Click below to Jump to that Mini Review.

Happy Feet
Bobby
The Last King of Scotland
The Queen
The Black Dahlia
32nd Telluride Film Fest
Walk the Line
Everything is Illuminated
Paradise Now
Capote
Brokeback Mountain
The Lost City

Junebug
March Of The Penguins
The Island
War of The Worlds
Cinderella Man
Hitchhiker's Guide to...
The Forgotton
Millions
2004 Best-to-Worst
Spanglish

The Aviator

Fahrenheit 9/11
21Grams
The Missing
Master and Commander
Shattered Glass
30th Telluride Film Festival
Lost in Translation

My Life Without Me
Elephant
I’m Not Scared
A Mighty Wind
Anger Management
Holes

Adaptation
Rabbit-Proof Fence
Max
Antwone Fisher
Secretary

Telluride Film Fest
Autofocus
Lost in La Mancha
Talk to Her
Cuckoo


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By Richard Krzemien
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Mini Movie Reviews



Happy Feet

Names of the Writer and Director Omitted
to protect their families and reputations.

(Special Note — In one of the biggest blunders of recent years (along side the Academy's snub of Eddie Murphy for Best Supporting Actor in Dreamgirls), Happy Feet was awarded the Oscar for Best Animated Film. So I'm here to say that the egg I promised to lay has been laid and is in the process of being FedExed to the Academy.)

What in the frozen world were these filmmakers thinking? So the plot line of Happy Feet is this: An Emperor penguin flock is starving and needs to be saved because their waters are being over fished. Yet, there isn’t one malnourished bird in the bunch, and every time they go out to hunt they come back full.  While this is happening, our main character discovers that he can't sing (or perhaps just can't find good material). He also has a case of tap dancingitis for which he is ostracized from the flock. Why? Because, it seems, nobody likes a dancing penguin—not even other penguins.

Nevertheless, to try and stop the fishing marauders, our tap dancing hero swims 6,000 miles from Antarctica to the U.S. to try and change our fishing treaties.  I’m sorry, but this penguin seems totally clueless. Why swim to the U.S.?  As every bird knows, it’s Japan that hauls out the most fish from that part of the world (Am I being a little too hard on these geopolitically challenged foul? I think not.).  Moving on.  Our hero is caught and stuck in a zoo pen, making him a "penned penguin"... sorry. And how does he escape from the insane-asylum zoo in which he finds himself?  He taps for his audience, which actually makes him crazier than the other waddling inmates, right? Wrong. A stubby-legged, tap dancing penguin is a marvel of nature, so they let him go (I think). But he’s 6,000 miles away from home.  How does he get back?  Well, we don’t know because they never show us.

Before you throw a bah humbug at me, please know that I love a good singing and dancing penguin movie as much as the next carnivore. But when a bird is stuck in a film with a plot line so absurd that even a 5-year-old questions it, well, that’s where I draw a line in the tundra. I won’t even discuss the noise they call a soundtrack.  And what’s with the Mexican penguins? Yes, Robin Williams is a hoot as a furry Latin jokester (and practically every other character). But isn’t the portrayal of the Mexican flock right on the beak’s edge of being racist?

I feel sorry for the people who worked on the computer animation for this film because the visual effects are absolutely, jawdropingly beautiful.  Unfortunately, their work has been sacrificed to the Great Guin in a rush to put out a piece of mindless, adolescent fluff.  If anyone gives this movie even one award for anything other than special effects, I will personally lay an egg.

P.S. — Without a doubt, the penguin film to see is the award-winning March of the Penguins.

—rk

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Bobby

Written and Directed by: Emilio Estevez

In the 1960s, America was in disarray. The Viet Nam war, Martin Luther King’s assassination, segregation, riots and the draft governed the news. Yet, when he spoke, Bobby Kennedy was able to transcend it all.  For those of us who were alive and aware in 1968, watching the movie Bobby might feel like bittersweet nostalgia. For those who have never had an opportunity to experience Kennedy’s words, this movie may be a revelation.

The decision by writer and director Emilio Estevez to use actual archival footage of Bobby’s speeches instead of using an actor to portray him is without a doubt the film’s greatest gift.  Who, other than Bobby, could have presented the issues with the same sense of passion, honesty, integrity and excitement? Sadly, when today’s empty-suited politicians attempt to tackle similar themes, they often end up on The Daily Show sounding like caricatures of themselves.

Bobby captures nicely the “big tent” appeal of Kennedy’s run for the White House by using the Ambassador Hotel as a stand-in for 1968 America. In classic Robert Altman style, Estevez creates 22 characters with intersecting story lines that all take place within the Ambassador. Each story touches in its own way on some aspect of American culture.  This dangerous approach could have shortchanged the movie by giving us nothing more than a superficial social rubdown.  Instead, Esteves uses well-placed lines from Kennedy’s public appearances to make these scenes feel poignant.

One story line I found particularly interesting follows a young couple (Elijah Wood and Lindsay Lohan) who is about to get married at the Ambassador. Though they are not in love, the marriage will give the boy a deferment needed to keep him out of Viet Nam.  Their uncertainty over their decision is touching and complex. What gives this story added weight is a line that Estevez uses from one of Kennedy’s more prophetic and emotional speeches:

“Our lives on this planet are too short, the work to be done is too great. But we can perhaps remember that those who live with us are our brothers who share with us the same short moment of life.” 

Bobby is a film worth seeing, if for no other reason then to understand what was and what might have been.

— rk

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The Last King of Scotland

Written by:  Jermy Brock, Giles Foden
Directed by:  Kevin Macdonald

Cast:  Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Gillian Anderson, David Oyelowo, Kerry Washington

When naivety and power converge, tragic things often emerge. Such was the case in 1970’s Uganda under Idi Amin's brutal regime. Though The Last King of Scotland deals with Amin's rise to power and the subsequent holocaust, the film's main character is actually Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy).

McAvoy plays a naive, fish-out-of-water Scottish doctor who chooses Uganda as an adventurous location to begin his medical career. Through a chance encounter, Nicholas meets Amin and becomes seduced by the trappings of power.  While McAvoy does an admirable job with his role, it is Forrest Whitaker's Idi Amin who grabs the spotlight (and your throat) and won't let go. This may be Whitaker's best performace to date and should earn him a Best Actor, or Supporting Actor Oscar nod (depending on the Academy’s odd set of rules). The moment Whitaker first appears on screen the tension becomes palpable. When he smiles, you sense the evil behind the grin. Throughout the film you cannot predict what he will do next, a reflection of Amin’s instability and a testament to the talent that Whitaker brings to the role. This complexity is nicely expressed when Nicholas says to Amin, “You’re a child and that’s what makes you so fucking scary.” 

This is Kevin Macdonald's first dramatic feature after directing two stellar documentaries (One Day In September, Touching The Void). Here he works with a powerful team: Peter Morgan (The Queen) and Jeremy Brock offer up a powerful screenplay based on the novel by Giles Foden, Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle provides the searing images of Amin’s reign of terror, but it is editor Justine Wright who deserves particular praise. 

Much like Steven Spielberg who used Verna Fields to edit Jaws, and Martian Scorsese who had Thelma Schoonmaker cut Raging Bull,  Macdonald has found in Wright a master editor. Her feel for Amin’s twisted mind is evident in every cut.  As the film’s drama increases, her edits shorten. As the horror of Amin’s reign unfolds, visual reality fragments. Her work is a tour de force of tempo and restraint.

This film follows in the footsteps of other powerful African dramas, such as, Hotel Rwanda and The Constant Gardener. Sadly, I sense that in a few years another touching film will be made about the currently unfolding tragedy in Darfur.  We can only hope that at some point the fodder for these films will no longer exist.

— rk

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The Queen

Written by: Peter Morgan
Directed by: Stephen Frears

Cast: Helen Mirren , Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Helen McCrory, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Sylvia Syms 

Review Open Option #1: The Queen is a movie steeped in tradition and shot with a sense of restrained elegance befitting that of its subject matter.

Review Open Option #2: Ahhh! Oh, God! Nooooo. Not another British drama. Please pull my nails out before making me sit through one more European talking heads with accents movie. (And I was BORN in Britain!)

Okay, I'm calm now. So here's my honest reaction and the real opening paragraph: After seeing this film, I humbly bow before its artistry and recommend it to all.

The film's drama centers around the emotional disconnect that develops between the Royal family and the British public in the days following Lady Diana's death. The Queen staunchly believes that the event calls for private reflection, whereas, her subjects demand that she make a public appearance to openly mourn with them. The go-between (or Poodle, if you prefer) is the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The power and elegance of this film is immediately evident from the first scene. In it, Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) sits atop a riser and chats with an artist—her subject—who paints her portrait from below. After finishing the conversation, she turns and looks directly and unflinchingly into the camera, implying that not even "our" presence can intimidate her.

The screenplay is crisp; the performances, especially the one delivered by Mirren is Oscar-level (though James Cromwell's Prince Philip, comes off a bit flat), and the direction from Stephen Frears (High Fidelity) is accurate and precise. Complementing Ms. Mirren's Queen is Michael Sheen's masterly portrayal of Tony Blair. Sheen's Blair presents the perfect balance of honest broker trying to do what's best for Britain , and humorous, ego-driven politician with a 70% approval rating.

To understand just how well crafted this film is, simply pay attention to how Frears seamlessly weaves the interviews of Diana and the news footage of her death into the story. Images this emotionally charged handled by a lesser director could easily come across as crass and manipulative.

Perhaps the best complement I can pay this movie is to share the sense of privilege I had while watching it. Here is a film that takes you into the reclusive Royals' home at the very moment tragedy strikes. Yet, thanks to Stephen Frears, we are permitted to stay and watch what happens next. And isn't that exactly when the best drama begins?

— rk

 

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The Black Dahlia

After seeing The Black Dahlia, I immediately began chatting with God.  I knew He wouldn't give me back the 2.06 hours of life I had just wasted watching this movie.  But I thought it was reasonable to ask if He would just let me live long enough to see another, hopefully, much better flick.  That way I wouldn't enter eternity with the memory of this film as the last image etched onto my brain.

How is it possible for someone as skilled as Brian De Palma to release something so disjointed and incomprehensible? It's a mystery even bigger than the murder within the film. 

Though much of the story is forgettable, I must say there are two very enjoyable performances. The first is by Hilary Swank who plays a sexy (yes, sexy) and deeply disturbed heiress. Her swagger and aloof superiority would set even Katherine Hepburn back on her heels. The other is by Mia Kirshner, who plays Elizabeth Short, the film's victim.  Though she's only seen for a short time in archived screen tests as her murder is being investigated, she exudes more life than most of the "living" actors in the story.

Yes, this is a bad film.  But there's a much bigger tragedy here. Like the music business, the movie business is in decline. My fear is that of the thousands of people who pay to see this movie, a number of them will stomp out and decide never to spend another penny in a cinema again. That would be a great loss for them as well as a tragedy for the movie business. So here's my suggestion. Universal should place an employee outside each screening to apologize to every patron as they exit, and then hand each of them a complete refund.  Perhaps they can even toss in a Snickers bar for good measure.

— rk
 

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32nd Annual Telluride Film Festival
(Click Here for Festival Photos)


Despite being repeatedly pelted by rain and hail, the mood surrounding those standing in the long lines at this year’s Telluride Film Festival was decidedly upbeat. The reason was simple: The films kicked some serious celluloid butt. Many of the offerings were interesting, some compelling, and a few brilliant.

As is customary, most of the films’ principals were in attendance and ready to discuss their current works. One notable popping up at various venues was writer/director/actor Andy Garcia, who has spent the past 16 years working on bringing his project The Lost City to the screen (He also brought along nearly everyone involved with the project and introduced each of them at every showing. Ugg.) Liev Schreiber — with a much smaller entourage — made an impressive directorial debut with his film Everything is Illuminated. Philip Seymour Hoffman who stars in Capote, brought a ham sandwich, and William H. Macy who stars in Edmond, simply brought his talent. And then there was Mickey Rooney who, amazingly, was able to venture up to Telluride’s 9,078 ft.-above-sea-level Opera House theater to be honored for still being alive, as well as for his (200?) years of film work.

As in many previous Telluride Film Festivals, humor was in short supply. I’m not exactly sure why, but of the thousands of films produced worldwide each year, the judges frequently have a hard time finding anything of worth that includes laughter. I guess it tends to undercut that “suicidal feeling” they so love to share with their Festival-going public. Nevertheless, many of this year’s offerings overcame this shortcoming by offering outstanding glimpses into the human condition.

When these movies are released in the coming months, that age-old advertising slogan “Coming to a Theater Near You” will thankfully alert you to something of worth, rather than act as an early warning system of impending boredom.

— rk

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Walk the Line


Written by: James Mangold, Gill Dennis
Directed by: James Mangold

Starring:
Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon


This biopic follows the life of Johnny Cash from the beginning of his career through his ten-year-long romantic pursuit of June Carter.

The strength of any biopic rests in its ability to pull you into the story whether or not you know, or even like the main character. Walk the Line clearly accomplishes this. But it also does much more, in part, by using great music not just as an ego trip for the actors, but as an integral component of the plotline. Each song moves the story forward by showing us how Cash and Carter’s relationship changes over time. And key to making this work are the commanding performances delivered by both Phoenix and Witherspoon. Who knew these actors could belt out a number with the best of them? In fact, they so completely fall into their roles that they turn Cash's old familiar music into something fresh and exciting, as if it were happening live and you were hearing it for the first time.

But this is a movie about more than just music. It’s about redemption and salvation, as Cash discovers when he becomes lost in a drug habit and finds himself descending into hell. Luckily, before he hits bottom he sees June Carter offering to help pull him out of the flames.

You may not have paid much attention to Phoenix and Witherspoon before now. After seeing this compelling picture, I think you’ll agree both of these actors have just crossed the line and moved onto the A-list.

—rk

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Everything is Illuminated


Directed and Written by: Live Schreiber
Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer

Starring: Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin

Everything is Illuminated tells the story of a young man who journeys to a small town in the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather’s life from the Nazis during World War II.

With such a serious-sounding synopsis, it may be surprising to discover just how funny this movie is. What is equally surprising is that it is not a comedy. It is, in fact, a touching and poignant story that celebrates the importance of remembrance, the power of secrets and the meaning of friendship. It does this by creating unforgettable characters and placing them in a historically rich environment. Some may feel that the Ukrainians depicted in the film have been exaggerated. Let me say that based on my own Slavic background and experience they are not. These are characters who come from a rich culture and somehow Schreiber has managed to captured their spirit with great accuracy.

This is Schreiber’s first directorial role. As such it is an incredible accomplishment. The lyrical visualization of this story brings a sense of magic to a journey that could have sunk like a rock in less competent hands. Though the ending is a bit overdone, Everything is Illuminated is a joy to experience.

—rk

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Paradise Now

Written by: Hany Abu-Assad & Bero Beyer
Directed by: Hany Abu-Assad

Starring: Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman Lubna Azabal


Paradise Now chronicles the story of two young Palestinian men who agree to become suicide bombers.

Like most people, I have often asked myself why do some people choose to blow themselves up. This subtitled movie addresses that question by exploring a few of the root causes: poverty, dead-end jobs and political oppression. Shot on location, the visuals quickly give you a clear sense of the lack of hope that saturates the Palestinian culture.

One fear I had before seeing this film was that Paradise Now would turn into a political diatribe on the Israeli occupation and the need for Palestinian independence. Thankfully, it does not. It simply sticks with the storyline of two men who are willing to give up everything for what they perceive is a righteous cause. As one of the main characters says in order to justify his actions, “If we [Palestinians] can’t live as equals with the Israelis, then we will die as equals” — a chilling sentiment. Whether you agree or disagree with their logic, the movie presents the Palestinian dilemma in a powerful and dramatic way.

—rk

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Capote

Written by: Dan Futterman. Based on the book by Gerald Clarke
Directed by: Bennett Miller

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper

Capote begins in 1959, when Truman Capote discovers an article in the New York Times that describes the murder of four family members in Kansas. Gripped by the need to test his theory that a non-fiction story can be as compelling as fiction, he convinces his friend Harper Lee (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), to venture with him to the town where the murders took place.

While there, Capote meets and befriends the two murders. The men are soon convicted and sentenced to death. Unfortunately, this happens before Capote is able to finish his book, “In Cold Blood.”

What rests at the core of this picture is Capote’s willingness to sell his soul for a story. In order for his book to have a great ending, Capote exploits the judicial system to change the natural course of events. The eventual realization of what he's done leads to his ultimate undoing.

The care and maturity with which this story is told by a first-time writer and a first-time director is quite impressive. It unfolds naturally. Not one scene feels false. Throughout the film Philip Seymour Hoffman effortlessly nails Capote’s complex and unique character.

Despite all of the movie’s strengths, I felt distanced by it. I’m not sure exactly why. I’ve always thought that Truman Capote was a fascinating individual. It may be that by Hoffman choosing to play Capote’s self-obsessed life in such a restrained manner, we never fully experience the internal conflict that arises from Capote’s self-imposed ethical and moral battles. Nevertheless, I think this movie is well worth seeing even though it only begins to address the complexities of one of America’s more interesting authors.

—rk


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Brokeback Mountain


Written by: Diana Ossana. Adapted from The New Yorker article by Annie Proulx
Directed by: Ang Lee

Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, Anne Hathaway

One summer in 1963, two broke cowboys take a job in the mountains to protect a herd of sheep from predators. While there, their loneliness sets the stage for an unexpected encounter that leads to a lifelong secret bond.

At its core, this is a love story between two men who become lost in a world where strict role models of what a man should be do not apply. This is a powerful and disturbing film shot against the scenic backdrop of Wyoming and the sweeping vistas of Texas. The grand scale of the canvas that Ang Lee has chosen is very effective in supporting the film’s grand story arch that takes place over the course of decades.

Life is much more complicated than films can ever portray. Nevertheless, this film attempts to fill in some of the blanks by burrowing into an aspect of our culture that is rarely talked about. Powerfully acted and beautifully shot, Brokeback Mountain opens our eyes to the possibilities, and limitations, of what it means to be human.

—rk

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The Lost City


Written by: G. Cabrera Infante

Directed by: Andy Garcia

Starring: Andy Garcia, Bill Murray, Inés Sastre, Tomås Milian, Dustan Hoffman

The Lost City is a story about what happens to a Cuban club owner and his family during and after the overthrow of Cuba's President Batista in the late 1950s.

With such a historically rich cultural background from which to draw, The Lost City should have been an epic tale of greed, patriotism and love. Unfortunately, its weak central character gets lost in side plots, family squabbles, political infighting and a tacked-on love story.

The Lost City draws quite a bit of its inspiration from Casablanca. Unfortunately, it captures little of that film’s political and romantic grandness. Whereas Casablanca has a strong and deeply troubled main character, The Lost City’s main character drifts aimlessly from scene to scene, angry that his world is falling apart around him but unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

The film's confusion stems from a lack of focus from first-time feature director Andy Garcia. He spent 16 years working on bringing this story to the screen and who, like a child in a candy shop, could not resist shoving whatever plot lines he could find into his cinematic bag.

Though the many songs (five of which were written by Garcia) and the beautiful locations are a pleasure to experience, they do not overcome the film’s weaknesses. Perhaps under more accomplished leadership this story of the Cuban revolution might have become Cuba’s Casablanca. Unfortunately, like the expatriates who await Casto’s passing, we too will have to wait for a film that captures what The Lost City only hints at.


—rk

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Junebug


Written by: Angus MacLachlan
Directed by: Phil Morrison

Starring: Alessandro Nivola, Embeth Davidtz, Amy Adams, Ben McKenzie

Junebug is a movie about people trying to communicate across great divides. The story is deceptively simple. Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), is a big-city art dealer who takes a trip to North Carolina with her new husband, George (Alessandro Nivola), to inspect the work of a local artist. While there, George introduces his new wife to his small-town Southern family. Her arrival is greeted with a volatile mixture of trepidation and awe. It soon becomes clear that Madeleine has entered a world filled with opposites: Red-State vs. Blue-State sensibilities, sophistication vs. innocence, pacifism vs. violence and bigotry vs. total acceptance.

With such dramatic extremes each tugging in different directions, this movie could easily have taken a wrong turn and driven right into cliché-ville. Luckily, it does not. Instead it takes us on a savvy journey through an emotional minefield that, in the end, opens our eyes to how difficult true communication can be, not only with strangers, but also with our closest family members. The pace is unrushed. Each scene feels original because the people in them seem so true to life. And though the characters are all naîve in one way or another, they are fully formed individuals whose lives are presented with total respect for their points of view. I a number of people who see this film may say that they know someone just like one of these characters. If so, that is high praise indeed.

Because this is a low-budget film with a young director at the helm, expect some rough edges. But the insight and tenderness that the writer and director bring to the table shows that they have both matured well beyond their years. This is a rich movie filled with fabulous acting performances that I suspect will launch a number of careers.

— rk

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March of the Penguins


Directed by: Luc Jacque
Narrated by: Morgan Freeman

Starring: The Emperor Penguin

After seeing March of the Penguins, I now firmly believe we are living in the golden age of the documentary. I mean, who in their right mind would spend a year in 50-degree below zero conditions filming a bunch of penguins walking across the ice unless there was an audience out there to appreciate the effort?

This is a stunning movie about an amazing breed of bird presented without the usual sappy or overly poignant ending. What this film clearly and powerfully shows is how deceiving first impressions can be. The next time you see photos of, or are standing in, any vast wilderness you’ll know the truth: That you are not looking at empty space. Just out of sight, there are astounding stories of unimaginable courage in progress. A great family movie-going experience, and when available, the perfect home theater DVD.

– rk

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The Island

Written by: Caspian Tredwell-Owen (Beyond Boarders)
Produced/Directed by: Michael Bay (Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon)

Starring: Ewen McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Sean Bean, Michael Clarke Duncan.


Because The Island is a big-budget, sci-fi action adventure film, I wasn’t expecting much. Perhaps that’s the best way to see a summer movie. Expect nothing. Hope for something. Well, I got a lot more than I had bargained for. Though the movie felt at times like a roller coaster ride, the experience was always exhilarating. The film's plotline is much more credible than War of the Worlds, and the acting is very solid. Scarlett Johansson is smoking hot, and what’s-his-name, Ewen McGregor, also delivers a solid performance. But it’s Steve Buscemi who steels the picture with his oily janitor/techie role and the line “If you like hamburger, do you really want to meet the cow?” In context, that line is a hoot, but it's also a sinister foreshadowing of future events. And did I mention that Johansson is smoking… Oh, yeah, I did.

Given the action-filled trailers, what surprised me most about this film is its intriguing theme: Never question authority unless you are prepared to pay the ultimate price. Many reviews seem to have missed this point by focusing on the more obvious plotline that looks at the dark side of cloning. But dig below the moral issues that arise from the misguided use of genetic technology and you'll encounter a theme that deals with something much broader, the insidious side of self-righteous behavior by those in power. This is a film that creates a world where a “cow” asks probing questions of the all-knowing farmer, only to discover that his curiosity is not at all appreciated. In fact, it's highly discouraged. Insert the word “human” for the word “cow” and you'll begin to appreciate how well this movie understands what great sci-fi is all about. (Note: No cows were used in the making of this picture.)

The fact that films such as The Island, Batman Begins and War of the Worlds exist at all is a hopeful sign that even at the summer blockbuster level, mindless entertainment may actually be trying to be more relevant. (Could it have gotten any more irrelevant?) You'll have to decide for yourself whether or not you agree with what The Island ultimately says about who we are as a society. But I feel a movie that raises such interesting questions is certainly worth seeing.

— rk

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War of the Worlds


Screenplay by: Josh Friedman
Based on the novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins


It can happen to anyone. You invade a world. Everything’s going fine, and then suddenly it all goes to hell because you forgot to plan for the little things. It happened to the Martians when they invaded Earth in H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds. In that story, the aliens seemed invincible until they caught a cold and died. It happened to Orson Wells when he read The War of the Worlds on the radio in 1938. Everything was going fine until the East coast missed the disclaimer at the beginning of the broadcast and went into a wild panic. And now it's happened to Spielberg who has constructed a visual masterpiece but forgot to add a plausible plotline.

Don't get me wrong. This film is very watchable. But as with any genre there are rules you must follow, and if you break them you do so at your own peril. In the sci-fi genre the two important rules are: always carefully include the use of social commentary, and always, always make the logic and science used within the world of your film credible. (A little skin never hurts either. But I'd call that more of a personal preference rather than a rule.) Anyway, without adhering to these rules you’ve got science fantasy and a remake of the Coneheads.

Luckily, Spielberg adheres relatively closely to rule number one. Early on in War of the Worlds you hear a confused and horrified off-screen voice suggest that terrorists are causing the destruction. With that reference as our backdrop we, along with innocent victim Tom Cruise and his kids, are thrown into a world of cold-hearted horror and death. The scenario is deeply disturbing, a chilly reminder of the current emotional state of the planet. And the tension never lets up. The acting by Cruise and Dakota Fanning is stellar. The special effects mesmerizing. There is no humor or escape, and we feel that we may never leave the theater alive. (I am surprised this film is only rated PG-13 for "frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images." Even I had nightmares.)

So I have no quarrel with Spielberg and rule number one. But with regard to rule number two, War of the Worlds crashes to earth. Of course the special effects are outstanding. They make the alien tripod killing machines very credible. But the logic of the story evaporates almost as soon as we see the first tripod. How and when did these machines get here? If they’ve been here a million years, why only now are they attacking us? Do they want to kill us or eat us, or both? Why do they go after the cows and country folk before vaporizing cities like Boston where all the people are? And that ending… Oh, my God. It’s as if the aliens wrote it themselves while they were tumbling around in their pus-filled killing machines.

I’m not going to reveal any details of the ending, but it’s odd how Spielberg has a knack for destroying the final moments of some of his best films with schmaltz — not that I’m suggesting this is one of his best. Remember that old guy shuffling along at the beginning and end of Saving Private Ryan with his family following fifteen-feet behind him as if he was a leper, or that force-fed, emotional John Williams score at the end of E.T.? As John Stossel would say on 20/20, “Give me a break.”

So let me summarize: What we have here is a very watchable film about an advanced species that attacks us for no reason with amazing special effects, but realizes after their trillion-mile journey they somehow forgot to pack a credible plotline. Remember, it's the little things that make for a successful invasion, whether it be within a country, a planet or a movie theater.

-rk

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CINDERELLA MAN

Written by: Akiva Goldsman (Screenplay), Cliff Hollingsworth (Story, Screenplay)
Directed by: Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Parenthood, Splash)

Cast: Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Paul Giamatti (Joe Gould), Craig Bierko (Max Baer) Bruce
McGill ,(Jimmy Johnston), Paddy Considine (Mike Wilson)


Whenever I think of Ron Howard, the words “edgy director” never come to mind. His movies often feel safe and saccharine sweet. I was therefore geared up not to like Cinderella Man, a film based on the gritty, true story of Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock. Surprise. Despite Ron Howard's magnetic attraction to the middle of the road, he has managed to make a film about a man getting the snot beaten out of him very watchable.

The plotline is simple. A once-respected boxer, Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe), finds himself down and out during the heart of the Depression. With the love of a good wife (Renée Zellweger) and the support of a crafty manager (Paul Giamatti), Braddock gets a second shot at glory.

Where the movie feels most sure of itself is in the clear portrayal of its characters, most notably Crowe’s total embodiment of Jim Braddock. When I compare this boxing movie with Million Dollar Baby, I get a sense of credibility from Crowe as Braddock that I never felt from Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald. His convincing performance as a blue-collar dockworker at this point in his career is a masterful accomplishment, especially when you consider the hugely heroic characters he has portrayed in films such as Gladiator and Master and Commander. In addition to Crowe, the film is filled with a number of other great performances, most notably from Paul Giamatti who plays Braddock’s shrewd manager Joe Gould.

Ron Howard also does an admirable job of managing the “look and feel” of the film. Braddock’s Depression-era New Jersey neighborhood is rich with detail. The boxing sequences — the real strength of the movie — completely work. They are powerful without being sadistic. As the punches fly, we always know what Braddock is thinking. And though the fight sequences are brutal they never feel gratuitous, rather, serve to help us understand Braddock’s values and the depth of his determination. Howard and the writers also deserve credit for their restraint in not making it too apparent who will win the fights. In most sports films we know the answer to that question in the first five minutes. I have to say that my own ignorance of Jim Braddock’s life was a plus in this regard. Not knowing what was going to happen added a level of suspense to a movie that was a tad short on depth.

And here is where Howard’s directing skills fall short. By leaving out Braddock’s dramatic fall from grace, we are shortchanged in our understanding of what really made Braddock tick. For example, at one point at the height of his career in 1929, we see him raking in thousands of dollars per fight. We then skip forward four years and he’s totally broke, living in an unheated hovel with a loving wife and three hungry kids. How did he cope with losing everything and not go crazy? Why did he choose to stay with his family when so many other men abandoned theirs out of shame? Since we never see the tough choices Braddock — or his wife — made on their sanitized slide into despair, we have little to chew on for the rest of the film. Thankfully, Crowe’s superb acting skills and the great fight scenes effectively substitute for this omitted emotional content and keep the movie from feeling hollow.

Howard also misses with his “how one man lifted the spirit of a nation” theme. This storyline is very similar to the one used in Seabiscit, but in that movie we were given a clear sense of why the nation had a stake in the outcome of a horse race. Remember the brilliant mini Great Depression-era documentaries that were sprinkled throughout? The director used actual footage of 1930s food lines and shantytowns to show the depths of despair into which the country had fallen. It therefore made sense for the nation to look for a hero — because that's what we do. The surprise was that we found one in the form of a horse.

In Cinderella Man we are offered little in the way of scope, which is odd when you're trying to show how one man captured the heart of a country. Howard tries to use the hard luck of Braddock’s friend Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine) as a spokesman for “the masses,” but his story is only touched upon in the overall course of the film. The result is a small back-story with limited emotional payoff. This is not to say that the punch the movie delivers with respect to Braddock and his family’s struggle for survival isn’t moving, it is. It’s just that Howard never pulls off the much harder trick of making us feel that Braddock had managed to become "the hope" of the downtrodden masses.

Though Cinderella Man stops comfortably short of being a great movie, its superb acting performances, powerful fight footage and beautiful look make it a very satisfying movie-going experience. Of course, to draw that conclusion you’ll have to overlook the fact that grown men are beating each other senseless throughout the course of the film which, happily, I was able to do.

P.S. If you haven't seen Seabiscuit, I strongly encourage you to rent it. It's a great movie and it will give you a solid base of understanding about the conditions in the U.S. during the Great Depression.


-rk

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy


“The history of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one
of idealism, struggle, despair, passion, success, failure,
and enormously long lunch breaks.”

Douglas Adams

Written by: Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick
Directed by: Garth Jennings


I distinctly recall two events that happened to me when I was a teenager: my father accidentally drove over our cat, and I had zits. Oh, and Pam — a classmate who had snatched my heart — had no idea that I existed (painful details deleted).

For me these disparate events were all equally traumatic which made for a very disquieting life. Had I the option of leaving planet Earth and all its complexities I would gladly have taken it. Unfortunately, that choice wasn’t available, but a book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was and it allowed me the sense of escape I desperately needed. As time moved on, my zits disappeared and a number of new and improved cats came and went, but one thing remained the same — my occasional need to flee from the insanity. Thankfully, a movie adapted from the book has finally arrived allowing me to be, once again, taken by the hand on a brief romp away from this bewildering planet.

Note: For those who only want the Mini Movie Review, relax. You may "get to the point" by reading the following paragraph and/or skipping down to the Summary paragraph.

This movie has great special effects, lovely dolphins, a number of really funny lines, attractive towels, Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Galaxy Quest), the voice of Marvin the depressed robot, is a riot. This is not a perfect film, but overall I'd recommend it for adults, kids, snacking, dating and most of all, escape.

Historic Overview:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a film deeply rooted in the dry British wit and absurdist humor established in the UK in the late 1960s. During that turbulent time some amazing British comedy groups were born. Two groups that immediately come to mind are: Beyond the Fringe (Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett), and the brilliant Monty Python (Eric Idle, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, the now deceased Graham Chapman, and silly animator Terry Gilliam). Their wide-ranging success would later transform American comedy by giving rise to troupes such as Second City, The Groundlings and Saturday Night Live.

One notable thread that connected all of these actors was their love of skit humor (a scene setup by an oftentimes absurd situation that has nothing to do with the scenes that come before or after it). Unfortunately, this exciting new approach to comedy was decidedly frowned upon in moviedom because it was a slap in the face and a banana in the eye to the established 3-act comic structure. So when studios contemplated creating films using scripts from these troupes (gasp), something drastic needed to change. The solution: add a plotline (Monty Python and The Holy Grail, Life of Brian, Airplane, Kentucky Fried Movie). But the "plots" that were added were often just a ruse used to hide what the performers really wanted to do: create more "dead-parrot" skits.

As the 1970s wore on, Douglas Adams found himself sautéed in the growing popularity of skit humor. Evidently, the taste must have agreed with him because it was during that period when he served up The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Using a loose sci-fi plotline, Adams strung together a number of inventive scenes that became a BBC radio show in 1978, then the unlikeliest best-selling book in memory, then another radio show, a TV show, but to Adams’ great disappointment, never a movie.

Much has changed in the 25-plus-years since the book’s release, yet The Hitchhiker's Guide has somehow managed to transcend it all. Despite the huge success of his books, it still took Adams until 1998 to land a solid film deal (at Disney). Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to see his dream realized. He died shortly after finishing his second draft in 2001 at the age of 49 — perhaps his way of rebelling against predictability. Another irony is that Adams, who came to the U.S. to sell his script, had it produced and directed by folks from the UK. Although Douglas Adams' journey had been fraught with roadblocks and detours — much like the adventures of his main character — the simple fact remains that due to his tenacity, his work has finally been released as a major motion picture. But don't panic. Despite the Hollywood connection, the improbable result is something quite special.

In Summary:

If you primarily like films that reflect the world around you — the stuff that you can see and smell — I suspect you won’t enjoy this film.

But if you have a little of the hitchhiker hidden deep within, and you’re willing to take a journey into a somewhat naïve and disconnected universe where the spirit of Monty Python lives on, you’ll have a smashing good time. Many devotees of the Hitchhiker franchise will surely agree that neither Adams nor the script’s subsequent writers succeeded in completely removing the episodic feel of Author Dent’s random trip throughout the universe. And for that we can all rejoice.

“Nothing travels faster than the speed of light
with the possible exception of bad news,
which obeys its own special laws.”

— Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001),
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy


-rk

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THE FORGOTTEN

Written by: Gerald DiPego
Directed by: Joseph Ruben

Starring: Julianne Moore, Dominic West, Gary Sinise, Alfre Woodard, Linus Roache, Anthony Edwards


Note: Not only is this my first review of a DVD release, it's also a review of a non-current one to boot (DVD version released Jan.2005). By now you may have guessed that I only review movies I love or that have moved me in some way. The Forgotten — an ironic title for a rather remarkable and overlooked film — easily fits into this category, which is why I’m shining my little spotlight on it to help those seeking a solid home-movie viewing experience.

It is rare when a film starts out in one genre — in this case drama — and then transforms itself into a mystery, then a psychological thriller and ends up as a supernatural sci-fi flick. Somehow The Forgotten accomplishes this feat while staying true to all of the genres it exploits. That's a tough trick to pull off. I mean let's face it, most films can't even make one genre work. And how does a studio classify such a beast? How do they promote it? Into which sales bin should the used DVDs be thrown? It’s all too confusing for most film reviewers or studio execs to handle, thus, the probable reason why this movie slipped through the promotional cracks during its original theatrical run.

The plot is straightforward: Julianne Moore plays a distraught mom who initially believes her son has been killed in an airplane crash. The story then takes a sharp turn when she’s told the son she remembers so clearly never existed… or did he? Answering this mind-bending question is what drives Moore’s character into the office of a well-intentioned shrink (Gary Sinise). And then the fun really begins. Thanks to Moore’s solid portrayal of a driven (and hot) mom willing to do anything to find the truth, we are treated to a smart, gripping, and at times, terrifying film.

In some ways, The Forgotten straddles a world similar to that of the 1998 film The Arrival (Charlie Sheen), also a fine — though much more predictable — film that was mostly overlooked in its original theatrical release. (Is it the sci-fi aspect of these movies that keeps them from getting the respect they deserve?)

In The Arrival, Sheen plays a scientist who uncovers extraterrestrial radio signals emanating from Mexico. After traveling to find the source of the signals, he discovers an impending Alien invasion. Though The Arrival depends more on its sci-fi elements than The Forgotten, both films have strong emotional through-lines with main characters driven by a clear moral compass. The beauty of The Forgotten is that, unlike most thrillers or sci-fi movies, you really have no idea where this movie is headed until it smacks you upside the head.

We sometimes forget how much joy reviews, theatrical trailers and TV ads suck out of our movie-going experience by revealing key plot points and dramatic surprises filmmakers spend hundreds of hours crafting. Given that this film has already been out for months, I would love to detail some of the more compelling scenes, but I'll pass and not contribute this time to our tell-all culture. It would undercut the film’s surprise plot twist, one that is so well crafted it rivals the ending of The Sixth Sense. And who would have wanted someone to reveal the plot twist of that film before seeing it?

I’ll conclude by asking that if you do see this film, turn off your cell phone and pager, feed the dog, lock the doors and watch it uninterrupted. Oh, and no peeking at the DVD's theatrical trailers or any of the DVD extras until AFTER you finish watching. You can thank me later.

>-rk

(P.S. If you find these mini reviews helpful please drop me a line at TheWriterAtWork@aol.com.)
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Millions

Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce (Code 46, 24 Hour Party People)
Directed by: Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Trainspotting)


A bag of money falls off a train and is subsequently discovered by two young brothers. This discovery raises a number of moral and ethical questions that lead the boys on an exhilarating, hilarious and deeply touching journey.

The opening sequence of Millions is a joy to watch. What follows simply gets better. I don’t want to be too specific about what happens because it’s sometimes nice to just “discover” a film for oneself. Since this movie is really about self-discovery, saying too much — as many reviews often do — would just be cruel.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to guess by the title that money is at the core of this story. And when humans and large sums of money are involved, things oftentimes get weird. Such is the case when these two brothers — one a humanist and the other a materialist — conjure up opposing ways of distributing the bounty: Should it go to the poor or should they buy property? (It’s a question I often ask myself at breakfast.)

HKw the boys struggle through some knotty moral dilemmas, and how their choices affect the adults around them, makes Millions an outstanding movie and a much-welcomed gift so early in the year.

- rk
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2004 Best-to-Worst Movie List

Hotel Rwanda The true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in the capital city of Kigali, who sheltered more than a thousand refugees who were fleeing Rwanda's tribal warfare.

Cheadle's performance as Paul is just plain stunning. To complement his performance, Terry George's direction doesn't miss a beat throughout the entire movie. No melodrama. No pandering. Just solid moviemaking. Perhaps it's an unfair comparison, but this film takes the approach that Kinsey avoided (read Kinsey review below) ÷ b y that I mean, it focuses on the human struggle of one man and his family, and then carefully sprinkles in the story's facts as the film unfolds, something Kinsey failed to do which made its characters seem cold and distant. Because of my own laziness -- or my reluctance to confront the facts -- I have always been confused about the facts behind the Hutu and Tutsi genocide. Thanks to Hotel Rwanda, I no longer am.

Spanglish — A mother and daughter come to America to find the American dream. A tour-de-force of comic writing and directing by writer/director James L. Brooks. Completely satisfying. Even Adam Sandler is likable ÷ and you have to be a master of film to pull that off. (BTW, at today's exchange rate, American dreams are now only worth 70% of what they were at the start of the first Bush Administration). (Read extended review below .)

The Incredibles Incredible!

Fahrenheit 9/11 — Since Bush's victory, it has become hip to snipe at Michael Moore. Well snipe at the man all you want, but know that this film is his best effort to date. Entertaining, funny, well constructed, and yes, informative. I suspect that is why the Right was so infuriated with it ÷ it's that good. If history had turned out a bit differently, this flick would have been a serious contender for the Academy's Best Picture honors. (Read extended review below.)

Sideways — Two guys take a road trip into California's wine country and find lots of wine and two great women. Hilarious? You bet. Well acted? Definitely. Touching? Oh yeah. But there are two scenes in this film that were so off the mark as to keep Sideways sidelined from a serious shot at a Best Picture win, and it was sooooo close to being a perfect little film. (Question: If you drink 12 bottles of wine over the course of 48 hrs., shouldn't that make you an honorary member of some kind of 12-step program?)

Note: As a result of the success of this film, Merlot wine sales are down about 25%. What's so wrong with Merlot? I like Merlot.

The AviatorThe Howard Hughes biopic. A compelling story and a visually captivating film. Not perfect, but Martin Scorsese ÷ the sentimental favorite ÷ really should have gotten his first Best Director statuette for this effort. (Read extended review below.)

RayThe Ray Charles biopic. A very strong performance by Jamie Foxx. Ray Charles would have been proud. A great look at Ray Charles' life in a strong, though not inspired, film.

Finding Neverland Johnny Depp walks an emotional tightrope with his touching portrayal of James Barrie, the author of the children's classic Peter Pan. Writers should find this rich story particularly interesting in the PC age in which we find ourselves, in that, it focuses on the source of artistic inspiration, and more specifically, the consequences of that inspiration when its origin goes against the social norm.

Million Dollar Baby Boxing manager Clint Eastwood talks tough to Hilary Swank, as Swank smiles back while slamming her fist into a punching bag over and over again. Overall, this movie is just a little too hollow and melodramatic to be taken seriously, especially since the entire last act is nothing but a sucker punch.

Beyond the Sea —  Kevin Spacey's biopic of Bobby Darin. Spacey is an excellent singer, as was Bobby Darin. The problem is that this story is about the life of BOBBY DARIN, a lounge singer. Compare that to Paul, the lead in Hotel Rwanda and you'll understand my point. The film works better if you'd think of it as a flattering portrait of the rise of any talented, generic lounge-lizard singer with lots of ambition and a bad ticker. Great songs though.

Kinsey — The story about Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, noted for his 1948 sexposé book "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male." Laura Linney is wonderful. Unfortunately, Neeson is way too cold. And therein lies the limpness of this film. Lots and lots of great information about the human sexual condition, but the story feels more like a clinical review of Kinsey's life's work. That we can get in a H.S. health class -- or maybe not. Regardless, it contains very little of the emotional glue that held Kinsey's marriage and career together despite vicious attacks from enraged critics. The film does touch on some very valid social points though, such as, why do people still confuse someone imparting information about sex with someone trying to condone sex... Sigh.

CloserA story about four messed-up people all needing to know what EXACTLY happened during each of their partner's illicit affairs. Perhaps these characters should have seen Kinsey, then they might have gotten past the sex act itself, and focused instead on the real problems in their relationships. If this film were about four gay guys it would have been a truer portrait. As it stands, it's a slow, emotionally dishonest film with a few terrific acting performances.

The Life AquaticBill Murray as a troubled Jacque Cousteau-type character who goes in search of a shark that swallowed his partner. Sometimes being obtuse works, and sometimes it doesn't. This time it didn't. The script is uninspired, Murray ÷ whom I love ÷ is sleepy and Cate Blanchett is, yes, really pregnant. But if you are a fan of the obtuse as well as Wes Anderson's other flicks ( The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore and Bottle Rocket ), you may like this one. (One aside. Early on in Jacque Cousteau's documentary career, he really did use dynamite to catalogue the sea life of a Mediterranean coral reef by counting the carcasses after the explosion. We must blowup the fish in order to save them.)

The Polar Express Loved the book, but found the movie to be just plain creepy.

Ocean's TwelveI really liked the ads for this picture. Too bad the ads can't be the picture. What a mess.

- rk
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Spanglish

Written/Directed/Produced by: James L. Brooks

When I exited the theater after seeing Spanglish , I only had two words on my mind: Thank you. But as I write this review, I realize I should have added a few more, most notably, the name of James L. Brooks. So, thank you Mr. Brooks for directing a movie that treats its audience like thinking, feeling adults. It's so rare these days. It is very unfortunate that it was overlooked in last year's Academy Awards race.

Spanglish is the story of Flor, a gorgeous Mexican immigrant ( Paz Vega who is so so hot.) who comes to America with her daughter to find the American dream. Along the way she is hired as a nanny and befriended by a dysfunctional American family ( Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, Cloris Leachman ). Some reviews will probably whine that there isn't enough dishwashing, dust bunny hunting or window cleaning to make this a believable nanny picture. But this movie is not about dirt. Rather, it's all about people connecting.

Spanglish combines the immigrant story with the traditional nanny story (You know the one: The perfect nanny, a.k.a. Mary Poppins, arrives to save a crazed household from self-destruction.) In Spanglish , Brooks fills what could easily be a cliché-riddled movie with inventive scenes and sparkling, honest dialogue. In this story, the classic daughter with the weight problem is happily not ãfixedä by the end of the film. In this story, one third of it is spoken in Spanish, but the movie doesn't have a single subtitle, nor is it needed. And astoundingly, in this story the father is not portrayed as an idiot ÷ thank you again, Mr. Brooks ÷ rather, he's a sensitive, successful restaurateur (Which is somewhat ironic, since Adam Sandler has become rich by often playing cinematic idiots.)

There is one scene that I absolutely adored and is typical of the film's creativity. Leoni hops into a convertible Mercedes. The car takes off and Leoni's hair suddenly becomes a whirling dervish spinning around her head. Exasperated, she asks the handsome driver why she can't be like one of those TV models who always looks perfect in every situation. The driver adjusts a few windows, moves her seat 3ä forward, and she's suddenly transformed into a stunning beauty, her hair waving effortlessly behind her in perfect harmony. In those few seconds with very little dialogue, Brooks totally exposes the core of Leon's character.

Speaking of Téa Leoni and Adam Sandler. I have always had a hard time liking either of these actors. Leoni is a looker, but her ice-princess personality has always put me off, and Sandler often seems to teeter on the edge of moronic. After seeing Spanglish , both of these actors should be willing to wax Brooks' car whenever he asks. He's raised their street cred tremendously. They're both perfectly cast, particularly Leoni who elicits more empathy in her role as a crazed housIwife than I thought possible after having seen her previous work.

So let's add Spanglish to the short list of Academy Award favs, and a perfect film to see during the holidays.

-rk
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The Aviator

Written by: John Logan
Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn
Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner

The Aviator is a three-hour bio pic based on the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), the eccentric billionaire industrialist and Hollywood film mogul. It recounts his adventures from the 1920s through the 1940s as he squanders millions of dollars on questionable film projects and challenges the status quo of air travel with his ambitious business ventures.

The Aviator is a film that, thankfully, resists simplistic analysis. On many levels it succeeds gloriously. The film’s visual style is impressive. Scorsese employs the faded look of old Technicolor film stock to impart a special sense of temporal distance. These muted colors complement the opulent sets that serve as counterpoint for a man who could care less about opulence. Additionally, digital effects are abundant, yet seamlessly and unobtrusively woven into the storyline. This is a fortunate choice at a time when over-the-top special effects are so often all a film has to offer.

But where the visual success of the film is clearly evident, its dramatic focus is more diffuse. The plot is most powerful when it spotlights Hughes’s escalating breakdown from obsessive compulsive disorder. DiCaprio (whose previous performance as a fake airline pilot in “Catch me if you Can” seems to have been the perfect stepping stone to this film) does a magnificent job of depicting the inner battle that Hughes waged with an insidious disease that was completely misunderstood at the time.

The film is less powerful when it depicts the human love interests that try to horn in on Hughes’s first love, his airplanes. Quite impressive in their portrayals are Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn, and Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner. Yet, as intelligent and beautiful as these actresses were, Hughes’s relationship with them seems superficial. They appear more like trophies than real lovers or companions. Perhaps that was Scorsese’s intent. If so, then he succeeded. But the choice has stripped the film of needed depth and short-changed Hughes’s character by depicting him as an emotionally hollow, detached, and one-dimensional tycoon. We are often shown little more than newspaper headlines of Howard Hughes’s inner life. It’s frustrating to see. Without the deeper emotional context, Scorsese has stopped just short of delivering a truly gripping film of a man who, despite being torn between sanity and insanity, somehow manages to build an aviation empire.

Though I didn’t feel completely satisfied by this movie, I was thoroughly entertained by it.

For the most part, 2004 has been a dismal year for American cinema. With only a few weeks left before the Academy Award field is finalized, there are no clear front runners. With its deft performances and sure-handed direction, perhaps The Aviator will change all that.

— rk
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Fahrenheit 9/11

Written & Directed by Michael Moore

Fahrenheit 9/11 is Michael Moore's best and most powerful film to date. In contrast with his previous films (Roger and Me and Bowling For Columbine) where he frequently injected himself as a character into the narrative, Moore shows considerable restraint in F-9/11 as he lets his main character, George W. Bush, do most of the talking. And when "Dubya" talks, a Will Rogers quote comes rushing to mind: "There's no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you."

But F-9/11 is much more than a black comedy, or a crazy Michael Moore propaganda bomb as the GOP would have us believe. It is a hard-hitting timeline of facts that the mainstream press has either refused to cover or has avoided covering altogether. For example, as the movie points out, why didn't the press blast the Administration when dozens of Saudis -- including many in the Bin Laden family -- were quietly flown out of the country without being fully questioned after 9/11? The Right tries to obfuscate this fact by redirecting our attention with claims that Moore said it happened while all U.S. planes were grounded. But that’s just a smokescreen. Shouldn’t the real focus -- as Moore properly points out -- be on how and why the Saudis were allowed to leave the U.S. in the first place, without being carefully debriefed? In another example, Moore asks why the press hasn’t reported on the deep and mutually beneficial financial relationship between the Bush and Bin Laden families that has existed for more than two decades.

Interestingly, most of the facts in the film are not being disputed by the far right. Instead, they are using their tried-and-true approach of vilifying the messenger. By going after Michael Moore’s character, as they did with Richard Clark, Joseph Wilson and his CIA wife, and Al Gore to name a few, the right is attempting to undermine the credibility of the message. I believe this tactic will fail in this case mainly because the filmmaking is so solid.

Of course, by going over the top on a few occasions, Moore’s flamboyance has handed the Right some ammunition. But even his more passionate moments are interesting, in that, they serve to visually dramatize a point that would otherwise go by unnoticed as simple voice-over. In one instance, after Moore discovers that not one member of Congress had actually read the Patriot Act before voting on it (Can you believe that?), he borrows a megaphone and begins reading the Act to them from an ice-cream truck. In another scene, after telling us that only one of the 500+ members of Congress has a son serving in Iraq, he begins stopping House members in the street and asking them if they would consider sending their kids into the conflict. The incredulous reaction from one member is, by itself, worth the price of admission.

But the film's biggest strength arises not from the powerful facts Moore cites, but from the humanity he depicts. The Bush Administration has worked hard to sanitize this war. Pictures of dead U.S. soldiers are not allowed to be shown. We rarely, if ever, see the war from an Iraqi's point of view. But in F-9/11 Moore shows us the anguished cries from an Iraqi wife who has just lost her family from a stray American bomb, or the deep sense of betrayal from an ultra-patriotic American mother who has just lost her son. The reality of these scenes is even more startling and heartbreaking because the Administration has so distanced us from the true human cost of war.

Despite the best efforts of the Right to suppress this film, it is now in wide release and will be issued on DVD before the November election. It is easy to understand why the GOP does not want people to see it. But the sad fact is their efforts to censor it, to suppress the ads for it, to stop its distributions, tears at the very values they claim we are fighting to protect. Judging by the ovation the film received from the audience I was with, Moore's F-9/11 hits its mark with all the force and precision of a laser-guided bomb. Even Ray Bradbury should be proud:

"I don't try to describe the future, I try to prevent it."

- Ray Bradbury

- rk
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21Grams

Written by: Guillermo Arriaga
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu


21Grams
is the new film from the Academy Award-nominated director of Amores perros, Alejandro González Iñárritu. The ads claim that at the moment of death your body becomes twenty-one grams lighter. I've never heard of this before, nor have any of my friends. Of course, we're all still alive so what do we know.

21Grams, written by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores perros), explores the emotionally and physically charged existences of three people: College professor Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), housewife Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), and ex-con Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro). An accident unexpectedly throws their lives and destinies together.

This film was shot using the tried and true "we don't have money so let's dispense with most of the obvious hues and use mostly blue because it's hip" look. This technique was cool when Alien and Blade Runner first used it about a zillion years ago. It made sense then. But now when I see it used, I become nostalgic for the days when mud wasn't considered a primary color.

Critics say they love this film. It's well acted with big names and it seems complicated (something critics like). But I think the film's complications stem less from the ideas in the script and more from the deft editing.

The three stories are strung together in such a way as to destroy chronological time so that the filmmaker can focus on the path the characters' emotional lives follow. This makes us work to try and piece together their stories, but in the end, it all feels more like a gimmick.

I should like this film. It tries to be different. It ties to say something. It shows us how we all affect each other (in the old six-degrees of separation kind of way). But I must say, I found it just too hard to watch. Too depressing. Too self-absorbed. Too blue.

The title 21Grams suggests this is a journey into the depths of the soul and the ethereal aspects of what makes us human. Instead, its primary focus is to examine the weight that life heaps on our collective shoulders. Perhaps I was tricked by the ads into thinking the film would instead focus on the journey we take in order to earn the 21 gram gift of life and how precious it really is. Silly me.

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The Missing

Screenplay by: Ken Kaufman
Based on the novel "The Last Ride" by Thomas Eidson
Directed by: Ron Howard

The Missing takes place in the late-1800s. Maggie (Cate Blanchett) is a woman raising two daughters in the isolated wilderness of the American southwest. After giving in to her oldest daughter's pleas to experience the world, she allows her (Evan Rachel Wood) to venture off to the "big city" (always a mistake) so that she can record her voice with a new and wondrous piece of technology. Along the way she is kidnapped. This sets the stage for the rest of the film in which Maggie must reunite with her long-estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) in order to hunt down and rescue their daughter from some totally nasty bad guys.

It's interesting that the structure of The Missing is, in large part, much like that of Master and Commander (see review below). Both films begin by establishing villains that are then relentlessly chased and eventually destroyed. Where one film accomplishes this on land, the other does it on the high seas. Of the two, The Missing is more satisfying and offers more bang for the historical buck. Ron Howard occasionally lets the story go over the top, but overall, strong action, great visuals, terrific acting and a solid story make for a gripping movie.

Be forewarned. The tension in this movie is often conveyed through the use of graphically violence. Given the holiday season into which it has been released, don't be fooled into thinking The Missing is suited for the whole family. It is not. The film is Rated R and means it.

-rk

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Master and Commander

Producer/Director/Screenplay: PETER WEIR Co-screenwriter: JOHN COLLEE

Peter Weir is the renowned director of such films as Gallipoli, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show. Impressive credits. In this film he teams up with Russell Crowe. You remember him. He played that Roman guy and did some stuff with Meg Ryan.

I would call Master and Commander a great date film, but not necessarily a great film. It combines the best of what guys want with the best of what gals want.

What guys want is to see stuff shot out of a cannon causing serious injury to all. Weir delivers that with great gusto. Impressive special effects makes the battle scene at the beginning of the film one of the best ever photographed. But if you've ever dreamed of becoming a sailor, well, the reality of what living on a boat is like will quickly take the swash out of your buckle. That may sound like a knock, but watching the reality of life on the high seas is really one of the film's strengths.

The second half of the movie is for the gals — great looking guys who love talking about their feelings. That, along with a couple of lizards, some birds and a bunch of water, pretty much describes the rest of the film.

The film's worth a look but don't expect another Gladiator.

-rk

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Shattered Glass

Written/Directed by Bill Ray

There's an old adage in journalism that says a writer should never bury the lead. If a story is called "Man Bites Dog," and you spend a lot of time talking about the color of the car they were both in at the time of the biting, you've buried your lead.

So if a film is based on a question: How could a highly respected magazine like The New Republic let a young writer fabricate story after story and not get caught? and then not answer that question, there's something wrong with the film.

And that's the problem with this film in a nutshell. If you want to know how a team of fact-checkers missed dozens of completely made-up names, companies and locations you'll not find the answer here.

The acting is good. Hayden Christensen, who plays Stephen Glass, does a much better job of depicting a deeply flawed human being here than he did portraying his version of Prince Charming in "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones." But it still doesn't fill the void that is created by the writer/director of the film who buried his own lead.
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2003
30th Telluride Film Festival
To See All The Film Venues
Click Here


The 30th Telluride Film Festival was full of ironies. This year, the Festival's poster--a chicken preparing to cross the road to view the SHOW--was created by Gary Larson, my hero. And once again the Festival's public face (last year the Festival was dedicated to Chuck Jones) is humorous while the Festival's offerings are anything but.

This is the industry's most challenging festival in the world's most beautiful location. It has become famous for its eclectic taste, its worldview, its loathing of Hollywood and its lack of a sense of humor. If a film is destined for wide release it will almost surely not be shown here. If it's from an American independent filmmaker and the film has a low body count, chances are it won't show here (see it at Sundance instead). If it's lighthearted and no one is emotionally destroyed at the beginning or killed by the end, chances are you ain't gonna see it here.

And yet I return. Why?

I return for the purity of the experience and the occasional gems (i.e. "Lost in Translation," Reviewed). Telluride's tradition is not to reveal the participants or the films until the first day of the Festival which makes for a Christmas-like atmosphere. There are no paparazzi, the talent is accessible (I happened to plop down next to the gracious Mark Ruffalo at the premier of his film, "My Life Without Me," Reviewed). There is something quite marvelous when one discovers a picture before the hype, before the trailers and before everyone in the world tells you how to think about it. One forgets how rare an experience that is until you are reminded of it at Telluride.

The reviews I've included are of films I particularly enjoyed despite the high body count found in many of this year's offerings. So the reviews have a body count number (somewhat tongue in cheek) as well as an enjoyment factor from one to ten.

The enjoyment factor does not mean a film is good or bad, just how easy it is to sit through. Many films at Telluride are not easy sits. More often then I care to count, what is projected is some director's example of personal art. Such a film is almost never suited for general audiences because it offers what's possible, not what's preferable or enjoyable.

Despite all that, there were some very strong films at this year's Festival. Some of them will be widely released, others will quietly go back to the countries from which they came never to be heard from again. The reviews I've written are of films I feel should be seen. Enjoy.

-rk
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Lost in Translation

Body Count: 0 Watchability: 9


Written & Directed by Sofia Coppola
(Prev. wk: The Virgin Suicides)

Sometimes the best way to understand one's true nature is to visit a far-off culture. Those of you who've traveled to distant lands may know what I mean. When everything around you is new, the lack of familiarity can quickly strip away artifice and self-deception. What is left--in an odd sense--is a form of detached silence. The external noise may continue all around us, but we are cut off from its significance: Advertising that, at home, would trigger a Pavlovian response no longer works, language is unintelligible, and social interaction is stripped down to its basics: "Where's the washroom?" "One beer, please."

For Bill Murray, who plays an aging international TV star, Japan is that culture. Although he's pampered with praise, sex and creature comforts, the silence in which he finds himself conjures up unseen demons who can only be subdued with alcohol. This all changes when he meets Scarlett Johansson, a young tag-along wife of a busy photographer. A connection is made and together they begin a journey toward real communication and self-discovery.

The beauty of this film lies in Qts subtle nature. Incredibly funny at the beginning as Murray battles the language barrier, the film becomes much more than a simple comedy as these two unlikely partners are drawn together despite the vast differences in their ages and backgrounds. The more they open up to each other, the more they open up to the Japanese culture and its charms.

"Lost in Translation" is a marvelous film in which Billy Murray is allowed to show us some of his best work.

-rk
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My Life Without Me

Body Count: 1 Watchability: 8

Written and Directed by Isabel Coixet
Based on the Story "Pretending the Bed is a Raft" by Nanci Kincaid

A last-minute surprise entry, "My Life Without Me" is a perfect example of what the Telluride Film Festival does best: presenting a personal story told with compassion and insight.

Ann (Sarah Polley) was married too early, had kids too early, and was forced into working much too hard as a janitor to help support her family. Though she is still in her early 20s, she collapses one day and ends up at the doctor's office where she is told some terrible news.

The news forces her to finally take charge of her life. She tells no one about her condition as she begins an emotional transformation that starts with fake nails and ends with inner peace. Mark Ruffalo who plays Lee, offers a beautifully subtle performance, adding layers of complexity and texture to an already rich storyline.

Films like this have been tried in Hollywood before, but after going through the industry's "deflavorizing machine" they often fail. "My Life Without Me" succeeds by presenting a story filled with emotional honesty without the saccharine melancholy often associated with this theme.

-rk
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Elephant

Body Count: 10+ Watchability: 5

Written & Directed by Gus Van Sant
(Prev: wk. My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester)

Winner: Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or Award.

I brought two unenthusiastic teenagers with me to watch "Elephant" at its Telluride Film Festival premier. After it was over and we were out in the lobby, I asked them what they thought. One of them slowly looked at me and said with a stunned look on his face, "THAT was a good movie."

I predict you're going to hear a lot of hot discussion about this film over the coming months. Most of it will either praise the movie or condemn it. There will be very little middle ground. The reason is that the film uses for its inspiration the shootings at Columbine High School. Anything that highly charged will undoubtedly bring out everyone with an opinion and a talk show.

What's so audacious and powerful about this movie? The approach, for one thing. It uses non-actor kids from Portland, Oregon, and a hand-held documentary shooting style to paint a picture of what, at first glance, appears to be a normal high school. Structurally, the movie takes a chance by repeating a 20-minute period during the course of a school day from various students' points of view.

But its main strength comes from Van Sant's reluctance to give us any heavy "insight" into teenagers' minds. Instead, he simply watches and listens to them, which is the key to "getting" this movie. If you don't listen to what they have to say in their offhanded, listless way, you can easily miss the point: That deep drama and life changing events often occur right in front of us, yet we fail to notice and react until it's too late.

The emotional tapestry that "Elephant" weaves provides us with a troubling and powerful look at teenage life. Thankfully, Gus Van Sant avoids the condescending, stereotypical dialogue often heard in most teen angst films. This is why, I believe, the two teenagers I brought with me reacted so strongly to it. Perhaps they saw a bit of themselves honestly portrayed in a world they know all too well, a world that can be more frightening then any Hollywood horror film.

-rk
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I'm Not Scared

Body Count: ? Watchability 6

Written & Directed by Gabriele Salvatores
Adapted from the novel by Niccolo Ammaniti

Just as the title implies, "I'm Not Scared" depicts events viewed from the perspective of a not quite adolescent boy, who is ironically, very scared but whose age, culture and indeed the danger of his particular circumstances, make saying so an impossibility. Salvatores takes a boy's view of a small, desiccated town in Italy during the 70s where mothers are more reliable than fathers, but fathers must be obeyed even in their absence.

It is a personal story, because the boy doesn't really understand the backdrop of presumed civil unrest and rebellion which are the apparent cause of the film's centerpiece. The boy stumbles on another boy, chained in a hole in the ground, who gradually appears to be the victim of a kidnapping in which his own father is involved. Only curious at first, he finds himself in direct opposition to his father as he determines that the boy must be saved.

This is an intelligent film which plays out with little of the melodrama and sentimentality which one might expect from the story. The boy doesn't discuss his feelings; they are shown only in his actions, and we experience the world of adults entirely through his eyes. The camera stays at boy's eye view most of the time, enhancing the first person feel of the narrative.

The film is not easy to watch in certain sections, which lowers its "Watchability" quotient. However, it's final scene is so powerful, and so right, given what has preceded it, that the film is entirely satisfying. It resonates emotional truth, and belongs in the same class as "400 Blows" and "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner"

-dd

© Copyright 2003 Richard Krzemien
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A Mighty Wind

Written by: Christopher Guest and cast.


Christopher Guest's latest mockumentary release, A Mighty Wind, does justice to the genre that Rob Reiner firmly established when he made This is Spinal Tap — a film in which Guest played the group's lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel.

Though not as overtly funny as Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind offers something more than just a straight forward spoof. The film, of course, has the prerequisite number of jokes, well-rounded characters and a distinct sense of place. What it also adds is a sense of tenderness and reverence for its folk music subject matter. For example, there is a scene in which the duo of Mitch (Eugene Levy) and Micky (Katherine O'hara) contemplate reuniting for a concert tribute after a long absence from the stage. The plot is so well structured and their dialogue so believable, that if it weren't for Levy's nutty over-the-hill stoner persona, the scene would have played well in a serious drama. That is a complement, not a criticism.

The cast clearly loves the music they're creating. In fact, I experienced their performances with the same level of surprise as when I saw Gere, Zeta-Jones, Zellweger, and Reilly sing and dance in Chicago. Who knew?

(Note: If the mockumentary format is unfamiliar to you, consider renting the wonderful This is Spinal Tap before seeing A Mighty Wind. Not only is This is Spinal Tap also based on a musical group — and is arguably the funniest of the modern mockumentary films — it will help ground you in the genre as well as introduce you to many of the same actors.)

-rk
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Anger Management

Directed by: PETER SEGAL
Written by: DAVID DORFMAN

HORRID MOVIE ALERT!

I'm sorry this HORRID MOVIE ALERT did not appear the week this fetid piece of garbage opened. If you haven't seen it already then save your time and money. Instead, use the 2 hours you might have wasted watching it and get a colonoscopy. The experience will be far less painful and, in the end, more rewarding.

It's especially hard for me to write this because I enjoy watching Jack Nicholson so much and thought his pairing with Adam Sandler would have worked. It did not. My suggestion: Sony should send a copy of this film to Iraq and drop it on Saddam. The studio can then say it was an integral part of the Coalition because it dropped the biggest bomb of the war.

(P.S. Too bad the "A Film By…" credit wasn't used on this stinker. Where's that sense of entitlement when you really need it?)

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HOLES


Written by: Louis Sachar

Whereas "Anger Management" is an "adult" movie that would not entertain a child, "Holes" is a movie filled with kids that pleased a theater full of adults. A very entertaining flick made from the book of the same name. It has character development. It has humor. There is even a plot and some sense of unpredictability--things that are rarely seen in major Hollywood releases like… oh, say "Anger Management." Also, there is an especially delicious performance by Jon Voight. Enough said.

rk
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Adaptation


Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Directed by: Spike Jonze

"Adaptation" is the essence of "The Writer at Work" in movie form. It's filled with inside humor about the pain of writing mixed with the absurdity of life. If you've seen "Being John Malkovich" and loved its unpredictable quirkiness, the,n this film--also written by Kaufman--is for you.

The movie is about, among other things, a sibling writing relationship that seems destined for estrangement, or worse, self-destruction. This brotherly warfare--besides being a wonderful vehicle for Nicolas Cage to play opposite himself--embodies the central theme of the film: The battle between the passion one feels toward one's work and its artistic integrity, vs., the passionless forces of commercialism. With this theme, Kaufman targets one of the central confrontations writers face in Hollywood.

There are many references to author Robert McKee and his screenplay analysis book "Story" (The best I've read). But if you hate screenplay analysis books--or even if you like them--the way McKee is portrayed should put you on the floor. (Though I find the man brilliant, having been publicly ripped to pieces by McKee, I can say with all honesty that the movie nails him perfectly.)

Finally, if rigid screenplay writing structure is something you despise, then this film is your friend since it laughs in the face of structure--though, ironically, it is itself highly structured. Unfortunately, the prescription offered up by McKee's book on how to end a Hollywood film might have been funnier if Kaufman hadn't taken McKee so seriously, or literally. As it stands, the climax feels somewhat predictable and, therefore, out of place given the overall amorphous nature of the movie. Nevertheless, "Adaptation" works as one of the best examples of Hollywood making fun of itself.

Writers' note: The film's approach to the craft of writing should allow fellow writers to find each other in darkened theaters simply by listening for the isolated howls of pained laughter inspired by some of the particularly inside scenes.

- rk
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Rabbit-Proof Fence


Written by: Christine Olsen
Directed by: Phillip Noyce

Rabbit-Proof Fence is the incredible true story of three Aborigine girls who escape from a state-run orphanage and journey 1,500 miles back to their tribal-land home.

In the 1930's when this story takes place, Australia had instituted a policy that removed Aborigine children of mixed blood from their families and placed them in state-run orphanages for indoctrination and eventual assimilation into white society. Amazingly, that policy lasted into the 1970s.

It seems whenever movies focus on institutionalized racism, hindsight never needs LASIK surgery--it's always 20-20. Okay, we clearly know it was wrong. It was the past and everything was wrong then. Luckily, this film does not dilly-dally with McPolitics, rather, it focuses on the girls and their adventure. And what a grand adventure it is. Think in terms of John Ford as if he had directed "The Incredible Journey" with people instead of pets.

Watching the children navigate their way across the vast expanse of Australia makes me wonder how it's possible for my son to get lost on his way to the curb with the trash. But seriously, this story has an "Oh my God, how did they ever manage to do that?" feeling that raises the spirit. Catch it on the big screen if you can. The video release won't do it justice

(Small note: No kangaroos, wallabies, crocs, or any other discernable wildlife was harmed--or even seen--in the making of this film. Except a few lizards which are eaten. But they're not cute, so never mind.)

-rk
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Max


Writer/Director Menno Meyjes

In a perverse way, while watching Max you start to understand-if you hadn't already-just how truly vapid the Hollywood filmmaking machine has become. When was the last time you and a friend exited a Hollywood film and couldn't wait to grab a beverage of your choice and discuss-or argue-about the ideas in the movie you'd just seen? Can't remember? Neither can I. That is until I saw Max, a film bravely distributed by Lions Gate and brought to the screen by the obsession of three men-director/writer Menno Meyjes, actor John Cusack and producer Andras Hamori.

This movie is about Max, a Jewish art dealer (John Cusack) who reluctantly befriends Adolph Hitler (Noah Taylor) the artist, before he becomes Adolph Hitler the monster. Never knew Hitler had an artistic side? Neither did I. That's why this film is so fascinating. It offers up a possible answer to this question when discussing psychopaths: Waz up with these psychopaths?

Specifically, with regard to Hitler, Max presents a rich portrait of a man caught between the demons driving his artistic nature and the desperation posed by a ravaged, post-World War I Germany. The end result of this struggle coalesces into Hitler's "Grand Unified Theory"-his fusion of art and politics and the cornerstone to what would become the Third Reich.

This is not a film without flaws. It is light on geo-political historical facts. If you don't bring along knowledge about that era you might feel a bit lost. But the rich relationship between Max and Adolph and amazing acting more than make up for that. Also, Max's female relationships seem somewhat grafted on.

Nevertheless, if you've had enough of movies that feel like deals made by Enron executives, then Max should resurrect your interest in film as art, film as provocateur (the Jewish Defense League has tried to stop the film's release), and film as touchstone for the human condition.

-rk
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Antwone Fisher


Written by Antwone Fisher
Directed by Densel Washington

There are many reasons to recommend this film: It's a tough movie with heart. It allows you — rather than manipulates you--to feel emotion. It doesn't use profanity to make a point. It's perfect for the season. But above all, it speaks to our core values: the quest for family, love and community.

Antwone Fisher is about an abused boy who grows up without his natural parents. To escape his desperate surroundings he joins the navy. After a series of violent incidents, he is ordered to meet with a psychiatrist played by Densel Washington. Their encounters eventually give Fisher the strength to confront and overcome the long repressed source of his inner pain.

Though written, directed and acted by black artists it, thankfully, never makes race the issue. Doing so might have placed this movie in the "angry black Spike Lee" genre of filmmaking. As it stands, it offers so much more. When Antwone Fisher speaks, his words are powered not by hate, but rather, by a deep yearning to belong and feel loved--universal needs to which we can all relate. This makes for a compelling and accessible movie. Credit Washington for keeping the film focused and on track.

This is Densel's first directorial outing. It is competent and the film is well acted. An Academy buzz has already put the spotlight on the film's star, Derek Luke, as well as the screenwriter whose life inspired the script. It is therefore puzzling why Washington chose to use a possessory "A film by Densel Washington" credit, when so much of this movie is the product of a collaborative effort. Nevertheless, one has to give Densel credit for his choice of material and willingness to put himself on the line.


-rk

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Secretary

Many will dismiss Secretary as being aimed only at the whip-carrying, black leather crowd. But the film's theme which explores the dynamics of love and romance within a dominant-submissive relationship, carries insights rarely touched on in daytime talk shows devoted to this topic.

Well directed by Steven Shainberg and deftly acted by Maggie Gyllenhaal in the title role, the film explores the dynamics of pain and pleasure in the quest for love within a sadomasochistic relationship. Social norms may rail against the taboo backdrop, but even when saddled and gagged on all fours, this film stands and delivers the romance few films can.

Strong images, story structure, and sparse dialog tell the story of Lee Holloway, a woman, just released from a mental clinic. To escape her dysfunctional family and returning bouts of self-mutilation, she takes a typing class. With a typing award as her only reference, she applies for the position of secretary in the law office of E. Edward Grey, played by James Spader.

We quickly experience a sense of foreboding. An elaborate sign reading "Secretary Wanted" is permanently planted in front of the office, suggesting a chronic vacancy. During the interview, Mr. Grey dismisses the open position as demeaning to a woman of her character, but when Lee assures him that nothing is beneath her, she is hired.

Mr. Grey's control issues soon emerge. His suggestions to Lee's appearance soon become dictates concerning all aspects of her life. But Lee embraces her submissive role, and within six months, a self-assured and elegant Lee glides through the office in stylish dress, her wrists bound to a yoke draped across her shoulders like a crucified ballerina.

Within this sadomasochistic setting, a love grows between them. But the vulnerability of love threatens Mr. Grey who seeks release from his fear of intimacy by firing her. It is Lee's refusal to abandon love which reveals her strength, and sets this film above and apart.

The images may alienate the pious and politically correct. But for those hungering for a fresh story, this film delivers sweet pleasure, however painful an admission that may be.

By
Todd Whiteley
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29th Telluride

Film Festival
Review

In Memory of
Chuck Jones
1912 - 2002

Click title to jump to review at bottom of page:

Autofocus
Lost in La Mancha
Talk to Her
Cuckoo

I'm watching a feature film at an altitude of 9,400 ft., and I'm not in an airplane. I am in the lovely Chuck Jones theater at the Telluride Film Festival. When the film ends, I rush out and breathlessly cram into a gondola that will transport me to my next movie in the town of Telluride far below. For a while, my fellow gondoliers and I sit bleary-eyed, staring at the remnants of an early-season snowstorm on the stunning mountains tops. Then a fellow moviegoer leans over and says in a hushed, apologetic tone of voice, "This festival is all about mental illness." Though I wish it weren't true, I must agree.

Over the past 18-years, I've attended thirteen Telluride Film Festivals. Most of them heavily laden with features and shorts--some great, some not--exploring, extolling, or basking in the dark, twisted recesses of human existence. Remember earlier Telluride Festival favs such as; Fitzcarraldo, Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, Affliction, Quills, Dance Me to My Song, or Happiness? The Telluride Festival is nothing if not obsessed with stories about people requiring immediate medical attention by trained psychiatric professionals.

But at least in past years, amidst the repeated pounding from numerous subtitled, neurotic narratives, there were moments of relief--no, joy--when a black comedy, a quizzical documentary, or better yet, a rare Chuck Jones cartoon surfaced and was placed in its rightful spot on the planet: projected in public on a big screen.

So I am delighted to discover that the 2002 festival is dedicated to the brilliant Chuck Jones, who sadly, passed away earlier this year. Then I read the playbill and my spirit sinks. With one of the broodiest lineups on record--challenged only by the year when the sub-genre of Alpine Films premiered: all shot in the Alps in the dead of winter, featuring screaming, incest, and suicide as major plot points one actually looked forward to because, at least, something happened--I am surprised to find that the festival calls Chuck its "patron saint."

To some, that lofty title might imply Chuck's work somehow embodies the spirit of the festival. Judging by this year's presentation, nothing could be farther from the truth. At the Telluride Film Festival, it is laughter that is the abnormal reaction.

Scanning the offerings of 38 featured slots in 8 venues, not one is dedicated to Chuck Jones' work. Sure there are a few grudgingly humorous films such as Lost in La Mancha, an adroit behind-the-scenes documentary about Terry Gilliam's disastrous attempt at filming Cervantes' novel Don Quixote, or Shh, a fabulous animated short about a baby's socialization. There is also a tribute to the 50th anniversary of Singing in the Rain, as well as one to the great Peter O'Toole, who is present to discuss his body of work. And finally, there is a screening of the 1926 Douglas Fairbanks flick, The Black Pirate.

Incidentally, only four of the 38 films showing are contemporary American productions, two of which are dramas and two are documentaries. Which begs the question: What's up with dat, Doc? If domestic fare suitable for this world renowned festival is so hard to find, then an emergency seminar dedicated to the demise of the American independent film industry should have been scheduled--hosted, most likely, by gleeful French moderators.

Where are the screenplays, foreign or domestic, that speak to our sense of joy and the celebration of life? Where is this year's Amelie? Read through the film synopsis and you'll find only two contemporary movies--a documentary entitled Willie Nelson: Still is Still Moving, and Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine--that read like viewers won't need medication after the screening.

To be fair, a few of Chuck's cartoons are being shown, one each evening before the outdoor feature in the 40 degree temperatures of the town park. Also, a room displaying some of his artwork, photos, and documents has been set up… somewhere.

In such a trying year for so many, one has to dig deep at this festival to find a respite from the severe. Now, don't get me wrong. Having attended this festival for 18-years, there are things that continue to attract me besides the scenery. Many of the films are not easily viewable even in cities such as L.A., let alone the rest of the country. Some years produce surprises such as Raise the Red Lantern, or The endurance that take your breath. And I've always appreciated the festival's lack of kowtowing to the vapid offerings of Hollywood.

But having dedicated this year's festival to the man they call their patron saint, a larger dollop of Daffy and a bigger bite of Bugs would have gone a long way to balance the festival's mostly serious fair with the joy that so effortlessly flows from the work of Chuck Jones.

-rk
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 Autofocus, directed by Paul Schrader (AMERICAN GIGOLO, HARDCORE, and AFFLICTION), is a disturbing portrait of the dual conflicting impulses of Bob Crane, likable star of the 1960s sitcom "Hogan's Heroes". Consistent with writer /director Paul Schrader earlier projects, the main character struggles with a vision of himself as a good guy and the self-destructive actions which ultimately doom him to failure. His inability to see himself as others see him is his undoing. The style of the filmmaking mirrors Crane's descent into confusion, as it moves from clear, bright, clean imagery to one which is dark and cluttered and grainy. Although painful to watch, it is ultimately compelling in its vision of moral duality.

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Lost in La Mancha, a making-of documentary, by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, finds director Terry Gilliam (BRAZIL and 12 MONKEYS) on the verge of filming his grand, personal vision of Don Quixote, a project he initiated a decade ago. From the outset, we assume the documentary will follow Gilliam's project to its successful completion. Surprise. As soon as the camera rolls we sense trouble. If you've ever wondered how a feature film can shoot for five days and be five days behind, you'll soon know. The omni-present camera observes the most imitate details of how a genius leads his troops into a painful, often comic, always compelling cinematic disaster. Kudos to the filmmakers for their effortless style, and to Terry Gilliam for allowing open access into this rarified world.

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Talk to Her, a Spanish drama by Pedro Almodovar, is a compelling story of how, like billiard balls, people bounce off of each other only to affect the trajectories of lives they've never met. A comatose woman is cared for by an obsessed male nurse who had stalked her before her accident. A parallel story finds a female bullfighter gored and left in a coma. The two women end up in the same hospital where the men in their lives cross paths as they care for the women they love. It is the women's inability to speak that forces a dialogue between the men about the importance of communication and compassion. This leads to an unusual friendship and a surprising as well as bittersweet ending. The cinematography is rich in the texture of Spanish life, the acting solid, and the story an evocative tale of how random events lead to life-changing actions.

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Cuckoo, by writer/director Alexander Rogozhkin, covers some of the same ground as last year's Academy Nominated "No Man's Land," in its depiction of three individuals caught in an adversarial war-time conflict which they don't really support but feel compelled to maintain. The best part of the film is its location, Lapland, and consequent portrait of a culture which is rarely seen. The details of how to physically navigate and maintain life in a seemingly inhospitable environment are fascinating. Who knew a reindeer could be milked? The central gag of the film is the inability of any of the three, a Russian soldier, a Finnish soldier, and an indigenous Laplander woman, to understand each other's speech. Although initially humorous, the joke goes on too long and does not carry over into any greater thematic element. Overall, this is a small, interesting but ultimately unsatisfying film, worth watching for it's spotlight on a way of life that will be unfamiliar to most.


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