Volume 2, Number 17
This Week's Reviews: Frequency, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Love & Basketball.
Retrospective Reviews: Clueless.
This Week's Omissions: Cotton Mary, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, Where the Heart Is.
(Dir: Gregory Hoblit, Starring Dennis Quaid, James Caviezel, Elizabeth Mitchell, André Braugher, Noah Emmerich, Daniel Henson, Shawn Doyle, Jordan Bridges, Melissa Errico, and Stephen Joffe)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Directly from the beginning of Frequency, Gregory Hoblit refrains from taking anything at ease. The film opens with a rush to stop a fire amongst a group of New York firefighters, their lives on the line for every second. The film does not keep a mad-rush going for the rest of the film, but, admittedly, there is no moment until the end where the film lets you really rest.
Frequency is, in many ways, a simple idea, nothing more. Countless films have come out based on a good idea but never successfully holding it for a feature length film. Frequency can join Being John Malkovich, as opposed to the turgid world of Gossip and Ravenous. It does not ever really make its mark as a film that will be remembered for its broken ground like Being John Malkovich, but for now, Frequency can serve as a momentary pleasure of the mind.
The story to the film is one that can be taken a little loosely. Admittedly, this is not one of those films to sit around and remember the technical inaccuracies, such actions would make hours of fun, but the film goes far beyond this. I remember the zeal that people had with Back to the Future, no one really took a second to care about the fact that people cannot travel time through a Delorian, yet there are some up in arms over this film. Why, perhaps because it is a drama, and such films are supposed to remain as accurate to life as possible. Truffaut was the king of realism, but even he went open to mindless work with Fahrenheit 451.
The story is about a man talking to his father through a ham radio some thirty years after the fact. In fact, the day that John Sullivan (Caviezal) happens to begin conversing with his father Frank Sullivan (Quaid; through sunspots, by the way) is just a few days before his dad will die. Of course, John convinces dear old dad to make the right decision in the fire he is supposed to die in, which makes matters pretty bad due to ever little change that it makes. I, of course, will not spoil the big change that the two make, but I will say that it does make things a little tough for the two, whose only mode of communication is solely based on the ever-changing weather.
The film is about the underlying tension and hope found in a lost relationship between a father and a son. To take this film at face a value, whether as a thriller or as a drama would be unfair, much of what the film means aesthetically is found in its minor tones. The way Jim Caviezal speaks to his father over time, not necessarily as a young, impresssionable man, but as a excited kid in a candystore. There are many ways that Hoblit and screenwriter Tobias Emmerich (brother to Noah Emmerich, who appears in this film) could have taken that conversation. I was enlightened that this was not yet another film about the attempts of a son to get his father's love, we've seen that shown too many times whether in Boiler Room or Magnolia.
Jim Caviezal is one of the best actors to come out over the past few years. It is a shame that actors like him and Tobey Maguire so often are forgotten beside more marquee friendly actors like James van Der Beek and Freddie Prinze, Jr., actors that couldn't hold a candle to these two. I was taken aback by his performance here, almost better than the one he brings to the fore in The Thin Red Line (i.e. 1998's The Insider).
Also of note amongst the cast is old standby Dennis Quaid. Over the last few years Quaid had all but disappeared with small roles in larger films and large roles in smaller films. And he's been good doing both; the work he gives in his miniscule roles for Playing by Heart and Any Given Sunday are the main reasons to see those films, however medicore the rest of them may be. There's also a tremendous performance in Savior, of course no one even heard of that one though.
I would like to think that Frequency would be
considered to be a fine film from most, unfortunately there are the innane that only look
at films at face value, one critical aspect that this film cannot stand beside.
|Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
(Dir: Jim Jarmusch, Starring Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo, Gene Ruffini, Richard Portnow, Camille Winbush, and RZA)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Jim Jarmusch's on-going attempt to dethrone David Lynch as Auteur of the Absurd has never been as tasteful and, in many ways, as tasteless as Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. I'm not a Jarmusch fan, I often find his films to be too absurd at times, the same downfall of many Lynch films (Dune, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway). While I did find Down by Law, Dead Man, and Stranger than Paradise to be interesting, if not wholly mediocre, the only time I truly enjoyed a Jarmusch film was the avant-garde social and cultural commentary Mystery Train. And none of his succeeding films took either the same note or the same success of the 1989 film. At least until Ghost Dog.
Ghost Dog does not really take itself too serious, pretentiousness has never been vivid in a Jarmusch film, which comes to its aid. The characters are one-dimensional, in many ways cultural stereotypes, bringing the film to a allegorical feeling (much in the same ways as the victims in American Psycho). Some characters meet the pure and just laws of life, others see life as a self-centered survival. Where the divisions are is not in the races of the characters, there are many African Americans in this film that lean toward the latter despite the feelings of the film's lead. The film more or less surrounds three distinct cultures. Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog falls into both the African American cliché, going around stealing cars and listening to rap, yet there is another cultural that pushes him, perhaps even more than his own background. He has learned the ways of the Japanese, mostly that of the samurai. Throughout the film he speaks of books with a young child whom he meets in the park, those books being Rashomon and The Way of the Samurai.
The third, much more present culture is the old American guard. Jarmusch does not simply take on the American populace, per se, instead emphasizing on the long stationed Italian gangsters. There is a moment in the film in which Ghost Dog asks a lone Italian what his future is, guessing that he will surely start up his own following, that is the way of life for these people. Is this necessarily true? Doubtful, I believe that Jarmusch is simply more interested in the aspects to the life than the occurrences of the real life.
Ghost Dog is now on the spot. He is a strict follower to the Japanese samurai tactics, including the chivalrous aspects, yet this endangers his life. When he was younger a Mafioso saved his life, now he considers himself indebted to this fellow, to the point that he offers his talents as a fine hitman (the film's many hits are often stunning). When a normal hit goes sour due to an unwelcome witness, the mafia, led by Vargo (the always great Henry Silva), begins efforts to free themselves of any connections to this Ghost Dog. To kill the man who saved his life is against everything in the samurai way, therefore fighting to live is almost futile.
Whitaker's Ghost Dog is one of the most interesting characters in films from recent years. He is a master marksman (at one point he kill a man through the drain of a sink) as well as a sound mind. So why is he such an outcast? In many way he makes it that way, and probably relishes it. The camaraderie between Ghost Dog and his only friend, a Haitian ice cream vendor named Raymond (De Bankolé, looking strikingly like Vondie Curtis-Hall), is made bitter sweet by the fact that neither of them understand a word the other says, Ghost Dog only knows English, Raymond only French. Yet, they gain more from their muddled conversations than from anyone else in their lives.
Jarmusch and cinematographer Robbie Müller have a keen eye for the camera, taking each sequence with nice touches of both subtlety and blatant showmanship. The film is flawed, it runs dry for a while towards the end, and the performances from the cast besides Silva and Whitaker seem really flat, but there is much to save such impediments.
Taking this film strictly as is can only lead towards
distaste; the film is made with a certain second-guessing quality. Jarmusch is not
simply grasping the story, but the underlying tone to it. To truly take on such
calls for a great deal of thought as well as distance from reality. Why else is real
life so often heard to believe?
|Love & Basketball
(Dir: Gina Prince, Starring Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert, Debbi Morgan, Harry J. Lennix, Kyla Pratt, Glenndon Chatman, and Tyra Banks)
BY: DAVID PERRY
There was a period last year in which I spent a great deal of time panning cultural and social genres. Though I sang the praises of Spanish films, those films from African Americans and homosexuals failed to incite many kind words from me. Each time I panned such a film, I went into a rant confirming that this was neither racist nor homophobic, I seriously disliked Foolish and trick, they were two of the worst films I saw last year.
So recommending such a film almost seems bittersweet. Some may take it in the tone I mean it, as my actual opinion of the film, others might think that I am trying to make my prior denouncements seem redeemable. Why am I taking so long to vent a rant on something so unimportant? Very simply, I get some rather unhappy reader mail whenever I fail to recommend such a film.
That said, Love & Basketball is a far to superior to Belly, Caught Up, Trippin', or any of the other African American films that I have panned over the past few years. In fact it is a rather respectable film, one of the year's better efforts. The film is in the same vein as The Wood and The Best Man, two respectable films however highly flawed, but it is better. I had a certain kinship with Love & Basketball. No, I was no premier basketball player in my hey-day, but there was a certain cling to it, something that words cannot evoke.
With the charm of a smile and grace of an expression, leads Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan do for the screen what James Mason and Judy Garland did with A Star Is Born. In fact, this film is in many ways a basketball version of that 1954 film. It has the early obsession, the distinguished peak, and the gradual downfall for both the leads. No, Sanaa Lathan does not have a grand line at the end as such, but the films do have enough to merit considerable comparison. I'm sure that it is much more refined towards its lead-in than O, a basketball take on the tragedy of Othello, shall be.
Love & Basketball is about the budding and struggling romance between two people, each destined to a future in basketball. Quincy (Epps) is interested in what the game brings him, the woman and cash is more than he can pass on; meanwhile, Monica (Lathan) has her heart in the game, it is practically all she knows in life. Quincy is the son of a retired NBA player, a man that he slowly learns to hate and distrust over life's trials. The only person that really remains by his side throughout is Monica, but he is too harsh, too stubborn to see what a perfection she is.
Every scene between Quincy and Monica, up until their "third quarter" falling apart, is one in which Quincy whole character is different; Monica makes him a better person just by contact. Yet, Quincy is not one to catch on to things, when he has her he regrettably lets her go. Why, because she let him down. After years of him doing things that would bring shame to her, she is painfully dumped by choice of digression, one that might have ended her basketball future.
The film is divided into four quarters: the childhood, high school, college, and the aftermath. The two middle areas are the best and the longest, while the other two really serve simply as a prologue and an epilogue, merely making the story have the needed moments to establish the characters and flesh out the story. I feel that a film spending much more time one the middle quarters would have been a superior film.
Still, there is little to complain about from Love & Basketball, it is well written and directed, yet the true heart to its success is in its leads, both of whom give performances that come across way too irregularly. I was not really knowledgeable about Lathan before seeing this film, so I was really surprised when she blew me away during this film. She is a great talent that needs to appear in more films. Epps is always fine to his roles, I think that he has potential to carry his career long into the middle age.
Love & Basketball is one of those fine films
from the African American film community. It is not simply a film of such, but a
fine film from anyone.
Retrospective Reviews: It plagues me. It follows me. Yet, whenever Clueless is on I watch it.
(Dir: Amy Heckerling, Starring Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Paul Rudd, Brittany Murphy, Donald Faison, Dan Hedaya, Justin Walker, Breckin Meyer, Elisa Donovan, Jeremy Sisto, Aida Linares, Wallace Shawn, Twink Caplin, and Susan Mohun)
BY: DAVID PERRY
There are some films that seem so true to life that they scare me. I remember seeing Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High before I was in high school and had no earthly idea what was really happening. I more or less considered the film to be a farce, nothing more. In my pure mind, that slacker, stoner, sexed-up world could not be true, not in this country. Then I get to high school and find just how close to life it really is. Almost every part of the film fits into the high school life with the exception of the purely 1980's touches.
Then Heckerling brought out Clueless, a nice film that happened to hit me at the time that I was in high school. What struck me more than anything, and surely the reason that I care for this film more than Heckerling's previous high school film, was the fact that it was my day to day life. I knew someone exactly like Cher, the film's ditsy protagonist that has more heart that anyone can really handle. I'll not name names in fear that I might have a rather unpretty confrontation from such person at the next reunion, but this girl really was that ditsy, that dumb, yet had a certain appeal that reached more into where she was coming from than what she was.
Cher and her entourage walks through the school with dazzling appeal and unflinching confidence. This has been tried countless times of recent day with films like Jawbreaker and Drive Me Crazy, none of which really catch on to what Heckerling was trying to do as both director and screenwriter. This is not simply a film that mocks the posh people in high school. So often films touch on the "in-crowd" in a dark light, almost assuredly feelings of retribution from angry high school "outsiders." I did thoroughly enjoy Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, which is much more about fitting in than about Clueless' underlying story of finding true love, but it is in the exact same vein as Clueless when treating its protagonists. To paraphrase Lara Flynn Boyle in Happiness: "We're not laughing at them, were laughing with them" (to which Jane Addams replies in the same way as Cher, Dionne, Romy, or Michele: "But I'm not laughing").
There is little contempt in this film. Cher may be a tack-hammer moron, but there is such a nice person inside that one cannot go beyond her brains. She is arguably one of the best characters in films from 1996, with a fine performance from nearly anonymous Alicia Silverstone. At one point in the film she calls the cartoon Ren and Stimpy "so existential" after hearing the phrase used in an intellectual conversation. This line of dialogue could have been taken on insidiously, but the charming delivery from Silverstone and the subsequent lines from Paul Rudd ("You have no idea what you're saying." "No, but do I sound like I do?") make it seem like a sweet error from unknowing puppy love.
And puppy love is the whole meaning to the film. Cher is simply a matchmaker, too much in her work with Tai (Murphy) to notice that she too is in need of a match ("Searching for a boy in high school is like searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie"). Her best friend Dionne (named after fellow 70's singing star turned infomercialist Dionne Worwhick), is happy in a touching relationship with Murray (Faison), the character that could have easily been a stereotypical gangster but goes beyond that to find a real, three dimensional person, and Cher is ambivalent to the budding romance from half-brother Josh (Rudd). She makes some wrong turns both in matching others and finally in attempting to match herself up. She more or less ruins the love life of Tai when setting her up with Elton (Sisto), only to find Tai more popular than her after a while. She also tries hilariously to capture the attention of Christian, a guy that just happens to be gay (the Tony Curtis obsession does not tip her off).
Clueless is based on the Jane Austen novel Emma, which was itself brought to the screen as a Gwyneth Paltrow release the following year, which is testament to how age old this story is. Cher, the flighty matchmaker, is one of those people that everyone knows at least once in their life and, in a nice way, will touch them for the rest of their lives. There have been countless revised editions of literary classics on the screen since Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, sometimes succeeding (Great Expectations, Prospero's Book [from The Tempest]), sometimes not (Whatever it Takes [from Cyrano de Bergerac], She's All That [from Pygmalion]), but never comparing to this gem.
Clueless is one of the best high school films
ever made, ranking up there with To Sir, With Love, Ferris Bueller's Day Off
(noteworthy as one of the few times that my persona was successfully brought to the
screen), Dazed and Confused, Election, and, of course, Fast Times at
Ridgemont High. No, the film is no Citizen Kane or The Passion of
Joan of Arc, but really should it be? A smart film like this should never be
too smart for its own good. Election was way too intellectual for teenagers
and too much like a teenage film to be welcome by the intellectuals, for that very reason
it floundered at the box office. Clueless on the other hand meets
everything needed on both camps. The trials and tribulations of fitting in to a
niche -- anyone who has been to high school can remember those days.