> Volume 3 > Number 14

Volume 3, Number 14

This Week's Reviews:  Ratcatcher, Along Came a Spider, Blow, In the Mood for Love.

Cinema Alternative:  The Sopranos.

This Week's Omissions:  Company Man, Just Visiting, Pokémon 3: The Movie.


(Dir: Lynne Ramsay, Starring William Eadie, Leanne Mullen, Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews, Michelle Stewart, Lynne Ramsay, Jr., John Miller, and Jackie Quinn)



In the opening of Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, we are introduced to Ryan, a seemingly normal young boy in 1973 Glasgow. We see him scamper around his low rent apartment as he hides from his mother, who readies him for a trip to visit his estranged father. He runs and hides and she continues on her way. Fixing his boots to a more respectable look, Ryan runs to the dirty canal where his friend James (Eadie) has been skipping rocks. They scuffle, Ryan holds James head under the water, James pushes Ryan into the dark-brown liquid, and Ryan never resurfaces.

The rest of the film deals with James and his family. In the wake of this death, the people of Glasgow begin to look at the world that is crumbling around them. In 1973, a garbage collector's strike left huge hills of trash bags cluttering the yards of its residents. Vermin and disease spread around amidst the black bags sitting in the roads, playgrounds, and canals. These people are raising their children in a landfill with the occasional house.

James' family dreams of the day in which they'll move out of this community to a nice, furnished home out in the country. They've sent in the request, they've prayed for the positive decision, now all they can do is wait. During the interim, James must deal with the guilt that hits him whenever he remembers accidentally killing Ryan -- the occasional reminder is found in his dark eyes, which absorb the actions of everyone else, never really considering them to be lesser evils of his mistake.

In Ratcatcher, Ramsay takes on the characters as a faithful observer. This is one of those films in which you feel like you are getting a view of the subjects in, perhaps, a closeness that probably should not be available. We see James have his first sexual encounter and the friendship that comes from it. We are present to the tormenting harassment that one somewhat retarded boy and his hamster go through. Everything feels too close; it's almost sadistic.

As is the title of the Ingmar Bergman film and the line from a psalm, Ramsay creates the film through a looking glass darkly. Every action is that of pain and regret -- even, at times, regretting the actions before they are even done. This is especially found in the taunting that is found on Margaret Anne (Mullen) as she opens her body to the local thugs that ridicule her as much as they ravage her. The fault of this is her own - she allows them to use her as a means of sexual pleasure, perhaps in hopes of somewhat getting back the face she loses each time they taunt her, perhaps to fulfill her own unkempt sexual urges.

Ramsay has brought together a fine collection of young actors, all of whom give performances far beyond their ages. Like last year's similarly themed George Washington, there are far more youths than elders in the film, and, perhaps, that is one of the reasons that it works so well. When we are left to empathize with the adults, we feel short changed -- compared to the younger characters, their life problems seem to be part of a ritualistic life, not a beginning that still has a chance to reform.

For a film of such a rough sewn fabric, its weird to consider that it has its own deal of beauty. Ramsay and cinematographer Alvin Kuchler have a keen grasp for viewing the beauty lost in a destitute landscape. The film's first glimpse of something free from the billowing garbage bags is a view of a wheat field through a windowpane. For a brief moment, we are introduced to something that retracts itself from the rest of the film - at one single moment, we are reminded, like the inspecting James, that there is still some beauty in Scotland. After a weary 45 minutes of dirt and muck, this glance at peace is as mystical as it is haunting.

Apart from the camerawork and performers on the screen, the actual part of the film that caught most of my attention is the occasional bit of music from Rachel Portman. Continually doing work in big films like The Legend of Bagger Vance and Chocolat, it is easy to forget that Portman still has her indie roots in place. The melodious score that plays across Ramsay's final shot is just as harrowing as the shot itself. It took me back to The 400 Blows, with Jean Constantin's score marking Truffaut's famous final image of Jean-Pierre Léaud. Talk about nice company to be in.


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Along Came a Spider

(Dir: Lee Tamahori, Starring Morgan Freeman, Monica Potter, Michael Wincott, Dylan Baker, Mika Boorem, Raoul Ganeev, Billy Burke, Jay O. Sanders, Penelope Ann Miller, Anton Yelchin, Michael Moriarty, Kimberly Hawthorne)



When Along Came a Spider begins, the audience has in hand three devices: a recognizable name (Morgan Freeman), a popular adapted novel (by James Patterson), and a well-received predecessor (1997's Kiss the Girls). By the time the film is over, all three have been hurt by this connection.

In the genre of serial killer films, the key is allowing both the killer and victim to seem human and worthy of our time. That same rule holds true to this film, though its criminal is not a murderer but a kidnapper. Nevertheless, no one on the set of Along Came the Spider took heed to this set-in-stone decree -- by the time the film has hit a third twist criminal to join the whiney victim, the audience is merely hoping that they themselves might make it out in one piece, forget the others.

Along Came a Spider, like Kiss the Girls, follows Detective Alex Cross and his work as a criminal profiler. Morgan Freeman takes this role again and well establishes it as his own personal Inspector Clouseau -- hey, even dramatic actors have to have their own centerpiece roles -- and does his best to keep the film running. But his work is in vain, the hackneyed plot and novice direction turn Along Came a Spider into a by-the-book genre picture, and a bad one at that. No, it is not at the levels of, say, The Bone Collector, but Spider is definitely no Silence of the Lambs (which, as I'm sure I needn't mention, had its own ugly child born this year).

The film opens with a bungled stakeout on a could-be serial killer in which Cross' partner dies in a car crash. This torments Cross, who goes into a type of exile to make model clipper ships. But, when senator's daughter Megan Rose (Boorem) is kidnapped at her posh private school, Cross becomes the detective-of-choice for the kidnapper and is brought back into the spotlight.

This kidnapper, called Gary Soneji (Wincott), spent two years working as a teacher at this school to get his hands on her and now the wait has finally paid off. Of course, this has meant an incredible deal of planning -- perhaps going a little overboard. Hmm, he has put on huge latex makeup each day for two years and even creates a lesson plan about Charles Lindbergh the day of the kidnapping -- how quaint. Words of wisdom to the producers: when you want to create historical precedence by mentioning the Lindbergh baby and kidnapper Bruno Richard Hauptmann, at least get the name right (they call him Richard Bruno Hauptmann).

Joining Cross is Secret Service Special Agent Jezzie Flannigan (Potter), who was working at the school when Soneji murdered another teacher and ran off with Megan. Under the watchful eye of D.C. Mayor Carl Monroe (Baker), the two go on a manhunt that involves everything from a botched attack on the Russian embassy and a dull attempt to pay the ransom.

I was not a big fan of Kiss the Girls, to tell the truth, but at least it was more intriguing that this collection of reprehensible twists and turns. I found that film to be a little predictable, I found this one to be much more awkward. It's overbearing use of plot twists makes for unappealing cinema.

Given dialogue that would make Arch Hall, Jr., cringe, the actors do their best even though it is tough for greats like Dylan Baker and Morgan Freeman to get beyond lines that read like a Mad Magazine article. In fact, the only major actor in the film that fits the dialogue is Monica Potter, who could easily go down in the pantheon of most clueless actresses ever. Here's hoping for a future of straight-to-video films.

Along Came a Spider is not going to be remembered in a couple months, it'll be yet another lackluster thriller that makes a nice opening and then falls to the wayside. That's a good thing -- now the only place it'll appear is in movie resources like the Internet Movie Database and Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide. And, hey, it can go in a subset heading called "Films with Too Much Plot and No Point."


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(Dir: Ted Demme, Starring Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Jordi Mollà, Paul Reubens, Ray Liotta, Rachel Griffiths, Emma Roberts, Franka Potente, Ethan Suplee, Cliff Curtis, Max Perlich, and Miguel Pérez)



George Jung created a cartel larger than he could have ever imagined. After a couple years dealing marijuana, Jung went instead to the cocaine trade and made a killing. According to the new bio film Blow, 85% of the cocaine in the late 1970's and early 1980's came through him -- he owned a posh mansion, obtained a beautiful wife, and seemed happy. But, as all illegal American success stories must teach, all this must stop -- Jung became another failure to everyone involved on both sides of the law.

Ted Demme's film takes on Jung's story like an unstoppable freight train and, when the pitfall finally comes, the story and the film look like a train wreck. Demme has a great deal due to Martin Scorsese by producing this film á la GoodFellas. The big problem, however, is that Demme does not let his film create a justifiable interest in Jung like Scorsese did with Henry Hill -- Demme seems content to do a play-by-play of Jung's rise and fall without creating any humanity to the character until the final reel, which is way too late in a film that seems to last forever.

Jung, as played by the constantly chameleon-like Johnny Depp, becomes a sort-of low life in the story that Demme creates from a verbally given autobiography by Bruce Potter and adapted by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes (who, like Demme, proves that talent is not necessarily inherited through a family's generations). Did Jung do something that was of disrepute? Most definitely, but that does not make him a viable commodity for our time watching a movie. Jung lacks any compassion in the film's first hour and a half, which makes him as enjoyable to watch as David Arquette in a 1-800-COLLECT commercial.

Now, that brings up the second issue of a narrative story. Either a film must be of importance for entertainment (which this is definitely not) or for information. Is Jung's story one that needed to come out on the screen? I definitely don't think so; Jung is not an individual that I've waited on pins and needles to learn about. His life is neither cinematic nor interesting. How can we, the audience, be expected to be interested in, much less empathize with, an individual like this?

Demme joins cinematographer Ellen Kuras and editor Kevin Tent in creating a colorful, quick amalgamation of edits and lights that looks like someone spit on a kaleidoscope and ran it through a projector. Kuras is a very talented cinematographer, having done a breathtaking job on the black and white photography for 1992's Swoon, but the lack of any interest in making camera set-ups that convey the story, as Demme struggles with constantly throughout, brings down her very respectable attempt to make something out of her resources.

There are are only three things about Blow that are strong throughout and they all happen to be actors. Giving a performance that converges Hunter S. Thompson of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Joe Pistone of Donnie Brasco to make someone that could have held our interest, if only spent on someone else. Depp has been on a roll as of late, spending the last 10 years playing roles that push him further as an actor (with the exception of his payday on The Astronaut's Wife), and he stands, even after this misstep, as one of America's finest assets. If only he'd get back on the mode in which he works with notable directors, not hacks like Ted Demme (where in the world did anyone get the idea that the director of The Ref and Life could tangle with the story of George Jung?) and Rand Ravich.

Depp's only downfall is an off-and-on Boston accent, which has more flaws than the Irish accent the equally talented Brad Pitt struggled with on The Devil's Own. That is the same problem with Rachel Griffiths, who, otherwise, gives a performance that becomes the heart of the entire movie as Jung's doting mother. With some films, little roles can get lost in the dust, but Griffiths in this film, like Cate Blanchett in The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains in mind through every frame that does not include her. When Blow finally came to an end, my biggest regret was that she had been dealt such a harsh blow to her filmography -- Griffiths deserves far better than a mess like this.

What has happened to Ray Liotta? In a mere month, he has gone from has-been to best of show (or, at least, second best). I was admittedly not a fan of his performance in Hannibal, but with this and Heartbreakers, Liotta continues his image as an actor that we saw in GoodFellas and Corrina, Corrina. I'm sure that his hiring had little to do with his acting skills and everything to do with his previous work in GoodFellas, but he certainly makes the best with the role he has been given. The scenes between Liotta and Depp, as father and son, are remarkable for his compassion, even if they do nothing to create an absolution for Jung.

The other names in the cast lend little to the film. Most notably are Cruz, Potente, Reubans, and Mollà. Paul Reubans has made some attempts to come back from the Pee-Wee Herman stigmatism that occurred, but it'll take more than a gay hairdresser with drug connections to end the ostracizing plaguing him. And Mollà has little to add, though his presence as Jung's cocaine trafficking teacher is important to the story. What really hurts are the passable performances from foreign film femmes Cruz (All About My Mother) and Potente (Run Lola Run) both playing lovers in Jung's life. Cruz sufficiently proves that there's little in her acting beyond the style of Pedro Almodóvar and Potente proves that she needs bright red hair to at least get the audience to care about her peril.

However, no matter how lacking a couple actors may have been, the least they could have received was an able direction to help them look a little better in the flames of the pyre. Ted Demme makes a film that disheartens the audience by throwing a few bad performances at us in disjointed arrangements that only augment our contempt for the film in front of us. To say the least, Liotta, Griffiths, and Depp deserve better than this. Of course, so do we.


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In the Mood for Love

(Dir: Wong Kar-Wai, Starring Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Rebecca Pan, Lai Chen, Ping Lam Siu, Chi-ang Chi, Man-Lei Chan, Kam-wah Koo, Hsien Yu, and Po-chun Chow)



When Wong Kar-Wai makes a movie, he makes poetry in motion. Every movement is so well timed; every image is in perfect depth to the point that he will be remembered as one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of Hong Kong cinema. I know a great deal of people that continually sing the praise of John Woo for best Hong Kong import -- evidently they've never had a chance to see Kar-Wai's films.

In the Mood for Love is like the films that put Kar-Wai on the map, methodical film noir films like Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. These films, like most of his other films, use perversity in the most stunning ways. The deep colors that flow across the faces of the stars of this film, the way they embrace without really touching, every moment is like a snapshot of a love unwarranted, un amour moins ordinaire. Wong Kar-Wai takes on the subjects like they are people, not characters in his story. He captures them in their existence, where everything is taken on by their unrequited love for each other.

Of course, there is a catch to this romance in the fact that neither Mr. Chow (Leung) nor Mrs. Chen (Cheung) are truly meant for each other, but instead still see themselves as the mates of their respective spouses. But this is not the story of two people having an affair, but what an affair can do to the two people left behind by one -- Mr. Chow's wife and Mrs. Chen's husband are the ones having the affair.

When the two neighbors begin to notice the little inconsistencies in the acts of their spouses and the fact that both have run off on "business trips" to Japan, leaving the two in their 1960's Hong Kong apartments, Chow and Chen begin to imagine what brought them to this state. Here, in an engulfment of jealousy and emotion, each have to face the fact that they are no longer the important part in their marriage, they are stuck in the past while their old loves are continuing in the present. So lost in this, they even begin recreating the dates that brought their husband and wife to this affair -- acting out the first date, the joking at the idiots at home, and the fateful day in which they are confronted with the slap to the face.

The only thing they do not attempt to recreate is the sex occurring. In fact, for a film seething with raw enticement, it is surprisingly chaste. We are never to see them consummate the relationship that is growing so quickly in their performances of these mêlées, but we can feel it. They sit, staring at each other, perhaps into each other, and think of the revenge infidelity they could engage in but will not. We are also never present to the adulterers, who are never on screen, because this is not about them. While their decision put the film into motions, their feelings are not the ones of note -- this is definitely the story of Chow and Chen in light of the others' actions.

The film misses out on some pacing issues, with a repetition of music that gets weary, but continues to be visually breathtaking throughout. Kar-Wai and his cinematographer Christopher Doyle make the most out of their actors, sets, costumes, and lights. An emotional flush takes shape in some moments, a loose openness in others. Every single frame comes off like a piece of professional photography. From beginning to end, Wong Kar-Wai uses every part of the production to its utmost effect, creating one of the most visually entrancing films of the year.

The two actors give absolutely breathtaking performances, taking attraction to the most erotic, though uncorrupted level. Leung and Cheung are big names in Hong Kong films, so their presence here is unusual. Think of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts playing these roles, living in an unrequited enslavement that is surely doomed. Of course, in a Hollywood film, that doom would lead to a happy ending. "That era has passed -- nothing that belongs to it exists anymore" would be an afterthought, give our stars the joyful finales. Hey, it's the American way.


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Cinema Alternative:

The Sopranos
To paraphrase The Simpsons' comic book guy: "Best episode ever"

I am a film critic at heart, so it has never been my forte to look at television from the same critical eye. In fact, I have not actually written anything about television with the exception of the Academy Awards since the 1995 new fall season, which left me so disenchanted that I pretty much scoffed the idea of ever working on TV shows completely (I blame it on the hideous Friends knock-offs that I was forced to watch).

So it takes something huge to get me to return. When The Sopranos began, I thought about taking it on -- the mob family drama was the first show to really get me completely attentive since Twin Peaks -- but the continued rush of writing about movies kept me from it. But now I cannot hold back my remarks, The Sopranos has done something that I thought might never be possible, it may have created the single finest hour of television ever. In the episode entitled "Employee of the Month" airing on 18 March 2001, the HBO series returned in full force from a three episode lull that had plagued its third season.

First, some back-story: the show was on a roll with the first season, lived through a fine but incomparable second season, and finished off with a literal and metaphorical bang. The final two episodes from the second season happen to be two of the show's five best. Then the show went on hiatus for nearly a year, which meant that we fans were up the creek for a long time. Sadly, during that time, the show lost one of its best performers, Nancy Merchand who played the wicked matriarch of the Sopranos clan. This made for a big problem in the story department: the continuing division between Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his recently stroke-victim mother was one of the major plots going into the end of the season.

Now, when this rewriting of the story put a damper on the second episode of new season (someone had the horrible idea of using a CGI-Merchand to lead into the news of her character's death -- a low moment in the show), I was flustered. The only really good thing that came out of it was some hilarious moments for Michael Imperioli (whose Christopher Moltisanti character has become consistently the best part of the show). I took this as some stuff to clear up the ending of the second season and take care of Merchand's death before getting into the main part of the season. Boy, was I right.

The third episode was nice, but nothing special. It's the fourth episode that will forever mark the show. The Sopranos will probably never recreate the artistic merit that came with this episode -- it was absolutely incredible.

Simply put, in "Employee of the Month" the show looks at rape and how it changes one character. From the surprise moment in which we painfully watch the brutal rape of Tony's psychiatrist Lorraine Brocco, the audience has been taken into a labyrinthine tale of cause and effect. From that moment on, we no longer feel that we are in control of television, a confidence that has grown as more and more shows live on clichés that give some sort of empowerment to the audience. In fact, we are now just pedestrians in this tale of pathos, mere spectators to the fear and fury that occurs to someone that has just been through a rape. In my opinion, there has not been anything as harrowing brought to the screen, whether it be in a theatre or on a television, since Requiem for a Dream.

By far, this is the episode that shows the great actress that Lorraine Brocco is. In past Emmy competitions, I've found myself supporting co-stars Merchand and Edie Falco before, but there is no questioning who I'll support this time around, Brocco gives the best performance of her career, even better than the one she gave in GoodFellas. I don't care if both the Emmy Awards and the Golden Globes completely overlook the series again next year; it would be devastating if they failed to award Brocco for this performance. Hopefully, this is the episode Brad Grey Productions will send to voters for consideration this year.

As has become standard for the show, it was not completely a sad hour -- in fact, the subplot that was played for laughs really should not have been as funny as it was. Is it politically incorrect to get your jollies from a one-legged Russian dealing with the theft of her artificial leg? Probably not, but you know what, in comparison to what we saw on the other side of the spectrum, the Russian's problems seem rather amusing.

I have seen many films since I first saw this episode and, nevertheless, remained with it constantly on my mind. This is one hour of my television watching life that I'll never forget. Between a harrowing third-person experience and a haunting final moment, The Sopranos moves into a class all to it's self. When people ask me my favorite TV series, I'll still answer Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but then I'll quickly insert the addendum as to what my favorite single TV episode was. Of course, based on this, The Sopranos could just give Alfred Hitchcock Presents a run for its money.

Reviews by:
David Perry