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Special Edition
Screeners '00 #1

Opening Commentary: This special edition article is a little different from the others that have graced the year. This weekend is nearly devoid of wide releases of importance, with the exception of What Women Want. Since this is the end of the year and I’m not busy enough (note: sarcasm; I have an Oscar special and a season in review in the next two weeks, plus two ballots to fill out and the Golden Brando Awards to work on beyond merely the many films that open in the Christmas rush).

So, what is this article going to be? Well, as a member of the Online Film Critics Society, I receive screeners at the end of the year from the studios, many of which have not yet been seen or reviewed. This week, I’ll review all the films that have come in screener form so far (Fox is about to send out Quills, Cast Away, and Tigerland soon, which will be included in another week's regular reviews).

Now, many of the films that have come I have seen, those shall be given as mere links to their old reviews. Otherwise, everything is a new review, and now under consideration for my OFCS ballot and the Golden Brando Awards.

This is to be a two-part deal, maybe even a three part if enough screeners come in. As it is right now, only six films will be reviewed in this one, but another should follow in the next week.

Artisan:  Dr. T & the Women, Requiem for a Dream.

Cowboy Booking International:  George Washington, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

Disney:  Dinosaur, Remember the Titans.

DreamWorks:  Almost Famous, Chicken Run, The Contender, Gladiator, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Road Trip, Small Time Crooks, What Lies Beneath.

Fox:  Cast Away, Quills, Tigerland.

New Line Cinema:  Before Night Falls, Dancer in the Dark, State and Main.

Shooting Gallery:  Human Resources, One.

Theoretical Films:  The Auteur Theory.

Universal Pictures:  Billy Elliot, Erin Brockovich.

Urbanworld Films:  The Visit.

Before Night Falls

(Dir: Julian Schnabel, Starring Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano, Johnny Depp, Hector Babenco, Vito Schnabel, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Sean Penn, Michael Wincott, Najwa Nimri, and Sebastian Silva)



Reinaldo Arenas has become one of those forgotten poets -- a mind whose prose and lifestyle were so inflammatory for the time respect was merely a dream. The film Before Night Falls, based upon the final autobiography of Arenas, looks into what made Arenas such a compelling person, both in his writings and in life.

Arenas was the child to an unwed mother in Cuba, who took him from a father she detested to grandparents who could not appreciate him (when Arenas’ teacher tells of his poetic abilities, his grandfather left the home never to return). He went on to support the ideas of the revolutionaries that rode across the land during the 1940’s and 1950’s of his youth. But in adulthood, he began working in the arts, first as an aide in the National Library and then to writing his own novel. Before long he becomes lost to the revolutionary cause, who will not allow him to be gay and forces him to rebuke them in his writings.

His indiscretions hurt him over the year, as failed relationships attempt to ruin every chance he has to be free if governmental burdens. Before long he had become a criminal to the country’s Castro-led government and the punishment is weighty, but he never gave up in his beliefs in his own artistic voice.

Julian Schnabel creates a striking mosaic of visuals to go with the words of Arenas, showing the pain and anguish of a struck down genius. This is certainly one of the finest works in cinema for the year, featuring the closest marriage of film and literature ever to grace the screen. Almost every scene plays like a fine short story that might have come off of the typewriter of Cuba-obsessed Ernest Hemingway (one particular sequence, which features no dialogue, just the incredible score of Carter Burwell, feels awfully like the Hemingway short masterpiece “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”). Even the way Schnabel filmed certain sequences, keying in on particular characters before looking at them from afar is reminiscent of the way Hemingway lovingly treated his own characters.

The performance from Javier Bardem is breathtaking, the best of his career. I was first interested in the actor following his performance in the Pedro Almodóvar’s masterpiece Live Flesh a couple years ago, and have been interested in seeing him since. His subtle way of creating an essence in his wounded eyes is more astounding than most American actors. When the Academy Awards nominations come out this March, an omission of Bardem would be irredeemable.

There are also some great small roles (though Bardem certainly clocks in more screen time than anyone else in the picture), with interesting cameos from Sean Penn and Johnny Depp. Though most of the supporting players are disposible beside Arenas, there are no less memorable thanks to the screenplay by Lazaro Gomez, Carriles Cunnigham O'Keefe, and Julian Schnabel.

Among the many films that this reminded me of, I most certainly wanted to take note of The Terrorist. I doubt that Schnabel meant a connection with that film, which is relatively little known. The early scenes in particular have a close fondness to the dangerous mood of the Santosh Sivan film, which received an American release earlier this year.

For anyone who has seen Schnabel’s first film, the fine though-low key yarn Basquiat, it would be hard to notice how much this director can bring to a performance (in the case of Basquiat, Steven Wright). Certain directors seem to know how to work with people in such a way that makes them come off as unflappable. Here, with the performance of Bardem, Schnabel makes one of the greatest of creations brought to biographical filmmaking.

But the real treat of this film is remembering Reinaldo Arenas, whose forgotten works should be brought to the fore by this film. Bardem’s narration of the Before Night Falls is completely take from the novel of the same name, and it should be said that it is some of the finest prose I have ever heard. The fact that the film has provoked me to go to the nearest bookstore in search of one of his books should say everything about this film. To cover a subject in a perfect way cinematically is one thing; to do the subject justice is another; but to pull off both, well, that’s miraculous.


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(Dir: Eric Leighton and Ralph Zondag, Voices include D.B. Sweeney, Julianna Margulies, Alfre Woodard, Ossie Davis, Max Casella, Hayden Panettiere, Samuel E. Wright, Joan Plowright, Della Reese, and Peter Siragusa)



Remember those days when the Disney film for the year was a sure-bet masterpiece. You know, the days when Uncle Walt looked over every one of them and made sure that they were seamless. That’s the reason that children and adults today still look at his works fondly, whether it be. Yes, there was a down time after he died, but it sure seemed like everything was back to good when Uncles Mike (as in Eisner) and Uncle Jeff (as in Katzenberg) took on the task of saving a studio liable for The Black Cauldron. Thier own masterpieces, including The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, will be remembered just as fondly as Dumbo and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in years to come.

But things are certainly not that way anymore. Some consider 1994’s The Lion King to be one of finest features from Disney, but I consider it to be the beginning of the end for its animation bureau. Admittedly, I never cared for that film, and only found solace the next year with Pocahontes (cringe). Now, there have been some better moments, including the near forgotten but close to priceless James and the Giant Peach and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but how can they even compare Cinderella to Tarzan?

Thanks to a friendship with Pixar studios, I like to think that they have the ability to pay-off people to make animated perfection (Pixar is behind both Toy Story films), but their own works do not bode well for the future. The latest work is Dinosaur, which attempts to mix Pixar’s CGI animation with live action backgrounds. What you get it one of the worst looking animated films in years. The reason that Pixar chose not to take this task is that it is something that was bound to fail. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? did it with a definite tongue-in-cheek approach, but Dinosaur is meant to be dramatic and, believe it or not, entrancing. Instead it looks like someone has sneezed on the animation cells, making them look fuzzy on clear real shots.

I did not hate this film, in fact I want to like it, but I cannot support it. The dramatic structure is saddeningly poor, making this one of the lesser animated efforts from the last two years (do not worry, Disney, it’ll take much worse to get below Fox’s The King and I from early last year). Had the story been more involving, the animation might not have been so hard hitting on this film.

What is given on the screen is a near remake of The Land Before Time with some slight references to Disney’s own Tarzan. The characters might as well have been named Littlefoot, Sara, Petrie, Ducky, and Spike (yes, as frightening as it may sound, I remembered all those characters from the top of my head). Did they seriously think that we had already forgotten that film? Hell, there have been five sequels to remind us every three years.

See if this sounds familiar: after an incident and a run-in with some rogue large dinosaurs, a group must band together despite differences to get to a type of promised land where they can return to their kind and be safe from the evil around them. Hmm, I think that Universal should sue Disney.

For this film, the incident is the meteor crashing on earth, killing most of the dinosaur population. Now, luckily there is a place on earth that was not hurt by this collision, and the lead dinosaur, Aladar (Sweeney), must lead his monkey family and some elders to this place, called the breeding land. That’s right, there’s a place where dinosaurs did not go extinct, somewhere near the West End, I’m guessing.

The love interest in this film (voiced by the horrid Julianna Margulies) is one of the least interesting characters in animated history. The little boy from All Dogs Go To Heaven had more charisma. I feel worse for Aladar being stuck with her than that his species has come near extinction.

The highlight of this film is its meteor sequence, which seriously pales in comparison to Mimi Leder’s superior work on Deep Impact (who would ever think that Leder would go on to make a piece of manipulative crap like Pay It Forward). Admittedly, it is the animators finest moment, but it is so short that one can only wonder why it was even worried with. The Land Before Time did not have to have a meteor -- and it was twice as compelling (and, this is not necessarily a positive remark on old Land Before Time, just a negative remark on Dinosaur).

I feel for Disney, and even yearn for their next film. They have such a fine creative department being wasted on poor films -- it is only time before they finally get back in the groove. Lord knows they have enough room to go up this time.


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George Washington

(Dir: David Gordon Green, Starring Donald Holden, Candace Evanofski, Curtis Cotton, III, Eddie Rouse, Paul Schneider, Rachel Handy, Damian Jewan Lee, Jonathan Davidson, Janet Taylor, Scott Clackum, Jason Shirley, and Christian Gustoitis)



George Washington is one of those slow moving films that attempt to let the audience learn about the rest of the world and, in turn, learn a little something about themselves. People will not like this film -- it is not the most accessable film to middle America. But it so entrancing, beautiful that anyone who sees it and understands where it is going will be the better for it.

The film looks at a group of adolescents in a small relatively rural city in the south. They spend their time talking to each other. In fact, that’s all they really can do, just speak to each other until the end of the day -- waiting for the end to be near. They are not bad children, just aimless.

For he most part, we look at this world through the eyes of two of these kids, the heart breaking Nasia (Evanofski) and the well-meaning George (Holden). When the film begins, Nadia has just broken up with slightly geeky Buddy (Cotton, III) for George even though everyone in town sees George as being retarded. She sees who George really is: a dreamer, the only one that has intention for his life.

For the first moments of the film, it seems like we are merely looking at Nadia’s story, but before long, it is George that comes into the limelight. He is the heart and soul of this film and every effort by any other character seems dependent on whatever George has done, however unusual the action may be. Before long a tragedy occurs, and some of the children must come to agree on keeping a secret.

First time director David Gordon Green places his young cast in situations that are not far from life. They have conversations that really feel like what a group of fourteen year olds would be speaking about. Using some improvisation, Green creates characters that are so real to life that they hit an emotional cord with the audience.

I really felt for this film and its characters. George is one of the finest people I’ve seen on the screen this year. Reminiscent of Bruce Willis’ quasi-hero in the recent film Unbreakable, George does not seem to be retarded to us, but to be the only one in this town that really knows his place in this world.

The directorial style has been compared to Terence Malick since its premier at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. The Malick scenic route does seem to be there (though, this is much closer to the Malick that made Days of Heaven than the one who made The Thin Red Line), but I certainly felt the essence of someone else. I’m not sure if Green meant it to be there, or if he is even a fan, but I indeed saw quite a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s style in this film. Though Jarmusch would have gone a different direction with the characters, he would have created the same canvas that Green and cinematographer Tim Orr has.

One scene in particular that rang true was a conversation between George and Nadia over the phone. With little to speak about, they have told ages to each other through other ways. This is certainly the same direction that Jarmusch went with when he set Forrest Whitaker and Isaach De Bankolé together in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Jarmusch often takes on action in a very serene way (i.e. Dead Man, which I watched directly after finishing George Washington) and that seems to be the same style that Orr and Green go with.

I seriously fell into the magic of this film and think that it will haunt me for a long time. When it begins you ahve no earthly idea where it is going and by the end you want it to take you furthur. Considering that this is the creation of a first time director, George Washington is phenominal. Sure, the debuts of Sam Mendes and Spike Jonze last year for American Beauty and Being John Malkovich, respectively, were better, but this film seems to have more heart than those films did. There's a close-knit personal touch to this project, a abstract feeling that Green creates in every shot of this film.

George Washington is one the toughest sells of the year. Its deep emotional core is something that must be tapped into to take with you, an action that most filmgoers will not do because of cinematic apathy. But once you’re in, you’ll never forget it.


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(Dir: Tony Barbieri, Starring Kane Picoy, Jason Cairns, Autumn Macintosh, Paul Herman, Gabrielle Ruvolo, Muhammed Hassan, Ed Lynch, Willie La Nere, Cassandra Braden, Kara Michaels, and Rainy Jo Stout)



One looks at a person whose life is a shambles, something that no one considers to be eventful, not even the person living it. The man in question is Nick (Picoy), a man whose mistakes as a baseball player led to a life of mooching and leeching off of friends and family.

Now everyone, himself, his parents, and his former best friend are together, all looking at what a disgrace he has become. Nick maddens his father when he thinks he is above working at a job that might be considered below him (anyone ever noticed that that seems to a priority of many people who have been unemployed for years?); he thinks that his friend Charlie (Cairns) owes him for what he had given him earlier when he got out of prison. What all this falls into is him not really understanding what he has become.

If this film were made into a comedy, Chris Farley would have played the lead and Noah Baumbach would have written it, but this is a drama through-and-through, with every utterance to prove it. There is nary a peep from the audience as we are eviscerated by people being depressed and speaking volumes about it (and I don’t mean volumes as a gravity of conversation but as a length).

I most certainly support the world of talkative indie dramas, but I, admittedly, seem to be one of the first to grow weary of them. In fact, I have come to dislike the jibber-jabber of twenty-somethings looking at the horrible lives that they have lead and the many loves lost. I love a good drama, and have a high threshold of boreability (needless to say, I have met very few three hour films that did not agree with me), but I lose nearly all interest when people have nothing to say and, thanks to the directors, hours to not say it.

Such is the case with One, another release in the otherwise incredible Shooting Gallery film series. The people here are like ambulating walkie-talkies, continually speaking what’s on their minds, even if the thoughts lead into a regrettable oblivion of disinterest. They walk, they talk, they bore the audience to death.

This should be an actor’s movie -- what with all the dialogue and emoting, there should be countless chances for some Oscar moments, where people sound like a Paul Schrader script and cry on the shoulders of some kind heart. These actors have been given one of the greatest gifts of all: a screenplay that will not let them be overshadowed by special effects and catchy direction (the more I think about, Rod Lurie’s direction may be to blame for the sub-par performance from Joan Allen in The Contender). I do not doubt that most of these people were the finest in their drama class (considering the genre, probably a night school drama class), but they do nothing to show any acting chops. If there was something to grab onto them, I might have liked them better. But these actors with this script fail miserably.

The film’s director and co-writer Tony Barbieri should be ashamed. There’s a reason that Joe America is weary towards art house films -- he finds them boring. What we need are more films like Affliction and Gods and Monsters (just to grab from the 1998 slate -- which is seeming like a much better year thanks to the less-than-stellar works of 2000). People have not been truly taken in by independent films in droves since 1996, when four indies were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. If people in the independent film industry, unlike Barbieri, would give middle America more stuff like the Schrader and Condon films, there might be a larger embrace of art house fare, instead of leaving it to the studios to make thought provoking films (some of the best films of the last two years have been from the major studios, including Almost Famous and American Beauty from DreamWorks, Wonder Boys from Paramount, and The Insider from Touchstone).

And I’m not weighing the entire film on its lack of a dependable dramatic structure, but I do have a hard time recommending it because of it. There are some things that are considered faux pas in films, and boring the audience to tears would be one.

It’s not too easy to dismiss a film for such a misstep, hence the reason that I look for other important facts that might make it important in another field. But One does not deliver it. With the exception of some well directed quiet moments, it is a less-than-noteworthy experience. Perhaps if had the writing been a little more interesting (calling Mr. Solondz), this might have gone over a little better, but as is, it is nothing to write home about. Or, in the case of this film’s protagonist, it’s nothing to go home and endlessly speak about.


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Road Trip

(Dir: Todd Phillips, Starring Breckin Meyer, Seann William Scott, Paulo Costanzo, D.J. Qualls, Amy Smart, Rachel Blanchard, Tom Green, Anthony Rapp, Fred Ward, Wendell B. Harris, Jr., Patricia Gaul, Ethan Suplee, Ellen Albertini Dow, Edmund Lyndeck, and Kohl Sudduth)



Some films should come with a waiver upon entrance. Something like “Do not waste this films unless under the influence of a contained substance” would do the trick. For these films are made to be funny but never work thanks to, well, being painfully unfunny. Maybe if a little drunk, a monkey watching a woman strip would be funny (American Pie) or a dog talking to a pot smoking old man (Road Trip). Where people find this remotely funny is beyond me.

And Road Trip does not let its intoxication-only quota fall -- what with its anal injections, crotch culinary, and mouse eating, one might just think that they were watching an old anti-drug commercial where the people grow wings and fall out a window (no kidding, I remember it well).

Road Trip follows four friends as they take a road trip from their Ithaca-based college to catch a videotape before it ends up in the hands of one’s girlfriend in Austin, Texas. Of course, in the Crosby-Hope tradition, everything goes wrong, and they are the better for it. Yet, there’s no Dorothy Lamour -- just a horrible young actress named Amy Sharp, whose only claim to fame will be that she made some post-pubescent Gen-X’ers salivate by showing her breasts.

The last film to be this pointless and, well, headache inducing was American Pie -- which has been embraced as some latter-day American Graffiti. Road Trip makes American Pie look like an Eric Rohmer masterpiece. I can only imagine the Technicolor dreamworld that imagines this to be entertaining.

I laughed twice -- there you have it, I admit it. Two times -- that’s it. Even now, one of those laughs seems unfunny (I call it the Me, Myself & Irene factor), but I did throw out a couple guffaws. The other laugh -- a genuinely mean sight gag -- falls into my category of politically incorrect comedy pieces that work for my madcap mind (i.e. the entire film Drop Dead Gorgeous).

And I even like some of the actors here. Breckin Meyer may chose some really bad films (i.e. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare), but he does have the unrequited ability to be funny. There are some moments in Go in which he really shines. And I’m not just saying that because he is working beside the innocuous James Duval, but that he really does have some comedic prowess there. But he does not work it here, being the touchy-feelly fall guy that Freddie Prinze, Jr. would play. In fact, what happened to keep this from being another bad Prinze vehicle.

I think one of the main reasons that this film does not fall completely on its face is that its main joke getter (or at least as it seemed to me) was a complete and total jackass. Seann William Scott has cornered this market, playing the same role in American Pie and, undoubtedly though I have not seen it, Dude, Where’s My Car. I’m not going to go on the rampage against Scott for this, it seems to work for him. I like the way he bufoonishly speaks his dialogue here like an old pro. My bet is that he has had practice being the cocky ass (that could be the worst pairing of words ever). The only time that I have seen him play something else was the whiney kid in Final Destination, where he made me cringe.

And then there’s Tom Green, who has done his best to take the old real-life-jokester reigns from Alan Funt. I do like Green and his style of comedy, but whenever he is given an acting job (as is proven here and in Charlie’s Angels), he does not work. I tend to think that he could viably play a funny person on film if he’d play, say the Scott role, but his work in films so far are closer to W. Earl Brown as Warren in There’s Something About Mary -- roles that he cannot turn into hilarity. Let him be the man-on-the-town jerk that he so well knows and maybe, just maybe, we might have a future in cinema.

I do not have a great deal of hatrid towards films that play to a younger crowd, just hate it when they are bad. Give me a copy of Never Been Kissed or 10 Things I Hate About You and I will not be unhappy, but I will complain if you attempt to give me She's All That or Drive Me Crazy. Maybe I've been spoiled by the smart films like Election and Rushmore, and have noted that there has been no "teen" film this year that can compare. I doubt that it is some great animosity at the genre for leaving me in sea without a paddle, I just think that film happens to be bad.

Road Trip seems like an attempt to make another blockbuster from the crowd that loves American Pie. To the best of my knowledge, DreamWorks got their wish and Road Trip was a hit (I’m reviewing this film as a year-end screener well after its theatrical release), which means that the domino effect has begun, and every summer Seann William Scott will have another chance to show off his acting chops to two-bit supporting and lead players. Great news for him -- not for me.


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The Visit

(Dir: Jordan Walker-Pearlman, Starring Hill Harper, Rae Dawn Chong, Obba Babatundé, Marla Gibbs, Billy Dee Williams, Phylicia Rashad, Talia Shire, David Clennon, Glynn Turman, Efrain Figueroa, Amy Stiller, Jascha Washington, Christopher Babers, and Jennifer Nicole Freeman)



The story that is brought to the fore in The Visit, the first film from the new minority-driven independent film company Urbanworld Films, is based on a true story. But that is not the basis that is most present in this film production -- the story was last used in a play in the same name by Kosmon Russell.

Anybody that knows about plays turning into motion pictures has noticed just how staged the films usually turn out to be. This is the case with The Visit. I have no doubt that director Jordan Walker-Pearlman has worked hard to turn this into less a play and more a film, but the end product is flat and flimsy, not because of poor production values, but because there is no freedom from the continuous look of a stage play.

The film tells the story of Alex Waters, a man convicted to 25 years of prison on a rape charge. Like everyone in the prison system, Alex reminds everybody that he is an innocent, another poor person placed in jail for a crime he did not commit. When asked by a parole board whether he felt bad for the rape victim, he pauses before replying that he feels bad for every person that is a victim, himself included.

But the film does not let him continually repeat his bad luck of being in prison, the real problem is that his tenure in jail had dissociated his from his family, with only his successful brother coming to visit him on a regular basis. As he becomes more angry at everyone for their lack of care towards him (his father [Williams] has all but disowned him), he begins to understand his place in life. This change in pace is brought on by making contact with a childhood friend of his, a slowly recovering drug addict, who has found faith in her life and hopes Alex can too.

This is one of those films that should be completely character driven, but the direction by Walker-Pearlman and editing by Alison Learned muddles up the early moments of the film, trying too hard to be catchy. This creates what I call The Contender effect, like the Rod Lurie film, where could-be fine performances are lost in a mess of quick edits and misplaced camera set-ups.

I'm not one of those people that hates catchy direction (i.e. Los Angeles Times critics Kenneth Turan), but I do like for there to a point. My high regard for Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream is based on much more than its catchy direction, which I find to be a high point of the film because it works with how the film is set forth. On the other hand, I was annoyed by the direction of Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, which was near headache inducing because it did not fit with the free spirit feeling that the film had.

Walker-Pearlman has only made one other film, and it was a documentary. Normally I would be more forgiving of a novice director, but I just came off of David Gordon Green's George Washington, which was a splendid look at how much can come from a first time filmmaker. Green, like Sam Mendes and Spike Jonze last year, has shown that there is a certain credibility in a man new to the job. Walker-Pearlman does not necessarily fall flat on his face, but he does do a poor job making the film that he surely meant to make. Like Rod Lurie, he has a lot of heart placed in the screenplay but has trouble making it work on celluloid in his fashion.

Some of the cast still comes out of the rough from this, especially Obba Babatundé, who gives a terrific performance in a supporting role. The parents of the film, Gibbs and Williams, bring a genuine charm to their roles that are needed. The big problem, though, is that the two largest roles are by actors that are lost in the mess. Chong is a little more resilient, but Hill looks horrible, taking a fine character and allowing him to be near innocuous.

The only thing that really stands out from this film is the score, which is the creation of five minds (Michael Bearden, Stefan Dickerson, Ramsey Lewis, Wallace Roney, and StanleyA. Smith). It has a terrific brass sound reminiscent of the score to Secrets & Lies, a far better film about the bonds of a family.


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Reviews by:
David Perry