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Volume 2, Number 14

This Week's Reviews:  Black and White, Rules of Engagement, The War Zone.

This Week's Omissions:  Ready to Rumble, Return to Me.



Black and White

(Dir: James Toback, Starring Bijou Philips, Allan Houston, Power, Brooke Shields, Robert Downey, Jr., Mike Tyson, Ben Stiller, Claudia Schiffer, William Lee Scott, Kim Matulova, Gaby Hoffman, Elijiah Wood, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Kidada Jones, Raekwon, Joe Pantoliano, Jared Leto, and James Toback)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

The first, and most striking, message of all that come out of James Toback's latest opus, Black and White, is that we are a posh, elitist white American society that strives to be black.  Such is the case with a Charlie (Philips, half-sister of Mackenzie Philips), a young, upper-East side girl that wants and yearns to be black.  She, more than anyone else, knows that this is merely a phase; there is not a doubt in her mind that five, ten years down the line, she'll be denouncing the life she currently lives, but for now she is in heaven.

Charlie is just one of the people and stories that come in this intertwining story.  Just as muddled and lost as Magnolia and Short Cuts, Black and White uses a lack of heavy-handedness to tell the story and run it across within the story's time constraints.  There is no doubt in my mind that ten more minutes of the film would be too much; in fact I actually consider the film's credits backed epilogue to be a little bit much beyond a few hilarious breakthroughs that occur there.

These are the people that have crossed our paths many of times, maybe even the real people all of us are.  Everyone is made up of those hopes and dreams, however misguided and deceiving they may be.  Take in the story of college basketball player Dean (real life New York Knicks player Houston), who makes a few wrong decisions, takes the wrong steps, and falls for it.  Everything seems in his way, the short-fused gangster friend, the overzealous police officer, the faithless and unfaithful girlfriend, and no one really is there to save him from taking the ultimate plummet.  All this for that little hope, yearning for some extra cash.

The most gratuitously self-congratulatory and interesting aspect of the film is its frame story, a documentary on the white high school students that act black.  Bringing us back to the Charlie story, NYU documentarian Sam Donager (Shields) follows Charlie and her friends around with her camera and films their testimonies and their settings.  Tagging along with Sam is her ambiguously gay husband Terry (Downey, Jr.), who seems to be noticeably gay to everyone but Sam (one of the film's finest moments is when Terry attempts to convince Sam that he is in fact gay).

And how does Charlie et al, link to the basketball player?  The opening of the film shows a three-way sex act between Charlie, a friend, and the gangster changes from loving to threatening towards the basketball player.

Not all of the film works perfectly, despite a fantastic rapport between the actors.  Each performer melds their characters to their needs, a much called for act since Toback asked the actors to improvise most of their scenes (if it works for Mike Leigh, why not James Toback?).  The film is best when it works with Downey, Jr. and Stiller, two of the finest actors around.  The acting ability of Downey, Jr. has been noted time and again, he really is talented and is often given material to work his magic in.  But there is a bit of a surprise behind the strong performance from Ben Stiller; Stiller has time and again played the exact same funny-guy parts, rarely getting to really act.  Only twice before have I seen Stiller pushed into films with strict acting and darker undertones, those being Your Friends and Neighbors and Permanent Midnight.  The performance here blows the two away, he is genuinely likable and hatable at the same time.  The moments between Stiller and Houston, or Stiller and Schiffer, or Stiller and Pantoliano are priceless moments; they are the cream of the crop with Stiller shining in each pairing.

And let's not get overboard here on the accolades, the film is far from perfect.  One thing that makes Mike Leigh a famed and beloved director is his ability to work improvised performances into a viable film, little of what Toback creates makes sense.  I was both awed by its work and saddened by its marred return.  Most of the actors work well in the improvised structure (yes, even Mike Tyson, whose best line is "I'm a man who has made too many mistakes to be known for his wisdom"), but others, especially Schiffer and Scott, seem flattened by this.

Toback successfully makes a world that meets his story, a story that simply says to create is divine, but, some times, to recreate is abysmal.


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Rules of Engagement

(Dir: William Friedkin, Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Guy Pearce, Bruce Greenwood, Ben Kingsley, Anne Archer, Philip Baker Hall, Nicky Katt, Richard McGonagle, Amidou, Conrad Bachmann, and Jihane Kortobi)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

William Friedkin could easily be considered one of the best directors in the history of filmmaking.  Coming off the likes Michaelangelo Antonioni, Friedkin made films like The Exorcist and The French Connection run their course better than most films of the time.  One thing that he always did with The Exorcist was never having a stationed camera that would take various shots.  Instead of having cutting from two different camera set-ups, Friedkin never used the same camera set-up more than once.  This made The Exorcist look better and feel better than any director could have done.  The man is a film genius.

And that cinematic ability is not absent from Rules of Engagement.  So why does this new film fail?  To put it simply, it is all in the script.  Friedkin, cinematographers William A. Fraker (Bullitt), Nicola Pecorini (steadicam operator, The Last Emperor), and Darius Wolski (Dark City), and the entire cast do their best to save a sorry script, however much they can.  And they do succeed in a way -- everyone does their best in their respective field -- but the screenplay by Stephen Gaghan is so poor, so weak that little can save the film.

Admittedly the premise is not bad, of course the untalented Mr. Gaghan did not come up with the story, that was former Secretary of the Navy James Webb.  Sure it is a bit too much like A Few Good Men, but it still seems like something that might have had potential.  I can see why the story would have bought on Friedkin's attention, but there was nothing to save the screenplay.

The film is more or less about two men who fight on two different grounds for each other.  Hayes Hodges (Jackson) fought to save Terry Childers (Jones) on the battlefields of Vietnam, and now Childers fight to save Hodges in the courtroom of a court marshal.  Hodges was in command of a marine unit evacuating the American embassy in Yemen and, after three soldiers were dead and other including himself were wounded, ordered the marines under his charge to fight upon the crowd of people instead of the snipers across the way.  After cleaning up the 83 dead bodies, the Yemeni government reports that no weapons were found near the victims, meaning that Hodges commanded the American military there to shoot on unarmed protestors.  He is now on trial for murdering 83 Yemeni.

His choice of Childers as his attorney is a surprise for everyone involved; Childers is a recently retired marine that has been behind a desk since taking some shots in Vietnam.  But Hodges trusts Childers, he thinks that his old friend can get him out of the execution that awaits him.  Things do not bode well for the two, with a sharp Marine major (Pearce) brought in for the prosecution, a corrupt National Security Advisor (Greenwood) taking care of the evidence, and a corruptible ambassador to Yemen (Kingsley) who does not mind turning on he who saved his life.

There are many moments that do not pan out for the film.  After going to Yemen for evidence in his favor and sees the horror of what had happened to the young children in the line of fire, Childers returns to Hodges, drunken and angry, only to fight his old friend until the two middle aged men lie on the ground and laugh at their current state.  What does this have to do with the story?

Then there are the plot points that make no sense whatsoever.  National Security Advisor William Sokal takes a tape that proves that the Yemeni were shooting on the soldiers only to throw it in the fire.  If I'm not mistaken, wouldn't that prove that the American soldiers were doing the right thing and not breaching the peace established between the two nations?

The film does look good, with Friedkin striving to make things sensibly work, and the actors are all fine (especially Jackson and Pearce, though I could not figure out what type of accent he was attempting), but there is no getting around the flat screenplay.  I'd say that Friedkin's own words about this film will parallel those of Sokal over the tape:  "I don't want to watch it; I don't want to testify about it; I don't want it to exist."


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The War Zone

(Dir: Tim Roth, Starring Freddie Cunliffe, Lara Belmont, Ray Winstone, Tilda Swinton, Colin J. Farrell, Aisling O'Sullivan, and Kate Ashfield)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Tim Roth is one of the best actors in films right now.  Unfortunately he never gets lead roles (except for in really small films like Little Odessa and Gridlock'd), but his smaller parts are always some of the most interesting roles in the respective films.  There was that over-his-head restaurant robber in Pulp Fiction, that undercover cop in Reservoir Dogs, that deliciously evil fiend in Rob Roy, that overzealous henchman in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, all characters that he made into scene-stealers.  Yet Roth is still a Hollywood outsider, in fact he still bartends every once and a while for a little cash.

So what's next for this humble actor?  None other than the director's chair.  Following in the feet of Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and, most notably, Gary Oldman, Roth has not only made a great career as an actor, but has also directed a film to be highly proud of without appearing in the film.  The War Zone is, in many ways, a facsimile of Nil by Mouth, the directorial debut of Gary Oldman, but is a far superior.  Not only does the story work better, but there is also the fact that Roth is an able director.  I must admit that I expected less prowess on his part, but I should have taken into account the directors that he has worked with, names like Guiseppe Tornatore, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Peter Greenaway, and Wim Wenders.

Roth and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey brings a visual style of both fear and depravity without going too far (take note, Alan Rudolph).  What I saw in the set-up for The War Zone was that of a true cinematic artist; to make a film from a different setting is one thing, but to do so in an entirely realistic way is a whole other world.

One of this year's best performances turned out to be from a first time actor.  Freddie Cunliffe has never been in another film (as comparable to American Beauty's Wes Bentley in the fact that Bentley had a very minor role in Beloved and a supporting role in an unreleased thriller with Antonio Bandaras), but he shows pain and loss in his eyes that usually comes with great experience.  I'd dare say that he gives the most commanding film debut since John Cazale jumped onto the screen as Fredo in The Godfather.  Also notable is the film's lead female, Lara Balmont, who had never been in a film previously either.

Cunliffe plays Tom, a young Englishman, aged 15, that is forced to move from his happy domicile in London to a small village in Devon after his dad (Winstone) searches out a job.  He is not happy here, there is not a person that he would consider a friend with the exception of a young girl named Lucy (Ashfield) who lives nearby.  His dad is congenial, a little happy with the home he has set-up for his family and the third child on its way.  But the mystery to this family is in its sexually budding 18 year old daughter Jessie (Belmont).

The heart of the film is in Tom and his reaction to the secret he learns about Jessie.  Exposing this discovery would be rather ruthless on my part, one of the things that mark it is the fact that it does not come to mind until the facts fall into place.  One thing that I will remark on is the way that Roth deals with this secret's discovery for Tom. The audience is unable to see what Tom sees at that particular moment, but the second that he come back into the scene and the puzzled face he has tells all.

All the performers give magnificent performances, with the two youths shining.  Both Winstone and Swinton, as the parents, take on characters that need a particular touch, much more flashy than the other two, but still demanding.  The War Zone is not the type of films that will stand out in the future for these actors; I'd dare say that when doing research on films for these actors in ten years, this film will be one of those films that no one mention, however undeservingly.

To control a type of style both in acting performance and filming stylistics is a problem that plagues most films made by the Hollywood establishment; there are things that just cannot be done, even in today's social morays.  But this film never lets anything fall into the needs of a Hollywood film.  This is as independent a film can get, produced by a small first timer called Lot 47 Films in Europe on a shoestring budget.  In fact this film goes so far at times that it did not even try for a rating from the MPAA, its line crossing moments in both sex and nudity would have probably netted it an NC-17.

Is The War Zone a cornerstone in filmmaking?  Yes, but unfortunately, no one will ever see it.


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Reviews by:
David Perry
2000, Cinema-Scene.com

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