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Brokeback Mountain

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It is simplistic in the extreme to label or dismiss this movie as “the gay cowboy movie,” however convenient a moniker that might be. Brokeback Mountain is a love story, full of unrequited longing, pain, confusion, self-loathing, fear, and extremely manly activities. What makes the movie painful for our protagonists is exactly the reason we should all endure their pain as an audience member: homophobia. Were it not for the unreasoning hatred and fear in the hearts of straight men who feel threatened by the idea of man-on-man love, these two men (played fearlessly and expertly by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) would have been able to have the life they deserve, which is of course forbidden to them when they met in 1963, and still to many degrees in the present. Anne Proulx’s short story and Larry McMurtry’s screenplay bring this story to life in a way you would never expect to see on the big screen. And as CNN pointed out, there is less than 60 seconds of man-making out in 130 minutes, so get over it, fellas.

I was fortunate enough to see this film in the arthouse theatre in the gay district of my big, blue-state city, surrounded by attractive, intelligent, sensitive men (and some yokels) who were free to openly weep at the moments it is called for. I have enjoyed that freedom all of my female life, but many men, moved by intense emotion on screen, feel they must hide their pain. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s characters have to hide their pain, hide their connection, hide their spots from the other tigers, and that makes you cry all the more.

Ennis (Ledger) has the added burden of having already found his fiancee, and of having been shown at a tender age the true, terrible price of being a homosexual. His terror and his heart war throughout the film, a bitter, beautiful conflict on his face. This is not the Heath Ledger of 10 Things I Hate About You. His performance is intense, beautiful, labored. Ennis is short of speech but long on contemplation. He’s an uneducated ranch hand from super-rural Wyoming, walking through life in the expected ways. What happens to him on Brokeback Mountain is an incredibly pivotal moment of violence which turns to tenderness. His physical and emotional responses to Jack (Gyllenhaal) are intense and powerful to watch.

Gyllenhaal seems more aware of the sleeping man inside himself. He knows who he is, he knows what he wants; without his impetus, their moments might never have happened, but he also knows what could be, if only the world were entirely different. He pays a terrible price in his confidence just as Ledger pays a terrible price in his fear. Their dynamic is perpetually a tension, not exclusively sexual or romantic, but a twanging, tautly pulled bowstring ready to send an arrow flying and change something forever, if only the tension could just break. It hurts to think about it, but it’s hypnotic to watch. Even the poster graphic brings that delicate tension to life.

Ang Lee has a magic touch when it comes to finding the universal emotional truth in a story. Perhaps it’s because he always seems to be directing so far outside of his personal experience, he can approach it in a detached and objective way, or perhaps it is because he is the most emotionally attuned man in the world. Either way, he knows how to make a story of pain and loss sing, and he knows how to place actors in an environment that can define them even when their words fail. Two men finding each other in a vast, mountainous wilderness should be no big deal, but conservatives would have you believe it will shake the earth off its axis. He makes their relationship epic in its reality and minuteness. He also has a knack for placing actors who are pre-burdened with certain expectations (Hugh Grant in Sense & Sensibility, Christina Ricci in The Ice Storm) into roles and bringing out deeper talents. Here he does so with the chronically fluff-cast Randy Quaid, Anne Hathaway, and Anna Faris, never mind fun-time Ledger. Michelle Williams (as Ennis’ wife) has no such burden*, and she has the richest opportunity to show the devastation wrought by so much enforced hiding of truth. There is not a dialed in or weak performance in the movie. Go see it.

*When I wrote this I did not know she had the legacy of Dawson’s Creek to live down!

MPAA Rating R-sexuality, nudity, some violence

Release date 12/16/05

Time in minutes 130

Director Ang Lee

Studio Focus Features

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Walk The Line

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Comparisons to last year’s “poor boy makes good with raw talent, almost ruins it with drugs and womanizing, and then redeems self” award-winning biopic Ray are inevitable, so let’s just get it out of the way now. Walk the Line does less than Ray in showing us the character that made the man’s music, where the music came from, and it does more than Ray by showing us the delicate dance of Johnny Cash’s lifelong obsession/romance with June Carter. As a romance, Walk the Line is a love story of Johnny with June, and the public with Johnny’s unique sound and stage presence. Joaquin Phoenix grinds the microphone with an eerie and rugged take on Cash’s famous baritone, and Reese Witherspoon lights up her microphone with her Louisiana twang. They carry the burden of portraying both the romantic and sexual chemistry of this legendary pair, and the more difficult to replicate onstage chemistry of their road show. Oh, and they do all their own singing and playing. Phoenix even learned to play guitar with Cash’s weird hand positions for authenticity.

One could be sad for this little movie that could; so many studios passed on it, it eventually got made almost as a charity case by slashing prices and salaries; a risk in a country-music unfriendly Hollywood and with a couple of actors who aren’t quite the A-listers such a project would need. Both are dependable performers, as their many fans will attest, but they don’t have the dollar signs tattooed on them that some other faces might have provided. As oftens seems to happen, the little movie that could gets made with more love equity than dollar strength, and as a result, the final product is all the richer for it. The period details alone would have made a studio flinch at the cost, never mind the music rights and licensing of the other legendary performers in Cash’s late-50’s road shows.

Walk of Fire spans only 24 years, with a coda to the Cashes deaths in 2003, but the amount of music that flows over the audience seems only possible in twice that time. We never get a sense of what drove Johnny to his music; we can infer but the man remains a mystery even after such an intimate screen tale. His fandom and later obsession and love for June Carter is evident, so the movie becomes more of a danceless musical romance than a biopic about the rise of a unique musical talent. He was a unique musical talent, but Walk the Line spends less time on him and more on them. It’s satisfying as a story, certainly, but a little frustrating as a biography. True to what we know of their characters, Reese is comfortable onstage and in love with the audience, while Joaquin still seems remote and distant from them. In photos, his hooded eyes are restless and haunted, a quality that does not shut off even when the actor is taking pictures of himself, and perhaps that kept me from connecting to Johnny Cash. (Interestingly, on film, Ray Charles gave me zero eye contact but Foxx’s spirit was so open onscreen I felt as if he had.)

From a technical perspective, Walk the Line was a lovely, moving, and interesting film, but I feel as though Johnny Cash remains an enigma only to be guessed at in his music.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 11/18/05
Time in minutes 135
Director James Mangold
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Cinderella Man

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It is difficult to get across how truly devastating the Depression was to working families in the United States. It is more difficult still to make a Seabiscuit-meets-Million Dollar Baby boxing movie about a figure whose fame and sport is a shadow of what it once was and not turn it into a maudlin mess. It often is, sad to say, even harder for Ron Howard not to do that. When the previews were first showing for this, I could not muster up even the slightest iota of interest in this film. No one I knew saw it (for a while) and then they would say, “yeah but it is actually really good.” Then it’s up for awards, but man, I don’t want to see it still, Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger, Ron Howard, it’s the Best Picture Patrol trying to force me to vote for them. I am so glad I finally saw it on video.

The past few Ron Howard movies I have seen have been gradually becoming more and more irksome, less interesting. Ditto Russell Crowe. In this film, they finally earned all those accolades that had been heaped to excess on A Beautiful Mind. The vividness of the despair in the Depression years, the desperation of the downtrodden, it’s all up there. Crowe, playing Jim Braddock, is a family man doing what he can to put food on his table, raise his kids to be good people, and keep the family together. He and his wife, Zellweger, are loving and true, with a romance that keeps them glued when a weaker marriage would fall apart under the stress. All this plays emotionally truthfully, and you are invested in their lives without even feeling manipulated. Crowe’s weight fluctuates with his character’s decline in fortune and feeding, and when his body is so changed, so seems does his soul – by him, I mean the actor. It’s a terrific performance, not at all complicated by the Crowe personality.

What was amazing for me (and I know I said this after Million Dollar Baby) is that I really don’t like boxing movies. I don’t get what is so thrilling to see two people pummel themselves for cash. Braddock does it because it’s that or the docks, and competition is too great at the docks. In the ring, he has some control over his destiny, and he is driven by the most basic of instincts – family, food, survival. His near-magical career turnaround after falling from the 21 Club to the breadlines and back into the public’s eye is stirring, perfectly paced, and written as if there are no guarantees. If you don’t know how the movie ends, as I did not, you don’t know if he will win. So many movies are basically waiting for the redemption, and they lose their passion. Every fight, every scene, we are gripped with anxiety – will he lose? Will he die? Will his family starve?

Seeing how he, unknowingly and unwittingly, affected the people around him, how he served as an inspiration, is also a surprisingly deep emotional core to the film. I know that Seabiscuit was some kind of beloved underdog horse that the country rallied behind, but watching that film was like trying to figure out why we all wanted Cabbage Patch dolls once upon a time: I guess you just had to be there. With Braddock and the devastation of the Depression, you are there. I have never rooted for a sporting event in my life like I rooted for Braddock in this movie. I was actually on the edge of my couch, balled fists on my knees, praying he would prevail. It was superbly edited, beautifully shot, sensitively acted, and with fantastic grit and texture all around. I know you don’t want to see it, none of us did. But give it a try anyway.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/3/05
Time in minutes 144
Director Ron Howard
Studio Universal Pictures

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De-Lovely

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As we all trip over ourselves to find just the right hyperbolic adjective that begins with “de-,” we may lose sight of what makes this movie such an artistic triumph. My companion, very wise in the ways of all things, noted that this movie could not have been made without the pioneering film language school of Chicago. And indeed, this film is back to cinema’s roots of filmed theatricality, but with all the advantages of 100 years of moviemaking technology behind it. The razzle-dazzle in this piece serves to hide the technical mastery, rather than to distract from empty promises.

The film begins with a slightly theatre-like feel, and introduces a fascinating framing device (embodied by Jonathan Pryce) and then takes us through the years that are the most intense in the life of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline). He meets and marries Linda (Ashley Judd) and as they say, away we go. The less said about the events of the movie the better. The preview, artfully edited to make the movie look like a pedestrian biopic with celebrity cameos, gives no sense of the beautiful, self-reflexive show we are about to see. Kline, an incredible singer, is trapped inside a character with a famously reedy voice, and so Kline’s incredible animus as a performer must leak out in every way but song. It is ironic, don’t you think, to compare: Porter’s songs were where he was most restrained. Kline is marvelous, so believable and lovable and despicable, when I saw Diana Krall singing “Just One Of Those Things,” I thought, “He must love hearing her voice sing his music.” And then I realized Cole was dead; Kline was making him real like (forgive me) Cary Grant never could.

Ashley Judd is every bit as beautiful as the famous Linda, and her love for Cole, for friends, for children, slams out of her like light out of some science fiction creature. I can think of no better analogy than that – every bit of her lifted and exploded by the love she has to give. It is all for Cole, and the compromises she makes cruelly twist us in the audience. The film is not all advertised Armani glamour and sparkly musical numbers, and it always stays aware of itself as a show within a show. Even the props are meticulously used in scenes where they will create the most impact, a 3-dimensional scrapbook of his life in a New York penthouse. It is completely out of my comprehension how something so delicate and powerful and structurally complex could have come out of the word processor of the man who wrote Gangs of New York.

Dancing through Cole’s life is a subtle camera magic that you might not notice right away but let me point it out for you. There are many dizzying circular pans which turn and turn and time passes and things change and there are no editing opportunities because people are always present, always moving, and one shot in particular I simply cannot work out how they did, another with a magical mirror, another with – oh my word! I can’t even call it editing because the camera never stops, never rests, so much life! Porter’s life was unimaginably full and so much time wasted even so – the camera cannot capture it all but it tries with all its might. Celebrating the post-Victorian decadence and the overlapping (but not equal) qualities of love and passion, Porter’s music is reborn as new, sacred innovention in De-Lovely. Be the first in your Oscar pool – see this film!

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 7/22/04
Time in minutes 125
Director Irwin Winkler
Studio MGM

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Spellbound

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I recently read the book Bee Season, and the notion of a real documentary about eight contestants in the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee was too compelling to resist after reading that (unrelated) wonderful novel. I was very pleased by the film, to the point that I took practically no notes. All eight kids are stellar spellers, and come from wildly divergent backgrounds. Their families and schooling and towns, the amount of support or interest they have, tells volumes about the state of education in their various states, as well as how important parents are in that equation. Amusingly, the local Hooters, when sending well-wishes to a local finalist, misspelled “congratulations.”

We have one Hispanic daughter of an immigrant rancher who speaks no English, she is a total product of her friends and schooling; a bespectacled white au-pair tutored multi-lingual intellectual princess; an Indian man pressuring his handsome, popular athlete son to excel beyond any acceptance of mediocrity; a bubbly, positive black girl who has no real coaching or support beyond her own studies; an awkward spaz of a misfit whose expressions give voice to what all his fellow contestants are feeling; a vaguely unsettling white loner boy whose analytical mind isolates him in his small town; an overly studious white girl whose humorously wacky parents indulge her obsession with spelling; and a confident young Indian girl with hugely supportive parents.

Getting to know the kids is interesting; however, as with many documentaries, what is shown rather than said is often the most interesting. We can see how their differing advantages and obstacles affect them when they finally walk up to the microphone. They speak of what spelling means to them, and we explore their intellectual virtuosity also through the prism of their parents. Those who are dinged out reveal much of their character with their post-Comfort Room statements as well. We also meet some of the other contestants, and learn even more about how terrifying the whole process can be. Nine million kids try to get as far as the final 250, and these eight are among them. My palms were sweating and I was stumped on as many words as kids dinged out in the first day of the competition.

In a movie about spelling, featuring young people talking about themselves, the risk for tedium is high. Not so here. First-time filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz and his shrewd editor Yana Gorskaya pace the movie perfectly. Tension is broken with interesting blurbs and interviews and images of the competition; the chase is cut to when needed and drawn out for our wriggling enjoyment when appropriate. It’s a snappy piece of filmmaking about a rarely covered topic.

Of course you will want to pick your favorite child to win. Some of them you are relived to see go, others you wish had lasted longer. No matter who you pick, you feel the disappointment when the first of our eight are dinged out, and the final contestant in the documentary cast couldn’t be sweating much more than we were in our seats.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 4/30/03
Time in minutes 97
Director Jeffrey Blitz
Studio ThinkFilm

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Winged Migration

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If you just ask someone what Winged Migration is about, they are forced to say, “well, it’s about migrating birds, and they follow a bunch of different flocks all over the world, and boy are their arms tired.” Without further elaboration, this sounds like a nice film for birders and zoologists only. Yes, the images you are watching are those of soaring geese, pelicans, penguins, cranes, and several other species, but it’s how they shot it that is why you should see the movie. Don’t worry, this isn’t another Russian Ark where the best thing about the movie was how it was made, rather than the finished product. These filmmakers worked with the colonies for long periods of time, getting them used to the look and sound of the cameras, remote control planes and gliders, so that the camera is just another bird in the formation as they struggle for survival across the seven continents.

You’re not getting a jittery picture of a pelican from a telephoto lens. You are watching his muscles ripple beneath the feathers speckled with dew and cloud. The tips of his feathers brush the lens. Below you at a dizzying height slide by the nations of Europe like a perfect topographical map. No special effects were employed in the making of this film. It is good that they press that issue at the beginning of the movie, else you would never believe it. The ratio of “I can’t believe I am actually seeing this” moments is higher than in any crazy stunt/action film. The access these filmmakers have to their subjects, the behavior, the sounds, the quiet observation, is unbelievable. More amazing still is following the same birds to the same spot a year later, and feeling the differences there. Human landmarks are as much a part of their navigation as the sun and magnetic poles, and we can only hope in this, we do not make it harder for them as well as with our perils.

We jump from bevy to muster, from skein to company to gaggle, and the only real narration is advising of the species and the distance that these birds fly twice a year in search of food, nesting, and safety. The hazards they must overcome, the odds of surviving, never seemed so slim, even without introducing the obvious slant of “and humans sure don’t make it any easier.” When you’re flying in a formation of geese, listening to the rustle of their wings, recognizing the importance of this flight, of every flight, and glimpsing the determination in their eyes, it’s transporting. The tragedies visited upon some among our subjects, and the herd’s reactions, were moving every time. My mouth dried out from hanging open.

Thierry Machado, who also photographed the exceptional insect documentary Microcosmos, is the cinematographer for this film. Unlike a dramatic film or even a human-based documentary, the filmmaker can do little or nothing to affect his shot when slipping silently into a siege of herons or a colony of penguins. The equipment serves him well. Every shot is beautiful, for its content as well as its composition. It was amazing too to be so immersed in the birds’ world that when we come again to any human construction, be it palace or combine, it seems so alien and unnatural. How anyone can drive an SUV after seeing this is beyond me.

MPAA Rating G (with one shocking death)
Release date 4/18/03 NY
Time in minutes 87
Director Jacques Perrin
Studio Sony Pictures Classics

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Chicago

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Oh my god. Luscious, sexy, intense, gorgeous, energetic, exciting! These were my only thoughts upon exiting the theatre after seeing Chicago. I felt literally intoxicated. This film defies the traditional trend of stage musicals not quite working on screen after being successful on stage. My companion had seen the show live on stage, and said that it actually worked better as a film. As I was watching it, I tried to imagine it being performed live; it was as if the show were invented for the movies. Instead of a surreal mix of stylized costumes and dancing with the relatively serious story, Chicago the film offers a straightforward period drama of Roxie’s ambition and failures, and cuts to the musical numbers as a sort of supertext of what is happening in the story. Brilliant!

When the two worlds meet (which is used sparingly for great effect) it shows the fantasy exerting its power over the true story. The musical numbers stand alone with beautiful sexy glamour; and we also see the real people whose tales are being told. It is the ubermusical. The musical portions has the energy of a live show – I almost felt they were there on stage, breathing. If you like musical theatre, you should not miss this for any reason. If you don’t like musical theatre, you should probably see Chicago. This is the perfect culmination of the dramatic goal of mixing music with drama, with more sexiness and glamour and beauty I ever thought possible – and I own Moulin Rouge!

The signature opening number, “All That Jazz” is the single sexiest thing I have ever seen. It makes the fencing scene in Mask of Zorro look like The Crucible. The rest of the numbers live up to that example (except for the sexiness, though many numbers are very very sexy). I know you are wondering, “How are Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, and (gulp) Richard Gere?” Catherine was of course a professional hoofer at one point, and it shows – and she can belt like a mama! Renee, whom I have long resisted, got me. She was sassy and vulnerable and sexy and she sang and danced and kicked butt! Richard looked so much at home tapping and singing and rolling around on chorus girls, I can’t imagine him doing anything else. I have to completely revise my anti-Gere stance after this. The filmmakers also made extra sure to credit these three for their hard work in the credits, i.e. “Richard Gere’s singing and dancing performance by RICHARD GERE.”

Also kicking serious musical booty are Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly. The additional score is by dark Danny Elfman, the perfect companion to this dark and dangerous musical. Rob Marshall directed and choreographed this beautiful movie. Don’t worry, Chicago purists – his dancework is impressive, you won’t miss Fosse’s stylings at all. The choreography is more classic and also more modern, less theatrical, if that makes sense.

Let’s look at two musicals (not the only ones, either) who were nominated for Best Picture, and why this one should be too. West Side Story combined a timely commentary on prejudice in a modern context with cutting edge modern music and choreography. It won Best Picture. Moulin Rouge was not so political, but it also broke new walls of filmed musicals using the technology of film to further the genre. Chicago has a timely commentary of the power of the press and the fickleness of fame in a fantastical context with cutting edge modern choreography and staging. I love love love it. I hope you will too. But you can never say they don’t give you every penny’s worth.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/27/02
Time in minutes 113
Director Rob Marshall
Studio Miramax

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Adaptation

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Charlie Kaufman is a different sort of man than one usually meets. Besides having an obsessively self-deprecating internal monologue rattling constantly through his sweaty, balding head, he also happens to be an extraordinary new voice in Hollywood screenwriting. Being John Malkovich or Human Nature ring any bells? That’s him. For those who might be scared off by these credits, Adaptation is vastly more accessible, without being at all pandering. He is also the lead character of this film, as well as the screenwriter.

Or should I say co-screenwriter? In a fascinating absurdity, Charlie shares his writing credit with Donald Kaufman, portrayed as his twin brother in the film, and dedicates the film to his late brother. Is Charlie real or is he a Dark Half sort of doppelganger of Charlie’s id? Charlie, wisely, will not say. By the end of the movie, we can guess easily enough which sections were written by Charlie and which by Donald. Delicious questions persist: how much of the story is true, how much of the story is fiction, how much of the story is construct, or fictionalized truth. For all his avowed self-doubt, Charlie has some serious cojones when he’s writing.

Nicholas Cage (channeling the spirit of Gene Wilder) plays the twins, and, real or not, they are completely unique persons, totally different but physically identical characters. What a feat! I am sure they even used the same hair piece for both Charlie and Donald, so alike are the brothers – but at no point do you ever wonder which is which. Nicholas is back, baby! Cage has fantastic timing with himself. As Charlie he’s shlumpy, nervous, even irritating in his inability to connect. Donald is naively happy go lucky, unserious, and definitely shaped by different mutations than Charlie. Chris Cooper, one of Hollywood’s great unappreciated, is marvelous as the subject of the book; off-putting and compelling all at once.

Patricia Waugh describes metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.” (London: Methuen, 1984) That pretty much sums up Adaptation; and yet it is about so much more. The plot is basically about Kaufman having to write the screenplay adaptation of Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) book The Orchid Thief, which becomes the film we are watching. His theme of adaptation extends beyond adapting novels to species and individuals, orchids and screenplays, modes and methods.

It’s about Kaufman, by Kaufman, yet it’s the opposite of narcissistic. He was a nobody who became something doing anything to turn a book about nothing into a beautiful film about everything. It is easy in the first 2 acts to forget, to just watch it as a movie, but as Donald creeps more and more into the story, it becomes impossible not to be aware that this is a movie about itself. It doesn’t feel forced, it is never confusing (a miracle in and of itself) and it is always engaging. I loved it – I got on the phone to tell everyone to see it right when I left the theatre. You will get your money’s worth.

MPAA Rating R-language, sexuality, drug use, violent images
Release date 12/6/02 LA/NY
Time in minutes 114
Director Spike Jonze
Studio Columbia

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The Quiet American

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The Quiet American is a story that, if it isn’t true, certainly feels so. It’s about love, rescue, Vietnam, detachment, projecting agendas, and becoming involved: all of these and none of these. On one level, you have a narratively simple and overly civilized love triangle – which happens to be occurring in Vietnam in 1952 during the war with the French. Lurking below these levels is the intellectual detachment of a British journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine). Swooping in from above is a genial American government worker Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser). The apex of this triangle is Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), a whisper-thin metaphor of a girl who is neither catalyst or inhibitor of the reaction of Fowler and Pyle.

Bizarrely, these men can be concerned with their loves for Phuong even as the earth trembles about them from mortar shells and grenades. Civilization does not stop in Saigon just because of military ferocity between the French and Communists. It’s surreal yet amazing to watch their levels of detachment.

As a journalist, Fowler is an observer who (despite having a Vietnamese mistress) remains ostensibly apart from the world he reports for London, which he rejects. He sips his tea, writes down what he sees, and lives the life of a London gentleman abroad. As a doctor, Pyle is everywhere, elbow deep, even places one would not expect him to be. Their levels of commitment on all fronts are tested, strained, and affirmed; it makes for a totally gripping story, despite its leisurely pace. Director Philip Noyce has achieved this before in Dead Calm.

The film is lush to watch, with saturated, vibrant colors, dark corners and shadows, and elegant detail. Long shots gradually reveal more happening than one initially began, echoing Fowler’s sentiments about the inscrutable nature of Indochina. Occasionally the camera cuts to what feels like a point of view shot. I do not know enough about cinematography to name it correctly, so bear with me, because the technique was very effective. Say you have a shot where the actor is walking toward and then past the camera, a passerby. The camera would then cut to seem to be walking toward and past where “we” just “were,” as if in the eyes of the character on screen in the previous shot.

This happened noticeably at several points. I interpret it as forcing the audience, by definition detached observers, to feel involved, part of the scene. The camera snakes and glides and feels like part of the environment. At a key moment in the final act, it swoops about, seeing everything at once. Before, in Fowler’s leisurely world of observation over coffee and grenade pops, we had soft, passive gazes. Gorgeous.

Speaking of gorgeous, Brendan Fraser is truly perfectly cast in this film. Having already proven his acting chops in Gods and Monsters, we are ready to see him take on Michael Caine. His hulking gentility and fish out of water American gusto is sublime.

Speaking of sublime, Caine is exquisitely understated in a difficult role – one who ares but only just enough, one who acts but remains apart and one in whom so much resides. It’s subtle and exciting to watch, and I can’t tell much more without giving away key plot points. The balance of who is good and who is not good in each scene is so delicate I dare not reveal a whit.

The metaphors in the film may be clear cut, even handed to you on a silver platter, but as Fowler notes, it’s complicated. The characters are neither good nor bad (as in life) and that is neither accidental nor purposeful. Pyle and Fowler are grey men chasing polarized and translucent if non-existent grey goals – and are either of their goals truly right? The film is supremely relevant today, showing Vietnam torn between two (or three or four) cold lovers, feeling like no country of its own. We have the benefit of hindsight watching this 1952 setting; it can make you pause even today.

MPAA Rating R- images of violence, language
Release date 11/22/02 LA/NY
Time in minutes 118
Director Phillip Noyce
Studio Miramax

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One Hour Photo

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I don’t use the word “taut” very often, thanks to poster-quoted critics’ overuse of it with regards to psychological thrillers, but taut is the best adjective to describe this film. The pacing is slow but no time is wasted- every pause, every quiet moment, stretches the tension, pulls you into the story, forces you to pay attention. I will not be able to do justice to the visceral pull of this film. Some of it may well be my own personal convictions about preservation and photography and hearing them echoed in Williams’ voice over tug at my insides.

All the filmic elements are tightly integrated, as if one mind created them. It should be no surprise that a film about a photo processor will have amazing photography in it; the real treat is seeing how it is used throughout the film. Light and color and composition engage you in an almost subconscious way. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth also lensed Fight Club and K-19, and his style is amazingly visceral. The production design team and gaffer drew lines between the cold fluorescent world of Sy’s life, and the warm, magazine-shoot-perfect life of the Yorkin family. The art director and production designer previously worked together on The Cell, which, for all its faults, was a visually arresting film. It is nice to see them use their powers for good this time. Composers Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek have created an unnerving score, which I felt was like a negative, somehow – thin and backward and unexpected, but also building at just the right moments. It breathed with the film.

Robin Williams is Seymour “Sy” Parrish, whose life behind the One Hour Photo counter is quiet, dull, focused, and fluorescent-lit. His eyes and employee vest are the same quiet, flat blue. His manner is quiet, unprepossessing, and deliberate in all his actions. Things are not always as they seem, however, and as Sy points out, a collection of snapshots are only the cleaned-up version of a life. Knowing this, he still fervently believes in the perfection of other people, other lives, whose images pass through his expert hands in 60 minutes or less.

He endures a sea-change in this film, but never forget, this is a good man inside, a man who is very alone and lacks many fundamental cornerstones of a full life, but he can never be feared. He wants only the peaceful rest of familial love, nothing more. He has no idea how to get it. The filmmakers play with visual imagery to conjure up terror of this Seymour, anything as simple as a grown man speaking alone with a boy can (these days) automatically cause us to assume the worst. They want you to do this and they carry his character carefully throughout the story.

Williams himself, with ducks-down hair and bland expression, looks like a thin shell of the actor portraying him. As an actor, Robin has been bigger than huge and sappier than maple syrup, but even when he is playing vulnerable or helpless, he has an undercurrent of rage. Sy Parrish feels physically so different I literally had to concentrate to recall that this was standup comedian Mork smiling benignly through his glasses, longing for a life he imagines through the 4X6 windows allowed him at his job. It is as if he had his entire ego and super-ego extracted for this film. It is an impressive performance I will not forget for some time.

The supporting cast is good, Michael Vartan, Dylan Smith, Connie Nielsen, Gary Cole; but this is Robin’s film. Amusing narrative winks at the audience do not interfere with the story: his name is Sy or Sigh, short for Seymour – ha ha, see-more, and he drives an Echo. Maxfield Parrish’s paintings are of lyrically colorful, beauteous scenes of stillness and quiet, fairies and chivalry. He watches The Day The Earth Stood Still, stuff like that. Very witty but not distracting. I loved it.

MPAA Rating R for sexual content and language
Release date 8/21/02 LA/NY
Time in minutes 98
Director Mark Romanek
Studio Fox Searchlight