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Volume 2, Number 46

This Week's Reviews:  Billy Elliot, The 6th Day, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Bounce.

This Week's Omissions:  Bittersweet Hotel, The Broken Hearts Club, Cleopatra's Second Husband, Rugrats in Paris, Two Family House.



Billy Elliot

(Dir: Stephen Daldry, Starring Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis, Jamie Draven, Jean Haywood, Stuart Wells, Nicola Blackwell, Mike Elliot, Billy Fane, Colin MacLachlan, Joe Renton, and Janine Birkett)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

For Billy Elliot the world is not a joyous place.   His father and brother are striking coal miners, his mother died a few years ago, and his grandmother is slowly losing her senses.  This is another story of working class Britain in the Thatcher years, and this time, it's even better.

Billy is still a highly impressionable child of 11, feeling the financial threats that the strike is holding on his family.  He is a bit brutish and aggressive.  There is no questioning his masculinity despite the fact that he really has not grown into it yet.  When he throws down his father-appreciated boxing gloves and takes on ballet in curiosity, the automatic expectation is that the film will question his sexuality, but Billy is so aggressive that we know he would never hold back from jumping the first person to call him a "puff."

The 1984 coal miners strike in northern England that serves as the backdrop for Billy Elliot is perfect.  When Billy and his girlfriend walk the streets knocking a stick against the brick walls, the stick breaks from the wall momentarily to hit the plexiglass shields of police officers in riot gear.   There is little question that most of his characteristics, both good and bad, come from the world that he knows.

When he takes on ballet he finds little support from anyone in his family.  His brother is more interested in the strike he fights hard for and his father sees it as huge mistake for his gender.  They do not support him when he really needs it, leaving most of his hopes and dreams vanquished in his own home.   The scene in which he must practice in the bathroom is bittersweet because we know that if he were to be caught, he would quickly be emotionally chastised for it.

The only person that really sees the great future that he might have is the ballet instructor who keeps him in line during practice but always sets a little time aside to teach him on his own.  She sees that he has talent and could really have a chance to be accepted into the Royal Ballet School in London.  It is her efforts that really push him to try, but he can never really succeed unless he has the support he wants from his father.

There is a beautiful moment in this film, easily one of the finest this year, in which Billy is caught practicing by his slightly drunken father.   This scene could have been a high end drunken child abuse scene, but it takes an entire different turn, and not one that can be predicted.  As Billy takes on a dance routine in front of his father, he brings in the gracefulness of Fred Astaire and the steaming anger of Marlon Brando.

This is the second film this year about gender-bending in a single father home.  Early in the Fall we had Girlfight, which featured a young woman take on boxing despite the disapproval of her father.  This film is like its lighthearted little brother.  The two films stand beside each other so well that one can only imagine the emotional powerhouse that would be a double feature of these two.   I loved Girlfight, especially for its young actress Michelle Rodriguez, but I liked Billy Elliot more.

I really have nothing against a film being inspired, but I cannot stand films that are heavy handed in trying to be inspirational.  Over the years of reviewing films, I have normally panned films of the like, especially when I think that there is too much sentimentality as in Patch Adams and Pay It Forward.  This film does have some sentimentality, but it never attempts to keep from going for the punches.  I was reminded of James L. Brooks' As Good As It Gets as I watched this film.  These are two deep comedy-dramas that could go for any saccharine touch but never do.  I love these films for that.

Stephen Daldry has never directed a feature film before, which is a huge surprise.  When I read this fact, I was astounded -- Daldry creates every nuance perfectly (save for one slow motion sequence that even left me a little discouraged) and grasps the story that's being set forth in such a way that it can only be respected.  Like his British play director contemporary Sam Mendes, who's direction of American Beauty last year was his first try at the job, Daldry has taken so much from the stage that can be created on celluloid without seeming staged that he in-turn seems like a long stated worker of the art.

Playing the role of Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell shows off more acting prowess than most anyone his age.  He exuded the needed amount of childish believability right at the beginning as we watch him jumps on his bed to his brother's record collection.  Bell brings so much to this character that is needed -- he is the perfect person to play this part.  He is never cloying and he is never over the top.  I loved every moment that he had in the film and he sells every dance step like an old pro (he has been dancing since he was 6).  Bell gives one of the year's finest performances, one that could be named off with the likes of Russell Crowe and Michael Douglas come Oscar time.

Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall have created a perfect character for young Bell to shine in.  The character, slightly based on Royal Ballet dancer Philip Marsden, is as hard as the film itself and Bell does well with this.   When the film leaves Bell momentarily at the end it is to the debit of the film.   It's almost like advancing the story without Bell is lesser choice than continuing with him unendingly.  Sprite and nimble, I was highly impressed by him and hope to see him much more in the future.

The film itself could also weigh in with the Academy.   There's always a dark horse nominee and this one seems like the film most primed to take the position.  The Academy has some things to work with over the next few months, especially in keeping Pay It Forward out of the ballots.  If the saccharine filled handkerchiefs of Pay It Forward bode well with the Academy and Billy Elliot fails to take a nomination, I will be highly unhappy.

Billy Elliot is meant to be an inspirational film -- the trailer even says "[we] invite you experience a dream that changed everyone it touched" -- but it never allows itself to grovel for our emotions.   I hate manipulative films, but this one works for everything it gets out of the audience.  And, like Billy, it does so with its chin up high and both feet on the ground.


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The 6th Day

(Dir: Roger Spottiswoode, Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tony Goldwyn, Robert Duvall, Michael Rapaport, Michael Rooker, Sarah Wynter, Wendy Crewson, and Rodney Rowland)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

"On the sixth day, God created man."

In the future created for Roger Spottiswoode's The 6th Day, cloning has become common place.  Mall have stores that will clone your deceased pet, organs a cloned in bulk, and child play things look deliriously alive.   The only thing that cannot be cloned are humans since the first attempt went horribly awry.

But humans are being cloned, at least of it helps the megalomaniacs (is it just me or does it seem like every bad guy these days is either a crazed psycho or a overzealous capitalist).  Drucker (Goldwyn) and his scientist Weir (Duvall) have crossed great scientific boundaries and made cloning human beings nearly seamless.  Drucker has a full army of clones, whether they be athletes in the football team that he owns or underlings that he can send to do his dirty work.

And Drucker is actually a clone.  Having died twice, he has been cloned by Weir to retain everything that he has.  The real problem is that he cannot let it be known that he is a clone, which would make him legally dead and cause him to lose ownership of everything he has.  For that reason, everything is always set to make cloning easy to execute if anything should happen to him, even if it means having a secret laboratory filled with blank bodies ready to be made into human beings.

When an anti-cloning fundamentalist kills Drucker and his entourage, a quick cloning job must be done to hide his death, which means cloning everyone that dies at that time.  One of the people that died is Hank (Rapaport), who flew Drucker to the top of the mountain where he died.  Since Hank had switched places with friend Adam (Schwarzenegger) and had not told Drucker's people of the switch, Adam is cloned leaving two Adams -- one real, one fake -- walking around alive.  If this duality is noticed, an investigation might lead back to Drucker and cause his secret to be known, so he sends people out to kill one of these Adams before it's too late.

There are moments in this film that actually seem inspired, including a scene between Arnold and his daughter's SimPal Cindy.  But the rest of the film is pained by a script that fails on nearly every level.  The dialogue that's given to Arnold is laughably bad.  I have never considered Arnold to be a good actor, and when he has dialogue this hokey, his inability to act becomes much more apparent.

But this is not all Arnold's failure.  In many cases his persona has carried a film.  Can you really think of Total Recall or the Terminator films with some other action star.  Since he always seems to chose action films, his range has been hampered to one liners after shooting someone.   For Terminator, those one liners were more frightening than kooky and, in turn, much better.

The secret for Schwarzenegger is that he must always get a good script to work with.  Whenever he is left with dreck like that Akiva Goldsman wrote for Batman & Robin, he falters enough to lose stature.  It's scripts like Eraser by Tony Puryear and Waylon Green (along with many uncredited writers) that help him retain some respect in the film community.  I really want Arnold to find his place again, it's been four years since Eraser, his last watchable film.

Roger Spottiswoode is actually an able bodied director, but he rarely shows it.  His turn at the Bond series with Tomorrow Never Dies was the best of the Brosnan films, but he has long been tarnished by films like Terror Train, Turner & Hooch, Air America, and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.  His one true diamond was the underrated HBO original And the Band Played On about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco.  Here he seems lost in the visual effects and stupidity that Cormac and Marianne Wibberley have written in the screenplay.  Spottiswoode should take some time to redirect his talents into something beyond this mess.  If he would touch more often into dramas like And the Band Played On, he might just find a following that he seems to deserve.

The most enjoyable part of this film (and I'm sure there are many that will beg to differ) is Robert Duvall, who gives his all in an otherwise uninteresting character.  He worked with Spottiswoode before in 1981's The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, and he seems at home with what Spottiswoode is doing here.   I liked the way he tried to create a respectable film in the rough.  Neither this nor Gone in Sixty Seconds really push him to give great performances, but he always throws one out anyway.  Perhaps taking these high pay films will help him make some money to create another masterpiece like The Apostle.

With the film nearly dependent on Duvall for the perks, one can only hope that his time has many more years to go.  If there was ever testament for cloning it is Robert Duvall, who should always live on giving great performances.  Just keep that cloning away from Cormac and Marianne.


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Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas

(Dir: Ron Howard, Starring Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, Jeremy Howard, Molly Shannon, Josh Ryan Evans, Clint Howard, Jim Meskimen, Mindy Sterling, Rachel Winfree, and Anthony Hopkins)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Through the masterful imagery of the 1957 illustrated book and the 1966 animated television special, the Dr. Seuss tale of How the Grinch Stole Christmas has warmed the hearts of millions awaiting Christmas.   Considered to be the author's finest work, it has grown from the pantheon of children's books to the world of internationally recognized literature.

When Dr. Seuss' (Theodor Geisel) widow green lighted a live action version of the story, it brought happiness and disdain from many.  This is a story that works perfectly when left to the imagination, growing three-fold from the drawings Seuss made for the book.  To take it away from its fashion as a mindscape is to deprive it of its heart.  The Grinch may have a heart two sizes too small, but the inner beauty of the story is two sizes too big.

For all these years, people have enjoyed the Christmas spirit exuded in the Seuss classic, whether it be reading the story or watching the television special.  That spirit is lost in the new live action film of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which mistakes the spirit for flagrant dynamics.  This films yearns for the audience to latch on to its story of the Grinch's past and why he hates the Christmas loving Who's of Whoville.  The misunderstanding here is that the audience will feel bad for the Grinch if we know why he is this way, but it only causes the film to be an hour longer than it should be.

There's only so much filth and frustration an audience (especially one that is predominately of the Disney-set) can handle -- to think that this story, which took only 30 minutes to make into a cartoon and 15 minutes to read can be pushed into a 110 minute format is gross overestimation.  I love the aspects of the Grinch that Seuss invented, but the additions that are made for this film are hurt because they lack what Seuss had already done.

Ron Howard's production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas loses sight of the world that Seuss created.  The art directors, makeup artists, and costume designers all went out of their way to create a world that looked like the Seuss drawings but the story that Howard has created with screenwriters Jeffery Price and Peter S. Seaman loses the delight that was present in the words.   The Machiavellian villain of the Grinch character is supposed to come out as cunning, not over the top.

Jim Carrey gives his all to make this a memorable performance of the Grinch, but there's something maddeningly old-hat about his performance.  He does rush around, in what had to have been a horrible costume to work in, creating a storm of problems with overacting galore  It does not seem like the Grinch but instead like someone trying too hard to be the Grinch.  I liked his performance in The Mask, a near facsimile to his performance here, much more.

The narration by Anthony Hopkins is nearly painful to listen to.  While one of the greatest actors currently working, Hopkins just doesn't have the voice to work well with this story.  It's almost like he had never read the story and was nonchalantly spouting out what was written.  Using the original Boris Karloff narration for the TV short would have been a much better way to go.

While her character is dumbed down and even forced to sing (argh!), the performance from Taylor Momsen as Little Cindy Lou Who comes out of the dust that is a cast of a hundred.  She seems to be taken to the Grinch, feeling that he has a heart somewhere in that harsh demeanor.  I liked the way she looked at him with nearly no discourse and I liked the way she never became cloying.  That's a real testament to any child actor these days.

Ron Howard is not one of my favorite directors.  I consider Apollo 13, his critical pride and joy, to be one of the most overrated films ever made, with direction that seems lost in the visual effects.  Here, he seems hampered by a false pretense of egotism.  It's like he knows that the film will do gangbusters in the box office and that he can take it as far as he wants.  What he does not take into consideration is that people want to see Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, not Ron Howard's How Opie Stole the Grinch.

I would love to see this film work as a live action production, but I seriously think that it impossible.  Like Peter Jackson's upcoming live action filming of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, it almost seems like some literature should always remain part of the written word.  Half of the life of Seuss survives in the imagination; to try to replace the imagination with false facades is blasphemy to his works.


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Bounce

(Dir: Don Roos, Starring Ben Affleck, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joe Morton, Caroline Aaron, Johnny Galecki, Alex D. Linz, David Dorfman, Dan Bucatinsky, Tony Goldwyn, Natasha Henstridge, Jennifer Grey, and David Paymer)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Buddy Amaral (Affleck), an advertising executive, is one of those people that make the bad guys for movies like The 6th Day.  Spurts out self aggrandizing compliments like "born salesmen, a closer, a people person," so egotistical that he fails to notice that he really is not a people person.  Nearly every step he takes is one that will be beneficial to him -- everyone else serves as momentary lapses and hurdles in his masterplan.

And everything seems to be fine up until one fateful night in a hotel bar.  Having met a young lady from Texas (Henstridge, who's as much a Texan as I am an Algerian) and struck up a conversation, he finds that she is willing to have sex with him since she has been held-over in her flight.  To get rid of his ticket to Los Angeles and help Greg Janello (Goldwyn), a young playwright he has just met, he gives his ticket away.  The next day he wakes to find that the flight he was supposed to be on has crashed and the man he gave the ticket to is dead.

Here's the moment of truth for Buddy, he can take two different turns, one manipulating the audience, one making him seem like a cad.   Since this is a film by Don Roos, the screenwriter behind The Opposite of Sex and Single White Female, he takes the latter choice and loses half the audience.   Where Mimi Leder might have Buddy rush out and try to make everything ok, Roos instead has him going to the airport to change the name on the deceased list, not to add the name of Greg Janello, but to make sure that he is not named as dead.

Before long he is taken by grief over how close he was to death and leads into alcoholism.  Instead of dealing with his inner demons, he drinks them away and begins making a fool of himself in public, including at the Clio Awards, where he begins making fun of a commercial he produced for one of his clients, the crashed airline.

When reemerged from detox, he finds Alcoholics Anonymous to be his book of worship and comes upon the statement of doing well to those you have caused grief to.  Seeing Greg's picture in an in memorium ad his company created, Buddy decides that he must do good for his widow Abby (Paltrow), who has become a real estate agent and lives in a world where she tells everyone that she and her husband are divorced.

He does his good deed and feels good about himself, but she is not done.  Where he was simply doing his next step, she has inadvertently fallen for him not knowing that his fateful decision caused her husband to die.  In good humor, Buddy allows her to have him for the time being and soon finds that he cannot live without her but also cannot deal to tell her the truth.

Don Roos' Bounce is entirely dependent on whether or not you hate Buddy by the film's midpoint.  He does things in the film that should induce distaste in the normal audience member, but he is also willing to change, which I think is his reason for working as a fine romantic lead.  I have been enraged over the last few months by films that incorrectly gauge the enjoyability of a film about people that have nothing to like.  The Way of the Gun and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 did people that were detestable and were fine with it.   That may hold true more to life, but it makes for bad entertainment.

Buddy is a very important character and deserves a good actor to play him.  Ben Affleck can do the Buddy of the film's latter half, mixing in his swagger with his puppy dog vulnerability, but there is nothing in the film's boozing first half that he properly plays.  Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend and Jack Lemmon in The Days of Wine and Roses made vulnerable and valuable drunks for film history and made the characters believable through their pain.  When Affleck sits in a shower with his head bowed down and a glass of whiskey as hand, there is nothing that really makes this a believable moment.

Though this is much more about Buddy's character, the real treat in the cast here is Gwyneth Paltrow, who once again proves that she is much more than Bruce and Blythe's good looking daughter.  I am one of the more critical people of her Academy Award win a few years ago and I still stand beside that point: she did not deserve it.  But that does not mean that I think that she cannot act, it's just that comparatively, she was far from the Best Actress of 1998 (who was, without a doubt, Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth).

Paltrow plays this role very well, making a very vulnerable and acceptable widow.  She dyes her hair and dresses much more like a normal housewife, not the muse to William Shakespeare or Jane Austen's Emma.   The way she grasps her screentime is testament to how great an actress she is surely going to grow to be.  I have no doubt that she will one day be respected by most -- once they get beyond dismissing her for beauty.

The only really frustrating part of the film is its third act, which fails to work with the rest of the film.  Roos has a wicked wit to his writing, which was highly apparent in his directorial debut two years ago with The Opposite of Sex.  All this writing, though in a much more mainstream setting, is found in the dialogue he writes for the first part of the film (especially the dialogue given to Johnny Galecki as Billy's gay assistant and A.A. graduate), but the last part, with its highly disappointing trial contrivance, fails to see the road that the first two-thirds have built.

Only Roos would take the effort to make such a hero of disrepute, and his efforts are dually noted.  The fact that he fails to make it work into a viable finale is not completely the fault of Don 'Indie Scribe' Roos, but that he is not ready to go mainstream.  Miramax does not seem to want to really challenge people anymore and he was willing to mold his story into their requests.  The way this film loses its steam is merely, in my opinion, less part of a troubled artist and more the slowing down of the Miramax locomotive.


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

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