American Beauty (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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It's a given rule of reviewing that one must approach every film with a certain sense of extreme objectivity--not only must one set aside all biases, but one theoretically must also abandon all that's going on in one's outside world and concentrate solely on the film. Of course, such the achievement of such a tabula rasa state is an impossibility; while one can consciously escape into the world of a film, the events in one's outside life are embedded in the subconscious of the same mind which is used to register everything that occurs onscreen.
What does this have to do with American Beauty? This (admittedly heavyhanded) attempt at profundity seems oddly out of place in terms of what is being sold--and, to a large degree, is--a dark comedy, and a wildly funny and unpredictable one at that. But for all the surprises in celebrated stage director Sam Mendes's unique, indescribable first film, the richest is how cathartic it is for the audience. Instead of being a distraction, all the emotional baggage that one carries into American Beauty serves as an enhancement--and as such, the film resonates in unexpectedly strong ways.
At first glimpse, however, American Beauty doesn't appear to be the type of film one could be deeply affected by. The stinging first hour delivers some of the most biting laughs in recent memory as it immerses the audience in the pathetic existence of Lester (Kevin Spacey), who bears the apt surname of "Burnham." At 42, he is as burned out on life as one can be, and with good reason: he is stuck in a dead-end job after 14 years, trapped in a now-passionless union with his career-obsessed real estate agent wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), and saddled with bitter teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Lester's only reason for living is his daily morning shower masturbation session--that is, until he catches a glimpse of Jane's friend and fellow cheerleader Angela (Mena Suvari).
From the above, American Beauty could be pegged as a contemporary, blackly comic riff on Lolita, but Alan Ball's layered script continually branches off in fresh and unexpected directions. Lester's rejuvenating lust for Angela is but one of several plot threads intricately woven into the film, whose cast of front-burner characters grows to include the Burnham's neighbor Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), a strict U.S. Marine; his son Ricky (Wes Bentley), an outsider who videotapes everything he sees; and Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), the self-proclaimed "king of real estate" whom Carolyn admires. As relationships within this circle of characters constantly shift, so does the tone of the film, between mean comedy to earnestly felt emotion, eventually giving into the latter in the film's second half.
It is not so much for that reason that American Beauty defies conventional categorization than the manner in which it blends disparate elements; that is, incredibly seamlessly. Credit Ball and especially Mendes, who knows not to simply strike the major note of each given scene but also touch on the undertones that will take prominence in others. Even in the more outrageous, laugh-inducing moments, a darker, more serious undercurrent can always be felt. Part of this has to do with an ominous piece of information that Lester divulges in voiceover in the film's opening minutes: "In less than a year, I will be dead."
The deft meshing of the comic and the tragic is best exemplified by the characters. This group of people is far from the most likable bunch one can encounter; in fact, often they are flat-out unlikable, and much of the film's humor is derived from that point. But for all their comic value, the characters aren't caricatures; they're painfully human. Underneath their frequently selfish actions lies their shared motivation: a grave emotional desperation. That deeper dimension comes through in every one of the actors' performances; even the younger members of the cast hold an impressively firm grasp of their characters' complexities. The most difficult acting job, of course, belongs to Spacey, whose extraordinary performance not only makes Lester's newly rebellious life course wickedly hilarious, but heartbreakingly sad as well.
American Beauty has been described as both a comedy and a drama, but neither one is the most fitting description. In retrospect, the term that springs to mind is mystery, but not necessarily because of the questions surrounding Lester's eventual demise, though they do figure prominently. The film's central mystery is that of the meaning of its title. The answer that is eventually arrived at may not be all that surprising, and perhaps a bit trite for some. But what comes as something of a shock is how profound and exhilarating the experience of its discovery is--not so much for any of the film's characters, but for the audience.
Best Laid Plans (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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I have much to say about Best Laid Plans, but I'm afraid that I can't really say much of anything about it. To go into detail is to ruin the biggest pleasure the film has to offer--and if I did that, I'm afraid there's not too much else left to enjoy in director Mike Barker's interesting but ultimately underwhelming film.
The film opens with two old college buddies, Nick (Alessandro Nivola) and Bryce (Josh Brolin), talking over drinks at a bar in their small hometown of Tropico. With the entrance of a fetching young blonde (Reese Witherspoon), the film fades out, and when it fades back in, a few hours have passed, and Bryce finds himself in a predicament that he feels only Nick can bail him out of--Bryce had sex with the girl, who, as it turns out, is underage, and in a panic, he tied her up and is holding her hostage in the basement.
The rest of Best Laid Plans should be left a mystery; needless to say, as the title implies, there are some plans involved, and, in turn, the implication that comes with calling them "best laid"--as in those of mice and men, and, consequently, as in them going awry. These plans, however, are not what one would expect, and the series of twists upon twists that writer Ted Griffin devises does keep one interested in what happens next.
The problem, however, is what appears to be the trademark of Griffin, whose only other effort was the satirical cannibalism movie Ravenous--that is, the blending of elements that aren't normally mixed. Grisly subject matter (with the bloody gore to match) and sometimes broad satire were paired fairly uneasily in Ravenous, and here the odd combo is that of a dark, mean-spirited thriller with straightforward romantic elements. It would take very skilled jugglers in the writing and directing departments to mix these opposite ends of the emotional spectrum without appearing to exhibit a split personality, which, I'm afraid, is how Best Laid Plans comes off; the most telling moment is the film's resolution, which adds a lethally unnatural flavor of sugar to the film's black bile.
The actors, for the most part, fare well under the circumstances; Nivola is convincing (if unspectacular), and Witherspoon, who has never given a bad performance, doesn't break her streak here. The weakest link is Brolin's annoying Bryce, but in his defense, a lot of that is the fault of the writing; Bryce displays very few, if any, redeeming qualities, making one wonder why Nick would keep him as a friend--and thus removing any resonance from the whole "betrayal of friendship" theme.
Which brings us back to the title. Barker and Griffin had some interesting ingredients in place for this noirish thriller, and obviously had an intriguingly twisty course clearly mapped out for themselves. Alas, much like those mice and men...
For all their similarities, Stir of Echoes is a completely different animal from M. Night Shyamalan's film, especially in terms of style. Koepp approaches his material in a much more conventional fashion than Shyamalan, a fact that can best be summed up by a simple comparison. In The Sixth Sense, the now-famous "I see dead people" is spoken roughly an hour into the film. In Stir of Echoes, the psychically gifted child, Jake Witzky (Zachary David Cope), asks "Does it hurt to be dead?" to an invisible (but not to him) apparition at about the five-minute mark.
This sixth sense also comes to be possessed by Jake's father Tom (Kevin Bacon) after he is put under hypnosis by his sister-in-law Lisa (Illeana Douglas). What is meant as a harmless lark during a party turns natural skeptic Tom into a true believer, for he soon has haunting visions of a mysterious stranger lurking about his house--apparently the same heretofore invisible one with whom his son has been regularly conversing.
The reasons for the ghostly stranger's visits recall similar points in The Sixth Sense, and that's about where the similarities end. There is a more menacing edge here that was fairly absent in that film. A point that comes into play in Stir of Echoes is how ghosts get angry when not paid attention to, resulting in some effective scare scenes where Tom and his family are actually threatened. The darker shades are reinforced by Koepp, who employs an effectively flashy visual style that lends an eeriness to even the more sedate sequences, such as the clever staging of Tom's hypnosis experience.
The absorbing style and urgent pace of Stir of Echoes kept me interested as it progressed, as opposed to the glacial crawl of The Sixth Sense. In the end, though, my reaction to Echoes was the inverse of mine to Sense: where the latter's much-talked-about ending nearly redeemed the entire slow-going film for me, the dismayingly conventional conclusion to Echoes left me soured on the picture. It's a contrived standoff/hostage setup that belongs in much lesser film, and needless to say it completely kills the otherworldly atmosphere that Koepp had meticulously created. Never have I seen reality come crashing down in a film in a more literal--and disappointing--way.
For all its fantastic elements, Rupert Wainwright's supernatural thriller Stigmata will hold a grounding in reality for a lot of viewers due to its religious themes. Any film that deals with religious issues inevitably comes under fire (witness the storm surrounding Kevin Smith's forthcoming Dogma), and Stigmata, which touches upon a fictional conspiracy within the Vatican, has already been denounced by the Catholic League. However, I think the film provides something valuable--surprisingly serious and intelligent food for thought about faith and supernatural phenomena.
While the film deals with serious themes, Stigmata is foremost a thriller, and Wainwright delivers the requisite shocks in telling the story of Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette), an unreligious young Pittsburgh woman who becomes violently afflicted with the wounds of Christ on the cross, or stigmata. Wainwright--perhaps not an obvious choice for a thriller, given that his last credit was for directing Blank Check, a Disney vehicle for former Family Ties moppet Brian Bonsall--stages these bloody scenes in quick-cut MTV style (not surprising, since he's also a veteran of music videos), and the usually annoying effect of such a style works quite well in this context, succeeding in jolting the audience.
Naturally, a priest enters the scene--Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), a onetime scientist who now serves as an investigator for the Vatican. In dealing with Frankie, Father Andrew must come to terms with his own doubts about his faith. Sounds very much like The Exorcist, and much of Stigmata, including some of the special effects scenes, recall that classic. Also like that film, Stigmata's effects are lavish without feeling particularly exploitative. However derivative some individual aspects are, the fresh ideas of Wainwright and writers Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage, along with the believable performances of the cast, give Stigmata its own identity.
Not all of the ideas work, however. Wainwright's visual style careens into overkill during the quieter scenes; there are one too many shots of drops of blood falling into water, not to mention some unnecessarily emblematic closeups of menial things, such as coffee being poured into a cup. He also overuses a device that repeats dialogue spoken in a scene as a voiceover on the following scene. The virtual absence of any police hasn't stopped Lazarus and Ramage from indulging in the reliable cop cliché where an officer is taken off the case by a superior (in this instance, Father Andrew by Cardinal Daniel Houseman, played by Jonathan Pryce).
Even so, Stigmata leaves the audience with more to chew on afterward that any of the other thrillers currently crowding theatres--including The Sixth Sense. While that film makes one think about things you've seen during the course of its progression, Stigmata makes one reflect upon one's personal beliefs and values--and therein lies all the difference.
The Very Thought of You (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
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It's no big shock that Miramax decided to give a more accessible title to this modern-day screwball comedy, which has been released elsewhere in the globe under the unconventional name Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence. That strange title pretty much sums up the eccentricities of this film, which follows Martha (Monica Potter), an American who runs off to London to start a new life. Within a couple of days, Martha individually meets Brits Frank (Rufus Sewell), Daniel (Tom Hollander), and Laurence (Joseph Fiennes)--all of whom fall in love with her. Little does she know that the three are lifelong friends, and little do they know that only one of them has her love in return: Laurence.
Of course, a number of complications, coincidences, and misunderstandings befitting that original title ensue. But one wishes that the film were as simple as the new, if generic and completely irrelevant, title it bears now. Potter and Fiennes are charming together, and he is proven at playing lovelorn types (albeit not while decked out in contemporary garb, which it is actually somewhat jarring to see him in). I would have liked to see them in a more straightforward love story without all the mechanical silliness involving the other two guys. Unfortunately, that's what one must sit through in order to savor their too-few sweet moments together.
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The Great Mouse Detective (G) BUY THE:Poster!
Disney is really draining the "masterpiece" label of any meaning by slapping it onto this enjoyable but far-from-great 1986 effort, the last animated feature from the Mouse before the big resurgence heralded by the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid. Mermaid directors John Musker and Ron Clements were two of the four people at the helm of this yarn about Basil of Baker Street, the titular "great mouse detective" who must foil the dastardly schemes of the evil Ratigan (voiced by the late Vincent Price). The songs are unnecessary and unmemorable, and the entire film doesn't exactly linger in the mind all that long, either, but it's an amiable little trifle that entertains during its scant running time. (Walt Disney Home Video)
Revenge of the Musketeers (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Apparently, unlike Jedi, musketeers "revenge" rather than return, for at the last minute, Miramax changed the title from previously announced Return of the Musketeers to the punchier Revenge of the Musketeers. However, the first title for this 1994 French adventure (until now, yet another Miramax shelf item)--D'Artagnan's Daughter--would have been more appropriate, for Eloïse (Sophie Marceau), the freespirited spawn of the fourth musketeer (Philippe Noiret) is the focal character. She stumbles upon a conspiracy to dethrone the king, springing back into reluctant action her father and his long-in-the-tooth cronies. Director Bertrand Tavernier keeps the action enjoyably light on its feet, particularly during the opening sections where Eloïse gets to strut her swashbuckling stuff. Unfortunately, that doesn't last, for she ultimately takes a back seat to those musketeers, whose tiring banter is, needless to say, not nearly as exciting as seeing Marceau cut loose with a sword. (Miramax Home Entertainment)
Southie (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Of all the former New Kids on the Block now resurfacing with solo careers of some sort, Donnie Wahlberg's will perhaps be the most enduring--as an actor. Before showing up emaciated and unrecognizable in The Sixth Sense's opening segment, he did an admirable job in the lead of this barely-released drama about a one-time hoodlum who returns to his crime-infested home of South Boston, only to be caught up in the web of violence once again. The film is the first directorial effort of actor John Shea (perhaps best known as Lex Luthor in the TV series Lois & Clark), and as is the case with the work of actors-turned-directors, the performances are the best thing about the film; in addition to Wahlberg, Shea (who also appears in a small role as a cop) coaxes fine work from Rose McGowan (as Wahlberg's sister) and Anne Meara (as Wahlberg's mother). But like too many films, the acting excellence is ultimately cancelled out by the derivative nature of the story, which is not presented in a terribly fresh or distinctive manner. (Sterling Home Entertainment; DVD also available)
Urban Menace BUY THE:Poster!
Snoop Dogg as a supernaturally-powered serial killer of urban hoodlums. That should give one a fair idea of how bad this straight-to-tape actioner/drama/thriller/slasher flick/extended music video is, but no. That premise doesn't quite prepare you for Snoop's never-changing, would-be cold-blooded scowl; the unintelligible speech of another rapper, Big Punisher, playing the main crime lord; and certainly not the ridiculous, mostly on-camera narration provided by yet another rapper, Ice-T, who also produced. Before the opening credits roll, Ice-T addresses the audience directly, ending his speech with "Fuck you." The insult is obviously meant in jest, but the atrocity that follows is as serious and malicious a "fuck you" as one can get. (Sterling Home Entertainment; DVD also available)
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Mallrats (R) Movie: ; Disc: BUY THE:Poster!
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Kevin Smith's lowbrow youth comedy Mallrats, his bigger-budget follow-up to his wildly entertaining no-budget debut, Clerks, would seem like a bizarre candidate for a deluxe DVD. After all, the not only was a most resounding flop with critics and at the box office, Smith himself apologized for the film (in jest, but still) at the 1996 Independent Spirit Awards. Ironically, though, after wading through the extensive amount of supplemental material on Universal's collector's edition disc, it's apparent that such a film makes ideal fodder for such an in-depth treatment--that is, with the right approach. Instead of using the DVD release as a mere way for a flop to be rediscovered (as is oftentimes the case), Universal has used the medium's flexibiltity and depth as a way for the film's makers to reexamine and reevaluate, warts and all, a less-than-worthy film.
I had not seen Mallrats since its brief theatrical run in the fall of 1995, and watching the film with fairly fresh eyes nearly four years later, I must say that the film hasn't gotten any better with age; it's still the same sophomoric silliness I assessed as such back in the infancy (issue #15!) of this very publication. The film is about Brodie (Jason Lee) and T.S. (Jeremy London), who attempt to win back their respective ex-girlfriends, Rene (Shannen Doherty) and (Claire Forlani) during one long day at the mall. Appearing every so often to help our heroes are the recurring duo that turn up in all of Smith's films, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself), who engage in all manner of straight-from-comic-books derring-do.
While the film is as ridiculous as it sounds, if not moreso, the supplemental material on the DVD is a lot more interesting than a disc would normally entail. By basic definition, the extras are not unlike any you'd find on any other disc: theatrical trailer, music video, press kit notes, cast/crew biographies, deleted scenes, feature-length commentary, behind-the-scenes featurette. But what sets this disc apart from any typical disc--make that any typical disc of a bad film--is the highly self-critical approach of the latter two features.
"View Askew's Look Back at Mallrats," is as its title suggests, not a basic production featurette taken from the film's electronic press kit, but an actual look back, circa October 1998, at the film and its production. But instead of going the normally smiley-faced route and conveniently skirting the issue of what is the film's undebated failure, Smith and his cast and crew take a hard look at the reality of and surrounding the film. Instead of a traditional fluff piece, the featurette is a fascinating look at how a film can go wrong: from initial doubts and producers' meddling and headgames prior to filming; to more second-guessing from the top during production; to problems with marketing the eventual, troublesome project. It makes for an interesting cautionary tale for young indie filmmakers wanting to make a splash on a studio project.
My description makes the featurette appear grave in tone, but far from it; it's actually quite light and fun. That said, it's not nearly as jovial as the mood on the feature-length audio commentary, featuring Smith, Lee, Mewes, Ben Affleck (who played slick "Fashionable Male" proprietor Shannon Hamilton), producer Scott Mosier, and View Askew Productions historian Vincent Pereira. The usual gamut of production anecdotes and comments about camera moves (or lack thereof) are given, but the difference here is an often mocking tone; no one is afraid to have a laugh at the expense of their handiwork. It is refreshing to see a filmmaker throw all ego at the wayside and not afraid to make fun of himself.
One nifty added feature to the commentary is an option to see periodic video footage of the recording session; while this admittedly doesn't add a whole lot to the viewing experience or their comments, it's nice to see images to go with the disembodied voices every one in a while. But this is just one example of the small, not entirely necessary, yet welcome enhancements on the disc. These having each item on the deleted scene reel be introduced and their deletion explained by Smith and Pereira, and the neat "visual sound effects" (a la the old campy '60s Batman TV series) that appear with nearly every click on the flashy animated menus.
During the commentary, Smith says that "in a way, this movie is very much ahead of its time, quite like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner." He's joking of course, but he actually could have a real point. Not only does Mallrats have a large cult following these days (hence this DVD), but two other tidbits are rather telling. Smith tells about a scene he war forced to cut from the script where semen gets into a girl's hair, not unlike the notorious scene in the blockbuster There's Something About Mary, which, in turn, prominently featured the Foundations' "Build Me Up, Buttercup"--a song that is featured, albeit in a cover by the Goops, on the Mallrats soundtrack and during the film itself. Hmm. But whether or not Mallrats the film was ahead of its time--I, for one, don't foresee a day where I can honestly like the film--Mallrats the DVD is a keeper right from the moment of its release. (Universal Studios Home Video)
Even more depressing about Gooding's involvement in Chill Factor is that he's relegated to token wisecracking African-American sidekick to ever-so-vanilla Skeet Ulrich, who has the true starring role here. Or perhaps that is a good thing since this tepid action comedy is not exactly one would be proud to headline (though Gooding is top billed). Ulrich's Tim Mason is the central character, a young diner worker in a small Montana town who comes into the possession of "Elvis," an explosive chemical substance. As instructed by a scientist friend, Tim must deliver the chemical to a military station in a town 90 miles away before some baddies can use it for their nefarious purposes. The catch? The chemical must remain frozen, for at 50 degrees, it combusts. Enter Arlo (Gooding), ice cream delivery man, who is dragged into the dirty affair when Tim decides to use his refrigerated truck for transport.
Thus begins one long chase, where our mismatched duo bickers and bonds while pursued by evil military types (led by Peter Firth and Xena and former Melrose Place vixen Hudson Leick) in cars and on motorcycles. It's all fairly routine, but director Hugh Johnson is able to come up with a couple of diverting action sequences, namely one where Arlo and Tim must steer the truck on a narrow, blown-out mountain roadway; and another where the two ride a boat down a steep hill.
What neither Johnson nor Gooding and Ulrich can redeem is the limp banter given them by writers Drew Gitlin and Mike Cheda. Most of the laugh lines are given to Gooding, and, to his credit, he obviously attempts to infuse as much punch into them as is humanly possible. Unfortunately, this results in a way over-the-top performance that can best be described as a feature-length riff on his famously energized Oscar acceptance speech. But at least he displays some signs of life, which cannot be said for Ulrich; as in the awful Touch, the last film he was called on to carry, Ulrich makes for a flavorless, uninteresting presence that is much too weak on which to hang an entire picture.
Chill Factor is a competently made studio assembly-line product, and that ultimately is the problem. Without anything remotely extraordinary to its credit, it is taken in by the eyes with relative ease, but leaves nothing of substance to penetrate any deeper.
Providence is set in 1974, when teen Tim Dunphy's (Shawn Hatosy) aimless, pot-fueled antics leads his father (Alec Baldwin) to ship him from their home of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to Cornwall Academy, a stuffy prep school in Connecticut. A fish-out-of-water scenario where all manner of hilarity should ensue, but what unfolds is bizarrely lifeless and often simply boring, with Tim regularly running afoul of an uptight headmaster (Tim Crowe) when not running after Jane (Amy Smart), a fetching student at the girls' school. Every so often Corrente cuts to a scene back in Pawtucket, usually with Old Man Dunphy playing poker with pals. It's as exciting as it sounds.
The actors playing the only two recognizable characters are the only thing that holds interest in the film, aside from Corrente's keen eye for period detail. Baldwin does an admirable job of disappearing into his character, obviously wearing a few (to say the least) more pounds than usual and speaking in a very convincing Rhode Island accent. But there's more to his performance than a mere physical transformation; Baldwin infuses the macho blowhard with a palpable warmth. Not as showy is the work of Hatosy, who has a natural, understated ease about him that makes slacker Tim more likable than he otherwise would be (as played by another actor, he probably wouldn't be at all).
A more compelling semi-autobiographical tale of adolescence can be found in West Beirut, written and directed by Ziad Doueiri. The film indeed is set in Lebanon in the late '70s to early '80s, when civil war divided the country and split the city of Beirut into a Christian-run East and a Muslim-run West; against this backdrop, we see the development of young Tarek (Rami Doueiri), Omar (Mohamad Chamas), and their Christian friend May (Rola Al Amin), as well as the effects the unrest has on Tarek's parents (Carmen Lebbos and Joseph Bou Nassar). Despite more than a few serious turns of events, there are plenty of moments of humor as the teens simply go about their business of having fun, learning about life, and growing up as any others would in any corner of the globe. Paying no mind to the setting and situational differences, West Beirut is more effective a film semi-memoir than Outside Providence for one simple reason--it actually feels like a story worth telling.
The Astronaut's Wife (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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New Line opted to not screen in advance for critics this once-high-profile sci-fi thriller, but the film is far from the flat-out disaster that decision would imply. In fact, there is a lot of merit on display here, not the least of which is that of the terrific lead performance of Charlize Theron, who once again proves to be the real deal actingwise. She plays the title character, whose world becomes increasingly nighmarish after her husband (Johnny Depp) returns from an accident-plagued space mission. Something is not quite right with him, and neither are his unborn twins that she is carrying. For a first-time director, Rand Ravich displays a strong sense of visual style as well as a command of mood, for an atmosphere of dread is ominously felt throughout the picture.
However, it turns out that Ravich has no idea what exactly the dread is leading up to. He is also a first-time writer, and his inexperience shows. All the stylish visuals in the world cannot hide the fact that the film's story simply does not add up, leaving tons more questions than answers in its incredibly unsatisfying wrapup. One such question is that of the miscast Depp's (alas, "evil" is beyond this good actor's range) involvement in this picture, other than the obvious (i.e., an easy paycheck). Theron and Ravich's style keeps one watching, but by the conclusion one may wish one hadn't.