Volume 4, Number 40
This Week's Reviews: Me Without You, Sweet Home Alabama, Red Dragon, Moonlight Mile.
This Week's Omissions: Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, Mad Love.
The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
The Virgin Suicides
Y Tu Mamá También
|Me Without You
BY: DAVID PERRY
There's an odd difference between friendship made by men and made by women. The issues may revolve around similar problems but somehow the hormonal differences create different interaction. While men seem to forge relationships that are genial but shallow, women can find ones that are destructive but deep. Neither is necessary any better than the other: men do not really have a true confidant to turn to when problems arise, women sometimes have to come to terms with the fact that the problem was caused by their confidant.
Before this brings reader mail, there are exceptions: not every man is superficial, not every woman is catty. These are generalizations of a complex system of relations that make up the human experience. And, it should most certainly be noted, this view is from the direct observations of a man. I see these occur all the time, but that does not necessarily mean that everyone would see these relationships in the same adjectives as I used (though the ramifications would probably be the same).
One person -- a woman, no less -- makes the same observation in her film Me Without You. Sandra Goldbacher, who states that the relationship in the film is based explicitly on one she had, does not accuse the two friends of her film as being destructive for the sake of being destructive. These are complex individuals who want more than anything to meet their own expectations. Unfortunately, their best friend happens to be a constant source of jealous reminders.
At its slightest level, Marina (Friel) wishes she had the intellect to succeed in life and Holly (Williams) wishes she had the beauty to succeed in love. Each one has the attribute that the other wants and yet both attempt (most certainly unintentionally) to lower the other so that they can meet their expectations.
Holly, the smarter of the two, came from an intelligent, well-structured Jewish family with a loving father (Corduner) and a doting mother (Denicourt). She's always lived next door to Marina in their suburban English neighborhood. Marina, the prettier of the two, came from a broken, pop culture driven home with a pill-popping mother (Styler), rebellious brother (Milburn), and mostly absentee father (Henson).
There are two central lovers that serve as the catalysts for Holly and Marina's breaks. First is Marina's brother Nat, who is beloved by his sister almost as much as Holly hero worships him. One night, the two girls decide to crash one of Nat's parties under the belief that The Clash will be there. Instead, all they find is a bunch of people smoking marijuana and injecting heroine. Deciding that this will be a night of experimentation, Marina tries the heroine and Holly loses her virginity to Nat.
The film continues into their time as college coeds, both trying to make their mark on the university intelligentsia. Marina does not have a chance, but nevertheless makes it her obligation to break into Holly's inner-circle even if it means stepping on Holly to get there. The main reward for intellect is American professor Daniel (MacLachlan), who impishly tries to make sense of the two women who are trying desperately to get him as a lover. The main difference is that Holly uses their love of Tarkovsky films as an excuse; Marina uses their love of sex.
The film spans nearly thirty years in this friendship's development, looking at every up and every down (since the only real ups come at the free-spirited opening scenes, there's a great amount of down to impart). It is best when it looks at the way this codependent relationship treats the supporting players including the affable Nat and the perplexed Daniel. This is a movie that thankfully shows that there's no single level of fault in an altercation -- instead all of these people are equally responsible for what happens, whether it's Holly sleeping with Nat or Daniel cheating with Marina.
Sandra Goldbacher is an incredibly able writer, finding
the perfect intensity to each character without making them seem like clichés. By the
end, the audience gets the impression that she is crying to the drums of her own movie.
She's seeing how horrible this little friendship is and cannot help but tear up because
she as the director (and as the onetime friend) can do nothing to fix it.
Forces of Nature
Dr. T & the Women
|Sweet Home Alabama
BY: DAVID PERRY
I've lived in Tennessee for nearly a decade now, constantly being surprised by the treatment the southeastern region gets from most films and television shows. In the eyes of most in New York and Los Angeles the South is little more than a collection of bergs populated by country bumpkins. There's no such thing as a Nashville or an Atlanta, thriving urban cities -- the only places with any real merit for a visit are the Florida tourist centers. Heaven help them, though, if they have to drive to Orlando.
From what I understand, much has changed since Robert Altman came down to make Nashville -- though the Midwesterner understood that there was more to the politically charged city than southern drawls, his Nashville was a smaller version of Los Angeles with Dolly Parton playing on the jukeboxes instead of Lou Reed. Now even the Dolly Parton factor is dead: you are just as likely to hear Rufus Wainwright on the radio as Travis Tritt.
Living in the South has been an education for me, a chance to see that there's more to the place than the brawling trailer trash most often bandied about in programs created by non-southerners. The new film Sweet Home Alabama seems to be of this breed. While it does attempt to have some compassion for its southerners by at least showing that they too have feelings, they are still the butt of every joke by the Northern characters and every scenario by the filmmakers. When they dolefully react to the jokes the audience can have some compassion; but there's no room for reactions when the filmmakers are the dismissive ones.
The hypocrisy comes without any regret because in the filmmaker's minds they are giving the southerners some satisfaction by heralding them at the end. The trailer trash jokes may still be going in full force, but, hey, the South cannot be too bad since their brutishness is actually synonymous with revelry.
Reese Witherspoon is Melanie Carmichael, a New York fashion designer who's getting raves for her fine clothing and her rich boyfriend. He just happens to be Andrew Hennings (Dempsey), the son of New York's mayor (Bergen) with high political aspirations. They seem to be the perfect couple for the New York Post gossip columnists.
When Andrew finally pops the question, Melanie is faced with a problem: she's still married. Left in her past as a rebellious whirling dervish from Alabama, Melanie's has an estranged husband named Jake (Lucas) who will not sign the divorce papers she sends to him. Before she can ever walk down the aisle with Andrew, she'll have to convince Jake to sign the documents.
When she walks into her hometown, she's literally disgusted by the lack jeans and rustics that litter the place. As time goes by, though, she finds the inner charm to it all, the same charm that was able to sculpt her into the open-minded person that she's always been. The only problem is that it took New York -- featuring homosexuals and minorities -- for her to find the diversity needed so she could use her open mind to allow even a gay redneck into a barroom game of billiards. It's supposed to be oh so charming.
But I was not charmed for one moment by the director Andy Tennant's sloppy direction or C. Jay Cox's derogatory writing. However, the secret to Sweet Home Alabama's mediocre success is that Reese Witherspoon is just the right actress to find the charm that the rest of the group is missing. She was able to come out of Legally Blonde without any amount of derision even though her character had to be one of the most condescended characters of last year.
Witherspoon's crooked little smile has more to it that
just those pearly whites: she is an actress who finds the levels that cannot be
misdirected. With every film -- from the most taxing (Freeway) to the most
disposable (Sweet Home Alabama) -- I'm further surprised with what this actress
can do. She defies expectations; she has proven to be one of best actresses in today's
young generation of actors; she's smart, sweet, beautiful, and unquestionably lovable. Oh,
and she just happens to be from Nashville.
Murder by Numbers
BY: DAVID PERRY
Possibly one of the reasons that a character like Hannibal Lecter will remain in the pantheon of great film villains is that he is always the most memorable thing about the films he appears in. This is most notable in his case because he has only been the main character in one film (Hannibal), taking the sidelines for the other two major works (The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon).
In a recent poll of members of the Online Film Critics Society (of which I am a member), Lector was named the second best villain in film history. Though I certainly disagree with this statement, it seems to go in line with the attitudes of most Americans, who relish the idea of a serial killer who is deliciously (no pun intended) refined. Who cares if he is a cannibal, he is able to quote Sir Edmund Hilleary.
In all these years of Hannibal aggrandizing, I have become increasingly disturbed with the public's short memory of his first incarnation, Brian Cox's subtle realization in Michael Mann's Manhunter. Thomas Harris' most famous creation was most certainly a minor character in that film and, to the betterment of the film, plays as more of an interesting sidenote than as a major role. He was, in many ways, a reflection of the film's other two characters, FBI agent Will Graham (William L. Peterson) and serial killer Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan) -- an erudite recreation of their inability to relate to anyone else.
Thus it is somewhat saddening to see a movie like Red Dragon, which comes from the same Thomas Harris novel as Manhunter, come out. Yes, I am willing to admit that the film is not wholly bad, but it is produced under a horrible pretense. This is not a case of a generation needing to see the classic work that preceded them. No, the only reason that Red Dragon exists is that Anthony Hopkins wanted to play Lector again and this was the only other Harris property not yet adapted with him in the role. Had Cox's scenes not been so few in Manhunter, I would not have been especially surprised had producer Dino De Laurentiis just re-released Manhunter with all of Cox's scenes reshot with Hopkins in the role. This is a lazy adaptation that is almost as incomprehensible in its creation as in its point.
For those unlucky enough to not already know Manhunter well, Red Dragon (the actual title of Harris' novel -- De Laurentiis had issues with the Asian sound of Red Dragon when he made the original), follows Will Graham (Norton) as he attempts to catch Francis Dolarhyde (Fiennes), aka "The Tooth Fairy," a serial killer who prays upon sleeping families as a way to find some beauty within his own ugly world. Since this is a matter that cannot be taken easily by either the FBI or the jurisdictional police forces, Graham decides to use the advice of Hannibal Lector, the killer who tried to kill him when he finally discovered his Hannibal's grande bouffe recipe (which serves as the prologue to the film).
Many of Manhunter's most memorable moments are retained, including a trip to see a sedated tiger by Francis and his blind girlfriend Reba (Watson, playing a role originated by Joan Allen), but without any of the spark Michael Mann was able to find. Much of Red Dragon plods around, following the tracks of its precursors without really filling the shoes. There's the resilient power of the film's story to keep the movie from completely collapsing, but nowhere in sight is there any real feeling of directorial purpose or understanding of the material.
Brett Ratner was incomprehensibly brought in to take a job once held by Michael Mann and successfully dulls all of the original work. I should admit that Ratner does a better job filming much of the movie than I would have expected from his work on the Rush Hour films, but that could be more the achievement of cinematographer Dante Spinotti (who also photographed Manhunter) than of Ratner.
The biggest additions this time around are mostly what makes this film such a bore to sit through. There's a heavy-handed background voiceover detailing Francis' past; there's a huge CGI explosion that looks about as out of place as Lector attending a hoedown; there's a murder that is wasted because its played for laughs; and there's oodles of Silence of the Lambs references as if to remind us of what this film leads to.
In the end, Ratner seems to be trying to convince the
world that he can direct more than just a Chris Tucker vehicle but no one is convinced. At
the beginning of the film, Hannibal eats an orchestra performer because his music is so
poor. Brett Ratner seems to be tempting us to almost wish the same fate for him.
In the Bedroom
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Virgin Suicides
BY: DAVID PERRY
There's something about attending a funeral and being forced to say the same statements to the bereaved that has been imparted dozens of times already. "A cliché parade," as one character in Moonlight Mile puts it. She, one of the bereaved in this case, sees the funeral in the same way I see it: it's hard to really show compassion if you don't know the right words to say that haven't already been said.
That character is JoJo Floss (Sarandon), the mother of deceased Diana Floss. She uses an acidic wit to comfort herself from the sense of loss that she seems unable to admit to. The people who are going through this parade are, in many ways, sickening her to the point of forgetting the reason that they've been brought to the Floss family home in the first place. It's not that she's uncaring but that this is the only defense mechanism that she has.
Her husband Ben (Hoffman) is the complete opposite, carrying the loss on his shoulders. His mind often veers off, his eyes move into empty space, his words have little or no meaning -- the loss of Diana has seemingly broken him beyond repair. Unlike JoJo, he also attempts to understand everyone else, constantly defending those parades because they are filled with people who are at least trying. Even on the day of the funeral, Ben seems to be spending most of his time answering the phone and listening to people give their condolences while JoJo disparagingly looks on.
All this is seen from the view of Joe Nast (Gyllenhaal), who traveled into Cape Anne, Massachusetts, to marry Diana. Since he seems to have no family or ambitions, Joe has agreed to start working for Ben's commercial real estate firm. Even after Diana's death, he sees it as his duty to remain in town and at least give Ben the satisfaction of keeping this dream true.
But something was amiss between Joe and Diana before she was killed by a stranger in the diner across the street from Ben's office (a place that will not fix the broken window, constantly reminding Ben of what happened just yards from him). This creates an accentuated feeling of guilt within Joe, seeing his own misgivings as the reason that Diana died. Much to the chagrin of the Flosses, he is able to find some comfort in the arms of local barmaid/postwoman Bertie Knox (Pompeo), who is still trying to maintain her loyalty to her own fiancé who has been MIA in Vietnam for three years (the film is set in 1973).
Moonlight Mile is an odd little creation, trying to balance some sentimentality with a lurking quirkiness that constantly adds at least some gallows humor to the proceedings. Director Brad Silberling seems to have learned something over the time since his wretched work on Casper (cute, but insipid) and City of Angels (pretty, but shallow). Much of this movie comes from his own experience -- he was dating actress Rebecca Shaeffer when she was murdered in 1989 -- and the personal side to the story comes alive from Silberling's direction.
At the heart of the movie, though, are a collection of great performances that sufficiently hide some of the film's most abhorrent melodramatics. Ellen Pompeo shows great potential for a fine future in films -- she remains both distant and passionate throughout the film, giving an interesting dichotomy to Bertie. Dustin Hoffman does overdo his performance occasionally, but at the same time he is able to successfully give the audience a view into Benjamin Braddock at this stage in life (his paeans for commercial real estate sound oddly similar to those plastics recommendations from The Graduate). Meanwhile, Susan Sarandon grounds the film with what could be her best performance since her Oscar win for Dead Man Walking.
The biggest surprise, though, comes from Jake Gyllenhaal, who somehow finds a way to relate every emotional experience in his face. He is not just feeling his own pain over Diana's death, but is also working as a mirror to Ben and JoJo when he's around them. In my review of The Good Girl, I wrote of a disappointment over Gyllenhaal relying on the same performance in nearly every film he appears in. But Joe Nast, like the title character from Donnie Darko, is a textured character that lives and breathes through Gyllenhaal's performance. Even in the most subtle moment -- like just watching a stack of unneeded wedding invitations fall during a prep talk with Ben -- Gyllenhaal helps to remind the audience that these are characters like us, living in a situation that most people fear but will probably see if they haven't already. It's truly a stunning performance.
Moonlight Mile has been most commonly compared
to is Todd Field's In the Bedroom. While the earlier film has much more resonance
in its ability to transcend an unreal finale through painfully real characters, this film
still serves a purpose as the more upbeat reaction to a similar scenario. In the
Bedroom was the never-ending condolences reaching a vandetta sum; Moonlight Mile is
the cathartic chance to forgive and, though not forget, keep living.