Volume 4, Number 32
This Week's Reviews: Pumpkin, The Lady and the Duke, Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, Blood Work, XXX, Read My Lips.
This Week's Omissions: Who Is Cletis Tout?.
BY: DAVID PERRY
In what must be the two hundredth attempt at showing Greek social community, Pumpkin arrives to kid every cliché it can find. The only problem is that it's a couple movies too late on nearly every count. The movie does succeed in pressing its point, even if the humor to the satire is nearly nonexistent during the film's first half.
Carolyn McDuffy (Ricci) is the model Alpha Omega Pi at Southern California State University. She has the perk and doe eyes to invite the best girls in rush and her ability to find the beauty in everything (less a search for the silver lining and more an obliviousness to the dark clouds) that makes sorority president Julie (Coughlan) proud. Even though the house is filled with only brunettes suffering from Stepford Wives syndrome, her blonde-haired, blue-eyed naïveté serves as the perfect balance to a group of prima donnas.
The rival sorority, Omega Omega Omega (a fictitious sorority to the best of my knowledge), serves as the foil to AOPi's chances at getting the Sorority of the Year Award: they are blonde and catty. The only things the two adversaries share are the bitchiness and ensemble outfits. The most telling part of their dueling interests comes in their rushing tactics: the most important part seems to be in getting a little ethnic diversity by bringing in an African American student ("she looks exactly like Whitney Huston" -- she doesn't) and a Filipino student ("She almost looks white, with those Caucasian features").
Things look pretty perfect in the SCSU street filled with sororities and fraternities, as the biggest problem seems to be in planning a formal that can knock the socks off of the alumni. But soon Carolyn finds the sadness in life when social (and Greek) mores dictate who she can fraternize with. Her life seems perfect to everyone else, especially since she has the heart of big man on campus Kent (Ball), a member of the university's best fraternity, of course. He is not the problematic love of her life, but instead serves as a cliché to try and keep her from leaving her brethren.
The controversial lover happens to be a young man called Pumpkin (Harris), who is introduced to Carolyn as part of the latest AOPi philanthropy project. The uproar is not that he is so much younger that Carolyn (I'd estimate a seven year age difference), but that he is mentally and physically retarded. Pumpkin was assigned to Carolyn as her "special person" to help in preparation for a Special Olympics style event that places the local kids in direct competition with the special education kids from Orange County. The competition is almost as frightening as the condescending treatment the girls give to the kids.
This riff on every satirical film in the past twenty years seems most indebted to There's Something About Mary, Harold and Maude, and Heathers, though the hit-and-miss joke structure is most reminiscent of the long forgotten But I'm a Cheerleader about another perky, popular girl learning that love is not necessarily allowed if you love the wrong type of person (in that case a girl loving a girl). The way directors Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder direct is so overblown at times that it becomes hard to even attempt to believe in the statements they are trying to make. While the satirical nature of the narrative does prove to be entertaining at times (especially in what has to be among the best car crashes in recent years, only moments later eclipsed by a shot of the driver post collision), the disjointed tone to the entire film causes much of the movie to fall flat.
Christina Ricci turns in one of her most surprising casting choices as well as one of her most understated performances. The actress has been known for her self-destructive and deliciously coy turns in movies like Buffalo '66 and The Opposite of Sex. Carolyn McDuffy seems to be the antithesis of Ricci's other characters, making the Stepford Sisterhood that runs her life in the film's first act seem all the more startling.
Ms. Ricci seems to be finding the perfect middle line between the ditz of Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde (as a posh sorority girl finding the truth) and the brooding of Selma Blair in Storytelling (as a frightened girlfriend to a classmate with cerebral palsy). Her daze in the film's early moments (where she seems to be channeling Alicia Silverstone) helps to make the film's darker aspects more emotionally significant, even if the directors are still trying to juggle the tones to find the right way to treat it. Her final shot, which can only bring to mind a little Jean Seburg at the end of Breathless, is a little muted since the scenarios that brought her to the final glance is not near as weighty.
Especially in the wake of Sorority Boys, which was certainly a film that supported some of the facets of Greek life, Pumpkin's berating of the world of sororities and fraternities seems more earthly than the most recent film realizations. It does give a terrifying view of the way the girls in sororities act, but at least it does not turn a derogatory eye on women by giving them the letters DOG (Delta Omicron Gamma) and making their feminist beliefs into a forgotten manifestos by the machismo finales.
Pumpkin never says that it is gazing in the truth
of any situation, only commenting on the clichés that have founded them. There's no
question that Greek philanthropy is more politics than true community service, nor is
there a question whether the system is built to only help its own, but Pumpkin
never really directly tells the girls of AOPi to stop doing what has been part of its
legacy. Instead the movie seems to be saying that if Pumpkin can change Carolyn and her
lilywhite sorority life for the better, there may actually be hope for us all.
of the Wolf
of the World
|The Lady and the Duke
BY: DAVID PERRY
In the summer of 1968 a couple wild directors took part in one of the largest revolutions to hit France since its monarchy ouster in the 1790s. The big difference, of course, was that this was a student revolution, a call to institute a liberal and socialist society. Robespierre was nowhere to be found -- instead there were those two left-wing directors, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
Those two crazy kids were, of course, major figures in a completely different call-to-arms a decade earlier when they helped to bring in the cinematic revolution of the French New Wave with fellow Cahiers du Cinema film critics Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer. The other three had nothing to do with the 1968 riots because they were (1) directors, not activists, (2) busy with other works, (3) didn't want to see the overthrowing of the Cannes Film Festival like their contemporaries, and (4) were actually opposed to changing the status quo.
While the politics of Rivette and Chabrol is not terribly well known, the conservative politics of Eric Rohmer is. His works have been stunning examples of the raconteur of modern society without any of the extremist pretenses that have marred so many of Godard's later works. The new film, The Lady and the Duke, gives a rare glimpse into the filmic-politick that has been withheld in so many of the filmmaker's movies. The master trick, though, is that Rohmer isn't proclaiming a modern conservative like Jacques Chirac, but instead has turned his attention to 1790's Louis XVI.
The Lady and the Duke is a costume drama, though Rohmer's postmodernist attempts to revitalize it make the film feel like more of an experiment than a normal talky Rohmer film (the modernity is gone, the talkativeness is not). He's only made two other period pieces, The Marquise of O and Perceval, both in the 1970s, and the 81-year-old director seemed to be at his swan song three years ago after finishing off his Tales of the Four Seasons with Autumn Tale. The Lady and the Duke could be the director's most unusual work ever -- its political, dated, and inventive.
He took the story from a long forgotten memoir by Grace Elliott called Journal of My Life During the French Revolution. Elliott (portrayed here by Russell) was a Scotish aristocrat in France during the rise of Robespierre and the Jacobins. Her liaisons were among the finest of the time: King George IV and Duke Philippe of Orléans. When the film begins, she has already turned away from both lovers, but has still begun life in France as a stoic royalist and outspoken (at least as much as a women could get away with at the time) advocate of the status quo.
Elliott believed that the Duke of Orléans (Dreyfus), by virtue of his family history, would agree with her in disliking the bloody terror of the French Revolution, only to find disdain when he becomes a figure in the prevailing republican government. Genial discourse continues, but with a fear of his own delusions of such violence leading towards a greater good. A major impasse comes when he must vote to decide to fate of Louis XVI, his cousin and a close friend of Ms. Elliott.
Rohmer seems to be re-imagining his own vision. These are still talkative people marked with strong women and confused men; love remains as an attainable pleasure waiting to be grasped in between people's diatribes on society, nature, and, of course, love itself. But Rohmer, with 39 films behind him, is at least ready to toy with his creations. The 1792-1793 section of Grace Elliott's story opens him up to play with modern technology while telling his age-old tales.
The Lady and the Duke is a work on digital video. This, in itself, is nothing new -- Wayne Wang's Center of the World, Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, and Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal have all toyed with the new medium -- but Rohmer adds his own touch to make his film still seem like a monumental achievement. He filmed sets with actors standing in front of blue screens. Painter Jean-Baptiste, meanwhile, worked on 37 tableaus, which Rohmer than added to his live action shots.
The commissioned art can only bring to mind Alfred
Hitchcock's hiring of Salvadore Dalí for the dream sequence of Spellbound -- the
creations look like people alive in paintings, in a much more pleasing fashion than the
literal What Dreams May Come in 1998. The final product is a great view of period
Paris with the slight artifice this system automatically brings. The experience is like
going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and looking closely at a Jacques-Louis David
painting -- even if you can see the brushstrokes, it is impossible to not be taken into
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
|Spy Kids 2: The Island of
BY: DAVID PERRY
The juvenile James Bonds of Spy Kids return for an obligatory sequel that actually proves to be as fractured and enjoyable as the last escapade. Robert Rodriguez, who has made a fortune directing movies that are the antithesis to such lighthearted family fare, shows surprising grace in each of these movies. It comes as no surprise that between Desperado and Spy Kids he has produced three kids who have shown him a new audience to play towards.
The mature side of Rodriguez, nonetheless, has proven to be a strong asset to his childish exploits. There is far enough juvenile humor to pander to the kids, but Rodriguez does not leave his movies to simply play to the adolescent audience. In fact, the cartoonish violence and heated sexuality of the films may not be readily seen by the kids, but these scenes are certainly keeping the adults from being as bored as they were earlier this year while sitting through Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
Last year's pint-sized spies Carmen (Vega) and Juni Cortez (Sabara) have evidently moved up the ranks of the CIA-like organization of the OSS. In the short span of a year, the place has instituted an entire division to spy kids like them. This, in turn, has created a problem since hotshot coworkers Gary (O'Leary) and Gertie Giggles (Osment) have come along to steal the spotlight from Carmen and Juni. Carmen has a crush on Gary and thus has been blind to the treachery he and his family -- including patriarch Donnagan (Judge) -- have used to put the entire Cortez family behind; Juni, on the other hand, sees through them.
Meanwhile, mom and pop, Gregorio (Banderas) and Ingrid (Gugino), have been downgraded by Donnagan's rise to power and likewise have been too busy trying to reorganize that they miss the way the Giggles family seems to be using them as stepping stones to become director and level one agents (who seem to have more power than the president).
After the theft of a device that kills all electrical devices, the Giggles begin putting their weight to use this as a way to prove their worth. Aghast at the recent firing of Juni (because of Gary Giggles, of course), Carmen hacks into the OSS computer, reinstates Juni, and gives this important case to the two of them. Perhaps victory in retrieving the device will lead to the reaffirmation of the Cortez family's worth.
Before long, Steve Buscemi is cavorting along in a crazed professor role that was probably rejected from one of his Adam Sandler movies; and Holland Taylor and Ricardo Montelban are running the life of Gregorio as Ingrid's obsessive parents. Ray Harrihausen references appear, as well as what looks like cut scenes from the 1925 silent version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World -- in finding everything to moderately thrill the adults in the audience (including the rarely spoken to cineastes at a family movie), his only failure is looking over the kitchen sink, though I would not be surprised if it happens to appear in the DVD extras.
Admittedly, the fun is not as clearly present in the sequel, but that could be mostly in the sequel's lack of a really enjoyable villain along the lines of Alan Cumming's Gloop and Tony Shalhoub's Minion. There is a momentary reference to the first film, but it fails to do anything more than remind the audience of the better structure found in the first Spy Kids. The kids will probably get as much out of this film as they did in the previous one, but that does not necessarily promise that the parents will be equally oblivious to the dry periods.
Rodriguez has never really been known for his ability as an
actor's filmmaker, though he does better in these films than he did in El Mariachi,
where most viewers would be hard pressed to remember any performance a day after seeing
the film. The kids are never really given anything to prove themselves as actors, though
any grandstanding would surely be out of place in the film. The performances that actually
have a resonance are from adults, especially Banderas and Gugino who seethe with as much
sexuality as their parental characters can hold. It's really mesmerizing to see them act
like they are in an Almadóvar film when there are little tykes filling the theatre seats.
The kids' eyes, of course, are glazed over by the sets, action, and gadgets; the adults,
meanwhile, are just as unable to take their eyes off the screen for completely different
BY: DAVID PERRY
Clint Eastwood is one of those rare movie stars who can survive in Hollywood while he accepts his age instead of trying to defy it. While Sean Connery is still trying to play roles as if he's still in his youth, Eastwood has already admitted his maturity and mortality -- in time, he has become the most consistent actor and director to use aged mellowness in lieu of overblown geriatrics.
If Space Cowboys seemed to understand the hidden geniality of a codger generation, Blood Work may be the first film to directly show the decomposition of that generation. The film is built around Eastwood's nearness to death, a beckoning sense of transience creeping into the existence of a gruff man.
The film, in fact, opens with the protagonist, Eastwood's Terry McCaleb, suffering a heart attack. He's an FBI agent chasing his longtime murderer foil -- though this tennis shoe clad killer has an edge over the 72-year-old in his suit. As McCaleb lies in an alley, hands grasping the pains of his chest, the younger, more agile runner must turn around to gawk. Like those of us in the audience, he too must see the collapse of a formidable giant for his own eyes to really believe it.
The film returns to McCaleb some time later, 60 days after receiving a new heart. As he sits around his houseboat, spending each day waving to his neighbor Buddy (Daniels), visiting his doting cardiologist Dr. Fox (Huston), and taking a large regiment of pills, McCaleb seems to be willingly relaxing his final days, enjoying the gift of a few more years that came at the expense of someone else's heart.
And then Graciella Rivers (De Jesus) pays him a visit to ask him for help in the investigation for the person that murdered her sister. Considering that he's still in the period of time when his body could reject the new heart, the idea of returning to work seems like a route that could only take away his gained time. But Graciella must remind him why he's indebted to do this favor: his heart came from her sister.
In a gender-switched replay of Return to Me, McCaleb and Graciella soon find the common bond of a transplanted heart as the greatest magnet to emotional attraction. He begins as an enigma to her but during the course of the movie she finally realizes that he is a living, breathing person. The film seems to want this to be the main dissociated force to bring our empathy: we want to see Eastwood go out with a gun and replay his Dirty Harry character, but we also fear that the strains of doing so will kill him.
Eastwood finds the perfect tone to show this, and, while the movie never really satisfies on any other level, its glance into human existence is tout and disturbing. This is an actor who's been a constant force in movies through agile and virile roles -- the impression that youth leaving can be more frightening than any killer on the loose. The sad mayhem of a psycho can be scientifically marginalized; the natural decay of a human being, on the other hand, never fails to alarm.
The police story at the center of the film, involving everything from the LA district attorneys office and the LAPD, never really convinces. Almost immediately, the impending revelation of the killer's identity is more predictable than death and taxes; even in the climax to this revelation, Eastwood seems to be grappling for somewhere to go with his populist story, unfortunately loosing his grasp on the human elements that were so commanding in the film's initial moments.
With each of his films, Eastwood reminds us that there is a
three-dimensional person inside that squinting façade of rough Americanism. Like an icon,
he never fails to take us back to times when we were different, when time was seemingly
perfect, and when he could break a man with just a stare and a flick of a thin cigar. Even
now, when we fear that this nicotine could mean an end to this icon, we can only sit and
stare, in awe that the magic has never left. For decades, he showed us the cautionary
tales of the west; today, he reminds us that we, like him, can only benefit from our time
before we shuffle off this mortal coil. I cannot say that either role is any less
World is Not
BY: DAVID PERRY
Every summer seems to be filled with movies built around one thing: get a sequel in the works. Before XXX ever gets to its title card, you can already see the number "2" coming up on the title in anticipation for some of 2004's summer fare. Since the James Bond franchise seems to be waning, director Rob Cohen has decided to add his name to the list of figures from possible replacement franchises along with Doug Liman with The Bourne Identity and Phil Alden Robinson with The Sum of All Fears. Nevertheless, take heed: James Bond will never lose its draw, just its target audience.
XXX seems formatted simply to meet the requirements set by the incoming generation for the films that it expects to see every summer. Filled with action, sexuality, and a brooding but burly lead, XXX is like a faraway cousin to the action, sexuality, and prim debonairness of James Bond. Vin Diesel could bever fill the badge of 007, nor could someone like Pierce Brosnan imagine playing a character like XXX -- their plotlines seem to come from the same writer but their schooling and tailors would probably cringe at their counterparts.
When we meet Xavier Cage (Diesel), he's stealing a Corvette from an anti-rap, anti-skateboarding (because, you know, those are huge issues) California state senator so that he can crash it of the side of a bridge. All the while, his exploits are filmed to be placed on an underground website, one that has caused Xavier to become an underground celebrity.
NSA honcho Augustus Gibbons (Jackson) is part of the apprehension of Xavier for the crime and makes a deal -- if Xavier can pass a few tests, Gibbons will get him out of the criminal prosecution for stealing and crashing the car as long as the extreme sport star will work for him in Prague. There's a group of grunge thugs called Anarchy 99 consisting of former Soviet soldiers who want to destroy all the governments of the world. Admittedly, his idea sounds oddly like the neo-fascist plot in The Sum of All Fears -- if they bomb a country, everyone will jump to conclusions and destroy each other -- but this plot really has nothing to do with the movie other than giving Cohen a chance to show off all the cool gadgets and throw in a few explosions.
Like the worst James Bond films, XXX is contrivance after contrivance simply for the sake of showing off the scenery and the gadgetry. At the heart of the movie is the thrill lover in everyone, but in the execution the movie never really lifts off like it seems to think it is. Outside of an avalanche chase, the movie is filled with yawn-worthy action sequences that feel like we've seen them before (and, in fact, with four decades of Bond films and all the Bond rip-offs, we probably have seen them before). Filmed on location in Prague, the movie has the stunning cityscape to show, but even its impact has been diluted by the rise in the city's film production of the years.
Diesel's performance has much to be desired, though his casting is somewhat perfect. The soft-spoken way he throws out the one-liners (most of which fall flat), helps to reflect the actor's demeanor. Even when he knows that his muscles will ensure victory, the defense mechanism that it is his cheesy commentary seems to loosen the character up in the same way James Bond's comments help to shed the tuxedos.
Rob Cohen worked with Diesel last summer on The Fast and the Furious, where story was of just as little importance as in XXX. While the new film is lucky enough to lack the rotten performance from Paul Walker, it looses all gained ground by discarding the overblown B-movie mentality that made The Fast and the Furious at least marginally watchable.
By the time the credits crawl (in a CGI cornucopia that
could looks like it may have been recycled WinAmp visualization Cohen found while playing
the Rammstein from the soundtrack) the film has jerked through over two hours of loud and
annoying effects that fail to have any real importance other than the intensity of their
loudness and annoyingness. Every scene is meant to build the excitement and, even if it
rarely succeeds in building anything near excitement, Rob Cohen has packed the screen with
so many beautiful cars, beautiful settings, and beautiful women that will ensure that most
people will never notice how flimsy everything else is. It's going to make a great
Talented Mr. Ripley
|Read My Lips
BY: DAVID PERRY
Every few months, a new filmmaker comes out with his or her attempt at an Alfred Hitchcock film. The Master of Suspense worked with so many genres that movies as unrelated as Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley and Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill could both play under the heading of "Hitchcockian thrillers." It is a categorization that can prove to be both an asset and a hindrance for the filmmakers: to be compared to such a great filmmaker is a huge achievement, to be automatically compared to him is a monumental hurdle.
Jacques Audiard's Read My Lips has already been welcomed with references to Hitchcock -- a comparison the director seems to be inviting. The general consensus is that he has met the lofty expectations welcomed by his Notorious and Rear Window inspired tale. While some of this acclaim has been unquestionably excessive, the film does deliver a commanding grasp of what it is to be Hitchcockian, and the director shows more pride in wearing his title than any storefront Hitchcock since Anthony Minghella.
The film features nearly every mark of a modern Hitchcock with the exception of the wronged man (though a case could be made that such a character is established in the film's final act). Most explicit is the film's expert use of a McGuffin. If Notorious was marked by those unimportant elements inside the wine bottles (the insignificance of which would cause David O. Selznick to drop the film in disdain over the director's disinterest in a part of the story), the reason that a bag of money sits in some bookie's apartment is equally as inconsequential for anyone watching. Audiard, like Hitchcock with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman fifty-six years ago, sees the audience's understanding of actors Emmanuel Devos and Vincent Cassel far more important than establishing a subplot that would serve as little more than a diversion.
The story itself is a little more austere than the intrigue that Hitchcock usually tackled. Carla (Devos) is a simple secretary in a large corporation in charge of construction contracts. She continually sees chances to move up in the office hierarchy only to find the machismo fraternité take all the chances out of her hands.
When the taxing life of a secretary becomes too much after a day of being invisible to everyone else (they seem to think that her desk is a coffee table), Carla faints and immediately comes to believe that her time at the office is about to end. Upon her return, she is surprised when her boss does not ask for her resignation but instead tells her to hire a secretarial assistant. When in the employment agency to get recruit her assistant, another view into her self-pity comes: not only does her coworkers and friends walk all over her, but she is also miserably lonely. Though she is told that the agency cannot discriminate based on gender, Carla still asks that they find her man with nice hands.
Paul (Cassel) soon enters, both as a man and, probably, with good hands; however, he also brings unseemly tattoos, facial hair, and a criminal history. Before long, Carla is making up excuses to explain Paul's absence at a parole officer meeting -- this is no the type of professional she had expected or wanted. This, of course, does not mean that she is disappointed: he is, after all, a man.
Soon the power struggle begins -- though at a higher position than him, Carla is still a woman and handicapped (she can barely hear without aids). To her complaints, he begins using her to help him in a heist to run off with a huge chunk of cash hidden in a bookie's apartment. Using her ability to read lips, she can watch the bookie as he plots the delivery and hiding of this money. Who knows, Paul might even return the favor?
Devos delivers a perfect performance that captures the innocence and budding demons within a wallflower. She picked up the Best Actress award at the French César Awards and, though I cannot support her place above nominees Charlotte Rampling from Under the Sand and Isabelle Huppert for The Piano Teacher, Devos most certainly gives a performance that is above many of the most recent Academy Awards nominees (and a few winners).
Audiard seems to be keeping with the Hitchcock fashion in hiring Ms. Devos. While she is not a vibrant blonde akin to Hitchcock's latter-day obsessions, she has the temperance and emotional depth of many of his early females, especially during his young British period.
There's also that great sexual release that could not be
missed as Hitchcock pulled the curtains in front of his characters while they consummate
their relationship. Like North by Northwest, all the film seems to be tenuous
foreplay, and the audience can only blushingly smile with Audiard as he pulls his own
train into that metaphorical tunnel.