Friday, September 24, 2004

Bleak Friday

So what did I do for fun on a Friday night? I watched a documentary about the Cambodian genocide and a verite-style fiction film about two students plotting a school shooting. What a barrel of laughs, right?

OK, so I planned to see S21: THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE, although if a second film weren't playing at the Wexner Center tonight, I don't know that I would have bothered with it. I'd read some generally good things about it, and since I was already going to be down there, I figured I might as well catch the first film and avoid the hassle of locating a decent parking place around Ohio State.

S21: THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE can be a little dry and repetitive, but I'll cut it some slack because director Rithy Panh often relates the story with one jawdropping technique. Panh has former Khmer Rouge prison camp guards reenact their duties at the actual site. (Needless to say, he didn't ask the same of the rare S21 survivor.) The results are often spooky. The men seem as emotionally distant now as they must have been then to do what they did. It's mindboggling the awful things men could inflict on their fellow countrymen, women and children. Other than the assertion that they were only following orders, the guards are as lost for an answer as anyone.

The main reason I went to the Wexner was for their second offering of SECRET CINEMA. The catch is that you don't know what you will see until the film starts. (Promotional materials promise viewers a rare classic, a new international hit, or "something too bizarre to put in print".) I must admit that I'm a sucker for this gimmick. It's like Christmas for the movie buff, except that you may end up getting something you didn't want. You pay your three dollars and take your chances. The first time the Wexner folk tried this they showed Samuel Fuller's FORTY GUNS, which supposedly has never been released on home video in the United States.

Tonight's surprise turned out to be ZERO DAY, a film that had the misfortune to come out the same time as Gus Van Sant's Palme D'Or-winning, similarly themed ELEPHANT. After learning about the atrocities the Khmer Rouge inflicted, this wasn't how I would have chosen to polish off an evening of moviegoing. Nevertheless, ZERO DAY is a very fine film that tracks two teenage boys in the ten months leading up to their assault on the high school.

The two main characters use a camcorder to document their preparations and their thoughts so that a record will remain for the media. The film is shot and assembled like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which gives it such a strong sense of realism that it's startling and unsettling. It's also a tribute to the excellent performances by these amateurs that ZERO DAY plays like found footage than fiction filmmaking.

Director Ben Coccio gives us full access to the killers at their most unguarded and posturing moments. In giving us this insight into their privacy ZERO DAY turns our expectations upside down. The most troubling aspect is how likeable Andre (Andre Keuck) and Calvin (Calvin Robertson) are. They're funny and personable, at least with each other, family members, and, in Calvin's case, with a girlfriend. The natural inclination is to hope they won't follow through with their plans because we don't want to see innocents slaughtered. The feeling strengthens, though, because we get to know these two guys and don't want things to turn out badly for them. It's a weird cognitive dissonance that intensifies as zero day approaches. The humor in this film also throws off one's bearings. It's ghoulish to laugh when the guys are preparing to kill themselves and debate whether they should shoot on four (or "go") when counting to three or shoot on three.

I think ZERO DAY is a more satisying film than ELEPHANT. Coccio's film feels immediate and real, so much so that anyone who didn't follow the news for awhile might believe this really happened. Van Sant's film is more recognizably art with a capital a. He's aiming for lyricism and a study in tone. While there's value in this approach, the ending is somewhat underwhelming.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

In Defense of Gwyneth

Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover of the September 17,
2004 Entertainment Weekly

Gwyneth Paltrow is one of my favorite actresses, but, as Charles Taylor points out in this excellent essay, she inspires much loathing in her detractors. Usually she makes interesting films with talented filmmakers. HARD EIGHT (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997), EMMA (Douglas McGrath, 1996), SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (John Madden, 1998), THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (Anthony Minghella, 1999), and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (Wes Anderson, 2001) made my top tens. POSSESSION (Neil LaBute, 2002) made my honorable mentions.

Paltrow has scored the most attention for EMMA, a delightful introduction that showcased her grace and ability to carry a film, and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. She also turned in very good work in HARD EIGHT and POSSESSION. In general, though, those films have good critical reputations. I thought she turned in one of 2003's best lead performances by a female in SYLVIA, but the minefield crossed in depicting Sylvia Plath's life distracted from a good film and Paltrow's great acting. There are few actresses who could have pulled off the highwire act required in SHALLOW HAL. As Taylor's piece points out, this lovely performance and the film was largely overshadowed by those with political agendas creating a stir even though they missed the Farrelly brothers' point. Although she plays a minor role in THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY, Paltrow is very funny as a ditzy actress. I was glad to see Taylor support her work in Alfonso Cuaron's GREAT EXPECTATIONS, a remake that works very well in capturing the spirit of the Dickens novel while updating the setting. (At the time I recall reading negative reviews complaining about the film not succeeding as a love story. Of course, this overlooks the fact that it's a coming of age film, not a romance.) I was also pleased that he points out SLIDING DOORS, a wonderful film which I suspect has built a respectable fanbase on home video.

Of her films since 1996, I'd go to bat for all of them except HUSH (Jonathan Darby, 1998), DUETS (Bruce Paltrow, 2000), and VIEW FROM THE TOP (Bruno Barreto, 2003). HUSH is easily the worst of the bunch and possibly the worst of her career. (I haven't seen most of her pre-HARD EIGHT films, going by the order in her Internet Movie Database filmography.) I remember little about the film other than being thankful that it was bad but hilarious. DUETS didn't strike me as the disaster that most were expecting and proclaiming at the time of its release. VIEW FROM THE TOP'S problems are directorial. The film is indecisive about whether it's kitsch or not, although it's almost amusing enough to pull it off.

Currently Paltrow is in SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. Her performance won't garner awards consideration. It shouldn't, not because she's bad--she's perfect for the part and good in it--but because it isn't that sort of thing. She reteams with Madden for PROOF. I've heard nothing but great things about the David Auburn play on which it is based. I look forward to what could be another great performance in an accomplished body of work. The naysayers will just have to deal with it.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

A Dirty Shame

A DIRTY SHAME (John Waters, 2004)

Charging John Waters' latest film A DIRTY SHAME with tastelessness sounds more like a seal of approval than condemnation. Tacky and crude is what Waters does. Only the most unsuspecting moviegoer, one oblivious to the director's filmography, the marketing campaign, and the film's NC-17 rating, will be shocked to see what Waters puts on the screen.

A DIRTY SHAME sends up sexual Puritanism in this country, a topic ripe for the satirical treatment in a year with the much overblown Super Bowl halftime show controversy. Waters borrows the tone of 1950s reactionary films but subverts the genre by positioning the deviants as heroes.

Baltimore housewife and convenience store worker Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) is uninterested in sex, if not sickened by it. She spurns husband Vaughn's (Chris Isaak) advances in favor of frying scrapple and has locked up gargantuan-breasted exhibitionist daughter Caprice (Selma Blair) to keep her from flaunting her goods at area clubs. An accidental blow to the head awakens Sylvia's carnal stirrings. Before you know it she's slinking around town in leopard print clothes and soliciting any man willing to give her cunnilingus.

Sex saint Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) reveals to Sylvia that she is one of the twelve apostles who will bring about the "resurr-sex-ion" with the discovery of a new sex act. Her fellow freaks include an adult baby, husky and hairy gay men called bears, and a dirt fetishist who gets off from licking the ground and tires, among other unsanitary things. The other apostles also received inadvertent concussions that brought their sexual liberation to the surface.

Needless to say, the good citizens of the community are appalled that Ray-Ray's disciples are practicing and preaching their erotic gospel in public. Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), Sylvia's frigid mother, organizes decency rallies of sexually repressed likeminded "neuters" to fight the indecency.

A DIRTY SHAME is outrageous for the sake of being outrageous, but unlike some of Waters' other films, it's neither shocking nor funny. In recent years the line of good taste has been crossed in mainstream comedies, making it more difficult for Waters to push the envelope like he did with PINK FLAMINGOS and POLYESTER. (THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VAN WILDER, to pick examples on opposing ends of the quality spectrum, feature gross-out gags that would be at home in Waters' films.) Waters and his cast think they're being naughty, but the bawdy jokes, repeated ad nauseam, are feeble and frequently telegraphed. Waters loves B and C-list celebrities, but haven't enough David Hasselhoff jokes been made to eliminate any humor in having the BAYWATCH star's CGI turds bonk Chris Isaak on the head? Only Ullman's sex club version of "The Hokey Pokey" performed at a retirement home sustains any comedic momentum.

A DIRTY SHAME also comes across as ideologically confused. The film's sex-positive message is offset by how the repression is erased. Only the concussed are enlightened. Perhaps it's Waters' way of poking fun at those who desire sexual permissiveness, but that isn't the impression A DIRTY SHAME leaves. The prudes serve as the main target, but even the most liberal viewers are likely to object to the notion that public masturbation and intercourse in the streets is healthy for society.

Waters has never been considered the most polished of filmmakers, and that won't change with A DIRTY SHAME. This time around, though, don't expect a Broadway musical adaptation to follow.

Grade: D-

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair poster at a bus stop on the corner of Dupont and Spadina in Toronto (August 27, 2004)

VANITY FAIR (Mira Nair, 2004)

In VANITY FAIR Reese Witherspoon’s Becky Sharp intends to climb the social ladder even if it means trampling others to get higher. She adapts from a poor orphan into an educated governess. This job helps introduce her to a husband, who she hopes will aid her quest to rise in society.

Director Mira Nair follows up her wonderful MONSOON WEDDING with another film that explores the intricacies of social custom. Becky’s adept maneuvering through upper society’s pitfalls is sometimes muddled from too many characters and too little explanation, but Witherspoon remains fun to watch as a spitfire whose desires will not be denied. There’s less separation from the calculation found here and in reality TV’s BIG BROTHER than you might think. VANITY FAIR is at its best when the characters are most selfish and selfless. Eileen Atkins is deliciously sharp-tongued as Miss Matilda Crawley, the crone who gives Becky entrĂ©e to a better place in her world. Nair injects a strong Indian flavor to the adaptation of the British novel by Thackeray. The lavish set design, art direction, and costumes provide a stunning backdrop for the competition played according to the rules of the game.

Grade: B-

(Review first aired on the September 14, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Wicker Park

WICKER PARK (Paul McGuigan, 2004)

The love of Josh Hartnett’s life disappears without a trace in WICKER PARK. A couple years later Matthew thinks he catches a glimpse of her, which sets off an obsessive search for Diane Kruger as Lisa. Matthew has been thinking of marrying his current girlfriend, but he still wonders what became of the woman he wanted to marry and why she vanished.

WICKER PARK is a remake of the excellent French film L’APPARTEMENT. I saw Gilles Mimouni’s Hitchcockian film about a year ago, and as far as I recall, this Hollywood version hews reasonably close to the original. Sets, color schemes, and some shots duplicate their forebears so much that they could have been cribbed from L’APPARTEMENT. The twisty storyline and plot structure are followed too, yet this remake pales compared to the source material. The obsession is present, but the passion is lacking. A tone deaf Matthew Lillard supporting performance, tuned more toward comedy, doesn’t help. A problem I don’t remember the original having is the belief-stretching coincidences and easily resolved misunderstandings needed to keep Matthew and Lisa apart. WICKER PARK frustrates to no end when a smidgen of common sense on anyone’s behalf would clear up everything. Although I knew the outcome, WICKER PARK kept me interested as a puzzle movie. It’s a case of the right ingredients being combined incorrectly.

Grade: C

(Review first aired on the September 14, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Maria Full of Grace

MARIA FULL OF GRACE (Joshua Marston, 2004)

Writer-director Joshua Marston’s MARIA FULL OF GRACE may be a fictional film about a young woman who becomes a drug mule, but it’s a well researched, documentary-like look at the path someone like the main character would take. Catalina Sandino Moreno stars as Maria. The prospect of earning a large sum of money for a few days’ work entices this Columbian woman into becoming a mule. She must ingest many thumb-sized pellets full of cocaine, board a plane to New York City, and deliver the drugs without being caught by the authorities or having a pellet lethally leak in transit. Naturally, not everything goes according to plan.

MARIA FULL OF GRACE provides an authentic and compelling view of a drug mule’s experience. The difficulties of carrying the pellets, not to mention the danger, are spelled out in a few terrific scenes. Maria must practice by swallowing grapes, but that doesn’t prepare her or the audience for the long, arduous process of downing sixty-two of these pellets. The flight to New York City and need to pass through customs unnoticed are as tense as any conventional chase scene. Moreno is natural and assured in her debut performance. She makes it understandable why an intelligent young woman with a future would choose to get involved with something as unsavory as being a drug courier. In that way it would make a fine companion piece with Santosh Sivan’s THE TERRORIST, a 1999 film that tracks a woman who decides to become a suicide assassination bomber.

Grade: B+

(Review first aired on the September 14, 2004 NOW PLAYING)


I've decided to put my NOW PLAYING intros and reviews here rather than let them molder on my hard drive. Obviously I have truncated plot summaries as much as possible for telecast purposes, and the reviews are less comprehensive too. I have excised any clip introduction since that portion is irrelevant here. If the last line was "I recommend..." or "I don't recommend...", I've cut that as well. It seems unnecessary, although this removal may make for an abrupt end. You'll notice some minor differences--actors names in the flow of sentences instead of being in parentheses--due to these reviews being read aloud.

I'll post the reviews throughout the day. Links will also be provided under capusle reviews.

CELLULAR (David R. Ellis, 2004)

In CELLULAR an abducted woman’s random call to a cell phone provides the only chance she has of being rescued. Kim Basinger plays Jessica Martin, a biology teacher who thugs take from her home and hold against her will for information about her husband’s whereabouts. The abductors are unaware that a resourceful Jessica is experimenting with a smashed phone to try and contact anyone. Chris Evans is Ryan, the stranger who answers her call for help.

Someone with a sense of humor might have chosen MOBILE PHONE BOOTH as an alternate title for CELLULAR. The conflict is the same in PHONE BOOTH and this film. Someone will likely die if a phone call is ended. Rather than being limited to one location, CELLULAR allows the hero to roam as long as he keeps the connection. The similarities aren’t by accident. PHONE BOOTH screenwriter Larry Cohen wrote the story on which Chris Morgan’s CELLULAR screenplay is based. Suffused with an Old Testament contemplation of sin and forgiveness, PHONE BOOTH has more heft compared to CELLULAR’S lightweight genre thrills. Still, CELLULAR utilizes remarkable efficiency and ingenious construction to realize an exciting and funny story that seems plausible enough under the circumstances. Basinger’s performance is too serious for something this silly. William H. Macy shines in a rare chance to play the hero. He also gets the film’s funniest line.

Grade: B-

(Review first aired on the September 14, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Reality TV and The Benefactor's Heather Havrilesky writes a worthy defense of reality television. (Per the site's protocol, you'll need to click on an ad to read the article.) It's fashionable to deride the genre, but I'll openly admit to liking some of the shows. SURVIVOR and THE AMAZING RACE are two of TV's most entertaining programs. (I've mentioned before that THE AMAZING RACE might be the best show on the tube.) Even though I came around late last season to THE APPRENTICE, I was pleasantly surprised that it makes for fun viewing. (The second season looks good so far, especially if Raj, the guy who looks like he stepped out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, sticks around.) BIG BROTHER, which has usually held more of a train wreck appeal than anything, has made big strides in quality in its fifth season, although I still hesitate to call the show "good".

Yes, but what about EXTREME MAKEOVER and THE SWAN or one-off projects THE LITTLEST GROOM and MAN VS. BEAST, you ask? What about them? Where is it written that reality TV must be defined by its (presumably) worst examples? After all, SEINFELD isn't considered disreputable because THE SECRET DIARY OF DESMOND PFEIFFER, another sitcom, is widely thought to be awful.

For the time being, the average reality show is more interesting than a run-of-the-mill comedy or drama. Because they center on competition, the twists and results are often less predictable than you get in more conventional fare. Even when a traditional sitcom or drama uncorks a shocker, chances are viewers already know, whether from spoiler-heavy promos or entertainment reports of departing cast members. The best reality shows have the open-ended conclusion of a sporting event.

Which brings me to THE BENEFACTOR, the latest reality show I've come across. Billionaire Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban brings in sixteen people to put them to the test for a million dollar prize. In the first episode the premise plays like a B-movie in which some obscenely wealthy, half-cocked guy invites a group to his mansion to compete for money and then proceeds to terrorize them.

THE BENEFACTOR looks to be more freeform than its brethren. Cuban can dimsiss who he wants, when he wants, for whatever reason he wants rather than follow a format. Last night he eliminated three contestants for the following reasons: one called the game stupid, another didn't seem to match the risk-taking spirit she showed in her entry video, and a third lost a game of Jenga. Granted, he can't send three people packing each week, but the rules for staying in the game are more loosely defined. Essentially, you want to keep Cuban happy. This opens up the show to more potential producer interference and manipulation of the results than you would get on THE AMAZING RACE. I won't be surprised if those with photogenic looks and large personalities stick around longer to enhance the entertainment aspect. Still, the show's random nature might give it the zing it needs to differentiate from the competition.

Say what you will about Cuban--some are certain to find him to be an arrogant jackass--but he isn't boring. (As a pro sports franchise owner, he's serious about winning too.) This guy ought to be more entertaining than Fox's reality show with billionaire Richard Branson. Oh yeah, and he keeps a a blog.

THE BENEFACTOR doesn't look like it will equal the better reality shows, but it's a good lead-in to Monday Night Football. Better this than a couple of bland domestic sitcoms or another news magazine show.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Today's birthdays

Who shares a birthday with me?

Shannon Elizabeth (AMERICAN PIE) and Diane Farr (THE JOB and MTV's LOVELINE) were born on the same day in the same year. Others with birthdays today include Evan Rachel Wood (THIRTEEN), Devon Sawa (IDLE HANDS), former Major League Baseball players Darren Bragg and Joe Rudi, model and B-movie actress Angie Everhart, OSAMA director Siddiq Barmak, syrupy song composer Diane Warren, pianist Michael Feinstein, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' keyboardist Benmont Tench, Corbin Bernsen (L.A. LAW), film composer Mark Isham (OCTOBER SKY, THE COOLER), The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, Julie Kavner (voice of Marge on THE SIMPSONS), disco queen Gloria Gaynor (the ubiquitous "I Will Survive"), Italian horror master Dario Argento (SUSPIRIA, PHENOMENA), and jazz musician Sonny Rollins.

Rocker Buddy Holly, former basketball coach and TV analyst Al McGuire, Rat Pack member Peter Lawford (OCEAN'S ELEVEN), director Elia Kazan (A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, ON THE WATERFRONT), and artist Grandma Moses have all passed on but were born on this day.

And, just for kicks, married on this day include former 24 stars Xander Berkeley and Sarah Clarke, the short-lived Janet Jackson-James DeBarge union in 1984, and Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles in 1943.

This fascinating information and more was found at the Internet Movie Database.

Happy Birthday to Me

OK, so my birthday isn't a national holiday this year--I'll have to wait until 2009 for that if I've calculated correctly--but there is cause for celebration.

Levi, the man who puts the mon in, has given the site a facelift. Many of the reviews weren't accessible in the past few months but are now back and same as they ever were. The good news for me is that I can recover the published reviews I lost when my computer unexpectedly melted down at Christmas. (You can find a list of all my reviews on the site by following this link.)

If you haven't noticed, a couple weeks ago I added direct links in the righthand sidebar for the reviews I've posted on this blog.

In blog news, from the "strange but true (as far as I can tell)" department, I received an actual e-mail from an actual reader. The note caught me by surprise as it was from Kristen McGary, the director of THE ADVENTURES OF OCIEE NASH. Considering that I've done virtually nothing to publicize this blog except for telling some friends and putting the link in the signature to my Home Theater Forum posts, any legitimate correspondence comes as a complete surprise. I'm guessing that she found my review by plugging the film's name into Google, as second page results direct searchers here.

Of course, the internet being what it is, I can't verify with total certainty that the e-mail is from who the writer claims to be. I don't have any reason to believe otherwise, so I'm taking it at face value. Her e-mail was very kind, much more than I expected since I was highly critical of her film. (I gave it a D.) She made some good points about her film and the process, but that's as much as I'm willing to divulge from the private correspondence. I wrote her back requesting permission to post her e-mail to the blog. If she agrees, I'll tack it up here.

I guess the lesson is that you never know who is reading, which may be for the best when you're posting pictures of Canadian construction barrels instead of writing something substantive.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Everyday Canadian

Crosswalk light at Rue Saint Laurent and Rue Rene Levesque in Montreal (August 26, 2004)

Construction barrel on Carlton St. near Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens (August 28, 2004)

OK, so Canada isn't some exotic place wildly different from the United States, but I was somewhat fascinated with the common things that don't quite look the same as their equivalents here. I like the walk symbol. That guy looks jaunty, as if he's going to cross the street in style. The tiger-striped construction barrels are slimmer than those in the U.S. (One might also query if the same is true of the citizens.)