Volume 3, Number 51
This Week's Reviews: Ocean's 11, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Sidewalks of New York.
This Week's Omissions: Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Joe Somebody.
Screener Review: Kandahar.
(Dir: Steven Soderbergh, Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Brad Pitt, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Bernie Mac, Scott Caan, Casey Affleck, Shaobo Qin, Edward Jemison, Don Cheadle, David Jensen, Brandon Keener, and Vitaly Klitschko)
BY: DAVID PERRY
It would take three men like Frank Oz, David Mamet, and Steven Soderbergh to create the finest three heist films since The Sting in one year. Each film excels in its own terms (the finest caper: The Score; the finest script: Heist; the finest direction: Oceans 11) and stands in a company worthy of any triple feature thrown on some college campus or in a repertory theatre. I cannot wait for the DVDs of the three to come out; Im going to enjoy reliving each film with the same gratification that I get from a new François Ozon or Tom Tykwer film.
Steven Soderbergh has proven himself as one of the few directors who can turn a by-the-book genre film into something magnificent. The Limey could have been another retaliatory film; Erin Brockovich another Lifetime TV-movie; Grays Anatomy another stifling monologue; King of the Hill another coming of age drama; and Out of Sight another caper flick. Tapping onto the same devices that made Out of Sight one of the best films of 1998, not to mention his filmography, Soderbergh turns Oceans 11 into the slick and seductive heist movie that fans have come to expect. This is a man who could turn a template-based church bulletin into a John Donne work.
This morning I tried to rewatch the original Oceans Eleven, a film only worthy of note as the first Rat Pack movie. As Sammy Davis, Jr., began crooning E.O. Eleven (a song I still dont really understand), I tuned out and began watching a rerun of Cheers. Today, the 1960 caper flick that is Oceans Eleven fails to really come alive atbany point. I like seeing Davis, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawson, and the rest of the gang together, but in the end, it feels so perfunctory.
This new film still relies on the smooth eleven criminals, all cascading around Las Vegas like they own it, but feels far more pleasing. Where the original felt forced, the new film feels like a breath of fresh air. Its breezy and assured; yes, there is no deep meaning to anything found in Soderberghs film because it only aspires to be a good (dare I say, comparatively great) popcorn film. People going to the movie for a fun time will find themselves properly satiated by the Master of Ceremonies -- people looking for another Traffic should, well, see The Man Who Wasnt There or Mulholland Dr.
The film is still about the plot to steal a grand sum of money from casinos in Las Vegas, this time only three (one of the casinos from the originals 5, though, is shown being demolished -- as it really was -- at the beginning of the film). The Bellagio, the Mirage, and the MGM Grand are all seen as great places to hit for a variety of reasons: (1) they are the most profitable casinos in town, (2) they have all their money stored in a single vault, (3) they will have more cash on hand because of a Lennox Lewis-Wladimir Klitschko boxing match, and (4) they are all owned by one man, Terry Benedict (Garcia). That last fact might not seem important if not for the fact that Benedict in this fictitious world is currently courting the affection of Tess Ocean (Roberts), the ex-wife of plan schemer Danny Ocean (Clooney).
Where the original pack seemed like they were all the same characters in different bodies, the new Oceans 11 gives a major attribute to each of the eleven: Danny is the ringleader of it all, Rusty (Pitt) is the organizer of the crew, Frank (Mac) is the slick card dealer with the ability to get them inside, Livingston (Jemison) is the electronics geek, Linus (Damon) is the slick slight-of-hand artist, Bashir (Cheadle) is the explosives expert, Yen (Qin) is the acrobat and contortionist needed to get into the vault., Saul (Reiner) is the veteran meant to produce a front, Reuben (Gould) is the millionaire willing to aid the scheme financially, and Turk (Caan) and Virgil (Affleck) are lackeys to move around the casinos unnoticed.
I liked the way the film moved with ease from one character to another; I liked the way all the people in the film talk like they are stuck in a British verbal mêlée; I liked the way the film seems somewhat respectful of its setting (a late scene had me thinking back to Woody Allens Manhattan); I liked the way all the actors seemed to be having fun; I liked the way the score by David Holmes kept everything moving at a brisk pace; I liked the fact that the films 116 minutes felt like a mere hour.
Oceans 11 is not some important film, by
no means, but that is not what it tries to be. It is a genre film with absolutely no shame
-- Steven Soderbergh knows what hes doing and has made a film to prove it. I know
that there are some critics who have already voiced disdain that Oceans 11
does not have the same aspirations that Soderbergh used last year with Traffic. I
counter: why should he forever need to make films like that. If Alfred Hitchcock had only
played with his psychological mystery/suspense films, the world would never have known Psycho.
|The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
(Dir: Peter Jackson, Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Hugo Weaving, Alexandra Astin, Mark Ferguson, Bernard Hill, and Bruce Hopkins)
BY: DAVID PERRY
The Internet Movie Database keeps a tally of the top 250 films based upon user ratings. Ever since the beginning of this list, there have been three films constantly shifting from the top spot: The Godfather, Star Wars, and The Shawshank Redemption. When I left my abode for a screening of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (when only critics and insiders had seen the film at that point), the film was already ranked #53. Now, just two days after the film came out, it has already skyrocketed to the #1 position -- and I dont see it moving for a long time.
Calling this film auspicious is an understatement. Peter Jackson and the financial backers over at New Line put $300 million, a year of pre-production on sets, and 274 production days over the course of 15 months into making three films adapting the three books of The Lord of the Rings. Itll still be two more years before we have the entire saga to watch and scrutinize (ooh, the sacrilege), but based upon this first part, its safe to say that the next two should be quite the cinematic excursions.
I hate to admit it -- oh, boy, do I hate it -- but Ive never read Tolkiens novels. No, Im not some illiterate swine, but instead have long (perhaps overbearingly) chosen novels from the French playwrights, the Nouvelle Vague dramatists, the raving existentialists, the Molières, the Vonneguts, the Dostoevskys. Before the film came out, I often caught myself recoiling at peoples questions, have you read the novels? No, I say, no! But I might just have to go back and catch up -- at least after I finish On the Genealogy of Morals, Stranger in a Strange Land, and Atlas Shrugged.
The film is made for those who have read the novel, and, yet, I did not feel slighted by Jacksons production. It is so grand and seemingly all-encompassing that I cannot imagine what is missing (I have spoken to some, though, who have been quick to note whats missing). The epic that is The Fellowship of the Ring deserves some of those references that have been bandied out lately: Peter Jackson may have just situated himself in the position as David Leans epic-making descendent.
The film begins with a long introduction meant to concisely set the stage for this film. In about fifteen minutes, screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson tell of the creation of the ring in the title and how Bilbo Baggins (Holm) got his hands on it as was told in Tolkiens The Hobbit.
Now, Bilbo is celebrating his 111th birthday with a celebration that extends across the Shire, the homeland for these hobbits. In attendance is Gandalf the Grey (McKellen), the lanky wizard who helped his short friend through most of the travails that brought Bilbo to that ring. After the birthday party, Bilbo begins to pack to move away and leave everything to his nephew Frodo (Wood), including, as per the recommendation of Gandalf, the ring. What he does not seem to understand, and as Gandalf fears, is that the ring is the creation of evil forces which gives its possessor the ability to control all the free souls of the earth. Made by Sauron (Baker) on the peak of Mordor, the ring also brings out the unknown evil of its wearer and yearns to return to Sauron at any cost.
Gandalf convinces Frodo, the new owner of the ring, to begin a journey to rid the world of this ring. They must go to the lava that created the ring to destroy it, but once destroyed, the world will be safe again from the threats of Saurons domination. Creating a fellowship of nine, Frodo, Gandalf, hobbits Sam (Astin), Merry (Monaghan), and Pippin (Boyd), humans Aragorn (Mortensen) and Boromir (Bean), dwarf Gimli (Rhys-Davies), and elf Legolas (Bloom) set out to be rid of the ring and to defeat the army of traitorous wizard Saruman (Lee), a Sauron lackey.
Using miniatures, unusual camera angles, and paintings, Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie strive to create as much of the Tolkien imagery without computer effects. There are some effects here and there, but most of it is by miniatures, which gives the film a great deal of visual splendor unseen in many of the CGI-heavy fantasy films of late (in that way, The Lord of the Rings is the antithesis of the new Star Wars trilogy, which is sure to be 75% CGI, 25% camerawork).
For a film built on its visuals, it is refreshing to have some incredible actors delivering performances that showoff their talents. Bean shows he has more in him beyond Richard Sharpe; Orlando Bloom gives a stoic, Link-like adaptation to Legolas Greenleaf; Elijah Wood captures the starry-eyed appeal of Frodo; Ian McKellen turns his withering wizard into a fantasy version of King Lear in grand-scale dramatics; and Ian Holm composites Bilbo into one of the most fascinating characters ever put in a fantasy film (watching him, it made me wish Jackson could have made a film version of The Hobbit with Holm when he was younger). Also delivering some fine work in a small role is Cate Blanchett. If you want to hear me gush over her, just read any review Ive written in which she was in the cast (to put her performance in a single word: ethereal).
But, as I hate to say, there are some huge problems found in The Fellowship of the Ring. Outside of a collection of painfully annoying characters (Sam, Merry, and Pippin), the film hurts from a repetitious nature. They have tried to cram as much of the story in as possible, bringing the movie to a whopping 3 hours. Now, this would not be so bad if not for the anticlimax that the film must have to go into the next story. Jackson et al. seems too willing to expect unknowing audiences to sit for that length only to feel like they have only watched a 3-hour trailer for the next film. They might as well have put a big title up that said, See you next December.
And doing that is sort of a gamble. This installment seems like a great film in the long run, but as a film unto itself, it is deficient. Im ready to suppose that theres even more magic on its way from the next two films, but if they do not deliver what this movie seems to promise, how is this film, without any closure, supposed to sit by itself?
Peter Jackson, however, deserves credit for even being
willing to take this gamble. Making a film version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy
could be one of the biggest creations ever brought to the screen as long as the other two
films remain on the same high playing field as this first one. So, I guess, with some
reticence: yes, Peter, Ill definitely see you next December.
|Sidewalks of New York
(Dir: Edward Burns, Starring Edward Burns, Rosario Dawson, Heather Graham, David Krumholtz, Stanley Tucci, Brittany Murphy, Dennis Farina, Michael Leydon Campbell, Nadia Dajani, and Callie Thorne)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Edward Burns has made four films now with the same idea running through all: men and women make the oddest pairings. Burns, an avowed ladies man has attempted -- sometimes poorly -- to bring all his old relationships and dirty laundry to his scripts. I enter his films with fear, not that they will create some parallel to my life and offend, but that they will seem like nothing more than the narcissistic blather of its creator.
Sidewalks of New York keeps in line with the narcissism seen in The Brothers McMullen, Shes the One, and the wretched No Looking Back. And yet it is, by far, the most likable of his filmography. It is too burdened with attempts at social commentary and its humor is not always on key, but for a light little film, Sidewalks of New York keeps the audience entertained for a good 107 minutes.
Pretentious? Yeah. At times contrived? Oh, yeah. But weariness does not come to mind as Sidewalks of New York unreels because the maturing of its screenwriter (he has had such a long time since writing No Looking Back and acted with other peoples scripts that, perhaps, Burns found the error of his ways) and the assuredness of the project. The way that Burns tackles the story -- with faux documentary set-ups and handheld cameras -- are not always the finest way to make this movie, especially when other people have done it this way better. However, these style problems are atoned for in the fact that Burns never really makes it the centerpiece of his show.
In Woody Allen fashion, the film follows various New Yorkers from all the boroughs, each with their own connection to the others. Theres Tommy (Burns), the producer of a show based on Entertainment Tonight (a show Burns worked for as a cameraman before he made The Brothers McMullen). When his girlfriend throws him out of their shared apartment (she does not want to bear the children Tommy wants in the future), he must move into the apartment of the shows host Carpo (Farina), a classy lothario with endless advice to give to his new protégé. Tommy soon finds himself interested in young schoolteacher Maria (Dawson), who battles him for a copy of Breakfast at Tiffanys.
Maria, meanwhile, is trying to cope with the recent divorce from her philandering ex-husband Ben (Krumholtz). He is a whiney doorman, obsessed with rekindling the romance that he ruined by cheating on Maria (he excuses the action by noting that she was his first lover and he could not stand going through life without sleeping with more than one woman). As of late, he has found interest in someone else, however, a NYU student named Ashley (Murphy). She, all the while, is stuck in a relationship with the much older dentist Griffin (Tucci). He is cheating on his wife Annie (Graham) with Ashley and unable to show any real romance because of it. Oh, and Annie, shes the realtor in charge of showing Tommy new apartments.
I like the way that Burns sets out all the relationships, even if most of them fail to really come to life. The Ashley-Griffin is the only relationship that seems stuck in reality, even if the directors documentary attempts sometimes ruin this lack of artifice. This lifelike side is created by the two actors, both of whom work their characters into more than the clichés Burns evidently wrote for them. Tucci is especially enjoyable in his slimy role and Murphy seems just as aghast as needed. Dawson also works her scenes remarkably well, though her ability to play off of a slick Burns and a whining Krumholtz never really shows her fine abilities. All the while, Heather Graham is listlessly moving from one scene to another. Where the other actors were watchable, shes just forgettable.
Sidewalks of New York was moved to a later
release this year because of Sept. 11, just a few days before the film was originally
supposed to come out. I dont know how the film would have worked then, when people
might have felt sad with the visage of the Twin Towers behind Burns head in an early
scene. Now the image just seems nostalgic, of not only a time when the towers stood tall,
but also when movies like this still seemed to matter.
Screener Review: With so many screeners coming in before the end of the year, it is tough to fit all of them on screener columns. Since this week has an open spot, I have added one screener review, Kandahar, to it.
(Dir: Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Starring Nelofer Pazira, Hassan Tantaï, and Sadou Teymouri)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Before September 11, the motion picture Kandahar had been selected for inclusion in the film festivals at Cannes, Toronto, Moscow, Munich, Thessalonika, Taipei, and Sao Paulo -- at that time the film seemed like an important look at the plight of the Afghan people, a group long uncovered by Western news, who have instead looked at the Bosnians and the Somalians. But now, with Kandahar as one of the most important war settings since Normandy, the film seems like so much more, no longer a condemnation of the Taliban rule, but now a glance at what is now in the recent past.
Kandahar is the title and intent of Mohsen Makhmalbafs film and yet feels like an unimportant part of the proceedings. The movie might have well been titled Afghanistan since the movies entire view is that of the Afghan countryside. Since the Taliban would not allow Makhmalbaf to film inside the Aghan borders and then Taliban-allies in Pakistan did not want to support him either, the movie was made in the Iranian town of Niatak on the Iran-Afghanistan border. Even though the crew was working outside of the country, the constant run of Afghani smugglers through the town meant that Makhmalbaf had to wear a disguise to keep from being killed.
The movie is based upon the trip to Afghanistan taken by Canadian television journalist Nelofer Pazira, who fled the country with her family when she was 16. Spending the next nine years in Canada, Pazira became worried that her best friend was going to commit suicide and made that decision to come back to Kabul.
For the dramatization of these events, Makhmalbaf has changed Paziras quest to come to the aid of her estranged sister, left behind because of a leg-removing accident with a landmine, in the city of Kandahar. The characters name has been changed too, but it is that same Nelofer Pazira who portrays her cinematic counterpart. She is far from a professional actress, but the realism that she brings to her own troubled trip through Afghanistan far exceeds what an innocent could do.
There are many things that Mohsen Makhmalbaf tries to impart in the film and the fact that he gets most of it out in just 85 minutes should be commended. The Afghan people are struggling every day with disease, hunger, and the war that has torn the country for two decades. Today, the Afghans can speak of the year when Western nations freed them from oppression, but that does not help to ignore the war with the Soviet Union, the takeover by the Taliban, and then the years of civil war from the Northern Alliance.
Makhmalbaf was seriously worried about the plight of the Afghani people, especially the women when the decided to make this film. He, since beginning a career making films in 1981, has become known as one of the few Middle Eastern filmmakers who remain constantly interested in ensuring the rights of women in this world. His films like The Cyclist and Gabbeh took a surprising look at the way women were left to the wayside in fundamentalist regimes. More than anything, his beliefs in equal rights has been seen in his work on the Makhmalbaf Film House, where he has taught men and women how to make movies, including his wife Mazieh Meshkini and daughter Samira Makhmalbaf. These two relatives have directed their own films from Makhmalbafs screenplays, including Samiras The Apple and Maziehs The Day I Became a Woman, a stunning glance at much of Kandahars theses.
Kandahar is not much of a movie from a narrative
drama viewpoint. However, its place in history, as a historical reference to a time when
religious fundamentalists held Afghanistan at their whim, is paramount. Sure, all the
problems in Afghanistan have not been fixed yet, but at least they are on the road from