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Foreign Parts (II) (2010)
Unrelentingly awful
8 April 2011
This has to be one of the worst films ever made. How anyone can take it seriously is beyond me. The characters are completely uninteresting, there is absolutely no storyline, the hand-held is brutal on the eyes and stomach, the editing is practically nonexistent, the sound is bad, and a film that should have been 10 minutes long max rambles on for eight times that.

I have seen far better films from freshmen in film school with a $100 budget.

I am shocked that my local festival selected this film. Every person in the theater was shifting in their seats and sighing through the whole ordeal. Don't waste your money or your time.
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Control (2007)
26 March 2010
What I most enjoyed about this beautifully shot film were the ways it elevated the somewhat typical life of a rock star into a more classical realm. The choice of black and white lent the film an almost archetypal quality--showing a trajectory we have witnessed time and again throughout the history of music, yet pushing the viewer to watch in the way Antonioni's masterpieces do. Although Corbijn charts a somewhat well-hewn path, his background as a rock photographer shines through, rendering clear, sleek B&W that compels long gazing. While the film is wonderfully acted, I'm not sure the actors should have performed the musical material. Watch the actual Joy Division videos, included in the bonus section, and the difference, energetically, is salient (as are the strikingly different spirits of Sam Riley and Ian Curtis). Curtis had much more of a wispy softness; Riley appears more addled and robotic, as if he's trying to convince us that he's about to seize at any moment. He is not the soft, Bowie-loving poet. However, this aside, the film is well worth viewing for those who love rock and rock photography, even if they are not specifically Joy Division fans.
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Varda's brilliant autobiography
26 March 2010
Granted, I am a huge fan of Agnès Varda's work—and persona. I've seen most of her American releases, which are, unfortunately, far fewer than the 46 films she's directed. Sorry to report that even Netflix only stocks 8 of her films; my local video store and library system, not even 1.

Eighty-one-year-old Varda is, first and foremost, a poet who happens to be holding a video camera. And with this, her autobiography, she quickly brings us into the stream of consciousness of her brilliant mind, regaling us with both fantastic images, filmic experiments, and words rendered so quietly and sweetly that it belies their utter veracity. With the fluidity of a Russian ballerina, she weaves still photos, clips from her films, present- day documentary footage, and fictional re-creations.

A viewer with a familiarity of her oeuvre will obviously take away greater understanding and enjoyment of this recounting of her life and work. Yet, I believe it's accessible even for the uninitiated, as a tribute to an artist and iconoclast who sustains a strong vision and keen insight into life and art. And a great big heart.

" 'If we opened up people, we'd find landscapes.' If we opened up me, we'd find beaches," she begins, an apt conceit for the half-Greek filmmaker who has lived her life near the sea. And thus, in the film's opening shots, she constructs a web of mirrors propped on easels in the sand, reflecting the incoming waves. These are fancy, gilded, furniture mirrors, large and small, capturing both la plage and Varda's reflection as she begins the narrative of her childhood. In and of itself, it's a beautiful installation piece—greatly enhanced by the reflexive quality of a sea of cameras filming themselves.

Moments later, she sets up family photos on blades of grass in the sand. While discussing an image of herself and her sister in their bathing suits, two little girls appear in current time, wearing the same sorts of suits. "I don't know what it means to re-create a scene like this. Do we relive the moment?" Varda wonders. But her answer seems less about reconstructing the past (this is not a wistful film like Bergman's Wild Strawberries), but more about delight in her powers as a magician with a camera. "For me, it's cinema, it's a game," she says.

Some of the film's sweetest moments derive from shots of her family—her two children and late-husband, fellow New Wave auteur Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). She obviously has great affection for the "peaceful island," as she describes them. In one lovely scene, the extended family is dressed in white gauze, frolicking. "Together they're the sum of my happiness. But I don't know if I know them, or understand them. I just go toward them."

Varda employs an unusual technique of re-creating the major moments of her life/films while bringing her current self into the proceedings. In the age of social networking a la Facebook, with gambits toward entering the past as we simultaneously dwell in the present, this seems a very contemporary notion. With the gift of memory, we both do and don't inhabit all of the times of our life at once. As she states, "I live. And as long as I live, I remember."

One of La Varda's most lovable traits is how utterly herself she can be. Her 8-decade-old hair sports its trademark bowl cut, yet in some scenes is colored almost parfait-like (sans cerise) with white on top and deep red around the ends—gloriously unconventional, and wry. And indeed her sense of humor is continually present. She also has the good sense not to take herself completely seriously. After revisiting her early home in Brussels and discovering that it is now inhabited by an avid train enthusiast who prattles on about his collection, she concludes, "The 'childhood home' part was a flop."

In 55 years of making films, the director has clearly spent ample time pondering the art of her craft. As she notes, "I think I've always lived in it." This is obviously so, and without traditional tutelage. She claims to have made her directorial debut, La Pointe-Courte, after having taken in just 10 films in her first 25 years. This greatly flouted convention within French film-making of the time, in which training and credentials were paramount. Much of the film concerns images and the context of their creation— the process of birthing, what prompts images into being, the results of their existence, the ripple effects of the filmmaker's art, and the inextricable link between maker and film.

Although Varda includes reenactments in this walk backward, she also allows the viewer to be in on their making. It's as if she hopes to underscore the artifice and revels in the fact that we will knowingly suspend our disbelief anyway. In one scene, she sets up a production office atop sand dumped on a city street.

The movie's final scene reveals Varda's "shack," a studio she's recently built on the beach. The filmmaker-as-architect metaphor made real, its walls are constructed of strips of celluloid from a 1966 film in carefully chosen colors, bathed in light. The structure is fragile yet appears solid. This is a wondrous metaphor, one that seems to encapsulate the artist's spirit and life. "In here, it feels like I live in cinema," she notes.
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Tedious and morose
13 August 2006
Imagine a GILLIGAN'S ISLAND set in the African desert in modern times. Add people nowhere near as jaunty as the Skipper or Marianne--and enough angst to fill a German psychiatrist's office. Throw in a plot that manages to be interesting only episodically and literary parallelism that never delves deeply enough to truly satisfy. Season with a truly morose topic that's been exploited since the first world travelers found themselves very, very lost.

If THE KING IS ALIVE weren't a product of the reigning czars du jour of Dogme 95, would this film be garnering as much attention? Dogme 95 is to Hollywood as Danish modern is to rococo. A byproduct of digital technology, this Scandinavian movement seeks--quite dogmatically--to strip away artificiality in film-making, by using more natural elements and returning to the essence of storytelling. PEARL HARBOR, for instance, is the Dogme Antichrist.

Director/co-author Kristian Levring's saga ponders interpersonal relations and human nature when placed under the fire of a life-threatening situation. Eleven people aboard a bus riding through the Namibian sand dunes suddenly find themselves stranded in the remains of an abandoned town. An African local who does not speak their language serves as observer and narrator (whose insights are among the film's most trenchant). As the strongest heads off for a five-day walk to the nearest village, the others stay behind, surviving on dented-canned carrots and circumambulating their likely future as vulture chow. Former thespian Henry decides that this rather unappealing crew needs a diversion, and hand-writes KING LEAR from memory. He assigns roles, and the group passes many days learning lines and rehearsing, in an effort to divert their attention from the seemingly inevitable.

Gradually the cast begins to lose it, and the savageries of their nature—or, William Golding might say, human nature—begin to surface. If you've ever seen LORD OF THE FLIES, you know that these things can get ugly, that being in a lifeboat situation can turn even Mother Teresa into the PMSing termagant of Calcutta.

The film was shot using an international ensemble of American, English, French and South African actors, who, the Dogme dogma dictates, develop themselves and their roles quite organically. THE KING was also filmed chronologically, adding a sense of realism to the ever-increasing desperation of its characters. After up to three hand-held cameras shot in digital, results were transferred to 35mm film.

The performance that compels most comes from Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays a boho Pop Tart trying to bolster the spirits of the group in any and every way she can. Henry (David Bradley) is another finely played character, whose passion for his life's work ultimately saves the gang from utter despair. It's hard to feel too sorry for the others—cruel wives and their oafish husbands, hirsute old womanizers, sulky French intellectuals, wealthy men who have more important places to be than marooned in the Namibian desert. Beckett might hate this question, but why is this group riding a bus together through remote Africa in the first place? Life-threatening morbidity! Utter despair rendered in graphic detail! A relentlessly tedious pace! Enjoy.
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An amazing, inspiring documentary
10 November 2004
Anyone who can view this film and not be moved clearly has no heart--or some other agenda I can't begin to imagine. Far from "well-meaning twaddle," The Friendship Village is an incredibly inspiring film about one man's hellacious experience as a Vietnam vet who then found it within himself to go back and establish a treatment center for victims of Agent Orange ALONG WITH THE VERY VIETNAMESE GENERAL WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DEATH OF HIS ENTIRE PLATOON. The film was intended not as, god forbid, a fundraising device, but as a tribute to a man who suffered extraordinary pain due to Agent Orange exposure and nevertheless did a heroic deed: bringing together US vets and Vietnamese children for healing on both sides. (And yeah, the guy, who was almost dead when the film was made, is a bit monotone--believe it or not, this isn't a Hollywood flick, and he's not Ben Affleck. Unlike Affleck, however, this man might just have a soul. Which will be apparent to most viewers of any sensitivity.)

This is a film everyone ought to see, especially the man who gave the orders for our current Iraqi debacle. It shows very clearly how, again and again, we go to war with other countries and completely disregard what the effects will be on the people who live there for generations to come--all in the name of personal fortunes and war profiteering.

See this film. It is an important document of the peace movement, and accomplishes what it set out to do extremely masterfully.

And by the way, I am an independent film critic, entirely unaffiliated with the film or its makers.
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A TV Movie-Quality Film, As Predictable As They Come
22 May 2003
THIS film racked up a 7.3? No way, IMDB voters! The film is a mess from start to finish. Baio and his female co-star's supposedly "passionate" acting are wooden, cold, and utterly unmoving--as if they'd lose their salaries if they displayed a true emotion. The cinematography is worse than film school quality, with chopped heads and too-close closeups in full abundance. "Bread" (stupid title, BTW) is grossly manipulative, tugging as hard as a 2-year-old on your heartstrings. Yet for all its designs on making me cry, I didn't come anywhere near it, and only derived one mild chuckle out of the whole supposed-to-be-amusing affair. The characters are incredibly stereotyped Italian-Americans, complete with speeches about the "Old Country,"--a cheap ripoff of Moonstruck or any other ethnic comedy you've seen lately. The gruff Italian male with the heart of gold, his doting wife who has an intuitive understanding of life sputtered through broken English, the iconoclastic daughter "who don't need no husband" and is whispered to be--gasp!--bisexual. And the guy who is a baker--gee, could we borrow from Nic Cage's role in Moonstruck any more?

Save your money--$7.50 will buy you plenty of biscotti and Gallo burgundy for an evening at home. Movies made with this degree of stereotype and cliche deserve to be boycotted.
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Together (2000)
Appealing & very human
15 July 2002
If you've ever suspected that Pippi Longstocking was a capitalist pig, Lukas Moodysson's film is for you. Set in Stockholm in 1975, this revisiting of those not so halcyon good ol' days brings us up close and extremely personal with a cast of appealing characters living close to their ideals while remaining quite human. Apparently communal life isn't all vegan dinners, late-night Marxist dialectics, and Joni Mitchell singalongs-even in Sweden. The film beautifully records the residents' foibles through the eyes of their children, who serve as the group's conscience. A disturbing, funny, moving and ultimately upbeat look at the utopia we all hoped could exist.
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The Cockettes (2002)
Ab Fab!!
18 June 2002
Warning: Spoilers
Three years of obviously hard (but undoubtedly fun!) work went into The Cockettes--and the results are as charming and uplifting as they come. While certainly a dream project given the raw material, the directors went far beyond merely letting the vintage footage speak for itself. I defy anyone to walk out of the theater not feeling a strong sense of joie de vivre (along with a keen desire for some windowpane, perhaps?). An uplifting (for the most part), frequently hilarious reminiscence that doesn't camp out in nostalgia-ville, this is a must-see for anyone who's been a drag queen or hippie, been raised by drag queens or hippies, or just plain adores drag queens and hippies--and creative, exuberant '60s-style, acid-tripped-out theater. Watching a skit like "Tricia's Wedding," an ever-so-fabulous version of that staid Nixon family affair, it's a great reminder that even in an age of Republican despoilers, it's possible for a huge reservoir of creative juice to be oozing around under the surface. GO! See! Enjoy! Take yourself out of reality-based reality for 100 whole minutes!
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Good, but nowhere near as good as In the Bedroom
28 April 2002
This is certainly a well-made film, but it lacks the interest, focus, acting (and surprise ending) of In the Bedroom. The characters are vaguely appealing, but very little in the way of character development happens after the family loses their son. I found myself checking my watch frequently because the pace is so slow (and I generally LIKE slow paces). It didn't seem like there was much point to the whole drama, except to show the details and grief around losing a loved one. That's fine, but I wanted more, some sort of transcendence. I almost felt like the film had been written during a grieving process, not after the whole thing had been digested. I would certainly NOT recommend it to anyone currently in grief, however. It would be torturous to watch.
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Emotionally chilly though remarkably affecting
12 August 2001
This engaging film explores the dance of synchronicity, the role of fate in the lives of two people otherwise unlikely to cross paths.

Sheltered, compassionate Sissi (Franka Potente) is an adored nurse in the same mental institution in which she was born to clinically insane parents. Somewhere across town, walking time-bomb Bodo (Benno Fürmann) dwells in his own private institution, as a petty crook who channels his grief and rage into planning a bank heist with his brother, Walter (Joachim Kröl). While Sissi embraces the receptive, intuitive, classically feminine pole as a vision of innocence in love, former soldier Bodo holds up the more active male principle, and the embitterment experience can bring. Both characters are a little `off,' begging the film's question of what defines madness.

On her way to claim an inheritance at a bank--the very bank Bodo's targeted to rob-Sissy is hit by a truck. When Bodo discovers her gasping for breath, he performs the most nausea-inducing tracheotomy ever filmed, saves her life, then promptly disappears.

Sissi, however, cannot lose the thought of him, and her dreams cast them as brother/sister, mother/father, and husband/wife. The nurse doggedly pursues the happiness her savior represents, and despite his furious rebuffs, their lives increasingly entwine.

Both people are wounded; both resist love in their own ways. Neither believes in happiness, though Sissi's near-death experience has fired her incentive to seek it, while Bodo remains wallowing in the past. Indeed, Bodo is so overwrought with grief that he even tears up at strangers' funerals-`a genetic glandular problem,' he calls it.

In his fourth film, young German writer/director Tom Tykwer custom-tailored Sissi's role to his Lola, actress Franka Potente. In fact, many of the cast/crew are RUN LOLA RUN retreads. Here again Tykwer is fascinated by the hand of fate, by what could happen in life if even a small detail were modified. The languidly paced PRINCESS contains none of LOLA's hyperactivity, though it can be a similarly cold fish.

Benno Fürmann might just be the Teutonic Brad Pitt, though more intense and less pretty. In fact, this movie reminded me a bit of FIGHT CLUB (crossed, perhaps, with AMORES PERROS in the intersecting-lives department). It recalls FIGHT CLUB's edginess, themes of loss and salvation, simmering rage, and doppelgänger motif. Fürmann's is a great performance-though I can't think of any that aren't.

He acts to the tune of an intelligent, unpredictable screenplay, which skillfully evokes how anger derived of grief looks, feels and smells. All of these characters have dimension and depth, and the leisurely pacing allows us to get to know them slowly, instead of having them defined at the outset in 30-second soundbytes. Beautiful, dreamlike imagery and thoughtful cinematography clinch the deal.

Given who these people are and their individual development, the ending seems right intellectually--yet something about it left me unsatisfied. My brain applauded Sissi and Bodo's ability to transcend their pasts. But I still craved more emotion from this wintry-though still remarkably affecting-film.
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Swordfish (2001)
Piscatorial Pulp Fiction
11 June 2001
Warning: Spoilers

Why do films like this get made in the first place? my female companion and I wondered as the credits rolled. We walked out of the theater suspecting that a boiled slab of sole and a carrot stick would have given us more sustenance than this half-baked action-adventure flick. But an $18.4 million feeding frenzy on opening weekend proves that many Americans flock to the movies to watch cars go crash, guns go pop, glass go smash, and John Travolta go ballistic while sporting a wildly unflattering hairdo and regrettable chin-striping.

[contains spoiler]Travolta's Gabriel Shear is not a nice man. A self-styled patriot cut from the same fanatic's cloth as Timothy McVeigh, he believes that the best way to dissuade anti-American terrorism is to scare the s**t out of would-be perpetrators with his ruthless acts. Considered the world's most dangerous spy, Gabriel `exists in a world beyond your world,' acting as a `driven, unflinching, calculating machine.' Sense a little pulp fiction ahead?

To `ensure the American way of life,' Gabriel hopes to persuade one of the planet's greatest hackers, Stan Jobson, to program a worm into a government system. To bait the hook, he recruits his comely partner, Ginger (Halle Berry), whose role is basically to keep us from having to watch Travolta kiss Stan on the mouth or lay around with his breasts exposed in various skimpy outfits.

But the hacker-savant has his own sordid past, having recently been released from Leavenworth for breaking into FBI cyber-surveillance operations. The now-penniless trailer park Texan is trying to keep his nose clean, though the prospect of $10 million and the chance to spend time with his off-limits daughter, Holly (and Halle), turns his head. Believing that Gabriel is in it for the $9.5 billion payoff, Stan has no clue he's engineering anything more than a high-tech bank heist.

As for Gabriel, he's a `patriot,' not a two-bit bank robber. The moolah he targets is part of a DEA laundering scheme, and therefore tainted to begin with, so why not put it to noble use as a slush fund for his terrorism?

From this premise, you can probably extrapolate that the film contains many scenes of explosive violence, vehicular mayhem, machine-gun volley, and buses sashaying through the air.

I won't launch into my tirade about how violence desensitizes us to our humanity, or rant about the lack of redeeming social value here. If you're going to a film like this, you're clearly not looking for much more than a Hummer giving new meaning to the words `drive-up window.' But despite my biases, I still assert that this overblown fish story doesn't even do what it does all that well. Suspense is minimal, character definition happens solely in the press materials, and the few female roles are both terribly written and sadly acted. Halle Berry has been cast solely for her physical attributes (surprise!), while young Holly is such an ACOA stereotype that her cell-phoned cries for help are hard to watch.

The main reason to go see this film is actually Travolta, who brings his usual charisma to a part that is largely one-dimensional, fleshing it out in a way that few could. Besides, there's that PULP FICTION redux hairdo, and his soul patch - something your eyes will be drawn to again and again. Wish I could say the same for the film.
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Jesus' Son (1999)
a very realistic film about addiction
4 May 2001
This is one of the most realistic depictions of drug/alcohol addiction I've ever seen on film. And Billy Crudup's performance is simply remarkable. (I'm shocked that only Paris Film Fest. recognized his acting job here.) The film goes a long way in illuminating what addiction looks and feels like, right down to what people say when they're high and how they say it. The characters are so real, the acting is fantastic, and it all just rings completely TRUE. It's also a fun trip back to the early '70s. Jack Black is his usual hysterical self, and Holly Hunter turns in a compelling performance in a part that strays somewhat from her usual role. Definitely worth seeing.
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another thought-provoking, humanistic beauty from Agnes Varda
1 May 2001
You may remember director Agnès Varda from her 1986 film, VAGABOND. But over the last five decades, the `grandmother of French New Wave' has completed 29 other works, most showing her affection, bemusement, outrage, and wide-ranging curiosity for humanity.

Varda's most recent effort-the first filmed with a digital videocamera-focuses on gleaners, those who gather the spoils left after a harvest, as well as those who mine the trash. Some completely exist on the leavings; others turn them into art, exercise their ethics, or simply have fun. The director likens gleaning to her own profession-that of collecting images, stories, fragments of sound, light, and color.

In this hybrid of documentary and reflection, Varda raises a number of philosophical questions. Has the bottom line replaced our concern with others' well-being, even on the most essential level of food? What happens to those who opt out of our consumerist society? And even, What constitutes--or reconstitutes--art?

Along this road trip, she interviews plenty of French characters. We meet a man who has survived almost completely on trash for 15 years. Though he has a job and other trappings, for him it is `a matter of ethics.' Another, who holds a master's degree in biology, sells newspapers and lives in a homeless shelter, scavenges food from market, and spends his nights teaching African immigrants to read and write.

Varda is an old hippie, and her sympathies clearly lie with such characters who choose to live off the grid. She takes our frenetically consuming society to task and suggests that learning how to live more simply is vital to our survival.

At times we can almost visualize her clucking and wagging her finger-a tad heavy-handedly advancing her agenda. However, the sheer waste of 25 tons of food at a clip is legitimately something to cluck about. And it is her very willingness to make direct statements and NOT sit on the fence that Varda fans most enjoy, knowing that her indignation is deeply rooted in her love of humanity.

The director interjects her playful humor as well-though it's subtle, French humor that differs widely from that of, say, Tom Green. Take the judge in full robes who stands in a cabbage field citing the legality of gleaning chapter and verse.

Quirky and exuberant, Varda, 72, is at an age where she's more concerned with having fun with her craft than impressing anyone. With her handheld digital toy, she pans around her house and pauses to appreciate a patch of ceiling mold. When she later forgets to turn off her camera, she films `the dance of the lens cap.'

One of the picture's undercurrents is the cycle of life-growth, harvest, decay. She often films her wrinkled hands and speaks directly about her aging process, suggesting that her own mortality is much on her mind. The gleaners pluck the fruits before their decay, as Varda lives life to the fullest, defying the inevitability of death. Toward the movie's end, she salvages a Lucite clock with no hands. As she films her face passing behind it, she notes, `A clock with no hands is my kind of thing.'

If you'd be the first to grab a heart-shaped potato from the harvest, or make a pile of discarded dolls into a totem pole, THE GLEANERS is probably your kind of thing.
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a film about how creativity can flourish under oppression-well worth seeing
1 May 2001
Warning: Spoilers
A friend and I were recently discussing how the urge to create often burns more fiercely when it has been suppressed. Such is the theme of Before Night Falls, the biography of Cuban novelist/poet Reinaldo Arenas, whose life illustrates how creativity can flourish even under oppression, and what freedom truly means.

Born in an extremely poor province in 1943, Arenas nevertheless revels in the natural beauty that surrounds him. `The splendor of my childhood was unique because of its absolute poverty and absolute freedom,' he later noted. Clearly a born poet, the boy expresses himself by carving words into the family's trees, much to his grandfather's furor.

When he's 15, Arenas' family moves to Holguin, where the romance of Castro's rebel troops and their attempts to overthrow Batista inspire him to leave home and join the insurrection. Four years later he's acclimating to big city life in Havana and enjoying a job at the prestigious National Library that Communism has awarded him. But alongside Castro's revolution, a concurrent sexual revolution is brewing, and Arenas begins to embrace his homosexuality. He plunges himself into his writing, develops a circle of poets and lovers, and at age 20, writes the first of nine novels, the only one published in his homeland.

By the late 60s, Castro's jackals begin to send artists and homosexuals to concentration camps and suppress their work. Despite the lingering threat, Arenas continues to write outspokenly, and when his second book is censored, he enrages Castro by smuggling it to France for publication.

[plot spoiler?] We watch with horror as this brutal regime harasses, imprisons, and ultimately exiles Arenas to America for having `weak, nonrevolutionary (i.e., homosexual) genes.' He has dared to express beauty, and beauty, as a mentor notes, is the enemy of any dictatorship.

But Arenas' spirit is such that even in a medieval-style prison chamber, amidst the screams and cries, he finds that he has never written so much. He composes letters for the inmates, and when they reward him with cigarettes, he uses the rolling paper to pen his third novel, Before Night Falls.

Director/painter Julian Schnabel (BASQUIAT) has given us a film of many strengths, including the juxtaposition of the fertile natural world against Arenas' suffering at the hands of sadistic oppressors. The film opens with a pan through the treetops, sensually caresses the ocean tides, and when Arenas finally makes it to New York, rewards him with a magnificent baptism of snow falling gently on his face.

It's hard to play a writer. Most of us eschew Stallone-style emoting, and much of our work plays out in our heads and on the page--not the stuff of box office. But Spanish actor Javier Bardem delivers a phenomenal performance as Arenas, infusing him with depth, will and supreme sensitivity. And if you've yearned to see Sean Penn as a Cuban peasant and Johnny Depp in drag (called `Bon-Bon,' no less), here's your golden opportunity.

My wish list for this film would include a more understandable narrator and fewer unexplained incidents. This is another biopic that requires background reading to fully understand what's going on, especially after Arenas arrives in New York. I also would have loved hearing more of Arenas' voice. In the film's most successful passages, the narradore reads from his work, lines like `My grandmother was the only woman I've ever known who could pee standing up and talk to God at the same time.'

But all told, this memorable, `triumph of the human spirit' film, pulsing with Cubanismo, is well worth witnessing.
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Amores Perros (2000)
What's the big deal?
1 May 2001
Will someone please tell me what all the fuss is about? If the presence of gore is the gauge of cinematic skill, then yes, AMORES PERROS is a masterpiece. But surely one first-time director's fascination with maimed dogs and Mexicanismo does not a 21st-century film template make. Granted, it's a somewhat cleverly crafted story, but this blood-guts-passion trip through Mexico City fails to make any real point or leave the audience with much to ponder. (Though I did find myself contemplating how they managed to locate all those dead-dog body doubles for the live dogs...)

AMORES PERROS, which the film translates as "Love is a Bitch," might be better rendered "Love is Like a Dog," or "Some of These People Actually LOVE Dogs," or "If You Love Your Dog, Don't See This Movie." It opens with a truly gruesome car crash in which blood and guts swirl around liberally. If you happen to walk in late, never fear: the scene will replay twice more. With this event as the anchor, the film flashes back and forward on the lives directly and tangentially involved--what led up to this bloody wreck and how it affects all concerned.

Driving the offending vehicle is Octavio (Gael García Bernal), brother of the abusive Ramiro (Marco Pérez) and lover-in-waiting of his wife, Susana (Vanessa Bauche). Octavio's role is basically to hang around the house panting at his sister-in-law, until he decides to make money by entering Ramiro's vicious mastiff in dog fights. The car he's slammed into conveys supermodel Valeria (Goya Toledo), whose successful career ends on impact. She is mistress to Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero), who's gone middle-age crazy and separated from his wife to live with Valeria 24/7. The supermodel's true love, however, is her moplike Lhasa apso, Richie.

The triptych's third panel focuses on El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), a former revolutionary. Imprisoned while his daughter was born, he has never met her, though he's remained obsessed with images of her for more than 20 years. He moons over her while alternately practicing his assassination skills and living with his own pack of canines.

AMORES PERROS is the debut film of director Alejandro González Inárritu, a Mexican DJ who's apparently seen PULP FICTION a few times. While it doesn't slavishly imitate Tarantino, it noticeably cops a few of his moves. Like a bad case of coffee nerves, the film functions best at high velocity and on razor's edge. There's plenty of speeded-up action, trick cuts, and always the threat of imminent gore. With many scenes rife with tension, AMORES often strays into telenovela territory, though it's tough to tell if the melodrama is intentional.

Yet, strangely enough, after all this adrenaline puts us on red alert, we are thrust into an extremely tedious middle portion, in which Valeria's dog gets trapped beneath floorboards and the hapless couple can't reckon how to retrieve him. Richie whines night after night, Valeria whines night after night, fights ensue, she stages a minirevolt from her wheelchair--and we're left with a yawning, "And your point is...."

Is love a bitch? Sure. Do people treat their loves like dogs? Sometimes. Is this a rich metaphor that bears 2 1/2 hours of graphically violent exploration? Not really. Does this represent, as raves the NEW YORK TIMES, "the first classic of the new decade"? I'd hate to think so.
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Dark Days (2000)
fascinating film with a remarkable story behind it
1 May 2001
It's nigh-impossible not to be moved by Marc Singer's remarkable first film, about a community of homeless people living in a train tunnel beneath Manhattan. What's even more inspiring is how the film got made. Then-20-year-old Singer, who'd never before run a camera, lived underground with his subjects, recruited them as crew, convinced local merchants to donate equipment and even sold his own bed to buy film. His original goal in making the film was to fund its denizens' move out of the tunnel. The result is a fascinating slice of a part of life most of us have never considered. The characters are gritty, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic and always very real. Dark Days takes homelessness out of the realm of sociological phenomenon and into an almost-visceral engagement with these people and their lives. We look in as the characters decorate their scrap-metal shacks with discarded material, earn their livings, emotionally support each other and ultimately struggle with their homes' demise. Though clearly Singer roots for his subjects, he avoids the temptation to pity them; he simply calls it as he sees it - and has lived it. There's even a happy ending.
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Hollywood does it again
1 May 2001
Before I took a job as a reviewer, I never went to films like this, and thus remained blissfully unaware that at the soul of the Hollywood film lies a deeply woman-hating spirit that thrives on putting its knocking little knees on the silver screen for all to either empathize with or revile. Or is this just a particularly bad year? An ugly trend?

Here we have yet another seemingly sweet, innocent, beautiful woman turned lethal weapon. The kind that cautions us that beneath every pair of batting eyes and nesting instincts lies a wild-eyed beast guaranteed to make everyone's life within 50 miles a living hell.

This month's specimen is Jewel Valentine's (Liv Tyler), whose simple dreams include having her own little house, a backyard fountain, and a mondo home entertainment system. Unfortunately, Randy (Matt Dillon, in his first film in 3 years), the dim-bulb bartender she picks up at McCool's one night intending to rob, is less materially oriented. The kind of guy who drinks beer out of a toilet plunger, he prefers to hunker down in his dead mother's house with few creature comforts save his snowglobe collection.

In that same low-rent bar, the Devil in the Red Dress also bumps into Randy's cousin, Carl (the highly amusing Paul Reiser), a lawyer with an ego the size of St. Louis. When things go south within hours, enter the widowed detective with a heart of gold (John Goodman). The result? Three men sustain big, bad crushes on the leopard-clad progeny of Steven Tyler and Bebe Buell-crushes that make them do things that common sense would normally contraindicate. Like get involved in the first place.

Multiple points of view and flashbacks patch together the front-page news about how easy it is to fall victim to one's libido, especially if you're male. As each of these men relates his perspective to a confidant, his desire to possess The Jewel colors the `truth' of the situation. About 70 minutes later, things come together in a reasonably amusing way. But it's amusement from the same source that tells you that the stuff on the popcorn actually tastes like butter.

MCCOOL'S is the first film by Norwegian commercial and music-video director Harald Zwart, and his pedigree is clear during some of the fantasy segments, including one about a car wash, soap and a hose that you can probably extrapolate. It's also the debut project from the production company owned by Michael Douglas, who's found his niche as a toupeed sleezeball in a bingo parlor.

Dillon and Tyler are unlikely to win any gold statues for this one, though given the one-dimensionality of their overdone film noir-type characters, you can't really fault them. Several minor roles drag out unexpected guests--Reba McEntire plays Carl's psychiatrist, and Andrew Dice Clay doubles as both the hoodlum Utah and his even-scarier brother. (Finally, an outlet for all that aggression.)

This film unwittingly speaks volumes about the dynamics between men and women--or men and their mommies. But ultimately you'd probably find more lasting psychological truths in a Bugs Bunny episode. I will say that it's better, funnier, more sophisticated than other recent gems like TOMCATS, but should we really have to choose what to see based on what ranks lowest on the misogynism scale?
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the perfect film for a dark & stormy night
1 May 2001
THE WIDOW OF ST.-PIERRE may not be a great film, but amidst a crop of mediocre current releases, it's a fine effort that boasts a hardworking cast, awesome costumes and sets, terrific cinematography and excellent direction. For those unlikely to stay in and read MOBY DICK, the combination of austere location, mid-19th-century maritime theme, and the Reaper looming o'er the ocean tides offers a satisfying divertissement on a cloudy Sunday afternoon.

Based on actual court records, the plot begins after a Parisian military captain, Jean (Daniel Auteuil), and his new wife, Madame La (Juliette Binoche), arrive on an isolated French isle off the coast of Newfoundland, where widows outnumber balmy days 50 to 1. One night, two blind-drunk men brutally knife a man to find out if he's `fat or just big.' The court sentences instigator Neel Auguste (Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica) to death by guillotine, `the widow,' in French parlance. But the remote fishing island does not possess the instrument of destruction that its French rulers dictate and must obtain a loaner from Martinique. While awaiting its arrival, the government locks Neel in a dark cell and entrusts him to the care of the Captain and Madame La.

An MSW waiting to happen, Madame has a weakness for `desperate cases.' She asks Neel to build her a greenhouse and tend her plants, a challenging request in this hardscrabble environment. As the Parisian belle negotiates her homesickness and the austerity of her surroundings by cultivating her garden, Neel confronts his own banishment from society and cultivates his compassion. This is one of several lovely parallelisms director Patrice Leconte teases out.

The sexual tension between Madame and Neel, though enacted subtly, is nevertheless palpable. During a reading lesson, their fingers brush while scanning a page. As Neel scarfs down her soup in a mildly bestial manner, she looks on lovingly. And when he asks her why she so nurtures him, she replies, `We change, whatever we do. I am sure of that.'

Meanwhile, the fisherfolks' tongues are wagging-ever cautioning Madame's loving husband about the duo's blossoming relationship. The Captain, however, venerates his wife's `humanism' and trusts her enough not to interfere. He is another wonderful character, both strong and sensitive, passionate in his love of his wife, unwilling to back down in his defense of their collective ideals.

Both Binoche and Kusturica prove more than equal to their roles. Binoche imbues her character with much more depth than that of Vianne in CHOCOLAT. With her limpid brown eyes and achingly empathic face, she elevates this personage to the level of classic tragic heroine. Kusturica, given a part that begs overacting, never wrings out our emotions, yet shows he possesses true remorse for his actions and a heart kinder still than that of his benefactors.

Most memorable is the set. Shot in Nova Scotia and Quebec, the film uses clapboard and stone buildings, often snow-salted, as an apt metaphor for the government's rigidity in refusing to commute Neel's sentence, despite his overwhelming popularity in the village as a doer of good deeds. Clearly the film excoriates capital punishment, with such dialogue as Madame's fervent cry, `They aren't punishing the same man they sentenced!'

This widow's walk proceeds at a leisurely pace, perhaps a mite too slowly for 21st-century attention spans. But overall, if you like a good, dark tragedy, pick a dreary night and go.
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Pollock (2000)
hated it!
1 May 2001
Objectively speaking, POLLOCK is not a bad film. Subjectively speaking, I hated it from the very beginning and couldn't wait for it to end. Throughout, it seems infused with the vitriolic spirit of Jackson Pollock, Stereotypical Alcoholic Artist, creating a work that is rock-hard to warm to.

Not only is it tough to watch the sullen, surly, self-aggrandizing character played by actor-director Ed Harris, but his pushy, utterly codependent wife, Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), is another stomach-turner. `Get your own damn career and stop freeloading off his!' I found myself yelling at the screen. Put these two together and you've got the film's main focalpoint: a blatantly parasitic relationship that monotonously circles the same track, with her lowering her vast black New Yorker eyebrows in scorn and him skulking around with the loquaciousness of a two-toed sloth. Don't these characters ever get to do anything but hype his `genius,' carp and stew-for reasons we're never privy to?

Set between 1941 and Pollock's 1956 death, the film both tells too little and tells too much. It presumes knowledge of the artist's career and biography that the uninitiated don't necessarily have. For instance, several times Pollock cops a faraway look that apparently means something to cognoscenti, like, `I can see him composing I'M A DRIP #7 in his head right now.' But the gauzy gazes are never explained, and the audience strains to psych out a character who is so malicious, self-absorbed and boring that it's not worth the effort.

On the other hand, screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller struggle to provide historical details about Pollock's shows, business dealings, interviews, etc., making the film stilted in places. They also have an unfortunate need to plug in famous quotes: `I am nature,' `I'm the only painter worth looking at in America,' etc. Using such gack-worthy lines in service of character development is a cheap form of shorthand. I guarantee we could've extrapolated that Lee thought Jack's new splatter style impressive without having her deadpan, `You've done it, Pollock. You've cracked it wide open.'

WHAT got cracked open is never revealed. There's nary a whisper of his being the first abstract expressionist, nor a mention of the designation Action Painters (though we do get to watch them guzzle beer together). The film never shares that The Dripper was fascinated with Navajo sandpaintings or the subconscious or anything else, facts that might have imbued him with some intelligence and dimension besides his supposed Neanderthal charm.

Characters fall out of the sky without any explanation of who they are or what their import. Clement Greenberg is just `Clem,'--as their farmhand might be `ol' Zeke'-forget that he was one of the era's foremost art critics. When Krasner and her bangs first appear, we have no idea if she's a critic or a painter or just some gal cruising the Village for a drunk to pop.

The film also jettisons the talents of several supporting actors. As Pollock's mom, Sada Thompson has sorely little to say, left to express herself with the kind of glares she used to give Buddy on FAMILY, but for reasons that are, again, never explained. Bud Cort, of HAROLD AND MAUDE fame, is a terrific surprise-but in the meagerest role on earth. And Val Kilmer's bleached-out Willem de Kooning looks as if all the sunlamps and hash bars have completely overtaken him.

Stay home and read Pollock's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, or tip a few (paint) cans of your own.
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Ratcatcher (1999)
1 May 2001
Warning: Spoilers
While watching this fascinating coming-of-age drama set in urban Scotland during the mid-'70s, you can't help but flash on BILLY ELLIOT. But despite many shared parallels, RATCATCHER is much less a feel-good, you-go-boy movie, more an extremely sensitive, sometimes brutally realistic portrayal of a lad with a secret and how he ultimately comes to terms with it. It's a deeper, more emotionally complex film, blessed with a languid tempo and a plethora of symbolic images sure to inspire rumination for weeks to come.

Twelve-year-old James (William Eadie) is living in a Glasgow slum during a months-long garbage strike. The rats are the only ones faring well during this bleak summer, captured in a dark documentary style in which the camera lingers long on surfaces, expressions, symbols. James' Da (Tommy Flanagan) is an unemployed alcoholic whose only use for his son is to fetch beer; his Ma (Mandy Matthews) is the resigned Al-Anon who loves her family but is hamstrung by her hardscrabble existence. The kids play, vent their anger, and even eat lunch in the stinking rubbish heaps.

[plot spoiler] One day while James swims with his friend Ryan in the canal, they play too rough and the boy drowns. As James battles his guilt, we watch the trash bags pile up, the vermin proliferate, and the boy become keenly aligned with the bleakness of his surroundings. We witness all the usual cruelty of childhood-the taunts, bullying, put-downs-but seen through this guilt-wracked boy's eyes, they become almost as unbearable as his growing alienation from himself and his family. Accents are brick thick, but the film thoughtfully provides English subtitles so you can differentiate `p**s off' from `w**k off' from `fook off.'

But even in this wretched environment, small bits of love do surface, breaking ground like flowers through cement walkways. James meets the awkwardly flirtatious Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), another sensitive soul, who seeks the local boys' approval by gang-banging them. The pair bond around their respective wounds, and while bubble-bathing with Margaret, James laughs for the only time during the film.

The boy also forms a tentative bond with innocent Kenny (John Miller), dubbed `the wee spastic b***ard' by the other kids because of his extreme love of animals, speech impediment, and some general squirliness that's hard to diagnose. He may be the village naif, but he ultimately discerns the truth of James' situation-and James the truth of his-and both confront each other in ways that allow them to accept reality. Kenny launches the film's most amazing image: a white mouse tied to a moon-bound helium balloon.

James becomes keenly aware of the squalor he lives in as he watches his `half-cut' father, drunk to drooling, slur `I love you' to Ma while Tom Jones rocks the Beeb. But his redemption dream comes in the guise of a new house that a city agency has promised the family. In several beautifully transcendent scenes, James rides the bus to the end of the line, where a spate of such new homes are under construction. He tumbles through the big open field before them, takes a whiz in a brand-new toilet, and absorbed in revelry, kicks a can all the way home.

Driven purely by images and emotional content, RATCATCHER is an auspicious debut by Glaswegian writer/director Lynne Ramsay, whose sensitive eye reminds us how truly excruciating childhood's tortures can be. It's a thoroughly outstanding production, from Rachel Portman's minimalist score to the wonderfully slow pacing to memorable performances by a cast of mostly newcomers.

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worth a look, especially for Deneuve fans, thriller lovers
1 May 2001
Warning: Spoilers
To truly appreciate this film, you may either have to be French, a mystery lover or a diamond connoisseur, three things I am not. That said, the shadowy, film noir Place Vendôme, set in Paris' haute couture jewelry district, is a relatively well-crafted third film by French writer-director Nicole Garcia.

While I'm also not a huge Catherine Deneuve fan, the 57-year-old famed beauty steals the show in a performance that won her the 1998 Venice Film Festival's Best Actress award. It's a challenging, multifaceted role that she plays with due restraint, making it less maudlin and emotionally charged than it easily could have become.

Deneuve is Marianne, wife of Vincent Malivert (Bernard Fresson, with whom she starred in Buñuel's 1967 film Belle de Jour), owner of one of the most prestigious jewelry shops in the world. Once a gem broker herself, the middle-aged Marianne has fallen into an alcoholic stupor. Her relationship with Vincent is cold and hollow; she has slept at home only 17 nights in the past year, preferring instead to convalesce at various `rest homes.'

Vincent is also a troubled person. He hides the extent of his misery and the fact that his debt-ridden business is quickly going bankrupt. (plot spoiler?) When he intentionally drives his speeding Mercedes into a lumber truck, his desperation is revealed.

Garcia spends the bulk of the picture depicting Marianne's process of recovering from her addiction. Faced with relative penury in the wake of her husband's death, she relearns the art of the diamond deal as she tries to sell a handful of probably stolen gems Vincent has left her. Her turning point comes when she gazes at the stones through a loupe and revels in their inherent beauty. This in stark contrast to the rest of the cast, sundry thugs and swarthy millionaires who view the rocks as nothing more than money in the bank. In fact, one could argue that all concerned are addicts, addicted to their work and financial gain, and suitably jacked up, ruthless and miserable.

This, for me, is the film's most absorbing storyline, Marianne's renaissance and her rapprochement with actions and people from the past. Specifically, after a 20-year hiatus she reconnects with a former lover, the Russian mafia-connected Battisstelli (Jacques Dutronc in a fascinating performance), who had once sorely burned her during a jewelry sale. It's a moving moment, when she finds herself able to let go of her anger toward him, and both characters connect with their fundamental humanity. But again, it's a very subtle strand that Garcia only begins to caress near the film's end. Had she moved such human plotlines to the foreground, the film would have emerged much stronger and more poignant.

But I suppose it's unfair to expect a French film to depict Marianne's reawakening in the hat-tossing style of Mary Tyler Moore. After all, the French did coin the word anomie. Still, I wish the main character's development had become less buried in the film's insistence on utter subtlety and dreariness. I suppose the dark interior shots and seemingly unending rainy days could feel atmospheric if your antidepressant is working particularly well, but mostly they just seemed morose. That aside, Laurent Dailland's cinematography frequently stands out. I still haven't forgotten a wide-angle shot of vertical blinds in a boardroom, nor the splashes of crimson - symbolizing Marianne's suppressed then emerging passion - laced throughout the drear.

The film incorporates many classic noir-ish elements - that is, noir of the 1940s rather than the excessive, violence-parading Quentin Tarrantino variety. In the intrigue over the stolen gems, shadowy figures emerge from the woodwork. Tall, svelte beauties reveal themselves as jewelry sellers, then mistresses, then accomplices in crime. Remnants from the past, seemingly long disposed of, come back to haunt the players in nefarious ways. Truth is stark, brutal and straight, no chaser. And yet the surfaces remain as shiny and sleek as the polished glass boardroom tables at which lives and deaths, fortunes and demises are determined with stone-faced certainty.

There's something of a doppelgänger theme here too, which bears noting. Soon after Vincent's death, Marianne meets Nathalie (Emmanuelle Seigner), a young woman she suspects of being her husband's mistress. The two femmes fatale match their men as they match their hairstyles, frequently mirroring the past and future for each other.

Place Vendôme offers enough to admire that it's worth a look, especially for thriller lovers. However, it does have its share of flaws. The plot gets overly complex and becomes difficult to track in places. Though presumably adding to the air of mystery, the cuts are sometimes so quick that the action becomes confusing.

I also would have preferred more of a focus on the psychological and emotional elements, rather than the wheeling-dealings of taciturn Gallic businessmen, who seem to multiply like champagne bottles at a French wedding. Despite a good dose of suspense in some places, it was tough to care about these rapacious specimens and their greed-driven lives. In embracing her passion and extending her forgiveness, Deneuve's Marianne proves the only character truly worth watching.
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Fascinating look at media, Net, modern life--well worth seeking out
29 April 2001
He intended the notion of cyberspace as metaphor, but his readers-a nascent gen of programmers and hackers--took it much more literally. The result: the Internet as we know it. Its conceptual pioneer? William Gibson, sci-fi writer, philosopher, and here, a genial muser on the creative process, Bill Burroughs, drugs, the 1960s, and even the birth of American porn. You don't have to be a media maven or Web geek to appreciate Gibson's insights, which happen from the backseat of a car whizzing through a `postgeographic world.' Cut in are readings from his work and perspective offered by the likes of Bruce Sterling and U2's Bono. Director Mark Neale aptly uses music video-style cuts and snippets of technology to create a playful disorientation that already seems dated. But he couldn't have picked a more fascinating character, whose values embrace such concepts as living in the moment. Ironically, Gibson implants a very human heart into the digital cavity of the cyberbeast.
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