> Volume 4 > Number 05

Volume 4, Number 05

This Week's Reviews:  Birthday Girl.

This Week's Omissions:  Slackers.

Repertory Review:  North by Northwest.

Capsule Reviews:  Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, Snow Dogs.

Jez Butterworth

Ben Chaplin
Nicole Kidman
Vincent Cassel
Mathieu Kassovitz
Reece Shearsmith
Stephen Mangan




Jeunet, 2001

Last Resort
Pawlikowski, 2001

The Minus Man
Fancher, 1999

Original Sin
Cristofer, 2001

When Brendan Met

Walsh, 2001

Birthday Girl


Before last year you could count on one hand the number of good Nicole Kidman films (Dead Calm, Flirting, To Die For, The Portrait of a Lady, Eyes Wide Shut) and yet the actress, in the midst of her most unglamorous gossipy period, has proven to be one of the best actresses of the new decade. In just three films, all released in the course of 6 months, Kidman has risen far above (feel free to insert a height joke) the shadows of Tom Cruise.

I've liked the actress a great deal for some time, even in some bad movies. Her talent is a given in those five mentioned good films, but even in mediocre (My Life, The Peacemaker) and bad (Billy Bathgate, Far and Away) fare, Kidman has shown more poise that your normal ingénue. She's grown a lot over the years and has developed into the timed actress that most people could see arising in Dead Calm, even if her status as an ingénue has dissipated.

The first two films of Kidman's climb to the fore were Moulin Rouge and The Others, both of which came out last year and qualify her for an Academy Award for one of the performances (which one, if at all, the Academy will pick is still in the air); the third, perfectly placed in theatres by Miramax to coincide with a possible Kidman nomination is Birthday Girl, another film that shows her seamless work as an actress even if the movie is far from the quality of the other two films.

It's not hard to salute Kidman for this role: the character of Nadia is against type, definitely unglamorous, low-key for a starlet, and partly in another language. No, Miramax will probably not stand triumphant touting the actress next February for Oscar consideration, but at least it might help their chances of getting that Best Actress nomination for their own The Others instead of Fox's Moulin Rouge.

Kidman plays the mail-order bride for a young and introverted British bankteller in the small town of St. Albans. John Buckingham (Chaplin) is not necessarily an unlikable chap -- it seems that he has even sparked the interest of a female coworker -- but his picturesque lifestyle has not opened him to the etiquette of courting a woman and making a home. The house he resides in may be completely in place -- with the occasional infestation of ants -- but the only place he thinks to go in search for a mate is a website called "From Russia with Love."

He orders an English-speaking non-smoker, but when Nadia arrives, he finds that their conversations seem quite one-sided and that her hands are searching for a cigarette almost immediately after their first embrace. John panics, trying to return Nadia to the company like a leather couch. But his disdain for Nadia is pacified when he finds they share an interest in light S & M.

The spark comes to a halt, though, when Nadia has some visitors come over for her birthday party. Cousin Yuri (Kassovitz; the French director of Hate and The Crimson Rivers, not to mention the lovelorn porn shop worker in Amélie) and his friend Alexei (Cassel; the French actor from Kassovitz's Hate and The Crimson Rivers as well as the recent import Brotherhood of the Wolf) almost immediately dim the attraction John has to Nadia (Is there something between Nadia and Alexei? Why did she invite them without letting him know?) before a twist completely turns his existence upside-down.

Before the Butterworth brothers (director/screenwriter Jez, screenwriter Tom, and producer Steve) hit this twist, Birthday Girl feels like a poorly written, quirky British comedy with occasional verges into soft-core porn. Keeping the audience interested during these early scenes is taxing for the two leads, who work well together even if their chemistry is nearly non-existent (with good reason, of course). As the film veers into its second half, the Butterworth brothers seem to have awaken to the more glaring problems in their initial moments.

The more action-driven second side to this story feels forced but comes as a treat after the monotony of the first half. Chaplin and Kidman worked hard to make the first half bearable and it's the fine efforts of Kassovitz and Cassel that make the latter events work. While Birthday Girl never really becomes a good movie, per se, it never really becomes a truly bad one either. Even if the filmmakers seemed intent on it, a quartet of fine actors saves the movie from the abyss of tedium.

Alfred Hitchcock

Cary Grant
Eva Marie Saint
James Mason
Martin Landau
Leo G. Carroll
Jessie Royce Landis
Josephine Hutchinson
Philip Ober
Adam Williams
Robert Ellenstein
Edward Platt




Fahrenheit 451
Truffaut, 1966

Nurse Betty
LaBute, 2000

Rear Window
Hitchcock, 1954

Shoot the Piano Player
Truffaut, 1960

The Talented Mr. Ripley
Minghella, 1999

North by Northwest


"War is hell, Mr. Thornhill, even when it's a Cold one."

In the 1950's Alfred Hitchcock learned from an associate of a fake secret agent created by British embassy secretaries to throw off the Nazis during World War II. A few years later, Hitchcock had the script with his beloved Mount Rushmore sequence and started filming North by Northwest, the director's final romantic intrigue masterpiece. Though his series was doing as well as ever, Hitchcock's last film Vertigo had bombed at the box office and he was in dire need of something to come back with. North by Northwest, as it would turn out, was the perfect film to do this.

Hitchcock's innocent man on the run storyline is reused to great effect in North by Northwest with an often edge-of-your-seat, often highly comical screenplay by Ernest Lehman. Like Vertigo, North by Northwest is dependent on the audience believing in the protoganist when everyone else does not -- well, except those that can use his beliefs and actions to their benefit.

The man on the run this time around is Roger Thornhill (Grant), a suave New York ad executive. He seems to always be rushed -- in the opening moments of the film he lies a man getting into a taxi that his secretary is sick to get an early cab -- to the point that he seems almost methodical in his daily planning. It would be easy to imagine Thornhill going through the morning routine like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

In a crowded hotel restaurant with a few friends, Thornhill calls for a porter to send a note to his mother. The only problem is that the porter had just finished calling for a Mr. Kaplan, making it seem like Thornhill has just admitted to being Kaplan in the eyes of the two men looking for Kaplan. They abduct him at gunpoint and take him into the home of Lester Townsend, where a man named Vandamm (Mason) interrogates Thornhill under the belief that he is the secret agent George Kaplan.

After Vandamm believes he has gotten all he'll get out of his Mr. Kaplan, he has his thugs, including right-hand man Leonard (Landau), pour bourbon down Thornhill's throat and put him on a road by a rocky shore in a stolen car. Thornhill is able to drunkenly get away from them in the car, but that, in turn, caues him to spend the night in jail for driving drunk in a stolen vehicle. After a sobering night and a dazed court date, Thornhill sets out to figure out the story behind his attack the previous night and is soon wanted for the murder of Lester Townsend (Ober), who dies via a knife from a Vandamm lackey while Thornhill was talking to him.

In a getaway from the police and public -- his picture holding the knife is plastered on the front page of newspapers across the country -- Thornhill boards a train heading to Chicago. Without a boarding pass, he is luckily aided by a Mrs. Eve Kendall (Saint) who sneaks him into her room and keeps the police from following his tracks. But, as all femmes must be, she is part of the grand scheme -- Vandamm and Kendall are lovers and some (though, most definitely, not all) of her decisions are the bidding of Vandamm.

The action is tense in this film. Hitchcock and regular cinematographer Robert Burks use VistaVision widescreen to all its glory. Naming off sequences in North by Northwest is like naming off a list of scenes most memorable in film history. The overhead shot from the United Nations Building, the chase on the top of Mount Rushmore, the off-kilter auction scene, and the crop duster careening above the head of Cary Grant -- nearly every scene has been etched into my memory from countless viewings of the film, documentaries, and retrospectives. When Tom Hanks stood at the desolate crossroads in Cast Away, one of my first thoughts was of Cary Grants doing the same.

In their fourth and final teaming, Hitchcock and Grant take everything a step further than they had in their previous outings. The fears of betrayal are like those in Suspicion; the spy game intrigue is reminiscent of Notorious; and the sexual energy is just as present as in To Catch a Thief. I personally feel that Grant did a better job playing the cad in Suspicion and the schemer in Notorious, but I do see that debonair Grant style working its way into Roger Thornhill and making it one of his most memorable performances. Like Hitchcock's other wronged man films, the whole film is dependent on the audience's sympathy for the protagonist. With North by Northwest, Grant delivers a truly overconfident wronged man that is still empathically likable

Though Eva Marie Saint does not perfectly fill the shoes previously filled by Joan Fonataine, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly, she holds her own nonetheless. Besides, it takes a pretty great actress (like the other three ladies) to do something extremely remarkable in the same frame as Cary Grant in an Alfred Hitchcock framed scene.

Once again, Hitchcock delivers a villain that is both devilishly evil and tremendously enjoyable. James Mason is perfectly cast as Vandamm -- his voice and mannerisms extenuate the peevish impulses that make his character so intriguing. Mason, of course, has never really received the attention that he deserved -- much like fellow Grant/Hitchcock villain Claude Rains (who, interestingly, played the character in Here Comes Mr. Chips that James Mason would later recreate in Heaven Can Wait). Mason, I suppose, will be remembered for Lolita more than anything -- it seems to me that the Hitchcock following is waning while the Kubrick following is growing -- which it not so bad a performance to mark a career. But, nevertheless, it still leaves me a little unhappy; Mason had so much more to deliver in his long career than in merely his Lolita performance. Thanks to some occasional repertory screenings of North by Northwest and, perhaps, another reawakening to Hitchcock films, Mason's deliciously malevolent performance might deservedly come to the fore.

North by Northwest would unfortunately turn out to be Hitchcock's final success with intrigue. While he would try three more films in the genre (Torn Curtain, Topaz, and Family Plot), mediocrity only ensued. His next film would be his defining picture, Psycho, and Hitchcock's career during the last twenty years of his life would never really recreate the artistic peak that occurred in the 1950's. Of the eleven films he made in that decade, only one would fall short of greatness. Partnered with the psychological sanctum of Vertigo and the nervous solitude of Rear Window, North by Northwest stands as one of Hitchcock's most unusual, playful, and advantageous films.

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 Kung Pow: Enter the Fist and Snow Dogs (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."

Kung Pow: Enter the Fist

(Dir: Steve Oedekirk, Starring Steve Oedekirk, Fei Lung, Leo Lee, Chia Yung Liu, Hui Lou Chen, Chi Ma, and Jennifer Tung)



Woody Allen was able to pull off spoofing an Asian action film by toying with the original film, but Steve Oedekerk is, alas, no Woody Allen. This is not to say that Oedekerk's Kung Pow: Enter the Fist is a complete failure -- it does occasionally masterfully make jest of the original film The Savage Killers -- but the comedy Oedekerk employs from his own cadre of idiotic humor falls short of even the slowest parts of What's Up Tiger Lily? and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.

Snow Dogs

(Dir: Brian Levant, Starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., James Coburn, Sisqo, Nichelle Nichols, M. Emmet Walsh, Graham Greene, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Joanna Bacalso)



Disney was so hard-pressed for a way to market this film that they advertised it as a talking-dog picture. No, the dog's don't talk (except in a momentary dream sequence), nor does the entertainment ever begin. The only thing Snow Dogs really does prove is that Academy Award winners (Cuba Gooding, Jr., and James Coburn) do not have to make quality films for the rest of their careers.




Reviews by:
David Perry