HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (2003)
At one point during this intense battle of wills between the owner (played by Jennifer Connelly) of a San Francisco house and the man (Ben Kingsley) who purchases it from the county, he tells her that her beef is with the government and not him. She pretty much ignores that bit of wisdom and continues to seek justice from Kingsley's character. Conflict between two people, of course, makes more interesting drama than trying to fight city hall, but I never stopped feeling that the entire premise of this film was flawed and its downward spiral to tragedy was way too calculated.
If you can ignore the details of the plot, the film is filled with interesting characters. Connelly's Kathy is a recovering addict without much to live for who turns this bureaucratic screw up into her obsession. Kingsley's Col. Behrane is a political refugee from Iran, who rules his family as if they're members of his platoon while going to great lengths to hide his job on a highway repair gang. And the colonel's wife, played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, is a devoted wife and mother who is starting to question the decisions made by her husband. The film is compelling when these three are interacting.
Connelly, following her Oscar-winner performance in "A Beautiful Mind," shows that she's capable of carrying a film; the combination of striking beauty and skillful acting make her a commanding film presence.
Kingsley's stiff posture and intense stare make him perfect for this role, but he's done this act before and it comes off as too theatrical for my taste. And his transformation from an unapologetic martinet to a recognizable human being happens too easily and quickly.
By the end, the film takes one too many surprise plot turns, but because I cared about the characters, I still cared about their fate. While it fails on many levels, the film is an impressive first effort by director Vadim Perelman, who wrote the screenplay, adapting (with Shawn Lawrence Otto) the novel by Andre Dubus III.
American moviemakers have always been fascinated by criminals, but too often they are portrayed as glamorous, romantic figures or over-the-top evil incarnate. What makes "Monster" an unforgettable film experience is that writer-director Patty Jenkins, in her feature film debut, avoids those cliches and offers up a murderer who provokes both hate and sympathy; you can pity her inability to fit into society at the same time that she's scaring the hell out of you.
The murderer is real-life Florida prostitute Aileen Wuornos, who killed seven men, most of them customers, before her arrest in 1991. Charlize Theron, a tall, gorgeous blonde who has given good performances in a number of recent films, turns herself into the overweight, homely and beaten-down Aileen, who has lived such a dysfunctional life that she's lost any connection with the real world. While the physical transformation of Theron-including weight gain and the magic of makeup artists-is amazing, it doesn't supersede the performance. Theron creates a very subtle monster, capturing the woman's intimidating, aggressive behavior while showing that it grows from her frustration in dealing with society. The performance reveals how the killings empower this desperately needy prostitute--who just wants to be a good provider for her naïve lover--while twisting her already fragile mental state up in knots. As she moves from her role as victim to enthusiastic punisher, this tough gal becomes deeply disturbed. It's a great performance and should win her the Oscar.
Hard to watch, the film leaves you numb-it reminded me of "Taxi Driver" (1976) and "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (1990) in the way it's unflinchingly focused on a broken human being.
I haven't seen the two documentaries on Wuornos, both by Nick Broomfield, but it's clear that while Jennings utilized court documents to tell her story, she was after something bigger than the facts. Unlike the freak show of white trash that is paraded on television by Jerry Springer and the like, "Monster" depicts the day-to-day despair of someone unable to escape the underbelly of life. As I responded to the film, there was no attempt to excuse the murders, only an insightful, moving portrayal of the woman who committed them.
BIG FISH (2003)
Tim Burton, the imaginative director of such oddball delights as "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" (1985), "Beetlejuice" (1988) and "Ed Wood" (1994), offers up his most sentimental and conventional film as 2003 Oscar-bait. Essential, the story of a son trying to understand his father as the old man nears death, "Big Fish" spends most of its time illustrating the seemingly tall tales that Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) retells over and over again at the slightest provocation.
The problem for me was that these stories were so elementary in their lessons and boringly predictable in their presentation that I felt like I had walked into an after-school special. Ewan McGregor plays the young Bloom like wide-eyed Candide, living out dreamy adventures only a school boy could imagine. A witch and a giant and Siamese twins, not to mention stops at a circus and a heavenly town only serve as distractions from what could have been a powerful drama (what we see of it is) of a family's final days with its patriarch.
In the "real" part of the film, Jessica Lange is the understated mother-wife and Billy Crudup plays the frustrated son. Finney, as always, is a joy to watch; he embodies this roguish character, a version of his "Tom Jones," but instead of lust in his heart, it's wonderment. If Burton would have kept Finney on the screen more often than his character's imagination, this might have been a pretty good movie.
DRAMATIC SCHOOL (1938)
There's not much worth recommending about this "Stage Door"-like movie set in a acting school. Luise Rainer plays the mysterious French girl destined to be a star while Paulette Goddard spends more time nightclubbing than studying. Also among the acting students is 17-year-old Lana Turner.
The film does contain one line I think is a classic: Near the end of the movie, the president of the acting academy, played by esteemed character actor Henry Stevenson, finally decides to tell his son he's not cut out for acting. "You've no talent," he tell the wide-eyed youngster. "And you never will…..Your mother was a saint but she was the daughter of a critic. You were doomed from your birth."
WHALE RIDER (2003)
Call me a politically incorrect ugly American, but I've never been impressed with movies that glamorize people struggling against all odds to maintain their ancient rituals. I'm all for those who want to keep the old ways alive, but don't expect me to be impressed by outdated traditions that seem to be held in higher esteem than education, getting a job or attempting to become part of modern society.
In this film, the aging leader of a small New Zealand town is anxiously searching for the chosen one to take over as spiritual chief of his Maori people, while refusing to acknowledge that his young granddaughter may be the one. (A girl, impossible!) Instead of following her father to London where she could attend good schools and have a real future, she stays with her grandparents in this tiny fishing village. Instead of being inspired by how the girl masters the traditions of her ancestors, I kept wondering when child services were going to show up. You can imagine my surprise when 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes--who plays Pai, the girl destined to lead her people--was nominated for an Academy Award as best actress. She's cute and gives a nice performance, but I didn't detect much acting going on.
New Zealand looks like a lovely place (as we've seen in "Lord of the Rings") but I'd much rather see a story about the New Zealanders who don't feel the need to jump around with their shirts off making strange faces at one another.
GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING (2003)
There's something very alluring about fictionalizing the details of a real event. Just don't pick a subject too many people care about; then your work of "fiction" will be ripped for its lack of authenticity. In this fascinating creation by first-time feature director Peter Webber, visualizing Tracy Chevalier's novel, the back story surrounding the much-admired painting by Johannes Vermeer plays out with so little artifice or melodrama that you come away convinced that it's all true.
Scarlett Johansson, whose wonderful turn as Bill Murray's disillusioned companion in "Lost in Translation" is still in theaters, plays Griet, a newly hired maid in the dysfunctional Vermeer household. The sullen painter (Colin Firth) finds a creative spark in the girl and, in the all-so-repressed ways of 17th Century Dutch society, shows his attraction to her by brazenly painting her portrait. The inner workings of the family are smartly played out, with Essie Davis as Vermeer's unpleasant wife and Judy Parfitt as his controlling mother-in-law.
But what really makes this film worth seeing is Eduardo Serra's incredible cinematography, most of it shot in what seems like available light, recreating the shadowy world of 350 years ago. Especially in a film about light and colors and how they are perceived (at one point, Griet questions whether she should clean the windows of Vermeer's studio because it would change the light), the photography is crucial. Serra, who has mostly worked on French films since the mid-1970s and did impressive work in the English films "Jude" (1996) and "The Wings of the Dove" (1997), deserves an Oscar for capturing the world as it was seen by Vermeer. The beautifully rendered lighting, along with a very detailed production design, make this film seem more authentic than most contemporary movies.
THE COMPANY (2003) This Robert Altman-directed ballet movie plays more like a trailer for a more substantial work than a finished product. The snippets of plot that are rarely resolved or even much developed are actually just slight diversions from the film's focus: the practice room.
What in most movies would have been beautifully shot atmosphere scenes are in "The Company" the heart of the matter. It's a brave concept, but ultimately not successful.
The pet project of former ballerina Neve Campbell, the 30-year-old star of the "Scream" film series, the movie has some memorable performance pieces (including an astonishing duet featuring Campbell on an outdoor stage in the rain) but the behind-the-scenes stuff doesn't add up to much. Malcolm McDowell is amusing as the dictatorial director of the company, while most of the dancers are played by the real-life members of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.
While this turns out to be just a curio in the great career of Altman, he deserves credit for taking on such a noncommercial project as the follow-up to one of his biggest hits in years, "Gosford Park" (2001). Even at age 78, he remains an unreformable independent.
OPERATOR 13 (1934)
If it wasn't for the fact that the lead actress, Marion Davies, plays half the film in blackface, disguised as a slave on a Southern plantation, this would probably be remembered as one of the better romantic adventure films of the era. What was common place in 1930s entertainment now seems unimaginable; even as played here by Davies, without offensive overtones, it remains distracting. Because Davies plays an actress who pretends to be a slave while working as a spy for the Union, it doesn't strike me as offensive as Paul Muni and Luise Rainer actually portraying Chinese in "The Good Earth" (1937) or Katharine Hepburn doing the same in "Dragon Seed" (1944).
What's surprising in "Operator 13" is when Gary Cooper, playing a Confederate officer, finds himself falling for the black washer woman. Of course, nothing gets serious until he encounters her under very different--white and respectable--circumstances.
Surrounding the Cooper-Davies romance, and some musical interludes provided by the legendary Mills Brothers (also working as Union spies), is a very serious movie that shows the consequences of the war on both sides and doesn't attempt to over glorify or demonize the North or the South.
Among the film's supporting players is Ted Healy, playing a captain in the Union army, who discovered the Three Stooges and used them as "His Stooges" in his vaudeville act until their film career made them stars.
Director Richard Boleslawski was a fascinating character who had studied under Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater and worked in the Soviet film industry before returning to his native Poland to fight against the Soviet invaders. After working throughout Europe in the early 1920s, he emigrated to the United States and became a top Broadway director. He only directed a handful of movies, including the superb version of "Les Miserables" (1935) starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton, and the engaging comedy "Theodora Goes Wild" (1936), which elevated Irene Dunne to stardom. Boleslawski died the next year at age 48 during the production of the film "The Last of Mrs. Cheyney" (1937).
SUMMER STOCK (1950)
Shouldn't this be a 1940 picture? A let's-put-on-show musical romance starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, the film has the gee-whiz innocence of Garland's earlier musicals with Mickey Rooney. At times, both stars seems embarrassed by their roles and are clearly ready to move on in their careers.
The next year, Kelly co-directed and choreographed the landmark "An American in Paris," establishing himself as the preeminent figure in movie musicals.
For Garland, "Summer Stock" marks the end of the first phase of her performing career. The mother of four-year-old Liza and another child on the way, about to divorce her second husband (director Vincente Minnelli) and fighting depression and a pill addiction, the 28-year-old's run as a juvenile singing dynamo was over. Garland didn't make another film for four years, in those days an eternity for an actress. After starring in "A Star Is Born" (1954), her crowning achievement as an actress, she focused on her stage concerts and television show. She appeared in just four more films, all but one, non-singing roles.
In "Summer Stock," Judy plays the big sister trying to keep the family farm from bankruptcy while her little sister (Gloria De Haven) is off attempting to break into showbiz. Making no sense whatsoever, De Haven invites her director, Gene Kelly, and his cast and crew to rehearse their play at the farm as they attempt to raise money and get to Broadway. Kelly and Garland clash from the start and you can guess the rest.
Comic turns by Eddie Bracken (as Garland sensible fiancé) and Phil Silvers (as Kelly's assistant) keep the story lively until Judy has to step in for her flighty sister and "learns" to sing and dance. The highlight of the film occurs in the last 10 minutes, when Garland performs a sizzling version of "Get Happy."
OWNING MAHOWNY (2003)
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays compulsive gambler Dan Mahowny, a man who is totally ruled by his need to place a bet. Not his job as a loan officer, his blindly devoted girlfriend or any of his responsibilities divert him from his laser-like obsession. Based on a real Toronto gambler, Mahowny pulls off one of the biggest banking frauds in Canadian history as he continues to pilfer funds for his frequent trips to Atlantic City and outrageously foolish sports wagers.
This egoless, 37-year-old actor uses his nerdish looks and De Niro-like intensity to give life to what is essentially a one-note role. Hoffman, since his breakthrough role as a sycophant to porn star Dirk Diggler in "Boogie Nights" (1997), has regularly improved films with his fascinating portrayals. His best work includes his turns as a disturbed stalker in "Happiness" (1998), as a flamboyant playboy in "The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and as legendary rock critic Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous" (2000).
Yet as great a vehicle as this is for Hoffman, it doesn't add up to much of a film. Despite an interesting supporting cast--including Minnie Driver as his simple, unglamorous girlfriend and John Hurt as a frantic casino manager attempting to keep Mahowny happy--the movie doesn't evolve beyond its initial premise. There isn't a single surprising plot turn in the film and the gambling scenes are shot to downplay the excitement of winning. On top of those flaws, director Richard Kwietniowski offers no atmosphere of either Toronto or Atlantic City. (The casino scenes are clearly shot on sets and there isn't a single shot of the Atlantic City Boardwalk--no doubt the cast and crew never set foot in New Jersey.)
I rented this because Roger Ebert included the film on his Top 10 list and I can understand what appealed to him: Hoffman's impressive ability to play a very ordinary man who has an extraordinary problem. It's just too bad the performance is stuck in the middle of a less-than-extraordinary movie.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)
The final chapter of this monumental trilogy is filled with furious battles, brave heroics and the sure-handed mythic storytelling--all in the service of a tiny Hobbit's journey into the heart of darkness to destroy the all-powerful ring. For all the spectacular computer-generated effects, incredible production design and sweeping visas, what makes this three-part epic such a towering achievement is the way the key characters have evolved during the adventure.
It would have been easy, once the characters were established, to let the complex plot drive the story and, as in most movie epics, turn the actors into cardboard cutouts with predictable responses and obvious motivations. Yet filmmaker Peter Jackson and his team don't fall into that trap; they understood that all the towering elephants, flying dragons and giant spiders can't be allowed to overshadow the relationship of Frodo and Sam, the burden of destiny carried by Aragorn and the determination of Gandalf. By the end, because of these unforgettable characters, you care about their fate more than you expect to.
Jackson's achievement in bringing Tolkien's mythic tale in such a spectacular way has made him a major director, but it also will create a shadow over his future career--like "The Godfather" films have over Coppola's--and will be impossible to equal. Yet Jackson seems unfazed by the prospects: His next project is "King Kong."
THIRTEEN (2003) and BLUE CAR (2003)
There's very little similarity between these two movies other than they both fall under the dreary sub-genre of teens-in-distress films. Stories were being written about "Thirteen" while it was still in production, hyping the screenplay of then 13-year-old Nikki Reed and the controversial portrayals of junior-high girls. Once released, the film was the subject of TV talk shows and spread horror across the soccer-mom world.
Meanwhile, "Blue Car"--a first time effort by writer-director Karen Moncrieff--opened and closed without anyone noticing, receiving a handful of positive notices before its quick retreat to the video shelves.
Not surprisingly, "Blue Car" turns out to be the better-made, more believable movie, featuring subtle, intelligent writing and acting and delivering its points without portraying its characters as monsters.
Everything about "Thirteen" feels calculated to scare parents straight, with every character a worst-case-scenario in the history of parent-child relations.
In "Blue Car," Agnes Bruckner plays Meg, a high school senior whose family life is a mess. Her mother finds little time for her two children as she pursues a promotion at work, ignoring her younger daughter's slide into a disturbing fantasy life despite Meg's warnings. With all that in the background, Meg's English teacher (David Strathairn) takes special interest in her writing and promotes her for a national poetry competition. This emotionally needy teen allows herself to become too close to her teacher and, inevitably, he steps over the line. While the plot is typical for the genre, the way it's executed isn't. Not only are the emotions of both the girl and the teacher understandable (the product of strong writing and acting) but the building of their relationship happens without fanfare or melodrama, evolving without calculation like so much of real life.
"Thirteen," despite all of its publicity and an Oscar nomination for Holly Hunter, is a cinematic train wreck. Evan Rachel Wood plays Tracy, who seems like a typical 13-year-old, considering she's being raised by a recovering alcoholic single mother (Hunter) and the family looks to be one paycheck away from the street. But those first 12 years of model childrearing go to hell in a handbasket when a new school year brings Reed's sleazy, popular Evie into Tracy's life. Before you can finish watching a Britney Spears' video, Evie has turned Tracy into her mirror imagine--provocative clothing, tongue and bellybutton piercings, sneaking off to make out with boys (African Americans, yikes!) and pill popping. Her frantic, self-absorbed mother is alternatively aghast at her daughter's transformation and helping facilitate it. It makes no sense that this woman allows this clearly unhealthy influence move in with her daughter. Actually, Hunter portrays such a hopeless parent that her daughter's turn to the darkside isn't the surprise in this film, it's that her son seems so well-adjusted.
While I didn't expect a script by a teenager to be anything but over-the-top melodrama and clichés, that's no excuse for director Catherine Hardwicke, who manages to glorify the shopping and sleazing-around of the teens and then connect it with darker sins. The director fails to make it clear how each incident plays out; after the shouting and crying are over, how are the lies and outrageous acts by the teens accounted for? Like a sitcom, every fadeout wipes the slate clean and yesterday's problems are all but forgotten.
While "Thirteen" made me glad that I don't have to guide a teenager through the pitfalls growing up amidst all the easily available temptations of 2004, it didn't help me understand the problems that either parents or their children face. On the other hand, "Blue Car" keeps its preaching to a minimum as it shows that some (dare I say many or most?) teens are strong enough to face life's seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
COLD MOUNTAIN (2003)
I saw this film with a burdensome prejudice I rarely carrying into a movie theater: I had just read the novel. And while I knew that Nicole Kidman and Jude Law played the war-separated main characters Ada and Inman and Renee Zellweger portrayed Ada's backwoods savior Ruby, I was surprised at how many episodes writer-director Anthony Minghella's reworked or discarded or needlessly expanded and how much of the beauty of Charles Frazier novel were left scarred.
Law's Inman is a wounded Confederate soldier whose haunting memories of the bloody battle of Petersburg and emotional connections with his North Carolina's home of Cold Mountain convinced him to desert. His colorful, violent journey back home turns out to be both a test of his will and determination and a cross-section of the human condition.
Back in Cold Mountain, Ada, following the death of her father, struggles to feed herself as her farm falls into disrepair. Then a friend sends Ruby to help. A wild girl who all but raised herself, the no-nonsense Ruby takes charge of the household and brings it back to life.
The thread that connects these stories (Frazier alternates chapters between the two) is the chaste, almost unspoken feelings Ada and Inman expressed for one another in the few weeks before he left for war, poignantly visualized in the stoic tintypes images each carries of the other. But a few letters and the romantic longing that comes from separation elevates their relationship to romantic destiny.
It's that romantic struggle that Minghella (whose "The English Patient" swept the 1996 Oscars) makes into his central theme, while Inman's hatred for war and Ada's growing connection to the land and nature get pushed aside.
Another problem with the movie is inevitable--even at 2 hours and 33 minutes. Many of the episodes of Inman's journey feel too abrupt and inconsequential as translated to film; he gets in and out of danger so quickly that the resulting impact seems manufactured and even Law's excellent performance can't compensate for the insightful interior dialogue of the book.
But despite those lackings, the Inman half of "Cold Mountain," along with the intensely chaotic depiction of the Civil War battle, keep the film from becoming a hollow Hollywood epic. The Ada and Ruby show reaches its peak early on when Ruby twists off the head of a aggressive rooster. The bond that develops between these two very different women is unearned; the film entirely misses the way Ada's more educated upbringing influences Ruby. In fact, Kidman, in too many scenes, comes off as a 19th-Century Paris Hilton, and hardly worthy of the devotion maintained by Inman.
Then there's Zellweger's portrayal of Ruby, which amazingly earned her an Oscar nomination. Stomping around like a combination of Doris Day in a cowboy musical (but without the makeup) and Ma Kettle, Zellweger pumps up the volume on the character to the point that you wish Ada would tip a cow over on her. While the film avoids the cliché of the beloved -slave character, Ruby more than makes up for it with her over-the-top, unnecessarily comic performance.
Minghella and the actors create many scenes that match the heartfelt grace of the source material, including the inevitable reunion of Ada and Inman. Yet I know a much richer movie, in the hands of a different writer and director, could have been made; that's my payment for having read the novel. But it was a tradeoff worth making.