> Volume 5 > Number 21

Volume 5, Number 21

This Week's Reviews:  Bruce Almighty, Spider, The Dancer Upstairs.

This Week's Omissions:  Cowboy Bebop, The In-Laws.

Tom Shadyac

Jim Carrey
Jennifer Aniston
Morgan Freeman
Steven Carrell
Catherine Bell
Philip Baker Hall

Release: 23 May 03

Bruce Almighty


There was a time -- not too long ago, mind you -- when Jim Carrey was seen as little more than another fly-by-night funnyman without any credit in any other capacity. Coming off of his time as the white guy of In Living Color, Carrey took a slew of films built on his physical humor over anything that might seem human. Sometimes his flamboyancy worked perfectly (In Living Color, Dumb and Dumber), sometimes it did not (the Ace Ventura films, The Mask), and all the while he was making millions. The Cable Guy was a big step for him, taking a gamble that his normal audience when accept him in a dark, strange role that involved something more than tagline throwing (though, that film included his honorific intonation of other people’s taglines).

And now he is Jim Carrey, The Actor. Films like The Truman Show, The Man on the Moon, and The Majestic have shown his abilities in drama even if it hasn’t necessarily created the aura of respectability that the actor might have been going for. In many people’s minds, Carrey is still The Comedian above all else, and whatever he may do (his next film is the latest screenplay by Charlie Kaufman), is doubtful to change that as long as he is still placating to his ticket-buying base with such regressive films as Me, Myself & Irene, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Bruce Almighty.

In the latter film by Tom Shadyac, Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a Buffalo, New York, television news reporter constantly shat upon by his network. When Bruce has finally had enough as his prized anchorman position is given to the sniveling brownnoser Evan Baxter (Carell), he chastises God for the predicament his creator has put him in. Called to a office building after hours, he finds God waiting to give his powers to Bruce, let someone questioning him try the position out for himself.

This premise should open up the film to hilarity or at least some level of theological questions that have worked perfectly on films like Michael Powell’s woefully forgotten Stairway to Heaven. Instead, the entire film is built on such unfunny gags as (a) what if Bruce made his increased the breast size of his wife (Aniston), (b) how about he makes the dog use the toilet, (c) and maybe he’d part a sea of gawkerblocker cars. There’s nary a laugh amid the collection of all-powerful man jokes that somehow made it into the screenplay by Steve Koren, Mark O’Keefe, and Steve Oedekerk (who does not deserve to have a similar name to Bob Odenkirk of Mr. Show).

If there was any inspiration present in the film, it would be gum-drop sickening religiosity quagmire that the film ultimately falls into. The final third of the film, which has the sound of a bad Pete Yorn CD and the sloppy sentiment of a Seventh Heaven episode, worked better as the dedication from one of the radio Delilah programs than as a film that previously lifted itself to what it considered to be edgy comedy.

Considering the so-called pedigree that made this film, though, it comes as no surprise that Bruce Almighty ultimately proves to be the familiar tripe of the year, the film with high aspirations of laughs and low output. This is, after all, the same director-writer (Oedekerk) team who made Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and the completely unforgivable Patch Adams. My choice for the worst film of last year, Dragonfly, was the wretched creation of Tom Shadyac.

The clearest lesson that came from Bruce Almighty among all the life lessons it tries to impart is that there is no longer even the hint of a place for Carrey in these types of roles. He has moved on to the darker parts and whenever he tries to return to levity he overcompensates by destroying the fabrics of the jester’s clothing he previously wore. It is telling that the film’s funniest moment isn’t even his: it comes when Steve Carell, one of the best alumni from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, manically steals the show with an apparently improvised outburst of unintelligible furor. Carell is the new Jim Carrey, and the old guy will just have to settle with the darker works. If he plays his cards right, Carrey might even get that coveted Oscar too -- just look at Jack Lemmon’s career.

©2003, David Perry,, 23 May 2003

David Cronenberg

Ralph Fiennes
Miranda Richardson
Gabriel Byrne
Bradley Hall
Lynn Redgrave
John Neville

Release: 28 Feb. 03



Last year saw the celebration of one of the worst films to ever receive an Academy Award, much less the Best Picture winner: Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman’s absolutely despicable A Beautiful Mind (I can’t completely portray the anguish I had recently when a candidate for political office who I support named it as his favorite recent film -- not only is it an easy, popular answer but also one that shows a great lacking in critical adeptness). In that film, schizophrenia became mental disease du jour for the filmmakers to turn their film into the ramblings and incoherent dramas of a real life person who, if the film was any indication, didn’t deserve to have a movie made on his life. If Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease were made into a film, chances are Ron Howard would fill it with scenes of Reagan not recognizing people and forgetting major parts of his life, glazing over the debility of it and the minor cognitive responses that whither away.

David Cronenberg’s Spider, a much deeper, darker film, is fictional and yet its portrayal of a disease is far more realistic. The director, best known for his ability to turn AIDS, gynecology, and vaginas into important metaphoric horror stories, chooses to take his fetishes to a different, more basic level. Spider isn’t about the physical examples of sexual practice that is often found within his films, instead he deals with the mental condition that is represented by sexuality. When a mother becomes a whore for Cronenberg, it is not built on her actual actions, but merely on her cherishing a bit of lace lingerie.

The schizophrenia that he portrays is one that doesn’t comes from dancing numbers and imaginary friends, but instead from the other reality the person lives in. Dennis Cleg (Fiennes) has been under mental supervision for much of his life because he cannot find the break between his real reality and his imagined reality. Both are filled with the same people, and neither has the markings of contrivance.

Cronenberg attempts to show the way this world was created by using Cleg’s memories as part of his current lifestyle, living in a boarding home run by an authoritarian overseer (Redgrave). The past wraps around the present as he remembers the childhood of his parents (Byrne and Richardson) breaking apart. At first this seems like a divorce out of one Irishman’s daily drunkenness, but soon shows itself to be the work of foul play and the creative mind of a little boy.

In many ways, Spider is the most adult film of Cronenberg’s career. However, this superlative isn’t because he is dealing with adult issues (on the contrary, look at any film by the director, especially Crash or Dead Ringers) but because it has a level of maturity previously unseen in his oeuvre. Spider isn’t about video games (eXistenZ), sibling rivalries (Dead Ringers), or pop science (The Fly), but about arrested development. It is about the very psychosis that has marked his career: that the obsessions and interests of the child can remain long into adulthood without the overtly juvenile view of sex necessarily relating to one’s own sex life. Cronenberg is making amends with his own innerchild and the way it has been constantly present in his filmmaking career. He is doing something personal while still remaining sincere to the truly debilitated among those who suffer a similar obsession as himself. Something tells me Ron Howard wouldn’t even be able to make a film about his childish endeavors, unless, of course, it were just a film version of The Andy Griffith Show.

©2003, David Perry,, 23 May 2003

John Malkovich

Javier Bardem
Laura Morante
Juan Diego Botto
Elvira Mínguez
Alexandra Lencastre
Oliver Cotton
Abel Folk

Release: 2 May 03

The Dancer Upstairs


Abimael Guzmán, a Peruvian philosophy professor, terrorized the country in 1980s with his group, the Shining Path, espousing Maoist principals as a way to overthrow the government through terrorism. Guzmán, caught in 1992 under Fujimori’s martial law, was fictionalized in the Nicholas Shakespeare’s novel The Dancer Upstairs, which uses a similar terrorist to look at the implications of terror on South America and the human condition.

It should really come as little surprise for anyone who has read the novel that the director who could perfectly portray it would be actor John Malkovich. Although he has never worked behind the camera on film, he has much practice on the stage, which corresponds with the more languid, thoughtful way he uses his actors, making them integral to the scenary instead of mere pawns before it (as most directors would be tempted to do with the amazing locations that are used for the film).

Malkovich is an actor of class, a smooth cognac with his meditative delivery and sudden impact. The film parallels this with its long moments of thoughtful conditioning before the outburst that disturbs the relative peace that the audience and the characters are pondering with. It is an interesting way to work with the story, which is political enough to remain taut and convincing with an intelligent spin but open to a film variation that might dull these assets into a story more akin to The Bone Collector than Y Tu Mamá También.

Key to getting this is the casting of Javier Bardem, one of the best actors in the realm of acting through his eyes. If half the emotions he gives in the film through his dark, heavy eyes were articulated, the film would be twice as long, and it is this ability of Bardem that has made him such a magnetic force in casting the dramatic actor for films like Live Flesh and his Oscar nominated turn in Before Night Falls. Unfortunately, the only work he ever seems to get is in inherently Spanish roles. It is unlikely he will ever receive work as an great actor instead of as a great Spanish actor.

Bardem plays Detective Agustín Rejas, an investigator in an unnamed South American country in charge of the investigation of a Guzmán-like terrorist called Ezequiel. He turned to law enforcement when he couldn’t deal with the lawlessness of his previous profession as a lawyer. Now, in a two-bit police station, he finds that lawlessness seems to be part and parcel with any job tangentially related to the law. To make matters worse, he’s married to a materialist, in love with his daughter’s dance teacher (Morante), and not respected by his peers because he’s part Indian.

Ezequiel is meanwhile feeding off of the commoners who populate the Indian land once lived on by Rejas. He finds that the greatest Maoist sympathies are in the same streets he once played in and is now assigned to protect. Worst of all, the kids of the neighborhood are so convinced of Ezequiel’s agenda that they begin bombing popular spots across the city and enacting public assassinations, always succeeded by the symbolic hanging of a dog (in China, this was meant to show that a leader had been killed by his people).

What Malkovich finds in The Dancer Upstairs is a story that isn’t as easy to relegate as it might seem (the trailers especially make this seem true). He finds compassion in its horror and destitution in its beauty. The film includes twists that seemed like contrivances in the book but now don’t seem as uneven in the film. Malkovich, perhaps building off of his experience in Sam Shepherd plays, finds that even the most artificial event can have the most realistic meaning. Even if that was what Shakespeare intended in the first place, it’s the clarity of the final product that matters. Leave it to the man best known for playing maniacs to find it.

©2003, David Perry,, 23 May 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry