Volume 4, Number 04
This Week's Reviews: The Business of Strangers, The Mothman Prophecies, Brotherhood of the Wolf, I Am Sam, The Shipping News.
This Week's Omissions: The Count of Monte Cristo, Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, A Walk to Remember.
|The Business of Strangers
BY: DAVID PERRY
The business world can be a cutthroat business, or so the cinema wants you to believe. People who work white-collar jobs in those huge skyscrapers of the modern metropolis have little heart under their Armani suits and DKNY ties. Enron is not really helping this working class go up in everyone's estimation either.
The new film The Business of Strangers tackles the same old shtick of the neo-artistic view of a cold business world. Startup.com was just the (albeit real) primer to the way The Business of Strangers views its road weary, plane-hopping elite. Director-writer Patrick Stettner worked in one of these offices before getting his break as a filmmaker -- his eyes were closely kept on the beaten souls walking by his desk every day.
This is not to say that The Business of Strangers is completely against the world of execs and their conglomerates, but it is foreboding in its worry for the way this world treats its own. The easiest view of this film would be to call it the image of a sick and demented mind, but the real central theme seems on the way the business world has made the occurrences found in The Business of Strangers possible.
Julie Styron (Channing) is the executive vice president for some fictional firm -- her job seems to be little more than traveling from city-to-city showing her firm's work to prospective client. When the film opens, she has just gotten off of her plane for a one-day rally through a city before getting on another plane to do the same elsewhere. When she gets to her important meeting with executives from her possible client agency, she finds that her new assistant, who has all the visuals for the presentation, is not there yet. Forty-five minutes later, Paula Murphy (Stiles) comes into the office with a sob story about her late flight and watches the entire deal fall out of Julie's grasp. Moments later, Julie fires Paula.
The middle-aged Julie is under a great deal of stress that day -- not only did she have that important meeting, but she has also just heard that the CEO of her company has called a meeting of the board of stock-holders without letting her know. It looks like she is about to be fired. As a quick effort to save herself from the unemployment line, Julie calls on the help of Nick Harris (Weller), a so-called "headhunter" who might be able to ensure Julie a job somewhere else when the impending axe comes down.
When her employer comes in to meet her for lunch, he drops the bomb on her: Julie is not going to be fired, but instead will replace him as CEO when he soon resigns. That night, after her plane flight is cancelled, she sits in the hotel bar and sees Paula sitting across the room. Feeling bad, she apologizes and gives the young lady her job back. Soon they are drinking the alcohol in the bar and in Julie's posh suite to celebrate her promotion. Nick is also still in town because of a cancelled flight -- and Paula, continuing her madcap persona around the older lady, makes it clear that she has a bone to pick with Nick, a man who she says once raped her best friend years earlier.
The character of Julie Styron has to be one of the most intriguing studies for the year. Paula brings out a side of Julie unseen in the cold view we get of her in the beginning -- within the first half-hour of the film, she has already shared her past loves and losses and what it's like to have a menopausal hot flash. It does not take too long for her to imagine some way to get back at the misogynist in their midst. Paula is definitely a bad influence on her more mature superior.
For that very reason, Stockard Channing proves in this film that she is still one of the most textured performers currently working. Sure, she will forever stand in film history as Rizzo, but fans can always remember what a fine performer she has shown herself to be in films like Heartburn, Smoke, Six Degress of Seperation, and The Business of Strangers, not to mention fine work on TV's The West Wing as of late. While the screenplay and direction by Patrick Stettner muster in much of the despondency found in Julie's life, much of what makes it reverberate in the minds of the audience is in the face of Stockard Channing as she relates her woes.
Julia Stiles, one of my least favorite ingénues, proves herself to be worthy of some of the praise thrown at her in the past. She gives an involving progression of layers to her character without the sass that has tarnished some of her most recent debacles (O, Down to You, and Save the Last Dance). Stiles successfully keeps her character from being overshadowed by the superior Channing -- that's quite an achievement.
As a moody thesis on date rape and the variance of
different individuals, The Business of Strangers fails to meet the high mark left
by Richard Linklater's recent Tape. But the characterizations, acting, direction, and
writing are all strong enough to keep this film from completely crashing in its unseemly
climax. These characters deserve better than the disappointing ending that Stettner gives
them, but at least he was kind enough to let us enjoy the previous hour we got to know
Wisdom of Crocodiles
|The Mothman Prophecies
BY: DAVID PERRY
In 1966, the small town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, was reportedly terrorized by an entity dubbed the 'mothman.' "A big gray thing; bigger than a man, with terrible, glowing red eyes," reported one visitor to Point Pleasant. Journalist John A. Keel began to investigate and turned his findings into the book The Mothman Prophecies, telling of this creature that not only became the sighting-du-jour of West Virginians, but also a prophetic, faceless voice who told people of impending disasters.
I first read of the mothman earlier this year when the first trailer for Screen Gems' The Mothman Prophecies played in theatres connected to The Royal Tenenbaums. It is an intriguing story that could be easily formatted into a taut thriller; but the resolve of Mark Pellington's telling of the story loses all that was interesting about the mothman. Where this was once a frighteningly ambiguous entity, it now seems like little more than a hoax with Miss Cleo on autodial. Sure, even when I read the cryptozoology history on the mothman, the cynic in me remained at bay, but what Pellington and screenwriter Richard Hatem bring to the screen could convince anyone of the man behind the curtain on this one.
The John A. Keel of the Johnson administration has been transformed to John Klein (Gere) of the Clinton administration (evidently, the mothman only comes into action while democrats are in the White House). Klein, a hotshot journalist for the Washington Post, has his own history with the mothman long before he sets foot into Point Pleasant: the mothman, it seems, was responsible for the death of his wife (Messing). Two years after her death of a brain tumor, which explains her references to a winged man causing her to crash her car, Klein is still a grieving widower, listlessly going through the cinematic rituals of sulking.
One night, while en route to Virginia for an interview, Klein inadvertently winds up 400 miles out of his way with no recollection of how he made the huge journey in an hour and a half -- the town is Point Pleasant. He becomes so intrigued by the stories of the townspeople in their dealings with the mothman, that he loses track of his job and becomes intent on following this story as far as possible. In his mind, not only is he covering a story that might be of interest, but also perhaps finding some closure to his wife's death.
Paper-thin characters follow suit, giving Klein a nice collection of oddities to befriend and, ultimately, worry about. The most notable would be Sgt. Connie Parker (Linney), a town cop with that special Marge Gunderson touch. A slight romance becomes apparent by the end of their first scene together, but, in one of the film's few sustained acts of restraint, this subplot never becomes a major point. Thankfully, the only Gere-as-Lothario action is in the film's opening, and is quickly forgotten soon afterward.
Will Patton and Alan Bates play the film's two shaven and disheveled roles, one as the wily-eyed kook and the other as the reclusive expert. Patton is at his worst, playing the role without the normal cockiness but still relying on that Patton squint-and-scowl. Why the studios feel the need to constantly hire him, I may never know.
Bates is another story, giving his clichéd character some steely resolve. Although little more than Bates playing Montgomery Clift playing J.D. Salinger, the choices the Shakespearean actor makes in his delivery -- especially in a later scene set in his office -- reminds the audience that there are always fine British actors to cushion the mistakes of mediocre films.
Mark Pellington once again shows that he is a master at
style, even if his lack of concern over substance still needs some work. Outside of his
upsetting reliance on dark hues for nearly every frame of the film, Pellington keeps the
visual aspects of The Mothman Prophecies from being crushed under the hokum
Richard Hatem (whose last screenplay was Under Siege 2: Lost Territory) bandies
out. When working with a good script, Pellington can shine -- as was seen two years ago
with Arlington Road -- but his abilities as a stylish and story-minded drone has
yet to be proven. The Mothman Prophecies, under Pellington's watchful eye, could
have been a creepy sojourn at the theatre had it remained more intent on its mythology
than on its loath characters. Franz Kafka knew what to do with a half-man-half-insect
story; Richard Hatem does not.
Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
|Brotherhood of the Wolf
BY: DAVID PERRY
Generally when people think of French films, they begin to imagine stuffy, character-driven Nouvelle Vague films. But Christophe Gans does not aspire to follow in line with Gallic predecessors like Rohmer, Rivette, and Truffaut; Gans is more akin to Spielberg, Lucas, and Johnston.
Gans is far from the first director do jump from the world of Ridicule and Day for Night; there's always Luc Besson -- to steal from one Besson critic three years ago, Gans is the Simpson to Besson's Bruckheimer. Both filmmakers are intent on the visual glory of their films, whether it be in Besson's La Femme Nikita or Gans' only other major film, part 2 of Necronomicon, and give just enough buffer to the story that pretension is kept in line without the mindlessness of their American counterparts.
Gans' Brotherhood of the Wolf may not derive from Claire's Knee, Cleo from 5 to 7, or The 400 Blows, nor does it really stand beside Besson's Nikita, Léon, or The Big Blue. Its amalgamation of genres and styles comes from the blockbuster cloisters of Jaws, Orca, and Cujo, with those slow, moving French sensibilities.
So what if the film has countless holes and an infuriating length, Brotherhood of the Wolf is one of the few completely assured genre pieces in the past year. 2002's obligatory place as cinema's dumping ground is often thrown off by early foreign releases and Brotherhood of the Wolf might just be the import of the season, even if it lacks the emotional depth that marked last year's In the Mood for Love and The Widow of Saint-Pierre.
The film plays much like a French rendition of The Hounds of the Baskervilles with the sensibilities of Yuen-Wo Ping based upon the actual Beast of Gevaudan, which killed women and children of remote French town. From 1764 to 1767, the beast preyed on the people of Auvergne until an incredibly large pair of wolves were killed and put on display to show that the beast had finally come to an end.
The script by Stéphane Cabel and Gans serializes the story into an oddity of French dissatisfaction, cultism, and sexual intrigue. This is not just a wild animal ravishing peasants, but now part of a story that blends intrigue with action. The story could have easily been made into a thriller to chase down this animal, but Gans infuses the movie with social politics, embedded sexuality, and even a little French history. Is the story of the Beast of Gevaudan a precursor to the French Revolution? Probably not, but it definitely makes for an interesting film.
The fictionalization involved in making Brotherhood of the Wolf, leaves real beast hunters Antoine de Beauterne, Jean Chastel, and the Marquis Labesseyre Saint-Mary blended into philosopher/naturalist Grégoire de Fronsac (Bihan) and his Iroquois man-at-arms Mani (Dacascos). The story is also extended beyond the Chastel killing of the beast, theorizing that the death was merely a decoy by the crown.
The lush costumes and drab-but-admirable cinematography give the film a fine appeal to the eyes, even when Gans and editors Xavier Loutreuil, Sébastien Pangère, and David Wu are busy muting the effect with quick and quirky edits. The slow but moving attraction brought to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is lost on the Gans team, who have evidently spent too much time endeared towards Michael Bay and his editors. Although not in the credits, much of the editing in Brotherhood of the Wolf screams Pietro Scalia.
Quick cuts counteract what are sometimes involving scenes which would have been easier to appreciate with a slower speed and a lessened reliance on fight sequences. The film's first half, when Gans spends more time on exposition than on action, plays far better than the remaining hour and a half, when the director's inner fourteen-year-old takes the helm choosing to cram in as many fight sequences and cleavage shots into the frame.
All this is moot, however, considering that Brotherhood
of the Wolf remains watchable throughout even when straying onto the wrong route. It
is an interesting movie with just enough assets to succeed amongst its detractors. Yes,
Christophe Gans may be the Don Simpson of Western Europe, but at least he knows how to
acceptably merge Tony Scott and Patrice Leconte.
Story of Us
|I Am Sam
BY: DAVID PERRY
I Am Sam has so much schlock and sentiment that you can feel that sappiness as you walk in the theatre. If 2001 had not seen releases like K-Pax, Sweet November, and A Beautiful Mind, I'd have already placed it as the most cloyingly manipulative film of the year.
Sean Penn, who has made a career as the antithesis to this type of filmmaking, looks lost in what is easily the lowest point in his career. At times, you can look in the actor's eyes and see how hard he's trying to meld this role into something of note. What's all the more annoying, though, is that the audience can see something else in his eyes: his admission that he is failing.
New Line, the company behind this film, is perhaps the artier side of Time-Warner's two major studios. But looking at even the most recent studio efforts from Penn -- The Thin Red Line, Hurlyburly, Carlito's Way -- bears nothing as closely connected to the Hollywood schmaltz factory as this film happily is. Penn's last directorial effort, The Pledge, was produced by Warner Bros., New Line's sister, giving credence to any theory that some dealing must have occurred to get Penn in this state.
The film is a marriage between Rain Man and Kramer vs. Kramer with the emotional touch (not to mention character development) of an episode of Life Goes On. Penn plays Sam, a retarded busboy at an LA Starbucks. While his mental handicap is not completely debilitating, it is enough to keep him from getting a job making the coffee -- his main job seems to be sorting sugar packets and telling people that their order is "a wonderful choice."
When the film begins, Sam has just become a father. The problem is that the mother is a homeless woman he gave shelter to and is more than happy to walk away from the newborn within steps of the hospital door. Now Sam must work to raise the child on his own -- with the help of his agoraphobic neighbor Annie (Wiest) -- despite the fact that he has the mental capacity of a seven-year-old.
When the daughter, Lucy Diamond Dawson (Fanning), named after the Beatles song as part of Sam's obsession with the band and their music, finally reaches the age of seven, it becomes apparent that Sam is incapable of helping her with her schooling anymore; the problem is so bad that Lucy doesn't want to learn any more in fear that she'll surpass her beloved patriarch.
Then -- can you feel the contrivance seeping in? -- Sam is arrested for soliciting a prostitute (she walks up to him thinking that it is an easy way to get some money and he unknowingly acknowledges that he would like to have "some fun" when she asks). Child services takes note of the fact that he has a child and investigates -- soon, Lucy is taken from him and a trial begins to decide if Sam is fit to raise a child who will continue to learn far beyond his own competence.
During the first act of the film, the movie is predominately the story of Lucy living around Sam and his group of friends, all of whom suffer from a mental problem of some sort. While pandering is overtly used in this first part, but it is not until the second act, the trial, that the steam really begins to dissipate and the movie goes into manufactured emotional overdrive. Though Michelle Pfeiffer as Sam's lawyer does give some resiliency to the events, the film's poor attempts to create tension between the father and the state creates one incredibly big problem in dramatic narrative: the so-called bad guys, the state, makes a great deal of sense.
Yes, Sam is a nice guy, but I'm hard pressed for a reason to believe that it would be in Lucy's best interests to stay with him as a single father. "Bad guy" Richard Schiff as the lawyer for child services tells Pfeiffer at one point: This is an anecdote for you at some luncheon, but I'm here every day, You're out the door, but you know who I see come back? The child." It's tough to disagree with that one.
Director and co-writer Jessie Nelson has made a career out
of these tearjerkers. While this is only her second time behind the camera, her
screenwriting has been intent on the hankies of every unknowing filmgoer this side of the
Atlantic. Entire landfills have been used to house the tissue paper used on Nelson's Corrina,
Corrina (which she directed), Stepmom, and The Story of Us. I
suppose the only silver lining to this time around is that I Am Sam is smaller than all
those films and, therefore, won't be able to "touch" (read: manipulate) near as
many unsuspecting bystanders.
Falling on Cedars
Widow of Saint-Pierre
|The Shipping News
BY: DAVID PERRY
Probably the most intriguing thing that comes out of Lasse Hallström's The Shipping News is that Miramax actually thought they could push it as their big Oscar film this year. The dark, cold, atmospheric drama has enough quirk to settle in some votes, but in the end, The Shipping News is a failure by Hallström to live up to many of the chances he has to turn E. Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize winning novel into a solid motion picture.
The novel is still a favorite among modern literature scholars and the placement in their bookshelves is understandable -- though I have not read the entire book, what I have encountered is such a lyrically worded collection of points and phrases that the prose creates a setting more tangible than anything brought to the screen by Hallström. In his defense, the director is working on some very hard material -- The Shipping News is a long read with constant character development and important scenarios; the condensing of this novel is one of the hardest tasks tackled this year by a Hollywood studio. Yeah, the interesting idea in Memento is notable, but its nothing like taking 337 pages and making it into a two-hour film.
John Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson pulled off the adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (455 pages) to make a film barely over two hours, but their decision was to cut off the last 100+ pages and create an open end to their film; Hallström and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, instead, rely heavily on excising the scenes amidst the novel's most important scenes. Where The Grapes of Wrath feels like a primer to Steinbeck's novel, The Shipping News instead serves as the Reader's Digest version of Proulx's book.
And yet I admire Hallström's effort in some half-hearted way. Even if the source material overwhelms the director's vision, The Shipping News works in a minor way as a feature -- Oscar film, no; but definitely yes as an acceptable work of narrative fiction on celluloid.
Kevin Spacey, still poorly trying to rebound Pay It Forward (he'll probably continue trying to rebound K-Pax for the next couple years), plays the novel's protagonist Quoyle, a sad sacked, downtrodden individual who has effectively slept through the first 36 years of his existence. In the opening ten minutes of The Shipping News, we are introduced to his bad childhood (a sadistic father with a pushy way to teach Quoyle how to swim), his bad job (an inker at the Poughkeepsie newspaper), and his bad marriage (a woman who openly sleeps around in their house).
When his parents and his wife both die in the same evening (the former through suicide, the latter in a car crash while running off with another man), Quoyle finds himself and his daughter Bunny (portrayed by identical triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn, and Lauren Gainer) looking for another way to sit in self-deprecation. As Quoyle walks into his house, the urns of his parents in his hands, and learns of his wife's death and abduction of Bunny (the wife, named Petal Bear [Blanchett] sold Bunny to an underground adoption agency), he finds that his estranged aunt Agnis (Dench) has come to pay her respects. Taking some compassion to the torturous lives of her kin, Agnis invites the reconciled Quoyle and child to go back to the family home in Newfoundland to start their lives anew.
Newfoundland is a world unto itself. People are strange, weather is rugged, and dialect is unseemly to the common ear; somehow Quoyle, a person unable to withstand life in Poughkeepsie, is going to make a place for himself in an area that not only seems to despise human existence but also around people who seemed to despise his family's past indiscretions.
There are problems right and left in The Shipping News -- Spacey's miscasting (this is definitely a character meant for Philip Seymour Hoffman), the plot holes, the glacial pacing -- but there are so many rewarding aspects that The Shipping News in film form is still a sight to be seen.
Hallström and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (with additional help from Christopher Young's score and David Gropman's production design) create a cinematic Newfoundland that lives up to the words Proulx etched into her novel. With gusts of snow, wind, and waves, the area has never seemed more beautiful and frightening at the same time. This is a film that celebrates a land that seems unwilling to bend to anyone's desires -- the provincial motto for Newfoundland could easily be "Newfoundland is for peons and vagabonds."
However, the real reason that The Shipping News refrains from never really goes anywhere of note is in the performances from two highly talented young actresses. While Dame Judi Dench has been the queen of Miramax in the last few years, this is not necessarily her turn to shine (that is reserved for her more taxing work in Richard Eyre's upcoming Iris), the real ladies of this Miramax feature are Julianne Moore (as Quoyle's romantic interest Wavey Prowse) and the always stunning Mrs. Blanchett.
Julianne Moore puts so much effort into this role that we are willing to believe that she is somehow able to find a form of solace in a relationship with Quoyle. Her performance is that of a structured actress, willing to pose constant emotions throughout for some form of contrition by the ending. Admittedly her turn would have worked better around a different Quoyle (the novel portrays him as fat and completely undesirable), but for this form of protagonist, Moore's Wavey succeeds to a nice degree.
Cate Blanchett sufficiently convinces me that the
possibility of her retirement to raise her children will be the biggest loss for cinema
since Grace Kelly moved to Monaco. Blanchett is only in the film for about five minutes
but her work is so commanding that her presence is felt for the other 115 minutes. Quoyle
obsesses with her whenever he has to work on car accident stories for the local paper, but
it is the audience who really sees her image in every frame of the picture. Cate Blanchett
is the type of actress who can go from Elizabeth I to Lady Chiltern to Meredith Logue to
Queen Galadriel to Petal Bear; her time playing important literary and historical figures
has hit some form of a high. She almost single-handedly carries a great novel's adaptation
-- too bad she did not get comparable support from everyone else.