> Volume 5 > Number 51

Volume 5, Number 51

This Week's Reviews:  The Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King, Party Monster, House of Sand and Fog, The Flower of Evil, Cheaper by the Dozen, Mona Lisa Smile.

This Week's Omissions:  NONE.

Peter Jackson

Elijah Wood
Sean Astin
Ian McKellen
Viggo Mortensen
John Rhys-Davies
Orlando Bloom
Andy Serkis
Billy Boyd
Dominic Monaghan
David Wenham
Karl Urban
Miranda Otto
Bernard Hill

Release: 16 Dec. 03

The Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King


My obtuse, uninformed views of The Lord of the Rings films have been one of the most divisive stances I’ve taken over the years. With the print of my reviews on The Fellowship of the Ring (a reluctantly positive review) and The Two Towers (a glowingly positive review), I’ve struggled to convey my love-hate relationship with these films but have still received rotten tomatoes from readers and friends. They cannot understand how I am enthralled with the effort, but moot on some of its practice.

The third film, The Return of the King, is no less of a problem for me. Although I am impressed by the work as a whole, I’m at a loss as to what’s wrong with the third part coming off of the second film. This isn’t like preferring The Godfather, Part II or The Empire Strikes Back over the other two films -- the segments of The Lord of the Rings were made at the same time and draw and into each other. That said, I’m not truly satisfied with what I have on my hands with this third film.

Characters who nearly ruined the first film are raised to importance again here, the overall tone loses the darkness in the second film, and the climax, though pat and somewhat satisfying, seems awfully extended into a state of insignificance. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King isn’t bad -- it is still part of what of the most impressive experiments in film history -- but it doesn’t deliver the goods, so to speak. The promises that were made in the first film, including in that finale in the first chapter that I found so vexing, aren’t fulfilled in a suitable fashion here. I can’t help but liken it to the criticisms of Memento that myself and other likeminded critics embraced: it was like sifting through a wonderful present only to find disappointment at the bottom.

Now, I don’t want to sound as if I wholly dislike these films. On the contrary, I find them fascinating for what they do with the medium and find certain parts to be wonderful (Gollum, as always, remains a treat). Even as the film sifts through nine different endings, I found nearly half of them to be satisfying. Maybe I’m just taking a reactionary stance, believing that I’ll be in the minority to criticize The Return of the King, but I do find it to be a passable film in the clothes of a masterful epic. This isn’t unlike watching Passage to India, David Lean’s final film -- the palate is beautiful, the product is acceptable.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I may not be the target audience for these films. Perhaps I’m too cynical to embrace a nine-hour epic that thrives on so much pomp and circumstance; perhaps I’m not enough of a fantasy reader to care about such characters; perhaps I missed the boat the first time around and never fully caught up.

But the key, for me at least, is that whatever the reason is, I don’t really care. Yes, I’ve wasted nine hours of my life on these films and only gained a little, but at least these films clicked with most people. I recognize my own disinterest in the film as a personal opinion, and fully respect those who have been excited by it. More than anything, I recognize its elements that speak to its proponents, and, even if these elements didn’t speak to me, I’m happy somebody (in fact, most people) got something out of it. Maybe one day I’ll read the books or sit back for a full-fledged viewing of the entire trilogy (if I’m really masochistic, the extended editions) in one sitting and understand why people care

©2003, David Perry,, 19 December 2003

Fenton Bailey
Randy Barbato

Macaulay Culkin
Seth Green
Chloë Sevigny
Natasha Lyonne
Marilyn Manson
Wilmer Valderrama

Release: 5 Sep. 03

Party Monster


With amazing aplomb, Party Monster directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato present one of the year’s worst film like John Waters unveiling his latest effort in camp-dirt chic. These two filmmakers, who have received accolades for their documentary work (The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Monica in Black and White), are remaking their 1998 documentary of the same name about Michael Alig, the bisexual founder of the Club Kids who now serves time for manslaughter.

What is clear from the beginning is that Bailey and Barbato aren’t terribly interested in communicating ideas and offering information in this feature, their first. Instead, they seem mainly devoted on the shock value. They want viewers to recoil at Natasha Lyonne in a fat suit, Marilyn Manson as a drag queen, a third act talking rat, and, the crème de la crème of shocks, Macaulay Culkin playing Alig. Considering that the former child actor hasn’t appeared in anything since Ri¢hie Ri¢h in 1994, his appearance in party dresses and Daisy Duke shorts isn’t quite as shocking as the filmmakers may have wanted, but it is representative.

The decisions they have made shows that they aren’t necessarily interested in the value of documentation that they’ve found such success with over the years. Party Monster is just hedonism put on film, and, if they consider that to be art, I ask them to show me the dozen other people who might agree.

This is just an ugly film that offers nothing in return. Even Divine trash, as many Waters films were, had a shock value that made them hard to forget. This is just sloppy filmmaking posing as important and scandalous.

For a narrative feature to work on some level it must have something for the audience to care about. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the protagonist has to be likeable (just look at American Psycho or The Day of the Jackal), but that there must be something for the audience to yearn for, either positively or negatively. There’s nothing like that to be found in Party Monster. None of the characters are worth caring for and none of their actions have the value for being interesting to anyone but them. The closest thing to a care I had while watching was a hope that the film would soon come to an end. Rare is the film that makes me want to walkout and save my time, but this is one of those pictures.

Shot in grainy digital video using B-list actors and sets made of papier-mâché, the whole film is unbearable to watch. The directors’ salute to the times, which was probably more clear and defined in their documentary, only reminds me how lucky I was to not be in New York’s club scene in the 1980s. Venal, pitiful people finding solace in drugs and dancing hasn’t much to say about our society unless there is an underscoring morality play (see some of the works of Bret Easton Ellis or Larry Clark).

And what about the casting which has gotten the film such undeserved press? Well, the kid who has become more of a joke than a fond memory of the early 1990s hasn’t grown as an actor since he married (and divorced) soap actress Rachel Miner during his acting hiatus. His style of performing here is merely a succession of gay stereotypes (pursed lips, fey wrists, lisped tongue). By the end, his Michael Alig seems most like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Carson Kressley finding a lover with wire hangers, not the sociopath we’ve otherwise known Alig to be

©2003, David Perry,, 19 December 2003

Vadim Perelman

Jennifer Connelly
Ben Kingsley
Ron Eldard
Shohreh Aghdashloo
Jonathan Ahdout
Frances Fisher

Release: 19 Dec. 03

House of Sand and Fog


In the year’s most maddening melodrama, House of Sand and Fog pits homegrown sloth against foreign opportunism. Both sides are shown negatively, both sides are martyred. It’s one of the year’s most inept films.

Directed by first-time filmmaker Vadim Perelman, the whole film has the divergent style of a pretentious college art student and the uncertainty of a first draft screenwriter. Every shot is by-the-book arty and every scene is predictably stagy. I’ve been to college film festivals that had more know-how in their lowest-level cinematography class productions than in this film. I’m at a loss how Perelman was able to convince DreamWorks to let him anywhere near the camera.

The story begins with Kathy Nicolo (Connelly) learning that she’s been evicted from the home she inherited from her father. Evidently, in her self-loathing, mopey months walking around the house after a bitter divorce, she’s failed to open the mail and find that the county needs some tax money. Too late now -- the authorities are more than happy to usher her to the streets as they prepare the home for auction.

Well, there is one authority who feels something for her, Lester Burdon (Eldard), a deputy sheriff who lusts after Kathy. He’s a vigilante with badge, and, when the estate is bought by Iranian refugee Massoud Amir Behrani (Kingsley), makes it his job to coerce the new inhabitants into leaving.

Although he has no sympathy for Kathy (who is forced to move into a seedy hotel, and then her car when the money runs out), his reasons for steadfastly keeping his home is reputable. For years he’s created a façade of respectability in his social life because his past, a colonel under the Shah of Iran, would be disgraced by knowledge of his current job as a construction worker and convenience store clerk. In hopes of making his wife and children happy, he sees this home as his return to their life on the Caspian (regardless of the facts that he hopes to make a little money in the process).

Things escalate until suicide is hinted for the sixth time, hostages are taken, and sanctimony takes over the entire film. Not since John Q has miserable, ultimately unlikable characters been canonized as martyrs by a hack director (at least Perelman doesn’t have the further disgrace of being the son of a cinematic genius like John Q director Nick Cassavetes). Perelman wastes the time of some great actors (Shohreh Aghdashloo, as Behrani’s wife, is the only person who comes out of the affair unblemished) and only gets mixed, dishonest returns.

And the underlying values that it attempts to comment on -- that lazy whites who’ve inherited the country aren’t necessarily deserving of their birthright when foreigners are working hard to succeed with it -- is shortchanged by a story that plays more like cheesy midday soap opera than meaningful metaphor. Perelman, a Ukrainian immigrant, may be close to the subject, and reads some fine meaning into it, but as is, House of Sand and Fog is more likely to remind people to open their mail than to care about the state of U.S. immigrants

©2003, David Perry,, 19 December 2003

Claude Chabrol

Benoît Magimel
Nathalie Baye
Mélanie Doutey
Suzanne Flon
Bernard Le Coq
Thomas Chabrol

Release: 3 Oct. 03

The Flower of Evil


Of the five Cahiers du Cinéma film critics who founded the French New Wave, only one, Claude Chabrol, remains prolific. Unlike Jean-Luc Godard and the late François Truffaut, the former becoming more radical, the latter more commercial, Chabrol has been constant. The Hitchcockian filmmaker who started the movement with 1958’s Le Beau Serge, hasn’t taken much of a break since. He is slowing down (although he made 50 films in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, he’s made only 13 since), but his product hasn’t really been hurt. Tellingly, a couple years ago, his film Merci Pour le Chocolat was acclaimed by those who saw it, as mainstream critics heralded the faithful remake of Le Femme Infidèle, Unfaithful.

For his next trick, Chabrol continues with his favorite subjects: murder and the bourgeoisie. Set in Bordeaux, the film looks at a wealthy family that has more skeletons than the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee. The film begins with a sweep across the family villa, looking at the way it is immaculately dressed, the hired help preparing for dinner, and luxurious staircase, and then the dead body that sits in one of the bedrooms.

Chabrol treats this murder, like all murders, in a cold, calculated, matter-of-fact way. Some might consider this ridiculous, but his style of dealing with the murders of France’s upper-middle-class is not unlike the way they deal with it, at least in his mind. They are cold and calculating, and, for the most part, interesting character studies. It says volumes about his abilities as a writer and director that, even after detailing the lives of over a hundred of bourgeois ladies and gents, they still seem fresh and fascinating.

Digging deeper into this household, Chabrol unravels a history of crossbreeding that has historically been common among the gentrified classes. In this case, it is the crossing of the Vasseur and Charpin families, which has been going on for so long, that nearly everyone, regardless of closest familial relationship, are cousins. This is a lifestyle that breeds the type of incest that the film’s scenes after the unveiling of the murder, as François Vasseur (Magimel) returns from university in America to rekindle his romance with stepsister Michèle Charpin-Vasseur (Doutey). To make matters even more complex, François’ father Gérard (Le Coq) married Michèle’s mother Anne (Baye) after their spouses, caught in their own affair, died in a car crash.

All this plays out with the analysis of Provençal politics. Anne is running for mayor, which is aggravating Gérard because her running mate Matthieu (Chabrol; the director’s son) is socially inept and forced by Anne to appear at all their social functions. Meanwhile, another setback comes with the fear that the family’s secret, long guarded by the omniscient Aunt Line (Flon; a wonderful performance), about ancestor’s part in the Vichy government may tarnish their reputation and Anne’s campaign.

The social mores at work in the Carpin-Vasseur family is myriad and confusing -- their interests self-serving and fatal. The way Chabrol humors them with his contrivances and plot twists never feel forced, but come as clear representations of what these people, if real, would do in that particular situation. Sure, the film is paced very slowly -- not unlike the works of fellow New Wavers Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer -- but it is a satisfying style that has the mark of a cinematic elder statesman who knows how to make a particular kind of film, and knows how to do it just right every time

©2003, David Perry,, 19 December 2003

Shawn Levy

Steve Martin
Bonnie Hunt
Piper Perabo
Tom Welling
Hilary Duff
Kevin Schmidt
Alyson Stoner
Jacob Smith
Liliana Mumy
Morgan York
Forrest Landis
Blake Woodruff
Richard Jenkins
Holmes Osborne

Release: 25 Dec. 03

Cheaper by the Dozen


I heard it from the grapevine that Steve Martin wants to adapt his novella Shopgirl into a film, and is looking for backers. I worry that this might mean lackluster films like Cheaper by the Dozen will become common, but I take some solace in knowing that he might be able to make something out of the terrific book.

Of course, a similar thing happened in the 1940s, when the book Cheaper by the Dozen was a bestseller and Myrna Loy (though not as close to the project as Martin is to his Shopgirl) took a break from playing the social elite to play a doughty mother of a 122-child brood in which her efficiency-obsessed husband tries to find a way to turn them into an assembly line (likely the same thing he envisioned his wife’s vagina as considering the slew of kids). The film version of Cheaper by the Dozen was a hit, and then it was ripped-off by With Six You Get Eggroll and The Brady Bunch.

And now is rip-off number 3, a film that uses the same title and total kids as the story but little else in common. The nominal remake of Cheaper by the Dozen, directed by Just Married’s Shawn Levy, drops the efficiency subplot, thus making the title moot, and turns the entire story into a situation comedy that follows every cliché rule of the genre perfectly.

Martin plays Tom Baker, a coach for the college football team in the small town of Midland, Illinois. Despite having to support a family of 12 children, he still dreams of getting a better job, the head coach position at Lincoln University, a Division I football program and his alma mater. This means moving to Evanston, a million-dollar neighborhood and far from the friends, boyfriends, and girlfriends of his angry brood.

To make matters worse, having started to stabilize in the new home, mother Kate (Baker) must go on the road to publicize her new best selling book about living in such a large family. Meanwhile, eldest daughter Nora (Perabo) is called upon to take care of the other 11 while mom is in New York and dad doing press conferences for the team. She, of course, brings her model-actor boyfriend Hank (Kutcher), who all the kids intend to create a living hell for (the only satisfaction that comes from this bit of casting, is hearing Kutcher say the truism, “I’m not that good of an actor. [My face] is my moneymaker”).

Levy isn’t an especially remarkable director, most of his comedy styling involves little more than moving the camera and cutting the shot to a movement of action or shout of sound (with kids, there’s many crashes and screams). His next project is supposed to be a remake of The Pink Panther, which pits him in a comparison with Blake Edwards, a filmmaker who knew how to deal with comedy without becoming predictable. Luckily, Levy has his own Peter Sellers (namely, Steve Martin), to help him out with humorous actions despite to the ill-prepared framing.

Cheaper by the Dozen is nothing special, but its fairly innocuous overall. There is the occasional chuckle, usually produced by Martin, who has done this stuff before in The Father of the Bride and Parenthood, but most of the screen time is given to the kids. With TV actors on hiatus -- Tom Welling of Smallville, Hilary Duff of Lizzie Maguire, Kutcher -- there’s a core audience that will love this material, and I say more power to them. Like the way I can almost tolerate The Brady Bunch, I would never go out of my way to watch this

©2003, David Perry,, 19 December 2003

Mike Newell

Julia Roberts
Dominic West
Julia Stiles
Maggie Gyllenhaal
Kirsten Dunst
Gennifer Goodwin
Juliet Stevenson
Marcia Gay Harden

Release: 19 Dec. 03

Mona Lisa Smile


Adlai Stevenson carts in Katherine Watson (Roberts) from her Berkley home at the beginning of Mona Lisa Smile so that she might subvert the Dwight Eisenhower protégées who are churning out Stepford Wives for the men of America. As long as women, even those in higher education, are dutiful housewives, conservative values will survive -- the liberals better send in their best artillery as soon as possible.

Hinting at Second Wave feminism with the glean of a ‘50s vogue retro look, Mona Lisa Smile wants desperately to be a ‘message film’ but lacks the chops to pull it off. By the end, most of the women who are supposedly progressive individuals seem catty and barely likable. The conservative women are treated the same way. The feminist cinema treatise of the day is, gasp, almost misogynistic.

In the hands of Mike Newell, director of Brit wit comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral, the impression is that American women in the 1950s were just waiting for a cipher like Katherine to rock the boat. Her style of empowerment is built out of open sexuality, intellectual stimulation, and disdain for prim prudery. She seems to think that even if you like being a housewife, you are the problem because you’re allowing women to embrace a retrogressive façade of happiness.

Mona Lisa Smile is like Bowling for Columbine in that it is so intent on its side that it loses any idea that there are merits to the reverse. For them, housewifery is misery and can only be misery. What’s to say that a person cannot be happy with spending her or his (ahem, Mr. Mom, Kramer vs. Kramer) career making a fine house and raising children. Having women in the workplace has certainly helped this society progress over the years, but even today, when career women are accepted, women choose to be housewives.

Set at Wellesley, where Katherine has just taken a position teaching art history, the film lays on the reasons why the women of the college, who were mostly getting their MRS degrees, were being led astray. One student (Dunst) is resolute to becoming a happy housewife until she finds that life isn’t so rosy and that she is merely a decoration in the perfect house her philandering husband cherishes. Another student (Stiles) is willing to set aside her chances at Yale Law School so that she might marry her Harvard beau.

Newell contrasts Katherine and school nurse Amanda Armstrong (Stevenson) with the stiffness of teacher Nancy Abbey (Harden) who teaches all the housewifery classes. What’s offered are smart, headstrong women up against a woman who is the epitome of the status quo’s ineptness.

In case the scenarios and the characters haven’t convinced everyone in the world to forego childrearing and home decorations for law offices and investment brokerage firms, the credits come in to turn this female empowerment Dead Poet’s Society into the final pangs of the Seneca Falls Convention. With Elton John singing “The Heart of Every Girl,” an assemblage of advertisements and pictures of housewives appear for everyone to be appalled at the world we once existed in. Lars von Trier did this much better in Dogville because his ribald, reactionary commentary on America is part of a film that seethes with these comments. Mona Lisa Smile is offensive von Trier filmmaking posing as a nice, inoffensive brunch diversion

©2003, David Perry,, 19 December 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry