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Center Stage

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Full Price for Dancing; Rental + snacks for Story

I have to split my rating for this movie. We all know that most dance movies tend to have less than original plots, relatively simple characters, and a little show boating. Center Stage, however, has TONS and TONS of dancing, plenty of dancing, great dancing, amazing dancing, and for people who see dance movies to see dancing, this is a Full Price Feature all the way. For people who enjoy dance movies but still want the plot of a “regular” movie, Center Stage can be a wee bit disappointing. The actors are dancers who act, which in my book is great for them – with no prior experience they all carried a movie and didn’t embarrass themselves in any way – oh and did I mention that they are fantastic dancers? The acting is good enough that we care about the characters, we believe what they are saying, and then we enjoy the progression of the story. The real crime is the written dialogue – it’s not these kids’ fault that the screenplay is hackneyed and terrible, but they will be blamed for it, just because they are not all John Gielgud.

Forgive the script, for it serves the movie’s real purpose which is to show a girl’s struggle through the prestigious American Ballet Academy and lots and lots of amazing dancing. Willowy women and leanly powerful men fly and pas-de-bourret across the screen. Handsome people smolder furiously at each other with their bodies instead of their words, and my god does it all look great. The camera work is great – alternating between close-up and wide shot without losing the general feel of the performance – something I have noticed happens too much in dance movies. You have 100 people all doing the same huge move at once, but center on the lead’s triumphant expression, you have just wasted 99 people’s choreography – why have them there? Center Stage clearly had a lot of dancers involved behind the camera, making everything look good. The physical endurance it must have taken for simple shots (late night solo rehearsals, classroom exercises, a big flaming dance-off pissing contest between two men) is astounding.

Director Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible, Object of My Affection) made some scary musical choices at times, but he cast some great people as the teachers of the school. I can’t say that he knows how to improve upon weak material, but at least he doesn’t damage what does work. Casting “real” actors in the non dancing roles such as Donna Murphy and Peter Gallagher lent weight to what could have been painfully weak scenes of conflict and plot. Peter Gallagher as the Academy’s dean(thankfully tweezed) was notable – his calmness, his solidity, confidence, strength really shone in this role. Maybe it was the 98 lb. waifs fluttering all around him that made him seem so strong, but he was marvelous and totally believable, even with those awful words coming out of his mouth.

Amanda Schull is our lead and she is really everything we would want in a dance movie lead – she’s beautiful, unselfconscious, and a great dancer – but not too great. You know she was on her toes 12 hours a day for months, but she always seems fresh and ready to go – very impressive. Eithan Steifel has the Leonardo DiCaprio role – cocky sexy guy who may or may not be a jerk but we all have to admit that he sure can twinkle those toes. It’s amusing to go through the IMDB and see that none of these people have been in a movie before – and here they are, carrying one on their toned and sweaty backs. It’s totally worth seeing just for the dancing, and I am certain that those who dream of ballet as their vocation can find more than that to enjoy, but don’t fault the actors for their dialogue. They give us more than we bargain for on stage.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/12/00
Time in minutes 113
Director Nicholas Hytner
Studio Columbia Tristar

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Battlefield Earth

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Stinkaroo! A long-anticipated film (due to the enormous popularity of the 1970’s novel by famed Thetan L. Ron Hubbard), Battlefield Earth is a disappointing mishmash of crap, silliness, unintentional hilarity, and – for goodness’ sake – embarrassing performances. Barry Pepper, a man genetically designed to play an urban cop kind of character, does the best he can with the material he’s given. John Travolta did not surprise me one whit. As a long-time Travolta detractor, even I had to admit that nothing Travolta could have done would have saved this movie – I mean, I could blame almost nothing on him. Except letting it happen! He’s down with Hubbard, he could have stopped it, somehow? Couldn’t he? It must be a testament to the spiritual bandaid of Scientology that the whole cast did not commit suicide after seeing this movie.

But wait! The actors get a script, they read it, they learn it, they perform it in front of a camera. Clearly, at no point did anyone say, “Man, this is a steaming pile of hangover dung – why don’t we fix it?” My fans know well how little I liked Phantom Menace; well, folks, this has just supplanted it as my mockery target of 2000. I struggled, looking for reasons to like the movie. The aliens were totally Klingon knockoffs, complete with butt-cheek print heads, glarf-krox-narf-blag language, and unending double dealing, hostility, and hubris, but without all the code-of-honor business that makes the Klingons more fully two dimensional. Oh did I mention they are called Psychlos? I mean, COME ON! If your 6 year old kid sister put on a play in the living room about evil aliens she would come up with a better name. This is Hubbard’s fault, of course, but couldn’t at least his errors have been glossed over? Heaven knows GOOD books are destroyed by Hollywood, why not BAD ones? I have been told the novel is quite good, actually, but I was also advised it should never be a movie. I could *not* agree more.

The execrable dialogue was pre-Planet of the Apes bad camp. The makeup was all Apes too, actually, not as good. Rubbery hands rest awkwardly on hips and table tops – gestures reduced to a minimum so the wobbling, claw-nailed hands won’t look as obviously fake. The man-animals with whom I saw the film cracked some seriously good jokes and I was in stitches the last half of the movie. If only I could have been in traction, elsewhere! The only real benefit to having seen this movie is to get to mock it, crucify it, murder it! Oh, to think what Charleton Heston could have done in that mountain gorilla suit instead of Forrest Whittaker! I noted that the production crew names flashing in the opening credits were largely unfamiliar to me (and I pay attention to that stuff). I don’t even want to generate a hit to the IMDB site to find out who they are, I am so offended by this movie. You should check out the alternate movie poster in Entertainment Weekly (May 26, 2000, page 9) – it quotes reviewers much in the same way the Saving Private Ryan poster did…oh, but without all those stars and raves. Very funny.

I will grant that the film had cool ships, decent sound design, and there was a nice glass-breaking sequence (FX-wise). Barry Pepper looks pretty good with long hair. I thought the set dressers did a nice job with Earth of the year 3000 (Futurama bubbling away in an alternate universe), but the people on it – oy vey! The simplest things are handled with idiocy – can the man-animals read, or not? If so, keep it that way and don’t let them selectively forget to read when confronted with important information later. If not, then for all that is holy don’t let them learn how in a week! Never mind all the other stuff they learned in a week. Never mind all the other stupid awful terrible things inflicted upon this unsuspecting reporter!

I have to feel sorry for the cast at the big red carpet premiere – of course everyone shows up with their friends and so on, proud and excited about all this work that they did – and then to have to sit there in the audience and pretend they wouldn’t rather be getting a high colonic from Dr. Kevorkian – I mean, poor Kelly Preston! “Oh honey I loved your movie!”

If you see this movie anyway, don’t blame me. I am encouraging you not only to skip this movie, but to knock over tie-in displays in stores. And as a reviewer I deeply admire said, don’t worry about the extended warranty plan on your Harrier jet.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/12/00
Time in minutes 130
Director Roger Christian
Studio Warner Brothers

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Gladiator

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We decry the sensationalistic programming of shows like Fox’s When Romans Attack but really, the impulse to see pounding, horrific acts is older than history. Why? Who knows? Ask a sociologist. All I know is, Gladiator will satisfy that craving better than a Spago’s VIP dinner would feed a Somalian refugee. It’s brutal, it’s gory, it’s got that strange, over-real sped-up feel that Saving Private Ryan had in places. I think it’s that the film is shot at more than 24 frames per second but is still shown at normal speed. The storyline is, sadly, a true classic (in the Classical Roman sense of the word) in its predictable nature – but you know what? Not one human watching it will care. It’s amazing to look at, amazing to imagine that we as humans were ever so openly savage as the Romans were. I say “openly savage” because it’s clear that American (and other western cultures to a lesser extent) tastes run toward the bloodlusty in every aspect. We are freaks and we trip out at the slightest suggestion of sexuality (positive lust) but then we glaze over with glee at a smoothly rendered digital beheading (negative lust). And those who say “kids today” are becoming desensitized to violence are ignoring the fact that we have been desensitized since well before Jesus’ time.

Gladiator is in the same gore camp as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, so if you hate that, just wait until it’s cheaper and still go see it. Anyway, enough with the bloodlust. The story is a nice, heroic manly tale, and what I have noticed lately is the only actors who really can be MEN, really be macho killer warriors with honor and all that good business, are Australians. Enter Russell Crowe, not baring his chest (but yes, he lost the weight from The Insider) but baring his soul to thousands of screaming hordes, and it is good. It is very good. Connie Nielsen is the stately goddess with nothing to do but look regal and fretful, playing the sister of Joaquin Phoenix, and it’s no shock that he becomes Caesar, is it? Joaquin, while pretty much as good as his late brother, is eerie and revolting in this film, as a man and as a face. The audience was verbal in their distaste for him, and he got some unintentional laughs as well. He’s a simpish, whiny, petulant nutjob, which is fortunate for Crowe and the story, but kind of unbearable to watch. Richard Harris gives his last performance as ailing Caesar Marcus Aurelius, and his Arthurian noblesse shines through, highlighting his onscreen son’s failings as a man.

Unlike say, The Phantom Menace, the spectacular visuals really mean something in this film. It’s not creating Rome at the peak of its power just to say, “Look how dense and amazing we can make this look,” it’s to show those of us who know the Coliseum from the cartoons that it was once a mighty architectural wonder; the whole city was a marvel, two thousand years ago! It’s stunning, realistic looking, easily as wondrous to behold as Menace was, but all supporting the story, not replacing or overwhelming it. John Mathieson’s cinematography is lovely, just lovely. Director Ridley Scott knows a couple of things about action and suspense and so forth, as evidenced by his facility here and in such films as Alien and Blade Runner – but he also knows a little about interpersonal drama (Thelma and Louise and Someone To Watch Over Me) – so he can combine humans into his amazing backdrops to make something bigger.

Viscerally, this movie is a kick. Intellectually, it’s no great challenge, but it’s wonderful to see this kind of epic be made, be expensive, and be worth watching. Just to sit and fathom how brutal and primitive the conquerors of the Roman Empire were (never mind the conquered) and still how technologically impressive they are, is worth seeing the movie. Russell Crowe is noble and mighty, and can’t seem to help but attract a huge following no matter where he goes – a true man of the people, a noble and straightforward soul – not at all the thing in the birthplace of Republics. There is much more to say about this film, but it is too large to be encompassed by my pithy blurbs. You must see it for yourself.

A little trivia: SPQR means Senatus Populus Que Romanus (not to be confused with Romanis Eunt Domum), which is the “good guys'” philosophy of how Great and Mighty Rome should be run. The movie does skip over the whole notion of Empiricism being not so good, but the idea was that tyrants = bad, republics and democracies = good. A side definition of SPQR is apparently “small profits, quick returns,” and I hope that Gladiator makes HUGE money (it took two powerful studios, Universal and Dreamworks, to back it) instead. Huge PQR!!!!

MPAA Rating R for intense, graphic combat.
Release date 5/7/2000
Time in minutes 155
Director Ridley Scott
Studio Universal/dreamworks

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Hamlet (2000)

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After Romeo + Juliet (not the Zeffirelli, the DiCaprio one), it seemed as though tough urban moroseness would be a sly way to reinvent the Bard’s classics, or at least not the musical way. I sincerely did not want to see this one, because, I mean, come on, Ethan Hawke? I do believe the real Hamlet would behave much as Hawke does in his private life (minus Uma) – hang out at Lovejoy’s with punk front-men and write superficially deep novels. To his credit, Hawke is the youngest Hamlet on film and therefore (on paper) the most age appropriate to take on the vaunted role of angry youth. But, I mean, come on, Ethan Hawke?

The language is the same, though clearly in its 112 minute brevity has cut some stuff. “Alas poor Yorick” and gravedigger fans, go rent Branagh’s 1996 version (the one with Robin Williams). I have to give this interpretation some credit – I better understood all the relationships and internal goings-on than in any other viewing, filmic or stage (sorry, M.D.). I’ve never been a huge fan of this play, but at least this time I could really follow it. And not a Branagh in sight! The Americans handled the tongue twisting poetry with aplomb, and, in the best cases, made it sound natural. Hold on to your Guatemalan Angst Caps, kids – Bill Murray is a brilliant Polonius. Did I see that coming? Heavens no. He managed to give Ophelia’s dad a while new twist, and I totally got it.

The film is plagued by overly natural camera work – actors blocking each other, etc., and some genuinely kick ass locations. It’s not so sly and artsy as Romeo + Juliet, but it somehow works better with a literal sword fight at the end. Oh, did I give anything away? Liev Schreiber as Laertes gave the role something I’d never noticed before: presence. However, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are truly dead. Steve Zahn is hysterically out of place as Rosie and Guidie is Uma Thurman’s heroin-chic brother. Sigh. Imagine Wayne Wayne Wayne, Jr. from Happy, Texas as he quoth: “He does confess he feels himself distracted/But from what cause he will by no means speak.” (It certainly is handy having the screenplay lying around the house.)

So, you’re asking, how did they do the play within the play, The Mouse-trap? This was very funny, worth seeing on its own – perhaps if the whole movie had been made like this, it would have been more mind-blowing. A small, accidental “quote” of the Sixth Sense pervades Hawke’s Hamlet – everything emotionally significant (I presume specifically for Hamlet but it didn’t seem to really be all that precise) is red. Considering the rest of the movie is a chilly Coltrane blue/black, it’s got to be on purpose.

When doing a classic, one must never reveal its tragic flaw – and the tragic flaw of Hamlet is what a big deal everyone makes about Hamlet being upset, when he damn well should be! Unfortunately, in this update, it just seems even more ludicrous that anyone would think the boy certifiable just because he’s depressed – never mind Ophelia drown herself because he’s too bummed to give her a lot of quality time.

Music by Carter Burwell: I noticed the music, but it’s the unfortunate “sucking up to the Academy” Burwell and not the glorious Coen Brothers scoremeister. For another example of this unseemly trend, see Exhibit A: Danny Elfman’s generic-yet-nominated score for Good Will Hunting.

So, why watch it on HBO? The Cliff’s Notes often help you appreciate the full work when you watch it again, so let this film be your Cliff’s Notes to the Branagh film. My companions and I were not in total agreement, but I found the presentation of the famous soliloquies mostly interestingly done – and a great deal of social commentary lurks (perhaps unwittingly) in the staging of “To be or not to be.” One word: “Action.” Cracks me up. Frankly, Bill Murray deserves your viewership, despite his wee role. But Miramax should not be fiscally encouraged to do more work along these lines by you watching it anywhere but in the comfort of your own home. Double feature it with Strange Brew and see if anything looks familiar. Do NOT watch it to avoid watching the full version!

Funny side detail: Hamlet and Ophelia have a Danish beer in one scene. If more of the movie had been like that, I would have really appreciated it.

MPAA Rating R for some violence
Release date 5/2/00
Time in minutes 113
Director Eric Simonson, Campbell Scott, Michael Almereyda
Studio Miramax

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Frequency

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If you have not memorized the trailer yet, STOP WATCHING IT. Just close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears and hum until it’s over. The previews are killing the fun of this movie! Just know it’s got ham radios and father son stuff in it and let the rest come.

Time travel is a tricky subject – and the more we as an audience are scientifically informed, the harder it gets to play with all the paradoxes and not offend our sensibilities. Then of course there is the risk, with a storyline like Frequency, that the idea of a father and son talking over the ham radio over time itself, could fall into a maudlin mess. “Spirit and guts,” his fireman dad Dennis Quaid says, teaching him to ride a bike, and the kid follows in the dad’s best friend’s footsteps to be a cop. Spirit and guts indeed – two positions (besides doctors) most turned into the bad guys when comedy is at stake – never appreciated for what they do, what they risk, and all that. I could go on a treatise about Hug Your Public Servant Day, but I think everyone knows what hard jobs these people have. The best part is how it takes a pair of men like that to pull off the sappier stuff, and to pull off the heroic stuff as well.

I saw U-571 on the same day I saw this, and it was a day for manly heroes let me tell you that! A fine double feature, for the heroism displayed in both films is vastly different – and in Frequency, it is supernaturally aided, somehow. But the deus ex machina is no god or ghost in the machine – it’s explained away by science (sort of) but the real 11th hour push comes from man itself. That is the ultimate satisfaction of this film. Dennis Quaid, poor Dennis, he’s really a great kind of everyman, but apparently seems too smug for audiences to warm up to like they warm up to Tom Hanks. Quaid is utterly believable as a loving husband and father as well as a risk-taking fireman, and the guys’ mutual disbelief at their accidental meeting is tempered with warm realism.

James Caviezel is the older John, and he apparently specializes in being in movies I have never seen, save a bit part in The Rock. John is the heart of the movie – tying the past with the present but also, perhaps, with enough sly Star Trek wisdom to link together the amazing events that unfold as he communicates with his dad. Caviezel is great – sensitive but not gushy, and totally convincing. Daniel Henson plays younger Johnny and I could totally believe that boy could grow up into that man. The past is 1969, the present is 1999 – we forget how far we have come, technologically and sociologically, in so short a time, until a little time crossing movie shows us. 1969 still feels like the 50’s or the 40’s even, compared to today – it wasn’t all the Summer of Love and Hair and LSD.

The tagline for this movie, “What if you could reach back in time? What if you could change the past? What if it changed everything?” has also been addressed a million times (I say also referring to U-571’s general theme) in films, but it’s presented in (dare I say) real time. The metaphorical butterfly flapping its wings in the Precambrian actually makes a breeze on this end of the phone – and that subtle treatment (as compared to the commonly presented POP everything is different) lends a lot of tension and immediacy to the story. During many scenes my heart was racing, lickety split, as I waited for the ripples in time to prove themselves in the present. It’s cool stuff.

One of my companions complained some of sunshine being blown into his colon, and I admit I am certain I have more tolerance for that kind of business than he does, but I felt that they really cut back on the treacle until it had to come out. But I won’t lie to you – there’s an eyeroller or two in the last reel. Nothing to miss the movie for, indeed! It seems like a great father-son movie, except for terrorizing your kid that you will die on the job and then your mother will die and then your house will explode and and and…anyway. I really liked it, and I hope you will see it.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 4/28/00
Time in minutes 121
Director Gregory Hoblit
Studio New Line Cinema

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Time Code

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Time Code is a difficult film to rate. If you don’t know anything about it, it is a film shot on digital video, and we the audience watch four segments of the screen simultaneously as the story (stories) unfolds before us. All 4 segments are one continuous shot, about one hour and 50 minutes or so (one is longer than all the rest) shot at the exact same time as the other three, with no edits or cuts or do-overs or anything, and the story segments converge and diverge. The acting is slice of life, real, by necessity. The director (Leaving Las Vegas’ Mike Figgis) operated one camera and the others were, no doubt, trusted minions. The sound is live in the camera so the crew must be totally silent and do their work unheard. We are able to “tune in” to certain story moments by having the sound mix raised or lowered in the quadrant the director wants us to observe – but sometimes it is simultaneous noise we have to choose from. The cameras meet in rooms and yet we never see a camera. The images contain images of their own – mirrors, projections, handicam monitors, etc. The actors sometimes are just walking or thinking or listening in their quadrant, but sometimes they are having sex or spying or singing or arguing or whatever. As a technical achievement and a truly interesting piece of work, Time Code is a total Full Price Feature.

As a story, it’s difficult to follow, not so much because of the four quadrants, but because the natural, slice of life aspect of it makes it hard to figure out who is whom to each other, how the names and people match up, and keeping up with what is happening in the other 3 quadrants when you are watching the “highlighted” one. For long periods of time, Saffron Burrows is wasted, just walking around, looking pensive, but we don’t really know why she does anything or what purpose she serves, and yet she seems to be really important. Poor Jeanne Tripplehorn spends a good deal of time listening (to what is going on in another segment) and reacting to it – but I would argue that she as an actress uses her “dead time” much more effectively. Everyone else has lots of stuff to do, but eventually it’s hard to concentrate on one story for fear of losing a thread in another story, especially after some camera crossings and red herrings. Is that blonde girl important or is she just atmosphere? Should we watch how that guy reacts with everyone who passes him or should we pay attention to the production meeting over there? It was very relaxing to stare at a blank wall after the film was done – do not operate heavy machinery after viewing.

My recommendation for this DVD release would be to have the soundtrack as released, and then use the “angle” feature to go between the 4 different individual audio tracks so you can get focused on what you might have missed otherwise. And of course the directors’ commentary track would help a lot. I don’t know if I would watch the movie again and again, but I do know I missed a lot and wish I could reclaim it. Maybe then the story will seem more fleshed out and ponderous. As it is, it is a story about nothing (or about a lot of people) that goes nowhere but it does it in the most interesting way possible. The mechanics of the film force you to be alert and interested, but there is not a lot of story payoff. Thinking about the practical aspects maintains interest…”He had to be ready for that to happen the whole time! How did they have simultaneous reactions to earthquakes?” and so forth. Digital Video has opened up the infamous “long shot” concept now to the length of a tape (apparently at least 2 hours) rather than the length of a roll of 35mm film stock (10 minutes). The musings about long opening shots from Hitchcock films or The Player will soon seem as quaint as the family gathering about the wireless to listen to the Mercury Theatre’s presentation of War of the Worlds. Just because Al Jolson spoke in the Jazz Singer doesn’t mean the rest of the movie makes it worth watching, and as they say, there is no substitute for story.

If you are into filmmaking and into cinema verite in particular, do not miss this film. If you prefer to curl up with a good book or to writhe in agony waiting for Niles to tell Daphne how he feels, skip it.

MPAA Rating R -drug use,sexuality, language& scene of violence.
Release date 4/28/00 Limited
Time in minutes 93
Director Mike Figgis
Studio Screen Gems

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Where The Heart Is (2000)

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The trouble with liking movies like this is I have no words that don’t sound overused or treacle-ish. Where The Heart Is, despite it’s gooey, touchy feely title, is marvelous. Oh yes, it is a chick movie, but it is not a chicks-only movie, like Beaches or Boys on the Side. It’s not anti-men, it’s anti-mean. The luminous Natalie Portman (unscathed by her ruination as Princess Amidala) avoids the Star Wars action figure aisle in the Wal-Mart her good-for-nothing boyfriend ditches her at – way pregnant too. If you’re going to be ditched somewhere, it might as well be the Greatest Store On Earth. The movie continues for five years as Portman settles in the Oklahoma town to which misfortune delivered her. Thank heaven for small towns – the kindness of strangers, even the kindness of people who have known little kindness themselves, probably only exists in sufficient quantities in small towns like Sequoyah to sustain a woman so ill-used as Novalee Nation.

A surprising lineup of stars assists Portman along the way – Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing, both radiant and loving, and while they may make mistakes in their lives, they know their mistakes and embrace them. Judd’s character has little enough reason to be positive and upbeat, but she is, and Portman benefits from her company. These women show us that adversity need not make us hard or mean or anything but stronger. That is pretty much what the movie is about, and I say it is a chick flick because I think that women are more likely to bounce back to being kind when they have been rocked by tragedy than men – now don’t get all riled up, hear me out. Men traditionally do keep their emotional business to themselves, and while we have made great strides towards equality in this arena in the past half century, I still feel that women can pull off this kind of mustered up grace than men in bulk. I would like to add that James Frain’s character, Forney, is one such evolved man, so it’s not just a big “guys are scum” movie, believe me! It was directed by a man, does that help, guys? Guys?

Surprise! It’s Sally Field! Other stars (or soon to be stars) popped into my home town of Austin to shoot this movie, like Joan Cusack, Keith “Franks and Beans” David, and James Frain. Oh James Frain! What a marvelous character you have to play in this movie – and so well, too! Dylan Bruno plays the shiftless creep boyfriend that knocked her up and abandoned her, and despite having such a two dimensional character at first, he carries off the acting coup of a lifetime by giving Willy Jack much more to do than just ditch little 17-yr.-old Novalee.

A technical note: They shot a terrific tornado scene – I was clutching my bag in primordial terror (I have a near-phobic fear of the things) – the light was perfect, the sudden onset of hail, the charge in the air – marvelous! Austinites – Dante’s Inferno and Jazz are in Nashville, watch for set dressing in Cusack’s office. There are a jillion kids in this movie, and yet the movie doesn’t devolve into squishy kid-ville either. It is balanced and handled nicely. What Erin Brockovich did to make white trash look pushy and sexy, these ladies make it look gracious and sexy. Women who have had hard times don’t need to walk around like Shirley MacLaine with a hot flash, like she was ridden hard and put away wet – and it’s a valuable illustration.

The story, while being almost anachronistically altruistic, has a “based on a true story” feel about it, although Billie Letts’ novel is purportedly fiction. Oh certainly, some things seem too good to be true, or too bad to be true, but the overriding message is we reap what we sow. Maybe that person that hurt us doesn’t feel the sting of regret when we wish they would, but ultimately they will pay the higher cost for having taken the low road. It’s this moral truth that makes the story seem the most real – sure, it’s how we wish things could be, and yes, they never seem so in these instant gratification days. Setting it in a slow-paced small town forces us to slow down too, and we nestle in to the characters and story like a warm cup of tea. The screenwriter Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel have worked together (for better or for worse) 5 times and the director has no discernible filmography – yet the movie feels comfortable and familiar (not a retread).

It’s a great movie, not as nice a date movie as Return to Me but definitely a super movie to see with the gals (even if you are a guy) – and a wonderful example of the value of goodness. For moms with daughters, it can show them that being strong isn’t being stupid, and friendship matters most of all. The more I think about it, the more I liked this movie. Go see it. And support Texas filmmaking.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 4/28/00
Time in minutes 120
Director Matt Williams
Studio 20th Century Fox

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The Big Kahuna

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So, here’s the thing. The Big Kahuna used to be a play, and it feels like one. It is deftly acted by its small cast of Danny DeVito, Peter Facinelli, and Kevin Spacey. It is interesting and it is entertaining. That said, I don’t think enough people are going to like it. I did like it, very well, like a good stout meal. I took negligible notes, and despite the dated use of the “Sunscreen” speech long mis-attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, I thought it was timely and cool.

Why don’t I think people will like it? I think most of my close friends will like it – but the box office has proven me right already that middle American couldn’t be bothered to see men connecting on an intellectually intimate level, to see the ballyhooed capitalist institution of SALES lambasted and vilified, even – and certainly the religious right won’t much like the reactions to a guy spreading The Word. However, if all that sounds appealing to you, run run run and see it! Support this kind of filmmaking. Somehow, plays made into movies don’t do well, and I cannot imagine why that could be – the scripts are generally better than most original screenplays, and it’s practically half done for the studios. A good film adaptation of a play takes out the theatricality and makes it more natural, but audiences just sit there, grumbling, as soon as they see “Based on the play by…” in the opening credits.

The play on which The Big Kahuna is based is Roger Rueff’s The Hospitality Suite, and it’s a nice, tight, Mamet-with-heart little show that would be great fun to produce. Rueff did the screenplay as well, which is probably why it works – no awful, Noises Off-style digressions to try and play down the intelligence of the script. Three men, all with very different perspectives, shut up in a hospitality suite together, getting worked up over their wares, which they sincerely don’t care about. It’s a statement on passion, it’s a statement on priorities, it comments on faith and perseverance and intimacy and being true to oneself even as their lives force them to be someone they aren’t. It’s basically really cool. How’s that for incisive journalism?

Director John Swanbeck has zero credits in IMDB, but hopefully someone will notice and give him more to do. He graced the author’s work with nice reaction shots and allowing the whole on-stage presence of everyone be felt, even while shooting it “movie-style.” Obviously we can’t just turn a camera on a stage and record for an act or two – oh, well, now we can (Time Code), but I KNOW audiences won’t go for that. If only someone would remake Noises Off on digital video, with British actors and the original script…I digress. Hooray for Swanbeck, I say.

I haven’t seen DeVito this good since probably L.A. Confidential – how we can forgive him all his bad movie choices is surely just due to his innate charisma on screen; and we all know Kevin Spacey can walk and talk at the same time with some aplomb. A few people may recognize Facinelli from Can’t Hardly Wait or (if you’re extra lucky) Dancer, Texas, Pop. 81. He was also in Supernova, but let’s let that go. He’s young, he needs the money. Anyway, Can’t Hardly Wait’s Facinelli was just one serious epiphany and a Baptism away from his Big Kahuna character of Bob Walker, which (for me) lent an interesting layer that was naturally unintended. It’s easier to buy him as lovably bad than naively pure, but hey, the kid’s got promise.

MPAA Rating R – language
Release date 4/28/00
Time in minutes 90
Director John Swanbeck
Studio Lion’s Gate Films

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Cinerina

U-571

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I have to say this first off – I really do not like Matthew McConaughey. The fact that a movie which features his bongo-ness in practically every frame and continues the sad decline of Bill Paxton’s career can still garner a Full Price Feature can mean only one thing: summer is here, with all the great movies that means. U-571 is a WWII hero’s tale, with Germans and Americans, submarines, sweating tension, explosions, jimmy-rigging, Morse code madness, and more. It’s tight, in every sense. Tight editing, tight story, tight quarters, tight close calls – whoooo!

“When men were men,” as it were, and also when machines couldn’t bail our slacker butts out of the fire. If a similar scenario were set with today’s subs and computers and communications (not to mention nukes), it would have been a bunch of guys at keyboards, boring the socks off us while the camera crew tried to make it interesting and the subs graze the top layers of the Abyss. Not here – U-571 is all pistons and valves and squeaking, leaking war subs, oily men and oilier waters, sinking oil drums full of death and crushing underwater pressure in waters that light can still penetrate.

Wow! Great camera work, cool shots (my favorite is from below U-571 with depth charges exploding above them), Aliensesque music by Richard Marvin, and by gum some serious guts! I had raised a hullabaloo about the 10th century moxie of the 13th Warrior men, but it’s all well and good to get macho when Beowulf (or is it Grendel) is at your door – it’s altogether different in the 20th century, right? But Hitler was the Grendel of that time and these boys are gonna lick him if they have to die trying – and they know and accept they are expendable, something we today just will not put up with (for better or worse). It’s cool. it’s exciting. It’s technically impressive.

Someone once wrote there is an inherent suspense in a submarine, due to the environment and the closeness of the quarters and the dependence on machinery to live – and this no doubt helps the movie along – but I think the script and performances are such that they could have pulled it off in a different environment (though perhaps depth charges are not as effective on the open plain, you see my point) – I even have to admit that McConaughey was very good, which wounds me to the soul. For once, he was cast in a role that used his qualities that have (for me) hurt him in the past – his combination of bravado/swaggering ego and insecurity/modesty. A million movies have been made about someone being thrust into the limelight when they are not ready, but actors usually stay afraid or instantly take charge, and I have to hand it to my fellow Texan, he did right by the role. Those who know me may guess at what a glowing recommendation this is.

Parents who shy away from war movies (read: Saving Private Ryan) will be pleased to see the film garnered a PG-13 rating, and indeed a few events in the first reel suffer for it by having certain event sliced up for family viewing, but it’s basically made clear enough. It kind of lends itself to being more mature, ironically, by gearing itself for a younger audience – my imagined slacker-run nuclear sub from earlier would be filled with Paxton’s Aliens character Hudson, spouting amusing and probably rated R quips until something happens to save the day. We don’t know who will save the day, or even if indeed anyone can or will – everyone in the movie is so ready to die for what they believe, anything can happen. It’s this old-fashioned manliness that makes it such a great film. Go see it – why are you at the computer?

I am starting to notice that in general, the movies I have liked best in the past year usually have in the credits “written and directed by,” and this is no exception. Writer/director Jonathan Mostow did the underrated Breakdown (both jobs) and also directed episode 12 of From the Earth to the Moon. Besides a little B-movie, **that’s it.** Is it true that Hollywood, as a machine, really is responsible for ruining film? Writer submits script to studio, studio buys it, revises it, finds a director who changes it with his vision, add rewrites and meddlesome producers (assuming the director allows it) and the script is often totally different from what the author intended. If it was good enough to get optioned, why wouldn’t it be good enough to be shot? Writer/directors can maintain the integrity of the story and it does show up on the big screen – audiences are responding by flocking to story-driven movies like they haven’t since the early 70’s – and they seem to care less about flashy special effects (World is Not Enough) or big stars doing nothing (Drowning Mona).

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 4/21/00
Time in minutes 120
Director Jonathan Mostow
Studio Universal Pictures

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Comments Off on East is East
Cinerina

East is East

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Marketed as the wackiest British comedy, East is East will surprise those going for sheer culture-clash farce. The Full Monty, also a comedy based upon a more serious skeleton (the bad job situation in their town), was wacky and hilarious even by American standards; that is to say, just about everything was funny, and the seriousness of the men’s plight was downplayed. This is not so with East is East, a film about a Pakistani father who has raised his children in England with an English mother, yet wants them to be as true to his heritage as he thinks he is.

Om Puri is the father, full of pride and hypocrisy and depth – likable enough to all who meet him, but feared by his children. Five boys and one daughter behave with varying degrees of complicity to his Pakistani upbringing, and even the ones who seem most accepting of the ways of this country they have never known, still cannot comply with him altogether. About an hour into the film, it gets unexpectedly rough, turning abruptly into a drama, and it is hard to pull off the lighthearted resolution the first part of the film demands. Would that reflect reality? Of course not – which is was makes this movie more real than a wacky comedy – but it starts out fairly amusingly enough (and the previews for US audiences are playing up the farcical aspects of the story) and then changes tone. The tone change is rewarding, from a dramatic standpoint, but as sheer comedy goes, it’s pretty harsh.

Having little to no cultural knowledge of Pakistani religion or practices, it was very interesting to be exposed to their customs and their beliefs. It was also frustrating to see a father held with such high status never seem to learn his lesson – no one changed in the movie, and I think that is part of what felt unrewarding. One side or the other has to bend, and at the end, a peace had been called, but no resolution. Getting there was difficult, hard even to watch, must less to live, at times, and the token “public embarrassment” scene was so alien to us in the audience that it was hard to sense the humiliation that would have made it funny. A non film example: Let’s say a culture finds the exposure of wrists and ankles is obscene and offensive, and we have a scene where the daffy neighbor comes by to show off her new ankle tattoo. Having no innate shame of our own ankles and wrists, we cannot feel the embarrassment felt at this neighbor unwittingly making our leads feel humiliated.

The British as a people are also much more aware of the various social potholes that they fall into, and are more easily embarrassed than Americans in general (which says great things about their empathy but not their social security), so the scene was robbed of much of its comedic potential for me. Here in the States as well, we were founded under the basis of freedom of religion, and some of the indignities suffered by Puri’s children are inconceivable. Certainly, parental influence has great emotional weight, but to a degree the legalities of some of the activities in the film are shocking here. So again, the movie loses its comedic potential, and becomes a serious family drama. Not that this is a bad thing, but I feel it was dreadfully mismarketed. The culture clashes are interesting, the conflict is unresolved and unsatisfying, and all the actors do a terrific job. So many children creates some confusion – two brothers I had trouble keeping apart and when all the names are tossed about without their owners present, it took some time to willow out who was who, plotwise.

Since it deals in Important Cultural Issues, I predict a nomination for Best Foreign Film next year, but I do not think it is a clean enough script to be effective. By clean of course I mean lean and mean, not free of profanity. Oh yeah, if you take offense at the word “bastard,” it’s used like the F word in a Tarantino bar fight. Me, I think it’s kind of funny.

MPAA Rating R -language, sexual content & domestic violence.
Release date 4/14/00
Time in minutes 96
Director Damien O’Donnell
Studio Miramax

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