So my plans to ressurect my long-ago film review newsletter The View From the Front Row as part of this weblog got waylaid by the overly ambitious and probably superfluous series on the insane business of the National Hockey League. At this late date it's not possible to write longish reviews of films I've seen since the first neo-Front Row entry back in January, nor would most of those reviews be relevant, so many of the movies having long since come and gone from theaters.
The nature of the movie business these days makes it impossible for me to want to see any more than a handful of movies anyway. And it's impossible to provide any context for individual film reviews if one is unable to see enough major releases. I've only seen twenty-four movies in theaters since the start of the year, not even one per week, and that includes the triple-feature I sat through in one day at the Tribeca Film Festival and another trio I would not have seen had I not been chaperoning the kids who really wanted to see them.
So in lieu of anything resembling a knowledgable set of analyses, here is a digest of impressions -- an impressionistic portrait of half a year's worth of one once-avid filmgoer's present-day viewing menu.
Published Page to Sound StageSo you read the book. Did you like the movie? One of the hardest of cinematic tasks is to adapt a popular novel for the big screen and please fans of the book as well as moviegoers who never read it. The trick has always been translating the written word via the visual language of cinema.
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The big winner at this year's Oscar showdown was the third installment in Peter Jackson's epic adapatation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy masterwork. Having read Tolkien's trilogy at least ten times over (don't ask!) I had some problems with the first two installments. The decision to omit some of the hobbits' entertaining adventures in The Fellowship of the Ring, logical in that they didn't advance the story of the One Ring, was annoying not only because it left out material that advanced the character of the setting (Middle Earth) as well as the protagonists, but also because it was cut in favor of segments that were not in the original book (mainly, Liv Tyler as Arwen). Likewise The Two Towers, which cut crucial corners in the story of the Ents while adding a laughable original sequence where Aragorn nearly dies.
But The Return of the King gets it right, even when it cuts corners, maybe even especially in cutting the huge corner that ends the saga, a multi-chapter coda that would've extended the 3:30 running time by another half hour. Once again, the most impressive achievement is Gollum. In reading Tolkien, I was never able to picture Gollum -- he was always a hazy shadow of pure corruption, Tolkien focusing on the points of light that are his eyes and the tortured syntax of his rants. But Jackson and crew, plus actor Andy Serkis (who gave Gollum voice and acted out his movements only to be overlaid by CGI and who should've been a unanimous choice for Best Supporting Actor Oscar), hit a home run bringing him to life, down to the minutest details. His split personality, his good side arguing with his bad side, is a cinematic coup that adapts Tolkien's words to perfection.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Chris Columbus, director of the first two Potter movies, was replaced for this third installment by Alfonso Cuaron, usually cited for Y Tu Mama Tambien rather than the operative touchstones, A Little Princess and Great Expectations, which gave the Mexican helmsman his requisite background in both children's stories and Britannia. In tackling the popular Potter book, Cuaron was invaluably assisted by screenwriter Steve Kloves, the writer-director of the The Fabulous Baker Boys who has penned all four existing Harry Potter scripts (including The Goblet of Fire, which is currently in production under a different director, Mike Newell) and is slated to script The Order of the Phoenix as well. Together, they pull off the adaptation trick to perfection, leaving J.K. Rowling's plots and dialogues intact while using visuals to enhance the cinematic re-telling of the story. For example, Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney has thick spectacles which don't stop her from tripping over whatever is right in front of her, expressing her incompetence as a seer of the future visually (and comically). Not being a fan of Cuaron's previous work, and believing that Columbus's light commercial instincts were appropriate for Harry and Co., I was skeptical -- to my surprise, this is clearly the best of the bunch so far (perhaps aided by the absence of you-know-who, which opens up Rowling's signature mystery story to a great degree).
I got Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain as a gift from my sister. I was disappointed that it disappointed me -- I disliked it quite intensely. Nevertheless, I thought it would make a good movie, cinema being able to visually capture the lyricism and symbolism that eluded Frazier because of his soporific style. Problem is, director-screenwriter Anthony Minghella is as much of a cinematic bore as Frazier is a literary one, as everyone who has re-thought The English Patient can by now agree (screenwriting guru Bob McKee gleefully skewers it in his famous story seminar and Seinfeld devoted an entire episode to mock its popularity). But Frazier is more the culprit than Minghella, who here remained largely faithful to the original text, a Civil War version of Homer's Odyssey (as if that has not been done a hundred times too often). The only saving grace of both book and movie is the sub-plot (actually, plot 1A) about the liberation of Ruby Thewes. As much as I normally dismiss Renee Zellweger as an actor, she was hands down a deserving Oscar winner as Best Supporting Actress for in this role (interestingly, Minghella was not among the many Cold Mountain nominees).
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
I felt the same way about Peter Weir's adaptation of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring adventures as I did about Cold Mountain -- another novel dragged down by heavy-handed writing that stood more of a chance of being a good movie, notwithstanding the sometimes heavy hand of director and co-scenarist Weir. I read The Far Side of the World when I was boning up for travels in the South Pacific. O'Brian contributed little to that aim, perhaps because he was more interested in his sailing vessel, the HMS Surprise, its captain and crew, and their internal and external battles, than in the setting, which I suppose was more my problem than his. These very elements, it turns out, are better portrayed visually on the screen than on the page, as is the setting that I was so interested in (the South Pacific here represented by the Galapagos rather than Polynesia). Russell Crowe, as Captain Jack Aubry, gets much of the attention because of his stature as an actor, but Paul Bettany provides invaluable suppor as the ship's doctor (as he did playing Crowe's alter ego cum roommate in A Beautiful Mind).
I didn't read the novel by Daniel Wallace on which Tim Burton based his latest movie, but the movie makes me want to read it. Though the film winds up working in the end, thanks to an unexpected resolution that ties up some overly fantastical loose ends, this is the type of material, lyrically and mythically symbolic, that often makes for entertaining literary experiences. The tall tales told by the character at the center of the story are perfect fodder for (though not nearly as good as) the whimiscal Burton of Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, or even Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, as opposed to the gross-out Burton of Beetlejuice, Batman, Mars Attacks!, or Sleepy Hollow.
I haven't read anything by the oft-adapted and extremely popular Stephen King (nineteen novels or novellas, eighteen short stories, even one poem, and three more currently in production -- and that doesn't included TV movies, TV series, TV episodes, remakes, or sequels). But I've seen many of the better adaptations, having always preferred the less- or non-horrific like Stand By Me, Misery, Dolores Claibore, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile. Secret Window, from a novella of nearly the same name, starts out promisingly, blocked writer Johnny Depp accused of plagiarism by a mysterious southerner played with appropriate creepiness by John Turturro. The story's twist is telegraphed almost from the start, taking a lot of punch away from its ultimate revelation, and leaving little room to maneuvre except toward the horrific.
Name Brand MerchandiseMovies that trade on a recognizable name -- from the biggest (Steven and Tom, and Denzel) to the newest (Nia), from the past (Starsky & Hutch, The Stepford Wives, and Herb Brooks) to the future (Charlie Kaufman but probably not Nia).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The previews for Charlie Kaufman's latest opus were geared more toward his fans than those of his star, Jim Carrey. I suppose the marketing department figured Carrey's name and face were enough to bring his people in, but that Kaufman's devotees had to be told that this was Charlie's movie, not Jim's. Praise the lord for that -- Carrey turns in one of his most credible performances to date by sublimating himself to rather than overwhelming Kaufman's script, knowing perhaps that Kaufman's quirky temporal games would make him look good enough, or better. Too bad Carrey didn't do the same in The Cable Guy or Bruce Almighty -- then again, those scripts were not as ingenious as Kaufman's almost always are (you know about Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Being John Malkovich, but he did misfire once -- Human Nature).
A funny thing happened at the multiplex the weekend Steven Spielberg's latest movie opened. Theaters were half empty. And that was mainly because everyone was next door watching another film that opened the same night -- Fahrenheit 9/11. I witnessed this in Scranton, PA, of all places, not the liberal hotbed of New York City where one would expect as much. Not that The Terminal is a bad movie -- it's OK. Spielberg's third straight Tom movie, Tom Hanks starring on the heels of being in Catch Me If You Can, which followed Tom Cruise in Minority Report -- all of them OK movies. Taken together with their predecessor, the godawful A.I., Spielberg is most definitely in decline, which explains why he is going back to his bread and butter with a fourth Indiana Jones entry and a remake of the sci-fi classic War of the Worlds (another Tom movie).
The Day After Tomorrow
Roland Emmerich is a name that is hard to get one's lips around, so studio promotional material routinely omits it and simply says, "From the director of Independence Day and Godzilla" (a short list to which they could easily add the surprisingly durable Stargate, though not the Mel Gibson bomb The Patriot). By the time Emmerich's next CGI blockbuster comes out (King Tut), they'll drop Godzilla and add The Day After Tomorrow, which after all now stands as his best movie (Independence Day didn't do it for me, nor did Stargate -- I didn't waste my time with the others). Based on The Coming Global Superstorm, the environmentally conscious director telescopes a potentially real weather scenario into an impossibly short space of time in order to first flood and then freeze New York City. Then he sends in Dennis Quaid, mukluks and all, to save his son, Jake Gyllenhaal, who is trapped with friends in the New York Public Library. All a good excuse for some mind-blowing special effects, worthwhile here in sevice of an interesting premise and an acceptable (though slight) plot.
Man on Fire
They said this was Denzel Washington's finest performance, big news for the guy who was nominated for Oscars for portraying Steven Biko, Hurricane Carter, and Malcolm X and won for Glory and Training Day. No, this was standard issue Denzel, reprising similar turns in similar movies, the kind where you ask yourself, "Why would someone like Denzel make a movie like this?" before the obvious answer hits you. Here he once again plays a tortured loner, out to avenge the kidnapping of a girl he was hired to protect. Didn't help his cause that he had to do it for hyperactive director Tony Scott, who treats two-hour features as if they were the 30-second commercial spots he started his career making.
The Stepford Wives
I was told by the roommate of the actress who played one of the lesser wives of Stepford that the ending to the movie had to be reshot three times amid a high degree of rancor between the principal creative minds behind this remake of the 70s social paranoia classic. Glenn Close, one of the stars, was reportedly behind much of the rancor. Considering that she was left, in the final edit, clutching the decapitated head of Christopher Walken, I would surmise that a) she had every reason to be rancorous about the ending, and b) she lost. Just what the heck were they thinking? Blech!
It was risky to take a movie about the well-known 1980 US hockey team that upset the mighty Russians and won Olympic gold in Lake Placid -- "Do you believe in miracles?" -- and focus mainly on its lesser-known coach, Herb Brooks. As a die-hard hockey fan, Brooks was no mystery to me, but everyone else was probably expecting the uplifting story of the players and the nation that rallied around them at a time of political upheaval (hostages in Iran and Soviets invading Afghanistan). The movie was a success nonetheless, thanks in large part to the great job turned in by Kurt Russell as Brooks, the last player cut from the 1960 gold-medal-winning US team who took on the uneviable task of plotting the overthrow of one of the powerhouse hockey teams of all time and made it his obsession.
Connie and Carla
Nia Vardalos came out of nowhere as the writer and star of one of the greatest dark horse success stories of American cinema, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a semi-autobiographical tale of a Greek-American woman trying to reconcile love with her large, volatile, and very funny family. Her second effort as writer-star borrows heavily from the genre of transvestite comedies, mainly Victor-Victoria, also a movie about a woman masquerading as a man cross-dressing as a woman, and Yentl, among others. Despite its derivativeness, Connie and Carla works, mainly because a) it's pretty funny, and b) there are a lot of great tunes (an element borrowed from another drag comedy, Priscilla Queen of the Desert). And yet despite that, it was a box office failure, drawing a big fat yawn from Greek Wedding fans.
Starsky & Hutch
Like most everyone else, I stayed well clear of Zoolander when it came out -- Ben Stiller as a male model? Give me a break! But then I watched it on cable one night, and surprise! It was hilarious, a real send-up. So Stiller's next parody, made once again in collaboration with Owen Wilson (the two also teamed up as part of larger ensembles in The Royal Tenenbaums and Meet the Parents), was a must-see for me, even though I never saw the original 1970s TV series on which it was based. Stiller is clearly a love-him or hate-him kind of guy when he makes these kinds of over the top movies (Dodgeball is his latest), and I, well, I don't exactly love him, but I appreciate this kind of stuff. The humor is as scattershot as any parody, often repetitive, always inane. It's as good-naturedly goofy as Zoolander, but not as inspired. As far as TV remakes go, it's way ahead of Charlie's Angels, Wild Wild West, even Mission: Impossible, and the like, because it remains fully respectful to the original and its era even while sending it up mercilessly (Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul even appear in their roles as the original Starsky and Hutch).
Angelina Jolie is a bankable name, for now, thanks to some of her other bankable attributes, all of the fleshy variety. But she won't be bankable for long if she keeps making forgettable movies like this one. After a series of supporting or co-starring roles put her on the map, culminating with her Oscar-winning supporting role in Girl, Interrupted and the commercial success of Gone in Sixty Seconds (not to underestimate the impact of those lips), she has been unable to carry a movie in her own right. In Taking Lives, she gets seriously good support from Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland, a trio of French actors, and Gena Rowlands, but is stuck in a paint-by-numbers serial killer thriller -- not a career killer like a third Lara Croft would be, but enough to relegate her back to supporting and co-starring roles (as in her upcoming support of Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law in Sky Captain, of Colin Farrell as the wife of Alexander, as a lesser voice in Shark Tale, and alongside Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a remake of the Hitchcock classic that has disaster written all over it).
Child's PlayMakers of children's movies have figured out by now, mainly from seeing the unfailing success of Pixar's body of work, that you can put out almost anything and the kids will watch it, but if you throw in some stuff that grabs the attention of the parents who must by necessity chaperone those kids to the theater and tolerate repeated viewings of the video or DVD at home, then you will have a hit.
Shrek was really the first animated feature not made by Pixar to figure all that out, and with Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy quipping their way through an unrecognizable retelling of William Stieg's book, it was a huge crossover hit. Shrek 2 opened to an even greater level of anticipation, positive reviews, and merchidising tie-ins. My kids liked Shrek 2 better than the original, but I suspect that has a lot to do with its of the moment cachet vs. their having finally grown tired of Shrek after a hundred straight viewings. I liked it well enough but felt it wasn't quite up to its predecessor, especially in its fairy tale omnivorousness. Maybe I just didn't think Puss 'n Boots was the cat's pajamas like everyone else did. After all, to paraphrase Donkey, the job of annoying talking animal was already taken.
We weren't going to let our older daughter see Mean Girls at first because we thought that, despite her raging pre-pubescence, it was a little too PG-13 for her. But then we decided, based on positive reviews that emphasized its high parent-quotient, that we wanted to see it ourselves, so we decided to take her after all. It was indeed a little too much for her in the language department, and it was not as grown-up savvy as advertised, but it struck enough of a compromise to have been acceptable all the way around. Lindsay Lohan may have much farther to go than fellow Disney teen star Hilary Duff, not having the benefit of a popular Disney channel series, but she may end up, by virtue of her superior script choices (Freaky Friday, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen), having more staying power.
I was bitten by a spider, by a brown recluse, and for two weeks had to wear sweatpants hiked up high above my waist nerd-like because of the dangerous welt it left at my belt line. And I didn't develop any superpowers as a result, not even from the vile MSM I had to drink to counteract the spider venom. So forgive me if I'm skeptical over the whole premise of Spider-Man. That this second installment dwelt so heavily on the question of whether to do what you have to do, all in the context of a juvenile comic book fantasy rather than in a more revealing real life situation, did not help its cause, at least not with me.
Shooting For the HipJudging from where I sit here in SoHo, three blocks from the Angelica, a few more from the Film Forum and the Sunshine, the indie, foreign, and documentary film scene, while only of shadow of what it was in its heyday, remains a vital force, still a hip antidote to the fare Hollywood saturates theaters, cable channels, and video chains with.
The Fog of War
Errol Morris has been one of the undisputed heavyweights of documentary filmmaking ever since 1988, when his The Thin Blue Line was instrumental in getting an innocent man off death row. Though I have personally found his other films to be of little interest, and not lively enough to entertain me despite my lack of interest, his Oscar-winning interview with Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the escalation of the Vietnam War in the 60s, is an eye-opener. Subtitled Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, it demonstrates, in the context of the current war(s), that no lessons have been learned.
Super Size Me
You will never want to eat at McDonald's again after watching Morgan Spurlock do nothing but for 30 days and seeing the effect it has on his health and weight. Amazing even the doctors who monitor him throughout the 30 days, Spurlock degenerates steadily while documenting his trek through burger heaven and through the subject of American obesity in general. Funny and alarming.
I'm Not Scared
There is a baffling moment in the Italian psychological thriller I'm Not Scared when a child living in a poor rural village discovers a boy being held hostage in a dark cellar -- and he doesn't tell his parents. Surely that's the first thing any child would do, isn't it? And it's not like his father has done anything to make his son distrustful. No, it's more of a feeling that in discovering the hostage, the boy fears he himself has done something wrong. What happens afterward is not something I'd want to give away in case anyone ever wants to watch this film on video or cable, something I'd recommend, I'm Not Scared being in the time-honored tradition of European film in being able to eloquently show us the world through the prism of a child's point of view.
At the invitation of a friend, I spent a wonderful day at the Tribeca Film Festival attending a triple feature, even though none of the movies was worthwhile in and of themselves. Open strictly to Gold Card members of the festival's founding sponsor America Express, the event, held at the Screening Room, was worthwhile for its intermission buffets and post-screening chats with the films' makers (as well as catching up with my friends). Aside from the vittles, what I got from this Gold Card event was that the search for film festival success too often turns up nothing more than fool's gold.
If I was an opera fan, or at the very least anything short of an opera hater, I would have liked, or at the very least appreciated, this documentary about tenor Neil Shicoff's revival of an opera, Halevy's La Juive (The Jewess), not performed since it was banned by the Nazis due to its controversial Jewish subject matter. I was able to stick with it early on, when it was about the background of the tenor and the opera, but once the singing started, it acted upon me like a sleeping pill. Director Paula Heil Fisher's unabashed love of opera made her post-game comments less than illuminating.
Unlike Big Fish, the film adaptation of Cavedweller does not make me want to run out and read Dorothy Allison's source novel. Maybe because I am neither a mother nor a daughter, I find myself less than interested in the story of a mother trying to reunite with the two daughters she abandoned long ago, risking her relationship with a third daughter she has custody of. Or maybe it's because I have little sympathy for someone willing to ruin everyone's lives by running away from her problems instead of trying to solve them. Either way, Cavedweller is just too depressing, Kyra Sedgwick's great acting job notwithstanding. Director Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon, High Art) was not available for discussion afterwards.
Having little in common with opera stars or mother-daughter relationships, I was hoping to relate better to Randel Cole's feature film debut, a comedy about software entrepreneurs. And so I did -- until Cole left the real world behind for a sojourn into dreamland. If you run across this one in your video store or program guide (you won't be seeing it in theaters), skip it and see startup.com instead, a documentary that much more convincingly enters the world of the surreal. The best part of this screening was seeing Cole bristle at an audience member's comparison of his movie to the Coen Brothers (no doubt due to the presence in the cast of John Turturro) -- like me, Cole is decidedly not a Coen fan.
Staying Away in DrovesMost of what I didn't see I didn't see because it failed to even be attention-worthy, even when like Van Helsing it tried real hard to command my attention with its marketing blitz (I stopped watching vampire movies oh, about 365 vampire movies ago). Five movies bear the dubious distinction of being must-see movies, more or less, that I just couldn't bear seeing.
There once was a time when I would have looked forward eagerly to any Kevin Smith movie (I even liked Mallrats). But after Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back failed to generate any humor whatsoever (OK, Jay and Silent Bob generated a few chuckles, but overall...), I had no basis on which to believe that Jersey Girl would be anything other than the trite insipid fluff the preview made it out to be.
The Coen Brothers have ticked me off ever since their debut, Blood Simple, which everyone else besides me seems to idolize, idealize, iconize. Their comedies were often the exception to the rule (to my anti-Coen rule). But after the inanity of Intolerable Cruelty, I couldn't tolerate whatever type of cruelty they might have had in store in remaking one of the great Ealing comedies, The Ladykillers, not even with Tom Hanks in the Alec Guinness role.
I can't tell you how gratifying it is that Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill has been almost completely ignored or even trashed by almost everyone I know. I am fully confident that the curtain has been pulled back exposing this bogus wizard and will remain so until he figures out how to devote his not inconsiderable talents on something remotely resembling the worthwhile.
Knowing a bit of Aramaic from my yeshiva days, I had to unfortunately recuse myself from seeing The Passion of the Christ -- there is nothing more annoying than unsynchronized subtitles, is there? Maybe I would have gone to see Troy if it had been in Trojan with dual Greek and English subtitles -- or if I had any interest in seeing a sweaty half-naked Brad Pitt trying hard to keep a straight face as he thought about how much money he banked in agreeing to star in this latest retro sword and sandal epic.