LAPD Detective Mitch Preston (Robert De Niro) is a loose canon. He’ not one of those touchy-feely community cops. He’s there to do his job, which is to hunt down criminals and throw them in jail. He also has no interest in having nosy reporters getting in his way while on a crime scene, and one tense night he loses his cool and shoots the camera off one of these rats’ shoulder. Uh oh, bad p.r. move, the network could sue Mitch’s department for all they’ve got… That is unless he accepts to star in their new project for a reality show and have them follow him around with more cameras! What a wacky premise, ain’t it kids? But that’s not all, the show’s producer (Rene Russo) also gives Mitch a partner, “funny minority type” Trey Sellars (Eddie Murphy).

Right there, “Showtime” is not looking too good. Its contrived plot is right out of a sitcom, and even if you accept it as satire, reality TV is not the freshest target: COPS has been on the air for a decade! Furthermore, the film doesn’t even stick to the spoof thing, it just pokes fun at cop show clichés for a while, then it settles into said clichés without a second thought until it’s no different than you usual B-movie police thriller. We’ve got a cheesy Euro-trash bad guy (Pedro Damian), a few trigger happy black thugs (including rapper Mos Def), and some of the loudest, most badass machine guns you’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, Mitch and Trey barely do any police work, busy as they are having their oh-so-different personalities clashing, but somehow fall ass backwards in clues and end up in a series of over the top fights, car chases and shoot-outs.

Basically, this is not as much a satire of buddy cop comedies as a buddy cop comedy itself. That said… I loved the stupid thing! Director Tom Dey (“Shanghai Noon”) keeps things fast and fun, and his movie works on its modest terms. It’s like “Rush Hour” (minus the cool kung fu action), a tired formula livened up by good chemistry between the leads. Robert De Niro is good as the straight man, sometimes he’s been having fun with for a couple of years now, in movies like the wonderful “Analyse This” or the not so wonderful “Meet the Parents”. But the real star of the show (and the show-within-the-show) is obviously Eddie Murphy. I was grinning every time his “Ice Trey” was on screen, when I wasn’t downright laughing out loud. He’s perfect as this fast-talking cop more interested in showing off for the cameras than in closing the case. He’s the main reason why, in spite of all its shortcomings, “Showtime” is just too damn entertaining not to recommend.

Training Day

Here’s a movie about cops, about the streets, about justice… Actually, to me it felt like it was really about one thing: scary Black guys. Make that two things, there’s scary Latinos too. Oh, and rich old white drug dealers, crooked cops and Russian gangsters. Mix it all up and you’ve got the crazy world of “Training Day”. You know, maybe I’m out of touch, but are things that bad? I can accept that South Central L.A. is a mean old place, at least from watching movies like “Boyz N the Hood” or “Menace II Society”. But here, it’s not just any hooligan messing around, it’s the police!

The movie has us following rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) on, that’s right, a training day with Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), an undercover narcotics detective. Right off the bat, we can see that Alonzo is quite a character, a real live wire, volatile, aggressive and cocky as hell. But he’s charismatic, too, and after all he’s a decorated police officer, so Jake goes along with Alonzo’s scary Black guy antics. Talking tough, beating people on the street, stealing drugs and money off thugs, drinking and driving… We’re the police, we can do anything, right? Er, I’m not too sure, but I think we’re supposed to accept Alonzo’s behaviour, for a while at least. It’s the classic cop-who-plays-by- his-own-rules riff. If you need to cross the line to make a case stick, what’s the harm?

Personally, I was never able to buy the premise. Shouldn’t Jake or any of the petty criminals who get man-handled by Alonzo object and report him? I don’t doubt that some cops are dirty, that there is corruption in the justice system, but this is too much! And even if you don’t question the plausibility, the movie just ain’t that interesting. Stuff happens, then more stuff, with not much of a narrative throughout. Not even halfway into the movie I started growing impatient, wondering if all this nonsense would ever pay off. Short answer: nope. Just more scary Black guys and Latinos standing around looking scary.

I guess one could suggest that what holds the film together is the character development. Could have been, except that Denzel Washington’s Alonzo is pretty much the same scary Black guy through the movie, except that in the third act he loses what little complexity, is-he-good-or-bad? ambiguity he had to settle into B-movie villainy. As for Ethan Hawke, his Jake doesn’t have much of a character arc either: “Dude, that dude’s crazy! Wait, maybe not… Oh yeah, he’s crazy!” pretty much sums it up. Likewise, the film never offers much insight: Alonzo’s evil, but he thinks he’s just getting the job done… But he’s evil still, eh? Cue up the shoot-outs, crashed cars and mano a mano action!

Basically, try as it might, “Training Day” never rises above being yet another by-the-numbers action thriller. Director Antoine Fuqua (“The Replacement Killers”) keeps things slick and sharp, and the cast is solid (though nominating Hawke for an Oscar might be pushing it), but unless you really wanna see Denzel doing his scary Black guy thing, I can’t quite recommend the film.

PORN STAR: The Legend of Ron Jeremy

Another porno biopic? Well, yeah, but “Porn Star” has two things which were missing in “Wadd”, “The Girl Next Door”, “Sex: The Annabel Chong Story” or “Bad Girl”, namely a lot of style and a wonderfully entertaining central subject. None of the sad sack whining of Chong or Stacy Valentine, none of the drugs & AIDS pathos of John Holmes’ life here. Ron “The Hedgehog” Jeremy is the last guy you’d expect to be the biggest male star in the sex industry. One has to wonder how a small, fat, hairy Jewish one-time teacher from Queens ended up shagging big boobed young blondes for a living, and this film intends to find out, while having a ball strolling through footage from Jeremy’s huge filmography.

We learn that it’s his then girlfriend who sent a nude picture of him to Playgirl magazine, which led to him being discovered by “exotic film” producers. Jeremy, who was pursuing his dream of becoming a famous actor, figure doing a few pornos might be fun and, who knows, it might lead to legit work. 21 years later, and Ron is still having a hard time trying to make it into the mainstream, but he’s certainly conquered the porn world! Why him? Well, having a 9 and 3/4 inch schlong doesn’t hurt (literally, it’s apparently soft and spongy; eeww indeed). Then, he’s reputed as a real professional, always able to maintain an erection and capable of ejaculating on cue, and he’s a rather decent actor and a funny performer. Yet more than anything, what makes Jeremy the phenomenon that he is, what prompts people everywhere to flock to him and want to be with him is that he seems to be an all around nice guy, an average Joe. Watching him doing beautiful women is a small thrill because you can say “Hey! That could be me!”, unlike with the usual arrogant bodybuilder assholes who are usually pistonning away in triple x flicks.

What I really liked about “Porn Star” is that director Scott Gill is obviously having a grand time with it. At its core, this is just a bunch of talking heads interviews, but Gill has overpacked his movie with demented montages of excerpts from Jeremy’s movies, from public appearances or from his regular life, which is anything but. We see him in all sorts of silly getups and situations, at parties, film premieres, doing (bad) stand-up in strip clubs, rapping in a music video (“Freak of the week”) or on stage with Kid Rock, we see some of his “legit” cameos in everything from Nash Bridges to “Orgazmo”, “Citizen Toxie”, “Killing Zoe” and “Detroit Rock City”… This all comes through demented editing and a great funky score, which makes watching this documentary a consistently enjoyable and often hilarious experience. Gill is not afraid to mock Jeremy and his lifestyle a little, but in the end it’s not mean spirited. While he’s alternately called greasy, ugly, dirty, cheap and worse, the final impression we’re left with is that of a jolly good fella who only wants to be loved.

Citizen Kane

When I was going to film school, I sometimes found it hard to sit through some of the movies the teachers made us watch, especially when I felt that even them must find their own selections rather boring, but were too conformist to do otherwise. ‘A film is old, and everyone says it’s a classic? Well, it must be, let’s make the students watch it!’ The teachers would then recite stuff they’d read about the film in an attempt to convince us that the film’s great, but I was never too keen on thematic analysis overkill. I believe that if a film is really that good, you don’t have to explain it during an hour to realise it. I have nothing against analysis, it’s just that the film itself shouldn’t be dead boring. Take “Citizen Kane”. Unlike most of the tedious and dry flicks I was forced to watch in class, here’s one classic that is as enjoyable as it is brilliant. It has a gripping story and dynamic direction, it doesn’t just stand there with nothing happening so it looks like there’s an hidden meaning.

As you know if you’ve browsed a while through this site, I’m not all that into golden age classics, I’m more into contemporary filmmakers like Scorsese, Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson. Well, even then, I am truly fascinated by Orson Welles’ timeless masterpiece, a film that actually feels more modern than most of what we see nowadays, sixty some years later. This is what I meant about how a film should be able to impress on its own. I didn’t need a teacher telling me “Kane” is a great film. Even first seeing it as a 15 year old punk, I was mesmerised. Not only was I not bored a minute, I was so enthralled that I had to watch it again the same day! I believe this might be the most visually rich movie ever made. You could literally watch it without the audio and just revel in the always inventive shot composition. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the story itself is fascinating!

It all begins with a riveting sequence showing us the death of Charles Foster Kane, a godzillionaire living as a recluse in Xanadu, his fortress of solitude on the desert coast of Florida. The camera travels smoothly from the main gate to Kane’s dying bed, as he drops a snow ball and his final word: Rosebud. We then see a purposely tacky “News on the March” segment on Kane’s accomplishments. The characters watching the newsreel (and us) are left feeling that the report is shallow and hardly satisfying. Who was really that rich newspaper tycoon who trapped himself in a humongous castle? And what the hell is Rosebud? Journalist Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is determined to find some answers, so he seeks out the important people in Kane’s life, and everyone has a story to tell. We learn that as a kid, Kane was sent to live with a banker, that he became extremely rich and took control a paper, the New York Inquirer. He was married to the President’s niece and ran for Governor, but things messed up. He divorced and ended up with Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingor), a simple girl who thinks she can sing. Kane wants to make her a star, but she just doesn’t have the voice. As time goes by, we see how all of Kane’s wives and friends leave him, and how he might have been responsible.

Of course, the story is much more complex than that. Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz did an amazing job, creating fascinating characters and situations. The narrative is very interesting, as the pieces of Kane’s life come together as those of a jigsaw puzzle. Orson Welles truly is a visionary filmmaker, and his direction is flawless. His use of deep focus, lighting and camera angles, the great work done with the soundtrack (with an evocative score from Bernard Herrman) and the memorable performances he got from actors new to motion pictures give you just a glance of his talent. Welles is an awesome storyteller who knows how to exploit the possibilities of cinema, “the biggest magic kit a boy was ever given”. He also stars as Kane himself, and his screen presence is unique. “Citizen Kane” has become the official answer to the “What’s the greatest movie of all times?” question, and one can understand why. This is a film that you can watch over and over and keep discovering new things.

The “Citizen Kane” DVD has got to be one of the most complete packages ever put together. Besides offering a gorgeous transfer of the film, it’s jam packed with extras detailing everything about its making, its release and its influence. We can see archival footage such as a newsreel about the premiere of the film, the original theatrical trailer (a rather odd but original bit of Welles whimsy) and stills of scenes and shots which didn’t make the final cut. Then there are not one but two commentaries. One is by Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, who goes through the film nearly shot after shot, pointing out things about the actors, the sets, the lighting, the use of deep focus, or how so much was achieved with the magic of cinema, as the film makes us think we’re seeing crowds or grandiose locations that are not there. He comes to the conclusion that there are as many special effects shots in “Kane” than in any “Star Wars” movie! The second commentary is by Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote an Orson Welles biography and has made a movie (the upcoming “The Cat’s Meow”) about media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who is widely believed to have been the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane.

Last but not least, the film comes with a second disc displaying a feature length documentary entitled “The Battle over Citizen Kane”. It tells the story of Hearst and Welles, two ambitious wonder boys whose massive egos clashed when the 25 year old filmmaker set his sights on the seventy-something millionaire. We see that they had somehow similar lives, and that the “fictional” story of Kane mirrors Welles’ nearly as much as Hearst. Little Orson never really had a normal life, being deemed a child prodigy early on, and going about directing plays and performing on radio serials as a teenager. Then, still in his early twenties, he was given the greatest contract in Hollywood history. No studio had ever offered such control to one person, and Welles intended to make the most of it. Today, all will agree he sure did, but back then his debut feature had one hell of a hard time being released.

When Hearst learned that the movie was a thinly veiled take on his accomplishments, his eccentricities and, most damning, his affair with the much younger Marion Davies, whom he strained to turn into a star, he was infuriated. Threats of lawsuits abounded, smear campaigns filled the front page of Hearst’s papers nationwide, and the bitter old publisher even attempted to tear down Hollywood as a whole and expose it as a nest of drunks, homosexuals and Jews! This worked to an extent, as studio moguls tried to buy the negative to “Citizen Kane” in the intent to burn the damn thing. It eventually made it through, but barely got a release, as nobody wanted to touch that hot potato. Learning all about “The Battle over Citizen Kane” in this fascinating documentary (originally made as part of PBS’ The American Experience series) makes it even more of a marvel that the film not only survived, but that it’s still cherished today as one of the major artistic achievements of the 20th century.

Le Ring Intérieur

Dan Bigras is an interesting figure in the French Canadian showbiz universe. He’s the kind of guy who’s almost too intense, too sincere for his own good. Maybe that’s why, while he got a few of his records playing on the radio and his few videos played on Musique Plus, he never quite “made it”, meaning that, while he’s probably living reasonably well off his music, he’s no big glamorous star. Good for him. He’s stayed true to his roots, getting involved with the homeless youth and various social causes. And now, quite surprisingly, he’s come out with an ONF-produced documentary about Ultimate Combat!

Maybe because he’s never been one to spread out his life in the tabloids, I wasn’t aware that he’d been delving in martial arts these past few years, getting himself back in shape after he quit drinking. He befriended professional fighter Charles Ali Nestor, a Haitian young man who hasn’t had it easy, getting from a bad childhood with an abusive father to messing around with street gangs and ending up in a detention centre. Painstakingly, he’s learned to express himself instead of holding it all in, and to focus his rage in the ring, and trying to be a good model to his young son and his boxing students. The film is mostly about Nestor, for whom Bigras serves as cornerman, but we also get to know their other chums, be it the always grinning, cocky 21 year old David Loiseau or thirty-something proletarian Steve Vigneault.

“Le Ring Intérieur” (The Ring Within) is kind of like a non-fiction “Fight Club”, not for the satirical social commentary and stylistic flourishes, just for the physical catharsis part. We meet men haunted by inner demons, men filled with unhealthy anger, men used to failure who’ve finally found a way to let some steam out, to fight off their personal issues, feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. In form, Bigras’ film is rather clumsy, with its rugged video images, and the ideas, while interesting, are not expressed with much subtlety or depth, but that’s alright. The film’s roughness is part of what makes it effective. What’s certain is that Bigras really cares for these guys, and that translates to us in the audience. I didn’t expect to feel so much for the people in the film, but I did. You really get to see where they’re coming from, so when they step into the ring you know that it’s not just about kicking the other dude’s ass.

Bigras’ goal seems to be to give a more positive, more accurate look of a much maligned sport and the athletes who practice it, and he’s achieved it. His movie changed my impression of Ultimate Combat as either barbarian or homo-erotic. It’s really a good documentary, warts and all. I don’t know if it’ll get a release out of Canada, but seek it out if you can.


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!