Volume 4, Number 50
This Week's Reviews: Maid in Manhattan, Star Trek: Nemesis, Equilibrium, The Grey Zone, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Analyze That.
This Week's Omissions: Drumline, The Hot Chick.
|Maid in Manhattan
BY: DAVID L. BLAYLOCK
"Don't be fooled by the rocks that I've got, I'm still, I'm still Jenny from the block."
Jennifer Lopez's latest single, "Jenny from the Block" looks at the way fame and fortune has not changed her, she's still that Puerto Rican girl from Bronx. Regardless of the hit records and the hit movies, the upcoming perfume line, the much-gossiped marriages, the engagement to Ben Affleck -- she's still, she's still Jenny from the block.
Her latest film Maid in Manhattan tries to work with the same idea, that Jennifer Lopez, in working class garb or upper class attire, is still that same down-to-earth girl. And it is testament to the truth within this statement that Maid in Manhattan succeeds in convincing the audience that Jennifer Lopez is, in fact, as real in her millionaire life as she would be in any other life had she not succeeded.
In the film she plays Marisa Ventura, a maid at the Beresford Hotel, a classy joint that caters to the upper echelon of New York. One of the employers (Conroy) names off the VIP guests: a pair of French kleptomaniacs, Caroline Sinclaire (Richardson), a posh society woman just dumped by her shallow boyfriend, and Christopher Marshall (Fiennes), a Republican state assemblyman preparing to run for his late father's U.S. Senate seat.
Marisa is assigned to the floor that includes Caroline and Christopher. Pushed by her best friend Stephanie (Matrone), Marisa tries on one of Caroline's Dolce & Gabanna suits. When her son Ty (Posey) happens to woo Christopher with his knowledge of Richard Nixon, and the wealthy politico sees Marisa in the $5,000 attire, he assumes that he is with his own. After a little stroll together through Central Park, it seems that this Cinderella has found her prince. All she has to do is make sure that Christopher doesn't figure out that she is the 22nd floor's maid instead of its resident.
Meanwhile, Christopher gets himself caught up in an unfortunate relationship with the real Caroline after inviting her to lunch thinking he was inviting that "slightly Mediterranean" woman who lives on the floor. He hates Caroline and wishes nothing more than to find Marisa again; meanwhile, Marisa attempts to remain invisible (as the signs downstairs tell all the chambermaids to be) and Caroline tries to push herself into Christopher's life.
There's a big ball and a fairy godmother and even a collections of birds and mice to complete this Cinderella tale, helping to give the film a enchanting air that it deserves (unlike other, more overtly magical romantic comedies that fail like Simply Irresistible and Practical Magic). This is not a film that strives for reality, but it is nice, pat, and innocuous in its dallying with a inter-economic, interracial relationship.
While Lopez creates the working class with the resolve that Mariah Carey couldn't seem to find in Glitter, Fiennes does little more than playing upper-class convincingly. Everything else -- the mannered friend of the kids, the unquestioning lover, the mobile politician -- seems to be forced out of Fiennes as if he doesn't want to play anything this light after Charles van Doren and Evgeny Onegin. He is a great actor, despite what come critics have called him (I remember one detractor said he was proof that critics will embrace anyone with an accent) but he is just not romantic comedy material. I'm not 100% sure that this is because he cannot do it, but merely that his heart isn't in it. He may not think that this genre is deserving of his time, but someone who proved the power of the genre, like Spencer Tracy or Billy Crystal, might disagree.
Once again, Wayne Wang attempts to work with race identities in film, even when he is stifled by the commercial obligations that a film like Maid in Manhattan requires. The director who brought to life Chan is Missing, Smoke, and The Joy Luck Club, has a good feeling for the racial identity that marks the various peoples that walk this nation, especially as they convene to create the multiethnic New York City. In this case, he raises interesting comparisons to the all-white guests and management at the hotel as compared to the all-black and Latino maids and butlers downstairs. The only exception is the well-mannered English butler Lionel Block (Hoskins), who, unlike Stevens in The Remains of the Day, doesn't see the past mores of servitude (all white, English butlers and maids in the best households) as the better time, but embraces the future of blacks and Latinos not only taking the service positions but also moving into management as well.
Nearly the entire cast comes from some minority, leaving
lilywhite Fiennes as the outsider. Wang introduces him with all the baggage that a
Republican affliation would have (however unwarranted) and shows that the most maligned
politicians are sometimes just as real and worthy of acceptance as the minorities. Maid
in Manhattan may not be his most incisive look at such issues, but it does show
something of note: even when working on a forgettable little film like this, Wang is not
willing to let his forte be sidelined.
|Star Trek: Nemesis
BY: DAVID L. BLAYLOCK
Just weeks after the James Bond series celebrated its 20th film in 40 years, the other 1960s franchise, Star Trek, releases its 10th film. One series has become a godsend for me, the other an occasional diversion. Every two years comes with the welcoming of another Bond film; every few years I turn out at a Star Trek film with little care for the movie ahead of me.
Star Trek: Nemesis is no exception -- in fact, as The Wrath of Khan (II), The Voyage Home (IV), and The Undiscovered Country (VI), the masterpieces of the franchise, get farther into the past, my interest in the series gets slighter. In some ways, I feel that I am obliged to continue sitting through these movies, waiting for something new to happen, fearing that nothing will.
That was the theme of Dean Perisot's Galaxy Quest in 1999. The film looked at the way the Star Trek series is built around the same clichés and frugal production values that has become so comforting to fans and annoying to the uninitiated. Being of the latter group, Galaxy Quest's criticisms came as a welcomed reaction to the stuffy Star Trek: Insurrection the previous year. Some saw the film as flattering imitation; I saw it as a perfect realization of a series that was once awe-inspiring but is now a corny antique.
There are still those Galaxy Quest clichés on exhibit in the latest Star Trek film: the special effects look lousy, the damage to a place seems to be little more than wires and tubes hanging from the ceiling, and storylines seem to come from the same template set up by Gene Roddenberry. What was once part and parcel for the 1980s films and added to the camp quality of the original series now seems like little more than flimsy stages and hackneyed storylines (it's hard to not laugh when the first Enterprise death is, of course, a John Doe).
And yet Star Trek: Nemesis builds on its biggest detractors. While all those problems hamper the film from beginning to end, the film faces them with a pride that cannot be turned away from. Like Die Another Day, the clichés are ingrained in the franchise's formula for success to the point that it would seem wrong for them to stray from the beaten path.
Like Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, this film comes from a deeper historical meaning that weighs philosophical values of imagery and identity. The planet of people the film introduces is Remus, the planet closest to longtime Federation antagonists from Romulus. The fraternal relationship that this hints at is more than an introduction to the sibling rivalry that will later ensue, but also serves as a reminder of the connotations brought by the two pairs of twins at the center of the film.
The first pair introduced is Data (Spiner) and his prototype B-4 (also Spiner). They are the exact same physically, but Data has far exceeded the abilities of his older version. The other pair is Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Stewart) and his younger clone Praetor Shinzon (Hardy). They are (supposedly) the exact same down to the genes, but their differing childhood environments have turned one into an example of virtue and the other into an example of absolute odium. In the Roman myth, it was Romulus who killed Remus in a fit of anger -- whether it's the peaceful relationship of Data/B-4 or the violent relationship of Picard/Shinzon, all want to be the Romulus of their respective duo.
In true Star Trek fashion, Shinzon wants to destroy humanity, a task that he has been induced to take by the Remans (lead by Ron Perlman dressed as Max Schrek's Nosferatu) that raised him after freeing him from the abuse of the Romulans. Picard et al. must attempt to save Picard, Earth, the Federation, and anyone else in the way while keeping out of the hair of the Romulans.
There have long been musings that the even Star Trek films
are the only ones worth watching. Though there are fans of the odd ones, The Search
for Spock (III), The Final Fronteir (V), Generations (VII), and Insurrection
(IX), few people would say that the odd four can compare to the even four (the
missing link is Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which no one likes). Make that
five good ones -- Nemesis, complete with all its problems, is among the better Star
Trek films. Too bad it's the least of five even entries.
BY: DAVID L. BLAYLOCK
After World War III breaks out in a couple years, people will be forced to live lives devoid of emotions, or so says the new film Equilibrium. To ensure that they cannot have anything emotional that might cause feelings, people are forced to get rid of all works of art and media: paintings, music, books, and, probably, movies. For a film critic, this means becoming obsolete, but it also means that humanity will be free from seeing movies as bad as Equilibrium when we get to the future. I'm tempted to say that the effect gives virtue to the cause.
Following in the dystopian shoes of Brave New World, Blade Runner, Minority Report, Dark City, The Matrix, Soylent Green, and 1984, Equilibrium attempts to find some connection between Orwellian future and CGI action. I hate to break it to director Kurt Wimmer, but Ridley Scott already succeeded in creating that in a 1984 Macintosh commercial. Not only that, he achieved ten-times more in 1-120th the length.
The opening of the film informs the audience that World War III so destroyed the land that people have allowed an oppressive "Father" (Pertwee) government to control every facet of their live in hopes of heading off a World War IV. To be safe, they all take a drug called Prozium II that mutes all the sensual side of their psyche, live in a gated community that was evidently built using Mussolini's old blueprints, and conform as best they can. There are marriages, but ones that are built on no real emotional ground, just the obligations of a procreating civilization.
John Preston (Bale) is one of the clericks whose job it is to go about the city and the nether regions outside the gates to ensure that there are no works that can ruin their non-emotional existence. In the film's opening, police swarm a crumbling building where revolutionary "sense offenders" are hiding away. The police and the revolutionaries get in a bloody standoff before Preston and his partner Clerick Partridge (Bean) arrive to end the altercation. Preston simply has all the lights turned off in the building, walks into the room where the revolutionaries are and shoots them, only illuminating the room with the gunfire that kills every revolutionary.
Preposterous is the name of the game with this film, so it's no use trying to question its embrace towards the campiest shoot-outs ever put on film. But Wimmer seems to want people to take his film (and its message) seriously, thus making those camp scenes obligatory and aggravating. They may have some value for the fan boy looking for something to hold him over until next Matrix movie, but for everyone else, this is like John Waters directing Citizen Kane.
Amidst all this is a Children of the Corn Preston boy and an Emily Watson performance (as one of the sense offenders who help Preston see the error of his ways) that can only be described as depressing. Taye Diggs tries his hand at drama with no success and the score by Dion Beebe sounds like the same Latin chant on repeat. Even the special effects that should stand as the film's greatest fabric look like they may have been created on the 1984 Macintosh computer Ridley Scott was promoting. This film is my nominee for the ugliest and poorest concoction of the year.
Equilibrium comes from the give-all, ruin-all
world of filmmaking, where directors assemble some talented people (Bale, Bean, Watson,
co-editor Tom Rolf) and then throw everything into a mangled, disjointed, and wholly
unnerving film without any rhyme or reason. It's hard to question Wimmer for attempting a
message in his action film, but it's as equally hard to not damn him for doing it so
|The Grey Zone
BY: DAVID L. BLAYLOCK
Actor Tim Blake Nelson, who is best known for playing the intensely annoying Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, gave his best performance earlier this year in the otherwise forgettable Cherish. Director Tim Blake Nelson, who is best known for the understandably long-shelved O, also had a good year: he finally made the well-defined, somewhat understandable work that he's been gravitating through his two previous features.
His first film, the fate-centered Eye of God, was a fine effort but one of menial note. His second film, O, was built on some stunning ideas but a failure from beginning to end. It is The Grey Zone that finally shows the filmmaker waiting to come out of this recognizable actor. Though he has yet to make his Citizen Kane, his work in films, both good and bad, serve a constant financial detour en route to another film. There's something modestly appealing about a filmmaker who gets his money by sticking his mug in other people's movies.
What money Nelson did not collect for The Grey Zone by appearing in Minority Report and The Good Girl, he evidently got from assembling a cast of fairly notable actors: Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Mira Sorvino, David Arquette, and Natasha Lyonne. For most films, the idea of having a identifiable cast (even if none of the names are really marquee luminaries, at least for mainstream cinemas) would be a great coup. For The Grey Zone, it serves as a perk to get investors for the film, but nearly destroys the structure of the movie itself.
That is because The Grey Zone comes from a genre that has never been open to celebrity. When Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes appeared in Schindler's List, they were unknowns. Only Ben Kingsley, who has spent a career as a chameleon from one role to another, could be seen as a minor box office draw.
The fact of the matter is that seeing recognizable faces in a movie about the Holocaust creates an unwelcome feeling of a ruse. It's almost as if the stories that are so poignantly told in witness documentaries, especially Alain Resnais' Night and Fog and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, needn't the reverence of history and instead are better suited to cinematic recreation. Part of the reason that Schindler's List was so commanding was that Steven Spielberg was able to take the audience's eyes away from the artifice and direct them to the dynamics of the history.
It's hard to believe that Schindler's List might have worked better as a documentary. That is not the case with The Grey Zone, which seems to be stylized storytelling taking away from the scary story at the center. In fact, Claude Lanzmann has already proven that such a story can be told commandingly through simply the memories of a single witness in Sobibor, 14 October 1943, 4 p.m. In my review of Sobibor a year ago (when Lanzmann finally released it, 22 years after Shaoh), I wrote "As a documentary -- elitist or not -- the film stands as a testament to the turmoil and heroism that can never work through the artificiality of cinema."
The reason why Sobibor is such an easy comparison to Nelson's film is that it too follows a concentration camp uprising. The Grey Zone, which could have very well been titled Auschwitz, 7 October 1944, 3 p.m., follows the preparations that went into the revolt that destroyed two of the four crematoriums in Auschwitz. What is rarely covered in the docuementation of this event, are the dynamics that were present in the revolters: they were of the group referred to as the Sonderkomando.
These were Jews given an ugly job by the Nazis during the Holocaust. It was their task to prepare the gas chambers, calm the Jews entering it, close the door, remove the bodies, burn the remains, and bury the ashes. In return, the Sonderkomando were well fed and given nearly four months of extra time to live while the rest of their family and friends were killed. At this time, as the war looked to be nearing an end, four months could very well mean survival.
If there's anything that The Grey Zone succeeds in that could not be recreated in a documentary of the event (other than the fact that even those who survived the event have since died), it is that Nelson finds a way to show the inner-turmoil felt by the men whose job it was to lie to fellow camp victims. What is just as painful, though, is that they must lie to themselves to make them feel like their additional four months are not built on the corpses of thousands.
While none of the name actors in the film are poor in their work, it is the relative unknown that steals the show. Sharing the screen with Harvey Keitel for nearly the entire duration of the film, Allan Corduner steals scenes from his famous costars by being as realistically impotent as the real Miklos Nyiszli, whose book Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account served as one of the film's sources. Corduner, probably most recognizable to those who saw Arthur Sullivan in Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, does amazing work by literally pushing himself behind his formidable costars.
It is his work in the film that makes the film's biggest flaw -- an overdrawn Saving Private Ryan one-live-at-the-expense-of-many scenario -- seem almost justified. It is within his reaction to the plight of one little girl (Grigorova) that makes her survival seem to be a chance to atone for those he had been forced to let die.
Even if the film makes mistakes right and left, there's a
certain amount of gratitude that must be shown to Nelson for tackling the work. I may
question his decision to give it a narrative, mid-budget Hollywood appeal, but I also
recognize that he is trying to tell a story that has not been told before in film. With
hundreds of Holocaust survivors dying every year, their stories of survival in the face of
the 20th century's greatest evil are unfortunately falling away without reaching the rest
of the world. Even if premature, Nelson may be giving us exactly what is soon to come:
when all the Holocaust survivors are gone, who will be left to interview for
|The Lord of the Rings: The
BY: DAVID L. BLAYLOCK
When Peter Jackson announced that he would attempt to recreate the entire Lord of the Rings saga for the screen, it seemed like what could be the most daunting film experiment ever attempted by a semi-mainstream filmmaker. As someone who had never read The Lord of the Rings, the interest came from a cinematic idea -- the impression that a filmmaker could make a huge, epic film for mainstream audiences that would encompass 9 hours of length.
Jackson surprised me with the ease he seemed to do it with the first section, The Fellowship of the Ring. Though I had some problems with it (and still do), I respected it for its attempt at grand scale filmmaking à la David Lean.
Now comes the second chapter, The Two Towers, a film that admittedly left me expecting the worst. If my feeling after The Fellowship of the Ring was that it lacked the needed climactic resolution (not necessarily an ending, but I at least wanted something that didn't feel like a three hour trailer), how in the world was The Two Towers going to work if it lacked both the excitement of the story's beginning (The Fellowship of the Ring) and the fulfillment of the story's ending (The Return of the King)? The Two Towers was looking like too much of a bridge without any of the singular fulfillment that could be found in, say, The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather, Part II, and even Back to the Future, Part II.
The film begins in true movie serial fashion with Gandolf (McKellen) continuing his seemingly impossible fight with the Balrog from The Fellowship of the Ring. When he rises victorious, Gandolf the Grey has become Galdolf the White, a far more powerful wizard.
Meanwhile, the original fellowship of nine has divided into three smaller groups. First are Merry and Pippin, the unendingly annoying hobbits who came along for the adventure. They have been captured by Orcs and are on their way to sure death. However, they turn out to be integral in forging a relationship between the fellowship and the Ents, a group of living and walking trees led by wise, old Treebeard (Rhys-Davies).
While they make their way through the forest on the back of Treebeard, Frodo and Sam, the other two hobbits, try their best to arrive in Mordor where Frodo can destroy the ring that can give the possessor power over all mankind. Hence the reason he is being searched for by Sauron and his wizard lackey Saruman (Lee). To guide them in their journey is Gollum (Serkis), a shriveled little being who has been mentally tortured by his need for the ring, which he possessed before Frodo's uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm, the best thing about the first film, but nowhere to be seen in this one) took it from him.
In another part of Middle-Earth called Rohan, human Aragorn (Mortensen), dwarf Gimli (Rhy-Davies again), and elf Legolas (Bloom) must help King Théoden (Hill) get out of the grasp of Saruman cohort Gríma Wormtongue (Dourif) and save the people of Rohan from Saruman's army of Uruk-Hai beast warriors. All the while, Aragorn, who has the heart of elf princess Arwen (Tyler), begins to fall in love with fellow human Éowyn (Otto).
So the stage is set for two great battles on two great towers. One, a citadel inhabited by the roaming people of Rohan, is under attack by the Uruk-Hai; the other, a magnificent tower home to Saruman, being raided by the Ents. Jackson, with the excitement of a child and his playthings, goes through the battles with so much enthusiasm that the audience feels just as intent on the battles as those in the middle of them. Even if most of the figures are completely from computers, their plight seems basically real.
There are still huge problems, especially as the first two hours drag with little justification until the final hour. In many ways, the film hits its stride only in the climax, but most of what happens then makes up for the previous two hours. In the muddle of working with the three storylines (according to sources who have read the book, Tolkein works with the stories in different sections instead of alternating between them), the storyline involving Merry and Pippin is treated as an occasional footnote. Normally, the inconsistent treatment of important characters would be a problem, but those two characters were so painfully annoying in The Fellowship of the Ring that their slight use in The Two Towers seems like a godsend. The only real problem that comes from this is that the interesting Ents are also relegated to the sidelines in the process.
Since the films were made together, most of the cast, as well as the production design, costumes, makeup, et al., are the same as in the previous excursion. McKellen is still acceptable if little used here, though Wood seems too resolute to be dreamy eyed throughout the tale. There is a miscalculation in having Mortensen's character escalate in importance (had I known that Mortensen's character would be a focal point in the rest of the series, I would have much preferred Sean Bean, whose character Boromir died in the previous film, play Aragorn), but not one that fully damages the film.
What does work better here, though, is the return of one single character: Gollum. Within this feeble looking creature is an incredible story that Jackson and Serkis (as well as the team of special effects wizards who created the CGI figure) perfectly create. In one extended scene, Gollum has a conversation between his good self (his pre-ring life as Sméagol) and his bad self (his ring-coveting life as Gollum) while Jackson's camera suddenly goes handheld and wobbles with the anticipatory friction emanating from Serkis' voice -- it is quite possibly the best single scene I've seen this year. Serkis, whose body was covered by computer animation, delivers his lines with a screech that barely hides the pain and anguish within the character. Not since Teddy in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence has a visual effect (oh, but he's so much more) had such an amazing affect on me. He's my favorite supporting performance this year.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers goes far beyond the simplicity of being a bridge between the other books. It elevates the tension and feat that was The Fellowship of the Ring, turning it into the magnificent tale that J.R.R. Tolkien aimed for. It is, by my estimation, a greater achievement than the previous film.
When I complained about The Fellowship of the Ring,
it came partly from disdain for the film's assuredness that it could bring audiences in
for the next two years without really achieving anything with its story in the first part.
The Two Towers sufficiently builds on what was shown in The Fellowship of the
Ring and gives a new appreciation for the previous work. I now understand the
excitement felt by those who had read the books and see their expectations brought to
life: by seeing its continuation, my estimation of The Fellowship of the Ring goes
slightly up. Considering my excitement over the latest chapter, I can only imagine how
I'll feel in a year when the saga comes to an end.
BY: DAVID L. BLAYLOCK
Movie sequels serve only a handful of notable roles in filmmaking: they reintroduce characters the audience has come to know and love, enlarge the pockets of money-hungry producers, remind people why they ever liked their first round with the characters, and, sometimes, pinpoint the driving force behind the originals.
This is the case with Analyze That, the completely unneeded sequel to the 1999 hit Analyze This. Though I'm not the biggest fan of the original, I did appreciate its comic timing and camaraderie that seemed to be alive between Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal. In many ways, it was the former's best comedic work since Midnight Run and the latter's best work since City Slickers. While I never really felt that it came together in the most coherent form, I was willing to admit its ease with which it produced some of its bigger laughs.
The secret charm of Analyze This was co-writer Kenneth Lonergan, who is the only person from the writing team who does not return for Analyze That. While almost all of the cast, as well as director Harold Ramis, come back, it is the writer/director of You Can Count on Me, who had not written anything before Analyze This and wasn't known as the creative force until now, that proves to be the missing magician in all the hokum for the sequel filmmakers.
Analyze That continues with gang boss Paul Vitti (De Niro) serving in Sing Sing for the events shown in the original. Even though he nearly owns the cooperation of his fellow inmates, Paul's life is in danger because someone on the outside is paying for occasional attempts on his life. Suddenly, after surviving a knife attack in the prison cafeteria, he goes into crazed song and dance numbers from West Side Story.
Sensing something amiss, the FBI decides to place Paul in the hands of Dr. Ben Sobol (Crystal) hoping to catch Paul with other gangland dignitaries and, thus, have evidence to bring others down with him. No one, except for Ben, seems to believe Paul's catatonia -- otherwise, it's doubtful that Ben would have taken him into his home, much to the dismay of new wife Laura (Kudrow).
Soon Paul has taken over the place, having lady friends over for marathon sex, walking around Sobol family brunches with an open robe, and initiating mob meetings from his upstairs room. Before long, Paul, joined by his always reliable right-hand man Jelly (Viterelli), is back in his place as one of New Jersey's biggest crime lords.
This, of course, brings fear into the hearts of the warring gang leaders, including the widow Patti LoPresti (Moriarty-Gentile) and the well-connected Eddie DeVol (Franza). To make it seem like he is actually doing something with his life, Paul acts as a consultant for a Sopranos-inspired show called Little Caesar.
The laughs are very rare in the film (I only remember laughing out loud twice) and everyone involved seems to be bored by what they are doing. This is especially true for the actors: De Niro, who was better in Meet the Parents, seems horribly fed up with playing a genial version of his once glorious Scorsese characters, and Crystal, who proved himself again by giving a great vocal performance in Monsters, Inc., is left to simply mimic to the camera. Nearly every joke in the film comes from the same clichéd Jewish-Italian, psychiatrist-gangster teasing that hasn't seemed fresh since The Sopranos did played it to its utmost.
However deeply unsettling this event may be, it is mostly
disappointing that the talented people from the first even came back. This is especially
true for Harold Ramis, who has had a hit-and-miss directing career that has great films
like National Lampoon's Vacation, Multiplicity, and Groundhog Day in
addition to such mistakes as Club Paradise, Stuart Saves His Family, and
Bedazzled. It's disappointing that Ramis wouldn't have the sense to let one of
his hits remain untainted by one of his misses.
DAVID L. BLAYLOCK