Todd Solondz made his debut with the affecting teen angst drama “Welcome to the Dollhouse”, but he really made an impression with 1998’s “Happiness”, a wonderfully cynical look at some not so happy individuals. I personally loved it (it was #3 on my year-end Top Ten), but many people criticised Solondz for making fun of these poor souls in a mean-spirited way, for trying too much to “shock” us with ugly people doing ugly things. Mmm. Maybe there’s some truth in that, but I loved the guy’s movie nonetheless. Some didn’t get it, too bad for them. Solondz, though, doesn’t seem to have swallowed it so easily. Maybe it didn’t help that the following year, Dreamworks released a comedy/drama about not so happy suburbanites of its own, “American Beauty” which, like a lighter, more mainstream “Happiness” knockoff, went on to gather near unanimous praise and win a bunch of Oscars. I guess I can understand Solondz feeling a little cheated.

Now he’s back with “Storytelling”, which is sort of his “fuck you too” to his detractors. In a very self-aware way, he deconstructs storytelling in general in general and his own in particular. The film is divided in two parts, “Fiction” and “Non-fiction”, and in which authors aim for truth but still end up with half-lies. As the teacher says in the first act, even if something did happen, “as soon as you start writing about it, it’s fiction.” This is Mr. Scott talking (Robert Wisdom), an African American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who also teaches in a university.

Superficially, this is kind of like “Wonder Boys”, but unlike that movie’s Grady Tripp, a sympathetic if offbeat professor, Mr. Scott is absolutely ruthless with his students. “Your story’s a piece of shit,” he’ll tell students choking back tears. Young Vi (Selma Blair) finds him overly confrontational, but at the same time she respects his honesty, his refusal to sugar coat what he thinks. And when her handicapped boyfriend (Leo Fitzpatrick) dumps her and she finds herself in a self-destructive mood, she ends up at her teacher’s place for some utterly romantic sex…

This leads to the scene most people cite when discussing the film, in which the older black man screws the young white woman and asks her to yell “Nigger fuck me hard!”, which she does. It’s a raw, powerful scene… And you’re probably not gonna be able to see it. In the U.S., at least, the MPAA wouldn’t approve it, and instead of changing it, Solondz just stuck a big red rectangle over the naughty bits. Fortunately, up here in Montréal, we’re deemed mature enough to handle extended thrusting action, so I was able to see the scene as the filmmaker intended it. As I said, it’s not an easy scene, it’s really balls-to-the-wall, but in context it serves its purpose, and it’s not THAT graphic. It’s not much more disturbing than, say, the anal sex scene in “Pulp Fiction”. Even if it does disturb you, that’s the point. And the rest of that story is about how Vi copes with it by, you might have guessed, writing about it. The interesting question then, is of who was really exploiting whom.

I have mixed feelings about “Non-Fiction”, though. In a way, I really liked the second part of the film: it certainly made me laugh my ass off on numerous times. Then again, I generally wished I shouldn’t be laughing! This is closer to “Happiness”, I suppose, with its pedophile, its murderer… Here, there’s nothing that bad, just people who are very pathetic, followed by a pseudo documentary filmmaker, Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti in Solondz-style thick-rimmed glasses, hint hint), who’s probably worse. “Non-Fiction” opens with a long, embarrassing scene in which he’s trying to catch up with an old high school girlfriend who obviously has no time for a desperate loser like him, and we have to watch as he just talks himself further down into ridicule.

Toby is trying to make a documentary on college, well, teenagers, well, suburban families… He’s not quite sure! Yet he does find subjects in the Livingstons, a dysfunctional suburban family if there ever was one! Here, it’s as if Solondz, who played on some of the same ground in his first movies and then watched as “American Beauty” one-upped him, wants to get back on top. And gosh darn it, he almost pulls it off. Watching the old man (a hilarious John Goodman) going gung ho on his crazy family, with his wife (Julie Hagerty) even more shallow and phoney than Annette Benning in “Beauty” and their three sons, football jock Brady (Noah Fleiss), unbearable goody two shoes Mikey (Jonathan Osser) and the ever dopey Scooby (Mark Webber). The latter is the focus of the documentary, if focus there is, as he ponders what to do after high school. He’s not a bad kid, but he’s clearly naïve and not too smart and inarticulate, yet he wants to get Conan O’Brien‘s job (which leads to a funny cameo)!

The ambiguous thing here, for Toby and for us in the audience, is whether to allow ourselves to laugh at Scooby and his family. Scooby is endearing, actually, as we’ve all felt aimless when it came time to choose a college and a future, at an age where you’re almost still a kid. Maybe Toby just wants to show things as they are, but as “Non-Fiction” illustrates, a documentary is always exploitative in some way. Through this, Solondz also keeps addressing the response his own (fictional) films have been getting, as he’s been accused of sneering at his characters himself. But even though he’s conscious of it, the question is still valid: what’s he going for, really? Does he want us to feel for these people, or to mock them?

“Fiction” works pretty well as a short story, but “Non-Fiction” is all over the place. I liked how it showed the unfair nature of the class system, as spoiled brat -and definite future Republican- Mikey harasses the Salvadorian house maid (Lupe Ontiveros). I also loved the direct pot-shots at “American Beauty”, notably Toby’s terrible attempts at video poetry (“A straw wrapper, floating in the wind…) And, obviously, the nearly all Belle & Sebastian soundtrack is a delight. But then you’ve got all those half developed ideas, especially the last few twists which don’t really work, not to mention that cheap shot of an ending. There’s enough clever flashes in “Storytelling” to make it worth checking out but, quite ironically, it doesn’t have the narrative drive to get beyond its shortcomings.

Monster’s Ball

Some movies take a while to grab you. Sometimes it even takes repeated viewings. Then you’ve got movies which, from the very first shot, make you think this might be something special. “Monster’s Ball” is such a film. It opens with a moody, ominous extended shot of Billy Bob Thorton, lying in bed sleeping uneasily, in hushed green and yellow tones, with shadows passing over his face. This is almost like the opening to “Apocalypse Now”: it’s aesthetically interesting, but mostly it subtly takes you into that world and it sets the tone. Then we can get to know the specifics about Thornton’s character, Hank Grotowski. He’s a middle-aged Corrections Officer working on Death Row in a Georgia State prison, where his now ill father (Peter Boyle) worked before, and where his son (Heath Ledger) has started recently.

Director Marc Forster, working from a screenplay by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, carefully establishes his Deep South setting. I’ve never been to that part of America (though I’ve passed through it in a bus to Miami), so I don’t know if it’s more like the sunny “y’all come back, now” Georgia of Britney Spears’ “Crossroads” or as we see it here, all sweat, undershirts, sleazy diners and bars, with racial tensions boiling. In any case, there’s no question which of those two visions is the most dramatically involving! There’s none of the obnoxious girlie sap of Brit’s awful flick in “Monster’s Ball”, a film which focuses on the worst aspects of humanity, but not without finding hope. Hence, for all of Hank’s close-minded bigotry, racism and brutality, directly passed to him by his intolerant father, we see that his son is able to let that bitter heritage go and treat black people just like any other. This doesn’t sit well with his old man at all, but after a particularly heated confrontation, Hank will be forced to rethink his behaviour…

In a bit of kinda unnecessary serendipity, the woman through whom Hank changes is Leticia (Halle Berry), the widow of a cop killer (Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, who between “Made” and this proves to be much more of an actor than he ever was as a rapper) that Hank’s team executed. These early scenes are effective, depicting death penalty as hard as “The Green Mile”, but with less light flourishes. Even before they meet, Leticia becomes as central a character as Hank. We see her, barely hanging on as her world is falling apart, with her husband in jail, her fat son (Coronji Calhoun) finding comfort in candy bars, her job as a waitress unable to support them… It’s a horrible life, or so it seems, and the nameless dread which inhabits the action on screen transmits all too well to the audience, and it only gets more wrenching as the film unflinchingly watches as tragedy deepens.

I won’t go into spoilers, but the goings really get tough, and both the Corrections Officer and the waitress find themselves lonely, tired and empty, desperately in need of somebody to hold on to. It’s a bit of a leap for them to find comfort in each other, but I accepted it, and the next step seemed inevitable. After all the pain and the hurt, the film culminates with the most intensely cathartic fuck (no other word can do it justice) I’ve seen in movies. Part of me wishes the film had ended then, as it peaked. The hour that follows is good enough, the acting and direction still deliver, but the relentlessly growing tensions of the first half are now deflating. We’re left with rather conventional and predictable plot mechanics, and some simplistic turns, but the film ends on a surprisingly satisfying note.

Overall, “Monster’s Ball” remains a wonderfully crafted film, with a great score and always interesting shot composition, with the camera watching from behind windows, bars, furniture, in a matter of fact if not voyeuristic way. Most notably, Forster gets amazing acting from his cast. Billy Bob
Thornton has impressed me before, from “Sling Blade” through “A Simple Plan”, but in these past few months he’s been on an unbelievable roll, proving as great as an amusingly neurotic bank robber in “Bandits” and as an intriguingly detached barber in the Coen bros’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, and now in “Monster’s Ball” he might be at his best as a truly flawed man who learns to allow himself to change his views. Halle Berry is the real surprise here, though. Who knew this glamorous beauty could be so convincing as a vulnerable, unkempt , emotionally wounded woman? This is a brave, very affecting performance, and so is “Monster’s Ball”. While I feel it falls short from brilliance in its underwhelming last act, it remains a film which is sure to get to you.


Ok, I’ll be fair, this tomato ain’t all rotten. Miss Spears does have a sweet ass, and her entrance is gleefully enjoyable, as she prances around in smallish underwear while singing along to Madonna’s “Open Your Heart”. It’s nice, for sure, but then the walking turn-off that is Dan Aykroyd walks in and it’s all downhill from there. First, we’re to believe little Britney is not the pampered singing stripper we all love, but a regular girl. Scratch that, a nerdy girl actually, the unpopular Valedictorian of her Georgia high school. Oh yeah, big ugly nerd there, with her flowing dyed blonde locks, perfect tan, manicured hands and boob job!

But let’s play along for awhile, and pretend we buy that Spears is playing Lucy, the Valedictorian, all proper and perfect and a virgin (shock!), with no friends besides her geeky lab partner. She used to be best-friends-forever with Kit (Zoe Saldana) and Mimi (Taryn Manning) in grade school, but they’ve drifted apart since. Kit became one of the beautiful ones, as bitchy as she thinks she’s popular, and self-proclaimed trailer trash Mimi is pregnant and bitter. They’re so different now, as different stereotypes as an unimaginative hack screenwriter could come up with… Except that the three young “actresses” are so bad that there’s hardly any distinction between their characters: they’re all similarly dumb, phoney and annoyingly giggly. In any case, all it takes for them to get back to their old ways is to dig up a time box where they put their dreams away as kids, which prompts them to go on a road trip to California.

Original, isn’t it? And I haven’t even mentioned Ben (Anson Mount), the older dude who drives these underage bimbos across the country. Oh, and he just got out of jail, possibly for murder, as seems to imply how he listens to Cypress Hill’s “How I could Just Kill a Man” on his car radio instead of the trio’s beloved NSYNC*. Speaking of which, you know these obnoxious, pointless scenes in movies where the characters sing along to the radio? They have that in “Crossroads”, not once, not twice, but three fricking times! And that’s without counting the Karaoke night, where the girls somehow amass nearly a grand in tips for ruthlessly wrecking Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock’n’Roll”. So these 17 year olds are out on the road with an old killer, but he’s so cute (says them), and how can you not love a guy who not only doesn’t laugh at your “poetry”(it’s actually the lyrics to Spears’ current hit ballad Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”!), but composes music to go with it? Might as well give the big guy your precious cherry, eh?

Sounds like a movie you wouldn’t even watch on TV, right? It gets worse. Do I have to tell you about all the horrendous melodrama we’re afflicted with during the film? Date rape! Cheating fiancés! Cold, uncaring mothers! Miscarriage! Do I even have to tell you that Britney Spears is a lousy actress? I don’t feel like wasting much more time on this dud, it’s already robbed me of two hours when I could have been doing something more enjoyable, say, flipping creamers. I could forgive how badly directed, badly written and badly acted it is if it worked as brainless popcorn entertainment, but it can’t even do that. “Crossroads” is painfully dull, with one unconvincing scene after another of manufactured sap, unfunny girlie crap, Pepsi product placement and Britney singing like a duck whenever she gets the chance.

I never looked at my watch so often during a movie. An hour into it, it felt like six, so lifeless everything on screen is. I spent the last act chanting in my head: End. End. END FOR CHRISSAKES! Late in the film, one of the girls says: “I can’t believe this road trip is over,” then Britney’s Lucy asks: “Doesn’t it feel like we left home a million years ago?” DEAR GOD YES! ENOUGH ALREADY! Avoid “Crossroads” at all costs, even if you’re hot for Brit; her sweet ass isn’t enough to save you from being bored into a coma.

And All that Could Have Been

In the liner notes to NIN’s debut album, “Pretty Hate Machine”, the credits go like this: “nine inch nails is Trent Reznor”. A true one-man band, Reznor writes, arranges, programs and performs nearly everything on his own in the studio, bringing in occasional outside musicians and producers here and there. But when it comes to hitting the road for some live gigs, necessarily he’s got to surround himself, not only with a dynamite band but also a skilled crew for lighting, design and stage effects. For, as powerful as NIN is on record, seeing them live is an even more breath-taking experience. I was lucky enough to see their latest tour, Fragility 2.0 (deemed the best tour of the year by Rolling Stone magazine) when it stopped in Montreal on April 30th 2000, and it still ranks as one of the very best shows I’ve ever seen.

It comes down to this: kick ass song after kick ass song, all performed with contagious intensity by a fine tuned band, with awesome mise-en-scène surrounding them. Revisiting Fragility 2.0 on DVD (most of the tour was shot on mini DV, then edited on personal Macs!) confirms these impression and introduces another one: if Reznor didn’t plan it as a concept performance, he damn well should have, because I found that a surprisingly strong narrative emerged through the set list. It’s almost as if we’re watching a musical telling of one big story. It probably has to do with how NIN were touring promoting the double CD “The Fragile”, which IS a concept album, and because even their late 1980s material explored some of the same themes.

So here’s the story of a man, let’s call him Trent. He didn’t have it easy, ever, and it’s really getting to him. His resentment goes all the way to the big guy upstairs:
“Hey God, why are you doing this to me?
Am I not living up to what I’m supposed to be?
Why am I seething with this animosity?
Hey God, I think you owe me a great big apology.”
Terrible Lie, he accuses his Creator. This isn’t a beautiful world He created, it’s “piss” even Him “must despise”. But Trent, as depressed and horrified as he is, still wants to believe. If only he could find “someone to hold on to”…

We don’t see it, but we get the feeling he does find someone then, but when we next run into him, it’s obvious it didn’t work out: “You give me the anger, you give me the nerve, carry out the sentence, I get what I deserve. I’m just an effigy to be defaced, to be disgraced, your need for me has been replaced…” He’s mad at the one who disappointed him and at himself, and he wants to expose “the extent of (his) sin“.

Next comes the March of the pigs, i.e. the people around Trent, in all their primitive, unthinking cruelty. Is he paranoid, or are all the pigs really after him? “I give you all that you want, take the skin and peel it back, now doesn’t that make you feel better?”

Trent is left aching, stripped down, nearly unfeeling, and he’s gonna tell one piggy who’s still around just that: “Hey pig, there’s a lot of things I hope you could help me understand. What am I supposed to do, I lost my shit because of you… Nothing can stop me now, cause I don’t care anymore, nothing can stop me now cause I just don’t care…”

He remains like this a while, uncaring, delicate, weak… frail, dragging his piggy friend with him, until they’re just the same: “And now you’re one of us, the wretched. The hopes and prays, the better days, the far aways… Forget it.” They’re both “stuck in this hole with the shit and the piss now”, where “God himself will reach his fucking arm through just to push you down, just to hold you down.” Could it get any worse?

Probably, because soon Trent is alone again, after drifting into cruelly soothing sleep, a “perfect little dream, the kind that hurts the most.” Yet there’s “no one to blame, always the same, open my eyes, wake up in flames…” But what if this was all right? What if he should just accept that God is taking everything away, smashing up his “sanity”, his “integrity”, what he “believed in,” “all that was true”? “I tried,” he observes, but now he gave up. He’s letting go, leaving himself to his Father’s mercy…

And so he goes, plunging into the sea, he’s almost peaceful now as he lets go of his rage. He abandons himself to la mer, the one lover he can trust. Her who he once felt for, he “can still feel,” “even so far away”, and melancholy fills him a moment as, thinking back of his “tired faith all torn and thin, for all we could have been, and ALL THAT COULD HAVE BEEN…” And so he sinks, in full acceptance: “I descend from grace in arms of undertow, I will take my place in the great below.” The mark has been made.

Is it over yet? Why is Trent regaining some form of consciousness then? “I’m the one without a soul, I’m the one with this big fucking hole!” He’s really pissed now, whatever, wherever he is. He’s pretty sure this is temporary anyway, just more agony, “the first day of (his) last days.” And now here “she” is again, to add to his confusion. “I put my faith in God and my trust in you, there’s nothing more fucked up I could do. Wish there was something real, wish there was something true, wish there was something real in this world full of you…”

No need to say, there has been a complication. Things are strange, still, he goes towards she who “makes it sweeter than the sun.” “There is no God up in the sky tonight,” Trent decides but he feels like “Jesus Christ on ecstasy.” He’s “so dirty on the inside,” but he thinks he can “heal (her) wounds” and “set (her) free”… Though all he’s really thinking about is (“suck“), er (“suck”), well, (“suck”)

And so shall he, as he gets closer to her who lets him “violate,” “desecrate,” “penetrate,” and “complicate” her. He’s “got no soul to sell,” but it doesn’t stop him from wanting “to fuck (her) like an animal!” Through her, suddenly he’s able to reach, or at least hope to reach the big guy again: “My whole existence is flawed, (but) you get me closer to God.”

Yet when he gets to God, it’s not spirituality he finds but the same crap that drives the pigs: money. Is this what he should “bow down before,” is this “the one (he) serves?” No, this can’t be, there has to be a real God above money and everything material, “no, you can’t take that away from me…” Once again he’s in despair, “head like a hole, black as your soul.” “I’d rather die,” he rages to this “god money”, “than give you control.”

But it’s all in vain. Just like you imagined, the only god Trent could find is no better than the pigs he created: “my god sits in the back of the limousine, (…) my god pouts on the cover of the magazine, my god’s a shallow little bitch trying to make the scene.” This is the world for you, a big bunch of starfuckers. “Now I belong, I’m one of the chosen ones. Now I belong, I’m one of the beautiful ones,” Trent mocks, but he’s really not in a laughing mood. He’s disillusioned, bitter…

hurt. There are no certainties. Is there even a reality? And why does Trent makes it so hard for himself. “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real…” He looks up to a friend that’s probably not even there and asks, “What have I become? My sweetest friend… Everyone I know goes away in the end…” He can’t even fathom having someone with him still. “I will let you down,” he warns, “I will make you hurt.” This is it. No hope left. Or is there? “If I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself, I would find a way…”

There you have it, “And all that could have been.” You know, I’m probably just sucking at straws, drawing shaky connections through a bunch of songs written over a decade, making up a story, but that’s the fun of it, getting intellectually and emotionally in Reznor’s lyrical journey. My interpretation won’t necessarily come through for another viewer, but Nine Inch Nails’ music is evocative enough to take you in anyway, even if only for head-banging purposes, because it’s mighty good at that, too! This might be industrial music, but it’s not machine-cold in the least. Reznor and his musicians rock hard, riling audiences and themselves up to the breaking point, sometimes literally! The visuals are also a treat, with great use of various lights, stroboscopes, as well as three large vertical panels on which video segments are shown. At times, I got utterly lost in the trippy visuals and the relentless beats, to the point where it was like I was really there again. In short (at last!), this is a must-buy for NIN fans as well as anyone who can appreciate damn great music.

Here’s the track-listing in clearer form:

1. Terrible lie – from Pretty Hate Machine (89)
2. Sin – from Pretty Hate Machine (89)
3. March of the pigs – from Downward Spiral (94)
4. Piggy – from Downward Spiral (94)
5. The frail – from Fragile (99)
6. The wretched – from Fragile (99)
7. Gave up – from Broken (92)
8. La mer – from Fragile (99)
9. The great below – from Fragile (99)
10. The mark has been made – from Fragile (99)
11. Wish – from Broken (92)
12. Complication – from Fragile (99)
13. Suck – from Broken (92)
14. Closer – from Downward Spiral (94)
15. Head like a hole – from Pretty Hate Machine (89)
16. Just like you imagined – from Fragile (99)
17. Starfuckers, inc. – from Fragile (99)
18. Hurt – from Downward Spiral (94)

I got this from “There is a hidden menu on disk two that contains lots of extras. How do you get there, it’s pretty simple. During “Head Like A Hole,” around the 11:20 mark hit “07” and “enter” (if it does not work try just “7” and enter, but play around with it because it really works). This will bring you to the extra menu. It includes:

“Reptile” live performance
Video for “The Day The World Went Away”
ninetynine commercial
“The Fragile” commercial
“Things Falling Apart” commercial
NIN and Marilyn Manson doing part of “Starfuckers” and “Beautiful People”.

Le Pacte des Loups

18th century France. The King and his people are growing worried over growing rumours of a beast out of this world feeding off women and children in the Gevaudan province, thus they send Chevalier Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) to investigate. Aided by his Iroquois blood brother Mani (Mark Dacascos) and a young and eager Marquis (Hans Meyer), de Fronsac joins the hunt for the creature led by the local nobles and peasants, while trying to make up his own idea about its nature without being influences by the preconceptions of the town priest, the constable Duhamel or of the arrogant Comte Jean-François de Morangias (Vincent Cassel)…

“Le Pacte des Loups” is the gloriously thrilling and original new movie from Christophe Gans. Certainly a name to remember now; I haven’t seen his adaptation of the “Crying Freeman” manga, but “Brotherhood of the Wolf” (as its called in the US) is one of the best period adventures in recent memory, an epic fantasy worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Crouching tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Fellowship of the Ring. What do I love about it? Let’s start with its wonderfully old fashioned protagonist, Grégoire, a hero with hardly a hint of cynicism or machismo to him. De Fronsac is no thick headed brute, he’s a naturalist, a philosopher and an explorer, as well as a romantic libertine, if such a thing is possible. Women are very much a part of his life, be it a supposedly possessed town girl, a mysterious Italian prostitute (Monica Belluci) or the quick-witted young Comtesse Marianne (Emilie Dequenne), with whom Grégoire charmingly flirts through the film.

De Fronsac is initially so laid back and not confrontational a lad that he doesn’t even get his hands dirty for half the movie, leaving all the strong work to Mani, who more than fits the bill. We’re told they joined destinies while Grégoire fought the English in Nouvelle France, but from the way Mani karate chops and jump kicks his way through battle, (once upon a time in) China seems more like it! Because in case it doesn’t sound like it so far, this is one helluvah in-your-face, action-packed adrenaline rush of a movie, and Mark Dacascos has got to be the coolest, most badass would-be Indian to ever grace the silver screen. Le Bihan himself gets to be real intense when circumstances fill his De Fronsac with rage, and Cassel’s one armed Jean-François also manages to impress. All this is brought forward by Gans with high energy and visual prowess. His movie looks amazing, with vivid colors, great use of light and shadow and effective shot composition. This is one of those films where you’d want to frame every other image! A splendid editing job was also done, keeping the film dynamic without making it feel too hurried like so many pictures. We actually have time to take in and appreciate what’s shown to us, this isn’t some crazy MTV-style mumbo jumbo. I also have to mention the delightfully inventive transitions, most notably the great shot fading out from Monica Belluci’s gorgeous naked breasts into hills in the countryside.

Great cast, great action, great direction… Let’s not forget the story, which is more intricate than you’d think (maybe a bit too intricate). While it seems like a pretty straightforward creature feature at first, it keeps throwing at us lots of apparently unrelated twists and details, and the kicker is how this somehow all comes together in the end. Last but not least is the Beast itself, which I wouldn’t dare describe. Part of the film’s pleasure is how, taking a cue from “Jaws” (which is directly referenced in the opening attack), Gans almost doesn’t show the beast for most of the film. This makes it all the more scary and mysterious, and when it bulls into centre stage, it’s even more jaw-dropping. “Le Pacte des Loups” blends too many genres (martial arts, period romance, horror, political/religious drama…) to be easily described, but whatever it is, it’s awesome!

The American DVD, to be released on October 1st, 2002, includes such features as 40 minutes of deleted scenes commented by the director, Production Notes, Cast and Filmmakers bios and the theatrical trailer. If you’ve missed the film in theatres, don’t make the same mistake again!

Collateral Damage

Here’s how star Arnold Schwarzenegger describes the film : “It’s an action movie. Colombian guerillas attack a motorcade in Los Angeles that has the Colombian ambassador inside. They blow up the motorcade and at the same time my family gets killed, which is called collateral damage, it’s a military term. I go to Colombia to try and find who was responsible and I find myself in a big mess with death squads, the right-wing militia, guerillas, terrorists and drug-lords.” Shit Negro, that’s all you had to say! Damn, what more do you need to know? This little summary is bound to whet the appetite of any Ah-nuld enthusiast. I mean, religious fanatics and clones are alright, but what best than some good old guerilla and drug-lord killing, Schwarzenegger style! The tragic events of September 11, 2001 made some question the validity of using such a serious issue as terrorism in popular entertainment, and the movie has been shelved for four months while the suits wondered about it. I understand the heightened sensibility but come on. If anything, it’s just cathartic to watch terrorists getting their asses kicked!

Unfortunately, “Collateral Damage” doesn’t really pay off, not even on the basic pleasure of watching everybody’s favorite Austrian bodybuilder bringing in the pain. I don’t know if it’s because of the Twin Towers attacks, but the film has too many serious undertones to work as kill-em-all popcorn cinema. But even according to the old escapist standards, the flick doesn’t deliver. Is it the big oak’s fault? Is he getting too old for this shit, can’t he measure up to Vin Diesel, his apparent successor? I mean, I’m a huge Arnold fan; both his “Commando” and “Predator” would make my all time favorites list, for chrissakes! And even in his not that hot movies, he always managed to make me grin a few times with his signature mix of smirking almost-wit and brutality.

Maybe the problem is in the director’s chair, then. After all, Andrew Davis is nothing but a not-so-glorified hack, “The Fugitive” aside. He’s technically competent, I guess, but his film never truly connects. It got off to a good start, though. It opens with fireman Gordon Brewer (Schwarzenegger’s character) doing his thing in a blazing fire, followed by a few shots establishing his loving relationship with his wife and son and then, with the opening titles barely over, BOOM!, his family is blown up during a terrorist attack. Devastated, Gordon watches as political types stumble in all the red tape until he decides he’ll only see justice if he takes it into his own hands. So before you know it he’s in the Colombian jungle, on the track of guerilla fighter El Lobo (Cliff Curtis)…

Brewer is a desperate man with nothing to lose, but he’s not quite on his own. He’s surrounded with a pretty enjoyable cast of character actors including Elias Koteas as a badass CIA agent, Coen favourite John Turturro as a sleazy mechanic and John Leguizamo as an exuberant drug lord. Good enough, now all Davis needs to do is set up a bunch of cool action scenes, but he can’t even do that right. Oh, we get a few shoot-outs, a lot of Arnold running, stuff blowing up and Davis aping the waterfall jump/escape from his “Fugitive” movie, but it’s all done in a generic, straight-to-video way. There’s a neat little scuffle in a hut where Arnold pulls a Mike Tyson, and the “Arlington Road”-like twist in the last act gives the film a sense of urgency, at last. Yet it’s too little too late, and “Collateral Damage” is bound to be remembered (if at all) as one of Schwarzenegger’s lesser vehicles.

I Am Sam

Okay, so as a film, “I Am Sam” is pretty lousy, but IT MEANS WELL!!! It’s about people who might seem dif-diff, huh, different, you know, but they’re good people, as much as the next guy. They might not be sma-art, but they know what lo-ove is, aw’ight ? So we meet this dude named Sam, like Sam in the book “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss, which is HIS FAVORITE BOOK, TOO!!! Sam’s got a neat job at Starbucks sorting sugar packs and stuff, and he’s got some great friends who are different too, be it the paranoid nut, the fact-obsessed freak or your garden variety of dim-witted autistic man-child, and better yet, he’s got the CUTEST DAUGHTER IN THE WORLD!!!

She’s Lucy, whom Sam had with a homeless woman who was staying over and bailed after giving birth. It’s Lucy Diamond actually, like the song from The Beatles, Sam’s favoritest band, whom he looks up too for inspiration. Too bad for her, anyway Sam loves being with Lucy, and he’s got the recluse woman next door to help him out, not to forget all his nice friends, with whom he hangs out in coffee shops, and they have video nights, and IT’S ALL FUN AND GIGGLES!

Being a retard is a big sitcom, like that lady MaryAnn Johanson wrote in her review, but as she also pointed out, we’re in for A Very Special Episode of “I Am Sam”. They say Sam’s got the IQ of a 7 year old, which is the age of his little girl, you see, so she’s just about smarter than her big man. Will he be able to keep on raising her? The ladies and gents at Social Services don’t think so, and THEY TAKE AWAY LUCY!! UH OH!! Sam not happy, so he goes to this big lawyer lady Rita, lovely Rita meter maid, whom he couldn’t afford, but he somehow guilt trips her into representing him pro bono, FOR FREE!! Then they go to court a lot, A WHOLE LOT, Sam wants to see Lucy again, who’s in a foster family now, and er, Rita has parental problems too, because even though she’s super smart, she can’t connect with her son. It’s all pretty damn sad, but DON’T WORRY!! If everyone isn’t smiling in the end, this wouldn’t be I AM SAM!!!

Here’s a shameless tearjerker of a movie, an utterly artificial serving of sap and corn, a textbook example of cynical Hollywood suits trying to appease their conscience by making a picture which Means Something, with a nice little Lesson of Tolerance. So they bankrolled Jessie Nelson, a writer-director who REALLY MEANS WELL, but is kind of retarded about filmmaking. Her “I Am Sam” is manipulative and contrived, with one-dimensional character who go through unconvincing changes and twists as predictable as they are unlikely. Worse, it’s all badly shot, with generally ridiculous attempts at visual flair that don’t add up to more than shaky camerawork and countless musical montages.

Well, regarding those, I have to say that I liked the use of an all-Beatles soundtrack, even though that says more about the timelessness of Lennon and McCartney’s songs than about the movie, which just leeches off them. The way Sam is always comparing whatever happens to the lives of John and Paul and the others is kind of idiotic but still, MAN I LIKE THAT MUSIC!!! Of course, we don’t get to hear the original recordings, as whoever owns the Fab Four catalogue (is it still Jacko?) asks way too much for the rights, but I enjoy most of the covers (by the likes of Eddie Vedder, Sarah McLachlan, Rufus Wainwright, the Wallflowers, Ben Folds…), especially Michael Penn and Aimee Mann’s rendition of “Two of Us”.

Okay, so I’m panning the film so far, but I actually kind of enjoyed it. Yes, it’s maudlin, overlong and allergic to depth, but at its core it’s about something it’s hard not to be moved by: unconditional love between a father and his daughter. Furthermore, as Sam and Lucy, they made A VERY GOOD CHOICE in casting Sean Penn and little Dakota Fanning. Penn’s loud and overly enthusiastic behaviour is embarrassing, but only for a little while until he virtually disappears in the part and we accept this Sam character in all his childish, unkempt glory. He becomes all the more endearing as we witness how he nearly pours love over his little girl. Fanning is truly a delight, the kind of kid every one would want, and her and Penn REALLY MAKE A WONDERFUL PAIR!!

Hence, no matter how misguided the film can be, despite all the lapses in common sense, despite how Michelle Pfeiffer seems as cold and distant as the lawyer she (badly) plays, despite scene after scene ringing false, despite the whole of Laura Dern’s foster mom’s involvement in the last act not working in the least… Well, nearly every time Sam and Lucy were together, all smiles and hugs, I got teary-eyed. Therefore, it’s pretty hard to out-and-out trash the movie. If you hate movies which insult your intelligence and make you overdose on sweetness, by all means avoid this one. But if, like me, you’re a sucker for Hollywood retards, adorable kids and the Beatles, you might find some enjoyment in this mess of a movie. HOORAY FOR SAM!!!

In the Bedroom

When this movie ended, one of my first thoughts was ‘That’s it? This is the film that’s been gathering endless praise and awards? Huh.’ Well, it is good, just not that good. I’ll admit that the cast is great, the film shows promise early on as the relationships are established, and the tragedy at its centre is undeniably affecting, but then it meanders and nearly drowns in its own self-importance.

The film is set in present day Maine, in a small fishing town which is home to the Fowlers, a middle-aged couple whose only son is set to leave for college. Frank (Nick Stahl) doesn’t seem in a hurry, though, as he’s spending his summer days settling into working the lobster traps and enjoying a fling with his Natalie (Marisa Tomei), an older woman with two kids. Frank’s mother (Sissy Spacek), a music teacher, doesn’t look to fondly at this romance, as she still sees him as a kid himself and doesn’t like him fooling around with a woman whose divorce isn’t even finalised yet. His dad, Dr. Fowler (Tom Wilkinson), is a bit more comprehensive, he just wants his boy to be happy. But even he can see that the situation is a bit touchy, what with Nat’s ex (William Mapother) lurking about…

The film was written and directed by Todd Field, making his feature debut after working as an actor in everything from French Canadian TV miniseries “Lance et Compte” to Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”. Like the late filmmaker, Field is aiming for Serious Adult Drama, with the less cheap thrills possible. It’s an admirable ambition, at least at first. Field slowly but surely sets things up, immersing us into the everyday life of this New England village, with its barbecues and little league baseball games. The actors quickly make us believe in their characters. Stahl, one of the better teen actors, is convincing and involving as Frank. We can feel how he’s torn between his dreams of becoming an architect and the comfort of life as a menial worker. He has good chemistry with Tomei, and it’s nice how her boys get attached to him. Spacek and Wilkinson seem to have a deep complicity between them, exactly like an old married couple, and we understand their worries for their son. As for Mapother… Well, he looks the part, utterly sleazy and brutish (can you believe he’s Tom Cruise’s cousin?), but the movie actually has the good sense not to make him into a completely one-dimensional bad guy.

So far, so good, and it gets better. Now, it’s hard to discuss what follows without revealing the rather shocking twists of the story, so I suggest you stop reading if you don’t want to have them spoiled. Again : *****************SPOILER WARNING!************************* As you might actually have guessed, Natalie’s ex really can’t accept her not only kicking him out but schtupping a freakin’ teenager, and he ends up shooting him in the head. It sounds harsh, but it’s presented in a nicely understated way, as are the reactions of the parents to the news of Frank’s demise. The film’s depiction of grief might be the most powerful thing about it. Probably because Field communicated so well who these people were and how much they cared for each other, we feel their pain. Tom Wilkinson deserves the awards he’s been getting just for scenes like when he goes through his son’s cruelly empty bedroom. ********END OF SPOILER*********

Unfortunately, the film goes too far with the whole “understated” thing. For nearly an hour, nothing happens, it’s just the Fowlers trying to keep going, even though it’s painful. So we get scene after scene of pointless small talk (do you know how the Fast Pass works at Disney World? Well, it’s explained at length in the film, for chrissakes!), of Spacek sulking in front of the TV, or Wilkinson mowing the lawn, routine in all its dull glory, basically. Life goes on, right? Well not really, they’re just going through the motions, I know, because they have long faces the whole while. We get it, Todd, you don’t have to keep hitting that point for a whole darn hour! They’re growing bitter and angry, and they can’t even talk to each other, understood!

Eventually, something more does happen in the film, but it’s not necessarily better, as we get a couple of scenes of big hysterics that don’t ring true. At least it shakes the characters out of their passivity in time for the third act, which wins our interest back somehow, with Dr. Fowler deciding to do something about him and his wife’s need for closure. I liked the ambiguity of this, sustained by a “matter of fact” tone that’s like Field saying, this is happening but I’m not passing judgement, make your own. This is almost enough to redeem the film, but not quite. As it stands, “In the Bedroom” is still a pretty good little film, most notable for its strong performances, but for me to call it great as many have, it would have to lose almost an hour.

Black Hawk Down

“I’m here to kick some ass!” (actual quote)
bang bang bang
“Shoot them skinnies!”
bang bang bang
“Chill dude, this is war, people die.”
“Oh, I see.”

There, I just saved you ten bucks, and this is one less ticket of encouragement for humourless, pretentious old Ridley Scott. Okay, I’m pushing it, but “Black Hawk Down” has it coming. After an engrossing start, it becomes not only more and more tiresome and inconsequential but you start to realise how sickeningly shallow and offensive it is. Oh, sure, it looks pretty, with Scott getting off on faded blue skies, sandy atmosphere, blacker than black big bad Africans, things blowing up real good, helicopters flying around, excessive gore and, er, empty bullet shells. Maybe he’s aware that this is just what his movie is, one big shiny but empty bullet shell.

The movie takes place on October 3, 1993 (and early on the 4th), in the city of Mogadishu in Somalia during the civil war which torn the country apart, with hundreds of thousand people dying of hunger because of the guerrilla warlords’ bloody quarrelling. American troops, through the United Nations, are there to try and make things better, but on that one fateful day, all they’ll do is turn this city into hell on earth, with 19 American soldiers killed in action and dozens others injured –oh, and over a thousand Somalians died too, but they’re just skinnies, so who cares, right? Well, I do care, but the film doesn’t seem to. We barely learn anything about the how and why of the conflict in Somalia and the U.S.’s involvement. Little blocks of exposition text bookend the film, but in between no effort is made to put the explosive mayhem that makes up the bulk of it into context. Journalists have asked Scott why he avoids any statement or insight into these real life events, and he responded by quoting Eric Bana’s character: “Once that first bullet whizzes by, all the politics don’t mean shit.”.

Bullshit, I say. Maybe this is true for the men in battle, but Scott as a filmmaker is expected to offer some perspective. Francis Ford Coppola made war surreal in “Apocalypse Now”, Terrence Malick made it introspective in “The Thin Red Line”, Stanley Kubrick made it cold and clinical in “Full Metal Jacket”, Steven Spielberg made it sentimental in “Saving Private Ryan”… Scott? All he’s made is a big noisy video game in which countless African man-animals (that’s how he depicts them) pop out everywhere around a bunch of strong-proud-be-all-you-can-be American boys to be shot dead one after another, taking out one of the good guys once in a while for good measure. I guess Scott is trying to move us when of the soldiers dies, but as none of them are developed in the least, we don’t feel anything one way or another.

I mean, who are these characters, besides more or less well known character actors in military gear ? William Fichtner gives odd looks, Tom Sizemore yells a lot, Ewan McGregor can’t really hold on to his American accent but can make good coffee, his “Trainspotting” mate Ewen Bremner offers some inappropriate comic relief, Josh Hartnett looks solid yet insecure… And that’s the most developed parts! “Black Hawk Down” is a technically impressive but intellectually and emotionally empty picture. Its warfare antics are exciting on a sensory level for a while, but they grow mighty boring and frustrating when you realise that it’s just gonna be more of the same for two hours: American soldiers being macho and eeeeeevil Africans being mowed down by gunfire. Not cool.

Orange County

Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks) is not happy with his station in life. Well, Orange County used to please him just fine, with its sandy beaches and rolling waves where he partied and surfed day and night with his friends, but since he’s had his calling. Reading a novel by Marcus Skinner (Kevin Kline) inspired him so much that he vowed to become a writer himself. His dream became to be able to go to Stanford University to study under Skinner, and at the same time escape his ever kookier home life. He’s pretty tired of being caught between his divorced parents, whether it’s his drunken drama queen of a mom (Catherine O’Hara), who’s remarried with a crippled rich old man, or his self-centered dad (John Lithgow), who’s shacking up with a 20 year old bimbo (Leslie Mann), And it’s not his drugged out slacker of a brother (Jack Black) who’s gonna help him lose his blues. Unfortunately, his frustratingly incompetent guidance counsellor (Lily Tomlin) sent the wrong file to the Admissions department, and Shaun was rejected in spite of his high grades. Yet he’s not ready to give up, and with the help of his loyal girlfriend (Schuyler Fisk), he’ll do whatever he can to not let his dream escape him…

“Orange County” is a good but unexceptional little comedy most notable for its stellar cast. Every other bit part is played by a well known and liked actor, including Jane Adams from “Happiness”, washed out ‘comic’ Chevy Chase, Ben Stiller or directors Gary Marshall and Harold Ramis. At the centre of it all are the young couple, played by a pair of second generation young stars. Colin Hanks, like his father, evokes decency and sensibility, and he’s a pretty funny and likable performer who carries the film with apparent ease. Schuyler Fisk, daughter to Sissy Spacek, supports him nicely as his animal freak, girl-next-door love interest. And then there’s Jack Black… Oh, that dude has got to be the most welcomed comic find of the last few years. Of course, he’s at his best fronting the greatest band in the world, Tenacious D, but he also keeps livening up movies with his rugged charisma and in-your-face attitude. Here, his Lance is a marvel to be seen, always partying or partied out, a real shaggy, fat, vulgar, perpetually high mess of a guy who somehow manages to reveal a big heart and unexpected charm.

The film was directed by Jake Kasdan, a Hollywood brat himself (his old man is Lawrence Kasdan, who directed “The Big Chill”). I loved his debut “Zero Effect” but this time around it’s as if he just puts this and that good actor together and leaves them room to do their thing, without giving the film a clear drive. Maybe it’s the script by Mike White (who wrote and starred in the disturbing “Chuck & Buck”) which is to blame. It holds up well enough, with interesting and/or amusing ideas and characters here and there, and in theory, the way it shies away from the anything-for-a-laugh thinking of most teen comedies is admirable. Then again, as I watched the movie, I kind of wished it traded some of its pathos for being half as funny as an “American Pie” or a “Road Trip”. Because, while it means well in wanting to be about writing and inspiration, about the meaning of family and whatnot, White’s script ends up falling quite short of its ambitions and it can’t deliver anything deeper than a “Wizard of Oz”-like ‘there’s no place like home’ lesson. “Wonder Boys” this isn’t.

What’s more disorienting is that in its early scenes, the film works so hard at making us understand Shaun for wanting to leave the people around him that it becomes a caricature, but then we’re supposed to accept how everyone tones down the hysterics to give the movie a forced way-too-happy ending? “Orange County” is pleasant enough to watch, with a few hilarious Jack Black moments, and it makes you want to see more of Hanks and Fisk, but overall it just isn’t all that memorable. Worth a rental.