In The Bedroom

The subject of familial strife and stress is not a new one, several movies over the past few years have dealt with that topic in some form or another, with mixed results.  From the chilling power of Atom Egoyan’s Sweet Hereafter (and more recently, The Deep End), to the insipid emotional trite of Before and After, this is not unfamiliar ground for directors to tread on.  Todd Field comes in somewhere in the middle of those two extremes with his debut effort, In The Bedroom.  The film is incredibly well cast and acted, along with being meticulously crafted down to the very details of television shows and sporting events, but it fails only slightly, in the fact that instead of overwhelming the audience with the emotion of the traumatic events and the immediate aftereffects, he drags the grieving aspects of the parents and others to near tedious level, before finally resolving things in an expected, but realistic manner.  Despite these minor flaws though, In The Bedroom is still a powerful, realistic look at the effects of abnormal, or extraneous circumstances on average people.

Field treds on similar ground as Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, touching on the effect of tragedy on what may aesthetically seem like a happy and normal family. The story takes place in the nicer parts of Maine (the antithesis of Stephen King’s view of the state) and focuses on the Fowler family, Ruth, a high school choir teacher, Matt, the local doctor, and Frank, their son, headed for an Ivy League school after summer.  Frank falls for the much older Natalie, who comes with baggage of her own, namely a temperamental and persistent ex-husband (Richard).  The first part of the movie is used to establish the characters, develop their interactions, and basically let us get to know and care about them, and to show that these are people that exist in the real world, not the Hollywood version of reality, and Field does this quite well.  His most endearing little aspect of reality, to me, was his insertion and constant usage of television shows and radio broadcasts, sometimes as the only dialogue in a scene, to add that relatable sense of realism to matters.  The second part of the film, deals with a tragic event and loss, that I shall not reveal, and no critic should, needless to say it creates the tension and ultimate resolution, which populates the third act of the movie. I had no problem with the subtle way that the tension develops, and then erupts throughout the cast, but it was a bit tedious, seeing the grief hammered into our souls shamelessly, using different situations to parlay the same emotion.  A bit of trimming, time wise and situation wise, would have been more powerful and effective without taking anything away from the intensity of the situation.  These feelings are conveyed powerfully enough in two of the films memorable scenes.  One, where Tomei confronts Spacek, and one where Wilkinson and Spacek have it out, broken up by a candy bar sale, then come to a realization afterwards (the other memorable scene was one with Wilkinson walking down the halls to his wife’s classroom) These were very tension filled, realistic and emotional, with the subtle touch not to go over the top and milk it for any emotion other than the one that naturally comes about, if you’ve let these characters inside you.  Field and Festinger allow this to happen, dually, by the way they setup, and deliver the story to us, with great patience.  This patience could have however been abandoned in the final stanza, in place of hard hitting emotional, and real, intensity, that would have abounded, and been emitted by the actors, who all deliver strongly, and were cast perfectly.

The shining stars, definitely worthy of recognition, run the gamut through the entire cast, but the best of them, are Wilkinson, with his patient, almost non-challant method of dealing with it all.  Inside he is obviously pained, but he channels it into other events and activities, in an almost uncaring, unfeeling manner, in contrast to Spacek.  She is a virtual volcano, dormant and simmering at times, erupting and tortured at others, and Spacek hits every painful note with perfection.  Tomei is coming out of her fluffy Oscar win haze slowly (this is another dramatic role, along the lines of her performance in Unhook The Stars), and fits the role of loving mother, yet victim, quite well, as does Stahl, who is helped along by his innocent, yet playful good looks, to match his depth and charm.  Finally Mapother (Tom Cruise’s cousin), is calmly wicked, with just his look, and words that seem to ooze the despise that is needed for his role to work.

Ultimately, In The Bedroom is a strong cinematic showcase of acting talent, writing and direction, that could have benefited from a touch of editing and toning things down a bit, for a stronger message.  The closer something hits to home on screen, the more of an effect and impression it will leave on the viewers.  Everyone has dealt with stress, and emotional situations, and gone through one, if not more, of the different emotional rides that the characters here do.  Field (the piano player from Eyes Wide Shut) definitely has the touch and methods down, and has made a very impressive debut, channeling the likes of Egoyan but as with any great filmmaker, it may take him a few tries to perfect his delivery and craft.  In The Bedroom is an admirable start though, and should be seen and recognized by families seeking answers, fans seeking something different, and aspiring actors seeking to see how it is, when its done right.

 

Series 7: The Contenders

The names, unfortunately, roll off our tongues with a simplistic, yet hesitant ease.  Survivor, The Real World, Temptation Island, Big Brother, Love Cruise, in the past few years, societies twisted fascination with reality based television has given birth to these slices of Americana.  So it was inevitable that Series 7:The Contenders would come along.  With an idea that was born before the Survivor craze, but well into the Real World run, director Daniel Minahan has satirically, but brutally shown the extremes to which entertainment could go.  While it fades a bit in its finale, drifting away from its edgy commentary, and into soap operatic predictable schmaltz, the overall effect is one that will cause any viewer or fan to think twice about the emanations from the cathode ray nipple that feeds society's voyeuristic yearnings.   

There is a fitting bit of irony in Minahan doing this film, since he was one of the pretentious heathens who gave us Fox’s When Good Things (insert animals, cops, ex-wives, whatever) Go Bad.  It is very obvious from the presentation that he is very familiar with televisions innate draw and power of manipulation and cathartic hypnosis through shock therapy that it can cause. Now some may say that it is hypocritical for him to make this film, but I see it more as striking back.  He is not only biting the hand that fed him and lifted him to where he is, he is attempting to exorcise the monster that he helped create.  And he is definitely off to good start. The film jumps right in, feet first, as if the viewer was familiar with the series and the rules.  The Contenders is the name of the show, with each episode becoming a series number.  The rules are painfully simple, there are 6 contestants, chosen randomly using identification numbers and informed by a mysterious masked militia (who also serve as enforcers) who walk in, hand them a gun, walk out, and seal their fate, at least for three episodes.  Each contestant must eliminate the others in order to move on, after 3 episodes, the prize is freedom, no money, no lavish gifts, just self-preservation and survival of the fittest, presented for entertainment purposes.   We are brought into Episode 7 of the fittingly popular series.  The reigning champion is embittered, seething mother-to-be Dawn LeGarto (Silence of The Lambs, Brooke Smith) who has earned a reputation for being a ruthless competitor, which she defends vehemently by stating that she’s doing it for her baby.  The episode takes place in LeGarto’s hometown, a midsize Connecticut town, where 5 other residents become her competitors: Franklin, an elderly man who’s the most hesitant of the group, Connie, an innocent looking nurse who has a darker side, Lindsey, a teen who feels the parental pressure, Tony, a father on the edge, and Jeffrey, a mid-30s cancer victim with a death wish. 

At first glance, the contestants would seem to be a cross section of society, but closer looks reveal, as it may inside most of us, that when put into apparently average people are put into situations, they may discover sides of themselves heretofore not know about, or displayed. Minahan deftly intersperses the progression and explanation of the game, with some slice of life human moments, showing that these are normal people, put into a fight for their lives.  He grazes over, thankfully, being too preachy about the hesitancy of the participants, or the legalities of things, letting the natural flow of the game lay things out, and the viewer can discern and pick things as things go along.  The series are broken into 15-minute segments, with each promoted as TV does, complete with tacky taglines (These cats, don’t have, nine lives), and dramatic voiceovers.  The tension builds, as the game goes on, and the movie heads towards its conclusion.  By the time it comes around, including a shocking, but not wholly surprising, sequence of events in a shopping mall, the after effects show just how calmly we have been woven into Minahan’s web of a story without even realizing it. 

I leave the rest, as any TV show would, for the teller to unveil.  Needless to say, the story unfolds in a manner that hints at more beneath the surface, not just with the individual characters, but also with their interactions.  This plays out in the movies third act, and brings to light an interesting question and commentary may be Minahan's underlying message.  Does life imitate art, or vice versa.  In Series 7’s case, I think it is intentional, but not wholly forgivable.  Society does influence actions, but when darkly satirizing something, conformity is not always the best path chosen.  Minahan tap dances around some serious issues, in favor of focusing on the familiar, crowd pleasing, dramatic elements and touches that seem to litter televisions landscape these days. Was this just a grasp at being more universally accepted or just an insightful mockery of it? it is difficult to say really, but the movie does stumble towards its conclusion, losing it’s edginess in place of sentiment.  Although, I had to admit a weak spot for the inclusion of Joy Division’s oft-forgotten 80’s classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, as a part of the link between two of the characters.  Others may question the legality or overall ramifications of such an endeavor, and it must be remembered that this is a movie and is make believe, but if you think about it, how far would fans go, for entertainment.  Minahan shows this haphazard societal disregard in two very fitting, yet frightening scenes.  One involving a confession session by the nurse, and another involving police stopping Lindsey at a metal detector, only to have her say “It’s okay, I’m a Contender” and be let through no questions asked.  There is no question that there are darker issues at work in Series 7, and for the most part, Minahan hits the right notes, but others are glazed over, as stated before. 

He has a cast of relative unknowns here, save Smith, and that also works in the films favor.  As the latter 2 Survivors have apparently shown, recognition, either of faces, or circumstances, is tainted when there is a familiarity.  The relative anonymity allows the audience to really get into, and learn the characters as people, and as things progress along, and become a part of the game.  Watching the film, I could morbidly see how society could get hooked on something like this, as proven in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled; anything is probable and possible, if there is money, and popularity to be gained. 

Ultimately, Series 7:The Contenders is a bitingly dark satirical slice of social commentary that hits more than it misses, and makes some points that we may not like, but cannot avoid the voracity of.  What is entertainment to one may be drivel to the next, but one thing is unavoidable.  There are inherent curiosities within the human soul which yearn to be fulfilled, and whether people admit it or not, there is a morbid curiosity within each of us.  When this curiosity is fed by media mogul who know just what kind of sustenance to dole out, then phenomenon grows, and it becomes a self-sufficient Catch-22 where the creation to fill a need, is then sustained by a public’s fervor and blood thirst for more.  Series 7 makes some frighteningly brutal points about the lengths that people will go to be entertained, and while it’s stumbles slightly at the end, it is definitely something that those who are glued to the lives of others, may need to turn to, to get their own dose of reality. Scoff at the violence if you will, call it pointless, brainless exploitation and entertainment, but be sure you can turn that same critically opinionated vision towards whatever it is that you find entertaining.  Remember how much you were appalled at those people being gunned down or beaten, next time you slow down to ogle at a car accident, or watch 30 straight hours of CNN for 10 minutes of action.  It is a brutal world out there, so be sure you are morally sound, before turning your hypocritical wit towards the movies intentions.  Minahan shows us that what entertains us, disgusts us, and appalls us, may not be as far apart as we’d like to claim while we sit on high.  Just recognize his message, forgive bits of his delivery, and realize that he is just the messenger, telling it as he, and too many others, see it.  Like it or not, the truth can hurt.

 

Orange County

There is no denying the amount of talent running through the veins of those involved with Orange County, especially the bloodlines of the actors (Tom Hanks’s son, Sissy Spacek’s daughter (Fisk)) and the director (Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence, of Big Chill fame.) Add into the mix, writer Mike White who gave us the chillingly dark arrested development drama Chuck and Buck last year, and there seemed to be little room for error, even forgiving the simplistic, typical teen movie premise that was being explored and exploited.  However something did go amiss.  Amidst brief flashes of a great idea and film, comes a deluge of stereotyped characters and situations, mixed in with the requisite gross-out scenes, and too much Jack Black in his underwear, and Orange County becomes, just another teen movie that wastes a decent idea, in favor of maintaining the status quo.

Hanks plays Sean Brumder, a talented teen mixed in with a family seemingly straight out of a dysfunctional family handbook.  His mother is a dependant lush, who doesn’t want to let go, his brother is a slacker who is “perpetually recovering from the night before” and his father is more interested in material possessions and finances, then his own family.  Growing up like this, who wouldn’t want to escape?  Sean’s escape attempt is inspired after the loss of a surfing friend.  He discovers a book on the beach, and after reading it, decides that his career goal is to be a writer, and his school of choice is the prestigious Stanford.  However something goes awry in his application process, as his transcripts are confused with another’s, and he doesn’t get in.  Believing he was wronged, and then finding out the truth, he sets out to do whatever he can to get into Stanford.  The premise and set up is decent so far, but what follows is a series of events, that range from silly (Black breaking into the dean’s office and messing around with another lonely, fire-obsessed student) to pointless (slipping drugs to the dean of admissions) to disgusting (an interview process which falls apart, expectedly after a sequence involving urine) None of these scenes even generate a modicum of laughter, more than maybe a smirk.  The potential for what could have been flashes through when Brumder, of course, encounters the author of the book (a surprise amongst other cameos) on a visit to the school.  It discusses how the characters in his life seem to come straight from a book, and how leaving one’s home, doesn’t always ensure success, due to the environment being inspiration for the pain and power of words.  Unfortunately, these ideas are drowned and beaten down, until the whole experience becomes tiring and completely unfunny and unoriginal.  I almost pitied the wonderful cast that was assembled here, for having to wade through this all.

As Brumder, Hanks shows similarities to his father’s earlier work, with the frustrated anxiety of trying to find a place in the world, and still have fun with things.  His chemistry with Fisk, is okay, but she is little more than window dressing, given very little to do.  Black is yet again wasted and miscast, as the buffoon, who only briefly shows that he is smarter than all of us, or at least thinks he is, roles that Black shines in (see High Fidelity).  Here, he is once again relegated not just to supporting character, in which he can steal movies, but he's too dumbed down, as he was in Saving Silverman, and not allowed to be what he truly can be.  Throw in a star studded list of cameos and stars (from Lithgow and O'Hara as the parents, to Chase as the principal, and the aforementioned author) and it is stunning that Kasdan and company could have given a better presentation of things than he did.  After the quirky Holmesian mastery of Zero Efffect, I expected great, or at least decent and respectable.  Instead he too falls victim to the sophomore jinx that has bitten so many, and he barely seems to put forth an iota of creativity in doing so.

Ultimately, Orange County becomes another in the long line of cinematic carcasses that failed to capitalize on a genre and subculture begging to be visualized, satirized, or even explained in a justifiable and due manner.  It is not difficult to see where Kasdan and White (who, as an illiterate, clueless English teacher, also has the only other scene that I laughed at) wanted to go with this movie. This could have been a lighthearted teen comedy exploring what makes us who we are, and if our dreams are what we want to have, or simply an escape from whom we really are.  Maybe not that psychologically in-depth, but somewhere in that general area would have been nice without being subjected to banal predictability that we are presented with here. Behind all of this talent and possibility, lay something that could have been light fun, while exposing teen angst and anxiety, while still managing to elicit some humor out of it all (see American Pie 1 and 2 for example) But Kasdan and White instead choose the easier path of conformity, and forsake a great cast for something that we can see in any other teen related movie, with less expectation based on bloodlines and previous efforts.  Granted, I wasn’t expecting Citizen Kane, or even Breakfast Club, but the glimpses of what could have been; make the end result a great disappointment

The Royal Tenenbaums

 

If Kevin Smith is Hollywood’s resident smart aleck, and Darren Aronofsky, its dark visionary, then Wes Anderson (along with writing partner Owen) is it’s cerebral humorist.  With the Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson has created a sometimes tedious, but slanted and brutally humorous look at dysfunctional families and the repercussions of the sins of the father. He has cemented himself as the leader in the genre of humor that either makes you cringe because you can relate, or think about, because you understand.  This is the kind of movie that you don’t know what to expect going in, and are not sure what to think when you come out, but once you think about it, you’ll realize that you’ve seen a very smart, well written, tilted, but slightly overdone piece of societal observation.

The beginning of the story, and subsequent delivery is cleverly done through the usage of a book, going chapter by chapter.  The beginning introduces us, in depth and reminiscent of Amelie, to the cast of characters and their history.  Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is the obliviously uncaring father of three child prodigies, Richie (Luke Wilson), the tennis pro, Chas (Ben Stiller), the financial wizard who bred and created Dalmatian mice (in one of the films many quirky touches) and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adopted daughter and successful writer/playwright.  Each achieved fame at a very young age, but as the story continues, each fell on their own type of hardships.  Flashing forward 22 years, to Royal, who is either critically ill, or just critically in need of some soul cleansing, trying to reconcile with his wife Etheline, and the kids. The remainder of the story progresses, in rather trying manner at times, through the differing types of issues, ranging from dealing with the failures, to Etheline’s courtship by her business partner, to the closeness of Margot and Richie’s “relationship”, to Margot’s mysterious past disappearances, to the relationship with a neighbor child Eli (Owen Wilson), whose presence, along with Bill Murray and Danny Glover's, I struggled with, save just populating Anderson’s odd little world with more weird and quirky people.  The story is setup well enough, but in order to have any kind of power must be quicker hitting, because the lethargy and repetition tends to wear down the effect I believe.  What makes the movie work is the way that Anderson and Wilson combine all of the little oddities, without making it seem unreal.  This, combined with the continued creativity of delivery, the sharp, sometimes painful truth of the script, and the acerbically unknowing humor of Hackman’s characterization, are what make the film bearable, and later on, ring as memorable.  He is unexpectedly sharp and consistent, with his off the cuff, naturally sarcastic nature and delivery.  He makes Royal seem insulting without knowing it, and comes very easily to Hackman, who has a comic touch that he can pull out and use with great ease, as he does here.  As for the rest, Paltrow maintains the same deadpan look throughout, but with her sunken-eyed appearance and bland delivery, she suits the character perfectly, as we feel her pain. Unfortunately, for all of the good, including Huston’s haggard turn as the mother, who seems to have lost her best years, we are subjected to pointless appearances from Glover and Murray, who sleepwalk through their roles, and whose characters seem to have no discernible purpose, save romantic ties, or just to show that not everything has to make sense, or have a purpose, I guess, that is very unclear and distracting.  Most distracting of all, is the presence of the Wilson brothers in front of the camera.  They are obviously brilliant minds when it comes to creation and translation of natural humanity in an abnormal presentation, but in front of the camera, it’s another story; something I like to call the Tarantino syndrome.  It is where the creative genius and talent should remain behind the camera, rather than in front of it.  Had that rule been applied here, and one of the characters been removed, and another recast, this may have been a more pleasant and rewarding, albeit still slightly over stated, experience.

Ultimately, The Royal Tenenbaums is a twisted, offbeat, slightly belabored look at the dark side of the imperfect family, done by one of the few directors who could pull this off without shocking us (ala Todd Solondz) or depressing us. (Ala Atom Egoyan)  Anderson and company have always looked at the same world we have, except that their perspective is tilted about 45 degrees from the rest of ours.  We see bits and pieces of our selves in their movies, especially this one, and therein lay the success, or failure of their films.  The message here gets slightly diluted over the time it takes to tell it, by giving us repeated versions of the same issue, such as Margot and Eli’s relationship, Chas’s anger, or Richie obsessions.  But beneath all of this diluted emotion and intensity, is a well written familial commentary that hits more often than it misses, and establishes the creators as the social observers and town criers of that which we sometimes feel no one can understand, or no one would want to. It is an offbeat social dissection that takes longer than need be to makes its point about the bonds of family love and friendship, which can be easily severed, but not as easily repaired, and the pressures that expectation can put on these bonds.  All done through the slanted realism, viewed through the eyes of Wes Anderson and The Wilson’s.  Nobody’s perfect, despite appearances, but there may be good inside all of us, fighting to get out, and the methods of extraction and delivery may be unconventional, but all come from the same place. At least this time around, unlike Rushmore, I could at least grasp the concept and idea, and laugh at a little bit of what I got, while in theater, and a lot more, upon reflection.  The future is bright for Anderson and Wilson collaborations, as long as they tone things down, and don't let their witticisms and cuteness go to their heads

 

Black Hawk Down

Move over Private Ryan, Ridley Scott has just done Spielberg one better, an unenviable feat to say the least.  With Black Hawk Down, Scott has created the most frighteningly, yet amazingly realistic war sequences ever put on film.   Just imagine the first 20 minutes of Ryan, multiplied by 6, and given a deeper focus of complexity.  While the film is betrayed at times by its clichéd script, and the dramatic license taken is a little emotionally manipulative, the final effort is still one that leaves a sense of awe, respect and admiration, not just for the creators of the film, but for the soldiers and ideals so powerfully depicted. 

It is both frightening, and shocking, how quickly that important events can fade from our memory.  Two years removed from the Gulf War, the nation had entered into another peacekeeping mission, in the African nation of Somalia.  The country was in the midst of a famine of “Biblical proportions” and was under the dictatorial control of warlord Mohammed Aidid.  The United Nations sent in food and supplies to help the 300,000 innocent Somalis affected.  Once the country was back on its feet, a small contingent of peacekeepers was left behind to help maintain order, and Aidid targeted them, thus creating a hostile environment.  This story, based on the best selling book by Mark Bowden, tells of one of the more infamous occurrences during the mission.  It started as a raid on a meeting of political dignitaries of Aidid, which was scheduled to last 30 minutes, but due to several mitigating circumstances (including a fallen soldier, and two downed helicopters) ended up costing 18 American lives, and leaving several soldiers pinned down in Mogadishu for almost 15 hours.  More details on the book, the soldiers, and the aftereffects are available in the “Related Links” section on the left hand side of the page. 

Having not read the book, I cannot compare, but I’m told that it takes the same, detailed minute-by-minute retelling that the movie does, also jumping around to several stories and people all during the same timeframe.  This may cause confusion or frustration for some, who either get lost in the shooting, or just mixed up as to which camouflaged, buzzed haircut, soldier they are following.  But I feel, being a veteran of a much less violent Desert Storm operation that this effectively reflects the mass disorientation, and maddening sense that the soldiers here, and in any kind of armed conflict, must have experienced.  The way that Scott and cinematographer Slavomir Idziak captured this must truly be seen, to be awed.  They were duly, and deservedly rewarded with Oscars for their editing of these complex scenes, and the sounds of the battles.  The choreography and direction of having several different things occurring, in several different perspectives and areas of the scene, is truly a marvelous experience, even sans the gunfire, blood, vehicles, explosions, and troop movement.  All of those combined, with a reasonably solid script, make this one as close to a “You are There” experience than most of us will ever want.  My only minor complaint involves the sometimes predictable side stories (involving a new troops introduction, a last minute phone call, and a letter to the parents, not to mention half of the generals “leave no man behind” dialogue) I do not know if these were actual occurrences, or Scott, Bowden and Zailian took dramatic license to go for the sympathetic effect.  This brings into question my whole, does life imitate art, or vice versa debate.  Do people say and do things because they saw them on TV or the movies, or do the movies do these things because they think its what people would actually do, or at least want to be done.  It’s hard to say, and a never ending debate, but in this film, those little occurrences, only mildly taint the overall magic, and frightening reality of the films experience.

Unfortunately, the performances save Hartnett, Sizemore, McGregor and Fichtner (that still leaves over 15 focused speaking roles) go unnoticed, or blend into things too much to really single out.  By reading the credits afterwards, I learned that Ron Eldard, Jeremy Piven and Brendan Sexton were in the film, but I could barely tell you where. None of these really stand out, as they are, as soldiers are, a part of a cohesive team.  Each has a part, a job, to fill and do, and sometimes its not as important whom the person is, as to how they contribute to the team.  This is the case in this multi talented, effective cast, which does bring a bit of heart and realism to a painful piece of history.  

Ultimately, Black Hawk Down is a brutally realistic depiction of warfare; its heroes, their triumphs, the losses, the sadness, and the overall emotion of the situation.  This will be as close as most of us will ever come to real warfare, complete with the bullets, the blood, the confusion, the chaos Amidst the predictability of recent cinematic efforts, it seems that the art of film making often gets lost amongst the attempt to present a universally crowd-pleasing product.  Filmmakers are storytellers, just as authors are, and their goals are similar.  Each creates a story, whether the basis is factual, or generated in the mind of the teller.  They attempt to take us into their world, and give us a complete experience, using every available method.  With Black Hawk, Scott has returned to the forefront of visual storytellers (after his Hannibal debacle) and has given a nation a reminder that soldiers and heroes have existed around us for ages, all we need is someone to bring the story to our attention and give it due justice in telling.  

This was a part of our history that a lot of people may have forgotten, and others would like to forget.  But for the sake of patriotism, and national unity, we cannot, and shall not, thanks to Ridley Scott’s amazing vision.  I was a soldier, serving during this time, and only in reflection and research, did I recall and recount the details of this small dark slice of American history.  George Santayana once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Sometimes it takes the story telling medium of the movies, not just books, to remind, recount, reflect and respect the participants, and the repercussions of our past discretions.  Let Black Hawk Down stand as a reminder that America is not a perfect country, but will always be a proud, patriotic one.

I Am Sam

Every so often, a movie comes along that reminds us that its simplicity which keeps our lives in balance.  People often get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of the capitalistic madness and rat race that we barely stop and realize what is truly important, and what truly matters.  Sam Dawson has figured that out, and we are the lucky viewers who get to share in his Beatles based philosophies on life, love, child rearing and the simple art of touching the human side of the viewers hearts and souls without even trying.  I Am Sam is a by the numbers sap fest that never quite goes over the top in sentiment, and does stumble a bit in reaching its conclusion, but succeeds in generating empathy, sympathy, and genuine human emotions without ever drowning us in any of them.

The movie opens with one of the most touching sequences that I’ve seen on film in a long while.  We are shown Sam, a Starbucks employee who has the mental capacity of a 7-year old, but, and about to be a father.  Unfortunately, the mother is less than ready to be one, and abandons Sam at a bus stop, leaving him to raise his daughter, Lucy (whom he named after the Beatles song) We are taken through his unconventional methods of raising Lucy (including using a hammock as a crib, and logo buttons as safety pins) up until she reaches the age of 7 where the story begins.  Sam has enlisted the help of his friends (an eclectic group of mentally challenged men including a paranoid, and another who quotes useless facts ad nauseum), and a kindly, but slightly agoraphobic neighbor (Dianne Wiest) to assist him. A series of circumstances result in a social worker (Loretta Devine) taking Lucy from him, sending him into a battle for custody to prove he can be a good parent.  He happens to come across a stressed out attorney (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is not known for her compassion or generosity, and to prove something to her colleagues, she takes Sam’s case.  Needless to say, we learn that her life isn’t as good and perfect as initial appearances would show.  A crumbling marriage and a distant relationship with her son are just a few of the conflicts going on in her life, which will obviously be dealt with as the relationship between she and Sam grows.  The story obviously creates these contradictions in characters to make the point of those who seemingly have nothing, may have more than they realize, and those who seemingly have it all, may actually not.  This is balanced fairly well, with the obligatory few overdone scenes of realization and redemption, but we are never hammered over the head with them. The only minute flaw is one that befalls many directors when navigating territory previously done, or logically progressed.   The movie comes to a seemingly resolute conclusion, but continues on, as if there were more points to be told (which there actually are).  It is in the transition to this finality, that the movie hits rocky stages, and almost careens into a maudlin mush fest.  But in retrospect, these scenes set up, and give the movie its powerful conclusion. This easily could have turned into a tear jerking emotion fest, but the delicate balance of situations and delivery, combined with the strength of the performances, gives the message just the right emotional power that it needs to succeed.

What can I say about Penn’s performance that would do it justice, besides, just see it.  He takes a role that could have been overdone and brings the right dose of reality to it, by never going over the top, or to an excess, but showing the class and restraint to make this character uniquely his. He nails the characters eccentricities, yet realistically progresses and learns as someone with this disability would, making him seem more like a real person, and less like an actor playing or imitating. He is complimented, yet contrasted by Pfeiffer, who gives what may be her best performance since Dangerous Liaisons.  She shows the many facets of her character with the consistency that makes her go virtually unnoticed throughout most of her movies, until you realize that you are so into believing that she is her character, that you forget she’s actually just a performer.  In her usual compassionate, yet troubled manner, Wiest again shows why any movie she is in, is worth watching solely for her presence.  And lest I forget the refreshing debut performance, and presence of young Dakota Fanning as Lucy.  Aside from being just adorable beyond words, she has a surprisingly expressive demeanor and the timing of a proven veteran, combined with her obvious childish innocence showing she is more than just another pretty face.  Together, each performance gives this picture the near complete puzzle, and with a smoother ending, could have been one that would have everyone buzzing.

I would be remiss, if I did not mention this movies soundtrack, which is another of its high points.  Few in the know, doubt the depth and psychological relevance of the music of the Beatles, but Nelson has utilized this facet of the character not only to weave relevant references throughout the film (the movies unofficial theme of course being “All You Need is Love) but also to compile remakes of Beatles songs, and sprinkle them as fitting background music to situations.  Artists ranging from The Black Crowes, to alt rocker Heather Nova, to Penn’s brother Michael (with Aimee Mann) contribute to the success of the sounds elicited by the situations and moments presented.

Ultimately, I Am Sam is a well-balanced expose on the path to finding what is important in life, without having to look too hard for it.  The possibility existed to go over the top, or hammer these feelings, thoughts and such into us, and it actually took some restraint apparently to step back and take the simple, realistic, but more challenging route, rather than the normal, expected one.  As in life, sometimes it takes standing outside ourselves, or observing others in different circumstances to make us realize that the things that matter most, are not always the things that are most noticeable or obvious.  Nelson realizes this, and has embodied in her characters and story, making this one important social commentary, and emotionally touching, all in one delicate but consistent breath.

 

Gosford Park

Robert Altman’s overextended whodunit, Gosford Park is further proof of life not just imitating art, but showing an ironic parallel.  With each situation that life presents us with, there is a rhythm and timing befitting the execution.  This philosophy also applies to movies, and their various types.  Love stories can be slow and methodical, to help the audience feel the bond, while action films are fast paced, so as to give the frenetic, energized feeling that the characters do.  Somewhere in between, comes the suspense genre.  In order to generate suspense, you must establish certain details, characters, settings etc, along with keeping the pace moving quickly enough so that the nerves are kept stimulated and on the edge.  This is where Gosford Park fails.  While Altman, normally the master of juggling a large ensemble cast and weaving them into an interesting tale, may have had an intriguing tale to tell, his belabored character development bogs things down, and ultimately lulls the audience into a sedated state of ambivalence.  Even a decent ending, cannot save Gosford Park from being well cast bore.

The setting is England; somewhere in the early 1900s I’d guess.  Several well-to-do guests, and their valets (or assistants, or whatever description you care to choose) have been invited by Sir and Lady McCordle at a stately British manor for a weekend of shooting and socializing.  Through the extended relations and conversations it becomes apparent that all is not as comfortable and cozy as it seems it would be for people of this social status.  There is a Hollywood director, and his apparent assistant, researching for their latest film, along with a famous actor with a talent for piano playing, who seems to draw the attention of an unhappy heiress in a loveless marriage.  Then there’s the crotchety old owner of the house, and his wife, who seem to hold the cards over some of the guests.  There are also servants, who have their own stories, only one of which I could really discern.  Owen plays an orphaned assistant to the movie star, who seems secretive, yet lamenting, over his past.  There are other stories and events which become cluttered in the first 2/3 of the film, and ultimately hard to tell what is what, who is who, and how they could possibly be connected.  Then comes the murder, the investigation, and the resolution, all crammed into the last 35 minutes of the film, like Altman realized that he was running out of time, and the resolution, that while surprising, does little to relieve the agony of getting to know these characters.  I can respect a character driven piece, that wants us to care about the people, and what happens to them, but Altman takes that to near overkill status here.  What would have worked better, is if he had cut down the number of characters slightly, thus shortening the setup time, and allowing more for the suspense and curiosity of their outcome.  Granted, that is typical of suspense movies, but it works.  Altman could have used his touch of managing a large cast, giving us enough insight into each to get to know them, but not deluging us with useless information.  Red herrings are one thing, creating suspects and motives are another, but there is a delicate touch and balance to this, along with establishing a rhythm that works to generate thought and interest in the audience.

With a cast this large, it was difficult to pick certain people and actors out, since they all seemed to meld together in a blur of tuxedos and British accents.  Maggie Smith is notable as the cranky Countess of Trentham.  She has just the right balance of sarcasm, arrogance and humor to almost bring life to the role, and stand out from the others.  Along with Mirren, who is relegated to the role of a maid, who may or may not have more going on behind her quiet demeanor, these may be the only roles to take away from the film.  There are other faces, some recognizable (Thomas, who does little more than pout and be arrogant, Watson, who melds into the background, Balaban, who also co-produced, Phillippe, who seems out of place, and Owen, whose look gets him by more than his dialogue) and others who get lost in the crowd. (including the wonderful Richard E. Grant, relegated to a near nothing role) Overall, Altman just couldn’t seem to say no to people, and the fact that there were 5 different production companies, shows that there were a lot of hands in Gosford Park, and even a skilled and talented director like Altman, could not corral all the ideas and characters into a semblance of a coherent movie.

Ultimately, Gosford Park is a futile exercise in excess, the result of which is a tiring period piece detective thriller that fails to generate any momentum or interest.  There is an unwritten order that should be followed in a film that wants to gain curiosity and suspense.  There is the establishment of atmosphere, the introduction of characters, the act itself and the resolution.  Altman does all of this, but takes longer than necessary, and keeps too many balls in the air, for it all to come down in any kind of sensible manner.  He excels at doing pieces which are more about the who’s, then the what’s and where’s.  When he puts people into situations, and then reflects their actions and reactions, he succeeds (The Player, Short Cuts), but here he steps out of his normal genre and, like Crowe in Vanilla Sky, he seems out of his league, and grasping to save face by the conclusion.  Gosford Park never establishes any kind of timing or rhythm, except a hypnotic state lethargy, which results in disappointment at what could have been.

Hedwig and The Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is, amongst its many inspirations, philosophies and such, a personification of the credo that looks can be deceiving.  The preview for this film, in my opinion, was one of the worst that I had ever seen.  It painted the film as the story of a struggling transsexual musician, which seemed to be mostly comedic in its portrayal.  But it is so much more.   When you first see Hedwig, the person, you may see a male, pretending to be a female, obsessing over a young rock star, and casting blame on his family, and the loved ones in his life.  But there is so much more.  The film is a strong, lyrical message about the search for identity that everyone goes through in his or her lives.  With not so subtle similarities to Rocky Horror Picture Show, Adventures of Priscilla Queen of The Desert, and most notably, the underrated classic Pink Floyd: The Wall, Hedwig becomes socially relevant film, whose undertones will reach inside each and every viewer, and strike chords as glaring and noticeable as Hedwig’s blonde mane.  By the end, you will understand, empathize, and sympathize with Hedwig, but you may even discover some things about yourself from the film’s life philosophies on finding yourself, and not being afraid to be that person.

Hedwig is the greatest unknown cross dressing musician that you would never have heard of.  She spends her evenings playing small restaurants and locales, shadowing the tour of a currently famous rock star, Tommy Gnosis, whom we begin to suspect, who has a connection to Hedwig (via song similarities and the quietly venomous reaction to the mention of his name).  Her band, The Angry Inch, is a play on a piece of Hedwig’s tortured past that is slowly, but masterfully unraveled for us, through the progressions of songs and tours of a chain of restaurants known as Bilgewaters.  From the sorrow filled tones of Origin of Love, showing the continual search for identity that she carries consistently through the story, to the hard driving Angry Inch, which tells of the botched sex change operation that leaves a minor protrusion of manhood, the songs tell the story as the story tells itself, and we become a part of the unveiling and discovery of Hedwig’s painful journey. Hedwig was born as Hansel, in the year of the erection of the Berlin Wall, 1961;a fitting bit of both irony (to the emotional wall that she has built up) and tribute (to Roger Waters 1979 masterpiece) He was the son of a die-hard Hitler follower and an American G.I., and grew up in an apartment so small, he was forced to play in the oven, and learned to appreciate the American mastery of Anne Murray, Debby Boone, and the glam rock icons of the mid 70s. The journey continues through the love affair, which brought him/her to the predicament of the sex change operation, through abandonment in a small Kansas trailer park, to where she is today, the telling of the story, revelatory, yet progressive and intriguing, is artful biographical and lyrical storytelling in its truest form. I love stories that concurrently tell us things about the characters, while forging ahead through a story that may seem a bit repetitive and tedious, but also seems very representative of the days in Hedwig’s life.  Mitchell’s screenplay, brilliantly littered with social commentary and emulations of self-discovery and search for identity and placement, is balanced with the aforementioned soundtrack with near choral perfection. Both humorous, and telling, these examples show the painful, yet disturbingly humorous trek, the consequences of which, Hedwig must live and deal with daily.

I was kicked out of university for giving a dissertation on German philosophers influence on Western music, called U Kant Always Get What you Want

6 inches forward, 5 inches back (describing the botched attempt to conform to a lovers wishes)

To walk away, you’ve got to leave something behind”  
“To be free one must, one must give up a part of himself” (both used to justify said operation)

I sat in stunned amazement and appreciation at Mitchell’s words, and felt every bit of Hedwig’s predicament, which she never allowed to prevent her from achieving dreams, yet seeking more; a true representation of the glam rock movement, its soldiers and sadly, its casualties. 

This is definitely that could easily fit in, but is also very much inspired by, the glam-rock movement of the 70s, led by David Bowie, the New York Dolls, and the Velvet Underground to name just a few.  It has the spirit and energy of the performers, but also the uninhibited brutal honesty and emotion that befell, and sometimes destroyed, its participants.  Hedwig, the story, began as a Broadway play, and translated well from stage to screen, it seems.  Each of the songs has a place and purpose, instead of just being wedged in to ensure placement on a soundtrack.  It is a movie and a sound with a purpose and a goal; you may not like Hedwig, for the choices, for the lifestyle, or for who she is, but you are damn well going to understand how this complex person came to be, and what she is made of, figuratively and literally.

The movie is carried by the soul-baring performance of the story’s creator, writer and director, German born John Cameron Mitchell, who definitely deserves mention amongst the great performances of 2001.  The stodgy Academy may shy away from the movies subject matter and initial appearance, but this would be a grievous oversight over one of the most daring, emotional, and honest performances of the year.  Adding to irony of the film, is Ithzak, Hedwig's lover, played a mustachioed Miriam Shor, yet further commentary on the films gender bending method of delivery, but never hammered in, because the focus is meant to be on who the characters are on the inside.  The rest of the cast may seem unfamiliar, save SCTV alumnus Andrea Martin, changing gears to play Hedwig’s faithful enthusiastic manager. The remainder of the cast, made up of virtual unknowns, including Michael Pitt (no relation to Brad I do not believe) as Gnosis, become the passing chords and notes, in the sad, triumphant, but impossible not to watch and listen to, story of an international unknown.

Ultimately, Hedwig and The Angry Inch, is an instant modern classic, a journey of self discovery clad in powder blue irony and platinum blonde decadence.  There are two sides to every person, and the movie shows one person's divided world, and the attempt to unify, while finding themselves.  Hedwig's world is a world divided.  Born in the year the Berlin was erected, half-German, half American, half man, half woman, dumped by her creator on the day of the Wall's destruction, the movie is filled with underlying messages and social commentary that become amazing revelatory and wise upon further reflection on the film.  I think this film works, because if you look at it closely enough, we can all see a little bit of our selves in Hedwig.  Forget the homosexual, transsexual phobias, because those are irrelevant to the film's overall message.   We all, whether we admit or not, seek to find our place, our purpose, in this crazy, confusing, ungiving, seemingly uncaring world.  Hedwig appears to stroll through life with a confidence, and a voice and eyes that seem to reflect a deeper conflict.  She could be a representation of anyone, who has ever questioned and wondered why they are who they are, and how they came to be that way.  Mitchell’s cinematic gem may touch some chords that make some uneasy or uncomfortable, but I ask you to look past the make-up, the cross dressing, the homosexual undertones, and see the true messages about life that this film has to offer. If the Academy can see past these, then the screenplay, Mitchell's performance, and any It may make you question, rethink, or even modify your life; it may muddle the clear, and clarify the muddled, but if you let it, may make you understand more about yourself, and those who you may not normally give a passing glance to on the street.  Few films have done this, with unexpected depth and honesty as this one does.  First appearances may make you think one thing, but looking closer, will reveal more than most care to see, but definitely should.  Ironically, that credo applies to this film as well.  Meet Hedwig, and find yourself in her words, in her story, and in the emotions that her story brings out in you.

John Q. 

We must reform health care in America. We must build a modern, innovative health care system that give patients more options and fewer orders” – George W. Bush in a speech to the Medical College of Wisconsin, February 11th, 2002

The issue of public healthcare is a sensitive one, and also one that has gained a lot of attention lately. It is one that most can relate to, and is bound to spark emotional rhetoric or personal accounts based on the reactionary emotions generated by its mention. In John Q., emotions are taken to an extreme, similar to In The Bedroom.  Like that film, it deals with the natural instinct that parents have to protect, avenge, or save their children.  In both cases, the parents are pushed to the emotional limit by extenuating circumstances; the difference with John Q, is that the end result is weighted down by few instances of heavy-handed dialogue and overly done situations.  This, along with the characters acting inconsistently or being underdeveloped and the screenplay stumbling and fumbling to get to its conclusion almost make this one too much to handle.  But the film is saved by an underlying message that rings true to most people, but has somehow flown slightly under the radar of public discontent for too long.  The film has a heart, and a passion, about the issue of public healthcare, and the system and hoops that one must seemingly jump through to get something that should be natural instinct.  The Hippocratic oath states “I will use regimens for the benefit of the ill in accordance with my ability and my judgment, but from what is to their harm or injustice I will keep them” but something has gotten clouded in the mix, and now it’s not a matter of values, but a matter of value (as the film artfully states). 

The movie begins with a car accident involving a carelessly inattentive female, who ultimately ends up in a nasty accident with two semis, which at the time is seemingly unrelated .  Then we are introduced to John Archibald, a lower middle class steel worker, and his family, a waitressing wife, and a son with dreams of being a bodybuilder.  We are shown the levels of frustration that their life has reached, John’s car is repossessed, his hours are cut at work, his application for a second job is denied, yet his love and religious faith endures  through it all.  When his son collapses during a baseball game, he is taken to the hospital, where it’s discovered (by a coolly arrogant cardiologist) that he has an enlarged heart.  This medical condition is not covered under John’s medical insurance, and will cost in excess of a quarter of a million dollars.  The hospital’s chillingly inhuman administrator informs the Archibald’s that they will have to pay on a cash basis, for their son to be cared for, and possibly operated on.  John does everything possible, but cannot quite raise the money, and when faced with the prospect of having his son released from care, and dying, goes to the extreme measure of commandeering the emergency room at gunpoint.  His hostages are an all too conveniently eclectic cross section of society.  The heart doctor, another doctor, two interns (one who is in her first day on the job) a man and his pregnant wife, a Hispanic woman with her crying baby, a rent-a-cop security guard who couldn’t protect a glass of water and a smarmy gigolo type, and his seemingly bimbo girlfriend and a wisecracking Eddie Griffin, along mainly for comic relief apparently; they all become the cast of characters who will no doubt interact, react, and maybe even bond together at some point.  This is one of the movies acts of convenience that may be possible, but is a bit too convenient for even the most extreme realistic thinker.  From here, the movie seems to stumble a bit in knowing where to go, and what to do with its setup.  Adding in the added aspect of the media exploitation was a bonus that kept things interesting, and providing more commentary on our thirst for information and bad news.  The anchorman, hungry for the story, of course feeds it, and his own ego continuously, which at least progresses things, and also shows another sad side of this information hungry society.  While this is nicely balanced, it too becomes a bit excessive at times, and frighteningly believable in others.  The overall story is slightly hokey, and convenience reliant, but it can’t ruin the power and emotion of the message.  The inevitable situations occur, but are also realistic in occurrence.  The situations are those, which are dramatic, and may seem cinematic in development and execution, but are actually very true to form of events that occur and exist in our world today.  The only thing that differs is the frequency and the visibility.  It is highly believable that the events of this movie could happen, based on its factual foundation and the way the situations are presented.   The frustration and frailty of the healthcare system, combined with the media exploitation, both taken to absurd, but believable extremes.  It stumbles slightly when it tries to touch isolate, or overemphasize specific human emotions 

Once the hostage situation begins, things lag into a series of emotional manipulation, one-liners (from Robert Duvall, doing his best to keep things from getting out of control, both situationally, and cinematically), and over reactionary facial expressions (most coming from Ray Liotta, wasted yet again as he was in Hannibal).  The performances from Washington and DuVall are naturally effective, but the strong supporting cast falters at times, falling into the expected roles (even Mulholland Drive’s Harring isn’t given much to do but be a brainless blonde, and of course, exact revenge on her abusive boyfriend).  Had the screenplay and direction been eased up just a bit, this really could have been a memorable movie.  As it is, they are all put into roles, and do just as expected, which isn’t bad, but isn’t as good as it could have been. 

Ultimately, John Q is an acceptable piece of commentary on frustration with “the system” and the lengths that love will drive us to.  Will this film drive all desperate uninsured people to these extreme measures, its doubtful?  Will it open the eyes of blind and ignorant to this glaring social problem? Possibly.  Will it touch and move you, more than likely.  But the intentions and delivery are enough to make its point and give us an entertaining journey.  Movies can not only be representations and reflections of real life, but also can be the escapist embodiments of what we wish and dream we could do, if circumstances were different.  In our minds, we all dream of doing whatever we can to change, what we seemingly cannot, but for whatever reason (most of the them being legal) we do not, and just talk about it.  We leave it to the cinema to take us into this alternate universe of “what if’s”.  The plausibility may come into question, but this is the movie’s, they aren’t always made to be exact, or completely realistic, instead an alternate universe where reality and fantasy can meet, shake hands, and for two hours, become a part of our lives.  Part of the magic of the movies is that allows living vicariously through its characters for 2 hours.  They do the things we wish or dream, when faced with similar circumstances.  We’ve all been run through the system, been told to fill out paperwork, only to find out it’s the wrong form, been told to stand in a line, only to find out it’s the wrong one, been told that we have insurance coverage, only to find out its limitations, when the circumstance arises.  Cassavettes taps into this vein tactfully, and successfully, failing only when he goes one step farther than he needs to, to elicit sympathy or emotion.  A little bit softer of a touch, and he would have nailed this movie, but as it is, it stands as a socially relevant commentary with a heart, that will hopefully be a wakeup call to America, the HMO’s, and the government to act, before we react like John Q. does.

Dragonfly 

 

Don’t look now, but Kevin Costner is hearing voices again.  This time, instead of mysterious ramblings from a cornfield, Costner is haunted by a duality of natural phenomena, insects, and waterfalls.  In Dragonfly, a haunting love story that works when it is unconventional, but stumbles when it goes over the top for emotion, Costner is a stubborn, doubtful doctor who has just lost his wife in natural disaster while she was on an aid mission in South America.  The movie hearkens back to Ghost and The Sixth Sense, and while it lacks the edge and genuine emotion of those two films, it does succeed in making us think twice about those things that we would normally dismiss, and believe in the power of true emotion to help us see what we may doubt or scoff out.

Costner is Dr Joe Darrow and along with his physician wife Emily, was apparently living a comfortable life. But all is turned asunder when a flood washes away their future plans and leaves the doctor a distraught workaholic.  But something is amiss.  He begins experiencing things, which most would chalk up to coincidence or chance, but with his heart longing and yearning for her memory, he begins to expand his realm of the possible.  You see, he hears her voice, he feels her presence, and through some circumstances some sappy and maudlin, others just downright predictable, he begins to wonder if she’s really all the way gone.  Courtesy of the convenient presence of nun, some young cancer patients, and a tolerant law professor neighbor, Costner begins to explore the boundaries of the impossible, while clinging to the love and emotion that he lost.  The film repeatedly, if not inadvertently, poses the question, does our mind, fueled by emotion, expand what it believes and what it doubts.  Does Costner’s love for his wife allow him to consider that she is still out there trying to contact him? Does his passion to find these answers allow him to explore circumstances which he normally pass off as inane?  The film stumbles through the groundwork of establishing the potential connection, but somehow touches an emotional nerve during his journey, both physical and mental.  The resolution of the film, while not a twist, is still kind of a pleasant surprise, and is acceptable in the grand scheme. Director Tom Shadyac falls back on some of his tools that almost made Patch Adams too much, in the establishment of the bond between the doctor and his wife, and the circumstances, some believable, some questionable, in order to support, and ultimately justify, his conclusion.  He does manage to balance it enough to make it tolerable, without being excessive. Oddly enough, I thought back to one of the better movies of last year, Memento, during the viewing of Dragonfly.  Both involve a grieving husband, and the search for answers by whatever means necessary.  In Dragonfly however, the supernatural edge adds something to it, while the clichéd filled script detracts, and at times distracts from the matters at hand.  Had Shadyac lain off just a bit, and taken a few more chances with things, he may have had a memorable film.

Most of the time, Costner is better when he’s at the extremes of character traits.  When he’s serious (JFK, Thirteen Days, Dances With Wolves, Field of Dreams) his determination and stubborn nature comes across to near perfection.  When he’s cute and humorous, (even add in athletic, Tin Cup, Bull Durham), he plays off his rugged good looks and charm and coasts through the roles.  But in past roles like this one, as grieving, doubting, stubborn, cute and romantic, he has usually failed (For Love of The Game, Revenge, Waterworld, The Postman)  This time around though, he has balanced all of those and bottled them when necessary, and lets them out at just the right times (although occasionally, during movies failed dialogue scenes, he comes off as a bit too over the top).  This movie is his to make or break, and he doesn’t do anything outstandingly good or bad, but comes in at just the right pace to make this film work.

Ultimately, Dragonfly could be the poster movie for someone who just will not let go.  It treads on similar ground that Ghost laid down a few years ago, and that other movies have touched on upon recently, that of the communication with lost loves through other than worldly forces.  The movie succeeds at being entertaining, but stumbles when it falls back on clichéd situations and dialogue.  The overall experience is one that is mildly successful, but with a toned down touch, could have been a strong supernatural love story that presents the query of strength of emotional bond, fueling strength of belief in that which most would normally dismiss or cast off.  Just as in life, if you open your mind and heart, and allow your blinders to come off, in favor of the potential that exists in the world, then you may be pleasantly surprised at the results.  Even if it isn't exactly what you expect, it can still be a refreshing surprise amidst the madness

We Were Soldiers 

The Battle of Ia Drang is one of the most infamous, lesser-known, yet painful entries into a confusing, yet life-changing chapter in American History.  It happened prior to the inception of the draft, and only gained notoriety after Lt Col Harold Moore’s 1992 book We Were Soldiers Once..and Young (co-written with journalist Joseph Galloway and upon which the movie is based) Moore led the 1st Infantry Company, 7th Battalion (the same as Custer, his character notes) into battle with visions of Custer’s last stand, and an earlier French massacre, and Galloway became the unwitting, but undaunted, documenter of facts.  This movie is Randal Wallace’s interpretation of the experiences of Moore, Galloway, and the other soldiers who were participants in one of the bloodiest battles in American history. And according to Moore, and to the eyes of this observer Wallace has delicately, but truthfully, recaptured not just the bullets, the bloodshed, and the military strategy, but has given a human side to warfare; an aspect of society that has unfortunately become a part of our existence.  The film does not overlook the “war is hell” and “leave no man behind” clichés that riddle most films on this subject matter, but it combines the human elements, and the inhumane ones, into one of the most powerful, honest, and emotional depictions of Vietnam that you may ever see.

Gibson portrays Moore, a stern, learned, deeply loyal Army Lieutenant Colonel who is put in command of a unit which is sent into Vietnam right after the escalation by President Johnson, but before the draft was reinstituted.  His group is comprised of several patriotic, yet naïve soldiers, who reflect and run the gamut of the men who served and gave their lives during the war.  We are introduced to them, their wives, who have bonded together in common cause, and shown their lives.  Wallace does this, but not for soap operatic dramatic purposes, but rather to show a human side to an inhumane slice of American history.  Sam Elliott (as his grizzled Sergeant Major), Chris Klein (his baby faced innocence never fitting better) as a gung-ho Lieutenant, Greg Kinnear (stretching his range even more as the cocky, but emotional helicopter pilot) and Barry Pepper (as the journalist who collaborated with Moore on the book) are just some of the people that we get to know, like, dislike, associate, and become a part of throughout the film.  The movie progresses through the 3-day conflict, showing both sides of the conflict, American and Vietnamese, because some tend to forget that there were other people, victims, and combatants.  Wallace shows the two conflicted, yet determined, emotional, and human leaders in a way also displaying that war is not always just an American tragedy, but a human one.

Most previous efforts on the Vietnam War (Platoon, Born on The 4th of July) made some kind of obvious political statement, either positive of negative, regarding our presence there. We Were Soldiers makes a statement without really trying, using shots, scenes and some dialogue to convey not only an emotion, but a commentary.  The scene of the soldiers gathering for departure, a panning shot of the faces of the soldiers during a nighttime vigil, and other scenes are a credit to the cinematographer and screenwriter, for establishing the characters and mood with words, the driving them home with visuals, without going over the top. The tone of the message, positive or negative, is left for the viewer to discern, and Wallace arms us with the information we need.  He shows, without grandstanding, that war is hell, and that winning a battle, is not always good, if there is a loss of any kind, innocence, lives, etc. Moore, and the survivors were forever scarred by their events, despite his best intentions, and this reflects the whole attitude of the Vietnam conflict.  Wallace avoids taking a stand, but the point and message driven home stronger than any cinematic effort before, and probably after this.

Ultimately, We Were Soldiers is what I can imagine as the truest recreation of the complete realm of the Vietnam War experience.  There are few of us who would deny the horrors and atrocities that made up the individual events, if not the entire purpose of the war in Vietnam.  Amongst those who haven’t are the filmmakers in Hollywood who have honored, patronized, glorified, and sometimes gone a bit over the top in their attempted retelling of things.  There is no way that a piece of celluloid, and some words on a page can ever capture or recreate those events, as any veteran would attest.  But Randall Wallace has come closer than anyone, since Oliver Stone, to covering the gamut of emotions, reactions, and experiences that the brave men who served their went through.  With We Were Soldiers, Wallace has created a visual history book, that is powerful, painfully real, and a true testament to the forgotten wars, and warriors, that we as a nation should celebrate, cherish and thank at every opportunity.  The effort never seems over the top, or too patronizing, since it is told from several viewpoints and perspectives, and does not spare on both the good and bad points of war.  This is one that must be viewed, and you may not understand the whys, but you will respect the effort of the filmmakers, and the forgotten soldiers who this story rightfully regales.

Donnie Darko

John Hughes was the penultimate voice of the youth during the 80s.  With Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, he captured the vast scope and breadth of what it was like to be a fertile, blooming, but confused young mind during the decade of decadence.  But for all the depth that he gave his movies, he only skirted and browsed through the darker tormented sides of growing up during those years.  Behind the façade of suburban families, IROC’s, Hobie T-shirts and leotards, lie a generation struggling to understand the world and their place in it, and afraid of what lie ahead at every juncture where decisions controlled destiny.  In Donnie Darko, a chillingly morbid, and at times frustrating view of life during these times, director Richard has slashed open the wound that Hughes exposed, and dives into it with twisted, but truthful glee.  Those who seek to grasp and understand the film may get frustrated or angry, but I ask them to look not at the end result, but at the undercurrents flowing seamlessly through the characters, stories and atmosphere of the story.  The 80s, and our teens did not make sense to us either, and we grew up okay, so he asks not to justify or explain, but simply understand and try and relate.

Donnie is a student who is mysterious, brilliant, troubled and blunt.  He isn’t afraid to confront a teacher preaching the explanation of life (classifying everything on a line between Fear and Love), or a motivational speaker who seems to feed the audience full of empty catch phrases, or ask the pretty new girl if she will “go” with him (probably the most believable initial dating sequence since Say Anything) Inside Donnie’s mind though, lies something dark and mysterious.  His name is Frank, and he’s a 6-ft haunting rabbit, who prophesizes about impending doom, while “driving” Donnie to explore his darker inhibitions.  The movie is mostly an exploration of the characters cast in Donnie’s life, and the reaction after a plane engine mysteriously falls through Donnie’s bedroom, yet no airplane is ever found.  Cue the foreshadowing music here.  Barrymore is the teacher who seems to care about expanding the minds of students (since Barrymore’s production company produced the film, her role may have gotten more screen time than necessary).  Mix in his parents (Osbourne and McDonnell) (her sarcasm and charm both ever-present and in perfect pitch), his torturous, yet oddly loving sister (real-life sister Maggie), a lonely Oriental student and Grandma Death, and this still only scratches the surface of the realm of personalities covered here.  Only a film this odd could make Michael Dukakis, plane crashes, talking rabbits, the sexuality of Smurfs, and time travel, into a cohesive, gripping, and dark story.  The contrasts of cultures are blatantly shown, to show that while things on the surface may appear well, underneath, may be bubbling confusion and frustration.  Think American Beauty, from the children’s point of view.  Our lives are just a series of events and occurrences along the path towards a goal we may not understand, but always seek to find and achieve.  Upon rumination, the ending of this movie may not make sense, but in the criticism of any aspect of the moviemaking process, I feel that if you cannot offer a viable alternative, then it is difficult to fault.  In the case of Donnie Darko, I am not sure I could have come up with a sensible, or justifiable ending for Kelly’s setup, but I somehow feel that one is out there.  Like the answers that Donnie, his friends, family, and the residents of his town seek, the explanation of this film, and its ending, may defy, confuse yet still resonate in the inhabitants.

Helping to set the mood of the 80s, along with clothes and the references (Smurf’s, Star Search etc) is the soundtrack, full of some great songs from that decade, which ironically enough, are now fitting in the context of the film.  Tear’s For Fear’s love/obsession anthem Head Over Heels, Duran Duran’s melodic, but creepy, Notorious, and a remake of Fears fitting Mad World gave music to the various moods displayed in the characters.  As a side note, this becomes the second film in months to use Joy Division’s underground classic Love Will Tear Us Apart (the first was Series 7:The Contenders climatic showdown/love story angle) which will always make me smile, yet ache inside when remembering the decade.

The casting in this film is good, but the size and necessity of certain roles (namely Barrymore’s) is questionable at best.  McDonnell (her sarcasm and charm both ever-present and in perfect pitch) and Osbourne (sneering, sarcastic yet emotional) as the parents strike a chord a difficult, yet realistic balance of loving, imperfect and compassionate as they struggle, along with their children, through the events.  Courtesy appearances from Wyle (as the science teacher who feeds Donnie’s time travel ideas) and Swayze (hamming it up as the motivational speaker) lend credence to the oddities, yet commonalities that naturally occur in life without question to purpose or reason.  But the strongest performance, of course, comes from Gyllenhall as Donnie.  A drastic departure from his October Sky role, Gyllenhall lends a creepy curiosity and innocence to this conflicted, confused soul searching for his place, and what it all means.  Coupled with Malone, attractive, docile and troubled and Purdy who stands out, even though she only has one memorable line, repeated several times, Kelly has managed to almost encompass the darker side of the decade of decadence and confusion.

Ultimately, Donnie Darko is Hughes style teen movie, filtered through Atom Egoyan and applied by David Lynch.  It is eerie, dark, uncomfortably humorous, yet painfully real in its telling.  It builds a tension of impending doom, akin to what adolescents felt, and feel trying to understand the world around us.  While the setup may be tiring, and the payoff frustrating, the heart of this film lies in the relation of the audience to its characters, and their predicaments.  Having things forced upon you, pressures applied, both internally, and externally, there is no telling what the end result may be.  Maybe we would see giant talking rabbits, pushing us towards those temptations that exist within our subliminal conscience.  Maybe not. Kelly explores both sides of things, exposing us to multiple characters to show the varying aspects and effects that the decade, the expectations, and the need to conform to societal mores put on us.  Life defies simple explanation, and to a teen struggling not only find his identity but also to understand the new world before him, anything is possible, and the mind will sometimes accept any explanations offered forth, regardless of sensibility.  The film uses this confusion, throwing in some odd little twists, and creates a memorably dark journey through teen angst. Being a child of the 80s, I guess I related more to this, once I overlooked my initial frustration of things.  At first, I tried to figure this movie out, like most movies that offer a conclusion or resolution that is not readily evident, and I found it confounding, yet intriguing because of the masterful setup.  The way Kelly lures us in, and builds things up, and generates expectation and anticipation shows his true talent as a storyteller and filmmaker.  And the emotional undercurrent remains present throughout, and evident upon later reflection, but a stronger, easier to discern conclusion may have driven the message home better.  I got the point, I think I understand it as well as can be expected, but still have a bit of an empty feeling about it all.  The overall experience isn’t diminished, but what could have been truly breathtaking, instead is worth a gasp, a puzzled look, an a-ha, and then a general feeling of anxiety.  In relation to the decade in which it’s set, I think that is satisfactory enough.

Ice Age

It was by far, one of the most captivating, and curiosity inducing trailers, this side of Middle Earth and Tattoine.  The escapades of a squirrel, simply foraging for an acorn, but setting off a near cataclysmic chain of events, generated much interest and hope for Ice Age.  But for all that potential, Fox Studios somehow lost something in the magical spell that animated movies are having on movie audiences presently.  Although, I guess the magic had to run out sometime. It is kind of sad to see that the animated film genre has not learned its lesson from the success of Shrek.  Having seemingly run out of original story ideas Fox is now rehashing previously successful stories, changing the venue and adding in some dazzling visuals to distract us away from the truth.  While Ice Age is very far from a bad movie, thanks again to the visual mastery, it is far from being a great one (ala Shrek).  With ideas stolen from last years Monsters Inc, Ice Age is a safe, harmless movie that doesn’t break any new ground, but still maintains the expected charm.  I know that these movies are made for the young, and young at heart, and from that aspect, this film succeeds in keeping things simple and easy, but Shrek has proved that you can be unique and original, while also being visually stunning. I just wish that the writers could have come up with a more original story, to go along with the appeal and the animation.

We are shown a world where animals outnumbered people, and the weather controlled geography.  Manfred is a paternal wooly mammoth, which is inexplicably heading North, as all others head south to warmer weather.  He saves a slightly dimwitted, but well-meaning sloth, from a pair of rhinos, and thus a bond is born, sort of. Manfred is reluctant to partner with Sid, until they come across a young child who has lost his mother as she fled a pack of tigers.  When one of the tigers, Diego, finds that Manfred and Sid have the baby that the rest of his pack wants, he decides to help them to find its family, or so he says.  His motives are questionable at best, but since he is the best tracker of the 3, the unlikely herd of tiger, mammoth and sloth heads into the eye of the storm, so to speak.  Another recurrent story is that of the omnipresent squirrel, and his antics with an acorn.  These were very entertaining, and in their own right, would have made a nice short.  They offset the monotony and simplicity of the story, always infusing doses of unsolicited laughter (the whole sequence of the cultish Dodo birds was a stroke of genius), in a script that zings a few too many one-liners and sight gags, but does entertain for the most part. The storyline, and some of the antics, mirror Monsters Inc so much that it wouldn’t surprise me if the same scribes had whispered in the ears of Ice Age’s writers.  The creators, directors, writers and animators have taken a safe road, which of course works, and does touch your heart.  It borrows Disney’s concurrent theme regarding the power of love, be it family, spouse or whatever, but adds very little of their own unique touches.  I respect their consistency, considering the target audience, but would have appreciated a modicum of originality, other than the setting.  Toy Story’s 1 and 2 and Shrek showed that there are talented wordsmiths working in the animation industry.  Don’t get me wrong, I criticize, only because I have seen better.  DreamWorks and Disney consistently produce universally appealing faire that touches the hearts of adults, while satiating the gleeful inhibitions of the children.  Ice Age’s story is safe, convenient, appealing, but rehashed.

Vocally, the most memorable performance is that of Leary, who accentuates the lower snarling aspect of his voice to give Diego an ominous, surly, but hesitantly sensitive aspect, which suits the character perfectly.  Leguizamo, who spends the whole movie talking like he’s holding rocks in his cheeks, provides moments of humor and character to Sid, while Romano has such a distinctive voice, that you can almost see his whiny, slouchy demeanor throughout the movie.  The voices are neither distracting, nor attracting, but rather fitting of a movie that is mediocre at best.

Ultimately, Ice Age is a harmless, entertaining, yet average entry into the growing animation wars between studios.  While it succeeds in doing everything right, and little wrong, I still feel a bit cheated that it didn’t take any risks or chances, or tackle anything even remotely original outside of the setting.  There existed a great chance to fire the first salvo, but instead of a cannon blast, we get a simple pistol shot in the air that lands without doing much damage.  With a sharper script, this could have been something magical, and if you have kids, they wont be disappointed, but the adults may yearn for something that touches the soul and stimulates the brain, as previous efforts have shown can be done.

There is no denying the influence that the media can have, both on itself, and on the general populace.  News programs, reality television and game shows have proven that the public thirsts for entertainment, but what about the influences that the media has within itself.  I feel it can be measured both in short term, and long term ways.  In the short term, there are copycats, seeking to capitalize on a supposed unfound, fertile or open market, these will usually burn out, and fade from our memory quickly.  Recent examples include the boy band craze, the hair band phase and most of the 80s.  But the long term ones are the lasting and memorable ones, the results of which may not be seen or appreciated until long after the initial influence is done.  When Pulp Fiction was released in 1996, no one could deny that it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen or done before.  Coming soon after that were the copycat films, Suicide Kings, Go and several other forgettable ones attempted to capitalize.  I always felt that Fiction established, or at worst, perfected a new genre in cinema, that of the non-linear filmmaking.  Since then, many have tried, and few have succeeded without looking like cheap imitations at best.  I believe it becomes the difference in trying to copy, and learning from, if not paying homage to, the predecessor Amores Perros, Mexico entry into the 2001 Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards, is a perfect example of the latter.  This anti-love story, told in three separate, strangely, but believably intersecting ways, works because each story is loosely linked, as life is, to other aspects, yet is independently interesting on its, when the camera just happens to follow a different perspective of things.  There is never a moment where we doubt the plausibility of anything we see, and in some way, despite spanning differing classes of people, it is a film that is one most can relate to in some way another.

The story is told in three focused episodes, with hints at the others during each one.  In the first, we have Octavio and Susanna.   She is married to Octavio’s brother Ramiro, who is less than faithful, and doesn’t treat her well.  Octavio is in love (or at least lust) with Susanna, and through some other circumstances, offers to take her away with the money he has earned through underground dogfights.  Octavio, Ramiro and Susanna all live with the brothers’ mother in a modest apartment, and do not seem to be hurting for money, but also are not well off.  In the second episode, we have Daniel and Valeria, he is a married, talk show host producer, and she is a famous model.  Daniel leaves his family and marriage behind, to be with Valeria, whom he sets up in a nice apartment.  But circumstances intervene once again, to turn things asunder and test the bounds of love (the underlying mood in each of these stories).  Finally, El Chivo and Maru, he is a homeless man, with a past; she is the daughter who believes he is long dead after he disappeared.  He watches her, trying to work up the nerve to “look her in the eyes”, while performing odd jobs to maintain his living.  I have left a lot of the details of this story out, because there are several interacting occurrences, which give this movie its wonderful appeal.  It focuses more on love than Fiction did, but also shows that life’s journey, and love’s destiny, can sometimes be as intermingled as the people whose lives cross.  The common link between all of the stories is not only the presence and importance of the dogs, but also the one event that forever ties these people together, whether they realize it or not.  Unlike Pulp Fiction this films spawns societal classes, and shows the differences and similarities in both emotions and outcomes. Like Pulp Fiction, there are common people who pass through each others lives, and the film chooses to follow the occurrences from different perspectives, showing the vast effects that one event can have on several lives.  But they are not isolated storylines either, as people pass freely, and realistically through each others lives, giving what at first seem like glimpses, but later are more reflective if the proximity that our lives have with one another.  The commonality that bonds them together, is not drugs, or guns, or crime, but dogs.  A simple yet representative symbol of loyalty, used to bond the classes together in ways that each may never recognize.

Ultimately, Amores Perros is an intense social commentary, and tribute to this style of film making which should be viewed by all groups of people.  Our lives unfold, interact, and become reactions of those whom we encounter.  Films like Sliding Doors, Amelie and Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) have shown how important the minutia in one’s life, and the decisions made can be.  Perros takes that one step further to show that the have’s and have-not’s are not as far apart as may be believed.  There is a saying that “they all put their pants on one leg at a time”, I’ve always added the addendum that “but their pants cost a lot more”.  This film not only shows that humanity is a bond that will always transcend any amount of status, but that human emotion is something that cannot be bought.  Money may make the world go around, but it cannot buy happiness, love, contentment, or peace.  These have to come from inside us, and the movie reflects that in a powerful, sometimes painful way.

Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch)

 

There is no denying the influence that the media can have, both on itself, and on the general populace.  News programs, reality television and game shows have proven that the public thirsts for entertainment, but what about the influences that the media has within itself.  I feel it can be measured both in short term, and long term ways.  In the short term, there are copycats, seeking to capitalize on a supposed unfound, fertile or open market, these will usually burn out, and fade from our memory quickly.  Recent examples include the boy band craze, the hair band phase and most of the 80s.  But the long term ones are the lasting and memorable ones, the results of which may not be seen or appreciated until long after the initial influence is done.  When Pulp Fiction was released in 1996, no one could deny that it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen or done before.  Coming soon after that were the copycat films, Suicide Kings, Go and several other forgettable ones attempted to capitalize.  I always felt that Fiction established, or at worst, perfected a new genre in cinema, that of the non-linear filmmaking.  Since then, many have tried, and few have succeeded without looking like cheap imitations at best.  I believe it becomes the difference in trying to copy, and learning from, if not paying homage to, the predecessor Amores Perros, Mexico entry into the 2001 Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards, is a perfect example of the latter.  This anti-love story, told in three separate, strangely, but believably intersecting ways, works because each story is loosely linked, as life is, to other aspects, yet is independently interesting on its, when the camera just happens to follow a different perspective of things.  There is never a moment where we doubt the plausibility of anything we see, and in some way, despite spanning differing classes of people, it is a film that is one most can relate to in some way another.

The story is told in three focused episodes, with hints at the others during each one.  In the first, we have Octavio and Susanna.   She is married to Octavio’s brother Ramiro, who is less than faithful, and doesn’t treat her well.  Octavio is in love (or at least lust) with Susanna, and through some other circumstances, offers to take her away with the money he has earned through underground dogfights.  Octavio, Ramiro and Susanna all live with the brothers’ mother in a modest apartment, and do not seem to be hurting for money, but also are not well off.  In the second episode, we have Daniel and Valeria, he is a married, talk show host producer, and she is a famous model.  Daniel leaves his family and marriage behind, to be with Valeria, whom he sets up in a nice apartment.  But circumstances intervene once again, to turn things asunder and test the bounds of love (the underlying mood in each of these stories).  Finally, El Chivo and Maru, he is a homeless man, with a past; she is the daughter who believes he is long dead after he disappeared.  He watches her, trying to work up the nerve to “look her in the eyes”, while performing odd jobs to maintain his living.  I have left a lot of the details of this story out, because there are several interacting occurrences, which give this movie its wonderful appeal.  It focuses more on love than Fiction did, but also shows that life’s journey, and love’s destiny, can sometimes be as intermingled as the people whose lives cross.  The common link between all of the stories is not only the presence and importance of the dogs, but also the one event that forever ties these people together, whether they realize it or not.  Unlike Pulp Fiction this films spawns societal classes, and shows the differences and similarities in both emotions and outcomes. Like Pulp Fiction, there are common people who pass through each others lives, and the film chooses to follow the occurrences from different perspectives, showing the vast effects that one event can have on several lives.  But they are not isolated storylines either, as people pass freely, and realistically through each others lives, giving what at first seem like glimpses, but later are more reflective if the proximity that our lives have with one another.  The commonality that bonds them together, is not drugs, or guns, or crime, but dogs.  A simple yet representative symbol of loyalty, used to bond the classes together in ways that each may never recognize.

Ultimately, Amores Perros is an intense social commentary, and tribute to this style of film making which should be viewed by all groups of people.  Our lives unfold, interact, and become reactions of those whom we encounter.  Films like Sliding Doors, Amelie and Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) have shown how important the minutia in one’s life, and the decisions made can be.  Perros takes that one step further to show that the have’s and have-not’s are not as far apart as may be believed.  There is a saying that “they all put their pants on one leg at a time”, I’ve always added the addendum that “but their pants cost a lot more”.  This film not only shows that humanity is a bond that will always transcend any amount of status, but that human emotion is something that cannot be bought.  Money may make the world go around, but it cannot buy happiness, love, contentment, or peace.  These have to come from inside us, and the movie reflects that in a powerful, sometimes painful way.

Bully

We are all familiar with them, they come in all shapes and forms, span social and cultural boundaries and have become an unfortunate part of our culture.  They are the bullies, those that feed on, and gain power from the emotion of intimidation and force.  Secretly, the oppressed and the put upon dream of exacting their revenge and venting their pent up frustrations on their tormentors.  So in a way, most of us can relate and associate with the characters in Larry Clark's, acerbic vengeance tale, Bully.  Similar to In The Bedroom and John Q, it shows what happens when emotions can drive people to extremes, except for the fact that this is sadly, based on actual events.  Not only does Clark allow us to live vicariously through these characters, but he also shines the light on a much more glaring issue.  if the youth are the future of our country, then maybe the future is in trouble and is not as bright as it may seem.  Larry Clark’s brazen no holds barred approach is a strong in your face commentary on a subculture of today’s youth that will hit closer to home than many care to admit.  He focuses in on the spoiled, unmotivated, carefree slacker stereotype, wrapped around the true story of the 1993 murder of a young Miami man caught up in a web of hatred and jealousy.  His approach may be criticized for the extent to which shows, exploits and delivers the message, but there is no denying that this movie will grab your attention, and possibly open your eyes to a festering wound that is spreading across America.

Subtlety is not a term that would be used in describing Clark’s filmmaking style thus far.  He does not shy away from showing blatant sexual situations, casual drug usage, and graphic violence, but he does it in the context of emphasizing a point, rather than exploiting its presence.  Needless to say I would not want to swap childhood stories with he, or Todd Solondz.  If a filmmaker’s style and content are any reflection of past experiences, then these two must not have had happy times growing up.  Clark uses his abrasive stylings this time around to make a commentary, while regaling this story.  The facts of the story are this:  In July 1993, Bobby Kent was found dead in the desolate areas outside of Miami.  Within days, a group of people, including his best friend Marty, Marty’s girlfriend Lisa, her best friend Alice, her boy-toy friend Donnie, Alice’s cousin Derek, and a hired “hit man” were convicted of murder, and conspiracy to commit murder. We are introduced to Kent and Marty Puccio, lifetime best friends, in a relationship that borders on masochistic.  Kent has an odd obsession with homosexuality (one of the few subtexts that Clark doesn’t explore, but which adds another facet to things), and takes his aggressions and frustrations out, physically and verbally, on Puccio.  Marty is a seemingly placid surfer, prone to eruptions of emotion bottled up over years of abuse apparently.  He is dating Lisa, a dropout, seeking love and attention, which she thinks she has found in Marty (although it appears more lust than anything else) Her best friend, Ali is a vice-ridden loose cannon who helps Lisa explore the wild side buried deep within her psyche.  Marty's parents are oblivious to his abuse, while Bobby's think Marty is the bad influence, often threatening to move him away to remove the evil from his life.  The frustration comes to a head after Lisa finds out she's pregnant, and Bobby rapes Ali.  What follows is the methodical, eerie, and often sadistically calm hatching of the plan, played out with an unflinching brutality and honesty.  Clark takes a two-pronged approach in his presentation of the story.  From one side, he delves into the lives of the characters to show and represent not only a sad section of society, but also a wake-up call to parents and others.  On the other, he unflinchingly presents the facts, the motives, the reasons, the planning, the justification, and the end results of human emotions overcoming rational thought.  These teens are not unlike most, past and present, having to deal with pressures presented by environment, expectation and circumstance.  Bully tackles both social commentary and representation of events, in a balanced way, pulling no punches so the audience can grasp and feel the full extent of the repercussions.  These are kids who are at a crossroads of life, trying to become adults, while still struggling with the freewheeling nature of their youth.  It is a  culture where its denizens often waste entire days with casual sex, casual drug usage, driving their parents expensive cars, hanging out in malls, arcades or comic book shops, or just indulging the whims of their inner beast.  By allowing us into the lives of the characters, Clark also presents an interesting contrast, the have’s, namely the victim and his family, and the have-nots, everyone else, ranging from surfers, to comic store workers, to high school drop outs, leaving the question of motive for our own derivation.  Personally, I saw it not only as a crime of hatred, but one of jealous and envy (as witnessed by a conversation between Alice and Bobby regarding his future).  Clark never takes sides in the matter either, saying that the killing was justified, nor saying it was unnecessary, instead presenting both sides of the case and allowing the audience to derive its own conclusion.  This is a sad tale, but even sadder is that the situations in this movie play out in more of this country than most will care to admit.

The performances of the young stars not only bond things together, but also create a relatable sense, necessary to elicit any kind of emotion.  Renfro and Stahl are the most recognizable members of the cast, and their performances are the most memorable.  Stahl has shed any pretty boy image he had, and truly makes Bobby despicable, and yet creates a small air of sympathy with his eyes that seem to be screaming that he is putting on a façade based on expectations and pressure.  Renfro, bulked up and nearly unrecognizable, creates an angry, frustrated aura, which sometimes explodes, and hides very little.  Of the remaining performances, the most interesting are Pitt (Tommy Gnosis from Hedwig) as the near masochistic, but somehow innocent, Donnie, and Fitzpatrick (a grown up carryover from his incendiary teen mockumentary Kids) as the brutal, by the numbers hit man who seems to be the only rational voice amidst the emotionally volcanic and building madness.  Overall, the cast each embodies differing aspects of the same problem, and should relate in some way, to situations and people that we know.

Ultimately, Bully is a powerful, tragic, relentless social commentary on the travails of allowing emotion to overcome, and drive personal actions.  Few will argue that each generation has suffered through their own traumas, trials and tribulations, and that overcoming these have made us into the people we are today.  No one is perfect, and no one should try to be, and sometimes friends are all we have to save us from the actions that our emotions can sometimes drive us to. Clark’s delivery may seem excessive, unrealistic, or unnecessary to the uninformed, but those who think that, are blind to what is occurring around us.  His commentary that the youth of today may be slackers, ne’er do wells and dropouts, but they are also humans, with feelings, desires and dreams.  Sometimes the need to lash out, as the kids do, and Clark does with this film.  Wake up America, the children need us, and it would not surprise me if situations, and people like this, are walking around us, quietly simmering and suffering, just waiting to explode.  Clark has shown us a near flawless example of the eruption, the damage, and worst of, the victims. 

Lisa Picard is Famous

"The words famous and famished come from the same root, they both involve hunger" - Buck Henry

They are the most populous, yet anonymous, entities in the entertainment world.  They hold jobs as waiters, waitresses, receptionists, delivery persons, and secretaries.  The stars are in their eyes, and dreams are in their hearts propelling them forward through the brightest days and darkest nights.  They are the aspiring actors and filmmakers all hungry to either show the world their vision, or become a part of someone else’s.  In Lisa Picard is Famous, a playful, heartfelt, but slightly clichéd tale of the birth and ascension of potential stars, actor and now film maker, Griffin Dunne has crafted his tribute to these struggling souls, obviously told from the perspective of someone who has been there.  This is someone who has made the trek, from the first time stepping off the bus, through the days spent passing out head shots and running to interviews, to the pinnacle of success, attempting to catch a ride on fame’s fleeting heels, and ride it longer than 15 minutes.  Though the film wavers and falters slightly towards the conclusion, this is still a testament to the other side of the glamour that is so prevalent.

Dunne captures the truest, most real human emotions and reactions through the tale of his heroine Lisa Picard (co-writer).  We catch up with Lisa as she runs to commercial auditions, while waiting for the mini-series that she sees as her potential big break.  Dunne is the aspiring filmmaker, wanting to capture the pre and post stardom versions of Lisa, and chronicle the effects that fame and the realization of dreams can have on a person.  Lisa is an overly cute, bubbly and energetic soul, who has obviously read every chapter of How To Be a Star 101, right down to schmoozing with stars, passing out flyers and photos, and saying all the things that sound right, to all the people who matter.  She has an upcoming part in a television mini-series starring Melissa Gilbert.  She is energetic over the tiniest of bit parts, but is also dogged by a controversial and racy commercial for Chex cereal, which spawns the retort of “if audiences could see the directors cut” from Ms Picard. We are taken into every facet of Lisa’s life, presumably to help us know the unknown Lisa, so that we can make a fair comparison of the known version.  We meet her friend, Tate, also an aspiring star and writer, who has written a one-act play about being a gay actor who is “out” in Hollywood.  It is the presence of this character, and the prevalence of his storyline, which becomes distracting and unnecessary.  The focus switches more to his show, his drive, his dream, with Lisa becoming almost secondary to things.  I can understand about wanting to show the bonds in Lisa’s life, showing the supporting cast, and how they support, affect, and possibly change with fame.  An ironic scene midway through the film tells a lesson that Dunne and company obviously failed to pay attention to.  When Tate is showing tapes of his extra work on a soap opera, Lisa pointedly observes that he is supposed to be supporting and in the background, but he becomes distracting, stealing the focus away from the main purpose of the scene.  Dunne and Kirk obviously realized this rule, but then turn around and commit the same error by bringing Tate into the forefront.  I cared about Lisa, hell, its impossible not to like her, but when she wasn’t on the screen, the movie wavers and falters, and sadly, by the time the ending comes around, Dunne has succumbed to the typical melodrama to wrap things up.  While the movie still leaves a sweet, honest taste in my brain, I was still left wanting and wishing about what could have been.  Not being privy to the denizens of this world, I cannot honestly say that this isn’t how things are, but in a film like this, it is the storytellers job to bring me into the world, both the good and the bad, and let me know what it feels like to be Lisa, to be hungry, desperate, excited, disappointed, frustrated, sometimes all in the course of one day.  While I cannot vouch for its validity, I am left a bit tainted that this is representative of most struggling stars life experience.

It is really difficult to accuse any of the performers of overacting, since these are aspiring stars, behaving, speaking, and responding, as they believe famous people do.  As Lisa, Kirk is the focus of the film, as stated above, and when she is on the screen, you want to watch her and know more about her.  The energetic nature, and the range of emotions given to her, keeps the film going and kept my interest even as the story started to slip away from Dunne.  Since we rarely see Griffin, we have only his voice to go by, and at times he does overreact at times, but then again, this is the other side of the glamour, and the wanna-bes always want to sound and act like they are somebody.  As Tate, DeWolf sometimes steals attention by overacting, but is still a believable presence in her life.  The fault of his character goes more to Dunne’s focus on him than anything else.  One of the strokes of genius though, is the use of interviews, and insertion of real stars into the film.  Dunne obviously cultivated this group from his own rise to stardom, or possibly just their draw to a project like this.  From the initial quote from B-movie legend Henry, to Bullock’s uncomfortably perfect cameo, to other appearances from Penelope Ann Miller, Carrie Fisher, Spike Lee, Fisher Stevens and yes, even Charlie Sheen, Dunne lays the groundwork for something wonderful, but still needs to work a bit on his storytelling abilities.

Ultimately, Lisa Picard may or not become famous because of this film, but Dunne still has some kinks to work out of his directing abilities.  The desire to be known, loved, appreciated, cherished, wanted, desired and respected is something that most people secretly yearn for, and few actually achieve.  The only thing that differs is the path that each of us takes, in order to reach these goals.  For some, like Lisa, it is the long, hard road, to grab onto a dream, to do something you love, while actually sustaining a successful career.  Dunne has presented a film, which from all I know accurately portrays this journey with few rewards and many pitfalls along the way.  This film may not elicit the respect and admiration for those who have made it, but it will generate a slightly different perspective on what it actually does take to get to the top.  Dunne’s effort, like Lisa’s personality, is very charming, heartfelt, and well intended, but sometimes distracting and unfocused in presentation.

Joy Ride

The simple nature of life, and how little decisions can affect bigger events is a fascinating study that is often loused up by filmmakers who decide to forsake reality for amoral pleasure, emotional manipulation or decadent gore.  John Dahl is one who realizes the true potential that lies there, and has often captured and reflected it in his films.  From Red Rock West (a tale of mistaken identity gone horribly awry) to The Last Seduction (a gem of a movie about revenge, obsession and identity..gone awry) Dahl has repeatedly shown a talent for grabbing his audiences attention, relentlessly, and repeatedly digging his nails into the audience, and taking us along on the proverbial joyride through his world.  Joy Ride is yet another in Dahl’s resume, and ranks as one of his best.  He better than most directors out there, realizes that the true nature of horror and terror comes from that which occurs around us every day.  Life is perched precariously, like a row of dominos, and by toppling the wrong one; it can all come crashing down.  In Joy Ride, Dahl takes a simple college prank, a semi truck, 4 teenagers, and a voice known only as Rusty Nail, and creates a movie that is impossible to take your eyes off of, and that will keep your pulse racing until its masterful resolution.  From beginning, to end, this is a near flawless example, like Halloween, The Hitcher, and Duel, of how life, without any enhancements, monsters or super-human killers, can be the most terrifying ride of all.

It starts so simply.  Lewis is a college student who decides to drive cross-country (from somewhere in the West, never really clarified) to his home in New Jersey.  Along the way, he will pick up two passengers, an expected one, his “friend” Venna (Sobieski) and an unexpected one (his ne’er do well brother Fuller (Zahn))  During the journey, Fuller and Lewis purchase a CB radio, and proceed to play a seemingly innocent prank on a voice known as “Rusty Nail”.  Needless to say, the prank goes horribly wrong, and the boys then become the unwitting pawns in a mechanized cat and mouse game.  Dahl constructs the scenes and pastes them together to near perfection, building nervous tension from volume levels on the radio, reflections pay phones, ringing telephones, and of course the ominous head lights of the imposing truck.  Unlike Jeepers Creepers, which started just as intense, but then fell to pieces at the end, Dahl makes each progressing sequence believable, the decisions and reactions of the characters realistic, and that impending sense of dread, present in the characters eyes and voices throughout.  He is truly relentless, and while we may curse and scream during the movie for a break, by the end, we are thankful we didn’t get one. The film borrows premises and principles from 2 films primarily, Spielberg’s Duel, and Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher.  Dahl even borrows and modifies a scene from the master of this genre Sometimes, it’s not what a director puts in, but what he leaves out, hints at, and then moves on from, that make a film truly memorable.  It never goes over the top, or dwells in unnecessary plot points which could have easily been done with romantic hintings, and some side stories which are mentioned, but never expanded upon.  Instead of becoming distractions as they often do,  these add flavor and reality to the characters and the roles, and intensify the film, keeping adrenaline levels going, long after the credits have rolled.  I kept waiting for the film to slip up, to fall prey to the traps those other movies with gripping beginnings, and good ideas, but he never did.  He kept things real, balanced, consistent, intense, mysterious, scary and real, right up to, and through, the ending.

Lending credence to the story is the perfect casting of each of the major roles.  Walker, who has in the past relied on his pretty boy looks, and over reactionary expressions, instead provides just the right level of emotion to the role of begrudging participant, turned victim.  Zahn, one of today’s most underrated actors, tones down the comic sarcasm and lets his innocent, carefree look and nature reflect the natural terror of seeing something blow up in your face while still trying to find the humor in any instance.  Sobieski gets a bit less screen time, but is more than just another pretty face.  She adds a perfect mix of innocence, sexuality, and the occasional common sense amidst the panicked reactions without ever becoming a distraction. By maintaining the villain in voice only (sounding eerily like Silence Of The Lambs Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) Dahl keeps an air of mystery around his tormentor, one of the many mistakes that doomed Jeepers Creepers, and that he keeps his victims reacting in ways, and to situations, that may seem incredulous or unbelievable at times.  I say to those detractors, that life does funny things sometimes, and the impossible becomes possible, when put into specific perspective and exposed to certain elements.  Basically, if it happens in the movies, it is possible in real life, because the movies are reflections of the director and writers interpretation of how they see things.

Ultimately, Joy Ride is a near perfect example of how suspense and horror movies should be made.  Somewhere along the way, horror film directors forgot what Hitchcock, and more recently John Carpenter (Halloween) taught us; that the things around us everyday can generate the most fear inside us, if given certain stimuli.  Reality is a scary thing, and nothing any filmmaker can do on screen can rival the fear that our own mind or imagination can conjure up when led or teased in a certain direction.  With Joy Ride, Dahl shows that you can take a simple story, even one that’s been done before, and by treating the audience with respect and intelligence, still scare the pants off of them.  Granted, you have to suspend believability a bit in favor of the realistic tension and powerful storytelling methods that Dahl uses.  Joy Ride is a fun, unexpected surprise which shows that not everyone has given up on the natural potential of films to create and intensify emotions while telling a story. If your knuckles aren’t white, and your heartbeat racing in double time after this one, then you need to be checked for a pulse at all. 

Showtime

I can understand actors wanting to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their success, savoring the fun that movies and creating characters and stories can be, but I have to wonder what in the world has happened to Robert DeNiro.  The great actor, he of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and so many other memorable roles, has now lowered himself to one of the cinematic signs of the apocalypse, starring in a buddy cop movie.  The catch, I guess, is that this is supposed to be the anti buddy cop movie, mocking it at a few turns, but shamelessly following its rules as well. For a movie that tries so hard to be an unofficial spoof and satire of these movies and reality television, Showtime ironically falls victim to the devices of both mediums.  It has some funny moments, some funny lines, and some interesting action sequences, but humor and stunts cannot mask a thin story, and typical plot lines.  DeNiro gets reduced to the haggard straight man, to Murphy’s over the top showmanship.  Now Robert can do this, when given a good script (see Analyze This), but in Showtime, the laughs are few and far between, leaving the same old antics to once again come shining through.  You could almost make a list of the situations, and check them off as they happen, and that my friends, is a sign of desperation on someone’s part.  Dey, who turned Shanghai Noon into a guilty pleasure Western spoof, has lost his touch somewhere, and we are his unwitting victims as he spends 99 minutes taking us on his journey to find it.

In the guise of mocking the reality television that has inexplicably gripped America, Showtime treads unsteadily on ground that was solidified by films like The Truman Show, EdTV, 15 Minutes, and even Series 7.  A desperate TV network believes they have stumbled across a goldmine when a renegade detective shoots one of their video cameras.  In order to avoid a costly lawsuit, the police chief agrees to allow the loose cannon cop Mitch Preston (DeNiro), to be followed around by video cameras, and partnered with a bumbling wannabe, Trey, who has definitely seen one too many episodes of TJ Hooker and Cops. Tying them together, is the presence of the coolest thing in this movie, a very powerful gun, which shoots 12-gauge bullets with depleted Uranium inside (puts those infamous “cop killer” bullets to shame).  The gun is owned by a bleached bad guy, Vargas (Damian), who taunts the police, and even pulls off using this thing in broad daylight, because of its power.  This was a nice touch, to a story that deserved more thought.  Whoever came up with that aspect, should have been given license to do the rest of the script.  They miss several instances of humor, while occasionally lacing some zinging one-liners “Tell Don Johnson we’ve found his apartment” is one, during the movie’s shining scene as the producer, Chase Renzi (Russo), has redone the cops apartment to fit their “research”.  Somewhere in this script lay a decent story.  People who have seen too many of these kind of movies, tailoring a television show about following cops to feed the public’s desire to have their fantasy and reality worlds melded together.  Unfortunately, that idea, is better than the execution of the majority of Showtime.  The action sequences, save one, are straight out of any of the Lethal Weapon movies, and though they kept the story simple, they still followed the tried and true path which, as it usually does, leads us to mediocrity, safe complacency, and dooms the film to the role of not just has been, but what could have been.

Heading into the twilight of his career, DeNiro is tailor made to play the kind of role this should have been, one that balances his intense fiery persona and sarcastic nature behind that squinted sneer.  However in Showtime, he is reduced to straight man to Murphy, with neither of them clicking or hitting with any kind of consistency.  Murphy overacts in parts, as he should, but tries too hard in others and by the time his trademark laugh comes in, it’s almost too late for any kind of redemption for the film.

Ultimately, Showtime is slightly failed attempt to capitalize on recent public obsessions, while poking fun at a Hollywood staple.  With a bit of tweaking, and some risk taking, this could have been a decent comedy and commentary on the state of law enforcement, media, and the blurring of the lines between entertainment and reality.  Instead, Dey loses the touch he had with Shanghai Noon, and  takes the easy road out, by following the same rules that it declares its making fun of.  There are flashes of what could have been, interesting occurrences, and humorous lines, but in the end, becomes yet another victim of failed execution and safe movie making.