Volume 3, Number 45
This Week's Reviews: Our Lady of the Assassins, Heist, Life as a House, The One.
This Week's Omissions: Haiku Tunnel, L.I.E..
Capsule Reviews: Bones, 13 Ghosts.
|Our Lady of the Assassins
(Dir: Barbet Schroeder, Starring Germán Jaramillo, Anderson Ballesteros, Jaun David Restrepo, Manuel Busquets, Albeiro Lopera, Aníbal Moncada, and Cenobia Cano)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Medellín, Columbia, has become a city revolving around gang wars, drugs, and churches. That is what Fernando (Jaramillo) finds when he returns to the city of his youth after living abroad for 30 years. Fernando has come to the city as a place to die at -- he never speaks of a fatal disease, but his life seems almost ready to come to an end.
Soon after arriving, he goes to the home of an old friend who is throwing a party. Almost immediately, Fernando, a gay writer in his late 50's, is drawn to Alexis (Ballesteros), a gay thug in his late teens. They have sex that night -- almost like that of a young prosititute and his middle-aged john -- but the next morning they do not depart from each other. Fernando invites the boy to come home with him and Alexis happily accepts the invitation.
They move into Fernando's big but empty apartment, a piece of inheritance from Fernando's Mafia-linked sister. Within days they are living like a married couple, but with Fernando dominating the relationship since he has the money. But there is one aspect that Alexis has the upper hand at: the defense. Alexis has grown up on these mean streets of Medellín and sees murder as nothing more than a common event. The gang he was once connected to was killed off and now he is hunted by the warring gangs -- in his mind, the death of an individual, himself included, is nothing unusual in a world where natural and violent death happens constantly.
Fernando is, of course, shocked at his young lover's actions, but comes to accept them. When a taxi driver will not turn down his volume for Fernando and then pulls out a machete because of Fernando's angry shouts, Alexis immediately shoots him. Even colder, he kills a drummer who had the bad luck to live (and drum) next door to Fernando's bedroom.
Based upon a novel by Fernando Vellejo, the striking connection between the film's two leads (plus a third lead, who comes in about hour in) makes for an impressive mirroring of two near opposites. For the aged and depressed Fernando and the marked for assassination Alexis, death seems right upon them. The film creates a certain fear in the audience simply by implicating the question of who is closer to their end. Alexis has assassins constantly after him, but Fernando seems just as ready to take a gun to his head.
Director Barbet Schroeder grew up around these streets and, at the age of 7, saw a decapitation. He moved away but has always regarded Columbia as his home despite being born in Iran and spending his teenage and adult years in France. Schroeder, one of the few remaining children of the French New Wave, has made many fine films in his career including Idi Amin Dada, Barfly, and Reversal of Fortune. His last decade has been that of a director-for-hire and his career has definitely hurt from it. 1998's Desperate Measure especially frightened me in the fact that it seemed to be the work of someone completely different from the Schroeder of Barfly fame.
Our Lady of the Assassins is his finest film in years, and, though not near Reversal of Fortune, proof that he has not lost his touch. He directs the movie with a guerrilla cinematographic style with photography by Rodrigo Lalinde that makes the movie feel like a documentary. The style, which often brings hampering pretension, works unquestionably for the movie, which was literally shot like a guerilla attack with the cast and crew running from location to location without permission from the government or shields from gang attacks.
Watching the movie, the audience gets the definite
impression that Schroeder is ashamed of what Medellín has become and, yet, is still
enamored by it. He, like Fernando, has lost his aspirations for living the same life in
Columbia as the one he knew in his own youth. The only difference is that Schroeder can
move on somewhere else but Fernando, with his nihilistic objectives, is all too willing to
(Dir: David Mamet, Starring Gene Hackman, Delroy Lindo, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay, Danny DeVito, Christian Maguire, Patti LuPone, Karen Cliche, Christopher Kaldor, and Jim Frangione)
BY: DAVID PERRY
As each David Mamet screenplay comes to life on the big screen, they remind us of just how stilted dialogue is in most movies. Mamet has an amazing ear for the way people speak -- I have never found another writer who adds all the "umms" and references to those "things" as Mamet does. It also helps that his movies are always entertaining as well.
Heist is his first film after having the poor luck to be one of the two screenwriters credited for Hannibal, his first lackluster script since We're No Angels, ten years and twenty projects ago. Outside of those films, reading a list of Mamet's works in the 1990's looks like a critic's list of the best genre films of the decade. His typewriter has created such films (and plays) as Glengarry Glen Ross, Hoffa, Vanya on 42nd Street, The Edge, Wag the Dog, and Ronin.
But Mamet has slowly proven that he can do more than just write. With his eight feature films as a director (of course, working from his own screenplays), Mamet has allowed audiences to enjoy his writing with the exact tics and timing that he intends. There have been better efforts than others (there's no questioning that Oleanna and Homicide were lesser works, and that Things Change, his only directing effort he co-wrote, fails to really come off the ground), but most of the films have been incredible motion pictures thanks to the verbal and visual stylings of their auteur.
The eighth effort, Heist, is probably the most secure to genre exercise yet for Mamet, but he still allows it to come out of the clichés. The story in Heist does go almost double-cross for double-cross with most other one-last-heist films, but the way Mamet has his characters speak makes their efforts feel surprisingly fresh.
Joe Moore (Hackman) is one of those old thieves who are feeling time pass them by. In a routine jewel robbery, he is accidentally caught on a security tape -- now he has a reason to call it quits. With his boat ready to set sail somewhere south and his dame Fran (Pidgeon) packing up the place, Joe begins saying goodbye to his longtime partners Bobby Blane (Lindo) and Don "Pinky" Pincus (Jay). But his usual employer, a well-connected man called Bergman (DeVito), is not ready to let Joe go yet. He offers a proposition called "the Swiss job" and a fine payday -- much to his own disapproval, Joe accepts.
There is a catch, of course, Joe et al. must take with them Bergman's wet under the ears nephew Jimmy (Rockwell), whose tendency to jump to his guns instead of his brains makes him a hard addition to Joe's fast thinking band of robbers. The heist is meticulously planned and each turn is carefully sculpted, even the red herrings to make sure that Jimmy does not get too confident.
Heist is one of those films that lives to be smarter than the audience. I often find this unnerving -- sometimes movies can be too smart for their own good. However, Mamet keeps the film running briskly and all these twists come and go fairly well without getting tangled.
Anyone who saw The Score earlier this year (as everyone should have) might find this story a little erstwhile. They are, at times, practically the same movie, and yet each one has its own assets to give to the audience. The strong pacing and structuring to The Score made it one of the finest films in this genre just like the fine scripting and characterizations mark Heist. They each feel like retreads of other heist films but with fresh sides that are missed in long-gone movies like, say, The Anderson Tapes.
The Mamet work, of course, is not the only great thing in Heist, though. Cinematographer Robert Elswit delivers some fine visuals; composer Theodore Shapiro crafts an amazing thumping score; and editor Barbara Tulliver gives the film a brisk and understandable pace.
And the acting, as is always the case in a Mamet film, is first-rate. Hackman gives his best work in years playing what is essentially the personification of people's ideas about the elder Hackman. Sure, it is awfully close to a blending of his work in Twilight with Robert De Niro's work in The Score, but it is still a fine performance to watch. The steely ease of Danny DeVito is great to watch, especially after What's the Worst That Could Happen? tarnishing his career. Rebecca Pidgeon does a far better job with her line readings than usual (she, the Lindsay Crouse of today's David Mamet, never seems to get the dialogue right in previous films). Mamet regular Ricky Jay, a slight-of-hand artist in real life, gives a great performance as the weakling of the crew, a change of pace beside his normal commandeers. And Delroy Lindo delivers one of his best performances (and the film's finest performance) creating the friendly tension that is needed between Joe and Bobby.
In the past, Mamet has found actors he likes in his films
and then used them regularly for his later works. Lindsay Crouse, Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna,
Mike Nussbaum, J.J. Johnston, Christopher Kaldor, Patti LuPone, and William H. Macy have
all been brought back by Mamet to appear in more of his films (especially Ricky Jay, who
has been in six of Mamet's eight films). Of all the great things that come out of Heist --
and there are many -- probably the best would be if in David Mamet's next film, Gene
Hackman and Delroy Lindo return to speak those trademark Mamet words.
|Life as a House
(Dir: Irwin Winkler, Starring Kevin Kline, Hayden Christensen, Kristen Scott Thomas, Jena Malone, Mary Steenburgen, Jamey Carver, Sam Robards, Ian Sheridan, Scott Bakula, John Pankow, Kim Delgado, Mike Weinnerg, Scotty Leavenworth, and Barry Primus)
BY: DAVID PERRY
When people get a terminal illness in movies there's always one good thing that comes out of it: he or she get to become closer to their loves ones. Terms of Endearment, Love Story, and Steel Magnolias all dealt with a person dying and renewing their relationships before shuffling off this mortal coil. You get the impression that these filmmakers have a definite love for the sadism of showing a person renewing life's best parts too late.
Irwin Winkler does the same with Life as a House, where he gives Kevin Kline cancer and then proceeds to show has this allows him to become a better parent, husband, and neighbor. Why, you may ask? Well, because that's part of Leo McCarey's Laws of Cinematic Schmaltz. If a tear can be shed, believe that disciples like Winkler will jump at shedding them.
Kevin Kline plays George, one of these unfortunate souls in the movie universe who has been given a horrible life and an even worse illness. One fateful day, he wakes up in his crumbling shack, goes to his hated job building architecture model, is told of his dismissal, begins trashing the place, and collapses in front of the office. When he awakens in the hospital, George learns that he has four months to live.
Oh boy, that's perfect, because his estranged son Sam (Christensen) is just about to get out of high school for summer. Now, George can take this troubled youth (when we meet Sam, he is huffing and trying to hang himself by the poll in his closet) and show him a great time helping him rebuild the old shack. Sure, the kid detests the idea of living with his dad and George's relationship with ex-wife Robin (Thomas) is not the greatest in the world, but in the come-what-may world of Henry Winkler, the transition is sure to be an easy one.
This house, it should be pointed out, is no simple, creaky building in some backwoods Arkansas town -- the house George wants to rebuild is situated in Orange County, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. George intend on building this house and leaving it to his son on the 26-week severance package he received, but fails to even think about the land taxes Orange County's going to throw at him.
Subplots run rampant in this film where Winkler and screenwriter Mark Andrus decide to give something to every character and then work with them for an excruciating 124 minutes. There's the cute girlfriend (Malone), her temptress mother (Steenburgen), Sam's pimp (Somerhalder), Robin's uncaring second husband (Sheridan), and the aggravated neighbor (Robards, a tough act to watch after his fine work in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence). Each character is allotted what seems like an entire film to follow their uninteresting exploits. The pimping scene feels especially contrived considering that it is an attempt to setup a plot-twist and countless one-liners to fill the rest of the film's non-essential dialogue.
Kevin Kline delivers the film's one great performance. Many of the scenes seem written directly for a scenery-chewing actor (it is no surprise that Andrus wrote dialogue previously for Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, though his work on that film was ten-times better) but Kline shows restraint and makes the characters highly human. Though his body shows little change, the acting tics of Kline successfully show the audience that George is dying while his friends and family fail to notice.
Had Irwin Winkler toned down his own overbearing style, then Life as a House might have at least been watchable. But instead, he sticks to his guns and fills the film with saccharine and obvious narrative toys that make the effort very unpleasant to sit through. By the film's end, the obsessions have become so burdening (especially his decision to fill the film with constant dusk shots -- sorry, Irwin, you are no Terence Malick) that they are nearly painful to watch.
Life as a House seems intent on being a new turn
at American Beauty, just with a little more heart. Terms of Endearment's Aurora
Greenway and American Beauty's Lester Burnham never needed to be combined and
made into a sappy-drama. James L. Brooks showed restraint with his film and Sam Mendes had
enough cynical charm to save his. Irwin Winkler, on the other hand, is caught in-between:
he neither has the restraint nor the cynicism. Instead he just has the ability to pander,
and he does it quite happily.
(Dir: James Wong, Starring Jet Li, Delroy Lindo, Jason Statham, Carla Gugino, Archie Kao, James Morrison, Tucker Smallwood, David Fralick, Mark Borchardt, and Kimberly Patton)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Jet Li comes back to the screen to kick more ass and bluntly read more lines. Rarely has a foreign actor come to America with as much fanfare and as little flair. Chow Yun-Fat showed more personality in The Replacement Killers, Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies, and Jackie Chan in Rush Hour. Those were all great action stars who showed some ability on their first American tour -- Jet Li's made four films in the U.S. and still no personality to be seen.
His last film was Kiss of the Dragon, a movie secure in my bottom ten list for this year -- with his latest film, The One, Jet Li might just work his way into two spots. For Kiss of the Dragon, I wrote: "Kiss of the Dragon has more plot holes, timeworn clichés, and unengaging characters than most summer action blockbusters, but in this case, when the eyes are mainly drawn on them, even the action sequences fail." That sentence could also fit in a review of The One, just replace "Kiss of the Dragon" with "The One" and "summer" with "fall."
There are plot holes, timeworn clichés, and unengaging characters -- and those action sequences fail. Jet Li's movies are becoming more and more like films on autopilot with Li jumping around and kicking as the film crew tries listlessly to make it marketable to the American public. The One is a science fiction film, but only so because they have one theory of the "a multiverse" and some flashy machinery here and there.
According to this film, the multiverse is that of 124 parallel universes. Each one is inhabited by the same people under the same circumstances and usually in the same populations. Every time one person in a universe dies, his power is divided equally among the other 123 other people. Now, how this accounts for the natural progression of being, as age kills many of the alternate states and a 95-year-old man is the sole survivor with the power 123 other men, The One never takes the time to explain.
No one really knows about this, so there has never been a problem with people trying to kill off their alternate selves until now. The only group that has the knowledge of this multiverse and the allotment of power is a policing agency called the Multiverse Bureau of Intelligence. A power-hungry former agent, Yulaw (Li) has decided that he wants all the power he can get and begins killing off his parallel forms. When the film begins, he only has two left: Lawless and Gabe (both, of course, Li). Early in the film, Yulaw defeats Lawless and now is after Gabe, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy.
All the while, Yulaw is being chased down by MBI agents Roedecker (Lindo) and Funsch (Statham). They are sworn to make sure that no one can be the only version of himself and hold so much power. So, their job is to take care of both Yulaw and Gabe -- no matter who succeeds in the fight between the two of them, there will still be a single one.
Director James Wong last effort was the deeply flawed but respectable Final Destination from last year. That film, which suffered from some really sloppy directorial touches, is a Renoir painting compared to this mess. He overuses visual effects and overedits the action to make even Li's thrilling martial arts abilities seem simpleton. It's hard for someone to show their art when they have to convey it with CGI all around them.
The idea is not horrible, but the final draft by Wong and Glen Morgan is like a stroll through misconstrued English term papers on sci-fi theories the students do not understand. I'm not going to attempt to make it seem like I'm a follower of multiverse theories (truthfully I had never heard of them), but I can say that I could represent them better in a motion picture than is done here. The story has about as much interesting transgression of the theories as watching a piece of meat thawing on a kitchen counter.
Kiss of the Dragon was worse, and I suppose that's
one of the very few things I can say about The One. Delroy Lindo seems to be
phoning in his performance, but even a lackluster Lindo is better than an at-par Tchéky
Karyo performance. Sure, the action with Li idiotically picking up motorcycles is better
than watching blood spew out of Karyo's orifices, but in the end, I think I'd feel just as
well never having to sit in any of the Li efforts as of late. On a four-star rating scale,
The One deserves its namesake.
Capsule Reviews: Since things are backlogged and there happens to be two spots in this week's lineup, I have decided to use capsule reviews for Bones and 13 Ghosts (plus, they were not viewed in a theatre). Though, as I said in the last capsule review column, these would be better suited if they were called "Flippant Remarks."
(Dir: Ernest R. Dickerson, Starring Michael T. Weiss, Clifton Powell, Ricky Harris, Bianca Lawson, Khalil Kain, Pam Grier, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Merwin Mondesir, Sean Amsing, Katherine Isabelle, and Ron Selmour)
BY: DAVID PERRY
The long wait for a movie to show a dog vomit maggots has
finally come to an end. Snoop Dogg seems to be having fun as the villain in this
urban gore flick, but, unfortunately, he's the only one on- and off-screen having any fun.
(Dir: Steve Beck, Starring Tony Shalhoub, Matthew Lillard, Shannon Elizabeth, Rah Digga, Embeth Davidtz, F. Murray Abraham, Alec Roberts, J.R. Bourne, John DeSantis, and Kathryn Anderson)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Whoever thought it was a good time to start remaking
William Castle horror films should be run out of Hollywood. 13 Ghosts feels
like a remake of The House on Haunted Hill from two years ago, and, with all the
gore and idiotic story elements, does not stray very far from its family.
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