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Volume 5, Number 45

This Week's Reviews:  Elf, Love Actually, In the Cut, The Matrix Revolutions, Veronica Guerin.

This Week's Omissions:  The Gospel of John, My Life Without Me.


Director:
John Favreau

Starring:
Will Ferrell
James Caan
Zooey Deschanel
Mary Steenburgen
Daniel Tay
Bob Newhart
Edward Asner

Release: 7 Nov. 03
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Elf

BY: DAVID PERRY

In a Saturday Night Live parody of one of VH1ís Behind the Music specials, Will Farrell plays the cowbell in 1970s rock band Blue ÷yster Cult, famed for their ďDonít Fear the ReaperĒ and its incessant cowbell. Christopher Walken tells him he really ďdigsĒ that cowbell and asks for more. Itís comic genius because on one side is Farrell going crazy with this cowbell even though it sounds horrible; on the other side is the ever-respectable Walken enjoying it. Most of Elf, Farrellís second film since leaving Saturday Night Live, is like this, with the comedian doing his antics and the rest of the cast (including Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, and James Caan) convincing us that heís not even hit the nexus of his talents yet.

But he has, and that paramount achievement is neither in this or his previous film, Old School. Instead, the genius of Farrell was left behind at SNL, where his absence has been felt as Lorne Michaels tests out various other actors to play President Bush (Darrell Hammond and Chris Parnell, both terrific impressionists, arenít yet at the same level as Farrell when it comes to Bush). The way Farrell furrowed his brows to say ďstrategery,Ē whined like a little boy to admit that he didnít really want to follow in his fatherís footsteps, and brought frat boy antics into the White House was amazing in its exactitude of a stereotype (merited or not) that makes the sitting president so entertaining.

Although Farrell has some fun with the naÔvetť that his new character needs, the script isnít strong enough to let Farrell move around in the character and find any discernable amount of absurd humor. There are fairly good laughs, but nothing terribly memorable.

Farrell plays Buddy, a man who spent his entire life in Santaís workshop under the misconception that he is an elf. As a baby, he crawled into the bag of toys and was unfound by Santa (Asner) until he had returned to the North Pole. When he learns of his real lineage, the child of Walter Hobbs (Caan), a cranky childrenís book editor who works in the Empire State Building, Buddy decides to make the trek to Manhattan and secure his place in the real world.

But things arenít the same in the States as they are in the Poles. No one seems willing to accept a lanky man dressed as an elf into their lives -- heís lucky that itís almost Christmas so that he can get a job at a department store as one of the minimum wage workers. Meanwhile, as the clichťs dictate, he falls in love with a coworker (Deschanel; wasted in a role that lacks her sardonic sense of humor) and somehow convinces his father, now married to another woman (Steenburgen) and parenting (though just barely) a younger son (Tay), that there is hope for Christmas. Everyone sings, the whole world is filled with joy, and New Line thanks you for giving them 10 bucks for this assembly line production.

Directed by Jon Favreau, a gifted comedian himself, Elf feels forced, insecure, and overtly sappy. It is a Christmas movie, but it lacks a family affair mentality for accessibility and levity for adult contentment. At its best moments (the cameo by those stop-motion animation characters from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is inspired), the film is a clear indication of an actor who is on his way to a strong post-SNL career much like Eddie Murphy and Bill Murray. For most of it, though, itís Joe Piscapo all the way.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 7 November 2003



Director:
Richard Curtis

Starring:
Hugh Grant
Martine McCutcheon
Emma Thompson
Liam Neeson
Colin Firth
Laura Linney
Thomas Sangston
Keira Knightley
Andrew Lincoln
Bill Nighy
Alan Rickman
Lķcia Moniz
Billy Bob Thornton
Rowan Atkinson

Release: 7 Nov. 03
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Love Actually

BY: DAVID PERRY

A widower (Neeson) helps his 12-year-old son (Sangster) woo the popular girl at school; a middle aged wife (Thompson) wonders if her husband (Rickman) is having an affair; a nervy single (Linney) attempts to find love while her handicapped brother takes all her time; a newlywed (Knightley) learns that her husbandís best friend (Lincoln) is infatuated with her; the new British Prime Minister (Grant) bumbles his way through a courtship with his secretary (McCutcheon); and a down-on-romance Brit (Marshall) readies himself for a trip to America where he believes women will flock to his charming accent.

(Inhale.)

An aged rock star (Nighy) admits his lifelong devotion to his lonely manager; two porn actors (Freeman and Page) find hints of romance as they simulate sex for the camera; and a cheated upon writer (Firth) wonders if thereís love to be found with a woman who cannot speak his language (Moniz). Those stories and more in the next episode of Richard Curtisí Surprisingly-Poignant-British-Romantic-Comedy Variety Hour.

Love Actually, as it is titled, is a page from Robert Altmanís book of multi-character interlocking omnibus filmmaking, attempting to tell the stories of nearly two dozen characters in a somewhat short 129 minutes. By Short Cuts and Nashville standards, thatís pretty economical.

In his directorial debut, Curtis shows that he has some understanding of the craft even if it is not comparable to his virtues as a screenwriter on such films as Four Weddings & a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jonesís Diary. He always infuses these extremely British stories with a charm to balance the smugness one cannot help but get from Curtisí muse, Hugh Grant.

And, despite a heavy dose of sentimentality built on the filmís central thesis -- dictated by Grant in the opening narration, ďlove actually is everywhereĒ -- I liked the film. There is enough to support that thesis once one gets beyond the touchy-feely Heathrow Airport hug montage without getting as sloppy. In particular are the actors, most of whom are among the best in England (I have to ask, though, whereís Judy Dench?). Whatever fanciful flights the director gets on (this is especially true in the story involving the porn actors), the clumsy sweetness of it all, performed wonderful by these beautiful people, is mesmerizing. It is one of the rare Christmas movies that actually put me in the spirit without ever making me feel especially used.

My main complaint, though, is that Love Actually could have been a series of fine features for most of these stories. The vignettes involving Thompson/Rickman, Knightley/Lincoln, and Firth/Moniz all have the potential for even greater, deeper things. Curtis has painstakingly cut their stories down to fragments, which comes as a disappointment when one considers the additional time that could have been spent with these people.

More than anything, I want to highlight one particular story that represents everything that works in Love Actually and gives merit to my wish for more in-depth portrayals. The story involving Neeson and Sangster is strong, very strong. Coupled with a kid that is cute without being annoying, Neeson gives one of those performances that stand out among a crowd that would include luminaries like those found in this film. Itís a story sort of like About a Boy, a film that is a byproduct of Curtisí scripts, except much better.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 7 November 2003



Director:
Jane Campion

Starring:
Meg Ryan
Mark Ruffalo
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Nick Damici
Kevin Bacon

Release: 22 Oct. 03
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In the Cut

BY: DAVID PERRY

I think that the point of In the Cut is that Jane Campion is offering a thriller that is woman-centered, defending femininity and sexuality in the face of a genre that has long been driven by men and their seemingly superior intellect, brawn, and seductiveness. The main problem is that none of this is clearly defined in the film, which could be one of the yearís ugliest.

To get her point across, Campion has hired the irrepressibly cute Meg Ryan to play a sensual woman rarely seen from the actress. I, personally, consider Ryan to have already given a breakthrough performance in the darker niche, appearing in Hurlyburly five years ago, but recognize that even there we didnít have the surprise of seeing the normally frumpy actress without any clothes. I suppose that it is a career breakthrough appearing in this, but Iím not certain that it was ultimately fortuitous.

She plays Frannie Avery, a New York English teacher who spends much of her time collecting little tidbits of language from her surroundings (the subway is especially generous) and her students. Frannie juggles this with the responsibilities she feels for helping out her half-sister Pauline (Lee), who lives above a club and devotes her time to a married patron thinking that heíll leave his wife for her. Outside of that, she only has an obsessed ex (Bacon), who goes around the city keeping an eye on her.

In one of her meetings with a student, Frannie takes a restroom break only to find shadowy fellatio going on in the basement. Later, the disembodied arm of the woman is found under Frannieís window. Too bad the only thing that she remembers about the man was his three of clubs tattoo. Itís doubly bad that the detective investigating the case, James Malloy (Ruffalo), seems to have the exact same tattoo.

And yet Frannie falls for him, partly because he uses a word like 'disarticulated,' partly because he gets high marks for intramural cunnilingus. Regardless, she seems all too willing to buy into his explanations, even as she becomes further certain that he is the killer.

I think that Campion wants to be clear that women are sexual, smart, and intuitive beyond their male counterparts, but dulls her message by allowing her protagonist to seem increasingly stupid throughout the ordeal. Where she considered it advisable to place Frannie in the arms of a man who seems on the verge of punching her, if not chopping her up, comes a counterproductive internment of the feminist treatise. Campionís female characters are always strong (An Angel at My Table, The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady, Holy Smoke!) but they are usually much more controlled and secure. Campion seems to have lessened her grasp of a philosophy to up the pretensions and Hollywood accessibility of her work.

The images are pretty, but usually mean nothing in retrospect, especially when coupled with a story that is among the most incomprehensible to come out this year. Regardless of the premium actors Campion has brought in, itís hard to feel anything for a movie in which unneeded and gory ice skating sequences are thrown in for nary an effect.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 7 November 2003



Director:
Andy Wachowski
Larry Wachowski

Starring:
Keanu Reeves
Hugo Weaving
Laurence Fishburne
Carrie-Anne Moss
Mary Alice
Nathaniel Lees
Jada Pinkett Smith
Lambert Wilson
Monica Bellucci

Release: 5 Nov. 03
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The Matrix Revolutions

BY: DAVID PERRY

There is a gold standard among cineastes in debating trilogies: thereís almost always a work of genius, a minor gaffe, and a strong middle-ground. The order changes depending on franchise and tastes: some would say Return of the Jedi is that gaffe, I would counter that it is the genius. However, most will agree that this summation can be applied to many different trilogies from The Godfather to Indiana Jones to Scream.

After seeing The Matrix Reloaded earlier this year and reflecting that it was the gaffe, I was prepared to find The Matrix Revolutions to be the strong middle-ground. Ah, but that was my mistake: failing to see the relativity in this categorization. Although The Matrix Revolutions is certainly a step-up from The Matrix Reloaded, it is not strong. Of course, the gaffe that was the second film is far from minor.

This causes me to question the existence of these sequels in the first place. I am certainly not one of those people who decry all forms of serialization of major works of fiction, drama, and cinema, but having now seen what is supposed to be the conclusion of The Matrix story, I must admit that all this extra fluff (nearly 5 hours worth) has been futile. I know little more about the worlds of the Matrix or Zion than I knew or cared to know after the first film. At one point the Oracle (Alice; replacing the late Gloria Foster) says ďEverything that has a beginning has an end.Ē Indeed, although I would counter that the ending of this story should have been when Neo established his ultimate domination of the Matrix at the end of the first film.

I spent little time in my review of The Matrix Reloaded writing about the plot, and I certainly donít feel that it is terribly important to begin doing so now. There is a long mythology involved in all these films, but they are so flimsy by the closing of the third chapter that even the bastard The NeverEnding Story 3 begins to seem revelatory. In The Matrix I cared what happened to these people; by the third, I didnít.

And yet I felt the need to establish that there is some improvement between The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. This comes in the fact that conclusion is monumental, and, even if it feels strained, is welcome in The Matrix Revolutions. They are artistically equal, but at least from a storytelling perspective, my involvement with the third film was much greater than the second. I wanted it to end, and, short of turning into a Fellini film (which, in some of the filmís most absurd moments, it almost feels like it will), nothing could have pleased me more than feeling the glow of a ďThe EndĒ title to cauterize some of the wounds remaining from these sequels.

Given that The Matrix Revolutions has an ending that is at least suitable (I would have expected much worse considering everything that had preceded it) I cannot rail on this film at the same length with which I felt scorned by the second. Maybe itís just that Iím running out of ways to dismiss what I see as sloppy filmmaking, or tired of pointing out the incongruence between the first and the latter (all technical complaints, especially the over-reliance on CGI, are carried over from the second since they were filmed together), or just simply unwilling to waste my time thinking about a plan of films that began strong and ended so miserably. Iím just sick of hearing about these films. And thus I have enacted an embargo on all Matrix-themed discussions from hereon out. So begins my abstention -- Iím pulling the plug.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 7 November 2003



Director:
Joel Schumacher

Starring:
Cate Blanchett
Gerard McSorley
CiarŠn Hinds
Brenda Fricker
Don Wycherley
Barry Barnes
Simon O'Driscoll

Release: 17 Oct. 03
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Veronica Guerin

BY: DAVID PERRY

In 1996, Veronica Guerin, a writer for the Irish newspaper The Sunday Independent, was gunned down at a freeway off-ramp. This wasnít the first time her subjects retaliated for Guerinís questioning -- a shot to her leg, a brutal attack, and threats on her son had already become common -- but it was the last.

Joel Schumacherís film version of Guerinís life attempts to articulate what the repercussions of this assassination meant to Ireland, establishing her as a sacrifice for the drug-free Ireland. Her death is shown to be a form of suicide for the assailants and the world is, most likely, a safer place with her in the ground. Cue the bagpipes, line up all the extras at her funeral, and you have a movie for the masses.

Veronica Guerin strives to be one of those films that leaves the audience certain of a personís magnitude, however slight they may have felt at the time. It is a variation on Erin Brockovich, with a sentimental tinge of martyrdom. Built on the wall of Kleenex boxes the filmmakers have positioned at the doorway, this Veronica Guerin is a saint in muckrakerís clothing, a compassionate conservative for the liberal press. She is, by all accounts (just look at the filmís reaction in the United Kingdom), a lie.

The crux of Guerinís achievement is her work to stop the drug trafficking to the children of the Irish slums. Unlike last yearís Bloody Sunday, though, the pressing issue never actually feels that pressing. I donít necessarily promote the movement of heroin into the hands of the kids, but the bombastic way Schumacher and, in an possibly even more guilty level, producer Jerry Bruckheimer show this (needles as playthings, mothers passed out with needles in their arms), causes everything to feel too exploitive.

I knew little of Guerin before hand nor had I seen a previously filmed fictionalized version of her story in When the Sky Falls starring Joan Allen, but I felt a bit of manipulation surrounding this film. While Guerin is certainly a journalist worth noting (I donít doubt some of the assertions the final credits make), and her death is unfortunate, I donít necessarily see this as a story about saintliness. I see it as a work on journalist ethics and self-sacrifice. I see it as a step before the Daniel Pearl film. However, this one is built by contractors who donít see the engrossing way a journalist can chase a story with no worries over his or her own death as long as the job is still done. For Schumacher, et al. the selfless attitude is lost and only the sentimentality survives.

And yet, as one paying attention to my rating of this film might note, Iím giving Veronica Guerin a marginal recommendation. This decision is built on the fact that, for long moments of the film, I was willing to forgive it for these trespasses due to the way its able actors portrayed the story. Although Iím sure regular readers will feel my canonization of Cate Blanchett is by now tedious (I still feel that her 5 minutes in The Shipping News was one of that yearís best performances), she really is the heart and soul of this production. Without her performance, the whole experience would feel as contemptible as the moments of the film in which she is not around.

In fact, while watching this film I was reminded of my feelings on The Shipping News, in which I stated the whole film hurts from her early departure from the film (five minutes in). Again, once Guerin dies (this time nearly two hours in), the film shows its true colors. No longer does an air of importance come with the acting, but instead a level of schmaltz overcomes everything. It reminded me of what the rest of the film would have been like without Blanchett, and made me even happier -- if that is possible -- that she has graced the world with her acting abilities.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 7 November 2003



Reviews by:
David Perry
©2003, Cinema-Scene.com

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