Film Reviews - 2000
by Dr. Bob Blackwood
“Braveheart Redux” and AA Twice
Hamlet & Small Time Crooks
Pola X: Visual Poetry
Retro Fellini sans Mastroianni: 8 ½ Women
Steal This Paper But Read This Review
Unbreakable Is Solid and Heavy Too
Link back to film index page
British director Stephen Frears did "The Grifters" (1990) with John Cusack, Annette Bening and Angelica Huston, a wonderful study of con artists up against the hard edge of reality. His "The Van" (1996), set in Ireland, also brought out the real thing on the life and activities of an alcoholic Irish patriarch. Now, ten years later, we are viewing his "High Fidelity," a romantic comedy with the more than competent John Cusack and the attractive Iben Hiejle for the thirtysomethings with many references to contemporary music.
Cusack, as the owner of a record shop on Chicago's north side (oh yes, the novel was set in England), does a lot of direct address to the camera. Now, this worked well with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the "Road" pictures. It works pretty well with John Cusack as he tells us the story of the ups and down of his romantic encounters, except that it goes on a bit too much. He becomes less likeable as his character moans about the women who did not cater to his ego.
"High Fidelity" needed 15-20 minutes cut out of the middle; it runs 113 minutes. The audience was getting restive at mid-point; luckily the film has a few rousing scenes at the conclusion, thanks not only to Cusack and Hjejle but also to the clerks in the record store--Jack Black as an egotistical music lover and not a bad singer and Todd Louiso as the geek.
In addition, cameos by Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones,
Joan Cusack, and Tim Robbins keep things lively.
Roman Polanski's horror film, "The Ninth Gate" (1999), is a well made film, a puzzle within a puzzle. The last horror film of Polanski's which I remember was his version of "Macbeth" (1971). It is, in my perspective as a Shakespearean scholar as well as a film critic, the best film depiction of that tragedy. His previous horror film, "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967), was the best spoof of horror films I have ever seen (yes, I include "Scream").
Johnny Depp stars as a rare book buyer who is pursuing a volume from the Italian Renaissance which will open the gate to Satan and, allegedly, give him equality with the Prince of Darkness. Good luck in that one, humans; Satan is also the Prince of Attorneys.
Frank Langella is perfectly cast as the billionaire in search of the arcane volume. I really do appreciate film in which a source for money is established. Langella's mellifluent tones on the telephone are winners too. Emmanuelle Seigner as Depp's sometime companion is just perfect for the roll as is Lena Olin as a would be witch with an itch.
As always, Depp gives a good performance. No matter what the script, which is not always a winner, he does his best with it. He, though prettier, and Cusack are probably rivals for some roles at this point.
Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (1999) is pleasing its audiences. How a twenty-first century African American can be guided by the precepts of a medieval samurai is a bit hard to understand, but Forest Whitaker does his best. Even as he twirls his pistol barrel, he evokes the mood of Toshiro Mifune.
Jarmusch is an alternate film guru. His "Dead Man" (1995) was a tedious series of in-jokes with Johnny Depp, and his "Night on Earth" (1991) was a success. In "Ghost Dog," he employs written samurai precepts for life and death flashed on the screen to create a mood. Sometimes it works; at other times, Whitaker comes to the rescue.
Ah, Whitaker, how about another effort as a director as good as your "Waiting to Exhale" (1995)?
by Bob Blackwood
Edward Norton's "Keeping the Faith" made me laugh. The audience liked it too. The plot seems almost as old as "Abie's Irish Rose," the turn of the century hit play about a Jewish male and Irish female. Here, a luscious young Irish techno executive, played by Jenna Elfman, is desired by both of her childhood playmates--Ben Stiller as the rabbi who gets her and Edward Norton as the priest who does not.
"Keeping the Faith" could have been awkward, obvious, and tacky. Instead, its movements are sure, and the editing is crisp. Stiller's rabbi is besieged by eligible women, though none have both the charm and the intelligence of Elfman's non-Jewish character. Norton's priest is a serious character who is just overwhelmed with desire but somehow manages to keep his balance--except for a hilarious binge with Brian George as an Indian/Irish bartender with Jewish in-laws.
The supporting cast could not have been better--Anne Bancroft as Stiller's mother is credible and not sentimentalized nor stereotyped. Milos Forman, the great Czech director, beautifully plays an old priest who has gone through it all and kept his vocation. And Eli Wallach, as the aged rabbi who likes Stiller's innovations but diplomatically works to keep the congregation together, strikes you as the real thing.
This is Norton's first film as a director. You may have seen him as the young swine in "Primal Fear" (1996), the attorney in "People vs. Larry Flynt" (1996), the racist in "American History X" (1998) or in other recent films. His performances have been remarkable. His debut as a director is very successful.
Would that Chicagoan William Friedkin's "Rules of Engagement" had been half so successful. The cast of the court martial drama with Tommy Lee Jones as the Marine defense attorney, Samuel Jackson as the Marine colonel accused of slaughtering unarmed Yemeni civilians, Ben Kingsley as a weasel/ambassador and Anne Archer as his weasel/wife is excellent.
William Sokal as a crooked National Security Advisor and Guy Pearce as the Marine prosecutor (you may remember him as the young climber from "L.A. Confidential") are standout performances. So what is the problem with the film?
The problem is the screenplay by Stephen Gaghan and/or how the film was edited. There is no resolution; it just ends. If it were a three-act play, they would be re-writing the third act in Boston before it hits New York.
So many threads of the plot were not woven together, that I believe a lot of film was lost on the cutting room floor. The ending is just not believable, especially for courtroom dramas which have high standards of credibility.
I have rarely seen a film with such a fine cast
and a director, who has done so many fine films in the past--"The French
Connection" (1971), "The Exorcist" (1973), "To Live and Die in L.A." (1985)--which
ends with such a whimper rather than a bang. I think the story behind
why this film failed might be more interesting than what we saw on the
screen. If there is a young man at Northwestern University doing
a doctorate in film, here is a project.
by Bob Blackwood
Roland Emmerich’s “The Patriot” is an update of Gibson’s “Braveheart” (1995). It lacks the surprises of Gibson’s character in “Braveheart,” some of the twists of plot.
Gibson’s Benjamin Martin in “The Patriot” turns from leading a prosperous colonial lifestyle to revenging himself as a guerilla leader upon a Colonel Tavington (closely modeled after an actual Colonel Tarleton) in the Carolinas during the American Revolutionary War. While Gibson does well bringing life to the character, the character lacks some of the complexity of Robert Rodat’s lead character, played by Tom Hanks, in Rodat’s other war film, “Saving Private Ryan”(1998).
“The Patriot” is an old-fashioned story well told with excellent cinematography. As usual, I do wish it were shorter, especially as the characters were rather thin.
Isaac Eaton, the director of “Shadow Hours,” is, I believe, a first-time film director. His tale of a young former drug addict played by Balthazar Getty, you may remember him from David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” (1997), who is tempted by a rich man played by Peter Weller was engrossing.
“Shadow Hours” is a bit reminiscent of Taylor Hackford’s “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997) in concept, though Weller’s character is not necessarily supernatural in origin. What the film succeeds in doing is showing the underside of Los Angeles’ drug and sadomasochistic scene and playing that off against the pregnant wife of the young man, played strongly by Rebecca Gayheart.
The film is tightly edited. The choices made between an affluent amoral lifestyle vs. the commitment to family and to work (represented capably by Brad Dourif as the manager of an all-night gas station) are clear. This film is an exceptional first film.
A Twelve Step program is featured in “Shadow Hours” as it is in Alison Maclean’s “Jesus’ Son.” “Jesus’ Son” should remind us that all of the unfortunates in Christian villages around the Mediterranean are often called “Jesus’ Children.” Billy Crudup, the lead character, however, is simply called “f...head.” In a life of petty crime and drug use, there just ain’t no respect for you unless you are top dog.
The only thing Crudup’s FH had going for him was a relationship with an attractive drug-user played by Samantha Morton. That goes the way of all flesh, and FH has to find a way to cope with reality as he grows older.
The first two-thirds of the film is a bit hard to take with often predictable tales of the slow-witted drifter, which were brightened up occasionally by characters played by Denis Leary and Jack Black, the heavy clerk in Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity”. Maclean did direct the TV show “Sex and the City” in 1998, and FH has a certain bad little-boy charm. But when FH comes around to redemption, courtesy of AA and a number of helpful people, the film’s end helps you forget its beginning.
Cameo appearances by Dennis Hopper, as a burnt-out druggie with a grasp of reality, and Holly Hunter, as a woman whose previous husbands had a history of disaster, were exceptionally fine.
Hamlet and Small Time Crooks
by Bob Blackwood
Michael Almereyda’s “Hamlet” (2000) sets Shakespeare’s play in a contemporary New York corporate setting. Helmut Kautner’s “The Rest Is Silence” (1959) set it in a post-WW II German corporate setting. Ethan Hawke gets to use Shakespeare’s language in the standard Midwestern American dialect while Hardy Kruger had to use German, but both actors delivered their lines well. Both settings can work.
While the American actors toss away some lines, they do make some lines come across quite meaningfully. Hawke, Kyle McLachlan (Claudius), Diane Venora (Gertrude), Sam Shepard (Ghost) and Bill Murray, who plays Polonius for laughs, do well.
Some parts of this very long play had to be shortened. Julia Stiles as Ophelia, for example, did quite well with what she had. She certainly was young enough to lose it all for love.
And Hawke, at age 29 playing Hamlet as a college student in his early 20's, was well cast. If he were middle-aged, as most Hamlets are on film, it would not work in Almereyda’s very filmic mise-en-scene. Indeed, Mel Gibson’s actively physical performance in Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet” (1990), in contrast to the talky Hamlets of the past, was one of the best parts of the film.
Occasionally, however, the New York setting was a bit jarring. Specifically, I thought having the “To be or not to be” soliloquy with Blockbuster video logos in the background (yes, I saw the “Action” category signs too) was a bad choice. A background of a meat counter in a late night supermarket or even Hamlet driving through the nightmare streets of New York after dark, a la Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) or “Bringing Out the Dead” (1999), would have been better.
All in all, I think this film was an interesting two- hour version of the classic drama which, no doubt, will soon be screened in high schools throughout the land. As a teacher of literature, I only wish more high school students were really writing about the play. Most just see it on a big monitor in the front of a classroom and say, “Gee, he’s (she’s) cute” before they take the multiple-choice quiz.
Woody Allen’s “Small Time Crooks” was funny. Instead of a burnt-out Manhattan intellectual, Allen’s character is an ex-con who is unsuccessful in everything except his choice of a wife, played by Tracey Ullman in her best film role.
This film is played for laughs, but, in a sense, so are all of Allen’s films. Some just get louder laughs, like this one does, than others do. Allen shows just how inept a thief can be while Ullman shows just how clever a woman can be once she has found the right business.
As the couple rises in the world, a temptation enters in the form of Hugh Grant to overcome Ullman’s character. In turn, a ditzy character played by Elaine May offer’s Allen’s ex-con a bit of solace. Meanwhile, the audience chuckles, especially during a painful dinner party as well as a burlesque burglary sequence.
Gregory Hoblit’s “Frequency,” you may remember his “Primal Fear” (1996), deserves a mixed review. Roughly his first 45 minutes sketch a father (Dennis Quaid) and son (James Caviezel) reunion through a sort of science fiction device. It works. The acting is subtle, and the empathy which the audience feels is deserved.
Then, the film degenerates into a run-of-the-mill
serial killer flick with science fiction riffs. It is clever, but
the killings are purely a necessity of the plot. I think Hoblit should
have stayed with the father and son and left the murders to Brian DePalma.
By Bob Blackwood
Leos Carax’s “Pola X” is never going to be a big crowd-pleaser. There will never be a “Pola X 2.” This French film will never be re-made by an American production company with Johnny Depp in the lead role, though it is based on an American source, Herman Melville’s novel “Pierre, Or the Ambiguities.” “Pola X” is a poem as much as a film.
The “Pola” is an acronym of the novel’s French title; the “X” allegedly stands for Carax’s tenth script. The plot focuses upon Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu, the son of the French film star) a wealthy young man and a successful novelist with a lovely mother (Catherine Deneuve). Mother seems to be a bit too close to Pierre at their Normandy chateau though, but his adoring fiancée (Delphine Chuillot) certainly gives him plenty of affection too.
The lush shots of the countryside, the chateau and a golf course conflict with the gritty reality of the shots of a homeless woman who is stalking Pierre, Isabelle (played by Russian actor Katerina Golubeva). Isabelle turns out to be Pierre’s hidden-away half-sister, the Eastern European child of his dead father, a famous diplomat.
“Pola X” opens with footage of German Stukas and American heavy bombers unloading on graveyards. There is so much hidden in this affluent society, so many secrets that the graves hold. When the secret of his sister is revealed to Pierre, he bonds with her instantly.
Pierre leaves his arrogant playmates. He moves with his half-sister and her friend into a cult that is living within what looks to be an abandoned power station containing an avant garde musicians’ hangout in Paris. His fiancée, mad with love for him, eventually joins Pierre, though by now Pierre has a very close relationship with Isabelle, heightened by a very erotic lovemaking sequence.
I will not give the ending away, but its fast pace moves in contrast to 90 percent of the film. “Pola X” has the deliberate Asian pacing of Satyajit Ray’s “Devi” (1960) and Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (1952), not like something from the New Wave such as Godard’s “Breathless” (1959). The director seems in no hurry to tell his story.
Also, there is very little dialog. Like most of Bergman’s early work, it gives you images to work with. You have to look at this film’s images to figure out the background for Pierre’s motivation, which still is somewhat ambiguous, alas. No character is there to verbalize what is happening, to interpret what you should think.
If you like this kind of visual challenge, take 134 minutes and give it a try. If you want an action film or fast-paced comedy, go elsewhere. There are plenty of them at the multiplex theaters, and some of them are worth seeing.
Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” is one of them, a semi-autobiographical comedy by Crowe based on his life as a teen-aged rock critic writing for “Rolling Stone.”
Crowe’s lead actor, young Patrick Fugit, hooks up with a mid-level rock group on the rise, leaving college professor mom (wonderfully articulated by Frances McDormand) behind and growing up fast on the road with the band.
A groupie named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and Lester Bangs, the editor of “Creem” (played just right by Philip Seymour Hoffman) clue the young writer into the rock scene. As the band travels through the highways and psychedelia of 70’s America, the rivalry between the guitar god (Billy Crudup) and the lead singer (Jason Lee) grows. The groupies are dumped, almost, though the audience will remember Hudson and Fairuza Balk’s performances, and the boy grows into both a man and a writer.
And it’s fun too. If you have not been there, you will still enjoy the ride. It is not a parody of rock musicians or a satire, but it sure has some representative types and shows their vulnerabilities too.
By Bob Blackwood
Peter Greenaway’s “8 ½ Women” is billed as an “homage” to Federico Fellini’s “8 ½”(1963). Instead of Mastroianni, they have two English actors as rich English father (John Standing) and playboy English son (Matthew Delamere). They set up a sort of private bordello on their Geneva estate. Two Englishmen in Switzerland try to bring alive a magical sexual fantasy--fat chance.
The women, of course, with Polly Walker, Vivian Wu (the second wife in Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” (1987), Amanda Plummer and others have a few good sequences and give the men exactly what they don’t want. The problem is that the film tries comedy, farce, a serious updating of concepts from Fellini/Pasolini/Bergman and a talky script with two English actors trying to pull something together.
The best thing in the film is Sacha Vierny’s cinematography. Vierny--who did Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) and his “La Guerre Est Finie” (1966), Greenaway’s “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” (1989) and Luis Bunuel’s “Belle De Jour” (1967) and other fine films-—makes the film visually interesting. With this film, go for the style, not for the content.
Dominic Sena’s “Gone in 60 Seconds” features Nicolas Cage as the head of a crew of car thieves in a hurry to steal 50 expensive cars and to save his brother from a limey gang boss (in California?). Angelina Jolie, she of the too-too juicy lips from Mangold’s “Girl, Interrupted” (1999), is there for casual sex. Robert Duvall is there for a check.
Well, lots of cars explode or crash. Lots of people in cars chase each other down the street. And not enough details on stealing cars are given to satisfy my prurient interest in car theft. Keep in mind, I would have been happy with even more details on casino skimming in Scorsese’s “Casino” (1995).
Sena, whose only previous major directing effort was “Kalifornia” (1993), aimed this one at the teenagers and hit the target. If only Batman had been there.
Tom Dey’s “Shanghai Noon” has Jackie Chan in the Old West rescuing a Chinese princess from kidnappers. His sidekick, played by Owen Wilson, reminds you of sort of a New Age dude caught in a time warp with a Chinese dude. They are both very funny. This film proves again that if you give Chan a good script, he can give you a good performance. His acting is improving. His ballet/martial arts performances are still quick. Chan fans and folks who appreciate physical comedy will like this film.
Wilson, who has made appearances in Rudolph’s “Breakfast of Champions” (1999) and de Bont’s disappointing version of “The Haunting” (1999), has made a break-through in this film. Let us hope that he gets some more good material his next time out of the gate.
By Bob Blackwood
Robert Greenwald’s “Steal This Movie” details the life of Abbie Hoffman, the Sixties’ political activist, who was the leader of the anti-war Yippies (Youth International Party) and a defendant in the Chicago Seven trial.
As a movie reviewer for a Chicago underground newspaper, “The Seed,” I tracked Hoffman, Rubin, Hayden and others. Even though he seemed like the least serious of the “Movement” leaders, Hoffman came up with the most creative images to get his point across to the public through the mass media.
Hoffman started out as an activist helping African American folks register to vote in the South; he ended his life trying to preserve the ecological system of the St. Lawrence River. Along the way, he gained the enmity of President Richard Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover who unleashed the illegal COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) to punish leftists and African Americans who had the gall to get some national media attention without buying it with money from major corporations. Sometimes you can measure the man by his enemies.
“Steal This Movie” shows how Hoffman’s mental anguish grew as he was forced underground by a hostile government, and it shows this progression through the mouths of Hoffman’s wife, companion, mother and his attorney.
Vincent D’Onofrio gives a well-rounded performance as a man trying to do the right thing as he sees it. In the film, we see Hoffman getting a few attractive women as he was doing it too, specifically Janeane Garofalo as his wife and Jeanne Tripplehorn as his companion during his five-year underground flight from prosecution. Both women actors somehow make it credible that they could live with an intolerable situation indefinitely.
“Steal This Movie” is really a very serious film, but it certainly has its humorous moments. When Hoffman dropped dollar bills on the floor of New York’s Stock Exchange and halted trading for a time and when he ran a pig for president, for example, he created funny concepts. I wish they had been emphasized a bit more.
The editing of clips showing Hoffman’s attempted levitation of the Pentagon with 200,000 helpers as well as shots of Grant Park and violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention were mixed in with contemporary music in some vivid editing.
It was good to hear County Joe MacDonald and the Fish again sing:
“Come on all of you big strong men/
Uncle Sam needs your help again/
he’s got himself in a terrible jam/
way down yonder in Vietnam.”
There was much more fact than fiction in this biopic, though Hoffman’s abrasive qualities were not stressed. And, D’Onofrio was certainly a much better-looking fellow than Hoffman. But, hey, in this film, Hoffman is the good guy, a troubled man, but at least an anti-hero and maybe a little better than that.
John Waters’ “Cecil B. Demented” is his parody of both the new low-budget underground cinema and action films: See the fireball! See the car chase! See the shootout! Stephen Dorff plays an underground director, who apparently has not been to the Sundance Festival. He fuses film with life, kidnaps a Hollywood star (very well played by Melanie Griffith) and proceeds to shoot his movie while shooting at the police, at the prudes, at the Hollywood stiffs.
Waters stated, “I thought it would be a very ripe idea for comedy, to have moviegoing be almost political. So I took the idea of a real cult filmmaker and put it together with the Yippie politics of my youth.” Well, Abbie Hoffman still lives on.
Is the movie funny? Yes. Has Waters done better? Well, I preferred the believable characterizations of the young photographer and his girl friend in Waters’ “Pecker” (1998). The humor seemed more natural in “Pecker,” but, after all, “Cecil B. Demented” is a parody of various Hollywood concepts. It has to be more and bigger.
Looking for a film to give you a few laughs during
your too brief vacation? Try Clint Eastwood’s “Space Cowboys.”
It is not a product of ageism as “Grumpy Old Men in Outer Space” would
be, and it will make you laugh.
by Bob Blackwood
Well, Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” slowly crafts each of its two main characters—-Bruce Willis as David Dunne, the sole survivor of a great trainwreck, and Samual L. Jackson, the comic book art dealer who has a serious disease which causes him to frequently break his bones. The emphasis is on “slowly.”
Understand, I do not object to a film with a slow pace, nor to a leading character, such as Willis’ David Dunne, who is very low key. If I did, I never could have praised Leos Carax’ “Pola X” in these pages as I have done. On the other hand, the glacial movement of a plot that seemed to take forever to get anywhere, despite its occasional fast-paced action sequence and its surprise ending, just drove me to distraction.
Who should I blame for what I perceive to be a flaw? Do I blame Dylan Tichenor, the editor of “Unbreakable”? Or do I blame the director, Shyamalan? After all, if I thought the film were a success, I would probably give Shyamalan the credit. Well, a little research revealed that Andrew Mondshein edited Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” (1999). There was no problem with the pace there.
After due consideration and the probability that since “Unbreakable” was Shyamalan’s script and he also probably had free rein since he had just made a blockbuster, I say nuts to Shyamalan and to “Unbreakable.” Yes, Shyamalan can create a mood. Yes, he can get us to care for his characters to a certain degree. But any director who forces me to pace around a theater lobby until his character hits a high point is pushing his luck and wasting my time.
George Tillman Jr’s “Men of Honor” was a star vehicle for Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr. Gooding plays Carl Brashear, a Kentucky sharecropper’s son who was the first African American to make it through the U.S. Navy’s Diving School. De Niro’s is his redneck chief, Billy Sunday, who rides Gooding all the way through the brutal training experience.
It is almost an exact replay of the characters from Taylor Hackford’s “An Officer and A Gentleman” (1982) with Louis Gossett, Jr., as the chief, and Richard Gere as the pilot, but Tillman throws in a racial switch. Gooding, unfortunately, has to play a sort of Jackie Robinson good guy. I found his lack of imperfection a bit hard to believe, but, for all I know, that is exactly Mr. Brashear’s personality.
At the conclusion of diver training, however, De Niro’s redneck chief stands up to the racist camp commander of the school, underplayed beautifully by Hal Holbrook. The other convenient villain, played by David Keith as a proto-Yuppie who dislikes anyone without an Annapolis ring, is too pat in his smugness to be believed.
Well, it moves. The diving sequences are well done. The women’s roles, however, are not developed—-too bad for Aunjanue Ellis, who shows promise as Brashear’s wife, and Charlize Theron, who gets just a bit more to do as Sunday’s wife. There might have been more characterization for the women in the original script, but, if there was more meat there, it never made it into the final print.
Does it move? Yes. Is it new and different? No. Should I go to see it? Well, if you want to see a well-made remake of a service drama that is familiar to you, go right ahead. At least I did not wind up pacing in the theater lobby waiting for something to happen.
By the way, a new print of Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” (France, 1955) is scheduled to open for one week on December 1 at the Music Box Theater. It pretty much created the format for the “Bit Heist” film; a good recent example of that is Frankenheimer’s “Ronin” (1998). You might have received a humorous Technicolor taste, only vaguely similar to “Rififi,” in Dassin’s “Topkapi” (1964). “Rififi” probably was the only French “film noir” shot with a big budget at that time. Dassin was unable to make Hollywood films in the Fifties because of the political situation in the U.S.