Training Day


Training Day was rescheduled, deservedly so, due to the horrific events of September 11th, because the makers felt that the subject matter would be too intense to deal with, after such traumatic happenings (I like to believe this reason, over the very superficial “we need appropriate time to market it”) After seeing the film, I can definitely see why.  This film, and the characters are the very personification of human intensity and emotion, on many different levels.  It is good versus bad, but much deeper because the lines are blurred, and the evil is never really clearly defined, but instead masked by justification.  Despite a letdown in the finale, Training Day still serves as a powerful portrayal of what stress, environment and exposure can do to the human soul and spirit.

To protect and serve is a motto of law enforcement, but at what cost or means? It is 24 hours, give or take a few, in the life of a rookie cop and a grizzled veteran, patrolling the seedy side of Los Angeles.  Hoyt (Hawke) is a spirited, by-the-books academy graduate, put on his first duty with Alonzo (Washington) an unconventional veteran narcotics officer who works undercover but has garnered an impressive resume, which he loves to flaunt.  Alonzo doesn’t just walk the line of lawful and unlawful, he daringly sprints back and forth across with a wickedly gleeful bravado.  Typically, there are places that the “good cop, bad cop” stories have to go, but thankfully Training Day sidesteps most of them, in favor of just showing the similarities, yet contrasts in the characters, and giving them personalities, histories and emotions that infuse the story.  The gripping progression of the story, which really isn’t as much a story, as a series of what could be lessons, or could be harsh reality, holds interest the way a bomb ticking in a crowded room would.  You’re never quite sure if the next tick will be the one to set things off, or if things will ever go off at all.  Through the progression of the day, the overall grim and gritty darkness of the film is captured effectively in appearance, by cinematographer Mauro Fiore and in powerful realism, by writer David Ayer. The only slight letdown is a conclusion that seems to forego what the movie had setup and established through its running time, and while it doesn’t steal the movies power, it does dilute things a little that Fuqua gave in, even slightly, to conventional wisdom.

Amidst all of this, Washington shines through, as he usually does, in a role that he’s rarely got the chance to play before; that of a potential bad guy, and it is this role, combined with Hawke’s mature, frantic, but grounded rookie, who keep this story viewable.  Without Washington, this may have become just another in that genre that I previously mentioned.  But as Alonzo, he inspires admiration, fear, disdain and even sympathy, like only he can.  There will, and should, be Oscar buzz around Denzel for this one, even if it is difficult to watch, it is also difficult not to.

Ultimately, Training Day represents the resiliency and maturation of the human spirit, via exposure to circumstances.  As evidenced recently, we, as people, find the true nature of who we are, when we are pushed to the breaking point.  Either we will break, or we will grow, but our true spirit will be exposed, whether we like it or not.  Training Day does this, by generating a realistic, underlying intensity, which threads situations together creating a sense of fearful, impending doom.  This is the way that buddy cop movies should be made, not necessarily always this powerful or gritty, but at least against the grain of the norm.  We are given a brutally sharp look inside the question of the controversial question of whether the means and actions in a situation, justify the end result.  Ironically, in execution at least, the journey may not justify the conclusion, but it definitely keeps you watching and may teach a thing or to the uninformed.  As for the relevance of this film to recent events, I think that judgment, like beauty, should be in the eye of the beholder, personally, I think it could be a testament to those who protect us, and what need and want can drive or turn us into.  ($$$ out of $$$$$)

 


Serendipity


ser·en·dip·i·ty  n  1) The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.  2) The fact or occurrence of such discoveries.  3) An instance of making such a discovery.

Normally, the contrived occurrences that thread together Serendipity would make me cringe and lash out at anyone associated with it.  This tale of fate, love and emotion bases itself around near misses and coincidences, which in any other film would elicit comments of “Come on” or “There’s no way that could happen in reality”. What makes this film different, is that it knows that these are the improbable events, and takes a tongue in cheek approach to them, smirking a sugar coated smile at all of those other efforts which were done in the name of serious film making.

The film takes a very simple story, with hints of Sliding Doors and Sleepless in Seattle, and threads it with situations that may seem like fantasy, or “something that only happens in movies” But as Magnolia showed, reality can sometimes be full of these situations, hence art imitates life, rather than vice versa.  There is an unwritten terminology amongst those who analyze film, known as the “meet-cute”. It occurs when two people, who may or not be about to become involved, are first introduced to each other through some sort of interaction which may seem improbable, or at least fantay-based, in nature.  It is usually so sugary and sweetly done, that it is considered to be too cute for words almost.  Serendipity not only acknowledges the existence of it, but flaunts it, teases it, mocks it, and flies in the face of it at times.  This attitude sets the tongue-in-cheek spirit that abounds throughout the film. Jonathan and Sara meet while selecting the same pair of gloves at a Bloomingdales department store (pay close attention in the very beginning, and you will see the film makers intentions at greater forces possibly being at play) They spend an evening together, both of course involved with others, but obviously smitten with each other.  Sara is a believer in the philosophy of everything happening for a reason, and that there are no accidents.  The title itself, is a Latin term for “happy accident”, or in more lay terms, those unexpected things that occur which bring joy into our lives.  At the end of their evening, Sara goes through a series of events to test fate and make sure that this was indeed meant to be.  I shall leave the rest to the film to unveil, suffice to say a five-dollar bill, and a book, come into play.

Of course it doesn't hurt that the lead characters are absolutely adorable, and from moment one look perfect together.  Does that mean they end up together? Well, only fate, and the movie will tell that.  Cusack has a natural ease at playing versions of this character.  He is a male that every male can relate to, at least those in contact with sensitive side, but often blindsided by their foolish, spontaneous one.  If Loyd Dobler had grown up to live in New York, this is who he would have been (if he didn’t own a record shop of course)

Ultimately, Serendipity proves that there is success to be gained by not taking yourself so seriously, and taking a light hearted look at something that other films have taken a heavy handed serious approach to.  The actions and interactions that occur in reality sometimes lend support to the saying that the truth is stranger than fiction. But this time, the fictional storytellers admit that there may be some external forces at work, base their entire movie around it, and succeed, by having fun with it, instead of trying to pass it off as reality.  In doing so, they make a movie that is light, fun, easy going, sometimes honest, but lending credence to the fact that movies can be an escape from reality.  By taking this path, they also show a realism that exists in our greatest fantasies.  The dialogue may be contrived, the conclusion and journey may be predictable but after 85 minutes, the results will leave viewers with a warm hopeful spirit, and faith in the power of belief and passion.  Maybe life is just a series of instances, predestined only in layout, but defined by our choices that we make when faced with crossroads.  Serendipity never pretends to be deep, or profound, just simple and sweet.  It is the right film, at the right time, for a society searching for healing, searching to find that which defines us, and for people wondering why things happen, or believing things happen for a reason, the film allows a fluffy alternative to the harsh realities that force their way into our lives.  To anyone who would seriously dissect this film, I say, turn off your brain, and turn on your heart and imagination for a few.  If you let this film in, it can be, just as life, whatever you want it to be. ($$$ out of $$$$$)

 

Mulholland Drive


Tell you 'bout a dream that I have every night
It ain't kodachrome and it isn't black and white 

Mulholland Drive is not a film for everyone.  David Lynch's dreamscape style look at the simultaneous construction, dissection, explanation, chronology and destruction of the Hollywood dream, will come as no major surprise for those familiar with his work and used to his combination style of visual confusion and storytelling wrapped in one twisted mass of celluloid.  Before Memento, before the Sixth Sense, even before the Usual Suspects, there was Lynch giving us his own cinematic twists and turns while other filmmakers were still in diapers.  Regardless of success, there is one undeniable fact about a film by Lynch, it will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and if you see it again, it is because he inspired it.  Mulholland Drive is his latest form of abstract movie making.  It is stylish, beautiful, dark, mysterious, confusing and yet powerful.  He has a way of incorporating all of those elements into an effort which will make you wonder before, keep you watching during, and inspire discussion afterwards.  You may not understand it, but you will appreciate it.

Take me for a fool if you feel that's right 
Well I'm never on my own but there's nobody in sight 
I don't know if I'm scared of the lightning 
Trying to reach me, I can't turn to the left or the right
I'm too scared to run and I'm too weak to fight

This time around, Hollywood is the target and setting for his kaleidoscopic view of life.  It is a fantasy of many, attained by few and merciless sometimes in its delivery of lessons and justice.  It is the bright lights, big city dream of wanting to be famous, to be noticed, to be a somebody and to escape the humdrum of the ordinary.  Under its warped surface, this is the underlying message in Mulholland Drive. Originally, this was set to be a pilot for an ABC series, following up his Twin Peaks success.  But it was rejected, and it’s not hard to see why.  This is unconventional entertainment personified, and Lynch knew it, so he took his odd little toys and ideas, added in some sexy scenes, and gave us this gift.  Trying to deduce or explain the plot of this movie would be to rob it of some of it’s odd, surreal magic.  That, and the fact that I am not wholly sure myself what it is.  Just to give a general idea, here's how things start.  There is a car accident, which foils a potential murder of a young brunette.  She then stumbles towards a house, where she encounters and aspiring actress, fresh from winning a jitterbug contest in Ontario, Canada.  Meanwhile, there is a meeting of movie people to discuss the casting of a new film by a young hot director.  Two mysterious moneymen, and one in a wheelchair, are in control of things and demand to have a certain actress play the role. Throw in a dream description involving a beast behind a diner, a slimy hit man and a prophetic well-spoken cowboy and have still only scratched the surface. The significance, relevance and purpose of each of these things are for the viewer to discover. Things progress, digress, meld together, split apart and become more abstract as things become clearer.  Make sense?   As usual, Lynch has assembled a varied and odd little cast of characters that make no sense, yet make perfect sense.  In his universe, no matter how odd things are, they make sense.   Lynch has repeatedly proven himself to be the master of melding dreams into reality, then interpreting them through his own obscure but powerful filter.  Using characters, dialogue, symbolism and non-linear storytelling, he makes us not only question the possible, but to consider the impossible.  This time around, he muddles the reality into a blurry haze akin to awakening from a dream and frantically grasping to retain pieces of what was, while becoming more aware of what actually is, spawning a commonality that is observant to the attentive, and foggy to the impatient.

Part of Lynch’s beauty comes from this abstract nature that I mentioned before.  I have said before about his films that I wonder if he even knows what they are about, or did he just throw some images, characters and dialogue on the screen, link it together somehow, and then let us figure it out.  But now I feel that his films should be viewed as a work of abstract art.  The artist creates a work, and has his view of what it means, but each person who views it, may see it differently.  That doesn’t make anyone right or wrong, just their impression and view of what they see.  It’s all in the imagination, Lynch unlocks the door, shows us in, then locks the door behind us, and we are his.  Just us, and our minds to go on a loosely guided roller coaster ride through his version of reality.  Lynch doesn’t just twist reality; he turns it inside out, doubles it upon itself, ties it into a Windsor knot, and then warps it into another dimension.   The key to the enjoyment of this film is if you let your mind go, and let him play with it.  There are things that happen, or maybe they don’t.  There are people that are there, or maybe they aren’t.  To truly understand what I’m saying, you have to just see the film.  The reason this isn’t a film for everyone, because you will have to have your brain fully engaged, your imagination wide open, and your sense of believable occurrences turned off.    In the hands of anyone else, Mulholland Drive would have been a jumbled train wreck, but in the right ones, as it is, it is a surreal journey and commentary on he Hollywood experience. Think Short Cuts on a really heavy dose of acid, viewed through kaleidoscope.

Well I see the way to go but there isn't any light
I don't know why I'm scared of the lightning
Trying to reach me
Help me to find what I don't wanna know
You're taking me there but I don't wanna go

Fans of his other films will revel in similarities to Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway, others will, and should, want to see more of these works to truly appreciate what you’ve seen. The difference between this and his other films which didn’t work for me, was that this one actually seem to have a purpose and a theme amidst the confusion, it builds suspense and grips the viewer in a stunned, yet curious state of entrancement.  When the dust settles, things may not be any clearer then they were in the beginning, but at least we'll be able to generate our own sense of explanation with this one, because he gives us all the tools to build our own analysis.  A lesson he apparently learned with the mass confusion that abounded in Lost Highway.  It's good to see him learning from his mistakes.  Another part of this movie's magic lies in its twists and mysteries which will be hard to ruin for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, since most viewers may not understand themselves, or which the descriptions will be lost in translation, and found only in the context of viewing the film.  Another part of Lynch's magic, create something complex, that the mere analysis and mystery must be seen to be relevantly discerned. 

You're readin' my mind you won't look in my eyes 
You say I do things that I don't realize 
You're lighting a scene that's faded to black 
I threw it away cause I don't want it back

Here, as in past efforts like Blue Velvet, he has the knack and talent to enlist a cast of relative unknowns (a stunningly innocent, yet versatile Naomi Watts, who brings back memories of Janet Leigh in Psycho), obscures (yes, that was Billy Ray Cyrus) and near forgotten (Lee Grant and Ann Miller) and bring them all together in a near rhythmic, yet haunting harmony.  Watts, and Laura Harring get the majority of the screen time and bond yet contrast each other in a way that is even visualized late in the film.  Then there are veteran character actors Forster and Hedaya who appear, and disappear as only people can in these kinds of films.  Again, only something that a master of a mind game where he controls the rules, could do.

Ultimately, Mulholland Drive is an entrancing two-hour dream sequence that pays off in a way that only a Lynch film can; with some truly memorable and sensual lesbian love scenes, a mysterious philosophical cowboy, the color blue and a complete and a total mind boggle.  Anything else wouldn’t be him. Don’t try to figure this one out, because there probably isn’t a solid definable conclusion.  If you want that, go see the other drivel littering the multiplexes.  This is a cerebral film, not for the impatient or weak of heart, but for the true fans of the other side; that which we dream of and which sometimes melds together into our reality.  There is a very blurry line between what we know, what we think, and what we dream.  It’s a line that Lynch has walked proudly, and taken us along with him through his career.  Even in his most mainstream effort, The Straight Story, Lynch populated this simple tale of a man on a journey, with trademark visuals, but a surreal atmosphere of reality.  Reality may not be all its cracked up to be, and we each define it differently.  This is, and always has been his purpose in films I believe.  With Mulholland Drive, he has culminated all of his visceral madness into one complex, yet simplistic vision.  Even if you don’t “get” this film, enjoy it for its beauty, it’s double entendre foreshadowing dialogue (which if you pay attention, as you cannot help but do, will make things as clear as things can get in a Lynch film), its near perfect mood music (from the haunting score, to a powerful Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison's Crying), and most of all, its ability to inspire discussion and make you go “What was that!!?” when you leave the theater.  If you do that, then Lynch has done his job, and his spell has worked. ($$$$ out of $$$$$)

 

The Last Castle


In 1994, The Shawshank Redemption set the standard by which every other movie set in a prison is, and should be measured against.  Now I do not expect any movie to come near the quality and mastery of that film, but it is hard not to recognize when a film is inspired from another source.  I will have to say though, that if you’re going to copy, at least copy from the best and that is what The Last Castle does.  It is a typical prison movie, that doesn’t do anything spectacular or anything wrong.  It follows in the steps of its predecessors, sometimes paying homage, other times breaking new ground.  Of course, if you look hard enough, you can find holes in consistency, plot and characterizations, but what separates Last Castle is the passion and national fervor that it may instill, and the strong performances that can overcome any flaws and leave a sense of passion, spirit and the ability to overcome under any circumstances.

General Eugene Irwin has been sent to a military prison known as The Castle.  He is sent there for disobeying a direct order from the president, and is therefore a military criminal in the eyes of the law.  But he is no ordinary soldier.  He is a well decorated veteran who “should have a base named after him” as the leader of the prison Col Winter points out upon hearing that Gen. Irwin is coming to his prison.  But Winter’s mood changes based mostly upon a comment made by Redford during their initial meeting, and then the reaction of the inmates to the general and vice versa.  What follows is a fairly by the book, yet compelling power struggle between two men impassioned by similar inspirations, but who deliver upon them in different ways.  Winter is very obviously envious of Irwin’s successes, and subsequent quiet egotism about his accomplishments.  Director Rod Lurie, who turned the political thriller The Contender into an intense compelling ride, does the same here.  He creates a mental and physical chess game by combining tense dialogue with an understated competition, which then concurrently implodes, then explodes.  Just as in The Contender,  Lurie has created yet another compelling character study and power struggle, with the military mindset, instead of politics being the target this time.  Sure, there are plot holes if you look hard and close enough, such as the presence of Penn, as Irwin’s daughter, who is brought on, touches on what could be yet another potential storyline, but is then completely forgotten about.  This is one of a few little things that may nag at the nitpicking viewer after the movie is over, but it shouldn’t deter anyone from enjoying this experience. This is a movie where you just sit back and get behind the characters and story, and admire the performances and the way it makes you feel afterwards.  In my eyes, movies are not only a reflection and commentary on our culture, but also an escape from reality and its madness, created to generate an emotion.  The Last Castle does this, despite its mistakes, and that is what I admire, and why I recommend it.

Lurie has a great ability, similar to Scorsese and other great directors, of harnessing and utilizing great talent, while also bringing out the best in those who may have potential and never showed it before.  As Irwin, Redford is near perfection as the quietly confident leader.  He consistently shows a calm intensity, even if simmering to the point of eruption on the inside.  His showdowns with Gandolfini are like two gunfighters at the acting corral.  As the simmering villain,  Gandolfini’s Winter who leads through intimidation out of spite and envy when provoked by Redford’s presence, shows another facet of his ever-growing repertoire. He matches Redford’s quiet intensity and exerts an air of intimidation with just a look, or a sarcastic smirking comment.  Inside, you know every vein is seething in rage, but it all filters out only in looks and occasional words.  Just as in The Mexican, the film is worth seeing just for him.  As far as supporting roles, this was the first major role for Ruffalo following his well-deserved critical acclaim for You Can Count on me.  In this role, he is good, but not really given that much of a challenge with he material or role, he showed in You Can Count on me that he can handle a multifaceted character and bits of that potential shine through, but the fact is his character was underwritten, but maybe so that he wouldn’t steal the limelight from the true focuses.  Also noteworthy is Clifton Collins, who was outshined in Tigerland by Colin Farrell, and here, holds his own with the big boys, as the stuttering Iglesias, obviously in awe, but truly passionate and emotional about his beliefs and feelings.  Lurie has indeed got the best of a large cast, from big roles to small.

Ultimately, The Last Castle is an inspiring, passionate, albeit wholly unoriginal look at the power struggle, both internal and external, that can exist when situations of morality and compassion are presented.  Power does corrupt, but can it also build and strengthen the soul if utilized and directed properly? The Last Castle touches on these issues, while following Shawshank’s lead (down to copying scenes involving betting on the life expectancy of a prisoner, the bonding with the inmates via hard labor and a musical courtyard interlude).  However these are done more in tribute than in intentional sacrilege.  There are very few avenues left to be explored by movies involving prisons, so as long as the missteps aren’t major, the imitation is done in tribute, then I can respect the effort, as I do here.  With the lines and definition between good and bad being blurred due to recent events, and the bonding and healing of a nation united coming to the forefront, this should be a film to unite and rally behind as an example of the power of the human spirit. Witness a scene, which embodies everything good, in this film, and the country, towards the end of the movie.  If it doesn't stir your heart, based on recent events, I'm not sure what will.  I don't know if Lurie added this scene in after the fact or not, and frankly I don't care.  The film and effort represents the fact that Hollywood, and the world shall go on.  This is the right film, at the right time, done in just the right mood and tone.  The flaws realized after the fact and upon reflection, can be forgiven in light of the intentions and prevailing attitude. ($$$ out of $$$$$)

 

From Hell


One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the 20th century

From Hell is a stylish, but languishing attempt to show yet another perspective in the serial killer genre of films that recently has been dying a slow and painful death.  The Hughes Brothers have delved back into history for the tale of one of the world’s most infamous characters and legends, that of Jack The Ripper.  However instead of exploring any new ground, or utilizing the beautiful visuals, costumes and sets, they follow the prototype that films like Se7en had already established and done better.  What’s left is a methodically paced journey down the same path where only the costumes and calendars have changed, but the path has stayed the same

Legend has it that Jack the Ripper terrorized the White-chapel section of London during the late 1800’s.  His identity has never been officially discovered, but many speculations and background stories abound.  From Hell delves into one of these stories, once again employing a lot of creative license.  Depp plays an opium-addicted detective who does his best investigative work when he is asleep.  He visualizes crimes and solutions in his dreams, and has a frightening rate of accuracy.  He is chasing The Ripper who is terrorizing prostitutes in said area of London, and conveniently enough, they all hang around in a group so that it makes it easier for him to find them.  Detective befriends one of the young ladies, of course, and becomes involved with her, almost to the point of distraction from the case at hand.  Sound familiar? It should, been there, done that, just in a different era.  Also complicating the investigation is Depp’s boss, and others who may or may not belong to the same group that the Ripper suspect does.  What follows is the intermingling and intertwining of the investigation, and the love story aspect, to near pinpoint predictable proportions.  It really saddened me that the movie took as few chances as it did, other than with its graphic visuals and beautiful cinematography.  The red herrings were an interesting twist, and not pointless, but too drawn out and typical to elicit any kind of concern or question.  The resolution is acceptable, since it was neither obvious nor out of left field, but still left me yearning for a more compact, intense package. No matter how much you dress up a story, or change the locale, it can’t hide a script and storyline that is typical, boring and easy to predict.

The performers follow the path effectively enough, with no one really standing out or being too bad.  Depp is stellar, as usual, in his understated role as the conflicted, imperfect detective.  He is truly an underrated, and under appreciated actor (since he hasn’t won any awards yet) who continues to show and broaden his horizons as an actor, although this role is just a step to the right from Sleepy Hollow, his ease and comfort slipping into these roles is admirable. Graham is acceptable as the lady of the evening showing an innocent sensuality that has become a trademark in her roles and Coletrane, Holm and Richardson all give effective supporting performances in a story that deserved better flexibility and direction than this one got.

Ultimately, From Hell is a Victorian serial killer movie that fails to explore or exploit available avenues of potential.  Movies like this that explore the darker sides and capabilities of humanity, seek to scare us, shock us and create a sense of suspenseful terror at what could be lurking around every corner.  From Hell’s slow, deliberate pacing, meant to build suspense, instead robs the movie of it.  The atmosphere and music set a chilling, suspenseful mood, which is betrayed by the pacing. The story, following patterns that have been seen before, doesn’t open any new doors, or explore anything that hasn’t already been done or speculated upon.  Instead the film relies on conventional paths, bathed in a lush and beautiful background, leaving the viewer with a sense of visual fulfillment, but mental disappointment. From Hell is far from a bad movie, but isn't quite a good one, I was right down the middle on this one, but because of sense of slight emptiness when I left theater, I cannot quite recommend it, appreciate it, yes, admire its vision, yes, but yearn for a darker, edgy retrospect on the world's first serial killer, most definitely. ($$ out of $$$$$)

 

K-Pax


I ain't happy
I'm feeling glad 
I got sunshine, in a bag
 I'm useless,but not for long 
The future is coming on

Apparently, there is an unwritten rule that there must be a speech or prologue at the end of most recent efforts involving Kevin Spacey.  In K-Pax that discusses the trend of the universe expanding and imploding upon itself, then repeating this process.  The movie seems to follow a similar philosophy and unfortunately does not learn from its mistakes as the speech implies near its conclusion.  There are genuine feel-good moments, some sparkling dialogue, revelations and messages, but it all gets cluttered up in predictable situations.  Upon initial reflection, K-Pax struck me as a typical feel-good movie that fails in some of execution, by instilling situations for cinematic purposes only, so that they could be resolved and the audience could feel good.  That opinion has not wavered, but I have had a change of heart on the film’s conclusion.  At first, I faulted it for being “contradictory to the principles that the movie preaches, but convoluted in that it throws numerous faux endings at us, until it finds one that sticks".  But upon further review, and heeding the mantra of Spacey’s masterful American Beauty, I looked closer, and actually now admire the way the film leaves things unresolved to the observant and attentive.  So be forewarned, things may not always be as neat and tidy as they first appear.

Spacey is Prot, a mysterious man who is picked up by the police after telling them he’s from another planet.  As you would expect him to be, since I’m sure the asylums are full of people making such claims.  But unlike 12 Monkeys for instance, Softley handles this one as his name suggests, softly, but realistically.  Prot claims to be from a wondrous and beautiful, yet emotionally disconnected planet called K-Pax.  He claims to have traveled on a beam of light, and will be going back the same way.  Of course everyone, including Bridges, as the doctor whom he is transferred to after nothing else seems to work, meets these claims with great skepticism.  The good doctor is a workaholic, who is estranged from his son, and is losing touch with his wife and children.  These are some of the plot manipulations, which just beg for resolution.  The underlying theme is one that I truly admired, and will, or at least should stimulate thought and conversation.  Why is that we will expend more energy trying to disprove something, then actually believe or prove it.  Blind faith (maybe represented by Prot spending the majority of the movie in sunglasses) is a message that the film could have focused more on, and hit home harder.  Appreciate what you have around you; believe without cause or justification sometimes.  We trust, know and base so many philosophies on things we cannot completely see or understand.  So why then, would it be impossible for there to be someone from another planet amongst us?  That would entail a whole other debate that I’ll stay clear from, as the movie does, save a couple of opening diatribes explaining certain obvious details.  The film realizes that the focus is on Spacey, his character’s simplicity amidst the chaos and complications would have worked a lot better if the film stuck to.  The conclusion will probably be a sticking point for many, and I’ll just say this.  It appeared at first, to come to multiple resolutions, before finally settling for the one it did.  But in actuality, it was just strengthening the case for showing that not everything can be resolved or explained, sometimes just have to believe or trust.  Just remember the details of what Prot knows, sees, and endures, that’s all I will say.   I really wanted to like this film more than I did, because it proclaims to preach a message of seeing the simplicity and beauty in life and not trying to over analyze things too much.  When it stays this course, it works, when it drifts into crowd pleasing emotional heart manipulation, it stumbles, such as with the issue of Bridges son.  The overall effect is one of mixed satisfaction, and maybe slight confusion, but the X factor is Spacey, and he’s worth seeing it for if nothing else

As is usually the case, Spacey plays someone who may or may not know more than the rest of the cast.  He does this through his smug, yet vulnerable confidence, which he effortlessly exudes.  His conversations with Bridges work wonderfully, now that Bridges has come full circle from his Starman episode, to play the almost burned out, but still obsessive to a fault doctor (similar to his role in Arlington Road).  Together, they carry the film through its troubled moments, and to its resolution.  While the delivery is a bit diluted, the intention is very obvious, thanks to them, and some strong supporting performances from the inmates who run the typical asylum gamut, but have an innocent, relatable charm, as the movie does for the most part.

Mystical? Maybe 
Spiritual, hearable 
What appears in you is a clearer view cause you're too crazy

Ultimately, K-Pax is a movie that makes you feel good when it works but at times betrayed by its own premise.  There is a message here that comes across, but Softley tried so hard to beat it into the viewer, that he lost any effect.  There is not always a need to have everything make sense, or be resolved completely.  Life doesn’t always work out, or make sense, but it still goes on whether we like or not.  The film works best when it sticks to the message of acceptance of something for what it is, instead of trying to expend energy better spent, on trying to disprove what may seem implausible.  One of Spacey’s last comments discusses believing in the possibility of one thing, if Bridges will believe in another that seems irrational.  Had the movie stuck to the simplicity of some of its dialogue and ideals, it would have been a much more powerful experience. By trying to do too much, director Iain Softley doesn’t achieve as much as he could have and leaves us with Spacey’s performance, a non-Hollywood ending, and a lot of potential to remember this film by. ($$$ out of $$$$$)

 

Riding in Cars With Boys


First impressions would probably classify this movie as a “chick flick”, since it appears to fall into that group of movies that celebrate feminity, strength and independence, while possibly making the simple statement that men are bad, and women are good.  This would be a gross miscalculation, if anyone avoids this film because of that.  Riding in Cars with Boys is actually a brutally honest, powerful and realistic look at the struggles and joys that life brings, and the little moments in between that strengthen the human spirit, and make us into who we are.  The script is straightforward and truthful, mixing in an even balance of humor and sadness, with those little things that we overlook in life, but really do mean so much.  By focusing on these details, director Penny Marshall has presented a film that celebrates not just females, but the human spirit and emotion and their reactions under the pressures and hurdles that life throws at us.

We all have dreams, a sketch or a plan of how we see our life going, where we see ourselves, and what we want to do to make a difference or just fit in and survive in the madness of reality.  Beverly D’Onofrio had a fairly simple and common dream.  She wanted to go to school, be a writer, have a family, and be happy.  Unfortunately for her, based on the story, things didn’t exactly happen in that order.  Based on real life events, we are told the story of how she got pregnant at 15, married the father, and the roller coaster ride that ensued.  The cast of characters in her life never changes, her disapproving father who only wanted the happiness and success that he feels he worked so hard to give to her, the child’s father, a slow-witted, forgetful, but well meaning slacker who wants to amount to more than he actually does, her best friend, who becomes her conscience and savior amidst the madness, and her son, who narrates the story.  He tells the story from the perspective of being made to feel responsible for his mother not accomplishing what she wanted due to having him.  Marshall, also a young mother, has a delicate, but brutally realistic touch with this tale, which is based on a true story.  The script is filled with insightful, but not flowery commentary on the growing pains of watching a dream die, then struggling to cope with drastic changes, sometimes finding the light, other times bathing in tears, but always bringing out the true heart of the matter.

Barrymore had never really proven her acting range to me, taking some fluffy roles (Never Been Kissed, Ever After, Home Fries ) to further her career.  Granted, she's likeable and fit into those roles, but never really showed much dramatic flair above being cute and adorable.  But with this film, she should silence the critics and carry her famous (or infamous) name strongly into the next century.  In aging herself from 16 to 35, the natural progression and transgression flows smoothly not only aesthetically, but  emotionally as well.  The film almost mirrors her own progression through life, from childish, to impulsive, to embattled, and now here, her triumphant cinematic moment.  Paired with Murphy, who almost makes up for her wasted chance in Don’t Say A Word, the two of them grow up, and play off of each other with the power and bond that best friends should have.  But if viewers take any performance away from this film, it should be Zahn’s.  Long overdue and underrated, Zahn has continually, but subtly shown himself to be a versatile, talented performer.  He is usually overlooked because he is play the slow, dim-witted member of an ensemble (That Thing You Do, Saving Silverman, Happy Texas), but this is his moment to shine and he doesn’t waste it.  Showing an innocent, well-meaning, but self-destructive nature, Zahn coasts through this complex emotional journey with a comfortably painful ease.  His eyes show so much, and his words seem to come from somewhere deep inside, as if he doesn’t know where they originated, but he feels them nonetheless.  His spirit, reflects that of the whole movie.  He is easily the one that most should relate to, and the reason that this should not be classified as a chick flick.  His character may not have been perfect, but by portraying both sides of him, the movie showed a brutal honesty of a person who is trying so hard to do the right thing, but who cannot resist the succumbing to the simplicity 

Ultimately, Riding in Cars With Boys is a strong commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit, and how to find the light of the moments in between to carry forward.  The unbreakable determination of a soul, especially one with a dream, is rarely personified from such a complete perspective.  With every happiness, there are several sorrows, with every triumph, there were several failures, but what makes us into our true self, is not the highs and lows, but the little moments in between each journey, where we find the strength to continue on, while opening our hearts up honestly to the way things really are.  Marshall has done it again, as she did in League of Their Own, by never being too serious, too light or too sappy, but instead finding the balance in the story, that the characters in the movie seek for their lives. ($$$$ out of $$$$$)

Monsters Inc.


 

 

There is no denying that Disney and it’s affiliated animation offspring Pixar have always had their finger on the pulse of what appeals to the young, and the young at heart.  Just when it seemed that things were going flat for the Mouse House, here came Pixar with Toy Story to breathe new life into the newly created animation wars between studios.  Pixar’s presence has allowed exploration into new aspects of youthful curiosity.  With their first few efforts, successful or not, they have delved into the wondrous side of the innocence, secrecy and curiosity behind the unknown.  Now, with Monsters Inc. they have explored, exploited and attempted to explain the lives behind the things that go bump in the night.  While the effort is breathtaking to look at, and at times innovative intelligent and creative, it falls prey to the same fate of A Bug’s Life, in that it presents a sharp, intelligent, entertaining setup, and conclusion, but the in between tends to lag a bit in between.  Since this is aimed at children, I base this on not only my reaction, being a kid at heart, but also on the fidgeting and impatience that I sensed in the audience,  through the middle parts of the film.  The overall wonderment, magic and universal appeal still manages to shine through in true Disney fashion and deliver a message that is nice to look and marvel at, but also touches something deep inside.

I’ve often wondered, did movies create the fear in children, or vice versa.  Were horror movies just the exorcised manifestation of the filmmaker’s youthful fears, or did they create a sense of paranoia, caution and dread in a new generation.  Regardless, for decades, the monster movie and stigma has always maintained a frightening, yet irresistible appeal.  Who among us cannot say they were not curious about what came up, when the lights when out.  How many of us can plead innocent to peeking a few times under our beds when we heard a strange noise, or saw something unidentifiable in the darkness (which usually turned out to be a shirt draped over a chair or something).  Once we did those things, our imaginations usually ran rampant with the possibilities of monsters, or evil beings waiting to take our souls, or our teeth.  Monsters Inc. must have been written by a group of grown-ups trying to expunge or explain those mysteries of youth, and what a job they do.  Monstropolis is a city populated by those creatures that come out of our closet, and from under our bed.  The city is inhabited with every type, big and small, young and old, who have normal jobs and lives, mirroring our own society right down to work habits, media exploitation and governmental cover-ups.  Mike and Sully (Goodman and Crystal) are best friends, who also work at Monsters Inc., the power company for the city.  You see, it’s the screams of young children, scared by the monsters that is harnessed for power and drives the city.  But there is a crisis, as the head of Monsters Inc (Coburn) says “Kids just aren’t as scared of monsters as they used to be” The race is then on, to set a new “scream” record, between Sully, the current leader, and Randal (Buscemi).  Now here comes the best part, in a fitting bit of irony, it turns out the monsters are more scared of us, then we are of them.  One touch can be deadly, they believe.  Everything is thrown into turmoil when a little girl gets into the factory, and the city, and generates fear and paranoia that, at first, is downright laughable, yet ironic.  With all this established in a masterfully written fashion, Monsters Inc then really has nowhere to go, because the same scenarios are repeated, or the typical paths are taken, and this is when the movie sags and slows itself to a near standstill.  But thankfully, the ending, including the requisite breathtaking visual scene, and establishment of the next ride at Disneyland, carries the movie to its expected feel good conclusion.  The voiceovers, which have now become a status symbol in Hollywood, are effective, and entertaining, especially Crystal, but it’s getting more difficult not to try and spend most of the movie figuring out who’s doing whom.  The joy of Prince of Egypt was its ability to steal the focus away from the voices, and into the story.  Here, I could almost see Coburn, Buscemi and Tilly hamming in front of the microphone.  A slight annoyance, but in the grand scheme of entertainment, Monsters Inc’s faults are definitely forgivable.

Ultimately, Monsters Inc. is a joyful, successful, witty thrill ride, which explores and exploits that which affects most people.  The fear of the unknown is probably what fuels our curiosity to explore and explain why things are the way they are.  These explanations, when taken to a serious level, can frighten us with possibility and probability of truthfulness.  This is why the horror movies that work the best, are the ones that strikes the closest to reality, or our perception of it.  Monsters Inc turns this perspective to another side, offering a lighter, believable, yet still slight fantasy based, version of the other side of things.  While it doesn’t maintain the consistently entertaining spirit, heart and active nature of Toy Story, it still will touch nearly every emotion, from smiles, to fear, to visual satisfaction, in an intelligent, yet universally appealing manne ($$$ out of $$$$$)

 

Amelie 
(Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, Le) 


Audrey Tautou has the look.  Those eyes, full of playful innocence and exuberance, and that smile which could melt the polar ice caps, make it no coincidence that she shares a first name with Ms Hepburn who also embodied those qualities.  As the centerpiece of Amelie, an amazingly sweet, wonderful and beautiful visual journey into the world of anonymous good deeds, Tautou carries the film on her sprightly frame and brings us along on her playful quest to spread happiness and joy through a world that seems to lack it, or focus in the wrong direction.

Recently, I’ve discovered that while it’s the larger things we seek, it’s the littler occurrences, which hold stronger memories and relevance.  We, as people, are defined initially by our external appearances, but as someone learns more about what’s inside, and underneath, therein lies the key to building a strong bond.  Amelie personifies this by relating smaller, seemingly inconsequential events together in its opening sequence, then defining each character by their minute likes and dislikes, even visualizing them for us.  We learn that Amelie’s father abhors clingy swim trunks, but loves cleaning out his toolbox.  Her mother dislikes touches from strangers, but loves cleaning her parquet floors and purses.  The early relevance of such material and petty events is not lost either.  Poor Amelie is disconnected from true love and emotion by parents who rarely show her attention, thus she retreats into her fantasy world, and we are taken along on the journey.  Her world changes one day, in her early 20’s, upon learning  of the death of Princess Diana.  Now it’s not this event pretell that changes her, but rather what happens afterwards, showing that it’s not always the actions, but the reactions, which make us who we are.  Based on a discovery, Amelie sets out to be a pied piper of happiness, by performing random, anonymous acts of kindness (witness a wonderful scene where she walks a blind man through the streets, describing everything from grocery prices to blooming flowers).  These acts are all craftily set into motion by the introduction of the residents of Amelie's real world, we learn their faults, and quirks, and thusly each one is unraveled before us without us realizing how well we know each one.  Amelie sets out to improve everyone else’s life, and maybe her own by doing so.  The film is a subtle character study, with a sweet core to its actions.

The center of this core, undeniably, is Tautou, cast by Jeunet, after seeing her image on a movie poster.  She embodies and makes this character hers alone.  Sprightly dancing through the lives of others, she hearkens back, not unintentionally, to a young Hepburn (notice the scene where she dresses like her, scarf, sunglasses and all)  She has stolen my heart, not only with her looks, but with her attitude, energy, and that look, those eyes, that smile, so full of the life that most of us dream, but that she chases through the satisfaction and smile of others.  She is the title character, and she is this movie, and she makes this ride what it is.

Ultimately, Amelie is feel-good trek through the the simplicities and complications of life, led by a dreamer with a heart of gold, and a look of magic, potential and desire.  There is no end to the amazing potential of the human imagination, and its ability to generate imagery and ideas.  In Amelie, Jeunet not only modernizes Jane Austen’s Emma, but also mixes in doses of everything from Slacker to Don Quixote to Magnolia.  Along the way, he utilizes beautiful, and creative cinematography (possibly inspired, in at least one instance, by Ally McBeal) and an insightful script, which borders on sugary sweet, but never crosses the line into the unrealistic or impossible.  The prevailing emotion, once a movie ends, is what they are remembered most for, and anyone who does not leave Amelie with a big smile, and tears of happiness, should have themselves checked for a heart.  It is nearly impossible not to fall in love with Tautou, cheer for her triumphs, cry with her sorrows, and melt with just a glance.  For a nation healing, and a movie community grasping to regain its feet again, Amelie shows that triumph can be found in the face of adversity, and that the simplest things to one person, can be the most important to another. I am Jerry, I like the smell of rainstorms, the feeling of cracking my knuckles, and the way that new shoes feel on your feet.  I dislike people who don’t pull all the way up at gas pumps, the smell of electrical wire burning, and movies that don’t make you feel that this one does.  ($$$$$ out of $$$$$)

 

Ocean's 11


Somewhere amidst the bombardment of teen movies, comic book remakes, gross out films, and sequels of the past few years, it appears that one simple fact has been mostly forgotten in movie making.  Movies are supposed to be fun, and can be so, while also telling a story that is interesting.  Oceans Eleven is a swaggering, smart, hip and slick remake of the Rat Pack heist movie from the 50’s, and director Steven Soderbergh kept the most important thing from that movie, the attitude, while incorporating a spirit of playful confidence with a simple plot, and a script that is rapid fire intelligent and so cool, that most will barely feel worthy to absorb the words.  Soderbergh continues to show his diversity, yet consistency in his work.  Save a small stumble at the conclusion, this was a near perfect example of how things should be done.

There is a certain prevailing atmosphere that the city of Las Vegas exudes, one of cockiness, braggadocio and confidence.  Rarely do films that use it as a backdrop, also contain this spirit, and only someone who has lived there can truly understand it, until now.  This film captures it to a tee.  The story is actually quite simple, but it is the details, the words, the characters and the little things that make this film a gem.  Danny Ocean is paroled from a New Jersey prison, and sets out, Blues Brothers style, to rebuild his old acquaintances for a common purpose.  The best of which is done in one of the movies many memorable moments, when Pitt is shown teaching cards to a group of Gen-X actors (I couldn’t name them all, but I recognized the faces). The group is formed to pull off the impossible, a “smash and grab” theft of money from 3 Las Vegas casinos, in a method much more creative and unique than its predecessor.  There are, of course, underlying factors, one actually, that I will leave for the film to reveal, since its part of the enjoyment, suffice to say it involves casino mogul Andy Garcia, who bears more than an inferred similarity to real life casino mogul Steve Wynn. There so many wonderful things, big and small, that I could go on and on about them, but watch just about everything Bernie Mac does, Don Cheadle as well, and listen to most of Pitt’s dialogue.  Soderbergh takes a story idea that other directors would have botched with multiple ideas, and instead shrugs off implausibility and realism, in some cases, in favor of a calm, confidant air of “so what, just go with it”, rarely even giving us time to question before the next cool thing happens and we become caught up in the joy of it all once again.  The plot becomes secondary to the dialogue and attitude of the characters, but neither is ever forgotten about, but instead balanced in mood in and complex simplicity. He has proven that he can obviously handle heavier works, but here, he’s just having fun, while still maintaining his stylistic touches and mood.  He, and writer Ted Griffin have simplified the complex, and complicating the simple, without losing the audience in the transition.  The unbelievable seems plausible in this hip alternate universe of all that is cool, where the lines of good and bad are blurred.  This is a world we all secretly fantasize about being a part of, and personally, it instilled a bit of swagger and confidence in my step, just knowing that these people, and situations, could even remotely exist.   By keeping things simple, and letting the characters and dialogue carry things along, as it should be.

In a movie with an ensemble cast, there is a fear of underdevelopment or lack of sufficient screen time, but here, Soderbergh pulls off the near impossible.  Every character, save Roberts I guess, is given the time and importance required, the complexity is given to the characters rather than the story, but still not crowding things as to over emphasize one thing, or steal from another. Obviously, amidst the mass amount of talent, the focus lies on Clooney, he has apparently slipped into his role in Hollywood as the cocky, confidant, yet still charming and appealing, obviously good looking leading man.  My problem with him early on, was that he suffered a similar mindset that befell Tom Cruise during his cutesy days.  He would be onscreen, knowing his good looking, whether his character was supposed to be or not.  Now, he’s taking roles, where the character requires that kind of confidence, and he is a natural at it, but his roles are not fluff, they are complex and deep, but that is all buried in the charm and wit that Clooney so effortlessly exudes. The best of the supporting lot is Pitt, hearkening back to his Fight Club attitude sans violence.  He and Clooney’s chemistry in their scenes, including a memorable exchange involving the plan, is near perfection.  Also standing above and beyond the rest is Mac, as a fast-talking dealer, Cheadle as a British explosives expert who may or may not have a screw loose, and Affleck and Caan, as bickering brothers who also have several memorable exchanges.  In a cast this large, it is nearly unimaginable that all of its stars could shine, but here, for the most part, they actually do.  Roberts’s role is the most understated, but still exists just as much as it needed to, as most of this movie does.

Ultimately, Ocean’s 11 is just one heck of a cool ride through the fast talking world of cons, thieves and other social miscreants, that makes their lifestyle seem playful, likeable, and almost envious to those of us on the outside.  This spirit is attained through its casting, its words, and even its subtle little looks and images that are so fluid, they nearly go unnoticed.  Along with Robert Altman, and Oliver Stone, I would be hard pressed to imagine a better director to handle a large, famous cast, and pull it off to near perfection, which mirrors his story here in a fitting bit of irony.  You may see films are more emotionally powerful or have better performances, but you will not see a slicker, sharper and deftly, scripted piece of cinematic fun.  Oceans 11 will breeze right through and leave you feeling refreshed, smarter, relieved, more positive and thankful for the experience. Movie makers of the future should watch and learn something from this film, movie fans should see this to remember what a truly well balanced and fun film looks like. ($$$$ out of $$$$$)

 

 

 

 

Vanilla Sky


There are some genres, which certain directors just should not venture into.  Just as Oliver Stone doesn’t make sappy romances and David Lynch doesn’t make period pieces, nor should Cameron Crowe venture into the surreal world outside of his own reality.  His Vanilla Sky is a languishing journey through the world of dreams and reality, which, while beautiful to look at, and well made, is lethargic and boring in it’s setup, and silly and ridiculous in its resolution.  Crowe should stick to what he knows best, his dreamers in reality, rather than exploring the meaning of those dreams during slumber.

Vanilla Sky is a remake of Alejandro Amenabar’s (The Others) 1996 mind trip, Open Your Eyes.  It is also the second film this year to explore the world that exists when the line between imagination and reality is erased; Lynch’s masterfully twisted Mulholland Drive was the first, and much much better.  Near as can be discerned, the story deals with magazine executive David Aames who falls for a beautiful dancer (Cruz) after she meets his best friend (Lee).  Aames is also involved in a volatile, physical relationship with Julie (Diaz), which leads to the movie’s twist, when they are involved in a car accident that changes everything, or does it?  The remainder of the film is interspersed between scenes of David’s life afterwards, and his counseling sessions with a psychologist (a what the heck is he doing here Kurt Russell). To even try and explain the rest would not only be futile and pointless, but rather difficult, since I’m not even clear after the conclusion.  It also wouldn’t help, because no explanation can justify the way this movie wraps up, which I will not spoil, but suffice to say, I was in the theater the whole time, and still feel like I missed something.  If you’re going to have a story that hinges on a twist, which will either surprise or clarify, then there is a near cardinal rule that must be followed; keep the audience interested enough to make it to the end, and to want to know what it all means.  This is where Crowe fails miserably.  The story lumbers forward, bouncing between scenes, tossing feeble hints of mystery at us, but never enough to peak any interest.  After a while, we just want the ending to come, not to explain, but just to get the torture over with.  Maybe I missed something, as I said, and maybe this is a film that you either get, or you don’t, but if the filmmakers message is lost, what good is it to deliver it in the first place? There is an underlying theme involving having it all, yet not being happy, finding it, losing it and trying to define it.  These ideas, unfortunately, are drowned amidst the convoluted delivery, very few directors can pull off emotional and surreal, and while Crowe’s attempt is appreciated, it is still unsuccessful.  His ideas are clouded and ultimately drowned amidst in delivery and the attempt to be viscerally stimulating.  Finally, it folds in upon itself and implodes into obscurity with its disappointing, unsatisfying and inane.  Crowe’s movies usually have a consistent lyrical feel about them, flowing smoothly, as the characters seek to find themselves, and while that theme remains, the delivery is uneven and the message is lost amidst it all.  Which is sad, because there may have actually been a strong translation and remake in here somewhere, I’m just not sure Crowe was the right person to tell it.

Usually, the script is the strong point of Crowe’s movies, with the actors following suit with the verbal candy that he has given them, but this time, with the muddled story, the actors seem to be struggling to overcome and understand, and get lost in it all.  Cruise takes a step back, over acting beyond belief almost to the point of annoyance.  He doesn’t play lost and clueless, near as well as he does spoiled, pretty or embittered, characteristics which come across here a bit, but are interspersed with rest of the confusion that gives his performance an imbalanced, uncomfortable feeling while watching.  Cruz and Diaz serve mirror opposite, yet dual purposes as the beautiful temptresses of the tale.  Cruz has the look, obviously, but as she proves yet again, fails to generate any kind of believable emotion or heart behind her character.  Diaz, on the other hand succeeds in adorable, sexy and irresistible but vulnerable and fragile,as the story, or semblance of one, dictates.  Her whiplash emotion changes shine above the script at times, and are swallowed by in others, unfortunately;, rising slightly above.  The only other shining performance amidst the mess is that of the underrated Jason Lee, as Cruises best friend, he seems to be the only one trying to supercede it all with some personality and style to his character. Throw in smaller shining moments from Spall, as Cruise’s attorney, and Tilda Swinton (whose presence will hopefully remind Oscar voters of her performance in the Deep End) and it still cannot keep things steady and afloat.  Crowe does keep one consistency from his other films; the music and look of the film are quite stylish and well done. There are two great shots which bookend the film, a stunning shot of an empty Times Square (not effects, but real) and the insertion of the Trade Centers, in a near the end, opinions on this would give away some of the films secrets, but it is still an admirable feat as Hollywood continues to grapple with how to handle the situation.  Unfortunately, in between these shots is a mess, which makes Jacob’s Ladder seem sensible and realistic.  These visual triumphs cannot, however, distract and hide from the mess that otherwise permeates.

Ultimately, Vanilla Sky is an unintentionally confusing and frustrating journey through dreamland, that would make most people just want to go to sleep to avoid confusion. It’s a laborious exercise in futility that wants to elicit wonderment about emotions and feelings, and their validity and basis, but serves only to cloud and already murky issue with convolution and in the end, banal absurdity. I am not sure what Crowe was seeking to accomplish by this departure into Lynchian territory, whether it be to explore new aspects of his film making, or just to show he can do something different, but he should apologize and beat a hasty retreat back to what his strong point of character and dialogue driven exploration of reality based dreams, rather that than surreal ones.  While he is good at showing us real people staying true to beliefs and themselves, he is definitely over his head when straying otherwise, if this effort is any indication.  It’s the difference between the dreams in our sleep, and those in our waking hours.  The entire message of true love and the search for identity and happiness amidst life’s twists, real and imagined, gets turned around, folded and ultimately imploded on itself. While trying to visual, it loses its power to be introspective, and clouds itself up to the point of restless aggravation.  It’s twisting ending only muddles things even more to the point of not caring about the depth of the intended social ideals.  I like to consider myself a thinking persons movie viewer, but Vanilla Sky gave me a headache in anticipation, then heartache at its attempt to be deep and philosophical, becoming no more than a Lynchian science fiction wannabe, with no heart and very little brain.

Open your eyes Mr. Crowe, and when you try something new again, stay a little closer to the world that you know.  . Maybe he should have eased himself into this change of pace, instead of tackling some this complex.  While he has proven that he can handle emotional diversity, the aspect of twisting reality isn’t his strong suit yet.   While the effort is admired, and I will rarely fault the attempt at originality, this was a bit much for him to delve into.  He shows hints of potential, someone this talented cannot help it, but these are overshadowed by this nightmare that just left me tired and empty inside.   I often listen to comments of people as I leave the theater, as sometimes they are the truest telling of alternate perspectives on a film.  Leaving Vanilla Sky, I heard someone say, “I’m not sure what I was expecting, but that certainly wasn’t it”.  Cinematically speaking, truer words may never have been spoken.   ($$ out of $$$$$)

 

The Majestic


The creation and birth of great ideas happens nearly everyday in Hollywood.  The problem that most of them run into is that they are little more than that, an idea that lacks any depth or follow-through.  With The Majestic, there existed an idea, the description of which, sounded intriguing, but also generated questions in my mind.  How will it get from the setup, to the conclusion, and will it have enough depth and legs to make there, reasonably, sensibly, and in a way that is entertaining.  The answer is much more complicated than the question.  While it does resolve everything, and does have enough to carry through, the majority of it is typical cookie cutter ideas filled in, and dragging towards an ending that never seems to want to get there, until every possible heartstring has been tugged and manipulated.  It is very difficult to fault Frank Darabont for what he does with The Majestic.  This feel-good journey of discovery takes no chances, nor does it stray far from the predictable steps expected from the trailer, and while it is a safe bet to say that it’s next to impossible not to be smiling and have a warm feeling in your heart, the trip becomes a bit frustrating as it never quite seems to know when or how to end, or seems to be afraid to, in lieu of not inserting all of the requisite scenes.  With his previous efforts, Darabont at least went out on the limb a bit, and strayed from the norm, but this time, as Oscar roles around again, he filled the film full of nomination clips and typical occurrences, all bathed in a sugary sweet coating, which comes out leaving a good taste, but not a memorable one.

The beginning of this movie made me yearn more to live in Hollywood, than any movie in recent memory.  The explanation of the magic of the movies, and the power of the written word, will always hold a close spot in my heart, and this movie starts off with a big plus in my book, but never goes anywhere with it really, keeping it safe, rather than risk upsetting or alienating anyone.  I guess the closest thing to daring that this screenplay does, is revealed early on, as screenwriter Peter Appleton sits in on a reviewing of his latest script, hearing it torn to pieces basically.  Appleton later finds out that, because of his lusting for a female in college, he has been caught up in the red scare of the 50’s, and labeled a Communist sympathizer.  Frustrated, he drives away from Hollywood, in a slightly intoxicated stupor, only to crash into a river, get carried into the ocean, and awash on a beach, suffering from amnesia.  He ends up in the town of Lawson, where he conveniently resembles a missing war hero.  The town embraces him immediately, as does his “father” (Landau), as he becomes the revitalization to a town that lost more than its share during the war.  As I have stated, it is fairly clear where this movie will go, and what it will do.  The only mystery becomes, is he, or isn’t he, and even this is handled simplistically, despite giving hints at something that could have been.  During the early parts of this movie, I subconsciously made a list of moments that I expected to happen, not knowing the specifics, but just generalizations.  I hoped it wouldn’t follow them to a tee, but it did, and took far too long in doing so, hence my faults with the delivery of what could have been an interesting message in other hands.

This was supposed to be Carrey’s Oscar chance, part 3 and is a departure from his norm of physicality and slapstick humor.   But while proving that Carrey can indeed handle an emotionally complex role, it is nowhere near on par with Man on The Moon or Truman Show.  Just like the film, he retains his playful, child-like spirit, by being both fun loving, innocent and sweet with neither ever really wowing or blowing you away.  Carrey seems to be a kid walking around in a grown-up’s body, showing that he can be as silly and goofy, as he can innocent and vulnerable.  I just hope that those who like this film will respect Carrey for who he is, and what he can do.  The only other performance to take away from this would be that of Landau, nearly stealing the scenes with his youthful glow and exuberance.  In a year devoid of great supporting performances (which this one won’t be) he would get some consideration, but the toothache, bellyache and near comatose state of the Oscar viewers after seeing this, may dilute his chances, as well as the films.

Ultimately, The Majestic is a charming, simple, heart wrenching, yet mildly exhausting effort in showing how we can discover our true selves by seeing a side we may not have known existed.   Movies that seek to touch the hearts and souls can do so, by not always following a set path, but by wandering into areas that we have never seen before, and giving our soul a chance to sympathize, empathize and feel something new. Also, in resolving these stories, stick with an ending, instead of exploring several and teasing us towards one, while instead tying up and building awards resumes for the performers.   This is a harmless effort in tireless futility that is impossible to fault for its intention, but impossible not to in execution.  It stays its course, and succeeds in touching nearly every emotion, but like the cinematic cotton candy that is, once its gone, it really wasn’t that memorable, but still harmless. ($$$ out of $$$$$

 

Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone


There is a certain magic drawn from the mind and spirit of the young.  The look in a child’s eyes, the view of the innocent possibilities of the world, and the playful path, which is taken to adulthood, is something enjoyed by the young, and envied by the older, whom desire to be young at heart once again.  Chris Columbus’s long awaited transference of the mega popular Harry Potter book(s) is a magical (a word I will use again) journey through another world, and a time lost but sought to be regained.  Many had ideas and visions of how the film should look (as most who read books will do) and few will be disappointed at the results.  The near perfect combination of faithfulness, effects, music, casting and sheer Hollywood magic make this film that hearkens, justifiably so, comparisons to Willy Wonka, Star Wars and Mary Poppins, if for no other reason, than it gives a new generation of kids a new movie to rally around, while giving adults a movie to recapture our youth with.  Such universal appeal is rare, but magical, and captured to perfection by Columbus and company, using Row ling’s story.

Okay, for those who have read the book, skim this part, for those who haven't, here is a crash course in Harry Potter 101.  As an infant, young Mr. Potter lost his parents to an evil wizard (known as Voldemort, You-Know-Who, or He-Who's-Name-We-Dare-Not-Say) Since Harry survived, with only a lightning shaped scar to show, he is considered a deity amongst the denizens of the magical world.  Unfortunately, he is not deemed ready to receive training for his destiny until his 12th birthday, hence he must live amongst the commoners (or Muggles, as they are lovingly referred) until then.  He lives with the Dursley's, his closest relatives, who treat him like an outcast.  Finally, the day comes where Potter is brought to Hogwarts, an academy for young wizards, where he will be trained.  There, he meets Hagrid, the caretaker, Dumbledore, the headmaster, Professors McGonagill and Snape, instructors, and his various classmates including the fire haired Weasley's, Hermione (whose name pronunciation may incite riot amongst Potter fans) and his nemesis, Draco Malfoy.  Now the rest of the film unfolds, based upon these events and characters, as Harry proceeds through training, and becomes a player in the #1 wizard game, Quidditch, a flying cricket/dodge ball style game.  The remainder of the first book, and subsequent ones are based around these facts, and I shall leave the movie to unveil them in its picture and word-perfect fashion.  This is the truest form of an adapted screenplay than has ever existed in Hollywood.  Columbus plays on the old adage of "if it ain't broke, don’t fix it".  There is a reason the books worked so well, because they touched a chord, and found that middle ground and bridged that chasm between youth and adulthood.  Why mess with that, thankfully, Columbus does not.  By doing so, he has created a nearly 2 and a half hour film, which may drag by for those unfamiliar, but will fly for those of us familiar, because we know exactly where the story is, and where it has to go, because Columbus never strays, and only omits small pieces on his way to the magical promised land of happiness and satisfaction that this movie gives everyone.

How many times can I say cool, until it seems unprofessional, this movie seriously brings that into question, and makes it hard to behave like an adult, when I just wanted to be 12 again and escape to a time when the world was simpler, and our eyes and souls were untainted.  Each generation has one movie that captures this magic, but not since Star Wars have we had one.  Now that we do, everyone should come along on Columbus's ride through the magical land.

Anyone who has ever read a book is probably guilty of envisioning how things and people look, its part of the magic of the under appreciated wonder of reading.  Our imaginations become the play toys of the author, and we each have our own creation of how things appear.  Few who have read the books would be hard pressed to criticize any of the translations here, since the casting is exact and fitting, and the actors, from Radcliffe to Watson, to Grint as the kids and to the delicious casting of Rickman as Snape (whenever I read the books now, I hear voice and smile wickedly) and also a scene-stealing cameo from John Hurt, no one could have asked for a better translation.  The effects are absolutely breathtaking, and more wondrous than I imagined.  From the Quidditch matches, to the haunted spirit of the castle, and even a three headed monster dog named Fluffy, the world comes alive so seamlessly, that it seems like somewhere that we could easily envision and vacation to.

Ultimately, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's stone is a wondrous escape and magical journey into another world and another time, guided by the simple power of emotion and love.  The simple complexity of the story, carries through into the films execution, by never straying from the mood, spirit and attitude of the story, while using wonderful effects and a deliciously ear pleasing score from John Williams to give birth to what our imaginations had only dreamed until now.  I must plead impartiality from being able to gauge whether or not this succeeds as a standalone success, but I would like to think so, because from a cinematic aspect, it does nothing wrong.  The script is solid, the performances are consistent and dead on, the effects and art direction are definitely award worthy.  It will truly be an unforgivable crime, if this movie does not cast its spell over at least these categories in March, along with Adapted Screenplay, since it personifies that like no other.  Chris Columbus's love letter to the young, and young at heart hits every right note, and for this 34 year old Potter fan and movie fan, this is the reason they make movies, and the reason I go, the magic of cinema, and the wonder of it all.

 

The Lord of The Rings: 
The Fellowship of The Ring


Those who have ever put any kind of thought or credence would agree that there is a circular kind of irony existent in nature.  The Yin and Yang, what goes around comes around, the circle of life, however it chosen to be phrased the similarities in philosophy are there for those who want to, or care to know.  Socially, and culturally, it has been touched on from mediums ranging from the Bible, to The Byrds to Walt Disney, and now add Peter Jackson and J.R.R. Tolkien into this philosophical mix.  With the Lord of The Rings, Jackson has not only translated Tolkien’s tale of a search for identity, power and meaning into a grand and epic vision, but has also brought this tale full circle cinematically.  What Tolkien began all those years ago, influencing, either directly, or indirectly, most fantasy and science fiction, has now benefited from the cinematic advances that these translations bore, and come together into a stylishly visual tale, which should appease young and old, familiar and unfamiliar, and anyone else who just appreciates good cinematic art and storytelling.

For anyone who was either not forced to read, or chose to read and forgot, here is a basic recap of the story.  As in Harry Potter, those familiar can skip ahead a bit, but not as much, because Jackson, unlike Columbus, did exercise his creative license, but still has just as successful of results, thanks to his presentation.  The setting is Middle Earth, and we are given the tale of the birth of a Ring (circular, irony intended, I am guessing), which contains powers unimaginable.  The ring journeys through owners, until it finds its way into the Baggins clan.  Bilbo (from Tolkien’s The Hobbit) has possession, but passes it to his younger relative Frodo.  The only problem is that the Ring’s creator isn’t exactly gone, and wants it back.  Possession by him would likely spell doom, so Frodo sets out on a journey to destroy the ring.  Guided by the wise wizard Gandalf the Grey, Frodo picks up a fellowship of companions to help and protect him in the quest, and the majority of the movie is their journey to Mordor, the place of the rings creation, and the only place it can be destroyed.  Now it’s been a long while since I read these stories, but it slowly started coming back to me as the movie progressed, and from what I recall, Jackson was fairly faithful.  Granted, he may have added or expanded some roles, and thrown in a bit too many warrior style fighting sequences, but these are forgivable, when the excess is also used to create a story which keeps us interested, and in the end, wanting the next movie to start as soon as possible.  And the visuals, and the sets, and the music, all of these are so grandiose and epic, that it will be a tough race between the young wizard and the young hobbit, as to who will be rewarded by Oscar.  The audiences have already been rewarded though, with this film that hearkens back to Star Wars in its feel, look and style.  This one will stand the test of time, proudly, as the epic that all who anticipated it would be.  It boils down to a tale of good versus evil told from a differing perspective, one where the unexpected, in this case the smaller of body but bigger of heart, may triumph over the more obvious physical presences.  Tolkien emphasizes finding and focusing on the purity of inner personality traits, friendship, loyalty, honesty, trust, rather than those that most would normally think, or has been portrayed in past cinematic and literary efforts.  Channeled through Jackson, Tolkien’s words and message have never rang truer or louder

The performers could have easily been relegated to little more than messengers and fighters swallowed by scenes and effects, but each actor gives life and personality to Tolkien’s words (through Jackson and screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens) The camera angles to differentiate height are aided by Wood, Astin and the other smaller roles (figuratively, and literally) portraying them as diminutive in stature, but never in heart.  As Gandalf, McKellan not only looks the role, but comes across with his sagely annunciation and attitude which is pitch perfect.  Mortensen, Weaving, Blanchett (in a cameo) and even Christopher Lee all make their roles their own, by sliding into character and giving newcomers to story, vocals and image to assist in the fertilization of their young minds with the magic of this tale.  Although I could have done without Tyler’s turn as an elven princess (every movie does not need a love angle, Hollywood, get that into your head!) overall, the actors became the characters, and in doing so,  a part of movie history.

Ultimately, Lord of The Rings bring the movie, science fiction, fantasy and storytelling world into full circle and into an epic and tantalizing conglomeration. Forget the hype, the expectations, the desire of the fanatics to remain true, the wants of those unfamiliar but intrigued by the trailers, and anything else you may have heard since this projects inception.  Take this film for what it is, a stunning, and visual, medieval masterpiece to rival the great journey films of all time.  Whether the destination is physical, or mental, Jackson’s vision and translation of Tolkien’s tale and message is one to be seen, appreciated and honored by all who view it.  Soak in what you see, absorb what you hear, and cherish the message and the messenger.  ($$$$ out of $$$$$)

 

A Beautiful Mind


It is unofficially time for Tom Hanks and Spencer Tracy to make room in movie history; Mr. Crowe is about to join them.  It may also be time for Mr. Howard to make space on his mantle, and for Ms Connolly to be taken seriously, by those who do not already.  With A Beautiful Mind, an emotional journey into the mouth and madness, love and genius, the participants have come together to create the year’s most intense, and amazing movie experience.  I must honestly admit that as the credits rolled, I was both crying and cheering, a dual achievement that is becoming even more rare as Hollywood drifts away from quality into the quantitative capitalistic mode of how much and how fast.  This is proof that some people still care about making quality movies, and that it can be done.

The movie, taken from an autobiography by Sylvia Nasar, is based around events in the life of Nobel Prize winner, genius, and schizophrenic, John Forbes Nash. His theories changed the economic and social world in ways that we don’t even realize.  It begins during his years at Harvard, during his search for an original idea, in a mind full of so many.  We are taken on a journey through his life and mind, meeting his future wife (Connolly) his rambunctious roommate (Knight’s Tales Bettany) and a mysterious government agent (Harris), as Nash fights to understand, and explain everything in life through reason and intellect.  As in any quality movie, to explain the rest of the plot would be to rob the movie of a part of its magic.  The revelatory delivery is patient, powerful and painfully honest in showing the effects of Nash’s illness on himself, and those around him.

This could very well be the pinnacle performance of Crowe’s career.  While he was very commanding and effective in Gladiator, I felt that was more of a makeup for his more deserving turn in The Insider.  While this is typically the kind of role that is Oscar shoo-in, Crowe doesn’t take the usual route with it, instead giving the role the edge it deserves, eliciting fear, appreciation, sympathy, laughter and compassion all at once.  He, like Cate Blanchett, has shown the ability to glide effortlessly through not only chameleon style appearance changes, but vocal tones as well.  What separates this performance from so many others, is the obvious heart and emotion seen Crowe's eyes while playing Nash.  You can feel what he feels, good and bad, and you become a part of him, cheering for him, while understanding his plight, a consistency that Crowe elicits in his roles.  This is type of performance, not role that deserves recognition and will get it for him this year.  Along with him, Connolly deserves acknowledgement  as well, for finally bringing to the mainstream, what those who have seen her independent work have already known; she is a very talented and versatile actress.  Her work in Requiem for a Dream and Waking the Dead was incredible, yet under seen last year, but now, the world will know what a treasure she is, not just to look at, but in her ability to show her emotions and bare her soul, inside and out, like few actresses working today, comparable maybe to Jodie Foster.  Add in Ed Harris, who is consistent as usual, as the best supporting actor working today, and a comic turn from Bettany, who stole A Knights Tale, and Howard has amassed the near perfect cast to effectively tell and relate his story in the wondrous, bitter, yet realistic manner which he does here. 

Ultimately, A Beautiful Mind is 2001’s most intense, realistic ride through the world of what we try to explain and do not understand.  Crowe embodies Nash to perfection, while Roger Deakins (who also did magnificent work in The Man Who Wasn’t There) has combined his visuals with simplistic, yet complex screenplay by Akiva Goldsmith (balancing intensity with humor) to take us along on Nash’s battle to understand and grasp reality. I must admit a weakness for movies involving both genius and mental illness (dealing with both in my lifetime as well) The movie takes an amazingly subtle yet effective stance towards the maddening and frustrating fine line between brilliance and insanity.  Most directors, writers, and actors for that matter, would have gone over the top and milked the heartstrings of this story until the audience is beaten into a sugar and hormonal induced coma.  But Howard, and Goldsmith have gently and tactfully crafted a message, which balances the delicate emotional moments, with the historical ones, to create a message, which strikes at the very heart of all humans who have tried to reason what can only be felt.  Nash grasped and fought this his whole life, and Howard has captured it to near perfection.  When March rolls around, everyone will know, what most of already do.  That Crowe is a versatile amazing actor that Howard is not all full of overblown fluff, that Connolly has moved into the upper echelon of dramatic actresses, and that you should know more about John Forbes Nash. ($$$$ out of $$$$$)

 Ali


Few men, let alone people, would ever want to get in the ring and go at it with a heavyweight boxer.  For fear of injury, humiliation, or just because of intelligence or pride stopping them doing so, most of us will suffice to just sit, watch and cheer or jeer.  However for anyone wondering what it would have felt like to go a few rounds with the one known as The Greatest, they need only sit through the tiring, sometimes flashy recreation of an important period in the life of Cassius Clay aka Muhammed Ali.  It is at time amazing to watch Smith bring Ali’s spirit and energy to life, but unfortunately this performance becomes bogged down with prolonged shots with only the musical score behind it, and an inconsistent pacing and transition, which gives this film the exhausting feeling of cinematic rope-a-dope.

Ali focuses on the most formulative and important years of his life, covering his ascension to the championship (by defeating Sonny Liston) through his religious conversion to Islam and the pressure, both external and internal, created by that, through two of his wives, his refusal to serve in the Army, and concluding with the infamous Rumble in The Jungle (chronicled wonderfully, in the far superior documentary When We Were Kings).  This seems like a lot of ground to cover for a movie, and Mann does allow sufficient time to develop and delve into each event which molded Clay/Ali into the athletic, and social icon that he is today, however he fails to move smoothly from scene to scene, instead choosing to hold long, introspective scenes backed with some nice soulful music, but lending little atmosphere or deeper meaning to the events.  In the end, Ali’s life seems even more crowded, uncomfortable and disheveled than it really was.  While things are really nice to look at, and hear, it gets very tiring, and any semblance of interest or curiosity generated is slowly beaten down, and finally away. The fight scenes, while well done, also become laborious, losing their intensity and effectiveness, and making us wish, as we do with the movie, that it would just be over.  Forget the questions of historical accuracies, the lack of interest generated, fail to make the audience even remotely care about them.  This is something that I’ve stated that films about real life must do in order to succeed, generate interest.  I knew a lot about Ali already, but the aspects touched on here only made me remotely curious when introduced, and by their conclusion, created an ambivalent sense of exhaustion.  There are so many flashes of brilliance, and of what could have been, in the hands of a director more used to dealing sports films (Ron Shelton maybe, to make up for Play it To The Bone), but instead Mann, more used to character based films, than biographical ones, fumbles the creation, while wasting some genuinely great performances.

Leading the way, far and above the rest, is Smith as Ali, putting to rest once again, those who doubt his genuine acting ability as a dramatic performer.  He proved it to me in his volatile, vulnerable, powerful turn in Six Degrees of Separation, and once again here, as he embodies and becomes the Champ, in the same vein that Jim Carrey became Andy Kaufman.  It is a truly haunting performance and one that deserves recognition but also one that deserved a much better film.  Voight seems to be getting the lion’s share of the buzz in his turn as Cosell, and while he does get lost in the makeup being unrecognizable and captures Howard’s true nature, even if softened a bit, the supporting performance to take away from this film is that of Foxx, as the troubled, but loyal Drew Bundini.  Foxx is making steps to be taken seriously as an actor, just as Smith did in his Six Degrees turn. Between this role, and Any Given Sunday, Foxx is showing an unexpected but wonderful diversity that should be noticed and recognized.  Overall, the casting was perfect and dead on, but lost amidst the cluttered yet lethargic delivery of the film.

Ultimately, Ali is a sometimes flashy, but mostly lethargic and exhausting exercise in futility which fails to recapture the heart and soul of a man revered by most, and respected by all who were influence by his presence. To truly capture a moment in time, all aspects must be covered, honored, and given their just due, in a consistent, smooth manner.  Mann may have tackled more than he could handle by trying to bottle the Champ into just two plus hours, his life could be a miniseries, that if done well, could hold attention and create conversation long after.  When We were Kings showed there is a story to be told about Ali, but it stuck more to reality, rather than recreation, and therein lay its success between the contender, and the pretender.  Ali KO’d me early on, and even after some brilliant flashes and jabs, it still could not recover and ends up falling listlessly, and slightly, into the also rans of the cinematic year. ($$ out of $$$$$)

Man Who Wasnt There


Only the Coen brothers could intermingle existentialism, film noir, UFO’s, piano prodigies, fortunetellers and barbers into a compelling piece of cinematic art.  The Man who Wasn’t There is a stylish, sometimes languishing, but never dull look at how ordinary people act and react under extraordinary circumstances.  Think about it, less than 2% of the population is known by about 98% of it.  Name off a list of 20 celebrities and/or athletes, and odds are, someone will recognize a name on that list.  Most of us who exist in that 98% walk around, wondering, questioning, thinking, pondering, but usually never finding, our reason or purpose for being here.  We walk around, unnoticed by most, each of us with our own dilemmas, joy’s, and pain’s and life events that we react to, as if we are unique.  We feel like ghosts on the grand stage of life, some like it, others don’t, but we still continue on, moving forward towards a destination that we don’t know, following a path we sometimes do not understand.  This film embodies that feeling, without flaunting it in our faces, capitalizing and overreacting as most movies would have.  Director Joel, and writer Ethan, take a simple tale of a barber, his unfaithful wife, a department store manager, an entrepreneur and a talented teen, and use their magic to create a powerful message about life.  Since the film is in black and white, the characters and dialogue are more noticeable, yet the Coen’s obviously learned from Hitchcock and Welles, amongst others, and use lighting, shadows, angles and smoke to give the look of the film a life of its own.  The end result is a cinematic gift, which, if patient, will pay off in ways that will stay with you long after the smoke has cleared.

Since the revelation, explanation, and resolution of the plot are part of the movie’s noir-esque magic, I will layout only the basics, and leave the Coen’s best intentions to do the rest.  It is 1940’s, Anytown USA, Thornton is Eddie Crane, a simple barber, married to Doris, who is emotionally, just about the exact opposite of Eddie.  She is lively, and passionate, and as extroverted as Eddie is introverted.  Eddie has dreams, buried deep inside him, which seep out just as slowly as his walk and his voice.  He wants, what most people want, success, money, and happiness, he just goes about in his own low-key manner, figuring that simplicity and commonality will pay off in the long run.  Doris works at a local department store, for Big Dave Brewster, who loves to weave his manly tales of war and battle.  Eddie also befriends a young girl, Birdy, who has a natural talent for the piano and whose own father is slowly drinking himself unconscious. Throw in some UFO’s, an egotistical piano teacher, an Italian picnic, and a fast-talking entrepreneur and you have only a story that the Coen's could pull off. In its classic unveiling, Man Who Wasn’t There seems to be, American Beauty, filtered through Hitchcock, and told by Raymond Chandler.  It twists so slowly, yet drastically, that’s its almost frighteningly real and believable in all its dark touches.   The story is carried by its look; a Citizen Kane style combination of shadows, light and the always-present cigarette smoke.  The thing I love about black and white photography is that it leaves most things to the imagination, and gives the storytellers, carte blanche to build something, without the distraction of color.  Here, it sets the mood for what’s to come, in a way that color may have tainted.  The background, the costumes, the scenery, all seem to disappear, as if they are not as important as the people moving around within them.   There are so many evidences, and inferences, as to Eddie not being “there” that I will let the viewer discover them on their own, and discuss later, and believe me, you will be talking about this movie, if you have patience, and let it seep its way slowly inside you.

The characters become the key in this story, since there are really only two instances of exuberant emotion or action.  The key to all is Thornton, playing Crane down to near Prozac overdose level, by using his words to show his emotions, rather than his facial expression or action.  Think Karl Childers, with a flat top and cigarettes.  He is a simple man, a man who isn’t there, yet walks around in the body of a man who is.  Thornton, for all his recent eccentricities, was the perfect choice for this role.  He has shown a penchant for the simple man, conflicted, fighting within himself to do what is right, and here, he keeps it all bottled inside like a volcano that erupts with a patience that is nearly unrecognizable.  Also pitch perfect in supporting roles are Gandolfini, showing yet another aspect of his acting ability, playing the oafish, wanna-be tough guy, struggling to be cute and succeed, McDormand, who just naturally slips into her woman wanting more, but settling for what she has, Badalucco, as the lovable, huggable, best friend, who may or may not have more going on behind his façade, and the underrated Johannsen (whom I still believe was robbed of a nomination for Horse Whisperer) who walks the line of playful innocence and mature poise with a frightening ease.  Along with Thornton though, I beg the Academy to pay attention to the scene stealing Shalhoub, as lawyer Freddy Reidenschneider.  This was obviously a role written to be the antithesis of Crane, and given the most color of any character in the film, hence it could have easily been overdone, or hammed up by the wrong actor.  But Shalhoub injects the right amount of swagger and sarcasm into this role, offsetting nearly every other performance in the film, yet fitting right, in the Coen’s own version of the world.

Ultimately, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a darkly noir-ish look at the existential thoughts, which bounce around in everyone’s mind and souls, but are rarely vocalized.  While the pacing is a bit languishing, and the film is not for the impatient, those who recognize and are observant, will notice that the characters each independently reflect differing aspects of the same battle.  We are each soldiers in the battle to find our purpose and place in the world. Whether we silently walk through life, waiting for things to fall in our laps, or we go after them with a confidant, or braggadocios swagger, or seek the simple satisfaction, even when confront with opportunity, or even if we just dream out loud, those of us who haven’t “made it” each have our own way of seeking the answers and truth as to our existence.  Each of the characters emotions and characters embody differing aspects of people on the outside looking in, and how they react when extraordinary situations present themselves The Coen’s simply put these into bodies, took away the color, and let it come from the characters, their reactions, and the situations presented.  The result is an instant classic which everyone should see, because it is a beautiful piece of classic film making, with homage’s, obviously to Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Orson Welles, but that not every one may have the patience to stick with or understand.  Just open your mind, and let the Coen’s show you their version of the answer, as sought by the simplistic dreamers of Santa Rosa, who are more like you and me then we care to admit.  ($$$$ out of $$$$$)