And then there’s films like “Raising Arizona” or this one which, while they don’t work perfectly, have well enough great things about them to be memorable. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is the Coen’s take on the film noir. Shot in glorious black-and-white, set in northern California in the late 1940s, with all the nice big American cars, the old fashioned hairstyles (“the executive contour”), everyone’s smoking drenching every shot with moody smoke. And at the centre of it all, another iconic Coen character in Ed Crane, played with evocative reserve by Billy Bob Thornton.
Crane works the second chair at his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco)’s barber shop. Crane is a man of few words. “I don’t talk much. I just cut the hair.” And so he does, keeping to himself, the eternal cigarette dangling between his lips. He’s the kind of man you don’t notice, a man without stories. But he does have a pretty wife in Doris (Frances McDormand), who works as an accountant in a department store downtown, he’s got a nice bungalow, an electric ice machine, garbage disposal… He’s got it made.
Yeah. But Ed’s not content with his station in life. He’s fed up with being “the barber”. Second chair barber at that. So when he hears about this new thing which is supposed to become a cash cow, something called dry-cleaning, he’s intrigued. And tempted. It sounds crazy (“cleaning, without water!”), but what if this is his big opportunity? All he needs is ten grands to launch himself. He doesn’t have the capital, but he soon figures out a blackmailing scheme directed at his wife’s boss (James Gandolfini), with whom she’s two-timing him. A simple plan. Unfortunately, simple plans have a tendency to get complicated, especially if you’re an everyman character in a film noir pastiche who’s stepping out of line for the first time. I won’t get into the specifics, but the Coen bros are far from being done with their barber.
The film is almost melodramatic in its unflinching succession of cruelly ironic twists. It walks a very fine line between tragedy and ridicule, and it’s hard to tell which the filmmakers would rather lean towards. To me, this is the main reason why I found “The Man Who Wasn’t There” good, but not great. It had the potential to be emotionally wrenching and thematically haunting, but just too often Joel and Ethan Coen can’t help but get silly and take potshots at the genre. Those are actually pretty funny, like when Ed’s potential dry cleaning partner (Jon Polio) makes a pass at him (“That was way out of line!”), or when Big Dave’s wife (Katherine Borowitz) rambles on about UFOs, but it takes you out of the story. The Coen say their movie is about “existential dread”, but you get the feeling it’s also a joke to them. Of course, I can’t pretend to know what their intents truly are, but this is the impression I got, that they cared less about involving us with the characters’ ordeal than about being clever.
Still, if only on an aesthetic level, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is one of the most beautifully crafted movies they’ve made. I couldn’t get enough of Roger Deakins‘ b&w cinematography, of the almost expressionistic use of light and shadow, the Carter Burwell score playing around Beethoven sonatas. And then there’s the Coen’s wonderfully rich and colorful dialogue dispensed by Billy Bob Thornton (mostly in deadpan voice-over) and by the all-around great supporting cast. James Gandolfini has strong presence without relying on his Tony Soprano mannerisms, Frances McDormand is interestingly colder and sultrier than usual, Tony Shalhoub steals many scenes as a smarmy, full of b.s. lawyer. There’s also a few very nice, ambiguous scenes between Thornton and Scarlett Johansson, who plays a pretty young girl whom Crane likes to watch play the piano. So, even though I wish the Coen had invested themselves in their story more seriously, they more than make up for it with style and atmosphere.
Here’s a film with all the right ingredients which somehow manages to taste bland as a hell. I mean, it’s directed by John Madden , who previously did the wonderful “Shakespeare in Love”, it has a stellar cast led by Nicolas Cage, one of my very favorite actors, and it’s shot by John Toll, who was also the director of photography on “The Thin Red Line”, one of the greatest looking films in recent memory. It’s an adaptation of a Louis de Bernieres novel by screenwriter Shawn Slovo. I haven’t read the book, but had one reviewer go: “If you read nothing else in this life, you must read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”. Okay, this was proclaimed by one of those Epinions.com fangirls but still, how could a best-seller which meant so much to at least that one girl be turned into so forgettable a film?
1940, the beautiful Greek island of Cephallonia, home to doctor Iannis (a hard to recognize but enjoyable John Hurt) and his daughter Pelagia. She’s engaged to local fisherman Mandras (Christian Bale), but she might be more interested in following her father’s foot steps and studying medicine than settling into marriage. Life on the island is good and simple, until the war raging in mainland Europe threatens to come disturb things here too. The Greeks have fought and even on occasion defeated Mussolini’s troops, but when Hitler’s Nazi troops join in, they’re forced to surrender. Enter the Italian army on Cephallonia, trying to take over the island without rocking things to much. Dr. Iannis is ordered to let a Captain stay in his home, which doesn’t please him much until he meets the man. Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage) turns out to be not a brutish soldier but a soft-tempered, opera loving, mandolin playing gentleman. And Palagia herself grows to care for this enemy in their home…
Spells trouble, right? Well, not really. For the longest time, the movie is mostly about people hanging around while nothing much happens. All the soldiers seem to do is sing opera, get drunk and flirt with girls. You start wondering whether this is a musical or a war film! There was potential for another “Pearl Harbor” (I mean this as a good thing, I’m one of the few who gave it a positive review last May), with a love triangle set against wartime, but Corelli and Pelagia’s romance is surprisingly inconsequential. You neither get the feeling that their passion is overwhelming or that much is at stake. He gets a boner from watching her dance, she gets wet from hearing him play the mandolin… They roll in the hay, they profess their love and then… Well, nothing ! You’d expect Pelagia’s father to oppose her affair, but he actually approves it. Then, surely, Mandras will fight for his woman, right? Nah, he just mopes a little but does nothing about it. It’s as if the filmmakers purposely avoid any drama, how dull is that!
Eventually, trouble does occur, as the Germans pop in and decide that the Italians haven’t been hard enough on the Greeks, so we get a lot of planes, jeeps, tanks, explosions, soldiers shooting or getting shot… But it’s all mostly just noise, there is little to drive the story. Maybe they could have gone for tear-jerking tragedy, or honourable sacrifice, anything to make the love story more dramatic, but no such thing happens. What twist we get is that **SPOILER WARNING Corelli leaves the island because the Germans want to kill him because he fought on the Greek’s side. Yet I wasn’t moved by how our lovers were separated. I mean, can’t Pelagia just go to frickin’ Italy with him? Where’s the problem? END OF SPOILER** We eventually get the obligatory happy end, but it has no impact: we don’t learn anything, we don’t think anything, we don’t feel anything. Yawn.
I’m not quite sure what went wrong. Cage and Cruz are pretty good. There aren’t much sparks flying between them, but they’re cute together. Cage’s Italian accent is laughable at first, but you get used to it and he seems to have really mastered the mandolin (for those two scenes at least). It’s no great performance, though. The only actor who really leaves a strong impression is Christian Bale, with his manly, proud Mandras, a simple fisherman willing to fight for his country against impossible odds. There’s a fire to him that’s absent from the rest of the film. He’s actually more deserving of getting the girl and the screen time than Corelli. I can’t believe he doesn’t get to beat the girly Italian’s ass and make his girl see that he’s the bigger man. Maybe then this wouldn’t be such a vapid picture. As it is, the only reason to see it is John Toll’s gorgeous cinematography, which offers us such gorgeous sights as blue skies and seas, lush vegetation, rocky earthy hills, sandy white beaches and Penelope Cruz’ naked boobies…
Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) have known each other since they were kids. They always had that us against them thing, hanging on the fringe of the world and having a good laugh at its expense while trying to figure out what other possibilities they have. Cause it’s easy to name what you don’t care for, what’s harder is pinpointing what you do want of life exactly. Like, now that they’re out of high school after yearning for years to be free to go their own way, they’re looking into getting jobs and an apartment, but things haven’t really changed overnight just because they’ve graduated. They’re still stuck in the land of mini malls and fake 50s dinners, home to the free but also the idiotic, the ridiculous and the pathetic. They still have their sarcasm, but even that’s wearing thin…
Thus is the setting of “Ghost World”, a fantastic little film with a very particular tragicomic tone. Often times, you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry; the movie can be hilarious at times, but it can also get quite depressing. But then, through the helping hand of the movie gods, hope presents itself. Not in the form of phony Hollywood schmaltz, but in something nice and simple like making a new friend. Enid, meet Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a funny looking fortysomething loner who divides himself between an inconsequential desk job and his passion for vintage 20s and 30s blues 78″ records. He’s sort of a dork, but Enid is intrigued by him so they start spending time together and then… Well, you’ll see! Just don’t expect the usual clichés and forced resolutions. This isn’t a movie driven by bogus plot mechanics, but by the nature of its complex, unusual characters.
“Ghost World” is based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes, who wrote the adaptation himself with Terry Zwigoff, who also directs. His first fiction feature, this is in the same vein as his acclaimed 1995 documentary “Crumb”, about famed cartoonist (and Zwigoff friend) Robert Crumb, a renown misfit. Both pictures denote an aversion for the mainstream and an affection for “beautiful losers”. Indeed, there’s real heart and truth to the film beyond the satirical jabs and the colourful visual look (which is in keeping with the illustrated source material). While the central figures are multi-dimensional and well defined, the people who revolve around them are seen as caricatures. There’s the out of touch father (Bob Balaban), the pushover buddy (Brad Renfro) who works at the 7-11, his Greek boss and the mulleted doofus who are always at each other’s throat, Enid’s kooky summer school art teacher (Illeana Douglas), the old man who waits all day every day at a bus stop even though that bus line has been cancelled… The broad strokes with which the supporting cast is drawn puts the leads more into perspective, and we get to see how shallow and bizarre the world appears to them.
Enid, as played by Thora Birch, is an original and compelling character. I like that even though she doesn’t fit in, she’s not a shy wallflower, she’s extraverted and outgoing. This differentiates her from Jane, Birch’s character in “American Beauty”: Enid doesn’t just mope, she creates her own style and gets her kicks her way, whether it be by wearing a Catwoman mask or following strange people. That’s how she gets to know Seymour, a character who’s actually not in the Eight Ball comics. He was created by Zwigoff as a variation of himself and friends of his (Crumb himself must have been an inspiration). Maybe this is his silly fantasy of getting laid by a cool young girl who “gets” him. One way or the other, Seymour is a wonderful part and Steve Buscemi is great in it. He’s often cast as an offbeat, nervous crook, but here we see a softer side of him. Birch and him make an unlikely couple, but they have chemistry and their relationship is surprisingly touching. “Ghost World” is short on noise and flash, but it’s one of the most genuine and smart films I’ve seen all year.
I first saw “Apocalypse Now” as a teenager on some classic movies cable network, and it blew my mind. A few years later, I talked a bunch of friends and the (then) love of my life into watching it, and I was once again amazed as were, I was happy to find out, the rest of the girls and boys used to your “Men In Black”, “Top Gun” and whatnot. Yet even though the 1979 film is already one of those films really special to me, I wasn’t ready for the impact of this “Redux”. This isn’t merely a re-release, or a half-assed Director’s Cut. This is a re-imagining of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Viet-Nam epic. He didn’t just add a few new scenes, or tinker with the special effect like Lucas did with his “Star Wars” trilogy. He actually went back to the editing room with his load of some 5 hours of footage and crafted a whole new cut, this time with no pressures to make it shorter or in any way different than his own daring, artistic vision. What we get is a film which is not only almost an hour longer but also different in tone, pace and feeling.
You probably know the story by now, a variation on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” novel in which colonial Africa is replaced by war-bound Viet-Nam. Our unlikely hero is Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who, when we first meet with him, is depressed and piss drunk in his hotel room, aching to get a new assignment, anything to occupy his mind. He gets more than he’s asked for when his superiors send him on a very secret, very touchy mission : to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The catch is that Kurtz is not an enemy, but an American officer who apparently went nuts. Willard himself will soon start questioning his own sanity, as his journey through the hell that is war wears him down more and more. Death is never very far, and for what ? This isn’t World War II where the Nazis are clearly to be stopped, this is a conflict that has cocky, brutish U.S. troops bombing harmless villages so they can go surfing, abusing clueless peasants, basically screwing up a whole country just because they don’t jive politically and economically with the capitalist regime…
John Milius (who co-wrote the film with Coppola and Esquire’s war correspondent in Nam Michael Herr) describes “Apocalypse Now” as a modern “Odyssey”, with the Cyclops becoming surf-obsessed commanding officer Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) with a thing for “the smell of napalm in the morning”, and the Sirens working as Playboy bunnies sent to cheer up the troops. Other twists include a tiger attack, a tense confrontation with a suspicious merchant boat, a visit to an aimless military camp devoid of a c.o. described as “the asshole of the world”. These scenes we were all familiar with, but in “Redux” there’s more. There’s a fun scene in which Willard and his boys steal Kilgore’s beloved surf board which establishes furthermore the camaraderie between them and an amusing enough scene with the Playmates where they trade sexual favours for some of Willard’s diesel fuel.
And then there’s the infamous French plantation sequence, which takes up most of the additional hour of footage. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on that. I thought the discussion of the war between the Frenchmen was quite interesting, and the bit where Willard is seduced by a blasée French woman is both sensual and eerie, but I think this extended tangent somehow breaks the flow of the film. The other major addition to the film comes along in its riveting last act, when Willard finally arrives in Cambodia to the end of the river and the village where Kurtz rules like a pagan god over the natives, who are willing to kill or be killed for him. I love how Coppola uses Marlon Brando, as a rarely seen upfront but always felt menacing presence, sorta kinda like the shark in “Jaws”.
Through the film, we’ve gone through Kurtz’ dossier with Willard and we are eager to see how such a admirable officer could have gone this far off the deep end, but when we get to him, we hardly get to take a good look at him. Draped in shadows, slithering away from the frame, Brando presides over his people, and over Willard. The new material involves Kurtz reading to Willard from a Time article blabbering about how there is hope to this war again and things are smelling better. “Can you smell that, soldier?”. Priceless. I think that single line justifies this whole “Redux” business. More so, there’s absolutely no way you can miss seeing this oh so powerful picture on a big screen in a glorious new Technicolor dye transfer print. Right from the start, there’s no help being hooked, as you can hear helicopters approaching from all the way behind you and seemingly flying over you to bomb the jungle on screen, as the percussive opening notes of The Doors’ “The End” gradually fill your ears. And then the montage with the flapping ceiling fan over Willard’s soiled hotel bed, and the unforgettable first words of the film’s wonderfully used narration, “Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.”
Or what about the classic helicopter raid set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” which, 22 years of supposed advances in special effects and moviemaking techniques later, still stands as one of the most breathtaking action sequences ever made. There’s also all the great performances, from Sheen to Duvall to Brando by the way of Dennis Hopper, playing a constantly stoned photographer who worships Kurt and the rock and roller private played by a teenage Laurence “Larry” Fishburne. “Apocalypse Now” was always a unique cinematic journey, a surreal orgy of images and sounds, beauty and horror. It was one of the best movies of the ’70s, and “Apocalypse Now Redux” might be the best movie to be released in 2001. It’s certainly better than anything Coppola made in the 22 years in between, and it puts to shame most of what takes up screens these days. If there’s ever been a must-see, this is it.
NOTE: An updated version of this review was written upon the release of the Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier DVD
It’s been advanced that insanity and genius are two sides of a same reality, two somehow intertwined extremes. Tom Green’s oeuvre is a good example of that. From his original Canadian show to its reinvented MTV version, Green has made a name for himself by pulling the most demented stunts, be it humping a dead moose, putting a horse’s head in his parents’ bed à la Godfather or make a whole show of his real-life removal of a cancer-ridden testicle. Some will dismiss it all as the work of a wacko, but others find it kind of brilliant in an admittedly very quirky way. I fall in the latter category, finding Green to be a fearless performer with an intriguing vision. He stole and ran away with “Road Trip” last year, and now with “Freddy Got Fingered” (which he co-wrote and directed), he’s come up with, in his own words, “the stupidest, most disgusting movie you’ve ever seen”.
He starts off with a familiar tone, that of many an 80s teen comedy, with an early scene showing him skateboarding through a shopping mall while a security guard chases him. Then his parents wave him goodbye as he leaves home, and then… He stops his car by a farm, runs up to a horse, grabs its erecting penis and starts jerking it vigorously! How many 80s comedies provided such a sight? Right there, you know if this movie is for you. Unsurprisingly, many people aren’t interested in a picture featuring inter-species hand-jobs. For instance, if you look at sites like Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll see that “Freddy Got Fingered” has received nearly nothing but brutally negative reviews. To many a film reviewer, it seems this is the bottom of the barrel and then some.
Well, once again, I beg to differ. Yes, Tom Green’s directorial debut is juvenile, vulgar, generally sloppily crafted, offensive and thoroughly retarded. Then again, it’s the most hilarious movie I’ve seen so far this year, and Green is rivetingly grotesque. Syndicated critic Roger Ebert loathed the film but accurately described the film as a “milestone of neo-surrealism”. Indeed, for every gross-out scene involving a bloody deer carcass or whatnot, we get delightfully absurd moments like Green playing keyboards with attached sausages or the “backwards man”. In any case, I’ll take wretched fun like “Freddy Got Fingered” over a (supposedly) sophisticated bore like last week’s Bridget Jones’ Diary any day.
UPDATED : DVD Review
Ohmigod. This movie just gets better! Yes, I know, the vast majority of critics hated it; James Berardinelli even wrote he has “gotten better entertainment value from a colonoscopy” (whatever gets you off, dude!). I don’t get it. Or maybe it’s “they” who don’t get it. I truly believe writer-director-star Tom Green has done something special here. Even if you don’t find his humor funny (I personally think it’s hilarious), his film is still rivetingly offbeat. There’s all this weird and weirder stuff that keeps happening. But then again, it actually holds itself, there IS a story. A nice story, about man-child who wants to be an artist but whose ambitions are squashed by his father who wants him to quit dreaming and get a stupid day job. There’s even a love story worked in, and it’s actually sweet how Betty inspires Gordy to not give up. Of course, all this generally degenerates into insanity, but this is a Tom Green movie after all!
I find Gordy to be an endearing character, I like the scenes with his crippled girlfriend, the dynamic between him and his dad is fun. The cast is good, from an unrecognizable Anthony Michael Hall to the shameless Rip Torn, the charming and funny Marisa Coughland and deadpan performances from Eddie Kaye Thomas and Harland Williams. Green himself is just, whoa. To me, he’s an artist. You can’t deny he has a wild imagination. The things he does with his voice, his body, his face. He also turns out to be a surprisingly good director; very few comedies are this visually inventive, and the punk soundtrack is awesome. Or, going back to his screenplay, it’s hard to fathom how he can come up with bits of dialogue like this particularly zesty one, from a scene where Gordy tells his mom she deserves better than his dad : “If I were you, I would show him that I deserve respect. If I were you I would go out, I’d have sex with strange men, I’d have sex with basketball players. I’d have sex with Greeks, men from Greece.” Here’s a rather classic scene, the son telling his mother she doesn’t have to put up with her abusive husband, yet look how Green goes out on a tangent way into too-much-information territory!
But here I am reviewing the movie again when I should really be telling you about the DVD extras, which are really enjoyable. Well, if you loathe the movie, I doubt they will change your mind, but if you like Green, you’ll love this disc. Extra features include trailers, TV spots, a featurette, a half hour behind-the-scenes MTV special, as well as an audience participation track from the premiere of the movie. I only listened to a bit of that, since I couldn’t see the point; there’s also a track like that on the “Rocky Horror” DVD, but that’s a movie where background noise is expected. More interesting are the deleted scenes, which include a cameo by Canadian unfunny late night host Mike Bullard, scenes with Gord’s Uncle Neal and his Native American gay lover and a rather nifty spoof of the opening of “Apocalypse Now” which had to be axed because The Doors were asking 400 grands for the rights to “The End”.
And then there’s the commentaries. There are a few scene-specific ones by the actors which are pretty straight-forward (though Harland Williams sounds stoned on his), but it’s the one by Green that you really need to hear. It’s a demented, silly track which is almost as funny as the movie itself. Hear about the slickness of horse penises, about how the movie is similar to a Three’s Company episode, hear Green choke on a coffee stirring stick and do a lot of inane play-by-play (“here I am. oh I’m acting.. music, music.”). And when he runs out of things to say, Green actually makes a bunch of “irrelevant sounds” or sings ! Actually, we do learn a little about the making of the movie, like how autobiographical it can be, since real-life Green used to love skateboarding and flipping creamers (!) and he had to move back into his parents’ basement when he was struggling to find a way to get paid to be stupid.
Green also gets back at the critics, namely EW’s Owen Gleiberman who not only panned the movie but went on to write that Green had “a hyperactive computer addict’s stringbean body, a wimp’s receding profile (his goatee seems to be shouting, “I know I’m here to fill out this guy’s loser face!”), and the rabid, staring eyes of a deranged lizard.” Talk about a personnal attack! I don’t blame Green for raging on in his commentary about how critics “are old. and bored, and cynical. I hate them all!” Sour grapes aside, Green does make some good points about how he was really trying to “send up the formula of mainstream movies”, or how they relatively “took the high road. No poo poo or pee pee. Like Annie Hall.” Not quite, but I stand by my belief that “Freddy Got Fingered” is by far the most underrated film of the year, when it’s actually been one of the most entertaining. See, Tom, some people *did* get it.
The movie revolves around Joe Dirt (Spade), a mullet and trash ‘stache wearin’, rock concert T-shirt, acid wash jean sportin’, badass chain-steering-wheeled car drivin’ dude who works as a janitor at a trendy Los Angeles radio station. He somehow catches the eye of popular shock jock DJ (Dennis Miller) who, fascinated by this “white trash treasure”, puts him on the air and gives him the opportunity to tell the world (well, Southern California) his story. So we follow Joe as he reminisces by his bizarre life, starting from when his parents lost him during a visit to the Grand Canyon at age 8. He tells about how he went from foster home to foster home, passed through reform school and then settled for a while in the postcard perfect Silver Town, where he befriended the bodacious Brandy (Brittany Daniel) and her dog Charlie, only to leave again to cross the country looking for his parents…
Which, of course, is just an excuse to kick off a not that usual road movie which has our pathetic hero working at various loser jobs, getting into plenty of wacky situations and meeting colorful people like rapcore superstar Kid Rock (who’s actually a lot of fun) as Dirt’s muscle car driving nemesis, Kevin Nealon as a greasy mechanic, Jaime Pressly as a trailer park beauty, Roseanne Arquette as a gator farm owner (check out that shirt!), Brian Thompson as a redneck who’s watched “Silence Of The Lambs” one too many time, Adam Beach as the wise Kicking Wing, as well as Christopher Walken, who steals the movie as creepy school janitor Clem.
First time director Dennie Gordon, while not being the future of Hollywood or anything, crafts a good looking, nicely paced ride packed with macho arena rock anthems from Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Def Leppard and others. It’s like “Forrest Gump”, but with flaming cow farts, a smelly meteor, frozen testicles, incestuous sex, canine copulation, a gator attack, a hot air balloon in the shape of a tooth and various other ventures into bad taste. All of which could make for a pretty horrible time, except that it’s all in good fun. Unlike a movie like “Meet the Parents” in which the filmmakers seem to hate their protagonist and be out to humiliate him in the cruellest ways, here Joe Dirt is actually made to be a sympathetic character. As portrayed by David Spade, who for once holds back the cynicism and attitude to disappear under Dirt’s blond mullet, Joe is often ridiculous and rather dumb, but there’s a sweetness to him. In that aspect, “Joe Dirt” reminds of feel good 80s comedies in which even the saddest individuals are entitled to a happy end.
Johnny Depp stars as George Jung, the only child of a working class man (Ray Liotta) struggling to make ends meet and a selfish woman (Rachel Griffith) who resents him for their modest lifestyle. Jung figures he’ll have none of that, so he moves to sunny California, where he gets into beaches, hot girls… and pot. It’s the late Sixties, and everyone seems to be getting high, hence Jung figures there’s a fortune to be made in dealing dope, which is fine since he doesn’t wanna work 9 to 5. Before long, he is indeed making big money and he start getting more ambitious. Why stick to the West Coast when he can make a bundle all over the country? Why settle for retail revenue when he could get your marijuana right from the Mexico fields?
“Blow” was directed by Ted Demme, which comes as a surprise, as Demme is otherwise known for little movies like the forgettable Eddie Murphy vehicle “Life”, the so-so hostage comedy “The Ref” (which did feature Kevin Spacey as a disgruntled, wisecracking suburbian family man 5 years before American Beauty) and the little seen “Monument Avenue”. His “Beautiful Girls” is quite insightful and uplifting (especially in the gutsy way it allows Timothy Hutton to have a crush on a 13 year old Nathalie Portman without making it cheap or creepy), but none of Demme’s previous work could prepare you for the rpic scope of “Blow”. It was written by David McKenna (“American History X”) and Nick Cassavetes, based on the Bruce Porter non-fiction book “Blow: How a small-town boy made $100 million with the Medellin cartel and lost it all”. The real George Jung actually acted as an advisor on the film, giving writers, director and Depp pointers from his penitentiary cell.
“Blow” is hardly perfect, but it does suck you in and involve you in the journey of this Everyman who Forrest Gumps his way up the drug trafficking food chain. The film feels somehow derivative, coming after so many other movies following the rise and fall of criminals (notable influences of Demme are De Palma’s Scarface and Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino), but it is crafted with enough style and energy to keep us hooked, right from the awesome opening sequence following the journey of “blow” from the leaves coca plants in Colombian fields to its final destination across the States borders, all with the Rolling Stones blasting on the soundtrack. Then come the childhood scenes establishing how Jung came to yearn for a life more gratifying than his father’s. Demme and cinematographer Ellen Kuras make interesting use of various film stocks and retro color coding, as the quality of images improves as years go by.
The California scenes are very enjoyable in the way it all seems so simple and fun. At that time, Jung’s life seems mighty tempting. He is surrounded by a colorful cast of friends and partners including Tuna (played by Ethan Suplee, the fat guy in “Remember the Titans), stewardess girlfriend Barbie (Franke Potente, the German actress from “Run Lola Run”, who sounds surprisingly American here), iffy plane pilot Dooley (Max Perlich) and gay hairdresser Derek Foreal (played with malicious enthusiasm by Paul “Pee Wee” Reubens, who steals every single scene he’s in). Jung himself is well portrayed by the versatile Johnny Depp. Even though most of his performance is hidden behind ugly long hair and giant sunglasses, makes Jung into an intriguing, likable figure. Okay, what he does is illegal, but pot isn’t evil or anything, it just makes people happy.
Things change when Jung is sent to jail, arriving with “a bachelor in pot and leaving with a doctorate in cocaine”, as well as a cellmate turned partner, Diego (Jordi Mollà), who takes him to his Colombian homeland to meet Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis), who controls nearly all of the drug cartels. And just like that, George the gringo finds himself becoming Escobar’s connection to the United States, the guy through which 85% of all cocaine goes through before reaching American discos. Suddenly the stakes are much higher and things aren’t as fun as they were, but dramatically, it works for the film. All through the movie’s middle section, there’s a sense of danger, of imminent and inevitable doom. Depp is now mostly apart from his old friends, stuck instead in between various hot-headed Latin Americans, starting with his Colombian trophy wife Mirtha, who loves money and coke a bit too much and ends up making him as miserable as his mom made his dad. Mirtha is played by Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, whom a lot of people can’t stand, but I actually found her not only gorgeous but also very convincing in the role.
The script sometimes meanders, it never approaches any kind of profundity and from what I’ve read, it takes a lot of liberties with historical facts. In any case, it’s not too politically correct for a film to portray sympathetically a drug dealer without showing the countless lives his mass introduction of cocaine to America must have destroyed, but you gotta admit that Jung’s tale is enthralling. Unfortunately, the film really falls apart in the last act. What goes up must come down, and Jung eventually loses it all and, sadly, the film loses most of its drive at the same time, settling into dull sentimentality. It dwells way too long on Jung’s oh so sad relationship with his daughter and we’re made to feel sorry for Jung, but it doesn’t work. Yes, things get depressing, but in a forced way, with sappy music, lousy make-up and cheap effects like the final “wishful thinking” sequence (and what about the bizarre way it ends on a shot of the real Jung, looking like one sad deadbeat with his eternally lame haircut). Try as he might, Demme is no Scorsese, and to use a declaration from Jung, his “ambition far exceeds its talent”. Still, “Blow” has enough fine moments to be worth seeing.
What happens when the deadliest Latino secret agent and the swiftest American female spy are sent to off each other? Well, for Gregorio Cortez (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino), they ended up falling in love, getting married, and quitting the world of international intrigue only to embark on their most difficult task ever: raising children! So here we are 9 year later, with the Cortez living a nice, quiet life with little Carmen and littler Juni, who don’t know about their parents’ former life. So it’s a big surprise for them when mom and dad disappear, captured by children’s TV show host Floop (Alan Cumming), who moonlights as an evil genius perfecting an army of robots modelled on the kids of presidents, army officers and spies. So it’s up to Carmen and Juni to save their folks, and the world!
I personally am a big fan of Roberto Rodriguez. I liked the madcap shoot-outs of his 7000$ debut “El Mariachi” and its sequel/remake “Desperado”, and I loved the hell out of the Tarantino written “From Dusk Till Dawn”. Rodriguez also directed “The Misbehavers”, the best episode in “Four Rooms”. It was that short film, in which kids frolicked around in tuxedos, that inspired him to make a grade school James Bond. He went to Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein with it and said that if he got the greenlight, he would direct one of the studio’s projects, which is how he came to direct Kevin Williamson’s umpteenth teen horror script “The Faculty”. And now, after that so-so detour, we can finally see the film Rodriguez got to make in return, “Spy Kids”.
At 36$ million, this is his biggest budgeted movie so far, and it’s got enough of a commercial core to take it right into McDonald’s Happy Meals, but don’t call Rodriguez a sell-out yet. Throughout the film, you can feel that this is a project dear to Rodriguez’ heart, the kind of film he says he’s wanted to make since he was 10 year old! The Mexican filmmaker put his all in it, acting as producer, writer, director, editor and special effects supervisor, and he also worked on the music score with Danny Elfman and Los Lobos. He cast a bunch of people he worked with before, including Robert Patrick (“The Faculty”), “Desperado” veterans Banderas, Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo, as well as a cameo from a certain “From Dusk Till Dawn” vampire slayer. But the stars here are really youngsters Daryl Sabala and Alexa Vega. They have nice interaction together, you totally buy them as constantly bickering siblings. They’re surprisingly not whiney, in fact they’re very likable, even cool! I found it engaging to watch as Sabala evolved from a nervous, scared kid with sweaty hands who gets bullied at school, into a resourceful, brave hero. Vega is good too, as the big sister who both can’t stand and deeply cares for her little bro.
What’s special about “Spy Kids” is that even though it is a family movie, with the occasional slapstick and wholesome lessons, and ten times more wacky FX than the mediocre “Inspector Gadget”, this is not a movie that will bore grown-ups to tears. Even if you have hair in funny places, you can’t help but be taken by how imaginative Rodriguez’ film is. Floop’s show and castle are a demented creation, sort of like Pee Wee Herman on (more) acid, with trippy CGI galore and colourful, deformed sideshow mutants, as well as surreal, cartoonish sets that seem straight out of Willy Wonka. And what about the Thumb-Thumbs, Floop’s “all thumbs” goons? I don’t quite know how to describe them, but they’re something else! All in all, “Spy Kids” is a inventive, dynamic, action packed and often genuinely funny ride. I still prefer my Rodriguez ruthless and bloody, but it’s sweet to see him make a movie that his and others’ kids will love.
Guy Pearce stars as Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator who suffered an injury which led to a rare condition, short-term memory loss. He remembers everything up to the night his wife was killed and he was badly hit to the head, but since then he’s unable to retain new information. Faces, places, events, they all disappear from his mind after mere minutes. It’s obviously a frustrating existence, but Leonard has something that keeps him going: his need to get revenge. But how do you investigate when you can’t remember what you find out? For Shelby, it’s by being methodical, using a system of notes and Polaroids about each and every thing. He’ll take a picture of someone he meets and scribble down basic information on it (“Don’t believe his lies”). As for the most crucial facts, he has them tattooed on his body. Hence, written backwards (so he can read it in a mirror) on his chest is “John G. raped and murdered my wife”…
In itself, the plot doesn’t sound too striking, it’s the classic revenge story. The amnesia is an interesting touch, but even that isn’t anything new (remember the Dana Carvey comedy “Clean Slate”?). What’s really out there is the way Nolan tells his story, starting with the last scene then going back to the one before, then the one before, and so on until we get to the first scene. Sounds confusing? Well, it can be, but it’s also a fascinating concept. It sort of puts you in the same state of mind as Leonard. At the beginning of each scene, you have no idea how you got there, what exactly is happening and why, or what’s your history with the people you’re with. That Teddy fella who you’re always running into, is he a friend or a threat? That Natalie chick, is she helping you… or are you helping her? Most of the film is spent with this kind of questions being raised, by Leonard and by the audience.
At first, upon watching the finale which opens the film (!), you might wonder what’s the point of keeping watching if you already know what happens next? Except that without knowing the context, you really don’t know much about what you see. Things aren’t always as they appear, and Nolan is determined to prove it. Every time you think you’ve got a handle on the plot, it slips away and heads for a different direction. Nolan describes his movie not as a whodunit but as a “whydunit”; you know what the characters will do, but you still have to figure out why. Nolan always keeps the viewer on its toes as he unfolds his brilliant puzzle.”Memento” is the rare film where there’s never any “down time”, it completely captures your attention and keeps you thinking and trying to figure things out. Yet it isn’t a mere brainy exercise in style. The movie’s filled with twists at times shocking or hilarious, and at its core it’s an emotionally affecting tragic tale. Leonard, ironically, can’t forget about the one thing which hurts the most: the woman he loved so much and how she was taken away from him. “How can you heal,” he asks, “when you have no sense of time?”
Part of what makes “Memento” so involving lies in the performances. Guy Pearce makes for a fantastic lead. His character is totally clueless most of the time, but he puts on a phony facade of recognition. Pearce plays him with an interesting balance of innocence and fatality; Leonard is a man who’s reborn every minute, having to get familiar with situations over and over, but he’s also a man with nothing to lose. He’s nicely supported by Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano (who also co-starred together in “The Matrix”) as a waitress and a cop he keeps meeting for the first time. Moss makes for a great femme fatale, as seductive as she is manipulative, and Pantoliano is amusingly sleazy. “Memento” might be challenging but it’s even more rewarding. A definite must-see.
I’m pretty sure this film will have many people go “Oh, what a missed opportunity.” After all, it does star two of Hollywood’s brightest stars, Brad “People’s Sexiest Man Alive” Pitt and Julia “America’s Sweetheart” Roberts. Yet instead of playing in a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy, they chose to unite for a quirky 35 million$ picture and to boot, they spend most of the film apart. Still, if you can brush away your expectations, you’ll find “The Mexican” to be a pretty darn fun ride.
Pitt stars as Jerry, a Mob bagman whose better half Samantha (Roberts) doesn’t agree with his chosen profession. Well, chosen might not be the right word. The reason why Jerry has been running errands for Nayman (Bob Balaban, the NBC president in Seinfeld) for the last five years is that he’s sort of responsible for sending Mafioso boss Margolese (Gene Hackman, in an uncredited cameo) to jail, through his bad driving. Margolese is set to be released in a week, so Jerry figures he’s worked out his debt and won’t have to do anything with the outfit no more… But before that, they want him to do the obligatory “one last job”, which is to go retrieve an antic musket in Mexico. So there goes Jerry on a plane, despite Sam’s lamentations. Self-centered as she is, she doesn’t realize that her lover will end up dead if he doesn’t comply, so she makes a big scene and takes off herself, towards her long brewed dream of making it as a croupier in Las Vegas. But on her way, she’s abducted by Leroy (James Gandolfini), a hitman sent by Margolese to kidnap her to make sure Jerry doesn’t get any crazy ideas. Not that he could have, stuck as he is running around Mexico trying to forrestgump his way out with both the priceless gun and his life…
Ok, so our two gorgeous leads are separated, not only by Mob-inclined circumstances but by constant bickering and arguing in the handful of scenes they share. Hence we kinda get two movies for the price of one. On one side, there’s Brad screwing up and being screwed over through San Miguel, talking tough with tenants in a sleazy tequila bar, getting his funky rental car stolen, befriending an ugly dog, scheming around double and triple crosses involving other bag men, dirty cops and Mexican thieves… That part of the movie is, to me, the most enjoyable. Pitt has never been hotter, and he’s also wonderfully goofy and endearing, and the film takes this really interesting, offbeat feel, a bit like the Coen bros’ Raising Arizona. Meanwhile, Roberts’ doing her movie star thing, and it’s not as compelling. Sure, she’s pretty too, but she tens to overdo everything, speed talking, yelling, flashing her huge smile, or pouting and dropping a few crocodile tears. What salvages her half of the film is her pairing with James Gandolfini, whose Leroy is less Tony Soprano than a sensitive version of the goon he played opposite Pitt’s stoner in “True Romance”. Most of his dialogue doesn’t dig deeper than an Oprah magazine article, but Gandolfini sells it with a quiet, strong presence that always ring true.
The movie was directed by Gore Verbinski, whose work on those Budweiser frogs commercials and the family film “Mousehunt” wouldn’t make you think of him as the perfect choice for this, but he does a surprisingly good job. He crafts one cool, stylish film that doesn’t always work perfectly but has well enough bright spots to make you leave a theatre smiling. Verbinski balances different tones skilfully, giving us laughs, thrills and even some touching moments. The film ain’t particularly profound, but it’s witty and refreshing. It’s got some really interesting cinematography, not quite on a “Traffic” level, but similarly inventive with colors and lighting. I also really liked Alan Silvestri’s score, an effective pastiche of Latin music, complete with trumpets and flamenco guitars. All in all, “The Mexican” is well worth checking out. I don’t get why it’s getting bad reviews, when it’s the only really good Hollywood movie I’ve seen so far this year.