I have no doubt that seeing this film as a stage production, which it never was but greatly resembles, would be a memorable evening at the theater. The movie offers less of an experience, but it contains plenty of fascinating moments in its 170 minutes.
Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, best know for the art-house favorites “Breaking the Waves” (1996) and “Dancer in the Dark” (2000), shoots this story of a small, rural American town called Dogville on a darkened stage, with the buildings, greenery and even the town dog signified by chalk marks drawn on the stage floor. The town’s people, introduced at length by the film’s unseen narrator (John Hurt), represent a typical collection of characters from the 1930s. Then the town is thrown into an uproar by the arrival of Grace, a woman who seems to have escaped from a mobster and begs to be given sanctuary.
The worst impulses of these small-town people emerge as they soon take advantage, in every way they can conceive, of the woman’s reliance on them. What’s not clear, especially once her true predicament is revealed near the end, is why she endures these indignations. No doubt, Von Trier’s goal was to make a statement about America, but it escaped me. The film does seem to be saying that humans will go extraordinary lengths to gain acceptance; any indignity is better than being ignored. But a clear message isn’t the film’s strong point.
What makes this intimate yet epic drama worth seeing is the superb collection of actors Van Trier has assembled. Nicole Kidman throws herself into the very difficult role of Grace, convincingly maintaining a nonjudgment attitude no matter how awful she’s treated.
Standing out among the citizens of Dogville are Lauren Bacall, delivering one of her finest dramatic performance in decades as one of the town’s matriarchs, Stellan Skarsgard as an early exploiter of Grace, Ben Gazarra playing a blind curmudgeon and Patricia Clarkson as a severe mother who forgives nothing. Creating somewhat of a hole in the middle of the picture is Paul Bettany—who played Russell Crowe’s friend in both “A Beautiful Mind” (2001) and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003)—portraying the idealistic young man (sarcastically named Tom Edison) who falls in love with Grace. He never emerges as more than a nerdish busy-body.
The narration, which continues on and off throughout the film, seems unnecessary, a crutch for the filmmaker. With little effort, dialogue could have been added to handle the exposition offered by the narrator. I can only guess that Von Trier thought the narrator added to the theatrical feel of the production. In many ways, it’s like a twisted version of “Our Town.”
THE BAMBOO BLONDE (1946)
Anthony Mann established himself as a superb director in the 1940s with a handful of taunt, violent film noirs. By the 1950s, he was applying those same traits to a series of Westerns he made with James Stewart, earning himself a place among the greatest American filmmakers.
But like most directors of that era, he started out doing studio programmers: B or C-level pictures that ran after the cartoons and before the main feature in the days when going to the movies was an evening event. This war romance starring Frances Langford isn’t half bad and more entertaining than plenty of A pictures from the era.
Langford stars as a nightclub singer who falls for an Air Force pilot (Russell Wade) the night before he ships out to the war in the Pacific. It might have been a forgotten encounter until the pilot’s men paint her picture on the side of their bomber and dub her the “Bamboo Blonde.” When the squadron’s war success becomes national news, so does the Bamboo Blonde.
Once back in the states, the pilot must decided between his pretentiously glamorous girlfriend (Jane Greer) or the down-to-earth singer as they all work to sell bonds and suffer through the usual romantic complications.
The funniest performance of the film is given by Ralph Edwards, who went on to greater fame as the radio and then TV host of “This Is Your Life” and “True or Consequences.” He plays the enthusiastic nightclub owner who is more than happy to cash in on the Bamboo Blonde’s success. Speaking and acting like the future game show host he was, Edwards makes everyone else in the movie seem like they’re sleepwalking.
THIS SO-CALLED DISASTER (2004)
This video documentary that chronicles rehearsals and explores the origins of a Sam Shepard play makes for fascinating viewing for anyone with an interest in the art of acting or crafting plays.
What drew filmmaker Michael Almereyda to this project is clearly the cast: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, Cheech Marin and longtime Shepard regular James Gammon. But Shepard can’t help but be the star as he explains in his familiar twangy, laid back voice his strained relationship with his father and how the play evolved from those feelings. (The film’s title is a quote from his father about an incident in his past.) Like so many of Shepard’s works, “The Late Henry Moss” portrays a pair of brothers at each other throats (Penn and Nolte) as they struggle to understand themselves.
Almereyda’s best known film is his modern adaptation of “Hamlet” (2000), which starred Ethan Hawke and Shepard.
While you never see the play from start to finish, you feel like you’ve seen it by the end of the film. (The play had a short run in San Francisco in 2000.)
Watching great actors like Penn and Nolte struggling to understand their roles and collaborating with Shepard to bring his vision to the stage offer a glimpse behind the curtain that few of us ever get to experience. “This So-Called Disaster” provides an eye-opening reminder of the incredible work required to create art, even when those involved are among the best in the business.
THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON (2004)
Sam Bicke’s life is going to hell in a handbasket: he’s struggling to survive in his job as an office furniture salesman; his wife, whom he’s separated from, has a new boyfriend and doesn’t want anything to do with Sam; his plan for a mobile tire business is going nowhere fast; and, adding to his aggravation, everywhere he turns, Richard Nixon, who represents all the lying bosses Sam’s ever hated, is on television.
You’d think this lonely, mentally fragile man would take comfort in seeing the Watergate scandal (this is 1974) close in on Nixon, but instead it seems to compound his personal and profession problems, sending him over the edge and on a mission to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House. That part is based on the real life of Bicke (changed from Byck for the movie), whose thwarted suicide mission made national newscasts at the time; the rest of the film seems to be a mixture of fact and fiction, though Bicke does send sent music conductor Leonard Bernstein tapes of what he was thinking and planning near the end. There’s no real clue as to why he chose Bernstein, a man he never met, as his confessor. (In reality, Byck sent tapes to numerous famous people, including Benjamin Spock and Carol Channing.)
This straightforward, unpretentious movie, a debut effort by director Niels Mueller, has many nicely observed moments and thoughtful insight into the plight of the working stiff that are just as relevant today as they were 30 years ago. Yet the parts are better than the whole; even when the film gets to the climatic hijacking it remains very uncinematic. In some ways, the story might have worked better as a comedy—it has more in common with “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” than “Taxi Driver.”
Sean Penn as Bicke elevates this curiosity way beyond any interest it otherwise would have attracted. Coming off two of his better performances, last year’s “Mystic River” and “21 Grams,” Penn again finds just the right level of intensity and humanity to make us believe this guy is for real. His best moments come when he’s trying to find ways to reconcile with his wife (Naomi Watts, his co-star in “21 Grams”) and his children; he’s powerless, frustrated and deeply hurt and Penn gives us all of that in just the way he looks at them.
He’s surrounding by outstanding actors, including Don Cheadle as his best friend and erstwhile partner in his business scheme and Jack Thompson as his boss, who’s both full of himself and genuinely hopeful that Sam can become a good salesman. Also memorable is Michael Wincott playing Sam’s brother, who, in one scene near the end of the picture, offers no sympathy and unforgiving condemnation of Sam’s life.
MY 5 WIVES (2000)
Except for “Back to School” (1986), all of Rodney Dangerfield’s starring roles are pretty much the same; the films are harmlessly stupid while the bug-eyed comedian does his hilarious routine. There’s a bit more plot and character in “Back to School,” in which he plays successful businessman Thornton Melon who attends college with his son, but the other five vehicles are just opportunities for this one-of-a-kind character. (Before the screaming starts, yes “Caddyshack” is a comedy classic, but Dangerfield is a supporting character, hardly the star.)
This throw-away picture sends Dangerfield into a community of Utah Mormons, where he inherits five beautiful young wives when he purchases the estates of two deceased church members. The sex jokes are nonstop and the ridiculousness of 79-year-old Dangerfield keeping up with these five “demanding” women never stops being funny. Believe it or not, long-forgotten comedian John Byner plays Dangerfield’s rival, while Andrew Dice Clay, one of Dangerfield’s many comic discoveries, plays a Vegas mobster.
I’ve never read who came up with the idea of building a film around this unlikely star—he was 62 when his first, “Easy Money” (1983), was released—but it was a master stroke. If there was anyone worthy of inherited the W.C. Field’s comic mantle, it was Dangerfield: he answers every bad turn life presents to him with a sarcastic retort.
Oliver Stone used the cartoon image that Dangerfield had fine tuned for decades as the caricature of a abusive father in one of the strangest parts of “Natural Born Killers” (1994). How easily it was to turn this unthreatening whiner into a scary predator. But somehow, through the years, Dangerfield managed to seem lovable while offering up the sleaziest of jokes.
To me, one of the most unforgettable imagines of 1970s television was Rodney sprawled out on the guest chair next to Johnny Carson, pulling at his tie, sweating like a man headed for the electric chair and reeling off one liners like his life depended on it.
He turned the pitiful rantings of a loser into comedic art, earning himself a spot in the pantheon of great stand-ups.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)
About three-fourths through Clint Eastwood’s new film, just when I thought he had made a nice character study of a cranky boxing trainer, a surprising plot turn changes everything. The relationship between gym owner Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) and a determined neophyte Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) suddenly rises to an emotional and dramatic level way beyond its initial, cliched presentation of the unwilling mentor taking on the persistent student. Each become the most important person in the other’s life; a heartbreaking bond that matches the complex and fascinating relationships director Eastwood portrayed in last year’s “Mystic River.”
As different as the two movies are, they both dwell on emotional fragile characters who are looking, whether they know it or not, for a connection to others. While a murder drove the plot of “Mystic River,” in “Million Dollar Baby” it’s the sweaty, dingy world of boxing, especially the day-to-day workings of a second-rate Los Angeles gym, that the story flows from. Maggie starts working out at the gym on her own after Frankie ridicules her hopes that he’ll train her, dismissing the entire idea of “girl” fighters.
She refuses to give up and gets support from “Scrap Iron” (Morgan Freeman) who does all the dirty work at the gym for Frankie.
You hardly need to have seen many boxing movies to know that Frankie will soon be giving her tips and she’ll turn into an overnight sensation in the ring. But even in these early, predictable scenes, director Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis (working from stories by F.X. Toole) create three very original characters.
What makes “Million Dollar Baby” the best film of 2004 can’t be found in a simple description of the plot or even in the superb performances of Eastwood, Freeman and Swank. There’s a beauty in the writing—I don’t know how much is Haggis and how much is Toole—and the way director Eastwood leisurely lets it play out on the screen that is quite rare in American films. Just when you think the film is getting bogged down in some side story—a boxer ready for the big time leaves Frankie, a visit to Maggie’s white trash family or Frankie’s daily sparring with his priest—those pieces become relevant in ways you couldn’t have guessed.
Maybe the best directorial decision Eastwood made on this film was adding a narration (by Freeman) to the story. It goes in and out and sometimes is confusing in the way it addresses the story, but it has an accumulative effect that just knocks you out by the end. Usually, voice-overs feel tacked on or are used as an easy device to fill in plot holes, but here it’s central to the plot and, with Freeman doing the talking, it serves as relief to the pain of the story.
Beyond the narrative, Freeman gives a great performance, capturing the way “Scrap Iron” maintains his spirit after a disappointing life. There’s a scene midway through the film in which “Scrap Iron” takes Maggie to a small cafe for her birthday and then tells her the story of his last fight, number 109:
“They should’ve stopped the fight, but I was a black man in San Berdoo. Blood was what I was there for. Round after round I keep getting Frankie to patch me up. He’s talking about throwin’ in the towel but he ain’t my manager so he can throw in nothing. Round after round he’s arguing with me...I go 15 rounds. Lose by decision. The next morning I lose the eye. In 23 years he’s never said a thing about it. Doesn’t have to. I can see it in his face every time he looks at me. Somehow, Frankie thinks he should’ve stopped that fight. Should’ve saved my eye. Spends his life wishing he could take back that 109th fight. Shit, I wanted to go to 110.”
The interplay between “Scrap Iron” and Frankie is equally priceless; brotherly ribbing and a complete understanding of what makes the other tick. I think it’s Freeman’s performance that brings out what may be Eastwood’s best acting of his career. Looking all of his 74 years, the legendary star emphasizes the impatient bitterness of the character; the weight he carries for a broken relationship with his daughter and contributing to “Scrap Iron” losing his eye is evident in every scene, every expression.
Swank, who won the Oscar for her cross-gender performance in “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), does her best work yet as Maggie. Having transforming herself physically, you never doubt she can do what she does in the ring. But more importantly you feel the desperation in her character’s quest for some small glory in an otherwise dingy life. Swank sincerity, naivete, devotion dominate every scene she’s in, no small feat when acting beside Eastwood and Freeman.
I’d be remiss in not pointing out what seemed to me to be the one flaw of the picture: the over-the-top characterization of Maggie’s trailer-trash family. While their ignorant, self-serving view of Maggie helps explain her hunger for a slice of success, when the family reappears at the end of the film they become unnecessary cliches in an otherwise unflinchingly realistic picture.
For Eastwood to make two films of this caliber back to back is something of a miracle in the current climate of Hollywood; I think making a great film is harder than it’s ever been, but this director seems as determined as the boxer in his movie to show that he not what everyone sees him as. This heir apparent to John Wayne and one of the biggest box-office stars in American film history, also deserves a spot in the pantheon of great filmmakers.
HOTEL RWANDA (2004)
While I understand why he did it, director Terry George made this docudrama about the 1994 massacre of members of Rwanda's Tutsi tribe by the rival Hutus too easy to watch. George (who wrote "In the Name of the Father" among other films) isolates the main character—Paul Rusesabagina, an efficient and accommodating manager of a ritzy hotel in Kigali catering to Europeans—and his family in the hotel-turned-refugee camp while the genocide takes place outside the gates. They are very much in danger, especially after the Europeans are evacuated and the U.N. peace keepers pull out, but the impact can't match what even a small dose of the actual killing would have.
In the movie’s most powerful scene, Paul and one of his assistants, returning from a supply run, come upon a stretch of the road that is impassable because so many dead bodies lie in their path. This image tells you more about the reality of the tragedy—all but ignored by the United States and Europe—than dozens of heartbreaking, but more palatable, shots of frightened children and huddled masses in the hotel or the many close calls that Paul and his family experience.
Saving “Hotel Rwanda” from being a sincere, by-the-numbers picture is Don Cheadle as the savvy, endlessly resourceful Paul. After a decade of superb supporting roles, Cheadle finally gets a meaty role and shows he can carry a film. On screen nearly every minute of the film, he captures the unassuming bravery of this amazing man who realizes that the chances of his family surviving (his wife is Tutsi) are slim. He carries on, continually finding ways to keep the hotel’s refugees safe. His Oscar nomination is well deserved.
Sophie Okonedo makes Paul’s supportive wife very believable but I was surprised by her nomination since she doesn’t get much of a chance to show much more than fear. Representing the few whites who cared about Rwanda’s fate are Joaquin Phoenix as an American news cameraman and Nick Nolte as Col. Oliver, who does everything he can to protect Paul and his countrymen in spite of his U.N. orders.
MARIA FULL OF GRACE (2004)
This Colombian film presents intensely dramatic events with so little drama that it feels like a documentary. There’s both good and bad in that approach. While it hews closer to reality than most movies, it’s easy to lose the sense of danger, the life-and-death situations that this naïve girl must confront.
Catalina Sandino Moreno plays Maria, a 17-year-old Colombian who isn’t happy in her dead-end job at a flower factory and somewhat reluctantly agrees to transport drugs to America for a local smuggler. Swallowing capsules of drugs by the dozens, Maria and other selected girls fly to New York where the U.S. accomplices will collect the stash after it passes through their systems. It’s clearly an unpleasant business, but only a scene aboard the plane reflects the incredible stress on the girls.
The heart of the movie occurs after Maria and her friend flee their U.S. connections and attempt to navigate through the exotic world of New York City.
This film has gotten tons of good reviews and it’s certainly worth seeing, if only for the fine performance by Moreno (who received a best actress Oscar nomination), but its low-key approach left me longing for the energy American filmmakers regularly inject into this type of story. Then again, that would have meant that the second half of the film would become one long gun battle—maybe somewhere between the two styles might have been perfect.
BAD EDUCATION (2004)
In his latest film, acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar tries to dress up a rather simplistic plot by mingling the actual story of blackmail with the movie dramatization of the blackmailing. It’s a clever device and provides the actors a chance to portray both the fictional and “real” version of their characters, further emphasizing the film’s theme of confused identity. But try as he will, the filmmaker can’t hide the fact that nothing much happens in this noirish tale and what does is told over and over and over again.
I’m in the minority of questioning the greatness of Almodovar, but to me his last film “Talk to Me” (2002) wasn’t very coherent and “All About My Mother” (1999) was an entertaining homage to classic women’s pictures but way overpraised. His filmmaking skills are unquestionable but the content of his pictures often are rather muddled.
An aspect of “Bad Education” that shouldn’t be ignored, but has been in many reviews, is its frankness in dealing with sex between the main characters. While the nudity is more suggestive than graphic, Almodovar lingers over these men’s bodies as if he’s doing a Calvin Klein fashion shoot and stages very realistic sex scenes. Even if I had been interested in the story, it’s difficult for this heterosexual male to feel anything but discomfort during those scenes and other scenes where the director is clearly reveling in the male anatomy. I certainly don’t complain when similar attention is paid to female actresses (some of Brian DePalma’s work come to mind and every teen exploitation movie ever made), so I really can’t criticize Almodovar for it, but I don’t think I’m alone in finding the sexual aspect of the film hard to watch. Unfortunately, that remains a hurdle any filmmaker depicting gay sexuality must face.
The plot revolves around a gay filmmaker and his boyhood friend, who returns with a film project and a determined plan to be the star. But not everything is as it seems as the story of a predatory priest and a blackmailing transvestite unfolds.
The best reason to see this film is the marvelous performance of Gael Garcia Bernal, who was equally impressive earlier this year as Che in “The Motorcycle Diaries” and, in 2001, as a young adventurer in “Y tu Mama Tambien.” As much as the comparison is a cliché, you can’t help compare him to James Dean; he shares with Dean the ability to dominate a scene without doing much acting, even at his quietest moment he exudes the kind of screen presence 26-year-olds rarely possess. Hopefully that charisma will translate when he gets a chance later this year to work in an English-language film for the first time, playing a man named Elvis in “The King.”
THE SEA INSIDE (2004)
Almodovar isn’t the only acclaimed filmmaker working in Spain; Alejandro Amendabar, who came to prominence when he directed the dreamy sci-fi picture “Open Your Eyes” (1997) when he was just 25, is right on his heals.
That Spanish film became better known after Cameron Crowe made an American version in 2001 with Tom Cruise, renaming it “Vanilla Sky.”
His own psychological thriller, “The Others” (2001), is one of the best haunted house films made in years and features one of Nicole Kidman’s finest performances.
Now he’s directed Javier Bardem in a biography, of sorts, of paraplegic poet Ramon Sampedro, who fought for years in the Spanish courts for the right to die. Left paralyzed below the neck since he was a young man, Sampedro refuses the use of a wheelchair, instead staying in bed, listening to music and writing with a self-designed mouth-held writing utensil.
The film utilizes three women to reveal Sampedro’s complex personality: his devoted care-giving sister-in-law, a sensual lawyer who suffers from her own disability and a working-class mother with two children who believes Sampedro to be her soul mate.
While the movie becomes somewhat repetitive in its points about euthanasia, the charismatic performance by Bardem is irresistible. The actor combines just the right mix of erudite self-awareness and breezy sarcasm, allowing him to project a pleasant demeanor that just barely hides the turmoil brewing inside the character. The inevitable conclusion is handled with the same dignity that Bardem portrays Sampedro throughout the film.
While Sampedro’s skills as a writer aren’t that important compared to what he stood for as disabled man fighting for his rights, I think the film could have benefited from additional readings of his poetry. Bardem’s Sampedro exudes such a life-affirming vibrancy and clearly has such a rich inner life that it’s sometimes hard to understand why he can’t wait to die. Maybe his poetry offers clues.
THE WOODSMAN (2004)
It’s the rare film that portrays a criminal as an ordinary guy. In American movies, the bad guy usually comes off as either cartoonishly evil or a glamorous figure we just can’t help admire. Walter doesn’t match either of those cliches. Just out of prison for molesting young girls, he trying to restart his life with a job at a lumber yard and by trying to deal with his attraction to girls.
Nicole Kassell, making her feature debut as both a director and screenwriter (she co-wrote the film with Steven Fechter), manages to present this risky subject matter without turning it into a Lifetime movie. The film avoids being either preachy or lurid by focusing on Walter and the people in his life. Kevin Bacon’s lean, minimal performance is what really makes “The Woodsman” worth seeing. Bacon has always been a solid actor, but here, as he did in last year’s “Mystic River,” he hits another level; he’s so thoroughly invested in the character that even the slightest action provides insight.
Actually, all the acting is superb. Kyra Sedgwick (Bacon’s wife in real life) plays a tough-talking co-worker with her own troubled past who takes a chance with Walter; Benjamin Bratt, a “Law and Order” alumnus, is Walter’s brother-in-law, the one relative who speaks to him; and hip-hop artist Mos Def portrays a vice cop who’s keeping an eye on Walter.
Def, who received a Emmy nomination for his work on the HBO movie “Something the Lord Made” (2004), makes quite an impression in his two scenes grilling Walter on his activities. The musician-actor is set to play a key role in the long-awaited movie version of the legendary comic novel “A Confederacy of Dunces.”