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Black and White

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Reviewing a movie with such a loaded topic presents some difficulty for a reviewer of any color – and how to refer to the various “thems” without seeming to be, well, implying something? The one thing I can say about Black and White that anyone would agree with, is that it didn’t really explore the topic as it was purported to. The film has a fascination with rich white kids who glamorize the black gangsta life (to the point that they call each other their “niggaz,” which was vehemently defined as separate from the very hot word “niggers”), and some semblance of interest in the black gangstas’ own reaction to their pale shadows. Certainly, many of the characters seem to come off trying to be colorblind, claiming to be attracted by the pure lifestyle, but then contradict themselves constantly.

Rich white kids put on this dropped, Harlem-is-my-town show for their parents, but only socialize with extremely wealthy black gangstas, and dis their fellow gangsta-worshipping boyfriends. A white social anthropologist (Claudia Schiffer, no stranger to being objectified) is in a relationship with a black man, claiming that she is color blind, that she loves the man – but really seeks danger (and, as a privileged NYU grad, associates danger with blackness) and ultimately is more shallow than anyone. The “wiggaz” are all extremely wealthy and well-connected, and their less-fortunate classmates of all colors wonder what the appeal is in pretending to have come from being poor, or acting ignorant, or whatever it is. A white filmmaker in a marriage of denial to a gay man studies these strange people, without noticing the bizarreness of her own life. Oh, did I mention it’s Brooke Shields with the nouveau-Indian look of a pierced nose and semi-dreadlocks, who lives in a penthouse?

The movie carries itself like a documentary, then gets bogged down in some kind of plot (which is actually reserved for the African-American half of the cast plus Schiffer), making any kind of real exploration seem even more contrived than it was. A classroom scene where a teacher asks kids about what they like to do can be real; a neurotic outside white guy (Ben Stiller) doing a quick wrap-up of everyone’s psychology is not. The most likable characters seem to be forgotten in favor of weird stunt-casting like Mike Tyson, making esoteric reference to his own life and past. The thing is, while the movie doesn’t spark much in itself, it does generate conversation, and is therefore worthy of viewing. It’s racist in some ways (the only black character who is not a gold-toothed rap hood is a mincing Oreo writer for Vanity Fair), OK, in many ways – what about white kids who “act like white kids” but enjoy hip hop music? Where does the culture (formed from the music) begin and the skin color end?

While I was watching it I jotted down a number of questions of my own about identity and what defines us, our preferences or our heritage, yadda yadda yadda, and then lost all my notes. Is this typically white premenstrual female, human, or am I emulating some other ethnicity by being unusually irresponsible with my notes? The movie seems to draw some conclusions like sexually adventurous girls can only find satisfaction with the more raw men of color – but what the hell is that? Their white boyfriends are being played by Elijah Wood and Eddie Kaye Thomas, the most white bread boys possible, yet who also adhere to (and mingle with) the black community’s standard of behavior. What about Thomas’ brother, the only actual criminal in the movie? And how about all the various ways black and white people get out of trouble or evade their responsibilities in this movie?

Perhaps now was not the time to make this movie – yet I cannot imagine it being made earlier than this. Mel Brooks got away with some serious racial commentary buried under humor (co-written with Richard Pryor) back in the seventies, but this movie tries so hard not to offend while still trying to make a point, that it ends up frustrating you with what could have been.

MPAA Rating R for violence, sexuality, and language.
Release date 4/5/00
Time in minutes 98
Director James Toback
Studio Screen Gems

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Joe Gould's Secret

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“Directed by Stanley Tucci” needs to be much more of a draw than it appears to be. Big Night, slow, delicious, wonderful. The Imposters – can’t recommend it enough. Joe Gould’s Secret – slow, detailed, cautious, and ultimately kind of obtuse. Perhaps the problem is that this is the first movie he has directed that he hasn’t written. “Written and Directed by Stanley Tucci” – there’s a treat! My friends and I skipped the tempting press screening so we could all (not just two of us) see it together. Tucci is the man.

It’s an interesting, winding work – Tucci plays Joseph Mitchell, a “real” journalist (1950) who does a story on homeless eccentric pseudo-journalist Joe Gould (Ian Holm), and in a way, becomes intertwined in the man’s story – they are joined together by words and seeking truth and so it’s very (in every sense) prosaic and intellectual while not getting too deep into the emotional motivations of either man. Holm gives a showboat of a performance sure to win him a nomination if anyone sees it and remembers it by December, but one that gives us little insight into this beloved madman of the streets. Coming out of the theatre, I wanted to take a notebook and record the minutiae of the people around me, my impressions and their words; I wanted to take candid black and white photography, Life Magazine style, of the world at which no one these days has time to stop and look. I content myself with sharing my impressions of films, but this movie actually called myself and what I do into doubt. Am I creating, can I call myself a writer merely commenting on the works of others? My purpose is supposed to be to help you decide if you want to see a movie, or to urge you to entertain yourself where you might not have done – but even the most delicious turn of phrase I may churn out amounts to nothing. Mitchell realized this, and never wrote again. We would call this tragic, a man abandoning his art. He was involved in the meta-purpose of commenting on Gould’s comments. And now I am commenting on that. Where will it end?

For this reason, perhaps, I enjoyed the film much more than my companions did. We were all in agreement that the attention to period detail, the technical work of the movie, was very enjoyable. We agreed that Holm was (as always) a delight and definitely enjoying his colorful role. We agreed that it was a tad poky, languid, sweet and slow as molasses, really. One of my group felt it was too thick and confusing, he didn’t “get it.” He’s an extremely intelligent person, so I wonder if it merely spoke to me, with my natural writer’s affinity for self-doubt (doubly felt since I do not also indulge in the writer’s drink). I leave it to you to decide. I say Matinee Price because it is beautifully done but may still leave you untouched. The important thing is, see Stanley Tucci’s other directorial movies and perhaps you may glean why we all walked out of the theatre slightly at a loss. Myself, I would have happily read Gould’s life’s work, The Oral History of Our Time, but viewers of the movie will understand why this desire remains unquenched.

There is truth in beauty, and beauty in truth, someone said. There is also something beautiful about the mundane, and truth resides there as well. Gould celebrated the beauty of the mundane, he benefited greatly from the kindness of strangers (bizarrely altruistic New Yorkers), and he was as true to himself as his particular driving madness would allow him. Mitchell’s life was touched by Gould and Gould’s by Mitchell – but who really changed? Some delicious prose, delightful lines of dialogue, but the movie comes off feeling a little hollow, because we are not allowed to touch the inner workings of this true story.

MPAA Rating R for some language and brief nudity
Release date 4/4/00
Time in minutes 108
Director Stanley Tucci
Studio USA Films

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What Planet Are You From?

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Take my advice, and rent Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human instead. It will have more outsider perspective on our crazy world of love and sex without all the inanity. The short version is Garry Shandling (you may know him as Larry Sanders) is an alien (H1449-G) sent by his boss (Ben Kingsley, sexy dialect and all!) to earth to find and impregnate an earth woman so their planet can take over from within. He befriends professional weasel Greg Kinnear. The Earth woman in question is none other than Best Actress nominee Annette Bening. John Goodman is on his trail. There are some amusing cameos and small parts and a number of very good one liners, but by god, this is really a shame.

Shandling had a brilliant Fox show, a super-brilliant HBO show, and as I dimly recall, great standup. But Garry is a straight man, not a comic. He performs best being the unaware stone faced man around who swirls wacky neighbors and employees. Garry is super funny but he cannot carry this movie. You’d think, OK, he’s an alien, a la Starman, and we are the wacky ones orbiting the alien straight man. You would think that, but you would be wrong. The inherent problem is that Starman was superior to us, and we were primitive and interesting. Shandling’s terrible planet is bad, and so we are the normal ones, which means Garry has to be funny. And he’s not. His penis is kind of funny, but it gets old quickly. Long story. It would have been better as a short film, actually.

Nora Dunn, of all people, has the majority of the funny lines in this movie – and she’s in what, 3 scenes? Kinnear is sort of transparently funny as a Seduce-and-destroy dropout (more like 1-877-LAME-HER) who is Shandling’s only friend initially. But despite being able to do something with very little Kinnear is not allowed to do even that much. He would have been too powder puff for The Boiler Room but he’s too nasty for a comedy. John Goodman looks like he is puffing his way to a Home Alone 4 audition – whence the mighty giant from Always and The Hudsucker Proxy? Oh yeah…Blues Brothers 2000. I forgot.

The biggest tragedy is how good this movie should have been. Kingsley has almost funny straight man scenes, Janeane Garafalo is herself but all too briefly. I mean, Linda Fiorentino, in a mesh dress, isn’t enough to wake up the audience. Annette “American Beauty” Bening! Wasted. She’s good, she’s not funny, she’s not supposed to be funny. She’s not given as much funny as she was in The American President. Attention Mike Nichols: You directed The Birdcage! The Graduate! Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe! Frickin’ Postcards from the Edge and Working Girl! YOU KNOW HOW TO USE YOUR CAST! What happened?!?!?! I could blame the script – but you can change the script when it isn’t working! Oh and the cast would have been so good.

I am sad. I say Rental with Snacks because it is not completely devoid of watchability – but it is not a movie that this cast and crew should have been able to make without it being better. Oh and Carter Burwell (swoon!) gets my vote for funniest use of a score since Deep Rising.

MPAA Rating R for sexuality and language
Release date 3/3/00
Time in minutes 104
Director Mike Nichols
Studio Columbia

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High Fidelity

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The Top 5 Reasons to Love This Movie:
1. Great dialogue
2. John Cusack’s familiar but never stale take on the Average Guy
3. A fantastic supporting cast including Jack Black, Lili Taylor, Tim Robbins, and Joan Cusack
4. Totally cool dissection of the culture of music and vinyl aficionados in particular
5. Equally cool story and soundtrack, not unlike Grosse Pointe Blank.

Love it love it love it! I am told Nick Hornby’s book is great too, and there is (of course) a new tie-in edition with beautiful John Cusack on the cover, and I’m gonna buy it! Yes, I loved this movie, not just because it had my future husband John in it, but also because it was super-intelligent! It nails the music-junkie, vinyl snobbery culture down (I don’t mean that to sound negative) and it also has quite pointed observations on the hunt for not-loneliness. Here is a guy, a guy who looks like John Cusack, I remind you, having that early-mid-life what-is-wrong-with-me crisis that we all go through, and he narrates it to the screen, Ferris Bueller style.

I should remark that this guy, this character Rob Gordon, is the anti-Ferris, lest any other comparisons be made. Bueller was able to talk to the screen in a fourth-wall-breaking way that is extremely hard to pull off, interrupting scenes and not being overheard in public. Cusack’s groovy Chicago slacker guy does it with equal aplomb and with the self-effacing charm that makes him such a winning actor. He’s doing what he loves, he’s beaten down by his experiences and the idiocy of those around him, and he’s just telling us about it. How else could a guy get away with so many top five lists in a film? He’s equally morose and idealistic, a unique quality I think our age group has, a kind of fatalistic optimism. We cling to our dreams and fantasies even when they don’t deliver – and I guess we finally grow up when we let go of them. But the movie is not as heavy and heady as that – the headiness comes with intelligent, funny dialogue, and dead-on characterizations and passions and human arguments and…mmmmm, like eating a delicious dinner.

Go to the official website (I think it’s on the GO network) and check out all the hilarious Top Five lists they have there. Cusack and his costar Jack Black had a great deal to do with the screenplay and the website content – music and music culture is clearly a personal passion for them both. You may recognize Jack from such films as Cradle Will Rock, Bob Roberts, or Tenacious D from Mr. Show. Black sings in a band in the film, and of course Cusack has always integrated music into his films in some way or another: the famous jam box scene from Say Anything; the entire movie of Tapeheads (made with Tim Robbins); being music supervisor for his first writer/producer outing, Grosse Pointe Blank, others, others… They clearly identified with their characters, and it makes all the difference. Back to Tim Robbins – he’s in it too! Bonus! (Seriously, rent Tapeheads if you can find it – what a hoot!) He mocks another kind of music snob which I think we are all familiar with. Oh and there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, and Joan Cusack as well- some seriously hot talent here! Even Lisa Bonet – who was pretty cool, actually.

Iben Hjelje, who plays Laura, seems slightly alien in this movie. She’s likable, but never quite with us. maybe it was her repressed accent, or her post-chemo bangs, but I couldn’t quite warm up to her. I muttered, “bitch,” under my breath during much of her screen time, and her character would be the one I would say is least real, least involved. Because of it, we can’t quite get behind Rob’s infatuation with her, unless it is to work out all his inner demons.

Bonus for me: to hear John Cusack describe a movie-reviewer woman he likes as being unassailably cool because of what she does. Swoon!

Top Five Reasons to Adore John Cusack
1. He’s totally accessible, in looks and personality – he’s not a god, he’s an everyman
2. He’s smart as hell!
3. He’s a boxer man.
4. He’s friends with cool people (in real life) and works with them again and again
5. He’s making movies like this one

Go see it.

MPAA Rating R for language and some sexuality.
Release date 3/31/00
Time in minutes 120
Director Stephen Frears
Studio Touchstone Pictures

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The Road to El Dorado

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It’s no Prince of Egypt, but it’s no Anastasia either. Hans Zimmer’s score should have remained the only musical accompaniment to this film, the songs in which are the second collaboration between Elton John and Tim Rice since the Lion King. Me personally, I felt that The Lion King’s music was the weakest part of an otherwise wonderful movie – and I am sad to say that that is the case again. The most delicious thing about El Dorado is of course Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline’s interplay. These are two highly trained actors with vim and vigor and passion, having a fantastic time in the studio. They should get the chance to work together again because they have delightful chemistry, good vocal matches, equally good timing and wit and everything. Any time the story itself grows simplistic, a shade of nuance from Tulio or Miguel adds life that would otherwise be missing.

El Dorado also lacks a good deal of the visual design lushness that made Prince of Egypt such an amazing film – but it is lovely, and it does take advantage of the Deep Canvas technology really mastered in Tarzan. It uses music similarly to Tarzan, in that very little of the numbers are songs sung by a character – and the one that is, is sung by Elton and frickin’ Randy Newman on the CD, not Kenneth and Kevin! Grumble. This worked great for Tarzan (you know, inexplicably, Phil Collins won the Oscar for Best Song – probably because of the unobtrusive quality of the music) but it does not work here – the songs are alarmingly mixed in. Detractors of musical theatre (in all its forms) hate the notion of people suddenly bursting into song. I love it, myself, but it has to be real, it has to be true. In The Little Mermaid, for example, the movie that rejuvenated the genre, every song propels plot and/or character development. In El Dorado, it propels filler. So that bummed me out.

The animators make a lot of use of psychedelia and oversimplified Mayan (? Yucatan type) art motifs rather than (as in Prince of Egypt) being led more by the beautiful native works. Yes, of course, it’s a mythical city, but it has a style similar to that of the Mayans and Aztecs and Olmecs and Toltecs and PaintFlecks…it is a shame they did not use that design concept as gorgeously as in Prince of Egypt. “Hey, shut up about these other movies. What did you think of this one?” It was OK. I was entertained, I was interested, the main characters (for the most part, more on that in a bit) were interesting and well drawn (figuratively speaking as well as literally) and it was cool to look at most of the time. But it was only OK, and I don’t want people not to go because they think it will be a bad time, but to know why it was not Great and Fabulous and Wonderful.

Now, I have to say, the water, all the water shots, usage, whatever, is the best I have ever seen in an animated movie. For some reason I have always noticed Disney water and how realistic and beautiful it is. This movie blows it all out of the…well, water. Holy mackerel! And no, they didn’t integrate the computer work with the hand-drawn stuff as well as less recent movies have (how can that be?) but it’s still nice to look at.

I can’t avoid it any more. Oscar nominee Rosie Perez is the voice of Chel. This is not right. The least-understandable speaker in Hollywood (Roberto Bernigni and Pedro Almodovar aside), Perez is a terrible choice for an animated voiceover. On top of that, OK, perhaps, as a Puerto Rican, her accent is as close to Cuba in 1519 as we can get, since Gloria Estefan was busy with Music of the Heart – **but she sounds like she is from New Jersey** and you can hear the “you go girl” head bobs and the pursed lips – and THEN they animated them in. Chel, as a whole, is a weak character, with a scary, wrong voice. Yes, Branagh has his English accent and Kline his Theatre English one. So what? Armand Assante and Edward James Olmos sound perfect with their accents. All these people have won or been nominated for Oscars, I can see how this cast would look good on paper (and KB and KK are!) but ROSIE PEREZ? “It ain’t right!” To be fair, she never ascends into her screechy “you don’t love me!!” voice she is so well known for, but she still sounds like she should be clamping a cigarette and waggling her neck above her tube top. Which Chel is wearing.

The movie is worth seeing for Kenneth and Kevin (oh how much glee I have just to hear them when they do their thing that they do so well, that special vocal magic that each of them uniquely have no matter what character they inhabit) and the animation is very good, just not the most amazing thing I have ever seen. Lots of nice side visuals will be missed, so watch out for them. Altivo, the horse, is surprisingly funny.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 3/31/00
Time in minutes 89
Director Will Finn, Bibo Bergeron, Don Paul, Eric Bergeron
Studio Dreamworks

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Romeo Must Die

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Slick movie. The short version is that the movie is structured loosely around Romeo and Juliet, but has the body count of Hamlet. Hong Kong meets Harlem (and both cultures get pretty equal soundtrack time and sympathy play) meets old school Mafia-style crime families with the moves of, well, of Jet Li, and you got yourself a rock ’em sock ’em little R&J for the new millennium. The “star-crossed lovers,” Aaliyah and Jet Li, hardly seem more than just good friends who flirt, but the enmity between their sides of the battle is all East Verona, kickin’ it old school, right in the throat. So basically, except for a widely broadcast “surprise” ending, the plot is just what you think it is, with some cross-gender changes just for kick-assedness sake.

The movie starts out with Shockwave-looking credits – another sign of the gradual trend of all graphic art looking more and more like web-based design, but cool. Gorgeous Russell Wong* and fabulous Jet Li both move like extra terrestrial killer panthers, and they are a joy to watch. Delroy Lindo’s gang is more traditional, with guns and explosives and whatnot, but they provide the comic relief with Lindo’s main bodyguard. This movie is chock full of testosterone, but it’s a much more accessible type than that in The Boiler Room. Our man Li and Aaliyah’s mob guys play a little game of football and it’s the best game of football I have ever seen (that says a lot coming from sports-hater me) – if it was always like that, I think I’d be a Chargers fan!

I’m sad to report that the groovy leaps and amazing aerial feats performed by Li and his ilk are done through the help of wires, but it still looks awesome. An effect is used three times, I won’t ruin it for you, but I have never seen it before (well, except in a primitive sense in stomach relief commercials) and hoo-ah, I really didn’t think movies could get more detailed with their injuries but lo! I was wrong. It was sparingly used and used well. My only complaint was that the camera was so tight on some of the fight scenes that I couldn’t tell what was happening – just a flurry of limbs and then a wide shot of someone flailing off to the side.

I say matinee (maybe with snack) because it wasn’t the laugh riot of a Jackie Chan movie (or the “he’s actually doing that” aspect either), but the fights occur for a reason, they are nicely done, and there’s even somewhat of a story going on behind the scenes. I had to laugh at the uncomfortable-looking white extras – they looked out of place and very nervous. That sounds ridiculous, but go see it and watch them, you’ll see what I mean. The Baldwin-esque developer that shows up on the golf course mid-film looks like he was dug up by headshot only, and I pity him for being lost in this movie. Delroy Lindo and Wong and Li and Aaliyah are all too strong for him to shine at all.

Aaliyah fans will be pleased that she sings about 4 tracks in this movie. I had not heard her (at least not consciously) before and she does great on screen and on soundtrack. And she’s only 21! No, gentlemen, you will not see her boobies. Sorry! But I think the opening scene will help you with the disappointment.

*I say gorgeous Russell Wong but then mid-movie I realized he looked like the love child of Dean Cain and Jack Wagner, so I now am questioning everything I have ever known. He does nice karate moves, though.

MPAA Rating R – violence, some language, and brief nudity.
Release date 3/22/00
Time in minutes 120
Director Andrzej Bartkowiak
Studio Warner Brothers

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Final Destination

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After the dismal reviews I have been giving out lately, I should remind my faithful and new readers what exactly I mean by Full Price Feature. I mean bang for your buck – if you want a thrill ride, emotional/visceral roller coaster ride, then Final Destination is all you need. I am ashamed to admit how much more I liked this movie than Cider House Rules – even though I dreamed I was in a play with Michael Caine and trusted him implicitly to save my bacon since I didn’t know my lines. I don’t think hanging out with any of the kids from Final D. would be good for my health, but I tell ya – I was scared to drive my car for THREE DAYS after seeing this film, as was my companion. Films that stick to you are giving you more than just their 120 minutes’ worth of entertainment.

Basically, this kid thinks the plane is going to blow up, gets off, and it does. Then – and only then – does the mayhem ensue. Writer Jeffrey Reddick used to work for the X-Files (you know, before it got boring) and it shows in the screenplay – sick, no-punches-pulled Rube Goldbergian twists of fate (aka Death’s Plan) mix with sharp, know-it all dialogue spouted by every Breakfast Clubber character known. I don’t want to give anything away because the joy is in the surprises. To use a fictional scene example (but a real life reaction), I know that the movie is working if I am curling up in my seat, hiding my eyes, saying “aaaggggh I can’t take it!!!” when someone is doing something as innocuous as adding paper to their printer. Never mind when the Real Stuff starts happening. If they have me by the thyroid so completely as to drive me giggling up a wall at every second, I am willing to pay top dollar for that action!

The audience was jumping around and screaming and laughing at their own reactions – it was a great crowd. This would be the kind of movie where I would want to bring all my best friends and just totally spaz out – it will be a fun rental (but I wonder if the joy is gone for a second viewing?)! But I tell you – pay full price! I went in just like I am sure you assume you would, thinking “This is going to be total trash!” Stylishly creepy credits slink by, I think, OK, it’s going to be nicely bankrolled trash. The plane crash section (largely given away in the preview so I feel I can mention it) is fantastic! Much worse than Alive, and that was one horrific plane crash!

Funny details – everyone’s last name means something – either a horror author or actor – the agents investigating the airplane incident are named Weine and Schreck, which I think is Fear and Terror in German (I know Schreck is right) but I don’t have my dictionary handy. Ha ha! Super duper creepiness and laughs all around. I wrote in my notes “Thanks for the constant awareness paranoia!” which I had pretty much made some headway in getting over in my adult years (I spent much of my childhood terrified of death, and now look where this movie has plopped me!). Death moves with the implacable malevolence of Christine (the killer car) – no motive, no gender, not even a supernatural or good vs. evil kind of overtone, just secular death. That made it cooler, I think.

Woo hoo! Devon Sawa has apparently niched himself into a kind of young-guy-as-new-Jamie-Lee-Curtis pigeonhole, and hopefully he will be able to break his baby-faced self out of it, for I thought I saw a seriously fun sense of humor lurking inside that terrorized kid. And Stiffler from American Pie plays a geek? Sorry, not buying it! Sure, there’s some hokey stuff, maybe a tad too much overkill in the elaborateness of the scenarios, but you know what? It worked, so who cares! In X-Files tradition, a creepy mortician gives us a vaguely goofy scene just to kind of spark off the realization train of the lead characters, but it’s the only thing seriously wrong with the movie. This may sound like an insult, but I mean it in a pure reptilian brain way: I have not felt so unnerved watching a movie since Very Bad Things. Say what you will about this or that film, but my interior, my gut, my lizard brain that just says “eat sleep run etc.” was DIGGING them. And that is what summer popcorn movies are all about. They should show this movie at Defensive Driving. Brrrrr!

MPAA Rating R for violence and terror, and for language
Release date 3/17/00
Time in minutes 95
Director James Wong
Studio New Line

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Erin Brockovich

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I saw this movie because it was free. I admit it. I was not all that interested in Julia Roberts in A Civil Action II, but I went. And two-time Oscar nominee Roberts did not let me down; in fact, I liked this movie on its own merit, not just the merit of the true story it was portraying. Don’t let the awful tagline, “She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees” dissuade you *or* make you think that is all this story is about. Brockovich was a terrifically stubborn and desperate woman who did not compromise herself and stretched her boundaries and in doing so, helped a huge number of people. Sounds kinda chick flicky for you, doesn’t it? it doesn’t feel like a chick flick, any more than any spunky single mom movie should. But make no bones about it, she is a single mom with determination and I know Middle America doesn’t have much patience with women like that (when is THAT 19th Century silliness going to stop?) but no matter what you may think of her personally, it makes good movie.

Director Steven Soderbergh (a Hollywood darling-come-lately with recent big hit Out of Sight and map-putting hit sex, lies, and videotape) seems to have come on the set, sized up Julia Roberts and Albert Finney, and said, “You folks just do what you do.” Julia did wise, self-mocking comedy mixed with abrasiveness (interesting to see from her) and all with a winsome, dewy smile and the trashiest outfits you have seen since Rosie Perez. Every scene is a new, Pretty-Woman-shops-at-Wal-Mart atrocity that highlights how hard she seems to try to NOT be taken seriously – yet she fights more than most people would for others’ respect. I have to hand it to Julia, she can rock it. Finney, as usual, is no slouch either, his Irish temperament and gritty veteran actor chops abrading perfectly with Julia’s cynical modern optimistic bitterness. Aaron Eckhart (In The Company of Men) as a biker? And a nice one? It sounds crazy, but it just might work.

So did I mention it was a true story? A pretty recent one, too, though they don’t knock themselves out setting the time too well. Since it is a true story, it can get away with that linear driving forward and people behaving not as Hollywood would want them to, necessarily – but they really did, so they have to. Roberts gets a lot of screen time, as do her cleavage and legs, and it is almost exclusively her battle from the beginning. You can tell from the preview it’s basically “hey you, big company, the water is poisoned because of you, what are you gonna do about it?” so the tagline is the ultimate spoiler. But there are some nice dips and turns along the way, watching Roberts and Finney together, watching a totally untrained person strain and work and sweat to be something no one else will let her be. It’s quite inspiring in its own way, though I am sure it is not meant to be.

Any complex legal mumbo jumbo was handled by the fact that our lead character knows less about the law than anyone who watches Ally McBeal, so we get all the info we need in order to appreciate the legal stuff. The lighting (like in sex, lies, and videotape) was all “natural,” i.e. if they are in a dismal fluorescent office, they lit it all green and waxy and like it really is. No fancy David E. Kelley color corrections for Miss Julia! It made it more real. I wondered how much was fictionalized for the good of the story, since it was so satisfying to watch. I enjoyed watching the events unfold, I enjoyed glimpsing into the lives of the litigant characters, and I enjoyed Erin kicking ass in various arenas, be it against expectations or against disrespect or be it just generally being smarter than anyone gives her credit for being. And it’s a true story, so it’s always nice to know that people are still out there capable of something besides commerce and profit once in a while. Go see it.

MPAA Rating R for language.
Release date 3/17/00
Time in minutes 126
Director Steven Soderbergh
Studio Universal

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Mission to Mars

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Until I moved out to California, I would always see movies like this with roughly the same crowd, one of whom in particular I was really missing while watching this, the first NASA-approved sci-fi movie (either in forever or in a very long time). The logo is all over the place and the whole thing implies that in 2020 we will be just that technically proficient. Almost-here sci-fi is so much more exciting in that way – less fantasy (like dragons and transporters) and more “soon, soon” dreaming about hovercars and voice-activated microwaves. My missed friend is a real live rocket scientist, and while he can (not in a bad way) take a little wind out of the sails of a movie like Armageddon (you know, simultaneous shuttle launches and so on) – it’s awesome when he is excited about the physics in a movie. Since NASA liked it, it’s got to be good, right? Well, NASA knows about isometric trigomorphic astrocandlebompiliad stuff, but they don’t know much about…well, story.

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely liked this movie better than my companions did, partially because I thought all the human stuff was great, all the angsty stuff and the heroic stuff and the interplay between some seriously cool actors like Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise, Jerry O’Connell, Connie Nielsen, and Don Cheadle. I liked the space ship, I liked the Mars footage (shot in Jordan, how cool is that?) and I liked the mystery. I had some real moments of tension and fear and emotion, you know? Some beautiful scenes in flight with the crew, some great weightless work, and so on. I wonder if they shot some of these scenes on the Vomit Comet (as they did in Apollo 13) or if they had some very kick ass wire ballet happening.

But then it did start to get a wee bit hackneyed. Not so much that I was upset, but as soon as, well, let’s just say as soon as the weather changes, the movie comes to that point where it can go whole hog with what it wants to do (which it did, and that was not the right thing to do), it can stay a total cryptic mess, or it can try to be elegant and metaphoric and fail because reshoots and editing will make it retarded (which would have been much worse) – basically, the movie failed for me in the same way that Contact did. Fabulous, gripping, excellent, beautiful beginning, and then Matthew McConaughey playing bongos naked, bellowing “Lookie I am a space man!” I saw the heroism and the good characters behind all the silly glittery stuff, but by then it was too late. I know no one else could see it any more, and so the first 4/5 of the film was wasted. Oh, I know what movie is it like: The Abyss, which, if you chopped 10 minutes off the end of *either* version, would be fantastic, but instead, by following delicate smoked salmon with a creepy lady fingers, custard, and beef dessert, the whole meal comes away a little tainted.

Needless to say that for the most part, the movie was cool and interesting and even emotional, though I don’t know if the science was any good because I didn’t have my rocket scientist(s) to hand. But maybe if you go to the bathroom as soon as a 4th character appears in a scene which has had only 3 characters for more than 5-10 minutes, then you will be OK. I know it’s silly. But the silliness only bothered me toward the end. Maybe it was PMS. Maybe I see so many bad movies that a simply mediocre movie looks like art on wheels. (However, when I saw an art on wheels type picture after seeing this, I was underwhelmed – there’s just no pleasing anyone, I guess.)

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 3/10/2000
Time in minutes 120
Director Brian de Palma
Studio Touchstone

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The Ninth Gate

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Director Roman Polanski is well known for Rosemary’s Baby, and returns to this spooktacular Satan-is-among-us genre with a sincere sense of awe and majesty. The one note I made was that his directing style (something I actually tend not to notice in watching movies) is all about showing and not so much telling. Long languid shots, no dialogue; the camera drifts by a note left on a desk and we know through all the theatrical and cinematic conventions of the world what it means. I’ll come back to cinematic conventions. Here and there, Hollywood producers, terrified of alienating the simpleminded, throw in a “look, see, here, the secret PIN number of his vault is 6-6-6 GET IT?” whereas before, in the elevator, the same number combination was handled with more taste and aplomb. What little I know of Polanski does lend me to believe that he would not be the sort who would appreciate a tidy explanatory wrap-up, a la The Devil’s Advocate (oh, that was tripe!) – and indeed, plenty in The Ninth Gate goes totally unexplained. For example, Emmanuelle Seigner.

I love Johnny Depp – he is an amazing actor, he has exquisite taste in projects (and any movie that is just OK is made bearable by his presence, and is faulty for any reason but him), and he always chooses or creates amazing outsider characters – not just Edward Scissorhands, but also Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood and Don Juan DeMarco. His character in this film is an infamous rare book hound and he runs the underground rare books racket like a drug czar. OK, I can buy that, he’s smart, he’s charismatic. But the basic premise of authenticating a rare book (do I need to tell you it has something to do with Satan?) and then doing something about it feels weak, and it seemed like Depp, as well as the character he plays, doesn’t know what to do with it, and so he does his best and goes home and hopes that scene hinted at in the preview with the burning building doesn’t come out as silly as it must have seemed to on the set. Sorry, Johnny.

Satan-raising, good vs. evil epic battles over men’s souls or the fate of the world, all these kinds of movies are inherently predictable to a degree because of the centuries of literature and myth and religion and folk wisdom that have preceded, not to mention all the conventions of filmic storytelling as well. We know we can’t summon up The Evil One just by having eight somethings, nor can we do something related to evil without some serious pyrotechnics. Don’t forget the hubris! The concept of the Book is interesting, but it seems like a lot of the more interesting stuff was carried on backstage. For most of the film, I was interested, even riveted at times. Oh, but then the Scooby Doo thing happened. I mean it, it was as Scooby as Doo can be.. Without giving away the ending, we simply might as well have had Depp pull a rubber mask off the museum curator and then had him led away by cops saying he could have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for that meddling book guy! Oh woe. So then, the Scooby Doo silliness occurs, we think it’s the big climax – and then we’re in a car, driving – apparently, there is more to do besides humiliate our bad guys by putting them in black silken robes with big rapper-size pentagram necklaces on. “Is that it?” is asked, and not just on screen. Oh Johnny!

It was beautifully shot, overall not pandering (until the Mystery Machine rolled up to the visually stunning mansion), but it just couldn’t carry through. Maybe Fat Cat Producer Man reshot or re-edited the ending, making it less…interesting, more accessible, but it ended up taking something with a great deal of promise and rendering it vaguely stinky.

Side bar – an Indian taxi driver, who does not get involved in the action at all, made me think – if all this summoning of Satan and stuff is so huge and so real and so major, what about the non-Christian cultures and individuals? Would they be subjugated by the Evil One(s) too, or would they go on driving their cabs and stuff? In our Judeo-Christian country, we take for granted the ominousness of certain canonical symbolism, like a man hung upside down by his ankle and so forth. Would that even scare a guy from India, in a deep seated, Satan-is-among-us way? Watch it as a rental, maybe with an evil snack.

MPAA Rating R for some violence and sexuality.
Release date 3/10/2000
Time in minutes 133
Director Roman Polanski
Studio Artisan Entertainment