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Film Reviews - Thursdays, 2 PM, and Fridays, 7 PM

Film reviews from KBCS! Our own Rus Thompson praises or skewers the latest offerings from the mulitplex and art house.

X-Men || Jesus's Son || Croupier || The Patriot || SIFF || Hamlet || Small Time Crooks || Mission Impossible

Time Code || Up in the Villa || Gladiator  Virgin Suicides || American Psycho || Joe Gould's Secret  

Rules of Engagement || The Silence || Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai || Erin Brockovich  

Onegin || The Terrorist || Mission to Mars || Dogma || Stuart Little || Angela's Ashes || Magnolia  

The Hurricane  || Wonder Boys || Map of the World || Snow Falling on Cedars || Titus ||  

Sweet and Lowdown 


I'll admit that I've never been a big fan of comic books, so when a movie comes around that's based on one, I'm already prejudiced against it. With that in mind, I brought my 8-year old son along to see X-Men, figuring that if I watched the film from his perspective, it would soften my judgement. It worked, sort of. As guilt-free entertainment, X-Men is better than most other cartoon-based action pictures. It doesn't try to razzle dazzle you with computer-generated imagery (although it has plenty) nor does its third act collapse into a random orgy of violence (although there is plenty of that, too). The movie is a valiant attempt at being about something other than ego, budget, and star-posturing. Its biggest stars are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, hardly macho superheroes; and its plot, about mutant misfits trying to find acceptance in an unforgiving world, will even make 8-year olds think. This is all fine, and commendable, but X-Men doesn't aim much higher than that mentality. It has the shallow feel of a TV pilot and by the time it's over, there are enough plot ends dangling in the air you'll no doubt feel a little bummed out that you'll have to wait another two years for the sequel to be made.

X-Men takes place in the-quote-not too distant future, when a race of mutants, misunderstood and discriminated against, becomes the target of anti-mutant legislators. On the mutant end of things, there are the dark, evil mutants, headed up by McKellan, and the good, kindly mutants, with Stewart in charge. They engage in a battle of wits and philosophies, with McKellan wanting to turn normal humans into mutants to give them a taste of their own medicine; and Stewart prefering to fight the good fight, through education and non-violence. Each of these leaders commands a small but potent force of wickedly inventive soldiers who wield their strange powers in ways that seem to guarantee none of them can be defeated. In fact, they keep popping up alive after we've clearly thought we've seen them die. I wondered how many sequels it would take before we'd actually lose a character.

The movie clearly has more brains than brawn, but both are undernourished. The action scenes are crisply shot, but unimaginative. The movie's theme--a barely disguised editorial on homophobia and anti-semitism--is obvious in a sophomoric way. I expected nothing more from the director, Bryan Singer, who pretends to be a thinking person's filmmaker. His big hit, The Usual Suspects--the '90s' most wildly overpraised film--was a treatise on how to write a clever script, but, upon a second look, proved to be as facile and empty as a doughnut. His next film, the atrocious Apt Pupil, was nothing more than an excuse to lovingly photograph the young actor, Brad Renfro, in his boxer shorts. And the script for X-Men, with it's message of TOLERANCE spelled out in big, fat capital letters, feels as though it was culled from a high school term paper.

In spite of all my efforts to like the movie in a gee-whiz-ain't-it-cool sort of way, I felt as though I was watching another overpriced bag of popcorn movie. As memorable summer experiences go, I put it right up there with cleaning the lint trap on the dryer. It was only a year ago that Hollywood looked as if they were finally putting a little soul and intellectual heft in their movies, with films such as Election, American Beauty, and The Insider, but a scan of this summer's current and future offerings reveal something more banal than merely moronic action pictures: movies without action, character, comedy, or a compelling story to tell. In their ongoing search for a voice the audience will listen to, it sounds as if Hollywood has gone mute.


Jesus' Son

Jesus' Son is based on a 1992 collection of short stories by author Denis Johnson. The film is set within the low life drug culture of the '70s and it follows the misadventures of a man known only by a nickname that is too vulgar for publication. Let's just say his name, bearing the initials FH, reflects the fact that he's a 20-something screw-up who courts failure like he would a girlfriend. Billy Crudup plays this amiably dense ne'er-do-well, a man who may be blessed with the soul of a saint, or who may just be so strung out he can't tell if his hallucinations are visions from God or a reaction to smack.

FH rambles through a loosely linked series of vignettes that jump back and forth in time, resulting in a narrative approach that is as original as it endearing. Along the way, he meets a great cast of supporting characters, many of whom who are as misguided as our hero. Jack Black, Denis Leary, Samantha Morton, Dennis Hopper, and Holly Hunter turn up as fellow losers who enlighten FH, and eventually, and indirectly, turn him toward salvation and sobriety.

Jesus' Son boasts a potent soundtrack, with music stretching from the early country gospel of the Louvin Brothers through soul to alternative folk. It has the stained and scruffy visuals of movies made in the '70s, and it operates according to the emotions, rather than the actions, of its characters. As directed by Alison Maclean, Jesus' Son is reminiscent of one of the few great films of the '80s, Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy. Like that movie, Jesus' Son is a credible depiction of marginal lives lived along the edges of grace, understated and beautifully realized. At times, Maclean's grasp of character wavers, and information is left out that may explain some puzzling turns of behavior. And there are several scenes, which, in retrospect, may strike some as bizarre for their own sake. Stronger connections between the various threads of FH's journey, and a deeper exploration of the metaphysics, may have helped to make more sense of the movie's title. Could the son of Jesus really walk among us--a loser looking for redemption--or could anyone become the son of Jesus, with the right drugs and the wrong friends? Jesus' Son doesn't solve this riddle, but within the film's sweet and strange world, there are plenty of intriguing clues.



Back in town for a longer run than it originally had a couple of months ago, is Croupier, a British import directed by Mike Hodges, a 68-year old veteran who made his feature film debut in 1971 with a Michael Caine film, Get Carter, but whose output since then has been meager. Croupier demonstrates what a pro can do, especially one unconcerned with fashionable trends in moviemaking. The story, about a would-be writer who takes a job as a dealer in a shady London casino to make ends meet, is an engrossing character study and a pretty good caper film, a movie with the page-turning twists of a good pulp novel. The dealer, played by Clive Owen, narrates the film in the third person, describing each event as it unfolds with a sardonic, detached air. It's the film's most artful, ingenious touch, and it elevates the movie from the merely engaging to the sublime. Croupier deserves this re-release. See it while you can.


The Patriot

Finally, if you want to feast on a big, fat plate of flag-waving platitudes, dig into The Patriot, the Mel Gibson vanity project that, I'll admit, I started out enjoying, since it's revolutionary war setting gave me a chance to reflect on the birth of our nation, and the sacrifice made by the many to fight for freedom. But by the end of this two-hour and 40 minute spectacle the only freedom I craved was the one offered by the theater exits. The film's mind-numbing predictability grows wearying, and the violence tedious. These are minor irritants compared to Gibson's acting, in which he seems so exhausted by carrying this lumbering grand ol' elephant on his back that, when he finally breaks down and cries, it's because he knows the film will soon end. The Patriot is certainly rousing, old-fashioned entertainment, but it has its head up its musket.


SIFF, Reviewed

The 26th Seattle International Film Festival ends this weekend. With more than 250 films from 50 countries spread over 25 days, the festival ranks as not only the largest, longest, and one of the oldest film festivals in the country, but also one of the most irrelevant. It's irrelevant because nearly every one of the American films that screens at the festival is either already guaranteed national distribution--usually premiering at a theater near you a few weeks after the festival ends--or it is so awful it begs the question of how the film ever was accepted in the first place. SIFF, the acronym by which the festival is known, rarely breaks out an undiscovered American director or film, preferring to let other festivals, like Sundance or Toronto, take those risks and then SIFF invites the new discovery to Seattle.

The festival has become, in the eyes of many long-time SIFF observers, a Hollywood test market for movies with medium-to-big budgets, mediocre stars, and distribution firmly in place. The festival is supported by movie industry ad dollars and greased by backroom handshakes; attended by glitzy industry insiders with well-oiled connections. This is how most big festivals in the country operate, so it isn't really surprising, but SIFF claims to be a populist festival, in which the audience comes first. That audience can be found perusing book-length screening schedules while waiting in long lines to see idiotic romantic comedies and dubious studio previews.

SIFF is doing its part for foreign cinema. Festival directors search out quality films from Iran, Asia, and Europe and give them what might be their only appearance at a US theater. Most of these films are doomed to disappear because they can't get distribution, so why doesn't SIFF change its strategy and screen the most deserving of these foreign pictures for two or three days at a time. This will build up word-of-mouth and give potential buyers a better opportunity to see these films for themselves. SIFF's commitment to foreign films looks good on their program, but it does little to help these movies gain an audience.

It is also time for SIFF to drop the pretense that it supports Northwest filmmakers. When I interviewed festival director Darryl Macdonald back in March for a magazine article, he told me SIFF no longer offered the Northwest Sidebar section of the festival because local filmmakers complained of being ghettoized. They wanted their films to stand with all of the other entries.

The result? Not a single Northwest film÷one made with local cast, crew, and money÷was accepted into the festival this year. This is a sad commentary on SIFF's hypocrisy toward homegrown filmmakers, many of whom support the festival by volunteering, making promotional shorts, and standing in long lines like everyone else. SIFF waives the festival entry fee for northwest movies, and offers a filmmaker's forum for educational seminars, but this is all part of the smokescreen. SIFF has no interest in helping local filmmakers with what they need most: exposing their films to audiences, the press, and potential buyers. The few films in the festival this year with even a tenuous northwest connection--a couple of documentaries, an experimental feature or two--were funded by Hollywood money or were produced and directed by known talents.

The Seattle International Film Festival has become a joke among the local film industry, what little of it remains. Many aspiring filmmakers have moved to New York or Los Angeles or changed careers. Movies that were once shot in Seattle are now shot in Vancouver. Local writers and directors who try to make a go of it here can't find the mentors or the money to support their efforts. But every year these local filmmakers put their credit cards and best efforts into finishing a film in time for SIFF, only to be snubbed in their own home town. 



William Shakespeare's Hamlet has been committed to film more than 40 times, including 17 silent versions, Laurence Olivier's 1948 award-winner, and Mel Gibson's turn as the melancholy Dane a decade ago. Now, independent filmmaker Michael Almereyda has taken a shot at it, transporting the classic play to New York City, in the year 2000.

Almereyda's previous films include his shot-in-Kansas, 1989 low-budget debut film Twister , 1992's Another Girl Another Planet which he made with a Fischer Price Pixelvision toy camera, and 1994's serio-comic, black and white vampire movie, Nadja. He's a director who enjoys taking chances, so I was intrigued by this attempt to set Hamlet's struggle to avenge his father's death amid the greed and paranoia of corporate America. Claudius is no longer the king of Denmark, the country, but the CEO of the Denmark Corporation. Gertrude, his new wife, is a wealthy socialite, not a queen. Hamlet doesn't carry a sword, he is armed with a video camera, with which he makes digital films that reflect his angst and alienation from the world, and his love for his murdered father. But within this high-tech setting, Almereyda has kept Shakepeare's words intact, thereby intensifying the timelessness of Hamlet's story. It's a worthwhile idea, but Almereyda makes two wrong choices. Both his brooding visual scheme and his lead actor, Ethan Hawke, are drags.

 The movie's shadowy cinematography and sterile sets are certainly indicative of Hamlet's morose mood, but they're also oppressive and joyless. And Hawke, with his wispy goatee and red-rimmed eyes, looks like he overslept and showed up late to his acting workshop. He delivers his lines like it's his first introduction to Shakepeare÷or he missed the first script read-through. He's playing catch-up to the rest of the cast, which has already invested their characters with emotion and punch.

 Kyle MacLachlan is believably venal as the underhanded Claudius. Diane Venora plays Gertrude with a besotted elegance. Bill Murray as Polonius reaffirms his status as one of our best, and most underused, character actors. As does Sam Shepard, whose appearances as the ghost of Hamlet's father are as gripping as they are brief. And there is Liev Schreiber, whose time has come to graduate from second to top banana status in the countless indie films he's made. In fact, I kept wishing it was he who played Hamlet, since Schrieber is more able than Hawke to emanate grief while gripped by melancholy or rage. But instead, the role went to the prettier, emptier actor. Hawke, like his contemporaries Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, seems better suited to magazine covers, not acting. Trapped by Hawke's affected pose of ennui, Almereyda has no choice but to surround him with an equally affected, airless environment. The director would say this is part of his commentary on the consumerist culture of the 21st century, but Shakespeare's writing overwhelms this theme, and pushes it to the deep, not very relevant background. Almereyda is doomed by his own design.

 Still, the film earns points for artistic riskiness. And for having serious, grown-up character actors on hand to counter the dopey mumblings of the overrated star.


Small Time Crooks

Woody Allen's latest film is a return to the old Woody Allen. Not the Allen of Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters; and not the Allen of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives. This is the earlier Allen of Take The Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper; when Woody was making movies that relied on jokes and sight gags: the twin strokes that fueled the tiny engines of his plots. Those films were funny, and they were the work of a budding auteur, searching for a voice in which the themes of love, death, and moral disaster could have their say, and still remain funny. Allen has since found, and lost, that voice. And Small Time Crooks is vintage Woody Allen only in the sense that, like a flat wine, the movie is stale and weightless.

Allen plays Ray, an ex-con, and Tracy Ullman is Frenchy, his wife-in-crime. They come up with a plan to open a cookie business next door to another business with a loaded safe. As Frenchy sells cookies, Ray and his moronic crew tunnel their way next door. This describes the first fifteen minutes of the movie, and it might be the wittiest, frothiest thing Woody Allen has done since the beginning of Broadway Danny Rose in 1984. Michael Rappaport, Tony Darrow, and Jon Lovitz play the idiots Ray has enlisted to help him, and when they begin their excavation by drilling into a water main, you'll hit the floor you'll be laughing so hard. You might want to stay there, or better yet, crawl on your hands and knees out of the theater. Small Time Crooks becomes only fitfully amusing after the scene, as Woody's band of bumblers all but disappear from the film, and the plot takes a hard right turn down a dead-end street.

As luck would have it, Frenchy's cookies are a hit, and she and Ray become multi-millionaire owners of a cookie dynasty. Fine enough. They're rich, and they're still stupid. But when Frenchy decides they need to get cultured and hires an art dealer, played by Hugh Grant, to be their Henry Higgins, their marriage, and the plot, suffers. Allen can't seem to juggle more than one story line at a time anymore, and he's forced to staple one-liners to this paper-thin trifle in order to keep it interesting. As a stand-up comedian, Woody's still got timing. But as a human being, he barely engages our sympathy. And he commits a major casting crime by putting Grant in the role of the unctuous art dealer. Grant can play daft and insincere and even less than moral, but he can't play icky. When he turns icky in this movie, you can feel the shoulders in the theater emit a collective shudder.

The movie would blow away in a breeze if it weren't for Ullman and, in a supporting role, Elaine May. May's performance as a dim family friend is priceless and she proves, as she steals every scene, that she's the only competent thief in the bunch. Small Time Crooks is her movie and it makes me want to see her in something else, soon. I wish I could say the same for Woody Allen.  


Mission Impossible II

Mission Impossible II is the first of the summer's blockbusters, and you needn't worry about over-analyzing the film: it's aimed squarely at the testosterone factory of every boy it can get in its sights. Know that when you walk in, and the movie is a high-octane hoot. If you try and get high-brow about its ridiculous lapses in logic or its contrived romantics or its brainless bio-genetic plot, you'll end up bouncing angrily off your own preconceptions.

To enjoy this movie you must appreciate the juggernaut talents of director John Woo, the ex-Hong Kong master finally making a name for himself in the area of the American action picture. Woo elevates the Western tropes of the gunfight, the car chase, and the stand-off to the level of opera. His characters are instantly mythic, his stunts grandly theatrical. His is the Picasso of the action movie: breaking sequences down into Cubist fragments, discovering angles no director has found before, and rearranging them into stunning new forms, an expression of id that is both formal and kinetic. But if you don't buy the lofty pretense, the movie is a laughable scree that ends in a pile of spent hormones. It may not be the rush you crave.  


Time Code

Time Code is a fascinating experimental film that is only half successful. Stylistically, the movie is probably the most audacious film to ever come out of a major studio. Shot on digital video, in real time, the movie is entirely composed of four continuous shots, each running 93 minutes, which is how long it takes for a single digital tape to run through the camera. Each camera covers a different set of characters as part of the same story, each camera begins at the very same time, and all of the actors' movements are coordinated to intersect at certain moments. There is no editing. This of course means that all cameras and actors can't make a single mistake, or everyone will have to start all over again. After several tries, the film finally came together from 3-4:30 p.m. on November 19th of last year.

In order to follow all of the cameras at once, the movie screen is divided into quadrants, all projected simultaneously. The sound is lowered or raised depending on which segment you're supposed to be looking at. Watching Time Code is an engrossing and at times, tense, experience, like waiting to see if a trapeze artist will lose their grip.

While the technical results are dazzling, the story being told is a throwaway. Much of the film takes place at the offices of a Hollywood studio, where an executive producer is living through the worst, and last, day of his life. He's drunk, coked-up, and bored. His marriage is ending and he ignores his mistress. He has meetings to go to but he can't summon the energy. Meanwhile, on the fringes of his world, other dangerously dysfunctional movie people scurry about lost in their own funks and fantasies. The narrative has very little dramatic energy and hardly a single desirable or honest character. Earthquakes happen every 20 minutes, but they hardly distract these sycophants from their morbid selfishness. I think that's the point the director, Mike Figgis, wants to make, that the movie business is made up of self-serving junkies. Yet, the movie business subsidized his experimental feature, and enabled him to nab some fairly notable actors, such as Holly Hunter, Stellan Skaarsgaard, Salma Hayek, and Kyle MacLachlan.

As I watched this film, I kept thinking of all the ideas out there that would have been better served by the technique, like a heist movie or a road picture. Figgis managed a neat trick by pulling this technical rabbit out of his hat, but he's got nothing else up his sleeve.


Up At The Villa

There is nothing much going on in Up At The Villa either, an arid, numbingly slow film based on a Somerset Maugham novella. I read a lot of Maugham in my twenties, and I enjoyed his obsessed, brooding characters, who always wanted adventure but were never quite sure how to shed their dreary lives to get it. This movie's got the dreariness down. You know something's wrong when Kristin Scott-Thomas is unappealing and Sean Penn is required to be rakish and debonair. Penn is a great actor, but he's always best when he plays a bit of a punk, and Scott-Thomas is beautiful, as ever, but she looks like she can't wait to get back to her home, in Paris, where there is flesh and blood and flaky croissants. Anne Bancroft is in this thing, too, as an aristocrat whose skin looks like it was rented from a wax museum.

Director Philip Haas and his screenwriter and editor wife, Belinda, shot the film on location in and around Florence, Italy. Never has that country seemed so airless and empty; never have British stereotypes been rendered so ridiculous. Never have I seen a more boring film about smoldering passion. The Haas duo have even managed to drain the life out of the art and architecture of the Renaissance. The villa of the title looms over the desiccated colonials like a mausoleum. This movie is as dead as Somerset Maugham.



Gladiator is a new sword-and-sandals epic from director Ridley Scott, the overrated mastermind behind the pro-feminist baubles GI Jane and Thelma and Louise. He also directed, earlier in his career, the cult favorite Blade Runner, the creepy Alien, and, his best and very first feature, The Duellists. Gladiator is most like The Duellists in its sense of time and place, and it boasts an engrossing, well-mounted story of revenge and sacrifice. It also has an excellent cast who do first-rate work: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Richard Harris, and Oliver Reed are the stand-outs.

All of them seem as if they stepped from the pages of history, or at least from the backlot of Spartacus. It's been a long time since we've had any kind of gladiator movie, and it's hard not to appreciate the genre's penchant for spectacle, bloodlust, battle scenes, and heroic stand-offs with evil emperors. Scott's picture provides all the thrills you'd want in this kind of film, but it's also instantly forgettable. Despite scenes layered with atmosphere and intrigue, much of the film looks phony, tricked up with computer-generated imagery, or what's called in the industry, CGI.. The producers brag that they were able to build Rome in a day using these tools of modern technology, but the Coliseum hardly looks real when transferred from a computer screen to the big screen.

In Spartacus, The Fall of the Roman Empire, and other Roman toga movies from the past, the filmmakers built sets and cities and hired extras in the name of authenticity. CGI might be faster and cooler, but it doesn't transport you to other worlds the way the epics of the past did. Even the fight scenes in Gladiator are all wrong. Ridley Scott and his director of photography shot the duels using varying camera shutter speeds, so every sweep of a sword or crash of a chariot comes with a distracting electronic flutter. Instead of wondering who will win a battle, you instead wonder how, and why, they got the effect. Much of the movie is oversaturated with manipulated colors: black skies, fiery red dungeons, bleached blue dream sequences. The movie resembles an overextended TV commercial, one that plays during the Superbowl and happens to cost $110 million, and is selling deodorant or life insurance. Don't step into this arena without underarm protection and full term coverage. 


The Virgin Suicides

Also opening this week is The Virgin Suicides, the debut feature from Sofia Coppola. Yes, her father is that Coppola, and we haven't heard much from her since she was crucified by critics for her performance 10 years ago in Francis' Godfather Part III. Dad pushed her into that film, and there is the scent of Papa lurking at the edges of The Virgin Suicides, too. For all of Sofia's obvious gifts as a director, this movie looks like an art school collage made by a spoiled brat. See the pretty picture, Daddy. This story of four teenage sisters who mysteriously commit suicide÷it's adapted from the cult novel of the same name÷is depicted in dreamy, emotionally languid vignettes which offer no explanation for the girls' suicides or reasons to care. It may be Coppola's intent not to make this a teen suicide issue film, but that doesn't mean it has to be dull and arty. One gauzy scene dissolves into another, peppered with little camera tricks that seem designed to impress Sofia's husband Spike Jonze, the director of Being John Malkovich, who grew up making music videos. Sofia's tried on other hats since her disastrous acting debut÷photographer, fashion designer÷and she makes sure The Virgin Suicides is nice to look at, but it does have the air of a vanity project about it. What could be next for Sofia? Recording a CD? Writing a book? Exhibiting her watercolors? Perhaps not. Film might be her cachet after all, perfectly suited as it is to empty exercises in style.


American Psycho

American Psycho comes to the screen this weekend with the type of notorious pre-release publicity reserved for films accused of blasphemy and gay-bashing. Crowds in Toronto picketed the filming; feminist groups condemned what they said was an amoral script, full of scenes of women being tortured and murdered. As with most of these types of controversies, the vehement protestors had not bothered to read the script or talk to any of the filmmakers about their approach to the material. If they had, they would have determined that American Psycho, the movie, was planned as a witty, trenchant satire, and the film's violence was mostly off-screen and imaginary.

Based on the much-debated 1991 novel by Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho is set during the late 1980s, when consumption became a badge of honor and greed was a lifestyle. Patrick Bateman, a wealthy and vacuous corporate executive with too much money and too much free time, spends both in an obsessive pursuit of superficial perfection. From the sheen of his skin to the texture of his business cards, Bateman is concerned only with appearances. He has reaped the rewards of Reaganomics, and they have left him bereft of personality, talent, or compassion. His greatest concerns of the day are making dinner reservations at elite restaurants and one-upping his friends, an equally soulless bunch. When Bateman turns to murder, it is with the same nonchalance with which he might apply an herbal shampoo.

Bateman's killings are mostly committed off-screen and, by the end of the film, we come to learn that they may even be imaginary. We also learn that underneath Bateman's ferociously cool gloss is a frightened, insecure nebbish who hides his weakness under well-tuned biceps, whose face is literally a mask of silicone. This interpretation is what drives the performance of Englishman Christian Bale as Bateman, a largely overlooked actor who here turns in a virtuoso take on ego descending into madness. Bale's body is sculpturally muscled, his face chiseled like a cyborg's, his American accent a wry self-put down. Bateman's point of view frames the movie, and Bale plays him like a man holding the key to the cabinet where the most dangerous prescription drugs are kept.

Director Mary Harron, whose only previous film was the undernourished I Shot Andy Warhol, establishes the satirical bite of the movie with the first shot: extreme close-ups of what appears to be blood dripping on a white floor, which, when the camera pulls back, reveals itself to be a sauce applied to an expensive entree at a very chic restaurant. It's the perfect opening to what proves to be a highly stylized, very funny, often devastating critique of the value-challenged Î80s. Harron, her cinematographer, Andrzej Sekula, and her production designer Gideon Ponte, have created a sleek world of white walls and stainless steel furniture, overpriced art and cheesy pop rock. The shadows in Bateman's world do not contain mystery, merely more emptiness. His apartment is as featureless as his musical tastes. Many of the best laughs in the movie come at the expense of the clichŽd art pop of Huey Lewis and Phil Collins.

There are really only two scenes in the film of graphic bloodletting, and they are played in short, over-the-top bursts, not so much frightening as grimly funny, thanks to Bale's and Harron's expressionistic approach. There is a distinct unreality to the film that allows us to laugh in the face of impending horrors, and then accept the movie even more when the horrors don't come. When the final string of plot twists arrive, we may even be moved to view Bateman not so much as a psycho but as a pathetic casualty of consumerism, someone in need of deep and expensive therapy.

American Psycho can be viewed as a cautionary tale for our current culture of dot.com giddiness; or a backward glance at the time when our culture first started going to hell. Whatever your take on the film's message, it is a wickedly perverse and satisfying entertainment.


Joe Gould's Secret

The secret of is what this film is really about. Based on a true story, it could be a movie about loss and friendship, but it doesn't make a hard, fast point about either. It's also nostalgic and melancholy, but it's not very obvious about it. Its title character may be a madman, or perhaps an eccentric genius, but the movie refuses to pass a judgment. As frustrating as this movie's message might be, if there is one, Joe Gould's Secret is still a gentle, sweet-natured film, imbued with a deep brotherly love for a bygone New York City of the 1940's, when the line separating the haves from the have-nots was still easily crossed.

 Joe Gould was one of the have-nots. A street bum with a gift of gab who claimed to be writing an epic oral history of New York. He cadged hand-outs from artists and business owners and he was invited to parties and art galleries and readings. When Joseph Mitchell, a writer for The New Yorker, heard the stories about Joe Gould, he decided to make him the subject of two articles for the magazine. The first introduced Gould as a man who had an uncanny ability to decipher and speak the language of the poor, the forgotten, and the lost. The second article, written 18 years later, revealed that Joe Gould's oral history did not really exist.

 That revelation did little to diminish Gould's stature or his friendship with Mitchell. But it had an effect on Mitchell's writing. He never published another article, although an on-screen coda tells us he continued to go to his office for the next 30 years. The answer to why he quit writing, and the answer to several other questions about the film, are intentionally left unanswered, as if the questioning is really the point of the movie. How far you're willing to go with this is a matter of patience.

I settled in to the movie's unabashed nostalgia, its simple generosity towards a city and its people that is too often portrayed as violent, corrupt, and dysfunctional. The movie was directed and written by Stanley Tucci, a fine actor who has now directed three films, including Big Night and The Imposters, that all share a refreshing earnestness and alertness to the detailed nuances of character. He plays Mitchell as a man who loves his wife and two daughters, who loves his work, and who chastises himself for not embracing Gould's wild personality more fully. And, in a role that could easily have been overdone, Ian Holm plays Joe Gould with just the right measure of dignity and insanity. Tucci and Gould and New York City are the stars of this small but fine film, a movie that refuses to try and shout above the roar of bigger, louder, bolder movies. But in its own way, Joe Gould's Secret is just as brave.

 A different kind of New York movie is Trash, the 1970 film written, directed, photographed, and edited by Andy Warhol's manager at the time, Paul Morrissey. Trash is being re-issued for a one week run at the Egyptian theater. It stars Joe Dallesandro as an impotent, junkie stud and the transvestite Holly Woodlawn as his roommate, who spend their days shooting up, getting off, and collecting junk. Amazingly, Trash has lost little of its power to polarize an audience. It can be viewed as an extremely amateurish, inept, rude, and vulgar piece of . . .well, trash. Or it is a seminal independent work, a rough and truthful glimpse into the very marginal lives of losers; a film completely unconcerned with commercial appeal. It is a semi-pornographic bore, or a funny, biting assault on convention. The movie is a string of straightforward scenes, most of them featuring full frontal shots of Dallesandro's main assets as a performer. Trash was an indie film before the label evolved into an industry, before indie films became just as marketable and bland as mainstream movies. Trash may be cheap and ugly and tedious, but it's as real as film gets.


Rules of Engagement

There are still several of the wunderkind directors from the experimental '60s and the golden '70s still making movies in Hollywood and abroad, but like a line of dominoes, each has fallen on critical hard times in the last few months. John Schlesinger, who made Midnight Cowboy, was vilified for the Madonna/Rupert Everett buddy movie, The Next Best Thing. Mike Nichols, acclaimed for Whoâs Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, received the worst reviews of his career for his recent What Planet Are You From?.

Roman Polanski of Chinatown fame was lambasted by critics for The Ninth Gate. John Frankenheimer, who made The Manchurian Candidate, fared little better with his latest, Reindeer Games. And Brian de Palma deserves to have all cinematic blank checks revoked after directing the awful Mission to Mars. Who's next?

How about William Friedkin, who broke with a series of broad serio-comic films in the late '60s with his 1971 masterpiece The French Connection, and then went on to make The Exorcist, Sorcerer, and To Live and Die in LA, before he took almost complete leave of his talent, and made a series of increasingly dismal films in the '80s and '90s. He's been long overdue for a comeback. But his latest, Rules of Engagement, isn't it.

Friedkin admitted in a recent New York Times interview that he allowed his arrogance and bad taste to nearly ruin his career, and that he hoped this military courtroom drama would be a step back up to the A-list of directors. But the film, although straightforward, professional, and well-acted, is about as routine and bland as they come. The story, about a decorated marine colonel charged with firing on unarmed foreign civilians during a protest at an American embassy in Yemen, is hopelessly mired in a misguided patriotism, and in the kind of stock plot contrivances that we've all seen before.

Cover-ups, destroyed evidence, and perjured witnesses are the cranks that turn this lumbering wheel of a story; which is watchable only because of the solid performances by Samuel Jackson as the colonel, Tommy Lee Jones as his lawyer, and Guy Pearce as the prosecuting attorney. But, except for Pearce, who has been practically invisible since his star-making turn in 1997's LA Confidential, the mere fact that Jackson and Jones are the stars here suggest a certain laziness on the part of the filmmakers. Haven't we've seen enough of these two actors playing the same role they've played before? Macho, duty-bound jingoists, with a crust of sensitivity, a hint of sadness around the eyes, a string of ex-wives?

It's hard to work up much sympathy for Jackson as the soldier who was just doing his duty when he ordered his men to open fire on the protesting Yemenese, a group that included women and children. Friedkin lingers on shots of the dead bodies and the critically wounded children long enough to remind us all of the military atrocities committed in the name of patriotic zeal. The sensitive politics of slaughter in defense of American interests and lives abroad, and the ambivalence felt by both soldiers and civilians toward those policies, would certainly have elevated this film to a thinking person's movie. That issue however, is whitewashed in favor of a somber, but none-too-subtle flag-waver of an ending.

By giving away insightfulness in return for spit-and-polish clichŽs, Friedkin exposes the biggest problem with this movie: irrelevance. In a country where we make heroes out of soldiers for simply being held captive, and then co-opt that heroism for talk shows and People magazine, is it any wonder that patriotism and honor seem a bit old hat? Rules of Engagement wants to be gung-ho, but ends up being ho-hum.


The Silence

The Silence is the latest film from Iran, a country whose politics and moral codes come to most of us by way of TV news images and magazine articles. Yet in the last few years, the nation's most accessible export has been its cinema; raw, unpretentious works that premiere at international festivals and then, occasionally and briefly, play for a week in the major cities of the U.S. These films help to humanize a society that we tend to characterize as rigid and regressive; and they give us a glimpse into the artistic vitality of its people. Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf has been called "L'enfant Sauvage" of Iranian cinema. He's a revolutionary who served time in prison for opposing the regime of the Shah 20 years ago, and a one-time Islamic fundamentalist who traded political activism for the poetry of film. But government censorship has forced him to pursue his filmmaking career outside of his country. He shot The Silence in Tajikistan.

The film is about a 10-year old blind boy and his mother who will be forced to leave their home in five days for not paying their rent. The boy helps support both of them by working as an instrument tuner. His ears are his eyes, his sensual connection to the ever-present moment. The sounds around him create a world that is immediate and constantly intriguing. The sounds tempt him and lead him into daydreams and elliptical journeys. He is fired from his job, but for him the rewards of following his most acute sense, his hearing, are worth the price of poverty and eviction.

There is very little story beyond that in The Silence. Makhmalbaf is more interested in the interplay of silence and sound, of what the boy edits out of his aural surroundings by merely plugging his ears. Working with non-professionals, with a small crew, and with all natural light, the director's rough-hewn technique takes us deep into the boy's environment, and then abstracts it, until the world has become, by the end of the film, a minimalist symphony of hammers pounding on tin.

Makhmalbaf's poetry is economical and not easy to discern. The usual reference points of narrative and character development are of little use to the director. Struggle to follow the plot, and you will be frustrated. Give yourself to the rhythm, and you will be moved.

It's hard to imagine an American director getting away with this kind of film, difficult and deliberately artistic as it is, since no American director who expects a shot at theatrical distribution would risk, at least these days, working without name actors, without a recognizable genre story, without the accessories of musical score, set design, and lushly lit interiors. The most appealing element of Iranian cinema is its bright, sunlit truthfulness; its artistic truthfulness. The Silence is a work imbued with a reverence for heart and thought. Theirs is a cinema not yet spoiled by commercial demands.


Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Jim Jarmusch is one of America's few directors who, too, has not yet caved in to the theatrical perquisites of the lowest common denominator. He has to seek funding in Japan and France for his films, which then receive limited runs here, scoring with critics but not with audiences, and which must make their money back in distribution overseas. This strategy doesn't guarantee him a huge audience, but it guarantees him a loyal one, and, most importantly, it allows him the artistic freedom to make a movie like Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a movie the director himself characterizes as a "gangster samurai hip-hop eastern western". And that's exactly what it is.

The Ghost Dog of the title is Forest Whitaker, a mysterious hit man for the mob who lives by the code of a samurai warrior, who listens to the hip hop master The RZA on his way to a job, and who communicates with his employer via carrier pigeon. When a hit doesn't fulfill the mob's expectations, they put a contract out on him. A stupid move as it turns out, since this warrior is no one to be toyed with and the mob is, to put it delicately, a stunning collection of morons. Jarmusch gets a lot of deadpan laughs out of this gang of lazy fat fellas, and he creates his usual gallery of quirky supporting characters. This film is, like many of Jarmusch's pictures, a contemplative riff on destiny, fueled by the director's defrocked sense of the funky ways lives crisscross, and the distinct appeal of lifestyles lived on the fringe. The movie is unlike Jarmusch in its violence, with random shootings and showdowns ending in bloodbaths.

Ghost Dog has the laid-back stoned mood of Stranger Than Paradise and the fateful pulse of Dead Man. It's not as good as those two films, but it's not as spacey as his Mystery Train either. There are moments of outright hilarity in this film, bookended by puzzling scenes that seem to lead nowhere. But then again what keeps Jim Jarmusch fresh and vital to our American brand of moviemaking is his refusal to play by anyone's rules except his own. Jarmusch's aim is not to lead us anywhere, but to let us decide for ourselves. 


Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich is a character whose stereotypes are as conspicuous as her underwired, partially exposed breasts. She is a twice-divorced mom with three kids; she is unlucky in love and unlucky in work; she can't hold a job and she never gets any respect; she talks like a garage mechanic and dresses like a hooker. If she were a fictional creation and if she were played by a lesser actress, a Sandra Bullock or a Demi Moore, this movie would be as disposable as your ticket stub. But Erin Brockovich was, and still is, a real person, and as played by Julia Roberts, she is an immensely embraceable caricature. Not the real thing, but as close as the Hollywood propaganda machine can come to making you buy the idea, the concept, the whiff, of the real thing.

It makes little difference if you question the details here. The mother-as-whore outfits may seem a bit too outlandish; the boobs too ostentatious; the language gratuitously uncensored. This movie works if you check your cynicism at the door, and quiet the voice that wonders how much of the true story was altered or left out, how the wheels on this Julia Roberts vehicle were balanced.

As vehicles go, however, it's a good ride.

Brockovich, while working as a clerk at a small-time law firm, uncovered evidence that Pacific  Gas & Electric had lied to the residents of Hinkley, California about the levels of a poisonous chemical in their groundwater÷a poison that is responsible for the cancers and miscarriages now plaguing the people who live there. But before Brockovich can launch a crusade, she has to convince her boss, played by Albert Finney, that she is up to the task. She also has to make sure the biker who lives next door means it when he says he'll watch her children for her. And she has to keep paying her bills, which up to now, she hasn't had much luck with.

What Brockovich has going for her is her been-there-done-that way with the citizens of Hinkley, who gradually rally around her as their savior, their agent in a quest for financial restitution. It's easy to guess how all this turns out. A star vehicle is not made to crash and burn, but to soar gleaming across the finish line. Roberts may have suffered the indignities of several woeful movies, but she has never not gleamed.

As directed by Steven Soderbergh, the one-time wunderkind director of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Erin Brockovich is relentlessly conventional, with none of the stylistic elements of his last two movies, The Limey and Out of Sight. It's as if Soderbergh, like all of us, fell under Roberts' spell, a tantric power that seems to emanate from her Medusa-like head of hair. Roberts is an actress you root for in any situation, whether it's gamely trying to make something memorable out of tepid roles, or trying to finish off a Popsicle before it melts in the sun. She's as good as she can get in this movie. Spunky, brave, vulnerable, brittle and beautiful. We've all seen it before, but we haven't seen Roberts as "it" before.  



Onegin is a film that comes with a top-notch family pedigree. It stars Ralph Fiennes, it's directed by his sister Martha, and the music is composed by their brother Magnus. But like all canines, purebred or mutt, this one is still a dog.

Based on the classic 1831 poem by Russian author Alexander Pushkin, Evgeny Onegin, played by Fiennes, is a tragic loner who is so bored and disaffected by life he doesn't know a good thing when he sees it, even if it's Liv Tyler, offering herself to him. He rejects her, then changes his mind six years later, only to discover she is now married. Tough luck, Evgeny.

Ralph Fiennes' hairdo is pompously curled in this film, but that's about the only thing different from the same whining, rejected sop he played in The End of the Affair and The English Patient. Fiennes is now the unchallenged master at combining the sarcastic laugh, the simpering insult, and the brooding frown into one dreaded package of rue. Ralph, it's time to lighten up.

True, there's not much to tickle the funny bone in this dreary tale, which is made even more lugubrious by Martha's direction. Although commendable in its atmospheric snowbound photography and set design, the movie speeds along at the breakneck pace of a glacier. This is the curse of all costume dramas, oxymoronic as they are, since it is very hard to find a hint of drama in clothing to begin with. The Russian costume drama is even more of a slog. One wonders if the real reason the Bolsheviks revolted was not because the ruling class were aristocratic tyrants, but because they were terminal bores.  


The Terrorist

The Terrorist is a new film from India, a country that gave the world one of the cinema's great masters, Satyajit Ray, but whose film industry for the last twenty years has produced an assembly line of stupendously goofy song-and-dance epics. These movies cram nearly every possible human emotion into potboiler plots featuring feuding families, cheesy villains, chubby superheroes, and ditzy damsels in distress. The movies are huge, populist hits, but with every rubbery special effect you can see Master Ray wincing in the afterlife.

The Terrorist, a remarkable and haunting film from a first-time director, will not likely change the movie-going habits of the masses, but it may allow Ray to rest easier.

The movie is directed by Santosh Sivan, a sought-after cinematographer, who wanted to make a film as real as possible, about a political subject, without any regard to commercial gain. Needless to say, no one gave him money to do it and no actors came forward to work for him. So with a budget of $50,000, a 16-day shooting schedule, and a cast of non-professionals, Sivan made his film.

It's about a 19 year old woman named Malli who has trained her whole life to become a revolutionary. She is a single-minded loyalist to the cause, whatever that cause might be. We never learn the reasons for her role, the objectives behind the firefights and assaults. We hear the terrorist rhetoric of her leaders, and we catch glimpses of their fatigues and strapped-on pistols, but we never see their faces. They speak in general tones about martyrdom and rebellion and "the struggle," but they are interchangeable with terrorist leaders everywhere. When Malli is out fighting for the cause, we see her in the fields of battle, exchanging machine gun fire with an unseen enemy, moving confidently through bomb-strewn rubble.

Sivan keeps his framing tight here, suggesting the environment of battle through sound effects, the off-screen voices of fellow foot soldiers, and foregrounds cluttered with fire and wisps of smoke. Forced by a lack of money and extras to shoot close-in, Sivan makes Malli our sole perspective in the film. Then she is chosen for a coveted assignment: to assassinate a VIP; she will strap a belt of explosives around her own waist and blow herself and him to smithereens.

Malli, now the anointed suicide bomber, travels to a rural farm where she stays with a family while she  trains for her mission. A young boy briefly becomes her traveling companion, and the family she stays with, who know nothing of her mission, treats her like a daughter. Through these relationships, Malli, in spite of herself, begins to see that sometimes living, sometimes giving back to humanity, is a more satisfying sacrifice than dying for it. But Malli, brainwashed since birth to believe in nothing but the cause, can't bear to betray her teachers and comrades. When the moment comes to finally push the button, Malli, and we who have journeyed with her, aren't yet sure if she will go through with it.

The unknown first-time actress Ayesha Dharkar, beautiful and nearly silent as Malli, has a compelling presence. She is both guileless and brutal, hardened by her training, but yet just as available to the innocence that love can reveal. She is onscreen for nearly every scene and Sivan, who worked with very little lighting, always searches for interesting ways to frame her. This movie is gorgeous to look at, with a spontaneous roughness, and intense close-ups that tell us more than any dialogue could hope to. It's not a perfect film. Some of the acting is stiff and unconvincing. There are a few moments where a few more resources--props or extras--could have filled out the needed expositions. And the movie drags a bit toward the middle.

But these are small quibbles. In a movie this committed, this refreshingly economical and personal, it is the vision that sustains. And Sivan's vision here is clear-eyed and direct; in this little film about a woman heading to her death, he has delivered a big-hearted message about the sanctity of life. 


Mission to Mars

A new space epic, Mission to Mars, opens this weekend across the country. The movie stars Tim Robbins and Gary Sinise. It's directed by Brian De Palma and the composer is the great Ennio Morricone, who gave us all of those memorable scores from Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns. The main writer of the movie is Jim Thomas. I could go on listing credits, but I think I've identified the criminals who should be held responsible for this abomination. I must warn you, this will be less of a review and more of a rant, so if you're not in the mood, mute your radio for a few moments.

Where do I begin to describe the unendurable? I would begin at the ending, but I must confess I committed the critic's unpardonable sin of walking out. Under the circumstances, and if I were Catholic, I think the pope would forgive me.

I attended the film with my 7-year old son, believing it would be an engrossing recreation of what it might actually look like to explore the Red Planet, or at least offer up a few credible sci-fi thrills. We left at the 90-minute mark, simply unable to withstand the pain of watching another frame of this witless horror. Mission to Mars is actually about two missions to Mars. The first is a research mission that falls victim to some unexplained catastrophe. The second is the rescue mission that tries to find out what happened. But what the film is really about is ego, the ghastly, over-inflated egos of De Palma and Morricone, who have created a shrine to unchecked hubris. De Palma's obsession with gadgetry and special effects and plodding set pieces has completely overcome the attention he should be paying to matters like acting, character development, dialogue, tension, suspense, conflict, anticipation· all of those elements that make us want to watch movies in the first place.

He is concerned only with matters important to him, such as what droplets of blood look like in zero gravity. Morricone was given the freedom to write whatever score he wanted, but he must have been looking at a different film. The music is orchestral and overwrought at every scene. He makes no distinction between moments of defeat and triumph. The music swells and swoons and sweeps away all surprise. Was De Palma afraid to tell Morricone he got it all wrong? Or was De Palma simply not listening?

A quick Internet check of the credits of the writer, Jim Thomas, reveals him to be one of those Hollywood scribes who is making a living, a very comfortable living, out of crafting idiocy for the masses. One hopes that if there is a special place reserved in Hell for these low-art specialists, Thomas will be there, alongside other mercenaries like Jerry Springer and Regis Philbin. Thomas can now lay claim to writing four of the most Neanderthalic scripts ever penned, including last year's awful Wild, Wild, West, Predator, and, unable to control himself, Predator 2. Mission to  Mars not only is a minefield of clichŽs--and let there be no doubt that it trips every single one of them--but it also asks us to swallow black holes of implausibility. What NASA mission would ever let a husband and wife team up together? Why wouldn't the crew of a wounded ship detect the gaping slashes in its hull? Why wouldn't the fateful first crew run for cover when engulfed by a sudden, raging sandstorm, instead of standing there taking pictures, waiting to be swallowed up so they can advance the plot?

Why wouldn't Tim Robbins and Gary Sinise at some point raise their hands after viewing the rushes and say, "Uh, excuse me, who do I need to sleep with to get off this picture?" Let's hope they put their paychecks to good use and fund their own projects or simply donate the money to charity in an act of contrition.

Now, in the hopes of ruining the plot and sparing you the need to see the film, I'll tell you that the astronauts discover that life on Earth began on Mars, and it comes sweeping out of the Martian dust in the form of a huge swirling tunnel of dirt and debris. What? When the rescue mission lands on Mars and discovers one member of the original expedition still alive and tending a greenhouse--yes, I said a greenhouse, on a planet cold enough to freeze your begonias off--well, that is the point where my son and I felt the need to leave.

I was angry when I left the theater, and angry for several hours afterward. I was angry that this kind of awfulness can be bought and paid for, I was angry at having to witness what's become of the bloated, busted talents of De Palma and Morricone. I was angry at the waste, the millions upon millions of dollars spent on crummy special effects and detestable writing and unforgivably blind direction; the millions that could have funded 10 or even 20 exciting, original, entertaining smaller movies; or funded something more worthwhile, like homeless feeding programs, or health care for poor kids, or educational foundations. You name it. Perhaps it's time to legislate a spending cap on Hollywood budgets, to eliminate this kind of refuse from ever making it to the screen again. When I read that Mission to Mars used a landfill as the location for the Red Planet, I thought how appropriate. That's where it should be buried with the rest of the garbage.



I must admit I waited until the last moment to see Dogma. The movie's been around town forever. . .well, at least since the last millennium. Released before Christmas '99, I was curious as to what explained the film's staying power, even though I was wary of it. Dogma received a lot of pre-release publicity, especially from the Catholic church for what they felt were the film's sacrilegious broadsides against God, Jesus, and Catholicism; for its profane denouncement of faith and the Pope. Of course, as is usually the case with these type of hysterical criticisms, no one from the Church complaining about Dogma had actually seen the film. I myself had no problems with blasphemy. The Pope could use a good kidding elbow to the ribs now and then. My concerns with were always of a more secular nature. I've just never much liked the writer-director Kevin Smith, his potty-mouthed scripts, his amateurish humor, his juvenile plots, and his crude visuals. On the basis of his first three films, Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy, Smith came across as a very lucky, very mediocre filmmaker who somehow tapped into a career as a Gen X spokesman, but who possessed extremely marginal talents. He was always one film away from being found out.

I figured, arrogantly, that Dogma was that film. But I was wrong. Although it's no masterpiece, it's his funniest, smartest movie. The punky, gross humor is still there, and it has a messy, rambling structure, but the movie is brave in ways many films aren't. Smith's private feelings about Catholicism emerge in numerous brief but pithy monologues about belief, organized religion, the meaning of life, and God's infallibility. He riffs on idolatry, greed, hypocrisy, racism. . .all of them are irreverent and extremely personal. Smith's intelligent assessment of his own questionable faith keeps this wildly uneven movie on track. It's nothing if not committed to the writer-director's point of view.

To describe the plot would take days. Suffice to say it involves fallen angels, prophets, the voice of God, the apocalypse, hell, damnation, and fart jokes. The movie stars Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Alan Rickman, Salma Hayek, Chris Rock, and Smith's old mainstays, Jason Mewes, Jason Lee, and himself. The fact that everybody plays this movie with enthusiasm and charm helps make it work. And Smith has upped his grungy, garage visuals considerably. The film is in color, you can actually hear what's going on, and there are even special effects: exploding heads, that sort of thing. The film is certainly controversial to those without a sense of humor, but its controversy is pretty benign to the rest of us. Dogma may be the best Sunday sermon you ever sat through.  


Stuart Little

Also holding strong in town is Stuart Little, which is a strangely lightweight children's film that evaporates from the memory before you exit the theater. The movie's art direction is its strongest element--a bizarre hybrid of British overstuffiness and American primary color zaniness÷Masterpiece Theater crossed with Pee Wee's Playhouse. The brightness of the design will keep adults awake, because the plot is a simplistic snooze. Stuart, the little mouse, is adopted by a couple to be the brother their son always wanted. Just when Stuart and the boy begin to bond, the mouse's real parents show up and take him home. Needless to say they're not his real parents, but dupes sent by a mean alley cat to get rid of Stuart. That's about it.

The fact that all the adults accept the idea of a talking mouse allows the fantasy to work, but not much else is done with the idea. The movie breezes along for a thankfully short 80 minutes, but by the end I felt that if the movie had done one thing I would have liked it better by half. Michael J. Fox is the voice of Stuart, but there is not a single wisecrack or comic observation that is that actor's trademark. Why use Fox if you're not going to let him be a smart aleck? Stuart Little is a movie strictly for kids, but only if they're very little, very young, and very undemanding.


Angela's Ashes

You're likely to come out of Angela's Ashes, the new film based on Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, with your head filled with images of fluids, all kinds of fluids: rain, beer, milk, urine, vomit, spit, and other bodily liquids too indelicate to mention. It's an atmosphere so relentlessly intemperate that it infects the spirit. But for Frank McCourt and his family, it was as much a part of their home as the four crumbling walls that surrounded them, in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. 

Angela's Ashes stars Emily Watson as McCourt's mother Angela, Robert Carlyle as his alcoholic, irresponsible father, Malachy, and three different unknown young actors as Frank at varying ages. The movie is fairly faithful to the book's episodic structure, spanning 15 years in Frank's life, condensing some characters and telescoping events, but still capturing the intense poverty of his childhood, the failings of his father, the grim determination of his mother, the puritanical dominance of the Catholic church, and Frank's nascent literary passions. 

The film is directed by Alan Parker, who has always been a masterful visual stylist. He's directed Midnight Express, Birdy, Mississippi Burning, Angel Heart, and Shoot The Moon, and he worked with writer Laura Jones to adapt the book for the screen. They've opted for authenticity instead of sentimentality; capturing the novel's attitude of sadness and despair, with beautifully shot monochromatic snapshots of rain-spattered cobblestones, and several montage sequences that detail Frank's survival skills in an inhospitable place. 

The humor of the book is there, as are the more raunchy coming-of-age moments. But what's missing is a deeper understanding of the characters, which leaves Watson and Carlyle with little to do. Watson is reduced to sitting at a table, smoking cigarettes, with a baby on her lap; and Carlyle only provides fleeting glimpses into Malachy's self-destructive, deadbeat behavior. There is so much territory to cover in this story, that I sometimes felt I was watching a slide show: brief, exquisitely rendered moments of a young life in Limerick that depicted time and place astutely, but couldn't reveal the heat of Frank's heart amid such a clammy, calamitous environment. That said however, McCourt's mastery of words and setting is strong enough to make Angela's Ashes an ultimately moving and hopeful experience.  



Magnolia, the deeply serious new movie from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, makes many demands on an audience. The film's several parallel stories, all set during one long San Fernando day, requires a willingness to trust that Anderson will deliver the goods. The movie's dark tone of parental abuse, anguish, and regret, is, understandably, very unfunny. And at three hours long, it asks for patience, an audacious, arrogant request from a 26-year old director, who after making the astonishing Boogie Nights, might be the best new director this country has seen since Martin Scorcese.

With Magnolia, Anderson was given two dubious gifts: carte blanche and Tom Cruise. Surprisingly, Cruise is the best thing in the movie. As the macho guru of a cultish, lady-killing enterprise known as "Seduce and Destroy," Cruise struts and preens in a leather vest, vaunting his 12-step program that guarantees sexual conquests, until a reporter exposes his facade during a TV interview. This comeuppance leads to a private apocalypse that is the most believable moment in the film. But the overall credibility of this exercise is sorely lacking. In that respect, Anderson's carte blanche feels more like a bad check. 

Anderson is visually fluent, but his writing is undernourished. His scenes glide with an effortless rhythm, but the endlessly prowling camera leads nowhere. His extreme close-ups are as irrelevant as they are eye-catching. Montages are powerfully staged, yet only tenuously linked. Anderson substitutes redundancy for meaning. While an incessant rain falls outside, emotional torrents are released within. And what torrents these are. Anderson's only inclination seems to be a purging of the bile and neglect brought on by bad childhoods and rotten parents. Specifically the rancor that exists between fathers and their children; and especially between fathers and sons. Nearly all of his characters reach a nadir of sobbing self-revelation, spewing out angry, expletive-filled recriminations. This is the most blatant evidence of Anderson's lack of skill and experience as a writer. Instead of constructing scenes that illuminate, he stages tantrums. As this film enters its second hour, and one begins to wonder if it will tell us anything we don't already know, tedium sets in. Magnolia has few of the tensions of Boogie Nights.

There is not a single scene that sparks with danger; nor a person that moves the heart. Anderson wanted to make a film about forgiveness, but he may end up, in time, having to forgive himself for such a self-indulgent, meaningless work.


The Hurricane

The Hurricane is the true story of Rueben Hurricane Carter, a story that is so unbelievable that if a screenwriter had made it up, no studio would touch it. Carter grew up in Patterson, New Jersey, surrounded by racism, consumed with hate, living on the edge of delinquency. He channeled his hatred into the boxing ring, where he became a respected prizefighter. But then he was framed by a corrupt police force for a triple murder in 1965, sentenced to life, and spent 20 years fighting for new trials and appeals. Politicians and celebrities, including Bob Dylan, rallied to his cause, working for his release. He was finally freed in 1985, moved to Toronto, and now works as the executive director of a organization for the Wrongfully Convicted.

A story like this, that demands to be told, that includes all the elements of great fiction but is also stamped with the imprimatur of truth, requires a director skilled in the veracity of the docudrama, but with the talent to create rich, three dimensional characters; a director with the ingenuity to transcend the obvious broad strokes of the tale, and the imagination to find revelations in the corners where we wouldn't look. Norman Jewison, the director of The Hurricane, is clearly not the man for the job.

Nearly every scene in this movie is fraught with cliches and the bland familiarity of the stodgy biopic. Hardly a minute passes without knowing exactly what the next minute will bring. Part biography, part anti-racist manifesto, and part prison drama, Jewison has only a threadbare appreciation for any of these genres; and the film's cross-cutting, flashback structure further weaken the strength of the story. But Jewison commits even more egregious errors than these.

By sanctifying Carter as the noble black man victimized by a prejudiced conspiracy, Jewison ignores the truth of his case and his semi-criminal background. The director tells us a vindictive, racist Italian cop was the man who framed Carter; but no such cop existed. He tells us that a trio of white Canadian do-gooders and the young black man they were tutoring got Carter released, when actually it was a larger group that included lawyers and journalists. He fails to tell us that Carter ended up marrying the female in the trio; or what happened to Carter's wife after he says goodbye to her in prison.

Jewison's shoddy direction is made criminal by wasting a tremendous performance by Denzel Washington as Carter. As usual, Washington's portrayal of yet another iconic black figure from history is passionate and committed, and there is one scene in the movie, the only scene filmed with a modicum of energy and insight, that displays the fractured psychology and intense intelligence seething beneath Carter's veneer of hate. Washington is so great, and Carter's story so moving, that it's simply unforgivable they weren't honored with a film that is as tenacious and dedicated as they.

The real Rueben Hurricane Carter was in prison when Jewison made most of his movies--pretty, earnest crowd-pleasers like In The Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, A Soldier's Story, MoonstruckÖso you can't blame Carter for entrusting his life story to such a pedestrian talent.


Snow Falling on Cedars

Director Scott Hicks certainly has no deficiencies in visually interpreting a story. His sumptuous adaptation of David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars captures the vivid imagery of the novel and its multi-layered flashback structure too well. With the excellent assistance of cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has shot nearly all of Oliver Stone's films, Hicks crafts every frame of this movie with a meticulous attention to the mysteries of nature and memory. Carefully composed shots that transition from one decade to the next; elegantly lit close-ups of hands and faces; swooping tracking shots through lush forests; moments of reverie captured behind rain-streaked windows and silhouettes of moss. But the movie is freighted with atmosphere; burdened by it; and the narrative collapses from the strain.

Hicks is so enamored of his visual skills that we are thrust from one time frame to the next without barely a pause to register the emotional or moral complexity of a character or situation. A rueful daydream dissolves into an ocean wave; a face wrenched with longing is swept under a snowfall; a sad farewell melts into a dripping fern. For those who read Guterson's novel, you'll be able to follow the innumerable time shifts and characters and crucial plot turns, and you'll know that somewhere beneath the layers of soggy undergrowth there breathes an evocative story of young love and national shame.

If you haven't read the book, then welcome to this: the coffee table version.



Director Julie Taymor has the right idea with her adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Knowing that the language and the stage-bound theatrics can be a tough sell to movie audiences, she pushes the blood and guts. Whenever the pace begins to drag in Titus, her ambitious feature film debut, someone chops off a hand, an arm, a tongue, or a head. Thankfully, much of the actual chopping occurs offscreen, but the limbs are there in full view÷some even under glass÷displayed like trophies, the spoils of vengeance.

Taymor made her mark on Broadway with a couple of Tony awards for her adaptation of The Lion King. She's directed The Flying Dutchman, Salome, The Magic Flute, and Oedipus Rex. She's founded a dance company, designed masks and costumes, directed operas, written lyrics, and she produced Titus Andronicus off-Broadway in 1994. Her self-confidence and talent is remarkable, and her visual sense is, at times, astounding. Titus, the movie, is perhaps the most audacious and imaginatively filmed version of any Shakespeare play, while remaining faithful to the original text. It's a story of savagery and stupid moves, many of them committed by the troubled hero, the Roman general Titus (Anthony Hopkins).

After returning from battle with the captured Queen of the Goths, Tamora (Jessica Lange), and her three sons in tow, Titus sacrifices the eldest for the good of Rome. Then he endorses the petulant Saturnius (Alan Cumming), as the new emperor, who promptly chooses the vengeful Tamora as his empress. This makes life difficult for Titus, his daughter, and his remaining four sons. The rest of his sons, all twenty-one of them, have been killed in battle. So what began as a victory for Titus and Rome becomes a battle of blood and wits. On the edges manipulating the plot is Aaron, played by Harry Lennix, the embodiment of pure, selfish evil. Taymor's filmed vision of Shakespeare combines the faithfulness of Olivier's Hamlet, the garishness of Welles' Othello, the grit of Branagh's Henry the V, and the anachronistic touches found in more recent versions, like Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo DeCaprio and Claire Danes, and Richard the III, with Ian McKellan.

 There is real bite and poetry in the language, and brio in the staging. Taymor has imagined ancient Rome to look like Mussolini's Italy, with soldiers dressed in jackboots and driving motorcycles. She's risked silliness with an orgy reminiscent of Bob Guccione's Caligula, and their are obvious allusions to Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. The art direction is good and scenery doesn't overwhelm, because the actors chew it up first.

It's obvious that this kind of Shakespeare was made to be devoured. Hopkins gorges on madness; Lange gobbles up vengeance; Cumming slurps on pompousness; and Lennix, a relative unknown, walks off with the whole banquet. The movie was backed by Paul Allen's film company, and the heady story of murder, revenge, sacrifice, and betrayal sound a lot like his battle to get a new stadium for his Seahawks. Titus is definitely a more worthwhile use of his money, and it's a gory feast for the eyes and ears, but the question is, how many viewers will stomach the brutality?


Sweet and Lowdown

Woody Allen's latest film may also induce nausea. Intended as a fictional, semi-mockumentary, the movie is about the life of a jazz guitarist named Emmett Ray who has few redeeming qualities besides his masterful playing. Ray, played by Sean Penn, considers himself the second-greatest guitarist in the world, always struggling, depressingly, in the shadow of the real-life genius, Django Rhinehart. If you're a fan of Rhinehart, you'll like this movie just for the music. If you're a fan of Allen's however, you'll probably wonder how one of our greatest living filmmakers became such a misogynistic bore.

Allen used to be so kind to his female characters. They graced his best films÷Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors÷with their wit and vulnerability. But lately, with Celebrity and Sweet and Lowdown, his women have become ciphers. In Sweet and Lowdown, Samantha Morton, playing Ray's girlfriend, is literally mute, so she can't even defend herself when Ray insults her. Uma Thurman, as Ray's wife, is encouraged to overact so as to be annoying. One has to wonder if Allen's motivation is hate or just lazy filmmaking. Is he getting revenge on Mia Farrow, or has he lost interest in anything resembling goodness?

 The movie includes talking heads with real jazz writers, aficionados, and Allen himself, as if this is supposed to be some kind of documentary. But Allen doesn't adhere to the form of a documentary, nor is there a consistent point to the rest of the film. Characters come and go. Others merely fill in the background. Situations and events don't lead anywhere. Most of the scenes involve Ray playing, then drinking and acting like a boor. Other scenes are merely cheap sight gags. It's as if Allen dreamed up an idea minutes before he shot it. Aimless and repetitive, Sweet and Lowdown is certainly lowdown, and certainly not sweet. 


Wonder Boys

Wonder Boys stars Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, a scruffy, well-liked creative writing professor who wrote a hit book seven years before, but can't finish the follow-up. It's not that he's blocked, he just can't seem to stop writing. His latest unmitigated opus runs over 2,500 pages, and counting.

But he's got other problems: he smokes too much weed, he's having an affair with the wife of the head of the English department, he's got a live-in student who'd like to seduce him, and his current wife, number two or three, has just left him. Needless to say, Tripp isn't much of a role model, but that doesn't prevent another one of his students, a morose kid by the name of James Lear, played by Tobey MacGuire, from latching onto him. It proves to be the relationship that changes all their lives.

Lear is an inveterate liar and a gifted writer who somehow taps into Tripp's potholed psyche. He forces Tripp to confront and make the necessary choices that dope and middle-aged ennui have led him to avoid. By the end of the movie, after a series of meandering subplots have been cleared up, Tripp has traded in his self-neglect for a few gentle, subtly rendered epiphanies.

Wonder Boys is really not much more than a collection of random vignettes, but they're so sharply written, and excellently performed, that they add up to a film you might want to see more than once, so you can be sure to catch its off-kilter rhythms, its tender moments of slapstick, and its freewheeling whimsy. Like last year's two best films, American Beauty and The Insider, this is a movie that never once feels like it's dumbing down its priorities.

Wonder Boys was directed by Curtis Hanson, who made LA Confidential a few years ago, a movie I felt was one of the most overrated of the '90s, a film that failed to offer up anything fresh upon a second viewing. But here he's working more internally, and he doesn't have to wrap his hands around a plot with as many moods as a Chinese menu. Hanson's never been a particularly gifted visual director, but he is brisk and unpredictable in his plotting and timing. You never know where this movie is heading, and it doesn't even invite you to try. The movie has a cheerfully unconcerned attitude about making things up as it goes along.

The actors are more than willing to capitulate. Michael Douglas, always a likeable actor, even when he's playing a lizard like Gordon Gecko, is enormously appealing here. Wearing big, rumpled sweaters, glasses, and graying hair, he captures perfectly the sense of a middle-aged man bouncing around a purgatory of insouciance. His Grady Tripp simply can't find the energy to care about anything. Tobey MacGuire, a young actor with the unsettling appeal of a detached teddy bear, is funny and intelligent and natural. Frances McDormand brings strength to her role as the department head's wife. It was nice to see a romance between two grown-ups the same age. Robert Downey, Jr. turns up as Tripp's literary agent, once again providing snap and spontaneity to a part that could easily drift into cliche. Wonder Boys lives the old adage that there are no small parts, only small actors. I respect any film in which even the minor players, from a waitress to a janitor, are given bits of business that illuminate the screen even for the few seconds they're on it. Wonder Boys, for all of its rambling, is a generous, warm-hearted gift.


A Map of the World

Opening this weekend is A Map of the World, an absorbing, potentially heartbreaking film based on the book by Jane Hamilton. This is a movie worth knowing the plot before you go in, since its disturbing subject matter can be emotionally wearing. Sigourney Weaver stars as a rural farm mother who, one day while babysitting her best friend's daughters, has an easily forgivable moment of inattentiveness and the friend's little girl wanders into a pond and drowns. But the low-key ostracization by the local community is nothing compared to what's next. Weaver is soon accused of child abuse by a troubled boy and is sent off to jail, leaving her husband and their two daughters to suffer the scorn of friends and neighbors, while she experiences a relief from the intensity of the first tragedy. It's a difficult movie about tough, life-searing coincidences, made believable by the knowledge that things this bad really do happen to unlucky people.

But what makes the movie even more difficult is Sigourney Weaver. She's an actor who has never, ever given a bad performance; but she also has never given one where you are not aware, with every straight-backed toss of the head, every slow-evolving smile, every strained grimace, that she is not acting, with a capital A-C-T-and an I-N-G. Weaver's unsympathetic reading of her complicated character is brave and, at times, embarassingly real, but it's also haughty, undisciplined, and a touch psychotic.

Perhaps it's the director's fault. It's helmed by first-timer Scott Eliott, who like American Beauty's director Sam Mendes, is acclaimed for his theatrical works. But this film suffers from a lack of connective narrative tissue. A little expository insight into what makes Weaver's remorseless, tough-minded mom tick would have helped. As it stands, her fierce and uncompromising presence is overwhelming.


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Latest Update: 21 July 2000