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8 Women (2002)
Fantastic campy fun
28 October 2002
RATING: ***1/2 out of ****

Being what it is, it seems like Francois Ozon's "8 Women" would have everything going against it. After all, the premise is hardly original and every single plot twist is predictable and derivative. There are plenty of Agatha Christie movies (not to mention the wonderful play "The Mousetrap") to offer us what "8 Women" promises as a mystery. Although I can't say if a murder mystery musical of this type has been attempted on film before, the musical numbers in this film are a bit awkward and stick out like a sore thumb. With all of this, "8 Women" would seem almost repellent. Truth be told, I loved every minute of it. The setting is Christmas in the mid-1950s, and seven women are gathering in the country home of Marcel (Dominique Lamure). There is his wife Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), who has just brought one of her two daughters, Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) back from college for the holiday. Anxiously awaiting her are her peppy sister Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier), her disabled grandmother Mamy (Danielle Darrieux), her neurotic aunt Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), cook Madame Chanel (Firmine Richard), and newly hired maid Louise (Emmanuelle Beart). All of them, although not always on the best terms with each other, seem intent on having a good time this Christmas.

Too bad for them. As is customary to happen in movies with a large mansion housing many guests, Marcel (the only man in the house), is murdered. The phone line has been cut, the car has been sabotaged, and the weather is such that no one can scale the wall surrounding the grounds. One person, however, does get in: Marcel's sister Pierrette (Fanny Ardant), who arrives with a story (which may or may not be true) that she got a call the night before saying that Marcel had been murdered. It becomes apparent that the murderer is one of these 8 women, and it is up to them to tell the complete truth and find out everyone's secrets so that they can find out who the murderer is.

It's high time we have a film like "8 Women", a maliciously absurd exercise in high camp. It succeeds even... no, especially when it fails. The story itself is the kind of murder mystery that has been filmed over and over again in previous years, but it's impossible to get enough of. This film handles all of the conventions with the perfect Christie-esque tone. It's still as fun as ever to point fingers at various possible suspect, and "8 Women" is just predictable enough that even the least experienced viewer can partake in the fun.

And with this cast, why shouldn't we have fun? One of the main purposes of this film is to let these eight actresses simply enjoy themselves, and their wicked glee comes through on screen. I wonder if Francois Ozon was at all able to keep his authority as director during shooting. For let such fantastic actresses loose on each other, allowing all of them to inhabit such bitchy individuals, one had better stay out of their way. It is said that the best comedy relies on surprise. Be assured, "8 Women" wreaks such delectable havoc on it's premise that there will be plenty of opportunities to ask: "Did I really just see that?"

This film knows a secret that we haven't seen many low-key projects like this successfully handle in recent memory: when in doubt, just sing. The musical numbers have varied success throughout the film. All pop up sporadically and never really find a way to come to a conclusion, but each one is a highly enjoyable bonus aside to everything else that's going on.

In "8 Women", the first rule is: there are no rules. It's infinitely meaner (and much more enjoyable) than its non-musical predecessor "Gosford Park". It's hilarious in its maniacal irreverence, and it is yet another example of a film that would fall flat on its face if it were not for the actors leading the way. If I am going to be seeing a murder-mystery-musical, I would want none other than the cast of "8 Women" at the helm.
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Secretary (2002)
9/10
Two great performances, one great film
1 October 2002
Warning: Spoilers
The word "originality" has been overused, especially by me, so much that it has almost been beaten to a pulp. After all, how can one really tell if something in a film hasn't been done before? Well, I can confidently say that Steven Shainberg's "Secretary" may be the most inventive, and yes, even original, film this year. I can confidently say that in all of my time of watching and reviewing films, I have never seen anything like it.

Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just been released from a mental institution due to the fact that she constantly would cut herself when tension started to build up around the household. After she is released, it is clear that the habit has not been broken, but cuts or no cuts, she needs a job. She goes to typing school and gets some of the highest grades in her class, making her perfect for the position of secretary at a nearby lawyer's office. She goes for the interview, and after seeing the previous secretary run out in tears and hearing the questions in the interview, it is apparent that the lawyer, E. Edward Grey (James Spader), is a bit of a creep.

Soon enough, Lee begins to cut herself at work, and needless to say, Grey catches her in the act. He doesn't take any sort of disciplinary action towards her. Instead, it seems that he can relate. He tells Lee, very inspiringly, that she will never cut herself again. Lee is uplifted, but has no real inclination as to just why he said what he did. However, she still continues to make mistakes in her writing, and after a while, it simply drives Grey nuts. He invites her into her office and tells her to "Lean over, put your elbows on the table and read the letter outloud". She does as he asks, but in a strange turn, he spanks her every other word. She runs into the bathroom hurt and embarrassed, but interestingly enough, she loved it.

I'm a bit surprised that even by this time, there has been little controversy over "Secretary". I had images in my head of feminist groups rallying for the film never to reach the screens, or possibly screams of NC-17 from everyone's favorite censors, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Thankfully though, it's gotten this far unscathed. Maybe that is because audiences at preview screenings and film festivals are realizing that although loaded with thick layers of kooky (but not that kinky) S/M, the situation is a deeply and fundamentally human one.

Basically, if S/M was ever shown in a film before, it would usually be in the context of a villain torturing a hero against their will, and usually such scenes weren't in anything that wasn't some cheap exploitation film. "Secretary" is a brave endeavor, but it knows where it's going. This isn't a gimmick, S/M sequences in the film are not the least bit perverted (the same can't be said about some segments in several Larry Clark films). These scenes are essential to understanding the characters.

What is so great about "Secretary" goes beyond its offering insight as to why anyone would find being tied to a pole and spanked while holding a carrot between their teeth even remotely attractive. Despite pretty morbid subject matter, "Secretary" flies off the screen with energy and wit, offering some of the funniest, most surprising dark comedy I have seen since "Fargo". Several scenes in the film have already become classics in my repertoire of movie moments that will stay with me forever, including one hilarious incident involving a worm.

Even with all of this, there is no way that "Secretary" would have pulled it off without Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. Spader is creepy and oddly pathetic; his performance is such that at one moment we are sympathetic, the next we are booing him, then we're intrigued again. Maggie Gyllenhaal is equally brilliant; she gives us complete access into the mind of Lee Holloway, and it's close to impossible not to feel for her. Also, take into account how courageous she is; you try and find me another actress her age who would be willing to do half of the things she does in the film.

Spader and Gyllenhaal have such chemistry that everything clicks. Director Steven Shainberg lets us truly understand the complexities of their relationship without letting the energy lag or any of the subtle comedy fly past the audience. "Secretary" is invigorating, touching, hilarious, and often all at the same time. With too many romantic comedies trying too hard to try something new when they are in fact only going backwards, "Secretary" is a truly unique specimen.
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A great time @ the movies
16 September 2002
There is probably no busier filmmaker this year than Steven Spielberg. With "Minority Report", the upcoming "Catch Me If You Can", and all of his responsibilities at Dreamworks, I'd be surprised if he gets any sleep. He is also one of the filmmakers I have worried about most. He has created some of Hollywood's most beloved films, but recently he has started to go on a downward slope. His trademark Spielberg Shmaltz has been around forever, but these days it has started to take over his films. In his shaky failure "A.I"., many mistook his sappiness for emotional complexity; maybe they were just hungry for something resembling a real science fiction film. His latest film, "Minority Report", has just brought this disappointing streak to a screeching halt. It catapults Steven Spielberg back to the forefront of the multi-million dollar blockbuster directors.

Based on Phillip K. Dick's famous short story, "Minority Report" tells the story of Detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise). He is part of a special police force ("Precrime") that is able to stop murders before they happen. They do this by looking into the psychic visions of three genetically deformed beings nicknamed "Precogs", the strongest of which being the only female, Agatha (Samantha Morton). While an FBI agent (Danny Witwer, played by Colin Farrell) is investigating Pre-Crime, which director Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow) has great plans for, Anderton notices something stunning. The Precogs have just determined that he would commit murder.

"Minority Report" is Spielberg's most assuredly entertaining film since his "Indiana Jones" series. Obviously, something Spielberg has not forgotten is to make the most of the chase. When other filmmakers seem to have seen too many Road Runner cartoons, Spielberg always comes up with a way to mix it up a bit. In this film, he has devised one of the most exhilarating chase sequences since... well, ever. The stakes are never quite high enough for Spielberg without adding one little twist; I'm sure the only reason there was a boulder in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was so that Harrison Ford could run away from it, and it's very likely that the only reason cars climb buildings in "Minority Report"'s future is so Tom Cruise can leap between them. The whole thing blends together so seamlessly, and the camera (lead by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) puts us so exuberantly into the middle of it all that we don't care what Spielberg throws in there just for fun.

That isn't all "Minority Report" has to offer (if it was, would it really deserve such high praise?) "Minority Report" does more than offer its ideas, it dives head on into them. The way John Anderton gets to where he does, by way of a prevision from the Precogs, sets up a predicament not unlike that in Shakespeare's "Macbeth". It creates a Mobius strip worth poring over. Numerous questions come to mind, such as how much was needed to get that chain of events to spark; how much does it take to drive someone to an extreme?

Possibly the most intriguing of all the questions "Minority Report" brings up is that which philosophers have been debating about and tearing their hair out over for decades: does anyone have free will, or are all events predestined to happen? This film offers fuel for both sides of the argument, but always counterbalances one piece of evidence with the next. It is this ambiguity that made "Memento" so much fun, after seeing this film you will have much to debate about with those you have seen it with.

If one could label "Minority Report" as something of a tragedy, that element would be found in the female Precog, Agatha. Yes, there is a brief conversation over what ethics there are in idealizing three people so much, but that is not the issue that matters. Its chilling to see that no one who works within the Precrime system realizes the absolute unethical, whoring nature of keeping the Precogs confined as they are. Once the film starts to view the situation through Agatha's eyes, the film changes in its entirety. Samantha Morton plays Agatha so brilliantly that we can completely understand her position. We see what happens when everything is taken away from someone who is then forced to take it back. We see what is really wrong with the Precrime system and the cruelty that lay within it.

Not to be put aside is the look of the film. Spielberg's main mistake with "A.I." was making that future much too pretty. Instead of being able to see where we were headed, the film felt distant, as if we were watching a fantasy instead of a science fiction. With "Minority Report", Spielberg gathered a group of "futurists" to brainstorm just what Washington, D.C. might look like sometime in the not-so-distant future, and the result is incredibly believable. I shall most likely live until 2054, and when that time comes, I would like to revisit this film and see just how accurate it was.

If you really need me to categorize, I would say that "Minority Report" is Steven Spielberg's best film since "Schindler's List". I would also say that this film is the best blockbuster of the summer, and may well end up being one of the very best films of the entire year. Right now, however, I will just say this: see the damn film, it'll be worth even the ridiculous amount one has to pay for movie tickets these days.
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8/10
The Force is with this one...
25 May 2002
By now, you have most likely read many scathing reviews of the latest installment in the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy, "Attack of the Clones". Do not let them convince you that George Lucas has lost touch with the Force. His latest movie, number two in the prequel trilogy chronicling the transition of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, does what the "Star Wars" movies are supposed to do. It sweeps you off of your feet and provides a spectacle of escapist entertainment that should not be missed. Unlike the easily enjoyable but tough to absorb piece of eye candy "The Phantom Menace", "Attack of the Clones" actually feels like a "Star Wars" movie.

The Republic is in grave danger of being torn down by thousands of separatist star systems who are threatening to abandon it. The Galactic Senate, lead by Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDarmid), must vote on whether to create an army for the Republic to counter this threat. Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), former queen of Naboo, arrives at the planet of Coruscant only to be the target of a failed assassination attempt. Two Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent to protect her.

If you think the above sounds boring, you're right. For the first fifteen minutes or so, "Attack of the Clones" is bogged down in political mumbojumbo that really has no place in a "Star Wars" movie. I was slightly interested, but spent most of that time wondering when the fun would start. I was not squirming in my seat for long; fifteen minutes into the film "Attack of the Clones" gets back into the old "Star Wars" tradition with an incredibly exciting chase through the city of Coruscant. From there, the film had me in its grip.

Mostly. The overlapping of three storylines was well handled, but the execution of one of them; the supposed romance between Padme and Anakin, is not. The screenplay, a collaboration between George Lucas and Jonathan Hales, feels recycled and tired. Simply put, it is quite obvious that it was written by two middle aged men. That is not to say the dialogue doesn't have its moments, but it needs to spread its wings and get comfortable with itself. It is in the romance where it falters the most, making what could have been a grand affair into a silly flirt that jumps to quick conclusions. It serves its purpose in the big picture, but does not press any of the emotional buttons that it would like to think it does. It represents George Lucas' stubborness that the "Star Wars" series belongs soley to him. I can think of other screenwriters who could have done a magnificent job with a screenplay for "Attack of the Clones", but George Lucas simply will not have it.

One other place where "Attack of the Clones" falters is in its dialogue for the Jedi Master Yoda. There are times when what came out of Yoda's mouth was not at all like the backwards Yoda-isms we have come to know and love. Nonetheless, Yoda is the star of "Attack of the Clones". Yoda is the kind of character who will live on as long as movies do; he deserves the title of legend just as much (and in some cases more) than many filmmakers or actors who have been given that title. In "Attack of the Clones", Yoda does have a surprise up his sleeve which some may deem to be out of character. It is not. Yoda is a legend, and seeing him as he is in "Clones" is like revealing long-lost scrolls with tales of past triumphs for the first time. Yoda carries a commanding presence onscreen that is impossible to ignore.

Aside from the romance, "Attack of the Clones" is a wonderfully exciting movie that cannot be seen as anything else but an event. It is a mystery of sorts that harkens to "The Empire Strikes Back"; intelligent and involving. It leaves the viewer wanting more; setting up a feverish anticipation for Episode III, which is to be the last film in the series. Don't think that means you don't get bang for your buck. "Attack of the Clones" builds up to a rousing climax; a final 45 minutes of pure, pulse-pounding, gee-whiz action bliss that outdoes anything in "The Phantom Menace". Also, "Attack of the Clones" gives you something more than a subtle wink at how things are going to turn out for our characters in the future, unlike the previous installment.

The acting in "Attack of the Clones" does not stumble through the film as the screenplay does. The performances are all as good as any have been in a "Star Wars" movie. Ewan McGregor is slowly turning into Alec Guiness' Obi-Wan, but he is his own and not merely an imitator. Natalie Portman shows a nice amount of peril here and there, but it was her performance that I grew tired of most quickly. Christopher Lee, who is a master at playing characters like his treacherous Count Dooku (see him as Saruman in "Lord of the Rings"), is the perfect villain to counter Ian McDarmid's mysterious, brooding Senator. I particularly liked Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett, who was able to give the character a good amount of menace while still being fatherly and even warm towards his son, Boba (Daniel Logan II). Out of the entire ensemble, all eyes are on Hayden Christensen. Rest assured, he fills Anakin Skywalker's shoes admirably. His Anakin is just juvenile enough, just reckless enough, and just sympathetic enough. There are times when we can feel for Anakin, and with this screenplay, that is no small feat. I'm looking forward to more of Christensen's performances both inside the "Star Wars" universe and out.

"Attack of the Clones", not surprisingly, is a feast for the eye and ear. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM for short) has outdone themselves this time. This may just be the most visually enticing "Star Wars" film yet. From its beautiful, brilliantly designed atmospheres to its varied and complex creatures, "Attack of the Clones" never ceases to amaze. George Lucas realizes that CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) is a paintbrush and not a firecracker; a way to create ingenious worlds and not just blow things up. "Attack of the Clones" may just be one of the best uses of CGI since the technique was introduced. John Williams compliments what's up on screen with his most memorable score since "Schindler's List". It's subtle, inventive, and has a classic sense to it that even helps save some scenes that would otherwise be left in the cheese-ball gutter. The love theme is especially grand, it's just too bad the romance itself isn't up to snuff.

George Lucas is not a masterful filmmaker. He cannot handle the complexities of the human heart, nor are his recent films groundbreaking. He does, however, remember how much fun movies are supposed to be. No matter how cheesy, no matter how silly, the reason we go to the movies is to escape. "Star Wars" has always been the perfect potpourri of pure escapist fun. That's all they have ever been meant to do, and "Attack of the Clones" most definitely delivers the goods.
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8/10
An Uncompromising Snapshot of a Schizophrenic's Life
23 February 2002
RATING: ***1/2 out of ****

On the surface, "A Beautiful Mind" is a biopic of John Nash, one of America's great mathematicians. But that statement is misleading. "A Beautiful Mind" is not a film that paints a big, sweeping portrayal of the events of one man' life. Instead, in the way that Ed Harris did last year with "Pollock", Ron Howard gives the viewer a more personal look at the subject of the film. Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman don't take the easy route and merely dramatize everything that Nash accomplished, for that would really only be a two-hour way of saying "Won Nobel Prize for..." They let us get to know Nash as only those who were closest to him knew him, and most remarkably show us how his mind processed and who he was.

John Nash (Russell Crowe) is a math student studying at Princeton College. His friends are studying and building on the works of what he considers to be "lesser mortals", while what he really wants to do is come up with a truly original idea. He spends his time alone, trying to find definitive patterns to everyday movements, games, etc. He gets encouragement from his roommate Charles (Paul Bettany), but I'll jump the gun a little and tell you this is where the trouble starts. Suddenly, he does find his original idea, and it is so revolutionary that he is given a grant to study/teach at MIT. There, he meets Alicia, a student of his that he has begun to court. The two get married a while later, but during this time, Alicia doesn't see that Nash is being plagued by delusions, one a CIA operative (Parcher, played by Ed Harris) who enlists him on a "top secret mission" to try and discover secret encoded messages in periodicals supposedly being sent out by Russian spies. His empty quest starts to devour him, as he dreams of the Russians coming after him and other secret forces closing in. Alicia begins to notice that something is definitely wrong, and starts to help her husband try and realize what is real and what isn't.

"A Beautiful Mind" is a solid, powerful drama. I'll re-iterate that it doesn't tell us everything about John Nash, and sometimes that irked me. I admit I did not know much about John Nash's accomplishments, and going out, I wasn't in the least bit enlightened on that front. His supposedly breakthrough work on game theory goes relatively unexplained here, and that was one thing in the film that could have used a little tweaking. However, this is about the man, not the work. Many people have complained about the film's ignorance towards Nash's bisexuality, and I would have to disagree with them to an extent. There are moments in where bisexuality is most definitely hinted at. This would be more of a problem if the film was not so obviously trying to focus on Nash's paranoid schizophrenia, something that is portrayed magnificently.

Akiva Goldsman has fashioned his screenplay in such a way that we are put in Nash's shoes, and then brought to see a more objective view. At first, we have little idea as to what Nash's delusions are, they all blend into reality seamlessly. Then, they start to get more outrageous, and when Nash's fears of these images start to be brought out into the public, we start to look at him from another viewpoint. However, we feel for him, because we have seen what he is going through, and we feel for those affected by him (especially Alicia) because he has become so out of touch with the world.

This film is a prime example of what Russell Crowe can do when he's not out toga partying with Ridley Scott. He gives one of his best performances, portraying the schizophrenia without over-doing it or milking moments for their dramatic value. Another actor might immediately approach the subject grimly and teary-eyed, but Nash at first cannot realize what he is seeing does not exist, so why should he be afraid? Jennifer Connelly gives the other extraordinary performance in the film. Connelly has been one of the most under-appreciated and hardest working actresses in the business, and it is wonderful that she will now get the recognition she deserves for her powerful, passionate portrayal of Alicia Nash.

"A Beautiful Mind" is compelling film that never stoops to endorse melodrama or over-acting. It doesn't get all the details of John Nash's life in, that much is true, but it doesn't need to. It has a purpose, and it executes it in magnificent form. It is a fine, intricately constructed vision of paranoid schizophrenia and a man who had the will to defeat it. And although skeptics will attack it until the cows come home, the truth is that "Mind" is beautiful.
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9/10
A Surprisingly Visceral Experience
23 February 2002
RATING: **** / ****

I was skeptical going into "Black Hawk Down". After all, just look at the credits. Ridley Scott is the director, and he hasn't had a good film for ages (no, not even "Gladiator".) Jerry Bruckheimer has bad enough judgment to produce cash cows like "Pearl Harbor" (and that's a train wreck big enough to destroy anyone's career.) The cast, while featuring some good actors, is not exactly stellar. I was convinced I wouldn't see the film after seeing the trailer (the dialogue struck me as incredibly poor). But somehow I found myself seeing it, and boy was I surprised when I discovered the most riveting, unsettling war film since "Saving Private Ryan".

The time is October 3, 1993; the place is Somalia. 120 American soldiers were on a mission to capture lieutenants of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. "Black Hawk Down" is a portrait of how what was supposed to be a half-hour mission turned into a grueling, 18 hour ordeal that led hundreds of Somalis and 18 Americans to their deaths. "Black Hawk Down" is amazing in how it puts you right in a soldiers shoes. It doesn't speechify or go heavy on irony. The event is depicted through actions, not words, and the result is stunning. We see each little decision that was made, each step that went wrong, and how it all lead to tragedy. Watching "Black Hawk Down", I felt like I was actually a soldier in combat, and it was terrifying.

It is important to remember that this film isn't about the politics and the reasoning behind the mission, but about the experience. There is no trying to justify the reasons why things happened like they did. At times, it seems the screenplay (written by Ken Nolan and Steven Zaillian) wants to go that route, but Ridley Scott won't let it. We don't get to know the characters, but the idea of the film is that you are one of them. "Black Hawk Down" differs from films like "Saving Private Ryan" in that it isn't so much about the soldiers lives and their legacies, but more the terror of being shoved into circumstances beyond your control.

Scott has regained his title of one of the most visually brilliant directors around, after losing it with films like "Gladiator" and "Hannibal". Anyone can make a film gory, few people are clear-headed enough to make it realistic. "Enemy at the Gates", for example, gives us a good look at Russian soldiers being mowed down by German machine guns, but the film is such a blur that it's impossible to care for them. In "Black Hawk Down", a sense of urgency is constantly pushing the film forward. Every time Scott cuts to a wide-angle shot to show the incoming enemy, it will get the entire audience tense. But as soon as he brings you back down into the action, the tenseness turns into horror. At times it feels almost impossible to watch, but it is just as hard to turn away.

There is the issue of the treatment of the Somalis in "Black Hawk Down". It's a sticky subject. I won't pretend that most of the Somalis aren't being treated as the enemy. But I will say that the film is not overly unfair. This is a film about battle, told from one side's point of view. If this were a story about the Somalis, then the Americans would be just as much the "bad guys". But this is battle, plain and simple, and no matter which way one looks at it, its barbaric. What would be unfair is if the film assumed it knew the other side's every thought and tried to simplify their story. This was done to the Japanese in "Pearl Harbor" with disastrous results.

"Black Hawk Down" is a visceral film that shook me down to the core. It doesn't try to tell the political and moral complications behind all the chaos, which are far too vast and incomprehensible for any film to grasp. Film is a visual medium, and so Ridley Scott keeps the speechifying to a minimum and with his camera puts us in the middle of one of the biggest travesties since the Vietnam War.
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Lantana (2001)
Highly overrated and impossible to connect to
23 February 2002
RATING: ** / ****

I always have a hard time connecting to these big ensemble pieces dealing with marital relationships. For example, I always thought "The Ice Storm" was missing something, and even parts of the mostly intriguing "Magnolia" seemed a little hackneyed. So coming out of Ray Lawrence's "Lantana", I wasn't in the least bit surprised to find myself completely unmoved.

Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey) is a psychiatrist and author of a book about her daughter's death (entitled "Elanor"). One night, she disappears off of the main road. Detective Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), whose wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) visits Dr. Somers regularly to talk about their relationship, is called in to investigate the case. The problem with that is thus: the main suspect is the neighbor of the woman he is having an affair with (Jane O'May, played by Rachael Blake). He constantly grills Dr. Somers' husband John Knox (Geoffrey Rush) to find out more about his wife's "emotional state". I think that is enough for me to say before I ruin some of the film's few surprises.

"Lantana" is undoubtedly a strongly acted film. Kerry Armstrong and Geoffrey Rush in particular, who for the most part are at the receiving end of the emotional blows, are solid. Barbara Hershey, Rachael Blake and Anthony LaPaglia also bring the film to a slightly higher level. The film is also well shot. The film's opening shots, first of a lantana bush then zooming in on a lifeless body, are eerie and almost haunting. However, although the cinematography of "Lantana" is well crafted, there are continuous long, lazy shots of this lantana bush that appear one too many times and push its symbolism way too much. That was a thorn in the side of crafty, although not all together innovative, cinematography.

The plotting of "Lantana" is, to be honest, complex and intricate. However, it is this intricacy that ultimately proves to be the film's downfall. It seems it would rather be content with weaving in and out of various relationships than letting us connect with any of them. We know how the relationships stack up, but we have no feeling for any of it. We are told how the characters feel about each other, but since the development of each one is so rushed, we can know nothing about the individuals. Yet, by the end, "Lantana" expects us to care deeply about each person, even those ones who have little significance in the big picture.

"Lantana" is a well controlled, almost masterfully handled film. Ray Lawrence knows exactly how he wants to get where he wants to go, but takes one too many shortcuts. I was involved with "Lantana", but was untouched by it; I walked out of the theater feeling cold. Films like this are often well done but are almost always forgetting one thing: that a relationship stems out of two individuals, the individuals cannot necessarily be defined by their relationships alone. In "Lantana", we do not get real human beings, instead merely shadows of them.
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10/10
The musical that can beat the stuffing out of "Moulin Rouge"
23 February 2002
RATING: **** out of ****

Think about what rock musicals have been like. It's no surprise that when most people think about the rock musical, they think about midnight showings with tons of obsessed fans screaming as the movie plays out before them, decked in attire identical to that of the characters up on screen. One thinks of cultish style, no substance. In other words, when thinking about the rock musical, one immediately thinks "Rocky Horror", and there's a reason for that. Finally, someone has decided to take the rock musical seriously and it works better than one could've imagined. Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not... "HEDWIG!"

Based on the off-Broadway hit of the same name, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is about Hedwig Robinson (John Cameron Mitchell), and his journey to find his "other half". While living in East Berlin, Hedwig (then Hansel) meets Sgt. Luther Robinson (Maurice Dean Wint), who over some gummi bears decides to marry him. The only problem is, he has to marry him in Berlin, which would require a physical examination. "To get away, you've gotta leave something behind," Luther tells Hansel. So it is agreed that Hansel must have a sex change operation. Unfortunately for Hansel (who changes his name to Hedwig), the doctor botched the operation, leaving him with nothing but an "angry inch". Luther and Hedwig run off to America, where Luther's wandering eye gets the best of him. Left alone, Hedwig just puts on some makeup, pulls the wig down from the shelf and goes back to her first love of music. That too has its problems: Hedwig gets involved in a relationship with Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), who steals her music and becomes pop icon Tommy Gnosis. When we meet Hedwig at the beginning of the film, her and her band The Angry Inch are following Gnosis world tour in hopes of landing a successful lawsuit.

"Hedwig" rocks like no other movie I have ever seen. The soundtrack is (in my humble opinion) full of classic songs, and the film is full of audacious numbers to match them. I could easily be convinced that this film was made for upwards of $25 million. But obviously, style isn't dictated by budget (the film was made for $6 million). Just look at "Wig in a Box," where a trailer wall is kicked down to become a stage. Or "Angry Inch", where Hedwig's bold retelling of his past lashes out and causes the whole place to erupt. The music could've easily been tacky, but no. The songs, written by Stephen Trask, are punk rock masterpieces (some highlights including "Origin of Love", "Midnight Radio" and "Wig in a Box") that had me singing for days after. I am now convinced that the music industry would be on its way to redemption if more people could write with the gusto and originality of Stephen Trask's work.

The film's characters all have stunning emotional depth. Every character is developed, the relationships seem real, and they are all acted to perfection. That there is already more than you can say about most rock musicals. "Hedwig" is the brainchild of John Cameron Mitchell. He knows "this punk rock star" up and down and thus turns in a near flawless performance. Hedwig is bitter, stubborn and sarcastic, but never unpleasant for the audience to be with. Michael Pitt is impressive as the rip-off artist Tommy Gnosis, and Miriam Shor gives a wonderfully layered performance as Yitzak, Hedwig's husband/wife obviously unsure of her place in the world (just like Hedwig herself).

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" has done what no other rock musical has done before. It refuses to give up the music for the story, or vice versa. Instead, the songs complement Hedwig's journey in such a way that we understand her position even more after each one. Now only one question remains: is "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" the greatest rock musical ever made? Hell, yeah.
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8/10
An honest, gripping *******
23 February 2002
RATING: ***1/2 out of ****

If you are reading this and have not seen "In the Bedroom", I advise you to stop reading now. For "In the Bedroom" is the kind of film where it is best to go into without any previous knowledge just let the film take you where it will. What I will tell you is that "In the Bedroom" has a lyrical quality that rings true with any audience, and feels real without any of the small-town stereotypes.

As the film opens we are introduced to the relationship between Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) and Natalie Strout (Marsia Tomei). Natalie is married to Richard Strout (William Mapother), who she is in the process of divorcing while Frank is still in college. Richard is, for obvious reasons, not happy about Natalie leaving him, even with a troubled past like theirs. Frank's parents, Ruth and Matt Fowler (Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, respectively) are divided on the issue. Ruth doesn't think highly of her son with a married woman, Matt thinks they are fine together; young and in love.

Then, the film takes a startling turn. I will not say what it is, but it takes the film in haunting new directions. The film switches to the parent's perspective, and how that event is slowly tearing them apart. All of a sudden silences become unquestionably tense, glances are worth a thousand words and trust becomes questionable. Matt and Ruth start to become columns of solidarity, but we know that they must confront each other. In that moment the film reaches a heartbreaking climax, although bringing little conclusion. The two are now at peace with their fears of each other, but the weight of grief is still weighing them down.

In the final act, the film's steam fizzles. "In the Bedroom" finds conclusion, in an incomprehensible and unbelievable way. I found the end to be too easy an answer to the Fowler's problems. Up until then, "In the Bedroom" felt poetic and human, but the last twenty minutes are unremarkable and uninteresting. Too many films take the easy way out and I was praying that "In the Bedroom" wouldn't, but alas, it feels the need to shake the audience one more time before it is through. I felt it was unnecessary, and I didn't feel any of the impact the ending intended.

Even though the whole idea of the conclusion being what it is didn't work for me, it was still executed incredibly well on the part of the actors. Good acting can grip us, but great acting makes us forget that anyone is acting at all. The cast knows their characters inside out, and they create real people. We really feel for them, we want to reach out to them, pat them on the back and say "There there, everything's going to be all right." Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are getting a lot of award buzz, and rightfully so; their honest, heartfelt performances are among the very best of the year.

"In the Bedroom" is the kind of debut that everyone wishes they could make. It's a haunting, humane film that's part thriller, part crime drama, and it all feels like it happened next door. It may trip a little in the end, but it is so masterfully done that this complaint can almost be overlooked. "In the Bedroom" is a moving, incredibly well acted achievement; I look forward to more from director Todd Field, a masterful new filmmaker.
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The Closet (2001)
5/10
It's just not funny
23 February 2002
RATING: ** out of ****

To be sure, Francis Verber has talent. With the wildly funny "Dinner Game", he showed that he was able to weave hilarious situational comedy. Unfortunately, "The Closet" does not pick up where "The Dinner Game" left off. There's nothing awful about it, but in a failed attempt to put a new spin on Verber's creation Francois Pignon, "The Closet" never delivers.

Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) is considered an idiot by many who work with him at a condom factory and is on the verge of being fired. He gets word of this, and dismayed turns to his new neighbor Belone (Michel Aumont). Belone suggests a tricky scheme to save Pignon's job: pretend that he is gay and the company will never fire him if they want to save their image. The scheme is working, and on the other side of the spectrum there is another prank being played. Homophobe Felix Santini (Gerard Depardieu) is being pressured to act nice to Pignon to save his job, and unexpected things begin to happen.

Francois Pignon is one of the funnier characters I have encountered in recent years. In Verber's previous film he was a flat-out idiot, meaning well but always saying the wrong things and the wrong times. In "The Closet", everyone calls him an idiot, but I don't buy it. He seems perfectly intelligent to me. Pignon is translated here as a boring punch line without the setup. Much to my surprise, I found that I couldn't care less what happens to him over the course of the film. One of the most valuable pieces of advice I could give to Verber from an audience member's perspective is: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Only partly because of Pignon's shortcomings does the film fall flat. Most of the jokes just aren't funny. They're the same sort of recycled gay jokes we get all the time in movies. The screenplay feels worn and tired, and what could've been a breath of fresh air becomes recycled and stale. Verber is merely taking an interesting idea and presenting the obvious "What-ifs" that immediately pop into one's mind when hearing a synopsis about the film.

The acting was incredibly sub-par as well. Daniel Auteuil, who is on the whole a very good actor gives a performance as monotone and boring as Pignon is (see him in "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" if you really want to see what he's made of). Gerard Depardieu is fair, but doesn't show enough desperation that we are told Felix so obviously has. Michele Laroque breathes a little more life into her character Mlle Bertrand, Pignon's secretary; she is the highlight of an ensemble that is relatively uninteresting and never shows enough range.

"The Closet" is a wasted opportunity. In situational comedy, we need to care about or at least understand the characters to a certain extent or it will be impossible to laugh when they get into trouble. While Verber seemed like he could handle that, in "The Closet" it doesn't seem he believes in his characters; as if he believes that the audience need only take them at face value. Unfortunately, "The Closet" ranks as one of the most disappointing ventures of the year.
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6/10
Not there itself
23 February 2002
RATING: **1/2 out of ****



About halfway through the Coen brother's new film "The Man Who Wasn't There", barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) gazes in wonder at one of the customers, gawking about how "the hair keeps growing it's a part of us- and we just cut it off." When his co-barber and brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco) asks what is he talking about, Ed just replies, "I dunno. Skip it." Phew. For a second there, I thought the Coen brothers were actually taking this tired speculation seriously.

The plot to "The Man Who Wasn't There" starts out simple enough. Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, barber. Him and his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand) never talk much, but he knows enough to suspect that she's having an affair with her boss, Big Dave Nerdlinger (James Gandolfini). When a hopeful entrepreneur enters town (he's got big plans for something he calls "dry cleaning"), all he needs is 10,000 bucks to get his business started. This gets Ed interested, so he creates a blackmailing scheme demanding the cash or the whole world will know about Doris and Big Dave. You know something's going to go sour in this mix.

Let me tell you now, this is not your typical Coen brothers movie. Sure, it's got some quirky characters, it's shot in glorious black and white, and the script is well composed ("She proposed we get married. I said, 'don't you want to get to know me more?' She said 'why, does it get better?'") But there is a crucial ingredient missing in all of this. In all of their films that I've seen, the Coen brothers always give it their all. There's always something definitely Coen in their films. Yet watching "The Man Who Wasn't There", I felt that they weren't completely behind it. It's like watching a film school student doing his/her final thesis project.

For a while, the noir aspects of the film are handled incredibly well. The performances are, as would be expected, terrific. Thornton gives another aptly controlled performance, and his chemistry with the rest of the cast is interesting, seeing as his character doesn't let himself come into contact with most of the world. James Gandolfini gives a good performance as well, and does a good job with the limited palate he is given. And Frances McDormand-- what more can be said about her? She is one of the best actresses working today, and she just stole the show for me.

I've also always found that in every Coen brothers film, Joel and Ethan always had the last laugh, like they are chuckling at the audience as they pull the rug from under us. But one of the major problems in "The Man Who Wasn't There" is that it takes itself completely seriously (except for one strange episode with a spaceship, in which it has the good sense to inject a little humor into). This isn't a good thing, considering that the Coen brothers aren't exactly philosophers. During its second half, the film becomes lightheaded and fluffy, using cheesy metaphors that never work (like that darn hair one I talked about earlier). Ed Crane all of a sudden turns his head to the sky and tries to give his life meaning. That wouldn't be so bad, but this sort of stuff just can't stem from a dark noir successfully.

I was very disappointed to see the second half of the film in such disarray. It just drags and drags; there's an entire subplot about a piano "prodigy" that could've been told in one minute of narration. When the film tries too hard to seem like a deep, thoughtful journey, all it really does is expose how shallow it is. Maybe I would appreciate this more if it didn't come from someone who seemed like they could really revolutionize the genre. I guess I would've expected the Coen brothers to go for something a little less... standard. "The Man Who Wasn't There" starts out as an unpredictable thriller, but in the end, it's hardly there at all.
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Ghost World (2001)
8/10
The Anti-"Teen Movie"
23 February 2002
RATING: ***1/2 out of ****

The so-called "teen movies" offered in recent years have been of a dull and empty variation. The basic formula usually includes the geek who gets the girl/guy, the nasty popular kids, the jocks, the unlikely couple and more uses of the word "like" than any normal person is able to tolerate. What a rare treat it is that in the middle of the season usually full of teen movie trash that we had "Ghost World", a film that remembers that not everybody fits into easily accessible categories (adults and teens alike).

Thora Birch is Enid, a high school grad unsure of what to do with the rest of her life. She thinks she will rent an apartment with her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), but with no job and summer school (for flunking art), nothing is certain. In a similar spot is Seymour (Steve Buschemi), a record collector who can't see any real meaning to his actions. Enid and Rebecca play a seemingly harmless prank on him after seeing a classified ad he put in the paper. Quite to the surprise of the duo, this little stunt really hurts Seymour. Guilty, Enid feels obligated to hook him up with the girl he was looking for in the ad.

What is remarkable about "Ghost World" is not that it is more entertaining than your average teen entertainment. No, what strikes me about "Ghost World" is how astutely it remembers the feeling of displacement that plagues so many teens. Enid doesn't seem to have many friends who respect her, and as cynical as she may get, human contact is the obvious ingredient missing in her life, even though she is constantly pushing it away. Rebecca urges her to get a job, so she gets a job working at a concession stand in a multiplex. That same day, she's fired for too many wise remarks about the theater and it's customers. Enid doesn't feel the need to "fit in", instead she sees the whole world collapsing around her and would rather observe and snicker than get away from the problem. She tries to move on with her life, yet everyone around her is trying to keep her grounded. Thora Birch seems more alive as Enid than in any other of her roles. In "American Beauty", she played a similar character, but I was less than convinced with her portrayal, mostly consisting of pouting. In "Ghost World", it is like she has woken up, and really works as Enid. Her chemistry with the other actors ranges from comfortable to repellent as the story requires.

Seymour is just as miserable as Enid. He collects all kinds of junk- from jazz records to old posters from the fast-food company he works for. He wishes he could have a more rewarding career and a more exciting life. "I hate my interests", he remarks. Where Enid is a little more honest and will say anything that comes to her mind, Seymour builds a shield against pain with his collections and obsessions and rarely takes a chance. Enid does not care about the consequences; Seymour is constantly running away from them. Steve Buschemi is wonderful in this role. He does what an actor should as he doesn't overact but really gets into the character and inhabits him. As we watch him, we feel just like a picture Enid draws in her sketchbook: "Go Seymour!" We want him to get the girl, to succeed and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, his own self-pity comes back to haunt him when he realizes he has nothing in common with the woman of his dreams.

In the end, Enid is off to create a world of her own, while Seymour is left behind back where he started. He does have his experiences with Enid, but how far does that really take him? We will never find out, but we are sure that he will start to come into his own; we now have gained confidence in him. The film has that personal touch that most films lack. Coming from Terry Zwigoff, a man who threatened to commit suicide if the subject for a documentary he was making didn't cooperate ("Crumb"), it's easy to see why the film is so accurate in its portrayal of emotional emptiness. "Ghost World" has so many strengths to deem it one of the best films of the year. And as much as some would like to disagree, it is not a teen movie in any way, shape or form.
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8/10
Whodathunkit? They did the impossible...
23 February 2002
Warning: Spoilers
RATING: ***1/2 out of ****

I don't need to tell you how much of a classic J.R.R Tolkein's "The Lord of the Rings" series is. I don't need to tell you that its influence has been felt all over, from "Star Wars" to Led Zeppelin. I also don't need to tell you what a huge undertaking it is for anyone to adapt it to the big screen, something which many considered impossible. But lo and behold, here it is, a well-acted, respectfully scripted and incredibly epic film that only years ago would have been considered a fanboy's pipe dream.

Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is an unassuming, happy little hobbit (little people for those who aren't Tolkein-initiated). His uncle, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is preparing to leave his home in the Shire (someplace in the Middle-Earth) for some peace and quiet. Years before the start of the film, he found a ring that allows people to disappear in the hideout of a creature named Gollum. He doesn't know that it's really a "Ring of Power" that would give Supreme Evil Guy Sauron the strength he needs to take over the world. Silly Bilbo. Well, anyway, after a huge birthday party in his honor, Bilbo leaves the Shire and the ring behind him. His residence and many of his possessions (including the ring) go to Frodo. Wizard friend Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comes to tell him all about the ring, who's searching for it and what Frodo has to do: bring it across Middle-Earth to Rivendell, where it will be temporarily safe. Frodo leaves with three of his hobbit friends, Pippin (Billy Boyd), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Sam (Sean Astin) to do his duty. The ring proves to be a real pain in the ass, with nine seemingly immortal Ringwraiths (I'm not gonna explain these things anymore, so just go read the books, OK?) on their tail. Some protection comes from Aragon (or "Strider") who helps them out of more than just plain ol' good will. Some may consider this a spoiler, but the four hobbits + Strider get the ring to Rivendell, where we learn that the ring has to be destroyed at the center of Mount Doom. Always the brave one, Frodo agrees to take it there, and a fellowship of elves, dwarves, hobbits and men will protect him. From there our adventure continues.

It's not too much of a stretch to call "The Fellowship of the Ring" the most ambitious Hollywood offering of the year (don't even talk to me about "Moulin Rouge", which played it very safe thank you very much). New Line took huge risks enlisting a relatively unknown director (Peter Jackson) and trusting him with about $350 million and one of the most revered fantasy epics of all time. All three films were shot at the same time, so if this one failed, there'd be trouble for New Line. But thankfully, "Fellowship" is a success, containing its fair share of magnificent moments. The last time I enjoyed a purely fantasy film this much was the original "Star Wars".

The beginning of the film is where I found the most faults, and it's a rare case of the omission of details from the source actually being distracting. That is a little nit-pick, and very soon, the film had me under its spell. "The Fellowship of the Ring", unlike another wildly popular fantasy film (*cough* "Harry Potter" *cough*), is not a slavish mirage of visual interpretations. Rather, this film is it's own. Jackson has done a terrific job in making everything seem real and natural. I got the feeling that each set has a magnificent history behind it, like the film was merely there documenting one quest in the long life of the Middle Earth. There is some magic afoot here; I really believed that the Middle Earth existed.

The cast of "Fellowship", for the most part, does a magnificent job. I enjoyed the hobbits, and Elijah Wood, who isn't exactly the first person one would think to play Frodo, but does a very good job. I wasn't as impressed with Ian Holm, whose performance was unfortunately the low point of the film. He was all fine and good while playing the hobbit in his quieter moments, but when it's time to get serious, he plays Bilbo so fiercely that it was simply unpleasant to watch him. But fortunately, he is given little screen time and is given less dramatic moments, so that is a small quibble. The women of "Fellowship", although we see them just as much as Bilbo, do good. I enjoyed the little twist on the original flight to Rivendell that helped us get to know Lady Arwen (Liv Tyler) a little more, and Cate Blanchett is (literally) luminous as Galadriel. A few of the characters in the fellowship go undeveloped, but most people do not want to sit through a four hour director's cut, so unfortunately Jackson did have to cut a few corners. But out of the entire cast, it is Ian McKellen who is most memorable. He is more than completely and totally believable; I was convinced that he was the only one who could ever play Gandalf.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" is a solid, sometimes mesmerizing work. This seems like a movie that will be remembered for a while, and I hope that the next two films can follow suit. We are going to be a spoiled bunch of moviegoers these next two years, if we get this kind of present every holiday season. Finally, here we have a finely made film to add to the list of enduring cinematic fantasies. The tagline says "Power can be held in the smallest of things." It's a good thing Hollywood realized this, and trusted the small New Zealand team that brought this epic to life. At least someone these days knows how to get bang for their buck.
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The Majestic (2001)
A passing-grade but not great drama
21 January 2002
RATING: *** / ****

Remember old Hollywood? Forget what was going on behind the scenes; remember what the movies used to be. Remember when the stars were gods and goddesses, fifty cents could go a long way, and movie theaters were palaces? Remember when the movies were more than distractions, but magical? This kind of wonder isn't re-incarnated in Frank Darabont's latest film "The Majestic", but it's nice to come across a movie that remembers what film really used to be about.

Jim Carrey is Peter Appleton, a screenwriter living at the beginning of the end of Hollywood's magic era. He has a comfortable life, and he believes he is on the verge of moving from writing B pictures to the A list. Unfortunately for him, someone has named him as a communist and he is placed on the infamous Hollywood blacklist. His girlfriend dumps him and his production is shut down, leaving him with little. He decides to go for a drive and clear his mind, which is hard to do when one is drunk. Fate rears it's ugly head when he loses control of his car and falls off of a high bridge into a river. He washes up on the beach near a small town without any memory. He is taken up to the town, who is very hospitable to him. To them he seems "awfully familiar". Harry Trimble (Martin Landau) knows why: he believes that Peter is his long lost son Luke. The town tries to give him back his memory, constantly reminding of "his" life before he left for the war. Now, as Hollywood agents search for their supposed communist spy, he is trying to remember who he is.

As Peter starts to accept the fact that he is most likely Luke Trimble, he leads a quest to get the Majestic (the old movie theater he lives above) back into it's former glory. It is in these re-vitalization scenes, and all the scenes inside the Majestic, that homage is paid to the Hollywood of everyone's dreams. When the Majestic is lit up, it becomes a Taj Mahal of wonder and amazement. In the outside world, Hollywood may be full of dishonest vultures looking for their next victim. But inside the Majestic, it is only movies; anything that meant anything was up on the screen until the final fadeout.

"The Majestic" is a simple, straightforward soap opera that is saved by the good graces of Jim Carrey. Carrey is one of the most under appreciated actors in the business today, mostly because of some of the movies he's been in. It's hard for a lot of people to accept Carrey as more than a goofball that relies on poor slapstick to get him through, but Carrey has broken out of that mold. I was pleasantly surprised with his performance in "The Truman Show", but he really impressed me with "Man on the Moon". Now he takes another role into his own hands. Even when the film is at it's most fluffy, Carrey keeps it grounded in reality. Take Peter's trial in front of the House of Un-American Activities (those guys that started the blacklist). The script (sloppily constructed by Michael Sloane) wants it to be an melodramatic showstopper, but Carrey knows better than that. He makes the scene believable and remembers he's talking to people and that he's not the only actor in the scene. A lot of actors have trouble learning how to do that these days. Martin Landau also gives a wonderful performance worthy of recognition as the father who's desperate to bring his son back to life.

The film is far from without fault. Director Frank Darabont has developed a complex that makes him feel the need to make movies no less than two and a half hours long, and to be honest, too much of "The Majestic" is dead air. When Carrey cries out "Don't tell me that's what Luke would have done, as if I haven't heard that enough today!" I could sympathize with him completely. We're trying to believe in a character who doesn't exist, and we're given an incredible amount of chatter about the kind of person Luke Trimble was. Each discovery about Luke is brought about like a new revelation (and presented with some more speechifying), but there were too many times when I was just thinking "who cares?" Long movies don't always equal excellence.

"The Majestic" is a recommendable film that can remember how fun pictures used to be, but is too wrapped up in it's own little details to pass any of that energy onto the audience. Carrey redeems the film from the scrap pile and makes it into a presentable piece. The acting is a diamond in the rough that will not get the attention it deserves due to the rest of the mush surrounding it. The protagonist of "The Majestic" is constantly fighting for originality in his work, but the film itself can be just as tiresome as the ideas pitched at him. Expect a nice but forgettable journey that's heart lies in the performances of Carrey and Landau.
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7/10
A nice change from Rushmore
21 January 2002
RATING: *** / ****

Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have defined a style in their films. The formula is simple: take a few glum characters, plop them in front of a camera, stick in a quirky romance and let them loose. This has gained the duo many admirers, but I'm not one of them. Their films aren't depressing, just uninteresting and unpleasant. And after enduring the highly overrated "Rushmore", it's high time this formula worked.

Gene Hackman is Royal Tenenbaum, a man bent on getting his family back after learning his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), who he never officially divorced, was with another man (Danny Glover as Henry Sherman). The Tenenbaum children are Chas (Ben Stiller), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Richie (Luke Wilson). Chas is a financial consultant of some sort with two children. Margot is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who has always been known as the "adopted daughter". She doesn't communicate often with her husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), and is having an affair with her childhood friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). Richie is a retired pro tennis player who has fallen in love with his sister. One day, Royal confronts Etheline and (in one of the funniest confessionals i've seen in a while) tells her he's dying. Is he? Of course not, but he wants his family back. Due to one thing or another, they all move in under one roof, and from there sparks fly.

I had a wonderful time at "The Royal Tenenbaums". Anderson and Wilson have taken their normal formula and gave it a personal touch, resulting in a funny, honest effort. Unlike its morbid predecessor, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is warm and loves it's characters. The Tenenbaums are a family that has already achieved their goals in life and are now stuck with nowhere to go. They can only go back and catch what they missed: the feeling of really being a family, of caring for each other. Royal is making an honest effort to do this, but the only way he can try and gain his family's respect is to try to fake his own death. His "fresh start" is represented through Chas's two sons, who see Royal through a new pair of eyes.

Oh yeah, and it's funny, too. "The Royal Tenenbaums" is full of fresh jokes and has its share of pratfalls, but it's in the characters that much of the humor lies. Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), Royal's friend and a doorman for the Tenenbaums, is played down perfectly so that when he explodes, you'll be laughing so hard you'll be begging for air. And Royal is a terrible actor; trying to convince his family he is dying of stomach cancer while he is out jumping into pools, driving go-carts and eating cheeseburgers. "Tenenbaums" revels in these kinds of ironic switch-arounds, giving the audience plenty to enjoy.

The ensemble cast of "Tenenbaums" works nearly perfectly, with each other and in and of themselves. Gene Hackman's performance as Royal is pitch-perfect; giving Royal the edge he needs to win his family and the viewer over. The rest of the cast is exceptional as well, including Gwyneth Paltrow looking a lot like Christina Ricci, Owen Wilson doing a stoner and Anjelica Huston exquisitely handling her role as the woman caught up in the middle of it all. Some characters became a chore to watch after a short while. I was completely under whelmed with Bill Murray's Raleigh St. Clair. St. Clair is such a flat, empty character that there was no way I could sympathize with him when Margo ran away with another man. There's a difference between understated and soulless, and unfortunately, Murray does what he did for "Rushmore" and walks on the latter half of the spectrum (Billy Bob Thornton's performance in "The Man Who Wasn't There" is a good example of a well handled quiet performance). Also, what was the purpose of St. Clair's patient? Is his presence alone supposed to be funny? I wasn't laughing.

Warts and all, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is a family affair brought to you buy those who specialize in gloom. However, what separates "Tenenbaums" is how lovingly pieced together it is, with its characters kicking away from "depressed mode" and actually developing. With a smart screenplay, (for the most part) wonderful acting and a touch of warmth, you can't go wrong with "Tenenbaums".
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Beautiful and heartfelt drama that not many saw (Contains some SPOILERS)
21 January 2002
Warning: Spoilers
RATING: ****/****

"The Widow of Saint-Pierre", a beautifully conceived, brilliantly acted film, opens with a wide shot of a single being in a lonely room. Slowly, the camera moves in, and as we get closer, it becomes all to clear that this woman is the one described in the title. Her sadness is radiating, and already piercing to the audience who has yet to know her.

The year is 1849. On the islands of Miquelon and Saint-Pierre, two drunk men commit murder. Their reason? They want to find out if the man they murdered was big or fat. The one who did the deed, Ariel Neel Aguste (Emir Kusturica) is sentenced to death, the other is given life in jail. There is one problem, however. Neel was sentenced to death by guillotine, but on Saint-Pierre there is no guillotine and no executioner. The leaders of the town do not want to look like fools, therefore the execution is put on hold until a guillotine can be found.

With this much, a mood of gripping suspense is already set up. Almost the entire film is spent waiting for the guillotine (or the "widow", as some of the townsfolk call it) to arrive, which takes months. In these months, Neel befriends the Captain Jean (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife (who is playfully called Madame La (Juliette Binoche)). He gains the sympathy of the entire town (and us). He does an incredible amount of service in Saint-Pierre and even saves a life. This makes the gradual arrival of the widow all the more ominous. Neel is sharing some great times (he even gets married), and we know that it must come to an end. All of Saint-Pierre becomes involved in a crusade to get Neel's execution cancelled, and it comes incredibly close to working. But what is so powerful about "Saint-Pierre" is the relationship between Jean and Madame La. Their love for each other is undying, but their bodies are not.

I have seen a million movies with faux romances, giving a measly "love triangle" to grab us instead of letting the characters follow their natural course. I never thought that an affair would take place in "The Widow of Saint-Pierre", and thank heavens director Patrice Leconte stayed true to the times and abandons any thoughts of sex between Madame La and Neel. Madame La loves her husband. I believe this is what the film was really about; Madame La and the captain being brought down in a whirlpool of political confusion. Both have full sympathy for Neel, but if Madame La does anything about it, she will endanger her husband.

The acting in "Saint-Pierre" flourishes. Juliette Binoche, who was charming in "Chocolat", gets to show her true talent in this film. If you have only seen her in "Chocolat", give this film a chance, for she truly gives one of the finest performances I have seen all year. Daniel Auteuil and Emil Kusturica are also perfect, both being able to evoke sympathy while staying noble.

"The Widow of Saint-Pierre" is another film that will make you loathe capital punishment (also see Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark"). It is also a poignant work that is romantic without being contrived, sad without being melodramatic, and epic whilst still staying true to itself. Its the kind of film that is a rarity in the business today, one that will attach you to its characters and not allow you to think even for a minute that their final days together were wasted. This is the kind of film I wish Hollywood could produce.
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Embarrassing
21 January 2002
RATING: * / ****

"Behind Enemy Lines" is exactly the kind of film that I will not spare harsh words for. After all, was I not made to sit for two hours watching a work so devoid of passion, truth and entertainment value? The film is predictable down to the very last detail. It is a work processed straight out of the Hollywood Money Making Machine with no touch of humanity anywhere to be found. I think it would be more appropriately titled "Run Owen, Run! (Brought to you by Coca-Cola, Chevrolet and Ice Cube). If you've seen the film you know exactly what I'm talking about.

If you must know, the plot involves Owen Wilson as Chris Burnett, a Navy lieutenant running away from his Serbian foes. Gene Hackman is Admiral Reigart, the one trying to pick Burnett up and bring him back home. The trouble is, a peace treaty was recently signed between America and those chasing Burnett, so if Admiral Reigart dares and goes after him, his entire command is at stake. War is a complex subject, and a good war film should never be able to be summarized in three sentences. But this isn't a good war film, and I just did it, didn't I?

I probably don't need to tell you how unrealistic this whole affair is. Am I supposed to believe that with an entire section of the Serbian army on his tail, Burnett gets out completely unscathed? Are these guys really such bad shots that out of all of them, not one can even hit Burnett in the leg? With the carelessness Burnett shows, he's pretty damn lucky that Hollywood "magic" can pull him out of a jam whenever he needs. I say Burnett is careless, let me elaborate. If I were in his position, and had a chance to escape by blending in with the opponent, there is no way I would take off a ski mask that was concealing my identity (even if I did get rewarded by hearing that triumphant music in the background).

I am also sick of directors coming into Hollywood, placing a bunch of radical camera tricks in their film and thinking that makes them Orson Welles. POV, 360 degree rotation, Slow-Motion (one of the inventions the film world would be a better place without), lightning-quick montages, it's all here, and ALL the time. Director John Moore never gives it a rest. English should be a required course in film school so directors can forget about the lenses and the camera speeds for at least a minute and focus on the point they're trying to get across.

Owen Wilson and Gene Hackman do their worst in this film. Owen Wilson is a generally good actor who somehow lets all his acting skills go to waste and create a completely bland, stupid character. And Gene Hackman? It would be a huge understatement to call him a fantastic actor who's had some classic performances, but he is scraping the bottom of the barrel with this one. I can safely say that this is one of the worst performances of his fruitful career, and I am in shock that such a smart actor as him would choose such an empty project. However, Gene Hackman at his worst is better than Ben Affleck trying his hardest. The one reason "Behind Enemy Lines" is on a level slightly above dreck like "Pearl Harbor" is because it is graced with his presence.

"Behind Enemy Lines" is the kind of film built to suck in money, and maybe grab a few awards along the way. Unfortunately, this is becoming the norm for war movies these days, but trust me, people aren't being fooled. If you want a surge of post 9/11 patriotism or inspiration, save your nine bucks and rent something with real emotion like "Casablanca" or "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"; something that aims to do more than nab the top spot at the weekend box office.
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Amélie (2001)
8/10
A nice little film
11 January 2002
Rating: ***1/2 out of ****

What a fun film! From the moment it begins, "Amelie" bursts with joy and energy. It's a fable of sorts, a love letter to a Paris fondly dreamt of by many. It may not be the real world, but it is such a delightful fantasy that it doesn't matter how unbelievable some of it may be. "Amelie" is the rare romantic comedy that has both the romance and the comedy. It isn't very surprising that this has been a hit in France for a while now, and I have no doubt it will find the audience it needs in the States as well.

Amelie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) is a nave girl working at the Two Windmills Caf. When she was a child her mother and teacher was an innocent victim of a suicide gone awry. Amelie stayed with her father until she was old enough to leave and lead a life of her own. One day she finds a small box of treasures behind a tile in her wall, she decides to return it to her owner and become a natural do-gooder. Later on, she catches a man groping for lost photos under a photo booth (Nino Quincampoix, played by Mathieu Kassovitz), and it's love at first sight. She decides to go on a quest to find this man and help anyone she can along the way (including her father and co-workers).

I said before that this film was a love letter to Paris, it is also a love letter to Amelie herself. Jean-Pierre Jeunet (director and co-screenwriter) conjured the film like a dream, as if Amelie is his dream girl and he is trying to save her and bring her to a happy ending. It's not hard to want everything to work out for her and her friends. Amelie Poulain is the kind of person who you wish was your best friend, your neighbor or your sister. She bounces along with good grace and whimsy living life to its fullest, yet keeping a mischievous grin. She has her own idea of justice that isn't very disagreeable. The tormentors must in turn be tormented; the lifeless must be brought to life. The film is like a non-musical "Bells Are Ringing", with our heroine bringing so much life to those around her but neglecting her wants and needs.

After seeing Audrey Tautou as Amelie, I can't possibly imagine anyone else in that role. She embodies Amelie like no one else could, she is a rare find that pulls off the job of breathing life into Amelie in spades. Wait, I take that back. She does not just breathe life into Amelie, Tautou makes her jump off the screen and pull the audience into the story. It would be a crime for her not to get a Best Actress nomination for her role.

Magical is the world that Amelie lives in, where photos and lamps come alive to aid her quest, where TV shows are showing nothing but her story. The story this setting surrounds is pretty standard, and presented plainly could have just been another machine-processed romantic comedy. Is it too sappy? No. On the contrary, the film takes quite a few steps to make sure it doesn't become tacky or conventional. The rich, storybook setting and a witty screenplay (asides are taken to deepen our connection each character, little things that each likes and dislikes) make the film all the more a delight to watch. The cinematography, crafted by Bruno Delbonnel, does wonders for "Amelie". The camera captures the action with an eye of a child in a candy store, beautifully bringing about each shot as a new discovery.

With films like "The Widow of Saint-Pierre", "With a Friend Like Harry" and box-office hit "Brotherhood of the Wold", French cinema has had quite a year. It's a delight that we round off the year with "Amelie", a fresh, funny journey that could have easily just been more Meg Ryan-esque romantic comedy fodder. If not for anything else, see it for Tautou's performance, but prepare to be smothered in a dream world.
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Moulin Rouge! (2001)
4/10
Nausiatingly Overrated
7 January 2002
I know I'm going to get hate mail for this review. "Moulin Rouge" is just one of those movies. Everybody just adores it, and you're stuck there thinking "what?" Sure, I could see where everybody's coming from. Love story, good production values, pop songs, and all that jazz. But "Moulin Rouge" is a movie that is as easy to despise as it is to love.

The premise is simple. Take a whole bunch of pop music, plop it in the middle of a turn-of-the-century atmosphere and stick in a love story. Some would say such simple words wouldn't be enough to describe this film, but really, that's all it is. "Moulin Rouge" seems more like a reason for a soundtrack than a film.

Ewan McGregor is Christian, an aspiring poet traveling to France for inspiration. Little does he know, inspiration will without a doubt come his way soon, in the form of Satine (Nicole Kidman), a popular courtesan working in the Moulin Rouge. He instantly falls in love, but of course, he can't live happily ever after with her ("The only way of lovin' me, baby, is to pay a lovely fee!") And Satine has other plans for her future than spending it with Christian, and as her dreams to become an actress start to turn into reality, the greedy Duke of Monroth tries to bind her exclusively to him. So, take this, throw in "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Like A Virgin" and more, and what do you get? A ludicrous fiasco that's not even fun enough to be a sequel to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (yes, that IS a movie...)

For a while in the beginning, the film is a joy to watch. But this lasts only a few minutes, for as the story starts to develop, the film stops having fun with itself and begins to set up a serious, dramatic mood. That would work if this was any other movie. But in "Moulin Rouge", the utter ridiculousness of the placement of pop songs undermines anything notable. In the first scenes, I smiled when Christian randomly blurts out "The Sound of Music" and "All You Need is Love". Very quickly, however, I was getting tired of all the oo-la-la. By the time Zidler (Jim Broadbent) is singing "Like A Virgin", I was laughing at them, not with them. And don't even mention the ill-timed musical number set to "Roxanne".

I have to admit though, Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman certainly do have the pipes to carry out the job. They sing with passion (the same can't be said about a certain Mariah Carey) and truly bring out some spirit in the middle of all the chaos. It's too bad the film is such a pain, because they give performances worthy of recognition. The rest of the cast seems like they're having a good time, which does make the film slide along a little easier.

"Moulin Rouge" starts with an idea that something could be done with. However, director Baz Luhrmann sells-out completely, completely giving his movie up for commercial success. There is really little inspiration after the first shots, and the premise might be able to sustain for two hours if the way it was carried out wasn't so gag-inducing. Quick note to Mr. Luhrmann: it's a very bad sign when you're is laughing so hard during dramatic moments that at the end, your friend turns to you and suggests you leave "before the people in the back start shooting".
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