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The Company (2007)
I haven't read enough of Robert Littell's novels to know if he's the American version of Frederick Forsyth, Graham Greene, or my personal favorite, John le Carre, but I've liked the novels of his I've read, and one day, I hope someone makes a good adaptation of one of them. THE AMATEUR, filmed in 1981, was faithful to the plot of the novel for the most part, but was done in a plodding, mechanical style and further hampered by a one-note performance by John Savage in the lead role; only Christopher Plummer's wry turn as the head of the Czech Secret Service (he also poses as a professor) was worth watching. This made-for-TNT miniseries isn't as bad as THE AMATEUR, but it also falls short of the novel.
Littell's novel was an epic roman a clef about the history of the CIA, with the usual blending of factual and fictional characters, and while it traveled well-worn territory (and not quite as substantial in that regard as le Carre's novels are), it's still an entertaining read. Obviously, when filming a long novel, even for a miniseries like this, some things have to go, but it's disappointing when great material is here, and the adapters (director Mikael Solomon and writer Ken Nolan) don't bring it to life on screen.
Part of the problem is it seems like a greatest-hits version of the novel. You get the various incidents, like the Hungary uprising in 1956, and the Bay of Pigs, but there's no flow to the story. Solomon and Littell also cut out the humor of the novel - the character of Yevgeny, the Russian agent, for example, has a great fatalism about him (in the book, when asked what one of the principles of Marxism (I think) is, he replies, "A spy in hand is worth two in the bush?"), and Rory Cochrane could have played it as such, yet he does absolutely nothing with the part (he's certainly capable of it, so I'd like to think it's not his fault). Also a lot of the subplots are given to the character of Jack MacAuliffe, and Chris O'Donnell simply isn't equipped to handle them all. Speaking of O'Donnell, another problem is while the scope of the story is for 40 years, none of the characters really age, with the possible exception of Alfred Molina (as Harvey, code-named "The Sorcerer") and Michael Keaton (as real-life deputy director of counter-intelligence James Angleton). O'Donnell just looks like O'Donnell with a gray wig. The only actors who make much of an impression are Molina and Keaton. Overall, "The Company", while not terrible, definitely could have been a lot better.
Almost Famous (2000)
Crowe knows what it is love some little piece of music so much that it hurts
There's a (by now) well-known scene early on in ALMOST FAMOUS when William Miller is poring through the records his older sister Anita has left behind for him since she ran off from home. Inside the album cover of The Who's TOMMY, she leaves William a note, telling him to listen to this with a candle lit, and he'll be able to see his future. He puts on the record, "Sparks" comes on, and the look on his face as he listens is the look every rock fan will recognize.
There's been tons of stuff written about rock-n-roll music, from those who think, like William's mother Elaine, that it's a corrupting influence(or those who go even farther and consider it "the devil's music"), to those who insist the music is meaningless and to take it seriously smacks of pretension, because it's "only music." And then there are people like Cameron Crowe, who recognize rock-n-roll, and the music which came in its wake, is the shared experience of many people starting from the 1950's, in the way maybe that plays and earlier types of music were in centuries before. Sure, there's television and movies as well, but rock music is shorter and more direct. And sure, it can just be fun and a way to cut loose once in a while, but it's also something which can speak to what we love, what we long for, what we're afraid of, what we think, what wounds us inside, and so much more.
Because Crowe is a fan, he's able to capture all of this in his movie. It's not just in the obvious moments, like the people on the tour bus singing along to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," which lifts them out of their black mood, or singer Jeff Bebe leading everybody into singing "On the Cover of Rolling Stone" when he learns he and his fellow bandmates will be on the cover. It's in the wild spirit of people like Sapphire, one of the Band-Aids(read: groupies) who follow the band Stillwater and others as they tour the U.S., or in the more tender spirit of someone like her sister Band-Aid Penny Lane, who believes she and the other Band-Aids serve as a muse to bands like Stillwater, and who soaks in all of her experiences like a sponge. It's also in William, who tries(like Crowe did) to balance reporting with his very obvious love for the music. And it's especially in the line I quoted from at the top, which Sapphire says to Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond late in the movie. To be sure, the road of rock-n-roll isn't all covered in roses. There's outrageous behavior(like how Russell treats Penny, or William losing his virginity to three of the groupies), drugs, excess, and yes, pretension(like when Jeff lectures Penny about the power of rock-n-roll and then adds, "And the chicks are cool, right?" But those who wanted this to be more like THIS IS SPINAL TAP are missing the point. This isn't a movie about the obvious problems and silliness in rock music. It's about what still draws people to it, and though Crowe acknowledges these people's faults, he still loves them for who they are.
Of course, there's a lot more reasons why ALMOST FAMOUS is a great movie besides its love of rock-n-roll. It's well acted across the board(in addition to all the performances mentioned several times, I'd like to highlight Fairuza Balk as Sapphire; not only does she get the best line in the movie(along with Frances McDormand's "Don't take drugs!" and "Rock stars have kidnapped my son") with that line about music(I also like what she and the other groupies yell as they're about to deflower William, "Death to Opie!"), but she also captures the carefree spirit of the time. She may not be important plot wise, but if you took her character out, the movie would be missing something), it's a terrific coming-of-age story, it's a bittersweet love story, the dialogue is great, and it looks terrific. But it's Crowe's obvious love for the music, and for the people who love it, that makes ALMOST FAMOUS the best thing I've seen so far this year.
Very good comic book movie
One of the never-ending debates about popular culture is whether it reflects the times or dictates them. I tend toward the former view, and comic books are no exceptions to this rule. Batman and Superman, the popular comic book heroes of the 30's and 40's, came during the Depression and WWII, where people wanted larger-than-life heroes to look up to. Whereas in the 60's and 70's, when society was becoming ripped apart and people were feeling confused and didn't trust society, comic book heroes like Spiderman and The Fantastic Four, who had as many everyday problems as they did evil ones, were the popular heroes. Square in that tradition are the X-Men.
I was only a casual reader of the comics when I grew up; it was more the excellent animated series of several years back I became a fan of. It was on late at night, and the times shifted around so I couldn't always watch, but I enjoyed watching the adventures of Professor X, Storm, Wolverine, Rogue, and the others, and how they struggled to find their place in the world and to help other mutants do the same. Now, director Bryan Singer and a host of writers(in addition to credited writers Singer, Tom DeSanto, and David Hayter, writers including John Logan, Christopher McQuarrie, Ed Solomon, and Joss Whedon took a whack at it) have delivered their version of X-MEN, and I'm pleased to say it delivers.
One of the reasons it works is Singer, his usual director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel, and production designer John Myhre eschew the usual look of comic book films. Even though this is set in the future(the "near future"), everything looks close to like it is today(except, of course, Magneto's hideout and Professor Xavier's school). This emphasizes even more the alienation mutants feel from society. And while there are visual effects used in both the battles and when the X-Men show their stuff(especially Mystique), they don't come at the expense of the story, but serve it.
Some have complained the film is overly serious, as if being a comic book automatically meant it wasn't worth taking seriously. Yes, Singer is making parallels to bigotry today, with some direct antecedents(the anti-mutant Senator Robert Kelly is clearly modeled on Joe McCarthy, Magneto is a Holocaust survivor, and he quotes Malcolm X near the end - "by any means necessary" - which also suggests Professor Xavier is parallel to Martin Luther King), but they're handled well, and not overplayed. It's also refreshing to see how little melodrama creeps in(SPOILER ALERT: When Professor Xavier becomes bedridden and the rest of the X-Men must carry on without him, it's good to see he doesn't suddenly come back just in time to save the day. END SPOILER ALERT). And to those who suggest the movie is without humor, there are jokes both visual(I don't know the characters, but at the school, one boy makes a fireball, and another sneaks up behind him and turns it into ice. Also, Wolverine's version of flipping someone the bird) and through dialogue(when Wolverine puts down the costumes everyone's wearing, Cyclops shoots back, "Would you prefer yellow spandex?").
One criticism of comic book movies has generally been that they spend too much time trying to explain things to people who don't know anything about them, all at the expense of the story. That's certainly a valid point, but the stories of Wolverine and Rogue(though admittedly hers is supposedly changed radically from the source) are a good way of getting into the story, and Magneto's short past is necessary to show while he is a villain, he's not your standard one. And the stories of Wolverine and Rogue provide an emotional counterpoint to the information disseminated about the X-Men(the fact that Patrick Stewart is handling the exposition keeps these scenes from bogging down).
Which leads to the performances. In order for this to work, you need actors with tremendous presence and authority to play Professor Xavier and Magneto, and someone who can fully handle the complexity of Wolverine, and this is where the film truly scores. Stewart and Ian McKellen are terrific in their roles, both resisting the urge to camp it up(the fact that they sound alike also illustrates how the characters are two sides of the same coin), and especially play well together. And while I had wanted Russell Crowe(the first name mentioned during casting talks) for Wolverine, newcomer Hugh Jackman does quite well, capturing all the feelings Wolverine feels, plus having a great physical presence. And he also does a great job working with all the other actors, and acting with his face(SPOILER ALERT: especially in the scene when he rescues Rogue near the end. END SPOILER ALERT)
The rest of the cast is more of a mixed bag. On the minus side, Tyler Mane has very little to do as Sabretooth, though Magneto and Mystique are the main villains here anyway. Halle Berry has a great physical presence as Storm, her battle scenes come off well, and she's quietly powerful in her one dramatic scene with Senator Kelly, but her African accent(Storm, of course, lived there much of her life) is wayward, and she gets stuck with some awkward dialogue(her scene with Wolverine). And while James Marsden is appropriately cocky as Cyclops, and spars well with Wolverine, isn't quite convincing as a leader, in his one dramatic scene(with Professor Xavier), he's wooden rather than moving, and he and Jean Gray don't have much chemistry(in fairness, that was probably among the footage cut out after previews). On the plus side, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos only has one line of dialogue, but she's quite a presence as Mystique; she's a visual effect all to herself. And unlike the tiresome face-swapping of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2, her shape-shifting never becomes tiresome, because it's always used right, for terror or a joke. Ray Park also makes a good presence as Toad, and contributes some humor as well. Bruce Davison doesn't overplay as Kelly, but brings the right amount of edge. Famke Jannsen brings quiet strength to Jean Gray, and her scenes with Wolverine sparkle(especially when she looks into his mind). Finally, while some have complained that Rogue is too passive a character, I would argue it's appropriate for this conception; she doesn't use her power in fights because she hasn't learned to control it, and is afraid to use it. And Anna Paquin captures this emotional confusion well, especially with her scenes with Wolverine(along with McKellen and Stewart, Jackman and Paquin are the best pair in the film).
Overall, this was quite a good effort, and while I'm normally leery of sequels, the same people are back for the second film, so I'm looking forward to it.
I can't say I'm a real big fan of what is known as the "sword and sandal" genre. Admittedly, I haven't seen too many of these medieval epics, but I can only think of two I liked(not counting Monty Python's LIFE OF BRIAN, which spoofed the genre); BEN-HUR and SPARTACUS. The former, despite an annoying lead performance by Charlton Heston, had taste and craftsmanship, the latter, despite a somewhat one-note performance by Kirk Douglas, had irony and intelligence. The others all seemed melodramatic. But Ridley Scott's new film shows there's life in this genre yet.
Admittedly, the film does suffer in comparison in one respect; Scott seems less comfortable with the talking scenes and the backroom politics, as it were, than, say, Stanley Kubrick was in SPARTACUS. All the scenes with Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, and Peter Ustinov were, in that film, equally as compelling as the battle scenes. Whereas in Scott's film, while he's cast some good actors like Joaquim Phoenix, Connie Nielson, and Derek Jacobi, and they respond with good performances(in particular, Phoenix, an underrated actor, and not the obvious choice as the bad guy), you can sense his need to get back to the action.
Fortunately, the action is all well done; while it's clear Scott is trying to have it both ways(make entertaining spectacle which comments on the need for entertaining spectacle), he stages it so well we don't tend to worry about that. Also, he's helped mightily by the casting of Russell Crowe in the lead role. Crowe couldn't play a false note if he tried, and he brings a lot to a pretty standard action hero here. As with THE INSIDER, he's playing another person who takes a stand he didn't think he had to, and he leads by example, rather than bluster. Overall, while I'm not a big fan of the genre, this is a fine example of it.
Nothing new, but still good
Three years ago, Jonathan Mostow made a neat little thriller called BREAKDOWN, and while there was nothing in it we hadn't seen before, it was still good. Now he turns the same trick with this movie. True, it's not a classic like DAS BOOT was, but if we said that about every movie("well, it's no..."), we'd have no movies. I was caught up with most of it, and I enjoyed it. Also, I liked Matthew McConaughey, who proved once again he's a better actor than given credit for, even when he's not using his trademark grin and charm. Except for Harvey Keitel and Jack Noseworthy(who was also in BREAKDOWN), the rest of the cast wasn't distinctive, but they were good.
Now to answer some of the criticism of this movie I've read: (1) It's not just that this is a fictional story and not fact, it's that the Enigma is a McGuffin; just something to get the plot rolling. The real story is the crew trying to survive on the enemy submarine and McConaughey's character learning if he has what it takes to be a captain. If we found out the characters were also supposed to be able to use the Enigma as well, that would have been a problem, but all they're doing is taking it. (2) If I remember correctly, and it could be I'm not, the German captain who orders his gunman to shoot the survivors on lifeboats says those are his orders from "the Fuehrer." Of course, that's no excuse(given that following orders was the defense for My Lai), but we weren't meant to think, "Oh, these German bad guys" because of this scene, especially since they didn't look particularly happy about it.
On the other hand, I do agree one torpedo blowing up a destroyer was a little ludicrous. But it does seem to me a lot of comments which nit-pick films like this are by people who go in not caring if the movie works as a whole, but who have to be satisfied about every little detail in the movie, and go through it as if they were studying something under a microscope. People like that, in my humble opinion, need to get a life.
American Psycho (2000)
Biting yet chilling satire
WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD
I first read Ellis' novel a year ago. While much of it was overwritten, particularly the gore parts, within it was a biting yet chilling satire, from the concentration of what Patrick wore to what he listened to(the record reviews, written with the same depth as one might expect a review of The Who's TOMMY would have, are hysterical), which exposed an entire empty sub-culture. I'm glad director and co-writer(with Guinevere Turner, who also plays one of Patrick's victims) Mary Harron found that satire in her film, while playing down the gore(though the murders still retain their kick). One could argue some of it is so 80's it's passe, but then again, given the way a new generation of people are driven to success at any cost, maybe it's not just the 80's.
Bale does a good job of capturing Patrick, being both funny and terrifying, often at the same time, and yet showing that the person he most terrifies is himself. The other actors are all good, particularly Chloe Sevigny as Patrick's secretary, and makes it believable that she's the one person he would spare. A couple of points on what people have written; if the other characters seem shallow, that's partly because that's how Patrick sees them. Also, I don't think we're supposed to think he imagined it all; I think his friends just don't believe a serial killer may be in their midst(which is why Harron keeps Ellis' last line "THIS IS NOT AN EXIT" on the door behind Patrick).
Keeping the Faith (2000)
You ever enjoy a movie while it's playing, but then walk out feeling a little cheated? That was my experience with this movie. Certainly, there is stuff to like here. Edward Norton is rapidly proving himself to be one of the best actors of his generation(and to those who are saying, "Oh my God! He can do comedy?", I'd suggest taking a look at EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, or, for darker comedy, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT or ROUNDERS), and he continues to demonstrate that here. He's very subtle in conveying how he gradually falls in love with Anna. He also does a great RAIN MAN riff. And as director, it's nice to see he doesn't let himself hog all the screen time, but shares it equally with Stiller and Elfman. Stiller is, as usual, very funny, and manages to convey his character's conflict in a way that makes it feel real, rather than just plot. And Elfman continues to prove there's a lot more to her than Dharma.
BUT(and beware, there are some spoilers coming up):
The movie can't help getting sitcom-ish at times. Some of it, of course, is personal; I must admit liking verbal gags more than physical, unless the physical ones are done well, and Norton indulges in too many for himself at first(the one with Stiller fainting at the circumcision may have been obvious, but that was nicely done). More importantly, while the movie tries to respect each religion, it still seems a little cartoonish and unbelievable at times. I know each of them are trying to make their congregations come into the 21st century, as it were, and I'm all for that, but sometimes, I just didn't buy them(I'm a Catholic, and while I went to a liberal Catholic college, I'm not sure I'd believe New York Catholics would want the movie SEVEN to be involved in a discussion of the seven deadly sins). But most of all is how Norton and writer Stuart Blumberg seem to rely on romantic comedy formula rather than genuine feeling. Yes, I'm talking about the reconciliation scene; that came straight out of Sitcom 101(also Stiller's "revelation" scene at the traffic light right before that). At the end, Norton thanks Nora Ephron and confirmed in an interview I read that he called her up for advice. I wish he hadn't, because scenes like this are hallmarks of her films and why they're so shallow. And did they have to sing Barry Manilow at the karaoke center?
This isn't a terrible film, understand, I just found myself vaguely irritated even while I was laughing at some of it. Overall, I'd recommend it, but it's not without flaw. Brief aside: I chuckled when Norton was holding the ANNA BANANA sign at the airport because in high school, I had a friend named Shanna who, when she ran for student council, had the slogan "Don't be a Banana/Vote for Shanna," whereupon her friends started calling her Shanna Banana. We also tried calling her sister "Stacy Banana," but that didn't take.
High Fidelity (2000)
Cusack continues winning streak with this film
I read the novel when it first came out because the title intrigued me, and I found it quite good. When I heard John Cusack was adapting it and moving the action to Chicago(from London in the novel), I was a little worried, because I worry about changing things during adaptations for arbitrary reasons, but I needn't have worried; though I have a few quibbles, which we'll get to later, Cusack and Co. have done a fine job adapting the novel.
First off, I've read one comment which claims it stereotypes "music geeks." The type of people Hornby, Cusack, his co-writers(D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, who also co-wrote GROSSE POINT BLANK, and Scott Rosenberg), and director Stephen Frears are portraying is a very particular type of "music geek"; the type who is a snob about music. Almost all of us, I would say, are aggressive about our likes and dislikes when it comes to music, but not many, I agree, compare liking Marvin Gaye and Art Garfunkel to "agreeing with both the Israelis and the Palestinians." And probably not many of us would be so cut off from feelings that, when hearing about a person's death, would find no better way of expressing their sorrow than listing their top 5 songs about death. Yet we do like these people as characters because we see even if they have some snotty attitudes, they do have a genuine love for their music, and they're in a low-paying job because they love what they do. And who among us hasn't turned to music when we've felt sad(or happy), like Rob does, or wished that Bruce Springsteen(and a pox on the person who, in their comments, implied he was passe. Bruce will NEVER be passe) would talk to us directly like he talks to us through his music? The novel and the movie captures all of that.
Another strength, of course, is Cusack's performance. Woody Allen once said that while American actors were very good at playing virile men of action, there weren't many who could play more "normal," regular people. Cusack, on the other hand, has carved out a niche for himself playing regular guys. He doesn't look like The Boy Next Door, and he's neither stereotypically sensitive or hip, but comes across as a guy who feels both at ease and yet still longs for something more. At his best, like in movies such as THE SURE THING, SAY ANYTHING, THE GRIFTERS, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, GROSSE POINT BLANK, and this, he plays people on the cusp of growing up, who are able to if they want to, but aren't sure if they want to, and yet he's made each of them different. Rob's condition may be a little more conventional - he's not sure if he wants to settle down yet - but Cusack, while unafraid to show his unlikable qualities, makes us like Rob anyway.
The rest of the cast is also quite good. The well-known names only get short takes(Lisa Bonet, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones), but they make the most of their time. I've never seen Iben Hjejle before(I haven't seen MIFUNE), but she does well as the most grown-up person in the movie. But the real stars, besides Cusack and the music, are Jack Black and Todd Louiso as Rob's co-workers. Black especially reminds me of people I knew.
As I said, I do have some quibbles. There are a couple of incidents in the book which don't make it to the film which I would have liked to see(the Sid James Experience, and the lady who wanted to sell Rob a ton of valuable records for a ridiculously low price). I'm getting tired of movies which use rain as an expression of sorrow, and this is an example of overuse. And the character of Laura isn't developed as well in the movie as she was in the novel. Nevertheless, this is well worth checking out.
Playing by Heart (1998)
Shallow film lifted by good performances
A lot of critics compared this to Robert Altman or Alan Rudolph films; I think Carroll is really aiming for James L. Brooks doing Altman or Rudolph. A lot of the lines are trying for that snappy Brooks dialogue(like when Keenan(Ryan Phillipe) tells Joan(Angelina Jolie) "I don't date," to which she responds, "I've never heard that one before."), and trying to mix comedy and drama as well as he does. The problem is while Carroll is trying at least for grand things - talking about love, death, family - he misses in how to do it. It's clever when it wants to be insightful, and shallow when it wants to be truthful. And while there are supposed to be surprises at the end, only one of them really was(which I won't reveal).
On the other hand, this can't easily be dismissed, because all of the performers are appealing(even though Anthony Edwards, Dennis Quaid, and Madeline Stowe get stuck with ridiculous subplots, they're always nice to watch). Even Phillipe, who I normally don't like, comes across pretty well here. The ones who register the most are Anderson, Connery, Jolie, Rowlands, and Stewart. Stewart and Anderson feel like a real couple, and they nicely underplay their dialogue, which makes it play even better(especially when Stewart first meets Anderson's dog; "Suddenly I feel inadequate" may seem like a sitcom line(even though it IS a huge dog), but he makes it seem real). Jolie clearly relates to these types of roles, and gives all of her lines an extra snap to them. She's also very expressive here with her face. Connery and Rowlands also feel like a real couple, and it's nice to see him acting with someone his own age for a change. Some have questioned whether it's realistic what they would be arguing about, but since she wants to talk about something else and can't, this is her way of getting it out, so I had no problem with that.
Overall, it's one of those films saved by good acting, but if Carroll is aspiring to the level of a James L. Brooks, he needs to go deeper.
Felicia's Journey (1999)
Starts out slow but works to powerful conclusion
In an interview he did with Maclean's last year(the Sept. 12 issue, I think, though I'm not exactly sure), writer-director Atom Egoyan talked about an incident in his life which partly explains why his last three films - EXOTICA, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, and now FELICIA'S JOURNEY - have been about very twisted, almost predatory, relationships. It seems when he was a teen, he fell in love with a girl who, as it turns out, was being molested by her father, and naturally, that caused all sorts of difficulties. Unconsciously maybe, in order to understand how anybody could do such a thing, maybe Egoyan has tried since to use film to do that(although I won't state that as a fact; I'm no psychologist).
What is clear in FELICIA'S JOURNEY is that, for the first part of the movie anyway, Egoyan is clearly more interested in telling the story of Hilditch, the caterer who is more disturbed than meets the eye, than in Felicia, the young woman he befriends. If this were just a movie about Hilditch, maybe that would suffice. But in the novel by William Trevor this is based on, even though Felicia's story is a familiar one(young, somewhat naive girl falls in love with boy her family doesn't approve of, he leaves, she gets pregnant, and tries to find him), her story is of equal importance to the story of Hilditch, and Trevor is interested equally in both of them. The problem is Egoyan seems disconnected to Felicia's story, even though Elaine Cassidy is quite good in the role, so not only does the story go slack there, we start to question, as you didn't in reading the novel, how she could be so naive.
Eventually, though, when Felicia ends up staying with Hilditch and gradually learns about him, the terror of the story, and the fact that, thanks to Egoyan, we're seeing her primarily through Hilditch, makes us care. And, as I said, Cassidy is quite good.
Of course, the movie belongs to Bob Hoskins as Hilditch. Hoskins doesn't make the mistake of coming across as a sneering psychopath. Instead, he trusts us to make our associations from past roles of his(THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, MONA LISA) to realize there's something bubbling under this mama's boy, and concentrates on playing Hilditch on someone who genuinely believes he's doing good deeds here, and just want to help. It also helps that Arsinee Khanjian, as Egoyan's wife, is quite good, and funny, as the domineering mother; you may never watch cooking shows the same way again.
Egoyan also doesn't make a conventional Hollywood thriller as the movie draws to its conclusion. What he substitutes is something which, admittedly, played out better in the novel because Trevor was able to stretch it out more, but it still chills you to the bone. One may wonder why Egoyan took to a genre piece right after THE SWEET HEREAFTER, but he reworks it into a movie which does resonate.
Scream 3 (2000)
WARNING: PLOT POINTS ARE GIVEN AWAY, SO IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE OR DON'T WANT TO KNOW, PLEASE DO NOT CONTINUE READING
As I've said before, I have little use for sequels, which was I was surprised to find myself going to SCREAM 2, and even more surprised that I enjoyed it. Like the first one, it was fast, scary, funny, and took some nice satiric jibes. Even the much debated identity of the killer in the second one made sense as a satiric swipe at horror movies, so it didn't bother me. I didn't know if they'd be able to keep it going for a third movie, especially when hearing Kevin Williamson's involvement was going to be minimal(he's a producer, and he wrote an outline which eventual writer Ehren Kruger worked from), but I liked the first two, I was especially pleased to see Scott Foley(from FELICITY) and Parker Posey in the cast, and I was intrigued to see what happened. In retrospect, I probably should have waited for video.
Certainly the opening shows a little promise; instead of the usual celebrity cameo, we have a spoof of that, with Cotton Weary(Liev Schrieber), who's now a Geraldo-type talk show host, complaining about having to do a cameo in STAB 3(the movie within a movie here), so we know it's spoofing itself. The problem, of course, is we know Cotton's going to get killed, but Craven is able to draw suspense throughout the scene. We also get the stated purpose here during the phone call(which, also a bit clever, starts out with a woman's voice before the familiar tone of Roger L. Jackson as THE voice kicks in); the killer wants to find Sidney.
Sidney, of course, is living in seclusion, under a new name and barely going outside the house(which, of course, is under heavy alarm), so at first, she's almost like an afterthought to the movie. Instead, the center is on Gail Weathers, the tabloid reporter, now an entertainment reporter, who uses her reporter skills to play detective when Cotton is killed, and she decides to assist the police, specifically Detective Kincaid(Patrick Dempsey), in the case. Then there's Dewey, who's a technical advisor to STAB 3, the movie, and they of course worry about what's going to happen.
There's all kinds of potential here, and it's directed well, but it isn't written as well as I think Williamson would have done. There are scares which still work, and while the Dewey/Gail relationship seems a little old hat, the two Arquettes obviously like working with each other, and their familiarity with us helps smooth that over. Also, while Campbell is disconnected, she's still sympathetic, and while she doesn't have the same fun with herself as she did in the first one, I understood that. And there is humor, most of it coming from Posey as the actress playing Gail in STAB 3; few actresses can make contempt funny like she can. There's also the standard satiric bite(the bodyguard who guarded Julia Roberts and Salman Rushdie but ends up toast here).
But as I said, it isn't written as well, and the primary weakness is the killer. In some senses, I guess, having the director(Foley) be the killer makes sense, because he has the technical expertise to handle things. But it seems to come out of nowhere, and perhaps to distract us from that, Kruger gives us the idea of him being a long-lost relative of Sidney's, which is ridiculous. Perhaps because of that too, Foley goes way over the top, which is funny at first, but then becomes tiresome. Also, Kruger cribs not from other horror movies here, but from the first SCREAM(the cloning of the cell phone being a prime example). And while Williamson's red herrings were pretty clever, this one seems not thought out. Emily Mortimer's character(she plays the actress who plays Sidney) is a perfect example; there are two indications she might be the killer(three, if you count the woman's voice to Cotton), and yet she's killed off almost as an afterthought. Finally, as to compensate for all of this, there are a lot more killings to cover up. Which begs the question; if all he wanted was to find Sidney(as stated early on several times), why not just take Dewey, Gail, and Cotton et al hostage? The first two movies mocked the Idiot Plot Rule; this one mostly personifies it.
It's a shame, because there could have been something made from all this(oh, almost forgot; Dempsey, who I normally don't like, is surprisingly good, and also unrecognizable here). But this certainly doesn't break any rules. Even the Jamie Kennedy cameo seems obligatory rather than fresh. This suggest they should have stopped at the second one.
Play It to the Bone (1999)
Disappointing effort from master of sports movies
The story goes that Ron Shelton wanted to make a biopic of Bob Marley, but the financing fell through, and in a few weeks time, he wrote this boxing film. "That's okay," you think. "This is Ron Shelton. Sure, he co-wrote THE GREAT WHITE HYPE, which was disappointing, but he didn't direct that one. He did write and direct BULL DURHAM, WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP, COBB, and TIN CUP(well, he co-wrote the last one, but let's not split hairs), all great sports movies, so he could probably do a boxing movie in his sleep." Well, unfortunately, that's what he seems to have done in this disappointing movie.
Shelton was reportedly inspired by a true-life fight where the preliminary match also turned out to be much more compelling than the featured attraction, which would seem tailor-made for him. And like the other Shelton heroes, the characters of Vince(Harrelson) and Cesar(Banderas) aren't among the great ones, though they've flirted with greatness. Finally, certainly the idea is right in place, that the point is not who of these best friends wins the fight(without revealing the ending, I will say it's not only logical, but feels right), but the fact they each got this last shot and put on a good show. The problem, until the fight scenes, is the execution.
Shelton usually has a gift for dialogue and character, especially when romantic comedy is concerned, but he seems to have mislaid it here. Vince and Cesar are pretty much ciphers from the beginning, despite the obvious chemistry Harrelson and Banderas have between them. There are traits which are mildly funny(like the fact that a boxer would watch soaps), but nothing that adds up. Even the fact that Vince is a "Jesus" freak seems incoherent rather than part of the character. And the dialogue between them, except in the scenes when they're talking at the same time, seems lame, relying on easy homophobia and vulgarity rather than being funny(compare that to the clever trash talk in WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP). And even when Davidovich enters the picture, though she gamely tries, she's got nothing to work with, and seems oddly mismatched with Banderas. Harrelson at least she seems comfortable with, but they don't have enough scenes together.
The fight scenes are where Shelton finally comes alive. The behind-the-scenes details of how the fight gets into place and such are familiar, but well-handled. And the fight is compelling to us, so it's believable that the rest of the arena would find it so as well. We see the fighters being given advice, but since they think they know each other, they sometimes ignore it to do their own thing. And you really believe at the end they're both fighting on pure adrenaline. Even Davidovich becomes believable here as she realizes she loves both of them, and while she understands they need this, can't bear to watch them hurt each other. Yet even here, Shelton messes up. There are too many T&A shots, which are supposed to reflect how the fighters' minds are fogged up, but are more likely there to get people to hoot. Ultimately, I hope this is a blip on Shelton's career, rather than a sign he's losing it.
An Ideal Husband (1999)
Talks more and says less as it goes on
Comedy plays like those that Oscar Wilde are tough to do; go one way, and it's too smug and arch, go another and it's too labored and drawn out. Adapter Oliver Parker avoids the first part but stumbles into the second. Obviously, in this post-Lewinsky era, he probably felt he could make a timely statement about politicians, and he handles that part without grandstanding. But this is essentially a comedy, and while we start out brightly, the end slows it down to a crawl. To be fair, it's hard work to appear effortless(as Cary Grant proved), but the comedy suffers because of it. Certainly Rupert Everett is effortless enough, and he's not only good in of himself, but everyone else is at ease when acting with him(I particularly like his sparring with Minnie Driver). But while the rest of the cast is good(though Northam looks uncomfortable at times), they get caught when the movie slows down. It's too bad, because there are good things here, but as Wilde might say, it talks more and says less as it goes on.
Todo sobre mi madre (1999)
Not the best Almodovar, but still quite good
Is it possible to like a filmmaker even if you don't like, or have never seen, any of their influences? Certainly, Pedro Almodovar provides a "yes" answer to that question for me. Critics all over say one of his biggest influences is Douglas Sirk, director of movies like WRITTEN ON THE WIND, melodramas which I have avoided seeing since they usually star Rock Hudson, whom I'm not a big fan of. Almodovar usually takes the melodrama form(some would say soap opera) and gives it a satiric twist. When he likes the characters, as he did in LAW OF DESIRE and WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN(still his best film), the result is grand entertainment. When he hates the characters, however(as in KIKA), the result is dismal. For some people, Almodovar made a comeback with THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET, where he played straight what he normally played for satire, but I thought it was too much a soap opera to be affecting.
Now he returns with ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, and while there's quite a lot of comedy here, it's also played straight. The difference here between this and THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET is the melodrama doesn't seem tacked on(except at the end, which goes on a little long and gets a little unbelievable), so the drama is affecting rather than tiresome. Also, the acting is far superior; every one of the actors is quite good, but I think I liked the one who played the transvestite Agrado the best, who seemed determined to stay happy, no matter what. Finally, I guess I can understand liking ALL ABOUT EVE and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE more than I can understand liking romance novels(the occupation of the main character in FLOWER). WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN is still my favorite Almodovar, but this is good as well.
The Straight Story (1999)
Genuine rather than saccharine
Whenever I hear a movie being touted because it has no sex, violence, bad language, special effects, and so on, my b.s. detector goes off. Usually, a movie like that is sentimental hogwash which panders to people who don't want anything to surprise them, but to affirm how superior they are to us craven folk. So when David Lynch's THE STRAIGHT STORY began getting those kinds of reviews, I was apprehensive, especially since I was not a fan of his other "uplifting" story, THE ELEPHANT MAN. For all the stunning images and the good acting in that film, it seemed more interested in preaching to us than inspiring us.
I needn't have worried. THE STRAIGHT STORY is an honest movie rather than a saccharine one. Most of that is due to the fact that Lynch and writers John Roach and Mary Sweeney tell it straight and simple for the most part. There are a couple of homilies by Straight I could have done without, and the shots of grain being harvested are repeated a little too much, but those are only quibbles. There's no heavy-handed message, no sentimental strings to jerk our emotions, and no condescension towards us and its characters. Instead, they depend on the story to build its own power, and it does, so by the final scene, we are genuinely moved.
Of course, casting Richard Farnsworth adds realism to the part. He really is someone who looks like he's lived through a lot but still perseveres, and except for those homilies, the desire he has to get back together with his brother doesn't seem overly sentimental, because you can sense here is someone who's lived too long and seen too much to be driven by anger for long. And he knows his time is running out, so he wants to make some peace, not only with his brother, but with his life. Sissy Spacek also does fine, unmannered work as Straight's daughter. And although I am a city and suburban boy, the Iowa and Wisconsin landscape are beautifully shot, making me want at least to visit some day.
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Fine showcase for Ryder
It's always tough in today's goal-obsessed society to be someone who isn't quite sure what they want, but woman and minorities especially have it tough, because they seem to be automatically assigned "roles" for them(if you're a woman, even today, people still ask you when you're going to get married; if you're black and look big, people ask if you're an athlete). In the 60's, author Susanna Kaysen was in a similar position; she didn't know what she wanted to do with her life, but knew she didn't quite fit into the norm. Because of that, and because of some legitimate problems(she tried to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of aspirin), she went into a mental hospital and was tagged with having "borderline personality disorder," a catch-all phrase which meant whatever the doctors wanted it to mean. From her experiences in the hospital, Kaysen wrote the book GIRL, INTERRUPTED(the title comes from a Vermeer painting), and now comes the movie version from James Mangold and Winona Ryder.
Mangold's first two films, HEAVY and COPLAND, were both about main characters leading lives of quiet desperation; the pizza chef in HEAVY unable to express himself, and the partly sheriff in COPLAND who must learn to assume his responsibility with that position. Susanna fits in with those two characters, and Mangold does just as good a job with her, except for some melodramatic scenes near the end. There are some major themes going on here, like whether Susanna is really crazy, just spoiled, or conditioned to think something is wrong with her, the nature of what "crazy" is in the 60's, and of course being a woman at the time, but Mangold avoids making big statements for the most part, instead concentrating on Susanna's growth into being a little more sure of herself.
As has been said before, Ryder brings a lot to the table, not just being a talented actress, but life research, having spent time in a hospital due to exhaustion(this is why she pulled out of GODFATHER PART III as well). And instead of going for obvious drama, she too just makes Susanna's recovery a gradual and detailed journey, except for those melodramatic scenes. The first third, which seems to be influence by SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, flashes back and forth through time, as if showing Susanna feeling lost and fragmented. The rest of the movie is more linear, but Ryder doesn't make it boring.
Some people have dismissed this as a chick ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, which is the usual knee-jerk response whenever a mostly female cast tackles what is normally done with a mostly male cast. In truth, they're very different movies, primarily because in CUCKOO, we're meant to see the hospital staff, represented by Nurse Ratched, as evil, trying to break down the patients rather than build them up. Here, on the other hand, while we're meant to see the system's shortcomings(in addition to what I said before, the different meanings of "promiscuous" when applied to men and women), the hospital staff is generally seen as trying to do the best they can. The patients may make fun of the doctors(well-played by Jeffrey Tambor and Vanessa Redgrave) and occasionally challenge the nurses(head nurse Whoopi Goldberg gives her best performance in a long time), but there's no real hatred here, except maybe from Lisa.
Angelina Jolie certainly has a flashy role with Lisa, the resident sociopath, but makes her seem real, until the movie betrays her at the end. When she's pushing people's buttons, she's actually quite sly about it, which is a lot more multi-dimensional than some have made it out to be. The rest of the cast playing patients is also good(it was a little heartbreaking seeing Elisabeth Moss playing a burn victim, especially when they show a picture of her as a young girl, where she looks like she did in IMAGINARY CRIMES). But it's Ryder who is the main reason for seeing this fine movie.
As T.C. said, this movie rocks!
You all may know the story at how Tom Cruise saw this movie at a screening in London, and afterwards said, "This movie rocks." Whatever you may think of Mr. Cruise, I happen to agree after watching this film. Although I had trouble following the story at times, it was a lot of fun, and Ritchie managed to juggle all the characters around and keep me interested and compelled to watch. I also didn't have any trouble understanding what the characters were saying, and I think those who blind themselves to films like this by saying, "Oh, I can't understand them" lack patience. I also liked all the actors, particularly, of course Lenny McLean and Vinnie Jones(one of my few complaints is I would have liked to see more of them in the film). And for a film which feels violent, there's surprisingly little actual violence, which is refreshing. Overall, not a particularly deep film, but a lot of fun.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
Not quite a touchdown, but at least Stone is back
Oliver Stone is one of the most, if not THE most, passionate filmmakers working today. He's also a talented filmmaker, which a lot of people seem to forget. When both his talent and passion are at full strength, the results are impressive(SALVADOR, PLATOON, JFK, NIXON). When the passion is still there, but the talent is tripped up by his passion and ambitions, he makes flawed movies which are still powerful(WALL STREET, TALK RADIO, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, HEAVEN AND EARTH). But when he goes outside of his passions, for either experiments(NATURAL BORN KILLERS), or to make "mainstream" movies(U-TURN), he misses wide. NATURAL BORN KILLERS, to me, was a worse film, but U-TURN was, in a way, even more dispiriting, because the former you could at least excuse as an experiment gone wrong, whereas the latter screamed "Cash-in!" You felt after watching Stone was too tired to fight anymore.
Well, as ANY GIVEN SUNDAY proves, Stone, like his on-screen alter-ego, Tony D'Amato(Al Pacino), may look tired, but he's still got fight left in him. Many have seen football as war, so it's appropriate Stone has long wanted to make a movie about football. And as Spike Lee did with HE GOT GAME, Stone wants us to see not only the glory of the actual playing(as well as how tough it is to earn that glory), but also the corrupt forces which are pervading it today. After all, we decry flashy players, and then complain about those who are too boring, we talk about tradition out of one side of our mouth and demand the game be updated out of the other side, we call white players who exhibit boorish behavior "colorful" while calling black players who exhibit similar behavior "punks"(and that's putting it mildly), we complain about players who are overpaid while thinking nothing of owners who spend lavishly on themselves and move teams around, we complain about football being too dominated by TV yet sit around like couch potatoes every Sunday and Monday night, we react with horror when players get hurt badly and get addicted to drugs, yet we yell at them to murder each other on the field and call those who don't chicken(to put it mildly), and so on.
This is a wide canvas to cover, and yet Stone does a pretty good job of it. Especially good is how the relationship between D'Amato and his new quarterback Willie Beamon(Jamie Foxx) encompasses a lot of that canvas. There are two scenes in particular which stand out; one where D'Amato sits with Willie on the plane and tries to talk to him, but can't think of anything which doesn't sound patronizing from Willie's point of view(like music, where D'Amato thinks the fact he's mentioning black jazz musicians is supposed to mean something), and the scene at D'Amato's house, where Beamon talks of how, in the past, "playing for the team" was code for "Know your place, boy," and have things really changed? Willie has to learn that playing for the team really does mean, as quarterback, getting them to respect you so they'll play for you, and Tony has to learn that tradition can't be stodgy, that it has to accept change.
Stone is less sure in other aspects. Cameron Diaz does a good job as the team's owner, but her character is a little too one-dimensional at times. It would have been more interesting to have here not just talk in terms of money, but that the game, to her, really is more interesting the way Willie plays it(maybe I'm biased, but I'm a fan of more pass-oriented games). And while I don't think Stone is as misogynist as he's been charged with in the past, certainly it's evident here. It's one thing to say there are groupies in football, it's another thing to delight in showing them. There are sympathetic woman here, particularly Ann-Margaret as Diaz's mother, who shows what being a football wife costs, and Lela Rochon as Willie's girlfriend, who is unwilling to have that happen to her(the scene at the party, where she feels both isolated from Willie and the other wives, is nicely drawn). Finally, Stone can't resist the ROCKY-type cliches near the end.
But though it's flawed, there's still a lot of power here. Except for Lauren Holly, who I'm not a big fan of, the acting is all around excellent, particularly Foxx. I was particularly impressed with how well the athletes did as actors, particularly Jim Brown(though he's an actor, so this isn't surprising) and Lawrence Taylor. And, of course, all the football scenes are terrific and feel real. It's always good when you see on screen what you can't see watching the game on TV, and Stone accomplishes that here. Call it not quite a touchdown, but a film which convinces us Stone still has fight left in him.
Anderson enters the big time
I must admit, it took me awhile to sort this out since when I saw the movie, the projector broke down during the climax of the film, and then again after only a couple of seconds of film(all told, the last 15 minutes or so of movie took about 45 minutes to show). Nevertheless, I think I can say that this is an excellent film and that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson proves he's ready for the big time.
I can understand why some people don't like this film, aside from the ones who complain about its overlength(to them, I quote the late Gene Siskel, who said good movies are never too long, while bad movies always are). This is a film about characters who, for the most part, wear their hearts on their sleeve, or play for big emotions, and if done badly, that can slide into soap opera. But Anderson doesn't go for safe choices here, and his audaciousness, and skill, make those emotions ring true. The theme of how TV has corrupted the lives of most of the characters could be too symbolic, but that's handled well, particularly in the shots of Claudia(Melora Walters) crying while watching the game show her father(Philip Baker Hall) hosts.
Of course, the cast deserves a lot of mention. Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, and Melora Walters have gotten a lot of praise for their performances, and justifiably so. But Philip Baker Hall, who did such a terrific job in Anderson's first film, HARD EIGHT, also deserves praise as Jimmy Gator, the game show host. He has some big dramatic moments, having to play someone who gets sick on air, and handles them without going over the top. And his scenes with his wife(Melinda Dillon, also excellent) are heartbreaking. And Jeremy Blackman is not only convincing as the boy genius, but also at showing the unhappiness underneath(SPOILER ALERT: when the major characters sing along to Aimee Mann's "Wise Up" near the end, he and Walters seem to connect most to it. END SPOILER ALERT). Anderson is showing himself to be a major director, and while HARD EIGHT and BOOGIE NIGHTS showed potential, this film shows him realizing it.
The End of the Affair (1999)
Curiously remote work from Jordan
"This is a diary of hate," is the opening line of this film, said by the main character and narrator, novelist Maurice Bendrix(Ralph Fiennes). That opening line tells you this is, or should be, a tale of passion. The novel by Graham Greene the film is based on is certainly a novel of passion, though much of it is within, and hard to dramatize in a film. But if any director could do it, surely it could be Neil Jordan, who makes films which overflow with passion(with the exception of MICHAEL COLLINS, but that was a different kind of film); even his disaster IN DREAMS was a failure of excess. And yet this film doesn't really come to life until maybe at the end.
Contrary to what one comment said, it isn't because Greene isn't relevant. Adultery will always be with us, and therefore always ripe for stories of any kind, and Greene told it in a way which is still fresh today. And Jordan makes the interesting decision to shoot the film in mostly medium shots or close-ups, rather than in panoramic wide shots, perhaps to fit the setting(London) or make you feel events are crowding the characters. But if you're going to take a microscope to your characters, you better show something, and Jordan really doesn't. Instead, he relies too much on narration and conventional storytelling(contrast this with how he adapted THE BUTCHER BOY), and until we get to hear the story from Sarah's point of view, we don't get a sense of what drives these people.
Fiennes is one of my favorite actors, but he doesn't do anything distinctive here. Only at the end does he truly come alive. Moore is also a favorite, but she too has little to work with until the story shifts to her point of view. And even when we find out about Sarah's fate, it wasn't moving enough. The ones who really come through are Rea, who not only has a note-perfect British accent, but is terrific as someone who, as he puts it, is not a lover. And Ian Hart brings some comic relief as the detective hired to follow Sarah. But this is definitely a disappointment; IN DREAMS I hated as well, but that could be dismissed as an experiment which went wrong, while this film should be the type of film Jordan excels at, but doesn't here.
Familiar tale told well
In "Join Together," the Who sang, "It's the singer, not the song/That makes the music move along," and that can be true of certain kinds of movies as well. TUMBLEWEEDS is surely not the first mother/daughter film ever made, even this year. I haven't seen ANYWHERE BUT HERE yet(though the novel it was based on is quite good), but TUMBLEWEEDS distinguishes itself from the crowd by its attention to detail and character, and the performances. Director/co-writer(with ex-wife Angela Shelton) Gavin O'Connor makes San Diego come alive, from the office Mary Jo(Janet McTeer) works in, to the beach, and the small houses she and her daughter Ava(Kimberly Brown) end up living in. And except for perhaps Mary Jo's boss(well-played by Michael J. Pollard), who is a caricature(albeit a funny one), every character here is well drawn. Even Jack(O'Connor), the trucker Mary Jo ends up with in San Diego who later turns bad, is well-drawn; we're never meant to see him as completely bad, though he does have his darker side.
But the real reason to see this is the performances of the two leads. McTeer and Brown are fresh faces to movie audiences, which means they have no image to distract us from the story, but it also means they bring nothing we know from them to the part, so they have to start fresh. And they respond with wonderful and realistic performances. McTeer doesn't turn Mary Jo into the stereotype of an oversexed woman or the insufferably noble mother but as a woman who wants to do right but isn't always sure how. And Brown doesn't make Ava overly cute or precocious, but a recognizable kid who nevertheless has to be the adult at times. The two of them also have a terrific bond together as well, and like a character late in the film they meet, O'Connor the director knows enough not to intrude on that.
One last note; some comments have dismissed this entirely because it's familiar. Are you the same people who will gladly see a hundred SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE clones or THE MATRIX clones and not complain about them being familiar? As I said at the top, sometimes the telling can distinguish a familiar tale.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Thoughtful psychological study or perversely entertaining? Your pick
Patricia Highsmith's original novel is about a charming, amoral man who already has all the elements in place before he does his terrible deeds, and while Rene Clement's adaptation, PURPLE NOON(1960) doesn't show us Ripley before he came to Europe, Alain Delon certainly was all amoral charm. In his adaptation, Anthony Minghella takes on a different tack, showing us Tom Ripley before he became the Talented Mr. Ripley(just as last year's ELIZABETH showed Elizabeth before she became The Virgin Queen; by coincidence, both films star Cate Blanchett). When a filmmaker tries to add psychological depth to what is generally pulp entertainment, it doesn't always work, but Minghella has pulled it off, while keeping it entertaining.
There have been some people who think Matt Damon is too colorless here. In Clement's adaptation, that might have been true, but the point here is Ripley is SUPPOSED to be a nonentity, a blank page waiting to be filled(thus lines like "I always figured it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody," or when Dickie Greenleaf(Jude Law) tells Ripley that with his glasses on, he looks like Clark Kent) by someone like Dickie. Ripley may have been pretending from day one(which is how he gets to meet Dickie in the first place), but there was nothing sinister about it, just a bunch of little white lies. It's not till he gets entranced by the life in Italy, and Dickie's life in particular, and then finds himself shut from it, that things happen. And Damon is excellent at going through the transformation(and it's not just the glasses, as one comment suggested, it's the hair, the clothes, and the whole attitude).
Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, probably my favorite critic today, liked the film, but he thought it would have been better if Damon and Law had switched roles. Again, if Minghella was remaking Clement's version, sure, but not this way. If you want someone to be an object of desire, you better make sure they're desirable, and Law is quite good there, along with showing the layers underneath. Gwyneth Paltrow has the tougher role, because she has to be both smart and able to be fooled, but she pulls it off, especially in the scene when she tells Tom she really knows what he is. Cate Blanchett and Philip Seymour Hoffman are also good in small roles, James Rebhorn is dependable, and Philip Baker Hall makes a memorable cameo.
One more thing; there have also been complaints that the first half is too long, and the ending is weak. The first half not only sets up Ripley's slowly falling in love with Dickie's life(and even Dickie), but also sets up some plot points which pay off later, so it's necessary. And when Ripley finally becomes The Talented Mr. Ripley, it's unsettling and still delivers a perverse kick. As for the ending, without giving anything away, it's the only way it could end; he goes on, but at what cost? This is terrific moviemaking.
Man on the Moon (1999)
Thank you very much
The first time I saw Andy Kaufman was on the Saturday Night Live 15th anniversary show. In the clips from the first 5 years, they showed a few seconds of his Mighty Mouse thing, and I found it strange and funny. Since then, I've seen him on old Saturday Night Live shows, and comedian specials, and seen a few old Taxi episodes(though I was never a big fan), and found him to be quite strange, but also quite funny. So I was really looking forward to this movie, and I was not disappointed.
I agree with the person who said to try and find out the mystery behind Kaufman would have undoubtedly gotten it wrong. Instead, we get a look inside his art, and if you don't find him funny, you're not going to like this movie(and I have no problem with those who don't like the movie for that reason). Viewers may also be thrown by the fact that the movie, as demonstrated in the opening scene, is a series of "is that real or just a put on?" episodes(in a way, this reminded me of PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED, which is similarly constructed). But it stays true to Kaufman and his performance style, and I found it offbeat and, yes, funny.
I do have a couple of minor quibbles. I don't know the entire story, but there are a couple of facts fudged. For example, the way Kaufman left Saturday Night Live is not quite true(if they had done the true story, it would have been even funnier). Also, Courtney Love is not as good as she was in THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, though she does have moments. But, as I said, those are minor quibbles. Particularly high among the virtues is, of course, Jim Carrey as Kaufman. It took me awhile for him to "disappear" into the role, as so many people said he did, but he is amazing and constantly keeps us off balance and laughing, as does the entire movie.
The Green Mile (1999)
Like a lot of people, I was really looking forward to this movie. Though I didn't think THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION was the greatest movie ever made, I did like it a lot, I liked Stephen King's serialized novel, and I like the cast. So how did this movie go wrong? Well, "wrong" is perhaps too strong a word, since there are good things about it. All the performances are good, and there are moments of real power(***SPOILER ALERT*** Like when Sam Rockwell grabs Michael Duncan. Having read the novel, I knew it was coming, but Frank Darabont sets it up so well it truly is a shock. ***END SPOILER ALERT***). And maybe my opinion of the film is tempered by the fact the theater showing it had projector trouble about 2/3 of the way through. But I don't think that's it.
One of the reason King's stories, when he's on, are so good is his characters are just ordinary people. He doesn't try to make them insufferably noble. And while the supernatural is his territory, he makes sure he grounds it in reality. But in this movie, that goes out the window. I know John Coffey is a symbol, but in the novel he was also a real human being, and here, he's just a symbol, which gets to be tiring after awhile. And while I know this is a fable, and not a realistic story, Darabont lays things on awfully thick, especially when Hanks finds out what really happened to those two girls. If I remember correctly, in the novel, he finds that out on his own, which is part of what I meant about grounding it in reality. And while I am not among those who think movies are too long(if you think about it, a lot of the really good movies this decade have been over two hours), this feels longer than its 3 hour plus running time.
As I said, I didn't hate this movie, but considering the talent involved, it has to be counted as a disappointment.
Boys Don't Cry (1999)
Sad, powerful look at identity
I've read a couple of the negative comments on this film and was struck by one theme; the complaint that they couldn't relate to any of these people. I think that's incredibly short-sighted. This movie is about someone who was struggling with questions about their own identity, and society's attitude towards it. We may not be exactly like Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon, but who among us hasn't, at some point in our lives, struggled with some kind of identity question, at who we are and how we fit in, especially in today's world, when we're bombarded with how we're supposed to fit a "perfect" mold, and are left aside when we don't?
So in addition to Brandon's story, we get the parallel story of Lana, played beautifully by Chloe Sevigny, who is fast emerging as one of our best young actresses. Like Brandon, Lana struggles with questions of identity. She works in a factory on the night shift, and lives in a small town where there's nothing to do(except the odd karaoke night) and no one new to be with. She's headed for the stereotypical role we apply to woman at her stage in life, and while she knows she doesn't want that, she sees no way of escaping. Then she meets Brandon, and for the first time, sees a hope of escaping. For her, the talk of Memphis and singing for a living is more than just a dream, it's a way to open up new worlds for her. This, perhaps, is why she denies to herself who Brandon really is.
That feeling, initially, is also why Lana's friends, including John and Tom also deny to themselves who Brandon really is. He brings something fresh and different to their world, just by being so gung-ho to join (even after Brandon screws up so many times early on when trying to ride on the back of a truck, we can see John cheered by his perseverance). And as one reviewer up here pointed out, if Brandon did deceive everybody, it was a willing deception; they so wanted something new they wore blinders until things came to a head. And yet while this was a horrible crime, director Kimberly Peirce manages to convince us that these weren't terrible people; they just did a terrible thing.
Of course, I have to mention Hilary Swank in the main role, especially since I was going to pass this up because of her initially. I had seen her in a couple of movies(BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) and wasn't impressed, plus she was on Beverly Hills 90210. But she's amazing here. You can always sense the longing Brandon has to be accepted, as we all do, to be accepted for who we are.