Volume 3, Number 47
This Week's Reviews: Novocaine, Amélie, Spy Game, Waking Life.
This Week's Omissions: Black Knight, Out Cold.
(Dir: David Atkins, Starring Steve Martin, Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern, Elias Koteas, Scott Caan, Lynne Thigpen, Kevin Bacon, David Keith, James Chisem, and Lucina Paquet)
BY: DAVID PERRY
"The worst thin that can happen to a man is to lost his teeth."
Dr. Frank Sangster (Martin) has those words of wisdom to share at the opening of David Atkins' Novocaine. I counter: the worst thing that can happen to a man is to find himself stuck in a theatre showing Novocaine. People have long had fears of going to the dentist -- Novocaine gets to be the first film about a dentist that feels as unpleasant as sitting in the office of one.
Sangster is, of course, a dentist, the occupation hated by more people and with the highest suicide rate. His Chicago practice seems to be doing well -- he recently extended the insurance policy and made it a corporation. Sangster's life is happy: the job is doing well and his hygienist Jean (Dern) has turned out to be great, though too perfect, fiancé. But, as is the case with all happy times in the early moments of a film, all this comes crumbling down.
The grain of sand that broke the camel's back is Susan Ivy (Carter), a gaunt sexpot in the same niche as Bonham's other gaunt sexpot, Fight Club's Marla Singer. She saunters into Frank's office to check on a toothache and gets an appointment for a root canal. Before rushing her out the door, though, Susan convinces Frank to give her a prescription for five Demerol tablets - the pharmacist later calls wondering why he prescribed fifty tablets. Frank cannot bring himself to turning her into the authorities: he doesn't want to lose his ability to see her again.
Contrivance is the way of life for Novocaine, which continues by involving Frank's drug-addicted brother Harlan (Koteas), Susan's drug-addicted brother Duane (Caan), a DEA agent, a madcap troupe of police investigators, and an actor prepairing for a NYPD Blue type role (Bacon).
David Atkins fills the film with overwrought imagery and a maddening collection of dentistry references. The x-ray opening credits work (thanks, in part, to a fine opening theme by Danny Elfman -- but, alas, the less talented Steve Bartek does the score for the rest of the film), but almost everything that follows fails. Atkins is probably best known for his screenplay to Emir Kusterica's Arizona Dream. Like Kusterica, Atkins is willing to use improbable characters and scenerios to convey his main plot, but Atkins instead adds a few touches of Hitchcockian suspense and hardboiled noir that never really marry his more comedic style. By the film's last act, the thrill and the humor is gone.
Steve Martin gives the film its one trong performance, relying on enough incredulous reactions to convince the audience that he is just as questionable of the film's idiotic situations as the audience is. Laura Dern, Helena Bonham Carter, and Elias Koteas all start off strong, but the contrivances ultimately weigh down their abilities -- the screenplay never gives them anything to redeem the rest of the film's inopportune actions regulated to them.
With the mystery/suspence aspects found in the film's
second and third acts never really coming off the ground, the audience can only feel a
sense of disinterest in the conspiring and and conjuring involved in setting up and trying
to save Frank from being found guilty of a crime he did not commit. Alfred Hitchcock was
the master of making movies about a man running from a false accusation of guilt. He even
had a fine choice to spike his wronged man stories with dry humor. It is easy to see that
David Atkins yearns to turn Novocaine into something Hitchcock would have made.
But, unfortunately, that Hitchcockian prowess never really comes to life in Atkins' film.
(Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Starring Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Rufus, Yolande Moreau, Artus de Penguern, Urbain Canelier, Maurice Bénichou, Dominique Pinon, Claude Perron, Michel Robin, Isabelle Nanty, Clotilde Mollet, Claire Maurier, Serge Merlin, Jamel Debbouze, Lorella Cravotta, Armelle, Flora Guiet, and Frédéric Mitterrand)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Is Amélie the best film of the year? Well, despite the hordes of French fans who have put the film on a pedestal unlike anything else in the past few years (Amélie could be France's answer to Germany's Run Lola Run and its exportability), the answer is no. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film is light and fuzzy, asking for nothing as mind numbingly deep as Lynch's Mulholland Dr. nor the crossing kaleidoscope that is Ińárritu's Amores Perros.
However, there's no questioning what title can be handed over to Amélie -- it is, without a doubt, the most happily alive film of the year. With each frame, it breathes life onto the screen unlike the European dramas that have filled my most pleasing hours at the theatre this year. It's dizzying and rambunctious -- Amélie could be the sweetest film to come out in recent years without causing a toothache. And, standing beside the likes of Ozon's Under the Sand, Ullmann's Faithless, Moll's With a Friend Like Harry, Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior, and Leconte's The Widow Saint-Pierre, Amélie looks like the last bastion of happiness in the European imports of 2001.
I felt great when I left Amélie -- and I still feel great about it almost a week later. It's so hard for a film to lighten itself up enough without becoming little more than a passable, forgettable work. But the visual artistry of Jeunet keeps the film from leaving the mind of audience members. Not since the life affirming Life is Beautiful (a film whose greatness I still proudly stand behind) and Yi Yi (A One and a Two...) has a film struck me as such an exasperatingly remarkable variation on the humor (read: pathos) of humanity.
Elbert Hubbard wrote in The Philistine: "Down in their hearts, wise men know this truth: the only way to help yourself is to help others." Amélie Poulain (Tautou), unknowingly, subscribes to this belief -- her central interest in the film is to help others, inadvertently helping herself.
Her childhood was like something out of Faulkner -- as the narrator (Dussollier) puts it, young Amélie was "caught between a neurotic and an iceberg." Things change, though, when one of the family members comes to an untimely (and definitely unusual) demise. Things do not come crumbling down, but instead, almost as if Antonio Salieri had wrote her life as a semi-autobiographical opera, seem to allow her into a destiny long in the making (the film's French title translates to The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain).
She grows up and takes residence in a small Paris apartment, just on the outskirts of Montmarte. Her neighbors all seem like kind people (as they must in Jeunet's Technicolor recreation of a near fictional Paris) with a few evil faces popping up to simply serve as antagonists. Amélie fails to completely latch onto the desperation veiled in all their souls -- these are just people who are part of her daily life, not really humans with complete lives and stories of their own. She does take pride in a certain amount of dedication to noticing the best parts of life (at one point she stands on top of a building imagining how many orgasms are occurring at that moment -- an amount she determines to be 15), but seems to wear rose-colored glasses to keep from seeing any disdain in her environment.
But all this changes one day when Amélie learns of the death of Princess Diana. Her jaw drops as she sees the news on the television -- but more importantly, her bottle top drops as well. When she goes to fetch this rolling top, she finds that it was dislodged a tile in her bathroom, where a box of childhood toys have been hidden for nearly 50 years. She decides that she must return these little tidbits of youth to their rightful owner.
She feels so much joy from this that she begins to work on brightening the lives of everyone around her. All this, of course, leads to her finally finding a way to help herself, the implications of which seem unusual in most world, but perfect in the world of Amélie Poulain.
If this review reads more like a rant than anything else, I
offer my dearest apologies. It's just that Amélie struck me as the magical,
mystical work of cinema that I have needed for a months to see. The wicked wit of the best
comedies this year (Panic, Ghost World) seems a little sour after
watching a film like Amélie. This is not to say that cynicism is dead -- on the
contrary, Amélie will probably turn out to be a rare diversion from a future of
mainly iniquitous comedies -- it's just that the happiness delivered to the audience in Amélie
is so commendable. With each chord of Yann Tiersen's score, with each color of Bruno
Delbonnel's cinematography, and with each knowing glance from Audrey Tautou's performance,
Amélie comes to life and creates an imaginary dream world that gives
understanding to the magic that can be found in audience-friendly cinema.
(Dir: Tony Scott, Starring Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Stephen Dillane, Catherine McCormack, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Larry Bryggman, Ken Leung, András Stohl, Károly Rékasi, Tibor Szervéth, Athina Papadimitriu, Barbara Hegyi, David Frankel, Zoltán Benkóczy, Omid Djalili, and Charlotte Rampling)
BY: DAVID PERRY
The CIA agents who fill Spy Game are nothing more than G.I. Joes (both good and bad) running amuck in Vietnam, Berlin, and Beirut. Their boyish good looks and stunning fashion sense means that they could easily serve as fun war dolls for the boys and as a Ken replacement for the girls. Spy Game yearns to be more important than it is, if only because it has the ability to show Robert Redford and Brad Pitt together -- two generations of movie poster boys.
This is not to say that Spy Game is a bad film, just an expendable one. It is a little unnerving that the film thinks that it is more important than it actually is -- but that is a problem for the filmmakers, not the audience. As the film is, the value serves as little more than easy, innocuous fare. It's not as glaring as a Michael Bay film, nor as outstanding as a Martin Scorsese film. Tony Scott can make a movie dedicated to the fast-cut ADD-generation without gaining or losing too much value.
The film opens in 1991 with former CIA agent Tom Bishop (Pitt) breaking into a high-security Chinese prison. He saves the person he's after, but is caught before he can get out the gates. The rest of the film follows the CIA's attempt to remove themselves from his dire situation -- the last thing they need to do is have a high-profile hostage situation, especially with Chinese trade talks commencing in just one week.
Most of the black-tie secret agents of the modern CIA see Bishop as expendable, all they need to do is find enough proof that he was a substandard member of the organization and they can leave him to the Chinese execution set in 24 hours. However, Bishop's former operation leader, Nathan Muir (Redford), is not willing to let his old friend and associate die when the country can easy get him out.
Muir is ready to retire -- his tweed suits and tortoise shell frames give him the demeanor of a weary agent from the 1970's. 26 years ago Redford was in Three Days of the Condor as a CIA agent, in Spy Game, the natural progression of time seems to have hit his earlier character. He definitely clashes with the looks of the youngsters now in charge. Lead by the smarmy Charles Harker (Dillane, playing, essentially, James Woods), the men in black CIA agents seem like the corrupt conspirators that have filled the agency's myth and history. Harker would be the agent on the grassy knoll and Muir would be John Kennedy.
Using that typed temporal title he used in Enemy of the State, Tony Scott works through his film like one of the Harker agents. The story may be much more invested in the Muir side of the argument, but the stylish, streamlined approach that Scott employs is nothing more than style supplementing style -- devoid of any semblance of substance.
The screenplay by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata could have been something remarkably engaging under someone else's direction, but the work of Tony Scott all but makes their work unimportant. Scott can make some stunning visuals and set-up shots unlike any other, but his ability as a storyteller is still nothing of note.
It does not help that Spy Game seems so close to Scott's last film, Enemy of the State. The typed titles throughout are just meager comparisons; there are more, especially involving the film's many attempts of cutesy plot devices. There are moments where James Bond comes to mind, but most of the time it's Maxwell Smart.
The two lead actors deliver workable performances. The workhorse appeal of Robert Redford holds true here, much more than in The Last Castle earlier this year. The attempt by the film to make him seem younger (much of the film is told in flashbacks, at one time showing Robert Redford in 1975) fails, but the older moments, when the wrinkles on a one-time blemishless face come to the fore, allow Redford to act not only his age, but also the temperance and prowess that comes with it.
Pitt is nearly forgotten most of the time, giving a performance that never really gives him a chance to show any of his normal abilities. He, at least, is much better than Catherine McCormack, who comes into the film in the last third as a love interest. This is definitely one film where the elders overshadow the youths: not only does Robert Redford shine, but there's also a Charlotte Rampling cameo to make the audience salivate at the composite talent shining on the screen.
Spy Game is probably the first good mindless
action film to come out this year. It has some pretexts, but so much of it is
inconsequential that they are forgotten by the time the film comes to an end. Tony Scott
may not have the ability to show emotions or even complete stories like brother Ridley,
but at least he has the ability to make something nominally entertaining.
(Dir: Richard Linklater, [Sort of] Starring Wiley Wiggins, Ken Webster, Guy Forsyth, Richard Linklater, Louis Black, Steve Brudiak, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Charles Gunning, Timothy Levitch, Louis Mackey, Steven Prince, Bill Wise, Kim Krizan, Nicky Katt, Adam Goldberg, John Christensen, Peter Atherton, Caveh Zahedi, and Steven Soderbergh)
BY: DAVID PERRY
"Do you know the terror of he who falls asleep? To the toes he is very terrified, because the ground gives way under him, and the dream begins."
The existential beliefs of Nietzsche could easily come into any conversation about Waking Life -- a film about conversations that could be the film's second biggest cinematic conversation creator (only eclipsed by the mad ambiguity of David Lynch). In The Gay Science he wrote, "We have no dreams at all or interesting ones. We should learn to be awake the same way -- not at all or in an interesting manner." Something tells me Richard Linklater has read that passage.
Waking Life is a delirious blend of philosophy and animation -- it plays like the senior thesis of a philosophy student or, more likely, his wet dream. Richard Linklater makes movies about people pontificating. They sit around and try to figure out what is on their mind. Each film -- from Slacker to Dazed and Confused to Before Sunrise to even the horrible subUrbia -- centers on characters simply questioning life and love for the duration of the film. Linklater is to college bohemians what Whit Stillman is to the yuppies in waiting: his screen prose speaks to a sub-generation.
With Waking Life, though, Linklater takes a step outside of his films since Slacker. Like his first feature, Waking Life is meant to be completely about ideas, not scenarios. The film has 37 vignettes that cross but have no real meaning to one main storyline. The film has a protagonist, but he (as portrayed by Wiley Wiggins) is nothing more than an observer, the audience member on the screen. And the supporting cast (many of whom never even share the screen with Wiggins) just serves as theorizers -- their thoughts, hopes, and, for lack of a better word, dreams are the precipice of the film's theology.
The film begins with a little girl telling a male playmate (probably Wiggins in his youth), "Dream is destiny." Our protagonist awaked on a train -- or does he? The central thesis to Waking Life is that dream is, perhaps, more than destiny. For the film, the dreamlife is imagined as something just as important as the waking life. To dream is to live -- and, in another sense, dreams may in fact be life.
There are 55 characters walking around and conversing in this film and all have something to say towards Linklater's stance. Named are bandied out: Sartre, Bazin, God. Given that the film was created using computers to animate live action digital film, the pretension of philosophy veering on mental masturbation never really comes to fruition. These actors -- if you can call them that, the film has a definite documentary feel -- are mostly left to speak their own ideas and their own questions on reality. At the least thoughtful level, the movie is about whether or not Wiggins is awake -- at the core, however, the film is about the question of whether or not any of us are.
Waking Life, with all its imagery and philosophy
is a song of the human condition -- the dreamlike state of cinema used to equate life's
occasional senselessness. The film plays like Richard Linklater's finest melody and,
creating its intellectual theorems, becomes a Nietzsche melody by the end. That German
philospoher wrote about finality and goals in The Wanderer and His Shadow in 1880
what could also serve as a observance from Waking Life in all its existentialist
glory: "Not every end is the goal. The end of a melody is not its goal; and yet: as
long as the melody has not reached its end, it also hasn't reached its goal. A