, here we see her acting out, in ways that ended up losing the audience's sympathy for her.
She is also set up in contrast to the men around her who are sympathetic or understandable, including Jonathan Silverman as a grief-stricken lover who can keep in touch with reality. Nor do the therapy sessions make her more sympathetic, as she lies to the shrink and then, frighteningly, the therapy doesn't even help her. It becomes as painful for the audience as for her to recall her earlier happy life as she seems to leave the present for it, like a Jack Finney time travel story.
This is a raw, bleak Desperate Housewives without the humor or satire. (5/25/2005)
Four Lane Highway is a bittersweet chick flick from a guy's point of view, reminiscent in tone to Tully, one of my favorite little movies of 2002.
It's a literal road trip but also a memory trip, as the film relives a love affair gone badly and the guy gradually understands his responsibilities for his personal, romantic and artistic failures.
Anchored by the very appealing Frederick Weller as "Sean", more familiar in his New York stage work such as Take Me Out and Shape of Things, he is so sweet and romantic even when he's behaving badly that we wait for more awful revelations than the obvious alcoholism and dominating father issues.
Screened at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of its New York New York Narrative Features, it may be the first film that uses the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn for its artist denizens and galleries, though most of the film is beautifully shot in a picture-perfect New England. The New York component, in the last third or so, is the most original for what debut writer/director Dylan McCormick brings to this look at twenty-somethings learning that mature relationships take work.
The woman, played naturally by Greer Goodman as "Molly", is an independent character, with a salary, artistically satisfying career and a relationship that helps her with both, though there are only hints that her new guy appeals more to her head than her heart as she has to decide if "Sean" is the love of her life despite everything.
Their reunions are both emotionally and intellectually satisfying to the viewer as the two actors have warm chemistry together that fills in their characters' surprising inarticulateness.
A bit confusing to the central theme of growing up are the side stories of their roommates, slogging around in some sort of pitiful counterpoint of one-night stands and booze, perhaps for comic effect about love vs. lust or maybe addiction as to why even good make-up sex isn't enough.
The film has a lovely soundtrack with alt-country literary lions like John Hiatt, Emmy Lou Harris, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, but the songs seem selected for atmosphere rather than specific lyrical support.(5/4/2005)
Winter Solstice is a quiet, almost all-male counterpart to Imaginary Heroes, dealing with the same theme of family grief, and was even filmed in the same town of Glen Ridge, NJ.
Debut writer/director Josh Sternfeld perfectly captures the inarticulatelessness of working class guys, particularly in father/son and brother/brother interactions.
Anthony LaPaglia as the landscaper dad and Aaron Stanford as his restless older son add to the minimal script with onscreen charisma. It's sweetly charming how absolutely clueless they are in their lack of communication with the women who are attracted to them, but Allison Janney and Michelle Monaghan are overly understanding minor characters in their intersections with the dad and older son, respectively. I presume this is to emphasize the hole in their lives caused by the absence of the mother.
The problem is that without either more intervention by the women or the alcoholic violence of Sam Shepard's male family explorations, authentic looking and sounding guys hanging out together don't do very much or resolve issues.
Pretty much the only plot point is the older son's gradual decision to leave --though I was surprised he has LPs to pack up--and how the other characters react to that.
It was nice to see Brendan Sexton again, more filled out, but he looked distractingly like the younger son played by Mark Webber so that I was confused at first that he was the best friend not the brother.
John Leventhal's intricate guitar playing on his original score is almost distractingly good. The song selections are beautiful sounding, though not particularly illustrative. (4/15/2005)
Melinda and Melinda continues Woody Allen's defensive ripostes at his audience from Stardust Memories, insisting that it is the storyteller's option whether to see the world as comic or tragic. But as with the earlier film's irony, he is better at funny.
The film opens and keeps returning to dining debaters as in Broadway Danny Rose, as they posit that the same set of circumstances (that we see as mostly the same actors playing the same characters) can be presented comically or tragically. The dichotomy is a bit false as the latter is really melodrama not Aristotelian character flawed tragedy, and even that is only made moving due to a wonderful performance by Radha Mitchell, who is marvelous at portraying nervous fragility and whose Australian accent only seeps through occasionally. I did start to lose track of which version of the truth was being portrayed, saved only by a terrific Will Farrell, in of course the comic half, who is the first actor in an Allen film to successfully be his alter ego on screen.
I noticed that the New York audience got really restless through the endless series of unfortunate events for the sad half. Farrell delivered the few laugh out loud funny lines, though the best lines are used up in the trailer. I wonder if the stiltedness of the dialog is a by-product of Allen's notoriously paranoid directing style that only dribbles out script pages to actors so they can't really fully realize believable characters.
The cinematography, production and location design were almost distractingly beautiful. Were ever so many unemployed artists, writers and actors living in such commodious and expensive-object filled apartments in New York City or eating at such expensive restaurants?
The film is also noteworthy of perhaps being the first Allen film with not only a black co-star but a Barry White song on the soundtrack, both of whom are of course rejected for a white guy and jazz in yet another Allen male fantasy fulfillment movie. (3/29/2005)
Imaginary Heroes treads some of the same territory of WASPs in Grief that Ordinary People and the as-yet-not widely distributed Bereft but full-length debut writer/director Dan Harris takes a decidedly quirky approach with considerable leavening humor.
While he gives almost equal time to the impact of guilt and grief on both generations, the parents and the teen kids, Sigourney Weaver's mom brilliantly dominates the screen, so much that it feels like those single mom leaving kids in her wake movies Tumbleweeds and Anywhere But Here.
Weaver and Emile Hirsch as her son have a wonderful dynamic and chemistry. While Jeff Daniels as the dad and Michelle Williams as the older sister have tiny roles, Hirsch is so good that it would be a shame if he continued stooping to do more silly teen comedies, as he sensitively rises to the Y Tu Mama Tambien-like turns of the story.
The devastating impact of parent-induced sibling rivalry is shown almost as intensely as in Swimming Upstream, ironically also with swimming as a focus, and in The Great Santini, but with the emphasis kept more on the emotional trauma.
The odd mix of humor and pathos occurs both within scenes and between scenes as almost no scene ends as we expect it, as each encounter has surprises, secrets are revealed and character's actions have unanticipated consequences. The comedy is accentuated by the light musical underscoring, though the song selections throughout are also excellent and unusual, particularly in emphasizing that life goes on after a family tragedy.
Some unnecessary clichés creep in, such as the school bully living in a trailer park, even though this was mostly shot in Glen Ridge, NJ. I haven't seen a teen boy since Cruel Intentions have a personal notebook as opposed to pouring his heart on to a computer.
It's also not explained why this upper middle class family is not seeking therapy or some kind of counseling for their problems. The title was briefly explained fleetingly in passing conversation.
The film looked a bit grainy so I wasn't sure if it was shot on digital video. (3/7/2005)
In Good Company is a pitch-perfect romantic comedy, funny and poignant, sweet and pointed, sensitive not sentimental.
Unusual for contemporary takes on this Hollywood genre, there is not a single false move, from the exceptional casting, to the realistic dialogue and plot arc, to the production design.
Anchoring the superb casting is Dennis Quaid who gets to play his age as everyone's movie idea of an ex-Everybody's All-American so of course he would be a successful back-slapping ad salesman at a sports magazine with an office that looks like it's filled with props and stills from Any Given Sunday and The Rookie.
Three cheers for unusual age-appropriate casting that Scarlett Johansson actually plays his daughter -- not his lover or mistress or crush object or secretary or co-worker --and Marg Helgenberger his wife. Even Topher Grace gets to play his actual age, rather than his usual high school or college student, and his relationship with Johansson's is also unusually made realistic in terms of the arc of their experiences and self-realizations.
The multinational machinations of synergistic conglomerations are realistic even as they are amusingly skewered. Particularly realistic is how employees are treated amidst these stock trades, especially older ones, as shown with a wonderfully mature cast of supporting players including David Paymer and Amy Aquino. While they may be a bit overly sympathetic and the new guys overly mechanistic, they are believable, much as Malcolm McDowell's a bit over the top global media CEO is really not too far from Rupert Murdoch.
Weitz effectively uses various New York City settings to set up the background of the changes the characters are going through. The smaller and smaller offices of the downsizing company also provide amusing commentary.
As usual for a Weitz film, the music selections of pre-existing songs are lovely, including Damien Rice, Shins and Iron & Wine, though the key inclusion of Peter Gabriel's classic rock staple "Solsbury Hill" over Grace's epiphany is a bit too heavy a comment on learning from one's elders.
This film has the touch of Ernst Lubitsch that is just too rarely seen these days and can stand with those classics. (1/21/2005)
Birth has Nicole Kidman once again the central and dominating figure in a spooky ensemble movie, as in The Others and Birthday Girl.
While the plot mirrors the style of M. Night Shyamalan, co-writer/director Jonathan Glazer is better at creating an unsettling environment where the irrational can seem rational. He does this with a slow, restless camera that glides through the purgatory of lobbies, elevators, narrow hallways, and doorways to long conference and dining rooms in the dark environs of Edward Gorey-feeling Upper West Side (sort of set between the environs of After Life and Ghostbusters).
Kidman is surrounded by an excellent cast of vaguely menacing actors in Danny Huston, Anne Heche and Lauren Bacall as an imperious dowager reigning over a duplex that seems to grow to hold displaced relatives, let alone a chamber music concert; similar but chillier to the setting of Hannah and Her Sisters, it is a center of intellectualism.
The contrast with the working class Queens neighborhood of the real (as Kidrane of the IDD calls it) the kid lives in gets across very well that he is from a strange world from hers; the economic contrast helps to fuel suspicions in your mind about blackmail or other financial motives.
Cameron Bright's surprising concluding smile makes you realize just how tense his unchildlike portrayal was making the viewer up until then.
The set up for an extensive close-up of Kidman is a dramatic centerpiece, surrounding her with a full concert hall and she spellbindingly fills the screen: I presume that scene is to provide the basis for us to accept her subsequent actions and final disposition, but I wasn't 100% convinced and look forward to seeing on the DVD alternative endings that I've read that the director filmed.
The version of "You Belong To Me" by Prudence and Patience that's played over the closing credits is a bit mood-jarring, especially compared to the percussive orchestral score that underscores the uneasy visuals throughout and helps to propel the suspense from the opening snowy jog through instantly recognizable Central Park to the final explanations. (11/15/2004)
Happy Hour is a well-acted but dated feeling portrait of an alcoholic.
Far less harrowing than addiction films from Days of Wine and Roses and The Lost Weekend to Permanent Midnight, writer/director Mike Bencivenga makes a heavy drinker and his enablers out to be genial wasters of talent until the physical ramifications become unavoidable.
Anthony LaPaglia is a charismatic alcoholic, if a mean supervisor at work, and we have to accept that is enough to justify the noble loyalty of a teacher he picks up in a bar and his best friend, a long-time co-worker.
The triangle is also old-fashioned, barely hinting at the kinds of depths as are in A Home at the End of the World. There's a brief mention in passing that his mother is also an alcoholic, but the friends seem to be social drinkers who were just keeping him company drink for drink, and can give it up at will and be inspired by LaPaglia's character to change their lives.
The voice-over narration is a bit Sunset Boulevard-ish, but is fit into the story line of the central character as a writer finishing his book.
Nice NYC touches: to have LaPaglia be a kind of Delbert McClinton in Mary Lou Lord's band and to have his dad, as played by Robert Vaughn, be part of a circle at The Algonquin that includes such noted commentators on heavy drinking as Pete Hamill and Steve Dunleavy. (10/28/2004)
P.S. continues the trend this year of movies and TV shows with aggressive older women attracted to geeky, barely post-adolescent boys. While most of them come across as male fantasies, this one, based on a novel by Helen Schulman, takes the viewpoint of the woman, to make her seem empowered.
At least here we see how she herself is still mired in her own Glory Days (just as the male lead in writer/director Dylan Kidd's previous film Roger Dodger was), through her memories, her relationships with her brother and mother, and with her ex, whose student she was (though their relationship is talkily given additional problems of lack of urge control that seem unnecessarily complicated -- does Gabriel Byrne ever play a non-adulterous husband?).
Laura Linney is so good, however, that she portrays the character as stronger and making more sense than the situations or her continuing competition with her best friend, as played by Marcia Gay Hayden (and I couldn't figure out when the friend was in New York or California); Hayden's character even defensively says at one point "We're being just like the boys." Linney is particularly effective with chilling monologues, as she dissects life's disappointments in comparison to adolescent hopes and dreams, that her character has faced not only in her life but daily as a college admissions director.
I do challenge as a cultural bias and the character's hang-up the assumption that one is perfect at age 20, such that only the good die young. While the plot is set in motion by a magic realism kind of coincidence that seems reminiscent of sci-fi-ish films like Happy Accidents, Sliding Doors or Me, Myself, I or even Vertigo the characters agree by the end that they've had enough of this mystical stuff and that angle just gets dropped as they try to be real.
The film uses the Columbia University setting effectively [the book makes clearer than Kidd's camera does just how being surrounded by fresh young male flesh all the time on campus is getting to the main character] and the soundtrack and scoring are full of New York City musicians, including Yo Le Tengo, Martha Wainwright, Citizen Cope and cellist Jane Scarpontoni. (10/28/2004)
I've now read the book and am impressed by how faithful the adaptation was, except the book's ending is probably a female fantasy whereas the movie's is more practical. While the original characters are Jewish, Laura Linney is so good that it made sense to make them all WASPs. However, the book did make much clearer what the best friend's involvement was, as she's just plain confusing in the movie. (12/23/2004) The song "Dreaming" on the soundtrack by Judith Owen is a bonus track on her CD Lost and Found.
Mind the Gap is an enchanting spiritual quest by eccentric characters who by converging from the sylvan north, south, west and east to the gritty sidewalks of the island of Manhattan, face death, their own or a loved one’s, in different ways and find salvation in accepting that no person is an island.
While each is as damaged from relationships as the motley crew in Italian for Beginners, this is far more than a romantic quest as these oddballs, who we on a rotating basis very gradually learn how they got so damaged, cannot have real relationships, including between parents and children, until they solve their spiritual malaise to make a positive choice. Their physical health and sensual perceptions are also linked to their emotional and spiritual well-being.
While the film is very long as it leisurely follows these characters' twisted trajectories, the mostly strong acting (particularly by Alan King in what I presume was his last film role) and the intriguing situations and lively conversations keep us curious, though the precocious kids interact with the adults like preternatural Gilmore Girls.
Like Magnolia, we gradually find that some of the characters are linked in disturbing ways, others by coincidence (asymptotically cute) of need, time and place, but unpredictably. As brutally frank about the weaknesses, cruelties and foibles of human nature as the former film, writer/director/producer/co-star Eric Schaeffer is less cynical and more hopeful than Paul Thomas Anderson, without resorting to incredible magic realism to restore faith. While these characters literally face the notorious undertow of the waters of Spuyten Duyvil (spiting the devil) --and their uniform hatred of the NY Yankees-- to enter Manhattan, I didn't catch all the theological interpretations about the sins of the fathers to discern any particular philosophical consistency about forgiveness, including the Krishna Das tracks on the soundtrack. I do question the meaningfulness of a child granting forgiveness to an adult, but I think it's about the adults growing-up.
Co-star singer/songwriter Jill Sobule's "Bitter" (available both on her CD Happy Town and the compilation I Never Learned to Swim: Jill Sobule 1990-2000) serves as the satisfying culmination; five other of her songs, not specifically written for the film, are also featured as commentary, as she plays an isolated busker with a literal broken heart.
Some recurring images I didn't quite get yet, particularly of a dancer in Times Square, perhaps going around and around at the crossroads of the world. One of the most hopeful and uplifting movies I've seen in a long time, it will bring a smile to "mind the gap" every time I get on and off the subway -- the gap between reach and grasp, between nirvana and humanity. (10/5/2004)
The Forgotten at first feels like a Brooklyn take on Panic Room's urban mother-child bonding with a scary situation.
< >But gradually we realize that it's more like a M. Night Shyamalan film, though I actually laughed out loud at the plot turn until I realized it was serious about being crossed with The X Files and went with that flow, and it was a fun ride of that type. Julianne Moore anchors the film very convincingly, alone and in her chemistry with Dominic West, though I wonder if he has in his contract that all first shots of him have to be with an alcoholic beverage.
The film makes nice use of the variety of spaces in the Brooklyn Heights area, from townhouses to converted factory lofts, though I think some of the matte drawings got the Manhattan Bridge views wrong. I liked the Mets references as NYC movies usually only have Yankees fans to prove their local cred; as I'm not a hockey fan I can't vouch for how credible West is as an ex-NY Ranger.
The music is constant but atmospheric and not intrusive. (9/29/2004)
When Will I Be Loved at first feels like a road movie, but for pedestrians on the sidewalks of New York City, with nice use of neighborhoods not usually seen in movies, like the World Financial Center marina and Morningside Heights (if the camera had just moved a few feet west I could have seen my son's dorm).
What seems at first like chance propinquity turns out to be circular intersections, similar to how Amores Perros used cars. Then the monologues demonstrating once again that NYC is full of hustlers and phony intellectuals, let alone obnoxious and pretentious people in any profession or social class, seemed to be striving for a 13 Conversations About One Thing analysis, with odd cameos thrown in by real people not really playing themselves, including Mike Tyson, Lori Singer, rapper Damon Dash, let alone writer/director James Toback himself playing the name-dropping Professor Hassan al-Ibrahim ben Rabinowitz.
When the coincidences come together, it turns out this is about the kind of manipulative, conniving people that Billy Wilder and Izzy Diamond illustrated much more incisively in black and white with less explicit nudity and kinky sex as they were operating under The Code.
The extensive musical selections are probably selected with great care to add commentary on each unlikable character, from the titular cover song to discussions of specific Glenn Gould versions of classical pieces, but I didn't get the irony.(9/28/2004)
Garden State is a wonderful debut for writer/director Zach Braff, visually and verbally.
The camera's eye, in placement and Lawrence Sher's cinematography, beautifully support the sharp and truthful (and funny) dialogue. And, no, as lead actor Braff's not just playing his Scrubs role.
The directing and the acting, particularly backed by the expressive production design palette, well support the cross-country odyssey Braff's "Andrew Largeman" undergoes as he eschews his father's prescription emotion-controllers for first recreational enhancers and finally for the pain and potential happiness of human relationships. Every character has lies that are gradually and with clear eyes revealed, as each has to face up to who they have become, including Peter Sarsgaard's not so sympathetic stoner gravedigger.
Natalie Portman is a delight in what may be her best role so far. She is simply irresistible and the camera falls in love with her liveliness, from her eyebrows to her akimbo limbs, as she breathes life into "Large."
The excellent song selection is as critical to the film as Scorsese's or Tarantino's. While Braff resisted using Johnny Cash's cover of Loudon Wainwright's original of "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" in a simply beautiful scene with a Dixie cup to capture a significant moment in "Large"'s life, he dares comparisons to the coming home of The Graduate by including a Simon & Garfunkel song, "The Only Living Boy in New York." The released soundtrack is annoyingly incomplete, lacking Alexei Murdoch's "Orange Sky" and a closing song, among others. The romantic use of The Shins' songs should certainly help sales of their CDs (the cuts on the soundtrack are both from their older Oh, Inverted World CD).
The New Jersey settings are evocatively selected, with each house succinctly establishing the character's family setting. The male camaraderie of ironically "Glory Days" high school chums is also well-captured.
But this is at least the fourth movie/TV show I've seen this year with a mother somewhat inexplicably bedding a gangly youth their son's age, such that either some male writers have watched Summer of '42 or even Harold and Maude too often, seen too much about Mary Kay Letourneau or there's some other kind of anger out there. (8/8/2004) (So, nu: commentary on the Jewish women) [Turns out that one of the settings is from my home town of Cedar Grove -- I didn't know the town has, according to the Verona-Cedar Grove Times of 8/12/2004, Rockledge Manor, a 24-room mansion on five acres with a panoramic view of NYC on a private estate road and an 87-foot long pool. It's for sale for $21.5 million. [(added 8/27/2004)]
Maria Full of Grace is a vivid portrait of the pushes and pulls on illegal immigrants to the U.S. Unlike another frank recent film, Lilja 4-ever, about a restless young woman in a poor country yearning for something better who also winds up cruelly exploited, Maria is able to keep her spunk and dignity, as indicated in the title and especially as portrayed brilliantly by Catalina Sandino Moreno.
The portrait of the characters are notably full, there's no wholly noble poor here, but a range of Colombians with distinctive personalities at home and in the U.S. Folks can be cranky, impetuous, naive, with complicated selfish, financial and other motives (much like my grandmother who followed her siblings here to the U.S. on her own as a teenager a hundred years ago after one too many arguments with her strict religious father).
Maria is tempted into criminal activities by a variety of family pressures and personal rebelliousness. The tensions on her are grippingly ratcheted up as reality engulfs her, but her intelligence shines through as she uniquely keeps her wits about her to function as a stranger in a strange land.
I was tempted to see the film in its home turf of Jackson Heights, Queens to see the locals' reaction, but it wasn't clear if the print showing there had English subtitles. (8/5/2004)
There's an interview with Orlando Tobón "the undertaker of mules" for the Columbian community in The New York Times August 5, 2004: Playing Himself, the Drug Mule's Last Friend by Corey Kilgannon: "Joshua Marston, the Brooklyn filmmaker who wrote and directed Maria, met Mr. Tobón while researching the film and rewrote the script to include him."
Manchurian Candidate is a crackling thriller with top notch acting and superb production design, particularly in the use of NYC settings.
A couple of hours after returning from the theater I happened to re-watch the original and I was surprised to confirm my memory that the new version actually improves on many aspects of the old one, as groundbreaking and nail biting as it was, though Demme's is more of a suspense story and less of a political statement. It is less talky and more sophisticated about the brainwashing, which was a new concept at the time of Condon's book and the first movie. The new version is less heavy-handed about politicians (the boozy McCarthyite senator in the original is a clown, albeit a dangerous one) and the enemy (North Korean Communists in the original, a multi-national corporation in the new one, though the corporate stuff doesn't really come across more threatening than those in James Bond movies that want to take over the world). The relationships among the brainwashed characters and their programmed deeds are also made more interestingly complex, as Harvey was just used as a murderer.
The key difference is that the women's roles are more credible. Janet Leigh's role in the original is simply ridiculous -- just a sexy lady who drops everything for Frank Sinatra and believes his fantastic story immediately. Though Denzel's lady isn't 100% credible in her new somewhat duplicitous focus, she's more credible than Janet was. While Angela Lansbury was simply unforgettable as the Mom, Meryl Streep is brilliant as Lady MacBeth. While much has been made of whether she's channeling Hilary Clinton (and she says she was inspired more by Liddy Dole who is a more calculating trophy wife), I think she's really playing what Barbara Bush senior would have been like if she'd been born a generation later, complete with the pearls and pedigree. The Oedipal stuff was over the top though. The girlfriend --Laurence Harvey's in the original, Liev Schreiber's here -- is given a bit more reality, as she's more grounded in the real world, not his fantasy.
Each of my fellow attendees had different plot points each found unconvincing that others felt had been explained adequately. I note a factual error - this wouldn't be the first bought and paid-for VP - Agnew was. That's why he resigned.
Demme takes note of the media's expanded role in a very sophisticated way, with the continual news announcements dropping little background touches of context. He also uses music almost as well as Wag the Dog did though not as cynically, particularly Wycleef Jean’s cover of John Fogarty's “Fortunate Son” whose original version has been used in just about every movie about the Viet Nam War. But there's good music selections throughout, including the Fountains of Wayne's cover of the Kinks’ “Better Days” as a convention song.(8/4/2004)
Spider-Man 2 doesn't even bother with a post colon title, as it continues smoothly from where Spider-Man left off, even though some time has passed.
The time passage has allowed Peter Parker's friends (and CGI) to become spectacularly successful and he to be a poignant failure in his every day life, even as Spider-Man is an exhaustively successful crime-fighter. The movie spends a lot of time, and perhaps too many tight close-ups, on Peter's financial and psychological struggles with his conflicting roles and feelings, and raises this film way beyond the usual comic book fare, beyond what X Men and Hellboy emotionally evoke.
There's also warm humor coming out of Peter's continuing, and increasingly unsuccessful, efforts to keep his identity secret and through other references, such as to Maguire's post-Seabiscuit injuries, and a cameo by Hal Sparks of Queer as Folk is meant to add another layer of flirtation.
The secondary actors were very effective, particularly a maturing James Franco (who we are obviously shown at the end will figure prominently in Spider-Man 3) and Alfred Molina's victimized villain "Doc Ock." Rosemary Harris adds depth as the aunt, though poor Kirsten Dunst just doesn't have a lot to do, so no wonder she's only signed up through 3.
I saw the large-scale production filming around New York City last summer at several locales and enjoyed seeing the products of the authenticity, including showing a nicely multi-ethnic city, so I was completely thrown for a loop when somehow what sure looked like a Metro-North train in danger along the upper Park Avenue route to Grand Central Station somehow morphed into a downtown Chicago elevated subway train to nowhere, with Chicago even thanked in the credits. While my mind did wander a bit during Peter's tortured decision-makings and revelations, I didn't think I'd missed his move to another city! (7/28/2004)
Super Size Me is a very entertaining gonzo journalism documentary.
Inserting himself very personally in the tradition of Michael Moore and Hunter Thompson, Morgan Spurlock still manages to cover plenty of carefully researched, objective, serious material while keeping the extensive statistical information visually interesting with charming graphics, including clever animation. I especially liked his original surveys of nutritionists and comparisons of different age groups' familiarity with various U.S. icons vs. McDonald's advertising.
While his attempts to get an official response from McDonald's recalls Roger and Me for Moore's efforts to get an interview with the head of General Motors, the audience gets really involved in the suspense of the condition of his health over his carefully documented 30 days of eating McDonald's meals, so it was a relief to see him looking thin and healthy on The Daily Show this week.
The DVD should be packaged with a copy of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser, which provides a wider perspective on the same issue and only occasionally covers some of the same points.
Spurlock is original in taking on the PC-issues around obesity and drawing many parallels with the tobacco industry and smokers -- do fat people bring this on themselves or are they helpless victims of relentless marketing? Obesity is brought on by eating addiction --as I have witnessed first-hand in my family -- so personal responsibility should be more a factor in dealing with this addiction than how corporate America feeds off of that addiction. I grew up in an obsessively healthy-eating, ingredient-checking, fat-mocking household, which no doubt contributed to my dad's long term healthy recovery from an early heart attack parallel to a family history of arteriosclerosis. But it was only after my grandmother died in the 1970's that I found out my mom's roots in challenging his proclivities: my namesake great uncle graduated Ohio State at the turn of the last century with a degree as a vet -- but as a Jew the only job he could get was as an inspector in the Chicago stock yards, just about the time The Jungle came out. That experience turned him and his sister into lifelong vegetarians. I never set foot in a fast food restaurant until dating The Grouch in college and he led me astray, to my parents' great disdain. But when The Scion at 8 years old was diagnosed as having high cholesterol and high risk for heart disease, I returned to the family fold. My son did announce he would become a vegetarian, but as he didn't eat any vegetables he thought this meant he would eat pizza 3X a day, so as in all things, moderation in eating is our solution. I do like the baked potatoes at Wendy's. (6/13/2004)
Duane Incarnate is a charming and humorous use of magic realism in New York City to explore relationships, recalling the sweet Happy Accidents.
Because it focuses on four women friends, it is inevitable that the film will be pegged to Sex and the City (the word of mouth on line at the Tribeca Film Festival was it was that "for the beer-drinking set"), but it is much more humanistic and sympathetic about relationships than that series' male-written scripts. Writer/director Hal Salwen explained his inspiration in the Q & A after the screening that it will always be an utterly baffling mystery as to what it is that attracts people to each other and keeps them together, a chemistry that people outside the relationship can never fully understand. If he could afford the rights and switch the gender, a play on Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" would be a good theme song.
Salwen has a particularly good ear for realistic girl talk. The whole ensemble is excellent at comically playing off each other, though only two of the actresses are immediately recognizable, for their sit com work, Kristen Johnston of Third Rock from the Sun and Cynthia Watros of Titus. While their guys are buffooned, it is done playfully and the exaggerations are fantasized. Salwen said he originally had the genders switched and it probably would not have been as amusing to stereotype the women.
I particularly enjoyed that the finale has a more open-ended explanation than the not dissimilar doings of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The New York City interiors and exteriors are used very well to establish each couple's environment (the woman behind me on line at the Festival owned the downtown loft that is a main locale), if lit a bit darkly, and it was the best use of an old stairwell in a walk-up apartment I've seen other than Pieces of April. They even got the New York Film Office to let them bring a car into Central Park.
Salwen said he walked the film cans over to the Festival in time for qualifying for inclusion and that it didn't have distribution yet. Such a delightful movie certainly deserves and should be able to find an audience, if given the chance. (5/11/2004)
13 Going on 30 is an enjoyable distaff Big that's better than it might have been, but misses opportunities to be really smart.
The successes are largely due to the un-bland casting of the exuberant Jennifer Garner (a young teen is one secret identity she doesn't have on Alias, but I was first captivated by her as the Other Girl on Felicity where she literally stole Scott Foley's heart) and her antithesis in acting styles, the charmingly naturalistic Mark Ruffalo.
Their uptown/downtown contrasts anchor what would just otherwise be a completely silly movie and which I would have put under Chick Flicks if director Gary Winick hadn't filmed it as loyally in NYC as he did his much more NY-sharp and factually accurate Tadpole.
Husband-and-wife writing partners Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith (who met, much more realistically, in college not high school) just manage to avoid some of the logical extensions of the problems of having a 13-year-old naif brain in Garner's future 30-year-old body by cutely avoiding serious sexual situations and having Ruffalo's character make an important point about grown-up responsibilities and commitments that is not the usual theme of these nostalgia-infested body-switching movies.
I respect that the competing fiancée isn't the stereotypical witch, but then why give her a fluffy career as a TV weather woman?
I didn't get MTV until 1989, so I can't testify to what 13-year-olds were watching in 1987, but I'm pretty sure the movie's pop music choices are not altogether accurate nor that the Clash were unknown to suburban girls at that point, though I wasn't a teen in 1987 to know if kids memorized the "Thriller" choreography.
Too bad someone made the decision to exclude most of the humor a la Kate and Leopold from the differences even between '87 and '04 -- how does she call her parents in NJ from NYC without dialing "1" first? How come she's not surprised at her fancy Starbucks drink, let alone cell phones or e-mail? etc. etc.
The concluding triumph of successfully marketing wholesomeness to teen-age girls is as much a fantasy as anything else in the film. (5/2/2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the best adaptation of a story that Philip K. Dick never wrote.
There's glimpses of movies actually inspired by Dick, like Paycheck and Total Recall, as well as elements from The Neverending Story with its encroaching "nothing" to Groundhog Day to Pinter's Betrayal or Memento, and the various permutations of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. But it's altogether completely original in the inventive writing imagination of Charlie Kaufman and visualization by video-maker Michel Gondry, known more up to now for illustrating Bjork's odd songs.
Yes, it takes awhile to quite figure out what's going on until you can sort out what's contemporaneously happening before your eyes, what's dream, what's memory, what's fantasy, and what's flashback -- within a one-person Rashomon roller coaster ride we literally see the tricks memory plays. It's a wonderful evocation of the fallacies of memory, as it's that elusiveness that allows people to fall in love with people who bring out something hidden in them, and then try to stay in or out of love with them. Almost every actor plays against their usual type -- here Kate Winslet is the kooky, spontaneous one, even more so than in Sense and Sensibility and Hideous Kinky (tracking her hair colors helps you track the film's trajectory and her British accent only slips through twice), Jim Carrey is the serious, shy introvert (though his comedic talents fit nicely as the character incongruously explores the hidden recesses of his subconscious), and Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood are nerds living vicariously, though Kirsten Dunst is just a slightly older nymphet than she was in Bring It On or Virgin Suicides.
Unlike most of the films this borrows from, Eternal Sunshine has a humanistic heart -- yes, love hurts, but we wouldn't trade a moment of the pain for the joy and comfort it brings. And well-worth seeing again to try and remember it better.
Lovely score by Jon Brion that helps ratchet up the tensions without overwhelming them.
While the LIRR is used nicely as a setting and metaphor, I'm not 100% convinced that the suburban scenes were filmed in what they claim is Rockville Centre, LI, as it looked more like parts of NYC to me [I've read reports that the train stations scenes were actually filmed in Westchester]-- which would be a nice change for Queens or wherever standing in for another locale.
The title comes from Alexander Pope's poem Eloisa to Abelard. (3/22/2004) (supplemented 4/8/2004)
Elf is a laugh-out-loud with a tear-in-your-eye charming, updated tribute to one of my favorite movies Miracle on 34th Street, much better than the tepid actual re-make.
Here, the plot turns in a now-vanished Gimbel's, but the family in much need of "faith means believing in something even when your common sense tells you not to" again lives in an apartment on the Upper West Side overlooking Central Park. While I couldn't tell from the credits just how much was actually filmed in NYC vs. Vancouver, I'll credit whatever it does, as it is such a Valentine to Christmas in New York, to mix holidays.
While Ed Asner makes me believe that he too thinks that Edmund Glenn really was Santa Claus, it is Will Ferrell's consistent wide-eyed innocence that carries the movie.
The product placements do get annoying, but mostly serve the script. Who knows if director Jon Favreau, who also has a cameo role, punched-up debut writer David Berenbaum's script, but it is delightful.
Zooey Deschanel is a sweetheart, while James Caan and Mary Steenburgen just pretty much get to reprise their TV roles, in, respectively, Las Vegas and Joan of Arcadia.
The visual references to other movies are amusing, from the Disney-like animation at the North Pole to treating the Urban Park Rangers like the Dark Riders from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
The holiday song selections are mostly classic, though it's nice to hear new Leon Redbone interpretations on two tracks.(1/19/2004)
Something's Gotta Give won me over. Or rather, I was charmed by writer/director Nancy Meyers' laugh out loud, knowing quips and those two old pro's Diane Keaton, in her best role since, and basically playing an older, Annie Hall, and Jack Nicholson playing himself, or at least the audience's perception of his real self.
A certain amount of movie magic suspension of disbelief has to be called for -- that Keaton's "Erica Barry" could have a hit play that would pay for an expensive beachfront house in the Hamptons and that younger women are still finding Nicholson's "Harry Sanborn", who has made no pretense at keeping physically fit, his income and lifestyle enough of an aphrodisiac.
I did enjoy that Keanu Reeves is honestly played for eye candy competition; I got a kick that he had a brain enough to admire "Erica's" work but I believed that he's a doctor as much as I believed that Denise Richards was an astrophysicist as a Bond girl.
It was odd to have Keaton spouting Yiddishisms like schmata, but I guess we're supposed to assume she picked those up in a 20 year marriage to a director named Klein, and her daughter, played by Amanda Peet with no frontal nudity for a change, does end up with a Jewish guy too.
Frances MacDormand is briefly along as a somewhat stereotypical Women Studies professor, though for a change in the movies that character is not gay. (1/11/2004)
In America is a heartwarming American immigrant tale filled with humor. The wonderful performances by Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton as the parents and the marvelously natural Bolger sisters almost keep one's mind off the problems.
The semi-autobiographical story by Jim Sheridan and his daughters evidently takes place in the '80's, as E.T. is in release, but there's continuity errors (a radio station plays "the best hits of the '70's, '80's, and '90's," the skyline is absent the World Trade Center). I thought they'd end up with other Irish immigrants in the Bronx or Woodside, Queens, not Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan. But even there it's surprising to find a Catholic school still staffed by nuns, let alone habit-wearing ones, with no other immigrant students, let alone no other Irish immigrants.
We're forced to sympathize with the basic premise of the story -- that this family doesn't come to America to Make A Better Life for Our Children Through Hard Work and Sacrifice, but lives in such a dangerous situation so the father can pursue a selfish pipe dream to be a penniless stage actor as they flee a family tragedy.
Worse is not one, but two, plot points of what I call Movie Star Disease -- those strange, ominously foreshadowed ailments where otherwise healthy-looking Beautiful People develop life-threatening health crises; one is solved theatrically with deus ex machina. This approach was lamely justified because the story is from the daughters' viewpoint and they are presumed not to understand grown-up issues. At least they got the extremes of the NYC climate right -- "We learned a new word - humidity."
The music by Gavin Friday is surprisingly un-Celtic, including a too-lyrically obvious choice of "Desperadoes" for the older girl to sing at a school talent show.(1/3/2004) [Just found out that this was filmed in Ireland, with only a few days of exterior shots in NYC - boo!4/15/2004]
Pieces of April is a wonderful New York component for a trilogy of mordant but ultimately sweet holiday movies, along with the Parisian La Buche and the multi-ethnic L.A. What's Cooking.
I particularly identified with Katie Holmes's character's incompetence at cooking Thanksgiving dinner when the other women in the theater were laughing uproariously at her efforts and I wasn't even sure what she was doing wrong, other than focusing like I would do more on the decorations than the food preparation.
Screenwriter and debut director Peter Hedges filmed in poorly lit digital video on an evidently minuscule budget but with a terrific cast and mise en scenes.
The characters who embark on parallel picaresque odysseys in a quaintly but believably diverse Lower East Side tenement and suburbs to city road trip are refreshingly individual and un-stereotyped in surprising directions, even if the actors may overdo the theatrical flourishes. Sean Hayes especially over-fusses his neighbor bit. Patricia Clarkson is marvelous as a mother with daughter issues and cancer.
There was nary a dry eye in the house at the end.(11/26/2003)
In the Cut is now at the top of my list of a certain sexual tension genre flick -- women getting involved with a hunky cop investigating an entangling gruesome crime, which includes films such as Someone to Watch Over Me, Eyes of Laura Mars, Big Easy, and the original Nordic Insomnia within a sub-genre of the cop's possible involvement in the crime and another sub-genre specifically with NYC cops.
Director/co-writer Jane Campion takes hold of the gritty genre and, while flaunting references to many other movies as well, turns it into a woman's milieu, while avoiding woman-in-jeopardy/fly-in-the-spider-web clichés. While most critics have typified the central character "Frannie" as "a repressed teacher," I saw her as a sensualist, who is fascinated by the key oral sex performance she witnesses in a bar, revels in collecting sexy metaphors [in the novel she collects vulgar slang terms], even seeing the Poetry on the Subway posters as personal messages from Eros, attracts dangerous lovers and acolytes, such as one or two who are stalking her, revels in how her half-sister [her best friend in the book] dangerously acts out her sexual fantasies, enjoys telling about their philandering father, but always drawing out others and revealing little about herself. She knows very well that the titular image on the blackboard she draws for a class discussion of Virginia Woolf's To the Light House is a passive aggressive phallic symbol. Rather, her literally fatal flaw is her indecisiveness to act on these feelings, and wrong impulsive decisions when she does act [her fatal flaw in the book seems more to be her attraction to the flame].
Campion uses an accomplished filmmaker's skills, employing visual and verbal connectors and resonators to both inflame and fear, as well as to lead us on with red herrings about the male characters. Even "Frannie's" fingering of the cop's business card with his ethnically redolent name, Giovanni Malloy, has sensual recall (though most reviewers have the character's name wrong as the IMDb listing is incomplete and he's called Jimmy in the book). I presume the over-frequent fuzziness was to indicate "Frannie's" confusion.
I'm not sure if it's just Mark Ruffalo's usual coiled performance as Malloy that makes him more and more sympathetic to the audience [even though he's younger and shorter than as described in the book he's spot on in his sensual attractiveness], so puts the film out of balance compared to Meg Ryan's distancing passivity.
In a film that proudly puts in its credits that it was shot 100% in NYC, our feelings about the cop are also manipulated by frequent focusing on the American flags that are still around the city as tributes to the fallen police heroes of 9/11.
Even as we and "Frannie" are torn between erotic attraction and suspicion (his idea of "taking her some place more quiet" is a garbage-strewn upstate river where he teaches her to shoot a gun [a new scene that's not in the book where instead he takes her right in his precinct office]), he has plenty of blunt terms for her to collect, which Esquire has featured as new frank seduction lines [his monologues are taken from the book]. He admits to a complicated personal life [though in the book he may be prevaricating more], while the only back story we get on Frannie's is her constant flashbacks to her parent's romantic courtship [not in the book]. Our sympathy is also swayed as he brags about his empathy and turns it on her: "I can't focus on this case. I keep thinking and worrying about you. . . You're smarter than I am. I'm running just to keep up with you. . . For me to see you, do I have to fuck you every time?" The last is delivered while "Frannie" is writhing in anticipation. He even services her by phone when she can't sleep.
Confusing, doubtless due to the hypocritical MPAA ratings requirements so we'll have to wait for the DVD [which is being advertised as being the "Director's Cut"] for the deleted shots, are two scenes of dubious physical possibility that, like Showtime's soft core porn, has sexual congress taking place with the guy with his pants fully on, such that I feared more that the zipper would hurt him than that she could end up as a bloodied "disarticulated" victim of a serial killer. There was a comfortable, relaxed scene of mutual nudity amidst the frankest discussion of oral sex on women since Chasing Amy, and Ruffalo does have quite a sexy way of whipping out a condom. Much has been made of Ryan in her first nude role, but more significant is that it's a grown-up, sensual role like Charlotte Rampling usually plays which Ryan sparks to only in the last half or so of the film.
The rest of the audience did not share my positive reactions, as there was a tremendous amount of yawning and restless movement with kicking of my seat. In addition, at the concluding scene, a protest arose throughout the theater: "They changed the ending!" But "they" included novelist Susannah Moore who co-wrote the screenplay so presumably approved the closing shots that I interpreted as a similarly ambiguous dream fantasy like Campion's closing for The Piano, and are akin to the story and film version of Ambrose Bierce's Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
One does have to read the book to learn the significance of the title. I look forward to seeing it again in the director's cut on DVD. (11/7/2003; post-book reading added 2/29/2004)
Here's interesting quotes from Jame Campion in the Sydney Morning Herald from the article Masters and Collaborators by Garry Maddox: "Director Jane Campion . . . credits editor Alexandre de Franceschi with influencing the strong sex scenes in In the Cut. 'I would probably have had a lot less of them in there if it wasn't for my extremely sex-loving editor ... who's got that Italian-French-Spanish approach. He's just a very big fan of sex in general and kept saying: 'Out you go, Jane. You're too prudish. Out of the room. I'm going to do these things.' . . . The influence extends to the producer, who is often considered the nuts-and-bolts organiser rather than a creative force. Campion says Laurie Parker also made a substantial contribution to In the Cut. 'It was her decision to shoot 100 per cent in New York City, which I think was a really good choice. She's just really supportive to me, having a personal take on the film, and she got a really great crew together.'" (1/31/2004)
The Station Agent was created by playwright, first time writer/director Thomas McCarthy, around his friend and colleague's Peter Dinklage's short stature, forbearance, and talent, but this charming portrait of blossoming friendship among misfits is all his.
While bursting with symbolism, these odd characters are not only firmly placed in a specific geography, but given full lives and three-dimensional back stories as to how they got in this place and time in their lives, helped by marvelous acting.
I grew up along a bus route that culminated at Newfoundland, NJ but never thought to take the bus to the end of the line, probably because it sounded so far away. I certainly didn't know that a train also went there, but the system from Hoboken through exurban NJ becomes a central visual theme for the film as much as black and white French and British movies used to use the noise, steam, stations and crowds, but here it's only occasional toots and rushes, abandoned train cars, underused rights-of-way and real estate, of points connecting lines, lines connecting centers somewhere else -- like the people in the film. I knew train buffs like the ones here when I worked at NY's MTA -- the kind of folks who plan the timetables as if they are for model trains and blame all schedule problems on "passenger delays."
The passengers on life in this movie are as brought together by chance as any travelers and slowly learn to reach out to and even depend on each other through a series of very funny and poignant coincidences.
The movie is wonderfully effective at finding non-cliché and unpredictable ways for people with nothing in common -- one has become isolated by his physical appearance, one is damaged by grief, one is incapable of being alone, plus believable secondary characters with problems and various levels of optimism -- to find something in common --their humanity. (10/25/2003)
Washington Heights brings fresh elements to the old, but continually autobiographical for young filmmakers, story of the immigrant's son who is striving to get out of the old neighborhood.
The lead could have been played by John Garfield, but as the old neighborhood is now a Dominican Republic stronghold, he's played by Manny Perez, who was also very good in A & E's 100 Center Street. Another alum from the same show, Bobby Cannavale, only gets to do a similar role as he did in Kingpin, but we also get to see other TV series refugees as well in different roles.
What's new here is not only does he want to be an artist, but a comic book artist escaping into an exaggerated fantasy world. The usual conflict with the father is O'Neillian as it is not just rebellion, but complicated with responsibilities and recriminations. The financial struggles of each character ties them all together in a tense web of dependencies, making the climax more shattering to all.
Freshest is the lack of sexism and genuine affection for women; all the women are employed, independent and not dragging the men down with unwanted pregnancies; nice to know characters in such movies have finally discovered birth control (though I missed a couple of plot resolution points involving the women).
The very long list of thank you's in the credits reinforces that the film was a labor of love with minimal budget, but the resulting cheap, available light cinematography is less Dogme-noble and more just plain hard to see.(5/11/2003)
Raising Victor Vargas is an endearing and engaging look at being and trying to bring up teen-agers on the Lower East Side.
While these kids are no different from the thousands of generations of adolescents before them, so there's universalism that all can relate to, the particulars of orphaned Dominican immigrants living crowded in with their grandmother adds extra poignancy. (My mother's reaction to the film was to wax nostalgic about living just like that with her siblings in a similar railroad flat in her early youth.)
This fits among the recent spate of ethnic tension/assimilation movies, as these new generation of films are not just about rebellion, but rather about the importance of family and keeping the love and respect of their elders. This is also the third film I've seen in the past few months that deals with a young Casanova who is afraid of a real romantic relationship and learns to be vulnerable with family and lover (Tully, taking place on a Midwestern farm, and All the Real Girls, in a small Southern town) had the same theme and arc of young adults with limited options and world views so sex particularly looms (hey, aren't there settlement houses anymore so kids have something else to do?), yet each is beautifully unique.
This is a full-length debut for the whole cast and crew and they are wonderful, especially the lead reel/real Rasuk siblings, and Altagracia Guzman as the grandmother just trying to do the right thing.
On their small budget they were not able to afford much of a soundtrack, despite the urban and Latino setting.(4/20/2003)
I caught Vanilla Sky on HBO and couldn't give it my full attention, but I was surprised the elements that I liked vs. the ones I didn't.
I'm a big fan of Cameron Crowe, particularly the romantic and musical elements of movies like Say Anything, Singles, and Almost Famous, but those were surprisingly the weakest part here.
I really liked the sci fi story line and the futuristic NYC mise en scene (though one isn't surprised that Times Square on what's clearly a quiet Sunday morning could be shut down for Tom Cruise).
The music, though off-beat, didn't add much to the commentary.
But I was perfectly willing to have an obnoxious Cruise get the death penalty and didn't for one microt believe he had fallen genuinely in love with Penelope Cruz (on-screen or off) as there was zero chemistry. Or maybe the triangle was distorted by the home run hit by Cameron Diaz who was way more appealing and literally walked away with the movie on really sexy gams up to there.
I am curious to see the foreign-language movie that inspired this.(3/2/2003)
Dare Devil is no Spider-Man but it's still fun.
I like that it's in a somewhat real New York City, and my Queens audience appreciated comments such as comparing the fashions of Hell's Kitchen to Chelsea and that the Kingpin is from the Bronx. Even the subway station shown was correct geographically with the correct train nomenclature. The gaggle of New York-sounding actors also helped, including guys from The Sopranos. We see a real New York Post because Rupert Murdoch owns the paper and the movie studio.
Jennifer Garner of Alias makes stiff, expressionless Ben Affleck look better, though his spiky anime hair helps too. Especially in the rain, that is once again a means for sweet romantic scenes, here shown through sonar.
Colin Farrell is once again following Russell Crowe's footsteps, just as Crowe did in Virtuosity, here literally chewing the scenery in his villainous turn as "Bullseye," (which I assume was rewritten from the comic books to let him be Irish).
The special effects are wham bang fun.
The soundtrack is coldly calculated to appeal to the movie's primary target audience of 14 year old boys, but manages to be entertaining, though not particularly creative in its loud selections.
The sound editing neatly reflects Dare Devil's heightened sense.
That this movie made PG-13 when so many foreign and indie movies don't is ridiculous as this is very violent.
Stay through the credits as there's a humorous follow-up scene stuck in.(2/17/2003)
The Younger recommended 25th Hour, saying, "Its the first movie that really shows what New York was like after 9/11 for New Yorkers."
David Benioff adapted the script from his own novel originally published early in 2001, so he and Spike Lee added the key layer by making the introspective focus of post-9/11 significant, and that makes all the difference in raising this film to a moving level a la Casablanca (about how individual doings aren't worth a hill of beans compared to what else is going on in the world, etc.).
The film opens with extensive shots of the memorial lights where the towers were, and the camera is constantly picking up memorials and tributes behind conversations, including one scene in a firefighters' bar and another in an apartment window overlooking Ground Zero, to flags on SUV antennas to a closing in memoriam and use of Bruce's "The Force" over the credits (Spike thanks him as "Da Boss").
Like Bruce does in The Rising, Terence Blanchard incorporates Arabic singing in an evocative score. The score becomes as much about the new visibly multi-ethnic New York City as Gershwin stood for Woody Allen's Manhattan.
Spike Lee is still a bit heavy-handed in dealing with white ethnic groups -- here stereotypes of Russian gangsters and Irish drunks almost replace his Italian ones from the ham-fisted Summer of Sam. But in the extensive, theatrical, illustrated monologues the characters rage on about the changes in New York City and escaping it, he gives them the post-9/11 gift of final understanding, even as each "stays a New Yorker." Through one character, we also see the white collar parallel to the streets, the aggressive, upwardly striving atmosphere of trading rooms, similarly shown in Boiler Room, tempered by the knowledge that so many of those who died in the towers worked just like that.
The acting by Ed Norton, Rosario Dawson, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox and Philip Seymour Hoffman is very strong, in what is in effect a New York take on Dead Man Walking as all gradually come to terms with a crime and its impact on their lives.
Weakest is the central meeting point as some private school they are all connected to and gravitate around as the locus of their "Glory Days" as Lee seems to be saluting Woody Allen in another way by adding in what now seems to be the obligatory jailbait in short skirts temptation. (1/20/2003)
Gangs of New York combines the Mad Max post-apocalyptic vision with the grounded-in-some-reality of Escape from New York and A Clockwork Orange with a final sequence practically straight out of the original Planet of the Apes, yet it is not sci-fi/fantasy but is based on recognizable history like a David Lean epic.
Yes, Boss Tweed is shown somewhat accurately (though I would have preferred Michael Gambon to the not-entirely well-cast Jim Broadbent)
Yes there were competing fire and police departments, I will learn more about the real Five Points when my history reading group reads Tyler Anbinder's Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum, Dutton, 544 pages, now out in paperback rather than the somewhat-mythological book the movie is based on.
Yes Irish immigration was huge post-famine with nativist reactions.
Yes NYC was anti-Civil War, virtually pro-slavery, and the Draft Riots were horrendous cataclysms. ( For a chat with Anbinder and the screenwriter about the film's historical reality.)
But Marty - we hardly knew ye! Where's the neo-realist of Mean Streets and Goodfellas? Instead, Scorsese has brewed all these historical elements operatically (I guess that's his Italian connection) into a long, very theatrical concoction, with exaggerated costumes and multi-leveled sets, of revenge, ambition, and romance buffeted amidst larger historical forces. Walter Hill's 1979 The Warriors told a similar, picturesque NYC gang tale effectively on a smaller scale, inspired by Homer. There are some moving scenes and social commentary amidst the ostentation, and of course the cinematography is beautiful. Some of the off-putting is caused by the odd casting with even odder accents, though of course we don't really know what New Yorkers sounded like 1846 - 1863 -- when did Noo Yawkese develop? Daniel Day Lewis is known for his Irish roles, but here plays a Brit-sounding nativist. Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio sound like Nicole and Tom in Far and Away to the point where Leo has to excuse that he lost his accent in the orphanage, though when their roles turn dramatic they settle down.
Howard Shore's vaguely Celtic music is quite effective, helped by Robbie Robertson's many selections of period-sounding tunes, including Maureen O'Connell as a strolling troubadour and several from Alan Lomax's collections. Yeah, this was filmed on a set in Italy, but it's SO much tied to NYC history that I had to put it in this category. (1/1/2003)
Roger Dodger is the debut feature of writer/director Dylan Kidd, who has clearly been much influenced by the plays and movies of Neil LaBute.
He uses the acid wit and conversational gambits of LaBute to challenge those assumptions about male/female relationships as a hunt/hunted game for sex. Similar to LaBute's In the Company of Men, the plot is set in motion by a bet, though here tellingly with an adolescent boy.
Even with a superb performance by Campbell Scott as Roger (playing the opposite of his lovable, huggable city planner in Singles), the women in actual fact have the upper hand in Manhattan (from older lover/boss Isabella Rossellini, to a tandem pair of bar-hopping wise-girls Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley).
It's a bit of a cliché that Roger is an advertising copywriter, like Affleck's not dissimilar character in Bounce. But what makes LaBute so much more intriguing is that his despicable characters don't get their comeuppance -- if an obnoxious roué is shown to really be an arrested development adolescent and an adolescent boy can be a sweetheart isn't that a ho hum dog-bites-man story?(12/23/2002)
Maid in Manhattan is a typical Hollywood romantic comedy fantasy of rich guy and poor girl coming together in Cinderella fashion and enjoyable fluff in the Kate and Leopold mode. It's even co-written by a writer of Working Girl that it resembles weakly and has a similar moderately feminist conclusion.
But it could have been better, after all, it's directed by Wayne Wang, whose early indie Chinese-American romantic comedies were so sweet.
There's wincible plot points for a New Yorker, though the rest of the world won't notice. The rich guy is supposed to be a Republican NY State Assemblyman (not the usual source for playboy paparazzi-magnets, unlike J. Lo herself) running for the family business of the US Senate - why not just make him a mogul? It took me most of the movie to come up with an even close-to-sensible back story that he's probably from Dutchess County or north, like the Hamilton Fishes or the Houghtons of Corning (though their money originally came from the glass works). ]
The opening use of "Me and Julio" while the camera zooms in on J. Lo's native Bronx will doubtless lead the rest of the world to assume that Corona is in the Bronx. That's as close to any Latin sounds in the movie (J. Lo is called "Mediterranean-looking" by her beau, though she does use Spanglish endearments to her son and once mutters under her breath in Spanish.) Oddly, there's no original songs used, and when Norah Jones's voice floods the screen we get more warm love from her "Come Away With Me" than any heat generated on the screen.
All the British actors are completely mis-cast. Ralph Fiennes simply doesn't have the touch for such a light, romantic role, and his American accent doesn't even work as an allegedly upper crust one (I couldn't stay around for the credits to see if he had a dialog coach.) Bob Hoskins has spent an entire career as a Working Class Hero and here we're supposed to believe he's a snobby butler in the John Gielgud in Arthur mode, or even like Hector Elizondo's manager in Pretty Woman, so his sympathy for J. Lo is less of a grudgingly earned turnabout. Natasha Richardson has a thankless role in what is usually the snotty fiancée; worse is that her nasty, snobby, best friend, played by Amy Sedaris, is needlessly several times emphasized to be Jewish. Absolutely no point seeing this in a theater, or on DVD, or even cable.
It will be perfectly enjoyable cut up with commercials for its eventual showing on network television. (12/15/2002)
I went to see Igby Goes Down to show support that Ryan Phillippe took an ensemble part in a small movie in NYC (and he manages to be both obnoxious and seductive). Doesn't hurt the Cause to also prove Susan Sarandon can put bodies in movie seats too, even when she has three movies out at the same time (though family obligations kept me from then sneaking into The Banger Sisters on the same ticket for a double feature.
Igby takes place across the park from Tadpole showing the Upper East Side is even more dysfunctional than the Upper West Side when it sends its progeny to boarding schools and Ivy League colleges. The characters are individually striking, the acting terrific, though does Amanda Peet have in her contracts that she has to show her boobs in every movie she's in? Neat trick to be able to have a younger Culkin play Kieran (who was also good in Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) as his younger self.
This writing/directing debut by Burr Steers doesn't really hold together as everything just gets too, too extreme for even black comedy, with several deaths.
The hair styling is the best I've ever seen on Phillippe, Sarandon, Claire Danes, etc. -- lead stylist Quentin Harris is a name to watch for.
The individual song selections were cool, such as Travis doing "The Weight," but didn't really add anything in the soundtrack. I will give it another try on cable or video as maybe I just didn't get it.(revised 10/13/2002)
City By the Sea should be in a double feature with Insomnia. Like Al Pacino, here his compadre Robert DeNiro is a masterful old pro as a cop caught in a web of the personal and the criminal.
DeNiro is wonderfully matched in the cast, with Frances McDormand (three cheers for sweet, realistic, age-appropriate romances! though I couldn't figure out what her theater job was) and two of my favorite young TV actors who are clearly juiced to be acting across from DeNiro, James Franco (of Freaks and Geeks) and Eliza Dushku ("Faith" on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel). A couple of DeNiro's fellow cops are also from TV precincts, George Dzundza of Law and Order and John Doman ("Major Rawls" of The Wire).
Inspired by the true events told in a magazine story by the late Mike McAlary ("Mark of a Murderer" in Esquire, September 97, Vol. 128, Issue 3, p. 88, 11 pages), the intriguing plot and DeNiro's unhistrionic anguish combat some mawkish changes from the true story.
While the original and the film's story take place in Long Beach, Long Island, the film was actually shot in Asbury Park, NJ; too bad they didn't think to put Springsteen's original version of "My City in Ruins" over the closing credits, as that's what it was first applied to, but maybe they figured that as it is there are occasional scenes of a New York City skyline with the Towers (where it looks like DeNiro literally rolled out of bed from his Tribeca loft to film) so it could have been awkward. (9/15/2002)
Tadpole is a delightful tribute to The Graduate (complete with an appropriate cover of Simon & Garfunkel, this time using "Only Living Boy in New York" -- and the senior citizens in the audience with me didn't get the symbolism).
The New York setting and boarding school holiday vacation are also resonant of The Catcher in the Rye.
The usually done by Jake Gyllenhaal role is here sweetly played by newcomer Aaron Stanford, though Bebe Neuwirth absolutely steals the movie out from under him (literally) with more than one wink at