Volume 3, Number 1
This Week's Reviews: Chocolat, Pola X, Traffic, The Emperor's New Groove.
This Week's Omissions: Just Looking.
(Dir: Lasse Hallström, Starring Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina, Lena Olin, Johnny Depp, Victoire Thivisol, Judi Dench, Peter Stormare, Carrie-Anne Moss, Leslie Caron, Hugh O'Conor, Aurelien Parent-Koening, Antonio Gil-Martinez, Helene Cardona, Harrison Pratt, Gaelan Connell, Elisabeth Commelin, Ron Cook, Guillaume Tardieu, Michéle Gleizer, Dominique MacAvoy, Arnaud Adam, and Christianne Gadd)
BY: DAVID PERRY
In the religious holiday of Lent, you do not enjoy life's pleasures; at least that's what it was many years ago. Today we seem to have forgotten exactly what Lent means -- even the normally devout Catholics have changed it to merely refraining from eating meat on Fridays. I'd swear that most of those that actually know of the holiday only thinks of it as a chance to see re-airings of The Sound of Music and The Ten Commandments on network television (by the way, how in the world did The Sound of Music come to be considered Lenten in any way?).
In Lasse Hallström's latest effort Chocolat, he even questions the whole reasoning behind Lent. The characters in the film that attempt to confine themselves from pleasure for their faith are seen as aimless morons while those that allow some enjoyment of life in those days of abnegation. It is the pious versus the heretics in a war over chocolate.
That's right, chocolate. For the 1959 French town setting, the real temptation comes from the chocolate that is being sold at the local chocolatery. The devout mayor Comte de Reynaud (Molina) of the small township denounces the shop and its owner, Vianne (Binoche), who makes things worse by having an illegitimate daughter Anouk (Thivisol) and not attending the church. Soon the local priest, whom de Reynaud has in his back pocket, reads off sermons written by the mayor that tell everyone of the sinfulness of even walking into that shop.
But there are still some people that do not listen and decide to enter her little shop -- the only reason that it can economically survive the hit de Reynaud wants to put on it. What no one knows is that her chocolates are a type of magic confections. Some people use it as an aphrodisiac, some find the sweets to help them speak their true feelings, and others just get the pleasure of some delightful treats.
Nevertheless, she keeps the place running on their purchases and begins plans for various parties to help people come together instead of being attacked by a veil of religious beliefs. She even comes up with having a fertility celebration on Easter Sunday.
Binoche is a fine actress, one that strikes the screen like one of the great beauties of classic Hollywood. When she defeated Lauren Bacall for the Academy Award in 1997, it was much more of a ringing in of the new Bacall -- a beautiful youth that can hold herself on screen and will last far longer than would ever have been expected. Look at her performances early in her career, making astonishing characters in films like Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue and Louis Malle's Damage. Here she is mesmerizing in a sweet part that most actors would have turned into an overwrought, underdeveloped nymphomaniac.
I personally got the most delight out of this film by seeing some of my favorite younger actors finally come back in performances that had been long waited for. This is actually the second film for Victoire Thivisol, who literally took my breath away with her performance in 1996's Ponette at the age of three. What she brought to that film was astonishing regardless of her age. Admittedly, she is not a stand out in this film, but sure is it great to see her again.
The other fine actor that comes out of seclusion for this film is Hugh O'Conor, who gave an incredible performance in 1996's underrated The Young Poisoner's Handbook. Here he is the priest, where he shines once again with a subtle performance in what would otherwise have been an unimportant role.
I was also a big fan of Alfred Molina and Peter Stormare, neither giving their greatest performances, but still respectable all the same. Each of them stand more as comical foils for the film, roles that they are not too used to, and it is nice to see that they are so able and doing so.
Dench, Olin, Moss, and Depp all give casual, less-than-stellar performances in roles that are not too intriguing from the get-go. I like each of the actors and feel that they could have done much more had they not been hampered by thin characters.
I cannot really agree with the moral to this film, which seems so anti-establishment that they could have closed the film with a Sex Pistols song (oh, what I'd give for "God Save the Queen (She Ain't No Human Being)" over the end titles), but I still respected the film. Hallström is an able director, and can do great work with the right film. I've even come to really like his The Cider House Rules, which I was admittedly a little moot on when first seeing the film last year.
He's not what I'd consider to be equipped at making light films like this, but he does a credible job. I was more enlightened by the score by Rachel Portman, but I do think that some of the tone of this film comes from his direction. Maybe with some extra work in the genre, Hallström might be to the point where he can take a film as airy as this to flight without leaving it for the most part to his score composer.
Chocolat is nothing more than a frilly little
piece with about as much deepness as a Farrelly Brothers film. I felt good after it ended
-- not great, but simply good. Had Robert Altman made the film, with a sharper quill than
the one Hallström employs, this might have been a classic. And I might have felt great --
like I had eaten all the sweets my heart could desire.
(Dir: Léos Carax, Starring Guillaume Depardieu, Yekaterina Golubyova, Delphine Chuillot, Catherine Deneuve, Laurent Lucas, Patachou, Petruta Catana, Mihaella Silaghi, Sharunas Bartas, Samuel Dupuy, and Miguel Yeco)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Earlier this year I was attacked by many for a review of Beau Travail, Claire Denis overwrought adaptation of Herman Melvilles Billy Budd. I still stand beside my feelings even as the film makes a great deal of top ten lists lately -- Denis has a great deal of ability as a visual artist, but she lets the film get out of hand and hampers the story while doing so.
Now comes the second Melville adaptation of the year. Pola X, based on the novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (the name Pola comes from French title Pierre, ou les Ambiguites and the X comes from the tenth draft of the script) is another story about people dealing with the torture of young souls with adult themes. Its always interesting to look at the more mature novels that Melville wrote after the deep but family friendly Moby Dick. Like all of Melvilles works, Pierre, or the Ambiguities looks at people that do not know how to react to the lemons that life has thrown at them.
In the case of this novel in the form of Pola X, the lead character is Pierre (Depardieu), who is a relatively well-off aristocrat living in Normandy. His father was a diplomat in France -- a respected diplomat at one time before everything came tumbling down in the years following World War II. Now Pierre and his widowed mother Marie (Deneuve) live in a lush château where he can write his novels under the pen name 'Aladin' and prepare to marry his beautiful cousin Lucie (Chuillot).
But everything he knows comes to an end one evening as he rides his motorcycle to inform Lucie of the recently determined wedding date. Over the course of the last couple days, a female figure had appeared in his dreams and watched him from afar. Now, on the side of the road is this dark haired street vagrant. Stopping to learn why she has haunted his life as of late, he learns of a great story: she is his half-sister. Her name is Isabelle and their father had impregnated her less noble mother and left them in the past.
With this information, Pierre decides that it is imperative that he take her away with him to Paris where she can be his muse, leaving Marie and Lucie behind. Since they had to leave the only hotel that would allow her to come in after an unfortunate occurrence, they set-up a makeshift residence in an abandoned warehouse that has become the home of a group of terrorist as of late.
Pierre acts as if Isabelle is his wife, even having sex with her on occasion (this is not too far a cry for his older lifestyle -- he and his mother had pseudo-sexual relations). Since his Parisian cousin Thibault (Lucas) will not welcome him into his life, Pierre has no choice but to become a recluse.
But Pierre does not write the novel that he hopes to write with her there, in fact he becomes a bit of a has-been. As time and sudden poverty withers away his once virile body, he begins to fight more for his life than for his novel -- which is meant to be more personal than his successes and is instead seen as plagiarism and he is accused of being an imposter.
The digression of Pierre is astonishing, probably the best thing about this film. His early moments are so young and lively, but his later moments are near frightening. Its like Brad Pitt in Legend of the Fall turning out like Stellan Skarsgĺrd in Breaking the Waves within the limits of a two hour film. Depardieu is not what Id consider to be a great actor, but his ability to make this metamorphosis was absolutely astonishing.
In the fourth of the five films that Catherine Deneuve has released this year in North America, the great French actress once again shines. Even when her scene is relegated to making an apropos seductress out of her maternal figure, there is an astonishing amount of grace that she has. Her endurance, both in her characters and as an actress, is one of the greatest testaments to why she has stood the tests of time.
She is merely the third female supporting player, and arguably the least important of the three. Delphine Chuillot gives an understated and beautifully challenging performance as a woman scorned by the love of her life and unable to comprehend the actions that she is constantly present to. The other supporter, Katerina Golubeva, on the other hand, leans towards utterly annoying. Her cloying performance is one of the downfalls of the motion picture.
Director Carax did an incredible job directing Lovers on the Bridge in 1991 (the film had a small engagement in America last year) where he built a replica of the Pont Neuf. That artistry seems a little lost here. I really think that Carax knew where he was going but did not really know the exact way to bring it to the screen.
The passion is non-existent -- something that made Lovers on the Bridge so astonishingly beautiful. Im not trying to sound like some perverted old man here, but there really is no passion, no realistic conception to the films main sex scene. I would normally have taken it as less than passionate due to its story matter, but the lurid precision of Caraxs vision only confines the film to a one-note sex scene.
Carax sets this film in 1950s France, a far cry
from the 1852 setting for the novel. Yet he still sets most everything close to the
original story. Much of what happens is an exact facsimile of the novel with motorcars and
motorcycles abound. In other places he might have been considered yet another literature
to cinema revisionist. I personally thought that Michael Almereyda did a far superior job
on his New York 90s based Hamlet, but I respect Carax Pierre, or
the Ambiguities in its own flawed little way.
(Dir: Steven Soderbergh, Starring Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Jacob Vargas, Luis Guzmán, Erika Christensen, Miguel Ferrer, Steven Bauer, Dennis Quaid, Amy Irving, Clifton Collins, Jr., Topher Grace, Tomas Milian, Marisol Padilla Sánchez, Albert Finney, D.W. Moffett, Joel Torres, James Brolin, Nick Corri, Corey Spears, Majandra Delfino, Benjamin Bratt, and Peter Riegert)
BY: DAVID PERRY
When Steven Soderbergh made the film Schizopolis, I seriously thought that we were looking at an end to his career. It was so weird, so independent, and so far from the graceful masterwork that he had made previously with sex, lies, and videotape and King of the Hill. Sure, he had been a little down as of late, finding less than enthusiastic remarks on his studio release Kafka and his definitely independent release The Underneath. But the worrying has proven to be unmerited, for Steven Soderbergh has grown into a new man in these years since Schizopolis. Its almost as if his career was reborn with that completely personal film (he directed, produced, and starred in the film).
With Traffic, his fourth feature film since Schizopolis, he finally brings in a film that can compare to the auspicious films of his earliest years. Traffic is a film that can be considered to be one of the finest productions of the year, and a worthwhile addition in his already fine filmography (I have a great deal of respect for nearly all of his films, ranging from the eerie Grays Anatomy and The Limey to the smooth Erin Brockovich and sex, lies, and videotape). Any other year I would be singing the praises of a name like Martin Scorsese for bringing the film world one more mesmerizing masterpiece, but this year I must praise Soderbergh for doing it twice.
Traffic is certainly this years Magnolia, and three times the film that the Paul Thomas Anderson film was (even though I hold the film in high regard, I still have problems with its small details). Following seven, count them, seven storylines, Traffic is a beautifully detailed piece of fiction that allows every facet of its interlocking accounts to have as much clout as the previous one. You meet all eight of its major characters and sixteen minor characters and are driven in knee deep into a story that is as believable as any documentary.
The story is predominately the works of three characters, whose decisions decide the fate of every other person in the film. To me, the most engaging of these three is Robert Wakefield (Douglas), who has recently been placed in the position of drug czar by the president of the United States after the previous czar (Brolin) is deemed unproductive in his efforts to stop the growth of the drug trade within the countrys borders.
However, the real important part of Wakefields story is not in his office, but instead inside his home. What he and his wife (Irving) do not know is that their daughter (Christensen) has become an addict right under their noses. A night in a jail after a friends overdose tips them off to her addiction, but they have no idea how far she has gone.
Meanwhile, a DEA sting brings on the arrest of an important California drug dealer (Ferrer), who can give enough information to bring on the trial of drug lord Carlos Ayala in San Diego (Bauer). His wife, Helena (Zeta-Jones), never knowing his illegal practices, must take over the debt and the enemies that his business falling under has brought.
The third story is south of the border, as a corrupted Tijuana police officer named Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez is brought into the secret dealings of the Mexican army in dealing with the two competing drug ringleaders. The cooperation that he quickly gives finds scorn after a while as his closest friend (Torres) comes to think of deceiving the Mexican army.
Now, in the style of the video ending of Clue, this is how it all comes in full circle. Wakefield is in charge of getting Ayala on trial and must learn to cooperate with the Mexican government, including the army, to get some better control of the drug trafficking over the border despite the lack of a drug czar in the country. At the same time, the two major drug overlords must keep it safe from Wakefield and the army -- their names happen to be Obregon and Ayala.
Of course, this is the second film to come out this year about the way drugs can run peoples lives. The last film, Darren Aronofskys stylistic tour-de-force Requiem for a Dream, was admittedly a better film but dealt with a different side of the story. That film, more about the people addicted than the way it is handled by those on top and the fight to get it out, was a powerhouse movie that had a strong social meaning about the American dream with its drug addiction story. This is not to downgrade Traffic, which is my choice for the second best film of 2000, but just a reminder that there is something else, albeit better, out there.
Earlier this year I received a letter from Stephen Gaghan, unhappy that I had credited him as a writer on I Still Know What You Did Last Summer in my review of Rules of Engagement, which he wrote. Admittedly I was a little miffed that he asked me to purge my sentence in that review (in my defense, that information was given to me by the IMDb, which also received a retraction request by Gaghan), but did so. I have since then waited for him to make it up to me for having to change a review after the fact (which I had never done before and have not done since). Trust me, with his screenplay for Traffic, he more than makes up for the complaint.
Gaghans screenplay, based upon a British miniseries, is filled with so many great stories, great characters, and great dialogue. It is a script filled with tense drama, hilarious comedy, and interesting anecdotes (I especially liked the story of Khrushchev and his two letters) that actors of the caliber of Douglas, Zeta-Jones, and Del Toro can make absolutely perfect.
There are so many great performances in this film that the length of my review cannot do everyone justice. I could rant on about the performance of Douglas, or Del Toro, or Christensen, or Grace, or Zeta-Jones, or Ferrer, or Guzmán, or Cheadle, or Quaid, or Bauer. This is one of those films in which watching the closing credits only reminds you of the many great performers in the film. It is absolutely astonishing that so many fine actors and actresses have been brought together for such a film. Its like The Bridge Too Far, just with the great cast in a good film.
Steven Soderbergh decided to take on the task of directing this film hands on -- literally. Soderberghs normally fine job of hiring great cinematographers shines through again as he chose himself this time around (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews). Giving various hues and film stock to designate different parts of the story (think of a more technically impressive visual design comparable to Mike Figgis audio design for Time Code) turns this into a pleasing cinematic piece of artwork. Its like he paid close attention to the genius that prior cinematographers Elliot Davis and Edward Lachman brought to his films and took it into his own cinematographic work. I love the work of Davis and Lachman, but must admit that I would not be entirely disappointed to see Soderbergh photograph his films for now on.
Considering that Soderbergh had the huge audience success
with Erin Brockovich earlier this year, one can only imagine that Soderbergh must
feel incredibly good about himself. Not since Francis Ford Coppola brought The
Godfather, Part II and The Conversation out in 1974 has a director wowed
audiences with one film and critics with another in one year. Wow, the irrefutable indie
darling director has grown into the irrefutable Hollywood darling director.
|The Emperor's New Groove
(Dir: Mark Dindal, Voices include David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Patrick Warburton, Wendie Malick, Eli Russell Linnetz, Kellyann Kelso, Bob Bergen, Tom Jones, Patti Deutsch, John Fiedler, and Joe Whyte)
BY: DAVID PERRY
"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."
That's what I said not too long ago when I reviewed Dinosaur, Disney's miserably bad computer generated animation concoction. And I went into their latest effort, The Emperor's New Groove, with an open mind thinking that they were sure to make a better film than Dinosaur. They did -- but not that much better.
The Emperor's New Groove is yet another animated film in the line of equating being obnoxious with being funny. You'd swear that the film was actually the work of Warner Bros. or DreamWorks animated division (both of whom have been more consistent with fine animated films than those at Disney) considering that there is no classical feel to the film that has been present in their films for years. I love some of their early 1990's Disney films because they were so reminiscent of what they made in the early years with films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty. Stylistically, The Emperor's New Groove has none of the production values that made the early films so great. Hell, I'd swear that it was DreamWorks' The Road to El Dorado that I was sitting through.
What marks this film from the classics is that it has been form-fitted to the character and mannerisms of its star David Spade, who is not the type of guy that fits in the Disney crowd. He does the voice of Emperor Kuzco, an abrasive, self-obsessed leader of a mythical South American kingdom. Kuzco is only interested in himself and retaining his "groove" -- when he happens to trip on an old man, the elder is promptly thrown out the window of the temple.
Everything seems great for the teen emperor until, in one felt swoop, he angers both a villager and his main advisor. When he fires the advisor, the decrepit Yzma (Kitt), she and her right hand man, the expectedly bumbling Kronk (Warburton), attempt to poison him at dinner. The only problem is that Kronk grabbed the wrong poison and instead turned Kuzco into a llama. Then, when told to throw him in the river to die, he has a chance of conscience and saves the emperor but loses sight of him in the process.
Coincidentally, the place that he is accidentally left is the cart of Pacha, a commoner that he angered when he decided to knock down his house to build a swimming pool called "Kuzcopia." Since this villager has a heart and hopes to bring out the heart in Kuzco, he decides to try and help Kuzco get back to the temple where he can regain the kingdom that has since been taken over by Yzma. The problem is, of course, that is hard for a llama to convince people that he is the actual magistrate.
Many have embraced this film as being a great animated feature of joyous energy but I cannot share in the excitement. Roger Ebert mentioned the Chuck Jones shorts that were made without any of the storytelling qualities of, say, The Little Mermaid or Mulan, but instead went for being non-stop fun with Bugs Bunny and his friends. Ahh, but here's the rub, those shorts would last about 6 minutes, not a laboring and overbearing 80 minutes. I'll even admit that I was having a little fun in the first moments as Tom Jones crooned an opening theme creating the atmosphere, but quickly the time had come for some freedom from the zaniness that just does not work for that long.
The most blame, in my opinion, is on Spade, who certainly gives his normal jackass character. I would hate to be an elementary teacher for the current youth of America. Considering that the heroes of Disney animated films are now the most obnoxious people on earth, one can only imagine the child facsimiles that this will create. And I thought I was sickened by the passivity of D.B. Sweeney in Dinosaur!
Some of the supporting players are fun, in that Disney sidekick sort of way. The whining of Goodman is sickening, but the comic stupidity of Warburton is a great deal of fun. And Eartha Kitt is deliciously evil in her role. It has been way too long since we've had a great chance to catch her. She's always been left to rotten films, but at least she always gets to be a shining part of each of them.
And then there's David Spade. Why, is all I can say? Why?
Why? Why? I've seen this guy do comedy on Saturday Night Live and the series Just
Shoot Me where he has come near genius. He actually has the ability to be funny in
small packages. When stuck in large form, as has been proven by his films with Chris
Farley and last year's Lost & Found, he comes to dismal verbal spikes that
range from annoying to disturbing. I guess that's what the Disney people thought their
animation division needed.