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Screeners '00 #2

Opening Commentary: Welcome to the second special column devoted to screeners this year. It was enough of a task turning out six reviews last time, this time I’m lucky to be down to five (lucky because I have a possible nine films to review for #51 besides my Oscar and Season-in-Review columns).

I have watched and reviewed every screener that has come to my doorstep so far this year. If anymore should come before the change of the year, they might be added to this column as an addendum, which will, as always, be available over at

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:  Auteur Theory.

Universal Pictures:  Billy Elliot, Erin Brockovich.

Urbanworld Films:  The Visit.

The Auteur Theory

(Dir: Evan Oppenheimer, Starring Alan Cox, Natasha Lyonne, Angeline Ball, Jeremy Sisto, Alison Lohman, Rachel True, Sean Gunn, Ramsey Malouky, Ian McNeice, Diane Salinger, Jit Sarkar, Armin Shimerman, Garrett Wang, Dana Lee, Michael Benyaer, Daniel Cantor, Dominic Keating, and Jay Harik)



Evan Oppenheimer’s satire on film festivals and independent films is one of those little cloying films where every gesture is meant to be an inside joke, despite the fact that they have not gotten too deep inside. This is not to say that the film is reprehensible, but is certainly not my cup of tea.

He works with every cliché on festivals, independent films, and documentaries in hopes of creating a collection of jokes that only could make the most casual of filmgoer laugh. Unfortunately, the art-minded film viewers, whom this film should be designed for, will find it to be lowbrow and the regular theatre patrons, whom this film dumbs itself down for, will not care.

I remember when this film was made with a slightly bigger budget a couple of years ago. Back then it was called An Alan Smithee Film: Burn! Hollywood! Burn! and established itself as one of the most repugnant pieces of trash released in the 1990’s. The Auteur Theory comes off a little better -- in fact, I doubt that it will cause as many to vomit in disgust like Burn! Hollywood! Burn! did.

The film is about one documentarian (Cox) attepting to cover a film festival where people are being killed off. His discoveries lead to figuring out the secret of a recent death and falling for a young ugly duckling filmmaker (Lyonne). All this is told as he tries to pitch the story to a group of producers in hopes of getting some more funding.

This is one of those films where you know that the intentions are good, but that there is nothing to count on in the way of enjoyability. I respect Evan Oppenheimer for this attempt, but cannot say that I support this particular film. It’s like sitting through an one-man Eric Bogosian stage performance -- less than stellar.

Have you even sat around watching Comedy Central and caught a few of those horrible near forgotten films they play in the mid-day? You know the ones –- Soul Man, Real Genius, Air America –- they never seem to cease. It’s almost like Comedy Central has a movie program called “Crap on Films.” The Auteur Theory is perfect to come up on the channel in a couple of years once it has done gangbusters in the theatre and video stores.

The laughs are few and far between (thinking about it, I cannot recall laughing at all in the film). All these wink-wink, nudge-nudge jokes get sickening after a few minutes and are literally unnerving by the time it finally ends.

Alex Cox does his best with the screenplay that he has been given. I really think that given the right film, he could shine. As for Natasha Lyonne, let’s just say that I have never liked her in any film and I don’t see that coming to an end any time soon.

The only thing that I can think of that’s really notable about the film is that it was pretty much ripped off in the recent Hollywood slasher film Urban Legends: Final Cut. The various twists that occur in that film are nearly the exact same that are in The Auteur Theory. Any other time, I’d be appalled that the larger studio film had flagrantly stolen from a small independent film, but I have little doubt that they did not see this film before they wrote the Urban Legends sequel. Lucky them.


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Human Resources

(Dir: Laurent Cantet, Starring Jalil Lespert, Jean-Claude Vallod, Chantal Barré, Danielle Mélador, Lucien Longueville, Michel Begnez, Véronique de Pandelaère, Pascal Sémard, Didier Emile-Woldemard, Françoise Boutigny, Félix Cantet, Marie Cantet, Sébastien Vauvel, Jean-François Garcia, and Gaëlle Amouret)



In the summer between my high school graduation and entry into college I got my first job. It had been an interesting 18 years of sitting around doing nothing every summer, and I thought that it was time to take in some extra spending money by using that wasted time for something good. That job was in a factory.

Within a few weeks, I already had learned the ins and outs of industrial America – the blue-collar workers that I had long looked down on in my youth. These people toiled long and hard for their money (and it was good, dare I say, great pay), and had little life to speak of outside of their assembly line. When I finally got out, I never returned. It was not that I still felt superior to my one-time coworkers, but that I had really come to respect them, and saw them as succeeding at something that I just could not do. They gave up all of their energy for 10 hours of their day in a hot factory, making the appliances that take care of everyone else.

The French film Human Resources (Ressources Humaines) delves into the subject of these industrial workers. With a liberal minded point of view, the film attempts to understand the exploitation of these workers by the white-collared men upstairs. Each class of worker is in this for the money, but only the management would prefer to take away the rights and privileges of the others to get that money.

The film follows Franck (Lespert), who returns to his small French township on summer leave from college in Paris. He is a business major and works his way into an internship at the local metal factory, the same one that his father (Vallod) works at to pay for his schooling. In the beginning, everyone sees Franck’s position as a great achievement, but before long it begins to put a damper on his relations. Soon his friends scoff at him for being too bourgeoisie, his father for acting like his superior. It is not easy for Franck to suck up to these men that have worked to make his father’s life a living hell, but it is the only way for him to secure a few recommendations and maybe even a future job.

The chief executive of the factory, Rouet (Longueville), takes Franck under his wings, and soon feels that he has done a sufficient job looking into longer workweek. For Rouet, Franck is a type of son – probably the same way he treated the grumpy director of human resources (Sémard) who does not take kindly to the youth.

Franck works hard on his job, going to the trouble of producing a questionnaire to find the relevance of a longer workweek to the workers of the factory. When he goes to his higher commander’s office to take care of some paperwork after the success of this questionnaire, Franck finds that the company is currently planning to fire 12 workers, all old, near their pension. One of them is Franck’s father.

The film trods along like a 1970’s "issue" movie. If this were made back in 1975 America, there is a safe bet that Jane Fonda would have played the Franck character and there would have been a highly depressing ending (not to say that the current ending to this film is upbeat). And that seems to be the biggest problem with this film – it seems like it is merely a rehash of something that we have seen before. Sure, I have never seen a French version of Norma Rae, but I have seen this type of storytelling many times in domestic productions.

Director Laurent Cantet certainly has his heart in the right place, but there is something missing. Like many films in this genre, Human Resources comes off as too one-sided. Cantet and co-screenwriter Gilles Marchand have gotten so wound-up in the political meaning of the film that they never let it breath beyond its liberal platform. I have no problem with a film being liberal, as long as I feel that it does its story in a fashion that works beyond the title of being activist. That’s why I have great regard to films like The China Syndrome.

Cantet does include some fine moments with the camera. The final shot alone is mesmerizing -- a seamless use of camera movement, shadows, and dialogue. Cantet has the ability to make something of his career if he were to take on a story that he is more equipped to put to celluloid. From reports on his other American release this year (1998’s Les Sanguinaires), he has a great deal of room to learn. Here’s hoping that he does learn and will bring us something more notable on his next try in the States.

The only professional actor in all of this film is Lepert, which is a huge surprise. Nearly every one of the supporting players are great, running from Franck’s father to his boss to the factory’s union leader (Mélador). Each actor (who was chosen in the French labor forces and given a character that compared to their actual occupation) gives a great deal of humanity to their characters and makes them memorable. The only person in the entire film that left me with a feeling of ‘couldn’t care less’ was Franck, who leans towards a whiny twat over the course of the film.

Human Resources is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination. Most of what it says has been said before, yet there is an appeal in there somewhere. Coming off of that one-time factory job, I feel a certain kinship to where this film leans, despite that it leans unevenly.


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The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

(Dir: Aviva Kempner, Appearances by Carl Levin, Sander Levin, Ira Berkow, Bob Feller, Keneshaw M. Landis, Hank Greenberg, Michael Moriarty, Hal Newhouser, Dich Schaap, Charlie Gehringer, Walter Matthau, Alan Dershowitz, Maury Povich, and Shirley Povich)



When Hank Greenberg was in his prime, America had not come to terms with a world in which Jews were not second-class citizens. When Jackie Robinson came into the game as Greenberg was heading into retirement, Greenberg was one of the few to embrace the new player, having spent years listening to the hecklers in the stands because of his ethnicity.

Hank Greenberg was the messiah of sports for people of the Jewish faith, breaking the ethnic barrier in baseball. In the 1998 documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg finally getting a release across the United States, Aviva Kempner gets testimony from various well-known Jews that cite Greenberg as the reason that they were able to get a break including Maury Povich, Alan Dershowitz, and Walter Matthau. If it were not for Greenberg, there would have still been an end to the stigmatization on Jews, but it would not have happened so soon.

Covering the years that Greenberg lead the Detroit Tigers to two pendants, the documentary mainly looks at it from the view of what he did for the Jewish community. Admittedly, he was not very devoted to his faith but saw it as important when people began following him. He did much more to the game than simply being Jewish and playing in the major leagues -- Greenberg was the first person to be named most valuable player at two different positions, came admirably close to defeating Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1938, and stood as the first baseball player to sign on for $100,000 a season.

Nevertheless, he, like we have always heard about his idol Lou Gehrig, was always in it for the love of the game, not the fame and fortune. He was tall, gangly, and rather blunt to look at, but that did not matter to the non-Jewish masses, who latched onto how much he felt for the game.

I love it when people like to point out that old Babe Ruth story of the promised home run. Maybe its because of the saddeningly horrible 1948 film The Babe Ruth Story (where he all but unites Eastern Europe and Asia in a peaceful embrace of faith and compassion), but I have always found that story to seem a little sappy (its William Bendix, I tell you). What Greenberg does, in my opinion, is far more respectable.

Greenberg not only played a fine game of baseball during his tenure, but also served proudly in the United States Army during World War II, where he grew in rank to Colonel and headed a division in China. When he came back in 1944 (he enlisted in 1941 for one year and was released the day of Pearl Harbor, at which time he went back and re-enlisted), he was old and tired. That’s not to say that he did not have the love of the game in him anymore, but that his body was no longer ready to convey that love on the field.

This is not a seamless work, the cuts from the story that Kempner employs, including shots from The Stratton Story and The Pride of the Yankees become much more of a distraction than as the intended treat. And the film lets off in 1947, with fifty years left in Greenberg’s life, whittled down to some paragraphs in the closing credits (which is understandable in documentaries, but not to such a great extent). I felt that the rest of his life, especially his time as a manager of one-time rival teams, could have made for an interesting addition to the film. I can only think of the three-hour long version that Ken Burns might have made.

But even Burns might lack something that Kempner most certainly has. Aviva Kempner evidently has a great deal of respect for her subject -- the film plays like a love letter to Greenberg. Kempner has made a side-business (or should I say life vision) to make documentaries that express the toils that have weighed on the Jewish community. Her production Partisans of Vilna about the Jewish resistance against the Nazi was a hit in the 1986 film festival market. She then spent the next twelve years working on getting her documentary about Hank Greenberg to the screen. And, in the meantime, she has made a little cash as a film critic for the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.

She has said that her involvement in the story of Hank Greenberg came from her father, who raised her with story singing the praise of the man that had brought respect to Jews all around the country. That praise certainly rubbed off on her.


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State and Main

(Dir: David Mamet, Starring William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rebecca Pidgeon, Julia Stiles, David Paymer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Alec Baldwin, Patti LuPone, Charles Durning, Ricky Jay, Jim Frangione, Clark Gregg, Linda Kimbrough, Michael Higgins, Vinnie Gustafero, Lonnie R. Smith, Morris Lamore, Allen Soule, Chris Kaldor, Linda Silverman, Jerry Graff, Jack Wallace, J.J. Johnston, and Danny Hovanesian)



I am what you might consider to be a die-hard David Mamet fan. No matter what he does, I’m always supportive, continually relishing in the beauty of the dialogue that he writes. Mamet’s writing filmography reads like a list of the best films of the last twenty years (The Verdict, Hoffa, Vanya on 42nd Street, The Edge, Wag the Dog). He’s even had a couple films named as the best films of their respective years, namely The Untouchables and Glengarry Glen Ross.

When he began directing films, I was not too startled or enlightened, most of the time they turned out to be by-the-book filmings of his screenplays and stage plays. But when he made The Spanish Prisoner in 1997, I suddenly noticed how perfect it was. Never before had his words been toned, plucked, and paced so perfectly before. It was like a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel being directed for the screen by the author -- we can only imagine that that would have freed us from the innocuous Robert Redford/Mia Farrow adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

The Spanish Prisoner had every "hmm," every repeated sentence, every unsettling silence that comes in normal human conversations. It was so refreshing to hear Campbell Scott fumble with words like so many of us so often do.

Since then, Mamet took a turn at a costume drama and succeeded with the G-rated The Winslow Boy. With his new film, State and Main, Mamet returns to his old, grittier dialogue to grab the talk people lost in the oblivion that is show business. Sure, this is most certainly more light than, say Glengarry Glen Ross, but the strong words are enough to get him his first (highly welcomed) R-rating since 1994’s Oleanna.

This film, about a small Vermont town attacked by a renegade Hollywood film crew hoping to finish up a film that has had more problems than Heaven’s Gate (or at least more absurd -- you’ve got to love the idea of a town holding a set hostage in New Hampshire).

The director (Macy) depends on everyone else to make sure that nothing goes wrong, which includes an eraser board that serves as his only mode of memory. His big male star (Baldwin) is having relations with an underage local (Stiles); his big female star (Parker) wants to break her contract and fail to show her breasts for the camera. The only people that seem to be able to fix anything, or at least the only people that anyone can turn to for service, are the writer (Hoffman) and the producer (Paymer).

Each cast member brings their own baggage to make each character incredibly memorable. I was surprised to have liked both Parker and Baldwin in their less than favorable characters. And, believe it or not, I even thought that old Julia Stiles gave an admirable performance. I guess the egging on that I gave for 10 Things I Hate About You, Down to You, and Hamlet (where she served as one of the very few problems in the near perfect film) has finally paid off.

The only actor that I felt gave a less than notable performance is Rebecca Pidgeon. I have a very weird ear for the way she performs Mamet’s dialogue. It has been increasing each time I see her in a Mamet film (the two are married). With The Spanish Prisoner it was acceptable, with The Winslow Boy it was a little unnerving, here it is all out disturbing. She has a persona that works in her roles (I’m certain that Mamet writes them directly for her), but not the acting graces.

The real actors here are William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and David Paymer, all of whom are established acting geniuses in ensemble films. There are no real leads to this film, but these three are certainly the characters that I was most interested in. I would have been happy with a film simply dedicated to Macy’s director or Hoffman’s writer or Paymer’s producer.

This film reminded me a whole lot of a certain Robert Altman from not too long ago. No, I’m not talking about his Hollywood satire The Player, but his small-time photographic masterpiece Cookie’s Fortune. This is not necessarily a condemnation of the small town life, but a picturesque memory of how different it can be from the life that most of us live in. Given Mamet’s reliability to latch on to how people talk, this down home feeling makes for some interesting conversation pieces.

What's most interesting about this film, however, is that no one is really wronged in the entire run of it. Yes, there are some misunderstandings, but nearly every one of his films have involved lying, cheating, stealing. Even The Winslow Boy had thievery as the story starter. This film has nothing like that. It is pretty much the lightest Mamet has ever gotten -- and I even like it this way.


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(Dir: Joel Schumacher, Starring Colin Farrell, Matthew Davis, Clifton Collins, Jr., Thomas Guiry, Shea Whigham, Russell Richardson, Nick Searcy, Afemo Omilami, James MacDonald, Keith Ewell, Matt Gerald, Stephen Fulton, Tyler Cravens, and Michael Edmston)



As I sat watching Tigerland, it suddenly became clear to me why the film was working on its own level: it was nothing like anything Joel Schumacher had done before. Often times, directors bring out their best when they are trying something new (case in point, David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, a complete departure from his previous works) and inadvertently find their calling.

I don’t mind if people know it, I cannot stand the filmmaker that Joel Schumacher had become: that action film Chris Columbus, turning everything into some uplifting moment of grandeur. Can you imagine a world in which there had never been a St. Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, or Dying Young? Think of the Utopia that would come from forgetting his two Batman films (Batman Forever and Batman & Robin).

Admittedly, he has worked hard since Batman & Robin all but killed his career, running for a grittier type of filmmaking and even attempting to become a type of born-again independent filmmaker. I frowned on his first attempt, the seriously unentertaining 8mm. Admittedly, there were some aspects to that film that were great (mainly thanks to Andrew Kevin Walker’s murky screenplay) but his heavy-handed direction brought the downfall to that project. It was last year’s Flawless that really showed me that he had something there. Now, I still feel that there are some really bad camera choices in the film, but all in all it worked.

So I did not have that normal feeling getting ready to watch Tigerland that I normally have when I watch a Schumacher film (for the record, I actually did like three of his pre-Flawless films, Falling Down, The Client, and A Time to Kill, all thanks to incredible performances and not his horrid direction on each count). Not only did I have a little more respect for old Joel, but I also have a close affinity to the films of the Dogme 95 movement, which certified Tigerland as being within the rules of a Dogme film though it was not given a number.

Shot completely on 16mm film with shaky handheld cameras, Tigerland is nothing like anything Schumacher has ever made. He has certainly spent some time watching Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, and Søren Kragh-Jacobson’s Mifune -- their presence is more apparent here than Schumacher’s. Even the characters, who are not likable and cuddly, seem like the product of Scandinavian filmmaking, where being happy is so passé.

Last year saw the release of David O. Russell’s Three Kings, which also featured handheld camera work, about a madcap military troupe in the Middle East. There were comparisons then to films like Robert Altman’s MASH and Mike Nichols’ Biloxi Blues. Now, Tigerland seems even closer to those films, as well as a little Three Kings, with a good deal of the dramatics of Full Metal Jacket thrown in.

Newcomer Colin Farrell plays Bozz, one of the many Army recruits and draftees brought to Louisianna’s Tigerland Training Camp, the last stop before heading out to Vietnam in 1971. He, like so many wise guys in film history, has the ability to get things for people even though he often must pay the price for such helpful gestures. For some, he seems like the person to go to so as to get a discharge, for himself, he just wants to make it through all this without seeming like he broke a sweat.

He is abrasive, disorderly, and unlikable. But, because he never learns from the discipline that is constantly thrown on him, he gets away with things that would have ruined many a military man.

The film is told through the eyes of Bozz’s best friend Paxton (Davis) who met Bozz when he offered him a hotel room and a couple loose ladies while on leave of the camp (though, at that time, Bozz was ordered to remain on camp but had decided to go AWOL). For Paxton, Bozz seems like a person to serve as what could be his final friendship; for him, Paxton seems much more like another drinking buddy.

For anyone that saw him in The War Zone, it should be as no surprise how incredible Farrell is in this film. He gives such a strong performance that you’d swear he really is Bozz. I’m not going to compare him to, say, Jude Law in terms of fine acting from young performers, but I do think that he deserves to be recognized for doing much more than most people would expect the 24 year old Irishman.

One of the many things that really works well on this film is the score from Nathan Larson (Boy’s Don’t Cry). His score does not go for the easy military sounds that someone like Michael Kamen would have subjected us to. I was reminded of Carter Burwell’s terrific score to Three Kings as I watched this film. Larson’s work is not near as good as Burwell’s, but at least it is worthy of comparison.

The screenplay by Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther is great, with fine characters that nearly jump off the screen, even when performed by horrible actors (is it just me, or is there no reason to hire Thomas Guiry for anything?). I doubt that the script will make it to the Academy Awards short list, but I do support it for consideration. I know that it is one of the finest this year.

Joel Schumacher does fine work here with cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who did his finest cinematographic work of the year on Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream), turning the shaky handheld camera into a box capturing art. If Schumacher can continue on a run of films like this one, especially if he can keep working with Libatique, he might just atone for those Batman films. But, hey, let’s not count our chickens before they hatch.


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Reviews by:
David Perry