Selected Film Reviews

By Christopher P. Jacobs

Originally published in the High Plains READER, 1994 - 2012
(Dates indicate when review was written, not publication date)

A few reviews have been slightly revised and/or updated since originally written.

Last Updated November 16, 2012


BACK to film class homepage

 



 


Alexander (2004)
Alexander the Great (1956)
Amazing Grace
American Beauty
Apocalypto
Argo
The Artist
As Good As It Gets
Atonement
The Big Lebowski
Bringing Out the Dead
Broken Embraces
Chicago (2002)
Click
Cowboys and Aliens
The DaVinci Code
The Dark Knight
Dreamgirls
Fight Club
Goon
Herman, U.S.A.
Hugo
An Ideal Husband
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
King Arthur
Kiss or Kill
Let Me In
Lost In Space
Melancholia
Memorial Day
Mr. Deeds
Moulin Rouge (2001)
Mulholland Drive
The Mummy (1999)
The Mummy Returns
The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
My Giant
Natural Born Killers
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian


O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Passion films before Mel Gibson
The Passion of the Christ
The Patriot (2000)
The Prince of Egypt
Quantum of Solace
Reign Over Me
Saving Private Ryan
Shakespeare In Love
Sin City
The Sixth Sense
Sleepy Hollow
Snatch
Star Trek
Star Wars III - Revenge of the Sith
Stardust
Sunshine Cleaning
Super 8
Tangled
300 / The 300 Spartans
Titanic
Troy
True Grit
The Truman Show
Wild Things
Woodstock
You've Got Mail


 

 

ALEXANDER (November 29, 2004)

Alexander gets Stoned

Filmmaker Oliver Stone does not shy away from touchy subjects, often depicting material and points of view virtually guaranteed to alienate some viewers, please some viewers, and confuse other viewers (especially those ignorant of history). His latest production, the three-hour historical epic Alexander, is no exception. It has some faults, which some may find more serious than others, but it is worthwhile viewing for anyone interested in history. The young, charismatic, and ambitious king Alexander III of Macedon (known as Alexander the Great) was arguably the most influential personality in recorded history, certainly among the top five, and his sometimes-controversial impact on world civilization remains to this day. Loved and hated by many, he was both an idealistic visionary and a ruthless pragmatist. He was driven by a thirst for immortal glory, knowledge of the unknown, and uniting of diverse cultures, yet he was also given to violent fits of petty anger and brutal, uncompromising revenge.

It is only natural that Alexander’s short but eventful life be adapted into pop-culture entertainment, a tradition begun within the first century of his death several weeks before his 33rd birthday in 323 B.C. For well over a thousand years, a heavily fictionalized adventure novel inspired by various facts and legends surrounding Alexander was the most popular work of literature besides Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey and the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. This “Alexander Romance,” as it is often called, has survived in 24 different language translations with 80 different versions of the material included, some of it based in fact, much of it invented, some of it pure fantasy.

Stone’s film has some departures from recorded facts and leaves out a great deal that perhaps should have been included. On the whole, however, it is probably the most faithful movie interpretation on the subject to date. It does a certain amount of sanitizing for sensitive viewers, but is far more explicit in its violence and sexual attitudes than unprepared viewers might appreciate (and still doesn’t dare depict certain common ancient Greek customs mainstream audiences just aren’t ready for nude athletic training, naked soldiers, or older men romancing adolescent boys). In fact, the film is like a capsule, three-hour undergraduate mini-course on Alexander that covers some of the major highlights but requires a certain amount of historical background to understand.

This is part of the films problem. Its often more like a pageant dramatizing key selections from a history book than like a traditional Hollywood adventure movie. While interesting in themselves, the episodes don’t always come together as a cohesive plot in such a short time (even at three hours). The decision to place a major incident severely out of chronological order distracts from the flow and comprehension for anyone not already familiar with Alexander’s history, and the editing of the battle scenes gives more of a sense of the soldiers chaos than making sure the viewers can follow what’s happening. The vast material Stone tries to include would be more suitable for perhaps a twelve- to twenty-hour miniseries viewed in one to two-hour chunks than one highly condensed three-hour film. Stone’s Alexander nevertheless captures both the essence of the historical man with all his paradoxes, and a bit of the wistful hero-worship that grew to even greater proportions after his death. It begins and ends in the library at Alexandria, Egypt (although the city’s founding by Alexander is inexplicably not depicted), as the aged pharaoh Ptolemy, a former general and friend of Alexander, is dictating his memoirs. This places the story nicely if sketchily within its own historical context and helps explain why Alexander’s life is even being dramatized in the first place. However, it also reinforces the feeling that the audience is being lectured to, even if by such a distinguished actor as Anthony Hopkins in a small but impressive CGI recreation of the ancient world’s most important city.

The acting throughout the film is first-rate, with Colin Farrell as Alexander, Val Kilmer as his father Philip, Angelina Jolie as his mother Olympias, Jared Leto as his very close friend Haphaistion, Christopher Plummer as his teacher Aristotle, Rosario Dawson as his Sogdian (Uzbekestani) wife Roxane, and many more. Their tendency to verge on the intense is in keeping with the legendary status of the characters, and had another benefit. During the first two hours of the showing I attended, the frequent shouting matches and boisterous fighting also helped greatly to overpower the wails of a miserable infant whose thoughtless parents had dragged with them.

Some viewers have complained about an overt homosexual agenda by Stone, as well as the choice of actors and the Irish accents, obviously unaware that that the ancient Greek ruling classes generally practiced what today would be considered bisexuality, that Alexander actually was blond, that people of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and southwestern Asia display a wide variety of racial characteristics, and that all ancient historical figures do not speak English with a refined British accent. Since the prestigious accent in English is that of the London elite, it would make the most sense to have only Athenian Greeks speak that way, since their Attic dialect of the southeast peninsula was the one all Greek-speakers tried to imitate in their literature. Representing Macedonian Greek (a couple hundred miles north of Athens) as Irish-accented English makes perfect sense. A Russian-sounding accent for a native of one of the tribes in Eprius (across the mountains on the northwest side of Greece) is perhaps a bit odd, but reinforces the Macedonian attitude towards the exotic foreignness of Olympias. Physical racial features are a non-issue and a modern hang-up. The ancients may have been fiercely nationalistic with strong family, city, tribal, and class prejudices, but simply did not consider complexion or ethnic facial characteristics as any more relevant to a person’s character than eye color or hair color. The widespread intermarriages in those times (further encouraged by Alexander’s policies) could easily have produced people who resemble the modern-day actors playing them. Other viewers object to the showing Alexander’s death as a result of poisoning as unproven. This conspiracy theory (nothing unusual for Stone, after all) was current even at the time he died, although it is just as possible Alexander’s early demise was due to his heavy drinking bouts catching up to him or a disease picked up from swimming in contaminated water.

Overall, Oliver Stone’s Alexander is an ambitious and only slightly disappointing biography of the single most celebrated military conqueror of all times. Although it paints a generally admiring portrait, it shows him as complex, perhaps somewhat insane, and a dangerous, flawed genius. It is a valuable complement to the only previous major motion picture on his life, Robert Rossen’s Alexander the Great (1956).

ALEXANDER THE GREAT (November 29, 2004)

A different view from different sources

In 1955, the cycle of big-screen epics was in its heyday and noted filmmaker Robert Rossen (All the Kings Men, Body and Soul, The Hustler) wrote, produced, and directed his own CinemaScope and stereophonic sound extravaganza based on Alexander’s career. Conveniently, this 1956 United Artists release has recently been issued on DVD, no doubt to capitalize on the theatrical release of Oliver Stone’s version.

Rossen’s film has a powerhouse international cast led by Richard Burton in the title role, with Fredric March as Philip, French actress Danielle Darrieux as Olympias, and Spanish actress Teres Del Rio as Roxane, Claire Bloom as Barsine (a character left out of Stones version), along with British stalwarts Peter Cushing, Harry Andrews, Stanley Baker, and Michael Hordern. Burton makes a memorably intense and troubled Alexander, although a bit stiff in some scenes, and March is excellent as his suspicious father. This film is an even more admiring portrait of Alexander than Stone’s, concentrating on his uneasy position between two ambitious parents and his subsequent campaign of conquest. It shows him fighting mainly against the Persians, but has greater emphasis than Stone’s film on his philosophy of spreading Greek civilization. It also prefers to follow the Alexander Romance over more historical accounts in certain details. One is the tradition of letters between Alexander and his mother and between him and Persian King Darius. Another is the persistent legend of Roxane being the daughter of Darius instead of a remote Bactrian noble from Sogdiana, something Stone gets right (but some viewers keep right on assuming she’s Darius’ daughter or at least Persian!). Rossen includes some of Alexander’s violent outbursts, but discretely avoids any implications of same-sex attractions and sanitizes most of the goings-on for 1950s tastes. Rossen’s large battle scenes, while easier to follow than Stones, lack much of the excitement, while Darrieux’s Olympias is less colorful and more stereotyped than Jolie’s flamboyant character. The production is impressively mounted, however, if on a slightly smaller scale than Stone’s CGI-assisted settings and crowds.

The best thing about Rossen’s Alexander the Great, seeing it just before or after Stone’s Alexander, is that it includes so many historical incidents that Stone’s version omits, despite being about 45 minutes shorter. On the other hand, it leaves out a fair amount of things that Stone does cover (such as Alexander’s childhood) and chooses somewhat different and equally interesting interpretations of certain elements they both cover (such as Alexander’s murders of his friends and the deaths of both Philip and Alexander).

Released as one of MGM Home Entertainments $10 bargain discs, the DVD transfer of Alexander the Great has a sharp widescreen picture with good color. It preserves the film’s original 4-track stereo sound with some noticeable directional dialogue and sound effects, although the magnetic recordings seem to have suffered some audio degradation at times. The disc’s only bonus item is the original British theatrical trailer, and the inclusion of alternate French and Spanish-dubbed audio tracks and optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

 

AMAZING GRACE (March 27, 2007)

Amazing Grace preaches well, but to choir

Amazing Grace is another atypical character-centered movie for today’s mass-market multiplexes, even more so than Reign Over Me. Michael Apted’s film is a biographical study of an influential English politician in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The superb cast and high production values recreate the period in meticulous detail to tell the dramatic story of William Wilberforce’s long, painstaking struggle to outlaw slavery in the British Empire.

Ioan Gruffudd makes an effective Wilberforce, with Benedict Cumberbatch good as his close friend William Pitt, who became Prime Minister in 1783 when both were only 24 years old. Romola Garai is also quite good as the outspoken Barbara, who eventually becomes Wilberforce’s wife. Standouts, however, are Albert Finney, as ex-sea captain John Newton, tortured by the knowledge that he transported 20,000 Africans into slavery, and Michael Gambon as Lord Charles Fox, a member of Parliament who ultimately comes to agree with Wilberforce’s passion.

The films title comes from the famous hymn, which was written by Newton after he changed his ways. The film overall is a sincere and carefully crafted work, yet the script’s single-minded focus tends to make it come off as more of a sermon to the converted, a hagiography of Wilberforce, and a vividly dramatized lesson in British history more appropriate for a classroom than a commercial cinema. Its scenes of political debate and behind-the-scenes plotting may perhaps invite comparisons to more recent political activities concerned with different issues, but Amazing Grace remains strongly rooted in the decades surrounding the turn of the 18th to the 19th century. As such, it will likely appeal more to history buffs, students of social reform, and die-hard anglophiles than to the general public, despite the film’s superior production qualities and excellent performances.

AMERICAN BEAUTY (October 11, 1999)

American Beauty an American masterpiece

The critics are right. American Beauty could very well be the best movie of the year. The personalities and details of life in this tale of a suburban family’s meltdown make what first appear to be stereotypes ring with an unexpected depth and a truth of recognition. There were even smatterings of applause from time to time at last Sunday night’s showing in Grand Forks.

Kevin Spacey (The Ususal Suspects) is superb as the protagonist Lester Burnham, an average middle-aged, middle-class man struggling to get by, unappreciated by his employers as well as by wife and daughter. His pent-up frustrations lead him to deal with his mid-life crisis in a way that has the audience rooting for him, despite the fact (a la Sunset Boulevard) we know within the opening minutes that he will be killed by the end of the film. Few actors could make a character who does so many questionable things as likable as Spacey does. Annette Bening, likewise, is excellent as the domineering yet insecure workaholic wife Carolyn, and former child star Thora Birch is perfect in the Christina Ricci-like role of the moody teenage daughter Jane. Wes Bentley shows amazing control as Ricky Fitts, the unusual boy from the even more unusual family who moves in next door. And Mena Suvari brings a poignancy to her Angela, the sextease cheerleader friend of Jane who encourages the massive crush Lester develops on her.

The script by Alan Ball (who created and produced the new TV series, "Oh Grow Up") is a fascinating mix of predictability and surprises, leading the viewer to expect one thing while delivering several reversals that are nevertheless completely logical. These unanticipated developments are what turn the stereotypes into more complex, believable individuals. They even manage to build suspense towards the inevitable conclusion, since one is no longer certain what the various characters might be capable of doing. There are elements reminiscent of The Ice Storm, Blue Velvet, Falling Down, The Great Santini, and other relatively intense films. American Beauty is not really a mystery story, however, nor is it basically a heavy drama about dysfunctional families and a mans murder. It is foremost a comedy -- a very black comedy, yet one whose casual bitterness is balanced and finally superseded by a deep inner optimism. The irony of the conclusion is what gives the story its power, and also ties together different characters. Anything less would be a cop-out.

Director Sam Mendes, in his first film, turns what could easily be a story reliant upon its dialogue into a visual feast, with the aid of veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall. They use the wide screen beautifully to emphasize the character relationships, their distance from one another, as well as Ricky’s distance from the rest of the world, which he prefers to see through the viewfinder of a video camera. More than once Mendes has the camera placed looking through a window so we cannot hear what the characters are saying. The words themselves don’t matter at such times. We can see the attitudes and emotions through the skill of the actors, as in a silent film. American Beauty also uses sound in some interesting ways, and utilizes the digital stereophonic tracks directional capability for off-screen voices and music -- something other films do not always take the time to do. In short, American Beauty is a timely satiric slice of American life, a knowing, maddening, touching, and entertaining tragicomedy that is a sure bet to be remembered when the Oscar nominations roll around. It is easily the best film this fall, and a completely different picture from such other strong contenders this year as The Sixth Sense, (still playing and well-worth a look if you haven’t seen it yet), An Ideal Husband, and Cookie’s Fortune. Don’t miss American Beauty on the big screen.

APOCALYPTO (Dec. 12, 2006)

Apocalypto blends action and allegory

The number one theatrical movie over last weekend was an action-packed adventure thriller, yet at the same time was a modest-budget ($40 million) period picture. Apocalypto is Mel Gibson’s fourth film as a director, obviously blending elements of his last two, Passion of the Christ and Braveheart, but also taking a somewhat different approach that recalls some of his movie roots. Instead of dramatizing specific historical characters and events, with Apocalypto Gibson painstakingly recreates life in ancient Mexico as a backdrop for an intense tale of survival and the power of the human spirit to endure against unfavorable odds. Simultaneously it is a carefully plotted mythic saga with prophecy, violence, retribution, and poetic justice, as well as serving as an all too timely political allegory and an ironic commentary on cycles of civilization. (It was Gibson, after all, who played postapocalyptic hero Mad Max and The Road Warrior.)

Cinematically it is a gripping tour de force of lush visual imagery and visceral editing that keeps the viewer involved in both the action (which is nearly non-stop) and the central characters personalities. The naturalistic performances by the largely nonprofessional Native American cast (including many ethnic Mayans) are just as critical in bringing the story to vivid life. The story begins as a tale of jungle villagers who live by hunting and warily deal with neighboring tribes, but who must still deal with small-town social pressures and good-natured teasing about family-related difficulties (i.e., lack of ability to produce one). Entertainment is playing with children and listening to revered elder storytellers around the fire. This opening sequence sets up the major characters and their way of life, only to be violently interrupted with an attack by a slave-raiding party from a nearby Mayan city. The invaders devastate the village, carry off the women for slaves, and capture the surviving men to use as bloody human sacrifices in the hopes of appeasing their gods. Our hero, Jaguar-Paw (Rudy Youngblood), manages to hide his pregnant wife and young son at the bottom of an empty well before he is captured. A series of colorful adventures, treading the fine line of preordained fate, dramatic coincidence, and personal force of will, eventually result in his escape from the Mayan city with his captors in hot pursuit. From here right up until the end, close to half of the 139-minute film, Apocalypto is a long, intense, and brilliantly sustained chase.

As a story, Apocalypto is a cross between The Naked Prey and The Most Dangerous Game but set in Central America of about 500-600 years ago. As a film, it is also a rare glimpse into a little-known era of American history before European contact, meticulously researched for authenticity. All dialogue is in the Yucatec dialect, the current-day descendent of the ancient Mayan language. The Mayans had an elaborate form of hieroglyphic writing (whose knowledge was lost for centuries and only deciphered within the past 30 years), advanced mathematics and astronomy, and one of the most accurate calendars ever developed. The height of their three thousand year culture was a half-millennium during the Dark Ages of Europe, and by the time of the European Renaissance the Mayan civilization was on the verge of collapse.

In a way it is frustrating not to see more exploration of the amazing Mayan sophistication, but Gibson wisely focuses on his main characters and their situation rather than wallowing self-indulgently in historical settings, props, and costumes like so many Hollywood epics. He shows mere hints of interesting parallel subplots (like the father-son relationships, the religious aristocracy) that if developed would work better for a TV miniseries than a single film. The brief episode in the Mayan city is tantalizing. But its noisy industrialized chaos and highly defined class distinctions make that much more effective a contrast to the simpler lives and more human/humane interaction of the villagers, who are thrown into this unfamiliar, rather ominous environment against their will.

It is notable that having ignored the historical use of ancient Greek for his film Passion of the Christ, Gibson chose a Greek title for his film about Mayan history. “Apocalypto” literally means “I uncover” or “I reveal,” besides its biblical connotations dealing with the end of the world. The film, of course, depicts the waning days of the Mayan world, its people living, loving, worshipping and killing in blissful ignorance of the impending invasion of European conquerors. And perhaps ominously, the film alludes to the ancient Mayan calendar, which, it turns out, predicts the end of the world for almost exactly six years from now -- the winter solstice on December 21-22, 2012 in modern counting. Perhaps the film may inspire more popular interest in Mayan history and other pre-Columbian accomplishments, or the interesting mythology described in one of the few surviving Mayan books, the “Popol Vuh,” which is the Mayan story of creation and the earliest generations of people.

Apocalypto is not only a well-made film, an interesting anthropological artifact, and food for philosophical-political speculation, but is itself a revelation heralding the end of an era in motion picture production. It was photographed almost entirely on digital video using ultra-high resolution cameras that come closer than any so far to reproduce the look of traditional film. Ironically enough, this new model of electronic Panavision camera Gibson used to reveal his visual drama is called the Genesis.

 

ARGO (Oct. 14, 2012)

Affleck’s Argo blends action, comedy in amazing and timely true story

What more appropriate way to open a movie about a fake movie created to fool Iranian officials into thinking that some American embassy workers are really a movie crew, than with fake dust printed onto the opening logo to fool some theatre-goers that they’re watching actual film in what is really a digital theatrical presentation. A number of other layers of irony pervade Argo, the new film produced and directed by Ben Affleck, and starring Affleck as a sort of low-key James Bond-like CIA operative who must pose as a movie producer for a fantasy action film entitled Argo. Affleck’s Argo is at once a nail-biting political action-thriller, an effective political commentary on government bureaucracy and international relations, and a cynical but very funny satire of the Hollywood movie industry. Amazingly, it’s also the true story of how a far-fetched CIA operation, with the active help of Canadian officials, managed to rescue six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis that stretched from late 1979 into early 1981. It’s a story that was classified information until the 1990s and until now has still been little-known. Argo premiered at film festivals in late August and September, but the October 12 release suddenly became uncannily timely in light of the new September 11th attacks on American embassies throughout the Middle East.

 

The film begins shortly after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran. Workers in the American embassy in Tehran watch with alarm as protestors outside the gates get more and more agitated, eventually storming the walls and breaking into the building. Meanwhile, six workers in another area of the compound realize that they have direct access to the street. After some debate they quickly decide to walk away unobtrusively and are quietly able to take refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador, while back at the embassy the remaining 52 Americans are violently taken prisoner by the Islamic revolutionaries. When the CIA learns that six Americans have escaped the embassy, they attempt to come up with plans to get them out if Iran without revealing to the Iranians that they did not capture everyone at the embassy. “Exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez, an expert in getting people safely out of dangerous situations, realizes none of the suggestions are practical. While watching one of the Planet of the Apes movies on TV, he suddenly comes up with the boldly audacious idea to pass off the Americans as part of a film crew that is location scouting throughout the Middle East for a low-budget Canadian rip-off of Star Wars. But to make it convincing, it means the CIA must set up an actual production company with an actual script that is actually getting buzz in Hollywood trade papers and media reports. And this must all happen in a matter of days, before the Iranians realize that six Americans have so far eluded them.

 

Through this point the film is a tense action spy thriller all the way. Then Mendez contacts Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who has helped the department with disguises. He is now charged with setting up a genuine phony film production company that must buy a genuine screenplay, with genuine Hollywood names attached and genuine Hollywood publicity events. With a cynically comic panache, they enlist fading but still aggressive has-been producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), an expert at fast-talking Hollywood insiders and media alike, and suddenly everything is able to happen, with all the bizarre excesses of flamboyant Hollywood showmanship. This in turn allows Mendez to let the six Americans in on the plan and present them with the new identities they must assume. From here on, Affleck’s film contrasts the insanity and chaos of Hollywood movie production with the insanity and chaos of life in revolutionary Iran, and the insanity and chaos of American government bureaucracy at work under pressure. At the same time it’s making its serious yet often bitingly amusing sociopolitical statements, it remains an expertly-crafted thriller and believable recreation of the era. Even though the escape of the six Americans is a recorded historical fact, the film provides a number of effective subclimaxes (including the initial embassy attack and later the fake film crew’s visit to a Tehran bazaar with an Iranian Cultural Affairs official), plus a long, truly gripping sequence as they attempt to get on the SwissAir flight that will take them safely out of Iran.

 

Affleck does an admirable job both directing the film and playing its protagonist Tony Mendez, whose book The Master of Disguise along with a magazine article by Joshuah Bearman inspired Chris Terrio’s screenplay. The characters are not mere stereotypes, heroes, villains, and victims, but believable individuals dealing with a tense and traumatic situation. Performances are strong all around, but obviously stealing the show whenever they’re on screen are Alan Arkin and John Goodman as the Hollywood players who insist that if they “must make a fake movie, it’s still gonna be a hit.” During the closing credits we can see photos of the actual people and places involved beside their often amazingly accurate Hollywood re-creations, and we hear a recent audio recording by former president Jimmy Carter reminiscing about the incident. Affleck’s Argo may not have quite as many gadgets and girls as a James Bond film, but there is no less intrigue, action, and suspense. Truth indeed can be stranger than fiction, and sometimes just as entertaining.

 

 

THE ARTIST (Feb. 18, 2012)

Oscar-contender The Artist worthy of buzz

The Academy Awards are this Sunday night, and the film with the second-highest number of nominations has finally opened in area theatres. This has made 2012 the first year in quite some time that I’ve been able to see each of the “Best Picture” nominees before the awards presentation (although two of the nine this year were Blu-ray viewings in my basement theatre). All nine are worthy contenders and The Artist certainly deserves all of its nominations.

 

 The Artist amazingly has overcome what would seem to be a number of strikes against it from the start, as far as significant Academy Award consideration, much less commercial success in mainstream American movie theatres. For one thing, it’s about the Hollywood movie industry, a subject that rarely brings big profits and only occasionally critical acclaim. It’s also a foreign film, a French-Belgian production with its two leads unknown to American audiences, although it is in English and was shot in Hollywood. It’s also in black-and-white rather than color, a photographic choice rarely attempted by Hollywood since the mid-1960s when television switched to color, and a style typically rejected by modern viewers. But the most unusual stylistic choice made by a director in the 21st century was to make the film as a “silent” movie well over 80 years after Hollywood abandoned the medium to make talking pictures. Yet not only has The Artist earned ten Oscar nominations including the major categories of Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Supporting Actress, as well as Cinematography, Music Score, Film Editing, Art Direction, and Costume Design, but it is drawing crowds at mainstream multiplexes across the country and holding its own at the box office -- despite (and perhaps to some extent because of) all of its non-commercial attributes. The non-color, non-widescreen, and non-talking aspects have suddenly become trendy gimmicks that make audiences curious. However, the true key to the film’s popularity and critical acclaim is not its style, but the fact that it is an entertaining story with characters and situations that are able to touch audiences’ emotions. It’s put over by engaging performances, intensified by expertly planned camera angles and editing, underscored by just the right music at the right time.

 

The plot is essentially a variation on Singin’ in the Rain and A Star Is Born with a touch of Sunset Boulevard and a hint of Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie. It’s a look behind the scenes of Hollywood studios from 1927-1932 as technology shifts from silent films to sound films, following a romance between one star on the way up while the other is on the way down. Of course there’s a lot more to it, including an incredibly talented little dog named “Uggie” that tends to steal all the scenes he’s in despite the genuine screen charisma of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. Several familiar stars show up in supporting roles, such as John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, and even Malcolm McDowell in a bit part.

 

The overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth has motivated viewers who would never consider watching a silent or black-and-white film to give it a try. In most cases, initially skeptical audiences are amazed at how involved they find themselves getting in the story, which makes the black-and-white silent techniques that much more impressive. Possibly surprising to modern viewers is how closely the musical soundtrack is linked to the picture, and how the film still makes use of synchronized sound effects at certain times for dramatic (and in this case also symbolic) impact. Die-hard movie buffs and silent film fans who take those techniques for granted are more likely to find The Artist a charming homage to classic Hollywood but just another routine film that would never have been considered Best Picture material when silent movies were still the norm. But times have changed, and so have storytelling styles, not to mention content. What makes The Artist stand out so much from everything else released over the past few years (or decades) is how satisfying a film it is by the time it's over. It's entertaining, sometimes a bit cheesy and heavy-handed, sometimes a bit overdramatic, but always sincere and always playing expertly to the audience, ending with a reassuring one-two punch that celebrates Hollywood, the movies, love stories, and personal triumph over adversity. There are also a number of scenes that work on multiple levels and some interesting subtext going on that will reward multiple viewings. And the effectiveness of its story makes its classic techniques seem fresh to those unfamiliar with them. But it's the film's heartfelt feel-good sincerity, combined with an affectionate poking fun at the Hollywood system and technological change, which may alone win it the Best Picture Oscar and a good chance at winning a majority of its ten nominations. It demonstrates that “silent movies” are really just “movies” that stand or fall on their own dramatic merits and not on showy technological demonstrations.

 

Ironically, among its strongest competition for Best Picture are two more nostalgic looks at the 1920s. Martin Scorsese’s touching Hugo is another tribute to silent filmmaking and the only film to get more Oscar nominations this year (eleven). Woody Allen’s wistfully delightful Midnight in Paris, with four nominations, is another love letter to the 1920s and creative artists of the early 20th century, and his most popular film in decades. And The Tree of Life might almost be a silent film with its emphasis of visuals over dialogue. If The Artist wins Best Picture, it will be the second silent film ever to do so, the only one since the very first year of the Academy Awards. And again ironically, that very first and only silent film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, Wings (1927), just had an extensive restoration and highly acclaimed limited theatrical release last year, and just came out on Blu-ray last month as part of Paramount Pictures’ 100th Anniversary celebration.

 

AS GOOD AS IT GETS (Dec. 14, 1997)

Film title just might be prophetic of 97 releases

James L. Brooks’ new comedy-drama-romance opens Christmas Day. The lastest from the writer-producer-director responsible for Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment, among others (and he produced Jerry Maguire), stars Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and Greg Kinnear in another wonderful piece of ensemble acting. Based on a script called "Old Friends," the final title may very well describe the film among the rest of this year’s offerings by major American studios--As Good As It Gets. (Well, OK, so Tri-Star is now owned by Sony, which is technically Japanese, but the film was made in America.)

The story is set in New York City, and brings together three characters of very different personalities, all beginning as casual acquaintances with their own personal problems and preconceptions. The relationships that form among the three grow into a deeper bond of appreciation and friendship that is rarely depicted on the screen. The same situation could easily have become just another TV sitcom plot padded out to theatrical feature length. In fact the film runs close to two and a half hours, but never seems to drag.

There are moments of overly cute comic schtick (when in doubt, dolly in to a closeup of the dog) and the abrasive personality of Nicholson’s character provides most of the laugh lines. For the most part, however, the characters are allowed to be genuinely human rather than stereotypes. They each have strong feelings about one particular thing, but otherwise are unsure of themselves, tentative about interacting with others, respectful of others feelings yet suspicious about their motives. And what other love story in recent memory does not feel obligated to have its couple fall into bed on (or off) screen? Brooks derives more dramatic and romantic energy between Nicholson and Hunt by having them almost on the verge of getting together a number of times until one (usually Nicholson) says exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Nicholson’s character is a successful writer, who happens to have mental problems of obsessive-compulsive behavior and also tends to be antagonistic to other people on general principle. Underneath it all, however, he has a basic decency and concern he is almost afraid to show. It is an ideal Nicholson part and few actors could handle it as well.

Hunt is a waitress at a café Nicholson frequents, and the only employee who seems able to put up with his eccentricities. She has a young son with severe asthma but as a single mother (who lives with her own mother) cannot afford proper medical treatment for him. Finally Hunt has a major film role that allows her to use her acting talents. (Twister didn’t have a plot, so it doesn’t count. Besides, despite an appealing presence, in that film she seemed basically an extension of her Mad About You TV character, constantly spouting clever one-liners.)

Kinnear is a gay artist who has the apartment across the hall from Nicholson, and whose little dog constantly aggravates Nicholson. He is also intimidated by Nicholson’s blunt views of his lifestyle. Kinnear, too, has not been impressive on the screen before, but here projects both honesty and sensitivity. The lives of all three become more complicated and intertwined after Hunts son has such a severe attack she must remain home rather than coming to work, and a model hired by Kinnear off the streets brutally beats him while he and friends are trying to rob his apartment. Nicholson hires a doctor to pay a housecall on Hunt so she can again wait on his table, and is also reluctantly talked into taking care of Kinnear’s dog while he is in the hospital. The reactions of both to Nicholson’s unexpected generosity form the basis of what follows.

Cuba Gooding, Jr., so wonderful in Jerry Maguire, is allowed a few good scenes as a gay art dealer friend of Kinnear, but mostly seems wasted here. Still, it’s nice to have really good actors in the smaller roles as well as the bigger ones (a notable feature of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker). It is Gooding’s character who ultimately is responsible for arranging for the other three to take a road trip together, a trip which becomes a key section of the film.

As Good As It Gets may live up to its title, although with the December 31 deadline fast approaching this is traditionally the time for the release of many films their companies hope will receive Oscar nominations. A number of those, on the other hand, will not get wide distribution until well into 1998. For now, As Good As It Gets is one of the few pictures for commercial theatres that is both pleasant and intelligent.

 

ATONEMENT (January 20, 2008)

Atonement likely Oscar contender

Theres nothing like a little competition to bring some interesting films to Grand Forks movie screens, but their presence may be a surprise to anyone who does not actively seek out what is playing. Last weekend Atonement expanded its limited national release from 950 to 1291 screens, one of which was at Carmike’s Columbia 4 in Grand Forks, where The Kite Runner continued for a second week (on fewer than 700 screens nationally), while El Orfanato (on about 700 screens) was held over at the Carmike 10. Apparently Margot at the Wedding (a November limited release that’s never been available to more than 121 theatres at one time) showed up and left the Carmike recently with no publicity unless you happened to be at the theatre that week. My own movie, Dangers from Within, is scheduled for a soon but still to be determined opening date at the River Cinema, which has pledged to bring in independent and art films once it has all of its screens installed. Although the River Cinema has been gradually completing movie auditoriums since it opened with seven last month, the new theatre currently has only 10 of its planned 12 screens operational and has been concentrating on the latest Hollywood hits, drawing numerous moviegoers away from Carmike’s two theatres that have been playing the same titles. Grand Forks movie fans can only hope that somebody in Carmike’s home office, perhaps by accident, may come to the realization that by playing different movies than their competition, moviegoers who want to see them will be forced to attend their theaters. And if local people do support these limited release titles by buying tickets, somebody in the home office might even decide that it could make good business sense to book more of them. Then all they need to do is learn how to set their showtimes so that crowds can be handled efficiently instead of starting several busy movies at the same time (perhaps they might even consider asking for input from their local managers instead of doing it all from a corporate office).

Atonement opened to great acclaim back on December 7th, but in only 32 theatres. With generally favorable critical and public response, it gradually added screens and then went into a wider though still limited release this month. No doubt its winning the Golden Globe award for Best Picture (Drama) and expectations of a number of Oscar nominations helped motivate the increased visibility. The British-made period picture is set shortly before and during World War II (summer of 1935 and spring of 1940), with a brief modern-day epilogue. Its a slow starting but often moving tale of a tragic romance and the irreversible consequences of misinterpretations and an impetuous lie. Besides its studied, dramatic performances, the film also has the sumptuous art design and lush cinematography one expects of a British production that is almost begging to be nominated for Academy Awards. Of course, all this as well as the extended manor house exposition at the beginning and an interesting but self-conscious jumping back and forth in time may turn some viewers off, the way that The English Patient divided critical opinion along the lines of “powerfully involving” or “pretentiously overblown.”

Despite some ostentatious excesses from time to time (such as a spectacular five-minute Steadicam shot up and down and around the chaotic Dunkirk beach), and a couple of annoying twists and tone shifts at the end, Atonement remains one of the best films released in 2007. The story is basically concerned with a precocious rich girl named Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) who at age 13 has a severe crush on the servant boy Robbie (James McAvoy) that her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is in love with. Briony is hoping to become a writer, Robbie is trying to better himself by studying to become a doctor, and after years of avoiding Robbie, Cecilia can no longer suppress her feelings for him. Everything seems to be heading along the lines of a typical British class-conflict romance until one fateful summer day and its more fateful night, when anything that could possibly happen to make all their relationships go wrong does. Cecilia has an argument with Robbie that Briony completely misinterprets from afar, Robbie accidentally gives Briony the wrong draft of his apology note to give to her sister (which she reads first, naturally), but there’s more. Two visiting little cousins run away during the night and when a search is organized, a visiting family friend takes the opportunity to rape Briony’s other cousin Lola. Then Briony stumbles onto the deed as the man runs off, and out of spite she decides to tell the police that Robbie is the culprit. After Robbie is hauled off to prison the time jumps forward five years and rest of the movie depicts the results of Briony’s lie on her sister, on Robbie, and on her own guilt-ridden conscience. We get substantial sequences from various points of view Robbie, now a soldier in France on the eve of the Dunkirk evacuation, Cecilia, now a war nurse, and the 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) now having abandoned her education to become a nurse herself and hoping to contact her estranged sister. Then, many years later, the elderly Briony reflects on her past.

Atonement is a beautifully made film (and looks great in the genuine 35mm film print playing at the Columbia). It’s an unusual twist on the coming-of-age story and the star-crossed romance, which becomes a powerful dramatization of personal responsibility and the overwhelming but futile desire to take back irreversible actions.

 

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (March 14, 1997)

Coens take on bowling

Films by the Coen brothers are an acquired taste for many viewers. Their dry, dark sense of humor and off-kilter perspective on things endears them to their fans but can confuse and alienate a typical moviegoer.

Their latest picture, The Big Lebowski, is funnier and has even stranger characters than Fargo, the film that somehow became a mainstream hit and major Oscar contender. The Big Lebowski, however, is anything but mainstream entertainment. Many local audiences seem put off by the odd goings-on and find the story difficult to follow. It’s not really that hard to follow if you are prepared to expect the unexpected and understand that major characters range from psychotic and severely disturbed to nymphomaniac to pathologically lazy to merely dysfunctional and co-dependent.

So here’s basically what it’s about. This unemployed surfer-dude (Jeff Bridges) has the same name as a paralyzed middle-aged rich guy whose teenage wife has been piling up debts with a porno film producer (Ben Gazzara) and various shady characters. Two of those shady characters try to shake down The Dude for the money, not realizing they’re at the wrong house. The Dude’s best friend, a terminally annoying, screwed-up southern Californian Vietnam vet (John Goodman), convinces him to visit the real Lebowski and demand reimbursement for his damaged property. Then things get complicated. The wife turns up missing, believed to be kidnapped by a gang of German-speaking nihilists (including Fargo’s Peter Stormare), and to deliver the ransom Lebowski unwisely enlists the aid of The Dude, who unwisely allows his friend to become involved. Meanwhile, Lebowski’s avant-garde artist daughter (who is older than his wife) becomes somewhat enamored of The Dude and tries to set him straight on what is really going on. All along The Dude and his friends would rather be bowling and smoking pot, especially poor Donny (Steve Buscemi), as they are all entered in an upcoming bowling tournament.

At one point The Dude is drugged by the porno producer and has a bizarre musical dream about bowling and chorus girls that is one of the highlights of the film. Although the story is set in southern California, the Coens manage to incorporate an obligatory Minnesota gag. Needless to say, all of this could only happen in a Coen brothers film.

The Big Lebowski is the perfect alternative to TV sitcoms and the standard Hollywood studio formula comedies that glut theatre screens. It is definitely something different, so be prepared. Warning (for those who need it): the favorite word of several characters starts with "F."

BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (October 25, 1999)

HALLOWEEN it's not...

The new Martin Scorsese film Bringing Out the Dead, despite its title, is not a Halloween type of film at all. Bringing Out the Dead is a moody, unsettling, slice-of-life covering a weekend in the world of a burnt-out paramedic. Nicholas Cage has one of his best roles as the central character who is starting to go insane from the stress of working night shifts on the seedy streets of New York City. Fascinating to watch from a stylistic standpoint -- unusual camera angles, theatrical lighting techniques, chemically manipulated film for an unusual "look" to the image -- it is also an interesting look into a character’s state of mind and the various philosophies of people who must cope with the hard life of inner city New York. It certainly wouldn’t inspire anyone to move there, although it is somewhat more upbeat than the Cage picture Leaving Las Vegas, which treats many similar themes.

Bringing Out the Dead is worth seeing, but has been getting mixed audience reactions. Unlike the popular ghost story The Sixth Sense, the main character here only thinks he sees dead people. Unlike the bitter protagonist of Fight Club, this bitter protagonist is struggling for redemption rather than mere catharsis. Unlike the attitude of American Beauty that life can change dramatically, one way or another, in Bringing Out the Dead the impression is that it simply goes on, one way or another. Strangely enough, despite its generally downbeat mood, it somehow seems less oppressive, less relentless than some of Scorsese’s other, more realistic street stories.

BROKEN EMBRACES (February 1, 2010)

Almadóvar, Cruz in fine form with ‘Broken Embraces’

 

Grand Forks moviegoers could get a double dose of Penélope Cruz in films about filmmaking this week, although the River Cinema held over “Nine” for the 12:20 pm matinee only. Spanish director Pedro Almadóvar’s latest feature, “Los Abrazos Rotos” (“Broken Embraces”) premiered in Spain last March, opened in the U. S. last November, and with less than 200 prints in circulation unexpectedly showed up in Grand Forks last weekend.

 

A complexly structured, character-centered drama, “Broken Embraces” deals with the enigmatic personal relationships of a blind screenwriter (Lluís Homar) in Madrid who once had been a movie director. A young documentary filmmaker (Rubén Ochandiano) approaches him with a proposal for co-writing his first fiction film, but the writer refuses and his production manager (Blanca Portillo) mysteriously insists they should never again make contact. The film cuts between the present day events of the writer in 2008 and a parallel storyline from 1992 with Penélope Cruz as a secretary for a wealthy industrialist (José Luis Gómez), which later skips to 1994. Sometimes it spends more time in 2008 and other times it lingers in the 1994 story for quite a while before switching back. When the production manager is off in another city, the writer decides to explain his life story to her son (Tamar Novas), and why he now goes by his penname of Harry Caine instead of his real name of Mateo Blanco. Gradually we see how closely related the two plot threads are until it becomes obvious that they are intimately connected on several levels. Later revelations complete the connections and lead to a reasonably satisfying conclusion.

 

The end of “Broken Embraces” reaffirms the filmmaking process, but this is not Amadóvar’s variation on “8 ½” (although there are various references to it and other classic films within the story). It’s basically a story of love, betrayal, obsession, loyalty, guilt, and catharsis, with the production of a film within the film serving as its background and the glue that holds everything together. The acting is fine all around, especially Portillo’s protective production manager. Although Penélope Cruz give her usual strong performance, most of the time here she’s just fleshing out the formula character of a woman who becomes a mistress because she needs the money and then falls for somebody else. The plot Almadóvar’s previous film, “Volver,” was a bit more intriguing and engrossing, and it also gave Cruz a more challenging character to display her talents.  Still, “Broken Embraces” remains an interesting film that should especially appeal to fans of Cruz, of romantic mysteries, and of movies about moviemaking.

 

If the film is gone from theatres by the time this review is printed, readers need only wait until March 16 for its American BluRay release (it’s already available in Europe).

CHICAGO (February 3, 2003)

My kind of film, ‘Chicago’ is...

Finally going into a wide enough release this weekend to play in Grand Forks is the Golden Globe-winner for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy), Chicago. Choreographer and stage/TV director Rob Marshall makes a spectacular feature film directorial debut with this energetic adaptation of the 1970s Broadway musical that was itself adapted from a 1926 non-musical stage play by ex-court reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, inspired by actual incidents of people exploiting each other and the media. Marshall’s flashy film will likely be a strong Oscar contender, and definitely deserves the awards for its editing, and at least nominations for its cinematography, music, art direction, costumes, and performances.

The late 1920s were the heyday of prohibition, gangsters, sleazy nightclubs, and rampant tabloid journalism. In this milieu, Roxie Hart, a small-time chorus girl who wants to be a star (Renée Zellweger), shoots her low-life boyfriend in a moment of passion and soon finds herself on death row with popular vaudeville headliner Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who killed her two-timing sister/partner. Both engage slick lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to get them off by playing on public sentiment and media publicity. Zellweger shines, but all give strong performances, as does Queen Latifah as mercenary jail matron Mama, John C. Reilly as Roxie’s long-suffering husband, Christine Baranski as the self-important sob sister reporter, and Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu in small but memorable parts.

The cynical dark comedy remains just as timely today with its tale of unrepentant murderers and a shyster lawyer who take advantage of the ever-insatiable public and media fascination with sordid scandals. It inspired an effective 1927 film version by Cecil B. DeMille and a somewhat watered-down but still funny William Wellman remake in 1942 starring Ginger Rogers, this time retitled Roxie Hart (whose title character Rogers and writer-producer Nunnally Johnson made more sympathetic than Phyllis Haver’s scheming 1927 portrayal). Now Zellweger makes the role of Roxie her own with a charming blend of victimized but guilty innocence that quickly evolves into hard-boiled pragmatism. Legendary stage director Bob Fosse turned Chicago into a hit musical in the mid-1970s (recently revived) but its theatricality resisted attempts to make a new film version until now. Like Cabaret and All That Jazz, the music of Chicago has a jazzy 1970s Broadway flavor, while creating a reasonable impression of the rhythms and chord changes used in the hot jazz of the 1920s.

The new movie version of Chicago successfully rethinks the genre of the movie musical to make it more acceptable to modern audiences who are unable to adjust to the artificial convention of characters singing their thoughts on screen. Instead of having the actors break into song in the middle of a scene, the songs are presented as stage performances, either actually taking place in a theatre or as fantasies in the imagination of the characters. (The film version of Cabaret used a similar approach.) The dazzling production numbers blend skillful choreography of the performers, the lights, the set, and the camera itself, all intensified by brilliant editing in time to the beat of the music. Rather than the highly stylized fantasy of last year’s Moulin Rouge, however, the more stage-oriented approach of Chicago looks realistic by comparison. The real world is always present and the songs are an extension of the characters’ thoughts while scenes are being played out. The film often intercuts from one to the other to make the distinction clear, and actually increases the momentum of the music in the process. The climactic courtroom sequence, which literally becomes a circus and shows how the lawyer can tap-dance his way out of a desperate situation, is a classic example of this, as is the powerful execution scene.

Surprisingly, for a film less than 50 years old, the major three stars in the dramatic leads are also able to do their own singing and dancing. Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and yes, even Richard Gere prove they have substantial vocal and terpsichorean talents. Although not as taxing as performing an entire stage show straight through, the song and dance numbers were generally shot a number of times in complete takes of over three minutes, using several cameras simultaneously from different angles. Thus most of the effects had to be achieved live during the numbers rather than added optically or digitally. (Digital effects were, however, crucial to recreating the city of Chicago as it appeared around 1929.)

Chicago, like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, may not be to everybody’s taste, but it shows that the movie musical is far from a dead genre and can be restyled to appeal to a new generation (without alienating existing musical fans). The question is, will Hollywood sense a new trend and rush films of other stage musicals into production? Without the care and unique visions of a Luhrmann or Marshall, however, a glut of inferior musicals or a few big-budget failures would effectively bury the genre once again, as happened in 1929-30 until revived by 1933’s 42nd Street, and again in the 1960s and 70s until Moulin Rouge in 2001.

CLICK (June 27, 2006)

‘Click’ sometimes does, sometimes doesn’t

Adam Sandler is a talented actor-comedian who seems torn between taking dramatic risks and rehashing proven formulas, between pursuing clever, intelligent, gentle humor deriving from genuine human emotion, and relying upon crude sexual and scatological gags, between trying something original and simply adapting classic movies by acknowledged masters to the present day and his own persona. He often winds up doing all at the same time, hoping it will click with audiences. Click is the perfect example of this apparent insecurity complex, with some sections guaranteed to please fans and turn off non-fans, and others that will court non-fans and either surprise fans with his versatility or lose them with his shift of gears. The preview trailers imply that the film is a wild comedy-fantasy about a man who manages to get a universal remote-control that will work on the world around him (his universe) instead of just electronic devices. Its an interesting concept, but Sandler’s screenwriters soon turn the script from light slapstick in the typical Sandler vein into an often heavy-handed, tear-jerking sentimental drama that is a thinly disguised and unacknowledged remake of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, with perhaps just a bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Of course remakes, admitted or otherwise, have become part of Sandler’s tradition. He revisited Capra four years ago, updating the original 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town into the passable but watered-down imitation, Mr. Deeds. Just last year he officially remade Robert Aldrich’s 1974 Burt Reynolds vehicle, The Longest Yard. Some of Sandler’s previous remakes, however, were less obvious to all but silent film buffs, who could immediately recognize that Big Daddy was really Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) and that The Waterboy was Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925). Even movies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore drew on characterizations from silent comics Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton.

Click, on the other hand, hopes to be an inspiring didactic allegory about personal priorities and addictions (whether they be drugs or ambition), trying to hook the Sandler fans with his trademark crude humor at first, and then teach them a lesson as their hero literally works himself into a situation beyond his control. The comic potential of being able to freeze-frame, rewind, or fast-forward his real life gives way to the gradual realization that once he fast-forwards through the dull parts, he can never re-live the moments he missed. The first half of the movie sets up the drama with an emphasis on broad comedy, and the last half puts the main character into traumatic and extremely emotional situations calculated to touch viewers’ hearts.

The film’s split personality appears to anger a large number of Sandler fans while impressing many others (according to viewer responses on the imDb). There is less middle ground in audience reaction, and the “user rating” that hovers slightly above average (between 6 and 7 on a scale of 1 to 10) reflects the two extremes more than indicating a moderate approval. Actually, despite its faults the film has many good moments, getting better as it goes along and moves toward the dramatic. The supporting cast is very strong, especially Henry Winkler and Julie Kavner, who are excellent as Sandler’s parents at various ages (thanks to some impressive age manipulation by veteran makeup artist Rick Baker). One might like to see more of Kate Beckinsale as Sandler’s wife and Christopher Walken as the mysterious scientist/angel who changes his life, and there are many amusing turns by David Hasselhoff, Sean Astin, and Jennifer Coolidge.

Perhaps the film reflects Sandler’s own mid-life anxieties (he turns 40 this fall) and a desire to be taken seriously while not losing his fan base. There is no reason, other than convenient mass-marketing, that any film needs to be all comedy or all drama. However, if Sandler had eliminated the frequent sex gags (usually involving the family dog) and toned down the humor revolving around bodily functions, he might have had a much more appealing family film that could well have taken a place somewhere in the neighborhood of its Capra inspiration. Instead, he winds up with an interesting but fitful hybrid that may alienate both his core fans and parents who still can’t grasp the concept of either the “PG” or the “13” in the MPAA’s PG-13 rating.

COWBOYS AND ALIENS (July 31, 2011)

Cowboys and Indians vs. Aliens

 

For most of the 20th century, the Western was America’s favorite movie genre, dying out in the 1970s to be replaced largely by science-fiction/horror action thrillers for the past 30-40 years, although a few successful Westerns have appeared from time to time over the past decade. Last Friday we got both in one movie with the release of Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys and Aliens.” A modest boxoffice hit, tying with the more kid-friendly “The Smurfs” for the number one spot on their opening weekends, “Cowboys and Aliens” had a slightly lower per-screen gross but a slightly more favorable viewer reaction according to Box Office Mojo.

 

Director Favreau is best-known for his mega-hits “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2,” and handles both the action and character development well. Of course much of the credit is also due to the strong cast headlined by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford with memorable support from Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, and Keith Carradine, among others. The script tries to throw in something for almost everyone, with classic genre cliché situations (both Western and Sci-fi, character conflicts, mystery, romance, and of course plenty of action once the aliens show up. While it often works, it also often looks like it’s trying to please everyone, perhaps due to having seven credited writers and sixteen producers involved (including Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard).

 

As the movie begins, Daniel Craig’s character wakes up alone in the middle of the 1870s New Mexico desert, unable to remember who he is or why he’s there. He also can’t figure out why there’s a strange metallic bracelet on one arm. He easily defeats a gang of bounty hunters who happen upon him, demonstrating to himself and the audience how quick he is with his wits, his fists, and with guns. Once he arrives in town, he’s recognized as notorious bandit Jake Lonergan, but still has no recollection of his past and seems to act more as a sympathetic vigilante on the side of the underdogs than an outlaw out for himself. Eventually wealthy and cantankerous old cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) shows up to rescue his wayward son Percy (Paul Dano), both of them stereotypes of the rich and selfish villains who feel the right to control everyone else’s lives. Dolarhyde is especially interested in Lonergan to recover the gold his gang recently stole from his payroll shipment, but the sheriff (Keith Carradine) insists on shipping out both Lonergan and the Dolarhyde’s delinquent son with a federal marshal. This sets up the plot’s initial obvious conflict. Everything suddenly changes when alien spaceships interrupt the showdown by attacking the town and spiriting off many of its inhabitants, including the terrified Percy. At this point Lonergan somehow intuitively realizes that the bracelet on his arm is a high-tech weapon that can attack the aliens, which he does to the amazement of everyone. Naturally he and Dolarhyde reluctantly team up with each other, a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde), and the local Apache tribe to hunt down the aliens, find their outpost and recover the missing people – the process of which takes up the remainder of the film.

 

“Cowboys and Aliens” would be entertaining enough with this basic formula, but the script is able to develop several of the characters interestingly, exploiting and then inverting a few stereotypes along the way. The greatest depth and growth is given to Harrison Ford’s Dolarhyde, with a fair amount for Craig’s Lonergan once he rediscovers his memories through an Indian ritual. Wilde’s unusual character often serves as a catalyst for both actions and character developments, and figures prominently in the otherwise standard and predictable resolution. Fans of either Westerns or Sci-fi should find much to enjoy in “Cowboys and Aliens.” While it may not rank with the best of either genre, it is well above average for both. We get some touching observations on family relationships, stubbornness, racism, love, and self-sacrifice, as well as macho fisticuffs, spectacular CGI effects and alien creatures. It’s another good example of a summer Saturday matinee movie that is best appreciated on a big screen with a big audience.

 

THE DA VINCI CODE (May 30, 2006)

‘DaVinci’ demystified: code itself is the point

Well, the fuss seems to be dying down a bit, as well as the size of the crowds, so I finally made it out to see The DaVinci Code. Never having read the book, I did not have preconceived notions of how it should be filmed, and did not know ahead of time either the numerous unexpected plot twists that pop up every so often or whether the book gives more detailed and plausible explanations for some of the scripts frequent outlandish episodes.

Ron Howard’s movie is a fairly well-made pop thriller that relies on rapid changes of events to keep the audience focused on its two main characters, instead of stopping to realize how improbable the whole thing is, especially the catalytic opening incident that brings the main characters together. The structure of the plot is much like a computer adventure game that forces its players to solve one puzzle to get the clue for how to find another puzzle, and solve that one to find the next, and so forth, before finally discovering some sort of final “treasure,” all the while trying to evade various obstacles and enemies. The result (in the film, at least) is that there is only enough character development to further the action and mystery. Because the puzzle rather than logic is the main concern, this may not matter for many viewers. Indeed, the two main characters are a cryptologist and an expert at interpreting symbols. It’s essentially a story of various fanatics out either to kill, to protect, or to expose other fanatics, with two people caught in the middle trying to survive long enough to figure out why. Secret societies and conspiracy theories have long been popular topics in B-grade adventure stories, so all of the controversial material connected with this one comes off primarily as a calculated marketing hook to stir up interest in what would otherwise be just another mystery thriller.

The fast and loose way it makes selective use of and convenient distortion of historical “facts” relies upon the genuine fact that the general public has only a vague idea of anything that happened more than a few years ago, let alone a thousand or two thousand years ago. The encoded “clues” in DaVinci’s painting of “The Last Supper” call to mind the far-fetched mystical speculation over the Dallas-issued Kennedy dollar bills after JFKs assassination. Nevertheless, the action and intrigue in The DaVinci Code move fast enough that while the film is going on it’s even possible to ignore how insignificant its central premise really would be if it were true in today’s world. The naïve may actually believe some of the claims made by the fictional characters in this work of narrative fiction, and fundamentalists insecure in their beliefs may condemn the film because of them and ignore the rest of it. However, the film’s indisputable basic truth comes in the line “as long as there has been one true God, there has been killing in his name.” And while the film does not mention it, this can apply equally to all three of today’s leading monotheistic religions.

The rest of the plot is a moderately interesting exercise in “what if” fantasizing, designed to tap into the tabloid-reading public’s craving for scandalous exposes about high-level cover-ups and conspiracies, specifically among famous historical figures and the Christian hierarchy in this case. What seems to fascinate many (and worry others) is the discussion of “lost” or “suppressed” books of the Bible, and this is where the film conveniently leaves out substantial information. Some of the early religious writings were indeed suppressed, but the “non-canonical” books were more often ignored and forgotten simply because they strayed so far from mainstream thought and beliefs. Many of the books alluded to have been readily available for the past half-century to anyone interested in searching them out (over a century for some of the books), and while sections may overlap and complement familiar passages of the New Testament, substantial parts of them (notably the recently rediscovered Gospel of Judas) tend to ramble off into esoteric philosophical, metaphysical, and ritual references that reflect Gnostic and other mythologies. The fascinating Gospel of Mary Magdalene, although missing several pages in its surviving copies, is more coherent than many, yet gives no explicit support for the theory that drives the plot of The DaVinci Code. The Gospel of Philip, apparently a work of a century or two later, is much more disjointed in its organization, and while it often veers from orthodox tradition, it likewise gives no unambiguous “proof” of the movie’s premise in the brief passages that even mention Mary Magdalene. The last verse of the Gospel of Thomas reiterates the apostle Peter’s constant annoyance at Mary Magdalene’s presence among the disciples, but ends with the odd statement by Jesus that she and any female who makes herself male will enter heaven--obviously a contradiction of the movie’s general attitude.

The greatest value that The DaVinci Code may have, is to inspire viewers to seek out some of the not-really-secret original sources for themselves, and perhaps learn what really did happen at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. instead of the wild dogmatic claims that one of the movie’s characters asserts. In the meantime, the film is still a passable action thriller to waste a couple of hours at.

 

THE DARK KNIGHT (July 21, 2008)

Film philosophizes on human nature, modern life

Batmania certainly gripped moviegoers the past week, making The Dark Knight the highest-grossing movie on its opening weekend ever. It already took in more money at the box office worldwide in just three days than it cost to make the film, and is earning high ratings from the vast majority of viewers. Whether it can sustain public interest and surpass the overall grosses of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Mans Chest, Spiderman 1 and 3, and Star Wars Episode III, remains to be seen. The good news is, Christopher Nolan’s sequel to his own Batman Begins is a pretty good movie, due largely to its powerhouse cast and a provocative script. The bad news is that only about 80 theatres around the country are able to show it as the filmmakers envisioned it and it can never be converted to DVD or BluRay in a way that preserves the effect of its original format.

Hollywood has tried to impress audiences over the years by releasing versions of its major release blown up from the standard 35mm film negative to the larger 70mm Imax film, giving somewhat greater sharpness, although the blowup fits into only about half the Imax films available image area and doesn’t come close to the potential sharpness of Imax film. With The Dark Knight, however, the director convinced the studio to let him actually shoot portions of the film (roughly a half-hour’s worth) with genuine Imax cameras, giving some scenes an original image almost eight times the area of the 35mm anamorphic widescreen used for the rest of the movie and about sixteen times the film area used for typical super 35 widescreen productions.

In Imax theatres, those scenes will suddenly change from the usual widescreen “movie look” to fill the gigantic Imax screen top to bottom. In regular film theatres, those scenes won’t get any bigger but will suddenly look sharper, with less visible film grain, having been cropped and reduced to 35mm from a much larger negative. In digital theatres, the difference will be negligible if even noticeable at all, since most theatrical digital projectors have only a third the resolution of standard 35m film. The home Blu Ray version is about the same sharpness as the digital theatre version, but at least attempts to give a weak approximation of the IMAX impact by filling the 16x9 video image height during those segments, while letterboxing the 2.4:1 anamorphic 35mm segments to their proper height.

Of course an impressive story is more important to most viewers than merely an impressive image on the screen. The Dark Knight delivers in that category, for the most part. It’s a good followup to Nolan’s first installment, although like most sequels, it tends to emphasize action scenes at the expense of added character development, relying on the actors to imply what the film doesnt have time to explore. Luckily, this cast is able to pull that off, especially the amazing performance by the late Heath Ledger as the Joker.

What Nolan and his strong cast still manage to convey amidst all the exaggerated comic-book violence, however, is a dark yet optimistic view of Western civilization. The film depicts a society plagued with crime, corruption, and terrorism it cannot deal with because rational civilization with its values simply can’t comprehend that it is up against true insanity, something whose values are not only foreign but completely incapable of appeasement. It also shows that the strongest and most effective forces for restoring “normality” verge on the borderline of sanity themselves, and that their inherent moral sensibilities may or may not be to their advantage in any given situation. Nevertheless, its message is that the basic requirement for humanity, whatever someone might be confronted with, is a respect for human life. Lack of that, the film depicts, puts one in a category of pure evil, overwhelming selfishness, or mentally unbalanced.

 

DREAMGIRLS (January 15, 2007)

Entertaining musical ‘Dreamgirls’ enlivens old formula

Hollywood’s Academy Awards are a month earlier than they were a few years ago. That means markets the size of Grand Forks and Fargo may see certain movies earlier than they previously would have, if they see them at all. A large number of serious films and other films with carefully calculated artistic pretensions come out in December in very limited release, just in time to qualify for the Oscar deadline and simultaneously insure they’ll still be fresh in the minds of Academy members at voting time. Many of these get wider release after the nominations are announced, but sometimes not until after they win an Oscar. However, that that count on one or more major nominations often get wider releases a few weeks later so they’ll be playing nationally if and when they do get those nominations. For its fifth week in release Dreamgirls finally got to Grand Forks last weekend after Paramount/Dreamworks added over a thousand screens to its playdates, having boosted its three-screen December 15th opening to 852 theatres on Christmas Day. Beyoncé Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, and newcomer Jennifer Hudson star in this energetic adaptation of the 1981 Broadway musical. Like the stage to screen musical Chicago (2002), of which it is sometimes reminiscent, the script was adapted for the screen by Bill Condon, and in the case of Dreamgirls, Condon also directs.

It’s actually a fairly standard rise-to-fame story, based sometimes loosely and sometimes closely on the career of The Supremes (and especially Diana Ross) over a decade or so from the 1960s through the 1970s. The film starts out as a slickly-made and well-acted though rather predictable backstage melodrama with music, alternating lively rhythm and blues or soul numbers with scenes showing the struggle of three teenage Detroit girls to break into show business. About halfway through the movie, however, characters occasionally start singing lines of dialogue or break into elaborately staged and edited musical soliloquies (arias, essentially) that further the plot like the more stylized medium of the theatrical musical or opera. The technique is a bit disconcerting at first, after the more realistic blend of music and drama during the first section; but once one accepts the convention, it becomes a natural part of the way this story is told. Strong performances by the entire cast make the stereotyped characters into engaging personalities. Jamie Foxx is appropriately cunning as Curtis Taylor, Jr., the used-car dealer with an eye for talent and a perceptive understanding of how not only to feed performers egos, but how to cash in on popular trends (by not always scrupulous methods), turning a trio of unknowns called “The Dreamettes” into international pop superstars that cross over, redefine, and transcend racial categories.

Beyoncé Knowles is an appealing Deena Jones, the girl Taylor changes into the groups lead singer because he realizes her marketability to white audiences. Knowles’ obvious beauty and singing talents here are rivaled by her dramatic talents, showing her character maturing into a self-determined artist no longer willing to be controlled by the man whose business interests have led him to marry her. A major star of the film is Jennifer Hudson as Effie White, the powerful-voiced and full-figured lead singer of the original trio, whose soul-stirring performance at a singing contest was what first caught Taylor’s attention and initial romantic overtures, until he realized that her backup singer would make them all more money in the long run. Eddie Murphy is at his dramatic best with hints of his familiar comic persona as James “Thunder” Early, the womanizing soul singer the Dreamettes first work for as backup, but who soon is eclipsed by them in popularity and turns increasingly to drugs as music styles change around him. Danny Glover makes a dignified Marty, Early’s first manager, reluctant to go along with Taylor’s aggressive attempts to break race barriers.

While Dreamgirls relies on its music to put itself over, Condon makes the film into as much an epic about the period as it is about a group of young people trying to become singing stars. The songs throughout the film evolve from heavier rhythm and blues and soul music to more of the Motown sound to late-60s pop to 70s disco. The film portrays the drama of the characters as more than a personal achievement, however. The occasional inclusion of well-incorporated news footage turns their lives into a triumph over the urban racial violence and national political turmoil of the 1960s and 70s.

Still, what raises Dreamgirls above its formulaic plot, or from being just another musical, is the pervading sense of enthusiasm -- from the ensemble cast to the meticulous costume and set design to the often exhilarating blend of cinematography and editing. The great R&B music -- not actual period songs, but written in the style especially for the Broadway show or newly composed for the movie -- makes it that much more fun. Its multiple nominations for Golden Globes and other awards will likely translate into some Oscar recognition that can only help its boxoffice.

 

FIGHT CLUB (October 18, 1999)

The first rule about "Fight Club"
Don’t talk about "Fight Club" (unless the other person’s seen it)

"Fight Club" is yet another in a spate of movies lately with surprise twists that can easily be spoiled by talking about the plot in much detail (dont worry, I wont give anything away). "Sixth Sense" and "American Beauty" are other films you should try to see before anyone ruins their impact. I must admit that the prevue trailers for "Fight Club," especially the first "teaser" trailer that played with the latest Star Wars movie, were more inclined to make me avoid the film than see it. Then I found out it was directed by David Fincher ("Seven," "The Game," "Alien 3") and decided it might be worth a look. It is. It’s his most impressive film so far -- much better than "The Game" and even surpassing his brilliant dark thriller "Seven" -- yet it bears strong resemblances to both.

"Fight Club" is also nearly identical in its basic spirit to "American Beauty," but takes nearly an opposite approach in how the plot develops out of the initial premise. For one thing, we have Edward Norton as a thirtyish single yuppie in a dead-end white-collar job instead of Kevin Spacey as a fortyish married yuppie in a dead-end white-collar job. Both are sick and tired of the hypocritical, unfulfilling daily grind, but whereas Spacey’s character in "American Beauty" tries to turn his life around for the better no matter what anyone else thinks, Norton’s character in "Fight Club" grasps at any vicarious experience he can during his hours away from work merely to maintain a semblance of sanity. This ranges from attending death and disease support groups to starting the underground fist-fight club which quickly attracts a wide variety of disaffected wage slaves who hate their lives. Spacey’s character makes up his mind what he wants to do and decides to give up everything to do it, while Norton’s character never really knows he wants to do in the first place except that it’s not what he’s doing for a living.

"Mischief. Mayhem. Soap." The catchphrase promoting the film says it all (you’ll understand once you’ve seen it). The black comedy in "Fight Club" is rather less subtle than in "American Beauty," far more raw and far more bitter, yet its constant presence keeps the brutal story from becoming too overpowering until events in its protagonist’s unhappy life finally move completely out of his control. The ending may be a letdown for those who liked "American Beauty" or a relief for those who did not, but it remains even more ambiguous than "American Beauty." "Fight Club" is certainly a more disturbing movie overall, with an unglamorized yet ambivalent view of its anti-social ultra-violence that may remind some viewers of Kubrick’s "A Clockwork Orange." Along with a nearly omnipresent narration (usually voice-over but occasionally delivered directly to the camera), from time to time some spectacular digital effects give the viewer a fascinating subjective view of the character’s state of mind. The rest is done through effective editing and fine performances, especially by Norton with strong support from Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter (and Meat Loaf, of all people). The only character we really get to understand much is Norton’s, whereas although Spacey is the central figure of "American Beauty" we nevertheless get vivid portraits of his family and neighbors. This is frustrating at times and tends to distance Norton’s character even further from the world he lives in, even though it is really part of the films basic plan. As a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde he knows he shouldn’t be leading his dual life. The initial exhilaration soon turns into misgivings, but like Jekyll he becomes so fascinated with the dark life he has thrust himself into that he cannot help himself after awhile.

As with "Sixth Sense" and "American Beauty" many may wish to see "Fight Club" a second or third time to catch more nuances and all the hints and foreshadowing of what will follow. It is hard to say it is better than "American Beauty," but "Fight Club" is certainly just as thought-provoking and much more intense an experience while it is happening. Like "American Beauty," "Fight Club" was filmed to use the full CinemaScope width of the screen, so it will suffer greatly on the small video screen. Be sure to see it with stereo sound, as well.

 

GOON (April 15, 2012)

Hockey comedy is violent, crude, funny, and yes, sweet

While there have been plenty of films about baseball and football over the years, and even a fair number about basketball, hockey fans rarely get to see their favorite sport depicted on the big screen. A couple of notable exceptions were The Mighty Ducks (1992) and of course Slap Shot (1977). The new Canadian hockey comedy Goon premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2011, got a very limited release two months ago, and finally opens at the Fargo Theatre this Friday, April 20 as the pro hockey season winds down with Stanley Cup playoffs. Based loosely on a true story, Goon revolves around the traditional reputation of hockey as a sport noted as much for its violent fights as for skating and hitting a small rubber disc into a net. All the bloody on-ice combat, along with the pervasive coarse and downright raunchy dialogue, make Goon look obviously much closer in spirit to Slap Shot than to The Mighty Ducks. Yet behind all its violence and crudity there is an underlying sweetness and genuine love of the game and admiration for team spirit that comes through, especially as the film progresses.

 

The main plot of Goon may involve hockey, but its focus on an appealing central character is what gives it its heart, well-handled by director Michael Dowse and the cast. Minnesota native Seann William Scott, noted for roles in a variety of raunchy comedies, here shows a sensitivity that has the audience rooting for Doug Glatt, a simple-minded but strong, cheerful, and achingly honest bouncer at a bar who gets his dream job when he’s hired by the local hockey team as an “enforcer.” Glatt is the son of a successful Jewish doctor (Eugene Levy) who hopes he’ll settle down and become a doctor as well, like his brother Ira (David Paetkau). What sets the character apart from so many stories of fun-loving black sheep of a family not living up to parental expectations is that Doug actually realizes his lack of intellectual ability and understands his own limitations. He knows he could never achieve the lofty ambitions his parents keep hanging onto, at the same time he knows he’d like to do more than merely intimidate bar patrons in his security job and hang around with his hockey fanatic and aggressively gay best friend (Jay Baruchel, who co-wrote the script with Evan Goldberg). Doug finally has become gainfully employed at something that he not only knows he can do, but enjoys doing. More than just a variation on his job as a tough goon in a bar, it gives him his first sense of fulfillment because he both loves the game and feels a new-found sense of family with teammates that depend on him. This leads to a parallel plot with Doug’s roommate on the team, one-time hockey star Xavier Laflamme (Marc-André Gondin) who has never quite recovered from the traumatic injuries he received from another team’s famous “enforcer,” Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber). Glatt’s easy-going naïveté contrasts with the cynical bitterness of Laflamme and the world-weary yet respectful admiration of Rhea. This gives some unexpected depth to the story as well as providing the film believable motivation behind its last-act celebration of the sport of hockey and team spirit triumphant. Along the way is the inevitable romance, again worked into the plot in a somewhat less predictable manner than typical in these movies. Eva (Alison Pill) is a free-spirited hockey fan already in a relationship but becomes reluctantly attracted to Doug’s awkward honesty.

 

Goon is undeniably crude, especially its first half-hour, and violent through the very end. Nevertheless, there is an engaging light-hearted attitude and playful affection for the game, its fans, and its players that compensate for sometimes questionable taste. The non-condescending, heartfelt depiction of a lovable dimwit who finds his calling as well as true love is just as memorable. It’s obviously a film for hockey fans, but should appeal equally to fans of violent, raunchy comedies, and even those who can look past its in-your-face crudity to appreciate the character portrayals.

 

 

HERMAN, U.S.A. (September 10, 2001)

Pleasant comedy-drama made in Minnesota

Herman, U.S.A., an independent Minnesota-made movie that was one of the highlights of last spring’s Fargo Film Festival, is finally getting a theatrical release this weekend. Although actually made in 1999, the film had a number of test screenings and trips back to the editing room during the year 2000, with substantial amounts of footage deleted before the Fargo premiere. The result is a nice, entertaining little picture that runs a nicely-paced hour and a half.

The plot is based on an actual incident from several years ago. Most people, when they reach a certain age, want to settle down and get married. One small Minnesota town had only a few unmarried, eligible women, but 78 unmarried and frustrated men. The men placed a want ad in the newspaper, and soon the story was picked up by other papers and finally the national media. This inspired hundreds of women from 38 states and four foreign countries to descend on the town for the annual Harvest Weekend festival.

Something like this is natural, ready-made raw material for a hit romantic comedy, and writer-director and co-producer Bill Semans wound up creating a vivid portrait of small-town middle America that is alternately touching and funny. There is a definite emphasis on the humor, but the film also presents central characters that the audience can empathize with, and many who might seem familiar to anyone from a small town. It also develops a more soap-opera-like subplot that introduces additional character conflict to keep things from becoming just a simple lonely boy meets lonely girl story (or, in this case, a group of relatively shy guys become overwhelmingly inundated by women, some of them overtly aggressive).

In the hands of a Hollywood studio, this could easily have become predictable formula, most likely with numerous outrageous gags tailored to the personalities of big-name stars, and probably rehashing earlier movie scenes that made them famous. Herman, U.S.A. still has a certain predictability, but it also contains some pleasant surprises. For one, it is able to acknowledge sexual attraction in a humorous and sometimes risqué way without any need to resort to explicit gross-out vulgarity. And what helps make the movie work is the fact that there are no name stars in the roles. The actors are basically ordinary, every-day-looking people, and give believable performances. When characters do silly things, it looks like it is something characters like that might actually do when caught up in a situation like that.

Herman, U.S.A. is the kind of movie that should find its greatest appeal in the Midwest and small towns, with its sentiments that some have described as “heartwarming” or “warm and fuzzy.” The film is that, certainly, but it is something more, as well. It shows people being people -- hoping for a good time, trying to take advantage of a situation, yet underneath it all longing to connect with someone truly special. The small-town America it portrays is a stereotype, to a degree, but it is an affectionate stereotype with more than a little truth behind it. Who knows -- after the unexpected success of Fargo, maybe the rest of the country will also pick up on this alternate view of “Minnesota nice” and discover that good movies don’t have to come from California or New York.

 

HUGO (December 4, 2011)

 

Scorsese’s Hugo is ‘Best Picture’ front-runner…

A movie for movie-lovers

 

Martin Scorsese is one of the world’s best and best-known film directors, noted especially for gritty crime dramas with Robert DeNiro or Leonardo DiCaprio, from Taxi Driver and Cape Fear to The Departed and Shutter Island. But his love of all kinds of movies and his versatility have also resulted in such diverse works like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, New York, New York, The Last Waltz, After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, and The Aviator. In The Aviator, Scorsese explored the personality of troubled billionaire and airline pioneer Howard Hughes, but focused also on Hughes’ early passion for moviemaking. Scorsese’s latest film, Hugo, embodies his own passion for movies into his first family-friendly production, adapted from the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It’s also Scorsese’s first movie shot in 3-D and his first shot with digital cameras instead of traditional film (mainly to simplify the process of three-dimensional photography, as he did not want to have it converted to 3-D after it was shot).

 

The story is mainly a personal odyssey of a little boy about 11 or 12 named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives alone in the depths of a Paris railroad station sometime around 1930. He keeps all of the station’s clocks running, and snatches food from the various station vendors to survive while trying to elude the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). We soon learn that he used to help his clockmaker father (Jude Law) fix mechanical things, and when his father died suddenly, Hugo was taken in by his alcoholic old Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), who taught him his job of maintaining all the elaborate clockwork at the train station. Hugo’s main passion is trying to repair an intriguingly complex but rusty old mechanical man his father had rescued from a museum that was about to discard it. To do that, he sketches the parts in a notebook his father started, and assembles as many spare clock parts that he can find, periodically stealing them from the shop of a gruff and bitter old toyseller (Ben Kingsley) who is the guardian of a precocious and adventurous little girl named Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Of course one day the old man catches Hugo and confiscates his notebook, leading to Hugo befriending Isabelle and the pair trying to solve the mystery of what this strange mechanical robot is supposed to do and how to make it work. In the process, Hugo introduces Isabelle to the immersive escapism of the movies, which her guardian “Papa Georges” has forbidden her to attend, and Isabelle helps Hugo discover a new world of hidden but vivid imagination and information through books (including the history of movies, which come to life as they read about them), with the cooperation of a friendly old train station bookseller (Christopher Lee). The more they explore the worlds of movies and books and their own memories of family stories, the more they discover how interrelated they are to each other and to unlocking the secret of the mysterious mechanical man.

 

The cast is excellent all around, with Butterfield and Moretz wonderful as the two children. Kingsley could well earn an Oscar nomination for his deeply affecting performance as the tragic parallel real-life hero of the story, who is himself the “missing gear” that ties everything together and is the underlying reason for the entire film. But the film is more than its main characters. Scorsese pulls together an amazing ensemble of memorable people who inhabit the busy daily world of the train station, and whose lives sometimes interlock or overlap with those of the main characters. Scorsese even does an amusing cameo himself during one of the flashbacks. Scorsese’s love and encyclopedic knowledge of film history are apparent throughout the film, with numerous homages to classic films, to the mechanics of film and photographic technology (including early color processes), and to the pure fun of creativity with a movie camera. The 3-D is also very nicely done. At times he incorporates clips from actual original silent films, as well as recreating the earliest years of filmmaking. In fact in the short time since the release of Hugo, the Flicker Alley DVD box set of all the surviving films of Georges Méliès has sold out and is now being revised and updated for a new edition! On the surface Hugo is a gripping and engrossing juvenile mystery-adventure story for all ages that develops into a heartwarming human tale of family, intergenerational connections, hopes, dreams, and personal sense of purpose. At the same time, however, Hugo is clever celebration of the movies as a valuable part of our lives and culture, an entertaining education in the basics of early cinema, and a persuasive editorial urging the preservation of films (and books, for that matter). Like J. J. Abrams’ Super 8 earlier this year dramatized the joy of making movies through the eyes of children, Scorsese’s Hugo dramatizes, again through the eyes of children, the joy of discovering the magic of movies that they never even realized existed. Hugo has already been chosen as the Best Picture of 2011 by the National Board of Review and other groups of critics, and is sure to be a strong contender for multiple Academy Awards over the next two months. It’s a must-see for anyone who likes movies.

 

 

AN IDEAL HUSBAND (September 21, 1999)

Ideal movie seeks audience

Well better late than never. The film version of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband finally arrived in Grand Forks three months after its June release, and it was well-worth the wait. A more delightful film has yet to appear on movie screens this year, except possibly for Cookie’s Fortune (entirely different in tone but coincidentally also featuring Julianne Moore) and Shakespeare in Love (which was actually a 1998 release that never played here until Oscar time this year). Thoughtful, funny, beautifully acted, and attractively mounted, it may well earn more than one Academy Award nomination -- yet attendance at the Columbia 4 Theatre was virtually nil. But then there are no car chases, gun battles, spectacular visual effects, or ghosts to grab the attention of the moviegoers.

Instead there are these rich people from a hundred years ago with British accents talking in a very civil way about things like honor and reputations and love, and they have this really dry and wittily sarcastic sense of humor that people actually have to pay attention to understand so it’s obviously far too boring for somebody like the Farreley brothers or Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey to ever dare to attempt (well, maybe Carrey might with the right script). For Anglophiles, on the other hand, An Ideal Husband is an ideal film, easily surpassing Emma and Remains of the Day, as much fun as A Room With a View and at least as good as if not better than Howards End and Sense and Sensibility. The verbal wit flying back and forth is chock-full of Wilde’s trademark cynicism (a main character’s motto is "to love one’s self is the beginning of a life-long romance"). However, this masks a deeper seriousness that comes out later as the plot complications thicken. Another line, directed at the title character and which turns out to be prophetic, goes "Did you do something wrong? I certainly hope you did, because people who do right all the time are so stuffy."

An Ideal Husband is a rare combination of a comedy of manners, poking fun at the conventions of Victorian England of 1895, and a moving character drama of human relationships with some touching insights into the limits of love and friendship. At any moment a twist of the plot could easily turn it into a poignant tragedy. Being a comedy, it naturally has a happy ending, yet at more than one point there are serious doubts about how exactly the various conflicts will be able to resolve. And something highly unusual for a comedy once it does resolve -- the characters have all been forced to realize things they never thought they could accept, and are changed immeasurably by their experience.

All the actors are perfectly suited to their roles, bringing out a depth of character not immediately evident in the dialogue. Rupert Everett heads the cast as confirmed bachelor playboy Lord Arthur Goring, an antisocial socialite who discovers to his surprise that he has a suppressed sense of nobility. Jeremy Northam is fine as Sir Robert Chiltern, the title character who married the idealistic woman Goring also loved, and who is hiding a dark secret about his own past. Cate Blanchett is vulnerable and strong-headed as his wife whose trust in him is suddenly shattered by a revelation from Mrs. Laura Chevely (deviously played with a believable British accent by Julianne Moore), a woman with past ties to all three of them. Minnie Driver is also quite enjoyable as Chilterns sister who hopes to interest Goring in her.

Director Oliver Parker has made one of the best adaptations of Oscar Wilde on film. Throughout the film, Everett’s Lord Goring is more or less the voice of Wilde, his aphorisms wonderfully delivered. At one point there is a double in-joke, as the characters go to the theatre to see Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and Wilde himself appears on the stage after the performance. With the size of the audiences patronizing the Columbia 4’s engagement, An Ideal Husband will not play long on the big screen, but it is a film worth buying rather than renting when it inevitably comes out on home video. Either way it is a must-see for anyone who loves intelligent comedy or the English theatre.

 

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (May 25, 2008)

Spielberg and Lucas get back to basics

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull reunites a team that redefined the Hollywood action blockbuster a generation ago and revives a character that has become an American movie icon. The new film is already the biggest opening picture of this year, and while it should please any audience looking for escapist fun, it has a substantial number of fans fuming. Fans have been waiting nearly two decades for another installment in the Indiana Jones series while Steven Spielberg has been trying to make more serious films and George Lucas has been devoting himself more to digital effects and his Star Wars movies. After the surprise success of Star Wars in 1977, Lucas and Spielberg spent the 1980s entertaining movie audiences with their slick, big-budget re-envisioning of cheesy but beloved action-adventure sci-fi serials of the 1930s and 40s that had been designed for childrens Saturday matinees. Newly created action hero Harrison Ford went on to star in two more Star Wars episodes, plus a trilogy of earthbound adventures spotlighting danger-prone archaeologist Indiana Jones. Then he, like Spielberg, concentrated on more serious work, while not ruling out another sequel if the script were right. Apparently Ford and Spielberg approved several new Indiana Jones screenplays, only to be vetoed by Lucas until all finally agreed to do what became the fourth episode, which opened in over 4000 theatres last week.

This fourth Indiana Jones movie is exactly what one would expect from a sequel to a popular franchise by popular producer-directors. That is to say, it blends favorite characters and situations with a few new twists, lots of references to previous films, plenty of excitement, a little bit of character development, and nothing particularly surprising. It naturally no longer packs the fresh punch that the original Raiders of the Lost Ark delivered back in 1981. But then, modern audiences often fail to recognize that even that film was simply a flashy rehash of the low-budget kiddie movies from a generation or two before, and a well-executed rip-off of some memorable sequences in the then-best-selling novel Sphinx (from which a disappointingly mediocre movie adaptation was also made). Computer-generated effects get their share of screen time in the new movie, but certainly not to the annoying extent that most recent action films (or the latest three Star Wars movies) incorporate them. It doesn’t quite recapture the warm, fuzzy chemistry that the third installment, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, had between Ford’s Indy and Sean Connery as his father. It does come close in spots, with its bringing back a still spunky Karen Allen as the still spunky Marion Ravenwood from the first episode, and introducing Shia LaBeof as “Mutt Williams,” whose relationship to Indy quickly becomes apparent.

This film, however, is really much closer in style and spirit to the second episode, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Like that film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull contains maybe a good 20 minutes of plot scattered throughout an additional 100 minutes of almost nonstop action, punctuated every so often by either clever wisecracks or creepy fantasy elements, or both. Both films are a lot of fun, but both are pretty light on substance, although the new movie tries to make it seem like it’s being more significant and throws in a bit of obvious propaganda here and there, sometimes apparent and sometimes more subtle, ironic, or even ambivalent. For example, did the Western world eventually become the Soviet regime without even realizing it, or vice versa, or both? Is pursuit of knowledge the true treasure of humanity, or is too much knowledge a sure means of self-destruction?

It’s obvious from the main thrust of the story that Spielberg has never quite given up on his E.T., Close Encounters, A.I., and War of the Worlds fascination. He also throws in jabs at 1950s Cold War paranoia, blacklisting, and atomic bomb testing, along with, perhaps for Lucas, some pre-American Graffiti homages to hot rodding and 50s diners. In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the action is always foremost, with logic often little more than an afterthought. This is an adventure-thriller-fantasy, and both the over-the-top threats and the ridiculously bizarre methods the heroes manage to use to survive their perils is part of the fun. Anyone looking for realism or carefully reasoned explanations is obviously at the wrong movie.

The supporting characters, even if not very deeply written, are well-played by actors the likes of Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, and Jim Broadbent, with Igor Jijikine as an appropriately larger than life Russian heavy. It is Harrison Ford, of course, who carries the entire film, but Shia LaBoef does a credible job as perhaps the heir to the franchise, and Karen Allen is in fine form, looking even less the worse for wear than Ford after nearly three decades since their last meeting. Maybe the most refreshing aspect of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is its use of a couple in their 50s and 60s as credible central characters of a pretty intense action movie, with the 20-something teen/tween idol as more of a tagalong sidekick. In short, it’s a great summer movie with few pretensions of being anything else but, and this time is a modern-edged throwback to classic 1950s sci-fi thrillers instead of the 1930s and 40s action serials.

 

KING ARTHUR (July 12, 2004)

Fun film, misleading history, revised myth

Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest summer action film, King Arthur, is everything a Hollywood summer action film needs to be, and even a little more. It has just enough plotline to spotlight an idealistic hero, a band of loyal sidekicks, a feisty female love interest (but not much romance), some large-scale battle sequences, and some impressive recreation of ancient history that almost gets things right and is closer than most films of its type.

This King Arthur is a rousing paean to independence and individual freedom worthy of Mel Gibson (although a few anti-Catholic overtones are perhaps an attempt to distance itself from such comparisons). There are some subtle political undercurrents that resonate in today’s world events, with its military men forced to fight in a foreign land for a cause they are not sure is worthwhile, and are then required by the government to fight again after their originally contracted tour of duty is finished. It may or may not be coincidence that Arthur’s knights are “Sarmatians,” members of a nomadic tribe believed to have originated in Iran. His band of knights are sort of the equivalent of a 5th century special forces unit who must deal with local terrorists and then unite with them to fight off invading foreigners.

Political and religious implications aside, the new King Arthur is a breath of fresh air in the cinematic depiction of the legendary hero. Clive Owen is a strong and passionate Arthur who exhibits the stoic sense of duty, the personal sense of justice, and the charisma to command the loyalty of his men and the respect of his enemies. Among his knights Ray Winstone stands out as the rough and ready Bors (who has so many illegitimate children he has to number them), with Ioan Gruffudd, Mads Mikkelsen, Joel Edgerton, and Hugh Dancy all appropriately intense as the much less prominently featured Lancelot, Tristan, Gawain, and Galahad. Keira Knightley’s Guinevere, far from the love-smitten stereotype, is a fiercely aggressive Celtic warrior for whom romance is more of an afterthought, but who has exactly what is needed to turn Arthur’s Roman ambitions back to his British roots. Stellan Skarsgård and Til Schweiger are brilliantly menacing Saxon cheiftans, the major source of conflict in the story.

A definite flaw in the film (besides its inevitable historical liberties) is that it almost appears to be a pilot episode of a series, introducing characters and situations it never gets around to getting back to. Foremost is that it starts as the story of Lancelot being taken as a boy to become a Roman legionnaire, but then quickly relegates him to the background after Arthur enters the scene 15 years later, treating Arthur’s youth much later in a brief flashback. Although it runs around two hours or so, it bears signs of extensive cutting of subplots and motivations that it assumes its audience can still piece together or will already be familiar with. Merlin (nicely played by Stephen Dillane) is all but eliminated from this plot. The love triangle with Guinevere is hinted at, and while it really belongs in another story, this angle might have been a bit further developed. The battle scenes (as well as the love scenes) have obviously suffered from censorship by Disney studio heads hoping for a blockbuster family film instead of a respectable (and bloody) adult epic.

King Arthur is one of the most beloved figures of English myth and legend, the subject of numerous works of literature over the past 1400 years and of American movies since at least 1920. A veritable cult of Arthurian fans exists, and one might expect them to be a large part of the target audience for this new film, but one would be wrong. The film retains enough references to its mythic sources to live up to its title (and gives an interesting re-thinking of the “sword in the stone” incident), but those looking for the Arthur they “know” would be better off renting John Boorman’s stylish Excalibur, the boring musical Camelot, or the hysterically irreverent Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Bruckheimer’s King Arthur is an admirable attempt to demystify and the legend and explore its source, while giving it a larger-than-life but reasonably believable (i.e. non-supernatural) mythic stature of its own. Basically, the magic is gone. This fact alone seems to be responsible for the widespread outcry against it, a reaction that is actually quite surprising in this 21st century day and age of reality TV, historical/political exposé, “truth behind the myth,” and “the rest of the story.”

The real King Arthur seems to have lived in the late fifth or sixth century. Here Bruckheimer takes some artistic license that most viewers will likely not notice, setting it instead about a century earlier, leading the audience to believe it is supposed to be 467 A.D., but including historical events and characters from roughly 50 years and more before that. The film’s historical prologue also falsely shows Romans marching under Christian banners in 300 A.D., when they would never have done such a thing until after the pagan Emperor Constantine attributed his vision of a cross in 311 to the Christian God’s support for his battle victory.

Arthur here is a Roman-British commander, but the fact is that Rome had already withdrawn its legions from Britain by 410, when Rome was sacked. Although Britons were left on their own, they continued to appeal to Rome for aid for another generation or two. The bishop Germanus who brings the discharge papers for Arthur’s knights was actually the Christian St. Germanus, sent to Britain to combat the influence of heretical British-born religious philosopher Pelagius in about 430 and 445. Pelagius himself was exiled from Rome and disappears from history around 418, but is believed to have died around 427, possibly in Egypt. The Pelagian controversy, ironically, has been in the news recently (in Grand Forks, at least), and might be worthy of its own film, as would be Germanus, who also happened to be the bishop that consecrated St. Patrick in 432. Setting King Arthur in this time, rather than the depths of the Dark Ages or the more popular medieval period, gives an added poignancy for anyone who can remember that the official Roman Empire would be gone in 476 A.D. and that the mainland European Angles and Saxons would eventually displace the Britons to achieve an equal identification with the island. What Bruckheimer and screenwriter David Franzoni have actually given us is more of a Hollywood version of the life of British leader Vortigern, throwing in the main elements of the Arthurian legend -- but then marquees advertising Vortigern wouldn’t fill any seats at the theatres.

KISS OR KILL (April 12, 1998)

Take a road trip down under

If you are reading this Thursday, April 16, tonight is your last chance to see Kiss or Kill, the superior crime thriller from Australia that winds up the eight-title spring artfilm series at the Midco 10 in Grand Forks. Otherwise youll have to search it out when it’s released on video and it is well-worth searching out. Like many Australian pictures, Kiss or Kill is off-beat, quirky, and deals with the vast desert known as the outback. Unlike many, it is a psychological thriller that mixes mystery, suspense and dry comedy in a way that echoes the films of Alfred Hitchcock. It so impressed the Australian film industry that it took Best Picture at the Australian Academy Awards.

Nikki (Frances O’Connor) and Al (Matt Day) are young couple who make a living as con artists by having Nikki seduce rich businessmen and drug them, so the pair can rob them and take off before they wake up. One night one of these marks dies in his hotel room (accidentally or on purpose?) and the couple discover that he had been blackmailing a local sports celebrity with a pornographic videotape. They flee into the desert to avoid a murder charge, taking the tape with them, and are pursued by both the police and the frantic, ruthless ex-soccer star on the tape. Various people they meet up with meet untimely ends. Though the couple have never included murder among their petty crimes, each is not sure if the other is killing them or if someone else close on their trail is responsible. The tendency of Al to have a short, violent temper and of Nikki to sleepwalk during troubled dreams of her mother’s grisly murder years before gives them both reason to suspect each other. The audience can’t be sure if either, both, or neither is a killer.

The wonderfully crafted script ties together disparate, seemingly unrelated elements and minor characters, and keeps the audience guessing until the very end (with some viewers still unclear after the rapid resolution and unsettling last shot). The relationship between the two detectives is quite amusing, and almost the opposite of an American cop-buddy story. A scene when they are eating is particularly hilarious. The editing style, using numerous jump cuts, gives an edgy, nervous energy to scenes that would otherwise be straightforward. Writer-director Bill Bennett knows exactly how to handle his material. A movie like Wild Things may have its unexpected plot twists and characters who aren’t what they first seem, but the film still has a smooth, glossy Hollywood look. Kiss or Kill, on the other hand, has a rougher edge more suitable to its plot. In addition it presents a more intimate portrait of its central characters, yet keeps enough uncertainty that both they and the audience are unsure what they are really capable of. They are at once attractive, likable, nasty, and a bit frightening, yet still manage to have an underlying vulnerability--a highly unusual combination. Their complexity makes them far more human than typical movie protagonists, even the ambiguous anti-heroes who often populate film noir. Kiss or Kill is a must-see for any fan of movie thrillers. Its a shame attendance rarely topped five persons per showing.

LET ME IN (October 4, 2010)

Horror remake surprisingly effective

 

Like most people who saw and liked the unusual 2008 Swedish vampire film, Let the Right One In, I was simultaneously looking forward to and dreading the new American remake by Matt Reeves, the director of Cloverfield. Most American reworkings of foreign films, whether horror thrillers, romantic comedies, or straight dramas, seem to take obvious plot elements and overexplain them, while simplifying characters and eliminating subplots for what studios apparently perceive to be the typical attention-deficit mass-market moviegoers. Reeves, however, is remarkably faithful to the original film in content, mood,, style, and especially in the crucial characterizations of its two protagonists. Let Me In (the title is the first obvious change from the original) retains the 1980s time era, but does have a few notable differences in plot structure and minor characters, as well as changing the setting from Sweden from New Mexico and giving its characters apparently more American-sounding names. This version, as expected, also eliminates the notorious brief shot of nudity in the original, whose context would likely be both troubling and potentially confusing for American sensibilities.

 

While some may debate the need for these changes, they do not really detract from the overall film, which is based heavily upon its screen predecessor rather than going back to the original novel, and a few changes work very well. An opening sequence  with an aerial view of emergency vehicles rushing through a snow-covered landscape at night was inspired by the opening of Kubrick’s The Shining, which Reeves says lets you know “that something terrible is going to happen.” Other scenes have obvious connections to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, as its reclusive hero observes the apartments around him through a telescope. Reeves’ interpretation, like the Swedish film (whose script had been written by the original novelist), focuses on the personal relationship that develops between its two 12-year-old outcasts, more than the vampire backstory and various other issues brought out in the novel. And like Let the Right One In, Let Me In relies heavily upon its two superb child actors. Kodi Smith-McPhee is spot-on as “Owen,” the middle-school boy bullied by classmates and all but ignored by his mother who’s going through a divorce. Chloë Grace Moretz is perfect as “Abby,” Owen’s mysterious new neighbor who is apparently his own age and just as lonely, with even deeper personal secrets.

 

Also like its inspiration, Let Me In neither glamorizes its vampire theme nor exploits it for high melodrama or campy thrills. Its melancholy tone is more akin to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre or possibly Interview with a Vampire than to classic vampire horror or recent vampire romance movies. In Let Me In we get a tender and tentative romance, a story of how two young people see something of themselves in each other and try to help one another through some tough situations that the other faces. The vampire element is crucial but is treated as merely a grisly fact of life instead of a stock source of fear. What is especially impressive about this Americanization is that much of it keeps the slow, deliberate pacing of the original, concentrating on establishing mood and character rather than jumping to the next action sequence. Equally impressive is how much of the ambiguity of the original film remains in this version (in fact this version is even more ambiguous in a couple of spots than the first film). These two aspects, however, are likely to turn off mainstream mall moviegoers anticipating another Twilight or something more akin to Zombieland or Reeves’ own Cloverfield. (Let Me In opened at only Number 8 in the weekend boxoffice rankings.) In short, while the original Swedish film Let the Right One In easily rates an “A,” the new American remake Let Me In deserves a respectable “A-minus.”

 

LOST IN SPACE (April 6, 1998)

Danger, Will Robinson
Penny’s from heaven

The Star Trek movies proved that big-screen adaptations of 1960s sci-fi TV series could lure a substantial audience into theatres every couple of years, so perhaps the producers of Lost In Space hope for a similar reaction and long-lived franchise.

The new film Lost In Space has the look of a pilot movie, either for a new TV series or a series of theatrical sequels. It spends a great deal of time setting up socio-political conditions and character relationships without really developing any to much depth (something usually reserved for individual episodes). It spends a great deal of time luxuriating in the futuristic environment created by its art design and special effects crews. It spends a great deal of time (and time travel) trying to get through a plot whose entirety is summed up in its title. It spends way too much time on a cutesy little alien pet, crudely computer-generated and superimposed into superfluous scenes with live actors.

On the other hand, it does not give nearly enough screen time to the most interesting (and best-acted) characters in the story. Child genius and wise-cracker Will Robinson was the reason so many families tuned in to the original TV series. His role in the movie, while critical to the plot, becomes lost at times in the film’s attempt to establish the roles of everyone else (as a pilot episode might do). Jack Johnson gives the part the required energy and the sense while he is on screen that his character really is the most important in the movie.

Pushed even more into the background is sibling rival Penny, whose character in the film is decidedly more colorful than her television inspiration. Diminutive 15-year-old Lacey Chabert’s sulking and sneering sister brings the picture to life when she is allowed to be on screen. The story might easily have centered around her reaction to the family’s predicaments and her love-hate relationships with the other family members.

Chabert (previously known more for the TV series Party of Five and commercial/cartoon voice-over roles) and Johnson (grandson of screenwriter Nunnally Johnson in his first major film role) give the film the tongue-in-cheek sense of fun it should have had throughout its unnecessary length. The rest of the cast appear to take their parts too seriously. William Hurt and Mimi Rogers are solemn, concerned parents. Gary Oldman makes Dr. Smith into a genuinely obnoxious villain rather than the larger-than-life comic caricature of either the original series or his own wild performance in The Fifth Element. Heather Graham’s Judy and somebody named Matt LeBlanc (is he supposed to be a star somewhere?) as Major Don West are the half-hearted romantic interest, although there are undeveloped hints of something between Penny and the superjock. And the new robot looks more like a reworked droid from Robocop instead of the classic Forbidden Planet leftover used in the TV show (until Will tries to rebuild closer to that classic design).

Director Stephen Hopkins got far more excitement out of his Predator 2 and Judgement Night, and was much more impressive with his last film, The Ghost and the Darkness. All this is not to say the new Lost In Space is not entertaining. Despite its dragging, it is worth sitting through for science fiction fans. It has a few good scenes and a number of moments that should appeal to a broader audience. What it needs most is some judicious cutting, and possibly the restoration (if they exist) of more scenes featuring Lacey Chabert and Jack Johnson. With luck they will be the main characters of the sequel.

 

MELANCHOLIA (Dec. 10, 2011)

Melancholy baby from melancholy Dane

Melancholia has been described as a “beautiful movie about the end of the world…a psychological disaster film.” Films about the destruction of Earth are nothing new, but the vast majority focus on action, elaborate special effects, and widespread panic and chaos. Melancholia is a disaster film for viewers who normally prefer to avoid disaster films at all costs. Viewers who enjoy typical disaster films are more likely to want to avoid Melancholia at all costs, as it is really a long, deliberately-paced character study about the effects of depression and the relationship between two sisters (Kirsten Dunst as “Justine” and Charlotte Gainsbourg as “Claire”). Depending upon the viewer’s own state of mind, attitude, and approach to the film, “Melancholia” may serve as an uplifting, exhilarating personal catharsis, or as a painfully overwrought and relentless expression of despair over human civilization and the pointlessness of life.

 

Controversial Danish writer-director Lars von Trier is noted for his connection to the “Dogme 95” movement in filmmaking style, which avoids traditional cinematic conventions like studio sets, background music, tripods, and studio-type lighting. Trier obviously abandons the rough-edged style for the opening prologue to Melancholia, which uses an extreme slow-motion flash-forward that includes some spectacular computer-generated space imagery, all accompanied by the strains of Wagner’s majestically melancholy “Tristan and Isolde.” Essentially a movie-within-a-movie, this is the most impressive and powerful portion of the film, for some viewers the only part they actually like. Enigmatic and self-consciously artistic, this sequence gains in power when seeing it again after watching the rest of the film. The rest of the film is divided into two sections, entitled “Justine” and “Claire.” Part One, mostly in warm yellow-orange tones, covers the disastrous wedding party put on for Justine and her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård) by Claire’s wealthy husband (Kiefer Sutherland), with the strong Claire trying to hold things together. This is where we see Justine gradually unraveling and finally melting down amidst the tension of her severely dysfunctional family and her job she has come to despise. Both the subject and the (increasingly more annoying) shaky hand-held, jump-cut style are strongly reminiscent of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, and both the embarrassing character outbursts and the elliptical parallel editing of multiple characters calling to mind Robert Altman’s A Wedding. A number of images of the elaborate estate also seem to reference Last Year at Marienbad and there is an obvious visual allusion to Ophelia in “Hamlet,” perhaps a double allusion to von Trier himself.

 

Part Two is cast in cooler, more realistic colors, and takes place over the weeks following Justine’s breakdown as Claire tries to become a caregiver for her sister, and most of the events tend to be focused more on Claire. Meanwhile, a newly-discovered planet named Melancholia, from the far side of the sun, has been calculated to make a close and spectacular pass by Earth, but some scientists predict it will crash into the Earth instead. Now it is Claire’s turn to feel insecure and depressed while Justine eventually reaches a point of passive if cynical resignation that her sister seems to see as a kind of strength. The film has certain similarities to Sean McConville’s Deadline, and perhaps even Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, but without the horror-thriller aspects. The deeply introspective films of Ingmar Bergman’s middle period appear to be a major influence, especially in this half of Melancholia. Trier himself has expressed a connection to the films of fellow countryman Carl Theodor Dreyer. While he occasionally relieves the pervasive pessimism with some humor (usually caustic or darkly ironic, and mainly in the first half), von Trier is no Bergman or even Dreyer. After the mesmerizing prologue, it is the strong performances of Dunst (who won Best Actress at Cannes for her role) and Gainsbourg that are what tie the film together and keep it involving. Sutherland is also very good throughout, and the first half has some very memorable scenes with Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as Justine’s bitter, divorced parents. Stellan Skarsgård is appropriately smarmy as Justine’s mercenary boss and her husband’s Best Man, while Udo Kier gets in some amusing bits as the mortified Wedding Planner.

 

It may well be that the whole concept of the world coming to an end because of a planet named “Melancholia” is intended to be simply a metaphor for the experience of such deep clinical depression (which von Trier himself is periodically subject to). How many depressed people have been told, “it’s not the end of the world – get over it!”? Well, here, it IS the end of the world. The film is certainly a vivid presentation of various types and stages of depression, and makes no suggestions for any way of relieving it. Nor does it give any hope for the ultimate fate of humanity on earth or possibility for an afterlife. Rather, it maintains that these are an inevitable fact of life that should be taken as such. Nevertheless, while characters assert that humanity is evil and its loss should not be mourned, the film depicts an individual sense of care between certain people that seems to contradict its own premise. For if individual people can recognize the evil in the world and choose not to be part of it, and to help those they love cope with their fears, doesn’t that negate such extreme pessimism? This implicit, if faint hope in human nature may be what so deeply impresses and remains with those viewers who rank the film as a masterpiece despite its flaws.

 

Melancholia is undeniably an interesting film with some powerful moments, but is likely too melancholy for moviegoers looking for an entertaining diversion unless they’ve recently had similar feelings of depression they’d like to try purging with the help of this film. It played last spring in Europe, and is currently in a very limited release doing modest business in the United States, opening December 16th at the Fargo Theatre.

 

 

 

MEMORIAL DAY (April 29, 2012)

Strong indie Memorial Day gets area theatrical run

A Minnesota-made feature that premiered to a sold-out and appreciative audience at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film festival a couple of weeks ago, and has been playing various film festivals this April and May, will get an exclusive three-week theatrical release starting May 4 at the River Cinema in East Grand Forks, MN, before it debuts on Blu-ray and DVD the end of May from Image Entertainment.

 

Speeding past picturesque farmland and into a wooded area, a car bearing Minnesota license plates and an old rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror also has a holstered military automatic on the passenger seat, partially covering a hand-written letter. Once the car has stopped, a uniformed soldier’s hands pick up the weapon, his boots hit the ground, and the young army sergeant walks with grim determination along the remote tree-lined road, gun in hand. The focus blurs and we’re suddenly in war-torn Iraq as a patrol investigates a possibly booby-trapped animal carcass. This will be the first of a nested series of flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, which relate the experiences of two family members fighting in wars 60 years apart. Memorial Day stars Jonathan Bennett as Staff Sergeant Kyle Vogel, but his story is really a continuation of the story of his grandfather, and serves as a dramatic framework to connect two generations. Talented character actor James Cromwell (The Artist, Babe) dominates the film as Bud Vogel, an aging Minnesota farmer and World War II vet who would rather forget what he went through during the war, yet keeps a never-opened trunk full of souvenirs out in the barn. One Memorial Day weekend in the early 1990s, Bud’s teenage grandson Kyle (St. Paul-based child actor Jackson Bond) finds the trunk and challenges his reluctant grandfather to tell him the story behind its contents. Cromwell’s son John very effectively plays the young version of Bud in flashbacks to the war.

 

It’s not hard to see influences from films like The Hurt Locker and Saving Private Ryan, but Memorial Day is a war film that focuses less on the wars themselves (although there are combat scenes in both 2005 Iraq and 1945 Europe) than on their impact on those fighting them -- specifically two members of the same family two generations apart. The nicely constructed script is really all about memory and family bonds, rather than a simple war story, its very title serving as a bare-bones synopsis (it had originally been titled “Souvenirs”). As he walks through the Minnesota woods, Kyle remembers his duty in Iraq, where he was wounded and in the hospital remembers the weekend a dozen years earlier when he got his grandfather (already showing early symptoms of Alzheimer’s) to remember his own long-suppressed experiences of a half-century before that.

 

Written by St. Paul screenwriter Marc Conklin and directed by Sam Fischer, the film was shot entirely in Minnesota (with Mankato standing in for the Iraqi desert) during the last half of 2010, and completed in 2011. Conklin worked some of his own family stories into his script, bringing a naturalness to the depiction of rural small-town life and fictionalized characters which all-too-often become formula stereotypes in Hollywood productions. The production itself demonstrates how a script can be tailored to using appropriate nearby locations and limited expenditures, yet can still have a scope that spans three continents, 60 years, and two wars as well as the home front. Careful color grading and shifts in camera style help differentiate the various periods and places. The low budget (reportedly around four million dollars) helps avoid the temptation to weigh the film down with distracting special effects or lavishly recreated period settings. Battle scenes are enacted by actual National Guardsmen and by amateur World War II re-enactors, with a tight, realistic banality that helps heighten both comic and tragic moments that might get lost in the overwhelming spectacle favored by Hollywood. There are no squadrons of CGI aircraft, but there is a real helicopter and even a genuine WWII-era P-51 and P-38 fighter that not only add production value but give a sense that individual units of ground soldiers are often lucky to get any air support at all when resources are stretched thin.

 

Memorial Day is not an action-packed war film, and it has a few stretches with performances that can seem rather stiff, but it has the sort of touching human honesty that tends to be found more often in independent productions like this than in major studio blockbusters. It’s unfortunate there will be no national theatrical release, but at least area audiences can have the chance to see it on the big screen and others will soon be able to see it on Blu-ray.

 

 

MR. DEEDS (July 1, 2002)

Good Deeds?
Well, not too bad, at least...

Okay--I decided I’d better go to the new version of Mr. Deeds just to see what Adam Sandler did to it. It wasn’t as bad as I was afraid of, but it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. Sandlers fans on the internet movie database are rather split on it (rating it 6.4 on a scale of 1 to 10), but the Grand Forks audience Sunday night seemed to enjoy it overall. The directing is so-so and the writing is uneven, both attempting to force the original Depression-era film to fit Sandler in today’s world, getting some good laughs in the process but simplifying the message. Perhaps Sandler assumes his fans need a simpler story and more obvious message than Frank Capra preferred to deliver.

Sandler has toned himself down a notch or two from his usual craziness, but has still adapted the classic Deeds character to his own persona. This is one of the film’s strong points as well as one of its weak points. He can actually do serious drama when he tries, and can pull off comedy that has a lighter touch when given the chance. Some of the film’s best portions are those that follow the original film most closely, but Sandler’s apparent need to pander to his fans with his usual schtick does not really let the audience grow to like his Deeds character in the same way viewers can feel for Gary Cooper’s Deeds. This flippant attitude fits Sandler’s personality but often gets in the way of effective plot motivations.

His relationship with his new butler (an hilarious supporting role for John Turturro) works wonderfully. On the other hand, it never quite seems believable that Winona Ryder’s scheming tabloid reporter would fall in love with this goofy small-town hick, no matter how generous he is with his money and friendly he is to strangers. It never seems plausible that Sandler’s carefree Deeds would actually have his feelings hurt by New York sophisticates. He just shouldn’t care what they think or say, whereas Cooper’s Deeds had an emotional vulnerability that leads both the audience and the reporter to feel for him.

The editor-reporter boss-employee relationship in this version is also far less genial, which distances the viewer more from the situation. Ryder’s desperation to do the assignment to save her job (instead of a simple desire for a raise and vacation) seems calculated to give her more sympathy from the start, but instead merely makes her change of heart less dramatic. Even though she begins the film as cynical as Jean Arthur’s “Babe Bennett,” Ryder’s character is less in control of her life and career than Arthur’s (even though this is 2002 instead of 1936!).

Other plot changes from the original weaken the motivations as well, and turn the ending into an easy, if rather far-fetched sentimental cliché instead of the powerful emotional climax that the original builds up to. The fewer characters and shorter running time may tighten up the pacing (the original does drag in a few spots) but the eliminations from the story dilute the films impact while retaining its heavy-handed social preaching. Oddly, the subplot in the original about covering up accounting irregularities is completely gone, and as it turns out it would have made the remake even more up to date with current headlines! Bad call there by the producers.

Peter Gallagher is a pretty standard and stereotyped money-hungry corporate villain, but Allen Covert as his sidekick has some amusing variations with great line readings and reactions (even though he can never quite replace Lionel Stander). Conchata Ferrell also has some good scenes as Jan, Deeds’ old friend from his pizza shop back home, notably when she gets into a knock-down, drag-out fight with Winona Ryder (which is also one of Ryder’s better scenes). Steve Buscemi is amusing but wasted as the even more bizarre eccentric than what he usually plays (see Ghost World if you haven’t already, for Buscemi at his best).

All that said, there are enough funny bits in Sandler’s Mr. Deeds (especially by minor and supporting characters) to entertain a crowd, and probably just enough feeling for the original story to qualify as a passable remake. Everyone who sees the film (and also those who don’t) would do well to go out and rent or buy the 1936 Frank Capra Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which may not be perfect, but is far superior. The difference is comparable to savoring the work of a seasoned professional who often broke new ground as opposed to appreciating the efforts a reasonably talented amateur who prefers to revise the work of others.

MOULIN ROUGE (June 4, 2001)

'Red Mill' is alive, with the sound of music...

Broadway stage musicals may be more popular than ever, but the movie musical has been pretty much a dead genre since the 1960s, with the exception of animated cartoon features. Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s vibrant, flamboyant Moulin Rouge could change all that. Luhrmann’s 2001 Moulin Rouge bears virtually no relation to John Huston’s 1952 film of the same title (a colorful biographical drama about artist Toulouse-Lautrec), although it is set (more or less) in that famous Parisian nightclub of 1900 and it does feature Toulouse-Lautrec as a character (played to the hilt by an almost unrecognizable John Leguizamo). This Moulin Rouge is a celebration of music and songs as both entertainment and as a form of expressing emotion-particularly emotions in the area of romantic melodrama. It is operatic in its approach, and in fact the plot is a loose blending of the popular operas La Boheme and La Traviata, but its songs are an anachronistic yet inspired pastiche of popular music (especially love songs) from the last half of the 20th century.

The incongruity of Parisian Bohemians from a century ago singing songs ranging from “The Sound of Music” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” to “Like a Virgin” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” looks annoyingly self-conscious and just plain odd when seen in excerpts (and notably such scenes were carefully left out of the preview trailer, which doesn’t even seem to hint that the film is a musical!). However, in the context of the whole movie they actually work perfectly. Luhrmann is a master at creating a fantasy world from some parallel universe-his debut film, the 1992 musical Strictly Ballroom, is a delightfully goofy caricature of the world of ballroom dancing competition. His most popular film, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, successfully transfers Shakespeare’s original dialogue into an opulent, not-quite-real world of 1990s urban crime families and gang violence. Moulin Rouge depicts an imaginary Paris that might appear in a dream, and can only exist through the medium of the motion picture.

From the opening scenes until the closing credits, the film is a widescreen, stereophonic, visual extravaganza, a “Spectacular-Spectacular” (like the name of the show the story’s main characters are performing at the Moulin Rouge). The screen starts in total darkness, fading in on a stage with closed curtain and a tiny figure of a conductor in front. He raises his hands, the curtain parts, and the 20th Century Fox logo is projected behind him as he conducts the fanfare, leading into an overture of musical themes that will recur later. Then the main theme song of the movie, a haunting rendition of the Nat King Cole classic “Nature Boy,” leads us into the story proper.

Ewan McGregor plays Christian, a young writer who joins the carefree Bohemian artistic subculture of Paris, where he falls in love with popular Moulin Rouge performer and prostitute Satine (Nicole Kidman). She, however, is lusted after by a wealthy duke (Richard Roxburgh), whom her employer (Jim Broadbent) urges her to entertain so he’ll invest in his theatre and her career--and meanwhile she is slowly dying of consumption! Naturally the plot of the show within the show corresponds closely to all the backstage romantic intrigues.

Elaborate sets, costumes, and computer visual effects, gaudy colors and extreme camera angles, along with exaggerated performances of gleefully stereotyped characters and cliché plot elements never let us forget this is a fantasy and a fairy tale. The inherent realism of photography and the cinemas tendency toward natural (or simulated) locations may be a reason audiences as a whole have lost their taste for the jarring artificiality inherent in musical drama on film (and may be why the same audiences accept it in the stylized world of live theatre or animated cartoons). Luhrmann’s world in Moulin Rouge is so stylized that somehow it seems natural that characters should break into song every so often. Near the beginning a green fairy materializes briefly (deriving from the Nyquil-like drink, Absinthe), flitting and flirting like Tinkerbell from “Walt Disneys Wonderful World of Color.” Flashy, intricate camera moves are often reminiscent of videogame virtual reality but within an atmospheric setting more like a classic silent movie. The film is a lovingly crafted studio-bound creation that is the exact opposite of certain independent filmmakers’ dogma about strict realism, simple basic techniques, and no special effects. Things are at their most outlandish during the first part of Moulin Rouge. Perhaps the most comparable example in a recent movie might be the bizarre Busby Berkeley-inspired bowling fantasy sequence in The Big Lebowski. Once the plot begins to develop, Luhrmann concentrates more on the romance, melodrama, and clever integration of pre-existing love lyrics into the dialogue and songs into the story. (Part of the fun is trying to recognize all the songs included.)

Moulin Rouge is an affectionate tribute to the 20th century, to love songs, to popular entertainment, and to the capabilities of movie magic. So far, it is the most satisfying (and re-watchable) movie released this summer.

MULLHOLLAND DRIVE (November 17, 2001)

A drive through the dark...

Director David Lynch’s latest film, Mulholland Drive, has already won him the “Best Director” award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and was the centerpiece of this year’s New York Film Festival. Now in limited theatrical release, Mulholland Drive is spellbinding Lynch’s devoted fans and bewildering unsuspecting moviegoers who are not familiar with his peculiar dark humor and distinctive, unusual style of storytelling. Its run in Grand Forks was largely ignored by the public, resulting in the print being pulled after one week when Harry Potter inundated theatre screens. Area viewers get another chance to see Mulholland Drive, as this weekend it opens at the Fargo Theatre. The film is a must-see for fans of Lynch and of off-beat, thought-provoking cinema.

As far back as 1916, psychologist Hugo Münsterberg recognized that motion pictures were a visual representation comparable to the way we dream. Experimental filmmakers have frequently tried to make cinematic equivalents to dreams. Perhaps no mainstream movie director (if he can even be labeled “mainstream”) has exploited film’s dreamlike qualities in telling narrative stories as much as Lynch. It is not giving away too much of the film’s surprises to say that this aspect of his films is critical to making sense of Mulholland Drive.

A word of warning-do NOT read the “user comments” about the film on the Internet Movie Data Base before you have seen it! The sometimes conflicting and controversial analyses might aid in coming to your own conclusions about the plot, but too many of them will spoil any sense of surprise and discovery (and some of them are simply confused, anyway). While Mulholland Drive is the kind of film that may well require repeated viewings for full comprehension, it can never recapture the same impact as that first viewing when you don’t know what’s really going on.

Mulholland Drive is not quite as bizarre and enigmatic as Lost Highway, but it does tend to make Blue Velvet look like a routine Hollywood mystery-thriller. With each film, and during the course of his TV series Twin Peaks, Lynch seems to stretch the bounds of what is accessible to his audience. He can take a standard, formula plot and present it in a way that constantly keeps the viewer uncertain as to what will happen next (or even what has already happened). The major roles are powerfully acted by relative unknowns Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, and Justin Theroux. Some familiar faces and in-jokes come from nicely incorporated cameos by the likes of Ann Miller, Billy Ray Cyrus (!), Chad Everett, Robert Forster, Dan Hedaya, and even the film’s composer Angelo Badalamenti (as a gangster-type).

Typically for Lynch, the film contrasts good and evil, high life and low life, light and dark, reality and artifice. Imagery and sounds often take precedence over easy-to-follow narrative coherence. Originally intended as a TV pilot for a never-realized series, the story involves a wide variety of characters in Hollywood-a hopeful young actress, movie stars and directors and industry types, detectives, crime bosses, hit men, waitresses, etc.-with a wide variety of plot lines that occasionally intersect and overlap. Much of the action deals with an amnesia victim (Harring) and the young woman who wants to help her (Watts). Relationships between all these gradually start to become more clear about two hours into the 146-minute (and definitely R-rated) theatrical version. By the last 10 or 15 minutes it should not be too difficult to figure out -- although it may take some reflection after it is over to put it all together. This, of course, is not the way to please a mass audience accustomed to having everything spelled out. It is, on the other hand, exactly what Lynch’s fans expect. Blue Velvet remains arguably David Lynch’s masterpiece, but Mulholland Drive is a welcome new addition to his impressive list of credits.

THE MUMMY (May 11, 1999)

Mummy Dearest

Old-fashioned action-adventure with a light touch of romance, a heavy dose of comedy, and spectacular computer-generated special effects have proven once more to be a box office attraction. Universal Pictures’ remake of their 1932 classic horror film The Mummy takes a completely different approach from its first incarnation. The original was slow, serious, moody, and hypnotic, its action and modest special effects reserved for the final scene. This remake is virtually non-stop action. Set in the early 1920s, it follows the tongue-in-cheek retro pattern that was repopularized by Raiders of the Lost Ark and the other Indiana Jones movies. It also does it bigger and better, even if the comic shtick verges on the ridiculous at times (library shelves conveniently arranged to fall like a row of dominos?). The Mummy is faster-paced, funnier, and has more elaborate special effects than the Indiana Jones movies. A risky but nice touch for such a big-budget movie is the lack of any major stars, except up and coming Brendan Fraser -- who will now be a much bigger star, thanks to the huge success of this movie. Pretty Rachel Weisz’s plucky Egyptophile librarian may give her the same kind of career boost that Kate Winslett got from Titanic. Arnold Vosloo in the title role doesn’t say much, but has a strong, often eerie presence that will definitely get him noticed by other filmmakers.

The 1999 version of The Mummy is not really a horror film for the most part. In fact, it is only partly a remake of the original 1932 The Mummy, which itself was just an imaginative reworking of the 1931 Dracula. After an opening pre-title sequence set in ancient Egypt (which parallels a flashback in The Mummy) most of the story is a close remake of the 1969 Gregory Peck-Omar Sharif western MacKenna’s Gold, which followed a band of adventurers on a long (very long) search across the desert for a lost canyon of gold hidden in a sacred Indian mountain, guarded by Apache warriors. This time they are looking for a Pharaoh’s fabulous gold treasures, buried in a legendary lost city of the dead, guarded by descendants of the Pharaoh’s bodyguards. The only major plot element missing is a rival romantic interest counterpart to Julie Newmar’s character and her nude swimming scene (darn!), but if you’ve seen MacKennas Gold youll recognize most of The Mummy. There’s even a band of American cowboys in on the treasure hunt to strengthen the parallels, and one of them drops his glasses and loses his eyes, in ways combining the Burgess Meredith and Edward G. Robinson characters of that film.

When they finally reach the underground treasure house, the plot of the original mummy movies takes over, as our overenthusiastic heroine accidentally raises the mummy from the dead by reciting a certain spell over his tomb. Like previous mummy stories, the maniacal mummy was an Egyptian high priest buried alive for daring to love the wrong woman 3000 years ago, and now he wants to reincarnate his long-lost love by making a human sacrifice of the beautiful heroine. Naturally, the hero doesn’t want this to happen. This title character is much less sympathetic that Boris Karloff’s version. He often comes off as a movie monster closer to one of the raptors in Jurassic Park, especially since he is a digital character for much of the picture. Nevertheless, Vosloo gets across a tragic dignity that gives a credible motivation to his actions usually missing in monster movies. The movie’s general attitude blends the thrills with light-hearted adventure melodrama. It never takes itself too seriously, but the campiness is done with genuine affection rather than simply poking fun at the genre. It was evidently done by people who know and love old movies enough to recreate as many favorite scenes as possible in an Egyptian setting. Besides other mummy movies, you’ll see touches of Lawrence of Arabia, The Ten Commandments, Jason and the Argonauts, Night of the Living Dead, Hellraiser, Carrie, The Exorcist, and countless others. Part of the fun is trying to recognize what movie a certain shot or scene is copying.

As for its historical accuracy, there is plenty to make anyone familiar with Egyptology chuckle and/or cringe at the mistakes, changes, and anachronisms, yet it does a reasonably acceptable job of presenting the Egyptian atmosphere. The digitally-created sets in the opening sequence are fascinating, even if they are mis-identified as Thebes, a city over 300 miles south of the pyramids and sphinx. The hieroglyphic inscriptions appear authentic rather than the illiterate scribbles used in most low-budget Egypt movies. The long-dead ancient Egyptian spoken language was reconstructed by a scholar, the same person responsible for the Egyptian used in Stargate. With any luck, the movie could spark renewed public interest in ancient Egypt, the source of civilization and many supposedly modern concepts for much of the world. (And forget Anakin Skywalker -- I want my Mummy action figures!) Even in its sold-out opening weekend, there were a number of repeat customers. People anticipating horror and thrills found the movie was much more fun than they expected. As with most movies of this type, half the fun is seeing it with a receptive crowd on the huge wide screen with the digital surround sound. The Mummy is certainly a film I plan to see again and to buy on video

THE MUMMY RETURNS (May 8, 2001)

Mummy dearest

Summer must be here, since the first of the Hollywood summer blockbuster movies opened last weekend. The Mummy Returns reunites the people responsible for the 1999 hit remake of/variation on The Mummy for a new and reasonably amusing installment, but like most sequels it is not as good a film as its predecessor. The most immediate comparison that comes to mind is the admittedly fun and action-packed Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which was nevertheless a disappointment after Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of The Mummy Returns lie in its tendency to take the most popular elements of The Mummy and work them into a new story while elaborating upon them with even more spectacular digital visual effects. The results are definitely spectacular, action-packed, and entertaining, but the filmmakers sacrifice a good deal of plot clarity and character development in favor of more and more action and effects scenes. And those scenes not only seem to run on longer than necessary, but often seem arbitrarily added, as if from another story altogether (a propeller-driven hot-air balloon with rockets??), simply to show off the increasingly impressive capabilities of digital technology. The supernatural elements have proliferated exponentially. A mummy or two rising from the dead is one thing, perfectly understandable -- but why thousands and why pygmies, and what’s with the magically appearing pyramid and oasis and armies of jackal-like soldiers of Anubis? Exciting and campy fun it may be, but it just gets a bit much. Another problem is the trendy injection of Chinese-inspired martial arts scenes (can we say Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon?) into the plot. There are some occasional nice, even touching moments between various characters, but they’re not allowed to interact long or often enough for the viewer to connect with them on some emotional level. Instead, the film relies on what we remember from their relationships in the previous movie. Also helping bridge plot gaps are the performances -- the strong screen chemistry between gorgeous but spunky Rachel Weisz (as Evie) and impetuous but hunky Brendan Fraser (as Rick), the powerful presence of Arnold Vosloo (as Imhotep) and Oded Fehr (as Ardeth Bey), and the high melodrama of vampy Patricia Velazquez (whose character Ankh-Su-n-Amun was rather sympathetic in the first film but has now become a scheming super-villainess).

It actually looks at times as if scenes might have been filmed that would explain some things, but were deleted to keep the running time in the two-hour range. It would be nice to know, for instance, just how Princes Ankh-Su-n-Amun could be reincarnated in a modern girl while her spirit remained in the land of the dead, just when Rick obtained that distinctive and large wrist tattoo, and why Evie is suddenly having dreams of ancient Egypt she hadnt had previously. It might also help to get to know Rick and Evie’s precocious son Alex (Freddie Boath) a little better. It’s like writer-director Stephen Sommers is changing the story as he goes along and making up new mythology to go with it, but then only had time to include a few excerpts from the story line to bridge the chases, fights, and special effects sequences. Perhaps we’ll find out when the DVD hits the shelves (no doubt by Christmas). And of course there are rumors that the film’s prologue may spawn its own separate movie starring Dwayne Johnson (aka “The Rock”) in a prequel about the adventures of the Scorpion King, a backstory central to the plot but only sketchily depicted at the beginning of The Mummy Returns.

Both of Sommers’ “Mummy” movies appear to have been strongly influenced by the mystery adventure novels of Elizabeth Peters, which feature sleuthing Egyptologist Amelia Peabody -- who in the first book meets and falls for irascible professor Emerson, is married by the second book, and has a precocious son by the fourth novel. The latest in this delightful series, Lord of the Silent, just hit bookshelves last week, and is everything a good sequel should be, bringing back old friends but able to stand on its own with none of the faults or supernatural excesses of The Mummy Returns. The film would have been better had it imitated the somewhat exaggerated but very realistically grounded Amelia Peabody stories more closely. In fact one of the annoying aspects of The Mummy Returns is the plot’s sudden betrayal of the Evelyn character’s serious historical concern for careful scientific methods, merely to get a quick laugh. Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy was a huge hit because it combined appealing characters with tongue-in-cheek adventure, and always had believable goals and motivation. The Mummy Returns is enjoyable when approached as old-time Saturday matinee action-adventure formula with a comic book level of stereotyped characters whose only motives are to rule, destroy, or save the world. It’s fun for what it is, but it could have been so much better if it had only taken time to let the characters live a little.

 

THE MUMMY 3: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR (August 4, 2008)

Made in China: ‘Mummy 3’ passable formula flick

While its attendance dropped again by nearly half, Batman sequel The Dark Knight held onto its first place boxoffice ranking in its third weekend of release, narrowly outgrossing the only new release to open in the top five, the third installment of the revived “Mummy” series. Coming in a distant third and fourth were Step Brothers in its second weekend and Mamma Mia! in its third. The latest Journey to the Center of the Earth remake kept its fifth place ranking in its fourth week of release (no doubt aided by its spectacular 3-D presentations), making Brendan Fraser one of the few stars to have starring roles in two top five movies playing at the same time (both of them action fantasies). Summer Hollywood release schedules are noted for action films, sequels, and remakes (some films often fitting into all three categories), usually packed with flashy computer-generated visual effects. This summer seems to be especially heavy with titles that strain their utmost to dazzle viewers and give the appearance of hip trendiness, but ultimately provide only minor variations on proven formulas. Audiences simultaneously feed and undermine this cycle with their insistence on preferring something they’re already familiar with (rather than take chances on an unknown genre, style, or star) combined with their deep-seated desire for something new (rather than searching out “old” movies or simply watching favorite movies over again forever). As a result, Hollywood attempts to appease them by repackaging what seem to have been the most popular elements from various previous hits into new movies.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a perfectly adequate action-adventure that follows its likeable heroes from one peril to another through exotic locations, with spectacular visual effects and breathlessly-edited battle sequences. The Chinese setting is no doubt calculated to cash in on interest in China due to the Olympics (and possibly work in some highly ironic political subtext). For people who have never seen another movie released before, say, two months ago, Mummy 3 should be a fresh, exciting, and involving supernatural fantasy-drama that is more than satisfying. Viewers who remember the 1999 version of The Mummy and its 2001 sequel The Mummy Returns will probably be disappointed that beautiful and talented Rachel Weisz does not reunite with co-stars Brendan Fraser and John Hannah in this episode of the series. However, the latest story takes place in 1947 -- roughly 15 years after the second film’s early 1930s plot, which had been about 7-10 years after the mid-1920s setting of the first Fraser-Weisz mummy film. With that in mind, the 40-year-old Maria Bello appears closer to the 40-something Evie than the still-youthful 36 Weisz would have. Bello does a good job with the British accent and while their on-screen chemistry takes a while to kick in, she and Fraser both have fun playing action heroes and parents to a now-adult son with a mind of his own (Luke Ford taking over for the little boy who played Alex in The Mummy Returns).

This is where reasonably observant viewers will start to notice distinct similarities with films outside the latest mummy franchise (since none of these films bears much relationship to the original 1932 The Mummy or its 1940s sequels other than the title). Actually, part of the fun in this movie (as it was in the 1999 and especially the 2001 mummy film) is trying to spot all the homages to and ripoffs of earlier films. The estranged family fighting supernatural adversaries was the central structure of this May’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The subplot of a romance dealing with immortality in the lost valley of Shangri-La is a blatant reworking of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon. The court intrigue and high-level betrayal in ancient China is borrowed from countless Hong Kong action films, complete with slow-motion martial arts involving none other than Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh themselves!

Some might also notice how many times Mummy 3 redresses virtually identical plot devices from its own two predecessors, taking a popular incident or dialogue exchange and expanding it in a new context. And like most sequels, it tends toward increased action and decreased character development, to keep its far from original plot moving as fast as possible while showing off ever more elaborate computer generated crowds, settings, and battle sequences. In short, like so many movies of the genre, viewers who like this sort of thing should find that The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the sort of thing that they like. Any reasonable boxoffice success will guarantee another installment, hinted as moving to South America next time around.

 

MY GIANT (April 12, 1998)

Giant misunderstanding by public

Comedian Billy Crystal was one of the best parts of the Academy Awards telecast last month. His performance in the new movie, My Giant, is largely responsible for making the potentially oversentimental material both pleasant and entertaining. My Giant is somewhat of a rarity these days (Titanic was another) in that it’s a film that can be enjoyed by audiences with a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Unfortunately it is not reaching much of the target audience of the general public from roughly junior high school age and up. The title and the PG rating, have falsely implied to a majority of parents (who never did comprehend what the ratings system means) that it is a children’s film. The PG rating does not and never did mean a film was for children. (Neither does the G rating, for that matter. Was 2001: a space odyssey a kiddie movie? Was Gone With the Wind?)

My Giant is NOT a film made for children. Children under age 10 or 11 should not be allowed to attend it unless they are mature for their age, and certainly not without an adult supervisor willing to keep them under control. The crowds of small children dropped off at My Giant do not understand most of it and are bored by a great deal of it. The few dozen adults in the audience have a harder time hearing the dialog and paying attention with all the children talking and running up and down the aisles.

The story of My Giant focuses on a Hollywood agent (Billy Crystal) fallen on hard times. He is separated from his wife and son, he is down to one client (an egotistical child actor on location in Romania), and that client is about to fire him to find someone better for his career. Understandably upset, he accidentally drives his rental car into a river in the Romanian forest, is miraculously rescued and taken to a monastery. There he discovers the man who rescued him is about eight feet tall, is named Max (Gheorge Muresan), and has a long-lost love who left for America 20 years ago. The agent is grateful to this genial giant for having saved his life, but soon realizes the giant could be the beginning of his Hollywood comeback, convincing him that appearing in movies would earn his ticket to America and fame would win the love of his old girlfriend.

The rest of the film has the unlikely pair trying to overcome various obstacles and reach their respective goals, the savvy and cynical agent trying to introduce the naïve giant to American culture. In the process of his own exploitation of his new friend, the agent grows very protective of him, trying to shield him from even worse exploitation and from the bitter realities of life. The inherent mercenary streak of Crystal’s character provides much of the humor (aided by Crystal’s always right-on delivery of various one-liners). Then it starts to clash with his basic decency, and the character comes to learn his true priorities and the meaning of friendship. This latter portion of the film could have become sickeningly heartwarming and sweet in lesser hands, but the script (by Crystal with David Seltzer) has enough realistic touches to avoid becoming heavy-handed. The performances of Crystal, Muresan, and Kathleen Quinlan as Crystal’s wife are honest and believable throughout. My Giant may not win any awards, but it’s an enjoyable comedy-drama with a good balance of cynicism and sentiment, and not overpowered by either.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS (August 27, 1994)

NATURAL BORN KILLER ENTERTAINMENT

Oliver Stone's latest film, Natural Born Killers, is a natural born candidate for "Best Picture" nominee in next spring's Academy Award competition. It is the most impressive American film since David Lynch's off-beat, disturbing masterpiece, Blue Velvet, although it is more in the spirit of his Wild at Heart. It certainly is Stone's most daring and most effective picture to date, and joins Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, and Salvador as one of his best films. A dark, biting satire, Natural Born Killers does not appear to be designed for broad audience appeal. With its avant-garde, experimental filmmaking techniques it does not even seem to be the mainstream major studio release that the television ads might lead many movie-goers to expect.

Straightforward, dramatic story-telling, it definitely is not. Instead, we see an unusual (for your typical multiplex theatre), very intense, personal cinematic statement on the direction American life and media-shaped culture is headed, if indeed it has not already arrived there. It is not like any film Stone has ever done, and is far superior to his self-indulgent, overblown, JFK. In fact, in many ways Natural Born Killers is more reminiscent of David Lynch than any earlier works of Stone, or any other director, for that matter. Not since Lynch's Wild at Heart has a major studio release had such a bizarre and vibrant depiction of violence and love. Stone actually goes Lynch one better in his black comedy, linking those elements inextricably with the mass media's exploitation of them and America's insatiable appetite for that very exploitation. At the same time he graphically depicts the ancient wisdom that all beings (including human beings) act according to their natures, despite psychologists' (and audience members') hopes and expectations.

The story, briefly, follows the lives of a young couple who love each other and love killing anyone who stands in the way of their security and happiness. Unlike Blue Velvet, which brought out the unsettling duality of human nature in its protagonist, Natural Born Killers presents its leading characters as just what its title states. Mickey and Mallory enjoy the ultimate in American freedom. They follow their natures doing whatever they feel like doing whenever they feel like doing it, no matter what it may lead to. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis are perfect as the cold-blooded couple to whom death is just another inevitable part of their life. Not completely immoral (they marry each other early in the film, albeit in a private, ad hoc ceremony) and not completely amoral (Lewis' Mallory denounces Harrelson's Mickey for an uncalled-for, unnecessary killing), the pair ultimately become folk heroes via all the media exposure they receive. Robert Downey, Jr. demonstrates his broad range of character acting in his flamboyant portrayal of a tabloid TV producer-host with an Australian accent. Tommy Lee Jones, as usual, is completely at home in his part as a vindictive prison warden. Unexpectedly, comic Rodney Dangerfield turns in a bitterly sarcastic portrayal as Mallory's crude and violent father.

Stone's filmmaking style in Natural Born Killers is as audacious as the over-the-edge story he is telling. The relentless use of unusual camera angles, the constant intercutting of standard 35mm color film scenes with black-and-white film, videotaped shots, and grainy Super 8 footage, the surrealistic superimposed background scenes--all have a compelling, exhilarating effect that matches the wild story. Imagine a two-hour long MTV-type music video with the music in the background and with a plot line and character development that keeps your eyes riveted to the screen. Fans of "Headbangers' Ball" might find themselves right at home. Filmgoers whose tastes lean towards "I Love Lucy" reruns or Whitney Houston love ballads will probably be shocked. Natural Born Killers is not a film for everyone. Like Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Naked Lunch, (or a generation ago the films A Clockwork Orange and Bonnie and Clyde), it will be either loved or hated. Like those films, it is a perverse comedy that will likely catch average movie fans off-guard. Filmgoers who see it with an open mind (and prepared for something out of the ordinary) will discover a cinematic treasure island in the sea of bland mediocrity the formula-happy Hollywood system has been providing lately.

 

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN (May 25, 2009)

'Museum II' wins weekend sequel battle
Pleasant followup to hit comedy fantasy

There is still room to enroll in either or both weeks of the two-week summer moviemaking workshop that Kathy King and I are teaching at UND the evenings of June 1-12 for adults age 18 and over. The first week covers screenwriting and the second week participants will make a movie. Details and links to registration forms can be found at http://www.english.und.edu/2009MovieCamp.html and additional information is on line at http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/SummerMovieCamp.htm

Five out of the six top-grossing movies for Memorial Day Weekend were sequels or prequels to previous hits. Of the three new films in wide release, audiences clearly preferred fantasy to anything else, with family adventure fantasy winning out over violent sci-fi fantasy or silly in-joke movie parody. At nearly $54 million in tickets sold in three days, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (the second of its series) took first place by about $10 million over Terminator Salvation (the fourth feature in its franchise). Star Trek (the 11th of its franchise) held on to third place in its third weekend of release, while Angels and Demons (the second of its franchise) dropped to fourth place in its second week, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine slumped to sixth place in its fourth week. The new movie parody Dance Flick opened in a modest fifth place with just under $11 million in three-day ticket sales.

The sequel to Night at the Museum is a pleasant rehash of the fun elements of the original, mainly the premise that the museum exhibits all come to life after sundown due to a magical ancient Egyptian tablet. It repeats some of the same characters and locations, with some entertaining new twists and new characters in a new location. While it periodically bogs down in silly, drawn-out Monty Python-like verbal duels and over the top slapstick farce, the comedy, action, and spectacular CGI effects keep things moving and the endearing personality of Amy Adams’ spunky Amelia Earhart keeps things interesting. Occasionally hazy logic and abandoned plot threads (hey, it’s a fantasy and a comedy) never get in the way of the action.

Night at the Museum 2 picks up a couple of years after the 2006 film left off, with Larry Daley (Ben Stiller reprising his role) now a successful entrepreneur who is marketing his inventions through TV infomercials. He happens to visit the Brooklyn museum that the first film revolved around, only to learn that most of the exhibits are being replaced by modern interactive technology and shipped off to be stored away in the depths of the Smithsonian archives in Washington DC, sadly never to live again. Somehow the mischievous monkey manages to steal the tablet before they’re shipped, and Larry realizes that means everything in the largest museum in the world will now be coming to life the first night after they’re delivered. Larry puts his infomercial business on hold and rushes off to the Smithsonian, sure enough finding that not only have its exhibits come to life, but the Pharaoh there (an amusing Hank Azaria doing his best Boris Karloff accent) has taken the New York exhibits prisoner. He wants to get possession of the tablet so he can release spirits from the underworld and take over the world. Meanwhile, the Amelia Earhart figure quickly latches onto Larry as her new ticket to adventure, and quite possibly romance. She has nearly all the movie’s best lines and is by far the liveliest character in the story. If the film goes on to enjoy the continuing success that the first installment had, she might also single-handedly bring back 1930s slang. Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan return as miniature cowboy Jedediah and miniature Roman commander Octavius to do battle with Azaria’s Pharaoh Kahmunrah and his henchmen Napoleon (Alain Chabat), Al Capone (Jon Bernthal), and Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest). Azaria also has a great deal of fun in his multiple roles as Rodin’s statue “The Thinker” and the gigantic Abraham Lincoln figure from the Lincoln Memorial.

Some of the memorable effects sequences include lots of action in the Air & Space exhibit, three singing cherubs (voiced by the Jonas brothers) who keep following Larry and Amelia around, and an ingenious sequence in an art gallery where characters jump into the famous black and white Times Square photo of a sailor celebrating the end of World War II. Fans of the original should enjoy the sequel, and new viewers don’t really need to know the details of the first movie to follow the second, although a few things might make more sense to those who’ve seen the first film. Like the first movie, Night at the Museum 2 uses engaging entertainment to create a healthy interest in history and museum attendance, while helping instill the lesson that enjoying one’s job is far more important than financial success.

 

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (February 5, 2001)

Tell me, amuse, a many-mannered movie...
(Odysseus, where art thou?)

The latest Coen brothers film, the one that has been making “Top 10” lists all over the country and is sure to be a strong Oscar contender, has finally arrived in Fargo and Grand Forks. O Brother, Where Art Thou? lives up to its advance reputation as one of the best pictures of 2000, and easily joins Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, and others, among the Coens’ best works.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a comedy, its very title an amusing in-joke to film buffs. It is the same title as the film that a popular director of comedies wanted to make as his first serious social drama in the Preston Sturges satire Sullivan’s Travels. In that film Joel McCrea plays a disillusioned Hollywood director who decides to travel across the country as a hobo to get a feel for making a movie with redeeming social value instead of just the silly comedies he cranks out for the studio.

The Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou picks up on this theme by setting the story during the Depression and following a long trek of three down-and-out men (escaped convicts in this case) across the state of Mississippi in 1937. A couple of incidents from Sullivan’s Travels find their way into the film, but the Coens state in an opening title that their story is adapted from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. They also admit in an interview that they’ve never read The Odyssey.

Nevertheless, both the basic premise of a man’s long journey home after an extended time away, and a number of individual episodes are “inspired by”/” borrowed from”/”stolen from” The Odyssey. Viewers with even a moderate familiarity with Homer’s adventure will recognize a blind seer, seductive sirens, a man turned into an animal, a monstrous one-eyed giant, and even a character named Homer. And of course, the central character played by George Clooney is named Ulysses Everett McGill. (“Ulysses” is ancient Latin transliteration of the original Greek “Odysseus,” the Romans like the English evidently unable to pronounce the Greek name.) You’d half expect the plunder that Clooney keeps talking about would have been from Troy, Michigan, but the film doesn’t go quite that far.

The film’s resemblance to both The Odyssey and Sullivan’s Travels is primarily an amusing gimmick. One could also identify a few close parallels with Deliverance and various other stories. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a typically quirky Coen brothers comedy from beginning to end. That is to say, it is very different material from their previous films yet is full of the same sort of off-beat characters (and actors), in-jokes, and weird sense of humor they are noted for. You can always expect the unexpected in a Coen brothers movie.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a prison break picture, it’s a journey picture, it’s a social commentary, it’s a musical, it’s a comedy, and it’s generally a great time at the movies. George Clooney’s Ulysses is the most intelligent of three men on a Mississippi chain gang (the others being Tim Blake Nelson and Coen brothers favorite John Turturro). He tries to lead the little band to freedom with the promise of shares in a huge stash of money, but basically he just wants to get home to his estranged wife (Holly Hunter)-who is named Penny rather than Penelope, incidentally. Along the way they get mixed up with a political campaign for governor, a group of born-again Christians being baptized in the river, a mercenary Bible salesman (John Goodman), a young black blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who claims to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroad, a blind radio station recording engineer, a late-night Ku Klux Klan rally, and a massive flood (standing in for Charybdis?), among other things.

It is not necessary to understand all the allusions to enjoy O Brother, Where Art Thou? but each one you catch makes the film that much more entertaining. The movie stands on its own as a funny tale, with some brief serious elements, about characters that are easy to get to care about as the story progresses. Clooney’s sly, self-confident rogue is perfectly balanced by the simple-minded sincerity of his two comrades played by Nelson and Turturro. At times all of them are innocents easily victimized by people out to take advantage of them, yet their unsophisticated sense of loyalty manages to fit into the overall scheme of things, helping them out of difficult situations and sometimes unintentionally setting in motion events of poetic justice. Like their other films, this one pokes fun at human frailty, stereotypes, overbearing personalities, and greed. Describing the film in much detail would spoil many of the surprises that make it so much fun. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a movie well-worth seeing more than once.

 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (September 16, 2003)

Once upon a time in moviemaking...

I spent most of last weekend transferring digital video to my computer hard disk and editing. I completed the five and a half minute music video for Sons of Poseidon’s song “Success Through Violence,” intercutting shots of the band in concert with them performing on one of the Dark Highways outdoor movie locations, clips from Dark Highways, a dream subplot shot just for the video, and a few classic film clips. I also got some editing done on the feature, and now have the first 19 minutes (out of an estimated 110) completed and scored in roughcut form. [UPDATE NOTE: The final cut eventually wound up running 98 minutes.]

All did not go smoothly with my computer, however, and to give it a brief rest between crashes and reboots, I went out to see the first movie in a theatre I’ve seen since last spring. It was as much for research purposes as entertainment, however, as the film I saw was written, directed, produced, production designed, photographed, edited, and music scored by one person, using his own equipment, based out of his home. It was also shot and edited on digital video (albeit high-definition video) before being transferred to film.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico is the latest project from enthusiastic auteur Robert Rodriquez, the “wonderchild” who suddenly shot to fame and earned a fortune, but continues to insist on making his movies his own way, outside of Hollywood. In fact, he works from his hometown of Austin, Texas as much as possible. Both the October issue of Premiere magazine and the summer issue of MovieMaker spotlight his rebellious approach to filmmaking. His outspoken attitude is calculated to inspire anyone with the desire simply to go out and make movies rather than wait for Hollywood deals.

Rodriguez came to public attention about a decade ago, after a feature he shot on 16mm film for $7,000 was bought by Columbia Pictures, blown up to 35mm, and distributed theatrically to respectable audience and critical acclaim. The film was El Mariachi, and inspired a low-budget studio-backed sequel called Desperado. It had major stars like Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek, and cost a thousand times the production expenses of the original but was still a tenth of what a major Hollywood production typically cost. Then he went on to do From Dusk to Dawn, The Faculty, and three “Spy Kids” movies before returning to his roots once more.

Completing the trilogy he started with El Mariachi, Once Upon a Time in Mexico might almost be a demonstration film for hi-def video production. It is laden with rich color, deep contrasts, and sharp widescreen cinematography to show off the process. To appeal to audiences, it is crammed with lots of comic book style action (with ultra fast-paced editing), ample dark humor, and numerous characters in an unexpectedly convoluted plot. In a few shots, the color seems to have a slightly oversaturated video look, and it still doesn’t quite reproduce the contrast range of light to dark that film-originated images can capture, but overall, and certainly at quick glance, it is not easy to tell it was shot on video rather than film (the $100,000 state-of-the-art camera probably helped!).

As for the movie’s entertainment value, it succeeds in being an enjoyable action picture while perhaps being overly ambitious in the number of plot threads and characters it weaves together in only 101 minutes. Antonio Banderas is back as the legendary singing hit man El Mariachi, now a recluse, but out for revenge on the crime boss who murdered his wife (Salma Hayek) and daughter. Hayek, unfortunately, is seen only in a few flashbacks, but still gets in a lot of action, including a restaging of one of the key stunts from the original El Mariachi (a leap onto a moving bus).

Johnny Depp is the real star of the movie, playing a cynical and dangerously eccentric CIA operative who convinces Banderas to kill his old nemesis. The catch is, he is to allow the crime kingpin to assassinate the president of Mexico before making sure he cannot seize power himself. Naturally there are quite a few complications along the way, including a retired FBI agent (Ruben Blades), a beautiful Mexican police officer with a secret (Eva Mendes), and plenty of scheming villains of various levels of sleaziness (Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, and others). There are so many characters and complications and hints of other elaborate subplots, that it looks as if much more footage was shot than made it into the finished film.

The plot takes the age-old themes of revenge, good vs. evil, crime and punishment, working them into the social-political context of modern Mexican culture. The flashbacks of the El Mariachi character, especially those during the story related by Cheech Marin at the beginning, present a legendary fantasy of an invincible hero. Rodriguez gives a Mexican face to long-time cliché of the American (and Italian “Spaghetti”) Western antihero, the Japanese samurai, and the Hong Kong martial arts master.

For the main story, Rodriguez contrasts the wealthy druglords and their casual violence with the average citizens who have come to take it all for granted but someday may be pushed too far. He depicts a tradition of well-meaning but unstable governments, military coups, and ongoing covert U.S. drug enforcement operations that follow their own private rules. In addition, he works mariachi music into the plot (naturally), as well as the Mexican festivities for the “Day of the Dead.”

Once Upon a Time In Mexico is a slick, good-looking action movie whose strengths outbalance its weaknesses. It manages to be both a personal vision and mainstream entertainment. It should at least serve as an inspiration to independent filmmakers who want to do it all themselves.

 

PASSION FILMS BEFORE MEL GIBSON (February 23, 2004)

 

Passion film has long heritage

 

Mel Gibson’s new film “The Passion of the Christ,” which opened this Wednesday, has been receiving substantial media attention for various reasons. Not yet having seen it by press time, I can’t comment on it specifically. However, I can give a brief look into the beginnings of the long cinematic tradition of which Gibson’s film is only the latest example, not only in its subject material but in the attitudes surrounding its production.

 

Virtually from the time moving pictures were first exhibited in the mid 1890s, a vocal segment of the public was already condemning the film medium as a whole. They insisted that the subjects most popular with viewers (e.g. exotic dancers, half-naked muscle-men, a couple kissing, boxing matches, cockfights, etc.) were immoral influences on impressionable minds. And who knows what might be going on in those darkened auditoriums! To counteract their arguments and demonstrate the uplifting power of film, filmmakers turned to religious subjects.

 

Most films during the first decade or two of cinema ran from less than one to maybe ten or fifteen minutes in length (up to a full reel of film). Nevertheless, as early as 1898, only two years after Edison first showed movies on a screen, there were already two three-reel (about a half-hour or so) productions of “The Passion Play.”  One was actually filmed the previous summer at an Austrian village that recreated the famous Oberammergau pageant, and the other was filmed on a New York City rooftop in front of painted backdrops. Shortly after these appeared, film pioneer Sigmund Lubin made his own version in a Philadelphia back yard. (For some fascinating and highly amusing behind the scenes shenanigans concerning these three pictures, try to get hold of Terry Ramsay’s book “A Million and One Nights,” which devotes a chapter to them.)

 

A few years later, the French Pathé studio staged a more carefully and elaborately mounted, although still very stately and theatrical “Life and Passion of Jesus Christ” that also lasted around a half-hour, and was first shown in 1902. It employed state-of-the-art combinations of stage and cinematic special effects to show visions of angels dissolving in and out, Christ walking on water, and the ascension into heaven. Like the 1898 films, with several almost startling exceptions the entire film was shot in a studio before painted backdrops rather than on outdoor locations. Its few actual exterior scenes, on the other hand, look more like the French countryside than the Holy Land. When the company developed a method of using stencils to add colors on specific parts of scenes, they shot several new scenes over the next couple of years, and reissued it in color. By 1905 they’d expanded it to about 44 minutes, some scenes with an overall color tint or tone and others with detailed multiple colors applied by stencil.

 

Then in December 1911, the Kalem Film Company arrived in the Middle East to film “From the Manger to the Cross” on the original locations, returning to America in mid 1912 with a five-reel feature that lasted 70 minutes. Although highly devout, it met up with opposition from some ultra-conservative groups who had grudgingly accepted the earlier films as acceptable picturizations of the gospels but found this film objectionable. A continuing controversy, even within the production company, was whether Christ should be portrayed by an actor or some sort of lighting or shadow effect. The filmmakers defied their orders to do the latter, and hired a London stage actor for the role. Kalem’s film was ambitious but still what one might charitably call “leisurely paced,” and was filmed mainly in long shots. However, some found the realism of the costumes and settings to be disturbing, compared to the Sunday school picture-book look of the earlier films. Others thought it bordered on sacrilege to exhibit such a sacred subject as popular entertainment, for paid admission fees, and in movie theatres, of all places!

 

Both of these films, however, found wide audiences outside the usual movie house crowds, becoming staples of itinerant showmen, Chautauquas, and missionary tent shows. They circulated to churches and schools for decades afterwards. “From the Manger to the Cross” was later re-released by Vitagraph and Warner Brothers. Luckily, and likely due to their reverent approach to their subject material, both films have survived in good to excellent quality copies and can be re-evaluated. Even more fortunate for collectors, both are also packaged as a double feature on DVD from Image Entertainment. Included in the box is a memoir on the production of  “From the Manger to the Cross” by Gene Gauntier, who wrote the scenario and played Mary. While neither film conveys much dramatic or emotional power today, despite some sincere performances, both are worth taking a look at. Pathé’s 1902/05 version, with its clever uses of color tints and special effects, continues to hold a primitive charm, especially if taken in small doses. (Even when it came out it was often shown a few scenes at a time rather than all at once.) Kalem’s 1912 version remains fascinating for its authentic location photography in Palestine and Egypt and for some impressive, artistic staging of the actors in the scenes. For example, there is some literal foreshadowing when the boy Jesus carries a board of lumber and casts a shadow that looks like a cross. Also, many scenes feature action in the background to contrast with what is happening in the foreground. Meanwhile, Pathé’s rival the Gaumont Studio produced a half-hour “The Life and Death of Jesus Christ” in 1906, directed by pioneer woman filmmaker Alice Guy. This Gaumont production is included in the 3-DVD set “Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913” from Flicker Alley.

 

The next major film of the life of Christ wasn’t for another 15 years: Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent spectacle, “King of Kings.” Right-wing Christians again were appalled that Christ’s face was portrayed (unlike the pious shadow or helping arm used in “Ben-Hur,” for example). Like Gibson’s latest work, DeMille came under attack for anti-Semitism and made a number of changes after previewing the film for Christian and Jewish leaders. After its reserved-seat roadshow engagements, DeMille cut more than half an hour from the film and added a soundtrack of music and sound effects for its general release in 1928. DeMille takes a number of liberties with the gospel texts and invents some new characters and subplots, but also invests the gospels with his legendary flair for showmanship and storytelling. He manages to walk the difficult line between reverence and mass-market appeal. And by this time, he had the full range of cinematic techniques at his command – close-ups, highly polished editing and camera shots, and even scenes in Technicolor – to bring a much more intimate and involving drama to the screen. This popular version went on to be a huge hit and has been estimated to be the single film seen by the most people of all time, since missionaries would take it to all parts of the world. Being a non-dialogue film, its intertitles were easily translatable into whatever language was needed.

 

[UPDATE: The classic 1927 Cecil B. DeMille version of “King of Kings” is on a deluxe DVD set from the Criterion Collection including both the original roadshow release and the shortened “popular” release that was seen more often until the DVD came out. A couple of later film interpretations of the Christ story, the 1961 Nicholas Ray remake of “King of Kings” and the 1965 George Stevens production of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” are on DVD and both came out on Blu-ray in early 2011 (see Blu-ray Reviews for more details on these two films and video editions). “Ben-Hur” (both the 1959 and 1926 versions) also covers segments of the life of Christ. Both films are included in the deluxe DVD set from Warner Home Video and scheduled to come out on Blu-ray by the end of 2011.]

 

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (March 2, 2004)

The Gospel according to Mel

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has already set attendance records in the first five days of its release. A large percentage of its viewers have found the film to be a moving experience, sometimes unexpectedly so. Others continue to criticize if not outright scorn the film for a variety of reasons, some understandable, some arguable, and some highly suspect.

While far from a perfect film, Gibson the screenwriter and director has obviously mastered Hollywood’s cinematic techniques for wringing raw emotion from his material. His own passion for his film comes through from beginning to end, along with a sense of meticulous control over the setting, actors, photography, and editing. His worthy effort is aided greatly by the evocative cinematography of Caleb Deschanel (who photographed The Black Stallion and Being There, among others, and was Oscar-nominated for The Right Stuff and The Natural).

Perhaps the strongest impression one takes away from the film is the intensity of conviction and single-minded purpose anyone would have to have in order to submit willingly to such pain. This is emphasized all that much more through the eyes of those helpless witnesses to his ordeal: his mother, Mary Magdalene, and John, who stay by him to the bitter end, and various bystanders along the way. The performances by the entire cast are strong, but Maia Morgenstern as Mary and Monica Bellucci as Magdalene stand out in roles that call for almost no dialogue.

The opening scenes have a heavily stylized, studio look to them, with artful beams of moonlight piercing the blue night in the garden where Jesus is last tempted to give up his mission. Here Gibson tends to become a bit overwrought with his symbolic special effects, with frequent use of slow motion and shots of a spooky, androgynous Satan with some computer-generated satanic-looking accoutrements. The earthquake at the moment of the death of Jesus is also shown with a bit more Hollywood-style elaboration, with the Jewish temple cracking in two rather than merely the temple veil as related in the Gospels.

After Judas betrays Jesus and the Judean soldiers arrest him, the film takes on a more realistic treatment for the most part, interspersed occasionally with subjective camera angles and flashbacks. The film is undeniably and graphically violent in its depiction of torture and crucifixion, at the time a common and expected treatment for prisoners. Without such a vivid recreation, pretty much the entire point of the film would be lost.

If Gibson’s film could be identified as “anti” anything, it would be anti-torture. Squeamish American or western European viewers may well be unaware of reports of equally common, if not worse atrocities still going on around the world today. Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ certainly cannot be considered anti-Semitic by any rational person. It can only be viewed as an incitement to anti-Semitic feeling by people who are already strongly anti-Semitic to begin with or by people with a severe case of paranoia.

The film clearly shows the arrest and persecution of Jesus as a political conspiracy by an elite segment of the religious hierarchy. One of the Sanhedrin is even shown questioning the motivation for the proceedings and refusing to participate. These high priests would as easily condemn any one of their own they might see as a potential threat to their way of life.

Gibson’s choice to focus on such a short period of time and limited number of central characters naturally leaves out a great deal of the motivation and buildup to the climactic event he portrays. The film assumes its viewers are already reasonably familiar with the Gospel narrative and can fill in the story’s exposition and development from memory with occasional hints from the brief flashbacks. In fact for anyone with no basic knowledge of the Gospels the film will be a confusing slice of life with little if any recognizable cause-effect relationships. Although there are a few interesting glimpses into lives of Judas, Kephas (Peter), and Pilate and his wife, most of it follows the brutal experiences of Yashua (Jesus) through that fateful Thursday night and Friday.

Rather than a traditional narrative, this film is a portrait of feelings and emotions, even if it presents no motivations. The actors’ intense performances and the film’s painstaking detailed recreation of its times are responsible for a large part of its impact. Where Gibson falters historically, however, is in his use of languages from the period, a fault that contradicts his reasoning for shooting the movie in the authentic languages.

The Judeans speak Aramaic, as they should, and sometimes Hebrew, and the Romans speak Latin, as one would expect. Pilate and some of the soldiers are shown speaking Aramaic to the Judeans and some of the high priests and Jesus speak Latin to him. At this time, however, the common language of the Mediterranean world was Greek (the very language the Gospels were originally written in). Though each might have known a few words and phrases of the other’s language, they would have communicated with each other using Greek. Educated Romans even spoke to each other in Greek rather than the “vulgate” -- the vulgar language of Latin used by the lower classes. It wasn’t until the fourth century A.D. that the Bible was given an authorized Latin translation.

And the Latin that Mel Gibson has his actors speak is not even the classical Latin as pronounced by the ancient Romans of the Augustan Empire, but the medieval Church Latin kept alive by the Church of Rome with a heavy modern Italian accent. The sign posted on the cross in the movie is written only in Latin and Hebrew, whereas the Gospels of Luke and John both specifically record that it was in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. It might also have been nice if the film somewhere had found a way to explain that “the Christ” means literally “the anointed one” (again in Greek).

Admittedly, monolingual viewers are not likely to notice or be distracted by the wrong languages or dialects, and most will probably know the story well enough that the superimposed subtitles are not really necessary to follow the action. Who knows -- it might inspire more interest in learning Latin and Aramaic (which as far as I could tell, sounds extremely close to modern Arabic).

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ remains an admirable effort and an impressive independent feature film. It should inspire deeper thought afterwards than typical multiplex movie fare. It may even inspire a few to seek out previous versions for comparison, such as the pioneering classics The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902/05) and From the Manger to the Cross (1912) that I mentioned in last week’s column, or perhaps even Martin Scorsese’s flawed but interesting and equally powerful The Last Temptation of Christ. Whatever one’s personal faith, the underlying story has influenced the world for two millennia and has served as inspiration for artists, believers, and nonbelievers ever since.

 

THE PATRIOT (July 2, 2000)

Waving the flag in style

The Patriot continues a recent mini-revival of old-fashioned Hollywood historical epics, once a relatively common genre but now few and far between. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which kicked off the summer movie season, was a superior blend of big-screen spectacle and strong character drama set during the late Roman Empire. Now Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot upholds the tradition in fine style, this time with the American Revolution as its backdrop, a period rarely represented by Hollywood. Mel Gibson stars, drawing inevitable comparisons to his own directorial effort, Braveheart. The comparisons are apt. In both films he plays a strongly principled man who has been brutally wronged by the British and decides to leads his countrymen in a highly effective military resistance in the cause of freedom. Both have scenes that draw the audience into the thick of large-scale battles and bloody hand-to-hand combat. Each is a skillfully crafted tale of a hero, something designed to elicit strong emotions and have the viewer firmly on the heros side, if not cheering him by the end. Both also make the most of the wide movie screen and seem much shorter than their nearly three-hour running times.

In The Patriot Gibson plays a pacifistic South Carolina widower with seven children and a past he wants to forget. He simply wants to raise his family and run his plantation (with the help of hired black workers, rather than slaves). He has no use for the heated politics going on in 1776, and even less for the armed revolution against the British government, for whom he once fought in their campaign against the French and Indians. His oldest son, on the other hand, against his wishes, leaves to join the revolutionary troops. This ultimately results in the tragedy that incites the protective father into action, and he forms a guerilla band of militia troops to carry on terrorist attacks against the Redcoats. Although the British army has superior numbers, training, and munitions, its rigidly traditional tactics are disastrously outmoded and its proper, civilized commanders are not able to keep control over less scrupulous field officers. It is one of these ambitious and ruthless men who is directly responsible for provoking Gibson’s furious retaliation, and thus indirectly, the film implies, for the overall British defeat.

The Patriot vividly depicts the horrors of war and the acts men are capable of under stressful situationsincluding acts of altruistic heroism, acts of cold pragmatism, acts of desperation, and acts of rage. It also contrasts men who attempt to conduct war by certain rules of honorable conduct and others who prefer to achieve results by any means necessary, showing how the philosophies sometimes can overlap. The film is more than just battles and war atrocities, however. A couple of subplots develop the main characters into more than simple stereotypes, from Gibson’s amateur attempts to build a rocking chair to a budding romance between the oldest son and a town girl to a slave who joins the revolutionary troops on George Washington’s promise that twelve months of service will be rewarded with freedom and a year’s service pay. A nice father-son relationship develops throughout the course of the film, and hints of attraction between Gibson and his dead wife’s sister gradually progress as well.

Some critics have complained that The Patriot is nothing but a series of stereotyped characters in stereotyped situations. This is a simple overgeneralization by people who appear to be uncomfortable with the film’s ultimately uplifting and obviously patriotic (literally flag-waving) message. There are always characters who get killed in war movies, but unlike the standard stereotyped war films, it is by no means certain in The Patriot that characters we come to know and feel for will survive until the end of the story.

It is strangely interesting that such a distinctively American film was made by a German director, and that Emmerich was also the man behind that blockbuster feel-good story of military triumph over impossible odds, Independence Day. Emmerich’s films (which also include Stargate, Universal Soldier and the last Godzilla movie) are not always perfect, but he is a master of working numerous small characters into a larger plot and unusually skilled at turning time-honored army movie formulas into rousing entertainment. The Patriot is easily his best work to date, transcending action formula to touch a deeper note, especially this Fourth of July week. It’s well worth seeing in a theatre, as its dramatic impact will suffer by reduction to the small video screen.

Seeing The Patriot may inspire some to check out other films of note dealing with the period. A few worth tracking down are D. W. Griffith’s America (1924), John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1938) and the letterboxed restored director’s cut of the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical 1776 (1972). There really aren’t too many others.

 

THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (December 20, 1998)

If I Were a Pharaoh

Moses is back on the big screen and this time he’s not Charlton Heston. One of the holiday seasons big Hollywood releases is the new Dreamworks SKG Studios (that’s Spielberg-Katzenberg-Geffen) musical cartoon remake of Cecil B. DeMilles The Ten Commandments, retitled The Prince of Egypt.After seeing the prevue trailer with its melodramatic and Sunday schoolish film clips combined with the top-40 pop-rock theme song that’s been getting media hype lately, I was prepared to be unimpressed. The actual movie, however, turned out to be much better than I expected.

The all-star cast of voices is fine, including Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Patrick Stewart, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Sandra Bullock. But the film’s real attractions are its artwork, its music, and a couple of unexpected scripting touches. The animation, a blend of traditional cel painting with computer-assisted three-dimensional perspectives, is superb. The first several minutes of the story are all sung rather than spoken, as if the entire film is going to be an opera. Shots and music blend together as in a fine silent film, with no need for additional dialogue until the main plot threads start to develop. In this context the often exaggerated Delsarte-style gestures of the characters seem more appropriate. The songs by Stephen Schwartz (who wrote Godspell, among other shows) fit the story perfectly, making it basically a Broadway musical done in animation--Fiddler on the Pyramid, maybe? The main songs and arrangements are certainly far better than the closing credit numbers sung by Whitney Huston, Maria Carey and Boyz 2 Men. Those performances seem aimed strictly at marketing albums. Much of the film’s imagery is copied directly from DeMille’s 1956 production, and its story line is more a reworking of DeMille than of the book of Exodus itself, and omitting the same material and adding the same new elements invented by DeMille’s screenwriters. Its focus is somewhat different, however. The Prince of Egypt introduces a stronger character relationship between Moses and Ramses, having them grow up as brothers who are also close friends rather than rivals from the start. This makes the story much more interesting and even touching at times, and the two become for the first time believable men instead of icons. With Kilmer providing the voices of both Moses and God, it is an easy step to associate a divine calling with personal conscience and deep inner conviction. It’s a far cry from the simple picturization of Biblical narratives so common in "educational" religious productions.

Like the DeMille film, it also tries to be reasonably accurate in its depiction of ancient Egypt, although there are a few archaeological problems and anachronisms. For one thing there are several shots showing the religious symbols of the "heretic" monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten, which are from nearly a century before the time the story is set. These would have all been chiseled off the walls well before the beginning of the Seti/Ramses 19th dynasty. A few shots of Moses and Ramses clearly show the cartouches of Akhenaten painted on the wall behind them, also unthinkable in the time of Ramses. Of course there are those who believe that Akhenaten was himself the real Moses (there’s even a website about it), and perhaps these are sly references to that theory. In any case, it is not even certain that Ramses was the Pharaoh in power at the time of the Exodus. Unfortunately this version like those before it depicts the miracles of the story as all magic and supernatural rather than as coincidental natural phenomena that would obviously have been interpeted as the will of God. Snake charmers exist to this day who can make a cobra stiffen to appear like a snake-headed staff and then animate it at will, but both DeMille and Dreamworks show a real stick magically morph into a real snake. The Prince of Egypt also follows the tradition which believes Egyptian construction projects were built by throngs of foreign slaves. Recent excavations, however, strongly imply that the labor force was often, if not primarily, made up of highly organized native work crews employed by the government while they were unable to farm due to the annual flooding of the Nile.

Naturally, since this is the 1990s, the characters of Moses’ sister and wife are made more prominent than in earlier films or in the book of Exodus itself. They are shown to be strong-willed, and his wife Tziporrah is extremely feisty (and usually looks angry at something), but neither is developed much further than that. The campy romantic triangle of the DeMille version is eliminated altogether. This new version, not willing to stretch to the three hours of DeMille’s, ends after the Hebrews have finally left Egypt instead of continuing through the 40 years in the desert until they find Canaan. This gives a more upbeat conclusion and avoids showing the dissent among the Hebrew people, the golden calf and orgy episode, etc. However, a brief concluding shot does show Moses holding the tablets that the viewer can recognize are the ten commandments. Despite its faults, overall The Prince of Egypt is still an entertaining and suprisingly dramatic retelling of the familiar story. And at $60 million plus, it’s the most expensive animated film ever made.

 

QUANTUM OF SOLACE (November 17, 2008)

Bonding with spyfilm fans

The newest James Bond film is the 22nd in the popular series of action adventure films that has capitalized on the public’s yearning for an incorruptible yet often ruthless hero they can trust to save an uneasy and unstable world from international intrigue and self-serving evil. I’ts also the second featuring Daniel Craig in the starring role, the first to be an outright sequel to the film that preceded it, and has the highest-grossing opening weekend of all the Bond films (at over $70 million).

Quantum of Solace (or translated into perhaps plainer but equally Latin-based English, “Measurable Amount of Consolation”) obviously takes its title from the film’s focus on Bond’s desire for personal revenge on those responsible for the death of his true love in the 2006 film Casino Royale. But the revenge aspect of the plot is merely an excuse to hook viewers who liked the last movie and perhaps use one more element of the proven formula used by Matt Damon’s Bourne films, to which the latest two Bonds have often been compared. It is true that the two Daniel Craig Bond films have shifted their style away from the “classic” Bond formula with its over-the-top villains and high-tech gadget factor, and towards today’s trendy paranoia spy thrillers epitomized by the Bourne films. In Quantum of Solace Bond is even on the run from his own organization as well as the CIA. While there is a fair share of cutting-edge technology for gadget fans (there needs to be something to show for its huge $200 million budget), there is nothing like the sci-fi angle of 2002’s Die Another Day (with its ice palace, satellite mirrors, and invisible car) or all the amazing devices that Sean Connery’s Bond enjoyed and usually destroyed in the 1960s.

Like the past decade or two of Bond pictures, action scenes have a more frenetic, faster paced editing than the first 20 years of Bonds, but the basic plot structure of Quantum of Solace follows classic Bond formula. Craig’s Bond charms various women who may be dangerous rivals, helpful allies, or both at different times, and at least one of whom winds up dead (in an homage to Shirley Eaton’s famous Goldfinger demise). True motivation of the action revolves not around revenge but around current world issues -- in this case, oil and water supplies, third-world dictatorships, multinational corporations, and environmentalism. As in the best Bond tradition, scenes jump around the world to exotic locations at least once every reel. Typical of Bond films, there is one seemingly unstoppable villain (played to the slimy hilt by Mathieu Amalric) whose personal goals manipulate world politics to his own ends. More in keeping with today’s spy thrillers, there is the underlying implication that he is just one of many lesser players in a more ominous worldwide organization little-known or understood by international intelligence agencies. However even that element is simply a variation on the specter of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. that was behind the villainy in Bond’s first decade.

The classic Bond films of Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan were just as notable for their witty dialogue, clever puns, and flippant remarks as for their bizarre gadgets, exotic action, and attractive if disposable women. Quantum of Solace has a certain amount of darkly cynical humor and a few Bondian one-liners, and certainly has several show-stopping action sequences, but both of the Daniel Craig Bond pictures play down the tongue-in-cheek attitude for a grittier, more worldly and comparatively realistic approach. Fans of spy thrillers should be pleased with Quantum of Solace even if they find it more routine than Craig’s impressive Bond debut in Casino Royale. Its a bit more like a James Bond movie than just another action adventure about spies. The Bond films are really just superhero movies with a slightly greater degree of plausibility. James Bond with his womanizing, his champagne tastes, and his personal determination to save the world from evil is essentially Iron Man without the hi-tech suit (or is Iron Man really James Bond without the British Secret Service designing his gadgets?).

Viewers who enjoyed the Daniel Craig James Bond films should check out (if they haven’t already) a selection from the previous 20 titles in the series, all of which are on DVD and many of which are now on Blu Ray in lovingly restored editions.

 

REIGN OVER ME (March 27, 2007)

Sandler shows some character

Adam Sandler’s Reign Over Me opened at number eight on only 1671 screens although its average per-screen gross was higher than number four’s Wild Hogs. Oddly enough, Carmike elected to book the relatively limited-release Amazing Grace (on 932 screens) in its fifth week rather than opening the wider-release Pride in Grand Forks (which debuted nationally in the number nine spot on 1518 screens). While Shooter and The Hills Have Eyes 2 are typical Hollywood action-oriented mass-market films, Reign Over Me and Amazing Grace are less representative of mainstream movies, being both more serious and more character-oriented.

Occasionally Adam Sandler tries to break out of his trademark crude comedy reputation by taking roles with serious elements, as in Click. With Reign Over Me, written and directed by Mike Binder, he has a co-starring part in an unexpectedly heavy character drama dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. Don Cheadle and Sandler lead a strong cast in a well-structured plot that isn’t afraid to concentrate on character quirks and backstory at the expense of action, and to wring emotions from the audience. Cheadle stars as Alan Johnson, a New York dentist having a mid-life crisis, disenchanted with both business routine and his family life, yet reluctant to encourage the romantic advances of a patient (Saffron Burrows) having a crisis of her own. He regularly walks Angela Oakhurst (Liv Tyler), an attractive young psychiatrist with neighboring offices, to her car in hopes of getting free advice. One day he happens to run into old college roommate Charlie Fineman (Sandler), whom he hasn’t seen in over a decade, but the reclusive Charlie refuses to recognize him at first. Johnson wants to reconnect with Charlie. Initially he mainly wants to regain some sort of social life away from the home and office. However, he soon realizes that Charlie needs serious help to recover from the depression that has caused him to withdraw from society, ignore his wife’s parents (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon), and live only for enjoying the moment so that he can forget the tragedy that killed his wife and daughters on September 11th.

The film is relentless at delving into and peeling back the layers of the characters that isolate them from others, trying to reveal the logic behind apparently illogical behavior. It nevertheless inserts some lighter-hearted moments for relief, such as exchanges with the secretary in the dentists office, and a few lines in the otherwise intensely dramatic courtroom sequence with the sympathetic judge (Donald Sutherland). Reign Over Me may sometimes seem heavy-handed, but the expertly executed acting, cinematography, and editing can draw the viewer irresistibly into the lives of these characters. The film is a welcome change from Sandler’s usual material and Hollywood formulas in general.

 

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (July 28, 1998)

An intense image, audio experience

Its a safe bet that Steven Spielberg will have another long list of Academy Award nominations come next February for his latest serious dramatic film Saving Private Ryan. The year is only half over, but it is hard to imagine a more impressive film coming along to qualify for Best Picture, given the Hollywood releases of the past six months. There is a powerful ensemble cast of character actors, and Tom Hanks may well earn his third Oscar for his role as the army captain assigned to find a private whose brothers were all killed in action. A high-ranking general decides that at least one member of this unfortunate family should survive the war and wants the soldier located and sent home. Besides its powerful acting, Saving Private Ryan also has strikingly memorable cinematography, editing, and use of sound that recreate the subjective experience of being in battle like no other film about the Second World War.

In this film Spielberg focuses on a brief period of about a week. He does for the D-Day assault on Normandy and the following days what he had done for the wartime concentration camp experience in Schindler’s List. A few films dealing with the Vietnam war may approach Saving Private Ryan in its graphic, visceral, unglamorized portrayal of soldiers killing and being killed, but earlier war films often downplayed the terrors of war in favor of individual heroics. Previous pictures with similar emotional tones though less gory visuals include A Walk in the Sun and Battleground about World War II, All Quiet on the Western Front and Hearts of the World about World War I, and Glory and The Birth of a Nation about the American Civil War. The battle sequences in Saving Private Ryan are perhaps most reminiscent of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in their approach to recreating history as though filmed during an actual event that occurred about 50 years before. They successfully convey the effect of putting the viewer into the eyes and mind of someone living through it as its all happening, a powerful experience not often accomplished in what is usually a medium for light, escapist entertainment or stirring patriotic propaganda. Spielberg, like Griffith, also cannot resist injecting his personal slant from time to time. It is their very personal perspectives that contribute to the power of their work.

This relentlessly intense World War II story is Spielberg’s best work since Schindler’s List, and the polar opposite in style and mood from earlier Spielberg WWII movies like 1941 and the "Indiana Jones" adventure-comedies. Instead of having a typical Hollywood movie "look," with carefully choreographed camera movements on smoothly operated crane dollies, it is filmed as though by combat photographers accompanying the actual D-Day invasion and following a group of soldiers on a mission. Almost all of the shots use hand-held cameras at normal eye level or below, with jerky images becoming more jerky with each explosion. Some of the cameras and lenses were even intentionally misadjusted, and shots with dirt or blood spraying onto the lens were not discarded, so that when edited together the experience would be more like a documentary assembled from whatever film was available. The color has a pale, washed-out look that simulates decades-old home movies and Army Signal Corps footage, or the pastel color photo spreads in old magazines from the 1940s. Some shots look as though they were both filmed and projected at about 12 or fewer frames per second instead of the normal 24. This is another common feature of home movie and silent newsfilm photographers (to cram more time into less raw film), which gives a slightly jerky quality to the images while maintaining normal-looking speed.

Saving Private Ryan exploits the new digital sound recording technology to great advantage in making the battle scenes more realistic. The capability of digital sound to reproduce dead silence, near-deafening loudness, and everything in-between has inspired many filmmakers the past couple of years, and Saving Private Ryan is no exception. Explosions are not mere loud noises as in past films, but rumble and shake the air with subsonic vibrations, making the graphic visual violence potentially unbearable for sensitive viewers. The fast-paced editing during the opening D-Day sequence sometimes cuts to images just below water level as equipment and soldiers are lost in the invasion, simultaneously changing the sound from thundering noise to the muffled silence one would hear from under water. Now and then as a character spaces out and tries to refocus on what is happening the soundtrack again goes silent with distant, distorted sounds the person is only vaguely aware of. Gentle raindrops gradually turn into louder and louder machine-gun fire and hurriedly-tramping boots. Yet despite its brilliant organization of sound effects, most of Saving Private Ryan is shown visually, with little need for dialogue. The cinematography and editing tell the story. Many sections convey their emotion through showing what characters see and then their reactions to what is happening, and a number of scenes are even played out with dialogue that is unable to be heard. Whereas Spielberg began his Amistad with a sequence of exciting silent filmmaking but soon degenerated into a dialogue-dependent courtroom drama, in Saving Private Ryan he uses dialogue as the spice to bring out more of the story rather than as the main ingredient.

In addition to its artistic merits and positive critical reception, Saving Private Ryan also appears to be a box office hit, the "must-see" film that everyone is talking about, even though it was especially difficult to see the film opening weekendand not only because of long lines. Strangely enough, the distribution of such a prestigious release was severely mishandled, as theatres around the country received prints of the film long after their first scheduled showings. In Grand Forks one of the two prints arrived at the theatre only five or ten minutes before the first noon matinee was to begin, so it could not be prepared and shown until the late-afternoon presentation. The second print did not even arrive opening day, but finally showed up Sunday afternoon. Saving Private Ryan is well-worth seeing, and is one of the few three-hour films of recent memory that can hold interest throughout its running time.

 

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (February 15, 1999)

"Give me excess of them..."

1. If movies be the food of love, play on...
2. Shakespeare in Love, with thirteen Oscar nom-
3. inations, easily could sweep this year’s
4. Academy Awards. Though Life is Beau-
5. tiful
has not yet played, and therefore I
6. cannot compare it with the other four
7. Best Picture nominees, it’s safe to say
8. it will not win. A foreign-language film
9. has never won Best Picture, even though
10. a number have been nominated. Brit-
11. ish films, however, often win the top
12. awards, and this delightful comedy
13. is just about as British as they come.
14. And it’s a film that’s sure to please the crowds.

15. Of course, a viewer who knows Shakespeare’s plays
16. or something of Elizabethan stage
17. conventions will most readily enjoy
18. the inside jokes, allusions, and the plot
19. itself. (But who does not know Romeo
20. and Juliet
, that much-read tragedy
21. requir’d in ev’ry school, and even made
22. into a film with Leonardo of
23. Titanic fame and delicate Claire Danes?)
24. The story of this clever comedy
25. concerns the writing of that famous work.
26. For our eponymous protagonist,
27. well-played by Joseph Fiennes, is suffering
28. creative impotence and cannot write.

29. The play he’s working on, commision’d by
30. the debt-plagued manager of one of the
31. main theatres competing for the crowds,
32. starts out to be romantic comedy.
33. Its title Romeo and Ethel, plot
34. about a pirate’s daughter, nothing that
35. the troubled Shakespeare thinks of seems to fit.
36. But when he meets the lady Viola,
37. a woman most enamor’d of the stage
38. who garbs herself in male attire to gain
39. a role in his new play, our William soon
40. discovers she’s the inspiration that
41. he’s lack’d. He suddenly writes pages, scenes,
42. and acts that heretofore he ne’er had dream’d.

43. Yet there’s a dark side to his new-found love.
44. Her fam’ly duty forces her to wed
45. a selfish man of noble name instead
46. of following her Will to life upon
47. the stage. And so Will’s script, a comedy
48. intended from its start, takes on the cares
49. and pains and love frustrations that he feels.
50. His yearning, disappointment and desire
51. all crystallize and flow from pen to page.
52. His ardor soon becomes a burning fire,
53. his passion acted out upon the stage.
54. No more a light amusement, trivial
55. distraction, this. Its raw emotion moves
56. his audience to tears--the play’s a hit.

57. And all the while, the movie audience,
58. enchanted by the blend of new inter-
59. polations with familiar lines and plot,
60. in rapt attention follows what unfolds
61. upon the screen. Three actors Oscar nom-
62. inations got--tho’ Fiennes was miss’d, his co-
63. star Gwyneth Patrow did receive Best Ac-
64. tress in a leading role, and Judi Dench
65. Supporting Actress as Elizabeth
66. (an older incarnation of the queen
67. than played by fellow nominee Cate Blan-
68. chett for Best Actress in Elizabeth).
69. The third is Geoffrey Rush, a standout as
70. the comic Philip Henslowe. He is great.

71. His harried and bemus’d producer well
72. deserv’d the Best Supporting Actor nom-
73. ination. And without a doubt Marc Nor-
74. man’s screenplay, written with that British wit
75. and playwright Tom Stoppard, stands high among
76. the other nominees. In short--the film
77. is highly entertaining, comedy
78. with literate allusions, yet a fair
79. amount of sex and violence to please
80. the groundlings’ base and never-sated tastes.
81. So, hie ye hence and buy a ticket to
82. this newest classic of the silver screen.
83. The happy crowds will prove that I am right.
84. Go see this film--enjoy yourself tonight!

 

SIN CITY (April 4, 2005)

Experimental ‘sinema’ not for all viewers

Robert Rodriguez persists in defying Hollywood tradition with his latest feature, not only continuing to shoot on high definition video rather than film, but resigning from the Directors Guild in order to share directing credit with graphic novelist Frank Miller, whose grim film-noir style comic books served as storyboards for the movie. Rodriguez also refuses to be categorized by the last hit picture he directed, switching back and forth from his family-friendly “Spy Kids” franchise to violent action adventures. With Sin City, he pushes the boundaries of mainstream movie content with big-name stars in a flashy film appealing strongly to young teens (especially boys), although it depicts and implies themes, topics, and actions that many viewers would consider NC-17 material (and quite possibly would have been if Rodriguez had shot the movie in color).

The most impressive aspects of Sin City are its stunningly brilliant cinematography and art direction, closely based upon the book’s original drawings, and the effective editing. Equally notable are the amazing special digital effects that combine the real with the computer-generated and add splashes of color to selected portions of the otherwise stark, high-contrast black and white images. The result is a fascinating and aesthetic stylization that must be seen to be appreciated. The two-hour movie adapts four stories from page to screen, a very short one at the beginning (originally shot as a pilot project to convince author Miller to do a full-length feature), and three semi-connected longer stories about 30 to 40 minutes or so each that overlap and crisscross characters and chronology à la Pulp Fiction. All are set in the vague New York, LA, or Chicago-like metropolis of Basin City, a cesspool of crime, corruption, and vice where there are no good guys. The time period is an equally vague blend of the 1940s and 50s with the 90s and 2000s. From the prostitutes to the police and from the Church to the Congress, the population is made up of people who are only varying degrees of bad, worse, loathsome, contemptible, and completely insane. Sex, violence, money, and looking out for their own interests are the characters only reason for living. Over-the-top extremes of violence and sexual deviance pervade the three main stories. Underlying themes are that no organization and few individuals can be trusted, that betrayal is inevitable, and while some may suffer for their crimes others are more likely to suffer because of them. Consisting quite literally of comic-book plots, the film is heavy on the memorable visuals and action, and very light on the character development aside from some cynical dark humor. Topics are those near and dear to the hearts of adolescent boys of all ages --sex and violence and the misunderstood, persecuted protagonist-- with graphic but aesthetically erotic and/or cathartic portrayals of tortures, beatings, murders, dismemberments, beheadings, cannibalism, pedophilia, fistfights, gunfights, martial arts battles, and of course generous shares of nudity and scantily-clad, well-endowed women (some of whom are the objects of the beatings and murders, and others of whom dole out spectacularly bloody revenge).

The biggest audience pleasers are “The Hard Goodbye,” about a deformed psychotic with super-human stamina (Mickey Rourke) who is bent on revenge for the death of a beautiful hooker who was kind to him (Jaime King), and “The Big Fat Kill,” about a sleazy cop (Benicio Del Toro) and the gang of beautiful but dangerous prostitutes (Rosario Dawson, Devon Aoki, Alexis Bledel) who kill him and his buddies and then must cover it up to avoid losing their special business arrangement with the police department. They’re assisted by the head hooker’s old boyfriend (Clive Owen) who had first beat up the cop for terrorizing his latest girlfriend (Brittany Murphy). The best-developed story, “The Yellow Bastard,” is split into two sections that open and close the film, and contains the closest thing to a role model. An aging detective played by Bruce Willis rescues a little girl from a child molester (Nick Stahl), but is himself framed and disgraced as the sex criminal by his corrupt department because the real molester is the only son of a Senator (Powers Boothe) as well as nephew of a bishop (Rutger Hauer) involved with Kevin the mute cannibal (Elijah Wood) in one of the other stories. When the girl grows up to become a stripper (Jessica Alba) and falls in love with him even though he’s nearly three times her age, he inadvertently leads the molester back to her. He finally decides the only way he can protect her and resolve his own guilt complex is to send her away and blow his own brains out.

Sin City combines a driving energy and dazzling imagery with relentless brutality and despair. It is technically brilliant, stylized Art with a capital A, over-the-top black comedy, lurid exploitation melodrama, and bitter socio-political commentary. Some viewers will be exhilarated by it, some will be repulsed by it, and others will find it an interesting experiment that almost works.

 

THE SIXTH SENSE (August 24, 1999)

Back to school moviegoing makes ‘Sense’

The campus is buzzing with activity now that classes have started up again for the fall semester, and there are still some films playing that are well-worth seeing for those who missed them back home (or if they never made it there yet). Anyone interested in low-budget independent filmmaking will want to catch the hot horror flick shot mainly on home video equipment, The Blair Witch Project. Just remember these things: it’s fictional, it’s severely hand-held, and while it’s kind of interesting in a low-budget sort of way it’s not quite the cinematic masterpiece some people seem to think it is. The realistic acting is what makes it work. Anyone interested in more off-the-wall low-budget independent filmmaking (in the Ed Wood mode) absolutely must see Steve Martin’s affectionate spoof, Bowfinger, with Eddie Murphy and Heather Graham. It captures the flavor of making a movie for next to nothing with people who just want to make movies, plus it’s really, really funny a lot of the time. Anyone reading this Thursday afternoon, August 26th, still has a chance to see Franco Zeffirelli’s nostalgic and touching look at English expatriates living in Italy just before and during World War II, Tea With Mussolini, featuring Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, and of all people, Cher and Lily Tomlin. The picture is a pleasant blend of light-hearted drama and comic moments, with sections of more serious and suspenseful drama. It ends tonight with one showing at 7:00 p.m. at the Plaza Twin Theatre in Grand Forks (the bargain theatre)! Anyone into 1960s rock music and concert movies may want to see the full-length restored stereo sound version of Woodstock (it’s like four hours long), playing for one showing only this Friday, August 27th at 8:00 p.m. at the Carmike 10 in Grand Forks as part of the once-a-month movie revival series sponsored by KNOX radio.

Possibly the best movie playing at the moment, however, is also coincidentally the box office leader for three straight weeks -- The Sixth Sense. From an all-around standpoint it is the most interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking, dramatic, touching, beautifully acted, well-constructed, and genuinely spooky films to be released by a major studio in a long time. And its writer-director is only 29 years old!

When I saw the prevue trailer I was not particularly interested in seeing The Sixth Sense, which appeared to be just another supernatural exploitation film with an adult and a kid. However, it continued to sell out night after night with filmgoers of all ages, and after hearing people’s stunned enthusiasm for the picture, always carefully avoiding giving away its surprises, I decided I’d better see it for myself. It’s easy to agree with the one-word review a number of critics and moviegoers have given it -- "Wow!"

It would be unfair to say much about the plot other than that it is basically a study of a disturbed young boy and the rather depressed child psychologist who wants to help him for reasons of his own. Bruce Willis proves he can be more than an action star with his low-key, moody portrayal of the psychologist, one of his best roles to date. Good as Willis is, he is actually overshadowed by the absolutely brilliant performance of child actor Haley Joel Osment as the troubled boy. (If Osment had starred in Star Wars Episode One, the Anakin Skywalker character would actually have been believable.) Another strong performance is turned in by Toni Collette as the boy’s mother. Beautiful Olivia Williams is fine as the psychologist’s wife, but is out of sight most of the time after the first few scenes.

The Sixth Sense was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, a young filmmaker born in India but raised in Philadelphia, where the picture is set. The tight script and carefully controlled story construction are perfect for the material. The cool-toned cinematography likewise is ideally suited for the story’s mood and both the picture composition and color choices have symbolic overtones. After seeing the film, many people want to watch it again to catch the subtle clues of things that will happen later on. Classified by some as a horror/thriller, it includes elements of those genres but concentrates primarily on the characters and their coming to grips with things. Gore and violence are minimal and are just another part of the plot rather than the reason for the plot. It really makes one want to track down his first two films (this is only his third). He previously wrote and directed Wide Awake (1998) and Praying With Anger (1992), as well as acting in them (he has a bit role as a doctor in The Sixth Sense). Shyamalan also served as one of the writers on the upcoming children’s film, Stuart Little.

The Sixth Sense is sure to be remembered when Oscar nominations roll around. Both Shyamalan and Haley Joel Osment should have long, productive careers ahead of them. The Sixth Sense is a rare movie-going experience that is certain to please all but the most cynical of viewers. It really helps to see it in a theatre filled to capacity, as the tension of the audience seems to fill the air and the film’s few but effective shock-moments really do create their intended effect as the whole crowd jumps at once. If you have even the slightest inclination to see The Sixth Sense, try to avoid the prevue trailer and don’t listen to anyone else discussing it or it might spoil part of it.

 

SLEEPY HOLLOW (November 22, 1999)

Heads will roll …

Why it was not released for Halloween weekend I don’t know, but Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is now in theatres. Fans of his peculiar, eccentric style of filmmaking might find a few surprises but should not be disappointed in his latest picture as many were with Mars Attacks. First off, any English students who think seeing the movie will substitute for reading the original short story by Washington Irving should be warned that this is not actually a film of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It might more accurately be described as a gruesomely entertaining murder-mystery/ghost story that is heavily inspired by Irving’s work, a free improvisation on the names, characters, themes, places and events mentioned in the original. Besides, the story is short enough, so read it anyway (after seeing the movie I looked it up to re-read on my trusty CD-ROM of 5000 works of literature, one of those bargain CDs that is well-worth getting). Reading the original story in advance will by no means spoil the ending of the movie, because, as mentioned above, the movie is a different story altogether. The old Disney cartoon version, sometimes called The Headless Horseman and sometimes doubled up with a Wind in the Willows episode as Ichabod and Mr. Toad, is actually fairly close to the original.

Burton’s film is set around the same time period of two hundred years ago, but takes the story’s legend of the headless horseman as an actual fact, rather than a superstitious old wives’ tale. It also drastically revises the character of Ichabod Crane from the annoying, gangly-looking schoolteacher who lives for the day he can give up his career to marry for money and food. In Sleepy Hollow Crane is similarly afraid of violent physical confrontations, but now he is a New York detective, is struggling to use the most modern and scientific methods of investigation, and is played by Johnny Depp. He is sent by his superiors to test his theories on a series of murders that have been occurring in the rural village of Sleepy Hollow, murders all by beheading but with no other known connection. The film also takes the hints of strange dreams and witchcraft from the story and elaborates them into a crucial element of the plot. For one thing, a secret plot becomes part of the film’s plot. The romance with buxom teenage heiress Katrina (Christina Ricci) has quite a few interesting new twists and variations, as well, yet often seems strangely subdued in a Burton sort of way. Except for her introductory scene, Katrina is no longer the flirtatious coquette, and her relationship with Bram Bones (Casper Van Dien) is certainly changed although remnants of Bones’ jealousy and mischievous nature remain.

Nice cameo performances by Martin Landau, Christopher Lee, and Christopher Walken are among the little bonuses Burton includes in the film, as well as occasional fleeting homages to his earlier pictures like A Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, and others. (Is that slicing off of a bat’s head a veiled reference to Burton giving up the series of Batman films?) Throughout the picture, the playfully spooky music of Danny Elfman once more supports Burton’s unique visual sense. The fascinating color scheme of the film is nearly monochromatic, with the colors desaturated almost to the point of black and white. Blues, blue-greens, pale browns and whites contrast with pale pink flesh tones and there is a notable lack of yellows and greens until the final scene of the picture. Of course the use of color reflects the somber moods of the story, and the custom-built settings (notably a certain ancient tree) bring out the other-worldliness Burtons film’s are noted for.

There is little if any profanity and no nudity or graphic sex but Sleepy Hollow is rated R for some vividly violent special effects. These are mainly scenes of heads being whacked off and spurting blood, and some horrific scenes of a child in danger that will probably give nightmares to many children under twelve. Sleepy Hollow is a well-made ghost story that skillfully crosses the thin line between reality-based logic and supernatural fantasy, and then surrenders

 

SNATCH (January 22, 2001)

Be sure to catch 'Snatch'

Off-beat, non-Hollywood movies don’t often make it into wide release to American multiplexes, let alone draw large crowds, but British filmmaker Guy Ritchie’s dark gangster comedy Snatch is finding an audience even in North Dakota, despite its heavy Cockney dialect. Ritchie came to prominence with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels on the art cinema circuit. He turned down a few Hollywood offers so he could make his next film in a similar style, although this time he cast a few American actors to make it more marketable (notably Brad Pitt, Benicio Del Toro, and Dennis Farina).

Snatch is sort of a cross between Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting, with a bit of Fight Club and perhaps even Fargo thrown in. The plot follows the misadventures of a valuable diamond and the assorted underworld types who try to gain or keep possession of it. A shady but basically decent London bookie named Turkish and his posturing partner Tommy inadvertently get mixed up in more than they expected when a deal to buy a used mobile home from some Irish gypsies (led by Brad Pitt with an intentionally unintelligible accent) goes sour, and their prizefighter/bodyguard is hospitalized just before a match with a ruthless crime boss’ fighter. A rather perverse little dog also becomes a key plot element.

The casual cruelty by various criminals and the blundering incompetence by others is purportedly adapted from actual incidents Ritchie knew or heard of. Ritchie’s over-the-top filmmaking style gives everything a comic edge that blunts the extreme violence (which rarely actually occurs on-screen), yet does not glorify it. His use of speeded-up motion, rapid cutting between reality and scenes imagined or subjectively symbolic, repetition of the same period of time from different points of view, split screens, and occasional superimposed explanatory titles serve to keep the viewer at an objective distance from the action. Their incongruousness in such a serious situation also adds to the humor of the cynical and comically desperate dialogue. The same story told in a more realistic style would be relentlessly grim and far less interesting. Part of the film’s entertainment value comes from the amazingly complex way the separate lives of all the different characters act independently and then begin to overlap until they become intricately connected (often without the characters realizing it).

Snatch is a comic tour de force of modern filmmaking technique that is not quite so extreme or rough-edged as Oliver Stone’s controversial comedy, Natural Born Killers. It may take awhile to adjust to all the different accents used in the film, and the sadistic sleaziness of many of the characters may be off-putting for sensitive viewers, but filmgoers looking for an alternative to mainstream formulas should find Snatch an enjoyable change of pace.

 

STAR TREK (May 18, 2009)

Upgraded 'Star Trek' Returns to the Big Screen

The new Star Trek movie burst into theatres last week with the hopes of reviving and revising the long-lived cultural phenomenon that began with a low-budget TV series in the 1960s and redefined science fiction for the last third of the 20th century. Even though it ran only three years and it’s now 40 years since the last episode was broadcast, the original TV characters have become icons beloved by many, ridiculed by others, and an inspiration for several television spin-off series and over ten theatrical feature films.

This latest Star Trek film, like the Batman Begins film a few years back, is a prequel that explores the origins of the original characters with a slick, modern approach that hopes to “reboot” the franchise for today’s younger audiences. Like the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was only a decade after the original series ended and used the original actors, this film spends a lot of time introducing all the characters and bringing them together so the audience can get used to them again. Unlike that first Star Trek feature, however, this one packs in action sequences one after another with little time for the oohing and aahing that the 1979 film tended to belabor. The purpose of this movie seems to be to introduced the Star Trek mythology to those who never saw the original series, and to give a fresh twist the producers hope will appeal to long-time fans.

The cast of the new Star Trek does an admirable job of creating young and energetic versions of James T. Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov, and should soon make names for themselves in these and other roles. Most fans of the original series should be pleased with the characterizations, not to mention the fact that Leonard Nimoy returns as an older version of his original Spock character (thanks to a convenient time-travel aspect in the plot). The plot of this first episode in what Paramount doubtless expects will be another lucrative theatrical series focuses on a reasonably effective blend of character establishment and spectacular action sequences. It does a good job of recapturing the flavor of the few action-oriented episodes of the original series. While it does raise some interesting character issues, it makes no attempt to present a morality play, sociopolitical allegory, or philosophic exercise the way most episodes of the original TV series did. The story does take a few liberties with and makes a few changes in certain elements of the Star Trek universe established by various episodes of the original series. It remains to be seen whether future scripts will resolve these, ignore them, or simply use the old “alternative universe” argument to justify them.

As a sci-fi action film, this new Star Trek delivers everything audiences would expect: likeable heroes, hateable villains, romance, comedy, tons of action, and state-of-the-art digital special effects. As a slightly re-imagined variation on a familiar, much-beloved formula and mythology, it does a good job touching most bases, but takes a few risks that may need further explanation for die-hard fans. The inevitable sequel will determine if the new series is aimed only at new fans or hopes to retain the original fan base.

 

STAR WARS III - REVENGE OF THE SITH (May 24, 2005)

Lucas back in form with Sith in series

The sixth installment and third episode of Star Wars broke boxoffice records its opening day, despite widespread dissatisfaction with episodes one and two. This time, most fans should not be disappointed and word of mouth is likely to expand its audience rather than shrink it as with the last two installments. In fact, as happened with the first three films (episodes four through six), already there have been people going back to see episode six again multiple times. Unlike the last two episodes, this one has also sold out several showings the first weekend in Grand Forks, and playing on four screens instead of three.

Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith picks up the epic adventure not long after the end of episode two and wraps up about 20 years before episode four begins, returning with a “vengeance” to the main story thread that made the films so popular and giving new, more poignant dimension to the first three films that made up the last half of the series. Nevertheless, it is skillfully written to stand on its own with no previous knowledge of the other films (although it certainly helps to have seen them). The timeless mythic elements of the Star Wars story, the “hero of a thousand faces” and eternal conflict of conscience vs. desires, have helped make it a part of modern culture. The timelessness of its heavy political overtones give it resonance in today’s world, the world of 30 years ago, the world of 70 years ago, of 90 years ago, of 1000 and 2000 years ago, and no doubt for far into the future. Human nature, politics, and war never change, as anyone who reads the ancient Greek historian Thucydides will immediately realize.

Political allegory aside, the main focus of Revenge of the Sith is on character, exploring like a Greek tragedy the fate of an heroic figure with a fatal flaw that inevitably suppresses then crushes his ideals and draws him to his doom. He must unwittingly destroy what he loves most and then must come to an awareness of what he has done. He also unknowingly plants the seeds for his later redemption, as the six episodes together now encompass the entire lifespan of Annakin Skywalker. He, rather than his son Luke, fully emerges as the central character in the series, which may help explain why Darth Vader, the nominal villain of the original film, held such an attraction before audiences even realized his true identity. As a film, Revenge of the Sith is the best of the six movies, both in its plot construction and its integration of special effects that are taken for granted as part of the story rather than being the reason for its existence. It follows the formula closely, while developing character relationships that motivate the spectacular action and heart-breaking confrontations, at the same time raising the more abstract issues that the series’ rabid fans sometimes become so wrapped up in and political statements that its detractors often take so personally. The age-old question of fate vs. free will is one of the major themes this time around.

The digital video technology used to create the images has improved to the point that the transfer to traditional 35mm film, and projected from film, actually has the appearance of a film image, unlike the hazy video look that marred much of episode two and the video-originated footage that was incorporated into episode one and the “enhanced” editions of the others. Like previous films, we start in the middle of a battle and gradually get to know the main characters and plot situation during and immediately after it. We see the close friendship between master and pupil, their loyalty to a cause that is soon to divide them, and their deep concern for the beautiful secret bride of the young Jedi knight, whose own deep-seated convictions will soon clash with those of the man she loves. The final brutal climax appropriately takes place in a vivid inferno that mirrors the burning inner passions of the participants, followed by brilliantly edited cross-cutting of parallel scenes during the rapid resolution that leads into the finale anticipating episode four. The movie plays out like a combination of grand opera, epic ballet, Greek tragedy, high melodrama, and martial arts choreography showpiece. The art design, costumes, and especially the music support the story perfectly. Hayden Christenson, Ewan McGregor, and Natalie Portman all get a much better opportunity to display their acting skills. The best thing is that the story concentrates on the actions and goals of its characters, with every scene leading into or out of some major plot point. The two and a quarter hours of screen time move quickly, with no dull, padded scenes that slowed down all five previous films (as well as far less comic relief).

George Lucas, like his hero, may have turned to the dark side by switching away from film to all-video technology, but he has finally redeemed himself as an effective screenwriter and director with the motion picture that is likely to be the high point of his career.

 

STARDUST (August 20, 2007)

Are the stars out tonight…

Now that Ive finished the first cut of my feature Dangers from Within, held a cast screening, and have the second cut well underway, I figured it was time to take a break from editing to see a current Hollywood release for a change. Stardust is the first new movie I’ve made it out to in four months, and only the second complete digital feature presentation I’ve seen since Grand Forks’ two multiplex theatres junked nearly all their 35mm projectors for computer servers and DLP projectors last April. The picture actually looked quite good and film-like overall, although some of the preview trailers and commercials before the feature had more of a digital video look. I hope I can find time to see Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn before it leaves, not only because it suddenly and unaccountably showed up in Grand Forks despite a very limited 505-print release, but it’s also the only film playing locally on actual film at the moment.

Stardust is a generally entertaining and pleasing fairytale fantasy designed more for adults than for children. The British-American production was written, produced and directed by Matthew Vaughn, based on a graphic novel from about ten years ago. It is a bit long at slightly over two hours, but moves along smoothly for the most part. While some IMDb users have griped about how much it changed or cut out of the novel, the film would probably have run at least twice as long to include the epic scale and novelistic details they describe (I’ve never read the comic book version). The movie has plenty of adventure, action, comedy, drama, romance, and imaginative special effects to provide something for nearly everyone, without overdoing any one element. It’s certainly much more fun and exciting than The Princes Bride, to which many have compared it, and less concerned with mythical creatures than the Lord of the Rings or other fantasy series. Stardust does a good job of giving both new and familiar twists to the classic tale of a quest and coming of age.

In late 19th-century England (around the 1870s-80s), shopboy Tristan tries to impress Victoria, the haughty village girl he is infatuated with, by promising to bring back a falling star they see. Little does he realize that it has fallen into a mystical kingdom beyond the wall beside their little town, a kingdom with ancient witches, beautiful slave girls, feuding princes trying to kill each other off for the throne, flying pirate ships that hunt lightning, and a rare opportunity for immortality whenever a star falls to earth. Not only that, but the star, once fallen in this fantasy domain, has the form of a beautiful woman, and the witches and princes can regain their youth by killing her and devouring her heart. Of course young Tristan (played by Charlie Cox, suggesting somewhat a younger Brendan Fraser), locates and captures the star, whose name is Yvaine (a literally luminous Claire Danes), to bring to the girl he thinks he loves (a petulant Sienna Miller) against overwhelming obstacles, but finding true love in the process. While the romance is kind of the entire point of the plot, it remains just below the surface for most of its running time, with the heros perilous journey being the main focus. Michelle Pfeiffer has a lot of fun as the primary antagonist, the ruthless witch Lamia, with Mark Strong and Rupert Everett as the remaining two of seven princes vying for the realm of their late father (Peter O’Toole in an enjoyable bit role). One of the major players Tristan and Yvaine encounter in their unusual journey is the fearsome, blustery ship captain with a dreaded secret, played to the hilt by Robert De Niro with obvious relish. There’s also a great cast of character actors in the smaller roles.

A pleasant change of pace from typical Hollywood releases, Stardust should appeal to most fans of the fantasy genre, but should also please more general audiences looking for an entertaining adventure with a good blend of action and comedy. It’s also nice to see impressive but not overwhelming digital effects that actually serve the story rather than looking like the story was written merely to feature them. So far it is doing only modest business by Hollywood standards, opening in fourth place and dropping to sixth. However, its second weekend dropoff was by a much smaller percentage than the previous week’s top three movies, so word of mouth may keep it around for a longer run overall.

 

SUNSHINE CLEANING (May 4, 2009)

Catch 'Sunshine Cleaning' if you can…

Independent films with limited releases often play at the Fargo Theatre and periodically show up in Fargo multiplexes, but rarely make it to Grand Forks-East Grand Forks. The off-beat Sunshine Cleaning premiered at Sundance in January 2008, played at various other festivals last year, and finally got a theatrical distribution two months ago, opening in only four theatres nationwide and gradually expanding to 642. Despite dropping back to only 471 screens last week, two of them, amazingly, were in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Less surprisingly, it’s also been playing in Fargo. If Sunshine Cleaning manages to stay around another week or so before the pre-summer Hollywood blockbusters push it out of theatres, its an exceptional opportunity to go out to a movie that focuses on characters and ideas rather than action and special effects. New Zealand-born director Christine Jeffs shot screenwriter Megan Holley’s touching story of a dysfunctional but loving working-class family on location in New Mexico.

Three of the film’s producers also helped produce Little Miss Sunshine, and actors Alan Arkin and Mary Lynn Rajskub appear in both films, but the plots of the two dark comedies have nothing to do with each other. Whereas Little Miss Sunshine is an often outrageously satiric roadtrip comedy about individuality with deeply dramatic touches, Sunshine Cleaning is a tender and sad portrait of individuality and the daily struggle to survive, with frequent ironic and darkly comic touches. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt play two very different sisters. Rose (Adams) is a one-time high school beauty queen who is now a single mom struggling to make ends meet working for a maid service, while carrying on a long-time love affair with high school sweetheart Mac (Steve Zahn), who now happens to be a happily married police officer. Norah (Blunt) is a free-spirited but troubled party girl who works minimum wage jobs until she’s fired, and lives with their ne’er-do-well father Joe (Arkin), whose get-rich-quick schemes never seem to pan out. Mac mentions to Rose that with her cleaning experience, she should consider the lucrative crime-scene and death-scene cleanup business. When Rose’s bright but troubled son Oscar (Jason Spevack) is threatened with expulsion from public school, she convinces her sister Norah to help her start up Sunshine Cleaning so they can raise money for a private school that can give Oscar the attention he needs.

The rest of the film maintains a delicate balance of comedy and drama as Rose and Norah try to adjust to the distasteful duties of cleaning up after murders and suicides, and learning on the job, and at first after the fact, of official biohazard regulations. Both discover a strange sort of bonding with the people whose homes and lives they are briefly a part of, feeling somewhat guilty for discarding personal mementos without trying to contact relatives. Norah is openly brash but inwardly the more sensitive of the two sisters, and impulsively tries to locate the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of one of the suicides they’ve handled, gradually building an odd and tentative relationship with her. Rose, meanwhile, has become interested in the one-armed cleaning supply dealer (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who has discreetly been advising them on professional procedures so they will not get into trouble as the clueless amateurs they are at first.

The film does an effective job of hinting at various elements in characters’ pasts before finally revealing information that both gives stronger emotional resonance and explains key motivation for the characters, aided by the excellent ensemble cast. While often downbeat, and seeming to become more so as it progresses, the story is able to come to an upbeat conclusion that fits its characters and does not seem artificially tagged-on. Sunshine Cleaning is thoughtful, moving, funny, and entertaining, a decidedly unusual alternative to find in a film playing at a mainstream multiplex.

 

SUPER 8 (June 12, 2011)

‘Super 8’ family-friendly multi-genre modern classic

 

An effectively constructed script with a solid thematic subtext, well-defined characters, and strong acting performances all combine to make the new film “Super 8” one of the best summer movies ever to come out of Hollywood and among the best films released this year. It is especially refreshing in that its elaborate digital special effects serve the story, instead of the other way around, and that its large and talented cast is made up of character actors and relative unknowns rather than familiar box office name stars. Steven Spielberg is renowned for action-adventure and sci-fi films designed to appeal to all ages but aimed especially at the innocent (yet resourceful) child and the hopeful adolescent in all of us. His “Indiana Jones” films, along with “E.T.,” “Close Encounters,” and “Jurassic Park” remain among his most beloved films, long after he turned to such serious material as “Schindler’s List” and “Munich” for his directing projects. But Spielberg has continued to be involved with movies that fit his trademark style and subjects as a producer for other directors.

 

“Super 8,” written and directed by J. J. Abrams (who helmed the new “Star Trek” reboot), looks as much like as Spielberg film as any he wrote and directed. Spielberg is credited as producer, but his influence can be seen everywhere, from its focus on children as the main protagonists to its science-fiction story of a lost extra-terrestrial creature to its blend of poignant personal drama with light comedy, suspenseful action, and heart-felt sentimentality.  The film is also celebration of moviemaking as a passion, its small-town coming-of-age story and sci-fi / government cover-up plot both set against the backdrop of a bunch of young teenagers struggling to make their own Super 8 film in time for a festival deadline. It’s probably no coincidence that Spielberg himself was making movies as a precocious 13-year-old growing up in Ohio (where “Super 8” is set). The title, for all those born after the video and digital revolutions, refers to a format of 8mm film used for home movies, substantially less expensive than professional 35mm movie film or the semi-professional 16mm film once used by independent filmmakers, TV stations, and schools. The story is set in 1979, when Super 8 film was near its height of popularity, just as affordable home video formats were beginning to appear.

 

In “Super 8,” a boy (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother in an industrial accident, and his grieving sheriff’s deputy father (Kyle Chandler) wants him to attend a baseball camp for the summer. But when school lets out for summer vacation, the 12 or 13-year-old is still determined to help his best friend (Riley Griffiths) finish the zombie film he’s been working on. This includes sneaking out late at night for production meetings and shooting sessions, and getting to know a new cast member, the beautiful, slightly-older daughter (Elle Fanning) of the working class single father (Ron Eldard) that the deputy blames for his wife’s death. While the kids are filming a midnight scene at a railway station, a mysterious train suddenly rushes by, and even more mysteriously is derailed when a pickup truck drives onto the tracks heading straight toward the train. The train wreck disrupts not only the kids’ movie production, but the entire town, as the military quickly move in to clean up the mess under top security and soon decide to evacuate the population. Something apparently escaped from one of the train cars, and the kids accidentally captured the event on film. To tell much more would ruin some of the fun, but film buffs will immediately recognize strong connections to “E.T.” as well as close parallels with classic 1950s sci-fi flicks like “It Came From Outer Space” and “Them!” and various science-fiction films of the past half-century, not to mention any number of adolescent coming-of-age films.

 

What makes “Super 8” stand out from so many others is the underlying character relationships that tie everything together. The people aren’t merely going through the standard action and sci-fi formulas (although they do plenty of that). The kids aren’t just struggling with parents and school and friends and rivalries and unfamiliar hormones. They are trying to live their lives, follow their natural inclinations, learn, and grow up, while all the action goes on around them and eventually draws them into its center. The film has something for everybody and doesn’t get stuck in one limited area. Characters, props, and incidents are expertly connected to several simultaneous plot threads. Some of the action may be predictable, but the acting (especially by Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney) makes an emotional connection with the viewer and the skillful switching from the comic to the dramatic to the intensely suspenseful keeps one wondering what will happen next. The occasional moments of unashamed sentiment never become cloying as they sometimes do in Spielberg-directed films like “E.T.” or the last section of “A.I.” and the sequences focusing mainly on character-building or technical exposition or special-effects sequences never drag down the pacing like they do so often in, say, “Close Encounters.” In short, Abrams has made a classic Spielberg film that is even better than much of what Spielberg has done himself. It’s no surprise that “Super 8” opened in the number one box office position, despite its modest $50 million budget. And be sure not to leave the auditorium when the closing credits start, or you’ll miss the complete finished Super 8 film that the kids have been working on throughout the story.

 

TANGLED (December 6, 2010)

‘Tangled’ ranks with Disney classics

 

Walt Disney pioneered feature-length animated films by adapting the Grimm Brothers fairytale “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” back in 1937. It succeeded because it entertained adults just as much, if not more than it did children with its blend of brilliantly animated artwork, endearingly individualistic characters, clever writing, and catchy songs that became hits on their own. (It’s now available on an excellent Blu-ray edition, along with such other memorable Disney cartoon features as “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Beauty and the Beast.”)

 

The latest Disney Studios release currently in theatres is “Tangled,” which was adapted from the Grimm Brothers’ “Rapunzel,” and is being heralded as their 50th animated feature, and supposedly their final film adapted from a classic fairytale. Like most animated films of the past decade, “Tangled” uses digital technology after a brief return by Disney to traditional hand-drawn animation with last year’s sadly underrated “The Princess and the Frog.” The boxoffice disappointment of that film likely influenced profit-conscious executives to close the door on future cartoons about princesses and it definitely switched the promotional focus of the already-in-production “Rapunzel.” Besides a gender-neutral name change, ads now make sure that the Errol Flynn-inspired rogue who drops in on Rapunzel’s tower and their subsequent action-adventure together is prominent enough to attract boys as well as girls. While “Rapunzel” certainly is still about a lost princess and a wicked stepmother, the story itself, like many Disney cartoons, is a timeless coming-of-age tale about adolescent discovery.

 

As usual, the Disney variation on the traditional fairytale has been heavily reworked for modern-day audiences, re-thinking various characters and their motivations, and adding plenty of comedy relief (from both loveable ruffians and charmingly eccentric animals). But “Tangled” is a worthy successor to the best of Disney’s animated features, once again due to spectacularly expressive character animation, well-written characters in a sometimes poignant plot, and some great music. For broad entertainment appeal, it ranks easily with “The Little Mermaid” and well above “Beauty and the Beast,” if not quite as much fun as “Aladdin” (whose appeal heavily involved Robin Williams’ manic performance).

 

The wonderful score and fun songs are by composer Alan Menkin, whose music helped make such popular Disney films as “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and the more recent Disney satire on its own films, “Enchanted.” In “Tangled,” all the songs are pleasant, but the song “Mother Knows Best” goes even further, with all the style of a hit Broadway showtune. This is made all the more effective with the song’s emphatic rendition by Donna Murphy as “Mother Gothel.” Murphy and the animators responsible for her digital incarnation manage to make her villain almost sympathetic at times, at least much more human than the broad caricature villains in most Disney cartoons. Mandy Moore does a wonderful job as the voice of Rapunzel, and her vocal expression is perfectly matched visually by her digital cartoon counterpart. The character’s facial and physical nuances are superbly designed and executed by Disney’s animation staff, and the role is (quite naturally) the strongest-written part in the film. Zachary Levi and his character’s animators, aided by the good script, make Flynn Ryder into vastly more interesting a hero than the flat and nondescript prince characters who typically rescue Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc. from their predicaments.

 

Following the tradition going back to the cat and the fish in “Pinocchio,” stealing the scenes whenever they’re on the screen are the non-talking animal characters, in this case a hilarious and inscrutable chameleon named Pascal and a headstrong horse named Max (although Max’s motivations are far too hazy in the otherwise carefully-plotted story). As with any good film, it’s the story that holds it together, aided by good acting, and in this case outstanding animation to match, with expertly planned “camera” work and editing. “Tangled” has the added benefit of an above-average score and the icing on the cake is the impressive 3-D design of its digital world, which boasts some beautiful depth effects. “Tangled” is well-worth seeing even in two dimensions (and you might even want to bring a kid along), but especially if you can see it in 3-D.

 

300 / THE 300 SPARTANS (April 2, 2007)

W XEIN, AGGELLEIN LAKEDAIMONIOIS OTI
THIDE KEIMEQA TOIS KEINWN RHMASI PEIQOMENOI

O stranger, announce to the Spartans that here we lie, to their words obedient.
                                                                                                --
 Ancient inscription at Thermopylae

Go tell the Spartans, the movies made myths of heroes

At the 4 pm matinee last Sunday, April 1, the movie 300 became the first film to be presented using the Carmike 10’s new digital video projectors, which should all be installed by this weekend. Each Christie model CP2000 DLP (digital light processor) unit works with a Doremi DCP2000 digital cinema server to play the high-definition media files. Image quality is very bright, very steady, and impressively sharp with high contrast. It looks comparable to a Blu-Ray high-definition DVD played on a high-end HDTV system. Image resolution for “scope” 2.39:1 widescreen movies is 2048 pixels wide by 858 pixels high (about 1.7 megapixels), and for standard 1.85:1 movies is 1998 pixels wide by 1080 pixels high (about 2 megapixels). The HDTV standard is 1920 by 1080 (also about 2 megapixels), although that is reduced to 1920 by 1038 or 1920 by 804, respectively, for standard and scope theatrical films. HDV home movies are recorded at 1440 by 1080 pixels, so with the introduction of digital cinema as it currently stands, it means is possible to have near-theatrical quality movies in your home. While these digital projectors don’t even approach the quality that good 35mm film is capable of, initial results are as good as or better than many typical multiplex film presentations.

I’ll have a more comprehensive report after the rest of the units have been installed and running for a while. It is not really fair to compare the quality using the film 300, as its stylized look already uses a heavily distorted image, with intentional graininess, manipulated color, and high contrast, all of which is intensified in the digital version (more on that below). As for the movie 300, in its fourth week it remains in the top three boxoffice performers, with the Ninja Turtles that pushed it out of the number one spot last week having dropped to fourth, and the new releases Blades of Glory and Meet the Robinsons opening in the number one and two slots respectively.

Greek warriors on film

The ancient Battle of Thermopylae between the Greeks and the Persians in 480 B.C. ended in a heroic last stand by 300 Spartan soldiers that quickly became legendary. For the past two and a half millennia, historians, artists, and writers have perpetuated stories that chronicle the event in terms designed to appeal to popular audiences and various socio-political agendas. The latest of these have been graphic novelist Frank Miller’s comic book re-imagining, adapted into a live-action movie that was released last month, 300. Coincidentally, Rudolph Maté’s 1962 film The 300 Spartans is also easily available, having been released on DVD three years ago to capitalize on other Greek warrior films like Troy and Alexander. Zach Snyder’s 2007 screen version of 300 takes a few of the main characters and elements described by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, and possibly a few ideas from Maté film, and uses them as the framework for an allegorical fairy-tale about heroes, monsters and giants. He focuses on the idealistic heroism of Spartan king Leonidas, making it appear as if his decisions are motivated by a driving goal to unite all of Greece and preserve individual freedoms from monstrous (literally) foreign tyranny.

The story of Leonidas and his men is heavily revised to emphasize thinly disguised if sometimes ambiguous modern-day political associations. For example, the king laments that he must gain approval for his military plans from the governing body, an aging group of decrepit, in-bred, lecherous, and self-serving old men (could this by any chance be the U.S. Congress?). When they don’t agree with him, he recruits volunteers anyway and heads off to war, sarcastically calling the soldiers his “personal bodyguard.” (Historical accounts reveal that Leonidas was apparently permitted 300 hand-picked Spartan men, although there were over 7000 men total from various Greek cities who joined him at Thermopylae, though all but about 700 Thespian troops left the 300 Spartans when the situation became perilous, and reluctant hostages from Greek Thebes joined the Persians as allies. Also, simultaneously with this land battle, a massive sea battle took place between the Persians and the united Greek navies.) The invading Persians in 300 are depicted as either deformed and gigantic monsters, or as fanatic, faceless Middle-Eastern assassins, slaves to the will of their insane and conceited god-king Xerxes, heavily covered in facial jewelry. The muscular, super-human Leonidas and his men wear no armor other than helmets, each well-trained and devoted freedom-loving Spartan warrior easily able to defeat dozens of seemingly overwhelming foes. Through this approach, the film becomes a rousing pep-rally, if not a recruiting aid, for elite fighting corps, as well as an obvious enactment of American/European wish-fulfillment regarding the current conflict with Persia (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan).

Strong performances by the cast (led by Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, and Vincent Regan) add credibility to the far-fetched action, which is aided greatly by the film’s state-of-the-art computer-generated effects. 300 is a handsome and heavily stylized production in its visual look, shot mainly against blue-screen and green-screen, with settings added later. It employs fast-motion and slow-motion with flashy moving camerawork and editing, set against a heavy and often pretentiously eclectic music score. Sounds and images sometimes evoke the film Gladiator and other times sword-and-sorcery fantasy movies. 300 is at its best in its battle scenes, particularly the final one, but audiences need to realize that the film is merely skillful mythmaking and fantasy, and bears virtually no resemblance to the few historical facts that inspired it.

For a much more realistic, though substantially less intense retelling of the events, be sure to get the DVD of The 300 Spartans. Maté’s film also treats the historical incident as a means for propaganda about self-sacrifice for the greater good of freedom and a united Greece (or Western world). Like 300, it avoids the fact than many Greek cities welcomed the Persians and that Sparta’s military state was hated by many Greek cities. Both films note that Spartan religious festivals kept the main army from the war, yet neither mentions that the important Olympic games were being held at the same time, drawing away manpower from other cities across the Greek world. Both entirely ignore the fact that Greek civilization not only thrived on slavery but took bisexuality for granted as a fact of life. Instead of incredibly idealized heroes, however, the 1962 film’s characters (on both sides) are undeniably human, and costumed reasonably closely to historical records. Leonidas is correctly portrayed as just one of two simultaneous kings of Sparta. Here he finds a legal loophole that lets him act independently of the reluctant city council. Xerxes is urbane, if self-indulgent verging on the decadent, and is shown as an ambitious leader who relies heavily on his generals and his wife for advice. He also has an exiled former Spartan king as advisor, as he did in actual fact, completely independent of the Greek traitor who showed the Persians the hidden pass enabling them to surround the Greek army.

The 300 Spartans includes some of the political tension between Athens and Sparta, also working in arguments dealing with war and politics that might be interpreted as having modern significance (the Cold War was raging and the Vietnam War was just getting started, while the Korean and Second World War were still fresh in public consciousness). One of its main points is how the single-minded Xerxes keeps losing battles because he refuses to follow the recommendations of his experienced military commanders. The 1962 film, unlike the new version, throws in a secondary romantic subplot, but also takes great pains to dramatize plausible Greek and Persian military tactics in its battle scenes, using historical accounts as guidelines. In addition, it attempts to work in quite a few of the actual historical figures involved in the events, although like 300, it attributes the witty comeback about Persian arrows blotting out the sun permitting the Spartans to fight in the shade to King Leonidas rather than to Spartan soldier Dienekes (as reported by Herodotus).

While most of its acting and directing are merely competent, Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is outstanding, and the only major disappointment of The 300 Spartans is in its abrupt, anticlimactic ending. This aspect was much better handled in 300, despite its ridiculous excesses in other areas throughout its length. As with Oliver Stone’s 2004 Alexander and Robert Rossen’s 1956 Alexander the Great, viewing the 2007 300 and the 1962 The 300 Spartans back to back, and then following up with a little research in primary sources, provides a worthwhile basis for understanding how history is used for dramatic effect while continually being reinterpreted for the times.

 

TITANIC (December 22, 1997, updated August 9, 1998)

Huge ship, huge movie, huge crowds

"The water is freezing and there aren’t enough boats! Half the people on the ship are going to die." These lines from the new three-hour and twenty-minute hit movie Titanic summarizes the main plot in a few seconds. Of course there is a bit more to it than just that. This latest version of Titanic is a sweeping, old-fashioned Hollywood epic, weaving a fictional romance against the background of a great historical tragedy. It brings the timeless true story into the 1990s, and also is a meticulous recreation of life before the First World War.

Everyone knows the story of the ocean liner Titanic, the ship designed to be unsinkable that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank with 1500 casualties, April 15, 1912. It has been told many times in print and on the screen, for it always holds a strange fascination for the public. Interest revived a few years ago when cameras were able to penetrate the wreck on the floor of the Atlantic more than two miles below the surface.

Now director James Cameron (The Abyss, True Lies, Aliens) brings the story to movie theatres once more in the most expensive film ever produced at over $200 million. Two previous films, Titanic (1953) and especially A Night to Remember (1958) had been the definitive versions of the disaster, so Cameron had to try to equal their poignant drama and vivid recreations of the event. Amazingly (thanks to a virtually unlimited budget and state of the art miniatures combined with computer-generated special effects) he succeeded, even surpassing them in a number of aspects.

Originally scheduled for release in summer of 1997, the new Titanic was put on hold until December so Cameron could do more postproduction work on it (a rough cut was reported to run over five hours). While delays in release often mean a film has serious problems, in this case such fears proved unfounded. After the three-hour film's overwhelming success, a theatrical release of the five-hour version has been tentatively planned for December of 1998.

Cameron is noted for his lavish spending on productions and for concentrating mainly on spectacular action stories (especially science-fiction). Now he proves he can handle a more traditional movie romance and make it just as interesting as the elaborate special effects. Views of the recreated ship emphasize its magnificence and the excitement of an ocean cruise. The finished film is worth seeing for the special effects alone, but Cameron is able to hold the viewer’s attention through the relationship that develops between an impoverished but high-on-life artist and the high-spirited but socially repressed upper-class fiancée of a young but stuffy and snobbish American businessman.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio carry much of the film as the young couple whose new-found love is threatened first by the outraged fiancé Billy Zane), then by the sinking ship. All the while we get a vivid picture of life on board--both in the opulent first-class section and in the steerage reserved for poor immigrants, as well as in the ship’s engine room, the captain’s bridge, and the various outer decks. Winslet and DeCaprio have about the only characters developed to much degree, though there are a few memorable smaller parts among the ship’s crew and passengers (Kathy Bates, in particular, as the "unsinkable" Molly Brown). This gives the story a stronger focus than those that use the "Grand Hotel" approach of numerous major characters in brief, interlocking vignettes. It does, however, tend to downplay the activities of the ship’s officers and crew (which perhaps had more screen time in the five-hour version).

There is also a framing story set in 1996 that begins and ends the movie, with a fictional salvage operation discovering a pencil sketch in a ships safe that leads into the flashback of the fateful voyage. Cameron shot footage of the actual Titanic wreck and then constructed an elaborate miniature of it to get exactly the views he wanted. This allowed an easier dissolve into identical settings in their 1912 condition and the touching conclusion reminiscent of the play/film Outward Bound. Veteran actress Gloria Stuart, a Hollywood star in the 1930s and early 40s, makes a rare screen appearance as the now 100-year-old character played by Winslet in the flashback. Born two years before the actual disaster, Stuart had to go through two hours of age makeup every day to make her look old enough for the part.

Most viewers from Grand Forks and some from Fargo may find certain scenes uncomfortably familiar. Water seeping ominously across a floor, rooms half underwater with furniture floating around, crowds of evacuees herded together but kept largely uninformed to avoid panic -- such images now have a disturbing immediacy that can be instantly identified with. And the sense of loss of such beautiful man-made objects as the ship and its contents now touches much deeper than it could have previously.

There will likely be future retellings of the Titanic sinking. The disaster is a near obsession with some people (witness the dozens of websites devoted to it, some with clickable deck plans that display who occupied which cabin and whether they survived or drowned). The various attitudes of the ship’s builders, owners, crew, and passengers can apply to people of any period. The contrast of mass panic with fearful anticipation and nonchalant resignation in the face of death serves as a cross-section of human behavior. While cowardly men try to bypass the "women and children first" rule, and throngs of lower class passengers try desperately to board the lifeboats, a mother tells her two children their final bedtime story in their cabin, the orchestra continues to play heroically, cool millionaires sip another brandy, and the captain stands by the ship’s wheel until it is engulfed. For now, the James Cameron Titanic ranks high on the list of film interpretations of the disaster. Naturally, in today’s market, he had to include just enough profanity and tasteful nudity (of the lovely Kate Winslet) to get a PG-13 rating. Otherwise all the adults who do not comprehend that the ratings system would avoid it, mistakenly believing that PG means a movie is for children (!) and that R-rated films are just too nasty for them. It seems to have worked, for showings are selling out with crowds made up of all ages. Playing fifteen weeks straight as the number one box office attraction, with eight Golden Globe nominations, a record tying fourteen Academy Award nominations and eleven Oscars, it will be remembered for a long time to come.

 

TROY (May 18, 2004)

'Troy' follows in time-honored classical tradition

The second “summer” movie of 2004 is now glutting multiplex screens (studios love to overestimate how many people will actually want to see their films at once, even hit films). Troy, like the previous week’s Van Helsing, is a reworking of time-honored characters and plot material, loaded with flashy editing, spectacular shots, and heartthrob star power. But Troy also has a few more things going for it.

Aided by its strong cast of veteran character actors (notably Peter O’Toole as old King Priam), Troy serves as good, old-fashioned, action-packed movie spectacle, as an occasionally thoughtful political commentary on modern world events, and as a credible introduction for the mass audience to the classical characters and themes of Western civilization that have been all but abandoned (if not suppressed) by the contemporary public educational system.

Demonstrating this lack of education vividly is the widespread public surprise and outrage over various activities by both sides in the current Middle Eastern conflict. Anyone with even a basic familiarity with the now-despised “Classical” literature will be immediately struck by its intense emphasis on the extreme contrasts existing within the same groups of people and even within individuals, including individuals described as “heroic.” While customs and beliefs may vary from time to time, human nature is obviously no different from what it was thousands of years ago, and the imposing structure of civilization has always remained little more than a fragile veneer.

Allies fight among themselves. Much-admired heroes can suddenly change their minds on a whim. They can throw themselves into performing deeds that they will soon regret. They can stand up to overwhelming peer pressure at one moment or be talked into going against their principles for the common good at the next. Deep-seated senses of honor, fair play, mercy, longing for home, and love of peace co-exist with innate savagery, lust for glory, thirst for violent and merciless revenge, and fatalistic resignation that human conflict will never end. Troy, the latest movie adaptation of the ancient Greek poem, The Iliad, brings out much of this dichotomy. Like all movie versions, however, it understandably sanitizes most of it for modern civilized sensibilities.

Following the long tradition of Classical poets, screenwriter David Benioff and director Wolfgang Peterson use the basic characters and incidents of Homer’s epic as a framework for their own interpretation. While retaining numerous key situations and events, they make some significant changes in both the motivations and ultimate fates of a number of key characters. This is a good thing. The same phenomenon shows up in ancient Greek literature itself, as well as in later Roman and European literature inspired by it. Naturally, these variations also mean that students hoping to cram for an exam about The Iliad will have to read at least the Cliffs Notes and not rely solely on the film (or any other film version, for that matter) to know what “really” happened. Peterson’s Troy quickly pulls the viewer into its story and character intrigues, making its altered and simplified chain of events seem natural and believable, although it rather leaves the impression that its events occur over a few weeks or months rather than over ten bloody years. Scenes of the approaching fleet of Greek ships and the amassed Greek and Trojan armies facing and then rushing each other are truly spectacular. Individual fight scenes are expertly choreographed, photographed, and edited. Troy easily ranks among the best of all movie sword and sandal epics, and one of the few based on elements of Greek legend. What it changes and leaves out provides all that much more reason for revisiting some of the original material (and earlier film incarnations).

Besides last year’s TV miniseries, the only other major English-language version of the Trojan War legend is the underrated 1956 Helen of Troy, directed by Robert Wise (Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still). Unfortunately, its performances are generally lackluster. However, its production values remain impressive and its screenplay’s treatment of the same characters (and which characters it chooses to include) makes for a very interesting comparison with Peterson’s film, given the political climate of the mid-50s and that of today. This film, also released by Warner Brothers, has conveniently just come out on DVD.

In Wise’s film (given its title), both Helen and Paris are naturally the most sympathetic central characters, completely justified in their actions, and merely pawns set up by Menelaus in order to initiate his plans to conquer and loot Troy. Troy is the civilized, peace-loving victim of the warlike Greeks and both are ultimately subservient to the films huge sets and cast of extras. In Petersons film, Helen and Paris remain generally sympathetic (and much better acted by Diane Kruger and Orlando Bloom) but each is more ambivalent and complex. This time Agamemnon becomes the most power-hungry warlord, using the misfortune of his brother Menelaus’ unfaithful wife to start the war he has always wanted. The Greeks and Trojans are more evenly balanced in screen time, with both having warlike tendencies but only Achilles among the Greeks really being torn between peace and war. Peterson revels in spectacle no less than Wise, but takes more time out to philosophize on the eternal human conflict in both love and war. He also gives more emphasis than Wise on the original poem’s theme of the “wrath of Achilles” (handled adequately by Brad Pitt). Both films depict the thrill of battle and the tragedy of war’s effect on innocent civilians. Both, however, drastically tone down the wartime atrocities committed by both sides, including human sacrifice, and graphically explicit desecration of the dead. Both also carefully avoid depicting ancient Greek attitudes toward sexuality, which despite strict gender roles and expectations was far too broad-minded for modern sensitivities, not to mention their traditions regarding slavery, infanticide, military duty, the often unsavory activities of their heroes and of their deities, nor how their armies’ basic assumptions regarding their rights to loot, pillage, and rape, and their standard methods to keep themselves in supplies while in foreign territories.

Nevertheless, Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy is a vivid, well-crafted presentation of an influential but nowadays neglected era of our cultural heritage (and even its relatively tame depiction of the original source’s violence still earned it an R rating). Although killing off a few characters prematurely, it concludes with a hint about The Odyssey, a natural movie sequel in this new era of multi-part movies, and also plants the seeds for a movie version of The Aeneid. With the box office success of both Troy and The Passion of the Christ, maybe Mel Gibson will consider filming The Aeneid in Latin or The Odyssey in ancient Greek, or perhaps take on an even more controversial historical figure like Alcibiades.

TRUE GRIT – 2010 and 1969 (January 24, 2011)

Too true: two ‘True Grits’ – one new to Blu

 

Hollywood has always loved remakes, whether routine genre and program pictures or well-loved classics. Most often the later versions are simply retreads trying to cash in on a proven property (like the “Halloween” and “Texas Chainsaw” remakes). Sometimes they’re simply updates designed for a modern audience (like the 1976 “King Kong” and 2007’s “I Am Legend”). Sometimes they’re reverent variations exploiting modern technology for more spectacular thrills while attempting to remain true to the spirit of the original (like the 2005 “King Kong”). Sometimes they’re complete re-imaginings presenting a different director’s spin and socio-political agenda on familiar material (like the “Batman” films from 1964, 1989, and 2005). Sometimes they’re a combination of two or more, perhaps all of the above (like the recent versions of “War of the Worlds” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”). Sometimes they actually get it right and it’s difficult to decide on a favorite version (like Howard Hawks’ re-titled and gender-switching 1940 remake of Lewis Milestone’s classic 1931 “The Front Page” or John Huston’s 1941 remake of the original 1931 “The Maltese Falcon”).

 

The Coen brothers’ 2010 remake of the classic 1969 “True Grit” is in this latter category, a worthy new screen version of the popular Charles Portis novel about a strong-willed 14-year-old girl who hires a crusty old alcoholic marshal to help her find and bring to justice the man who killed her father. Each of the two films has its own unique strengths, and each has some differences that may sway viewers to prefer one over the other, but both stand as fine examples of the classic movie western and coming-of-age story. Like most other Coen brothers films, their version of “True Grit” has a sometimes ominous underlying theme of relentless fate with a number of quirky, eccentric characters and moments of dark humor, all played out by a memorable cast. In the case of “True Grit,” however, the Coens’ script is quite faithful to the 1969 film and brings in a number of elements closer to the original novel, including its somewhat darker ending and different fates for certain characters. Roger Deakins’ moody cinematography and Carter Burwell’s understated, folk-hymn laden score reinforce the Coens’ approach.

 

The dialogue is often verbatim what was in the John Wayne version, whose script by Marguerite Roberts lifted most of its dialogue directly from the novel. The characters’ careful, elegant prose has an almost Dickensian 19th-century flavor unusual for any film, and may well be one of the elements that attracted the Coen brothers to the project in the first place. That dialogue helps define the relationship between Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn in the book and both films. It is just as expertly exchanged between Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as it was between John Wayne and Kim Darby. The acting is superb all around in the Coens’ film, with Bridges at least as good if not better than he was in “Crazy Heart,” fully able to make the iconic John Wayne role his own. Steinfeld is an amazing discovery, just as strong as Kim Darby was and actually 14 years old (looking closer to 12), whereas Darby was 21 playing 14 and looking more like 15 or 16. This difference permitted a certain sexual tension in the 1969 film that is not really explored in the 2010 version, partly due to Matt Damon’s interpretation of the Texas Ranger character Laboeuf. Damon is a drastic improvement over Glenn Campbell’s 1960s teen idol version, delivering what may be his best performance to date. He’s certainly better than his kooky turn in “The Informant!” or the overly-earnest Bourne performances.

 

The 2010 “True Grit” may be the Coen brothers’ most audience-friendly film to date, retaining their own quirky personality while simultaneously creating a respectful homage to the original family classic and an effective screen adaptation of the novel. Their film opened in theatres a few days before Christmas, and just the week before that, not coincidentally, Paramount released the 1969 version of “True Grit” to Blu-ray so audiences can easily compare both for themselves. Shot in 1968, “True Grit” was veteran director Henry Hathaway’s last major film. It was also the only film to win an Oscar for star John Wayne, playing a character created by the original novelist with Wayne in mind. This version is a beautifully mounted western, with gorgeous Colorado scenery expertly composed by cinematographer Lucien Ballard (the Coens shot in New Mexico and Texas, but the original story is set in Arkansas) and a lush old-fashioned score by Elmer Bernstein. It’s also packed with memorable character actors, including Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, Jeff Corey, and Hank Worden.

 

Released the same year as Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” Hathaway’s “True Grit” is very much a transitional film, one of the last old-style Hollywood westerns and at the same time exemplifying the new trend in westerns. Aging western legend John Wayne is in top form, yet the central character is an independent and indefatigable teenage girl, both of whom must deal with a hot-shot young ranger. We can see the film as a metaphor for the woman’s role in taming the lawless frontier as well as the changes going on in 1960s society, including modernization, women’s rights, civil rights, and generation gaps. It remains a good film, but although Glenn Campbell is adequate as Ranger LaBoeuf, he seems out of place among the much stronger rest of the cast. Also a number of interior scenes seem a bit overlit in the 1960s style, clashing with the more natural lighting in others and in most of the outdoor scenes (many more of which are in daylight than the remake’s frequent nighttime settings of the same scenes).

 

Paramount’s Blu-ray sports a fine high-definition transfer of the image, a pleasing 5.1 stereo remix of the soundtrack as well as the original mono, a very good audio commentary and four fairly interesting but brief and standard-definition featurettes. There’s also the original trailer in hi-def.

“TRUE GRIT” (1969) on Blu-ray –

            Movie: B+   /   Video: A   /   Audio: A-   /   Extras: B+

 

THE TRUMAN SHOW (June 9, 1998)

An interesting Carrey vehicle

The Truman Show is easily the most ambitious project undertaken by movie (and one-time TV) funnyman Jim Carrey. It is a fairly amusing and generally interesting "what if" parable, exploring the life of an average everyday guy who does not realize that since his birth he has been the star of a hit "reality TV" series, hidden cameras following and broadcasting his every move to over a billion viewers around the world. Television has been satirized before, of course, most notably in the movie Network, most notoriously in Beavis and Butthead, and most entertainingly in The Simpsons TV series. The concept of a character gradually becoming aware that things are not what he has always believed them to be has also been handled a number of times. It serves as a good hook to capture audience interest and is a good chance for the actor to demonstrate his ability. The Truman Show bears some strong resemblances to the old British TV series, The Prisoner. Recently the sci-fi thriller Dark City was based around a similar concept but after a half-hour or so turned into a bizarre story of aliens. About a decade ago Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo fantasized about a movie character who leaves the screen and enters the real world, with a wonderful performance by Jeff Daniels (who would have been great in The Truman Show). Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was another well-made variation on the theme using sophisticated androids who think they are human.

In The Truman Show the story is a more plausible fantasy, a tale of real people, with television technology and commercialism taken to their extremes without resorting to supernatural occurrences or deus ex machina intervention of alien beings. The deus ex machina in The Truman Show is the TV producer himself, his voice and will conveyed by existing technology into the controlled world he has created. Carrey has developed a following for his wacky and often incredibly wild performances in broad physical comedies like Ace Ventura, Dumb and Dumber, and The Mask. As he showed in parts of The Mask, Carrey is also capable of serious drama, but the question is whether his fans will accept him. His best film to date, the darkly satiric The Cable Guy, was largely rejected by the general public. In its first weekend the more subtly satiric but no less preachy The Truman Show was a huge hit. Time will tell if it can maintain its initial crowds. The story hinges on the audience’s suspension of disbelief that such a large and incredibly detailed environment could be created for a single individual who takes 30 years before he starts to suspect that things aren’t quite right -- that all his friends, acquaintances, and every person he has ever seen in his life is a paid actor, and his entire world is merely a television set kept operational by a team of hidden technicians. Perhaps there has been too much advance publicity to allow the audience enough surprises throughout the film. The Truman Show does not have any big laughs, nor is it designed to, but its parody of television’s excesses comes off more as a wry commentary than the incisive satire of, say, The Cable Guy. The problem with The Cable Guy was its overwrought and overlong conclusion. The Truman Show has a better resolution (if one can call it that) but still seems to be missing something. A secondary character, an actress on the fictional “Truman Show” who wants Truman to break free, might have been more fully developed. The impact of their life-long charade on the other actors could also have been explored more deeply. The film, directed by Australian Peter Weir, is still among Carrey’s best, however, and its final scene is all too true to life.

 

WILD THINGS (March 23, 1998)

I think you move me...
Campy sleaze with a twist, and then another...and another...and...

Trashy, melodramatic fun is perhaps the most apt description of the new crime thriller by director John McNaughton, Wild Things. It is reminiscent of those Panavision pop trash movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s right after the ratings system came into being, reveling in the sleaze possible with an "R" rating that supposedly kept children under 17 out of the theatre unless accompanied by an adult. Had Wild Things been released then, it could well have garnered an "X" rating, and hovers on the edge of NC-17 even now with its explicit menage-a-trois and full-frontal male nudity, not to mention the almost matter-of-fact high school student/teacher relationships. For all the teens flocking to see it with their forged IDs or by conning their parents into letting them go, the film will virtually serve as a sex manual, describing and depicting a variety of alternative possibilities.

The atmosphere of steamy sex and gratuitous profanity is merely a come-on, however, a tease to attract viewers to one of the most intricately-plotted scam stories in years. Anyone who has seen the theatrical prevue trailers already knows several of the unexpected plot twists, but there are several more to come after those it gives away. In fact viewers who leave when "The End" flashes on the screen will miss the actual ending of the movie, since several more scenes follow, interspersed during the credits, revealing some of the story’s secrets and yet another surprise plot twist.

The story has elements drawn from classic film noir, but Wild Things does not convey that generally dark and downbeat sense of doom. There are the obligatory small Florida coast town, the scheming females, the cop with a past, the laid-back and always-broke stud, and various unsavory super-rich southern folks. However, everything has more the bright, slick look of a nighttime TV soap opera. These characters, anti-heroes all, are ultimately more concerned with having a good time than merely trying to swindle specific people or get revenge (though they do plenty of that, too) while lying, cheating, and stealing their way to the top.

Denise Richards and Neve Campbell star as sultry high school seniors, students both of hunky guidance counselor and sailing instructor Matt Dillon. Kevin Bacon is a cop assigned to investigate allegations of Dillon’s sexual misconduct, but suspects there is more to the case than meets the eye. Theresa Russell is Richards’ promiscuous rich-bitch mother who had recently been (and may still be) involved with the upwardly mobile Dillon. Bill Murray, of all people, plays a cut-rate shyster lawyer. While trying to play it straight as much as possible, the whole cast appear to be enjoying their over-the-top histrionics, especially Murray.

Poor Denise Richards, a major star of both this film and Starship Troopers, did not get billing in the advertisments for either movie, though at least her pouting visage peers from the poster and she gets the last line of the preview trailer, "Can I play, too, or is it just for boys?" (That scene, it turns out, had just shown Dillon playfully putting a male sailing student helper in an elbow lock.) Her role here is a far cry from the gee-whiz all-American (all-Earthling, actually) she played in Starship Troopers, and it would not be surprising if she were to become the next Sharon Stone or Demi Moore as years go on and parts get better.

Mystery fans who enjoyed trying to figure out The Usual Suspects will have a field day with all the startling changes in direction the characters seem to take in Wild Things. A classic film it is not (unless, maybe a camp classic) but for this kind of thing it is well above average.

 

WOODSTOCK (August 31, 1999)

Rock concert documentary gets director's cut

I didn’t get around to seeing one of the new film releases over the weekend. The Sixth Sense is still the only movie drawing big crowds, and I already reviewed that one. I did, however, make it to see the restored director’s cut of Woodstock that showed at the Carmike 10 last Friday night. Only a modest crowd turned out for the four-hour (including intermission) documentary of the 1969 rock concert/massive camp-in event. This was the 25th anniversary edition of the picture, prepared and given a limited release five years ago.

The movie itself was interesting from several standpoints. Most obvious, of course, is the film as a record of the musical performances--a pleasing variety of folk, blues, classic rock, and hard rock. The audio recording was of a very high standard and the four-track Dolby Stereo presentation in the theatre showed just how good analog sound can be with the proper equipment. As well as demonstrating effective use of multi-image editing (a monumental effort with all the hours of footage that was shot), the picture was also a good example of how sharp 16mm film can be when blown up to 35mm. The wide theatrical screen sometimes contained the almost square original image in the middle, sometimes zoomed that image out to make it look wider and emphasize the size of the crowd (this is where the graininess of the 16mm picture was most evident), but most often held two or three simultaneous views of the action filmed from different angles. At other times one image would be in the center with a second view shown in mirror-images on each side, much as French filmmaker Able Gance did for portions of his 1927 epic Napoleon.

But besides the impressive technical and musical aspects, Woodstock is also a vivid document of a period and an attitude. It depicts a peaceful crowd of nearly half a million people gathered in one place, enjoying themselves, not getting into much in the way of trouble, and making a generally favorable impression on the local residents whose lives were disrupted for that weekend. It shows people coming together to make something happen, then adapting to the situation and not letting things get out of hand when it becomes much more than anyone bargained for or even dreamed of.

Woodstock is available on tape, [and as of June 2009, the 1994 director's cut is on both DVD and BluRay in a massive 40th anniversary collector's set] but it’s a film that calls out to be seen on as large a screen as possible with the sound turned up as loud as the system will bear. If it ever turns up in a theatre again, make a point to see it, despite its lengthy running time.

 

YOU'VE GOT MAIL (January 5, 1999)

Cyber Love

Well the holidays are over but the movies linger on. Sentimental audience manipulators Patch Adams and Step Mom are the top audience favorites but the romantic remake You’ve Got Mail also remains one of the box office leaders. It beat out the animated adventures The Prince of Egypt and A Bug’s Life in last weekends top five attractions. You’ve Got Mail is also sentimental, but the realistic quirks and paradoxes of its characters make its romance work as a very human drama. Combining current trends in both technology and the economy with traditional male/female character conflicts, director and co-writer Nora Ephron has updated the Jimmy Stewart classic The Shop Around the Corner, which was directed by the master of sophisticated comedy, Ernst Lubitsch.

Two lonely people fall in love without ever having met, via a mail correspondence (e-mail in this new version). When they unknowingly meet in real life, each quickly develops an extreme dislike for the other, all the while continuing their ideal relationship through their daily notes with someone who will sympathize and care about their problems. The charm of the original translates well to the modern world of internet anonymity and cutthroat corporate competition. You’ve Got Mail pits a small neighborhood bookstore against a giant discount bookseller who puts a chain store around the corner. This time the secret soulmates are business rivals instead of co-workers at the same store. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, who Ephron directed in Sleepless in Seattle, both convey an irresistible mix of enthusiasm, pigheadedness, sincerity, and vulnerability. The comic irony of each offering support to the other about their own actions and attitudes develops beautifully into a tender story of two unlikely partners learning to care by following their consciences.

Delightful and clever secondary characters are played vividly by Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear, Jean Stapleton, Heather Burns, and Dabney Coleman. Each of these is so distinct and/or energetic, that they all could have become the subjects of parallel plots of their own. Ephron resists the temptation, however, and keeps the focus on Ryan and Hanks, although the film still runs a full two hours. Not trying to impress audiences with spectacular scenes and effects, or dwell upon its inherent social significance, You’ve Got Mail is one of the best romance films of recent years. It should also inspire viewers to track down a copy of the original Shop Around the Corner.