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.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Eli Cash (the gloriously cool Owen Wilson) has always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, ever since he was a kid living across the street. He always envied these children who inspired their mother Etheline (Angelica Huston) to write a book entitled “A Family of Geniuses”. Like the Glass family in J.D. Salinger’s post-Catcher oeuvre, the Tenenbaums spawned one whiz kid after another: Chas (Ben Stiller), who was already business tycoon as a preteen, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who won the Pulitzer Prize for one of the plays she wrote as a teenager, and Richie (Luke Wilson), the best American tennis pro at age seventeen. Of course, being a Tenenbaum isn’t what it’s been bandied about anymore. After years of careless parenting and unfaithful husbandry, old man Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) was thrown out by his wife and for a long time, he disappeared from their lives.

But now, in the dawn of a new century, Royal goes back to his roots, and events cause his children to also move back in the family house, the whole depressed, conflicted and down-on-their-luck lot of them. Still, Eli’s pleased to see his old buddy Richie again, and he even gets to diddle Margot. Cash is now a “writer”, posing as a cowboy and touring bookstores with his surprisingly successful Western-themed novel. The Tenenbaums, though, haven’t known much success for the longest time. Margot hasn’t been writing, meandering through meaningless affairs instead before settling in with a grey-beard neurologist (Bill Murray). Richie had a meltdown during a match and hasn’t been competing since. Chas did keep up doing business, but the tragic death of his wife and mother of his sons Ari and Uzi has made him an angry, bitter man…

Looking back at my plot summary, I make the film sound solemn and melancholy, which at its core it pretty much is, but as directed by Wes Anderson, it actually plays like a colorful comedy. “The Royal Tenenbaums” is his third feature, and like the offbeat crime tale “Bottle Rocket” and the quirky high school movie “Rushmore”, it has a very elusive tone, flickering from satire to drama and back. I’d describe it as cartoonish poetry, or as a poetic cartoon, I’m not sure which. What I mean, anyway, is that the film follows a pop art aesthetic where everything is just a little off. Like in a comic book, the characters are almost always wearing the same clothes: Chas and his boys in their red Adidas jumpsuits, Margot with the black eyeliner and the fur coat, Richie sporting big sunglasses and a headband, Eli in his cowboy outfit… The set design goes in the same vein, with pastel walls, Dalmatian mice, bizarre paintings, stacks of porno tapes lying on a table… Furthermore, the whole film is told as if read off a storybook by an unseen narrator (Alec Baldwin), with chapter breaks and all.

Yet beyond the bright-and-sunny coating, this is a pretty bittersweet story about a man who wants to make up for being an asshole to his family before it’s too late. Gene Hackman is very good in the role, balancing well the hilariously misguided behavior of Royal with his relatively sincere intentions. The other major storyline revolves around Richie’s unhealthy infatuation with his sister. She is adopted, one must precise, but still, “it’s frowned upon”. This gives the film unusual but affecting emotional undertones, and Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow deliver very good, sullen performances. It’s nice to see Ben Stiller a little more reigned in than usual, but his character is a bit one-note. As for Bill Murray and Danny Glover, who plays the family accountant and Etheline suitor, they have their moments but are rather overshadowed by the leads and, especially, Owen Wilson (who also co-wrote the film, as he did for Anderson’s previous pictures). For my money, he totally steals the movie, bringing in the biggest laughs as the perpetually stoned Eli.

There is a lot to enjoy in “The Royal Tenenbaums”, and I’m sure that subsequent viewings would be as stimulating. The visuals are a treat, and they’re matched by a great soundtrack which includes songs by Nico, The Velvet Underground, Paul Simon, Nick Drake, The Ramones, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles (but only in cheesy instrumental form because they wouldn’t give away the rights) and others. My only beef with the film is that it’s almost too clever for its own good. At numerous points in the film, I was close to really be feeling for the characters, but then the film shied away and did something silly. Granted, often those said silly touches are quite amusing, but I think the film had the potential for more meaning, more depth. In any case, Anderson remains one of the truly original voices in contemporary American filmmaking, and I’m sure he has his best movies still ahead of him. And Owen Wilson rocks!

Gosford Park

So it’s 1932 in prissy England, in a resort called Gosford Park, where a rich noble of some sort is having some acquaintances over for the week-end. Old dry hags bitch, the men grump, meanwhile the servants (who nearly outnumber the guests) prance around. Cards are played, ducks are hunted. A popular British actor entertains others with his piano playing and crooning, while his American producer friend talks about doing research for a “Charlie Chan in London” project about a murder at night in a hotel, where everyone is a suspect. And then, in an oh so ironic twist, someone is murdered that very night, and everyone’s a suspect.

“Gosford Park” was directed by Robert Altman, who gave us classics like “Nashville” and “The Player” but also forgettable dreck like “Prêt à Porter” and last year’s “Dr. T and the Women”. Most critics proclaim his latest film to be his best in a decade or something, but I have to disagree. Maybe it’s just my own aching disinterest in snobbish British characters doing nothing but drinking tea and gossiping, even after the murder occurs. Or how frustrating I find the way Altman gathered this great cast but doesn’t give his actors interesting characters. Helen Mirren, Bob Balaban, Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Clive Owen, Richard E. Grant… Those are interesting performers usually, but here they barely register, lost that they are in a cast too large and a vaporous storyline about murky family ties, maid diddling and class struggle. Most memorable are Emily Watson, mainly because she’s pretty and good enough to somehow liven up the film whenever she’s on screen, and Ryan Phillipe, doing a not very good Scottish brogue to amusing effect.

I can’t really write much about this unbelievably overrated film besides telling you it bored me so much that I wasn’t able to watch it straight through; it took me four attempts to get to the closing credits. What’s worse is that I hear the film is getting strong buzz, and that it might be a major Oscar contender. Damn! Not because people speak the Queen’s English, wear period clothes and sound intelligent and sophisticated does it make the film any less dull and pointless, alright?


Biopics are a tough trade. There’s always the dilemma of showing too much or showing too little. A life, a famous and eventful one especially, is long and packed with events of varying importance. Which do you cover, which do you leave out? Some biopics frustrate because they overlook too much significant material, others grow tiresome because they run too long trying to mention every detail. And then there’s films like “Ali” which somehow commit both of those things. At nearly three hours of running time, Michael Mann’s film can be overwhelming, but while it touches countless issues, it often doesn’t develop them any further, which makes for an episodic, superficial stroll through the life of a man we ultimately learn little about.

“Ali” opens with a rather virtuoso titles sequence which alternate between an electrifying Sam Cooke concert, a young Cassius Clay (Will Smith) in training and short but telling glimpses at Clay’s childhood in the south. The interlacing of the boxer beating at a punching bag, soul music and moments like a young Cassius being led to the “Colored only” part of a bus, watching his father painting a blonde, blue-eyed Christ or learning of a lynching gives us insights into the man and it warms us up effectively for Clay’s first decisive fight in 1964, against then heavyweight champion Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt). That first boxing match is surprisingly intense, with Mann’s camera right there in the ring, around and between the fighters, and the impact of the punches resonating loudly. Right there, I felt ‘whoa’, this movie means business.

Another thing I did not expect is how big a part Malcolm X would play. In the film’s first act, he’s nearly always hanging besides the Champ, who’s converting to the Nation of Islam and becoming more and more concerned with civil rights issues. X is competently played by Mario Van Peebles, but as a comic book fan sucker for continuity, I would have loved for Denzel Washington to cross over from Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X”. By the way, that biopic achieved everything “Ali” fails to, and as it depicts some of the same events early on, that difference is all the more evident. For example, Malcolm X’s perspective-changing visit to the Mecca, where he realises that Islam unites people of all colours, is mentioned in a few seconds but brushed away by Muhammad Ali (he’s rejected his slave name by then), who just sticks to his “Why did you quarrel with the Elijah Muhammad?” Now, that’s intriguing. Was Ali “brainwashed” by the Black Muslims, he who so vehemently claimed to be his own person?

Don’t expect to find out more about this from the film, which immediately shifts focus to something else, and this happens over and over. There are fleeting little scenes showing us Ali beyond the ring and press conferences, but they only tease us with insights into who he really is, what drove him. Then Mann cuts away to scene after scene recreating the key public moments in Ali’s life, which is all good but rather futile, especially when you can see the real thing in “When We Were Kings”, the greatish Ali documentary from a few years ago. Will Smith is good enough here, he’s certainly buffed himself up and he’s got the hilariously cocky banter and the arrogant rhyming down pretty accurately, but still. He’s not Ali. He doesn’t quite have the Greatest’s fire and his boundless showmanship. As for the few time we spend with the private Ali, while I have no way of knowing how the boxer was when the world wasn’t looking, I doubt he was as introverted and melancholy as Smith plays him.

It’s truly disappointing how, after such a powerful start, the movie just keeps losing steam. When it gets to the time when Ali was stripped away of his title and forbidden to fight because of his refusal to being enlisted during the Viêt-Nam war, things pick up somewhat, as Ali reveals to the world -and to himself- to be more than a big mouth, but also a man of convictions. Yet, like everything else in the film, this is simplified. Ali makes one or two spirited speeches (“Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me nigger”), but we’re not shown the struggle standing up to the government like that must have been for him, and he’s back in the ring so fast that you can’t really tell that this affected him nearly enough to ruin his career.

Oh, there were plenty of interesting ways to plunge into the life of Ali. The whole film could have been about race, or the Nation of Islam, or his political stand against the war, or about his endless womanising. “Ali” touches all these angles, but without developing them into a compelling or thought-provoking narrative. Ali’s marriages, for instance, are rushed and barely questioned, with his female conquests entering and exiting the film without it giving them a second thought. Instead, way too much time is spent in the ring. As mentioned, I thought the first fight scene was very intense, packing much visceral thrills, but after three other sequences which are only more of the same, it gets blah. The finale, which revolves around the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali’s historic upset win over a much younger George Foreman in a heavyweight title fight in Zaire, is particularly anticlimactic. It just goes on and on (“Get off the ropes”). And then the movie ends, and you haven’t learned or felt much at all.

One of the picture’s problems is that Michael Mann seems to be way too in love with his own direction. He keeps steering away from the action to do these extended, often pointless musical montages, most appallingly during a 5 minute stretch of Ali running in Zaire with Africans who nearly venerate him. We gather that in, say, 30 seconds, but Mann apparently couldn’t edit out any of his pretty shots of Zaire. Cause his film IS pretty, with interesting use of colour and lighting. I could have done without Mann’s signature hand-held shake-o-thon, but overall this is a skilfully crafted movie. “Ali” ends up being less involving than a “Rocky” flick and less challenging than Scorsese’s ruthless “Raging Bull”, but it’s still worth seeing, dull spots and all, for the few moments of it which flirt with brilliance. I just wish it had been more, because initially it sure seemed like it could’ve been a contender.

The Majestic

It’s the early ’50s, a time of a golden age of studio moviemaking in Hollywood, which attracts countless hopeful artists. Screenwriter Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) is one of them, and you could say he’s made it, even though only one of his scripts was produced, the B-movie adventure “Sand Pirates of the Sahara”. But his emerging success is short-lived, as he finds himself blacklisted and called to testify in front of Congress on suspicion of being a Communist. To make matters worse, after getting hammered he drives his car over a bridge and knocks himself out, bad. He is washed away on a beach, just off the small town of Lawson, with no recollection whatsoever about who he is. Yet everyone thinks he looks oddly familiar: could he be Luke Trimble, a young local man who went missing while fighting in World War II? Not knowing better, Pete plays along and moves in with Luke’s father (Martin Landau), socialises with Luke’s friends, he even starts dating Luke’s old girlfriend Adele (Laurie Holden)! He’s like the prodigal son coming home, lifting everyone’s spirits out of their post-war blues, most notably by revamping the Majestic, the abandoned movie palace. Everything’s peachy. But what if Pete’s memory comes back, which life would he choose? Worse, he might not even have a choice, as the paranoid, Red-chasing FBI is still after him.

“The Majestic” is the latest from director Frank Darabont, whose two first movies were period prison dramas adapted from Stephen King stories. I loved his “The Green Mile” and especially “The Shawshank Redemption”, with their old fashioned filmmaking style and sentimental, nostalgic tone, but while Darabont’s new movie embodies those characteristics, here they feel contrived and manipulative. The movie meanders without finding its rhythm, and it doesn’t achieve to breath some fresh air into the clichés it’s built from. The film is set in a time and a place which I don’t think ever existed outside the movies, a small town where everyone knows and loves each other, and everything is always going smoothly, even on bad days. The film is populated with stock characters from every other old movie, from the outgoing mayor to the sassy diner owner, the unpretentious Doc, the simple minded but good-natured workers, the kindly old men, the geeky kid who idolises the hero, the token black guy. And like in The Simpsons’ Springfield, everyone in town is always conveniently there around Pete/Luke to react and comment on the action.

I was never able to buy the premise. Ok, the guy is afflicted with amnesia, and it just so happens that in the very town he crashes in, his exact look-alike has been missing for 9 years! This is already a lot of suspension of disbelief to ask of the audience, but the kicker is how everyone accepts this at face value and involve Pete/Luke back into their lives, barely wondering where he’s been all these years. On their own, most of the scenes which make up the bulk of the movie are pleasant enough (as far as generic cutesy sap goes at least), but the way the film shoves aside almost any questioning of the premise makes the whole thing hard to get into. I’ve always found Jim Carrey to be a good lead actor,but here he’s not given much to work with. As an amnesiac, his character is literally a big blank! Still, he does share some touching isolated moments with Martin Landau, as a father so very happy to believe his son has come back to life, and with Laurie Holden, who brings him to their special places (like the lighthouse where they first kissed) to jolt his memory. And I must admit, the piano scene made me grin like an idiot.

Yet those are only a few bright spots through a lot of trite, predictable moments. Most of the film plays with potentially interesting ideas but fails to make good of them. For instance, I kinda liked the romantic view of movies as a communal escapist experience, dispensing dreams on a big screen, but this is only voiced once, in an overwritten speech. Other than that, it’s just dull scenes of people renovating the movie house, ordering Raisinets, tearing tickets… Likewise, the whole Communist witch-hunt subplot feels like an after-thought. It’s touched upon early in the film, but then it’s forgotten about until the last act, when Pete faces Congress and must decide between purging himself of activities he never committed and naming names, or standing up for what he believes in at the risk of going to prison. That part of the film is quite involving and uplifting, if only in a simplistic, rah rah America-the-byoo-tee-ful way, but it’s not enough to salvage the film, especially considering how it’s followed by a pukingly sweet happy end.

Overall, “The Majestic” is not a bad film, but it’s not a good one either. It works often enough to keep the audience from being outright bored, but it hardly ever rises above by-the-numbers storytelling and easy answers. Darabont has stated that he’s a huge fan of Frank Capra and it shows, but only superficially. It wants to promote decency, truth and freedom, but it’s afraid to contrast it with the darker corners of the human heart. It’s “Capra for Dummies”.

Vanilla Sky

A couple of months ago, I rented “Abre Los Ojos,” the 1997 Spanish film which was the basis for “Vanilla Sky”, and I was utterly blown away. So much that I just had to watch it again, right there and then. That doesn’t happen often, but here was a movie that was so complex and stimulating cinematically and thematically that I just had to take a second trip down that insane ride to process it. You would think that, having loved the Alejandro Amenabar original so much, its remake could only be a letdown. But this would be overlooking two things: 1) It’s not very fashionable to say, but I generally prefer American movies. I like Hollywood movie stars, I like not having to read subtitles, I like being able to catch pop culture references. 2) This is Cameron Crowe’s new film, silly! Remake or not, that’s a near-guarantee of a wonderful time at a movies. As I expected, “Vanilla Sky” is indeed easier a film to get into, with great use of pop/rock/electronic music, and the kind of irresistible romantic comedy moments only Crowe is able to pull off this well. And then, as the twists and turns grow more and more confusing and dark, Crowe is prompted into artistic territory we’ve never seen him explore.

Tom Cruise stars as David Aames, a hotshot New York magazine editor with everything a man could want: money, two spacious bachelor pads, a black Ferrari, movie star good looks, an overall glamorous lifestyle and countless gorgeous babes aching to jump his bones. We meet him as he’s about to celebrate his 33rd birthday, with a snazzy party of course, but there are a few wild cards. First, there’s growing tension between David and his best pal Brian (Jason Lee), who’s tired to see him treating carelessly women he would dream of being with. Speaking of which, the date he’s brought to the party, Sofia (Penelope Cruz, reprising her “Abre los Ojos” role), seems to fit just right his idea of the dream girl. Unfortunately, despite much pleading by Brian for his friend not to, David has her in his phasers, always the seductive alpha male. Though this time, it’s more than plain lust ; he’s really amazed by this Sofia. Enough so that he turns away his fuck buddy Julie (Cameron Diaz)’s advances, shoving her into becoming a truly wild card.

Okay, enough with the summary. What I’ve described is only the very edge of this complex tale of obsession and despair, a mostly warm, fun edge which hardly prepares us for what’s to follow. Without going into specifics, “Vanilla Sky” unfolds twists upon twists, as David’s whole life and being are torn to pieces. True love is denied to him just as he finds it, his self-image is shattered, and that’s still only the beginning! This pretty much follows with what Amenabar’s film did, but the two pictures differ quite a bit in the execution. In “Abre los Ojos”, there was a certain bleakness in tone from the get go. Crowe’s movie, on the other hand, doesn’t hurry through the calm-before-the-storm set-up. For nearly an hour, this is not so different from, say, Crowe and Cruise’s “Jerry Maguire”. David and Sofia have this great night together, full of witty, flirtatious conversation and little moments of joy.

Cruise is at his charismatic best, and Cruz is more lovable than in any other movie I’ve seen her him, even “Abre los Ojos”. The two of them have palpable chemistry, I have no trouble believing that the sparks continued long after Crowe yelled “Cut!” Jason Lee is, not surprisingly, perfectly cast, having mastered the art of playing the smart-ass best friend in Kevin Smith’s flicks. The real surprise is Cameron Diaz. I’ve adored her ever since she first entered that bank in 1994’s “The Mask”. She then proved surprisingly game in “There’s Something About Mary”, and she revealed an edgier side of her acting in “Being John Malkovich” but this (for lack of a better term) psycho bitch turn is still quite shocking! I’ll never see her as a harmless blonde sweetie ever again! Cruise also does some of his most interesting acting when events spin out of control, showing a much darker side of himself. As in “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Magnolia”, I think the fact that we’re used to see him as such a successful stud makes his breakdown even more affecting.

Behind the camera, Crowe is as “on” as he’s never been. With the help of cinematographer John Toll and his wife Nancy Wilson doing the score, he crafts a constantly stimulating succession of sounds and visuals, sometimes to rivetingly surreal effect. Plenty of scenes are still haunting me, from the Times Square opening to the breathtaking finale, through countless other great moments. And what about the soundtrack! A former Rolling Stone writer, Crowe always puts together bitching soundtracks for his movies. Think of the use of “In Your Eyes” in “Say Anything”, of “Free falling” in “Jerry Maguire”, the Seattle grunge in “Singles”, or the Led Zeppelin tunes in “Almost Famous”. Now in “Vanilla Sky”, we can hear such great artists as Radiohead, REM, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel, all used to near perfection. I mean, some will disagree, but I found the “Good Vibrations” music cue just priceless, I had “Solsbury Hill” caught in my head for the whole day and even Joan Osborne’s “One of us” took on creepy undertones!

Like the original, “Vanilla Sky” evokes “Phantom of the Opera”, “Vertigo”, and Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction writings, among many other influences. It explores some very intriguing territory, which will confuse the hell out of a lot of people, but give it time, this isn’t “Mulholland Drive”, there is a point and some sense to make off it all in the end. Lynch fans might argue that it’s better to leave things unexplained than to tie everything up, but in this particular case, I thought the exposition served its purpose, and as delivered by Noah Taylor (“Tech support!”) and Tilda Swinton, it doesn’t feel tedious. And then, the movie reaches a payoff even more satisfying than the original. To reverse one of the film’s leitmotiv, since you got more into the sweet early scenes, the sour elements hit even harder, and when you don’t expect it no more, “sweetness follows” and you leave the theatre still on a high, wondering what it is that would make you most happy.