Volume 4, Number 16
This Week's Reviews: Murder by Numbers, Long Night's Journey Into Day, Y Tu Mamá También, The Son's Room.
This Week's Omissions: The Scorpion King, Scratch.
Capsule Reviews: Big Trouble, The Sweetest Thing.
Our Lady of
|Murder by Numbers
BY: DAVID PERRY
In my formative years, I yearned to become a lawyer -- as some kids spent their studying time going through the stats on various sports players, I was at work going through case histories of various trials. I knew Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs, knew John T. Scopes and Bruno Richard Hauptmann, knew Aaron Burr and Lizzie Borden; I could recount trials from Nuremberg to the Chicago 7; my library consisted of everything from a book on serial killers to Crime and Punishment. For heaven's sakes, my hero was Clarence Darrow! In retrospect, I was a rather morbid, frighteningly obsessed child.
But, however many trial books and transcripts I went through, one struck me as most interesting. The number of books I have read on Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb would probably outnumber the tally of Martin Scorsese books I've read. Their contempt for human life, their belief in Social Darwinism, their nonchalance when talking about killing Bobby Franks (in Nathan Leopold's autobiography Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years, he remembers a telephone conversation with Richard Loeb over the lost glasses that would later close their case in which the more domineering Loeb told him not to worry about it, "you've got exams coming up and everything"). These were chilling men who committed an even more chilling crime.
The new film Murder by Numbers struggles to understand much of what makes the Leopold and Loeb case so intriguing (some people, myself included, consider the trial to be the true Trial of the Century instead of O.J. Simpson's). With nouvelle noir director Barbet Schroeder behind the camera, Murder by Numbers finds a discernable niche within the crime drama genre. However, once he strays from the murderers, he gets into trouble.
The new L & L are cocky, self-assured Richard Haywood (Gosling) and nerdy, self-effacing Justin Pendleton (Pitt). They are introduced as two simplistic clichés in a classroom, their quips at each other could have been from the cutting room floor of Cruel Intentions or 10 Things I Hate About You. But when they meet after their class -- they are really confidants behind the scenes -- their animosity is still there, but so is an underlying physical attraction. Drinking absinthe and waxing over Nietzsche-inspired questions of power, murder, and superiority, Richard and Justin become as unquestionably connected (synergism? sexuality?) that the background poster of their blended faces seems redundant to the foreground.
Getting beyond this flimsy expository intro to the kids, Schroeder and screenwriter Tony Gayton pain to perfect this side of their story. As these two disaffected kids -- their affluent families seem to have forgotten that they have children to raise -- kill a random person because they are bored and, at least in their mind, superior to those intent on stopping such actions, Schroeder and Gayton pull strings galore to allow the actors enough room to make the characters into doubly likable and detestable entities that never feel forced, regardless of the inflated actions they are preparing.
And when the movie covers their relationship and their plans, Murder by Numbers shines; but, unfortunately, Gaylord did not believe enough in that story to make it the centerpiece, instead turning to the hackneyed story of the Detective Cassie Mayweather (Bullock) as she tries to piece together the crime. Yes, the way she works with both Richard and Justin in the film's second act make for some interesting dramatizations of the old police interrogation route, but once she turns away from the case and to her own past demons, the film falters left and right. Throw in the fact that the film incorrigibly peppers the story with a rookie detective (Chaplin) to serve as both professional foil and sexual partner, and Gayton's hard-earned dramatic edge collapses.
Utmost respect, though, should be shown towards most of the actors involved. Bullock takes a role against type and proves that she is more than just Miss Congeniality, returning to the tinged-tongue that made her a star with her performance in Speed. However, most of the attention should be given to the two younger actors playing the diabolical minds. Both of the roles could have been tired retreads of similar characters in recent film history, but Gosling and Pitt serve their characters with more devotion than is often seen in actors of their age. Both have previously shown great talent in independent films -- Gosling in The Believer and Pitt in Bully -- and Murder by Numbers gets to solidify their worth in a mid-budget studio film.
Fresh off of surprise acclaim with the highly personal Our Lady of the Assassins, Barbet Schroeder proves that he has not lost his interest in genre pictures with the darkest of attitudes. Like his less restrained but similarly tuned Single White Female, this is a movie that feels more like the director in tone than in actual filming. This is far from the quality brought with Barfly, Reversal of Fortune, and even the oft-maligned Kiss of Death; for sheer know-how, this movie could have been made by anyone from Andrew Davis to Philip Noyce, but would have lost much of the seemingly effortless ambiance created by Schroeder and longtime cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (Titus).
When looked at as a documentary on the forensic pathology
and deviant minds behind a murder built around mind games instead of wraith, Murder by
Numbers far exceeds its brethren. However, the film's most glaring mistakes -- from
the Bullock side of the coin to mishaps towards the end -- help to give the film a fairly
bad taste after awhile. The actors (save for the serviceable Chaplin) have all
painstakingly made their characters interesting, only to see it all lost in a gust of the
contrivance and maltreatment by the script. Gayton deserves some credit for making the
Leopold and Loeb scenes seem new and the criminal investigation seem intriguing, but as
backstories arise and a climax that would even make Adrian Lyne sad muddle the film, the
audience can always turn to Rope, Compulsion, and Swoon for the
same story without all the Hollywood tinkering.
of Sexual Innocence
|Long Night's Journey Into
BY: DAVID PERRY
Perhaps the greatest discovery in any historical study is the truth. Decades have been spent as people have tried to understand atrocities at Dresden, Katyn, and Auschwitz, and that's only a cluster of occurrences in one war. Each event had enough impact to change the lives of everyone involved, regardless of whether or not they knew the full story. Like the questions on the "official" story behind Dresden and Nuremberg that Kurt Vonnegut ridicules in Slaughterhouse-Five, the story that we've come to understand behind Dresden, Katyn, and Auschwitz may not be the entire story.
The same is true a half a decade and a continent away in the apartheid government of South Africa. In 1991, F.W. de Klerk began the string of events to end the apartheid, and, three years later, one-time imprisoned freedom fighter Nelson Mandela became the first popularly elected president in South Africa. Mandela decided to appoint a Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a group that would work to find out the truth behind the government-sponsored racism that had been in the country for forty years.
"The truth shall set you free," says the old dictum, a statement that comes to mind on many occasions while watching the documentary Long Night's Journey Into Day. By coming to the commission and telling the full story behind some of the most atrocious events in the recent years of apartheid regulating and protesting, people can get amnesty for their crimes. 7,000 people applied for amnesty, a process that would involve them sitting in what looks like a televised mock trial, where the audience (both in the room and watching the television) sits as the judge and jury.
But an incongruence has also come from this. No apartheid government officials have applied, meaning that those most responsible seek no amnesty. This is also the reasoning behind the fact that 80% of the applications are from black Africans: the guilty white Africans do not feel that they did anything to feel guilty for.
The film covers the stories of four men whose lives have been tormented by their actions during the apartheid. The first covers the most recognizable story for those of us in America, the story of Amy Biehl. She was a white American student who went to South Africa as an activist against the apartheid but died at the hands of protesters who just saw her as the continued threat of the white race. She was stoned, beaten, and stabbed to death by four men who were quickly incarcerated for their actions. Now, as they ask for forgiveness, the biggest surprise comes: their application has the support of Amy Biehl's parents. The cornerstone of this fourth of the story is when Peter and Linda Biehl go to visit the home of Evelyn Manqina, the mother of the ringleader in their daughter's death.
Next is the story of the brutal killing of powerful protestors the Cradock 4. When a former police officer comes to the tribunal to ask for forgiveness, he is not simply doing it as a way to get out of jail -- he had never even been implicated in the slayings -- but to free his soul of the pain his actions have brought upon him. Directors Deborah Hoffman and Frances Reid do not simply show him as a simple thug, but allow him to speak on his own behalf, admitting that he has come to see the error of his ways after following the writings of Nelson Mandela and seeing the movie Mississippi Burning. The widows of the Cradock 4, however, are not as willing as the TRC to let him feel like he has done enough to pardon himself.
Robert McBride is the center of the third story, dealing with his actions as a member of the African National Congress' army. When his hatred of the current climate hit its peak, he decided to place a bomb in a whites-only restaurant. Three people were killed, including the sister of Sharon Welgemoed. Though she has enjoyed the apartheid freedoms given to her, Welgemoed feels intensely that the fact that her family never made a statement in support of the apartheid means that McBride's actions were not political (one of the stipulations for the amnesty is that the crime must be politically motivated).
The final story is of another mass slaying, this time involving the Guguleti 7. Black men were trained by the secret police as rebels and then killed by the same police that trained them; they condoned their actions by saying that they were stopping a resistance fight against terrorists. All this was so that they could make a video to show their bosses that they were doing their job. One of the officers involved was a black man named Thapela Mbelo. He and another officer (who says he did nothing, but wants forgiveness nonetheless) are the only people asking for amnesty of the 25 officers who worked on that ambush.
In this final story is most of the redemptive emotion that Long
Night's Journey Into Day aspires to bring to the screen. Even though heavy-handed at
times, it does show just how good it feels for many of the victim's families to finally
see the guilty ask for forgiveness. As one mother of the Guguleti 7 says after breaking
down during the showing of her son's killing, "it feels so good to finally know the
|Y Tu Mamá También
BY: DAVID PERRY
The bildungsroman story of young men learning about life, sex, and everything in between has created countless great works in fiction, from James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. These stories make for some of the finest novels for young readers as they move ever closer to adulthood (one major exception: John Knowles' grossly overrated A Separate Peace), though similar attempts at the movies often fall short of their written-page counterparts.
This is especially true in the American youth film market, where gross-out comedies and cutesy romances have seized the day. For every Election there are three American Pies, for every Rushmore there are three She's All Thats -- watching many of the films Hollywood makes for teenagers only reminds me of Richard E. Grant's director of the "real life" film selling out to the demands of an audience placated by big stars and happy endings in The Player.
The Mexican version of this genre, Y Tu Mamá También, has neither of these; it is a like a time capsule from the French New Wave, with its vibrancy and excitement with an underlying dread. The characters are speaking in Spanish and the countryside they drive by is definitely the terrain of Mexico, but the characterizations, scenarios, and styles involved in the making of Y Tu Mamá También quickly brings memories of Truffaut, Rohmer, and Godard.
A revolution in Mexican cinema is coming. A recent retrospective of modern Mexican films at the Guggenheim in New York brought to light many of the fine films that have been produced in this once-dead motion picture country. But with such films as Guillermo Del Toro's Cronos, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's Amores Perros, and now Alfonso Cuerón's Y Tu Mamá También the rising renaissance becomes even harder to disregard. Even critics of last year's Amores Perros have admitted that an insurgence of Mexican productions into the highly populated art house distribution crowd is increasingly inevitable (the best simile that could be imagined is that the rise of Mexican cinema is like the push for Germany and Japan's permanent inclusion on the UN Security Counsil -- hey, as art film distributors are saying, we're still working with the inclusion of Iran and Taiwan).
Y Tu Mamá También has veritably conventional plotlines for the teen comedy genre -- a couple horny guys get their chance to live their dream with that older, wiser woman. But there's a twist to nearly every cliché that Cuerón could cram into his neo-political, neo-realist, nouvelle vague synergism. These characters all fall into similar personality profiles that the Hollywood dream factory has enjoyed for easy screenplays; however, by allowing his characters the freedom to live without any worries over an NC-17 rating or, worse yet, people being offended, Cuerón takes a path to enlightenment.
The film begins with two 16-year-old Mexican lads having a final fling with their girlfriends who are going to Italy for the summer. They each come from different backgrounds -- middle-class Julio (Bernal) and upper-class Tenoch (Luna) -- who find friendly companionship in their shared interests in swimming, drinking, partying, and masturbating. In a plutonic way, it's kismet.
After their better halves leave for their European holiday, Julio and Tenoch find boredom seeping into their comfortable day-to-day life. On a whim (and based mostly in their constantly growing libidos) they invite the Spanish wife of one of Tenoch's cousins to go on a road trip. The woman, Luisa (Verdú; who gives the type of performance that should get Oscars but never do), turns down their invitation to go to the fictitious beach Heaven's Mouth, but has a change of heart when a series of events makes her vulnerable to the idea of going on a trip with these young wayward kids. After her husband drunkenly calls her from a hotel during a business trip to confess a recent infidelity, Luisa calls up Tenoch and Julio: she wants to go to Heaven's Mouth.
No real synopsis of Y Tu Mamá También can do the film justice -- its variety of tones, interests, and styles makes it into one of the few refreshingly unique films to come around in recent months. It has the youthful joy of the two boys and the wisdom of the older woman; it understands that inner emotions are more tangible than having people telling all their discretions and indiscretions.
Much of the ink spilt on this movie has dealt with its explicit representation of sex. And yes, the film does include everything from nudity to cunniligus; but never does it feel pornographic. In fact much of the sexuality in Y Tu Mamá También is driven by the passions, not the bare bodies. When people have sex in this film, they are doing it in a playful, consensual, realistic way. This is not moody music playing as the camera moves up and down the curves of the body to leave the audience salivating -- every sex scene in Y Tu Mamá También is needed for the dramatic meaning of the film, not for some audience members to get a little satisfaction of bodies in motion. Certainly the most voyeuristic aspect of the film is in its delving into the characters' emotions, not in its capturing of their genitalia.
Whatever bodily functions are present in Y Tu Mamá También, the final feeling is that it is one of the most giddily made but morosely realistic movies to come out this year. Sitting through the film is like a happy romp through Jules and Jim with a more defined eroticism -- Y Tu Mamá También captures everything that made those late teenage years, from friends to lovers, in the life of a young man.
Hollywood went through similar steps (without the politics,
of course) with the Britney Spears star vehicle Crossroads. That film was built
around the song "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman." Throughout the first two acts of Y
Tu Mamá Tambien, it would be hard to question whether or not Julio and Tenoch are
still stuck in the "still a boy" category; by the end, after both the two of
them and the audience have been through the transformations unveiled by Alfonso Cuerón,
everyone has moved into adulthood.
|The Son's Room
BY: DAVID PERRY
Whenever a family member dies, there's that mental and physical void left in those who survive them. It may be that task they started but never finished (like a bookmark in a novel), that regular comment that ceases to be heard, or that room that has all their possessions in the exact order they left them in. Some people know they are dying and leave an order to their living world; others are suddenly taken down and their disarray becomes a constant reminder of the fact that they are now missing. Nanni Moretti's latest film The Son's Room tackles the latter scenario as it looks at the way a family reacts to the sudden disappearance of one member.
Regular readers may remember my excitement last year for François Ozon's Under the Sand, which looked at a woman dealing with life after her husband mysteriously disappeared. While not near as devastating as that film is (thanks in great part to Charlotte Rampling's performance), The Son's Room never feels like a retread of the same route Ozon went with. While both films hit the right chord in their dramatization of familial grief, they do so in similar but notably divided ways.
Where Under the Sand had the albatross of a missing body and an unquestionable isolation brought to the widow without any children (her only confidante was her mother-in-law), The Son's Room tackles the way people inadvertently distance themselves from those who they should turn to when bereaved.
The family involved consists of father Giovanni (Moretti), mother Paola (Morante), son Andrea (Sanfelice), and daughter Irene (Trinca) -- an Italian nuclear family. Giovanni is a psychiatrist, who almost listlessly sits through the monotonous routine of his patients' neuroses. He tries to bare a good relationship with his children, and, to a degree, it looks like he has succeeded, though he does respect their right to have secrets from him. A small rift comes into place when Andrea is accused of stealing a fossil from one of his teachers, though Giovanni's resolve to deafly listen to his son keeps the possibility of his son's thievery from breaking the two apart in a larger degree.
But everything then falls apart when Andrea dies in a freak scuba diving accident. Giovanni blames both himself and one of his patients -- he went on an emergency house call instead of running with his son, leaving Andrea open to go diving with his friends -- in a feeble attempt to get some form of villainy in his child's death; at one point he even begins to research the diving equipment to see if it was faulty even though the officials told him that it was just a simple accident. As he woefully moves from one part of his day to another, Giovanni finds that he cannot compose himself into the understanding paterfamilias/psychiatrist he once was.
There's an additional plot that peeps up at the end of the film's second act. Though it almost feels like a contrivance, the way Moretti deals with it keeps it from ever feeling forced. In fact, despite the many openings the film has to schlock sentimentality, The Son's Room feels relatively sober. Though some audience members may join in with Giovanni, Paola, and Irene as they mourn their loss, the real intentions of Moretti's screenplay and direction are not to jerk the tears out of the onlookers, but instead give them the vicarious feelings of the characters.
The only tangible complaint that this film could bring up is in the horribly pedestrian score by Nicola Piovani. The composer uses similar chords as he employed for Life Is Beautiful to much less successful effect. The composition often whittles away some of the dramatic tinge that Moretti and cinematographer Giuseppe Lanci (Nostalghia) have pained to create. However, the rest of the film's music does wonders for the ambiance of the film, including using Brian Eno's "By This River" as a plot device.
A great deal of the film's success comes from Moretti and Morante's performances, both of which are among the best so far this year. Moretti has long been heralded for his roles as Italian neurotics in comedies, but surprisingly gives the perfect dramatic performance to his role. This could have easily been overblown, but he never allows the character to lose its realism. Morante, who is relatively unknown in America, is more understated in her work, but has a solemnity that would make Charlotte Rampling proud.
For year's critics of Nanni Moretti have described him as
the Italian Woody Allen. Though this title was more than justifiable on films like Caro
Diaro, a Hannah and Her Sisters-style comedy-drama, much of its meaning is
lost with the release of The Son's Room, which could never have succeeded using
the same Allen-esque persona. Instead Moretti tackles pure drama and creates a film that
reminds audiences that Woody Allen once made his own straight-drama masterpiece with Interiors.
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 Big Trouble and The Sweetest Thing (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: Barry Sonnenfeld, Starring Tim Allen, Rene Russo, Stanley Tucci, Tom Sizemore, Johnny Knoxville, Dennis Farina, Jack Kehler, Janeane Garofalo, Patrick Warburton, Ben Foster, Zooey Deschanel, Heavy D, Omar Epps, Jason Lee, Sofía Vergara, and Andy Richter)
BY: DAVID PERRY
The downward trajectory of Barry Sonnenfeld continues with Big
Touble, an overblown ensemble comedy that has more major cast members than laughs.
Heavy D and Omar Epps, who enter late in the film, bring some good moments, but
their time on-screen is negligable compared to horrendous performances from Allen, Russo,
Sizemore, Knoxville, and Lee. A story involving Dennis Farina and fans of the
Florida Gators football team is enjoyable, though.
|The Sweetest Thing
(Dir: Roger Kumble, Starring Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate, Selma Blair, Thomas Jane, Jason Bateman, and Parker Posey)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Momentary cameo from Parker Posey cannot save the estrogen
fueled attempt at gross-out, absurdist comedy The Sweetest Thing. There's a
good rapport between Diaz and Applegate (while Blair is defaced in as many ways as the
filmmakers could come up with), even when the stuff they are doing bares few laughs. When the credits role, the only thing the audience can say
is, "at least it wasn't the same level of crap as Crossroads."
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|BUY THIS FILM'S