Volume 4, Number 15
This Week's Reviews: Frailty, Changing Lanes, Human Nature, Monsoon Wedding.
This Week's Omissions: Italian for Beginners, Metropolis, The Other Side of Heaven, The Sweetest Thing.
Capsule Reviews: Clockstoppers, The Rookie.
BY: DAVID PERRY
is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not yet seen."
"Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than
"It's better to be good than evil, but one achieves
goodness at a terrific cost."
A movie like Frailty is rare -- devout Middle American faith has made movies at the expense of religion a thing of European cinema. Now, current issues tear people even further into sects of believers and non-believers. Osama Bin Laden and Jerry Fallwell are just two of the regulars of the covenant, people who have made their place in history by showing an obtuse unwillingness to acknowledge the right of people to believe in something other than what they sermonize over.
Frailty tackles a similar could-be messiah, this time in the form of a Texas mechanic. But he is not doing it to create a fear in the heart of his disciples, to destroy opposing races, religions, and ethnicities, or to simply make it into the newspaper; the character portrayed by Bill Paxton in Frailty just wants to do what he thinks is right and just. According to him, the heinous acts he commits are just the tasks he has been assigned to by God. Andrea Yates had a similar defense.
However, the faith that runs abundantly throughout Frailty is not as much theological as patriarchal -- almost the entire film is told through the recollections of one of his children, who has grown up with the memories of his father's zealotry. Possibly the single least underminable faith a child can have is the one he has for his parents. People wonder why children in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq are so willing to call for the death to Americans without taking into account that they have been taught this by their parents.
The father of the story -- his name is never actually given in the movie -- is so devoted to his belief that God is sending him on a mission to destroy demons that look like human beings that he fails to see that this is something that cannot be completely comprehended or weighed by a child. As he wields an axe, bearing it down upon the head of a person that looks human, far from a demon, the children must watch and try to understand why their beloved father has taken to killing innocents.
The younger of the two, Adam (Sumpter), quickly buys into his father's story and even yearns to take part in the destruction of these demons; however, the other boy, Fenton (O'Leary), distrusts his father's beliefs, so much that he becomes the main threat to daddy's accomplishment of his deity-driven task. His father knows this and, as Fenton cowers in fear of what his father will do to him, remarks that he fears his son more than the demons. In keeping with the story of Abraham, he decides that he must prove to God that he and Fenton are still worthy of his attention, by whatever means.
This story is told as a flashback by Fenton as an adult (McConaughey) to FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Boothe). He has come to Agent Doyle's office to confess that Adam has been the murderer of six people recently in what has been dubbed the "God's Hands" killings. By resurrecting the horrific memories of his childhood, Fenton is able to help Doyle understand why his brother has been brought to killing people.
Much of the film plays like a collection of other films -- Se7en, The Usual Suspects, Unbreakable, The Evil Dead, Summer of Sam -- but the style is decidedly its own. First-time director Paxton has made a fine move to the director's chair showing his immense talent at creating mood through shadow and substance, without gore. Essentially, Frailty is a very graphic story, but Paxton has the good sense to keep much of the carnage off-screen, where the audience can imagine the views without being thrown-off of the central story.
This is as much testament to Paxton as a director as it is to his composer Brian Taylor, editor Arnold Grossman, and cinematographer Bill Butler, all of whom tirelessly create the tension and disposition needed to keep this story from falling apart. Though the film ultimately does just that thanks to a collection of twists and turns that veer into that oh-so-smart genre of filmmaking, their attention to the finer details help the movie from being a complete waste.
The screenplay by Brent Hanley knows how to strike a mood, even if it contains some of the worst colloquial dialogue this side of The Legend of Boggy Creek. But all the verbal irregularities become excusable as the film works its magic on the audience, at least until Hanley drops the ball with his horrendous twist and epilogue.
It is hard to dismiss Frailty as another casualty
of faulty screenwriting, but, sadly, the finale serves little purpose other than to maybe
surprise a third of the audience and leave the rest wondering how a fine film could have
gone so wrong. Bill Paxton has gone a long way from referencing "a demon spirit"
for tornadoes, and proven himself as the ultimate spiritual cynicism directors, only to
find that his thunder has been dulled by a screenwriter suffering from smug-overdrive.
It's a shame; but, whether he likes it or not, those who will see Frailty will
have faith that Paxton still has some more gems to bring us.
BY: DAVID PERRY
The old dictum "an eye for an eye" comes into full force for the new film Changing Lanes, which looks at two completely unconnected people playing a game of tit-for-tat until they both have hit rock bottom. The movie has been advertised as a taut thriller, but it is so much more -- Changing Lanes would not have been near as intriguing a movie had the characters been put into action film mode, instead director Roger Michell is content keeping them within the limits of normal human nature.
However, as I should point out, neither of these men are distinctly clichéd norms, nor are their problems, but the movie is such a striking example of the human breaking point that their initial fender-bender seems like a needle in a haystack after the stuff they put each other through one fateful Good Friday.
The movie begins by looking at each man in his isolated world. High stakes lawyer Gavin Banek (Affleck) has just made partner at his the Wall Street law firm of his father-in-law Delano (Pollack). By getting a Power of Appointment document signed by a seemingly charitable millionaire, Gavin has made the firm hundreds of millions of dollars -- all he has to do is prove to the court that the philanthropist signed the Power of Appointment instead of leaving everything to his daughter who is suing the firm.
On the other side of the tracks is Doyle Gibson (Jackson), who is a recovering alcoholic trying to put his family back together. His wife (Staunton) left him and has filed for full custody of their two children, a judgment she needs so that she may move them to Oregon thanks to a job offer. In hopes of getting the family court judge and his wife back on his side, Doyle has taken a loan to buy a little house in Queens for his wife and kids so that they may not need to move away. And, perhaps, she might let him move back in with them.
Gavin and Doyle's lives could not be further apart -- only a traffic accident on the FDR Drive could momentarily make their lives intersect. Both are slightly preoccupied as they attempt to hurriedly get to their court appointments -- Gavin to drop off the Power of Appointment, Doyle to arrive at his custody hearing. In the altercation, Doyle's car hits a median and flattens a tire, meaning that he is stranded in the freeway. One would think that Gavin would give him a ride over to the courthouse (hey, they are going to the exact same place), but he is in such a hurry that he fails to account for Doyle's lack of a ride. Instead of even waiting for an officer to write a report on the traffic altercation, Gavin drives off in his dented Mercedes and yelling "Better luck next time," leaving Doyle behind.
Oh the tangled web we weave: the decision to not help his fellow man comes back to haunt Gavin when he finds that he inadvertently left the Power of Appointment papers at the scene of the crash. Doyle picked them up, but, after arriving at his court hearing late and completely losing custody in his absence, he's not terribly willing to help Gavin retrieve these papers, which could both lose the case for his firm and send him to jail for fraud. And thus the vicious circle begins -- Gavin strikes at Doyle in hopes of getting that file, Doyle returns the favor, etc., etc. All the while, their tensions get exhausted and in the process they actually learn a little about themselves and their loved ones, from Doyle's wife to Gavin's father-in-law.
The common complaint that will come towards this film is that neither of the leads is terribly appealing for the most part -- Gavin is arrogant, Doyle is abrasive. But Roger Michell and screenwriters Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin haven't made a film about people who are affable and lovable, but instead caricatures of real life individuals. If this were a film merely about rich vs. poor, then the final resolution to the movie would seem like a cumbersome discredit to the film's collection of clichés; however, no one involved really attempts to keep in line with the Hollywood cookie-cutter formula, adding tinges of human emotions to the roles without letting melodrama seep in.
The casting of Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck in the two leads makes this a bit of a surprise. Though both have shown great talent in independent films, most of the studio efforts from each name -- ranging from Armageddon to Pearl Harbor, from Rules of Engagement to Shaft -- have been tedious trips through the same terrain Hollywood has trampled over hundreds of times previously. While Affleck is still a tad disaffecting thanks to his overt use of pouting eyes, he still shows some fine work, especially in scenes involving Gavin and both his wife (Peet) and his father-in-law. Jackson, too, comes alive on the screen, though his work is more commanding thanks to a high-strung attitude and a fascinating dance between misery and violence. Though the screenplay moves into a couple contrivances halfway through, the establishment of the characters makes the devices seem less disrupting.
Director Roger Michell has never worked in this genre before, however his previous titles give an understanding why he is able to pull off this story so well. On films like Notting Hill, Titanic Town, and Persuasion, Michell has spent genre exercises on worthwhile characters. Part of the reason that Notting Hill was welcomed by more acceptance than most Julia Roberts rom-coms is that Michell worked the film out of a handful of intriguing characters, from the lead players to the supporting players.
If under the direction of more action-oriented filmmakers
like Jan de Bont or John McTiernan, Changing Lanes might have felt like a tired
genre film, but Roger Michell, his screenwriters, and a fine cast of characters make more
out of their material. Changing Lanes ends on the type of note that leaves the
audience smiling with contentment -- it is a filling and enjoyable movie with an expertly
crafted style. If a different director had worked with it, the film would probably end
with hints of a sequel set for release next summer.
BY: DAVID PERRY
In the song "Human Behavior," Björk sings that "there's definitely, definitely, definitely no logic to human behavior." The video for the song was directed by Björk regular Michel Gondry, who is ready to make his own indictment of the human race, Human Nature.
The film comes from the twisted mind of Charlie Kaufman, the bizarro screenwriter whose 1999 script for Being John Malkovich became one of the best films of a year filled with great movies. While that film had the similar bizarro director Spike Jonze, who also broke into the industry with music videos (including a couple with Björk), Malkovich proves to be a far superior work to Human Nature, a cynical, anti-establishment tale that is tinged with so much bad blood that even the darkest comedy falls deafly on my ears, the same ears that thought Drop Dead Gorgeous, of all things, had some incredibly funny moments.
Gondry is ostensibly a visual artist, with menial interest in the more aesthetic side to film theory. This is perfect for music videos, when a snazzy look can be enough; but here, when he has a feature film to work on, the lack of any real interest in emotional zing makes for a boring run through the emotions of Walden. This might have been excusable had the screenplay been well tuned enough to distract the audience from the lackluster directorial prowess, but Kaufman's tale of nature vs. nurture has about as many solid sequences as it has flaccid plot devices -- when the movie hits a high point of hilarity (and there are indeed moments), it soon becomes sour again with the tinge of a writer lost in his own pretense and a director who does not care unless it can be soothing for the eyes.
Human Nature begins with a chase through the forest -- Darwinism is at work while a bird of prey makes its way towards a pair of mice (who, believe it or not, are important to the story). Before we can see their probable demise, though, the camera lands on the legs of a dead body. Moments later we are introduced to characters: incarcerated Lila (Arquette) being questioned by police says "I'm not sorry," slovenly looking Puff (Ifans) speaking to a congressional committee says "I'm sorry," and bullet-holed Nathan (Robbins) sitting in an ethereal white room says "I don't even know what sorry means anymore." They then proceed to take turns telling their tales.
Lila has lived her post-pubescent life with a major problem: a hormonal imbalance causes her to be exceedingly hairy. To get away from the torment, she moves to the wilderness and finds that the animals do not discriminate because of her looks. But her libido begins to take over her needs and she soon finds that despite being a famous recluse nature writer, she cannot take the probable dismissal in the dating pool that would come from her hairiness. Employing the help of Louise (Perez) for electrolysis and matchmaking, she finds her lover in the form of 35-year-old virgin Nathan.
Their personalities could not be more different -- while she praises the natural life, Nathan has made his career out of trying to get rid of the natural animal instincts. His current project is to teach a pair of mice proper table manners, stemmed from the way his adopted parents (Place and Forster) would severely chastise him if he used the incorrect fork.
Lila is having the electrolysis to keep her hair from Nathan, but that does not stop her from wanting to momentarily return into the indiscriminating forests. After convincing anal Nathan to leave his laboratory -- and his French seductress assistant Gabrielle (Otto) -- they take a hike through some wilderness area outside of New York. As fate would have it, they come upon a feral human adult, the aforementioned Puff, going about the trees limbs like Tarzan. After taming him, naming him, and caging him, Nathan becomes obsessed with making Puff into his next big project: he will civilize the wild man.
Madness ensues, people turn on each other, the experiment goes afoul, and the tale throws in enough irony to fill three Faulkner novels. Basically, the movie follows a similar road taken by Being John Malkovich.
However, watching this movie is like taking in a poor man's version of the Spike Jonze movie -- while they both share many similarities in style, the lack of any real pizzazz to the latter film makes for a tired rush through experimental narrative filmmaking; Michel Gondry might be a whiz at music videos, but when it comes to feature films he is definitely no Spike Jonze, Christopher Nolan, or Tom Tykwer.
Human Nature feels like it could have gone
somewhere (and, at moments, there is a definite sense that certain scenes came from the
script for a good movie), but the final draft lacks much of the commentary and all of the
absurd humor found in Being John Malkovich. Simply put, Human Nature has
the dadaism but falls short of any of the novelty that made Charlie Kaufman a recognizable
name among modern screenwriters. As Björk said, "If you ever get close to a human
and human behavior, be ready to get confused."
Yi (A One and a Two)
BY: DAVID PERRY
When Hemant (Dubas) arrives in Delhi he is immediately confronted with a parade of people whose social strata, personal ticks, and familial relations turn them into grand characters of high emotion. When these people party, they really party. As director Mira Nair says of her characters (and herself), "the Punjabis are to India what the Italians are to Europe: We party hard, work hard, and have a huge appetite for life." Watching her film Monsoon Wedding, that appetite for life comes alive.
We, the audience, are similarly thrown into a tumultuous relationship like Hemant. He is coming to India to marry Aditi (Das), a present to him from his family, who made a deal with Aditi's family, the Verma's, to marry their daughter and take her back home to Houston where she can have a more industrialized life in America. In his mind, this olive skinned beauty is a virginal gift; however, Aditi, as we learn at the beginning, is not the virtuous young lady her parents had advertised her as -- currently she is in a relationship with her married boss, a host of the schlock TV show Delhi.com.
But Hemant does not just have to learn all the truths behind his fiancé; he also has the collection of Verma family members whose stories are more interesting than anything he could find in Houston. Father Lalit (Shah) is a worried elder gent, constantly fretting over the financial expenses this marriage is costing him; cousin Ayesha (Neha Dubey) is busy trying to capture the attention of handsome wedding guest Rahul (Hooda) visiting from Australia; and cousin Ria (Shetty) is carrying the burden of deep family secret that, amidst all the revelry, she fears is budding its head again.
And those are just the people "upstairs" -- probably the most touching moments, however, involve a couple lovebirds from Altman's "downstairs" workers. P.K. Dubey (Raaz) is the wedding manager hired by Lalit. He is an odd little fellow, sitting around eating the decorative marigolds and assuring Lalit that wanted changes will occur "exactly and approximately" in some time. But he changes modes when he happens to catch eyes with the Vermas' maid Alice (Shome). Before long, he is not lazily sitting doing nothing, but instead lazily sitting and staring at Alice at work.
In what is probably the most refreshing film so far this year, Mira Nair proves again that she is one of the most talented people narrative filmmakers to come out of India. Nair, a film professor at Columbia University, known a great deal of the American society having lived here for half of her life. But this is not an Americanized foreign film, as one might expect considering her last film Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, but one that loves the Indian and Punjabi culture beyond any other. Nearly every facet of the story is meant as a loving look the cultural customs Nair grew up with -- she hasn't the least bit of disdain for her past, only an affectionate look at the way it has changed as time has progressed.
More than anything, Monsoon Wedding challenges the vestal virgin's tale of Bollywood cinema -- the virtuousness has been replaced with the pristine, but still less moral, lifestyle of young Indian women, a moral digression that is found in almost every industrialized culture. Yes, the women still go through the rituals that have preceded them for centuries, even if they are not quite the same of their predecessors: they may dance to the ceremonial wedding song, but they are holding their cell phone in one hand, they may have the marital inking placed on their hands, but they still rush out that night to meet their former lovers.
The presence of Bollywood is rather compelling throughout Monsoon Wedding, even to this intrepid filmgoer who has somehow never seen a real Bollywood musical. They are important to the Indian film industry as the big-budget action film is to Americans (perhaps that is a statement towards the differences between the two cultures: in India the most popular movies have people romantically singing to each other, in America we have them blowing each other up).
Every character has the kind of attraction -- not necessarily carnal, but of a familial nature -- that draws the audience to them. Sitting in a dark theatre getting to know the Verma family is similar to the stunning feeling audience members got when they met the family in Edward Yang's masterpiece Yi Yi (A One and a Two...).
This is the type of movie where the audience is introduced
to a dozen new characters and, yet, by the end feel like they've known them forever. For
that reason, Mira Nair makes a perfect choice in the closing credits to the film: as
Mychael Danna's beautiful score plays, the credits occasionally break to return to the
characters of the film. Though nothing that happens at this time is important to the
story, it is a great feeling to spend these short but still delightful interludes with
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 Clockstoppers and The Rookie (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: Jonathan Frakes, Starring Jesse Bradford, Paula Garcés, French Stewart, Michael Biehn, Robin Thomas, Garikayi Mutambirwa, Julia Sweeney, and Jason Winston George)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Corny as Kansas in August family adventure feels like a
poor man's (exec's) attempt to recreate Miramax's Spy Kids for Paramount
Pictures. Following the travails of a kid (Bradford) and his time stopping watch, Clockstoppers
has some fine moments that show off some impressive visual effects, but the whole film
seems rather unfilling and egregious -- give me Back to the Future any day.
(Dir: John Lee Hancock, Starring Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths, Brian Cox, Beth Grant, Jay Hernandez, Angus T. Jones, and Rick Gonzalez)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Fairly innocuous family film runs long but never really
takes any horrible missteps. Quaid's little science teacher that could may seen like a
boring idea for a movie -- and I cannot really disagree that the character bares a boring
movie -- but a warm, fuzzy, and terribly conservative performance grounds the character
into a Disney mold. Rachel Griffiths gives her most forgettable character (as Quaid's
doting wife) to date, but Brian Cox still amazes with a magnificent performance as Quaid's domineering but feeble father.
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|BUY THIS FILM'S