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Traffic

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Traffic is a Very Important Film. It’s many Important films wrapped into one. Like many VIF’s, it has to be visually arresting, filled with evocative imagery and innovative notions, and a few screamingly predictable plot turns (to drive home the inevitability of one’s downfall when dealing with Very Important Bad Things). Traffic is all this and more, wrapped neatly in a colorful, 140 minute package. The problem with Traffic is that it has a lot of things to say and a lot of style to say it with, the end result being a big mish mosh with little mesh.

Most of the movie takes place in the 80-or-so-mile swath along the California coastline from Tijuana to La Jolla (San Diego being right in the middle), illuminating the massive contrasts between the two extremes. An enormous cast of famous faces (Zeta-Jones, Douglas, Del Toro, Quaid, Ferrer) and sort of famous faces (Cheadle, Guzman, Christensen, Irving, more) populate intersecting and tangential story lines, rendered distinct from each other by blatantly coloring the film. Mexico = yellow. Whit suburbia = blue. Middle ground = natural color. It’s weird, but it does help as seemingly unrelated (save for the drug themes) plots are edited together like a checkerboard. And plenty of pieces felt like they were missing, too. I was vaguely curious as to how the City of San Diego was going to spin their upgrade from the methamphetamine capitol of the world to the coke-and-heroine dealing capitol of the world.

The scene changes are fine, but the scenes seem to last too long, like they are bursting with message but feel a slow, ponderous approach is the way to hammer that message home. Soderbergh films are always totally distinct from one another, a strength and a weakness as a director, for different reasons than I could possibly go into here, and this film is no Erin Brockovich. We are lulled into this poky tempo and then finally, 85% of the way in, stuff starts happening, all at once, we can’t stop the rollercoaster – then it’s over. I felt that I was really supposed to like it (the promotional material was pushy and self-important), but I was not sure why anyone would expect me to like it. The performances were very real, despite the surreality of their presentation, and the subject matter was handled with care and an eye for all sides of the story, but it left me wanting.

Intense and weird as Requiem for a Dream was, it said much more about the dangers, the seductive emptiness, and the moral morass of drug trafficking than this movie could. Mainly, Traffic showed me that selling drugs makes you rich, fighting drugs endangers you, you can still be top of your class and have a heroin habit, doing drugs is fun, and the dealers will always manage, somehow, because the government fighting the war on drugs have no idea what they are up against. Hooray for the USA! Oh, and Mexico is a bad place to get arrested.

Don Cheadle does not get enough work, and neither does Luis Guzman or Miguel Ferrer. Michael Douglas gets plenty of work; I think he was an interesting choice, considering his Rich White Guy look and his badger-like intensity are at odds in this character. It’s worth seeing, worth discussing, but not worth spawning new generations of copycats.

MPAA Rating R-drugs, strong language,violence& sexuality
Release date 1/15/01
Time in minutes 140
Director Steven Soderbergh
Studio USA Films

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Thirteen Days

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When was the last time you saw a boom mike drop into frame in a major motion picture? In this Photoshop age, how does such a thing make it into release? I’ll tell you how – through slipshod filmmaking, specifically the kind of slapdash production that allows for more serious gaffes to make it to the big screen: Kevin Costner doing a JFK-style Boston accent. YIKES. And the poor woman cast as Jackie….OUCH. Insert tasteless grassy knoll joke here so we can move on.

OK, well, sure, we all know Costner isn’t a dialect master. How’s about randomly inserting (or fading to) black and white footage during scenes, between shots, during a shot, just a simple walk down the hall shot switches from color to black and white?! What is that about? It’s about all I can stand, that’s what. I don’t just mean mixing stock and new footage, that’s fine, I mean colorizing black and white stock and monochromizing (anti-Turnerizing?) new footage *at random.* Throughout the movie, we bandied about theories (the endless JFK effect) as to what it could possibly mean. Historically documented material versus artistic supposition? Sounds good, but nothing supported that theory. To make the insertion of the stock footage less jarring? That made no difference, it’s not like you can’t tell it’s stock footage – plus, this weird shifting was far more jarring than a little TV footage of Hiroshima could ever be. Perhaps it was specifically and pointedly, after hours of test screenings and market research, to piss me off. Mission accomplished.

I must now apologize for something only marginally my fault. I don’t know jack about the Cuban missile crisis. I know it happened (I did see Matinee, after all), during Kennedy’s administration, and I know we “won,” whatever that means. However, my companions and I (all college grads, all 30-32) all concurred that schools stop teaching American History at the end of WWII. They don’t teach this stuff in school! Maybe it’s because all the military actions after 1945 were too loaded, too hard to justify, politically, without a few more decades of hindsight. Maybe those in charge of shaping curricula assume we kids know it even if we were born closer to Apollo 13 than the 17th parallel (yes, I had to look that up). Either way, this film did us a disservice by assuming only Baby Boomers would see it and remember the complex Cold War intrigues of the Bay of Pigs and all that. Walking out of the movie, our historical knowledge was improved only a whit – now we know the entire shebang lasted 13 days. And I knew that from the preview!

Steven Culp (Bobby Kennedy) is a dead ringer (no pun intended) for a Kennedy, and he was great as Bobby. Bruce Greenwood as JFK was no so much the looker as a fine performance, and frankly, they saved the movie for me. They had good brotherly chemistry and gravity and they were great. They conveyed the intensity of the situation where the script failed. it’s hard for us modern-types (educated through WWII especially) to empathize with the situation, since the US was just as guilty of nudging missiles close to them as they were guilty to us, but in typical Costner-Boomer-rah rah fashion, we Americans saved the world. Whatever.

I will say, the White House footage is impressive – new angles, new locations on the grounds, great access, little things you wouldn’t necessarily notice unless you were scraping the bottom of the barrel as I am. We’ll miss the Clinton/Hollywood connection, that’s for sure.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 1/12/01
Time in minutes 145
Director Roger Donaldson
Studio New Line

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Oscar Predicitons, 2000

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Karina’s Very Last-Minute, But Still Highly Opinionated Oscar Predictions (2000)

I don’t think it takes a Rhodes scholar to recognize that 2000 was not the peak year in filmmaking. Was it imminent fear of accidentally losing hours of Avid gigabytes to the millennium bug? Was it hubris after the incredible 1999 year? Or has Hollywood forgotten how to do its job? Some of the nominees remind us Hollywood has not lost the touch…but not all of them. Consult Oscar.com for the full list of nominees; I’ll just talk. “There is some strangely stiff competition in a year with not much in the way of good movies,” quoth a sage.

Original Song. Now, here’s a category that has suffered over the years…generally, the songs don’t even register when you’re watching the movie, or they blare out over credits, screeching electric guitars after a stirring period piece. This year is chock full of insane nominees – when I realized, not a single musical (unless you count Dancer in the Dark) was released this year. All these songs are just score with lyrics, always a difficult choice. When in doubt, go with the Boomer, so my randomizer chooses…..Wonder Boys’ Bob Dylan song.

Along the same musical vein, original score. In this corner, at 280 lbs. and about a zillion nominations, John Williams (The Patriot). Does anyone even remember the plot, much less the music? But Williams is just about ready to complete his Academy Awards chess set. In this corner, at 200 lbs and making some headlines, Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator. Lush, exotic, very kick ass, the first score I had purchased in ages. Wait, running up the aisle is Tan Dun’s dreamy, delicious, exotic score for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (hereafter CTHD), at 170 lbs. Will the Hollywood long-time standard bearer give up his perennial crown to a similar genre and level of artistry? Or will CTHD defeat them all by being different, exciting, and emotional, without the same epic Battle of Agincourt-style hoopla? The Academy has a tough choice here. If Steve Martin uses his Lifeline and calls me at home, I will ask him to give it to CTHD, because it’s got cellos, and I have an inordinate fondness for cellos.

I don’t want to sound like Joe Middle America, but who in the Nielsen audience gets to see any of the short subjects, or even the documentaries? I’ll tell you – no one. Tempted as I am to look up the answers in Entertainment Weekly, I will now present the awards based on title:
Documentary Feature: Who’s kidding who, here: Into The Arms Of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. Rescuing Jewish kids in W.W.II. Can’t miss.
Documentary Short Subject: The Man On Lincoln’s Nose. The Academy loves films about itself.
Live Action Short Film: They all sound good, I’m going with Seraglio.
As for animated short film, pick the one done by Aardman Animation. Oh, there isn’t one? Then pick the Periwig-Maker.

Makeup. This is often the underestimated talent on a film, because of course, if you notice the makeup, it’s not doing its job, is it? Think Rick Baker, the man responsible for The Nutty Professor, Gorillas In The Mist, Men In Black, the Thriller video, oh and a little movie where every person on screen is wearing a prosthetic: The Grinch will take it. Don’t get me wrong, the makeup in Shadow of the Vampire was worthy of a nomination, but you can’t beat Rick.

Speaking of the Grinch, I have to say, personally, that if it doesn’t win for Art Direction, I just don’t comprehend what the hell that award is supposed to be for. Yeah yeah, Gladiator, whoopdeedoo, the artists behind Myst (no offense, Phil) could do that just as easily – that stuff in the Grinch had to be made **by hand** and it had to have engineering and balance and – come on! I am not dissing CTHD, but for the pure, glorious craft that is art direction and set dressing, The Grinch kicks booty.

The Grinch, ironically, didn’t do it for me costume wise, so I believe the Oscar for best costume should go to….uhh, well, gosh. CTHD was kinda cool, and everyone likes a period picture for costumes. But who are we kidding? All that handmade breastplating and togas and crazy wicked helmets and stuff, the award must go to Gladiator.

Ah, now we hit upon the technical sweep that is the pile of golden boys that Gladiator will most probably take home. It’s up for all the technicals, as well as for best picture, which probably means it will sweep the technicals just as Titanic did. However, I must put in my annual genuflection to Roger Deakins, passed over so many years in a row (I am still upset about Shawshank Redemption losing to that Brad Pitt movie), who shot O Brother Where Art Thou. I know OBWAT won’t win, but Roger, I love you. If Gladiator doesn’t sweep through this category, it will no doubt go to CTHD.

As for visual effects, what bi-focal wiping nincompoop nominated The Perfect Storm? Did he see a special director’s cut that I didn’t see where it looked half as good as Star Trek: The Next Generation? Or did all the nominating committee see it on video and blame their televisions? Dear heavens, people, of all the awards Gladiator deserves this the most clearly!

Editing is a tricky thing – as with makeup, if you notice it, it’s no good…unless you are doing a Snatch/Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels kind of editing dance. The nominees all had, to me, invisible editing (I didn’t see Wonder Boys) except Traffic, which frankly, if they hadn’t tinted the different locations’ film stock, I would still not understand half of the plot of that film. It’s basically the showdown between Gladiator and dark horse CTHD, because they both rely heavily on it for seamless visual effects as well as tempo and flow and action sequences. Crouching Tiger took that ill-advised 30 minute interlude, so I would have to tilt slightly toward Gladiator here. The real crime is that the one movie whose editing was far and away the best, Requiem for a Dream, was not nominated at all.

Sound editing is different than editing, in that it’s splicing live sound from shooting and adding sound effects and overlaying speech and matching the sound from take 3 to the footage from take 7…it’s highly unappreciated. I was amazed that there were only two nominees, but hey. And we all know it will be U-571.

Now sound. Sound (alone) is sound design, levels and the sweetness of the clean live tracks. All the nominees (including the Perfect Storm) had great freakin’ sound (ah post-production) but the one thing everyone remembers and loves about Cast Away was how it sounded. Remember the bullets in the water during Saving Private Ryan? Something so small but so perfect and it sticks with you, even longer than meaningful dialogue? Cast Away should win for sound, even its detractors loved the sound.

Recently, with tremendous amounts of over-confidence, I thought, “Gee, I’m a critic, shouldn’t I put my money where my mouth is and write a movie myself?” Having gone so far as to decide what work to adapt and take notes (and cast it in my head of course, the most fun of all), I realized, dang, this is some serious hard, layered, complex business. It’s not just “INT NIGHT: BERNARD’S HOUSE.” The nominees I think are strongest (and I saw every one but Wonder Boys) are the ones I saw twice, and the second time I really appreciated the depth of thought behind every word, behind every small bit of action that the actors then brought to life. These categories suddenly got very hard.
Original screenplay: Heck, they’re all good (well, Gladiator is OK, the rest are very good). Brockovich is up for Best Picture, Almost Famous is a fascinating true story, Billy Elliot is a charming tale, I don’t know how the Academy will vote. My vote goes to You Can Count On Me. Why? I never realized until that film, actually, how much every scene contributes to the story arc. YCCOM has a very slow buildup until the actual inciting incident occurs, and the reward is that much stronger. It has such economy of language while still being very natural and genuine. It’s cool. I hope I get the screenplay for Christmas.
Adapted Screenplay: I am sorry, I was unimpressed by Traffic, and Chocolat was nice but come on, it’s just a little fable. CTHD, since it was experienced through translation, should probably win in Taiwan, but here it pales before other nominees. O Brother, which I loved, is actually kind of vignettey to really win, though I am tickled that it was nominated. It did the Odyssey proud. Wonder Boys has a huge contingent behind it trying to get it seen, it is the 2000 LA Confidential, i.e. the unfilmable book, and so here it is. My guess is Wonder Boys will take the prize.

Really, does anyone think Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon won’t win Best Foreign Language Film? I mean, seriously.

Supporting Actress awards always are the hardest for me. So few good roles are written for women leads, and so few actresses are willing to toe the character actor line (Wilhelmina H. Macy is far from us, my friends), it’s always kind of a “sorry you didn’t have more lines, you are a great actor” kind of prize. Of the nominees, I did not see Pollock, so I don’t know how Marcia Gay Harden was. Dench has taken home trophies for less screen time, yet I don’t think she will this year. Kate Hudson, while winsome and charming, is no acting paragon among these other nominees (I mean, my god, Frances McDormand and Judi Dench on one ticket? Give me a butterfly ballot!). McDormand is always good, but was nothing we had not seen before. My fingers are crossed for Julie Walters, who was so good and is so unknown and she was the perfect counterpoint to the dancin’ lad in Billy Elliot. I still remember Marisa Tomei’s win, so Kate might take it home.

Best Supporting Actor is a showcase for character actors. Yet here are Albert Finney and Jeff Bridges, probably 2 pages of dialogue short of Best Actor instead of Best Supporting Actor, being straight from the hip tough guys, almost, with whimsy and a steel spine, both. Bridges was underappreciated for his turn in the Contender, possibly because he wasn’t presidential enough. Finney is an old salt, who hates Hollywood, but he’s just so good. Dafoe had the showiest part, too delectable not to notice, and frankly I hope he gets it. But I think Del Toro will get it, actually. Lots of press, lots of punchy-faced photos of him, lots of credit for the watchability of Traffic. Joaquin Phoenix? Don’t vex me, sir.

Best Actor, on the other hand, was pretty much everyone who led the way in a film. Of the nominees I missed Ed Harris’ turn in Pollock, but I’m told it was great. Harris is an unlikeable actor playing an unlikeable man who paints (to many) incomprehensible paintings, so I don’t see him taking it; too much stacked against him. Geoffrey Rush, naked and crazy, now where have I seen that before? Last time he got a trophy, but he also wasn’t super filthy and creepy. Javier Bardem, the star of Before Night Falls. I’m not saying he didn’t do an OK job, he just had such an awful script and director that there is no way he could have really shone like he should have in what should have been a really great part. Russell Crowe – OK, he’s all studly and heroic and busted up about his dead leader and his wife and stuff. But Best Actor? He may take it, especially if Gladiator sweeps. Regardless of how many golden boys are serving as hat-stands in Tom Hanks’ house, Cast Away was all about him. Not reacting, not cutting away to other people talking, just him and that delectable sound design. It’s not his fault we were dissatisfied with the epilogue of his return – in fact he made it just almost work. Tom, there is a reason we love you, and Cast Away showcases it.

I liked Chocolat, but for Best Actress, I need something more than smiling mysteriously and looking maternally loving. Sorry, I have my standards. Any of the other four ladies could win and I would be perfectly content. Joan for being tough as nails, Julia for being so righteous and self-conscious, Laura for being so freakin real, and Ellen Burstyn for being, well, really really good. My guess is that the Academy will go with the safe Julia Roberts (unless there is a backlash since she has taken every other award home for this movie). If not her, Laura Linney.

What is directing? Is it casting the right people in the right script and hiring a fantastic team of superheros in t-shirts to make it all happen? Is it coaxing extraordinary performances out of people in the midst of impossible shooting situations? Is it being a control freak and perfecting the technical aspects of a film and trusting that the actors will hold up their part of the deal by being the emotional aspect? Who wins? The juggler, the wrangler, the artist, or the storyteller? This is a difficult category, not just because Steven Soderbergh splits his own vote. Each director performed a Best Director-style feat on his movie. Ang Lee, frankly, deserves it even more so for all the amazing stuff he has done in the past that has not been noticed, so if they asked me I would say him. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the Academy will go the way it always has and give it to Ridley Scott for Gladiator, so they can give the Best Picture prize to…

Erin Brockovich? Maybe. CTHD? Possibly, but if it wins (if! ha!) Best Foreign Language Film, it may not. Traffic? Ick, I hope not. Certainly not Chocolat. But I think if Gladiator takes director, Brockovich will take Picture, or vice versa. I think Erin Brockovich is more worthy of Best Picture, and Scott more worthy of Best Director in this scenario because of the relative merits of storytelling, special effects, acting, and design, versus the damning elements of blockbuster, Joaquin Phoenix, Julia’s hooters, and the Soderbergh effect. But something related to Soderbergh will get one of these top prizes, mark my words.

See you Sunday night!

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O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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Some people just don’t get the Coen brothers. I know, I used to be one of those people. Since The Hudsucker Proxy, I get them, I love them – and since Fargo, so did everyone else. O Brother is an interpretation of The Odyssey, and a Homerian love song to American roots music. Don’t let either of those facts scare you, but know that a working sense of the general idea of the Odyssey helps you appreciate the story arc (which, taken at face value, might seem a tad unreal) – but a decent knowledge of it makes it funnier. The Coens are well-known smartypants, anyway, and they also reference some musical gags to boot. They run into real life historical figures, lending credence to the mythos of the story. A scene laden with inside layers and gags is when our three boys meet Tommy Johnson at the crossroads. I had to be told about it, so your homework is to look up why that’s funny.

George Clooney – he’s funny, he’s charming, he’s erudite, and he plays cornpone better than I would have imagined. He’s Ulysses, by the way, (aka Odysseus) and drags his men all across the world looking for treasure, after a chat with the oracle, of course. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson are his cronies, and what a fantastic ensemble! Coen vets John Goodman and Holly Hunter show their faces – it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Goodman is the cyclops! Stephen Root has a small but funny and impressive role at W E Z Y. It doesn’t matter that the story arc is a wee bit strung together, except the small disservice done the film is that the Coens seem to take it in stride that we all read The Odyssey last year and so they skip de skip from trial to tribulation, everything weaving a complicated noose that they could slip and fall into, or use to save themselves, if only they choose wisely. It’s cool, though, because if you understand the style of the Coens, and love it, you should love this one as well. It’s more Raising Arizona and Hudsucker Proxy than Fargo or Big Lebowski.

Did I mention the score! The music! Fantastic! The song you heard in the preview is pretty indicative of the musical tone of the movie, so if you don’t think you could handle that, you shouldn’t see this movie. It’s 1937 deep South Depression era cracker music, and it’s gospel, spiritual, and woeful tunes. Joel and Ethan Coen don’t spend tons of time explaining back story or motivation either, possibly because these are simple folk in a relatively simple situation, or possibly because it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. It’s heavy on the Cletus and light on the treatise. Many of Homer’s lessons are slipped in so quietly, you have to (ahem) look them up on the web to realize they were there at all. Example: A dead father is better than one who is lost or is a coward. Not a major plot point, but dealt with. I don’t mean to make this sound like a ponderous art film – it’s really a fun, Hee-Haw revival that happens to have some seriously classical and subtle roots. Bonus: they shot a scene where they shot Tara, I swear!

My personal favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins, bathes ol’ Mississippi with a golden glow, filling the air with portent and glamour, even when looking at the amazing cast of character actors, bizarre faces, and grungy, filthy, desperate people. Heedlessly bigoted phrases bandied about in those days are tucked into ironic little moments (I don’t want to give anything away), putting new spins on their original roots. The sirens, out of their mythological context, seem weird and random, but I wouldn’t cut their segment for anything. It’s an odd, charming movie, not for everyone, but definitely for Coen acolytes. And buy the soundtrack.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/22/00
Time in minutes 102
Director Joel & Ethan Coen
Studio Touchstone Pictures

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State and Main

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This is exactly the kind of intellectual in-joke movie that a few people will adore with all their hearts, and a zillion people will go, “ehhh.” It’s a script by David Mamet, starring (among others) Philip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy, which should be a no-brainer as far as deciding whether or not to see the movie. Then the premise: Big Hollywood descends upon a Small New England Town, and attempts to make a movie. It’s full of the same kind of industry yuks that either delight or miss the mark. Big Hollywood is unrelenting, unsympathetic, and soulless; apparently they love to portray that wicked, shallow side of themselves all the time. Basically, director Macy is trying to get Hoffman’s script done, but the compromises begin, followed quickly by the problems and attendant destruction. Additionally, the small town reacts to the glitz of Hollywood gracing their town, with alternating obsequiousness, resentment, and blind-eye-turning.

How much do we love Philip Seymour Hoffman? How about a great big huge ton, because he could make us believe that he would find Pidgeon desirable, that he still has a soul, and that he’s a real writer working in Hollywood. He is the heart of the movie, and Macy is the cold, relentless selfish two faced fist of Movies. I love William H. Macy, and wish we could have had more face-off with him, but there is enough. Sarah Jessica Parker is a difficult ingenue, (with many of the best scenes with Macy) and Alec Baldwin is a trouble-generating lead man, hilarious! Baldwin is an underrated comedic actor, and he loves to break his old Baldwin mold. Mrs. Mamet, aka Rebecca Pidgeon, is wooden and inexplicably cast as the object of intense desire.

It’s a quiet little movie, and it’s funny, but it’s not big blockbuster funny. I don’t mean to be saying, “you peons could never understand this film,” but while it is genuinely funny, it is not structured like a comedy; the comedy is in the accuracy of the characters being drawn, the complex situations, and the varying reactions. It’s a story that has comedy in it, but the point is not the comedy, the point is making the movie “The Old Mill” in this town against all odds and somehow finding genius and love and all kinds of things along the way. That doesn’t make it sound appealing at all, does it? Well shoot.

I admit I was cranked up for this to be the most biting Hollywood satire of all time, but it appears that Hollywood can mock itself just as far as the stereotypes go (I don’t care if it’s only found in Malaysia, bring me my string cheese!) but it can’t quite acknowledge openly the damage it leaves in its selfish wake. Mamet, thankfully, like Hoffman’s character, has not been totally ruined by the Magic Machine, and can show us the damage without making it too obvious (because then who would produce his film?). It’s sly and it’s bookish, but like those quiet library club teens you looked over in junior high, it’s also witty with a bitter edge, and a dash of hopeful romanticism. So see it.

MPAA Rating R for language and brief sexual images.
Release date 12/22/00
Time in minutes 105
Director David Mamet
Studio Fine Line Features

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Before Night Falls

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I was turned off by the previews for this film, shoving “Richly Imagined” down my throat, and the fear of director Julian Schnabel’s stylistic touches. However, as Oscar night neared, and star Javier Bardem was up for Best Actor, I thought perhaps I should get it under my belt. My companions and I settled in around the warm glow of the TV, and we forced ourselves to watch the whole movie. It’s not the subject matter that was a problem; Reinaldo Arenas’ story is in a fascinating historical context, he himself is an interesting figure, and the story elements are the kind that make for great drama. It wasn’t the performances that were a problem – Bardem took a very complicated person and tried to give us his story. It was pretty much the script, the editing, and the direction that was the problem.

Perhaps Mr. Schnabel assumes that we are all as familiar with his subject matter as he is; perhaps he directs movies expecting the director’s commentary on the DVD to be where he really makes his artistic statement. However, besides being stuffed with a fondness for seriously overworked imagery and “powerful” shots that have no emotional or narrative context, his direction is haphazard and alienating. How’s that for some fancy film-school type raving? Another way to say it is that it appears that the director took what should have been a fascinating story, cast talented people in the roles, and then smeared his own ridiculous ego trip all over it. None of us enjoyed it. Even Carter Burwell (Coen Brothers movies) doing the score could not help it.

Johnny Depp and Sean Penn are in it, if you can imagine that. But they have such small, tangential parts (Depp is either playing two separate roles or was cast in one deviously confusing part) that you should not expect their special indie cachet to affect the film at all.

OK, take the preview. Under the giant block letters that say “MESMERIZING” we see a shot from above of Bardem on sea-side rocks bursting into racking tears, apparently screaming to the gods or whatever as the rain impassively begins to fall on him, highlighting his clear misery. Woo, you think (unless you were as repulsed by the block text accolades), I bet that is a seriously major scene, with tons of pathos and stuff. I bet Bardem really cranks himself up into a frenzy and that shot is the zenith of some big ol’ emotional breakdown. Cool. Then, you watch the movie, and the scene/shot before this bawling in the rain money shot is one of neutral emotional content, and then during the shot itself, the narrator is saying something else pretty neutral. Um, hello? Was that shot just made for the preview? Did Schnabel make Bardem whip out deep emotional reactions like he was a trained monkey, lay him out over hard, bumpy rocks and dump rain on him a dozen times just to **confuse us?** The answer, given to me by the rest of the film, is yes. “PERPLEXING.”

Why do I say Catch it on HBO, instead of a lower rating? The best parts would be cut for network TV, and really, Bardem does a great job with the material.

MPAA Rating R – sexual content, language, violence
Release date 12/22/00
Time in minutes 125
Director Julian Schnabel
Studio Fine Line Features

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Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

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Innovatively combining martial arts with Chinese fairy tale narrative with effects so state of the art that they are almost unnoticeable, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon also layers in a guy-movie-in-drag (think of woman-hero Aliens as a guy movie in drag) which makes it a rare treat in cinema. You may remember director Ang Lee from such films as Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Eat Drink Man Woman. He has always been keenly observant of the small things that make real characters out of words on a page, and he repeats that success here. China (particularly the ancient China depicted here) has never been known for featuring women as independent creatures, much less powerful ones. Here, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi are women who dream of freedom, or who live it, who walk among the men as equals but also as the treasures that women are. There will also be ass-kicking served.

Chow Yun Fat, comfortable and intense in his native tongue, dances through the fight scenes (it sounds so base to call them that!) like he was in a 1940’s musical, yet depicts the repressive instincts of his character’s upbringing as if he were physically bound. Yeoh is luminous and powerful, yet still a woman in ancient China, and a gentle and wise one at that. Fairy tales seldom have complicated characters, and because of that I committed the moral sin of accepting them at realistic face value. So, I admit, while I was visually impressed and emotionally impressed, I found the story’s finer points slipped past me. You know, metaphors and stuff. Hey, it’s hard to read and watch lightning quick moves at the same time!

It has a fantastic score, (Tan Dun) which my more musically educated companion noted was using the stylings of traditional music, without actually being traditional. Everyone I saw it with compared it to the many flying dreams one has in life, and that is an excellent descriptor. It doesn’t have to make sense all the time to be exhilarating, and it doesn’t even have to have a linear story. Crouching Tiger takes a 30 minute detour to have some lengthy back story thrown in for one of the characters, which I found distracted me from the dreamy aspect, but it was fine. Nominated for two Golden Globes and no doubt a contender for other major awards, soon it will be available everywhere for your viewing pleasure. My old roommate and movie pal saw it at a special screening last summer and hadn’t stopped entreating me to go see it.

Now for the “fight scenes.” There is no other thing to call it, but they are as purposefully balletic as a Jackie Chan movie, without all the comedy and with an element of deadliness absent from Chan films. Not a one is gratuitous, nor mundane. But it’s not just “Hya! Ho! Haiiie!” in old-fashioned costumes – the Oscar for best rigging goes to this film, because they play out their chases and battles over the rooftops and treetops and along the walls, gallivanting through an Escher-designed set with no gravity and plenty of open sky. This sets it apart from any regular martial arts film; that, and the idea of a near-sacred sword, a woman with secret ambitions, and unrequited love.

Be forewarned – there are subtitles, so you’d better see it in the theatre instead of waiting to rent. It’s pretty cool. Check it out. The only reason I did not give it Full Price Feature was the interruption of the second story line and it’s troublesome reality checks.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/22/00
Time in minutes 120
Director Ang Lee
Studio Sony Pictures Classics

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Miss Congeniality

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Of all the Pygmalion reduxes I have seen, this is my favorite. Unlike the fantastically gorgeous Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That, easily made glamorous by washing off paint and doffing the glasses, Sandra Bullock is a gorgeous but slovenly, unrefined man’s gal. She’s a patently uncongenial wallflower/hard core FBI agent who’s got to clean up enough to go undercover at the Miss United States pageant in order to stop a terrorist – and stay in the pageant long enough to complete the mission. Here, our transforming heroine is out for a real goal, a strong goal, as well as a dangerous one, not just existing to impress Henry Higgins’ friends that he can mold a woman to his desires.

The movie starts out being a good, action-packed FBI kicking ass-type flick, with occasional bouts of the lovable Bullock being funny, because she can’t help it. Then, the policework starts, the double standards start flying, and finally enter Higgins: Michael Caine. Not only will he turn this Dirty Rotten Sandra into a beauty queen, he will make her brilliant. Once Educating Sandra begins, the movie changes gears from straight cop buddy movie into comedy. It would be neglectful not to mention Pygmalion’s project sponsor/instigator Col. Pickering; no doddy veteran of the wars is he this time- it’s Bullock’s partner Benjamin Bratt, and let me tell you, he takes his shirt off. No one wanted Col. Pickering to take anything off.

Amusing supporting roles were cast with welcome irony – Candice Bergen (remember gender-stereotype-breaking single mom Murphy Brown?) as the woman who runs and justifies her pageant, er, scholarship program. William Shatner is the “Here She Comes Miss America” singer guy, and do I really need to explain why it’s super that he’s cast here? The other pageant girls are, naturally, beautiful, but they are not simpering idiots or vehicles for us to see how much better we have it off being plain to look at. It’s a nice, mature script that is still totally accessible to the puerile and the “I just want a light, fun movie” crowd.

So, to sum up: comedic beauty as a star, gaggle of state winner gals competing for the crown, crown-trustee Murphy Brown, hot male costar, tense and interesting dual plot about tracking down the bad guys mixed with a woman finding her womanliness (in a very funny way) – comedy genius! I really liked this film, I can’t say much more. As an added bonus, it was shot in my home town (adopted home town to Ms. Bullock, producer) so I had a hoot identifying locations. Sure, they shot the stuff they HAD to in San Antonio, but keep your eyes peeled nonetheless for super pubs.

Did I mention Ms. Bullock is up for a Golden Globe for her performance? So is Shatner’s song. It’s great, just go see it already! It may be strange that I gave this a Full Price rating, but it totally delivers. What more do I ask?

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/22/00
Time in minutes 105
Director Donald petrie
Studio Warner Bros

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Dracula 2000

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What Dracula 2000 lacks in innovative filmmaking, it gains in giggle fun. This is an “old-school” vampire movie, starring The Man himself (but, naturally, like Frank Langella in 1985, young, sexy, and with wild hair), and even featuring winks at Bram Stoker. For this fact alone I recommend it to vampire movie enthusiasts – and only them. He hates crosses, he turns into smoke and bats, he makes a vampire with every bite. The old syphilis allegory is more called to mind in this film than anachronistic proto-Matrix neckbiters. The act of killing for vampires is primal, driven by old, animal motivations – eat or wither. None of this nightclubbing, rule the world nouveau vampire claptrap.

He seeks those of his own kind, he bites them and makes an army (a wee one) of similarly afflicted souls with whom to spend his time. He wears a long, flowy coat; cape-like, but still fashionable. His skin goes from waxy to flushed, showing his vitality or desperation. Hell, he kisses the hand (and more) of a girl named Lucy Westenra! It’s all there, but not just trussed up in modern drag, like Emma dressed as Clueless. It’s really a sequel, a continuation, and for that I would applaud its existence. It even gives a very nice, original, and “plausible” origin story for the characters involved, not just our Transylvanian Terror, but the other figures in the game. For that, too, I recommend it, especially to those who have waited for a decent Dracula movie for so long.

It’s not Love at First Bite, but it has some funny stuff in it. I think some of you should see it and may even like it – but I recommend hunkering down in front of a DVD player with a bunch of friends to do it. Maybe make it into a drinking game – every time Dracula has that Lassie-esque “Timmy, I need you” look in his face, pound a Bloody Mary. None of the visuals demand a big screen (unless you are hot for Jeri “7 of 9” Ryan), and little of the dialogue demands a big cash outlay. It’s a Drac movie for Drac fans, and the best part is (or so I have heard) that three months before it was released in theatres, the lead hadn’t even been cast yet! The filmmakers, determined to title it Dracula 2000 and release it in 2000 (notice how late my review is) apparently sat on their wooden stakes until this guy Gerard Butler – apparently making an “old school” name for himself, having been in Tale of the Mummy – shows up out of the blue. Of course, I have no substantiation for this rumor.

Did I mention “Wes Craven Presents?” Jonny Lee Miller? I didn’t? Well I should have. Wes and Jonny, and former Hamlet, Christopher Plummer, of course, are the most experienced people involved in this production, and Craven is not always what I could all on the mark 100% of the time. Oh, and the director of photography is Peter Pau, who did Bride of Chuckie…and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Lovely Justine Waddell (Mary, the lead) is apparently a corset-and-accent film vet, and she does well sliding into obscurity in this little ditty. It’s a shame, she’s quite compelling, more so than her material.

Here’s a piece of trivia straight off the web – in the scene where Lucy (Fitzpatrick, Colleen a.k.a. singer “Vitamin C”) is talking to Mary in the record store, she is standing right in front of a shelf that has her CD on it. The Dracula-related details are actually quite prevalent as well, and they gave me quite the giggle. If you’re a fan of the Great Fanged One, and you pay attention, you should enjoy this one. Considering all they had working against them on this production, and the little, surprising things they have working for them, it’s worth a rental for sure.

MPAA Rating R language,gore, sexuality.
Release date 12/22/00
Time in minutes 105
Director Wes Craven
Studio Dimension Films

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What Women Want

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How is it than an international hunk of Mel Gibson’s caliber, who dances so divinely, has not managed to be in a real romantic comedy before now? I mean, seriously, Bird on a Wire aside, think about it – MEL GIBSON. Handsome, likable, funny, sexy, smart – seems pretty obvious. casting him next to the relatively uninteresting Helen Hunt is a bit of a waste, but at least she can keep up with him. The night we saw this, the film choices for my companions and I were this or Quills, the Marquis de Sade Oscar bait movie. I am sure Quills is great and I will see it but I am glad I rushed out and saw this early. It’s simple, great fun.

Mel, as you may have divined from the preview, is a man’s man, a total shlomo scammer pickup artist wham bam thank you man guy of the 80’s, and yes, it’s set in 2000. Luckily for him he looks like Mel Gibson, otherwise he would have a very hard time picking up anyone with his boorish, sexist behavior. “Think like a broad” – he is pure old school Frank Sinatra. Raised by Vegas showgoils, he apparently lives in an altered reality – but he sure can dance! I’m just going to keep mentioning his dancing skills and hope you will notice. Did I mention he’s in advertising, a smarmy offshoot of sales, the smarmiest profession on earth?

Yadda yadda yadda, cut to the chase, he can hear the thoughts of women. This is good for him, as it causes him to get into hilarious situations, moral quandaries, and ultimately grow as a man. This should not be a surprise, don’t groan “you gave it away!” at me! As it turns out, director Nancy Meyers makes sure it’s good for us, too, because not only do the women of the audience hear their own thoughts echoed in the minds of the silent ladies parading past on screen, but they get to see how men react to those thoughts. It’s quite amusing. An inexplicable cameo by Bette Midler as Gibson’s shrink makes the story turn a corner it definitely needed to turn.

Did I mention Mel has his shirt off for a good long chunk of this movie? This should help. Guys, Marisa Tomei is in it!

The short version – this is a delightful, funny movie, with nice smiley moments but mostly gamut-running laughs: a few intellectual jokes, a few shots of Macho Mel in toenail polish, and everything inbetween. The situation is screwball enough that it needed the 50’s crooner soundtrack to tie it to its gender gap roots, but updated to the almost-evolved Strong Women Are OK (As Long As They Still Melt In My Manly Hands) era of today. Nothing mind-bendingly brilliant here, but fun, charming (hey, it’s Mel, for goodness’ sake!) and a thoroughly enjoyable movie. I don’t know if I will see it 3 times in the theatres like Meet the Parents, but I will always welcome it if it crosses my path again.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/15/00
Time in minutes 120
Director Nancy Meyers
Studio Paramount