly visits the sick and provides cheer and hot tea for the ill ones. She invites Reg (Eddie Marsan) for dinner. Her agenda is clear: she hopes her hopelessly dorky Ethel and the awkward and mumbling Reg might hit it off. Both Marsan and Kelly are strong contenders for next year's Best Supporting Nerd Oscar nominations.

But Vera's abortion activities are the heart of the tense story. She performs these procedures gratis, getting referrals from Lily, never suspecting that her acid-tongued friend is paid by the pregnant women. They're cautioned not to mention the financial arrangement to Vera who does the job and bears the true mantle of risk.

"Vera Drake" takes place in 1950 when still very war weary Britain was fighting with the U.S. in Korea. All the males in the story in one way or another were scarred or affected by World War II experiences and that was not an easy time for the women either. Stan continues distilling his combat experiences in slow confessions to his supportive and loving wife in bed with lights out.

Abortion in 1950 in England was legal under some conditions one of which was being of the class that could easily (with money and connections) procure false medical testimony as to the need for terminating a pregnancy. None of Vera's patients (I can't call them anything else), desperate, fearful, facing enormous ostracism or worse if their condition became known to family and friends, had that access.

Vera, with each "procedure," gently approaches the frightened and dependent women with the cheer appropriate for an ordinary visit to a friend afflicted with the usually benign flu. Perhaps she doesn't truly comprehend their fear of being alone after her ministration to them when she leaves with almost bubbly instructions to await the fetus's expulsion, a frightening experience especially if alone, but with no plan to return. She's efficient, using a relatively safe non-surgical abortifacient. Somewhat safe, by the law of averages, isn't in the long run good enough and one young woman almost dies.

Her mother, who knew Vera from before the war, is questioned by police called by the hospital and she gives up her 1931 co-worker.

The police interrupt a family celebration to question and arrest Vera. She knows immediately why they are there and she both crumbles emotionally, devastated, while also displaying a quiet inner strength to insist, in a soft, sobbing voice, that she just helps girls in trouble.

Leigh, who also wrote "Vera Drake, invests his lead character with a gripping vulnerability as well as a fundamental unyielding decency. Even the investigating police officers recognize she isn't a typical criminal. Burly Detective Inspector Webster (Peter Wight) is soon uncomfortable with what he has to do and he even spontaneously softens part of Vera's confession as it's written down by a junior colleague. Woman Police Constable Best (subtly played by Helen Coker) is gentle, truly kind, and one wonders whether this character would have had something supportive to say about Vera were she freed from her uniform.

Vera's services fell squarely within the Offenses Against the Person Act 1861 (and I'm very familiar with that statute having taught it many times in Criminal Law and Legal History classes). Courtroom scenes here, brief as they are, accurately reflect what a defendant confronted in His Majesty's tribunals.

Leigh's camera work, as in the wonderful "Topsy-Turvy," angles in on Vera as she grasps the unfolding horror of her situation and the inevitability of a prison sentence. She struggles to remain the emotional center of her family when she, in reality, desperately needs shoring up. Vera is projected into the viewer's face for long shots and her terror is hurting to see.

The arrant hypocrisy of England's sub rosa view of abortion at the time is displayed quietly but unforgettably as the daughter of one of Vera's customers, her father a Ministry of Defense civil servant, gets an abortion in a luxurious and safe facility (for 100 guineas, a fortune at that time) after being savagely raped by a date, a foppish cad. Without anything being said, the viewer knows he was never reproached much less arraigned for his bestiality. But his victim, Susan (Sally Hawkins), follows a script set up by a doctor and reinforced by a psychiatrist (wink-wink) that insures that her weekend away from home is discreet. Traumatic the rape was, unsettling the abortion too but for her life goes on with scarcely a bump.

Frumpy, a woman no one would notice on the Clapham omnibus, Imelda Staunton as Vera is the heart and soul of the film, her desperation at becoming embroiled with the law almost too heartbreaking at times to watch. But Leigh also makes sure that it's understood that illegal abortions posed high risks to vulnerable women. Hidebound English legal practice made criminals of women like Vera but police, prosecutors and judges also knew that their activities too often spawned some true and irreversible tragedies, including death. Leigh doesn't skip away from that reality. The Veras of her time were both benefactresses and potential killers.

The male characters in Vera's family rally around her, their love and commitment a bright spot. The police come out well too. But there's no avoiding the reality that man-made (literally) law and those who enforced it, including the sympathetic but duty-bound police, put many women in the dock where conviction was virtually insured. And, certainly, many abortionists used far more dangerous methods than Vera.

Sometimes agonizing to watch but endlessly riveting, "Vera Drake" is one of the finest films from England in years. It's not a British counterpart to "The Cider House Rules" where Michael Caine's dashing devotion to his patients and to young, orphaned boys in bucolic New England subtly removed the issue of laws restricting abortions from front and center attention. "Vera Drake" is raw and affecting. It's truly not so much pro-choice as it is a retelling, through one sympathetic character, of many very sad tales.

10/10
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7/10
The Fun is in the LACK of Inter-connectedness
6 October 2004
Director David Russell (who is also the script co-writer) strove mighty hard to bring a Thinking Cineaste's story to the big screen). Described by some as an existential comedy, "I Love Huckabees" tries to reach that philosophical realm through studied and occasionally zany detours into half-baked but well acted themes. It falls a bit short.

Huckabees is a very large store seeking to expand. Apparently it sells everything we'd expect from a high class emporium - like Wal-Mart. A beautiful model, Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts, a beautiful actress) is their advertising pitch-woman and her boyfriend is the Bright-Boy-Heading-for-the-Executive-Suite, Brad Stand (the very ubiquitous, these days, Jude Law).

But the story opens with environmental activist (extremist, to be sure) Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman). He has a problem. Three supposedly accidental encounters with a young, tall black dude in doorman livery makes him wonder why these meetings have occurred. His concern is obsessive. So he does what any of us would do: he engages the services of "Existential Detectives" (don't bother checking for the nearest local agency in the Yellow Pages). First he's interviewed by Vivian (Lily Tomlin). Accepting the case pro bono (Albert hasn't much money) she shepherds him into an adjacent office to meet her partner and husband, Bernard (the venerable Dustin Hoffman who, clearly, played the role tongue-in-cheek).

The detectives must shadow Albert very closely (including when he's using the can) to determine the nature of his worrisome "coincidences." Meanwhile he's trying to save some marshlands from the omni-voracious Huckabees. And who should be trying to co-opt Albert's coalition of tree-huggers? Brad -suave, smooth-talking, amoral, smilingly relentless Brad. Jude Law imports just the right admixture of innocence and guile here.

Add to this increasingly confusing witches' brew a further character, actually two. The first is professional firefighter and super-environmentalist Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg). This guy is so committed to not wasting resources that he rides his bike in full fire gear to calls instead of climbing on bright and shiny Engine 54 with his comrades.

And, lastly, the luminous Isabelle Huppert is author and borderline nihilist Caterine Vauban who either counters the existentialist take of Vivian and Bernard or she's sort of their alter ego. Not clear which and it doesn't matter.

The theme we're repeatedly told is the "inter-connectedness" of mankind. or maybe it's the absence of that quality.

What does matter is the jumbled sequence of scenes ranging from the fantastical to the mundane. Yep, it's a message film and it most reminded me, stylistically, of the recent "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Minus the mad doctor and sci-fi excesses of that quirky flick, "I Love Huckabees" is right up there in that destined for very early DVD release league.

Good or bad? It depends on the viewer's tolerance for rambling shifts in what isn't a coherent story nor, in truth, an existential one. The younger cast members mesh well together and Watts is a funny cross between a petulant child and a glamorous adult. Hoffman and Tomlin project parental roles for the unruly immature adults, amusingly so, and they make a fine team (this is their first movie together). Huppert is icily and only marginally on board but any chance to see her act is very welcome.

So don't go expecting to leave the theater with new insights about anything.

But enjoy the engaging, frenetic acting by a very talented cast.

7/10
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9/10
A Terrific Send-Up of a Dopey Genre
1 October 2004
I wouldn't, normally, go to a zombie flick even with a free offer of the now insanely high priced popcorn scooped out in Manhattan theaters. But director Edgar Wright (also co-writer) turned out a roaringly funny spoof of zombie films, also caricaturing many other genres. And it's all based on a true story.

Set in a working class London neighborhood (this film would have fallen as flat as a flatfooted guy's arches if made in the U.S.), the focus is on a small group of friends having the relationship problems that infest most sitcoms. Shaun (Simon Pegg, who also is co-writer) is an appliance salesman sharing a flat that earns the Most Slovenly Set Oscar with two guys. One is sick and tired of the third guy's belching, gas blasting, beer guzzling, video game obsessed mindlessness. That fellow is Ed (Nick Frost), the roommate from if not hell at least the end of the bar in a pub that doesn't care much who sidles up for a drink. But Shaun is his ever-loyal defender, his true-blue mate.

Shaun is, how original the idea, a forgetful suitor of Liz, a very peppery, pretty and fun character (Kate Ashfield). He can't even make a dinner reservation for a much anticipated, by Liz, romantic evening. Shaun does have a nice relationship with his mom but a less than ideal one with his stepfather, Philip (Bill Nighy who was terrific in "Love Actually" and turns in a very good performance here).

Early on there seem to be a number of folks walking about the street who aren't feeling well. Public service announcements on the telly report a spreading flu.

Very soon Shaun and his set are besieged by hordes of extras, all beautifully made up to be homicidally weird but hardly frightening zombies. They add to their ranks by biting the dwindling number of healthy folks. Shaun and Liz, accompanied by Ed and another couple frantically seek to stay alive through a series of (mis)adventures that build up to a very funny denouement.

While, obviously, lampooning zombie flicks is the main theme, this director and cast set their sights on other very familiar screen staples including:

1) Guy must mature to keep gal who dumps him but really he's the only fellow in the world for her (of course).

2) Monty Pythonesque extreme silly violence with ample blood flow and many bitten and wrenched body parts. (Special effects here are quite good.)

3) Adversity brings out the hero in if not Everyman then at least our hero (Shaun).

4) Heroic "I'm a goner but you gotta get out of here now" scene.

5) The ever imperturbable English newscaster who reports horrific depredations by monsters with the same aplomb customarily employed to announce yet another aristocratic sex scandal.

6) Ingenuity in devising weapons.

And there's much more.

No one will be affrighted by "Shaun of the Dead" although those who found quick dismemberment in "Monty Python" off-putting probably won't like the heavy dose here.

Can't imagine what the special features will be on the DVD.:)

9/10
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A Dirty Shame (2004)
7/10
The Sex Romp Raunch Film of the Year (or even longer)
26 September 2004
You'll either laugh heartily at "A Dirty Shame" or feel unclean - unclean, perhaps, in the biblical sense. Director John Waters takes us to a working class neighborhood in Baltimore where Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) and her husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak) keep their libidinous stripper daughter, Caprice (Selma Blair), under literal house arrest, apparently under court order. The always marvelous Ms. Blair sports enhanced breasts whose size isn't given but, conservatively, I'd say they're about 60 DDDDDDDD. (Amusingly, Ms. Blair's actual mammary appendages, as observed in a nude scene from an Indie film a few years ago, are of the type that one former girlfriend described, sadly, as "my bee stings.")

Gays and lesbians are moving into the neighborhood to the disgust of Caprice's convenience store-owning grandma, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd). She wants to organize the community to fight depravity through civic action and she seeks, "Neuters," folks who aren't sex crazy - in fact, she wants the most frigid types possible.

The story takes a bizarre twist when Sylvia is hit on the head and her mild concussion turns her instantly into a nymphomaniac. She's both helped and serviced by Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) who turns out to be the Big Guru of a platoon of concussed sex fetishists (every taste is represented, many of which are truly tasteless).

The story becomes increasingly frenetic, anarchic and bizarre as the concussed ones do their thing in public. There's a very funny take on 12-Step programs and the meeting of sufferers introduces another sexaholic, Paige, played by occasional actress Patricia Hearst who made her screen debut thirty years ago in a grainy bank security film.

There's no way to Take "A Dirty Shame" seriously. It's one sex spoof after the other. The scenes are manic with some good special effects. Ullman and Shepherd are particularly good in their over-the-top roles. But everyone in this movie is flying.

In case you're wondering, both medical literature and law cases do describe near instant nymphomania and satyriasis from head blows. But I don't think Waters was thinking about that when he put this romping raunch flick together.

7/10 and definitely not an Oscar contender for 2005.
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