> Volume 5 > Number 18

Volume 5, Number 18

This Week's Reviews:  Holes, Flag Wars, Ararat, X2, Confidence, The Secret Lives of Dentists.

This Week's Omissions:  All the Real Girls, The Lizzie McGuire Movie.

Andrew Davis

Shia LaBeouf
Jon Voight
Khleo Thomas
Sigourney Weaver
Tim Blake Nelson
Patricia Arquette
Dulé Hill
Brenden Jefferson
Byron Cotton
Jake M. Smith
Miguel Castro
Max Kasch
Henry Winkler
Siobhan Fallon
Nathan Davis
Eartha Kitt

Release: 18 Apr. 03



In the final years of elementary school my literature teachers decided on a project that would allow the students to have their own choice in what books they were reading. Hoping, I suppose, to ensure that we read something of quality and to discourage anyone who might pick up a Vonnegut or Burroughs novel, we were only allowed to choose from the novels that had won the Newbery Medal for excellence in children's literature. [For anyone interested, the four books I chose were The Cat Who Went to Heaven, Sounder, Bridge to Terabithia, and It's Like This, Cat. We were also required to read the most recent medal winner one year, Sarah, Plain and Tall.]

The Newbery Medal, like the Pulitzer, the Oscar, et al., carries a great amount of weight in elementary school circles because they could give teachers something to assign. However, they miss out on another important part of the children's formative education: the willingness to read them without the prodding of an in-class presentation. Louis Sachar's Holes, which won the Newbery Medal in 1999, is important not because of the many literary awards it has won (it also received a National Book Award) but because kids excitedly read it on for their own personal pleasure. The way this book -- which is evidently better than the Harry Potter books, more accessible, but unfortunately less successful -- has grown as word-of-mouth phenomenon for kids looking for something to read that is actually enriching reminds of those bygone days when people were passing around a copy of S.E. Hinton's The Outsides in junior high because of its use of taboo subjects and because it was a damn good read.

I haven't read Holes but after seeing the movie it is based on, I desperately want to. Part of the reason why this film has done so well with critics, most of whom are middle-aged men, is because it has the same adolescent naďveté that drew us into those books when we were kids. I may not be near the same age as, say, Roger Ebert or Stanley Kaufman, but I'm certain there were books that weighed on their evolution as readers as strongly as The Outsiders did for me and as Holes is evidently doing for today's young readers.

The movie draws on that same tone, one of youthful exuberance hindered by society and the adults that just don't understand (to paraphrase Will Smith in his Newbery-deserving poem). Holes, meanwhile, brings in a mystical side that cannot be seen in the advertisements for the movie or the dust covers for the book. From my point-of-view, Holes works for adults as much as -- if not more than -- kids because it brings us back into our childhoods. For two hours, the thirtysomethings in the theatre become the thirteensomethings.

The frame story in Holes is about Stanley Yelnats IV (LaBeouf), so named for generations because 'Yelnats' is Stanley backwards. A chance encounter with some shoes and his attempt to give them to his shoe scientist father Stanley Yelnats III (Winkler), gets him unjustly arrested for the theft of these shoes. The judge sends him to Camp Green Lake, a labor camp for juvenile delinquents in the middle of the desert, where the prisoners spend each day digging five-by-five holes to build character.

But within are two other stories. First is the tale of the family curse, which Stanley's grandfather (Davis) blames for all the misfortune that has fallen on the men of the Yelnats family, in which an ancestor failed to keep his side of a bargain and aggravated a Latvian fortuneteller (Kitt). The other tale is of a romance in the Old West that has something to do with the reason why all these kids are digging these holes for their ice-queen warden (Weaver).

Holes is never condescending, always respectful of what kids can understand about what they are reading or watching. There are many levels and many connections created between different parts of the story, and director Andrew Davis (bringing the same atmospheric verisimilitude he brought to thrillers like The Fugitive and A Perfect Murder) and Sachar, who did his own adaptation, are game for the move of the story from the page to the screen without losing the affect. Briskly edited by Thomas J. Nordberg and Jeffrey Wolf, Holes has a command of the audience that keeps them interested from beginning to end, waiting with anticipation for the next revelation. If you'll excuse my pun, it's a cinematic page-turner.

©2003, David Perry,, 2 May 2003

Linda Goode Bryant
Laura Poitras

Linda Mitchell
Shango Baba Olugbala
Richard C. Pfeiffer
Nina Masseria
Jim Yoder

Release: N/A

Flag Wars


With gentrification comes an influx of housing for the normally segregated in the areas once meant only for the majority groups. Now, this may seem good at first -- the idea of allowing those with substandard housing to have the housing once taken by the higher classes within the city. However, with the efflux of the wealth, the services that take care of these areas also leave. Whenever I return home, it's hard not to notice the old, decrepit but large buildings that are now falling apart in what is now considered the ghetto.

This is the case in Columbus, Ohio, but with a small difference. The people moving into these homes are not just the low-income blacks, as is normally the case with gentrification, but also middle-income gays. Of course, neither of these groups are as open to the other as they probably should be, out of an underlying (and unintentional) racism and homophobia. They are expected to live next to each other, but they have tension within that almost eclipses the hetero white society they often must work with to keep their neighborhood from falling apart (regardless of the move to the suburbs, whites still dominate the bureaucracy).

The documentary Flag Wars, directed over three years by Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras for public television, comes in between the differing groups in an attempt to understand where each are coming from. Regardless of their shared oppression, this is a neighborhood of two groups that do not want to share a cup of sugar with each other.

Immediately, the difference between the two parts of the neighborhood becomes staggeringly noticeable. The blacks, who have staked a claim on the neighborhood since the beginning of the white flight in the 1970s, have been unable to keep the houses up to their original allure, meaning that the frames of beautiful houses have fallen to shambles with residents unable to keep them up. The gays, who have only recently found the area as a possible home thanks to the efforts of a local gay-owned real estate agency, see the great potential of these homes for refurbishing and immediately get to work returning the buildings to their original glory.

Meanwhile, the gays are discouraged by the lackluster condition of the black homes and the blacks are disturbed by the life choices of their gay neighbors. At one point, the gays homes are being broken into and the residents are being attacked.

There is a great evenhandedness between these two groups, which says a great deal about the distance the two filmmakers created between themselves and their subjects. The only villain they seem to want to create is the system that is allowing this to happen through gentrification. However, this intent is far from biting because there really isn't much to show the direct impact of gentrification other than some old newsreels. Most damaging of all, the system always seems to have a good point whenever one of its agents comes into the drama.

This is especially the case with Linda Mitchell, a longtime resident of the area who has allowed her family home to fall to disrepair and is now being pushed through the court system for violating zoning ordinances. The judge in her case, Richard C. Pfeiffer, is calm and understanding, constantly trying to force Mitchell to comprehend the legal implications of not bringing her home up to standards. On one visit to her home, as he points out the violations, most of which can be fixed in a mere hour and might actually give her some money if she sold some of the vehicles in her yard, Pfeiffer seems incredibly kind, the antithesis of the sadist this film seems to be asking for in pointing its finger at the state (they get their wish when the state brings another resident, Shango Baba Olugbala, to court for having a traditional African sign on his door -- though this does bring a hilarious visit from Judge Pfeiffer to Olugbala's private art gallery in his own home).

The debate Flag Wars opens up is an important and interesting one, but the film never really gets a sufficient grasp of it. Instead, it begins to look more like the anecdotes of these people as they try to coexist, while barely touching on the social implications of their actions and beliefs. Bryant's next film, a look at why people do not vote in our American democracy vis-ŕ-vis the 2004 Democratic primaries, sounds like an intriguing subject. I just hope she will have figured out which is more important, the issue or the anecdotes of the interviewees.

©2003, David Perry,, 2 May 2003

Atom Egoyan

David Alpay
Arsinée Khanjian
Christopher Plummer
Elias Koteas
Marie-Josée Croze
Charles Aznavour
Eric Bogosian
Bruce Greenwood
Brent Carver
Simon Abkarian

Release: 15 Nov. 02



The story Atom Egoyan wants to tell in Ararat is noticeably one of great importance to him, perhaps the subject most interesting to him of all those he has filmed thus far in his career. The question that revolves around Ararat, though, is whether Egoyan's personal expectations end up overshadowing any aesthetic worth for the film -- if, in fact, Egoyan's own personal touch makes this into a film only acceptable for Atom Egoyan, a type of self-serving cinematic achievement.

What he wants to say is that the mass genocide of the Armenian people -- of whom he is descended -- by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 was a part of history that has been unfairly brushed under the carpet. In the process of outing this historical moment, he also wants to get the audience to understand what type of human defect makes it possible that the killing of a million people can be unknown by much of the world population. As the rumor goes (and the film makes sure to mention), Adolf Hitler told accomplices worried over the ramifications of his Jewish plan, "Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?"

Unfortunately, this is a part of history that has remained secret for the 87 years since it began. Today, the Turkish government continues to claim they were not committing any form of ethnic cleansing, but merely taking part in a war (World War I had just begun), regardless of the fact that all those so-called casualties of war were Turkish citizens.

Egoyan's attempt at dealing with this story isn't through the type of Schindler's List dramatics that one might expect, but through the introspection and denial of our own behavior as a proxy for the historical disregard for this story. There is, as a meta-film called Ararat, a production of the atrocities, especially in the attack on the city of Van, but most of Ararat, the main film, is about the modern view of this and other parts of people's cultural, ethnic, and personal histories. The characters in Ararat are more than parts of the Armenian story, but, more importantly, parts of the universal human story and the way this one incident is reflective of most everything that happens on the microcosmic side of history. This is the type of film that would get Howard Zinn excited.

Each of the characters, almost all of whom are Armenian descendents, represents some form of understanding, whether it is at a great or slight level. But what it is they understand is what makes them different from the rest of the crowd. While one person -- case in point, art historian Ani (Khanjian) brought in to consult on the production of the meta-film -- may understand a piece of his or her life, another person -- Ani's step-daughter Celia (Croze), blaming Ani for her father's suicide -- may be in the dark. On the flip side, though, is the fact that this understanding comes in difference (or is it semblance?) to the lack of understanding on some other level: Ani's search for answers in the art of Arshile Gorky, which Celia claims to know.

The most prominent character of Ararat is Raffi (Alpay), Ani's son, Celia's step-brother/lover, and production assistant to the meta-film. He seems to be the only person in the drama acknowledging this need for understanding that is dividing his family and, in a different instance, his people. This is the reason he travels to Turkey and films Mount Ararat, the Turkish people, and anything else that may help him find those pieces of the puzzle he's missing from understanding his mother. Much of the film, including the scenes from the meta-film, is told by Raffi at a Canadian customs booth upon his return from Turkey. Carrying film canisters that may contain drugs, Raffi is forced to come clean about all this -- the familial, industrial, and historical divides -- to the customs agent, David (Plummer).

As much as Raffi is Egoyan's proxy within this story, David is here for those who cannot connect themselves to the Armenian genocide. David, on his last day and struggling with the homosexuality of his son (in the Altaman-esque crossing paths of Ararat, his son's lover is one of the actors in the meta-film), isn't necessarily looking for answers. More likely he, like those of us contentedly ignorant of the Armenian genocide, is listening without the slightest amount of prerequisite interest. It is Raffi and Egoyan's achievement if David and the audience are taken into this story, finally understanding both the history of the Armenian people and the fleeting nature of our own understanding of what he should consider history.

Ararat is a complex film, turning to didacticism at many points, which may serve to turn-off many viewers. But it is ultimately rewarding in its comprehension of all that is problematic within the blink of history in which we exist. Ararat, regardless of any of its flaws, is a film that will make any viewer think, which is more than can be said about the compliant stuffy historical dramas we usually get.

©2003, David Perry,, 2 May 2003

Bryan Singer

Hugh Jackman
Ian McKellen
Brian Cox
Patrick Stewart
Famke Janssen
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos
Anna Paquin
Shawn Ashmore
Halle Berry
Alan Cumming
Aaron Stanford
Kelly Hu
James Marsden
Bruce Davison

Release: 2 May 03



Following up on the beating of the liberal drum that made the original X-Men movie so enjoyable as more than mindless action movie fodder, X2 (which oddly and idiotically abbreviates the sequel name, though this is still better than the promotional tagline "X-Men United") comes with louder pangs of minority empowerment/freedom and the fear of the jingoists trying to make it impossible for the "others" to coexist with mainstream society.

Like all the works in the Marvel family, there is more than just good vs. evil in X-Men, which does help raise it above the limitations seen by the mistakes from D.C. Comics (the exception being the gothic beauty brought by Tim Burton to Batman). The idea that politics play any purpose to the telling of a story in a big-budget summer movie should say something about Stan Lee's little comic: this ain't no mom and pop establishment.

X2 builds on the foundation laid by 2000's X-Men, jumping directly into the story without taking the time to recap. This does give some merit to the first film, which did begin to bend under the temporal strain created by introducing nearly a dozen major and minor players (though, it should be noted that X2, clocking in at a lengthy 133 minutes, succeeds in wasting the surplus time saved by the original). For X2, there are only three major unveilings: the disgruntled fire-starter Pyro (Stanford; who gets some kudos for not being as unlikable as he was in Tadpole), the female Wolverine rip-off Deathstrike (Hu), and the gargoyle-like transporter Nightcrawler (Cumming). And, thankfully, their introductions are weaved into the expository sequences for all the characters, which makes their addition more acceptable than tedious.

Instead of placing mutants against mutants again (which causes one to pause momentarily when Patrick Stewart's Professor Xavier states, "Sharing the world has never been humanity's defining attribute" oblivious to the fact that there has been quite a large share of mutant-on-mutant violence within both films), the main villain becomes Washington, D.C., and the intentions of executive branch bureaucrat William Stryker (Cox) to relegate the mutants into the margins of society, or, better yet, destroy them altogether.

One of the best features of X-Men was Bruce Davison's portrayal of a McCarthy-esque senator intent on doing just that. However, the upping of the ante by Stryker -- as well as the ingenious replacement of him with the seductive shape-shifting of Mystique (Romijn-Stamos; still as amazing a presence as she was in Femme Fatale) -- has made it easier for the film to dedicate the antagonism to a southern-accented president with an American flag on his lapel and a predilection for alcohol when the going gets tough, making X2 into the all-out campaign video for the DNC. You almost wish for X3 to star the new mutants that can (a) marry gay couples, (b) pay for things with ketchup money, and (c) whine about the 2000 election until he gets his way. The nicknames of these three new characters have not yet been decided.

Jest as I might, I like the sort of liberal finger pointing that can be found in this film, especially considering how low-key it actually is. The "We are the World" mentality that makes this series so commanding from a moral uplift is built in its attempt to allow the characters to live with everyone, regardless of their color, religion, or special power. X2 even deals with a character coming out of the mutant closet to his parents, all the while showing the family's distraught reaction ("Have you tried to not act like a mutant," asks his mother). This is, after all, a movie in which the ambiguously evil duo is made up of Magneto (McKellen), played by an openly gay actor enjoyably 'queening' up his dialogue, and Mystique, an organism that can be both male and female.

For all the subtexts to be read (and misread) perfectly nestled into the drama by returning director Bryan Singer and screenwriters Michael Doherty, Dan Harris, and David Hayter (with additional story work by Singer and Zak Penn), it becomes easy to forget the rest of the film, which is cut-and-dry action mixed with lofty intentions. This is still a message movie hidden within the confines of an effects-heavy action adventure. That Singer succeeds in making X2 more thrilling than anything in X-Men is astounding, and it comes with the added satisfaction that, like those mutant Frosted Mini-Wheats trying to sit next to that rich and white Cap'n Crunch fellow, the sweet side is still complemented by the side that's good for you.

©2003, David Perry,, 2 May 2003

James Foley

Edward Burns
Rachel Weisz
Paul Giamatti
Brian Van Holt
Andy Garcia
Dustin Hoffman
Franky G.
Donal Logue
Luis Guzmán
Morris Chestnut
Robert Forster

Release: 25 Apr. 03



Considering my voting history on heist films, it's easy to surmise that I am a sucker for a good heist film. Ocean's 11, Heist, The Score, The Nine Queens, The Good Thief, and many other films in the genre have received positive appraisals from me. However, I don't necessarily think that this is built out of an acceptance of the genre films as a whole, but out of an interest in what new angles can be created by different directors (just look at the difference between any of the aforementioned films). To me, there's a history of good caper films -- The Killing, The Asphalt Jungle, Big Deal on Madonna Street, Bob le Flambeur, Rafifi, The Sting -- that helps in the understanding of the evolution of a genre. While most of the new ones cleft from the previous heists, there's almost always something new to keep the interest of the informed audience.

This is what makes Confidence such a bad example of heist films. There is nothing new in this con, which becomes more of a collection of elements from previous films, mixed with slick styling, and a vacuum of audience interest. Unlike David Mamet's House of Games, the father of the modern heist film, which it steals most of its material from, there isn't a moment when the characters seem the least bit human to the audience. Their artificial lives are unquestionably disposable -- their success doesn't seem to matter.

What's worse about Confidence, though, is that the audience is almost always ahead of the players. Anyone who has ever seen a film in this genre will be able to piece together the supposedly intelligent twists that the film attempts to make fresh. The final twist, so idiotic that it makes you want to scream, is the type of idiocy that one sees a mile away and hopes, "please tell me they won't do that."

The film begins with Jake Vig (Burns) sprawled out in a pool of blood, and remarking in one of those William Holden monologues of what brought him to this cadaverous state. The problem seemed to begin when he and his partners in crime -- neurotic Gordo (Giamatti) and smooth operator Miles (Van Holt) -- setup a con that gets some cash from a nervous accountant, with help, of course, from some crooked cops (Logue and Guzmán).

It turns out that the accountant worked for local crime boss The King (Hoffman), who wants his money back. Since he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life trying to hide from The King's wrath, Jake makes a deal with The King in which he'll steal enough from business magnate Morgan Price (Forster) to pay him back with interest. As genre conventions prescribe, Jake must bring in another head to the planning phase, pretty pickpocket Lily (Weisz), and must accept the watchful eye of The King's associate Lupus (Franky G.). The group begins to divide, people begin to wonder about the intentions of others, and the plan begins to fall apart -- exactly as it must happen for the genre to work.

Director James Foley, best known for invisibly directing Glengarry Glen Ross, tries to cover the holes and over-trodden tracks created by Doug Jung's script with as much style as he can muster. All the characters move around in a world dominated by light filters and editing wipes. The film does look snazzy, but there's nothing in the story to merit this. Instead, it just feels like a filmmaker's attempt to hide the lackluster story behind all the film trickery he can muster. It's really a sad sight when you consider how little he had to do with the incredible script David Mamet gave him for Glengarry Glen Ross.

For the most part, the cast is up to the challenge, with Giamatti shining in another one of those roles that does not deserve his genius, and Andy Garcia is fun playing a federal agent long on Jake's tail. Logue and Guzmán are under used, though they at least get to show some acting chops, unlike Robert Forster, who is literally wasted in what effectively amounts to a mere cameo. Hoffman chews up the scenery, which is enjoyable at first, but gets a little tiresome after the third gum-chewing frenzy (I think there would be holes in the sets if not for the Dentine Foley has given Hoffman).

Perhaps one of the reasons Confidence ultimately has no resonance is in the fact that Ed Burns is the main protagonist. An actor of little graces, Burns comes off as too much of a poser in roles like this. His Long Island soul may work somewhat in romantic comedies, but here he just seems like low-priced furniture with designer upholstery. It's impossible to feel anything for the character when the script and the actor make him seem facile and the director's overcompensation reminds the audience that his uselessness is just part of the overall cinematic con.

©2003, David Perry,, 2 May 2003

Alan Rudolph

Campbell Scott
Hope Davis
Denis Leary
Robin Tunney
Gianna Beleno
Cassidy Hinkle
Lydia Jordan

Release: 1 Aug. 03

The Secret Lives of Dentists


I've spent more time with dentists over the past week than I care to admit. First came the final check-up before having my wisdom teeth removed in which the dentist picked over my teeth to make sure no problems may arise. Then came the actual extraction, in which I was unconscious for an hour while the oral surgeon cut four teeth out of my mouth, and then spent the next few days getting over the surgery. Finally, I returned to my normal dentist to look over the surgeons work to see if everything was still okay with the rest of my dental work.

Still, despite all the pain and discomfort that came from this fine week, I feel like I gained more (albeit by losing something) in this experience than I did watching The Secret Lives of Dentists a week ago. The story of dentists and their mundane lives outside of the office has all the excitement of being under for that hour, and the climax is just as unfulfilling as my Jell-O and ice cream only diet.

Director Alan Rudolph has been an oddity in film, turning in absurd little films that are as annoying as they are complex and interesting. When most critics have considered him little more than a hack, unworthy of his protégé experience under Robert Altman, I've actually likes some of his films, including Mrs. Parker and Vicious Circle, Afterglow, and the critically reviled Breakfast of Champions (I've come to believe that it is impossible to enjoy unless you love the book, like the adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five, also written by Kurt Vonnegut). This is not the case with The Secret Lives of Dentists, which does take some of the better parts of Afterglow and made it into the biggest experiment in inanity and inactivity I've seen this year.

The dentists in question are the husband-wife team of David (Scott) and Dana Hurst (Davis), who share a practice in New York. Their lives seem near perfect: they have a nice home in the suburbs, a rustic cabin in the country, and three cute daughters to keep them busy when they aren't at work. But all begins to come undone when David goes to visit Dana backstage at her latest passion, performing as an extra in an opera, and finds her in the throes of some other man. Even if he's taking it out of context, this destroys David's belief in having a happy marriage and he soon begins to notice all the other examples of his marriage collapsing that he'd previously been oblivious to.

To help David in his epiphany is the hallucination of a disgruntled patient named Slater (Leary), whose recommendations range from getting an understanding of Dana to giving up on her altogether. Needless to say, Slater's words of wisdom are little help.

Most of the film sets on the shoulders of Scott, who is more than game for all the tasks Craig Lucas' script gives him (everything from waxing poetically about dentistry to taking care of three kids with influenza while suffering from it himself). Scott is one of the more versatile actors in the indie circuit right now, with, unfortunately, little chance for a crossover in the mainstream. His ability to create a realistic bone in some of the most artificial bodies is amazingly acute -- you can see what he gained from his father, George C. Scott.

This is not, however, the case with Hope Davis, who unconvincingly plays Dana as a befuddled innocent in the jealous rampage of her husband. Leary is also little help in the story, serving his usual shtick in conjunction with the absurd scenarios he's put in by Rudolph.

Occasionally there are little nuggets of genius in The Secret Lives of Dentists, but most of it is tiresome, redundant, and pointless. I wanted something to happen, which is part of the draw in a Rudolph film in the first place. Even when it's off-the-wall, there's always something going on in his little world. But nothing happens in this film outside of a little drama that deserves 20 minutes of screen time instead of the film's 105. The origin was, after all, a novella, and the filler that Rudolph and Lucas find to beef up the drama isn't quite enough to merit the full procedure.

©2003, David Perry,, 2 May 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry