Cate Blanchett
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Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

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I got to see this really early, alone. Understandably, my friends ask, “How was it?” I feel the same way I felt after the first one, Fellowship of the Ring: it is how I imagine all those people who backlashed against Titanic felt (for the record, I am not one of them). Technically, Two Towers is a masterpiece of filmmaking, with incredible attention to detail, style, tone, and of course, a faithful rendition of the 2nd book. However, I found myself, as with Fellowship, very emotionally disconnected from the characters and events. I made a point of reading the books so I would not be ignorantly reviewing these highly charged works; the second book read much more easily and pleasantly than the first. Being all that much more invested, I expected I would be swept up by everything.

It was during the last major battle scene that I made the connection to Titanic. Here were many orcs and men struggling, killing, dying, very few of whom I had reason to care for specifically. It’s not that I am incapable of suspending my disbelief – I cry at Kodak commercials for goodness’ sake – and it has nothing to do with the true story of Titanic versus the fictional Rings trilogy. Director Peter Jackson appears to have somehow forgotten the human element which used to be his stock in trade. Perhaps it is a common phenomenon when faced with resources previously denied you. My favorite college band, a wild live show, became also more technically mastered when recording their first CD, but the CD lost some of their energy as a result.

When one character sustained an injury, I gasped at the surprise, then sat back to continue to watch the carnage as if nothing had happened. In Titanic, we had hundreds of strangers spilling into the icy sea, but when we see the Irish steerage women with her kids, it is then that we cry. Fans of the book know how this battle ends; the problem is that I have never been engaged by these characters. Jackson has long been an incredibly proficient and visual director, and his task here is monumental. He fails in no directorial aspect, yet myself and the audience member I could see most clearly near me could not get affected, try as we might.

It’s an awkward thing to admit, as the prevailing opinion is that these are the best and most important movies ever to come out since the original three Star Wars films; for Titanic, the Leonardo backlash made it OK not to like the film. I can say that it is beautiful and epic to watch, but leaving the theatre, I felt nothing. After Adaptation and Chicago I was calling everyone I know before I even left the parking lot, I was so excited and thrilled and stimulated.

Two Towers has greater narrative challenges than Fellowship – the main characters are living three concurrent storylines, and sometimes the editing between them felt abrupt and awkward. I did actually wonder if I was watching a final cut. In this book, too, Tolkein’s philosophical and political views become more obvious, which can be hard to play off sincerely. His distaste for “progress” and technology was quite clear.

Some of the best things were almost totally invisible – Legolas has a groovy stumt mounting of a horse that will knock your socks off, and it’s just over there in the corner of the screen. The sets are super, of course, and quickly panned over. The Ents get far too little screen time, but it’s an understandable sacrifice at 50 seconds shy of 3 hours. Towers, although technically part of the same 9 hour film, has a unique look and feel to it, even while remaining consistent. The score repeats themes and invents them. For readers: the film stops just a stitch early.

Finally, a word on Gollum. He is real. Yes, I know they shot with an actor and then CGIed in the character, but you don’t understand. He is REAL. Cate Blanchett looks less alive than this creature. Pores, eye wrinkles, teeth, movement, breathing, he’s freakin’ unbelievable (in a good way)! He makes Simone look like a Ray Harryhausen job. Two Towers is spectacular and exciting, and technically practically perfect, but somehow clinical.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/18/02
Time in minutes 179
Director Peter Jackson
Studio New Line

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The Shipping News

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Matinee and Snacks if you love the book

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

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

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

“Shhh! Judi Dench is speaking.”

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

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

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

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

MPAA Rating R-language, sexuality, disturbing images

Release date 12/25/01

Time in minutes 111

Director Lasse Hallstrøm

Studio Miramax

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The Gift

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Despite the fact that The Gift was written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, and directed by Sam Raimi, this movie is not so much a guy’s movie. It does have Thornton’s trademark Intense Downtown Crackerville, for sure, and it does have Raimi’s unflinching flirtation with danger, violent undercurrents, and blood-flecked, white faces. However, The Gift, like the good parts in What Lies Beneath, is a chick’s horror movie. So guys come out, overall, kind of “whatever,” but gals are grinning and quaking in ecstatic terror. This, to me, is a good thing, though what it says about our society is a whole other oyster.

Finally, someone, somewhere figured out that after seeing all those Halloween and Freddy movies with our boyfriends, some of us ladies developed a taste (or cultivated a dormant taste) for being scared. Scared safely, in the movies, rather than the mounting terror we feel in the streets in our home towns these days. They also figured out they don’t get the same reaction (read: dollars) from us ladies as they do from the guys when stupid co-eds prance around the dorm in their panties. So Zemeckis and Raimi have finally figured out how to get the gals in the seats. For the record, gals, there is no rape scene, although it does seem like the kind of movie that would be all about that stuff.

Cate Blanchett has the gift of second sight in a small Georgia town, and eventually it starts to have negative repercussions for her on two plot lines. She’s also (as the tag line indicates) the only witness to a murder, but of course, she wasn’t there, it’s her gift, you see? The plot takes some obvious turns here and there, and sometimes breaks the tension with a stinger every so often, but basically, it’s a good story with unexpected and even almost shocking plot twists, and a whole film of very, very good performances. The fantastic cast includes Blanchett, Hilary Swank, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear, and yes, Keanu Reeves. Don’t roll your eyes! This is quite seriously the best work I’ve seen him do since…well, gosh. He’s a bad man, and he does a good job. Kinnear is allowed to play against type and he relishes it. As for Swank, she’s a mullet-headed simpering hick, and she’s great. Katie Holmes takes her shirt off; beyond that she’s a competent performer in a cast of strong ones. Yes, Keanu really is good.

Blanchett is the movie, of course. As a psychic, or fortune teller, she must be warm and empathetic – but as a mom and a widow, she must be strong, practical, and we must empathize with her. She is luminous, beautiful, not just a beautiful woman, but it’s as if the Shining was being expressed anew as a concept just in her tired, terrified face. Hurrah. I personally, as did my female companion and the “in touch with his feminine side” companion with us, enjoyed the hell out of The Gift. Our fourth doesn’t like horror movies as a rule, but even he thought the acting was great. I was very satisfied, I got my money’s worth, and I was interested, entertained, forced to think, and scared out of my wits! For only eight dollars!

I mention earlier “chick horror movies.” I hope they make more of them. I am making this definition up as I go along, so bear with me: Chick horror movies have a sensitive, extra-in-tune female protagonist, an unidentifiable, nearly palpable bad thing that feels male, but we can’t be sure, we only know it hurts woman, and it’s not a serial killer. They have the things that women are afraid of that men are not – big empty houses, the vulnerability of door locks and isolation and bath tubs and night time solitude. The difference in a chick horror movie is that the danger is targeted, motivated, and it’s not based on women-hatred or sexual predation. It’s not exploitational, it’s just looming and scary. Someone is already hurt/dead/whatever, so the fear is not that it will happen once but that we will discover the truth about it. And, importantly, who did it – what person who we hardly think about can be capable of being so terrifying? The two chick horror films, this and What Lies Beneath, have ghosts or psychic elements. Since women tend to be more open to that sort of idea than men are, maybe that is a key element. The female lead in Dracula 2000 has profound visions of her tormentor long before meeting him…that’s kind of a chick movie too…hmmmmm.

Anyway, the Gift is great. Go with the gals or win points with your girlfriend.

MPAA Rating R violence language sexuality/nudity
Release date 1/19/01
Time in minutes 111
Director Sam Raimi
Studio Paramount Classics

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The Talented Mr. Ripley

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What a mess. Characters come and go. They behave in inexplicable ways that remain unexplained. They are generally nice to look at but pale beneath the incredible Tuscan and Roman scenery playing out behind them. Matt Damon looks horribly out of place (as I suppose he should) in another boring, almost-interesting-yet-repellent movie helmed by the English Patient’s Anthony Minghella. I wasn’t even going to bother seeing this movie, what with the year-end crunch and all, but a trusted source said it was good. Oh heavens! I just found myself thinking “what?” and “why?” and “ugh” throughout. My much more tolerant (in general) companion also sneered and grunted with dissatisfaction and could offer me no assistance when random characters appeared and suddenly became very important. Oh, but look at that lovely island off of Italy, you know, the one with the castle or monastery or whatever it is on it. Isn’t it pretty? What? Oh I don’t know who that guy is. Is she sleeping with him? Is he in love with Matt Damon? Why is everyone else?

Gwyneth Paltrow was bland and given nothing to do. Jude Law was handsome and sexy (and had a smashing American accent, as did Cate Blanchett) but basically handsome and sexy and weird. Cate – wasted but the closest thing to amusing, with her rich-girl-who-detests-money business. Philip Seymour Hoffman, such an up and comer (as was Ralph Fiennes during That Other Movie), makes me never want to see him again. Thank goodness I saw Magnolia before this! The jazz clubs were nice, the clothes were unflattering, and in the final mix, I felt like I had eaten about 5 pounds of bad cheese. How massively disappointing!

Why do I say Network Premiere instead of Avoid at All Costs? The scenery is quite stunning, really, and maybe you, Gentle Readers, can make some sense of this malarkey. It’s not even sense that it is missing, per se – I mean, I know why (sort of) Damon’s character does what he does, from a big picture perspective, but I can’t imagine what motivates his smaller actions. Just like the cold, passionless blah affair and the non-sequitur nursing silliness from English Patient, and not unlike older foreign movies that have been (through no fault of their own) badly translated into English to the point of incomprehensibility – this movie was long, seemed longer, and I came away with nothing. Yuck!

I have no idea why this movie came off so badly – it’s an interesting idea, it carried the interesting idea places I did not expect, it had some super duper photography and some seriously half-assed watered down homoerotic undertones that really only left me more confused when the intrigue wore off – is he gay or are those people supposed to think he’s gay? What about that guy? Wait, in the credits, it named someone’s fiancé? When did we see him? Did they switch reels by mistake? Not a great start to the new year, let me tell you!

MPAA Rating R for violence, language and brief nudity.
Release date 12/25/99
Time in minutes 139
Director Anthony Minghella
Studio Paramount Pictures

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An Ideal Husband

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Adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play, An Ideal Husband is a lesser-known work, one that lacks a certain quality that makes for delicious farce; namely, mistaken identity and/or scandal, with a hint of real naughtiness. The work does contain classic farcical situations that could easily be resolved if people would just be more determined, i.e. “Now just wait a moment, hear me out,” or “No no what *actually* happened is this” – misunderstandings are essential in farce. However, An Ideal Husband has a certain bland center plot device which is difficult to jazz up. Loathe as I am to compare a still-enjoyable movie to one that was patently unenjoyable, this one point of comparison is inescapable: The political ballyhoos of An Ideal Husband are, in content and ferocity, as interesting as the trade treaties being discussed in Phantom Menace.

I must now defend this movie voraciously: The acting (and dialogue) is what makes this movie work where the other failed. The story is thin, the situations frustratingly easy to make right, but the lovely ensemble with their arched brows and self-interested half-smiles are what carry this movie. Rupert Everett is the edible Lord Goring and Jeremy Northam his friend and foil. Cate Blanchett is lovely here, proving that Elizabeth was not a fluke, and quietly begging us with her eyes to cast her in a real comedienne role, and soon! Minnie Driver is her usual bizarre, spastic self, and finally Julianne Moore, making up for Lost World with a spanking British accent and a cunning resemblance to Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons.

An Ideal Husband was not the romp I had taken it to be, and the political plot point is a bit dry even by British standards, but every shot is rife with beauty and elegance and every actor is dripping with subtext and wit and irony and that is the true delight of the film. It more than makes up for the unfortunately languid pacing.

Director Oliver Parker also adapted the screenplay, as he has done one other time, with 1995’s Othello (Laurence Fishburne). He clearly takes a long time to be very wedded to his text before committing it to film, and took great pains with his production team making every little detail just so. The production design, props, costumes, small touches everywhere, are scrumptious. I can’t say how much is Parker’s directing and how much is his superb ensemble’s cleverness. It seems as though some scenes (the ones that felt as if they markedly decelerated the quick dialogue) he just didn’t know what to do and just let his people do what they do and just capture it on film. Fortunately, he cast good people: I hate to think what might have happened with a group where Jeremy Northam was the strongest actor on screen instead of the weakest as here. No offense to Mr. Northam, but he, being the Ideal Husband and all, should have been a stronger link. He is no detriment, only an underused fulcrum that could have vaulted the film further.

Rupert Everett plays quite the ladies man, which is a tad amusing. The Hollywood school of thought that says that the American public does not want to know if their leading man is gay because it will undermine him as a lover or hero has nothing to worry about. Except for not being altogether passionate about his kissing scenes, Everett is a total cad and a dreamboat, just as he should be. Fortunately, in Wilde’s society, a man could be heterosexual and still effetely vain about his cravat. He’s a pleasure to watch, really. It’s a pleasant diversion but sadly, little more than a chance to hear Rupert’s barbed wit.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/18/99 NY/LA
Time in minutes 97
Director Oliver Parker
Studio Miramax

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Elizabeth (1998)

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An excellent film, Elizabeth does not warrant a higher rating only because it assumes we in the audience are very familiar with Queen Elizabeth the 1st’s rise to the throne, and so takes a lot for granted. Perhaps we should know more of the details of the monarchy, but the first half of the movie is not forgiving at all to those who do not. Interestingly, I saw this film (which begins set in 1554, 9 years before Shakespeare in Love) two days after seeing Shakespeare in Love. With at least two principal actors, a character (Lizzie herself) and a soundstage and shoemaker in common, making comparisons is unavoidable. Perhaps I should write a separate article. The two films are vastly different in tone and scope and filmmaking technique, and I think Elizabeth as a movie lost some of my potential affection by just being less accessible and more show-offy with the camera than its “competitor.” Normally I am seduced easily by gorgeous camera work, but as I was watching, confused as to whom was whom, I was distracted and annoyed even as I was dazzled. Not much, OK, this isn’t Natural Born Killers by any stretch, but it was still discombobulating.

Having said this negative stuff, I feel it is very important to point out that this is a very good movie, with a strong lead in Cate Blanchett and simply stunning costume and scenic design. Oh my! Everything looks amazing, the castles and boats and courtiers and corridors…everyone’s teeth are pretty clean, too. The music is lovely and period sounding, the score unobtrusive. The boats! So dreamy.

Anyway – the story of how Elizabeth attained and more importantly kept the throne is fascinating – and the movie made me want to follow up for more detail. Women in power have frightened men terribly over the centuries despite their peaceful, successful legacies in England in particular, and it is always amazing to see how the men try to pull their queens down off the very pedestals on which they place these women. Blanchett lets us see the woman behind the throne, her fears and her distaste and her genuine concerns and all the meat and gristle behind the woman who defined her age, made her country the most powerful in the world in only 40 years, and who lived as the “Virgin Queen.” I would like to take note that she is taking “virgin” in the correct sense of the word, not as one who has not known sexual relations, but as a woman who does not marry. There’s plenty of sexual relations in this film.

I was not emotionally swept away by Elizabeth, but I was totally intellectually involved. A woman behind me in the theatre cried. I would consider the conclusion of the film’s narrative to be a generally upbeat one, even though the circumstances that brought Queen Elizabeth and us filmgoers there was not a happy journey. It’s very interesting – and even when I was confused I was not put off, just frustrated. I knew I was seeing important events but I could not follow who was who until deeper into the movie. It’s got other actors in it, including Geoffrey Rush and Joseph Fiennes, but despite their importance to the plot they are so secondary to Her Majesty that I will only say that they have very interesting characters and do quite a lot with them.

I recommend seeing it and you will be hearing quite a lot about Cate Blanchett in the future. I already had been, and when the movie was beginning she seemed all reaction and no self-determination, but later I appreciated the contrast. Also, the poster is off-putting, with her brightly lit face pale over a slatternly, defiant pose, but the poster does not reflect the tone of the film, don’t let that be a deterrent.

So, go see it.

MPAA Rating R for violence and sexuality
Release date 11/6/98
Time in minutes 124
Director Shekhar Kapur
Studio Gramercy Pictures

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