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Pretty damn good, even if you've read the book
LaBute is, on the surface, a strange choice for director of this film. I've enjoyed his previous work, but I scratched my head when I heard he was involved with this adaptation of Byatt's novel. Strangely, it does work pretty well - his usually sharp claws are sheathed. All in all, Possession is a decent film; the cuts from the novel were understandable even if it was a little disappointing not to hear more of Byatt's clever Rossetti/Dickenson/Tennyson spoofs.. I don't think anyone wanted to hear the entirety of 'Ask to Embla' in the film.
The movie gets a little flabby in the middle (and there's one soft-core sex scene that looks a bit too much "Sinemax at night" costume-drama) and the music is intrusive, but there's a great cast, the cinematography was great, and the script well adapted.
Loved the fact that the only 'action' scenes in the movie involve a bloody nose. This is chopsockey action for the librarian crowd. Hooray!
Two other, minor complaints - Jennifer Ehle as Christabel smiles too much. It was perhaps supposed to be an enigmatic Cheshire Cat effect, but I found it distracting - and there was no chemistry whatsoever between the otherwise very good Paltrow and Eckhart, even taking into account that their modern romance was supposed to appear nervous and self-conscious compared to the sweeping rapture of their literary predecessors. All in all a good effort, and the ending was very touching.
I was a little nervous about seeing the film, given how much I enjoyed the book, but I wasn't disappointed.
Original Sin (2001)
Trashy bodice ripper
You know it's gonna be bad right away when there's a closeup of la belle Jolie's lips uttering some drivel that sounds like it was lifted straight from a romance novel. The sex scenes are beyond cheesy - completely gratuitous, and although I don't on principal mind looking at beautiful Angelina or hunky Antonio, I found myself bored and wanting to fast-forward - there was absolutely no chemistry there, and it was badly choreographed like late-night soft-core porn on cable. Corsets, boob shots, odd protestations of love after what? two days? He wants her back for what reason exactly? Because she's a good lay? Stupid camerawork. Bizarre accent from Jolie as Julia. Predictable ending. I knew this was gonna be a rainy-day cable flick, but I expected good cheese. This is strictly Kraft Singles.
My usually beloved Tom Stoppard clearly needed to make some car payments. What I thought would be an interesting story about code-breaking turned out to be little more than a tedious and illogical love story, with some Cool Spy Stuff thrown in for decorative accent.I'm sure the actors did their best, but the dialogue was hammy and the few good scenes involving the code breakers at work were as thin slices of luncheon meat sandwiched between doughy slices of white bread. And this isn't even touching on the multitude of glaring historical inaccuracies (in the real world these are called 'lies'), which I'd be prepared to forgive if the chosen fiction were at least interesting.
And what can one say about a film that so obviously believes its audience to be drooling morons, that it shows you a scene of Trafalgar square and announces: "1946: London after the war"?
Produced by Lorne Michaels and Mick Jagger. Jesus. That makes you think, don't it. Well, it was a rainy day, and at least the theater was dry.
Don Giovanni (1979)
This is a wonderful film, the only non-stage performance I've ever seen of this incredible opera. I saw it a million years ago in college and have probably watched it a dozen times over the years. Raimondi is demonically compelling as the Don, wicked, handsome, sardonic, and Van Dam plays off him as Leporello just wonderfully, balancing humor and pathos. Riegel's Ottavio is just as he should be, a humorless square, and Te Kanawa soars as Elvira. My only casting complaint is with Moser as Anna; she sounds very shrill. I liked the hint that perhaps Anna was, despite appearances, actually quite attracted to the Don as well; her protestations to the lumpish Ottavio that she thought it was actually he who'd come to her bedroom didn't persuade (and frankly, I've always wondered why he was such a putz as to buy it). The settings are lush and lovely, including Palladio's Villa Rotonda. Of course some of the lip-syncing is off a bit, but that's to be expected. I also eagerly await a day when this film is available on DVD.
Beneath the Veil (2001)
Incredible - I wish I could find a video or DVD
This was a terrifying, incredibly informative documentary of a battered country and those who rule it. I applaud Ms. Shah's courage, and the courage of those who accompanied her on this tour through Islamic extremism.
The Wrong Man (1956)
Was this Larry Hitchcock? Surely not Alfred. No, no, no.
Don't bother. Really. Dull and surprisingly amateurish, considering the talents involved. Just because something is based on a true story doesn't make it a good film. Henry Fonda underplays his role and appears catatonic. Vera Miles overacts. Interesting only for its residual camp value and potential to inspire contemporary audience appreciation for the Miranda decision. Watch something else instead, "Notorious", say, even if you've already seen it. You will be better off.
You Can Count on Me (2000)
Wonderful - a movie with a great script, convincing actors and deft direction
I may be preaching to the choir here, but finally caught "You Can Count On Me" on video last night and was utterly taken with it. After having recently seen "Planet Of the Apes", where I suspected that the producers saved money by persuading a precocious ten-year-old to write the dialogue, "You Can Count On Me" came as a wonderful, surprising gem. It has now settled my stomach after the indigestible fodder that was "Apes".
"You Can Count On Me" is a gentle, realistic character study of two estranged siblings, played perfectly by Ruffalo and the always-brilliant Linney. I found the characters to be convincingly three dimensional. Ruffalo's Terry is an unreliable ne'er-do-well with an ultimately gentle character. Linney's Sammy is a tautly-stretched single mother trying to be perfect for everyone, and her bright, deliberate smile is painful to watch. Even Matthew Broderick's prissy little bank manager came across as a man of weak character shaped by disappointment, and I found the tiny little jokes he dropped when he was less guarded to be pathetic, in the true sense of the word. Watching Sammy gain more self awareness and inner strength at the end of the film is a pleasure, as her change is not borne of some dramatic epiphany. My favorite scene is the one with the minister (played by Lonergan), in which she exhorts him to give her a dose of old-fashioned fire and brimstone rather than sensitive therapy.
Lonergan understands human conversation, and directed to allow for natural pauses between phrases. He also seems to understand awkward silences, and how many were likely to exist in these relationships. I related to each and every one of the characters, even the ones I disliked. I was also pleased to note that the words "you can count on me" were never uttered once in the movie, although they were alluded to. Having them spoken would have rung false and theatrical in my ears.
Some of the (few) negative reviews here seem to take issue with the fact that "nothing really happens" in "You Can Count On Me". I strongly take issue with that. Nothing gets blown up, nobody ends up happily ever after, the siblings don't turn to each other tearfully and admit that "golly, we all learned something that day". Well, let's be frank: when was the last time that happened to you? We all get spoonfed so much pablum in mainstream film - which is fine, as long as you're aware that it's not real food.
Great Expectations (1998)
I was curious; caught it on cable. I confess right off the bat that I'm a huge Dickens fan and have read GE several times. The movie was not entirely disappointing; the acting is solid and it's beautifully filmed & scored - but some aspects of the plot are inextricably mired in the 19th century, alas, and do not move well into the 20th. Gwyneth Paltrow's character was more sympathetic than the Estella I expected; I'm not sure how I feel about that.
I also think that the extremely low quality of "Finn"'s artwork was a serious detraction. I didn't buy him as a serious contender in the NY art world. Although, lesser talents have somehow managed to swindle the gallery going public, so perhaps that was intentional.
Sui generis...but enjoyable.
"Mahogany" is one of those movies you don't necessarily want to go out of your way to see, but want to <have seen>. Fortunately, late night cable frequently provides one with the opportunity to catch up on the classics. The plot is straight out of 1937, with the slightly disturbing--to modern ears--message that one's own personal ambition should always take a back seat to love. Diana Ross is luminous, funny, charming and beautiful in a role that doesn't ask much of her but to pose - her delivery and timing are good, but the dialogue she's asked to utter sounds pretty campy today. Anthony Perkins as a creepy, dangerous character - wow, big stretch. Billy Dee Williams as the Honest Politician Who Loves Her - well, he's good, but you could have hired a Steiff teddy bear to play that role. Love those costumes. Have to wonder whether Tracy's designs were set up to be appallingly bad (and they are) so that the audience would object less to her decision to give up on the fashion world.
In my view, the best quote is not the oft-trotted out one about success, but: "You're only young once; you can be immature forever."
The overall "stand by your man" message is singularly abhorrent, but "Mahogany" is such fine kitsch that even the staunchest feminist will laugh, despite herself.
Un air de famille (1996)
Stuck with me for a long time afterwards
The obvious 'filmed play' style enhanced this for me - there would have been little to gain by making it more of a movie. Wonderful character development and fantastic acting. A disturbing portrait of a dysfunctional family - exaggerated slightly to play to the back of the house, but not too much.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
One of the most tautly intelligent scripts we've had in a while. Wonderful ensemble work by all - Spacey, Byrne and Palminteri are superb. The true test of a film like this is in how well it holds up in subsequent viewings - over the years, "Suspects" has remained a favorite. It doesn't matter that one knows the ending; it's still an incredible, suspenseful ride.
The Moderns (1988)
Great soundtrack, no noticeable script
Pretentious fluff with great music (some contemporary to the plot and some nice incidental stuff from Mark Isham). Contains a lot of posing from the stars, who do their best to enliven stiff dialogue (come on, do we REALLY think Hemingway walked around talking in spare and taciturn sentences such as he wrote?).
Did I mention the soundtrack is great? Oh, yeah. Sorry; it just really stands out in this mess.
Planet of the Apes (2001)
So much wasted potential
I am a huge Tim Burton fan normally, but I think he did much better work when he commanded less mainstream attention. Planet of the Apes has the usual grim beauty of his work, with absolutely no decent writing whatsoever. "Sometimes a few can make a difference" - uttered without an iota of irony. God awful. Helena Bonham Carter did her best, as did the rest of the cast, although the usually likeable Mark Wahlberg was horribly miscast. And the pouty busty blonde babe really got on my nerves - what conceivable purpose did her character serve? She never once closed her mouth, and she looks like an inflatable sex doll. Was she cast only to draw teenage boys into the audience? Too many plot holes to count - looked as though a lot of explanatory scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. And gee whiz, do you think they'll make a sequel? Next time, I hope they spend some of their millions on one of those little luxuries known as a decent script.
Where the Heart Is (1990)
The ending ties things up a bit too neatly, but this is a ravishingly beautiful film. Good ensemble work by all the cast (although the lovely Uma has obviously had some acting classes since this role)...However, the art direction is the true star - it's definitely worth checking out for that alone. This may not be Boorman's best work, but it didn't deserve the panning it got from the mainstream media when it came out.
What Women Want (2000)
I gave this one a miss in the theater, but it's really not bad as a rental. Having tried valiently to enjoy Mel Gibson in "The Patriot" the evening before, I am delighted to say that "What Women Want" restored him in my esteem; I think that in this stage of his career he should definitely stick with romantic comedy and leave the boys-bombs-and-bombast alone.
"What Women Want" is perfectly enjoyable popcorn. Are we surprised at the ending? No, but did we really expect to be? I actually laughed out loud several times and it left me in a good mood.
I truly don't understand why so many people seem to have an axe to grind regarding Helen Hunt - this seems as inexplicably virulent as the Republican Right's boiling personal hatred for Bill Clinton (even pre-scandal). I thought she was just fine in this, and I bought the chemistry between her character and Gibson's. However, it is true that the female characters are a little flat and predictable, and they probably could have done without Marisa Tomei's character entirely. The writing in general is clever enough; when Gibson's character talks to himself it rings true and is funny. The premise is engaging and despite the Nike product placement, the ad agency scenes were enjoyable. My only real objection is that the ending seems quite rushed.
The Patriot (2000)
What an exercise in cliche. Horrible, phony dialogue, tissue-paper characters. I'd wanted to see this on the big screen but never got around to it - glad I didn't waste my money. It's as though someone DELIBERATELY SET OUT to write a bad movie... after following the instructions they found in Altman's "The Player". There's no point discussing the acting or lack thereof, as none of the cast was required to do anything beyond show up and dress up.
Instead of character development, we get obsessive blood and gore to satisfy shallowly sanctimonious filmmakers that they're sending a Serious Message about the Ickiness of War...oh, PLEASE. How 'Meese Commission' can you get?
When I think of how much money is spent to make blockbusters like this one, and how little money is spent on something as basic as plot and dialogue, it really saddens me. There should have been a little disclaimer in the credits: "No screenwriters were harmed during the making of this film."
Allegro non troppo (1976)
Still a favorite
The live-action scenes are kitschy, yes, but still very good. I prefer it to Fantasia, if you must know the truth. I never ever ever need to hear the overplayed 'Bolero' again, but even my exhausted ears still enjoy the sight of evolution from a Coke bottle. The Sibelius still brings tears to my eyes. Make sure you find the subtitled version, as the dubbed one is pretty atrocious.
Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
Ick. (Mild spoilers)
I went into AI with mixed expectations, realizing that at bottom this was going to be a Spielberg film, which is enough to raise the hackles of the mildest cynic. The first hour is excellent; I can't say that I was on the edge of my seat, but I was really enjoying it. It beautifully combines the coldness of Kubrick with a touch of Spielberg sweetness as a temper. Even the character of the animatronic teddy bear, which aroused my suspicions initially as a Cute Plot Point, was not at all cloying. However, the film's decline is steep and rapid after the mother abandons David in the woods. The Flesh Fair scene is seemingly thrown in to provide an "Action" scene, and doesn't fit the rest of the plot, which doesn't really discuss the class system of this new world at all but only shows us a single wealthy family and a host of Jerry Springer Audience types with no exploration of the world in which both classes live.
Osmont is a very talented young actor, but he isn't called upon to do much in this film aside from ; he and the always charismatic Jude Law do their best with the limited material, but there's only so much possible. The minute the insipidly animated "Doctor Know" appeared (beware any contemporary film with a Robin Williams cameo, alas) it was pretty much over for me. Smarmy and insulting. I felt, as many others have, that the film would have been best ended at the ferris wheel scene. The additional half hour following this very moving scene was implausible, saccharine and entirely unneccessary. The plot, after the beautiful beginning, is meandering and holey. Beyond the fact that I doubt Kubrick would've approved, AI just doesn't add up to good filmmaking, unfortunately. As someone I know said, we're all tired of watching Spielberg relive his childhood fantasies.
Le violon rouge (1998)
I strongly recommend this film. Aside from the beautiful score (which I'd heard before, and was one of my main motivations to see the film), it is an understated masterpiece visually and emotionally. The section set in Maoist China was particularly stirring, although I felt that the human characters in it were less fleshed out than in other scense...the violin is the character for which one feels the most compassion and anxiety. I admit that Samuel L. Jackson was an unusual casting choice, but I bought it. See this film if you are a music lover.
The Way We Were (1973)
This is what all the fuss was about?
Pure fluff, and not very good fluff. I never bought the chemistry between Redford and Streisand - he was a boring, hidebound WASP stereotype, and she vacillated unconvincingly between flatly drawn firebrand and eager-to-please wallflower.
The film has a pinch of politics, a dash of anachronistic hair & costume design, and doesn't even lay on the nostalgia too successfully. I watched it (I confess it) because of the recent Sex & The City reference. Carrie was so much more appealing than Katie. At the end, Katie still seemed pathetic and weepy. Carrie, on the other hand, actually seemed like she had a life.
This makes "Love Story" look like "Anna Karenina".
Washington Square (1997)
Over-long, over-acted, and over-directed
This was such a ham-handed film that only the invisible force field that surrounds my couch prevented me from getting up and turning the television off. Much of Leigh's performance seemed to consist of channelling Ally Sheedy's quirky "Breakfast Club" shtick. Jeez, Catherine isn't supposed to be the village idiot; she's just naive and sheltered. The scenes involving pants-wetting and prostitution were unfaithful to James' spirit, let alone the actual text, and the music was god-awful and anachronistic, especially the irritating piano duet.
Albert Finney and Maggie Smith did their best, but the direction gets the Golden Toilet award. Oh, look; it's sunny - such felicity abounds! Aw, gee, it's raining, let's all fall down in the street to the sounds of swelling symphonic shmaltz. Peuw.
And I am normally a such a forgiving costume drama fiend. Alas.
The Whole Nine Yards (2000)
Horribly miscast, predictable and implausible even for fluff
Where precisely does Rosanna Arquette's freakish ersatz French-Canadian accent spring from? A normally good actress is wasted here. Perry is amusing, but plays the same character he does on "Friends", with the exception that he ends up with the gorgeous blonde here. Willis is all right, but this is a walk-through for him. This movie was clearly written by a committee of producers. I knew it would be formulaic and silly, but it falls short of the mark for even a housebound snow-day movie. Yeesh!
Nurse Betty (2000)
Not sickeningly sweet.
A soaper obviously unlike anything the cynical Mr. LaBute has created up to this point, "Nurse Betty" is still not without its dark moments. Renèe Zellwiger's sweet and deluded naïf is captivating, and is a more interesting role than I've seen her play before. Most of the other characters are somewhat one-dimensional, with the exception of Morgan Freeman and Tia Texada. Good writing and a pleasant combination of sweetness and dark.
However irrelevant, my review of the audience is considerably less glowing. Being already rather repulsed by the gratuitous gore and violence, I was shocked to hear many people laughing during one of the last scenes, wherein Chris Rock's cardboard villain runs amok with his fists. Enough to shake one's already shaky faith in humankind, that was...
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
Tom and his Lovely, Lustrous Locks
Hey, like anyone else, I knew what I was getting into when I got tickets for this video game of a movie (and it's $9.50 in NY, so you gotta be a devoted moviegoer here) ... although I was certainly entertained, still, I must say that I was not entirely capivated. Tom tosses his hair back with the frequency of a drunk sorority girl. The rubber mask routine was entirely predictable after the first time. The slo-mo action got a little tired after a while, and Thandie Newton's character, which started out promisingly spunky, degenerated into a boring doe-eyed martyr. The plot is minimal, and even my generous willingness to disbelieve was challenged frequently by the outrageous violations of physical law. M:I2 owes quite a bit to the overblown Matrix school of camerawork (I loved 'The Matrix' but fear we are in for years of mediocre imitations).
Still, it's a good matinee flick even at these inflated prices; the special effects are good, there are lots big exciting explosions and loud crashing noises, and Tom Cruise has grown into his face at long last. Plus, his hair looks damn good.
As long as you aren't expecting anything profound, it's a decent Saturday afternoon popcorn-cruncher of a flick. [And if you're expecting something profound, you are definitely in the wrong theater line.]
Joe Gould's Secret (2000)
A moving adaptation of Joseph Mitchell's writings
This is a lovely, touching film based on two stories Mitchell wrote for the New Yorker, with a little of his life for filler. I have always loved Mitchell's ... humanity, for lack of a better word, and feel it was translated well for the screen. Mitchell loved New York with the ardor only an immigrant to the city can possibly feel. As one myself, I have been eagerly awaiting this film since I first heard it was being produced.
The street scenes, the shots of ordinary people, are arresting. One walks out of the theater with a heightened awareness of--rather, appreciation for--the individual faces in the teeming masses of the street. I was lucky enough to walk out of the theater directly into a Greenwich Village night, so this effect was heightened (although the mobs of frat boys lining the beer bars of Bleecker Street did their unwitting best to dispell the mood).
Tucci conveys the gentleness and sadness of Mitchell with great delicacy; he's quiet and speaks volumes with his eyes and shy smile. Holm performs a balancing act in Gould, alternating intense, scenery-chewing diatribes with a serious, intelligent melancholy. One is repulsed by Gould's belligerence, yet cannot help but feel for him.
Does anything "happen" in this film? Not in the sense that one IMDB reviewer clearly expected. To review it based on its narrative action and movement is to miss the point entirely. It's based on two non-fiction stories about character development and the effect Gould has on those around him. One might as well ask whether anything "happens" in life. "...it doesn't stop because the writer finishes writing," Mitchell's wife tells him. He's completed his story and can't shake Gould, whose life has been changed because of the story.
Please see this movie. Love New York or hate it, you will be moved. And you may hesitate before you dismiss a grizzled panhandler.
Read a collection of Mitchell's work called "Up in the Old Hotel" (Vintage) if the spark has caught you.... and I hope it has.