> Volume 5 > Number 16

Volume 5, Number 16

This Week's Reviews:  Stevie, Spun, Russian Ark, Identity.

This Week's Omissions:  Holes, Malibu's Most Wanted.

Capsule Reviews:  Bulletproof Monk, House of 1000 Corpses.

Steve James

Steve James
Stephen Fielding
Tonya Gregory
Brenda Hickam
Bernice Hagler
Verna Hagler
Doug Hickam

Release: 28 Mar. 03



For documentary filmmaker Steve James, Stevie Fielding was a distant memory. During his college years at Southern Illinois University, he felt the need to do something with the Big Brother program. Instead of getting a happy inner-city kid to go play baseball with, James got Fielding, an impoverished runt being juggled around the Pomona trailer homes.

After graduating from college in 1985 and taking a job upstate, James left Fielding behind. Stevie, James' documentary on their reunion, is as much about the wasted life Fielding has as it is about James' guilt for being partially responsible.

James returned to Pomona in 1995, fresh off the success of Hoop Dreams, the story of two kids trying to realize their dream of basketball success. Fielding hasn't these dreams, his story is more about survival against the odds than it is about meeting any mighty aspirations. James, still feeling guilty for never contacting Fielding during his formative years, worries over this. His time as a big brother may have long passed, but he still feels like it is his duty to ensure that Fielding has the best life.

And yet James leaves Fielding again after that one visit in 1995 so that he can head to Hollywood to direct Prefontaine. There is still that nagging guilt within him (and a certain level of exploitiveness shown by the fact that James remembered to bring a camera for his 1995 visit) that makes him return to Pomona two years later. Though the financial and family problems remain, there's another problem plaguing Fielding: he's been accused of molesting his 8-year-old niece.

In Stevie, James attempts to understand the troubled life of Fielding and what could have brought him to a crime so unforgivable. James' wife, a social worker specializing in sex offenders, sees him as a monster, and wants more than anything to get her husband out of Fielding's business. But James remains, struck by the way this kid has been allowed to destroy his life.

For the next year, James speaks to Fielding's family about their relationship to him and the way they feel about his upbringing, their responsibilities to him, and the possibilities of his guilt in this case. The trail begins with his loving step-grandmother Verna Hagler, who took care of Fielding when his mother Bernice married Verna's son and decided she wanted nothing to do with her illegitimate son. The only connection Bernice ever had with Fielding was in their occasional fights, which almost always ended with her abusing him. It helped that Bernice's trailer was next door to Verna's house.

Fielding's stepsister Brenda is the most grounded of the family, as well as the best example of overcoming the elements. She got married, moved to another part of Pomona, and attempted to keep only the slightest connection with Fielding, Verna, and Bernice. It's not that she was abused like her brother -- she was, in their minds, legitimate -- but even she and her husband recognized the destructive elements seething throughout that family.

James serves as a companion for Fielding during the processing of his case in the Carbondale court system. However, the camera always remains at his side. Stevie is a very exploitive film, but James' recognition of this, and the remorse he feels for it, becomes part of the draw. He even wonders how this film defines the current relationship that they have: Would he have returned to Fielding's side if it hadn't been for his cinema vérité appeal? Is Fielding only accepting the camera into his life so that James will come back?

The most comforting person in this human drama is Tonya Gregory, Fielding's girlfriend. At first, her speech impediment makes her seem slow and stupid, an implication emphasized by her relationship to Fielding, but as time progresses her grasp of all around her seems better than anyone else. She even accepts that her boyfriend is probably guilty of the crime, but is still drawn to the man inside the monster that she loves. She has forgiven him from the beginning. It is the power of James' film that, by the end, we all begin to see what she saw long before us.

©2003, David Perry,, 18 April 2003

Jonas Åkerlund

Jason Schwartzman
Brittany Murphy
Mickey Rourke
John Leguizamo
Patrick Fugit
Mena Suvari
Peter Stormare
Alexis Arquette
Deborah Harry

Release: 14 Mar. 03



There is a fine line between genius and madness, or so the old epigram goes. Spun is perhaps proof positive of this. Taking the cues from Trainspotting and Requiem for Dream, both heralded as master works, Spun becomes one of the most woefully wretched, unquestionable unlikable films this year. When I first saw those earlier two films, I knew I had something to add to my top ten lists. After Spun, I already see it placing as my nominee for the worst film of 2003.

Spun shares the frantic shooting and editing style of its forbearers, but lacks the humanity that made them so involving. Sara of Requiem or Renton of Trainspotting (or, for that matter, Bob of Drugstore Cowboy or Fuckhead of Jesus' Son) were all fractured human beings at the center of their drug-filled downward trajectories. Those who found redemption and those who found destruction were equal in their misgivings and in their realizations.

This is never found in Spun, which takes the technical aspects of Requiem, ups the ante, but dulls anything felt by the audience for the characters. No one in this little drama has the least amount of redeeming features, not necessarily a debit to their ability as strong characters (just look at Bret Easton Ellis' achievements with American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction), but a huge problem when their stories are told with such razzmatazz that they give you headaches and leave you wanting to walk out.

I never left the theatre during Spun, but I don't feel like I would have lost out on anything if Ihad . The least of my worries would be that I wouldn't discover the fate of some of the film's characters, but even that seems a small price to pay to be freed from the annoyance playing before me. In retrospect, despite any aspirations for edge, the film is predictable to the core, with each character's future as clear from the beginning as they are annoying in the end.

The characters are all drug addicts, and the central story is their lives over the course of three days of unending highs. The protagonist seems to be Ross (Schwartzman), a Southern California slacker who lacks the money to finance his crack addiction and must become the chauffeur (in his battered Volvo) to the local crack chemist The Cook (Rourke, becoming the cliché) and his ditzy girlfriend Nikki (Murphy). Meanwhile, there's the subplot of drug dealer Spider Mike (Leguizamo), his homebody girlfriend Cookie (Suvari), his main customer Frisbee (Fugit), and the two crack-addicted, media-hungry cops after him (Stormare and Arquette).

There is a point, I guess, which is that drug use isn't pretty, but was this the only way commercial überkind Jonas Åkerlund (best known for Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" and Madonna's "Ray of Light" music videos) knew how to deal with it. This film is essentially playing with the same story of Jesus' Son, but without the slightest resemblance of that film's moral sentiment and redemptive command. Åkerlund, who isn't a bad director of images, is a horrible director of story, concepts, and the subtlety found in previous drug films. Danny Boyle, Darren Aronofsky, and Gus van Sant (before he become the "new" old Gus van Sant) are not the most grounded of filmmakers, and yet their films seem positively sober compared to the demented, off-putting frenzy Åkerlund relies on.

©2003, David Perry,, 18 April 2003

Alexander Sokurov

Sergei Dreiden

Release: 13 Dec. 02

Russian Ark


We have the Russians to thank for the artistry of editing. It was Sergei Eisenstein who wrote a book and directed films on the importance of editing in the telling of a story cinematically, and it was Vsevolod Pudovkin and Lev Kuleshov who helped to bring Eisenstein's ideas to fruition. The modern film, with its multitudes of edits, perfectly timed to get the best affect out of the audience, comes directly from Soviet montage.

And now we have the Russians to thank for finding the artistry in the lack of editing, building out of the long take achievements of Andrei Tarkovsky. While the uncut shot that marks Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark isn't the first of its kind (a previous, more experimental attempt was done by Mike Figgis in Time Code, in which four cameras simultaneously filmed a collection of uninteresting characters), it is the first to find the dramatic voice of this experiment. Stanley Kaufman of The New Republic questioned the film's existence as being dependent only on its key pretense. Indeed, this is a film dominated by its tour-de-force filming, but its virtues lie far beyond merely its technical conceit.

Set in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Sokurov's film is more of a historical journey through the important figures and moments in Russian civilization. The date seems to center around the early 1900s as the czarist rule begins to dim while the Bolshevik revolution lights outside the mansion. Before taking its place as the preeminent art museum in St. Petersberg, the Hermitage was, after all, the Grand Palace and the Great Nicholas Hall where the czars' families lived and entertained.

The place is huge and magnificently adorned. The rooms look amazing: drapery, furniture, paintings, everything a monarch would want to ornament his or her home. Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Nicholas I, and Alexandra all come in and out of the story as they enjoy their lives within this mansion.

But, despite his open conservatism and the pro-monarchic leanings for Europeans at the time that it brings to mind (similar to Eric Rohmer's politics and its relationship to The Lady and the Duke), Sokurov does not use his film to make the case for the wonders of a monarchy. Instead, Russian Ark is about the role of this imposing structure as the repository of being Russian. Inside are all the vestiges of three centuries of a nation's history, and, even though its use by the czars and czarinas ended abruptly in 1917, its walls still reverberate with the pangs of everything that follow its royal closing whether it be the military it once saluted dying in the Great War or in the Soviet ignorance of its importance.

The film begins with the narrator (Leonid Mozgovoy) waking up to the pomp and circumstance of some Russian soldiers and their luxuriant dates as they enter the Grand Palace to attend one of Nicholas I's final balls. Their happiness is naïve enough to not hear the plebian revolution shouting outside the gates. Meanwhile, the narrator, who is evidently from today (the camera is his point of view and, therefore, he is never shown), is able to recognize the historical perspective missed by those living in the time period.

At first he sees this as a dream -- "I open my eyes and I see nothing. I only remember there was some accident. Everyone ran for safety as best they could. I just can't remember what happened to me," reminiscent of an entry into the afterlife in Dante's Inferno -- but as he gets further into his tour, the whole experience seems to be more like the metaphysical projection of one's self into a wholly independent but conscious existence. The Hermitage seems like the perfect place for this projection.

Importantly, the tour guide for this is the Marquis de Custine, a French traveler who was to Russia what Alexis de Toqueville was to America. He often questions the worth of some of Russia's artistic achievements, cultural identities, and pompous intelligentsia as mere facsimiles of the stronger elements of European society. While his voice is the only consistent one around, he is treated like the outsider he really is. Like those of us in the audience, his own understanding of what the Hermitage means is deeply hindered by his non-Russian background. The Hermitage, it seems, is important because of what it means to a Russian. We can only look on, trying to understand it (and, if we follow the footsteps of the Marquis, ridicule that which we do not understand), and recognize that it is indeed Russia's Ark: a collection of a society, a nation, and a people, the times when the three were not the same and the times when there was no interest in Russia being European.

©2003, David Perry,, 18 April 2003

James Mangold

John Cusack
Ray Liotta
Amanda Peet
John C. McGinley
John Hawkes
Clea DuVall
William Lee Scott
Jake Busey
Alfred Molina
Pruitt Taylor Vince
Bret Loehr

Release: 25 Apr. 03



Like The Sixth Sense before it, anyone watching Identity will get the impression that its entire existence is dependent on the twist that supposedly marks it as different from every other film in its genre. But, the key difference in this case is that The Sixth Sense was a bad film with a good twist and that Identity is a good film with a bad twist. In the end, neither can really use their attributes well enough to convince the audience that this is still worth watching.

I, of course, will refrain from detailing the twist in Identity, but will state that it is, thankfully, not used as the climax in this case. Director James Mangold and screenwriter Michael Cooney decide to unveil their fantabulous twist in the film's second act, thus relieving the end to, well, seem pointless. However, this does at least allow the audience to take in the depth the rabbit hole goes in the establishment and follow through of the twist in the second half. Unlike some of the better twist films -- namely The Usual Suspects -- there's no real necessity to watch Identity again to take in the intricate planning involved in making this twist possible.

But, as I stated earlier, the twist notwithstanding, there's something respectable about the rest of the film and its unabashed parade of clichés. Playing William Castle B-horror to perfection, Identity includes enough of the formula -- the rainy night, the lapsed cop, the hooker with a heart of gold, the quiet kid, the empty motel, the Indian burial ground -- to make this seem like the normal romp through recognizable homages to everyone from Hitchcock to Christie.

The film begins with two defined stories working on two oft-changing chronologies. First is the judge's chamber where a convicted killer is about to be given a final chance at the commuting of his or her sentence on the night before execution. Since the convict is late, the lawyers, judge, and psychiatrist attempt to put together some understanding as to why this person deserves to have this last chance at salvation from the electric chair.

The other story is set in a motel in the middle of the Nevada desert as eleven people attempt to figure out what brought them there and why they are dying off in successive and grisly fashions. Their entrance into the motel, solely managed by Larry (Hawkes), is made possible when a lost high heel shoe owned by on-the-lam Las Vegas prostitute Paris (Peet) punctures a tire on the minivan driven by George (McGinley), joined by wife Alice (Kenzle) and son Timmy (Loehr). As the couple attempt to replace the tire, a momentarily lack of concentration on the part of limo driver Ed (Cusack) causes him to hit Alice. His passenger, former starlet Caroline (De Mornay), tries to get him to keep driving, but, being a former cop, Ed feels obligated to help Alice.

All these people are connected in these events and then stranded by the torrential rain and the evident lackluster Nevada roads. When they make it to the motel, they are joined by the bickering newlyweds (DuVall and Scott), the cop Rhodes (Liotta), and his manic prisoner Robert (Busey). And then, as if someone were reading And Then There Were None -- to the filmmakers' credit, they do note the resemblance within the film -- people start dying off with little room number keys tallying the body count. With eleven people and only ten rooms, it is a safe bet that someone will be left at the end with much blood on his or her hands.

All this cheesy stuff in the middle is idiotic, but still acceptable. There are subtle scares that show Mangold's unknown abilities in this genre (his previous work include Heavy, Girl, Interrupted, and Copland), and they help to keep the audience involved with the long-worn formula on display. But this is undermined by the twist, which counters the genial conventionalism that made Identity charming. The twist just feels facile and unneeded, a turn that comes as merely a chance for the filmmakers to gloat at the audience with their own intelligence, even if it feels so stodgy that you want to throw your hands in the air with dismissal at its presentation.

Watching Identity, I was reminded of a story Bryan Singer likes to tell about his first screening of The Usual Suspects with an audience. At the film's climactic twist -- one that felt truly clever and made the audience want to return to the intricate little web he and writer Christopher McQuarrie had created -- an elderly gentleman stood up to walk out of the theatre before the movie had completely come to a close. On his exit, he made sure to vocalize his disdain for what had been done to him at this movie: "Baloney!" When Identity makes its own surprise, it took all my might -- empowered by my respect for the rest of the film -- to keep this man's spirit from taking over me.

©2003, David Perry,, 18 April 2003


Bulletproof Monk

Chow Yun-Fat is among the greatest kung-fu movie stars thanks to his work with John Woo, but you wouldn't be able to tell that from watching Bulletproof Monk. Placing him in an unseemly buddy action comedy with the constantly unfunny Seann William Scott and allowing his fight movements to fall to the wayside in the muddle of over-editing, you'd never recognize the wire-fu mysticism of his work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or his smooth professionalism in The Replacement Killers.

Paul Hunter

Seann William Scott
Chow Yun-Fat
James King
Marcus J. Pirae
Karel Roden

Release: 16 Apr. 03

©2003, David Perry,, 18 April 2003
House of 1000 Corpses

It's hard to write anything about Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses because its delirium of camp and gore may be the least watchable thing on theatre screens this Spring. I have been one of the kinder critics of films played for a camp audience lately, but this is literally the pits, even by Joe Bob Briggs standards. It takes a great amount of poor filmmaking to make me long for Halloween 5, but this did it. Why can't anyone make something as equally suspenseful and hilarious as Motel Hell these days?

Rob Zombie

Erin Daniels
Bill Moseley
Sheri Moon
Karen Black
Sid Haig

Release: 11 Apr. 03

©2003, David Perry,, 18 April 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry