> Volume 2 > Number 36

Volume 2, Number 36

This Week's Reviews:  Shoot the Piano Player, The Way of the Gun, Nurse Betty, Fahrenheit 451, The Watcher.

This Week's Omissions:  God's Army, The Opportunists, Turn It Up.

Shoot the Piano Player

(Dir: François Truffaut, Starring Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger, Michèle Mercier, Jean-Jacques Aslanian, Richard Kanayan, Daniel Boulanger, Serge Davri, Claude Heymann, Catherine Lutz, Claude Mansard, and Albert Rémy)



Like most of François Truffaut's films, Shoot the Piano Player is not a film to really rally into a particular genre.  It's upfront pacing and weaving story does not fall into what one might consider a quintessential early 1960's film.  That's just not Truffaut's style.

What the man does like, though, is to keep the audience on their feet, something that he strived to do with every film that came from his mind.  Shoot the Piano Player is his first play on the gangster noir films that had been big in America the previous decade.  But Truffaut does not stop there, giving it a light dose of Billy Wilder's black comedy.

The previous year, Truffaut had wowed audiences with his The 400 Blows, a rather uplifting autobiographical tale.  With the depressing comedy Jules and Jim on his mind (which he would go onto make the next year), Truffaut tackled the more lighthearted novel Down There by David Goodis.  With the title Tirez Sur le Pianiste (American title: Shoot the Piano Player), Truffaut attempted to make a calculated move in showing that the French New Wave, of which he stood as a founding father, was not merely the producer of tight-ended dramas.

It is this film that really placed Truffaut's mark as being a product of the film's he had seen and the directors that had awed him.  To consider Shoot the Piano Player without a precursor of Dark Passage, High Sierra, or The Man Who Knew Too Much would be heresy to Truffaut's own vision.  He was just like the audience, enthralled with what was on the screen and so incited as to make his own homage to the finer works.

Shoot the Piano Player is about a tiny Parisian bar pianist with a secret past.  Charlie Kohler (Aznavour) has become a resident staple of the bar, with his fine tunes and infatuation with a barmaid named Lena (Dubois).  But this is not the whole story of Charlie Kohler, who spent all his previous years as Eduoard Saroyan, a marginally recognized pianist.

When his brother Richard (Aslanian) stumbles into the cafe on the run, Charlie helps him escape, which entangles him into Richard's problem.  Have swindled some swindlers, Richard and other brother Chico (Rémy) have made the gangsters want any Saroyan to pay for the problem.  For that reason, Charlie, Lena, and youngest brother Fido (Kanayan) each have run-ins with some bungling hoods (Mansard and Bolinger).

The story escalates into a climax that may have you thinking High Sierra or Grand Illusion, but still reiterating "masterpiece."  Some have complained that this film is fluff in the grandest sense -- a fine looking film with no bite.  But that is never the intention of this film.  While there are some moments that keep this film from being an all out fun time at the theatre -- including a downbeat finale -- it remains true to itself as a film entranced in filmmaking.

I was not bored for a moment, and I could feel more for Charlie than what I get from most of the regular protagonists in modern films.  This film is just at the right length before becoming pretentious in its cinematic excursions (the proper use of flashback) and never talks down or preaches to the audience, like was often the case with Jean Renoir's films, some of which surely went into the making of Shoot the Piano Player.

Truffaut made this film in a month and a half in widescreen with black and white film, all of which make it better than could possibly be imagined.  The artistry of its camera use and deep shadowy look, built in with a quick and often abrupt pacing make this more fun than many of Truffaut's other works -- at least until Day for Night some fifteen years later. 

But all this can only be expected from the master of French cinema.  Shoot the Piano Player may not be the quintessential 1960's film, but it sure is the quintessential Truffaut film.


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The Way of the Gun

(Dir: Christopher McQuarrie, Starring Ryan Phillipe, Benicio Del Toro, Juliette Lewis, James Caan, Taye Diggs, Nicky Katt, Dylan Kussman, Geoffrey Lewis, Scott Wilson, Kristin Lehman, and Henry Griffin)



Five years ago I would have built a mansion for Christopher McQuarrie, I would have gone great lengths for this chap thanks to the fact that I found him to be one of the best men in the business of screenwriting.  His script for The Usual Suspects knocked my socks off and I was set to sing the praises of both him and director Brian Singer.

But what a difference five years can make.  While I did not hate Apt Pupil or X-Men, I cannot really hold them beside Singer's The Usual Suspects.  Meanwhile McQuarrie has succeeded in remaining low for a while, just now coming up to make his directorial debut with The Way of the Gun -- proof that he should stay far away from the camera again.

And this is not saying that this is a directorial mistake.  In fact, I was more appalled at how horrid the screenplay was, a sad state considering how highly I felt for his earlier script.  The Way of the Gun is a distraction from cinema in the most offensive sense.  This yearns to be a Tarantino piece but never comes near the masterworks like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, instead coming closer to the Tarantino screenplays for From Dusk Till Dawn and Desperado.

The film follows two men, searching to find their place in life.  There's Mr. Parker (Phillippe), a baby-faced punk who sees everything through a looking glass darkly, and there's Mr. Longbaugh (Del Toro), a gruff smoothie who just struts around with an attitude that mixes panache with dim-wittedness.  These are the protagonists of a story in which people shoot each other in the grand scheme of getting a little money (cut back to those fine words from Marge near the end of Fargo).

These two fellows overhear a conversation at a sperm bank about a millionaire that has a surrogate mother currently at work on bringing him a child.  That millionaire is Mr. Chidduck, a schemer who seems to be a little more mafioso than corporate giant.  When Parker and Longbaugh kidnap the very pregnant surrogate mother, Robin (Lewis), they find that their ransom is not near as easy to get as they had hoped.

Chidduck does not simply send Robin's two bodyguards (Diggs and Katt), but also her doctor (Kussman) and his 'cleaner' (Caan; very reminiscent of Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction and Jean Reno in La Femme Nikita), who in turns brings in a whole army of elderly men with guns.

By the last thirty minutes of the film, everyone is in Mexico shooting it out.  Those elders are first introduced then and it is quite apparent that their only reason for being in the film is so that some people can get shot for a very long shoot-out.

There are times in which I really dislike sitting in a theatre, this was one of those moments.  By the third act, I was ready to leave.  And this is not to say that there is nothing good in this film, in fact the first few moments are fine, even worthy of a Tarantino film -- but the rest comes closer to those latter-day berserk Oliver Stone films.

We are introduced to the characters of the film and see them start the ball to what encompasses the rest of the film -- all is fine up to this point.  But once the characters are engulfed in their action, and, in turn, engulfed in intrigue and double-crossings, the whole film falls apart and leaves the audience scratching their heads with disdain.

Is that what McQuarrie was going for, to make a film that could cause audiences to run for the exits screaming?  It sure looks like it, and there is little doubt in my mind that this was as much a pain to make as it was to watch.  I can only feel bad for people like Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt, who will have critics reminding them of their appearance in "that 2000 monstrosity The Way of the Gun" for years to come.

This is built like old westerns with that Tarantino edge, Wild Bunch meets Reservoir Dogs, with a little The Treasure of the Sierra Madre thrown in.  But its characters lack one thing that made those films watchable: likeability.  There was not a single character in this film that I liked.  By the end, as some of them are dying off, I'm still hoping that all of them will get their comeuppance and die.

I'm not trying to be callous here, but I really hated these people.  I did not mind the two leads up until they torture another character for some information.  This character is not a bad person, but just someone to give pain and suffering to only because he knows something important.  I'm sure that someone will say "well, what about the cop in Reservoir Dogs?"  Well, need I remind you that the cop is tortured and killed, but his torturer is a foreseen badguy and someone that does get his just desserts.

This marks the third weekend in a row that violence has made me dislike a film, following in the shoes of The Art of War and Highlander: Endgame.  Is this the derivation of violence these days?  Is there a real reason that we have characters meet demises that seem more suited in a Friday the 13th film than in a crime thriller?  I'm sick and tired of directors really thinking that watching a man strapped to barb wire, pulling him apart on each side, is going to make me enjoy a film any more, especially when the character does not even deserve such actions.

This film made me dislike viewing it, and that is tough to do.  Even when I hate films, I often have a little fun making fun of it.  This film was simply a bore mixed with growing pointless violence -- something that made me just hate the world I know.


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Nurse Betty

(Dir: Neil LaBute, Starring Renée Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear, Tia Texada, Aaron Eckhart, Crispin Glover, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Allison Janney, Steven Gilborn, Kathleen Wilhoite, Harriet Sansom Harris, and Laird Mackintosh)



Idealism is the last thing I'd ever think I'd find in a Neil LaBute film. With just two films under his belt, LaBute has already positioned himself as the man for cynics in independent films. Just three years ago, In the Company of Men appalled countless viewers with such a wicked look and feel that no one could discount him, even after the next year's Your Friends & Neighbors failed to take to audiences and critics.

So for a follow-up to two films showing the denigration of human evolution in modern America, LaBute takes on a happy film with a nice message and a quaint finale. Yes, there's many dark moments to this film, but I find it less appalling to see a man scalped than to see that same man take every measure possible to ruin the life of a woman.

Nurse Betty (Zellweger) is not really a nurse, in fact, she's a diner waitress.  But that does not matter in her mind -- if you ask her, she is a Kansas nurse heading towards a practice in Los Angeles to meet up with her ex-fiancée Dr. David Ravell (Kinnear).

Now, this L.A. practice is the setting of a soap opera called A Reason to Live, and that Dr. Ravell is the star of that show.  It seems that the witnessing of her husband Del's (Eckhart) murder one night brings on psychological repression, making her believe that she is part of the show -- not as an actress but as a character.

So she packs things up and heads out in a Buick LaSabre from Del's car lot and makes way to her old lover.  Meanwhile, the father-son team that killed Del are after her.  Not only was she a witness, but also is driving the car that they killed for, filled with cocaine in the trunk.  En route, the father Charlie (Freeman) begins to dream of what a great person that Betty is and even thinks of a possible love affair they could have.

There are so many fine moments in this film that it almost seems impossible that it leans towards misfire occasionally.  The moment when Betty gets a chance to meet Dr. Ravell, whose real name is George, and the two converse -- Betty in a normal conversation, George thinking that he is simply watching a woman audition for a character on the show.

These little intricacies that make this a fine film are enough to keep it running, even though a couple characters seem too easy.  Betty is on cloud nine, finally speaking to her long lost love, while we see the confusion that goes through George, trying to figure out why this woman has walked up to him at a fundraiser and starts calling him by his character's name.

I adored Greg Kinnear in As Good As It Gets, but I think that he outdoes himself here.  It pains me that he has been stuck in films like Dear God and A Smile Like Yours -- he has talent that remains untapped in crap like Loser.  I was astounded by him here.  He plays the role in a smarmy way that never gets out of hand but remains real.

But the real attraction to this film is Renée Zellweger, who has played a disappearing act in Hollywood films, only recently returning with Me, Myself & Irene.  Zellweger shines here unlike most actresses her age could comprehend.  The naïveté that she emotes is far beyond names like Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar.  I would love to see her take in an Oscar nomination for this film.

Though she is the title character, Betty could easily share the screen if not for such a title and standout performance.  The character of Charles is allotted nearly as much screentime and has a great parallel story to boot.  Morgan Freeman serves up a fine performance, balancing a hardened killer with a sweet elder to his son Wesley (Rock).  Beside almost any other actress, Freeman could have pushed this into a full-fledged lead.

Neil LaBute did not write this screenplay, and it shows.  One of the best things about his scripts are the dialogue, and the usual wicked wit is not there.  The real treat is the story not the words.  Screenwriters John Richards and James Flamberg have a fine story to tell but not really the skills to write it.  While the actors are able to make the best of the dialogue through their characterizations, the threat is still there.

Of course, there's no telling how different this film would be had LaBute taken the task of writing based on the Richards story.  I'm sure that there would be much more musing on the evils of Del, Charlie, and Wesley, but where could that story go?  Betty does not need a foil from bad guys, she needs a someone to relate to, or at least someone to relate to her.

I entered Nurse Betty fully knowing that I was not going to see another LaBute cynic's expose pushing towards an oblivion of suffering and depression. In fact, I thought I'd be leaving with a smile on my face.  I did.


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Fahrenheit 451

(Dir: François Truffaut, Starring Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack, Anton Diffring, Bee Duffell, Anna Palk, Ann Bell, Caroline Hunt, Noel Davis, and Alex Scott)



When François Truffaut took on the task of making Fahrenheit 451, he was so excited that he forgot to make it as great as it could have been.  Now, lets not say that it is a bad film, but it is not really what might be considered a stand-out Truffaut film.  And this is not simply because it is a sci-fi film in English, neither of which he had ever done.

The real problem is that it remains unclear as to where the film is supposed to grab the viewer.  I have the bad luck of knowing the Ray Bradbury novel that the film is based on, and can see the amount of stuff that could not make the cut.  In fact, the main moment of special effects are spent on something that Truffaut and fellow screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard imagined as opposed to one of the novel's finest ideas (robotic dogs used for fugitive apprehension).

But despite some set-backs the film does tell one of the finest stories ever put onto fiction shelves.  There is no doubt in my mind that Fahrenheit 451 deserves a spot up there with Salenger's The Catcher in the Rye and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath -- and this film does the novel justice.

Like Orwell's 1984, Huxley's A Brave New World, and Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451 portrays the future rather bleak, with a government that oppresses and a population predominately willing to be oppressed.  In this case, the real oppression of interest is the written word, which has been deemed illegal by the government.

In this future, houses are fireproof, meaning that the only job for firemen is to make fires, in this case burning books.  The government decided that people are hurt and often incited by books (one head firemen mentions that smokers were hurt by the release of books on lung cancer), meaning that books are bad and must be destroyed.

One fireman is Montag (Werner), who has been more than willing to follow his leaders in the quest to rid the world of all books, many of which are now hid in the homes of some people defying the government.  Montag is so good at the job that the higher forces are looking to give him a promotion.

But things are not really all that great for Montag.  His wife (Christie) is a zombie to the interactive televisions that crowd their suburban home, often taking government sanctioned drugs that help her in some mysterious ailment.  She cavorts around the house, throwing small parties for her girlfriends and awaiting the next showing of her favorite show.

Montag could have it better, and soon finds solace in a young neighbor that runs into him on the train from work.  Clarisse (also Christie sans long wig) is a free spirit with an imagination.  What sets her apart from the rest is that imagination, one that is not created by whatever the government puts on television for the night, but in the novels of yesteryear that she and her uncle hide away to read.

Montag does not immediately come to find books to be part of his life, but soon begins picking one or two up at routine book burnings.  The action so incites everyone, not only those that see him reading but those that can feel his change in character, that his job and marriage become questionable.

I have never understood why Oskar Werner never received the attention he truly deserved.  Like his performances in A Ship of Fools and Jules and Jim, he is an emotional litmus without really showing emotions.  The way he tells everything by nuances as opposed to straight-out down pours set him apart from many of his contemporaries, but did not make him as respected as them.

Truffaut was a genius of imagery, which is well seen in his contrasting of a colorless world with a colorful vision.  He does not make this as iconoclastic as Michael Radford did with 1984 or as gaudy as Stanley Kubrick did with A Clockwork Orange but finds a median between.  Truffaut and cinematographer Nicholas Roeg (best known as the director of The Man Who Fell to Earth) do not make this bland or eye dazzling, but do make it fit the bill.

It is unfortunate that no one has ever really appreciated this film for what it is.  While it does have some problems here and there, Fahrenheit 451 (which, by the way, is the temperature at which paper burns) it stays more or less true to the story.  Even the opening titles, which are read to the audience as opposed to the written word are novel enough to make this a stand-out adaptation.

The film seemed to have a fine political message for the time, when everyone from Orwell to Kafka were being adapted commenting on the downward spiral of big government.  Then, people really were burning things in protest to what actions they caused.  But, of course, is that any different from protestors burning an abortion clinic in difference to the operations going on in there?

Truffaut was lambasted by many for this film, and would never work in English again.  The screenplay is more about the story than the dialogue, but many found the stiff wordings to be too much, automatically discounting the film as a whole.  Then it seemed improper by dialogue, today it seems dated by old special effects, but for years to come it will still be politically valuable.


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The Watcher

(Dir: Joe Charbanic, Starring James Spader, Keanu Reeves, Marissa Tomei, Ernie Hudson, Chris Ellis, Robert Cicchini, Yvonne Niami, Jennifer McShane, Gina Alexander, Rebakah Louise Smith, Joe Sikora, Jillian Peterson, Michelle Dimaso, and Andrew Rothenberg)



Joe Charbanic introduces to a world of serial killers in a city that cannot stop them.  Is this a new introduction?  Without a doubt, no.  After over a decade of bad, bad, really bad serial killer films, I am finally to the point of throwing in the towel.  Let's see, last year had two fine films about serial killers, Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey and Hampton Fancher's The Minus Man, neither of which could be considered normal Hollywood films.  And that's the extent of worthwhile films in the genre.

Simply put, there's no where left to go.  By now everything looks like yet another Silence of the LambsKiss the GirlsThe Bone CollectorFrequency?  Some might have their high points (except The Bone Collector -- that was pure evil), but everything screams unoriginality.  It is sad that I sat in Kiss the Girls thinking how much it owed to Silence of the Lambs and then sat through The Watcher thinking how much it owed to Kiss the Girls.

The film is about former FBI agent Joel Campbell (Spader), who spent a great deal of time chasing a serial killer in L.A. before giving up after he causes one would-be victim to actually die.  The killer, called David Allen Griffin (Reeves), got tired of the L.A. scene and turns out following Campbell to Chicago as he heads out to live a ultra-depressed living.

Griffin starts up killing right away and begins to find a fun little game to make out of it.  The morning of his next victim's demise, he sends a picture of her to Campbell, giving him about 15 hours to find her before he does his handiwork.

Of course, Chicago is SO big that there's no way anyone can find this girl, even though her face is plastered on every piece of paper around the city and on the local news.  Yep, people do not pay attention to anyone else.  That's right, not only is this a bad film, but a bad film with a message.

The Watcher is pure mush, the type that Hollywood churns out in the early months of the year and that independent distributors leave to straight-to-video release.  Sure, this is not quite the out-there that Dee Snider's Strangeland was (did you catch the trailer for Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses?), but it's just as mind numbing.

With characters that stumble around like they are rats in a maze, simply looking for the end in which they get some cheese and the audience finally gets to leave, the film has a bunched up look that makes little to no sense whatsoever.  These characters are the type that are so fluffy in originality that one can only wish fates on them that might bring an end to the film.

The direction from Joe Charbanic and editing from Richard Nord turn this into an effort in mass distraction.  One five minute interval in this film probably clocks some 500 cuts and slow effects.  It's like someone came in and turned this film into a low-budget Michael Bay film -- and did worse than Bay could ever do.

It pained me to see the title card that said "Director of Photography: Michael Chapman, ASC".  His is one of the best careers for cinematographers in the late seventies and eighties, having a great collaborative period with Martin Scorsese, creating such landmark films as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.  It is a shame that his career has come to doing films like Six Days, Seven Nights, The Story of Us, and this.

The screenplay by David Elliot and Clay Ayers is laughably bad.  I'm not talking about Highlander: Endgame bad, but pretty close.  The scenarios and presentations are either cringe-worthy or too old to be surprising.  I'd love to think that I'm getting something new from The Watcher, but the only feeling I got out of it was disparage.


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Reviews by:
David Perry