> Volume 5 > Number 49

Volume 5, Number 49

This Week's Reviews:  Elephant, The Last Samurai, The Station Agent, The Human Stain.

This Week's Omissions:  Honey, Mambo Italiano, Party Monster.

Gus Van Sant

Alex Frost
Eric Deulen
John Robinson
Elias McConnell
Jordan Taylor
Carrie Finklea
Nicole George

Release: 24 Oct. 03



Man #1: Donít tell anybody but thereís an elephant in the living room. Weíre pretending itís not really there.
Man #2: But itís an enormous obstruction!
Man #1: Just ignore it, maybe itíll go away.

Such a discourse helps Gus Van Sant title his latest film, Elephant, as he struggles to articulate the giant impediment in societyís living room. Like Michael Moore with Bowling for Columbine, the catalyst is the violence inhabiting our lifestyles even if we are unwilling to open our doors to it. This elephant is already inside, and, if we continue our longstanding finger-pointing to justify it, we are doing little more than hoping ignorance will make it disappear.

Van Sant has received some sour grapes from many who see his works as arty opportunism. Choosing to set his treatise in a Columbine-like environ, one can understand why such a knee-jerk reaction could be merited. But that is wholly unaware of the way he chooses to exhibit his story. This is not a film meant to answer questions about Columbine, not a film meant to even understand its central reasons. Basically, Elephant is a film meant to force people to recognize reality for what it is. There are no answers to be discovered, only the foundations of understanding underscored by simply paying attention.

The title and its background were previously used by Alan Clarke for his BBC documentary about violence in Northern Ireland. Van Sant admits that this was partially behind his decision to title his film as such (he also cites the story of the blind men unable to describe an elephant because each man is grasping a different part of the animal). But there is an added meaning to such a title in this country. The elephant stands as the symbol of the Republican Party, a group that generally espouses lighter gun regulation and relaxed school oversight. Like so much of the film, though, this is a red herring, a minor blip on the radar in the overall justification for Columbine. Republicanism, despite any political doctrine Van Sant may espouse, isnít to blame -- nor are the video games, music, or movies at fault.

Elephant isnít much a narrative-driven film inasmuch any independent venture by Van Sant can be considered truly narrative. Most of what cinematographer Harris Savides delivers is ambiance, as well as an impressionistís touch of observation. Most of the sequences are shown multiple times from different angles. The effect isnít akin to Rashomon as much as it emulated Bťla Tarrís SŠtŠntangů (Van Sant and Savides previously honored Tarr with the spectacular Gerry earlier this year), in which the different views are meant to expose that which cannot be seen in our solitary vision. While we watch the characters in one single scene, we miss out on what characters are doing at the ancillary of the setting -- meanwhile, thereís no telling whatís going on outside of this room.

Simultaneity, although tempting to tap, isnít necessarily what is blinding us from understanding Columbine or the bloody massacre Van Sant recreates in this fictional suburban Portland high school. The answers to our desperate pleas for clarity arenít possible even if watching everyone were feasible. The elephant in the living room can be looked at from every angle, but not until we find a way to take it all in at once will we ever find the unattainable solution to our losing battle

©2003, David Perry,, 5 December 2003

Edward Zwick

Tom Cruise
Ken Watanabe
Hiroyuki Sanada
Tony Goldwyn
Timothy Spall

Release: 5 Dec. 03

The Last Samurai


Where Arthur Penn made revisionist history part of a political upheaval in Little Big Man (his fourth and final masterpiece, oh how the great have fallen), Edward Zwick is more likely to retrograde in his politics. Nothing monumental in oneís understanding of a culture, civilization, history, or politick can be found in The Last Samurai. When one ushers away the filmís glaring filler, all thatís left is Tom Cruise desperately asking for an Oscar, and Zwick desperately asking to make another Glory. The latter is certainly never comes to fruition, and, if thereís any sense of decency in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, neither will the former.

Zwick is certainly trying for something lofty, perhaps as far as saying that Westernization is destructive, but everything feels false and ungainly in a elegant if pompous mess like The Last Samurai. No matter what classifications of a culture that he might be intent on changing or promoting, nothing can be found in this vacuum of pretty cinematography and wannabe epic storytelling.

The work begins well enough as it introduces the protagonist, Nathan Algren (Cruise), a former U.S. Army officer in 1876 who has found solace in whisky and sideshow endeavors. As he drunkenly attempts to sell an assembly of patrons on a Winchester rifle, his mind wanders to the time he spent under General Custer and the atrocities let loose by the man. Algren, Zwick wants to emphasize, has ghosts in his closet, ghosts of Americanism and militarism.

So, with the U.S. government gathering the best veterans for a contract job teaching Western militarism to the Japanese imperial army, they choose one of the least qualified: a drunkard who has great regret over his time in the military. But, as seems to always be the case, when money talks, even the least likely hero rises up.

Perhaps Ďrise upí isnít the best terminology considering that Algren only prepares the Japanese soldiers (with the aide of some other veterans including the stereotypically smarmy Tony Goldwyn as a former commanding officer) for a failed attack on the traditional samurais standing in the way of the emperorís Westernization. Algren, left for dead by the men he trained, is taken in by the samurais who honor him for his abilities to slay their own.

Although this part of the story is only the first quarter of the film, it constitutes the only depth and liveliness to be found in the entire production. Subsequent scenes stand only to underline the assimilation Algren has, and his recognition that the traditional culture of samurai leader Katsumoto (Watanabe) is perhaps the superior one to modernization. Well over an hour is spent showing Algren coexisting with his former enemy -- including a developing romance with the widow of a samurai he killed -- which strikes the audience only as capitol for John Toll to get breathtaking shots of the environs and Tom Cruise to stretch his acting muscles, albeit weaker than the physical ones he struts in his robe once he settles in.

As the film builds up to another face off between traditional Japan, now with Algren on its side, and Westernized Japan, now better militarized by the American Army, the threat becomes less recognizable, less tangible. Sure, there is a charm to this rustic culture, but never does its existence feel completely at threat by the citiesí modernization. These samurais seem to have started a war with a well-equipped army because they fear that they are no longer the threat they once were. Itís a scary thought -- oneís own inconsequence -- but never much of a story to tell when the director and star make it seem all the more trivial

©2003, David Perry,, 5 December 2003

Thomas McCarthy

Peter Dinklage
Patricia Clarkson
Bobby Cannavale
Raven Goodwin
Michelle Williams

Release: 3 Oct. 03

The Station Agent


Despite all the attention it gets every year, the Sundance Film Festival has become more of a diversion than an event. Occasionally there will be a nugget hidden among the plethora of pretentious and goofy films in competition, but there hasnít been a festival that truly changed independent cinema since the early 1990s when Quentin Tarantino, Sally Potter, Greg Araki, Tom Kalin, among others, were festival fixtures.

At this point, Iíve become wary of any film that comes out of the festival as an audience favorite, and my cautiousness has been underlined by such mediocrities as The Toa of Steve, Pieces of April, and Happy, Texas. The Station Agent, a film that not only comes with acclaim from Sundance but also has the added diversion of being about a dwarf instantly comes with my own Sundance-itis. However, my fears were unnecessary -- this is the best film to come out of Sundance since You Can Count on Me.

Like the Kenneth Lonergan film, The Station Agent is about loneliness and finding a person to share your troubles with. The dwarf, Finbar McBride (Dinklage), is the epitome of solitude -- heís spent his life working in a small model train shop for an employer who is likely Finbarís only friend. When his associate suddenly dies and the shop is put up for sale, Finbar hasnít anything to hold him back from moving into the seclusion that is his inheritance: a tiny train depot in the little burg of Newfoundland, New Jersey.

Although Finbar is an immensely engaging character, the film probably would not have survived under only his duress. To compound his protagonistís feelings, writer-director Tom McCarthy adds a few more characters to the mix. First is Joe (Cannavale), an amazingly talkative New Yorker who is taking care of his ill fatherís coffee stand just outside the depot (donít be confused by the stand or the depot, no one seems to come by this place). His level of solitude is one of gregariousness -- heís forced into this situation and cannot ground any of his childlike excitement without someone to talk to, much to Finbarís chagrin.

Filling the triumvirate of lonely hearts is Olivia (Clarkson), a local resident who still mourns the death of her son. Living in the summer home of her estranged husband, she sits around and paints expressionist art. In Joe, she finds someone to talk to; in Finbar, she finds someone to car for. Both are proxies for her child: Joe in mentality, Finbar in physicality. Whether she recognizes this is unknown.

The Station Agent is such a relaxed film that one comes close to forgetting that all is fiction, and its buildup is one of mere cinematics. Rarely do I find myself wishing that I could have more from a film by its conclusion. But, as the credits began to roll, I wanted to spend more time with these wonderful people -- I felt like I knew them, and that our time together was being cut too short. I havenít watched network television in years, but if this were a pilot for a television series, Iíd be home every week to reunite with these three new friends.

The joy that is watching The Station Agent is created by Dinklage, who is such an engaging actor that his dwarf body seems like little more than Method. Perhaps he drew on some of his own life for his portrayal of Finbar -- I cannot comprehend the pickings for a dwarf actor. Regardless, his physical handicap, if it can be called that, isnít one that merits the attention that audiences -- in life and in film -- want to give it. Does he truly deserve to be gawked at? I donít think so, even if my first impression of the filmís premise was that it was merely about a dwarf. Instead, I now recognize that loneliness, whether it be Finbarís or Oliviaís or Joeís is universal. Being a dwarf isnít part of who Finbar is, itís just the only way we want to characterize him

©2003, David Perry,, 5 December 2003

Robert Benton

Anthony Hopkins
Nicole Kidman
Ed Harris
Gary Sinise
Wentworth Miller
Anna Deavere Smith
Harry J. Lennix

Release: 31 Oct. 03

The Human Stain


American entertainment has long been pained with the racist history that mars itís Vaudeville, radio, and early television years. Minstrel shows, Amos and Andy, and nearly everything in between came with the satisfaction that the inadequacies of blacks were funny, but just as long as no blacks played themselves.

Like Spike Leeís Bamboozled (or maybe even Carl Reinerís The Jerk), Philip Rothís novel The Human Stain attempted to deal with these levels of racial profiling in todayís mores. In the case of Roth, the traditions he wants to question are built around sanctimoniousness, especially that begat by a maddeningly political correct society and a political machine that nearly debunked democracy over the Clinton sex scandal.

The film version of the novel, directed by Robert Benton, hasnít quite the same incisiveness as Roth had, partly because the whole film feels uneven as it tries desperately to touch on the many facets of the source while attempting to make it accessible to a large audience. Sometimes a filmmaker can succeed at this -- just look at The English Patient and L.A. Confidential -- but too often, like here, the weight of 300 pages of text cannot be completely recreated in a feature length film.

However, The Human Stain remains respectable throughout. Rothís underlying themes are still alive, if muddled, and their punch isnít completely dulled. Benton, a director-writer whose credits include Kramer vs. Kramer and Nobodyís Fool has the know-how to guide his work through the meanings of Roth even if he never fully realizes those meanings.

Framing his treatise on Clinton-era sanctimony, Roth tells of a classics professor at a tiny Vermont college, Coleman Silk (Hopkins), who finds himself in a scandal when he asks if two absentee students are ďspooks.Ē This being a racial epithet and the students being black (a fact be unlikely knew), means that then faculty board wants to save face by getting rid of him even though itís his work that put the school back on the map if important higher education. Instead of entering a fight that might raise too many skeletons from his closet, Silk resigns his position and, after his wife is killed by a stroke, decides to write a book about the political correctness gone awry that murdered his wife.

But what skeletons are these that he was so afraid to admit to? Since this is integral to the duration of the film past these opening moments, writing about the film would be impossible without unveiling them prematurely. Any reader still intent on seeing The Human Stain without having this knowledge ahead of time (which is the best way to see the film) should cease reading now.

Silkís mighty secret is that, unbeknownst to his wife, friends, students, and colleagues, he is black. Born light-skinned in a poor African American family, he decided that his only chances for career and personal happiness would be to present himself as a Jew. In the form of young actor Wentworth Miller, collegiate Silk is completely believable as being Jewish (Miller is biracial). But, looking at the Silk who commands the screen in the filmís 1998 scenes (the Monicagate scandal is often in the background), a broken man unable to admit to himself who he is, the career and personal happiness he thought were more affordable as a white man have remained all the while unattainable.

Enter Faunia Farley (Kidman), a barely literate janitor who gets entangled in an affair with Silk. Her background is one of further personal disgrace. Born into an affluent family, she was disturbed by its avarice and wastefulness, finding a lower-class lifestyle more suitable. Even in the novel, which is ten times better than the film, the character becomes more of a preoccupation for the author to direct some inner meaning without making it too apparent. Whatever faÁade of storytelling, though, is lost in the casting of Kidman, who never fully drops the fact that she is Nicole Kidman, The Star. This is her Oscar-push performance of the year, and the fact that sheís making it so clear isnít very helpful when the character is supposed to be built of modesty.

What I liked about The Human Stain is that it remains true to Roth even if little of the film completes his endeavor towards understanding ourselves. The film may be the most uneven work of the year, but surrounding that unevenness is nirvana

©2003, David Perry,, 5 December 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry