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THE DYING GAUL
10.30.05 (3:15 pm)   [edit]
THE DYING GAUL
Starring: Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson, and Peter Sarsgaard
Written and directed by Craig Lucas

reviewed by GABRIEL SHANKS


Craig Lucas, the award-winning playwright and director of Longtime Companion, The Secret Lives of Dentists and The Light in the Piazza, has crafted a sensational directing debut in THE DYING GAUL, a story about a peculiar love triangle of sorts that slowly and tragically becomes a circular firing squad. Adapted from his own play, Lucas' intimate drama comes across as a mannered exercise in restraint -- until the e-mails literally start flying through the air. Set against the convolutions of Hollywood at its most Babylonian, THE DYING GAUL follows Jeffrey, a studio executive (Cambell Scott) and his gorgeous if disaffected wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson). Jeffrey, a closet bisexual, has just cozied up to Robert (Peter Sarsgaard), a novice screenwriter whose HIV-positive lover has recently died. The trio become fast friends, but as the transparent lies begin to bleed real blood, the alliances take a wholly unexpected and eviscerating turn. Rarely has a film exposed the tender and brutal line between love and cruelty so magnificently...certainly more than last year's similarly-minded Closer, and perhaps not since Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris.

Lucas' masterful screenplay and measured direction are complemented by an impeccable production design by Vincent Jefferds; the sprawling luxury of the Hollywood Hills contrasts sharply with the starving artist studio, and makes THE DYING GAUL as much a study of class warfare as one of romantic fidelity. The performances are uniformly superb. Campbell Scott gives Jeffrey the stiff, assured swagger that comes with power...and then allows it to dissolve into a puddle of self-doubt and confusion. Peter Sarsgaard, who is quickly joining Philip Seymour Hoffman as the finest actor of his generation, is even better than Scott; his woeful indecision and limitless grief are rendered with tenderness and compassion. It is Patricia Clarkson, however, who emerges as the stunning lifeforce of THE DYING GAUL; her fans will be happy to know that the trememndous work she has delivered time and time again, in films like Far From Heaven, The Station Agent and High Art, is surpassed here in a career-topping performance. If there is a God, and if that God likes textured and unclassifable roles like that of Elaine, Clarkson will win her long overdue Oscar.

The statue which gives THE DYING GAUL its name is a famous Roman work from the 4th century BC, and the film shares its sense of classicism and emotionality. Lucas has made the most intense romantic thriller in years, wrapped in a cool veneer that disguises the little earthquakes waiting below its surface. THE DYING GAUL is mesmerizing, fiercely original, and tantalizingly entertaining, but be forewarned...its dark heart beats without compromise or, even in the end, compassion.

 
PARADISE NOW
10.30.05 (3:14 pm)   [edit]
PARADISE NOW
Starring: Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal, Amer Hlehel and Hiam Abbass
Written by Hany Abu-Assad, Bero Beyer and Pierre Hodgson
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad

reviewed by GABRIEL SHANKS


A polemic disguised as a premise -- two Palestinian youths on a suicide bombing mission in Tel Aviv -- is the studio sales pitch for PARADISE NOW, a new entry in the Foreign Film race for the Academy Awards. To market Hany Abu-Assad's thoughtful and challenging film merely as a terrorist parable, however, does it a great disservice. The film, which follows two struggling auto mechanics, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), as they are enlisted in a retaliatory strike against Israel is about much more than this simple, terrible act. Family, romantic attachments, and even religious piety do not merely stop at the thought of virgins in heaven and the need for Palestinian autonomy. What PARADISE NOW unflinchingly tells us is that people, even terrorists, are driven by internal and external forces, by history, by fate, by chance, by mistakes, and by legacy. How will we be remembered? What will we be remembered for? How do we right the wrongs of our forefathers? PARADISE NOW is essential cinema not because it finds answers about the terrorist ideology, but because it discovers its questions are disturbingly similar to our own.

It should be noted that PARADISE NOW does not excuse terrorist acts, or even ask for much understanding of the terrorist mindset. The horror of the act is palpable. However, terror itself is also not what interests the filmmakers entirely; while you may think you know how the film turns out, one should know that there's a serious left turn in its second act that propels the film into unanticipated new territory. Nashef's steely-eyed performance, in particular, roots PARADISE NOW in this new chaotic tension, unsure of how the next step will turn out. (His performance, which never seeks apology or explanation, is one of the major debuts of the year.) Metaphorically, the unexpected moments make the film come alive...in a land where a "rocket might drop on us at any moment", the idea that life can be planned and measured is futile. "Better to live in heaven than in this hell," Khaled remarks. It is that sense of deliverance, the need for paradise now, right now, that drives desperate men to desperate action. A dream, to paraphrase another leader of political issurection, cannot be deferred...even if that dream is twisted in upon itself, a shattered fragment of the peace one theoretically desires.

 
MYSTERIOUS SKIN
10.30.05 (3:11 pm)   [edit]
MYSTERIOUS SKIN
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg, Elisabeth Shue, and Bill Sage
Written and directed by Gregg Araki

reviewed by GABRIEL SHANKS


Arguably the best American film of 2005, Gregg Araki's eloquent nostalgia trip MYSTERIOUS SKIN has recently been released on DVD, and it deserves a second look -- or at the very least, much more attention that it received during its late-spring theatrical release. A raw and unadorned look at child abuse and its idiosyncratic repercussions on two young boys molested by their baseball coach, the film has a poetic lyricism that keeps it free of didacticism. Araki has long been a chronicler of broken youth, but his films have always suffered from a candy-coated garishness that undercut its intensity. SKIN, however, switches the style/substance ratio, and ends up unquestionably Araki’s most mature and textured film to date.

With a laser-beam commitment to focus and narrative, the film plays out in both flashback and modern-day, following the sexed-up hustler Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the cowed loner Brian (Brady Corbet) as they try, separately and as an unlikely team, to piece together their experiences at the hands of Coach (Bill Sage). Like Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned To Drive, MYSTERIOUS SKIN offers up a complex sense of adolscent sexuality, dropping the moral absolutism in favor of a more damaging portrait of abuse...one that has no easy answers or conclusions. Gordon-Levitt’s performance is jaw-droppingly intense and award-worthy in scope, while Corbert's less-showy work can only be described as heartbreaking. Living inside one's own skin is often mysterious; in the hands of a master like Araki, it’s also a spectacular, terrible, and unrelenting journey.

 
THE HOLE
10.30.05 (3:10 pm)   [edit]
THE HOLE
Starring: Tag Eriksson, Jason Adonis, and Josh Hammer
Written and directed by Wash West

reviewed by GABRIEL SHANKS


Wash West, director of the moderately salacious 2001 arthouse hit The Fluffer, has sacrificed any credibility he may have had to make THE HOLE, an thoroughly unfunny satirical riff on the horror franchise The Ring. Shot on video, poorly lit, and terribly written, West furthers his fascination with gay porn by hiring gay porn actors to play the roles, including Tag Eriksson, Jason Adonis, and Josh Hammer. They are as terrible as you can imagine. Unsurprisingly, this premise -- a mystical videotape turns hot, already-effeminate boys gay after seven days -- allows for a bunch of silly soft-core sex of the Cinemax variety. But THE HOLE is never interesting, even when cute boys are engaging in their by-the-numbers intercourse. Maybe director West thinks it's a laugh riot. (It's not.) Maybe he thinks it's hot. (It's not.) Maybe...oh, who cares. The only question, ultimately is: why Wash, why?

 
GIDYUP!: ON THE RODEO CIRCUIT
10.30.05 (2:54 pm)   [edit]
GIDYUP!: ON THE RODEO CIRCUIT
Starring: Wayne Jakino, Chuck Browning, Elodie Ann Huttner, Rob Drake, Belinda Ann Gavin, and Todd Tee Tramp
Written and directed by Mitchell Horn

reviewed by GABRIEL SHANKS


Mitchell Horn's endlessly entertaining documentary GIDYUP!: ON THE RODEO CIRCUIT is not just for fans of cowboys and horses. At its core, its subjects -- the men and women who compete on the International Gay Rodeo Circuit -- make for a warmhearted tearjerker about the difficulties of gay and lesbian life outside the queer mainstream. The iconography of Cowboy Life rears its head during the competition sequences (featuring events familiar and unfamiliar, like putting underwear on steers), but the rich personalities revealed outside of the rodeo ring give the film its more enticing moments.

Witness Chuck Browning, a rodeo champion dealing with a trifecta of issues: his farm-hewn masculinity, his HIV-positive status, and his burgeoning relationship with a city boy. (This reviewer immediately flashed on a gay-themed Green Acres, but with more depth.) Belinda, a porn actress, finds a personal exhiliration in the sport, while Rob, a construction worker with a promising rodeo career, finds himself imprisoned in self-hatred over his sexuality. (A particularly painful scene erupts when Rob confronts his mother...who ends up being more tolerant of homosexuality that Rob is himself.)

But the true star of GIDYUP!, if there is one, is Elodie, a lovely nurse whose inability to complete a ride comes with a never-say-die disposition as sunny and summery as one can imagine. When she falls off her mount (and she falls off a lot), your heart leaps into your throat. Her story, which includes battles both emotional and physical, is as touching and inspiring as documentaries get. GIDYUP! may softball issues of animal cruelty and gay individuality, but its entertainment value is unquestionable. If you're not moved by the end, I'll eat my ten-gallon Stetson.

 
TRANSAMERICA and BREAKFAST ON PLUTO
10.30.05 (4:18 am)   [edit]
TRANSAMERICA
Starring: Felicty Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Graham Greene, and Fionnula Flanagan
Written and directed by Duncan Tucker

BREAKFAST ON PLUTO
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Bryan Ferry, Gavin Friday, and Stephen Rea
Written and directed by Neil Jordan

reviewed by GABRIEL SHANKS


The 2005 Oscar season is featuring two contestants in the Gender Sweepstakes, Duncan Tucker's debut film TRANSAMERICA and Neil Jordan's whimsical BREAKFAST ON PLUTO. While that may not sound like much of a race, it's one that often has a big payoff at the finish line, as Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry) or William Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman) will tell you. Drag queens, transvestites, transgendered folk...if you hit it out of the park, you can often pass GO and go directly to the Kodak Theatre on Oscar night.

TRANSAMERICA arrives in theatres this month with buzz and momentum from a year of festival accolades. Led by recent Emmy winner Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives), the film has been the subject of chattering praise since last spring's Tribeca Film Festival. It is also one of the first offerings from former Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein's new company (imaginatively called The Weinstein Company), which can't hurt the film's chances -- in the last two decades, Harvey has won more Oscars than he's lost.

The film itself is a surprise, in that it isn't very surprising at all -- a sweet, conventional road movie featuring an estranged son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), and the father he never knew...who, not incidentally, is now a woman named Bree (Huffman). With transsexuality as the zesty twist on an old Hollywood formula, there's something cozy and warm about TRANSAMERICA; once audiences adjust to the distractingly lowered voice of Huffman and her studiedly fussy hand gestures, they may wonder what it is, exactly, that is supposed to interest them beyond the spectacle of a woman playing a man playing a woman. The answer is, sadly, not much. Issues of gender differrence are employed only to reinforce less original dilemmas -- family dysfunction, dating woes (with Bree's charming leading man, Graham Greene), and meeting the grandparents. As Bree and Toby inexorably work their way toward reestablishing a loving familial bond, the story loses any vestige of originality its premise may have had. One is left with little besides Huffman's overstylized performance, Zegers' smoky eyes, and the grandmother, Fionnula Flanagan (The Others), in a performance that borders on the hysterical. Interestingly, the film features a cameo by Calpernia Addams, who was the real-life subject of Soldier's Girl, a far superior film about transgendered life on Showtime a couple of years back. It had a complexity and honesty that completely escapes the fitful, meandering TRANSAMERICA...a lost opportunity at every turn.

Neil Jordan, of course, has been a contestant in the Oscar Gender Sweepstakes before, with his classic drama The Crying Game. Perhaps all too aware of his previous effort, he does a complete about-face with BREAKFAST ON PLUTO, a tenderly-told comic drama about an Irish transvestite, Patrick "Kitty" Braden (Cillian Murphy), growing into adulthood in the 1960's and 70's. Despite the story's darker moments -- Braden was abandoned as a baby by his mother, beaten by the IRA, and the victim of a bombing in London -- Jordan is determined to keep the film light and upbeat, mixing in a summery soundtrack of pop tunes and talking birds a la Cinderella. If that sounds a bit haphazard, it is. The film is structured as a living fairy tale, replete with villains, monsters, and happy endings. Unfortunately, Kitten's life doesn't fit neatly inside the pages of Aesop or Grimm, and the style subverts the story constantly.

Still, BREAKFAST ON PLUTO has some aces up its lacy sleeve, most notably Murphy, who gives one of the best performances of the year as the indefatigable Kitten, the glamorous star of her own private universe. If Huffman's Bree in TRANSAMERICA is self-conscious to a fault, Murphy's Kitten is the exact opposite -- as free and jovial a performance as one can imagine. Effortlessly nailing coquettish mannerisms and employing a hilarious come-hither vocal quality, Murphy is as magnetizing, fascinating, and eminently likeable in the role...definitely the capper of his already-promising career. Strong supporting performances (most notably by Liam Neeson as the local Catholic priest, Brendan Gleeson as a London theme park busker, and Stephen Rea as a magician who befriends Kitten) overcome BREAKFAST ON PLUTO's stylistic weaknesses to large degree, leaving the audience on a fizzy emotional high. If you believe in fairies, Jordan would like you to skip Neverland, forget Crying Game, and head directly for Pluto. You may find yourself chatting up starlings on your walk home.

 
THE BAXTER
08.01.05 (11:06 am)   [edit]
THE BAXTER
Starring: Michael Showalter, Elizabeth Banks, Justin Theroux, Zak Orth, Peter Dinklage, and Michelle Williams
Directed by: Michael Showalter
Written by: Michael Showalter

reviewed by GABRIEL SHANKS


Michael Showalter, the director/writer/star of the retro romance THE BAXTER, has a sweet face, gentle nature, and slightly spooked stare that, in better moments, reminds one of a distracted Jimmy Stewart. Perhaps this is why he seems so natural (or obvious) a choice to make a postmodern swipe at the romantic comedies of the 1940's, an era where men fell neatly into categories (leading men, or everyone else). There's an allure to going back to, if not an earlier era, at least an earlier system of moral values...a time when a hardworking, well-meaning guy might still get the pretty girl.

Sadly, however, Jimmy Stewart's magnetic bravado is nowhere to be found in Showalter's lifeless, affected dead end. THE BAXTER purports to champion the little guy, the one left at the altar when Monty Clift or Brando or Sinatra sweeps into the church at the last minute at steals the girl away. But what THE BAXTER really does is show exactly why guys who get left at the altar often deserve their fate. It argues, ironically, for the case that pretty people should only end up with pretty people, and the best that the rest of us can do is hope that the temp with bad hair will find us equally nerd-hot. (Only the dapper and mesmerizing Justin Theroux, as the designated Bride-Stealer, makes an impression that lasts beyond the final credits.)

Showalter has developed something of a cult following through his work with comedy troupes Stella and The State, and he's proven a gifted film comedian in Wet Hot American Summer. But THE BAXTER is bound to please only those interested in his sketch-comedy roots. Implausible dialogue and predictable plotting...well, let's just say that Jimmy Stewart rarely had to fight those beasts. In the end, feel sorry for THE BAXTER...like the film around him, he's a spirited but shallow disappointment.

 
THE BROTHERS GRIMM
08.01.05 (10:42 am)   [edit]
THE BROTHERS GRIMM
Starring: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Jonathan Pryce, Lena Headey, Peter Stormare, and Monica Belucci
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Written by: Ehren Kruger

Reviewed by GABRIEL SHANKS

Bombastic, whimsical, and delicious, The Brothers Grimm evokes all of the adjectives one comes to expect about the work of director Terry Gilliam. Like Twelve Monkeys, it's weird. Like Time Bandits, it's fanciful and just a bit dark. Like Brazil, it's more than a bit offbeat; and like all of his work with Monty Python, it is most certainly original.

But this latest film of Gilliam's also bears the imprimatur of its Hollywood-bred screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, the horror wild child behind Scream 3 and The Ring. An odd-duck pairing, their collaboration tempers Gilliam's imaginative tangents with Kruger's mainstream sensibilities, meshing together idiosyncratic elements with an almost fiendish devotion to narrative. Entertaining and clever and only rarely off-putting, this hybrid is fantastical but familiar, definitely weird but not uncomfortable...a Harry Potter experience for those who have outgrown the fantasy cliches of boy wizards. The Brothers Grimm -- which is only tangentially about the authors of the famous Anglo-Saxon fairy tales -- is really a comic ghost story wrapped in the postmodern folds of Shakespeare In Love, where the characters could be our contemporaries if it weren't for the period dress and bad hairstyles.

In Gilliam and Kruger's world, the Grimm brothers Wilhelm (Matt Damon) and Jacob (Heath Ledger) are theatrical hucksters who drum up fake witches in rural German villages, and then exorcise those demons...for a fee. Their lives are filled with wine, women and stories; Jacob, in particular, is consumed with the folk tales of his childhood. Wilhelm, however, fancies himself a realist...that is, until the two encounter the forest of Marbaden, where little girls in red riding hoods and those dropping bread crumbs are disappearing in droves.

The central mystery rapidly becomes the focus of the Grimms' adventure, including a tug of war over a village tomboy, Angelika (Lena Headey) and a vain, aging sorceress (Monica Belucci). There's little in the way of subtlety, in either the drama or the comedy. At moments, the film careens over the edge of believability in a cartoony, broadly drawn style. Especially in the first half-hour, The Brothers Grimm struggles to find its footing, bungling comic moments and wasting opportunities to fill out its central characters.

But as the film continues, Ledger finds an amiable rhythm in Jacob's literary nebbishness, and soon after Damon balances his hammy portrayal with more textured colorings. Like the Grimm tales themselves, the film is alternatively frightening and barbaric, and probably a tough fit for Miramax, who can't really sell it to children. The onscreen violence lands somewhere just shy of Lord of the Rings, but the storytellers treat the violence with less deference than the hobbits did. The Brothers Grimm is probably best for adults who still have a kid inside them somewhere, people with a worldly understanding of the modern-day equivalents of witches and werewolves. Imperfect but eminently enjoyable.

 
FANTASTIC FOUR
07.07.05 (10:39 am)   [edit]
FANTASTIC FOUR
Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, and Julian McMahon
Directed by: Tim Story
Written by: Michael France and Mark Frost

reviewed by GABRIEL SHANKS


On some level, the uninspired, shoddy FANTASTIC FOUR is something of a surprise. Under normal circumstances, a film this devoid of ideas and imagination would cause an audience to revolt (or at least wander away) halfway through. But despite its flaws, the ambitious blockbuster-in-training amiably passes by the viewer, like a garish wall hanging or 1970’s cyclorama exhibit on tangential super-heroes. Rarely entertaining and never rapturous, the film is (somewhat) redeemed by its very inconsequentiality, its disposable market-driven ethos.

Certainly, it is not effortlessly executed…just the opposite, in fact. You can feel the flopsweat of the screenwriters, laboring to make their jokes work and their scenes interesting. But the filmmakers are in on the conceit, which is weirdly comforting…they knew they were making the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy. And once the audience realizes that fact, FANTASTIC FOUR transforms from supremely disappointing to…merely dull.

Which is not to say that there aren’t interesting possibilities. The titular quartet embody the flavors of a juicy circus freak-show: super-elastic leader Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd, aka Mr. Fantastic); disappearing vixen Sue Storm (Jessica Alba, known alternatively as Invisible Girl and Woman); Sue’s rebellious matchstick of a brother, Johnny (Chris Evans, or The Human Torch); and hulkish bruiser Ben Grimm (who goes by the moniker The Thing). There’s great potential in these wildly outsized fantasy roles, and the film makes a desperate stab to exploit that potential, making Ben a postmodern Elephant Man and Johnny an extreme sports addict always looking for more heat.

But against a background of drab, cheesy special effects and a choppy, reshoot-heavy editing style evocative of a Cuisinart, these dribbles of character are hardly enough. The director, Tim Story (Barbershop), hasn’t a clue how to make these characters special or truly unique, instead settling for cutesy come-ons, easy references and by-the-numbers action sequences. With the exception of Alba, all of the actors are engaging presences, and it is much to their credit that they survive the mediocrity of their surroundings, keeping the film from complete disaster. Their buoyancy and bounce keep things upbeat, a quality that goes a long way when watching super heroes suffer for their gifts. (Just ask anyone who saw the tedious and maudlin Daredevil, and they’ll educate you.)

It’s sad, of course, this completely un-fantastic film. But not a big loss by any means. The joy of summer blockbusters is their ephemerality, and a film that embraces its paper-thin entertainment value – that settles for the ground rule double instead of swinging for the cheap seats – is, in its own way, remarkable. If that’s enough for you, please consider the FANTASTIC FOUR's petition for your time and money. If you want greatness, look elsewhere.

 
HEIGHTS AND HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE
06.03.05 (5:05 pm)   [edit]
HEIGHTS
Starring: Glenn Close, Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden, George Segal, and Rufus Wainwright
Directed by: Christ Terrio
Written by: Amy Fox

HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE
Written and Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki

reviewed by GABRIEL SHANKS


Summer's here, and the summer rush should be upon us soon of blockbusters and thrillers...few of which will actually bust our blocks or thrill us. That's why we're starting off June with some art house fare: Glenn Close's return to the big screen, Heights, and lauded Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki's latest, Howl's Moving Castle.

HEIGHTS is one of the last films produced by Ismail Merchant before his death last month. Merchant, of course, was a dazzlingly talented artist who, alongside his life partner and director James Ivory, gave the world Oscar-winning period dramas like Howard's End, A Room with a View, and The Remains of the Day. HEIGHTS, however, is outside of Merchant's comfort zone: it is set in modern day New York, and is not directed by Ivory (one of Ivory's young former assistants, Chris Terrio, takes the reins instead). The story follows an interlocking set of Manhattanities as they buzz from party to party, lover to lover, heartbreak to heartbreak: Diana (Close), a famous Broadway actress, and her soon-to-be-wedded daughter Isabel (Elizabeth Banks) are at the center of a number of revolving tangents, all of which in one way or another hightlight the duplicitiousness of romantic relationships -- Diana's husband is openly having an affair with Diana's understudy, while Isabel's intended, Jonathan (James Marsden), is hiding a homosexual relationship in his past that is about to become very, very public.

Based on a play by screenwriter Amy Fox, HEIGHTS never reaches the aspirations of its title; indeed, at times the film seems to have nothing more on its mind than the predictable rhythms of soap opera. It clearly wants to say something important about the precariousness nature of love, but it is never able to illuminate that idea with any conviction. Sure, there are pleasant casting diversions -- singer Rufus Wainwright as a bitchy ex-lover, George Segal as a confused rabbi, Jesse Bradford as a struggling actor -- and Glenn Close reminds everyone that she is one of Hollywood's greatest actresses. But with so much talent wasted on such thin material, I'd be surprised if you remember HEIGHTS more than ten minutes after leaving the theatre. It's not bad...just too insubstantial to matter.

HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, on the other hand, is a lovely visual spectacle, a sometimes jaw-droppingly beautiful example of animated glory. But in this case, sadly, that is not nearly enough. Most audiences -- at least those with a knowledge of Mr. Miyazaki's work -- will be grading this CASTLE on a curve. Although this animated tale of wizards and romance is the very definiton of the word enchanting, it has the misfortune to follow the contemporary classic Spirited Away in the Miyazaki canon. That Oscar-winning effort from 2002 equals HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE in imagination and charm, but surpasses it in many other ways. The new film, based on a novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, lacks Spirited Away's sense of whimsy and unpredictability; its straightforward narrative constantly seems at odds with Miyazaki's dreamy landscapes and fanciful flourishes. Where Spirited Away surprised its audience, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE merely entertains them.

With both subtitled and dubbed versions being released in the U.S., I suggest you head for the subtitles. The English language voice talent -- which includes Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Billy Crystal and Lauren Bacall -- brings surprisingly little energy to the experience, with only Crystal finding a groove as the Borscht Belt-ish fire demon Calcifer. On its own merits, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE is a sedate and charming diversion; as a picture from the undisputed master of modern animation, however, it leaves much to be desired.

 
NOBODY KNOWS
03.13.05 (1:32 pm)   [edit]

NOBODY KNOWS (Dare mo shiranai)
Seen at:  Princeton Garden Theatre, Princeton, New Jersey
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 
Starring:  Yûya Yagira (Akira), Ayu Kitaura (Kyoko), Hiei Kimura (Shigeru), Momoko Shimizu (Yuki), Hanae Kan (Saki), You (The Mother)   
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda 
Writing Credits: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Distributor:  IFC Films (USA 2005)
Running Time:  141 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic elements and some sexual references.


What nobody knows is that the mother of four young children has abandoned them to raise themselves in a Tokyo apartment.  Even before the mother leaves, the children, two boys and two girls, do all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, bill-paying, laundry, and child-rearing.  They have neither the time nor the freedom to be children.  The children know they must hide from the landlord on pain of eviction; early on, the mother smuggles them into the apartment as literal and metaphorical luggage.  Three of the children never see the sun and cannot step outside for something as simple as retrieving a toy.  None go to school.  None have any friends.  Only the oldest, Akira, at age 12, has his mother's permission to venture out into the world -- to do chores.  When the mother leaves on an extended fling with yet another womanizer, the household hardly misses a beat.  Money is the only good the mother contributed to the home; on first blush, it seems that, provided she leaves sufficient money, she need never come back.


But NOBODY KNOWS knows better than that.  In even the best-appointed of homes, with the best-dispositioned of children, danger abounds.  Akira chops onions quickly with a large knife, unsupervised -- we expect with every thud that he will have lost of finger.  The older girl, Kyoko, draws a bath.  The movie quickly cuts to the boiling pit of curry that Akira has prepared.  The mind races with stories remembered of unwatched children, children caring for themselves, being badly burned by boiling water.  These household forces, so weak in the expert control of a watchful adult, threaten to consume the children at every turn.


Arika and Yuki's father proves to be of little help.  Like deadbeat dads the world over, he has his own money problems.  The adults of NOBODY KNOWS act like children, spoiled, peevish, self-interested, pretending to be acting responsibly but fooling no-one.  It falls on the children to be somber, responsible, industrious, selfless, and honest.  The children of the apartment and their peers outside seem to come from different worlds.  The abandoned children are quiet, pallid, increasingly gaunt, intent, their clothes fading and torn.  The children outside make noise, run, play, dress sharply and look immaculate.  A single day outside for the abandoned children bursts with fun, like a flood pouring down from fat leaden clouds.


Unlike most movies, which are filmed out of order, NOBODY KNOWS was filmed chronologically.  We can see the children, the apartment, their clothes, age, badly.  Akira grows a schoolboy mustasche.  All of the children gain in height.  The long running time and frequent tracking shots add to the impression that we're seeing a significant chunk of the children's lives.  When the inevitable tragedy comes, we get painfully physical proof that it is growing children whose lives have been arrested.


The mother left to start a new family.  She simply forgot this old one.  Like all narcissists, loving the children had meant to her allowing them to love her and help her.  The melancholy of these children, left alone in the adult-sized world, is unbearable.  All the more so because, unlike the children in City of God, we saw these children with a mother, with electricity and running water, with new clothes and toys and food.  To see each element of their life and budding personhood disappear because of criminal parental neglect rips at the heart.  NOBODY KNOWS ranks among the saddest movies ever made.


The credits at close list the mother as "You."  I thought the director meant it as a charge levelled against society, as in "you, the deadbeat moms and dads, the failed foster system, the extended families and neighbors who look away from child abuse, the society which trusts any adult with the children they happen to bring into the world, YOU are the ones who've abandoned these children."  Actually, per IMDB, the actress "You" has appeared in several films -- sort of an Asian Cher.  Not that I have a guilty conscience or anything.


-- Martin Scribbs



 
RAY (2004)
02.13.05 (4:26 pm)   [edit]
STARRING: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Curtis Armstrong, Sharon Warren
DIRECTOR: Taylor Hackford
WRITING CREDITS: James L. White
DISTRIBUTOR: Universal Pictures (US 2004)
RATED: PG-13 for depiction of drug addiction, sexuality and some thematic elements

How sympathetic can the topic of a bad biopic be?

Ray Charles presents the limit case. Charles grew up dirt-poor as the son of a single mother laundress in the Deep South. Among the last things on Earth he saw, Charles watched his baby brother die in a senseless accident. Blind from early youth, Charles painstakingly crafted a musical legend in a world determined to cheat, demean, and undermine him. Given the inherent emotional tug of the material, the Academy Award nomination for Best Picture comes as no surprise. The music is great, Jamie Foxx inhabits the character of Charles, and the film's dramatic arc comes at last to a happy conclusion for the recently deceased and much-missed showman.

Still and all, what a sluggish bore of a movie. Why do man of genius biopics always insist on droning on about the personal struggles of the artists? From watching RAY, one would think that his story was mainly about heroin, then polygamy, then traumas of origin, and, somewhere in the bottom of the pile, marginally about music.

In fact, the structure of RAY betrays its two main messages. The messenger-characters of the film deny over and over again that Ray Charles should be pitied because of his blindness, but the film showers Ray with understanding and empathy to the point where one expects to see the director making a cameo to help Ray strap on for a fix. Secondly, those who understand Ray best speechify to him that music is the most important thing in his life. But we're treated to precious little insight into his actual composition process. What do his musical influences sound like? What dead ends did he pursue in his original work? Something as simple as -- what habits did he have when writing? Did he ever have writer's block?

The man passes, love him as we might. Life is short, art is long. RAY gives us mostly the short end of the stick.

LIC

 
IN GOOD COMPANY
01.16.05 (10:51 am)   [edit]
IN GOOD COMPANY
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson, Marg Helgenberger
Directed by: Paul Weitz
Written by: Paul Weitz
Distributor: Universal Pictures (US 2004)
Rated: PG-13 for some sexual content and drug references.

As Reviewed by: Jill Cozzi

Paul Weitz' has been fortunate enough to have his new film [b]IN GOOD COMPANY[/b] launch right in the middle of a raging debate about the future of Social Security in the United States. Part of the conventional wisdom in most of these discussions is that people will simply have to work longer -- well into their sixties and in many cases, into their seventies and eighties. The problem is that in an age of multinational corporations gobbling up everything in sight, and then purging employees like a bulimic after an all-you-can-eat buffet (sorry), how are these people going to remain employed? How does a 50-year-old "dinosaur" who has done a great job for twenty-some-odd years justify his existence to the fresh-faced kid who's just become his boss after a corporate takeover? How does he manage to keep his life together when his daughter wants to transfer to NYU and his wife has just announced that oops -- maybe she hasn't hit menopause quite yet?

In Weitz' film, said 50-year-old is Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid), and said fresh-faced kid is one Carter Duryea (Topher Grace). Dan sells ad space for [i]Sports America[/i] magazine, leading a team of reps who'd take a bullet for him. It's a company that works just Well Enough, which means its ripe for a takeover by corporate raider Teddy K (Malcolm McDowell), head honcho at Globalcom. Globalcom is one of those huge megacorporations whose logo ought to be Pac-Man. It's in forty-seven businesses, completely unrelated to each other, and its management believes that Duryea can manage the Sports America ad sales group because he had great success with dinosaur-shaped cell phones for five-year-olds.

If this film were set in, oh, say, 1984 instead of 2004, Carter Duryea would be played by someone like Josh Lucas, and he'd be a sneering, arrogant master of the universe type. Dan would be played by someone like Steve Buscemi as a pathetic, over-40 zhlub. Carter would triumph, Dan would jump off a bridge, and at the end Carter would realize how empty his success is. But this film enjoys a 2004 release, so Carter is the adorable Topher Grace, and Dan is Dennis Quaid, the hottest 50-year-old guy on the face of the earth, and the villain is the megacorporation.

The Evil Corporation has become pretty reliable film villain, and for the first half-hour, until it's established that Carter is made out of different stuff than his buddy and mentor, Steckle (Clark Gregg), it shows signs of playing like a half-assed retread of Mike Judge's brilliant [i]Office Space[/i], with Grace as Lumberg and Dennis Quaid in the Ron Livingston role. But in a highly disciplined, yet seemingly effortless performance by Topher Grace, Carter is revealed layer by layer, not unlike peeling an onion. As cute as a Labrador puppy and as drolly self-effacing as Woody Allen on his best day, with an open, innocent face that makes him look like Frodo Baggins gone corporate, Topher Grace is being touted as the New Tom Hanks, yet he's something completely different. Yes, he has the boyish charm, but he plays much deeper than Hanks was at the same age, and more introspective. His Carter Duryea is painfully aware of his own limitations: "I'm actually an emotionally guarded anal-retentive asshole"

One of the lovely things about this film is that Dan's family is functional, yet not so perfect as to be unrealistic. Sure, it's impeccably decorated, with not a pillow out of place, and his age-appropriate wife is Marg Helgenberger, she of the amazing gams and scary eyebrows, and he greets the news of a late-life baby with the kind of aplomb few men could match. But Quaid looks and sounds like a real dad, albeit one who thinks nothing of picking up the telephone and saying to his younger daughter's "gentleman caller", "If you ever give my daughter an alcoholic beverage or a joint, I will hunt you down and neuter you." This family argues, but they kiss and make up, and despite the fact that sometimes these parents regard their kids as being from another planet, we see the solid grounding that makes Carter want to be a part of it.

[b]IN GOOD COMPANY[/b] is essentially a [i]pas de deux[/i] between the younger man and the older one, with Quaid giving Dan both an increasing and poignant wistfulness, and the kind cocky, snarky, grinning cunning we've seen in this actor for years. But there's some good supporting work, and not where you think you'd find it. I'm at a loss, for one thing, as to what Scarlett Johanson is doing in this film. Here the sultry aloofness that made her perfect for [i]Girl With a Pearl Earring[/i] makes her seem as if she could eat her own dad for lunch, let alone the whippersnapper who's her dad's new boss. This is a role that needs a real teenager, though with Kirsten Dunst all grown up, I'm not sure there is one -- and Lindsey Lohan just isn't it. But David Paymer brings both pathos and humor to his role as the archetypal downsized-out middle-aged sad sack who we know will never find another job, and Malcolm McDowell has fun chewing the scenery, his now elderly face made even scarier-looking by being dramatically lit by blue lights under his chin, babbling about synergy and women shopping on the internet 24 by 7 in Dubai and computer sections in sports magazines. He's in the film for about five minutes, in the kind of Capra-esque "little guy vanquishes the evil corporate/government villain" scene that works far better than it has any right to, but he creates a memorable impression.

There's nothing subtle about [b]IN GOOD COMPANY[/b], and very little that you can't see coming a mile away. The minute Scarlett Johansson, as Dan's college-age daughter, encounters Carter in the living room, after he's weaseled his way into an invitation to dinner because he's lonely, you know they'll get together. You certainly know what Dan's reaction is going to be when he finds out. You also know that before the film is over, Carter the Puppy is going to get smacked on the snout with a rolled-up newspaper. You even have an inkling that Dan is going to be OK after all and that the evil Steckle will somehow get his come-uppance. But after the end-of-year orgy of Important Dramas and Epic Bombast, this deft, lovely little film is a breath of fresh air.



 
OCEAN'S 12
12.12.04 (9:22 am)   [edit]

Cast: Oh, Everyone
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: George Clayton Johnson   (characters) &  Jack Golden Russell; George Nolfi   (written by)
Distributor: Warner Bros. (US 2004)
Rated: PG-13 for language



OCEAN'S 12 is...


  • ...a ratting crate full of hollow china dolls.

  • ...a weak-hitting shortstop trying for his second home run in two at-bats.

  • ...the low, long fart you release, which has been coming for a long time, but which you forget the moment you've had it.

  • ...an A-Team episode with Casey Affleck as B.A. Barrackus.

  • ...the hilarity of the yearbook staff hiding dirty words in their class messages.

  • ...malt-liquor-on-a-Monday stupid.

  • ...a display case of used condoms.

  • ...an Encyclopedia Brown story where you're asked for the solution before the necessary information is provided.  Quick:  8 + X = Y.  Solve for Y.

  • ...more riddled with gaping plot holes than Police Academy 7:  Mission to Moscow.  And I speak advisedly.

  • ...someone else's Junior Prom video.

  • ...an ungodly waste of your entertainment dollar in the best movie season of the year.


    • LIC



       
      OCEAN'S TWELVE
      12.12.04 (6:59 am)   [edit]
      OCEAN'S TWELVE
      Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner, Vincent Cassel, Shaobo Qin, Scott Caan, and Casey Affleck
      Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
      Written by: George Nolfi
      Distributor: Warner Brothers (US 2004)
      Rated: Rated PG-13 for language

      As Reviewed by: Gabriel Shanks

      There's a built-in set of expectations that the built-in sequel audience for OCEAN'S TWELVE has. The first film of the franchise, a fizzy-pop gloss on the heist genre, gathered a bevy of A-list stars and plopped them down into a glamorous world of casinos and thieves. The heist itself was the crown jewel in a whipsmart screenplay, and for the audience, it wasn't too hard to tell that the stars were having a great time. Director Steven Soderbergh, the chameleonic talent behind such varied works as Traffic, Solaris, Erin Brockovich and Kafka's The Trial, seemed giggly and intoxicated on the buzz, and created a tight but colorful universe anyone would happily live in. Ocean's Eleven seemed to have been as much fun to make as it was to watch.

      For the new film, the entire coterie has returned, adding a few famous faces (Catherine Zeta-Jones and a cameo or two which, to protect the surprise value they are designed to have, will not be revealed here). There's a new heist that involves many glamorous cities of Europe, complete with a new French villain, Francois Toulour (Vincent Cassel). The champagne bubbles of OCEAN'S TWELVE, however, seem more muted and less dazzling than those of its predecessor. The cast is still having fun, but they're doing it with a new screenwriter, George Nolfi (Timeline), who has a significantly more meandering style and a weaker grasp of genre writing than Ted Griffin, the author of Ocean's Eleven. Where Griffin's script was polished to a sheen worthy of the Pope Diamond, Nolfi relies on melodrama and insider jokes (guess who Julia Roberts' character, Tess, uncannily resembles?). The dialogue rarely snaps, crackles, or pops the way it could; with about eighteen characters that factor importantly into the story (the eleven plus Zeta-Jones, Roberts, Cassel, Garcia, and newcomers Robbie Coltrane, Eddie Izzard, and Albert Finney...and I haven't even gotten to the cameos), the sheer size of this effort is more than Nolfi can manage. Everything is still color-bubbly, but the palette is muted. What seemed ingenious in Ocean's Eleven now merely seems clever; the electric atmosphere that surrounds Danny Ocean and his band of merry men has dulled to a pleasant but hazy buzz.

      There's still magic in bringing, however, in bringing the gods and goddesses of Hollywood into one single movie, and the stars do not disappoint. Both Damon and Roberts have expanded parts, and neither disappoints; Damon, in particular, shows a deft gift for comedy. Clooney and Pitt, the Sinatra-and-Martin team of this postmodern Rat Pack, have an easy and assured relationship that makes their screen time together a magnetic experience. Of the smaller roles, my favorites this time around were those played by Elliot Gould and Carl Reiner, two old-timers who prove how easy it is to keep up with the young whippersnappers.

      OCEAN'S TWELVE doesn't exactly disappoint its audience; rather, it's a subdued attempt at recapturing glory. Sitting in the dark, looking up at that big day-glo screen, one may still wish they were the thirteenth member of this crackerjack dozen...but when the credits roll, one may not be tempted to stay and watch it all over again. Sequels always have trouble recreating magic; OCEAN'S TWELVE has enough of the stuff to offer a good time, but also to remind you of what you're missing. Is that better...or worse?

       
      THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
      12.12.04 (6:50 am)   [edit]
      WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
      Cast: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, and Allan Corduner
      Directed by: Michael Radford
      Written by: Michael Radford
      Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics (US 2004)
      Rated: R for some nudity

      As Reviewed by: Gabriel Shanks

      The murky fog that seems omnipresent in Michael Radford's adaptation of Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is a beautiful metaphor for the Bard's story. For what may seem direct and clear -- a beleaguered Jewish merchant, Shylock (Al Pacino), lends money to a Catholic noble, Antonio (Jeremy Irons) who has scorned him in the past -- is anything but a simple transaction. Antonio is borrowing the money not for himself, but for his poor young friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), who needs traveling fare; he plans to visit the rich and beautiful Portia (Lynn Collins) and win her hand in marriage. Shylock, for his part, is tired of the insults of Christians, and wants to exact revenge. His repayment, should Antonio default on the three-month loan, is the famous pound of flesh, taken from Antonio's body at a point of Shylock's choosing. He is going for the heart. Revenge? Jewish-Christian relations? Romance? Wealth? Comedy? Tragedy? It's enough to put anyone's head (or movie) into a fog.

      There are a number of interesting controversies in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE for a modern audience, and it is to Radford's credit that he tackles them head on. First, of course, is the anti-Semitic undercurrent which run throughout the text, a villainously vengeful man who plays to Jewish stereotype (the word "Shylock" has come, in common parlance, to mean a corrupt businessman). Radford does not soften Shakespeare's text on the matter, leaving the audience in the troubling position of balancing the pain of Jewish persecution against the horrible cruelty of Shylock's actions. Secondly, there is the vaguely homoerotic relationship of Antonio and Bassanio, which Radford foregrounds...in the film's second scene, the two men kiss. Welcome to Venice!

      These polemics, however, make THE MERCHANT OF VENICE much weightier that Shakespeare perhaps intended. The play is a bit of a mess, really, jerking from comedy to tragedy often in the same scene. It involves some of Shakespeare's pet conventions -- women dressed as men, subplots of far-fetched romance -- and includes an extended coda. Radford, who adapted the script as well as directing it, seems more at ease in the dramatic moments, positing the ferocity of Pacino against the brittle eloquence of Irons. The scenes of romantic comedy -- Bassanio's winning of Portia through an elaborate guessing game, and a rather disastrous telling of lost wedding rings -- fall with a thud upon the screen. Though Shakespeare may have intended a rapidly shifting tonal piece -- the world's first dramedy, perhaps? -- Radford has made a grim drama with some incomprehensible moments of failed levity. The fog has crept in, and it is very hard to wave it away when the sunlight is needed.

      Radford's direction also suffers an aimlessness in sections which, combined with languid pacing, suggests that some judicious edits might be called for. Cinema and theater have different needs, and sequences of excessive verbosity can, freed of the boundaries of the stage, become visual in nature. The settings of Venice are gorgeous when Radford employs them, conveying a patrician elegance without luxury...the rough and ragged social strata of Venice is always clearly defined.

      None of the performances are exceptional, but none are embarrassing, either. Pacino and Irons battle ferociously but bring little new insight to these oft-performed roles, and Fiennes lacks the depth that would give relief to Bassanio's porcelain surfaces. Only Portia, played by newcomer Lynn Collins (13 Going On 30), makes much of an impression; whether coquettishly strutting as the orphan princess or balancing a court trial as a gender-bending expert legal scholar, she is consistently mesmerizing. THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, for all of its self-important politics and grand gestures, ends up being as murky an experience as a Venetian night.

       
      THE WOODSMAN
      12.05.04 (11:23 am)   [edit]
      THE WOODSMAN
      Cast: Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Mos Def, Eve, Michael Shannon, David Alan Grier, and Benjamin Bratt
      Directed by: Nicole Kassell
      Written by: Stephen Fechter and Nicole Kassell
      Distributor: Newmarket Films (US 2004)
      Rated: R for sexuality, disturbing behavior and language

      As Reviewed by: Gabriel Shanks

      Here's everything you need to know about THE WOODSMAN.

      1) It stars the husband-and-wife team of Kevin Bacon (Mystic River) and Kyra Sedgwick (Cavedweller).

      2) It is produced by Lee Daniels, the former casting director who successfully segued into producing with the award-winning Monster's Ball, another gritty and grim tale of human anguish.

      3) It is directed by a talented newcomer, Nicole Kassell, who has nurtured the project from its infancy. And, perhaps most importantly:

      4) It is a stoically sympathetic portrait of a convicted child molester.

      This last bit is the shocking twist/other shoe dropping/500-pound gorilla that THE WOODSMAN builds its entire bulkhead around. And to the degree you are open (or closed) to the idea of liking a molester, Kassell's film may or may not be for you. For while the performances are solid (Bacon and Sedgwick are joined by Mos Def, Benjamin Bratt, and rap star Eve, the lone misfire in the ensemble) and the construction of the film has a spare clarity, the idea of child molestation is so heinous to our collective ethics that it may be impossible for some to dredge up the sympathy the film requires. The film is not blunt about its subject, so much as direct; rather than sensationalize its story, it tries its best to argue for a forgiving human spirit in a concise but not confrontational way.

      I am only one person, of course, but I doubt my experience will be unique...I personally couldn't make the ethical leap. Molesting children is one of those areas that induce a personal rage in many of us; perhaps it is a weakness of character, but I find it hard to summon up any feelings for the hardships that convicted sex offenders must go through. Kassell, for her part, seems to know this is the major challenge of her film. Although THE WOODSMAN's subject matter is shocking and disturbing, perhaps the most unsettling quality is its matter-of-fact attitude.

      Leaving the terrorizing of children until the film's final act, Kassell drapes her film in drab grey colors, placing the burgeoning romance between lumber yard workers Walter (Bacon) and Vicki (Sedgwick) in an environment of overcast skies, oily slick roads, impoverished neighborhoods, and grim, unremitting atmosphere. It is as if the film argues that molesters are punished by internal guilt and societal intolerance enough, and that the least we, the audience, could do is show them a bit of mercy. This is a political statement, and a strong one...and one I could not agree with, before or after viewing the film.

      THE WOODSMAN, at its core, is a tale of broken people: Vicki is a former abuse victim herself, the police Sergeant Lucas (Mos Def) is battered by his memories of child victims, and even Walter's Latino brother-in-law, Carlos (Bratt) is haunted by the memories of his racially-intolerant in-laws. The scenes of desperate, pained lovemaking between Walter and Vicki evokes the torment of Monster's Ball, while Bacon's sad-eyed fury impeccably fends off the probing questions of his therapist (Michael Shannon). If anything, however, the inflammatory context of THE WOODSMAN lets us know that sympathy is not automatic, and not all tragedy is undeserved. Walter, ultimately, seems a nice guy, but his crimes are not forgivable...and not negotiable, even at the cinema.

       
      BEYOND THE SEA
      11.28.04 (11:48 am)   [edit]
      BEYOND THE SEA
      Cast: Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, and Brenda Blethyn
      Directed by: Kevin Spacey
      Written by: Lewis Colick
      Distributor: Lions Gate Films (US 2004)
      Rated: PG-13 for some strong language and a scene of sensuality

      As Reviewed by: Gabriel Shanks

      As the writer, director, and star of the precocious Bobby Darin biopic BEYOND THE SEA, two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey (American Beauty) lays bare an evident affection for his subject. Darin, a Rat Pack-era crooner and erstwhile movie star who briefly became a worldwide phenomenon with hits like "Mack The Knife" and "Splish Splash", is given an adoring once-over in Spacey's vision, bravely fighting off a life-threatening illness and a tortured childhood to conquer Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the hearts of millions. The razzle dazzle of Darin's story, however, suffers a rose-colored tinge in Spacey's vision, a flattering take that stutters under the weight of some undeniable truths, not the least of which being that Darin's ambition and drive made up for gaps in talent. With Darin now remembered mainly as a second-tier star of the era (Sinatra is now, as he was then, Darin's idol and his better), BEYOND THE SEA seems like a vain attempt not only to restore Darin's place in history, but to improve upon it.

      One can't deny, of course, that Darin's songbook is powerful; featuring a dozen or so production numbers replete with dancing ensembles (and Spacey's velvet vocal mimicry), BEYOND THE SEA reminds us of the catchy hooks and infectious machismo that personified the man and his music. It is probably no accident that the scenes that place Darin in his natural element -- Vegas nightclubs -- are the most successful. Sadly, though, BEYOND THE SEA is not a concert film, and Lewis Colick's underdeveloped screenplay has great trouble placing Darin's life onto a heroic scale. For despite the illness that threatened to prematurely end his life from childhood on, Darin did not suffer greatly to reach his success. Pushed by an eager mother (Brenda Blethyn) towards stardom, young Bobby discovers music, suffers early bad gigs, and hits the jackpot on television...all in the first 20 minutes of the film. With sold-out tours, hit records, and Hollywood beckoning, he quickly garners an Oscar nomination and successfully woos a starlet, Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth). Let me know when you start feeling sorry for the guy.

      Whether this stress-free ride to the top was truly the way it was, or whether it is a failing of Colick's writing is a very good question. Often, the most dramatic moments of BEYOND THE SEA seem rushed and impatient; it is as if the book scenes are boring Spacey, who simply wants to get to that great next number. Colick employs an odd framing device, of Darin (Spacey) reviewing his own life story in the company of his younger self (William Ullrich), and the cutesy postmodern theatricality of the device nearly drowns the film in self-absorption. It is interesting that the other major musical biopic of the year, Irwin Winkler's stilted portrait of Cole Porter De-Lovely, employed a similar convention...with similarly disastrous effect. Cinema has always been hard on theatrical leaps of fancy, and when used to cover the gaps in a man's life story, the tonal shifts become almost too much to bear.

      As Darin, Spacey exudes brassy self-confidence; his song-and-dance bravura is sure to bring a smile to any viewer's face, and his palpable charm creates a great deal of goodwill in his audience. But like Darin himself, Spacey finds the details of life offstage to be far less clear. The women in Darin's life are clearly intended to be the focus, but Spacey seems unable to tap into what made those relationships so special; indeed, at times it seems as if Spacey and Bosworth are working off of different scripts. The men that surround Darin throughout his life -- his brother-in-law Charlie (Bob Hoskins), his agent Steve (John Goodman) -- have no moments in the film that explains why they've devoted their life to this man, beyond platitudes about 'greatness.' Indeed, there is little in BEYOND THE SEA that argues for the greatness of Darin, or for the halo of fame that history has placed around his head. Perhaps it was all left on the cutting room floor. (There are some edits here that will make your head spin.)

      BEYOND THE SEA is pleasant enough as musical drama, but the gnawing feeling that major story elements are missing becomes a Chinese water torture by the final, predictable moments. What is left is a showy bauble of entertainment that masks its own insubstantiality, a slick and catchy collection of tunes performed with gusto...and separated by weak plotting. The question one is left with: does BEYOND THE SEA enhance Bobby Darin's legacy, or do it unwitting harm? For whatever one feels about Spacey's dream project or Darin's checkered career, one thing is sure...this film makes both of them seem smaller in our memory.

       
      THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON
      11.25.04 (8:50 am)   [edit]
      THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON
      Cast: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, and Michael Wincott
      Directed by: Niels Mueller
      Written by: Niels Mueller and Kevin Kennedy
      Distributor: ThinkFilm (US 2004)
      Rated: R for language and a scene of graphic violence

      As Reviewed by: Gabriel Shanks

      The platitudes collectively known as "The American Dream" are one of the most powerful forces in the world. The dream holds immense promise, a potent affirmation of a country's belief in equality, free enterprise, and the human capacity to better oneself. However, the dream's idealism places the country's failings in stark relief; all men may indeed be born equal, but soon after that birth, America's social and economic realities prove that all men are NOT equal. The Constitution allows all Americans the opportunity to be its President, but only its white, rich, straight male members have attained that position.

      The unavailability of the American Dream to many Americans creates a problematic social paradigm -- its promise, in effect, becomes a lie, and its esteem-building subtext builds a cultural impotence instead. For although the founding fathers were clear about guaranteeing only the pursuit of happiness, the American Dream seems to demand it...and if one is not happy, conversely, then it is America that is broken, not the individual. This sense of entitlement, many might argue, is America's biggest problem. We feel we have the 'right' to happiness, to success in our work, in our private lives, in our families. And when -- for whatever reason -- that happiness eludes us, it creates an impotent rage that can explode with a frightening force.

      Sean Penn brings one such explosion to the screen by inhabiting the scabrously nervous soul of Sam Bicke, who in 1974 attempted to hijack an airplane and fly it into the White House. The film's title, THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON, explains Bicke's intention. Clearly, Bicke failed in his plot, and his place in history has been relegated to the dusty corner reserved for would-be assassins. But Niels Mueller's claustrophobically compact debut film retrieves Bicke from history's dustbin to explore how one man's sense of American entitlement went awry...with dismayingly torturous consequences. Bicke was certainly a victim of his own devising, but the question remains...did Sam do it to himself, or did America let him down?

      Stammering, nervous, and tightly wound, Penn's evocation of Bicke is the most fascinating character study of the year. The details of Bicke's life slowly reveal themselves in Mueller and Kevin Kennedy's screenplay: a failed marriage, a dead-end job, a ruined relationship with his brother, and a foolhardy get-rich-quick idea. These elements, taken separately, might be just dismissed as bad luck; their combined weight, however, cracks Bicke's fragile psyche, which is constructed upon the fatal belief that Americans are entitled to success. A victim both of his times and of the patriarchal society in which he lives, Bicke cannot accept that his marriage has ended...a family is his birthright, in his mind. A telling moment (and a rare comic scene) occurs when the frustrated Bicke decides to join the Black Panther Party. Only by stepping outside of his race can Bicke accept the wrongs done to him, as if his failures are at odds with his Caucasian skin.

      Surrounded by remarkable supporting performances -- Naomi Watts as Bicke's weary ex-wife, Don Cheadle as his business partner, and in one blistering scene, Michael Wincott as Sam's stern and exasperated elder brother -- Sean Penn is given wide latitude by his director in crafting this character study. Unlike other great actors who lost their edge in middle age (DeNiro and Hoffman, please pick up the white courtesy phone), Penn remains a deft and challenging performer, invoking a thinly-capped frustration with startling passion and garish brutality. Bicke is one of the greatest creations in an already-distinguished career. While THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON doesn't attempt to find greatness in its very small hero, Bicke’s story is revealed to be a moving, poignant parable of another America, one where the dreams aren't quite so rosy, and the country is significantly less than it imagines it to be. It is a bracingly cold slap of water in our collective faces.

       
      THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS
      11.24.04 (10:03 pm)   [edit]
      Directed By:  Jorgen Leth & Lars Von Trier
      Written By:  Jorgen Leth & Lars Von Trier
      Starring:  Jorgen Leth & Lars Von Trier
      Playing Shortstop:  Jorgen Leth & Lars Von Trier
      Distributed By: Films Sans Frontieres (USA 2004)
      Rated:  Unrated, would be PG-13 for nudity

      Imagine you had the power to make Mel Gibson reshoot The Passion with sock puppets instead of actors.  And then in 3D and shot in Iraq.  And then without subtitles but with a calypso score and green blood.  And then with a female Christ.

      Now imagine nabbing your favorite director and getting her to agree to the same ground rules.  Your purpose is (at least in part) to progressively educate her through these trials about some aspect heretofore missing in her approach.  As members of an industry where prestige determines opportunity, few directors would consent to such a tutorial.  But as people and as artists, the few who tried would surely benefit. 

      That's why I hope that Lars Von Trier's THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS will prove the first of many such experiments. 

      I have not yet decided what to make of noted Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier.  But I value his radical insight that film ought to be a moral endeavor.  In THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS, Von Trier tries to save his mentor, Jorgen Leth, from what Von Trier perceives to be the elder director's spiritual failings.  Leth, Von Trier determines, has not sufficiently empathized with his own subjects.  Leth, tall, handsome, a cool customer, clings to the artifice that he hovers above the frey he films.

      The film to be remade is Leth's 13-minute 1967 short, The Perfect Human.  In The Perfect Human, a luminous black-and-white faux documentary, Leth opines on the Perfect Man and the Perfect Woman.  We see them eat, snap their fingers, play, fret.  In all things, the Man and Woman are elegant, ideal, too good for the world.  They would walk between raindrops, if the sky would dare rain on them.  It's a funny short, affectionate to the Man and Woman, but also gently ribbing our intuitive acceptance of and satisfaction with the genial idols. 

      Von Trier has Leth remake The Perfect Human five times, each time trying to draw the filmmaker into a more personal involvement with the subject.  The film changes in startling ways through each incarnation.  Our imagination starts to hum, thinking of how we could break apart and repackage, or redesign, other classics.  And despite his own pessimism, I think that Von Trier does change Leth as an artist, a little, through these chastisements. 

      While I normally have no compunction about lobbing spoilers into my reviews, I won't discuss the individual compositions that comprise THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS.  The experience, for those of you who will embark on it, is too gratifying to prematurely reveal.

      Everything in this world is as sacred or as profane as we choose to make it.  Take film.  It can be a commodity, like pork bellies or steel ingots, measured strictly by worldwide gross.  Or, when hallowed by patient effort, fidelity to ideals, and receptive viewing, film can be a vehicle of grace.  Our deepest self stirs in these screen dreams.  The cheers for Jorgen Leth -- To educate oneself in public on matters of such importance is no source of shame.

      LIC

       
      THE POLAR EXPRESS
      11.20.04 (5:34 pm)   [edit]
      [b]Directed by[/b]: Robert Zemekis
      [b]Starring[/b]: Tom Hanks
      [b]Written by[/b]: Chris Van Allsburg (book); Robert Zemeckis (screenplay) &
      William Broyles Jr. (screenplay)
      [b]Distibuted By[/b]: Warner Bros. (US 2004)
      [b]Rated[/b]: G for... well, nothing.

      [i]Dispatch From The People's Republic of North Pole News Agency[/i]:

      A praiseworthy new film has been awarded highest honors from Puissant Guide and All-Fertile Giftgiver Kris Kringle. To hide from one's revolutionary fellows the name of this film would be an act as foolish as trying to hide a gimlet in a bulging sack. Transparently, it's honey-spackled name is [b]THE POLAR EXPRESS[/b].

      In an historic letter with far-reaching implications for cheery, cheery happiness of workers in this Holiday Season, "The Will of Tom Hanks is the Will of Americans Not Yet Pubescent," Kris Kringle informed the Tenth Elfin Congress on Film Administration that [b]THE POLAR EXPRESS[/b] "overcomes the maniacal doubt-mongering of the United States government and secures forcible and covert toy redistribution as the admirable goal of all peoples of good will."

      The head of the Congress in-no-way excessively thanked the Greatly-Pouched One, saying that his poetic epistle had solved vexing problems of film theory and distribution and would signal triumphs in film programming over the next several months at the North Pole Regal 23. "How can the virginal ice of the Mother Pole be sullied with [I]Christmas With the Kranks[/i] when the Munificent Chimney-Stuffer has so noticed the superior Zemekis film?" It cannot, resounds the voice of the people!

      This admirable [b]THE POLAR EXPRESS[/b] illustrates the dire fate which will await all doubters of Klaus. We see a fey lad and learn he has a pronounced lack of solidarity with Polar ideals. This mockery of the predominant brow and assertive forearm of Klaus cannot go unpunished. The boy is hustled onto a train in dark and cold to confront Klaus himself.

      Woe to the boy! One could imagine execrable fates which might befall an opponent of the Frigid Friend, such as would lightly singe one's inner thighs in terror. Indeed, the boy frequently tries elaborate hijinx to derail his Train to Justice, but the implacable Tom Hanks grimly pushes proceedings along even as though he were Joe contesting the volcano. Even when the boy begs for the sweet release of death from a hobo ghost, his succour is lacking.

      Along with other condemned, the boy is given only hot chocolate. His will starts to sag. But only when the boy can hear the Bell That Is Clear Party Ideology does Kris Kingle bring forth from his mouth a deluge of mercy and not impale the child on industrial hooks, as Justice Unalloyed might dictate.

      The people celebrate in traditional mass-dance movement fashion. All the condemned children are returned to their homes. They will now hear the bells ring forever.

      [i]*intercepted by*[/i]
      [b]LIC[/b]

       
      SIDEWAYS
      11.14.04 (7:58 am)   [edit]
      SIDEWAYS
      Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh
      Directed by: Alexander Payne
      Written by: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
      Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures (US 2004)
      Rated: R for language, some strong sexual content and nudity

      As Reviewed by: Gabriel Shanks

      SIDEWAYS, the perfectly inoffensive and completely forgettable new film by Alexander Payne, is about a week in the life of nerd-elegant Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), a wine lover and connoisseur of the grape. Wine is the major metaphor of the story, but not wine as life, or vitality -- rather, wine serves here as a symbol of cultured refinement, of the aspirations to all that is right and perfect in the world. Wine in Payne's world is wish fulfillment; when drinking a good wine, one can imagine our life better than it is: serene, rewarding, and complete. Of course, it is a fleeting vision, dependent on the buzz one gets. The search for the perfect glass or vintage is never-ending, and self-critical folk like Miles would rather stay on the journey than actually get anywhere.

      But forget all this: despite all the banter about pinot noirs, syrahs and chardonnays, the real subject of SIDEWAYS is the male superego. In a world that no longer revolves around masculinity, Miles and his horn dog buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church) -- whose imminent wedding is the cause of their pre-event week jaunt to California's wine country -- are the kind of vaguely emasculated males one finds sitting alone at cultured bars, wondering how their lives turned out less than perfect. The desperation Miles and Jack share is one peculiar to middle-aged white men, an anxious angst that somehow combines a search for life's meaning and the need to get laid at all costs. Miles, who is still smarting over his divorce two years prior, has the petulant crabbiness that only comes from intellectual self-doubt. As a character, he is not especially likeable or sympathetic (unless you happen to be middle-aged, in which case you may commiserate), although Giamatti's natural amiability counters the vitriol somewhat.

      The two men meet two beautiful, oddly unattached women on their journey, and the requisite emotional struggles are executed without any mistakes (or surprises). SIDEWAYS is a more mature film for Payne than his previous efforts, with palpable elegance in the dialogue and refinement in the camera work. The performances by Giamatti and Church (and Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh as the objects of their affection) are understated and assured. But if SIDEWAYS is more accomplished, it is also less interesting. It is missing those unusual quirks of that made Election such an unexpected joy, the craggy edges of Citizen Ruth, or the radiant lilt of About Schmidt. It is, in almost every way, less than it could or should be. Perhaps if we all had a glass of wine first...


       
      FINDING NEVERLAND
      10.29.04 (9:04 am)   [edit]
      FINDING NEVERLAND
      Cast: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Freddie Highmore, Radha Mitchell, and Dustin Hoffman
      Directed by: Marc Forster
      Written by: David Magee
      Distributor: Miramax Films (US 2004)
      Rated: PG for mild thematic elements and brief language

      As Reviewed by: Gabriel Shanks

      Neverland. The word alone conjures up eternal metaphors, the pleasures of youth, the wishes of immortality, the nostalgic glimmer reflected in the innocent existence of children. The playwright J.M. Barrie, in creating Peter Pan's mythical world a century ago, did much more than add a word to the lexicon; he gave vivid, colorful expression to one of humanity's most deeply-held dreams...that of escaping back to the relatively untroubled times of our childhood. It is a seductive, charming, and enticing fantasy.

      As with most things that are seductive, charming, and enticing, however, the idea of Neverland has always drifted from its intended innocence to cluelessness or, even worse, stunted emotionality. Steven Spielberg, in his blunted film Hook, took on Barrie's iconography with a severely mature concern: what if the world's eternally young boy had to grow up? In FINDING NEVERLAND, director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) takes an equally recalcitrant path to Barrie's world...by exploring Barrie himself. What makes a grown man write such a thing as Peter Pan, and how much of our daily lives fit into the magic of Neverland (and vice versa)?

      The conceit in Forster's vision (based on a play by Allan Knee, with a screenplay by David Magee) is to intertwine imaginative fantasy with real life -- and like Neverland itself, it is a beguiling, intoxicating mix. Elements of daily existence bleed into Barrie's whimsical play...and back again, especially Barrie's relationship with the recently widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons. Intrigued by and drawn to the mournful Davies clan, Barrie begins visiting their home, creating elaborate fantasies with the children and falling into an unspoken but tenderly complex relationship with Sylvia. As their innocent afternoons begin to scandalize Sylvia's mother Emma (Julie Christie) and Barrie's social-climbing wife Mary (Radha Mitchell), the young Davies boys, especially the morose and thoughtful Peter (Freddie Highmore), capture the imagination of the playwright. Their evening playtime jumping on their beds inspires flights of fancy (literally), while their stern grandmother conjures up a villainous captain with a hook.

      Before long, the play begins to almost write itself in Barrie's head; the transcendent moment of the film comes when the play and the world meet -- first in the theatre, then in the imagination of Sylvia. FINDING NEVERLAND ultimately pushes Barrie's central metaphor beyond its bounds, to wonderful cinematic effect. This Neverland is not just a repository for our lost youth or our cherished dreams...it is everything we need, everything we want, and everything promised by the creator. It is the answer to every man's prayers.

      Whether you're willing to hop aboard FINDING NEVERLAND's magic realism bus, however, is not entirely dependent upon whether or not you believe in fairies. Truthfully, the first half of the film is erratic and confused, fitfully trying to get through stilted exposition. There are some much-needed details missing, both great and small; we see how inspiration ignites the creative spark and becomes an idea, but not how the idea develops into a cultivated work of art. Relationships beyond the central ones are facile and thinly conceived (Barrie's shrewish wife, his uncertain producer, et al). At the halfway point, you may find yourself checking your watch. As we approach the final hour, however, FINDING NEVERLAND's screenplay settles into a strong construction that develops bit by bit into a surprisingly moving climax. Most films these days seem to start strong and finish weak; there's something marvelous about a film that does the reverse, getting better in every moment.

      Credit the performances for much of the film's continuous improvement. Johnny Depp is always a fine actor, and his restrained, delicate touch gives Barrie a vaguely mysterious edge. Depp is effortless in both the whimsy and charm departments, and his palpable affection for Sylvia and young Peter hold the tremulous emotional threads of the film together. Winslet, one of the world's most underrated performers, makes it immediately clear why Barrie would be mesmerized by this gently grieving woman: light shines from her luminous eyes, a trace of sadness behind her generous smile, a firm dedication to her family that doesn't hide the strain of single parenting. For Barrie, Sylvia is a discovery, not unlike Neverland...a woman that shares his creative worldview and can embrace its peculiarities. Winslet is, dare I say it, perfect in the role.

      One cannot talk about FINDING NEVERLAND without mentioning Freddie Highmore, the astonishing child actor who plays Peter Davies. Burdened with being the inspiration for one of the greatest tales of the 20th century, Highmore brings an emotional honesty and fearlessness to Peter that often escapes actors three or four times his age. Although this is not his debut (he appeared in the odd tiger tale Two Brothers last year, and with Helena Bonham Carter in Women Talking Dirty), it is without a doubt one of those performances that announces itself on the world stage. Currently filming the lead role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (at the recommendation of his returning costar, Johnny Depp), one can expect big things from him in the future. Any young actor who can hold their own in scenes with Winslet, Depp, and the mighty Julie Christie (also in fine, crusty form) is one worth watching.

      The ideas of "play" and "pretending" take on many different connotations in FINDING NEVERLAND: as children's games, as theatrical practice, as strategies to recapture wonder in our lives. Reality, Barrie might argue, is a construction of the imagination anyway, and therefore, why limit it to its most mundane nature? There's much to enjoy in the search for meaning and fulfillment on the trip to Neverland, but rarely has the journey been so heartfelt, or so successful.

       
      TV: MIDSEASON REPLACEMENTS
      10.29.04 (7:22 am)   [edit]
      As freshman Fall series start to tank, I always look forward to their mid-season replacements. And if well thought-out shows like [i]Commando Nanny[/i] and [i]Method & Red[/i] can't finish the season, what hope is there for marginal debuts like [i]Kevin Hill[/i]? Per my well-placed industry sources, here are the shows on deck:

      [b]Punk'd: Election Edition[/b]
      Ashton Kutcher returns to impish form as he tricks hundreds of Broward County voters into using election booths equipped only with Atari 2600s. [u]They say[/u]: Since votes aren't counted anymore, why shouldn't people learn their States and Capitals? [u]We say[/u]: Syndicators must be betting at least one of the Supreme Court justices is in a Nielsen family.

      [b]What Kind of Girl...[/b]
      A high-priced escort (Ashlee Simpson) finds her life and loves in a tizzy as everyone mistakenly assumes she's also a prostitute. [u]They say[/u]: It's [i]Mary Tyler Moore[/i] where Ted and Lou keep unexpectedly taking out their dicks! [u]We say[/u]: Ashlee's catch-phrase, "And this was supposed to be my day off!" sure to spread like wildfire.

      [b]Rick Santorum's Manhunt![/b]
      Conservative Senator Rick Santorum hosts this celebration of American male virility. Watch 100% straight studs compete at Greco-Roman wrestling, shirtless equestrian sports, and couture modelling to determine which Santorum will crown the all-American man. [u]They say[/u]: Finally, a show for the gals! [u]We say[/u]: Rick, Rick, Rick.

      [b][i]Television Without Pity[/i] Forums Live: Wing Chun Chat[/b]
      Talk live with notorious recluse and TWoP editor Wing Chun. Callers must memorize and follow a few dozen simple rules, the breaking of which will result in their home phones being permanently disconnected. [u]They say[/u]: As fun as a pajama party where only the host gets to talk! [u]We say[/u]: The people who brought all the wackiness of medical transcription to bear on TV sure deserve their day on the idiot box.

      [b]Sanford y Hijo[/b]
      Tommy Chong stars in an all-Latino redo of [i]Sanford and Son[/i]. While Jimmy Smitts has been signed to play the role of Lamont, a last-minute challenge to his contract may keep this laugh riot in siesta mode until the summer. [u]They say[/u]: Estoy muriendo. Mi corazón es malo. ¡Elizabeth, estoy viniendo ensamblarle en cielo! [u]We say[/u]: Wake us when it's time for the Dame Edna version of [i]Maude[/i], with Graham Colton as Stanley.

      [b]CSI: Stars Hollow[/b]
      After her Inn burns down in a series-opening suspected arson, Gilmore Girl Lauren Graham embarks on her new career in forensics. Which was her evening school minor. [u]They say[/u]: Look for Chad Michael Murray to guest star as Tristan, a lovable rogue who may hold the secret to the abrupt disappearance of Miss Patty. [u]We say[/u]: Rumors abound that the role of Rory has been recast with Paris Hilton. As always, LIC demands to see the videotape.

      [b]Slasher Stan: King of Hearts[/b]
      A reality courtship show with a twist: the man whose love the twelve women contestants pine for, who they believe to be a millionaire orthopedics salesman from San Diego, is none other than "Slasher" Stan Sullivan, a relentless serial killer with an appetite for human flesh. Will Ms. Right fall for Mr. Wrong? [u]They Say[/u]: It's [i]The Bachelor[/i] meets [i]Saw[/i]. [u]We Say[/u]: There's no chance Michelle Malkin wants to play?

      [b]Not Reviewed[/b]: [i]Don't Be Judgin', Charlie Brown[/i]; [i]Susie Bright and Suze Orman's Guide to Cost-Effective Whoopee![/i]; and [i]Shields and Yarnell: Behind the Silence[/i].

      [b]LIC[/b]

       
      THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES
      10.25.04 (8:15 pm)   [edit]
      A shoo-in for the [i]Beyond Borders[/i] Hall of Cinematic Shame, [b]THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES[/b] stars a young, middle-class, hottie do-gooder overwhelmed! upon discovering the sufferings of the world. This time our protagonist is Gael Garcia Bernal, one of the boychicks from the endlessly overhyped [i]Y Tu Mama Tambien[/i]. He and his weight-challenged comic relief companion travel up the coastline of South America, Opening Their Heart To the Poor. Apparently, the lads lived 20-some years each in Buenos Aires and never encountered an indigent person. But Chile, Peru, and Venezuela? You can't wipeout on your endearingly unreliable motorcycle without hitting a hut full of the wide-eyed and oppressed. Who are filmed, I shit you not, in James Agee [i]Let Us Now Praise Famous Men[/i] black-and-white.

      Of course, compassion is a virtue. But why, exactly, does virtue only come to the silver screen when it stirs in the heart of the taut model sort? Why make movies about fine, charitable sentiments as they sporadically arise among the priviledged and leave untold the stories of the destitute themselves? There's narcissism afoot, and it rubs even a well-disposed audience very much the wrong way.

      Consider the heart of the movie, the leper colony. Bernal's medical student serves three weeks at the colony. Instantly, he becomes its most celebrated doctor because He Treats the Lepers As People. The colony sets doctors on one side, the patients on the other, the mighty Amazon dividing the embankments. Bernal's character, who suffers from severe and chronic asthma, nevertheless resolves to grace the lepers with his presence on his birthday. Panting and gasping like a porn star on deadline, Bernal crosses The River That No-one Has Ever Crossed and presents himself to the lepers for their adulation, which they duly proffer. Because this means... what to the lepers?

      Oh, and the Bernal character winds up being Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara de la Serna. The film deals so little with the shadow side of communist revolutions, it wouldn't be a stretch to call [b]MOTORCYCLE DIARIES[/b] an unexpected renaissance in Soviet filmmaking. This is the sort of pure hearts, clean hands revisionist agitprop that ignores a subsequent generation of profound moral compromise. Communism here is monolithic, optimistic, and indisputably justified. Would that it were so.

      [i]Beyond Borders[/i] may have sucked, but the worst thing Jolie went on to do was [i]Sky Captain[/i].

      [b]LIC [/b]

       

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