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Emmanuelle: L'antivierge (1975)
I was first introduced to this and other 'Emmanuelle' films in the early days of Cinemax (or 'Skin-emax', as we used to call it) and other pay-cable channels that started featuring soft-core porn after midnight on the weekends. In the early 80s--when the government was cracking down on pornography and the market for direct-to-video softcore porn had yet to be plumbed--cable outlets like Cinemax had few options for 'dirty movies' that didn't cross the hardcore threshold other than the small brace of adult films passing themselves off as 'European art-house' cinema to American audiences during the mid-to-late 70s. Other examples include Lady Chatterley's Lover (also starring Kristel, in an adaptation that would surely have humiliated poor D. H. Lawrence), Felicity, and Melody in Love, but the Emmannuelle franchise opened the proverbial floodgates (the title character in 'Felicity'--another story about a young woman on an adventure of sexual self-discovery in the far east--is seen reading the novel on which 'Emmannuelle' is based while traveling by plane to Bangcok).
As has been amply examined, the 'Emmannuelle' films are burdened with ponderous, annoying pretentiousness, and the audience must sit through way too much boring down-time between sex scenes that tend to tease more than satisfy. In this sense, 'Emmanuelle 2' and its ilk aren't bad for 'getting in the mood,' but compared to even the soft-core porn of today, these films are quaint. But they are fascinating as period pieces, and they are very sensual and erotic when compared to the rather mechanical and listless banging together of surgically enhanced bodies that dominates the adult film market today. Sylvia Kristel is no actress (apparently, she was so bad that her dialogue was overdubbed by another actress in the first 'Emmannuelle' film), and she is not the most beautiful woman ever to get naked in front of a camera, but this is part of her appeal: she has the face and body of a real woman, and she seems genuinely turned on (in that vaguely-detached, dreamy European way) by what she's doing.
But what a nostalgia trip! Sylvia Kristel introduced so many horny young boys with pay cable to the joys of sex in foreign locales and strange places. The concept of two women making love to each other was completely unknown to me before I met Emmanuelle! I can't help but laugh thinking back to how much of my sexual education I owe to the Emmanuelle films and the other naughty Euro-trash skin-flicks Cinemax kept in heavy rotation throughout the 80s. Mom and Dad were way too uptight and repressed to fill me in--thank goodness cable television was there to explain everything.
King Arthur (2004)
Not Bad, If Taken for What It Is
'King Arthur' is a curious production that has understandably aroused quite a bit of disagreement among critics, historians, and fans of the Arthurian legend. But really--this is a Jerry Bruckheimer production, people! Let's keep the operation in perspective! Bruckheimer has always been about one thing, and one thing only: spectacle, a.k.a. cheap thrills. 'King Arthur' might be gift-wrapped as a revisionist history, but it's a popcorn movie, plain and simple, and as such, it is for the most part a success.
The main premise of the film, of course, is that the Arthur of legend was not, in fact, the magical king of Camelot, but, rather, a half-Roman, half-Celtic warlord--the captain of a clan of Sarmatian knights pressed into service to the Roman Empire as young men. Our tale is narrated by Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), who (like Arthur) is introduced as a young boy on the day of his departure for his 15-year term of service to the Emperor of Rome. The film jumps ahead to the final days of that term, rejoining the characters as seasoned warriors: the familiar names are there--Arthur (Clive Owen) and Lancelot, joined by Gawain, Galahad, Bors, Dagonet, and Tristan. Although most of these characters bear little to no characteristic resemblance to their legendary precedents (Galahad, for instance, is traditionally described as Lancelot's son, not his contemporary; Bors is usually described as pious and devout, as opposed to his rugged, profane characterization in this film; Dagonet--heroic in this version--is usually represented as Arthur's court fool), the actors each manage to project strong, distinct characters for the audience to identify with. Especially strong are Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast) as Bors, Ray Stevenson as a quietly heroic Dagonet, and Mads Mikkelsen, who nearly steals the film as Tristan, here presented as a falconer and expert archer in Asian/Mongolian-style dress and armaments. The fine performances of these actors were clearly noted by casting directors: Winstone is set to play another early English epic hero--Beowulf--in a forthcoming adaptation; Stevenson was cast as another formidable but good-hearted warrior in HBO's 'Rome'; Mikkelsen--a star in his native Denmark, but an unknown elsewhere prior to 'King Arthur'--is set to play the villain in the forthcoming James Bond film, 'Casino Royale.' The basic plot positions Arthur and his knights as having earned their freedom towards the beginning of the Roman Empire's decline and fall. No longer able to afford the human and material expense of holding its most distant territorial outposts, Rome has decided to abandon Britain, leaving it to be fought over by its various tribal factions and invaders from neighboring lands. The history is fuzzy here, but again, this is an action movie, not a documentary, so picking apart the historical inaccuracies seems beside the point.
The Romans are in full retreat, but the Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti) won't give the Sarmatian knights their discharge papers until they complete a final task: rescue a young Roman noble beloved by the Pope whose family estate lies in the path of the Saxon invaders. The men reluctantly accept the charge out of loyalty to Arthur, who prays to his Christian god for the safety of his pagan knights (another big deviation from Arthurian legend, in which Christianity figures heavily as part of the code of chivalry).
The film's advertising gives top-billing (along with the infamous digitally-enhanced bust) to the sublime Keira Knightley, but her Guinevere appears late in the action, so don't rent this one expecting to see too much of her. In this version of the story, Guinevere is the daughter of Merlin (Steven Dillane), who is initially Arthur's enemy, as he leads a tribe of Woads (a version of the Picts), native peoples of Britain who wage war on the Roman invaders Arthur and his Sarmatian Knights serve. Eventually, Arthur and Merlin join forces (thanks to Guinevere) to defend Britain against the invading Saxons, led by Cerdic (Stellan Skaarsgard, who seems to be really enjoying himself playing a bloodthirsty viking).
This scenario affords director Antoine Fuqua plenty of room for expansive battle sequences, some of which meet and even exceed the standard set by 'Braveheart' for the genre. There's quite a bit of gore, and at times the battles seem endless and repetitive, though there are a few fine sequences, especially a battle that takes place on the frozen surface of a lake (nevermind that a Saxon army would never have invaded in winter; snow battles are cool!). The first half of the film allows for some nice, subtle character development for the knights, but without the familiar antagonists and problems (Mordred, Morgan La Fey, the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur love triangle, which is barely hinted at in the film), Arthur is a generic hero whose battle-cries for freedom are both contradictory and achingly derivative of 'Braveheart.' Clive Owen is a fine actor who acquaints himself well here, but his character is dull and one-dimensional, and seems much less compelling than secondary characters like the enigmatic Merlin, the intrepid Tristan, and the courageous Dagonet.
Nevertheless, I felt like I got what I paid for from 'King Arthur.' The acting is above average, the costumes are cool, the villain is nasty and scary, the fight sequences are well-staged and visceral, and the soundtrack appropriately martial and dramatic. While I can understand why Old English history and Arthurian legend buffs might object to it, I think I'd prefer this film to one which tried to recreate the aspects of the myth already portrayed in other Arthur films, especially 'Excalibur,' which, for my money, is the gold standard of King Arthur flicks.
The Beach (2000)
engaging, if ultimately incoherent
mild spoiler possibilities below . . .
Like a lot of others who have commented, I initially stayed away from 'The Beach' because of the bad reviews and the nonsensical casting of Leonardo DiCaprio, who seemed then (and now) to be a relatively poor choice to play the lead of Richard (apparently, Danny Boyle originally promised the role to Ewan MacGregor but was persuaded by the money-people to renege the offer and cast Leo, hot off the massive success of 'Titanic'--a slight which damaged their long-standing working relationship and led MacGregor to refuse the lead in Boyle's '28 Days Later,' which ended up going to Cillian Murphy). But I caught 'The Beach' on cable TV, and, while it is ultimately sort of a mess, I was riveted by the direction and the appealing scenario of a small group of neo-hippie travelers trying to form a Utopian community on a hidden Thai beach.
What makes the film so engrossing is Boyle's trademark style, combining stunning visuals, a cast of typically striking and attractive actors, and the innovative use of sound-tracking with irresistibly quirky and hip pop music.
The scenario: Richard is backpacking alone across Asia, partying in the various idyllic hot-spots with like-minded young people, when he encounters the aptly-named Daffy (Robert Carlyle), who describes to Richard a rumored a perfect, 'hidden beach' off the coast of Thailand where a group of 'beautiful people' live in a perpetual state of bliss, playing on the beach and living off fruit, fish, and copious amounts of potent free-range cannabis. The unstable Daffy checks out of the party hotel by carving up his own wrists, but leaves behind a map to the hidden beach, which Richard discovers. Richard decides to go out in search of the beach, and takes along a young French couple he befriends along the way.
Eventually the trio discovers the fabled beach, hidden in a cove on a government-controlled island and known to exist only by the people who live there and a corrupt group of Thai dope-farmers, who tolerate the presence of the Utopian community so long as they keep it secret and do not invite any new residents. The community is governed by its founders, principally Sal (Tilda Swinton), a regal, quasi-aristocratic hippie goddess. Indeed, it seems like the most important requirement in qualifying for membership in the community is being lean, hip, beautiful, and European (Richard is the only American). The group accepts the new arrivals, on the condition that they will not leave and that no one knows where they are or how to find them. Life seems perfect: they live off the land, sleep in a Swiss Family Robinson-ish compound, and re-stock themselves occasionally with worldly amenities (tampons, batteries for CD-players and hand-held video games, soap and shampoo, etc.) with clandestine trips to the mainland where Sal sells big bags of dope to a hotelier who keeps the island secret in exchange for a cheap source of grass to sell to the tackier late-adolescent tourists.
All goes well for a while, until, predictably, 'trouble in paradise' emerges due to the typical jealousies and conflicts that are bound to happen in a scenario with a limited number of options for love and sexual companionship. Furthermore, Richard's position is imperiled by the fact that, before coming to the beach, he foolishly left a copy of the map with a pair of happy-go-lucky American stoners who had befriended him.
Then a tragic event forces Richard and his naive friends to face the fact that, Utopian free-love idealism aside, Sal and her co-horts will act ruthlessly and callously to protect the sanctity of their island paradise. It's a typical 'Lord of the Flies' sort of scenario, not particularly believable or persuasive.
The film was rightly judged as a failure, and the onus rests on two major factors: the casting of DiCaprio, and the collapse of the screenplay into incoherence at the mid-point.
Leo has finally started to mature into a leading-man quality actor, but he was too thin and boyish when 'The Beach' was made to be believable as the maverick Richard. Many have bemoaned the decision to make Richard (an Englishman in the source novel) American, and it's safe to conclude that this decision was a cynical effort to appeal to US audiences by giving them a lead they can identify with more directly, played by a popular US actor. DiCaprio is a great actor, but it's hard to buy scrawny Leo as the principle object of female desire when he's surrounded by a cadre of buffed up Euro-studs.
MacGregor would have made a much better Richard, undoubtedly, but even that wouldn't have saved the film, which careens off a self-indulgent neurotic cliff when the Richard character 'cracks up' in the film's final third. The narrative momentum grinds to a halt and never really recovers, and the conflict resolves itself with a disappointingly anti-climactic confrontation.
Not a great film by any means, but it's gorgeous to look at, the actors are appealing (even Leo, despite being miscast, is engaging and relatively fun to watch), and, most of all, it's fun to fantasize about what it might be like to stumble into a world where the days consist of nothing more than frolicking on the beach, feasting on the bounty of the sea and the fat of the land, balling with the beautiful people, and staying high.
The Cooler (2003)
A Marvelous, Unexpected Treat
'The Cooler' sort of flew under the radar in its initial run. It deserves a much wider audience than it received in theatrical release. Writer/director Wayne Kramer has achieved something remarkable here--a love story within a love story: an unlikely romance between a professional loser and an aging cocktail waitress cast against an almost reverent paean to the old Las Vegas, when Frank, Deano, and Sammy reigned supreme and there wasn't a pirate ship or roller coaster to be found. Kramer also brings out some amazing performances, especially by Alec Baldwin as Shelly Kaplow, arguably his finest performance ever, and easily his best since 'Glengarry Glen Ross' or 'Malice.'
The plot itself hinges on an old, all but forgotten Vegas tradition: William H. Macy is Bernie, a professional 'cooler'--a guy whose luck is so bad it's contagious, and who is paid to sidle up to any table where a gambler is on a run of luck and cool the action with his mere presence. The film's opening scene has an almost surreal quality, as hang-dog Bernie paces the floor, magically passing his bad luck with nothing more than a subtle touch of green felt or brass.
Bernie works at the Golden Shangri-La, a bastion of Vegas traditionalism managed by Shelley Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), who runs his casino with religious fidelity to the old ways, idealizing the Rat Pack-era Vegas, the days before Sin City became, in Shelley's words, a "Disneyland mookfest."
But Shelley is under pressure: longtime club headliner Buddy Stafford (Paul Sorvino) is way past his prime and carries a dark secret. The casino's investors have grown reluctant to hold on to the old ways at the expense of the record-breaking revenues being brought in by the newer, flashier, family-friendly casinos, and Shelley finds himself in a power struggle with Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), a Harvard-educated wunderkind brought in to revitalize the struggling Shangri-La.
Last but not least of Shelley's troubles is that Bernie the Cooler has announced his intention to leave town. Shelley has owned Bernie for years (Bernie's crippled shuffle is a souvenir from his days of gambling addiction administered by Shelley for non-payment of a massive debt), but Bernie is now in the clear and wants to put Vegas behind him.
But Bernie finds himself reconsidering after he falls into bed with Natalie (Maria Bello), a failed showgirl-turned-cocktail waitress who propositions Bernie after he notices her being groped by a gambler on a hot streak and promptly cools the offending customer's luck. Unfortunately, Bernie's first dose of good luck in ages comes with a particular liability: having unexpectedly found happiness, Bernie finds his talent for passing on bad luck has reversed itself--to the chagrin of Shelley Kaplow.
William H. Macy has long been respected has a character actor, and it's a treat to see him bring his talents to a rare lead role for a middle-aged actor of average appearance. His Bernie is truly pathetic, and yet his charm and growing confidence make his affair with Natalie believable and inspiring. Bernie is a loser, but he has courage and character, especially when confronted with his failure as a father when his dead-beat hustler son (Shawn Hatosy) appears with a pregnant, coke-snorting girlfriend (Estella Warren) in tow.
Maria Bello gives an astonishing, award-worthy performance as Natalie. It's just a mystery to me that she is not a major star. She is stunningly beautiful but also persuasively real, and her moments of honesty and vulnerability in this film stick with you. Natalie is not without considerable flaws, but her love for Bernie is absolutely believable, and I found myself feeling deeply invested in them.
Much of the small buzz around this film was generated by Macy and Bello's sex scenes, which are genuinely remarkable--visceral and explicit without seeming the least bit pornographic or gratuitous. This is attributable to the investment of the actors in their characters and their craft. The ardor feels totally genuine. Bello and Macy look not like actors playing roles, but like two people in love, going at it like they're never going to get another chance.
But inasmuch as Bernie and Natalie are the clear hero and heroine, in certain respects, the film belongs to Alec Baldwin's Shelley. Baldwin hasn't had such a plum role in ages: Shelley is both a malicious sociopath and a tender, affectionate father figure. His loyalty to the old-school ways and his refusal to accept that Sinatra's Vegas is gone forever is genuinely tragic. Baldwin owns some of the film's finest moments: a rip-roaring tirade against the crassly commercialized Vegas embodied by his younger rival; a surprisingly tender moment with the aging crooner Buddy Stafford, where Shelley appears in Buddy's dressing room and tries to stroke the singer's flagging ego by presenting him a pair of panties he claims to have found hanging on the door-handle outside, only to have the harrowingly tragic Buddy point out that he knows Shelley bought the panties in the casino's lingerie shop, along with the services of the 'groupie' who'll be arriving shortly after Shelley leaves; a drunken catharsis after a confrontation with Bernie over Natalie that ends with Shelley smashing the architectural model of the new Shangri-La Larry plans to build, complete with shopping mall, food court, and roller-coasters.
Perhaps the strongest statement of the film comes as the credits roll: a montage of video featuring the demolition of four legendary old-school casinos--the Aladdin, the Landmark, the Dunes, and the Sands, which, of course, was the Vegas home of Sinatra and the Rat Pack. It's a haunting lament at the end of a surprisingly fine film.
Happy Endings (2005)
Roos missed the mark with this one
Director Don Roos' 1998 film 'The Opposite of Sex,' which starred Christina Ricci as a manipulative white-trash vamp who shows up on her gay half-brother's doorstep one day, moves in, and gradually proceeds to destroy his life, is one of the most unique and uniquely affecting independent films of recent years: realistic but absurd, heartbreaking but also bitingly, achingly funny, it made a name for Roos and set a high bar for his future work, which 'Happy Endings' unfortunately fails to reach.
'Happy Endings' begins with a somewhat similar premise--a tryst between step-siblings Mamie and Charley, in which the typical power roles are inverted and the female is the seductress of the innocent and naive boy who eventually turns out to be gay (perhaps sparked out of latency by the trauma of impregnating his step-sister). The film jumps forward in chronology, with three separate, interconnected story-lines in play: the grown-up Mamie (Lisa Kudrow), 20 years later, is carrying on a secret affair with Javier (Bobby Cannavale), a Mexican masseuse who occasionally provides 'the full release' for his clients, when an unstable young hipster named Nicky shows up on her doorstep, claiming to have information about the whereabouts of the child she gave up for adoption 20 years before, which he will produce in exchange for letting him film the reunion and its aftermath for a film school audition tape. Meanwhile, Charley (Steve Coogan) is dealing with his own issues related to parenthood, allowing certain suspicions about the child of his and his lover Gil's best friends, a lesbian couple (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke) who had once attempted to get pregnant with Gil's sperm. Charley manages a restaurant featuring karaoke where one night the curiously seductive Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) mesmerizes the karaoke crowd and gains an invitation from Otis (Jason Ritter), a young karaoke d-j who has a crush on Charley, to sing for his band. Jude shortly initiates a plan to seduce Otis' father Frank, a wealthy widower, threatening to out Otis to his father if he interferes.
Each of these story lines advances independently with the occasional technique of a split-screen against which Roos presents somewhat cryptic textual exposition about the characters' lives and futures--the sort of stuff that would typically be delivered in voice-over by a narrator. The technique is interesting at first, but starts to wear thin until the conclusion, when it is over-exploited to swiftly tie up the meandering plot-lines, which never seem to have the sort of resolute connectedness we'd expect them to have.
The big upside of the film is the acting, which, for the most part, is superb. Maggie Gyllenhaal has an odd look--not traditionally beautiful, but alluring, and totally persuasive as a hipster sex-pot in the mold of Christina Ricci's Dede in 'The Opposite of Sex,' and she engenders a powerful love-hate attraction in the audience. Jason Ritter gives a subtle, endearing performance as Otis, suggesting that he's got more going for him as an actor than his late father's connections. Bobby Cannavale is a delight as Javier--sooner or later he will get the big role he deserves after stealing so many scenes in smaller character parts. Jesse Bradford--a more familiar presence in the teen-exploitation genre--is surprisingly strong as the off-kilter Nicky. Tom Arnold all but steals the film as the pathetic Frank, whose loneliness and need are matched only by his warmth and likability.
'Happy Endings' has its moments, but in the end, it just isn't as clever or surprising as it builds itself up to be. The ends never really tie up in a satisfying way, and towards the conclusion, the on-screen narration starts to feel like a cheap device to lend gravitas and cohesiveness to the messy plot. Furthermore, the film is pretty humorless--a tone that seems unsuitable for a story about confused, emotionally immature people whose real connection seems to be a pathological compulsion to act irresponsibly. Roos' knack for clever, quirky characters makes it worth the viewing, but 'Happy Endings' never gives the audience the 'full release.'
Unequal to the Oiriginal, but Much Closer in Spirit Than 'Beginning'
Much has been made of the peculiarly Kafka-esquire journey of 'Dominion': originally in the hands of the late John Frankenheimer, the 'Exorcist' prequel project was turned over to Paul Schrader, director/screenwriter best known for dark, gritty, existential dramas such as 'Taxi Driver,' 'Hardcore,' and 'Auto-Focus.' Schrader delivered a film allegedly close in spirit to the original, but the suits were unsatisfied, feeling that the film they'd been given lacked the necessary frights to please the current audience for horror films. As has been amply explained, the original 'Exorcist' was itself much less a horror film than a psychological drama, spare of excessive fun-house shock value, but the audience has changed--younger, dumber, and trained to expect cheap thrills--and the decision was handed down to re-tool the film to add more special effects and gore. Schrader refused, was fired and replaced by Renny Harlin, who re-shot the film almost entirely with a significantly revised story, several new actors and characters, and a decidedly less cerebral approach. But Schrader's film was already in the can, and horror purists and Exorcist junkies were left to wonder what might have been--if, for once, there might be a sequel/prequel that made genuine efforts to add to a story's mythic tradition rather than merely to exploit its notoriety to sell tickets and popcorn.
At last, we are able to weigh in on 'Exorcist prequel: take 1,' and while it certainly doesn't capture the original's aura of terror and dread, 'Dominion' reminds us that the most frightening terrors are in the subconscious and the imagination, and offers a more patient and believable glimpse into how Father Merrin first encountered the demon that would later find its way into a particular corner townhouse in Georgetown.
Schrader's direction--aided by the camera of legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storraro--is patient but not without scope. They frame the African hill country beautifully, and while things at times seem a bit too clean and tidy, I didn't consider the film 'slow.' Skarsgard's Merrin is essentially the same character as in 'Beginning,' and while he isn't inadequate, his performance may be a bit too restrained. As in the Renny Harlin cut, we are told that Merrin has left the priesthood out of guilt and anger at God over a particularly horrific confrontation with man's inhumanity to man in Nazi-occupied Holland near the end of WW II. More is made of this back-story in 'Dominion,' but Merrin's crisis of faith seems less palpable and torturous than that of Damien Karras in 'The Exorcist,' so that his re-conversion to belief doesn't register the expected intensity. Gabriel Mann appears as Father Francis (due to schedule conflicts with the re-shoot, he was replaced by James D'Arcy in 'The Beginning'), and his tender, almost androgynous demeanor makes him an endearing and appealing character. Clara Bellar appears as Rachel, a character entirely written out of 'The Beginning' and replaced with a sexier version of the same, played by Bond girl Isabella Scurupco. Bellar is more believable as a nurse in East Africa, and her back-story creates a connection with Merrin, but she still seems a bit out of place (though certainly far more appropriate to the story than her counterpart in 'The Beginning'). Julian Wadham reprises his role as a tormented British Major, to strong and believable effect. The climactic confrontation with Pazuzu is entirely different in this film, and far more believable (and chilling).
Nevertheless, there are some inconsistencies, and the framing of the exorcism scene lacks the intensity of the first film's, largely because the audience is never adequately introduced to the victim. A big part of what made 'The Exorcist' terrifying is that the audience is given the opportunity to watch the full transformation of a sweet, affectionate child into a bile-spitting, profane shell for a malevolent spirit. 'Dominion's victim is never fully introduced, and thus, the audience has less of an investment in his exorcism.
In the end, however, this film far exceeds the quality of the amusement-park silliness of 'The Beginning,' and while it's not likely to break the bank, it is certainly the most respectable of the films based on Blatty and Friedkin's original.
Lords of Dogtown (2005)
A Gnarly Nostalgia Trip
'Lords of Dogtown' ain't 'Citizen Kane,' but it's a hell of a lot of fun--a gnarly nostalgia trip for aging skaters, and a relatable time-capsule for the current generation of asphalt wave riders.
After seeing Stacy Peralta's 'Dogtown and Z-Boys' documentary, it might be easy to write off 'Lords of Dogtown' as an unnecessary exercise, and it's certainly true that much of the 'history' of the Zephyr team and its impact on skateboarding's transition from a trivial novelty to a cultural phenomenon and an elite 'extreme' sport is glossed over in this film. But it's a mistake to compare the two: 'Lords of Dogtown' isn't meant to be a faithful history of the rise of skateboarding in Venice, but, rather, a narrative about three friends whose shared love of getting stoked on wheels and waves took them places they could never have imagined.
No doubt, the film has an air of hero worship. It's easy to see from the special features and director's commentary that, at heart, Catherine Hardwick is still a true-blue surf-and-skate Betty, and is still totally in love with the idealized image of skinny, shirtless, long-haired boys who party hard, raise hell, and ditch school to chase waves. 'Lords of Dogtown' is, more than anything else, another 'Endless Summer' or 'Big Wednesday,' made a little more thrilling by the fact that it's pretty much a true story.
What makes the film most appealing is watching the three leads going through familiar adolescent trials along with more personally difficult experiences. Tony Alva (Victor Raskub)--the sport's first great showman--is driven to prove himself by a fear of inadequacy largely driven by the prejudice he suffers as a Mexican-American. Peralta (John Robinson)--who went on to become one of the sport's most beloved stars and its most successful businessman (he is also the screenwriter for the film)--is drawn as the nice kid who is somewhat ostracized by his tougher, more defiant friends for such sins as wearing a watch, holding down a steady job, and occasionally attempting to get to school on time, but his real crisis is realizing how different he is from his friends and how much more pronounced those differences become as they grow older. But the film's heart is Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), who may very well have been the most gifted of the three but whose emotional wounds and defiant spirit prevented him from taking advantage of the same opportunities that propelled Peralta and Alva to wealth and stardom.
The three young actors are mostly superb. Raskub is probably the weakest--he is given the least room to develop Alva as more than hotheaded, insecure, and ego-driven--but he's appealing and a lot of fun to watch, and he's persuasively athletic. Robinson is a bit of a blank slate (given that the real Stacy Peralta wrote the story, it's not surprising that his character seems more the observer than the participant), but he's a warm presence and the concern and empathy he feels for his friends is obvious. Emile Hirsch is the best, and has the most complex role. He carries it off well; his transformation from Z-boy to Chicano hoodlum seems abrupt, but that owes more to flaws in pacing and direction than to weakness in the performance. Indeed, the most obvious technical flaw of the film is its pacing--the passage of time is hard to mark; the transitions which take place in the boys' lives happen rather suddenly, and changes in their circumstances--the abandonment of the Zephyr team by its stars, Engblom's apparent decline into alcoholism, Peralta's and Alva's rise to stardom and Adams' retreat from it--all seem a little random and disorganized.
If there is any thematic flaw to the film, it may be that Hardwicke's affection for the by-gone heyday of the mid-'70s overwhelms some of the harsh realities of her story. But the film is redeemed by its worship of the cult of skating and wave riding. When the three friends regroup for pool sessions at the home of their old friend Sid (who seems to be the movie's source of comic relief until he is felled by a brain tumor and left confined to a wheel-chair), the common love and the freedom they share carving around the big blue bowl is absolutely persuasive. I haven't been on a board in ten years, but I felt my heart quicken as if I were back there again, with friends I've long-since lost touch with, caring about nothing more than the sheer joy of pulling off a killer trick or catching the fleeting sense of weightlessness getting vertical. The cinematography is occasionally a bit shaky, but the 'skate-cam' shots (which were done by Bones Brigade legend Lance Mountain) are sublime, and the superb soundtrack of classic rock keeps the adrenalin flowing. The biggest irony, of course, is that the moves being pulled off by the Z-boys which were so unbelievably radical back in 1975 are so basic today thanks to years of advances in technique and board, truck, and wheel technology that it's kind of funny watching people cheer for stuff that wouldn't raise an eyebrow at a modern skate competition. But comparing Tony Alva to Tony Hawk is like comparing Babe Ruth to Barry Bonds (except that Tony Hawk isn't a huge jerk).
Many have criticized this film for neglecting to include all of the original Z-boys in its story, but there are far too many of the original Dogtown old-schoolers making cameos in the film to think that it bothered them too much to see the story revolve around Alva, Adams, and Peralta (all three of whom have quick cameos--a few second-generation skaters are there as well, including Christian Hosoi and, of course, the great Tony Hawk in a hilariously self-effacing appearance).
The Upside of Anger (2005)
Sort of Rambling and Tedious
With 'The Upside of Anger,' Mike binder makes another stab at trying to be the Woody Allen of yuppie angst. Binder's last attempt in this genre--the exasperating 'Mind of the Married Man,' HBO's first and shortest-lived male-oriented take on 'Sex and the City'--was undermined by a pathological cynicism about the nature of love and the institution of marriage. The protagonist of that program (portrayed, in true Woody Allen style, by Binder himself) seemed constitutionally incapable of being satisfied with his enormous good fortune--great job, beautiful, intelligent, sensitive wife, newborn baby, etc. The show seemed to suggest that even the most picture-perfect of marriages is always on the brink of oblivion.
In 'The Upside of Anger,' Binder skips the brink and heads straight for the oblivion. Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) wakes up one morning to find herself abruptly abandoned by her husband, who has disappeared, presumably with his Swedish assistant to start a new life, leaving Terry in the lurch with their four precocious daughters--one in college, one a recent high school graduate who has elected not to pursue higher education, and two others still in high school. Terry immediately sets about drowning her sorrows in an endless flood of vodka, and almost instantaneously commences a combative flirtation with Denny (Kevin Costner), a washed up former baseball star who lives around the block, supporting himself with a sports radio show in which he refuses to discuss sports and by selling autographed memorabilia. We are assured by the girls (the film is narrated in voice-over by the youngest, 'Popeye,' played by Evan Rachel Wood) that Terry was once a sweet, caring, unassuming suburban housewife, but for the duration of the film she is a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, swilling more vodka than a Russian sailor, picking fights with everyone from her daughters to Denny to the old guy down the street who chastens her for driving too fast through the neighborhood.
Allen's performance is typically superb, and it's fun (for a while, anyway) to watch her play against type. Costner--borrowing heavily from Jack Nicholson's turn in 'Terms of Endearment'--is refreshingly relaxed, likable, and humble (he put on 20 pounds for the role) as Denny, a has-been lush with a good heart who sees in Terry and her family a way to restore some meaning to his purposeless existence. Binder appears again, this time as Shep, Denny's sleazy radio producer, who seduces Terry's daughter Andy (Erika Christensen), which provides the catalyst for the film's most visceral confrontation (Shep gets his comeuppance, and while he deserves it, it's hard not to feel as if Binder is offering a sort of twisted mea culpa for the crime that was 'The Mind of the Married Man').
The girls all acquaint themselves well enough, but there isn't enough room in the picture for any of them to really resonate. Terry is most at odds with Hadley (Alicia Witt), the eldest, but beyond the natural mother-daughter tension, it's hard to see where the conflict stems from. Andy's dalliance with Shep gives Allen some great material to freak out over, but Andy seems almost to be just an excuse to get Binder's character into the mix. Keri Russell is lovely and appealing as Emily, whose ambition to be a ballerina is stifled by Terry's controlling pragmatism, and Evan Rachel Wood's Popeye is a pleasure to watch, even if she seems a bit excessively insightful and eloquent for 14--but with so many subplots hovering around a central plot line without a whole lot of acute tension, Binder's efforts to develop all 4 girls leaves the picture feeling muddy and unfocused.
And, of course, after all of the kvetching and public outbursts, Binder wraps everything up in a neat little bow with a surprising but highly unlikely twist at the end, so that everyone gets to live happily ever after. Most problematic is that the twist--which I won't reveal here--ends up undermining and effectively erasing the significance of Terry's emotional roller coaster, around which the entire picture is structured. There are other problems as well: why doesn't Terry have any friends, or, at the very least, any neighbors other than Denny checking in on her? Wouldn't one of the daughters at least try to contact their father, for Terry's sake if not their own? How much money do these people have, and where's it all coming from? With her husband gone, Terry seems to do nothing but drink with Denny and go to the grocery store--what did she do with herself before her husband disappeared?
The dialog is witty and urbane, and it's fun to watch charming and attractive actors populating the pristine suburban environs (the film is almost worth watching just for Terry's kitchen and dining room), so the film has its pleasures. It merely fails to achieve the sort of profound insight it seems to be grasping for. This is, in essence, the fatal flaw of Binder's style: despite all of the wit and neurotic humor, in the end, he wants us to get 'the moral of the story.' He is perhaps a bit too eager to tell the audience what it's all supposed to mean, and that, by god, this is important stuff. I mean, really--how seriously can we take the neurosis of a woman who lives in a million-dollar home, has extensive funds and no need to work, four gorgeous and intelligent girls, and a hunky good-time-Charlie around the corner who smiles and strokes her ego when she vents her spleen at him? Binder would be much better served to do away with the trite, pedantic narration and put his trust in the talents of Joan Allen, who, even as a bitter alcoholic, transmits the kind of wisdom and insight even the finest of writers are rarely capable of on their best days.
Layer Cake (2004)
Sharp, if a bit Haphazard
'Layer Cake' follows in the tradition of sharp English drugs/gangster flicks like 'Trainspotting' and 'Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.' Initially, one might ask what remains to be added to this genre, but 'Layer Cake' proves itself worthy if not entirely original by presenting a more mature, less frenetic, and occasionally surprising take on the lives of dealers trying to make the big score.
Daniel Craig's 'X' is a refreshing change from the typical gangster--more an urban sophisticate than a swaggering player, he prefers a low profile, and observes (in voice-over dialog well written enough to compensate for the overuse of the device in this sort of picture) that drugs are just good business, and if one can stay removed from the trappings of the culture, a great way to retire before 40. Of course, there would be no film if the hero were to avoid the inevitable complications, which arrive with such swiftness that you can almost see X's head spinning. He's implicated in the theft of a large supply of ecstasy; his boss forces him to search for the wayward daughter of a fellow mobster; he learns that he is being pursued by a Serbian hit-man who specializes in presenting his victims' heads to his clients; he finds himself falling for an unstable thug's girlfriend--all on the eve of his long-planned retirement from the business.
Things go wrong for X so fast and in so many ways that it's often hard to follow the film's direction, and, as is the case with 'Trainspotting' and 'Lock, Stock,' the rapid-fire cockney gangster dialog can be hard to follow for untrained American ears. But the film is redeemed by Craig's superb performance as a man who has perfected the art of control only to see all of his walls and pretenses leveled in the course of just a few days. Particularly affecting is the scene in which X copes with the after-effects of having committed murder for the first time--haunting, powerful stuff, and certainly unusual in a genre where the characters generally kill indiscriminately and without conscience.
In a sense, too much happens too fast--some of the plot lines seem extraneous, especially X's affair with the girlfriend (Sienna Miller), which might be viewed as an excuse to give the character the necessary love interest and show us a sexy girl in lingerie. But, altogether, the many diverging plots converge, and we are left with a coherent narrative spun out of a cascade of disorder and surprise. It's not perfect, but 'Layer Cake' is a worthy addition to the gangster thriller genre, giving us enough of what we expect along with a few surprises to keep it from seeming derivative.
From the previews, 'Constantine' looks enormously appealing: a special effects bonanza, fusing the comic book action hero aesthetic with creepy occult horror themes that inevitably draw in audiences raised with a healthy fear of hellfire and damnation. Unfortunately, it turns out to be yet another vague, unconvincing B-movie dressed up to look smarter than it actually is, with schizophrenic pacing, plot holes galore, bad acting, and demons that are about as scary as the Fun House ride at a rural state fair.
Keaunu Reeves is John Constantine, a man born with psychic powers that enable him to see demons and angels, the soldiers in the ongoing spiritual battle for the souls of humanity (which, unsurprisingly, appears to take place solely in Los Angeles). As a boy, Constantine successfully attempted suicide, but was brought back by medical intervention. He was dead long enough, however, to be damned to hell, and has spent his subsequent years trying to earn a reprieve from God by fighting demons that torment and possess humans and banishing them back to hell, with the aid of a crew of mismatched sidekicks and a stock of holy relics for weapons.
But trouble is afoot: an ancient relic--the spear used to pierce Jesus' side during the crucifixion--has been unearthed, meaning that the anti-Christ may soon be among us. To make matters worse, Constantine--a lifelong chain-smoker--has terminal lung cancer, and has yet to earn his pardon. Meanwhile, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), an L.A. cop, has lost her twin sister to suicide, and begins to suspect both that her death may have been occult-related, and that Constantine might be able to help her solve the mystery and spare her sister's soul from eternal suffering.
I could elaborate further, but suffice it to say that logic and verisimilitude were out to lunch when this one got put together. The film seems to depend on a barrage of visual effects that, while impressive, have become typical enough in big-budget films that they fail to persuade or frighten without explanation or clear rationale. Keanu Reeves can be an appealing screen presence, but here he's so wooden and miscast that he almost singlehandedly ruins a film that was already on pretty shaky ground. The best performances come from the actors with the least screen time--Djimon Hundsou as Papa Midnight, who runs a demon-infested nightclub and appears to be some sort of mediary between heaven and hell (though his actual function is never really explained); Tilda Swinton as the androgynous angel Gabriel, who, rather un-angelically, taunts Constantine for his efforts to save his own soul; and Peter Stormare as a superbly creepy Satan who arrives a little too late to save the movie from mediocrity.
The big problems here are pacing and plot. 'Constantine' shifts from ponderous stretches dominated by Keanu trying his best to look like a guy who has been to hell and back and frenetic effects sequences that seem to expect the audience not to care what's happening or why as long as there are CGI demons on screen. The plot runs into the typical problems faced when filmmakers try to translate Christian occult mythology to the action/horror genre. To explicate the problems would give too much away; suffice it to say that that the fundamental intelligence of the story can be summarized in the observation that Constantine fights demons with a 'holy shotgun' and a pair of brass knuckles engraved with crosses, and all it takes to visit hell for a minute or two is to soak your feet in water and hold a kitty cat.
'Constantine' is, of course, a comic book ('Hellblazer;' the title was abandoned due to its similarity to 'Hellraiser'), and the character is basically Batman or Wolverine without the costume. Sadly, the story pits style over substance, and fails to persuade. It isn't irredeemably bad--the production values are high, and everyone but Reeves and the exasperating Shia LaBouef (as Constantine's wise-cracking teen-aged sidekick) give A-grade performances--but even clunkers like the recent, laughable 'Exorcist' prequel are scarier and more convincing.
Helter Skelter (2004)
Tastelessly Commercial and Pointless
Having long nurtured a fascination with the Manson Family murder spree, when I heard CBS was airing a new film version of 'Helter Skelter,' co-produced by Vincent Bugliosi and starring the gifted Jeremy Davies as Manson, I couldn't resist tuning in. Boy, was I disappointed.
Davies is a superb actor, but, despite his previously demonstrated ability to play twisted, mentally unstable characters ('Solaris,' 'Saving Private Ryan', 'Ravenous'), his Manson is sort of silly and not particularly persuasive. The casting in general is fairly abysmal--especially Bruno Kirby as Bugliosi, who was at least 15 years younger than Kirby when he tried the case and at least 30 pounds lighter--though there are some small exceptions (Clea Duvall is persuasively haunting as Linda Kasabian, the key witness against the defense). In general, the whole project just seems cheap and crass: the clothes, makeup, and especially the hair on the Manson family look perversely fake and costume-ish, the story offers absolutely no new insights or perspectives on the case, and, worst of all, the direction perpetuates the fetishization of Manson that has contributed to his continued popularity among confused young people who see him as something more than a screwed-up con artist who went nuts because he couldn't get anybody to help him make a record.
Why would Bugliosi sign on for this project, given that he has continued to lament Manson's continuing appeal and expressed remorse for his part in helping to enlarge Manson's myth? He couldn't possibly need the money--'Helter Skelter' is the best-selling true crime book of all time, and all of Bugliosi's subsequent literary efforts have also sold well. Initially I had thought that the film would shed light on how Manson became who he was--his history of incarceration and institutionalization, his horrific childhood, the influence of Scientology and the 'Church of the Process' on his new-agey philosophy, which he later wielded to woo his acolytes into worshiping him to the point that they lost their independent will and would be willing to murder on his order--but instead, we get a retread of facts that will be familiar to anyone who has paid the slightest attention to this case in the past.
There was an opportunity here to add to the story, and to at least make a stab at unpacking the various forces which led up to Manson's bizarre, apocalyptic vision. Perhaps the most overlooked detail of Manson's history is that he is a product of the failures of society, particularly in relation to our child welfare and penal systems. The son of a 'bad girl' who abandoned him to the state, Manson suffered horrific physical and sexual abuse at the hands of older inmates before he reached his teens. By the time he showed up in the Haight in '67, he'd spent over half of his life in prison, and had even begged not to be released, acknowledging himself that he'd been 'institutionalized'--that he'd spent so much of his life in prison culture that he was neither willing nor able to make the transition back into society. Worst of all, Manson would have been the first person to tell anyone that he was far from rehabilitated when he was let loose on the world for the last time.
There's no forgiving Charles Manson for his crimes, nor is there really any way of knowing if his hold over his followers was due to anything more than a shrewd con-man's instincts for exploiting vulnerable marks. But it could be argued that, had he been treated more humanely as a child, he might not have evolved into the man he became.
But this film overlooks the possibility of adding something constructive to this sensational story and chooses instead to roll around in the same old dirt. It's awfully hypocritical of Bugliosi to facilitate this garbage, especially given that the product suggests that his only motives were to make a quick buck and maybe sell a few more books. It's also disrespectful to the families of the victims and the other, secondary victims of Manson--Charles Watson, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkle--who were seduced into becoming murderers and, thanks to the continuing public fascination with Manson, will likely never see the outside of a prison, while far more sinister and dangerous killers are regularly paroled after serving half as much time as Manson's unlucky followers.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Best Film to Date About Modern Urban Warfare
'Black Hawk Down' plays a little fast and loose with the facts, but it's presentation of the events of the Mogadishu Battle in '94 and depiction of the sensation of being in the middle of a tense urban battle are as close to the real thing as any major movie has thus far come.
Ridley Scott's rendering of the political events leading up to the battle is a bit bothersome in its brevity, but it becomes clear enough once the action gets going that this movie exists primarily for the purpose of reenacting the battle. We are offered the standard Hollywood tropes, especially in the form of Josh Hartnett's character, Eversmann, who is saddled with the role of resident idealist, and the character of Norm 'Hoot' Gibson (Eric Bana) as the king-daddy bad-ass, but the action is very faithful to the accounts of the battle described in Mark Bowden's superb book, and the development of the various characters (some real, some--like Hoot--composite) lends a strong sense of the stakes for these young men. The film is memorable for being one of the first authorized and realistic depictions of the work of Delta Force, the secretive elite branch of the Special Forces, and for reconstructing in a palpable manner the challenges of urban warfare with modern weaponry.
This film probably doesn't deserve to be ranked alongside the great war films such as 'Apocalypse Now,' 'Full Metal Jacket,' or 'Saving Private Ryan,' largely because the events it describes are not part of a larger, more coherent war narrative. Task Force Ranger was a relatively isolated peace-keeping operation that would likely have failed to gain the attention of the international media were it not for the footage of the corpses of dead US Army personnel being dragged through the streets by angry Somalis (later that same year, the US Army invaded Haiti after a military coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and hardly anyone noticed). Nevertheless, 'Black Hawk Down' is a breathtaking, moving experience for its portrayal of the realities of warfare in our contemporary age.
Sort of a pointless exercise.
The original 'Alfie,' released in 1966, was considered a revelation for its frank and somewhat dark portrait of the life of a cockney rake, and can now be seen as somewhat prophetic, as it predated (and in some ways helped to introduce) the era of 'swinging London' and the sexual revolution. The 2004 'Alfie' seems to exist for no other purpose than to dress Jude Law up in a hip wardrobe and allow him to wink, smirk, and sigh endlessly at the camera as he sleeps his way through a series of likable women he doesn't deserve. There isn't much of a narrative structure here, and while Law is an engaging screen presence, Alfie is a totally unsympathetic lout who deserves his eventual comeuppance.
It's too bad that Bill Naughton wasn't able to update his original story more effectively, because the film is gorgeous to look at. Despite a few unnecessary bits of cleverness (billboards with odd, art-nouveau messages like 'desire' and 'wish', a lot of mod-ish split screen sequences with still photography, etc.), the cinematography is superb, Law looks dashing in his GQ hipster wardrobe, and the ladies--Susan Sarandon, Jane Krakowski, Nia Long, Marisa Tomei, and newcomer Sienna Miller (whom Law apparently dumped his wife for during filming)--are ravishing. The soundtrack is also superb, made up mostly of new tunes by Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame).
The biggest problem here is that times have changed since the original Alfie: sexual and gender politics don't allow for a protagonist who bed-hops and deceives women with impunity to be cast as heroic or even remotely sympathetic. In the end, the film seems hollow, like a nearly two-hour long visual fashion spread (interestingly, 'Vanity Fair' editor Graydon Carter has a cameo in the film). Beautiful to look at, but ultimately it's just pretty trash.
The Dancer Upstairs (2002)
An Actor's Showcase and an Excellent Thriller
'The Dancer Upstairs' marks John Malkovich's debut as a film director, but it's hardly his first time in the director's chair: Malkovich was a charter member of the now-prestigious Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, where he split time between acting and directing, developing the versatility that has earned him regard as one of the best character actors in the business. He brings a stage director's consciousness to this fine, unexpectedly suspenseful and complex thriller, a fictionalized dramatization of events surrounding the rise and fall of the Shining Path revolutionary movement in Peru.
In the lead role of Detective Augustin Rejas is Javier Bardem, already an established star in his native Spain who is gaining increasingly wide notice in the US for his award-winning turns in Julian Schnabel's 'Before Night Falls' (2002) and Alejandro Amenabar's 'The Sea Inside' (2004). Bardem, like Malkovich, is a wonderfully versatile actor, and this film offers him another fine opportunity to display his range as Rejas, an idealistic police detective who abandoned a promising career as a trial lawyer in the hope that he might be able to work within the system to heal the corruption of his native country (left unnamed, though the story clearly borrows from actual events in Peru).
The film opens on the high plains at the foothills of the Andes, with Rejas working at a highway checkpoint station. He encounters a vehicle bearing a mysterious undocumented passenger. While Rejas follows procedure, his colleague accepts a bribe, and allows the vehicle to flee the scene.
Years later, Rejas has advanced through the ranks and now works as a detective in the nation's coastal capital. He and his partner Sucre (Juan Diego Botto, making the most of a small role) gradually begin to discover evidence of a burgeoning revolutionary movement led by the enigmatic 'Presidente Ezequiel,' whom Rejas eventually realizes to be the same man he met briefly years earlier at the mountain checkpoint. The followers of Ezequiel--a former college professor and Marxist who went underground ten years earlier to foment a 'fourth wave' of communist revolution (the first three being the USSR, China, and Cuba)--begin to terrorize the capital and outlying regions with suicide bombings and brutal assassinations. Rejas must uncover the secret of Ezequiel before the President enacts martial law and turns the government into another version of the brutal dictatorships previously seen in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.
As the Ezequiel mystery deepens, Rejas begins to develop an infatuation with his daughter's ballet instructor, Yolanda (Laura Morante), with who he shares an unspoken bond and who seems to be an attractive alternative to his own wife (Alexandre Lencastre), a sweet but superficial woman who obsesses over fashion magazines and makeup and begs her perpetually broke husband to let her get a nose job. Rejas begins to court Yolanda, and as he becomes more deeply involved with her, he begins to discover evidence that she may be knowingly or unknowingly connected in some way to Ezequiel.
The political dimension of the story is fascinating, but the main source of conflict is the interior world of Rejas, a sensitive, morally decent man who is torn between his faith in the law and his sympathy for the people who suffer at the hands of corrupt government officials. Rejas is also torn between his sense of honor and decency and his profound emotional attraction to Yolanda. It's a tough role to pull off, and Malkovich gives Bardem the time and opportunity to draw the character's emotional complexity with subtle, patient, expressive moments and line deliveries. Bardem has the rare ability to convey distinct emotions or states of thought with subtle gestures and nuanced facial expressions, and Malkovich demonstrates an actor's trust in another gifted actor to accomplish the film's emotional subtext.
There are a few problems here and there. Rejas' attraction to Yolanda is understandable, but their burgeoning relationship feels a bit forced and underdeveloped at times. A subplot involving the Chinese embassy is introduced but left more or less unresolved. The plot is vaguely predictable, though, in the film's defense, the suspense has more to do with how Rejas will deal with the revelations his investigation will uncover than with what will actually be revealed.
Even with the flaws, 'The Dancer Upstairs' is a highly intelligent and entertaining film, and offers yet another opportunity for American audiences to become acquainted with the fabulously talented Javier Bardem, who is my pick to be the next Marlon Brando.
Not Mamet's best, but worth a look.
'Spartan' has all of the Mamet trademarks--unlikely twists and double-crosses, cynicism about power and the nature of information control, and, foremost, the tough, rhythmic, poetic dialog that is both a pleasure to watch and an obvious thrill for the actors to deliver. Unfortunately, 'Spartan' feels a bit formulaic, as if Mamet were consciously plugging his characteristic style into a typical genre thriller for a rather calculated effect. Nevertheless, it's suspenseful and compelling, and contains one of the better performances from Val Kilmer in recent memory.
Kilmer plays 'Scott' (sometimes called 'Bobby'), a black ops specialist so deeply involved in covert operations that not even the government agents he works for know who he actually is. At times, Scott doesn't seem to remember himself, which is part of the desired effect: Kilmer's Scott has been an operator for so long he functions almost like a machine. The dramatic core of the film is Scott's awakening humanity as he becomes committed to recovering the daughter of the President, whom he believes to have been unwittingly abducted into a white slavery ring. The film frames itself nicely around an opening scene in which Scott participates in a training exercise for aspirants hoping to join an elite, Delta Force-style cadre from which Scott has presumably graduated, in which he makes the acquaintance of Curtis (Derek Luke) and Black (Tia Texada), novice operators who aspire to be international black ops bad-asses like Scott. Scott then leaves the exercise and is abruptly informed that the President's daughter has been abducted. With Curtis as his second, Scott begins the investigation that will ultimately lead him 'off the reservation' in a rogue attempt to recover the girl, who may or may not have been abducted and may or may not be dead.
Mamet is always a stickler for authority and accuracy, and despite moments of inconsistency, 'Spartan' is persuasive in its presentation of special forces' tactics and the mentality of real-life secret agents. Kilmer is a pleasure to watch as he recites Mamet's signature tough-guy talk, the rhythms of which pour forth from his Scott with poetic flow. The supporting cast is equally strong (especially Derek Luke as Curtis), but this is Kilmer's show, and he makes the most of it.
Unfortunately, there are a number of flaws and inconsistencies, which I won't mention here to avoid spoiling the plot. The pacing is also a bit quick, though it feels accurate to the rate at which a real-life recovery operation would take place. Mamet has often commented that for film or theater to qualify as art it should upend the audience's expectations, and while this film is engrossing, it ultimately edges toward a formula that feels overly familiar. Nevertheless, 'Spartan' is genuinely suspenseful and entertaining, even if it fails to match the standard set in Mamet's best films and plays.
It's certainly far from Mamet's best, but 'Spartan' still delivers as entertainment. It's no 'Glengarry Glen Ross,' but go in expecting a good genre thriller and you won't be disappointed.
Nice try, George.
Well, the word on the street is that 'Unscripted' has been canceled, and it's not hard to imagine why. The pseudo 'reality' show meant to offer the inside scoop on the hard road to stardom never really garnered much of an audience, and, with little to no plot or storyline to speak of, never provided much of a hook to keep viewers interested. This is George Clooney's second stab with the sorta-kinda-reality show genre on HBO--the first, 'K Street,' which Clooney co-produced with his buddy Stephen Soderbergh, tried to meld fictional drama in a DC lobbying firm run by real-life power couple Mary Matalin and James Carville. The show attempted to bend genres by combining actual current news stories with fictional subplots, presumably to expose the behind-the-scenes action leading up to public news events. One problem: could there be anything less interesting to watch than the lives and doings of a bunch of hyper-neurotic DC lobbyists? Answer: the lives and doings of aspiring actors trying to break through in Hollywood.
'Unscripted' again tries to give us an improvised take on 'reality,' with real struggling actors (Krista Allen, Bryan Greenberg, Jennifer Hall) splitting time between humiliating auditions, the occasional, small-time acting gig, and an acting class taught by the ridiculously pretentious and egocentric Goddard Fulton (Frank Langella), who pontificates about the 'craft' of acting for a roomful of desperate sycophants trying to pretend that art has something to do with their desire to be famous and make easy money. Langella is a fantastic actor, but his Goddard is easily the worst thing about 'Unscripted,' boring the audience to death with idiotic speeches about artistic integrity for a bunch of people who would do back flips from one end of the Sunset strip to the other to be cast in a commercial or a soap opera. Though I'm sure Goddard has his real-life counterparts who are just as serious as he seems to be, the performance is unintentionally funny to the point of being embarrassing.
The series had its moments--the best story-line was held by Allen, Clooney's one-time girlfriend, a stunning beauty trying to be taken seriously as an actress after spending the first half of her career modeling for men's magazines and doing soft-core porn. Allen's is a classic dilemma, and while we don't necessarily feel sorry for her, her humiliation at being unable to find a job that doesn't require her to take her clothes off is palpable.
The main problem, though, is that people outside of LA and New York--i.e., the audience--don't care about the inner workings of Hollywood. It's no secret that Hollywood is a viper's nest and that aspiring actors face a lot of rejection and humiliation before they get lucky, if ever. We just want to be entertained. And given the fact that there's a war going on right now, it's hard to take a bunch of actors feeling sorry for themselves too seriously.
Clooney deserves to be complimented for attempting to translate the current public obsession with unscripted reality programming into a new film-making genre. But thus far, the projects seem to be overwhelmed by self-importance and humorlessness. Clooney's pal Mark Wahlberg seems to be having better success with 'Entourage,' a far less intelligent version of the behind-the-green door genre, probably because that program seems to be more comedic in nature. Perhaps one day Clooney will be able to pull this pseudo-reality thing off more successfully, but it's unlikely after the failure of 'K Street' and 'Unscripted' that he'll get another chance any time soon.
A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004)
An endless string of clichés.
'A Love Song for Bobby Long' has its moments, but is unfortunately mired by the all-too-typical tendency on the part of New York/Hollywood filmmakers to draw the South as a place where everyone 'tawks lah-ck the-yus' and spends their days in a sweat-slick haze of booze and cigarette smoke.
Filmmaker Shainee Gabel is clearly in love with New Orleans, but that's a big, big part of the problem: she films the place like a tourist, projecting the typical Yankee's 'local color' view of the Crescent City, complete with a guided tour of New Orleans clichés and tourist attractions. We get rainy days in the French Quarter, a couple snacking on beignets on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, a group of drunken good old boys strolling along the levee, boiled crawfish and dixieland jazz, a ride on the St. Charles streetcar line, and countless name-drop references to everything from Mardis Gras to gumbo with andouille sausage, all of which is meant to rather bluntly remind us that we're in Storyville, as if we couldn't already tell. The classic failure of Northerners trying to make films about the South is their patent compulsion to treat the region--especially its more excessively romanticized cities, like New Orleans, Charleston, and Savannah--as an exotic wonderland of tragic decay. Tennessee Williams already wrote that play, five or six times, fifty or sixty years ago, so films like 'A Love Song for Bobby Long' just seem lazy in their flat, unoriginal, post-card view of how people live in the South.
Bobby Long (John Travolta) is a disgraced English professor who has migrated from Alabama to New Orleans to drink himself to death. He lives in an old, dilapidated slum house with his protégé and former student, Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), an allegedly talented writer who seems to have been more or less commissioned to write a grand Southern epic based on his mentor's allegedly grand and tragic life story. When the woman whose house they've been flopping in dies (presumably from the physical toll of her alcoholism), Bobby locates her long-lost daughter, Pursy (Scarlett Johannson), who decides to escape her life of white trash squalor in Panama City, Florida by moving into her mother's house in New Orleans with Bobby and Lawson, who falsely inform her that Pursy's mother has left the house to all three of them. At first Bobby seems determined to run Pursy off with his vulgar insults and drunken behavior, but she has nowhere to go, and eventually the three form a bond, with the two men attempting to get Pursy back into school and eventually to college and Pursy attempting (with little apparent success) to get the men off the sauce. This format might work if it weren't for the fact that the dialog runs like an 'intro to Southern Lit.' course at a big state U, with plenty of thickly accented lofty quotations by Bobby, tired, purple descriptions of New Orleans voiced by Lawson (whose name itself is yet another cliché), and shots of Pursy sitting around reading Carson McCullers (whose 'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter' seems to bear the brunt of the blame for the formulaic story) or Flannery O'Connor.
Travolta is typically charismatic as Bobby Long, but for his painfully bad Alabama accent and the fact that his character is as cliché as they come. Gabriel Macht acquaints himself better as Lawson, the aspiring writer following his mentor into oblivion, though he looks a bit healthy for a guy who lives on screwdrivers and beer. The finest performance comes from the young Scarlett Johannsen, who is subtle and believable (the accent is actually passable, though for Georgia or North Florida rather than New Orleans) as Pursy, managing an appropriate balance of tough-girl sass and vulnerability. The plot is thin and a bit predictable, and hinges on a rather unsurprising revelation about Pursy's parentage, but Johannson, Macht, and, to a lesser extent, Travolta, are engaging and entertaining enough that I didn't consider the film a waste of time.
Still, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at the endless string of heavy-handed, cartoonish clichés about life in New Orleans, and the plot and characters are treacly and unoriginal. A DVD extra in which director Gabel pontificates about New Orleans with such insights as 'in New Orleans, there's a church on every block and a bar on every corner,' etc., only exacerbate the fact that she only knows the place as a tourist and is only feeding the audience the most superficial impression of life in New Orleans. Here's a flash for you: we've got our quirks, but most folks in the South live pretty much the same way folks live everywhere else. They don't sit around by the levees listening to delta blues and waxing poetic about the weather, they don't drink any more than New Yorkers or Angelenos, and even when they do act the part, they don't celebrate their own eccentricity. They just go about their lives like anyone else does, with or without beignets, streetcars, boiled crawfish, and gumbo. If you're from the South, you know what I mean; if you're not, trust me: the only people in New Orleans who behave the way these characters do ain't from there, and if they 'tawk lah-k the-yus,' they're equally full of you-know-what.
Very underrated; Possibly Cruise's Best
'Collateral' is probably the coolest, most stylish and intelligent crime thriller of the new millennium. Again, Michael Mann has directed an established star--Tom Cruise, as the sociopathic hit man, Vincent--to what might be his best performance ever, at least in an action film, and has taken a relatively obscure and unaccomplished actor--Jamie Foxx, as mild-mannered cabbie Max--and helped transform him into a major star. And, again, Mann has done so in the kind of film that straddles genres and reminds audiences that it is possible both to entertain and to provoke thought about serious themes.
The story is deceptively simple: Max (Foxx) is a hard-working cabbie in L.A. with a pipe-dream of opening up a limousine business called 'Island Limos.' Mann and writer Stuart Beattie employ subtle touches to characterize the contemplative Max: he keeps his cab meticulously clean; he keeps a postcard of an Island paradise above the cab's sun-visor so that he can 'go on vacation' when dealing with traffic or obnoxious customers; in the film's rising action, Max picks up a beautiful attorney (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and proves his decency by convincing her to let him follow a time-saving shortcut, creating an unlikely romantic spark and earning himself an unexpected proposition from a woman even Max would consider out of his league.
But Max's fate takes a perilous twist when he picks up Vincent (Cruise), a somewhat ostentatious and brusque character who offers Max six hundred dollars to ferry him to five different stops over the course of the evening to conduct 'business' before dropping him off at LAX in the early morning hours. Max is reluctant, but Vincent won't take 'no' for an answer, and so Max agrees, discovering shortly and shockingly what Vincent's 'business' actually is: he is a contract killer, in town for one night to eliminate five witnesses against members of a Mexican and Colombian drug cartel currently facing federal charges for murder and narco-trafficking. With his secret revealed, Vincent forces Max to continue their hellish journey, and the two carry on a philosophical battle of wits, with the brash, cynical Vincent challenging the virtuous and timid Max with a jaded, merciless view of human frailty as they speed towards a confrontation with an unlikely destiny.
For all of his fame, Tom Cruise too rarely finds the right vehicles for his scrappy, athletic and intense performing style, and Vincent may be the one role that allows him the opportunity to do so many of the things audiences have come to love him for. Mann styles Vincent in a smart, '50s-style gray suit with a matching gray brush-cut and five o'clock shadow that signal both his maverick sensibility and his precise, disciplined approach to the business of murder. He philosophizes about the nature of life and death, offers biting criticism of the inhumanity of man to man epitomized by Los Angeles, America's most modern and superficial metropolis, and taunts Max for his naiveté and ineffectual lifestyle. When Vincent goes to work, Cruise stalks the screen like a lion let loose in the urban jungle, striking down his prey with an efficiency that is as beautiful as it is heartless and terrifying. Cruise fits the role as well as he fits in the finely tailored gray suit, so that the audience remains ambivalent about Vincent, who becomes a sort of Satanic hero over the course of the film.
Jamie Foxx has been endlessly applauded for his performance in the title role of the recent Ray Charles bio-pic, but his Max should not be overlooked as a finely-wrought performance, full of subtle tics of reality and quiet reactions to Vincent's violence and perverse moral philosophy. Though Cruise is clearly the star of the film, Max is really its hero, an average Joe thrown into an incredibly frightening and unlikely scenario who manages to work through his fear and passivity to match wits with Vincent.
Most of the film takes place in and around the cab, but this scene is hardly limiting, as it affords Mann the opportunity to exploit the beauty of Los Angeles at night, using aerial shots and sweeping vistas of the city, accompanied by a typically excellent soundtrack featuring superb electronic music as well as soul, jazz, and Mexican narcocorrida pop from the likes of Richie Havens, Miles Davis, and Bandidos de Amor.
Mann wisely pulls away from the cab on occasion to fill in the back-story, using LA detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Weidner (Peter Berg) to unravel the connection between Vincent's victims. Spanish actor Javier Bardem (a two-time Oscar nominee for best actor for 'Before Night Falls' and 'The Sea Inside') dominates the screen in a brief appearance as Felix, the drug cartel's top man in L.A. Jada Pinkett-Smith is as lovely as always in a role that reappears in a crucial plot twist towards the end of the film.
But the show belongs to Cruise's Vincent and Mann's Los Angeles, true visions of the American Sublime. The film is so perfectly suited to their talents that it's hard to believe that it wasn't written for them (Russell Crowe, Colin Farrell, and Edward Norton were all offered the role of Vincent before Cruise, and Scorsese, Spielberg, and Spike Lee all turned down the director's chair before Mann accepted). 'Collateral' is easily among the best action thrillers in recent memory, and despite a few possible plot holes in the form of highly unlikely coincidences, it is persuasively realistic, fabulously entertaining, and thought provoking to boot. Crazy or not, Tom Cruise is as commanding a screen presence as ever, and this partnership with Michael Mann might be his best work.
Before Night Falls (2000)
Powerful and Affecting
Julian Schnabel is primarily a visual artist and secondarily a film director, and his mastery of visual media dominates this patient and precise bio of the late Reynaldo Arenas, a novelist and poet who was imprisoned and later exiled from his native Cuba for his controversial writings and his open homosexuality.
Most of the objections to this film have to do with the faithfulness with which Schnabel treats the memoir of Arenas (also titled 'Before Night Falls'), which, despite its beauty, is undoubtedly biased in its presentation of history. Furthermore, Schnabel seems to downplay Arenas' contempt for Fidel Castro and the post-revolutionary totalitarianism of his regime, under which countless poets, writers, artists, and practitioners of alternative lifestyles deemed 'counter-revolutionary' by the regime were jailed, tortured, murdered, and, in some cases, expelled from Cuba. Schnabel presents Arenas as far more of a victim than an active voice of dissent, which is, in a certain sense, unfaithful to his legacy. It feels as if Schnabel may have had some reservation about being overcritical of Castro and, by default, of Communism, both of which are sympathized with by many artists and leftists worldwide (including the family of the film's star, Javier Bardem, a Spaniard whose parents--influential figures in Spanish cinema--are longtime outspoken Communists/Socialists).
Both actor and director have publicly avowed that the film means to critique totalitarianism in general more so than Castro or Communist Cuba in particular, which seems like a bit of a cop-out. Nevertheless, art, despite its inherently political nature, should strive to be a-political, and this film does so effectively with its blending of gorgeous image and fine, subtle performance, particularly by Bardem as Arenas. Bardem has the face of a classical statue, and his deep set eyes, broken, Roman nose, and expressive mouth are mesmerizing. With the right role, he could (and should) be a major star in the US, as he has been for some time in his native Spain. Every move he makes is compelling to watch, and he creates a sympathy for Arenas few other actors could manage. His narration of Arenas' poetry and prose is patient and soulful, adding much to the already gorgeous shots of rural and urban settings (the film employs archival footage from Cuba, but was filmed in Merida and Veracruz, Mexico, in the Yucatan, the region of Mexico closest to Cuba).
Because the film is based on a memoir, it proceeds episodically, following the young Arenas from his boyhood to his early accomplishments as a poet and novelist through his imprisonment and later his escape to the United States during Castro's 'purge' of undesirables in 1980 (the same means by which Tony Montana escapes Cuba in 'Scarface'), when criminals and homosexuals were invited to voluntarily expatriate to Miami so that the demand for basic resources in Cuba under the US-led embargo could be relieved somewhat. The film spends considerable time reflecting on Arenas' sexual initiation and his gay lifestyle, which is slightly problematic in that it suggests that Arenas was persecuted solely for being homosexual, which is at best a half-truth. Though Arenas himself was probably persecuted less for his lifestyle than for his public criticism of the regime, it is probably not inaccurate in its portrayal of the turn against art, life, and experimentation taken by Castro's brutal totalitarian ethos. In any case, Arenas ultimately makes his way to New York with his friend Lazaro (Olivier Martinez), where in 1987 he began to suffer symptoms of AIDS. He died in 1990, after which his memoir and several letters condemning Castro and the failure of the US to rescue the Cuban people from his tyranny were published, to wide acclaim.
The film should not be overly criticized for its historical errors and omissions, because it is primarily a showcase for Schnabel's artistry as a director and Bardem's astonishingly charismatic performance as Arenas. The film is also graced by fine performances by Martinez as Lazaro, who rebuffs Arenas' sexual advances but later becomes his dearest and most trusted friend; Johnny Depp in dual roles as a jail house transvestite who helps Arenas smuggle his manuscripts out to the world and as a sadistic prison guard; Sean Penn as a farmer who encounters the young Arenas on the road to Havana; and Michael Wincott as Herbet Z. Ochoa, a poet and essayist forced to publicly renounce his art by a Communist tribunal.
Dirty Realism at its Best
Martin Scorsese's reputation as the director of some of the best gangster movies of all time often obscures his enormous sensitivity to the nuances of every-day modern life. Despite being his first commercial success, 'Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore' is probably Scorsese's most overlooked film, which is shameful, because it is arguably his best, and in any analysis, deserves acknowledgment as one of the most honest and, ultimately, uplifting portraits of working-class womanhood written and directed by men.
The scenario is familiar to anyone with a vague awareness of late 1970s American pop culture, as it was adapted into a successful TV sit-com, 'Alice,' starring Linda Lavin in the title role originated by the great Ellen Burstyn: a former lounge singer who traded a dicey future for the stability of blue-collar married life in suburban New Mexico, Alice Hyatt finds herself suddenly widowed, with little to no money, no career possibilities or job experience, and a precocious (and frequently obnoxious) twelve year-old son (Alfred Lutter, who went on to make 'The Bad News Bears' before growing up and disappearing) to provide for. With few other options on hand, Alice determines to restart her singing career back in Monterrey, California, the last place she remembered feeling truly happy and optimistic about the future. She packs her life and her son into the family station wagon and makes her way west, stopping off first in Phoenix (where the sit-com is set) and then in Tucson, trying to save enough cash to get to Monterrey. En route, she suffers defeat, humiliation, and a continuation of her serial attraction to abusive men, until finally she finds herself reduced to a job as a waitress in a roadside café, the now-ubiquitous 'Mel's Diner,' a dive dominated by the profane banter between saucy head waitress Flo (Diane Ladd) and cook/owner Mel (Vic Tayback). Alice finds herself living in an extended-stay fleabag motel, pinching pennies and praying for a bit of luck, which dubiously arrives in the form of David (Kris Kristofferson), a local rancher whom Alice feels herself falling for but is unable to trust, thanks to her history of abuse at the hands of formerly charming men.
Scorsese's innovative, trademark camera work is on ample display here, along with his art-house director's penchant for the unusual (the film opens with an homage to 'The Wizard of Oz,' in which Dorothy is replaced by the young but already brassy and foul-mouthed Alice). But this is a story about humanity, and Scorsese knows enough to step back and let his brilliant lead actress fill up the screen with her honesty and emotional range.
Ellen Burstyn won the 1976 Best Actress Oscar for this film, and it's easy to see why. Scorsese clearly knew what he had on his hands: Burstyn's Alice is both tough and vulnerable, desperate and determined. Burstyn lets the camera linger on her aging face (she was 42 when the film was released), which, strangely enough, is more beautiful and alluring than the polished appearances of most of today's actresses. Alice faces countless hardships, and Burstyn makes them feel as true as any we face in our own lives. She tries to keep up a bright face for Tommy, her quirky, quizzical son, but has moments of naked, gut-wrenching despair as she tries to fathom how she'll ever be able to support herself. Burstyn was herself a singer and a waitress before finding success as a film actress, and her vocal performances are powerfully affecting--pitch-perfect, but shaky enough to reveal her inner vulnerability. She is a brilliant vehicle for this portrait of the life of a hard-luck woman with no one to trust. The film is full of fine, heartbreakingly memorable moments--Alice weeps in bed next to her husband Donald (Billy Green Bush) after another silent, loveless dinner, and the two clutch each other, unable to speak, Alice's disappointment outweighed only by her desperate need; after a long day of rejections, Alice breaks down into tears before a gentle bar manager, who ultimately caves in allows her to audition for him, whereupon she performs a heartbreaking medley of standards for a stunned crowd of average joes in a dingy piano bar; Alice gets a rare moment of joy, drunkenly sitting up from the kitchen table to show David her first dance routine after making love for the first time. These moments feel so real and honest that you almost forget you're watching a movie.
The supporting performances are all easily above par, especially Diane Ladd as Flo, a role made famous for the sanitized 'Kiss my grits' line immortalized by Ladd's TV counterpart, Polly Holliday (interestingly, Ladd briefly succeeded Holliday on the TV 'Alice' in the role of 'Belle' after Flo got her own short-lived spin-off). Alice and Flo initially clash, but eventually form a sisterly bond, revealing that in many ways they are opposite sides of the same coin (curiously, Diane Ladd and Ellen Burstyn were born within a month of each other, Burstyn in Detroit and Ladd in Mississippi). Alfred Lutter's Tommy is perfectly exasperating but also lovable. Kris Kristofferson's David manages to be 'too good to be true' without being unbelievable as the first good man in Alice's life. Harvey Keitel (as a rakish suitor), Jodie Foster (as a spunky ne'er-do-well who befriends Tommy), and, of course, Vic Tayback, are all perfect in their smaller, supporting roles.
'Alice . . .' deserves to be revisited again and again. It's so close to the experience of single mothers in the 1970s that it could be considered a documentary. It's also frequently very funny, capturing the small bits of laughter and silliness in normal life with pitch-perfect accuracy. I doubt that there has ever been another film that has made fictional characters feel so real and true. Alice is a true heroine--a survivor--and sharing her travails and triumphs, you feel the empathy and involvement that only appear in transcendent art.
More style than substance
possible mild spoilers ahead . . .
To be fair, 'Closer' is only rarely painful to watch, and though I found myself loathing most of the characters, they held my interest. The actors are engaging and attractive--especially Clive Owen as the oddly sympathetic Larry and Natalie Portman as Alice, the one character who doesn't seem to deserve the misery that befalls her--and though the settings seem a little excessively hip (big, airy London flats; upscale art gallery; high end, 'gentleman's club'-type strip joint, etc.), this is the movies, after all: even in non-escapist fare, we audiences prefer to watch people who are better looking than us, have cooler wardrobes and haircuts, and hang out in the land of the beautiful people, looking perfect, sipping champagne, smoking French cigarettes, and talking about serious stuff like art, literature, and, of course, sex.
The trouble with 'Closer' is false advertising. The title of the film and play itself suggest that the story will be about intimacy, but the screenplay keeps the audience at arm's length. We open with the chance meeting of Alice, a precocious American tramp meant to fit the 'La Boheme' archetype (she actually refers to herself as 'a waif'), and Dan, another big, black-and-white stock character--the struggling artist, confined to an unrewarding job as a writer of obituaries for a London newspaper. The melodramatic soundtrack does the work of informing us that these two have made an instant connection of epic, Romeo-and-Juliet, Tristan-and-Isolde proportions. We learn that Alice is fresh off the plane from NYC, where she has left both a problem boyfriend and her job as a stripper (yet another of an endless string of clichés that mar this film). Dan self-effacingly reveals his deep desire to be a successful novelist.
But before we get a chance to see these characters gain some depth below type, we are propelled one or two years into the future. Dan has sold his first novel--borrowing shamelessly from the presumably colorful life of Alice, who is now his girlfriend and flat-mate--and is being photographed for the novel's dust-jacket by Anna (Julia Roberts), to whom he finds himself inexplicably and overwhelmingly attracted (hey, Julia's hot, no doubt, but would she really knock Natalie Portman off the pedestal that easily?), particularly after he learns she's been up all night reading a galley copy of his book. We know so little about Dan that the sincerity of his attraction can't really be known; his first scene with Alice suggests that he's a shy, unassuming fellow, but with no indication of what has taken place between his meeting with Alice and his session with Anna, we have no reason to think he doesn't flirt with every attractive woman he meets. Alice arrives, instantly senses the attraction between Dan and Anna, provokes a bizarre but arresting confrontation with Anna . . .
And then once again we are flung into the unspecified future, where Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist who occupies himself with pornography and on-line sex chat, is cruelly lured by Dan (posing as a horny female swinger named 'Anna') into confronting the real Anna at her favorite place to relax, the London Aquarium. Lo and behold, the two hit it off (though one might suspect that Anna's initial interest in Larry might be fueled by a desire to get back at Dan for the sadistic joke).
We jump ahead haphazardly again and again, and it's safe to say without giving anything away that the sexual tension between Dan and Anna eventually comes to a head, after which bad things ensue. We then get the pleasure of watching our pretty, serious actors berate each other in vulgar, bitter exchanges. Jealousy and resentment abound; the wronged lovers Larry and Alice have their own encounter when Larry stumbles drunkenly into the club where Alice works after having left Dan (with Natalie Portman proving once again that the best ways for a pretty girl to get an Oscar nomination are either to wear a fake nose or play a stripper/whore). I assume we're meant to be filled with admiration for these 'courageous' performances, but even pretty, serious actors can't make us sympathize with these despicable characters. Julia Roberts gives the subtlest, most restrained performance, but we're never given any indication of what Anna sees in either Dan or Larry. Clive Owen's Larry is probably the most interesting character--a relatively sympathetic nice guy with a dark, misogynistic streak and a penchant for rough sex and porn. Dan seems sweet in the first scene, but then proceeds to behave monstrously, so that you find yourself hoping he'll get his well-earned comeuppance.
The structure of the film seems like the sort of device that might work well on stage, but on film, the audience is too distant from the characters' inner lives. Furthermore, Mike Nichols chooses here to take the melodramatic route, overusing Damien Rice's maudlin pop confectioneries to overstate the seriousness and importance of what's happening, so much so that we feel as if we're being pounded over the head with the film's deep seriousness, when in fact it's a rather simple story about shallow, selfish people betraying each other.
The real trouble here is that, despite the rare opportunity to see Natalie Portman bending over in a thong and Julia Roberts comparing the flavors of her two lovers' sperm samples, this film has nothing new to say about contemporary love relationships. Deception destroys trust, love is soured by jealousy, vindictiveness is ruinous . . . don't we already know this? Alice summarizes the situation appropriately early on in the film: when Dan lamely apologizes for having fallen in love with Anna with the classic 'I didn't mean for this to happen' line, Anna succinctly reminds him that 'there's always a moment' when one can choose to resist temptation--to suppress his/her own desires or perceived needs and avoid betraying trust. This one scene renders the rest of the film superfluous.
An Under-appreciated Satire
Given Tom Cruise's recent unstable behavior, it might be the right time to revisit 'Bowfinger,' Steve Martin and Frank Oz's highly under-appreciated satire of the side of Hollywood we mere mortals aren't supposed to see.
In Hollywood, there are no secrets--everyone knows who's secretly gay or insane, and who's slept with who, when, where, and what they got out of it. But no one wants powerful enemies, and in the quickly shifting landscape of stardom, where one can transform almost overnight and with no apparent or predictable logic from b-list character actor or teen idol into a-list mega-star and Oscar-caliber actor who can open hundred-million dollar movies and make or break the careers of his/her friends and acquaintances, no one wants to be the one who spills the scandalous beans.
For this reason, 'Bowfinger'--the 'Spinal Tap' of contemporary Hollywood--was barely made, and upon its release was greeted with a politely, barely restrained gasp of horror from everyone on the inside who recognized Martin's unusually liberal borrowings from the gossip files to construct this smart, dry, tastefully executed comedy about a has-been-before-he-ever-was actor/director who concocts a scheme to sell his hopelessly bad sci-fi action film project to a major studio by surreptitiously following and filming a major action film star, manipulating his behavior when able, and then later patching a film together with the clandestine footage and a few shots with a body-double. Little does Bowfinger (the loser, played with typical charm and intelligence by the great Steve Martin) know that the film star he means to exploit--Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy)--is a paranoid, delusional basket case of psychological problems barely being held together (though, one suspects, also being held at the edge of sanity) by his mentors at MindHead, a bizarre, cultish, mind-controlling religion obviously meant to stand in for the Church of Scientology, the increasingly infamous faith/life method of numerous Hollywood stars, most notoriously Tom Cruise and John Travolta (musician Beck has allegedly also recently joined the ranks of Scientology, at the behest of his father and his girlfriend, the sister of actor Giovanni Ribisi, also a Scientologist).
Bowfinger assembles a motley crew of Hollywood wannabes, which include the fabulous Christine Baranski as Carol, an aging stage actress who drives around town listening to old recordings of herself singing show tunes; Heather Graham as Daisy, a presumably naive young beauty who steps off the bus in L.A. and immediately sets about trying to sleep her way to the top (Daisy is based on nutso actress Anne Heche, who exploited Martin before moving up the food chain to a public lesbian affair with Ellen Degeneres, whose sit-com was then at peak popularity); Adam Alexi-Malle as Afrim, Bowfinger's corpulent Pakistani accountant and the author of 'Chubby Rain,' the ludicrous alien invasion script which Bowfinger believes will catapult him to fame and respectability; Jamie Kennedy as Bowfinger's camera operator, who smuggles equipment out of the studio lot where he works as a low-level crew man; and Kohl Sudduth as Bowfinger's sweet but vapid excuse for a heart-throb. This gang of misfits works well together in various gags lampooning the film industry.
But the film is stolen entirely by Eddie Murphy, first as Kit Ramsey, whose paranoid rants include the observation that a script his agent has offered him must be racist because the letter 'k' appears in it a number of times divisible by three ('KKK' appears in this script 111 times!) and the twisting of a remark made by the agent about a script--'it's not Shakespeare'--into a racist slur ('Shakespeare?!? Shake-a-Spear! You callin' me a spear-chucker!?!), and later as Jiff, Kit's nerdy and socially inept twin brother, who unwittingly stumbles into Bowfinger's scheme and agrees both to serve as a stunt/body double and errand boy for the film ('Running errands would be a real boost for me!' he gleefully remarks).
One of the great things about 'Bowfinger' is the opportunity to see Eddie Murphy create two ridiculous characters the way he once did so frequently on Saturday Night Live, before 'Bevery Hills Cop' send his ego to Mars. He looks like he's having the time of his life, and the fabulous talent he has wasted so frequently on mediocre to painfully bad star vehicles like 'Coming to America,' 'Harlem Nights,' or 'Vampire in Brooklyn' is once again apparent, and triumphant. Together, Martin and Murphy remind us how comedy should be made: with intelligence, humility, generosity--and, most importantly, scathing wit.
Scientology gets fairly merciless treatment in the form of MindHead, a cult-like corporate religion led by Terry Stricter (Terence Stamp), who soothes the paranoiac Kit with new-agey acronym lessons (K.I.T=Keep It Together) and chastens him not to 'show it to the Laker Girls' when he hears the voice of Teddy Kennedy instructing him to 'bring the Laker Girls down a peg or two.' Given Tom Cruise's recent weirdness and the fact that he openly travels with a cadre of Scientologists who function like a Secret Service detail, it's not hard to suspect that Kit Ramsey was written with Tom Cruise in mind (the role was originally written for Keanu Reeves but was ultimately changed and offered to Murphy).
Murphy's presence, ironically, may have undermined this film in its initial release, as audiences many audiences left theaters disappointed, having expected more of a traditional slapstick comedy with Murphy in a larger role (his scenes are easily the funniest, but Kit and Jiff or secondary characters). But it's well worth revisiting for its quality and its scathing critique of the business of Hollywood.
The Door in the Floor (2004)
Earnest, Tragic, but Ultimately a Failure
John Irving's novels have never translated easily to film due to their breadth and length (the Academy Award-winning script for 'The Cider House Rules' took over ten years of tinkering). But the structure of events unfolds in 'A Widow for One Year,' the source novel for 'The Door in the Floor,' in such a way that carving out a section for a screenplay is possible. Unfortunately, writer/director Tod Williams seems to have forgotten that when you leave out the last 320 pages of the story, a new resolution of some satisfaction is required.
Ruth Cole, the 'Widow' of the novel's title, is reduced to a secondary character, as the entire film takes place during the summer of her fourth year. Ruth (Elle Fanning) is the child of Ted and Marion (Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger), who, in a misguided effort to stem their grief over the loss of their teen-aged sons in a car accident (as well as to save their marriage), conceived Ruth.
Sadly, things have only worsened between the Coles, and the story finds them at the nadir of their woe, as Eddie O'Hare (Ben Foster), a young high school student and aspiring writer, gets thrown into the storm of their self-destruction, having signed on for an 'internship' with Ted, a successful author and illustrator of children's books.
Eddie is a wide-eyed innocent, hoping to absorb some sort of insight into what it takes to be a writer from Ted. He shortly discovers that his responsibilities have less to do with literary concerns than with chauffeuring the perpetually drunk Mr. Cole to various homes around the Hamptons for rendezvous with divorcées, babysitting Ruth, and providing companionship for Marion, who is locked in a perpetual stupor of grief. Eddie falls in love and ultimately into bed with the grieving Marion, who finds in him a surrogate for her sons (in a haunting if perverse image, we see Marion mounted atop the arduous Eddie, gazing with longing at a photograph of her sons on the wall above him). As Ted continues to alienate himself, Marion decides to make a break for it, leaving behind her daughter but taking with her all but one of the photographs of her boys that line the hallways. This act of abandonment forms one of the framing questions that drives the novel's narration, but it is the film's final act, and we are left with nothing much more than a shoddily written paean by young Eddie for a resolution (Eddie, interestingly, grows up in the novel to be a bit of a loser, a failed writer whose only connection to the world of literary respectability is Ruth Cole, a successful, award-winning novelist by the time the story resumes after Marion's exit). Marion's escape seems to be meant as a grasp for freedom, but it's hard to admire her for it when you know she's leaving her child behind to be raised by the almost maliciously myopic Ted.
The conclusion seems to mean for the film to be seen as a coming of age drama, but it's hard to imagine what we're supposed to think Eddie has learned (outside of the bedroom, anyway). In the end, the film suffers from an over-seriousness bordering on tedium, and the dialog is painfully artless for a literary adaptation. The big trouble is that, rather than inventing a more thoughtful, logical conclusion, Williams remains faithful to Irving's story, which ends (in this segment, anyway) as a window into a distant future unrecalled or reported in the context of the film. Generally, fidelity to the source novel is a virtue, but here it leaves the story feeling incomplete and void of larger significance outside of the context of spoiled, wealthy New Yorkers pacing stoically through their manse like models posing for a layout in Architectural Digest.
It's hard to fault Tod Williams for his use of setting, however. He sets the film at the Coles' home in the Hamptons, a picturesque den of elegant, WASPy aesthetic sensibility. Indeed, one of the more admirable aspects of the film is its exploitation of the house and the landscape that surrounds it. Williams studied painting in college, and the visual artists' sensibility is on full display here in the landscapes and interior shots he employs almost like still lifes to pace the film and stretch its somber mood between scenes of action and dialog.
Williams films the house beautifully, but fails to bring the same skill to his staging of the scenes or direction of the actors. Jeff Bridges acquaints himself well as Ted Cole, fashioning a boozy, eccentric, larger-than-life figure who is simultaneously repulsive and charismatic. Bridges, however, is arguably the most underrated screen actor of his generation, and brings gifts to the table absent in the rest of the cast. Elle Fanning as Ruth is reduced to nearly nothing. Ben Foster starts out well as the innocent, somewhat pathetic Eddie, but ultimately he is unable to overcome the thin dialog, remaining a bit of a slack-jawed teenager, failing to persuade the audience that he has changed or gained any particular insight. Kim Basinger can be forgiven for her rather stale and tone-deaf performance, since she's given the most difficult job in trying to create sympathy for a woman who seduces her child's teen-aged babysitter and then ultimately abandons her child (she can be forgiven for abandoning her husband).
The film carries an air of artful seriousness, and the circumstances faced by the Cole family are indeed tragic, so some pathos is appropriate, and it's always a pleasure to watch Jeff Bridges at work, even in mediocre fare. But this film is all style and no substance. Williams probably has better work ahead of him; I certainly hope so, anyway.
The Deep End (2001)
a little uneven, but compelling
This film is valuable mostly for the performance of Tilda Swinton as Margaret Hall, a prototypical soccer mom at the head of a privileged, overachieving family who finds herself acting against reason and propriety in order to protect her son, whom she believes has committed murder.
Margaret lives in Lake Tahoe (a sublime setting well-employed throughout to sustain the film's chilly, noir-ish tone) with her three children and her father-in-law, a retired naval officer, while her husband--also a naval officer--is away at sea. The film opens with Margaret approaching Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), the sleazy proprietor of a gay nightclub in Reno, who we quickly learn has been carrying on an affair with Margaret's 17 year-old son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker). Margaret--who has recently learned of the affair after her son was involved in a car accident while driving drunk with Darby Reese in the passenger seat--means to chase away her son's seducer, by any means necessary, including bribery.
Mr. Reese arrives at the Hall home that night, where he calls Beau out for a little fun in the boat house. Angered both by a recent confrontation with his mother and the revelation that Reese had agreed to abandon their relationship for a payoff from Margaret, Beau fights with Reese and then orders him to leave. But after Beau has left, Darby Reese has a fatal fall from the dock into the lake, and his body is discovered the next morning by Margaret, who assumes immediately that he was murdered by Beau.
With her husband away at sea and unreachable, Margaret decides impulsively to cover up Reese's disappearance to protect her son, who is in the process of applying to elite universities for a music scholarship (he is a trumpet prodigy; ironically, Margaret's encouragement of Beau's music talent indirectly led to the relationship with Darby Reese, whom Beau met on his weekly trips to Reno for private music lessons). She assumes her son is guilty of murder, but seems equally concerned about protecting him from the public revelation of his homosexuality. She can't reach her husband by phone, but even if she could, Margaret wouldn't know how to reveal the truth about their son's secret life to his father, whom she is quite certain will not be as tolerant as she.
Margaret is too consumed with preserving the appearance of normalcy to discuss the previous night's events with her son, who learns rather innocently from the newspapers of his lover's demise. All might be well but for the appearance of Alec (Goran Visjnic, of ER fame), a blackmailer who knows that Reese had visited the Halls on the night of his death and who possesses rather seamy videotaped evidence of Beau's relationship with Reese.
The film subsequently follows Margaret's desperate attempts to gather enough money to pay off her blackmailers. Her determination arouses sympathy in Alec, who gradually shifts his allegiance from his employer to the Hall family, as the film moves towards its somewhat predictable climax.
The elements are all familiar to viewers of suspense films; where 'The Deep End' deviates--and excels--is in its performances, which are universally understated and subtle. Tilda Swinton is one of the most magnetic actresses in film, but is less than a household name primarily because she works somewhat rarely as a film actress and is very selective about her roles (she is best known for her starring turn in 'Orlando,' based on the Virginia Woolf novel about a man who wakes up one morning in a woman's body). It's easy to see why Swinton was attracted to the role of Margaret Hall: she is basically a typical housewife, but with her husband away often for months at a time, she must act independently and without consultation. She is simultaneously trying to cover up a murder, pay off a blackmailer, tend to her ailing father-in-law, keep tabs on her son, and make sure the other kids get to ballet practice and school on time, all while maintaining her prim, well-organized demeanor so that not even the son whose love affair has set off the tragic chain of events is aware of what she's up to. Most affecting is the profound sense of devotion Swinton's Margaret displays for her eldest child, which is key in a story which could basically be summarized in the old cliché about what a mother will do for her children. The ultra-proper and ordered Margaret--very much the traditional stay-at-home mom and military wife--transforms into a desperate, feral creature who will do absolutely anything to protect her young.
The plot turns out to be more predictable than one would hope for, but the superb performances (in addition to Swinton's, Jonathan Tucker is excellent as Beau, and Goran Visjnic is also persuasive and compelling) make this one worth a look. The conclusion is a bit of a let-down, but otherwise, this is fine stuff.
tasteless, unnecessary, and embarrassing for all involved
Presumably inspired by the success of 'Boogie Nights' and the nostalgia for vintage porn resulting from the recent mainstreaming of the industry, 'Wonderland' is one of the most pointless and grotesque films made in recent memory. Amplifying the disappointment is the presence of a superb slate of actors--Val Kilmer, Dylan McDermott, rising star Josh Lucas, Christina Applegate, Eric Bogosian, Kate Bosworth, and especially Lisa Kudrow--almost all of whom are horribly miscast, none more so than Kilmer, who bears little to no resemblance to the real John Holmes and whose performance is basically a retread of his overrated turn as another icon of '70s excess, Jim Morrison, in Oliver Stone's 'The Doors.' (There's a special irony in this fact: Morrison himself lived in a house on Wonderland Avenue, not far from where the murders took place, during the height of Laurel Canyon's popularity as a haven for rock stars.) Stylistically, 'Wonderland' is a bad knockoff of 'Boogie Nights,' the central character of which, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), was closely based on John Holmes, and which also contains a subplot inspired by the Wonderland Avenue murders. Director Cox commits highway robbery, ripping off P.T. Anderson and Quentin Tarantino with so little nuance or originality that 'Wonderland' would look like the work of a pimply film school undergrad if it weren't for the presence of so many recognizable actors.
Val Kilmer is a curious actor--totally overrated in terms of his skill, he is nevertheless a magnetic screen presence who is always interesting to watch, even when he's laying it on thicker than a side of bacon. The trouble here is that the real John Holmes, unlike Kilmer, was the total opposite of charismatic--a skinny, ugly goof-ball blessed (or cursed) with an enormous organ, Holmes was a sideshow act, not a stud. Furthermore, by the time the events depicted in 'Wonderland' took place, he was a pathetic train wreck of addiction. Unable to work in porn, he survived by pimping out his naive girlfriend (who, like the people who made this film, was under the impression that there was something 'cool' about a has-been porn-star) and by ingratiating himself with San Fernando Valley drug dealers who got a kick out of befriending the infamous Johnny Wadd.
The film opens with the girlfriend, Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth), having wild sex in a bathroom with Holmes while the aunt who is trying to get her away from Holmes and his ilk suffers a conniption fit on the other side of the door. Wild and reckless, hell yeah--except for one thing: the whole reason Holmes ended up involved in the Wonderland murders was because he could no longer perform sexually due to the physical consequences of his cocaine addiction, and thus was cast out even by the sleaze-balls of the porn industry. For a film pejoratively meant to be 'true,' this semi-glorifying distortion of Holmes' character is absurd and inappropriate. And that's just the beginning.
Other actors fare better than Kilmer--Eric Bogosian as the sleazy club impresario and dealer Eddie Nash; Lisa Kudrow as Holmes' estranged wife from his life before porn and coke--but Kilmer's performance is the albatross around the neck of a misconceived project. Also somewhat ridiculous is Dylan McDermott, who is far too healthy and articulate to pass for a junkie biker from the Valley. Josh Lucas is, like Kilmer, charismatic enough to get away with things we won't tolerate from less magnetic actors, but he looks too much like a Princeton undergrad to be believable as a hardcore drug user.
Finally, the gore in this film is as pointless and inscrutable as it is inevitable. James Cox knows no sense of restraint, flinging a sickening montage of bludgeoning and gunfire at the viewer so we can all get how gritty and 'real' the film is. Funny how the violence is about the only thing in this film that's remotely realistic.
'Boogie Nights' said all that needs to be said about the first heyday of the porn industry, with much greater originality, wit, and generosity. 'Wonderland' was just a bad idea.