Volume 4, Number 38
This Week's Reviews: The Banger Sisters, Elling, The Four Feathers.
This Week's Omissions: Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, Notorious C.H.O., Trapped.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
|The Banger Sisters
BY: DAVID PERRY
Two years ago Kate Hudson made her grand premiere in films playing the 1970s rock groupie Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. Lane, helped by Hudson's ethereal presence, was a life force to most of the characters in the film. It was her love for the music that most represented Cameron Crowe's own love for it and, ultimately, she served as the most important character even though she was more of a supporting player.
Hudson is, of course, the daughter of Goldie Hawn, who has been on a terror trail of bad films ever since, well, Private Benjamin. Oddly, Hawn seems to think that the only way to resurrect her career is to play Penny Lane in the present. Even more oddly, she seems to be onto something.
This is not to say that Hawn's portrayal of middle-aged, down-and-out former groupie Suzette has near the same impact of Hudson's Penny, but Hawn does show a long lost side that has been overshadowed by her annoying kookiness. Even if seeing Penny Lane as a 57-year-old waitress at LA's Whiskey-a-Go-Go may not be the most heartening image of the year, it is somewhat fitting.
In the early moments of the film, this elder stateswoman of groupies is fired from her bartending job because the owner seems to have less interest in her nostalgia factor than the customers. He couldn't care less that Jim Morrison once passed out on top of her in the bar's bathroom; what matters to him is that she's not much of a waitress.
Hoping to get a little money out of her former best friend, Suzette begins a road trip for Phoenix (even picking up a hitchhiker/love interest in Geoffrey Rush's Harry). As two inseparable faces on the 1970s rock scene, Suzette and Vinny (Sarandon) were called "the Banger Sisters" by Frank Zappa for their love of having sex with any and every musician they could find (their story is slightly based on the travails of "the Plaster Casters" who made phallic plaster casts of any and every musician). But Vinny has changed her life around, not going by her real name Lavinia and marrying rich and conservative lawyer Raymond Kingsley (Thomas). No one in the Kingsley household knows about Lavinia's past and, fearing that they might learn of her past indiscretions from Suzette, Lavinia offers Suzette to just leave.
But, of course, this is a Hollywood movie and our faithful protagonist cannot be battered by an upper-class twit who spends her days planning debutante balls. Before long, the two are smoking old pot in the Kingsley basement, sharing Suzette's skin-tight clothes, and looking at photo albums of musicians' genitals. Little known fact: the '70s will set us free.
While the character of Suzette may feel alive, the enjoyment of the one character hampers all the others. Everyone in this film is shown as empty and forgettable. This is a movie that has no interest in showing that there are some good things about growing up rich -- instead, director/screenwriter Bob Dolman sees this as a way to prove that all rich kids are inherently spoiled, all rich husbands are inherently vapid, and all rich wives are boring.
The nostalgia that the film wants to enliven is nearly nonexistent, bringing all of its notability from a tangential connection to Almost Famous. Groupies have never been terribly interesting, especially when carrying an entire film; this is still true when they reach menopause.
If the film had somehow found a way to juggle both lives --
upper and lower echelons of society -- with the same amount of compassion, this movie
might not have seemed so marginal. Instead, what comes across is a (relatively) rich man's
The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
I Am Sam
BY: DAVID PERRY
Elling was one of 2001's nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, a gentle sign that the movie will be as conservative a choice as possible. And indeed it is: Elling, the entry from Norway, deals with the same collection of mental illness and social issue politicking that have long distinguished the category. The fact that a couple groundbreaking works -- France's Amélie and Bosnia's No Man's Land -- came out with nominations is all the more surprising after seeing something as cautious as Elling.
The film does deserve some credit for dealing with the mentally ill without using the exploitative saccharine antics of I Am Sam even if its final impression is one of disinterest. Indeed, this is a film that could have been worse, but screenwriter Axel Hellstenius (from a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen) has worked with this material through both a play and a film (when's the television series coming?), thankfully removing all the hoary sentimentality.
The story follows two grown men as they make their move from the mental institution to the Norwegian welfare state. Having been roommates for years, Elling (Ellefsen) and Kjell Bjarne (Nordin) are finally given a chance to move into modern Oslo and make a real life for themselves. But moving from institution to apartment is not easy for the two, especially Elling who gets anxiety attacks whenever he leaves the apartment on his own.
While Elling frets over walking the streets and answering the phone, Kjell Bjarne finds a friendship in the form of a pregnant woman named Reidun (Jacobsen) living above them. Elling, of course, sees this as his closest friend turning on him, but is able to find some form of solace by writing poetry. Within weeks of his arrival, Elling is making his way out of the apartment and into a little bar to hear poetry readings. Even if the angst of modern poetry is repellant to him -- after one particularly repulsive poem, Elling is even brought to vomiting -- he does gain a new friend in the form of Alfons Jørgensen (Christensen). Alfons may be a nationally renowned poet who struggles to find the merit in today's poets, but he is simply a new confidant to Elling.
The contrivances come right and left throughout the film making some of its intended heart tugging moments feel inordinately forced. This is especially true with the romantic subplot created between Kjell Bjarne and Reidun which never reaches any emotional relevance to the audience. Though he is a likable lug, seeing him smack his head against the wall because he does not know how to speak to his new lover does not create any great impact.
Even as the film smothers him in hokum, Per Christian Ellefsen delivers a well defined, well layered performance. His Elling does not seem as loathsome as most mentally retarded characters in recent films. While the script buries him in the Patch Adams-isms, Ellefsen somehow rises out of the tedium with a more likable character than many of the previousones patently made for tearjerkers.
This willingness to jest without becoming completely
histrionic may be part of the reason that Elling has become the most successful
film in Norway's cinema and included entry into the Academy Awards nominees last
year. The nation has become more open to the welfare system that makes a story like this
possible, meaning that the leftists at the Academy can see it as a hopeful future for
America. Elling may be infuriatingly stuck in mediocrity but at least it is,
politically or not, exactly what the Oscar voters saw: hopeful.
|The Four Feathers
BY: DAVID PERRY
Shekhar Kapur's The Four Feathers could be one of the most reductive movies of the year, turning a once rousing little colonial novel (and its seven previous film incarnations) into pop-bubblegum fodder that seems set only for audiences still crying over the kids in Titanic and Pearl Harbor. By the end, as the characters are holding back tears in their oh-so prim way, you just want to yell, "Get over it!"
And yet The Four Feathers could have been one of the year's best works. Kapur, an Indian, should have been the best person to give new life to a pedantic colonial drama -- his previous work, 1998's Elizabeth, received part of its acclaim by way of his decision to not be in love with the period. But instead of continuing to show that the all-powerful Brits were, in fact, blind to their colonial greed, Kapur only injects the film with even more stodgy Merchant-Ivory dramatics. The worst look for England this time around is not in the form of burning Protestants but in muddy football fields.
This does not mean that Kapur becomes a staunch Anglophile for The Four Feathers, but it does become incredibly disconcerting to see him brush over the Muslim independence fighters that one might expect him to have some understanding for. Today, the British wars in the Sudan and Egypt seem incredibly injudicious -- irrational fights for the sake of remaining the most powerful nation. Even if English schoolchildren still learn of the decisive ruin of the Queen's power after the July 1956 loss to Egypt, few people still believe that British occupational forces in Africa were really called for.
The Mahdi fighters are treated with the same amount of disdain as the Mogadishu fighters in Black Hawk Down -- even if they were, in their minds, trying to retain some freedom from outside oppression, their plight is treated in film like unimportant heavies. The most regard Kipur ever shows for the freedom fighters is when he allows them to have some tactical prowess by hiding in the terrain while the British forces wander aimlessly around them.
Even more damaging, though, is that the screenplay allows these wartime moments to serve as a mere backdrop to a love triangle containing as much treacle as the triumvirate in Pearl Harbor. Two men falling in love with one woman as they head off to war is certainly a story that has been done many times before. But this is a film that fails to even insinuate the reason behind all this -- if Ethne (Hudson) is such a magnetic force, why is it that she seems so shrill?
And then there are the already inexplicable parts of the story: Harry Faversham (Ledger) leaves the Queen's army the day before leaving for the Sudan because he never wanted to be a soldier and doesn't want to die for a cause he doesn't agree with. Then why is it that receiving four feathers (a sign of cowardice in British chivalry) makes him rush to the Sudan, kill scores of Africans, and attempt to save his old friends? There seems to be a level of wannabe poetic irony behind the cause and, yet, none of it seems to make sense when compared to the cocky pacifist that opens the film.
Though she did wonders for Almost Famous, Kate Hudson proves to be the worst of the pack with an annoyingly ditzy performance. The screenwriters fail to give any real material to her, making her scenes seem both irritating and superfluous.
Wes Bentley, a great actor in American Beauty and The Claim, seems to be lost in his own horrendous British accent. The character of Jack Durrance should have life to him instead of stuffy pomp -- Bentley seems to be doing his best Dirk Bogarde performance without noticing that his staleness is so extreme that Noel Coward wouldn't want to write a song about him.
A.E.W. Mason's novel of British bombast is unfortunately
met with similarly bombastic cinematic finagling. Though cinematographer Robert Richardson
still has the ability to frame some of the year's best shots (including an overhead shot
of Mahdi fighters attacking a small box of British soldiers), the editing by Steven
Rosenblum makes everything unintelligible. If this was meant as a way to amplify the
irrational world of colonizing Africa, than Kapur's intentions are dually noted -- but it
would help if the audience could still understand what all the pomp and circumstance means.