Volume 3, Number 28
This Week's Reviews: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Legally Blonde, The Score, Sexy Beast, The Anniversary Party.
This Week's Omissions: NONE.
|Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
(Dir: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Voices include Ming-Na Wen, Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, James Woods, Ving Rhames, Peri Gilpin, Steve Buscemi, Keith David, Jean Simmons, and Annie Wu)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is an animated film, even if the people behind it want desperately to convince you that it is not. As the first film to use completely computer-generated images to create seemingly realistic characters and environments, Final Fantasy takes itself into the monumental status even if it does not fulfill all the desires the audience may ask of it.
The lead heroine is Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na), a CG-person that producers at Sony have become so concerned with that they had her included in a Maxim Magazine article as a real actress and are rumored to have started developing a cameo appearance by her in an upcoming feature. Her hair is perfectly groomed yet in slight disarray at times, she has a couple freckles and blemished here and there, and her body is not necessarily what would be considered statuesque. But, with all the primping to look 'normal,' the Aki-makers still fail to give her the most human qualities -- everything she does seems stilted and far from humanly improvised. When her head turns, it's not like that of a normal actor, but like that of a computer program trying to be one.
Aki is a scientist on Earth in the late 21st century, when humanity must huddle under huge shields to keep the invading alien environment from getting to them. It seems that an asteroid some years earlier landed on Earth and brought some old inhabitants with it. These aliens -- a weird fusion of a child's bedtime monsters and Jello -- have an unusual energy force, one that makes their destruction nearly impossible. At the same time, though, they can kill humans by merely coming in contact with them. If an alien just taps a human, they are in a way infected; if the aliens completely go through a human, the human's soul can be seen withering away.
Aki was once tapped by an alien, but her infection did not lead to her death. As it turns out, she happens to be the first spirit of the 'eight spirits' that renowned scientist Dr. Sid (Sutherland) has been looking for. It is his belief that bringing together these eight waves will counter the wavelengths brought out by the aliens' energy. But, as he and Aki trek to find the other seven spirits (when the film opens, they are up to the sixth), the organization now in charge of the planet (Keith and Simmons voice the two speaking members) feel that this search may take too much time. They have an alternative choice: a war-hawk general (Woods) wants desperately for them to approve of his use of the Zeus Machine, a high-powered gun in space that might kill the aliens, but could also kill the Earth's spirit, called Gaia by Dr. Sid.
Slowly, but surely, the organization begins to side with the army -- memories of Kennedy vs the Pentagon immediately come to mind -- while Aki and Sid only get the help of some people called Deep Eyes, who go around the destroyed cities and try to counter the movements of the aliens. The main Deep Eyes member is Gray Edwards (Baldwin, looking eerily like Ben Affleck), who had a relationship with Aki before and now hopes to continue their old affair. These six people in all must counter not only the aliens but also the advancements set forth by a zealous general and a huge gun.
When I finished Final Fantasy, my first thought was 1927's The Jazz Singer. Sounds weird, but that was the closest I could think of where a film stands as such a landmark achievement without really being much to speak of beyond its standout feat. The Jazz Singer brought the world sound in movies; Final Fantasy brings it entire movies created on a computer. The film, based upon a highly popular video game series, is the next step in the evolution of CGI that began with Tron -- just the step between Toy Story, the last CGI benchmark, and Final Fantasy is huge.
Looking at the imagery in Final Fantasy is reminiscent of all the great moments in CGI-history: the plastic sheen on Woody's forehead in Toy Story, the first glance at dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the stunning Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, and the blurry line between reality and artifice in A.I. Yet the film itself lacks the resonance to stand as more than merely a technical breakthrough. Where each of those other films I just mentioned were great in dealing with their computer generated images, they also grew as stories far beyond their cinematic/scientific advances.
Final Fantasy does dazzle the audience with the visuals -- perhaps, as the only point the film even cared about -- yet it cannot even stand at the bottom of the tent poles created by special effects visionaries Steven Spielberg and a young George Lucas. This is not to say that Final Fantasy is a complete waste once you get beyond the visuals, but that its lack of caring about pushing the limits anywhere else in the creative process is disappointing.
Sony chose to tap director Hironobu Sakaguchi for the film. This, of course, is a fine decision since the man has been behind almost every aspect of the Final Fantasy games, yet his sole artistic impulses in a way deter the film from the qualities it could have pushed for. He has only made films for the gaming medium; this is his first foray into dramatic cinematography. Had Sony just given him a co-directing credit -- one where he took the animated touches -- and partnered him with a more cinematic director -- where the other person would tackle the story and pacing, on top of balancing Sakaguchi's videophile tactics -- the film might have worked much better. My first choice, though completely improbable, would be someone like David Fincher, who has in done a glorious job using both the gloom that Sakaguchi often goes for and the cinematic ingenuity that his would-be Japanese coworker lacks.
Sakaguchi almost gives the film a "members only"
quality -- probably completely unintentionally -- to the point that audience members
uninterested in the one-dimensional story structures in the video game world will feel
left out by the film's often closed artistry. Where we -- yes, I do consider myself in the
uninitiated -- can sit and stare at the visual bliss that Sakaguchi creates, we are later
left with an unsatisfied taste; the sensibilities found in these games are not like those
that we often look for in movies, where it is more important than just thrilling the eyes
with unmoving though impressive special effects.
(Dir: Robert Luketic, Starring Reese Witherspoon, Victor Garber, Matthew Davis, Selma Blair, Luke Wilson, Jennifer Coolidge, Ali Larter, Oz Perkins, Meredith Scott Lynn, Holland Taylor, Linda Cardellini, Jessica Cauffiel, Alanna Ubach, and Raquel Welch)
BY: DAVID PERRY
In college I met a girl who dressed in skimpy yet acceptable clothing, which were, of course, always pastel. She was an art major in hopes of becoming a fashion designer and a proud member of the Tri-Delt sorority. She was the type of ditz that is documented in Legally Blonde -- that girl that is so out-of-touch that it is both funny and engaging. I never went out with her, but I did like her a great deal, she had a way to herself that did not really condescend others though otherwise her characteristics would call for her to act differently.
Sitting in the theatre watching Legally Blonde, I was reminded of this girl, much in the same way that Cher in Clueless reminds me of someone I went to high school with. I'd almost swear that I went to college with Legally Blonde's Elle Woods. Try as we might to act like life is not often found in the most unusual places in cinema, I often find that characters can closely parallel the personalities of real people on film. That's why I've never written a review decrying something for showing someone doing things that I believe no one else would do -- it seems that in this uncanny little world of ours, people really do have a few surprises up their sleeve.
This idea of surprise personality traits going beyond the constraints of their clichés is also shown to the various supporting players in Legally Blonde who underestimate Elle (Witherspoon). When she first sets foot on the hallowed Cambridge grounds of Harvard Law, people begin to make comments on 'Malibu Barbie' and her bright pink clothing. But by the third reel, those who scorned her come to understand that she is not just another living, breathing Noxima commercial, but a caring human being.
When the film opens we are introduced to Elle in her natural habitat: the sorority house. She has a small little Chihuahua that she pampers like a small child and her décor is definitely that of a young girl with money to spare -- even her phone is treated to a pink shag cover. She is just about to graduate from California University in Los Angeles, where she has a 4.0 in fashion merchandising. From everyone's point of view, Elle has a perfect little life, even snagging a terrific, upwardly mobile boyfriend in Warner Huntington III (Davis). But all this comes crumbing to an end when the two go out for dinner. As Elle sits thinking that he is about to propose, Hunter instead dumps her saying that his career choice, to be a Congressman after law school, calls for a "Jackie, not a Marilyn."
After some time passes for Elle to cry into her pillow, she decides that her perfect post-graduation choice would be to prove that she could be a Jackie. Acting on a whim, she convinces her parents that law school is the way for her to go (the swimming pool setting for this scene and the look of the father and mother seem awfully close to The Graduate) and applies for Harvard Law School. The enrollment board at Harvard, also acting on a whim, accepts her ("we say we're always looking for diversity").
Of course, matters are complicated when she gets there. Not only does she have the fish out of water problem, but also Warner has already found himself a new woman, the cold and extremely Jackie-like Vivian (Blair). But Elle tugs on and makes advances, whether it is to help her fit in or to give a nicety to someone else (her main interest is helping a manicurist [Coolidge] win the affection of the local UPS guy). It isn't very long before she is chosen -- along with Warner and Vivian -- to intern under famous lawyer/professor Callahan (Garber) in a case defending Brooke Windham (Larter), a woman accused of killing her husband. At the same time, she has caught the eye of Emmett (Wilson), Callahan's associate, though she doesn't really notice his interest.
Legally Blonde is a nice, affable little film, funny at its best, innocuous at its worst. Its biggest problem is that it can easily be compared to Clueless, which is a far superior film. The film does not really try to do anything more than expected and never really suffers from it. Though the plot is not too hard to map, the scenarios are always interesting thanks to a highly cheery nature that covers most of the film. Screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, working from an Amanda Brown novel, try their best to keep the film running smoothly with as few kinks as possible. It is a great deal like their previous script, 10 Things I Hate About You, in a certain frankness about emotions without really delving into histrionics and keeping a rather nice tone.
The key to the success of Legally Blonde, however, is in the performance of Reese Witherspoon. I was a little disheartened when someone I knew got her mixed up with both Marley Shelton in Sugar & Spice and Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On. How is it that some people have failed to see her great performances in Freeway, Pleasantville, and Election? And even in her audience-friendly middle-ground movies, she stands as a memorable sight for me, like in Fear, Cruel Intentions, and Best Laid Plans. Hey, I've kept taps on her career since her wonderfully deceptive and understated performance in 1996's equally understated gem Freeway.
In Legally Blonde, Witherspoon takes the character
far beyond some of the smaller stereotypes that the screenwriters throw in. Though it is
definitely one that will be passed on when naming her best performances, Elle is still one
of Witherspoon's finest examples. Of the two comediennes unfairly passed last year by the
Academy Awards -- Witherspoon for Election and Renée Zellweger for Nurse
Betty -- Witherspoon has the far smaller chance of getting comeuppance now, though
Zellweger might actually score a nomination for Bridget Jones's Diary. But there
is something great that might come about from Legally Blonde, especially if it is
a box office hit: people might finally be able to differentiate Witherspoon from the rest
of the ingénue crowd.
(Dir: Frank Oz, Starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando, Angela Bassett, Gary Farmer, Jamie Harrold, Andrew Walker, and Chris Messina)
BY: DAVID PERRY
After seeing Al Pacino share the screen with Robert De Niro in Michael Mann's Heat, it seemed only expected that film enthusiasts would have a new pairing to wait for. Now, with Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro finally coming together and bridging the two Vito's, we must come up with another two to finally meet. It'll take some time, but my nominees: Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino, both of whom were considered for the role of Michael in The Godfather.
But, what is really thrilling about The Score is that it allows the audience to bask in something noteworthy beyond a long awaited duet -- Frank Oz' slick heist thriller is nothing short of exciting and worthy of the talents that grace its ad campaign.
And Brando and De Niro are merely two parts in what is essentially a three-cog machine. Edward Norton joins in to give the film's one energetic character, a perfect chance to see what is now a weary Robert De Niro standing beside the actor he once was. Considering the fine future that stood for De Niro after Mean Streets, The Godfather, Part II, and Taxi Driver, Norton, with Primal Fear, American History X, and Fight Club, looks to have just as fine a career ahead of him (though, he still needs a key director like De Niro with Martin Scorsese).
The film follows the triumvirate as they plan a huge heist to break into the Montreal Customs House and steer a priceless French scepter locked away in the building's basement vault. Of course, this priceless object does have a price now, with an unnamed buyer asking aged art dealer and crime impresario Max (Brando) to send his finest thief and old friend Nick (De Niro) to get the scepter for nice paycheck. There are a few problems, though, with Nick hoping to settle down, retire, and live a nice life with girlfriend Diane (Bassett) and the fact that they must work with a young upstart who has already gotten a connection in the place. He is Jackie (Norton) and he imagines this as the great payoff of his lifetime, even though he's almost half the age of the still working Nick. By acting as an autistic janitor named Brian, Jack has befriended the various people working the nights at the Customs House, none of whom would ever think that he's about to try and run off with their valuable scepter.
The Score is not an easy sell and the audiences of today, who will hate the film's lack of violence and long planning periods, will probably condemn the film for being boring. But for those astute viewers, willing to plug their minds into the jazzy film, which uses a strong reliance on jazz themes including Nick's jazz club, an inspired score by Cronenberg favorite Howard Shore, and appearances by Cassandra Wilson and Mose Allison, will find The Score to be one of the few truly engaging thrillers to come out of the woodworks in the past couple years. The last heist film I can think was 1999's nice, but somewhat forgettable Where the Money Is (which, might I add, featured Paul Newman, who was also considered for the coveted Michael role in The Godfather), and The Score succeeds in blowing that little film out of the water.
Frank Oz is making his first attempt at thrillers here and he should be congratulated for the attempt. The former puppeteer has made a mark as one of Hollywood's finest comedy directors, giving us such gems as What About Bob?, In & Out, and Bowfinger. When I first saw the trailer for this film, I was actually more surprised by Oz's name in the credits than by the cast. Oz does hold his own, even throwing in some fine shots, which has never really been his forte (as a comedy director, the promise that Oz usually shows is in tone and timing).
The cast is great, with Brando giving his best performance in years (of course, when doing battle with a role that had nothing more than the actor wearing a flowerpot on his head, it should be no surprise that a little normalcy pays off in his work). I still stand beside my belief that Robert De Niro is the finest living actor around and this work, his first good thriller since 1998's Ronin, reminds us that he is more than just another heavyweight with dramatic and comedic acting chops. Of the three generations of actors present in The Score, De Niro stands at the end as the finest -- when the AFI does their 150 Years, 150 Legends list, I would not be surprised to see De Niro's name in the top three.
The only real problem in the characters is Angela Bassett, who gives a strong turn in what is essentially an unneeded role. I get the impression that her involvement in the film has more to do with adding another recognizable name to the cast than to get some more acting prowess, otherwise they might have actually given her some more to do. I think the world of Bassett and can only wonder why the producers felt the need to stifle her of a chance to really prove herself beside three comparable men.
Here and there, a few problems arise in the script, but never really anything to hurt the film in the long run. Since the pre-WGA advertisements for the film had only Lem Dobbs as the screenwriter, I get the distinct impression that the film is more his work than the other three who are now in the opening credits. Dobbs is definitely one of the finest screenwriters around and a damn fine commentary speaker at that (anyone interested in DVD audio commentaries at their best need only catch Dobbs and Steven Soderbergh on the DVD for The Limey). I have no doubt that the few little flaws here and there are the mistakes of the other four and not of Dobbs.
The Score conjures up memories of so many heist film gems of the defined film noir period that complacency is almost assuredly an after-product. Though there are more to speak of, the easiest comparisons are to Jules Dassin's Rififi, to John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, and to Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Each film -- creations of master filmmakers from completely different backgrounds -- was considered the penultimate of the genre and has found itself imbedded in reviews ranging from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three to The Anderson Tapes to Where the Money Is.
After seeing The Killing in 1956, Orson Welles
wrote a piece on the film and how it struck him. His positions posed questions about the
future of young Stanley Kubrick and the way he had taken the already great work from
Huston in 1950 and made it even better. Now, I can only wonder what he would have to say
about The Score.
(Dir: Jonathan Glazer, Starring Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane, Amanda Redman, Cavan Kendell, Julianne White, Álvaro Monje, James Fox, and Robert Atiko)
BY: DAVID PERRY
"Don Logan called from London."
Few lines of seemingly harmless dialogue have successfully changed the tone of an entire film. In Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast, this line does change everything -- with the introduction of Don Logan into the story, the entire film is turned upside down and four people's lives will forever be altered.
Don Logan, as played by Ben Kingsley, is abrasive, caustic, sinister, and frightening. When he sits in quiet anticipation for the next subject in an innocuous conversation, it is easy to feel that he is still a threat in what seems to be an inoffensive frame. The actor, best known for characters like Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List, Dr. Watson in Without a Clue, and Mahatma Ghandi in Ghandi, seems incredibly assured in his non-type role. The last time Kingsley played a character near threatening was as the stern chess teacher in Searching for Bobby Fischer -- only twice has he turned in bad guys, in 1991's Bugsy and the 1998 TV-movie The Tale of Sweeney Todd.
But when he finally sets foot onto the film, all the nicer roles Kingsley has previously turned in are quickly forgotten. Don Logan is the antithesis of the characters in his oeuvre -- Kingsley has physically shaven to leave only a goatee and emotionally loosened a few screws.
And, like this review thus far, most of the ink spilt on Sexy Beast has been on Kinglsey's performance even though his screen time is far less than that of costar Ray Winstone in a more compromising role. Yet, in my personal opinion, the Winstone performance has gotten the shaft -- it is the dramatic litmus of the entire film. If it were not for the saddening passivity to Winstone's Gal Dove, the aggression from Logan would not seem as obdurate.
The film opens with Dove lying in the sun beside the pool at his Spanish villa. With the Strangers' "Peaches" playing in the background, this slightly rotund middle-aged man speaks in his cockney accent to the young pool boy and enjoys his retired life -- within moments something happens that will surely be remembered as one of the finest single sequences in a 2001 film.
Dove is a retired gangster -- he and his wife DeeDee (Redman), who made her living as a pornographer before settling down with him, have both retired and taken up this Spanish villa close to old family and respective business friends Aitch (Kendall) and Jackie (White). Everything seems fine in their nice homes until Aitch and Jackie appear at a dinner date with an ominous message: "Don Logan called from London."
Logan is a middleman, so to speak, for the gangs of London. One particular gang leader, Teddy Bass (McShane), has sent Logan to convince Dove to go on one last heist. In the guise of a relationship, Teddy has become interested in robbing the bank owned by Harry (Fox) and devised a plan that involves some underwater drilling and safecracking, a job that happens to be Dove's specialty. Logan is the perfect person to serve in this job -- Dove might say 'no' to the idea of returning before Logan arrives in Spain, but it is not hard to see that Logan will be able to force Dove into submission momentarily. However, DeeDee is there to anchor her husband from doing something that she thinks is unwise.
Sexy Beast takes two tours of duty, but the second one will not be referred to here -- the joyous second half is fun partly because of its unpredictability and, somewhat, its inexplicability. Jonathan Glazer's film only takes 88 minutes to setup what is essentially a 120-minute story, but its tone and style allow the film to take such a fast pace while still remaining comprehendible. The director, on his first try, melds the styles of indie favorites Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, and Guy Ritchie, in fact the film could easily be considered the fusion of Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Soderbergh's The Limey. With a style fit to near perfection and a couple fun, not to mention abnormal, directorial touches, Glazer shows himself to be one of the best debut directors to release a first film this year, joining the ranks of Memento's Christopher Nolan, Amores Perros' Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Panic's Henry Bromell.
But, as can be told from the beginning of this review, the main importance of Sexy Beast is in its two great leads -- neither of whom, it should be said, are sexy, though a case could be made that both are beasts in their own way. Like Kingsley, this is a change of character for Winstone, at least through my eyes, which have only seen him playing abusive fathers in Tim Roth's The War Zone and Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth. Something can be said by the fact that two actors, best known for their villain characters, previously chose Winstone to play the antagonists in their directorial debuts, and that he showed great prowess in both roles. Now, with a new first-timer behind the camera, he gets to show a gentler side that I had never seen before.
Playing the balancing act with Kingsley must have been
taxing, but Winstone pulls it off. Ray Winstone gives that type of understated performance
that holds the audiences attention throughout the film even if it does not ask for it.
When Sexy Beast comes to an end, most people will still have Kingsley and Don
Logan on their minds. That's not a bad thing -- it really is one of his finest works, his
best since 1995's Death and the Maiden -- and perhaps Winstone might come to mind
|The Anniversary Party
(Dir: Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, Starring Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Kevin Kline, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Beals, Jane Adams, John C. Reilly, Michael Panes, Parker Posey, John Benjamin Hickey, Mina Badie, Denis O'Hare, Matt Malloy, and Norizzela Monterroso)
BY: DAVID PERRY
What happens when you pair two of indie film's favorites, fresh off of their stint in a Tony winning revival of Cabaret? What if you throw in the fact that they not only get to act, but also direct and cowrite their own film? The joining of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming in Cabaret was magic of the most garish sense (is there any other adjective to refer to Fosse's musical than as 'garish'), their return together to make their own film is not quite as magical, but definitely worthwhile.
It is rare in this day and age of vanity projects that two actors could become so intent on creating their own very intimate and very independent film. The Anniversary Party was an idea that sparked towards the end of Cabaret's run and they happily played it through a four-week production and even brought in a few personal friends to boot. What makes this film stand out, however, is the fact that despite a digital video medium and an overwrought genre (the introspective party), the movie never veers into pretension.
The two actors play Joe Therrian and Sally Nash, a married couple that has had many ups and downs in their six years together. When the film opens, it is time for their anniversary, an interesting event considering that the two have been separated for the last six months because Joe had to rethink much of his life. He is a novelist, recently engaged in what could very well be his crowning achievement, a book that has lead to a movie adaptation with him writing the adaptation and directing the movie.
In all actuality, the novel is about Sally, an actress that is watching her career fall apart as she hits the dreaded thirtysomething age. She has welcomed him back into their posh San Fernando Valley home with their beloved dog, but is having a huge problem with one facet of his new found success: he is getting a younger, more vibrant and popular actress to play Sally's literary counterpart.
All the film unfolds in the evening of this party, where their reconnection and possible return to separate corners is touched on by nearly every guest gracing their threshold. Included on the guest list are: Cal (Kline) and Sophia Gold (Cates), him a dimming movie star and Sally's current costar, her an actress-turned-mother who serves as Sally's best friend; Mac (Reilly) and Clair Forsyth (Adams), him a director helming the current Sally Nash/Cal Gold film, her the thin and fragile new mother suffering from some sort of postpartum depression; Jerry (Hickey) and Judy Adams (Posey), him the couple's business manager, her the loudmouthed and ditzy wife; Ryan (O'Hare) and Monica Rose (Badie), the couple's neighbors who are obsessed with complaining about Joe and Sally's dog barking when Ryan is at work on his next novel; Gina Taylor (Beals), the much loved confidante for Joe and a jealous foil for Sally; Levi Panes (Michael Panes), a Peter Sellers look-alike who fills the air with intellectualism and serves as a shoulder for Sally to lean on; and Skye Davidson (Paltrow), the young actress that Joe has chosen to play Sally's character in his movie.
Cumming and Leigh do a fine job behind the camera -- they really do show some potential as directors in the future. This is not a film obsessed with great shots and explicit toning, but one that attempts to help actors show their best. They give the film a helming more akin to work on a stage play -- each character gets a chance and a venue to vent their emotions, show their personal demons. The two stars do not pull the entire film to themselves -- the aforementioned vanity project could never be referred to this film -- and make the movie one of the strongest ensemble films this year.
Working with cinematographer John Bailey (Ordinary People), Leigh and Cumming use their digital video camera almost as a surveillance of the events. One of the best facts about their filming is that it never moves too much -- everything is done with a pan or a dolly, never abusing the writ of handheld cinematography with a digital camera. Considering that this was Leigh's first DV work after appearing in the Dogme film The King Is Alive, it is surprising that she never allows the film to veer into a shaky handheld shot, especially considering that the film has some interludes outside of their property, where a shaky camera might have served well though missed the style of the rest of the film.
The Anniversary Party is not what might be
considered to be a landmark achievement, but it might be considered to be one of the most
accessible DV films made yet. It's not hard to imagine regular moviegoers having problems
with the Dogme films and high art works like Wayne Wang's The Center of the World,
but I can see the same people who had fun with Elliot Gould comedies during the age of
free love liking The Anniversary Party. It's not a demanding film to watch, but
it is rewarding in its own little way.