Screeners '02 #3
Artisan: Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, Roger Dodger, Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
Cowboy: All About Lily Chou-Chou, Daughter from Danang, Devils on the Doorstep, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.
Disney: Lilo & Stitch, Moonlight Mile, The Rookie, Signs, Spirited Away, Treasure Planet.
DreamWorks: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
Film Movement: El Bola.
Focus Features: 8 Women, Far from Heaven, The Pianist.
Fox: Antwone Fisher, The Banger Sisters, The Good Girl, Ice Age, Minority Report, One Hour Photo, Unfaithful.
IFC: My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Lion's Gate: The Cat's Meow, Frailty, Max, Secretary.
MGM: All or Nothing, Barbershop, Bowling for Columbine, Die Another Day, Evelyn, Igby Goes Down, Nicholas Nickleby, Personal Velocity, 24 Hour Party People.
Magnolia: Interview with the Assassin.
Manhattan Pictures: Enigma.
Newmarket: Real Women Have Curves.
New Yorker Films: ABC Africa, The Farewell, How I Killed My Father, Songs from the Second Floor, Yellow Asphalt.
Universal: About a Boy, The Emperor's Club.
BY: DAVID PERRY
America was shocked in 1992 to learn of the ritualistic killings of Jeffrey Dahmer. Seething within a middleclass, quiet façade was a man who could kill other men, cut them up with surgical precision, and eat some of their remains. As the country searched for answers, one of the quickest to be used in describing what went wrong in young Jeffrey was his homosexuality.
As Eddie Izzard stated in Dress to Kill, too often, Middle America uses homosexuality (especially transvestitism) as a way to describe something horrible that they do not want to further understand because inspection means, to a certain degree, acknowledgement of existence. Jeffrey Dahmer may have been gay, but that does not come near reaching the core of why he killed 17 men.
David Jacobson's Dahmer attempts to make sense of the title character by going deep into his psyche, relating the way he was challenging the world that he had found himself in. With Milwaukee giving few openings to a gay man, especially one working in the factory circles (even if the factory is a chocolate factory), and his lifestyle going against all of his minor acquaintances (the film tries to make clear that Dahmer had no real friends), Jeffrey Dahmer (Renner) seems to be choosing a reaction to his environ that (in his mind) is just a couple notches away from acceptable society's expectations of him. It's easy to become insane when you think that society expects nothing out of you.
Probably the most interesting relationship that Dahmer examines is his family troubles. Soon after Dahmer was sentenced to 957 years in prison, his father Lionel wrote the book A Father's Story, as if to exaplain what in the world went wrong with his Dr. Spock attempts at child development. Lionel Dahmer (Davison) is portrayed here as a man who could not understand the secretive and emotional states that his son always showed around him. Though he knew that his father would disagree with his sexuality, it is easy to see the anguish that Jeffrey is portrayed to have when he must use gay porn to get his dad's gaze away from a severed head that was about to be discovered.
Dahmer shouldn't be seen as a gay treatise, but the emotional anguish that hits a homosexual man in a conformist society serves as the main idea behind Jacobson's screenplay. It is not as much the fact that heterosexual society wouldn't accept him, but that homosexual society wouldn't accept him either. Jacobson spends one ten minute sequence showing how Dahmer would go to gay clubs, drug drinks, and a rape unconscious men in the backroom. When a club bouncer sees Dahmer mixing the drugs in the middle of the dance floor, Dahmer seems absolutely shocked to see that his actions were not allowed. It's as if all of his crimes, from rape to murder, never seemed absurd to Jeffrey Dahmer.
Renner does a great job portraying the emotional ups and downs of Jeffrey Dahmer. Even if the physical resemblance is negligible at best (especially in some scenes that deal with his early killing of a high school wrestler), his ability to evoke the inner demons of the famously evil man is notable to say the least. While the better performance comes from the befuddled Davison, Renner does do an impressive job considering his novice standing as an actor.
Unfortunately, much of the insight that Renner pains to
include fails to hit the marks that Jacobson is trying for. His work is surprisingly
assured for a first time feature filmmaker, but it also lacks the values of someone fully
knowledgeable of the art he is attempting. The film that the movie most clearly mimics,
John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, was also from a fist timer,
but that film shows more visual continuity and interesting storytelling traits to make its
subject seem frighteningly real (something that never comes from Jacobson's representation
of Jeffrey Dahmer, try as Renner might). His intents seem noble, but his use of cinematic
devices has much to be desired.
BY: DAVID PERRY
I'd be hard pressed to think of a film more cloyingly sappy than Evelyn this year. Thus, it is some small amount of note that director Bruce Beresford keeps the film from being as painful as, say, I Am Sam or K-Pax.
Evelyn looks at the attempts of Irish everyman Desmond Doyle (Brosnan), a drunkard who barely holds his carpentry job, to retain the family his family. In 1953 he brought the Irish government to court for the Family Act of 1941, which came into effect so that the Catholic Church could increase their school population and labor force.
But where Evelyn strays from the right route for a Sound of Music-style drama (including a little ditty sung by Pierce Brosnan) is in the attempt to deify a character and vilify the Irish government. Anyone willing to do a little research about the true story that the film is based on brings attention to many different changes that Bereseford and screenwriter Paul Pender throw in for good measure.
First off, the film begins with Desmond and his wife in the middle of marital turmoil, ending with her rushing from the place because she's simply bored with family life. That leaves Desmond to take care of their three kids, two sons and a daughter named Evelyn (Vavasseur). When his mother-in-law decides to be malicious, she calles child's services and has the kids removed from Desmond's custody due to his regular drunkenness and negligible work potential. The boys are then left to be forgotten (by both the authorities and the filmmakers) in a boy's school while Evelyn is abused by a nun in a girl's school.
In fact, the real Desmond Doyle gave his six kids over to the church so that he could head to England and get some work. When he returned, the Family Act gave the Catholic Church the right to keep the kids, which it did. Of course, this doesn't quite make Doyle look as saintly and the state look as wicked.
Part of the reason that this change seemed so tempting for the filmmakers, I'm sure, is that this gives more openings for saccharine scenes like the removal of the children from the beloved father's arms or the way that Doyle fights for the kids the second they leave. With him being a drunken pubfly, he can rise above adversity twice: not only can he attempt to change the impenetrable Irish law but also defeat his own inner demons. It's like Screenwriter 102: How to Tinker with a True Story for the Most Cinematic Value.
Normally I'd be a little more concerned by the film, but there's an odd lightness and geniality that makes the film near acceptable. While I cannot get around its most disgusting moments -- the motif of "angel rays," i.e. those rays of light that come straight from our guardian angels -- I do accept that nearly every facet is meant to have the likable modesty of a 1940s drama from someone like Frank Capra, a man who invented a little rule about "every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."
There's a respectable production design at the center of the film, which helps to hide the not-so-subtle moments that the story rams in. Meanwhile, the direction has a wistful, fairytale style that tries to explain those same moments.
Most of the cast do their best to get around the hokum (and it is deep). Stephen Rea, Aidan Quinn, and Alan Bates, as Doyle's legal team, all give respectable performances that seem overwritten and showy but do become workable in the hands of these men. Young Sophie Vavasseur also does a good job, somehow refraining from pushing the too-cute scenes until the screenwriter shamefully has her give her nightly prayer on the witness stand. Margulies, as usual, is painfully bad -- both miscast and dismaying. Brosnan is serviceable, which is too bad because he needs something to move to once his time as James Bond comes to an end.
However many good performances there may have been, it
wasn't enough to keep Evelyn from failing under the weight of its unruly script.
Even as Beresford attempts to find some way to qualify Pender's sweet flourishes, the
sickening taste in the mouth is still there. Evidently he didn't try too hard to give some
merit to the script because otherwise Beresford would have noticed that Pender forgets
Doyle's two sons through the entire film until they are needed again at the end. But, of
course, this is part and parcel: he had already forgotten that the real Doyle had three
BY: DAVID PERRY
While watching Douglas McGrath adaptation of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, it suddenly occurred to me that most of the comedic costume dramas of the last year have lacked one major thing: a villain. While there have been antagonists (Ben Kingsley in Triumph of Love, Judi Dench in The Importance of Being Ernest), none of them have been truly evil -- simply products of whimsy who change by the curtain call.
Nicholas Nickleby has villains, and they are villains of the most dastardly kind. In true Dickensian fashion, the film is filled with the forces evil: robber barons, sadists, and lechers. They fill the screen with such delicious wickedness that their presence overshadows much of the wholesomeness coming from the protagonists.
Having never been a huge fan of Dickens' 800-page novel, it surprised me how much pleasure I had watching McGrath's version. The film not-so-subtly emphasizes each of the villains to the point that they become more complex, more believable than anyone else in the story. The sensationalizing of 1830s society's woes can't hold a candle to the people who are causing them. I just wish that Dickens had written a book about these people instead of the snot-nosed Nicholas.
Once again, 19-year-old Nicholas Nickleby (Hunnam) travels from the rural family home to London to attempt to make money for the family to survive after the good Mr. Nickleby died a pauper (caused, and pointed out exasperatingly by Dickens, by the corruption of the rich and their willingness to feed on the poor). Nicholas thinks that his Uncle Ralph (Plummer), a rich Londoner, will be happy to help the family get back on their feet. Instead, he vanquishes Nicholas to work in Dotheboys Hall for orphan boys. Meanwhile, Ralph begins taking his niece Kate (Garai) to various dinners in hopes of leaving her in the rich hands of some disturbingly horny old men, including Sir Mulberry Hawk (Fox) and Newman Noggs (Courtenay).
Dotheboys Hall is run by the inefficient and abusive Wackford Squeers (Broadbent) and his wife (Stevenson). Seeing the beatings that Squeers enjoys laying on the kids, Nicholas chastises Squeers and runs off with one of the most abused kids, a cripple named Smike (Bell). The two set out on a trip through England trying to figure out a way to survive without Ralph and, maybe, in the process get back at him.
Of course, there's a lady-love thrown in with Madeline Bray (Hathaway), another woman regarded as property to sell by Ralph Nickleby. There are many more characters from the Dickens book that are (thankfully) removed from the film for the sake of time (the fact that McGrath condenses the story to a relatively breezy 126 minutes is a miracle), however he still includes the acting troupe that fills way too much time. Though there are scenes that are needed involving the troupe, it's easy to imagine many of their scenes excised without hurting the narrative. The only small addition for the troupe that truly adds to the film without any real importance to the story is a Highland dance near the end by Alan Cummings -- it's so absurd that it's impossible to not find it endearing.
Nearly all of the characterizations are perfect, from the Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum lawyers (Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan) to the cavalcade of villains. Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Christopher Plummer, Tom Courtenay, and Edward Fox all seem to be having the time of their lives playing the biggest heels in all of Great Britain. However, there's little success from the too-syrupy Charlie Hunnam, whose only charm is that he's good at being walked upon by the rest of the cast.
The film is being touted as a Christmas movie (that is,
Christmas if you live in selected cities -- and, as David Letterman says, you had better
damn hope your city was selected), and in many ways it is one of the more engaging family
films of the year. The only problem, of course, is the fact that most of the enjoyment
comes from a collections of Scrooges.
BY: DAVID PERRY
"She didn't know where she was going"
At one point in Personal Velocity, narrator John Ventimiglia says those words in reference to one of the three women the film follows. The only problem is that the same words could easily be said about the film's writer-director Rebecca Miller.
Personal Velocity, which won the grand prize at Sundance earlier this year, is the adaptation of three of Miller's short stories from her book of the same name. Each story follows a woman as she deals with the world she lives in, most importantly the men who seem to orbit around her essence.
In many ways, the film seems to articulate many of the elements that are found in Catherine Oxenburg's best work, but without any of the cultural theses or intricate humor that made her 1970s work so seminal. Miller, the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, works with the film like her prose, but without any interest in making them more than quickly disposable short stories. While the style and depth are there, the lingering accomplishment is not.
There is one exception to all this. When Parker Posey gets her hands on the Miller material, the relationship is perfect. Posey has long been one of the finest actors in independent film, constantly surprising audiences with her ability to bring life to even the most garish Hollywood fare (You've Got Mail, Scream 3, Josie and the Pussycats). Her grasp of the comic farce with an edge of sexuality makes her a noteworthy face in modern film, a rare performer from the Preston Sturges school.
In Personal Velocity, she plays Greta, a Harvard Law dropout who has found her place editing rinky-dink cookbooks for a small Manhattan publishing house owned by Wallace Shawn (any excuse to get Shawn in a film is worthwhile). She seems pretty happy: she's a got a nice job, a nice husband (Guinee), and a nice life. The problem is that all her achievements are modest, which goes against the expectations of her successful lawyer father (Leibman).
It's impossible to not see some correlation between Miller's problems coming from her father and Greta's. When she gives Greta the chance to succeed and, thus, be her father, there is some contempt coming from behind Ellen Kuras' carefully placed mini-DV camera. It is a breathtaking portrayal and an incredible story.
However, the other two stories fall short of the achievement that can be found in the Greta's middle section. The first deals with Delia (Sedgwick) and her attempt to find the personal and sexual empowerment she had as a teenager as she now runs from her abusive husband (Warshofsky). The third follows Paula (Balk) as she reacts to a near-death experience and the new choices (especially her growing maternal instincts) that plague her.
While both of these stories come with a respectable amount of writerly assuredness that is needed for success, they lack any real insight other than what might be considered Lifetime movie fodder. It is respectable that they fill 30 minutes with what Lifetime extends to 120, but that doesn't give merit to their existence in this film. Having not read the book Personal Velocity, I cannot say this with any authority, but I doubt these were among the best stories for adaptation.
Sedwick, who's miscast, and Balk are both respectable actresses, but neither of them posses the resilience that Posey has, making their sections tedious at best. Even as Miller and Kuras show great skill with their camera (Kuras was awarded the Best Cinematography prize at Sundance), there's so little justification to the bookend stories beyond callow characters in contrived situations to make Personal Velocity seem worthwhile.
I remember an English class in high school where we learned
that a three-part essay should always have the best two sections at the beginning and end.
Miller, who no doubt is fond of defying conventional wisdom (which is in many ways a
complement), instead sticks her only good vignette in the middle of her two lackluster
ones. The film feels like one of those short film collections that you see at film
festivals -- complete with the gem that overshadows the rest of the program.
BY: DAVID PERRY
Roman Polanski's parents left Paris to return to their native Poland in 1937. When World War II broke out two years later, 6-year-old Roman would be forced to watch the atrocities brought upon the Polish Jews by Nazi forces as part of their Final Solution. He was forced to move to the Warsaw ghetto, his parents were carted off to separate concentration camps (his mother would die, his father would survive), and, after escaping the ghetto by finding a hole in the barbwire fence, he ran around the Polish countryside and hid with gentile families compassionate to the Jewish plight.
What is important to note about Polanski's life during the war is that he was unable to do anything himself. Impotent by age and size, he could only watch in fear as the rest of the Krakow ghetto was obliterated by the Nazi forces. Part of the pain and anguish that hit people so hard while watching Schindler's List was Oskar Schindler tearfully thinking about the people that he didn't save because he kept a piece of jewelry or a car. This is a feeling that strikes many Americans, especially those who were alive at the time: why is it that we essentially did nothing to stop the Nazis from continuing the Holocaust as long as they did. It doesn't matter how many museums we build, it is a guilt that will hang over us for generations.
Almost a decade later, Schindler's List remains the film that people will compare any Holocaust film to. Its powerful treatment of the atrocities of Social Darwinism is, by most accounts, the best yet (not including the paramount but rarely seen documentaries Shoah and Night and Fog) because it struck the same nerve that has been brewing in the collective Westerner since the smoke of war moved away and exposed the terrifying enormity of the Holocaust. Most films on the subject since -- from Life is Beautiful to Jakob the Liar to The Grey Zone -- have felt oddly exploitative with their look at the Holocaust as comedy, demagoguery, and drudgery. They, from directors Roberto Benigni, Peter Kassovitz, and Tim Blake Nelson, felt far more detached from the proceedings -- the films were more like graphic history lessons than reality.
Polanski may never step foot in a concentration camp in The Pianist, his first (and probably only) foray into the Polish treatment during World War II, because he accepts the very autobiographical feeling that a movie of such weight needs (to this point, I find it a minor miracle that Steven Spielberg was able to pull off Schindler's List, and become further impressed by Martin Scorsese in turning down the film because he hadn't the understanding of the Holocaust that a Jewish director would have). But Polanski ably shows that some of the most terrifying visuals came from outside the camps -- not since Night and Fog have I been haunted by a single image as I am by Nazis throwing a wheelchair-bound old man over a balcony because he did not stand upon their entrance.
Like Polanski, Polish concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman escaped before being carted off to the camps. Instead, he was forced to attempt survival during the Nazi takeover of Warsaw from the sidelines, which were sometimes just as violent as the camps and battlefields.
Szpilman (Brody) is introduced with his family living in a modest Warsaw home during the outbreak of the war. He is happy with his life, spending most of his days performing the piano for the local radio station until it is bombed by the Nazis during one of his performances. It is with some retrospective pain to watch the Szpilmans celebrate when they learn over the radio that England and France had entered the war to save Poland from Germany -- they, like everyone else in the world, had no idea of the long war ahead of them.
A bit of luck pulled Wladyslaw out of the line to go to the trains for Treblinka, but his family did not follow -- they all perished in the camp. Wladyslaw tried to survive in the Jewish workforce the Nazis had created, but soon found even that was headed towards certain death. Instead, he began using a series of tangential connections to sympathetic people around Warsaw to get him places to hide until the war might end. With every hiding place, though, came even more chances of discovery because of the extremity of the German soldiers as their war looked more and more unwinnable.
Polanski treats Szpilman's story with such love that it is impossible to not feel his empathy with the character. In many ways, Polanski sees himself in the man: a person left to hide during the war and watch the atrocities around him without any ability to stop it. Most of Szpilman's hiding places had direct views of the streets that Nazis walked every day, killing off anonymous Jews simply because they wore a star on their arms. From his perch, he watched Nazi raids of homes, the medial aid of the fallen soldiers, and the Polish uprising that killed much of what was left of the Jewish population in Warsaw. In the last case, you can sense in the eyes of actor Adrien Brody how much he wished that he was down there with the other insurgents.
Brody gives a terrific, understated performance that relies mainly on his reactions to the world around him. In many ways, it is similar to Tom Hanks in Cast Away, who also lost weight and took a gaunt physique to show the product of starvation and solitude. It is an amazing work that shows the actor's range beyond anything he has been allowed before now. Paired with the stark production design of Allan Starski, Brody seems like the only man who survived much of the war as he walks between the gutted buildings. The sad realization is that at this point there's still many more months left of warfare on the Eastern front.
The actor also learned how to play the piano for the film, which may not be such a grand achievement had he not learned how to play it so well. While there was some use of a hand model in many of the performance scenes, much of it is Brody's work as proven by Polanski's willingness to move the camera up to show the man connected to the rapidly moving fingers.
It was important that Brody get this ability down because
music serves as an intensely important motif throughout the film. In one of the apartment
hideaways, Szpilman lives next door to a musician and is allowed to listen to the
performances every night. It is his chance to relive his once illustrious life before the
war -- all he has to do is close his eyes. The next hiding place leaves him in a room with
a piano, one that he cannot touch lest he let the neighbors know of his presence (as the
film makes clear, even with the support that he gets, many of the Polish people were as
anti-Semitic as the Germans). For nearly 90 minutes, we have seen Szpilman in anguish and
pain -- for the first time, as he gently plays a piece in his head while moving his hands
slightly above the keys, his happiness is at once revived. You want to close your eyes
with him and imagine that none of this has really happened. But you can't.
BY: DAVID PERRY
For most kids, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island may be a forgotten classic novel that will never be read by them. Perhaps it is because I come from an earlier generation, but the idea of this frightens me. The fact that most kids today never read Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, or The Invisible Man distresses me: when I was young, part of the pleasures of childhood was the freedom to recreate the world I had imagined in the stories my parents had read to me or that I read when I finally learned to pick up a novel and find the glorious freedom of the written word.
Treasure Island, a book that marked the childhood of my generation and nearly every previous generation this century, was made into two amazing films: the 1932 version with Wallace Beery and the 1950 version with Robert Newton. What is most surprising about those films and the generations they coincided with, was that both fed to the imagination of the viewers while still leaving the seed of continued interest inside them. After watching those previous Treasure Islands, most kids went back to the books, ready to enjoy the unabridged version.
The latter of the two versions was made by Disney, who soon capitalized on the television adventure genre the movie made an interest for. That, of course, was Walt Disney, whose interests in moving to the commercial sector coincided with his interests in art and entertainment. No one can question his decisions for a post-Treasure Island family genre and its quickly growing venue, which is not true for Roy Disney, the man in charge today.
While Treasure Planet, the Disney animated attempt at the story, does succeed in many ways that recent Disney animated efforts have failed (with the notable exceptions of Lilo & Stitch and the Pixar productions), it raises the specter of commerce over entertainment. The pleasures that can be found in Treasure Planet seem to be an unintended by-product for Disney and Michael Eisner. With my slight recommendation of this film comes a hopeful understanding that all acclaim should rest on the shoulders of directors Ron Clements and John Musker.
The film takes Stevenson's story and moves it into outer space. While all the costumes and sets have the look of an 18th century pirate swashbuckler, the setting is smack in the middle of interstellar pirate warfare. Jim Hawkins (Gordon-Levitt) is now a rebellious air surfer, and Long John Silver (Murray) is now part-cyborg. And yet, in an odd way, most of the film seems to be directly from the novel.
In true Disney fashion, the characterizations have much to be desired. While a small pet called Morph does bring some enjoyable moments, other sidekicks like B.E.N. (Short), a castaway robot on the title planet, veer towards annoyance. Even Jim Hawkins seems misdirected, moving towards a teenage angst that seems misplaced. This especially comes true in the film's attempts to show Silver as a father figure for the fatherless Jim (even making the relationship clear in a jackhammer montage that shows the two bonding as Jim's dad jumps ship).
What is most notable about the film, though, is its visuals creativeness, which often burst off the screen with a luminance rarely seen in 2-D animation in recent years. The film is also being released in IMAX theatres as a 3-D print, which can only be imagined by me to be a feat for the eyes. While I'm slightly puzzled by the need to change the setting to space instead of the open seas, it almost seems acceptable simply because of the visual flourishes it allows the filmmakers.
Every year, Disney releases two big family films with all
the fanfare they can muster. Usually this becomes a tedious event for critics -- one film
is usually acceptable and the other (most often a live action) work is painfully not.
While Treasure Planet is not near the achievement of Lilo & Stitch
this past summer, it does mark the first recommendable double feature from Disney in
years. Though, I'm still not convinced that this merits the fact that the majority of kids
who see this movie will never pick up a book by Jules Verne.