2002 Film Reviews
by Dr. Bob Blackwood

Back to film year index page

These articles appeared in the various publications and are copyright, Bob Blackwood.

Hyperlink index:

Apollo 13: the IMAX Experience 

The Banger Sisters: Yesterday’s Fun with Today’s Message

“City of God”: Far from Holy but not far from Hollywood

“The Four Feathers”: It Might Be Your Cup of British Tea

“Knockaround Guys”: Off-Center

Wasabi: Dirty Harry as a French Cop in Tokyo

“Mad Love”—One Woman’s Obsession

“The Tuxedo”: SF Meets Physical Comedy


Link back to film year index page

“Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience”: Bigger Image, Better Sound

By Bob Blackwood

 As I was watching Ron Howard’s space thriller “Apollo 13” in Navy Pier’s IMAX Theater, I was wishing that every good film I saw were on the IMAX screen, instead of on a tiny screen in a screening room or at my local multiplex. The IMAX screen is 80 feet tall; its width eclipses my peripheral vision.  The sound at the IMAX is comparable to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  The sound at my local multiplex is comparable to the one-man band three feet behind me on the State Street el platform at 5:15 PM .

“Apollo 13” will only cost $9 for adults at Navy Pier.  The original 35mm frame was digitally blown up to 10 times its original size.  The sound track has been digitally remixed and pushed through a six-channel, 44-speaker sound system.   All that information is well and good, but is the film good enough to be worth the extra buck for admission?

“Apollo 13” did win the Oscars for editing and sound in 1996.  It was nominated for seven other Oscars, and it deserved them all.  

Howard’s true-life tale of the men of the Apollo 13 Mission, who almost did not make it back to earth, and of their concerned families shows our society at its best.  Tom Hanks as Commander Jim Lovell with Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as his endangered comrades showed both great stress and their efforts to repress showing that stress with only minimal use of their bodies.

If you are trapped in a bulky space suit with little space for any motion, you only have facial expression and the tone of your voice to make your statement.  No one gives an actor an Oscar for doing more with less, but this is a film where it could have been done.  And, action film fans, though there is no car chase, there is plenty of action.

When the Apollo 13 rocket lifts off the launching pad, the all-encompassing cinematography and a triumphant passage on the soundtrack make us both see and feel the power of the rocket engines.   The cinematography in space gives us the feeling of infinite darkness enlightened only by a few bright spots—from the slick surface of the white rocket to the pitted surface of our moon.

The tension developed between the astronauts in the damaged Apollo 13 module trying to return to earth vs. the engineers and NASA flight controllers on earth is a record high.  Ed Harris as the chief controller is in the center of the maelstrom, yet he manages to dominate it.  When others talk of a possible disaster for NASA, he says, “I believe it is going to be our finest hour.”  And he was right.

When Kathleen Quinlan as Marilyn Lovell has to explain to her very young son that not only will his father not bring him back a moon rock but also that dad is facing a danger that the boy had previously feared, we see a very good performance that could have been a very hackneyed one. 

In “Apollo 13,” Hanks plays all the roles that we expect of him.  As an eager competitor, he gladly puts him life on the line.  As a father, he reassures his son, and, as a husband, he woos his wife one more time.  As a leader, he calms his comrades and motivates their best efforts in a bad situation.  He is worth seeing again. 

Note: IMAX plans to digitalize more classic films in its format.   I would love to see a Western like “Unforgiven” with Clint Eastwood towering over the whole world.


“The Banger Sisters”: Yesterday’s Fun with Today’s Message

By Bob Blackwood

Who wouldn’t want to see a comedy with Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon?  Well, I suppose some people wouldn’t.

But after I saw “The First Wives Club,” I knew that Goldie still had it.  She makes you laugh, as she always did, but now you have to admire the way she only picks characters that have some depth to them. 

As far as Susan Sarandon is concerned, with the exceptions of “Bull Durham” and “Stepmom” and the eternal midnight movie, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” I associate her usually with more serious films—e.g. her Academy Award-winning role as a nun in “Dead Man Walking.”

In this film, both women play former groupies on the L.A. scene, called the Banger Sisters by appreciative rock stars from the 60’s and 70’s.  But it has been 20 years since they have seen each other.  Suzette (Goldie Hawn) is still tending bar at the Whisky a Go Go on Hollywood ’s Sunset Strip, until she is fired.  At a complete loss, she takes her battered car-truck on the road to Phoenix to visit her high school dropout groupie pal Vinny (Susan Sarandon), who has hit the big time via her marriage to a lawyer with political aspirations (Robin Thomas).

First-time director Bob Dolman wrote the script for this film and also has the talents of Geoffrey Rush, so successful and funny as the pianist in “Shine.” Rush’s Harry is a neurotic writer whom Suzette picks up to provide gas money and to keep her amused on the road to Phoenix .

Alas, while Harry is wrestling with his tortured personality, Suzette finds out that her old girlfriend has become a very proper matron with two spoiled children (Erika Christensen as the valedictorian on the loose and Eva Amurri as Ginger, the snot).  Vinny just tries to bribe Suzette to go away.

Suzette flees and lights Harry’s fire.  Harry’s problems are put on hiatus as he begins to live, live, live.  Suzette is not just a sex machine, however; she has had a lot of experience with difficult men.  And she is aware that she is mature now. 

 As she says of the tattooed musician that she scorns at the Whisky a Go Go, “I’ve been drinking rum and cokes since before he was born.”  I must say, though, only the occasional close-ups on her hands would make you believe her.

In record time, Suzette helps Vinny remember who she was.  Vinny begins to question why she has become so rigid, and her problem-filled, superficially perfect family helps her realize that she is not happy with what she has become. 

The valedictorian daughter finds she is not the perfect person she imagines herself to be. Suzette reminds her that she has to take care of herself.  Suzette confronts Ginger,too, for not being a mensch.

 Finally, after a trip down the road to self-realization, Vinny unloads on her husband.  Also, Harry starts really working on his personal problems.  And Vinny becomes vulnerable again.

The film works, perhaps because it has a running time of only 94 minutes.   I think it would have been a better film if Dolman had trimmed off most of the last 10 minutes.  The gags are played out by then.  It gets a little sentimental too.  The last 10 minutes just work out the plot details. But then when the director is also the writer, ruthless editing does not happen.

If you already liked the actors Hawn and Sarandon,  you’ll like this film.  If you don’t, you won’t.


“City of God”: Far from Holy but not far from Hollywood

By Bob Blackwood

 Fernando Meirelles’ “The City of God” is not set in the heaven that St. Augustine glimpsed. Rather, it’s a very poor neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a favela named City of God, a place often without electricity and running water where homeless rural people congregate.

 “The City of God” opens with a close-up of a knife blade screeching over a stone hone and shots of chickens being butchered.  It is a metaphor for the film’s naturalistic vision of ghetto life, sort of a “Boys in the Hood” without many cars and often without telephones.  This is a ghetto where drug dealers rule, but their gangsters, often pre-pubescent, usually never reach 21 years of age.  If other gangsters don’t kill them, the police, who are in the pay of at least one of the drug lords, will do the job.

The film is told in a series of vignettes, starting in the late 1960’s, with a title on-screen telling each character’s story.  We first see the story of The Tender Trio: Shaggy, Clipper and Goose.  They are just stickup artists and thieves in their early teens that are willing to use their guns instead of their heads.

 We soon see each of them die after making a big score at a motel.  The only survivors are two 8-year-old hangers-on, Li’l Dice and Benny.  

Although other stories are told, the main focus of the film is on Rocket (Sandro Cenoura), the brother of Goose, who turned his back on the wrong 8-year-old with a pistol.  Rocket’s ambition is to be a photographer.  When he gets a chance to acquire a camera, his pictures of Li’l Zé’s gang earn Rocket a front-page photo credit in a Rio newspaper. 

 Unfortunately, Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora) is the most ruthless killer in City of God.  He was renamed Li’l Zé by a Brazilian shaman, who promised to bring him power.  His old name was Li’l Dice; he was the child who had killed Rocket’s brother.  Rocket must walk through the favela with great care now.

 The film is told with a lot of quick cuts, some flashy editing, hand-held camera, the whole documentary feel.  And this tale, that we Americans might find so hard to take, should feel like a documentary, because it is a true story.  Videotapes of the gangsters talking, which were played over the closing credits, were delivered in the same words and in the same manner as in the filmed re-enactment.

The dialog is in Portuguese; the subtitles are quick and slangy, just like the patter of the favela.  The soundtrack features American soul, Brazilian samba and American pop tunes of the 60’s and 70’s.  Meirelles accomplishes a lot in a hurry, but, be advised, it sure is not a pretty picture.  Instead, “City of God” is like the favela itself, pulsing with life and bleeding from death. 

 So if you have not seen a Brazilian film since “Black Orpheus,” maybe it is time that you check out “City of God.” Its grim street scenes are not the stuff of a transformed Greek myth, but they have their own beauty and certainly a talented director’s vision.  “City of God” was very well received at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Visions Award at the recent Toronto International Films Festival.  


“The Four Feathers”: It Might Be Your Cup of British Tea

By Bob Blackwood

 I saw Zoltan Korda’s 1939 version of “The Four Feathers” when I was a little boy on my father’s black and white TV.  I liked the action scenes, but a lot of the film, in my boyish memory, consisted of a number of British actors keeping stiff upper lips while cutting dead the protagonist in social situations and spouting gibberish about the nobility of preserving the Empire and serving Her Majesty Queen Victoria.

Shekhar Kapur’s new version, however, keeps the Victorian rhetoric almost to a minimum, hypes the action, and builds a working dramatic tension among a group of attractive actors.  It is what one would expect from the director who gave us the exciting “ Elizabeth ” in 1998 and brought Cate Blanchett to the public’s eye.

 Heath Ledger plays a young lieutenant, Harry, in a British regiment.  You may remember him as Mel Gibson’s soldier son in “The Patriot” or as the peasant knight in last year’s “A Knight’s Tale.”  The handsome Harry’s regiment is about to ship out from England to face action against the Moslem adherents of the Mahdi in the Sudan . Remember “ Khartoum ” with Charlton Heston as General Gordon?  Same war.

 Unfortunately, Harry has just become engaged to a lovely young lady with a flirtatious demeanor, played by Kate Hudson, really famous for her performance as the rock groupie Penny Lane in “Almost Famous.”  I must say Hudson walks the fine line between flaunting her sexuality without losing her character’s Victorian propriety, no easy job for any actress. 

 Alas, Harry only joined the regiment to please his father, the general.  Now, he resigns, hoping to avoid the horror of war behind and to experience marital bliss.

Instead, he receives a packet with white feathers within it, the accusation of cowardice from some of his friends plus total rejection from his fiancée. 

 Now we might have thought that he would be so crushed by this accusation that he would be destroyed, but Kapur was clever enough to open the film with a visual metaphor of Harry’s friendship.  We saw Harry and his friends playing a brutal game of rugby football and playing it well, protecting each other and giving as good as they get to the opposition.  Yeah, team!

 Though his post-adolescent insecurities have lead to his rejection by friends, fiancée and his father, Harry sets out as a civilian to follow his friends to the Sudan and to do his best to protect them.  How a British officer who speaks no Arabic can survive in the desert disguised as an Arab is a wonder, isn’t it? 

 Luckily a very spiritual Sudanese warrior, played by Djimon  Hounsou, appears to save Harry’s life on the desert and to shepherd him through all the African sequences of the film.  When it gets really improbable, Djimon makes a religious utterance. 

 Now we saw Djimon do the same thing as an African warrior talking to Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” and, also, as Cinqué, sort of an African natural philosopher in “Amistad.” He does these roles well, but I hope he goes for a different role soon.

 I enjoyed the terrific action sequences.  In one of them, the Sudanese break a British square, a military formation employing volley fire that had worked so well at Waterloo as well as in other battles, similar to the one portrayed in “Zulu” with Michael Caine.  I remember a line from Kipling, the poet of British imperialism, about the warriors of the Sudan :

      “You’re a poor benighted heathen

       But a first class fighting man.”

 Thank heavens no English actor recited that line on- or off-camera.

 If you take the film lightly, you should have fun.


“Knockaround Guys”: Off-Center

By Bob Blackwood

Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s “Knockaround Guys” made this film from their script.  They gave Barry Pepper, who played Dean Stanton in “The Green Mile,” the lead as a wannabe Italian gangster from Brooklyn , Matty Demaret.  Matty has the misfortune of being the son of a well-known mob underboss, Benny “Chains” Demaret (Dennis Hopper).  We see him seeking and losing a chance at a straight job with a sports agent because of his father’s infamous reputation.  Total involvement with the mob seems to be his only course in life, unless he had the sense to move out of New York , but then we wouldn’t have this film.

The problem with Matty is not that he is too soft-hearted, though at age 12 he did not shoot the man who informed on his father, but that he is stupid.  He arranges for a cokehead pilot friend (Seth Green) to pick up a bag of money on the west coast and deliver it to New York .  The pilot dumps it in a Western airport out of sheer fear of the sight of the sheriff.

Did Matty ever think to accompany the pilot on this half-million dollar run to make sure that nothing went up his nose but air?  Apparently not, Matty was too busy bringing his father and his good old uncle (John Malkovich) sandwiches.

 So, a Montana sheriff (Tom Noonan) and his deputy are sitting on a half-million of hot cash and are quite rude to young Matty and his pals—the pilot, the tough guy (Vin Diesel) and the playboy (Andrew Davoli).  Uncle Teddy shows up, and, boy, does the body count start to rise!

 I can think of three reasons why you might want to go to this film.  If you go to every film about the Italian mob—as opposed to films on the mobs of other ethnic groups—I guess that you will go to this one.  I must warn you, however, that this is a far from an elevated view of the Italian mob.  It’s not the pristine fictional purity of Don Corleone in “The Godfather.”  It’s pretty much like the real thing.

 Secondly, you might want to see a film with Vin Diesel in a prominent role.  Rumor has it that this film sat on the shelf for a while waiting for something to happen.  Perhaps the big box-office figures for Diesel’s “XXX” is the reason.  Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of the studios?  Diesel has a limited role, as a sort of WCW Goldberg the wrestler lookalike, but he plays it well.

 Finally, you might be one of those people who go to every film in which John Malkovich appears.  If you saw him as the psychotic villain in “In the Line of Fire” with Clint Eastwood, you saw a marvelous performance, which outclassed Gary Oldman’s ranting whenever he plays those roles.  Since this is the town of Steppenwolf Theater , Malkovich’s alma mater, it would not be surprising to find a number of people who want to see this film for this reason. 

Also, you might consider, there is quite a cult around Malkovich.  How many other actors have a successful film in the archives with their name in the title—such as “Being John Malkovich”?

 Perhaps the last reason is the best reason to see this film, but I make one exception.  In one sequence in this film when Diesel addresses Pepper, his voice rings true, as true as Malkovich at his best, which is all the time.  It may be only one sequence, but it does bode well for Diesel’s distant future when playing a young street tough will not be possible.


                            Wasabi: Dirty Harry as a French Cop in Tokyo

By Bob Blackwood

 Gérard Krawczyk’s “Wasabi” is fun.  Jean Reno, the tall Frenchman with the prominent nose who played the hitman in Luc Besson’s “The Professional” and DeNiro’s French buddy in Frankenheimer’s “Ronin,” is back as a Parisian cop named Hubert, whose hit-the-bad-guys attitude and large revolver with a long barrel are very reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.  But this film is clearly played for laughs, not for bloodshed, though there is enough violence to keep the rowdy adolescent in us quite happy.

 After a number of outrageously violent incidents in Paris , Hubert’s boss urges him to leave town for a while.  As the death of his former girlfriend just occurred in Tokyo and her estate is paying for the flight, Hubert is leaving on a jet plane like that.   It should be noted that his relationship with his Japanese girlfriend still haunts him after 19 years.

 Of course, he has a little problem with an official at the Tokyo airport that leads to him making a call to his old commando buddy Momo (Michel Muller).  Momo, chuckling all the while at the prospects of certain mayhem in the near future and exerting diplomatic force, leads Hubert out of the airport. 

 In short order, Hubert learns that he has a 19-year-old daughter, Yumi (Ryoko Hirosue), who is a tantrum-throwing, prominently nosed (for a Japanese woman) brat with, nevertheless, a certain charm.  He determines that his girl friend was murdered and learns that she has left him $200 million.  Sooner than you can say multi-millionaire, he is dropping Yakuza heavies in black sunglasses and black suits all over a department store.  This dude really knows how to shop.

 After this event, he meets some of Yumi’s friends, faces down some teenage attitudes, eliminates more Yakuzas with some classy pistol-handling and, eventually, has a young girl in tears.  Needless to say, after polishing off untold bad guys and the inevitable face-off with the Yakuza boss (Yoshi Oida), he leaves town with everything in order.  He is quite the professional.

 So why should you leave your cable television or Blockbuster videos behind to see a film in French with a lot of Japanese dialog too and English subtitles?  Well, I guess part of the reason is that Luc Besson did the script.  The director, Krawczyk, was the second unit director of Besson’s “The Messenger.”  “Wasabi” moves through its improbable plot very quickly, giving you little time to point out the mounting improbabilities, something like Besson’s “The Fifth Element” with Bruce Willis.  It is a very cinematic film, one that owes a great deal to its editor too.

 In addition, Ryoko Hirosue is a joy to watch.  She positively sparkles as she prances about.  In one sequence, where she is giving a fashion show, I remember a similar perfect sequence with a 12-year-old Natalie Portman playing opposite Reno in “The Professional.”  Hirosue is a trip, and I don’t think you’ll be seeing her on Public Television as a British heiress with an Oxbridge accent in the near future.  She is another reason to take in the film.

 The last reason is Jean Reno.  Although the film is primarily a comedy, and not a dark one, his physical presence fills the screen, just like Eastwood and John Wayne always do.  No, Reno probably will never appear in a Western, except possibly as the usual French gambler from New Orleans .  But in his more serious films, such as “Ronin,” Reno shows that he has what it takes.  In this film, he shows that he can star in a comedy, or, if you prefer, a spoof.  

“Mad Love”—One Woman’s Obsession

by Bob Blackwood

Spanish director Vicente Aranda’s “Mad Love”(“Juana La Loca, 2001) is a beautiful film.   Pilar Lopez de Ayala, the sensual actress who plays Princess Juana, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain who by the end of the action ascends to her parents’ throne, is madly in love with her husband.  Daniele Liotti as Philip the Handsome, Archduke of Austria and Duke of Burgundy, is the lucky man.  On first meeting her, he lusts for her immediately.  A prompt romp in the sack ensues.  She soon returns his fervor with interest.  

Much of the credit for the film’s beauty must go to Paco Femenia, the cinematographer.  Unlike many Hollywood Technicolor historical dramas, there are no massive sets lit by huge banks of lights.  Instead, Femenia, perhaps at Aranda’s suggestion, works with the play of light and so many shadows, just as there are in medieval castles.  The light he uses is often as yellow as a beeswax candle.  The play of light and shadow on skin tones and luscious costumes of the Burgundian and Spanish courts of 1496 and the following years is a joy to my eyes.  The sound of the duplicitous courtiers who follow the fortunes of the couple and scheme to take advantage of them is another guilty pleasure for me.

 Being a womanizer, though not overtly cruel, Philip soon drives Juana to distraction.  She continues to pump out children with him; their son becomes Emperor Charles the First, the Hapsburg ruler of Spain and Germany .  Yet, Philip continues to find his pleasures where he may, in addition to tasting Juana’s favors too.

 Towards the end, Juana is about to lose her kingdom, if not her mind.  The tale has a twist at the end, but probably not the one you might imagine.  History is not neat, but it is very human.  And so are the two main characters of this film.

 The problems with this film are, first, there is an off-screen narrator that started to get on my nerves.  I prefer a discreet one-liner to give a date and place, if it is needed, as it is in this complex tale of court intrigue.  The other problem is that the pace is rather slow for many American audiences, but I must say I was riveted to the screen.   The subtitles seemed quite accurate to me with my limited knowledge of Spanish, though a native speaker of Spanish laughed a lot more than I did during the film.

Take in this film if you want to see a tale of a woman’s passion that, in my opinion, eclipses even Francois Truffaut’s superb “The Story of Adele H” (1975).


Jackie Chan in “The Tuxedo”: SF Meets Physical Comedy

By Bob Blackwood

 You can’t say anything bad about Jackie Chan.  You can criticize the formulaic structure of some of his Hong Kong action films.  You can deplore the limitation of his scripts, most of the dialog of his previous films and obvious blunders like the mountains in the distance in “Rumble in the Bronx .”

 In his latest film, “The Tuxedo,” Jackie joins Vin Diesel of “XXX” in doing a take-off on James Bond.  As Jimmy Tong, a mild-mannered former cabdriver and new chauffeur who just can’t deliver any good lines to the lovely lady he craves so deeply, he lacks the savoir faire of his Bond lookalike employer, Clark Devlin (Jason Isaacs).  But, amazingly, the bad guys temporarily disable his boss.  What good-hearted fellow puts on his employer’s tuxedo--despite his employer’s strictest command not to--and impersonates his employer in order to do battle with the bad guys?

 Golly gee, it’s not Batman.

 I must note, however, that the high-tech tuxedo does remind me of Batman’s utility belt.  “How many tools did Batman have in his belt?” we would ask each other after reading the comic book.  The answer always was, “As many as Batman wants.”

 Whenever Tong hits the drop down menu on the tuxedo’s watch, the suit itself guides your arms and legs to perform whatever function you want them to perform. You want anti-gravity, just look down on the list and select it. .  Like Fred Astaire in “Royal Wedding,” you too can dance on the ceiling. 

 Another time, when following the instructions of the lovely comedienne Jennifer Love Hewitt-- playing his employer’s new secret agent helper who doesn’t know that Tong is not Devlin--Jackie finds himself in a fight with a number of bad guys.  He just hits the “fighting” module, and, before you can say “Bruce Lee,” he is knocking them all over the set.

 His arms, hands and feet perform miracles.  Why this man looks like another Jackie Chan.  And he is a new man.  For one thing, the script is really funny.  And, as with Owen Wilson in “Shanghai Noon,” he has a good partner in Hewitt.  It really works.  I rarely have been to a film, since “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” where I heard so many children in the audience laughing so loudly.

You remember Jackie Chan’s physical comedy.  He can do with his body what any great comedian, such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold LloydXXX, did with their bodies.  He gets laughs.

 Obviously, some of the sequences in “The Tuxedo” are reminiscent of the floating through air fight moves in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The film benefits from some selective special effects.  But with the limber body of Jackie Chan, you are never sure if it is Jackie doing the stunt or a computer programmer moving those pixels around.  I suspect it is always a little of both.

 As Chan’s employer, XXX does a good impression of a James Bond with a touch of human warmth.  Diedrich Banning (Ritchie Coster), who plans to pollute the planet’s water supply and make his bottled water the only drinkable water on the planet, is another Bondian villain.  He even has a fiancée who wants secret agent Devlin/Tong in the sack..

 And James Brown makes a too brief appearance as himself.  He provides Chan with a chance at showing himself as the Emperor of Soul before an applauding audience.

 So if you are sitting at home in a funk and want to get out and get down, try “the Tuxedo.” It’ll make you wonder how such a great silent movie comedian, such as Jackie Chan, can do so well in the talkies.