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Italian for Beginners

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An incredibly low-rent Danish film, Italian for Beginners brings a group of people together in a sweet and charming way, if a little convenient. Through a Kevin Baconesque web of coincidence and acquaintance, a number of people join an Italian class, which they all love. Things aren’t going so well for any of them, or for the class, but that brings them together. Each oft hem has some gap in their lives; not a shallow, American cap like an unrewarding career or low self-esteem. The Danes are neighbors to Ingmar Bergman’s cold Swedish angst – these folks have real problems. Drawn together by love of the Italian language, they also suffer death, misfortune, and fear, weathering it all as they pull closer. It sounds like a drama but it really isn’t.

Is it the lilting passion of the romance language that connects them? Or is it their mutual interest in something so foreign that allows them to see each other as something wonderful? I am probably reading into the film, but otherwise it is a few steps above a college kid’s “hook up” screenplay insofar as how much the film focuses on the love connections and not what is bringing these connections to fruition. These people need this Italian class, and not just to learn Italian.

It is so important to them that they show up when it is cancelled, and a man invites an Italian woman, knowing it is her only language, because he wants her to be a part of it. We just don’t get a sense of what draws them so strongly. The characters by and large are generally honest, sincere, and good-hearted, with the exception of massive jerk Halvfinn. Still, everyone finds a niche and a friend and a hand to hold, and I found myself smiling involuntarily during the last act.

From a technical standpoint, the film is sometimes hard to watch. The color and light and focus are all clear and as beautiful as film (it was shot on video or on 8mm camera) but the camera is seasick-jiggly, like a home movie. The sound editing is a good example for people who don’t understand that Oscar category. Car sounds or other ambient noises cut in and out depending on the take. I spent a long time trying to figure out what language they were speaking – it’s Danish, to save you the trouble. Italian for Beginners has a mostly homemade feel – a pie baked by your grandmother. It’s not perfect, maybe it’s even a little burnet, but the love behind it is real.

The story is simple, and not all that unpredictable by the end, and the subtitled dialogue is abrupt, but especially for a bilingual movie, it feels very homey and nice.

MPAA Rating R-language and sexuality
Release date 1/18/02 LA/NY
Time in minutes 99
Director Lone Scherfig
Studio Miramax

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Black Hawk Down

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Between my awe at this film and the regrettable downfall of my cable modem service, I have been unable to share truly how impressed I was and am at this film. Opening the movie are some tight, gliding images of desolation and human suffering in Somalia, with the back story for the events of the film summarized. Right away, a filmgoer must ask, “How or where did they get this footage?” It’s more real and immediate certainly than anything Sally Struthers ever voiced over. From this introduction the movie turns into a two hour plus knucklebiter of a true life action story masterfully painted by director Ridley Scott. It lasts longer than the time spent in the chair, as well…my companions and I still discussed it later in the week.

I am certain I am not alone with Joe Blow American in knowing very little about the civil conflicts in Somalia in the 1990s, and less of course is known about Delta Force’s actions therewith. While, as with most war movies, the facts are presented fairly onesidedly, as narratively required, the only, only dissatisfaction I felt walking out was still not really feeling fully up on the situation.

However, I am living proof that political ignorance will stem nothing of one’s visceral and emotional enjoyment of this film. Intense is a word aptly describing Black Hawk Down, as is gripping. The horrors of this mission are both terrible and terribly moving. Once you get past the slew of familiar British, Irish, and Scottish actors playing cornpone Americans, you are completely swallowed by their perils.

Occasionally the smooth flow of intensity is obscured by the rampant jargon and difficulty differentiating characters while in more frenetic situations, which can take you out of the action for a moment. A battalion of baldies besplattered in blood occasionally blend together into faceless voices. I am loathe to use the phrase “in your face,” but certainly no English idiom is as apropos for how this movie feels. It almost trivializes it to say that it was “highly enjoyable.” It’s frightening and disorienting and amazing. It never feels forced or fake or even like it can actually end. Oh yeah and what a spooky score!

Take the famous scene in Saving Private Ryan, the one that makes veterans shudder and Spielberg detractors tip a respectful hat, the storming of the beach at Normandy. That sequence is what, 20 minutes long? Then the rest of the movie is earnest soul searching and shiny Matt Damon’s teeth. This film has about 20 minutes of shining hunks in white beefy-T’s and then the rest of the film is bullet time storming of downtown Mogadishu. Exhausting but effective. Scott uses the pushed film technique (first noted in SP Ryan) as he had in the Gladiator scenes to effectively add a sense of urgency and lack of control, without overusing it. He peppers his tale with message but politely restrains himself from pointing it out. There is no need to tell when he shows so well.

The tension is miraculously maintained within beautifully framed shots. Scott has always known how to run an action-packed set (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, more) while not neglecting his actors. Michael Bay, arguably the Orson Wells of complex action sequences, never remembers to fill his characters with life or to direct his actors; most recently his guilt lies at Pearl Harbor. Yet Scott can juggle a couple dozen similar-looking men and still make them distinct and interesting. He integrates the people with the action events, and of course the result is Drama, not Action. Pearl Harbor’s astounding action choreography is overshadowed and forgotten in light of the tissue thing human story.

Bay is not an actor’s director. Spielberg succeeds in short bursts (The T-Rex car chase, Normandy) but he has always preferred the human experience over their surroundings, despite how spectacular he makes the environment. Scott, Bay, and Spielberg are all differently gifted filmmakers, but Scott’s Black Hawk Down is a fantastic marriage of man and peril, until death do they part.

Most refreshingly, in the American flag-stickered aftermath of 9/11/01, Black Hawk Down is actually not a Team USA jingoistic tickertape parade. The soldiers are human and unapologetically so – and they do their jobs for deeper, truer, and more personal reasons than blind obeisance and willful ignorance. You can admire their bravery without feeling like someone is selling you something. What’s terrible is the number of missions that take place like this all the time that we never hear about because of national security. It’s the soldier armed with knowledge and this brand of fearlessness and duty that deserves such a paean.

You may have heard that bootleg copies of this film have been smuggled into Mogadishu, where understandably there has been a great deal of fury at the one-dimensional and animalistic portrayal of the hostile Somali people during this time. This is understandable, but I feel that the story that the director wants to tell is actually an apolitical one, told through the medium of an uncomfortable political climate. It is the intense personal drama behind these government-feudal events that makes this such an amazing film.

MPAA Rating R-Intense graphic war violence, language
Release date 1/18/02
Time in minutes 144
Director Ridley Scott
Studio Columbia

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Orange County

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Make no mistake; Jack Black is in this film and he is funny, as always, but this film belongs to Colin Hanks. Yes, son of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, which even if you had no idea who he was, is readily apparent. He looks so much like them, and evokes their humor and grace and presence so much, I was actually flush with gratitude that such cool people were good enough to pass their genes on. I had never felt such Darwinian satisfaction before.

I shuddered at the beginning when I saw the never-reliable MTV films logo, but I forgot that Black and Hanks were on the job. The crowd I saw this with was a crowd definitely more into High Fidelity and Tenacious D than Hanks/Wilson comedies, but everyone seemed to be having a good time. The proper number of laughs and “Oh NO!” yelps popped out from the youthful crowd. Jack Black was reveling in his horrible grossness and somehow keeping it just believable enough (most of the time) to not make it tiresome. It’s a thin, thin line to tread.

Hanks goes to an insanely modern freakish coastal school and hangs out with total sand-brained surfers and even his teachers are stupid. I am told that Orange County is the “Not Quite LA” place, which I suppose every city or state has…the place that is not quite the stuff, but assumes that it is the stuff merely by proximity to the actual stuff. I wondered how much local (i.e. SoCal) knowledge was needed to get the gag but I suppose we all have been somewhere that we imagine is pretty good, but not good enough.

The basic premise is that Hanks wants to get into Stanford with an obsessive fervor that, naturally, by the rules of comedy, drive him and his support network to do insane things at high stakes which ultimately brings him to a higher goal than that he ultimately aimed for. Hanks is sweet and funny and cute enough to be instantly trustworthy without being distractingly too hot and unrealistically modest. I adore him in this role and cannot wait for the next one. He gets a lot of emotional range and doesn’t take all to the farcical level which must be difficult to resist in this, his first lead role, especially with a ham like Jack Black within 3 feet.

Predictably, some telegraphed jokes and simple snafus end up in disaster and/or humiliation, but just when the story could take an ugly downturn, in comes a great cameo from a very strong, experienced actor and the movie is buoyed up to reality again. Did I mention Hanks was great? Catherine O’Hara plays Black & Hanks’ mom, and she’s really coming out swinging on this one – she’s a lovely foil to her ex-husband, played by John Lithgow in a surprisingly controlled (though still very big) performance. The cast is littered with great people and Hanks rides the wave through to the end. It’s very satisfying, though it won’t change your life. But hopefully it will change Colin Hanks’ life towards more work!

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 1/11/02
Time in minutes 83
Director Jake Kasdan
Studio Paramount Pictures

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Cinerina's Top 10 for 2001

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This is the hardest thing I do all year – we are required to do it as
members of the Online Film Critics Society, and it is really difficult. As
a critic who rates based on entertainment value, rather than say
Oscar-stinkiness, I often have wildly unusual listings in this list –
largely because they were more entertaining!
I may not have given Full Price Feature to all of these films, but of the
63 movies I reviewed this year, these were the ones I really enjoyed and
continue to think well of, or own or wish to own or will gladly watch again
and again.

Let’s just say #11 is Legally Blonde.

1. Memento

This is the best movie I have seen in forever, so it was a no brainer for
#1. I’ve only seen it once, and my affection for it is so deep I am
terrified to watch the DVD I own and ruin the magic. I don’t want to talk
it up too much because of course I am setting you up for disappointment,
but it’s gripping, challenging, nail-bitingly cool.

2. Hearts in Atlantis

I may have cried harder in Life As A House but I cried both times I saw
this one, and when I see the poster with Anthony Hopkins I feel a little
squeeze in my heart. It was the shortest over-two hour movie I have seen
in forever.

3. My First Mister

No one saw this, I loved it loved it loved it. Beautiful story, original
notions, and great acting.

4. The Gift

Everyone saw this. It’s not often a movie with Keanu Reeves gets onto
anyone’s top ten besides Joe Bob Briggs’, but it’s also not often an
original supernatural thriller gets jam-packed with incredible talent and a
good script either.

5. Monsters Inc.

It is only the strength of the above movies that keeps Monsters Inc. down
here, and I still think it’s really tied with The Gift. Innovative,
visually stunning, narratively stunning, funny, and adventurous.

6. Bridget Jones’ Diary

The best modern chick flick ever made, based on an awesome novel based on
an even more awesome novel, with sexy guys and a normal woman and plenty of
life’s most recognizable embarrassments.

7. Moulin Rouge

The best-reviewed, most-heartlessly backlashed movie of 2001, a visual and
aural feast of the senses with great chemistry, a strong plot, and Jim

8. Rat Race

What can I say? I saw it three times in the theatre and wanted to own it
2/3 of the way into the first viewing. It’s hilarious on so many levels,
and I can’t even believe it myself. I’m sorry it’s only #8.

9. The Anniversary Party

A very wee movie filled with actors playing actors but also real people
playing real people, a vicious and loving script by its producer co-stars,
a very personal labor of love you should also love.

10. The Man Who Wasn’t There

Lush, classic, and yet new again. The Coen Brothers movies make stars of
their actors even though no one actually realizes they should be crediting
the Coens – they make it look so effortless for their actors. Best
cinematography in a coon’s age.

I am sure many of you disagree, but you know what? This is a subjective
art, and when you are exposed to as much glory and as much crap as I am in
a given year, you would probably pick these as well.

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The Royal Tenenbaums

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Directed by Wes Anderson (Rushmore), The Royal Tenenbaums shares much with its predecessor in terms of tone, presentation, and glorification of the hubris of genius. What more can I say? Anderson has assembled a super cast, every single one of them (with the possible exception of Royal Tenenbaum himself, Gene Hackman) cast in a role fairly far off their normal role track, performing a hurry-free script which leads up to a surprisingly satisfying ending. OK, Owen Wilson is not playing very far outside his milieu either. But damn, every time he’s on screen you are ready to laugh or love him or something, he just walks around in a cloud of promise.

I only rated this film Matinee Price because while I was excessively diverted by the excellent performances, amusing plot twists and turns, and novel presentational format, I was still vaguely outside the film. The Tenenbaum children (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Luke Wilson) were all played like avatars of characters we are supposed to already know. Actually, in that sense, it was not unlike the characterizations in Harry Potter. I did want to know them more, to buy the non-existent book on which the movie pretends to be based and wallow in these interesting people. The script is written by Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson, and I suspect a fantastic back story exists for everyone; however, knowing it is hidden in there and reaping the benefits are two totally different things.

Remoteness notwithstanding, the performances were all marvelous, and naturally I credit the actors for making me care about the people and wanting to know them more. Wes Anderson’s directorial and scriptwriting gift appears to be taking “show, don’t tell” to an entirely new level. Only Hackman’s and Stiller’s characters ever really lift an eyebrow in emotional response, but the ways the people act out their feelings is both eccentric and delightful. Cartoon-like, everyone wears practically the same outfit for the length of the movie, and deadpans their way through emotionally rich dialogue. We see what they feel by seeing where they are sleeping and what the book cover of the portion of their life that was fictionalized looks like. It must be challenging to read a screenplay like this and see the comic potential. However it got there, I am glad it did.

Anderson and Wilson have co-written all three movies that Anderson has directed, and they keep getting slicker and more accessible. The first, Bottle Rocket, was an uneven, absurdist indie that was mysteriously enjoyable. Some of it must be due to Wilson’s bizarre brand of charm and pluck, but some of it is also the writing. They create work characterized with a pastiche style that blends the banal with the brilliant with the incongruous with the natural, and The Royal Tenenbaums is a delicious confection of stylistic weirdnesses.

I also must point out that whoever the art department is on this film, they are so very lucky! These characters are so wacky and interesting (as evidenced by their environment, as I have noted) it must have been the biggest delight in the world to dress their home(s) and clothe them and design their book covers and everything. I bow to Production designer David Wasco (all of Wes Anderson’s and Quentin Tarantino’s films) and Art Director Carl Sprague (In Dreams, Age of Innocence), and hope whoever awards art department achievements does so for these fellows. PS I am for hire!

MPAA Rating R-language, nudity, sexuality, drugs
Release date 12/28/01
Time in minutes 103
Director Wes Anderson
Studio Touchstone Pictures

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Monster's Ball

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Initially, I had zero interest in seeing this film, no idea what it was about, but then I remembered Billy Bob Thornton is in it. Then it got a zillion nominations so I had to see it. The last three roles I have seen Thornton in, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Bandits, and A Simple Plan (he was the only really good thing), I have loved loved loved him. So I went. My god! This movie is deep and rich and tragic and amazing. So much unhappiness when people resist each other; so much amazing beauty when people do allow others in. It’s pretty black and white (no pun intended) about the message of “hate makes you unhappy, using your heart makes you a better person.” Perhaps the film does detour into a heavy-handed side bar for Peter Boyle (playing Thornton’s dad), but the way Thornton’s and Halle Berry’s two worlds collide is like watching a slow-motion two-car wreck – amazing. So many parts you never looked at before, crushing and melding and exposing bits of yourself, so much broken glass and seemingly uncrushable things crumpling like paper.

Halle Berry is simply amazing. She is astounding. I can’t say enough. I can’t give it away, but it’s one look over her shoulder at Billy Bob Thornton, just a quick look, that said so many volumes both about her character and his. I still think about just that one second of the film. Just one look, and of course the rest of everything she did – she was marvelous, and you have to see it just for her. She’s no angel, she has plenty of problems, as does Thornton, but their problems are eerily complementary, and she must be strong in order to find redemption, in allowing herself to be weak. Holy moly. Fantastic. “Dear Academy…”

If you go to the and look up the writers and directors, it seems they have not done very much at all. More and more often the boldest films (this, In The Bedroom) seem to come from neophytes, and the most tiresome self-indulgent hack jobs (Mulholland Drive, Phantom Menace) come from supposed masters of the craft. Give me more of this! This is not a cheery, feel good romp across lines of race, attitude, or class lines. This is a Message Movie that also is a fairly simple story made (dare I say it) luminous by two masterful actors. But honestly, why all the fuss about Berry taking off her top in Swordfish? We see parts of her naked here as well, but her physical nudity is so secondary to her emotional nakedness that you forget she is also unclothed. You also forget all about that idiotic Pepsi commerical. Maybe she’s schizophrenic – those cannot be the same actresses. This is the Halle Berry who was in Losing Isaiah.

Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Sean Combs (aka Puff Daddy/P. Diddy in yet another stereotype-cementing role) and Coronki Calhoun play the families of Thornton’s and Berry’s characters. They are, by necessity, simpler prototypes of the images being perceived by the people around them, but it is through these supporting individuals’ unacknowledged connection that the real tension between our stars is born. Impressive stuff.

MPAA Rating R-sexual content, language, violence
Release date 12/26/01 LA/NY
Time in minutes 111
Director Marc Forster
Studio Lion’s Gate

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Kate & Leopold

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I won’t kid you for a second. This is not a movie to take your boyfriend to, or your brother or even your best gay guy friend. This movie is all about the (hetero) ladies, so gals, gather up a posse of chicks stuffed with Ben & Jerry’s and have a blast. Seriously, this film hits just about every spot in the women’s fantasy list of men things without demeaning the lady in any way. If Leopold had managed to stand outside Kate’s window with a violin player held aloft playing “In Your Eyes,” I think I would have exploded.

Hugh Jackman. Handsome in a “normal bits fitting together just so” regal sort of way, totally believable (if you can imagine) as a scientist from 1876 thrust into our time. I have to add at this juncture that I have a weakness for fish out of water films, time travel films, across the seas of time type destiny stories, and especially culture shock. Oh and a man in a long coat and breeches ain’t too bad, either. Hugh Jackman. Strong and sensitive without remotely being milquetoast or even all that out of time…just goes to show what savages we all have become in the days of electronics.

Meg Ryan. Come on, seriously, despite Courage Under Fire and all those films, she’s still the gal we want to be and can almost imagine that we are when we are watching a romantic comedy. Beautiful and smart without being intimidating, Klutzy, real, funny, and just so dang likable. What’s marvelous is how ultramodern they dressed her and made her hair look, pushing the contrast with Jackman’s lovely Duke from the past. I know some people these days who, if they met him, would only have to adjust their undergarments to really be in step with his fashion sense; Meg is choppy headed and severely pant-suited. Nicely done!

Breckin Meyer and Liev Schreiber, gifted character comedians, round out the cast. Schreiber is perfect, really, and will no doubt go very unnoticed by the ladies drooling over Hugh. The music is great too! But the star of the film is the fact that Jackman naturally performs every chick’s dream. He is attentive, polite, respectful, intelligent, he spoons with her, he makes an effort to understand her, while making himself perfectly clear, he is chivalrous without being showboaty, and he stands up for his guy friends in need. He is funny and romantic and dear lord it’s a sweet little romantic comedy that happens to hit the wish list right on the head, what more do you need to know?

Great quote: “Life is not comprised solely of tasks, but tastes.” In other words, savor life, don’t just fill it up with doing. It’s a movie that makes you think about how we could treat ourselves and each other, if we would only find the time, a pointed statement in today’s hyper-consuming society. Says me, movie reviewer, ha ha. Go see it.

Guys: if you want a how-to, go see it in secret, but you have to MEAN it, not just do it.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/25/01
Time in minutes 131
Director James Mangold
Studio Miramax

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The Shipping News

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Matinee and Snacks if you love the book

The reviewer tried to read the book. Thin, 337 pages, a trifle. On more than one occasion labored over the prose. Curt, choppy poetry that defies engagement of interest when lacking dialogue. Cursing as she struggled to plough onward, salty sweat on her lip, forcing her way to page 90. Final stop – the film has arrived. Names all symbolic, irritating obviousness. Lack of verbs. Film needs no verbs. Actors need only dialogue. Kevin Spacey is wonderful. Reviewer saw it with a fan of the book. Fan swooned. Waxed poetic of the beauty of the film. Trust her judgement if you love Proulx. Main character is a writer whom could not be written about.

The audience with free passes shivering in the air conditioning. Spacey lumbers onto screen, the exact opposite of Keyser Soze. Puffy body, dejected shoulders. Physical weight of his unhappiness palpable. Clothes wrapped around bent shoulders. “He’s too thin to play Quoyle, don’t you think?”

“But look at him – even though I know he is physically too fit, too confident, too present, I am watching him disappear under other people’s needs!”

“Shhh! Judi Dench is speaking.”

Dench curls her eyes around her venomous past. She is a prima ballerina in such climate. Quoyle a ballast in his own life. Boats, boats, and more boats litter the scenery, meaning much but saying little. Landscape eats the characters and digests them into useful grist for the film. Quoyle’s body shapeshifted as each scene went by, growing muscle and bone and vital spine. Spacey does it again. Triplets play one girl who should be sisters. The singing of the house is audible and not due to sound engineers. Cate Blanchett, so little seen, so very crazy. Why does he love her? We know. We have all loved her in some form in our lives. We forgive, pity, wait.

Julianne Moore, sensuous Newfie with a secret. We feel Quoyle’s captivation and his curiosity. Spacey makes us feel his desperate yearning. Wombs cry out from the theatre, “I’ll have you!” Moore smiles wisely. If Spacey is gay as rumored, he is the best actor in the world.

Review lunges clumsily at meaning. Did she or didn’t she like it? Hate the book, cannot finish it. No need; Kevin Spacey renders reading obsolete by showing so much with his body. Audience a rapt filing cabinet of varying degrees of age, comprehension. Students will skip book, see movie, reveal ignorance. Changes are minor but significant. Mood is thick. Tone perfected by loving glass and celluloid making a light soup of portent.

If this review writing style annoys you, see the movie, skip the book, and marvel at the wonder that is Kevin Spacey. He inhabits his body so completely that he physically changes before your eyes, like an elapsed time video of a flower opening in the sun. For him and Judi together in a room is like sipping reality tea. Imagine the horrible alternate reality that once existed where John Travolta was tagged to play this part. Go out and support Kevin Spacey.

MPAA Rating R-language, sexuality, disturbing images

Release date 12/25/01

Time in minutes 111

Director Lasse Hallstrøm

Studio Miramax

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A Beautiful Mind

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Beautiful Mind was interesting for two reasons. One, it’s based on a true story, which always makes a mind thrill to the notion that anything that seems outlandish or weird has to be there because it is true. Two, Russell Crowe is not generally cast as the weird outcast, low-status guy. As a result, his performance is interesting just to see him so very different from his obnoxious, headstrong talk show self, his Gladiator determination, or his Insider or Proof of Life confidence. Really, that’s the best thing about Beautiful Mind. That, and the cinematography.

However, the downside of based on a true story is that sometimes in people’s lives, the linear progression of events is not always interesting, dynamic, or part of a greater, ironic story arc. Therefore, glimpsed bits of potential for reward or interest are by necessity passed over in favor of the truth. This is no-one’s fault but Fate, and I would not fault the film for it. Also, incredibly advanced math is not very cinematically interesting, no matter what Good Will Hunting might have implied, and so we must have a deeper drama or human connection to the numbers and symbols. Fortunately, John Nash’s life was filled with more drama than anyone should have to bear. For the really slow moments, (fortunately not pervasive) one can sit back and marvel at how preternaturally beautiful Jennifer Connelly is.

Ron Howard does know how to wring you for pathos, and he forces love into every corner that is not taken up by plot or science. Maybe Howard can’t help it, but it does sadly dilute the film of some of its power, story-wise. It’s a true story though, and it no doubt is what allowed events to unfurl in the manner that they did (again, not wanting to give anything away).

The makeup is great, as well as the production design. Nash’s life is covered from something like 1947 to 1994, and the physical change he affects, as well as his environment and the look and feel of some of the places he finds himself over the years is pretty amazing. From a technical standpoint, it’s a small, non-showboaty movie, but the feel is very real, very solid. It’s not at all a bad film, but as “an entertainment,” it is crippled by its basic premise of a man with very little by way of social skills encountering some pretty demanding obstacles (and confederates) in his long life, all surrounded by the logical, unchanging world of mathematics. It is proof that life cannot be codified by science.

I will say that the preview is very misleading, and I did appreciate how much the movie was not given away by the preview despite them having taken footage from pretty key moments. It is marketed in kind of the same way Windtalker is – dashing codebreaker and the pressures of his life, etc., but really, this is not what the film is about. Bums in seats, my friend. But as a drama of a man’s pretty interesting life, it is actually quite pleasing.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/21/01
Time in minutes 145
Director Ron Howard
Studio Universal/Dreamworks

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The Majestic

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I am either alone or way ahead of the curve by saying I really enjoyed this movie. Both Frank Darabont and Jim Carrey are wildly underappreciated in their given jobs, and they did admirable work together in this film, which I fear has slipped past most people unnoticed. Also, perhaps the merit for me alone is that I often wish for the chance that Carrey has in this film, to open a movie house and find a home and a place for myself that fits me, regardless of how I happened to fall into it.

The Majestic, and my response to it, reminds me of the first review I ever wrote, for Liar Liar, wherein I beseech people who have not given Jim Carrey a chance to see that film before denouncing him as a rubberfaced flash in the pan. Here, I ask the same Gentle Readers (and there are more of you than in March 1997) to give Jim another go. He has proven his dramatic chops in more than one drama or non-wacky comedy, but the public won’t have it. They have been spoiled by casting directors who pigeonhole performers into being the same character over and over, and no one gives Jim a shake for branching out. Jimmy Stewart was permitted to play comedy and tragedy with equal aplomb, but not Carrey. His turn in Man On The Moon was insultingly ignored, and I fear that no matter what I say about The Majestic, it will remain a private pleasure, and Jim will languish in butt-cheek slapstick.

The story is timeless, as old as the Odyssey and The Return of Martin Guerre. If you can forget Sommersby ever happened, you can appreciate this lost man, newly lost in another man’s shoes, finding himself at last. Aptly, Carrey’s “real” identity is working in movies, a screenwriter, whose creativity is snuffed by the very people who demand it. The movie is about the power of truths, both real and imagined; it’s about the power that movies have over people’s lives, both those who work in movies, and the people who worship the silver screen. Add a splash of It’s A Wonderful Life and Inherit The Wind and you have a film with the tone and earnestness of those bygone classics. It also has the accessibility of a movie that romanticizes an era ripe for romanticizing, and the hindsight to appreciate that world nearly 50 years after McCarthyism was in full force.

The Majestic is leisurely (my companions decried it as “nothing’s happening”) but I never felt a lack of activity. Much of it was in Carrey’s mind, and on his face. Here is a man who writes words for people to create a false reality for a living, living among people whose power of hope and pretense has a completely different result. At times I was frustrated with some directions people’s characters went in (I don’t want to give anything away) but overall I was satisfied and I fully bought into the beauty that Darabont was selling me. And dammit, Jim Carrey can act, with his mind and his heart, and he’s handsome and vulnerable and committed and it’s just not right he should get such a short shrift.

I know I am not the only one (thanks for the support, J&M) but I hope you will go see it and see what I saw. I saw a movie about the subjectiveness of truth, and the importance of being true to principles over rote roles.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 12/21/01
Time in minutes 159
Director Frank Darabont
Studio Warner Brothers