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”.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

I haven’t read J.R.R. Tolkien‘s classic fantasy saga. I tried actually, but after ten pages of painstakingly detailed description of Hobbits doing Hobbit stuff, I just quit. Having now seen the first of three movies adapting “The Lord of the Rings”, I kick myself for not having stuck with it. Then again, I might not have been as amazed by what unfolded on that giant screen. As directed by Peter Jackson, “The Fellowship of the Ring” is the kind of experience you wish for every time you go to the movies. Right from the opening prologue, which brings virgins like myself up to date on the basic elements of the story, the film is fascinating. Sitting among a sold out screening, I gradually zoned out from my surroundings and emerged in Middle-Earth, witnessing the creation of Dark Lord Sauron’s rings, which he divides among elves, dwarves and men, maybe to make up for being, well, a Dark Lord. But surprise surprise, turns out this is only another devious trick from Sauron, who’s also crafted another ring out of all his might and evil, “one ring to rule them all”. He’s soon embarked on a war to take over Middle-Earth but against all hope, one man throws his all into battle and manages to destroy Sauron. Or so it seems.

Flash forward to centuries later, as the little dudes of Hobbiton are preparing to celebrate the 111th birthday of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Among the guests is his old friend Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), a powerful but rather down-to-earth wizard who likes to smoke a little weed and to mess around with fireworks. These early scenes are a treat, some quiet and fun before the sinister events depicted in the introduction cast their shadows into the present. I liked the way Bilbo and Gandalf quickly felt like real persons and how they related to each other, and what felt tedious on paper now seems natural and stimulating. Through a handful of little moments, we get an understanding of who Hobbits are and how they live, and we accept them as an existing species in this world. This is one of the most startling things in the film, how it often doesn’t feel like fantasy as much as a historical drama, so richly detailed everything is.

The festivities end abruptly when Bilbo slips on a mysterious ring and disappears, to his guests’ shock. Gandalf finds this strange, so he forces his buddy, who is about to leave town, to leave his ring in the care of his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) while he does some research. And thus Gandalf realises that he’s been in the presence of the supposedly mythical yet ever feared ring of Sauron, and his unholy armies have already sensed its reawakening. And so they get riding to its pursuit, set to get it back to their master. Gandalf hurries back to poor Frodo, and together with a Fellowship overcoming racial barriers, they embark on a quest to destroy this ring which no one could behold without being corrupted by its infinite power. But, having been made in the fire of Mount Doom, “only there can it be unmade”, hence the Fellowship will have to venture through forests, rivers, mountains, fields, caves, snow and more, all while fighting back attack after attack from various deadly foes.

As stated, I’m not familiar with the source material, so the film kept surprising me. I heard about how imaginative it was, but I didn’t know it was so ruthless. This isn’t a fairy tale: characters can and will die, failure always seems imminent, and a nameless dread inhabits every other frame. It’s a wonder the Fellowship manages to survive and that they keep going. I am not sure whether they’re admirable heroes or desperate fools who can’t accept that they’re bound for a horrible fate. Maybe it’s a little of both, with Frodo, especially. He doesn’t say much, but you can feel what a burden having been entrusted as the bearer of the ring is for him, 4 foot tall, barefoot, innocent and inexperienced Hobbit that he is. Elijah Wood is great in the role; you can see all the vulnerability and the fear but also the purity and the courage in the world in those big blue eyes.

The 8 other members of the fellowship are also portrayed memorably. As Gandalf, McKellen is as intense as it gets, appearing threatening, but also warm and friendly when it’s befitting. Viggo Mortensen‘s Aragorn, the mortal human royal heir who lost faith in his potential as a ruler, is great. He’s pretty much our badass hero, but he’s a rather unlikely one, all rogue and brooding. Though he does have a few sweet moments with Liv Tyler, playing a beautiful Elvish princess or something whose love motivates him. Sean Bean‘s Boromir, also human, is a bit of a wild card, often driven more by passion than reason, but he’s a fierce fighter and he’s obviously determined to stop the evil forces. Then there’s Frodo’s Hobbit friends, Pippin (Billy Boyd), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Sam (Sean Astin), who are quite careless and foolish, but who have good hearts. Sam, especially, is the most loyal friend Frodo could hope for. They have a very touching scene together late in the film which establishes intriguing ambiguously gay undertones. Also on hand are axe-wielding dwarf Gimly (John-Rhys Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), an elf who can do no wrong with his bow and arrows but, at least in this first chapter, they’re not really defined into clear characters. They still leave a strong impression, if only because they kick major ass during the fight sequences!

You know, I don’t think any film has ever deserved to be called epic as much as this one. The sheer grandeur of the settings, the large cast of colorful characters, the larger than life confrontations. I spent nearly all the film wide-eyed and slack-jawed. New Zealand by itself appears to be just gorgeous, with its tall waterfalls and green prairies, its mountains and its great big skies. Then, through impressive work from set builders and digital effects teams, plenty of marvelous castles and cities are worked into the world near seamlessly. As if it wasn’t enough, filmmaker Peter Jackson pulls all these impossible shots which fly though his locations, further enhancing how big in scope it all is.

Yet Jackson doesn’t just shoot a lot of pretty scenery. He’s telling a big, sprawling story and, as the film rolls on, the narrative becomes more and more urgent, fast-paced and action-packed, with always more terrifying threats to our heroes. The Black Riders chasing down the Hobbits, Gandalf’s magic duel with the corrupted Saruman (Christopher Lee), the showdown with the Cave Troll (which makes a similar scene in “Harry Potter” feel so silly and harmless in retrospect), the hellish Balrog demon, the attack of the Uruk-Hai army. Take the best things about “Conan the Barbarian”, “Braveheart” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, filter them through the manic energy Peter Jackson brought to his “Dead-Alive”, match it with resources usually only accessible to the likes of Lucas and Spielberg, and you’ve got some of the most breath-taking set pieces ever crafted.

“The Fellowship of the Ring” is such an engrossing picture that you completely lose track of the time and the 3 hour running length just flies by. I’m telling you, when it ended, I wasn’t even spent or anything, in fact I was dying to see “The Two Towers” right there, and then bring on “The Return of the King”!

A Beautiful Mind

Russell Crowe stars as John Forbes Nash Jr., who we meet as he arrives to Princeton University in 1947, a poor young man whose remarkable skills in mathematics won him a scholarship. He doesn’t really fit in with the other students though, and he has no interest in actually going to classes. He just wants to find a truly original theory, to think of something that will matter. Something that will make him matter. He does calculate some brilliant stuff, which opens up opportunities for him, all the way to a code breaking gig at the Pentagon, but something is tearing him loose : schizophrenia. Combined with Cold War-era conspiracy theories paranoia, this might make him go totally insane. All he’s got left is his caring wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), and even she is tempted to give up on him.

It’s taken me a while to process my feelings on Ron Howard’s latest film, as they’re kind of confused. In short, I thought the first act was mediocre, then the film did something I perceived as a cheat, but finally it redeemed itself in its powerful last hour. So how am I supposed to review the whole film, as I found its first half to be generic and maudlin, but by the end I was moved to tears? Well, let’s start at the beginning, or the “Good Will Hunting” part. These early scenes aren’t that bad, they’re just bland and harmless. Nash is somehow interesting already, with subtle hints of personality troubles, but he’s surrounded by walking clichés, like the snobbish daddy’s boy (Josh Lucas), the wisecracking buddies, the kind old teacher, or a newer obligatory staple (see also : “Notting Hill”, “Undeclared”), the quirky British roommate (Paul Bettany). Plus, it’s all so timid, a little joke here, a little touching moment there. Yawn.

Another thing that bothered me was the seemingly random, unnatural pacing. It’s the first day of the semester, then wham!, it’s six months down the line, boom!, Nash’s made his discovery, watch out! It’s now five years later and he’s called in to break some Soviet code. It gets even more frustrating when Nash starts teaching and Alicia, who’s his student, catches his eye. It literally goes from ‘what’s your name’ to ‘I find you attractive’ to ‘will you marry me?’ to ‘you’re pregnant?!’ Meanwhile, Nash, is recruited by a Secretary of Defence agent (Ed Harris) who wants him to peruse periodicals to look for secret Communist codes. Come again? That’s not all, there’s tense dropouts, mysterious men in black, chases, shoot-outs. It makes little sense, and it’s hardly all that interesting. I was ready to pan the film.

Oh, but wait a second there, that’s only the first hour or so of the film, before what I called the big cheat. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna spoil it. Let’s just say that the film reveals that it isn’t really concerned with code cracking or Nash’ love life; “A Beautiful Mind” is ultimately about one man’s struggle to retain his sanity, to sort out his mind at once capable of genius and madness. Once the narrative settles on this, the film becomes more and more engrossing. It remains conventional in form as Ron Howard, hardly a daring filmmaker, can’t help but go for melodrama and little bittersweet comic beats, or something as predictable and schmaltzy as the “pen scene”. But the screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, adapting the Sylvia Nasar novel, presents us with a very interesting, complex character who hits bottom, degrading into the kind of fidgety old weirdo kids mock on the street. This makes his eventual getting back on his feet oh so touching, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room during the final scene.

It takes many people to make a film, and it’s usually unfair to single out an individual as being most responsible for its success, but in this particular case, I feel it’s obvious that this is Russell Crowe’s movie. Writer Goldsman did, after all, commit “Batman & Robin”, and as mentioned, Howard has a tendency to lay things too thick, overdoing each moment as if he’s trying to show off to the Academy (but oooooooh, that’s not his intent, natch). Fortunately, he’s at least made one brilliant decision in casting Russell Crowe, who brings depth, pathos and humanity to his character. We see him age nearly fifty years in the film, and I was never thinking ‘make-up’, Crowe just seemed older in the way he held himself, spoke and appeared altogether. Likewise, with his schizophrenic behaviour, Crowe is not one to chew scenery and go over the top. This is a performance full of nuances and rough corners. His relationship with Paul Bettany and Ed Harris’ characters lingers hauntingly in our minds, and even though it’s underwritten, his screwed up romance with Jennifer Connelly is affecting. She herself is pretty good (and gorgeous), despite a false-sounding shrieking breakdown scene.

Overall, I’d pretty much recommend “A Beautiful Mind”. There are quite a bit of things to dislike in what can be summed up as a tearjerker posing as a psychological thriller, but ultimately it did surprise me by making me cry, and Crowe’s performance alone is worth the admission price. If he hadn’t won the Best Actor Oscar last year, I’d say he’s sure to get it now, and the movie itself will probably get noticed here and there as a reaction. Check it out.

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.

À ma Soeur

As you might gather from the low star rating, I really hated this film. It made me angry, but not good-angry, like if it had made me think and question my reaction, but plain bad-angry at wasting 83 minutes of my life watching a lazy, misguided pseudo-art film. “À ma soeur” (or “Fat Girl”, as it’s insultingly titled in the US) is the latest from Catherine Breillat, whose big thing is to rock snobbish intellectual circles by making so-called feminist movies depicting graphic but cold and impersonal sex acts. The best example of her close-minded vision is a scene in the overrated “Romance” in which a woman is stuck through a wall, with only her legs and private parts on one side, where dirty men rudely screw her or jerk off on her. I found it insulting as a man, and I can’t see how a woman wouldn’t feel the same way. Sure, some men are lowly dogs, but it’s paranoia to put them all in the same league.

Okay, so about this new chapter in Breillat’s long “women are victims” craptacular saga. You’ve got these two French sisters whose parents have brought on a holiday to Italy. Anaïs (Anaïs Redoux) is 12, a bit chubby (I wouldn’t call her fat) and rather conflicted and self-conscious, thanks to her sister’s relentless taunts. Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is 15 and pretty but naïve and often bitchy. Both girls are intrigued by sex, but not in a giggly schoolgirl way ; this is a Breillat pic after all, so they’re already weird and bitter about sex, even though they never did it. They just wanna get rid of their virginity, like it’s a chore. Or so they say? For when Elena hooks up with twenty-something Roman dude Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), she falls back into clueless, love-blinded girly patterns, believing all his obvious bullshit which is only meant to get her in bed, in which he succeeds. And then… Well, not much really happens in the film. The sisters yell at each other a lot, but sometimes they’re friendly. Elena falls more and more for Fernando, giving him access to one orifice after another. And then… Well, more on that later.

Right away, I have to stress how mediocre a film this is. Maybe the premise has the potential to be developed into an unflinching look at teenage girls’ sexuality, but the way writer-director Breillat goes at it, apparently girls have as much fun getting laid as when they’re vomiting. Breillat obviously feels contempt for the male characters, from Fernando as the insincere, lying dick, to the unavailable, grumpy workaholic father. But even the females are portrayed in a bad light. The mother is an impulsive, bitter woman who yells and slaps her kids, Elena is dumb, illogical, slutty and cruel to her sister, and Anaïs is this pathetic “fat” girl who’s always stuffing her face, making out with inanimate objects or singing some whiny ditty which spells out her despair and has her imploring crows to devour her aching heart. Oh, brother.

All this is shown through long, boring scenes of no cinematic or thematic interest, such as a more than 10 minute long sequence in which all we see is highway driving. I’m not kidding, Breillat just shoots the family car passing by other cars and countless trucks, for minutes on end. Oh, the girls are sobbing in their seats, and they say a few words, but it’s still endlessly dull. And then comes the oh-so-shocking ending, which I found retarded and despicable. ***SPOILER AHEAD*** In an even more extreme strain of paranoid nonsense, a big bad wolf of a guy kills both the mother and the older sister and rapes the 12 year old in the woods. It’s depicted almost exactly like the earlier consensual sex scenes because, wouldn’t you know it, all sex is rape and all men are predators, right? =sigh= ***END OF SPOILER***

Don’t encourage Breillat by watching her self-indulgent, utterly unenjoyable and shallow little exposé, and don’t get fooled by the controversy which surrounds it into thinking this is a daring film. Naked teenagers or not, this is still the work of a feminist reactionary without any notable filmmaking skills.