Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chinatown redux

Just in case anyone thinks designers have no life outside of work...Watching on average 4-5 films per week for the past ten years has made it difficult to write about them. Over time I find they blur together and I forget details about them. Often I have to go back and watch them again— which is a pleasure. I did this recently with "Chinatown." This is on my top ten list of all time, perhaps in the top five. The stars were in alignment in 1974 when director Roman Polanski, writer Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, producer Robert Evans and the rest of the cast and crew came together for this gem. Watching the film reaffirmed my belief that a great story is the bedrock good films are built upon. Maybe the best part of watching this on DVD was the commentary. Hearing Polanski, Towne and Nicholson reminisce was touching and interesting. Sad as well. Okay- back to work...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

a work in progress

due to a heavy work load i have been very bad about watching and reviewing movies.

will attempt in 2008 to change this trend...

Sunday, January 23, 2005

been busy starting a new biz and making a move...

been a wee bit busy this past year. quit job in december and launched a new biz in a new city in january. fun fun and hard work. so... not too many reviews written. no more playing in bands either. just got oo busy. maybe one of these days eventually:)

Monday, December 29, 2003

Okay it is that time of year again- my 2003 best of list- I am borrowing the typing talents of my friend Ben Nuckols who put a list together. I am copying and pasting from his list which had a number of titles I liked as well. Credit where credit due right? These are not in any particular order. Okay now for the list...

1. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson)
3. The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy I)
4. All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green)
5. Man on the Train (Patrice Leconte)
6. The School of Rock (Richard Linklater)
7. Swimming Pool (François Ozon)
8. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino)
9. The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan)
10. Capturing the Freidmans (Andrew Jarecki)

Thursday, December 11, 2003

okay it has been far far too long since i have written a review- i vow to change that in 2004. been a bit distracted. for those of you who have actually taken the time to read my reviews and email me responses thank you so much- means a lot that anyone takes time outa their busy day to read my reviews.

sorry i have not been very good about responding.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

238 Days or Less

"My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It is what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle, there were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little we went insane."
So said Francis Ford Coppola at the 1997 Cannes Film Fest discussing the making of APOCALYPSE NOW. All the insanity and more is captured in the 1991 documentary HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE which was created using footage shot by Coppola's wife, some of it using cassette recordings and footage shot surreptitiously. Was this a precursor to those reality t.v. shows? Oh wait - there is nothing remotely "reality" about them but I digress.
The making of HEARTS OF DARKNESS goes something like this: In Feb. 1976 Coppola took his entire family to the Philippines, including wife Eleanor and three children all under the age of 12 (a glutton for punishment if ever their was one), to begin filming of APOCALYPSE NOW. To make the film, which took 238 days to shoot in the hot and humid jungles, Coppola went through hell, as well as created it. He hocked all his assets, went $3 million over budget, his original lead actor Harvey Kietel, who was to play the pivotal role of Willard left the film (or was fired - the doc doesn't state the circumstances), his replacement Martin Sheen had a heart attack at the age of 36 in which last rites were performed. Not to mention that Brando was somewhat uncooperative (imagine that! Although he was getting paid $1 million a week and only was contracted for three weeks of filming - damn prima donna), and a fleet of helicopters on loan from then Philippine President Marcos (ya know, the guy with the wife who owned something like 1,000 plus shoes) for key scenes would on occasion just up and leave the set to fight Philippine rebels in the hillside, thus ending filming. Ahh the pleasures of filmmaking. It all came together in the end in the magnificent film that APOCALYPSE NOW is and Coppola walked home from the Academy Awards with an armful of awards but the journey was harrowing.
APOCALYPSE NOW was in Coppola's words supposed to be "a metaphor into self" and me thinks specifically the animated, manic, brilliant, at times insane, Coppola. He had attempted to make the film before the first two Godfathers were ever made but no studio would finance it. After the success of the first two Godfathers Coppola created American Zoetrope, which was Coppola's idea of a film company to be outside of the Hollywood system. APOCALYPSE NOW was to be their first project. Hats off to Coppola's DIY spirit albeit one funded by the huge proceeds from the Godfather films. Multimillionaire Coppola had George Lucas, John Milius and Coppola himself write the script. He gathered up Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz, initially casting Harvey Keitel and later Martin Sheen as Capt. Willard, Robert Duvall as Lt. Col. Kilgore, Dennis Hopper as a whacked out photojournalist, Albert Hall as Chief Quartermaster Phillips, Frederic Forrest as "Chef," and 14 year old Laurence Fishburne as "Mr. Clean." Harrison Ford and Scott Glen also had roles. An ideal "outsiders" casting clusterfuck if their ever was one.
Fishburne as Mr. Clean was maybe Coppola's most interesting casting selection. A 14 year old boy in the middle of a Philippine jungle? Coppola was attempting to reflect the naivete of the American soldiers going to Vietnam, as well as the demographic. Mostly sons of the working class and unable to dodge the draft, many of the soldiers had never left the inner-cites in which they were born and raised in. Vietnam was a parallel universe seen only on t.v. - remote and distant - until the soldiers were unceremoniously set down in the middle of the jungle to fight. Who better than a 14-year old boy who didn't need to act necessarily to reflect the otherworld quality of Vietnam at the time? Fishburne just had to be himself. An air of surrealism surrounds Fishburne's character in the film and the footage from the doc captures this quality in him as well. "The whole thing is really fun. I mean war is fun. Shit," Fishburne comments in HEARTS OF DARKNESS, "You can do anything you want to, that's the way Vietnam was really fun." Strange and disturbing. One of the darkest and saddest moments in the documentary.
In one of the more amusing segments of the documentary Coppola muses over the making of APOCALYPSE NOW and describes the writing process as "idiocy," and predicts that "the film will not be good. A 20 million dollar disaster. I am thinking of shooting myself." Glad he didn't. He made a great film. The documentary is stunning, funny, and difficult at times to watch as Coppola teeters on edge of a breakdown. Watch it drinking a bottle of Heart of Darkness wine (with a killer label designed by Ralph Steadman) or better yet a fine diamond series syrah from Coppola's vineyard - no doubt funded in part by the proceeds from APOCALYPSE NOW.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

The Magnificent Seven
Metaphorical Marlborough Man meets the Seven Samurai and kicks 100 Mexican banditos' butts

"We lost. We always lose." says Yul Brynner in the last line of one of the last great "classic" western tales. A great line from a great film that will stick in the gray matter long after watching it. Sandwiched in-between the fantastic THE SEARCHERS and THE WILD BUNCH, this 1960 American remake of the classic film THE SEVEN SAMURAI launched the careers of a number of Hollywood action stars including Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. Director John Sturges' film about seven men who kill for hire, battling banditos to protect a helpless Mexican village, is a study in economy of words and movement. It is also an exploration of the hero's code, alienation, male bonding, and evil.

Apparently Sturges took Kurosawa's script, had it modified by William Roberts, matched it scene for scene basing the film in a peasant Mexican village. As a director Sturges was taking a great risk, setting himself up for critics' derision, but it all coalesces into an entertaining, intelligent and moving film enhanced by an incredible score by Elmer Bernstein. Some may argue that this version of the story is not as good as Kurosawa's but The Magnificent Seven is well worth the trek to the video store- especially in light of the onslaught of the crap coming our way this summer at multiplex theaters. Also, having Elmer Bernstein score the music wasn't a bad idea either.

Perhaps the magic of this film is the superlative casting of virtual unknowns. Like later films such as M*A*S*H, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE OUTSIDERS, and PLATOON this film was a great career start for relatively unknown actors. At the time McQueen had done THE BLOB (1958) and Vaughn THE TEENAGE CAVEMAN the same year. Yul Brynner, clean shaven even then and dressed all in black, stands out as Chris, the leader of the group. Other highlights of the cast are McQueen as laconic side-kick Vin, Vaughn as Lee, Bronson as Bernardo O'Reilly, and, especially, James Coburn as Britt the Knifethrower, perhaps the most compelling of the Seven.

Britt is a character with no conscience, no sentimentality, who displays no romance about killing- he is a brutal killing machine. He accepts death and deals with it, as my friend Micah commented to me with "an honesty that some could be described as evil." I see him as an attractive menace- Coburn was born for this role. His physicality is such that every angle of his lean, colt-like body punctuates any utterance or action he makes—most notably when he kills.

Another great casting decision was Eli Wallach as Calvera, leader of the bandits. An exchange between Vin and Calvera yielded another classic line: "We deal in lead, friend," says Vin menacingly when Calvera offers to make them all partners.

So, the point is go rent this film and soon. And, by the way, a tip for when you venture out to the multiplex to see the sequels this summer (and we all know how unruly and loud multiplex audiences can be): my mom and her best friend Sister Pat (a Sister of Mercy nun) went to see some film a while back. During the film someone behind them was talking non-stop. So my mom, being the lovely lady she is, politely turned around a few times indicating her annoyance and to no avail—the folks would not stop talking. Well Sister Pat (who is a force of nature as nuns can be) stood up in front of the annoying talker saying to them with arms akimbo, "If I can't hear, you can't see." It shut them up quick. Try it next time you are at the multiplex.
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I look forward (maybe) to your comments

Sunday, May 18, 2003

In a break from film I saw the Cramps last night who put on such a great show- one of the best I have ever seen- that I had to mention it. So here is a little quote from Lux Interior talking about he and Poison Ivy's world view. It is kinda cool...

Lux Interior:
"We're just people who remain ever-curious. We're just attracted to whatever comes in handy. Again, like the Surrealists, anything you run across is actually beautiful; within a single city block, you find miraculous things. It's a good planet -- and good things can happen."

Now back to film...

Friday, May 16, 2003


Writer-director Neil LaBute’s new film THE SHAPE OF THINGS adapted from a play is his latest misanthropic take on relationships and a meditation on what is art. Rachel Weisz is outstanding as Evelyn the beautiful, controlling M.F.A student at Mercy College who dates undergrad Adam played by the adequate Paul Rudd. Evelyn manipulates and molds Adam, transforming him from a meek, overweight nerd to confident, cute hipster. Out goes the brown corduroy blazer Adam has had for years and in comes the cool nuevo-retro looking jacket. His nose undergoes a little snip as does his hair and his cuteness emerges, as does a newfound confidence.

Edgy, disturbing and provocative the film will most likely elicit quite a bit of discomfort as you watch Evelyn (Eve) reshape the hapless Adam who is like a lamb led to slaughter. She devours him in every way- spiritually, psychologically and physically spitting him out in a surprise ending that was pretty darn hard to sit through. LaBute’s reference to Medea in the film isn’t coincidental. Evelyn is a powerful sorceress who although doesn’t murder any kids in the film but is at times a scary woman who eventually in the name of art does something pretty horrific.

Good acting all around including Gretchen Mol as Adam’s friend Jenny and Frederick Weller as Phil, Jenny’s boyfriend.

Monday, May 12, 2003

BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, directed by 31-year-old Justin Lin and written by Mr. Lin, Ernesto M. Foronda and Fabian Marquez, is the darkest portrayal of Asian Americans on screen to date. Talk about controversy. The film is stirring up a lot of that, particularly at its 2002 Sundance screening where Roger Ebert stood on a chair and defended its portrayal of Orange County Asian American high school students who are over-achievers with a penchant for guns, drugs and sex. The film chronicles high school senior Ben Manibag played by Parry Shen, and his three partners in crime; Virgil Hu, Han, and Daric Loo, as they sell cheat sheets, drugs and eventually commit murder and whose primary motivation is teenage boredom. A little coke sniffing helps alleviate the pressure of SAT scores and Ivy League college applications.

The film smashes the stereotype of Asian Americans as squeaky-clean over-achievers and apparently Lin has been criticized for this unflattering, yet authentic representation of his community. The film is based on a true story that happened at an Orange County High School a few years ago. One criticism is that the actors look more like grad students than high school students. Made on a tiny budget of $250,000 or $500,000 (I have read bith figures) it has been picked up by MTV Films.

Thursday, April 17, 2003


Directed by Caroline Link (BEYOND SILENCE) who also wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Stefanie Zweig NOWHERE IN AFRICA is about a Jewish family fleeing Nazi Germany for Kenya in 1938. Although a bit slow going at times, it is overall a compelling tale of outsiders trying to survive in a foreign land. Leaving their comfortable life in Frankfurt, the Redlich family tries to adjust— some of them better than others. Wife Jettel (Juliane Köhler) likes the finer things in life and has difficulty adjusting to her new status, while her husband Walter (Merab Ninidze), who has been in Kenya longer than the rest of the family, was once a lawyer. He is trying to manage a farm and failing miserably at it. When Walter requests Jettel pack a refrigerator to bring to Kenya when she joins him there she brings an evening gown instead—perhaps for the tea dance in the bush? Meanwhile, daughter Regina (Lea Kurka as a child and Karoline Eckertz as a teenager) immediately adapts; befriending the Redlich’s Masai cook Owuor (Sidede Onyulo) who adores her. The story is actually told through her teenage eyes. Displacement is the liet motif of this film.

Ever present is the feeling of being an outsider. For instance, when Regina goes to boarding school in Nairobi on her first day the Headmaster insists that all Jewish students stand aside so the rest of the student body can recite the "Lord’s Prayer." After that, they are ostracized in that cruel way that children can be to each other. Regina and her one friend Ilse are forced to sit at their own lunch table with another student. It’s moments like this the wounded nerd in all of us cringe. The Africans group all whites together, not making distinctions between German or British, Jewish or Gentile. It’s interesting that only the whites in the film make these distinctions.

The Redlich’s marriage doesn’t fare that well either at first. Walters accuses Jettel of only sleeping with him when he was a lawyer. After all the Germans living in Kenya are interned in Nairobi, Jettel sleeps with a German speaking British officer in order to arrange another farm for Walter to manage. By the end of the war, the dynamics have changed among the family members as well as their feelings toward Kenya. Jettel wants to stay in Kenya and Walter wants to go back to Germany to be a judge. The strains on their relationship that adapting to Kenya have created contribute to a palpable disconnectedness between the couple. But as sometimes happens in a relationship, overcoming difficulties together creates a stronger bond and the performances create a feeling of authenticity. Regina is the glue that seems to hold the family together.

Standouts: the cinematography by Gernot Roll which captures the countryside of Kenya. It is breath-taking and the cinematography has a lyrical quality that reinforces the manner in which this tale is told. Also the performance by Juliane Köhler. Not since Hanna Schygulla (THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN) has a German actress made such an impression on me. Köhler’s transformation from uptight, pampered bourgeois wife to a farmer supporting her family is terrific. One pivotal scene where Jettel is faced with a plague of locusts attacking her crops is where she really shines. The winner of this year's Foreign Film Oscar is well deserved. For once the Academy got it right.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Just wait until it comes out on video.

In theory this movie could have been watchable given that director
Jonas Åkerlund is a music video/commercial director and a film about
speed freaks on a three-day drug binge could lend itself to the frenetic
type of editing the Swedish Åkerlund has used in his videos.
Unfortunately this story about a collection of addicts is not worth
editing, atleast not this by script by Will De Los Santos and Creighton
Vero. Rarely has a film relied more on caricatures than character
development. Additionally it borrows so heavily from other films about
drug use, in particular "Requiem for a Dream," it crosses the line of
paying homage to, or being influenced by other films about drug culture,
and winds up being completely derivative. At times I thought I was
having a flashback (no pun intended) to "Requiem"— especially the scenes
of the pupil dilating when one of the addicts got high. The film is a
two-hour exercises in gratuitous freakishness without the originality of
Harmony Korine’s "Gummo" (which it is very derivative of) or any of John
Waters’ films.

The fault does not lie solely on Akerland’s shoulders given the material
he had to work with, which unlike "Requiem" had the talents of the great
Hubert Selby Jr., writing the script. Despite a decent cast which
includes John Leguizamo as Spider the dealer and Jason Schwartzman as
Ross the college dropout/speed freak the performances are wasted. The
only redeeming thing about this film is Mickey Rourke— yep tis true. He
plays "the Cook" and spends his days in motel rooms cooking up
methamphetamine for Spider. In a one scene where the Cook is recounting
his childhood Rourke’s story is simultaneously funny and painful and has
an authenticity the rest of the film lacks. If only their were more moments like this
in the film. Not even Eric Roberts in a wig, which is extremely funny, can save this film.

Thursday, April 03, 2003


Is that a Cuban cigar in your pants or are ya just happy to see me? (gee flippancy is so unlike me— must be spring).

Where to start? A thorough disappointment and for God’s sake I like the man and his politics! And why a disappointment?… cause I walked outa the Charles Theater adoring Fidel. Yep— I applauded along with the other seven or eight folks in the theater and toasted him afterwards at the Club Charles and I don’t care what anyone says but in retrospect no politician is a savior unless you are Ghandi or (insert politician's name) yea I didn't think you could think of anyone. If you can think of someone I’ll happily give you my Bday gift of 10 free Video Americain rentals (or maybe not so happily) but I’m confident no one but Ghandi or Nelson Mandela comes close to being a savior. So why the disappointment? This "documentary" smacked of propaganda like I don’t know what. A puff piece if there ever was one. Whoa- holda holda (pardon insertion of Indie rocker speak)— don’t get your knickers in a bunch quite yet. No matter what I think of his politics, or what you do, and I assume a lot of us out there have a big ole soft spot in our hearts for Fidel and his attempts at nationalized health care, education and a redistribution of wealth— this film is so one-sided it is insulting.

Director Estela Bravo is to Fidel what some may say Leni Riefenstahl was to Hitler. Whoa! Some serious hyperbole going on but keep reading… This documentary is the antithesis of films by Errol Morris or Ken Burns (not that Mr. Moore is terribly unbiased but even Moore makes an attempt at even-handed treatment- well okay not a lot but a more than Bravo). Old Edward R. Murrow interviews of Fidel with his son and his dog… come on…! Crowd says, "ooh how cute!" Manipulation. The ever-fantastic, nay brilliant, Sydney Pollack asking us why we can't forgive this guy if we've forgiven other enemies? Crowd goes: "Yea! Sydney is respected so how wrong can he be?" Manipulation. Just one man’s opinion I say. Footage of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who claims that Castro reads and edits his manuscripts before they're published speaking about Fidel’s generosity and kindness. More manipulation. All of us who love Marquez want so desperately to believe this man is correct. Go ahead and trot out footage of Muhammad Ali and Jack Nicholson with Castro— yea we all like both but intellectual heavy hitters they ain’t and neither makes any particularly insightful comments on Fidel. More manipulation… and why the parade of celebrities? Cause Bravo knows Americans have a fascination, nay worship, of any and all celebrities and credit them with far more intelligence and respect than they deserve. Afterall we are the nation that gave John Bobbit a television show- or was it his ex-wife: same diff.

Oh yea this film is tailored towards Americans did I mention that? Hollywood in particular as a source for enlightened commentary on politics is a losing proposition when we have folks like David Corn, Eric Alterman or even William F. Buckley Jr.,(take your pick left or right none of these guys are dumb) to read and digest. Bravo wrongly assumes that audiences upon seeing Jack Lemmon with Castro will equate progressive-minded politics with Castro. Aside from Tim Robbins don’t look towards Hollywood for anything but the next Multiplex blockbuster and Bravo thinks the folks who check this film out are about that. Where are the dissenting voices?

We all know that as humans go last I checked no one is perfect — except maybe the Virgin Mary (I can get away with saying this cause I was raised a Catholic and any relatives reading this would not invite me to Easter dinner if I said otherwise). The only dissenting "voices" are the ever irascible and yet endearing journalist Mike Wallace and Jesse Helms, which in totality on screen last about five minutes if that.

On a positive note the footage of Che and Fidel is historically accurate— one senses that the connection politically and personally between these two men was profound. The United States has tried during Lord knows how many Administrations to paint an unflattering picture of Castro but we as Americans are smart enough to know otherwise and to have such a one-sided view of Castro shoved down our throats is insulting. Somewhere in the middle of what our government tells us about Castro and what Bravo portrays in this film is the truth. Judge for yourself.

Thursday, March 27, 2003


Directed by German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer, Rivers and Tides is a documentary about 47-year-old Scottish environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. Shot over the course of a year, it details his numerous pieces which basically are comprised of things he finds in nature such as ice, rocks, flowers, leaves, even wool, that he rearranges and that are transformed by nature which he documents through photos. For instance "Soul of a Tree" is a piece in which he takes little bits of icicles and arranges them in a beautiful spiral around the tree, which eventually will melt, all chronicled through his photos.
Transience is a key theme in Goldsworthy's work - growth and decay, I suppose - which is not a novel concept in art but Goldsworthy's interpretation of this using dandelions or pigeon feathers is pretty awe-inspiring. Interestingly enough he is not only aware the object in nature such as a stone but the things around it like the sun or snow. He considers nature to be forever in a state of change and is keenly sensitive to that.
The film is shot in Nova Scotia, New York State, France and Scotland amongst other places. Galleries are not shown that I recall, as his work is primarily all outdoors with the exception of an interior in France. Goldsworthy is a solitary, soft spoken guy who talks about his need to have a lot of time alone and that people drain him. The short segment of the film where he is with his family is pretty much the only time you see him interacting with people although he does briefly chat with some guys at a diner when he is in the States working on a commission. The film is mostly Goldsworthy and nature and his discussion of his work. It's a quiet little film. Not the most exciting film of the year but one of the most beautiful.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Russian Ark

Russian Ark is a single tracking time travel shot lasting about 87 minutes. Director of Photography Tillman Butter (Run Lola Run), used a steadicam later transferring footage to 35mm film. It is the longest shot in film history- a real technical marvel. Directed by Russian Alexander Sokurov, who attempted this three times before getting it right, the film took four years to finance and prepare involving numerous- 2,000 actually- actors and touring of nearly a mile of galleries and hallways of the former Czarist palace in St. Petersburg called the Hermitage. Apparently other filmmakers have attempted this type of unbroken filming including Hitchcock but nothing on this scale. Known more for his emphasis on visuals and less on dialogue to convey a story’s meaning (think 1996’s “Mother and Son) Sokurov’s film is a lush and wondrous sojourn through this sumptuous museum. The Hermitage is viewed through the eyes of a 21st Century narrator (the never seen Sokurov) and an odd, elitist, at times annoying 19th Century European diplomat played by Sergei Dreiden.

Three hundred years of Russian history are the subject of the film and we encounter Czarina Alexandra, Catherine II as she is looking for the bathroom and ends up literally pissing in a pot as well as Peter the Great berating a courtier. The diplomat and narrator can see each other as they traverse the corridors with the diplomat stopping to chat with various museum visitors as well as historic figures. For most of the film the narrator remains invisible until he encounters two doctors that he knows since they are from the 21st Century. The narrator introduces them to the diplomat and the three discuss some Italian paintings. It is a funny little segment with the diplomat, who has this creepy Christopher Lee like quality about him, debating the painting with the doctors.

The running dialogue between the narrator and diplomat is the thread that helps to weave the many scenes, rooms and artwork together. The diplomat raises an interesting point when he mentions that Russians appropriated the art of other culture—intimating that Russians have no real indigenous culture of their own and that the Hermitage is a repository of numerous Italian, Dutch and Spanish paintings— and not a lot of Russian works. This is an argument that some art collectors have debated over the years but no matter—the experience of viewing this museum in such a manner is pretty cool. One really interesting thing that comes to mind after viewing the film is the question that since the creation of this film was such a novel, technical feat does that impact the appreciation of the film for it’s own merits. It doesn’t really. Engaging and thought provoking the film would work either way—in the traditional way of assembling edited shots or in one long lush take.

Thursday, March 06, 2003


Directed by Spike Jonze, ADAPTATION is the fascinating story of painfully insecure screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's agonizing struggle to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's nonfiction book, THE ORCHID THIEF into a screenplay as exotic and intriguing as any of the 30,000 varieties of orchids that exist (gee I hope that figure is correct - I think it is close but alas have no fact checker). It is a heady, sprawling chronicling of two stories (Kaufman's creative block and how he resolves it and the making of Orlean's book) that coalesce into a mind-blowing ending. Touching on writers block, sibling rivalry, obsession, passion (and lack thereof), as well as self-loathing, at its core ADAPTATION is a meditation about storytelling. Simultaneously funny and sad, the characters were on a rollercoaster ride at an anti-amusement park designed by Dario Argento where every twist and turn is bringing them closer and closer to an untimely and unavoidable end and they are powerless do anything to stop it. The film juxtaposes illusion and reality in such original ways that to attempt to describe it wouldn't do the film justice.
Basically the story starts with Kaufman, who wrote BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (played by a terrific Nicolas Cage - thank goodness he decided to take a break from action movies) and is intimidated and overwhelmed at the prospect of adapting Susan Orlean's book into a screenplay. Meryl Streep is fantastic as the elegant, urbane Manhattanite who psychologically unravels as she becomes involved first as a writer and eventually romantically, with the subject of her book: the mad orchid thief/con man John Laroche. Chris Cooper really nails the idiosyncratic Laroche and actually exceeds his superlative performance as Sheriff Sam Deeds in LONE STAR - which is pretty amazing. Cooper is fast becoming the new millennium character-actor equivalent of Warren Oates, and here his performance is riveting. The fact that he is missing front teeth adds a dangerous, feral quality to this man whose life has been about the pursuit of various passions: fish, orchids and as the film ends, porn. Added into this mix is Charlie's less talented twin brother Donald, also played by Cage of course, who takes a three-day film writing seminar and ends up selling his screenplay for millions. Actually there are many characters in this film - some fictional as well as real - such as John Cusak, Catherine Keener, John Malcovich who all play themselves. None of them are superfluous, fortunately they all combine to reinforce this twisting and turning narrative and keeps you leaning forward in your seat, thoroughly engaged.
Both Kaufman and Orlean are complex, bright, talented writers who also happen to be flawed in various ways. Orlean in particular is sad especially when she remarks that she desires to "want something as much as people want these plants." She essentially wants passion in her life. She finds it in Laroche and latches on to him vicariously experiencing his passion for orchids. The idea of a human going through life without an interest that captivates and drives them is tragic. This eventually sets up a whole series of events - the irony being that at the outset of the film Kaufman stated that when he adapted Orlean's book he would not make it "an orchid heist movie, or change the orchids into poppies and make it about drug running" - basically saying no to a Hollywood ending. Yet ADAPTATION the film, not Kaufman's screenplay, winds up with exactly that: guns, violence, swamps, chases... well I don't want to give it away. Hope that I haven't. It is breathtaking - kind of like an orchid.

Thursday, February 27, 2003

The Quiet American

The Quiet American is a thoughtful film about what ensues when cynicism, both personal and political, collide with idealism. Set in ’50s Vietnam before large scale U.S. involvement, the film centers around jaded British journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), his Vietnamese mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) and young, idealistic American aid worker Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser). Directed by Philip Noyce and based on Graham Greene’s 1950s novel and starring Michael Caine, the film was originally set to be distributed by Miramax over a year ago but was put on hold after 9/11. Apparently the subject matter, which includes United States government sponsored acts of terrorism against innocent civilians, was considered inappropriate at the time to release. After Caine asked Harvey Weinstein to show it at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was well received, Miramax decided to release it nationally. Interestingly enough it comes at a time when the United States may be entering into another questionable military operation. The film’s plot goes something like this: When Pyle meets Fowler and Phuong he is immediatly smitten with the Vietnamese beauty and a love triangle is created with the two men in competition for Phuong’s affections. In actuality this is an allegorical struggle for the country of Vietnam and Fowler and Pyle play fast and loose with their morals, both personal and political, in a reflection of American, French, and Vietnamese military and policy decisions being made at that time. Michael Caine is particularly good as the Opium smoking Fowler and the cinematography by Christopher Doyle is outstanding.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

Shanghai Knights
Anarchy in the U.K. Kungfu style

Mindless entertainment has its uses especially as an escape during these times of Orange terrorist warnings. Sometimes you just want to forget all the crap that is going on in the world and lose yourself for two hours with some taffy for the brain. This is just the movie for that. And as my friend Jonathan Mayo pointed out a Chan movie is “good, wholesome fun.” Hilarious for the most part, although it feels a bit staged at times, Shanghai Knights will have you laughing outloud at the multiplex. To attempt a plot summary is sorta absurd since the “plot” merely sets up the action scenes, as with almost any Jackie Chan movie. In this movie it is not just setting up the action but the comedy. Absurdity is the operative word with this period-Western-action comedy. Basically the setup takes place in 19th century China where evil British royal Rathbone (Aidan Gillen) skewers the guardian of the Great Seal of China with a knife, who also happens to be the father of Chon Wang (Jackie Chan). Fast forward to Carson City, Nevada where Chon Wang is sheriff. After learning of his father’s murder via a letter from his sister Chon Lin (Fann Wong) Chon Wang heads east to NYC to meet up with his old partner Roy O’Banon (Owen Wilson). The two head off to London to reclaim the Great Seal and avenge the death of Wang’s father.

Most of the movie takes place once Chan and Owens are in London. This duo reminds me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-era Newman/Redford except Butch Cassidy is a Kungfu master and the Sundance Kid looks like Rod Stewart and talks like he has smoked too much weed. Ya have to wonder about Wilson’s choice of material. This is quite a departure from Wes Anderson films but who knows – everyone has bills to pay. Director David Dobkin throws in a nod to Harold Lloyd with Chan and Wilson hanging from Big Ben as well pays homage to Gene Kelly with Chan doing “Singing in the Rain.” Since Chan is turning 49 this year his movies are relying more on comedy and less on action. His fight scenes, which he still choreographs, are exciting but nothing like “Rumble in the Bronx.” Being Jackie Chan, who is just about the most lovable action hero ever, relying a bit more on pranks and one liners (although in this movie Wilson gets most of those) won’t hurt his box office appeal. As usual the outtakes are as enjoyable as the movie itself. In this case they are actually funnier. Heavy on the clichés, as well as uninspired one liners, this movie is still enjoyable. No need to have seen “Shanghai Noon” either to enjoy this.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Talk to Her
Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know… (okay that’s lame but so what)

Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar, "Talk to Her" is a mystery. But it's about love, so that makes perfect sense. Ostensibly about two men in love with women in comas and their relationships with the women, the film is also an exploration of the bonds formed between the two men. Nurse Benigno loves ballet dancer Alicia, and travel-writer Marcos loves bullfighter Lydia. The film begins with these two men, strangers at the time, watching a dance performance seated close to each other; they later become acquainted when Lydia has been gored by a bull and placed in the private clinic where Benigno works. Their lives are intertwined forevermore in bizarre ways; but, heck, it is Almodovar, so not unexpected. The men love their women in two distinctly different ways: Benigno through fantasy and Marcos through reality. Benigno is 30 years old and a virgin. He has spent four years tending to Alicia; before that he took care of his mother for years. One could say that his experience with women is a bit limited; but paradoxically it isn’t. At one point Benigno tells Marcos—who is clearly overwhelmed and saddened by Lydia’s condition—"A woman's brain is a mystery, and in this state even more so. Talk to her." Did I mention the film is full of paradoxes? Lydia the bullfighter is terrified of snakes and abandons her house when she finds one in her kitchen. The macho, stoic Marcos tears up in many scenes. A friend of mine suggested the paradoxes were to reflect the characters’ vulnerabilities. Perhaps. Maybe these paradoxes are metaphors of Almodovar’s concept of love being a combination of two opposites: reality and fantasy. The film also takes little detours such as a dream sequence in the form of a silent film, "The Shrinking Lover,'" about a man who... well shrinks and finally disappears into... well… I can’t give this away. You just have to see it for yourself if you haven’t already. The film has a bit of a whodunit and an open ending. The effect of it all leaves you puzzled and scratching your head—kind of like love.

Thursday, January 30, 2003

The Pianist

Powerful and moving this film set in WW II directed by the great Roman Polanski explores anti-Semitism, survival and unexpected acts of kindness amongst brutality and barbarism as experienced by one person- Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. I realize at this point almost everyone has seen it but for those who haven’t it don’t wait until it comes out on video. Maybe since the headline of yesterday's Sun read "Bush braces America for war" brings a film like this to the forefront. Many good films have been made about WWII and the atrocities that man inflicts upon each other based on fear, hate toward ethnic groups, desire for economic supremacy and mass craziness. "Schindler’s List" certainly was excellent in that regard not to mention the documentary "The Sorrow and the Pity" which is an amazing and painful exploration of anti-Semitism and survival amidst war. What is unique about "The Pianist" is that on such a profoundly visceral level as an audience member one experiences the isolation and pain of a man fighting for survival. That is what this film is about- survival- and Adrien Brody’s portrayal of a man forced into hiding and living literally and figuratively on the scraps of humanity is heart breaking.

At one point while hiding in an abandoned building Brody is discovered by Nazi Captain Wilm Hosenfeld played by Thomas Kretschmann who remarks, "How is it you can play the Piano to such a level mind is unable to comprehend what I see and hear? You are Jewish; Untermenchen!" Afterwards he brings Brody bread and eventually gives him his coat. As good a film as "Chinatown" Polanski’s direction isn’t manipulative, and the cinematography excellent. Honestly I don’t think I have ever heard so much sniffling and crying in a theater before. Not since "Life is Beautiful" actually. Films about genocide are so profoundly sad. Maybe the realization that no matter how many technological and medical advances have been made in the past hundred years human nature hasn’t kept pace. And that is heartbreaking.