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Because, despite my immense appreciation for film, I simply don't have the time to see a significant number of the latest releases, I'd just like to toss out a few names of movies that have touched me for whatever reason at one time or another (including a few currently showing as well as those available on cable or home video) and suggest that if you haven't seen them already you might want to check them out...or not!



(Note:  This is my full review -- merely a condensed version appears in the June/July '08 issue of Mil Mania) 
I should probably start by noting I began watching this 1999 film on TV recently because of a longtime admiration for the work of Joseph Fiennes.  And, indeed, his participation in it did in no way disappoint.  Neither did that of the actors playing his two best friends -- Tom Hollander (best known previously to me for a delightful turn as the insufferable Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice) and Rufus Sewell (who I'd seen before as the villain in A Knight's Tale).  Unfortunately, excellent acting can only go so far to cover the shortcomings of a weak script -- and, beyond question, it's this flaw that's to blame for my still lamenting two days later what a wonderful film this could have been.
     That said, it's still one I'm glad to have seen, if only for the promise provided by the script's strengths -- and, yes, surprisingly given my prior comment, there were quite a few.  In fact, I'd say the writer (who went on to great acclaim for penning The Last King of Scotland and The Queen) excelled at "the hard stuff" yet proved woefully inadequate at what should have been the easier scenes to write -- and among the most enjoyable (rather than arguably painful) ones to watch.
     More specifically, the plot features some of the most clever twists one could possibly hope for, and times the reveal of each to perfection.  I must stay rather vague here, in fact, as it's the series of gradual discoveries that really makes for all the fun.  (With that in mind, I must also provide a warning to avoid any and all other reviews of this work -- including, most likely the DVD box -- as they give away what's best not known in advance).  What I can tell you is that the whole misadventure is set in motion when Hollander's character, Daniel -- a lovably obvious egotist/would-be womanizer -- attempts to pick up a woman who's caught his eye in a Minneapolis airport.  It turns out she's headed to London to start a new life -- wonderful news to Daniel, who just happens to live in that very city.  Unfortunately, she's booked on a different airline, dashing his hopes of a long, intimate mid-flight conversation sure to show off his charms and win her heart.  Having (at least access to) more money than good sense, Daniel alters this clear mis-act of Fate, though not quite setting up the happily-ever-after scenario he'd envisioned. 
     While that's less than surprising to the audience, the question remains why we're hearing about all this from Fiennes' character after the fact -- via a break-of-dawn visit to an upstairs neighbor he doesn't even know.  I'll leave that explanation, however, for you to learn when you run across the film one night on your own TV.  Again, I'm not sure it's good enough to recommend you rush out to rent, but if you have about 90 minutes to spare, I doubt you'll count the time spent with these fine actors wholly wasted.
     To briefly analyze what seems to have gone wrong (from the perspective of one with a bit of screenwriting experience herself), I felt the writer didn't really get to know his characters fully before letting them speak.  Daniel, for example, is supposed to be in the music business -- in some capacity -- but what that capacity is, or why it took him to MN we never learn.  The same applies to Fiennes' character, who endures a clearly trite and awkward to watch would-be kissing scene (so stereotypical the two linger centimeters apart with longing eyes for an eternity, only to be interrupted before lip-lock by the doorbell (...oooh -- I've never seen that before -- have you?)  Anyway, the point is, if a writer knows his characters well enough, it's not that hard to just let them start talking and take the scene where it needs to go.  If you've really done your homework, they'll show you the way.  These didn't.  The same applies to certain situations where he needed an excuse to make something happen...such as to switch the female love interest's airline at the start of the film.  Anyone who could come up with the complex interrelationships of three lifelong friends, various romantic entanglements, at least a line or two of genuine wisdom -- and even a fully fleshed out supporting character for the upstairs neighbor -- surely had the capacity to create a more, well, creative "coincidence" (or several, as others equally ridiculous occur throughout the film).  I'd say he just got lazy.  And, given the potential to be gained from only a very tiny bit more work, I've got to say as well that this really is a shame.
     Nonetheless, you be the judge.  And, if you want a roadmap of what to do right in a romantic comedy that this writer did wrong (one starring a British charmer, no less), just watch the film reviewed below afterwards.  Unfortunately, once you do it's doubtful The Very Thought of You will cross your mind again for a very long time.  Even so, however fleeting this Thought may be, at least it's a pleasant one...which in itself might just qualify as a gentle recommendation all its own. 


    (This review also appears in the July '07 issue of Mil Mania.)
      At the time of this film's theatrical release I saw Hugh Grant interviewed on a late-night talk show, during the course of which he said it was the favorite film he's made to date.  And, I recall wondering then whether this sounded convincing because he pretty much holds a trademark on charming -- and disarming -- sincerity, or if he might just be...sincere.  
    Having now seen the film -- and absolutely loved it -- I think perhaps the latter is the case.  For, while the role itself might not represent all that great a stretch from the romantic not-quite-heroes he's played on umpteen prior occasions, the extra demands of it -- specifically performing a significant portion of the film's soundtrack (and the added dimension this aspect of the film lends his character) -- may well have provided a different perspective, and perhaps even surprised him with how full can be the reward of such a challenge.
     Of course, part of my own appreciation for the film is derived from how utterly I relate to the musical portions of the work...for example, the first attempt by Drew Barrymore's Sophie to sing into a microphone, knowing the result is being recorded for posterity.  Having experienced this -- complete with her fit of nerves ("my throat's closing's like anaphylactic...") when recording "How We Become" I very much related to her character...and to Grant's at a later point when passion for a subject and a not-to-be-missed deadline combine to force creative juices to start flowing.   I also related to Sophie in her need to deal very directly with what she saw as an injustice...and the fear this approach can inspire in one who tries to solve problems in a more "diplomatic" (i.e. circuitous...cowardly?) manner.  You may have to see the film for those statements to make sense, but once you do I expect you'll find great enjoyment in watching the events they reference as they unfold.
     For those unfamiliar with the film, however, I should back up here to explain that it revolves around Alex Fletcher (Grant), a former 80's pop superstar attempting to eke out a living by playing his old hits at theme parks, county fairs and that particularly illustrious music venue, Knott's Berry Farm....uh, I think, "knott".
     It might be argued that Alex's major problem is the simple fact he's lazy.  Rather than move on and make the effort to carve a new place for himself in both life and the music world, he seems determined to trade on his old success... until it becomes clear the pool of former stars is ever growing, meaning his own well is rapidly running dry.  It's therefore desperation that forces him to accept the challenge of creating a new song for a current pop superstar - a blond tween queen heavily into Buddhism...or more accurately who's learned the appearance of embracing karma makes her cool...and who could really use a huge hit to keep her career hot.  
     The problem is Alex has never written lyrics.  And, the early experiments with a pro who's been hired to help him in this endeavor quickly prove collaboration isn't necessarily the easy way out, either.  Enter Sophie, a friend of his plant waterer, who has taken over her task for a couple of days.  As a side note, it should be added I can't help feeling sorry for the never seen or later discussed real plant waterer, who very likely has no business left once Sophie not only completely bungles the job, but also goes AWOL after Alex overhears her mumbled attempt to correct the even greater bungling of the hired lyric writer.  Be that as it may, she spends the next 72 hours or so as his semi-willing hostage, and I must confess that when this period ended I was puzzled at first.  Not only did it seem the film was winding down awfully fast, but it had also to this point presented a working relationship that was friendly and engaging, but which certainly gave no indication one was watching a "romantic" comedy.
   Little did I know, of course, that this is actually where the film begins...or that by the time it ends it's more than satisfied its billing -- and (in my opinion, anyway) the audience as well.
   I'll leave it to you who haven't seen it to be surprised by all that follows.  What I will add, however, is that the video which opens the film -- a wonderfully cheesy 80's-type concoction entitled, "Pop Goes My Heart"...and which reappears in equally satisfying form as a "pop-up video" at the end -- is alone worth the price of the is the performance of another song Hugh Grant performs in between.  There are also many smartly witty one-liners and excellent performances by Brad Garrett and Kristen Johnson....not to mention those by both Grant and Barrymore.  
     As Sophie explains, music is like the first spark of attraction, while lyrics are the means of becoming more deeply acquainted.  And, indeed, this is a film that lives up to its title by providing both instant appeal and lasting appreciation.  Check it out for yourself and see if it's not a cinematic love song you want to keep singing -- and seeing -- again and again.  

     I have to admit right up front that this review is likely to prove as confusing as the film it talks about -- mainly because (confusing statement in itself) I want so much for the sum of the whole to add up to at least something close to its parts.  Depending on how you look at it, it does....and yet, not really.
     It's a fitting metaphor that at one point there's a discussion of Jane Austen's Persuasion as both a beloved book and one that's "terrible".  Based on that analysis, maybe the filmmakers should have just called this a re-imagining of that work and been done with it.  But, I'll try to explain my take on what they chose to do instead.
     When I first saw ads for The Lake House upon its release to theaters I recall being unable to get my head around the premise of a love story in which the protagonists are "living two years apart".  How could that be?  Could that be at all -- or more importantly -- could that be made believable for even the space of less than two hours time?  The problem is, while watching the movie on DVD, I still couldn't get my head around the concept...mainly because it's impossible to keep one's brain from trying to make sense of what's going on even though one realizes there's no such sense to be made.  Of course, under normal circumstances, this wouldn't present a problem at all; I'd shut off the DVD player and return the obvious dud to the video store.  In an instance where the main characters have such inherent chemistry and are just so downright likable, however, one keeps trying and trying and trying to work it all out... as do the characters themselves.  The real problem, when all is said and done, therefore, lies in the fact they've gone an awfully long way and waited an awfully long time to move beyond a heartbreak one of them manages to solve only after making the discovery of having inadvertently created it....which means, of course, we've all put up with a lot of unnecessary pain and fear and loss and rediscovery...for which we could look back with a lot less forgiveness than the lover who -- for a while -- got the short end of this stick.
     To briefly explain the unexplainable, Sandra Bullock plays Chicago doctor Kate Forster who moves out of a North Shore lake house, leaving a note for the next tenant (architect Alex Wyler, played by Keanu Reeves).  The resulting complication is the fact she's moved out in 2006; he moves in in 2004...a circumstance which only gradually dawns through a series of impossible realities such as the apartment building Kate gives as her forwarding address proving a construction site not scheduled to be completed for another 18 months.  
     The upside of this dilemma, once they both come to grips with it as more than some practical joke, is that it allows Kate to revisit through Alex's eyes both a prior relationship with another man, and prior meetings she's unwittingly had with him...setting the stage for some truly touching romantic gestures and the metaphors that arguably salvage the film in retrospect -- if, that is, you're on the side of its salvation proving any more possible than the circumstances of its plot.
     Ultimately, the biggest problems I have are believing Kate so bad at recalling faces that she forgets those of not one, but two of the most significant men in her life...and the minor wrinkle of how her experiences two years ahead of Alex can help him change where he will be when he "catches up", but ignores how the different moves he makes will cause others around him to likewise be in places other than they are when Kate meets them up ahead before he's altered course.  Not to mention, by the way, what the heck is up with that dog?!?  And, to all of that I can only second Roger Ebert's advice regarding so much of the film..."Never mind."
     The thing to keep in mind is that Ebert actually liked The Lake part of me ( is more than half-ashamed to admit) does as well. Given one can't help wanting the protagonists to live happily ever after, it's a natural reaction to find underlying beauty in how they get there.  That leaves one to ponder if the creators of the film weren't trying to make creative statements regarding the timeless nature of true love, it's ability to transcend even the most impossible odds, and its durability when put to the test of time.  Looked at in this way, I suppose one can appreciate the new take on these themes they chose to give it.  Just don't look too hard.  Straining your eyes to that degree can give you a real can this film.  Watch at your own risk.  Just don't look to me for any clues as to whether you might enjoy it.  After all, when it comes to that point, I think I've made it clear I'm still pretty confused myself.

     Based on the Oscar Wilde play Lady Windermere's Fan, my husband and I rented this title because of our appreciation of several prior works featuring Scarlett Johanssen (perhaps most notably among them the truly stellar A Love Song For Bobby Long).  And, once more we were not disappointed by either Johannsen or the film itself.  Very well acted and cleverly plotted, the story begins with Mrs. Erlynn (an excellent Helen Hunt) being "punished' for her "sins" as we learn the wives of her -- uh, "expense account providers" -- have cut her off financially, forcing her to seek "new arrangements" in fields afar.  Given the obvious manner in which she has existed to date, it seems far too easy to draw very dark conclusions when her port of choice becomes the region of Europe wherein Lady Windermere (Johanssen) has taken up residence with her new husband -- a gentlemen who soon becomes the center of the region's gossip circles when he's seen repeatedly entering and leaving Mrs. Erlynn's villa...and it's later discovered there has been an ongoing exchange of funds involved in these "transactions".
     The beauty of the writing -- laced throughout with Wilde's signature twisting of the English language to marvelous effect -- lies in its own twists and turns that play on the viewer's expectations, gradually convincing us nothing is as it the same time convincing the players in the story everything is far too appallingly just that.
     I won't spoil the ending for you by revealing how these often scandalous goings-on are at last resolved, though I will tell you that the film's magic endures from the first frame to the last, and although it's hardly material that makes for blockbuster status on the big screen, I truly believe you'll have missed out on something very special if you let it disappear from your local video store's shelf before learning for yourself just how "good" this "woman" really is.


     Sure, it's a given circumstance that romantic comedies in general don't exactly mirror real-life situations, and a storyline centered around a single woman finding love in the form of a male escort hired to masquerade as her new boyfriend at her sister's wedding -- in which the best man just happens to be her ex-fiance (who she wishes to inflame with jealousy, while convincing her family she's moved on in a happy and healthy direction) -- hardly proves the exception.  However, it's also a given circumstance that the audience going to see such a film is willing to suspend their disbelief for its duration, thereby allowing the experience to become a potentially enjoyable one...and one from which some very real truth may be plucked from the pretend world of its multi-layered fictions.
     Of course, when you throw in two such highly competent players as Dermot Mulroney (the real standout in the film for me) and Debra Messing, well, the chances of potential enjoyment greatly increase.  And, from my perspective in any case, that potential is indeed fulfilled.
     As you know from other reviews on this page, I often disagree with professional film critics -- and have notably disagreed with Roger Ebert in particular.  In this instance, though, I believe he echoed my sentiments so exactly that it seems pointless for me to re-state them. He said, "Part of the movie's appeal comes from the way the Nick character  [Mulroney] negotiates the absurdities of the plot as if he stands outside  it... By withdrawing, so to speak, he creates a great curiosity about himself, and the other characters see in him what they need to see.  As for Messing [the female lead, Kat]... we want her to be happy."
     What's more, while much of the plot is constructed in a fairly formulaic way, there are several of those little dialogue nuggets sure to make every writer smile -- and every hopeless romantic happily sigh...and, although it's hugely tempting to recount them here, I'll refrain from robbing newcomers to this film from the joy of hearing them for the first time; those of you who've already seen it surely don't need me to remind you what they are.
    There is one troubling aspect to me, however, with regard to resolution of the bride and groom supporting characters' sub-plot, and the fact that a wedding indeed takes place after certain disturbing revelations.  But, as in other dramatic productions which supposedly deliver happy endings (that of the Hero and Claudio characters in Much Ado About Nothing, for example), it's left to the imagination of each member of the audience whether this happiness continues "ever after".
     It doesn't take much imagination, however, to believe Kat and Nick will be just fine.  And, I dare you not to smile "ever after"  at the memory of their happiness...not to mention your own joy from having met them.

      Having first encountered this film's star, Bill Nighy, in Love Actually, via his role as a rather crude and offbeat aging music star (albeit ultimately a rather touching performance by that film's end), I must confess I both avoided this title as a rental based largely on that image of him...and also felt compelled by curiosity to watch when I encountered it flipping through the cable channels on TV a few nights back.  
     What's more, I must admit as well that the odd pairing of both characters and subject matter -- a May-December romance set against the backdrop of the G8 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland -- hardly makes for gripping copy on the back of the film's video store packaging.  Of course, that's where the ancient adage, "Don't judge a book [or movie] by its cover" clearly fits in.  Because once I started watching, I was already utterly charmed and intrigued before even the opening scene itself had reached its end. Not only did both Nighy and co-star Kelly MacDonald very quickly win the viewer over with their respective forms of quirky vulnerability, Nighy's Lawrence in particular created such a moving portrait of a shy yet deeply feeling individual's uncertainty and longing, that one couldn't help but begin rooting for him to indeed find love and fulfillment by pursuing the fledgling glimmer of possibility represented by MacDonald's Gina.
     Ironically, I happened to be watching this while on a break from putting together the January '06 issue of Mil Mania, which if you're a subscriber you already know includes an essay called, "If You Think Names Don't Matter, Yours Isn't Mildred" -- a piece I'll admit I was a bit hesitant to publish as I'm not sure how many other people would find such a topic at all relatable or amusing.  Needless to say, I was therefore both comforted and amused myself, to find Lawrence explaining on a first date over dinner that his father had come from Italy, where he'd lived with an aunt named Zeppa.  Going on to point out he grew up to marry a woman named Myrtle, who'd had a dad named Horace, he stops to ruefully observe, "Christ, what an unlucky generation that was."  Yes, Lawrence, I hear you!
     Be that as it may, this deeply affecting, burgeoning romance, which predominates the gently comedic first half of the film shifts to a focus on the aforementioned G8 summit in the second. And as it does, the growing bond between the couple is questioned and tested as bits of Gina's past begin surfacing in arguably ill-conceived moments -- spawning an odd mix of discomfort and admiration on the part of both Lawrence and those heading his country's G8 negotiations.  And, while this effectively switches the tone away from anything close to funny, yet it proves not at all jarring or disjointed in service to prior events, in that it builds upon them to bring about awakening of the realization that perhaps these potentially powerful men have so long practiced the art of "compromising" that they've become "compromised" -- and that they "are not" the men they "had dreamed [they] would be when [they were] young."  
     I'll leave it to you to learn whether they become those men or not, and what becomes of Lawrence and Gina's relationship, when you watch this film yourself -- something I very highly recommend you do.  In the meantime, I will add only that I found this among the most lovely and artful examples I've seen in quite some time of not merely, "accepting the things we cannot change", but more importantly, "finding the courage to change the ones we can." -- and, most notably, confronting the final part of that prayer's admonition with the challenge that what constitutes "the wisdom to know the difference" may in fact depend on precisely what we hope to achieve  -- and who we most hope to benefit -- by that distinction.


NEW!!!   Given the fact it's now the longest running show in Broadway history, it would seem I'm among the last people on Earth to have known next to nothing about The Phantom of the Opera prior to watching this 2004 film.  And, of course, if you've been keeping up with my other reviews on this page for the past few years, you may already be aware of a comment I made regarding Moulin Rouge -- one which, to be honest, is quite characteristic of my usual opinion of the musical theater genre.  In it I said, "I always find the unnatural vehicle of almost solely musical speech a bit off-putting", and I will without hesitation tell you that for at least the first half-hour or so of this (to me new) example of the form, it proved by no means an exception.  In fact, I was so thoroughly frustrated with the "unreal seriousness" of the whole thing at the point wherein the heroine is shown kneeling to light a candle in remembrance of her late father -- her billowing hoop skirt so meticulously arranged without the slightest wrinkle of disarray, every perfectly coiffed tress intact as it falls against her powdered porcelain skin...despite the fact this all follows a performance one can't help realizing would most certainly have at least worked up a bead of sweat or caused one or two of those angelic strands of ringleted gossamer to blow astray -- that I have to fess up to the fact my hand started wandering toward the remote beside me in a plea to end once and for all this groan-inspiring assault on my reason.  However, always hopeful things might improve with perseverance, I managed to successfully contain that urge, and soldiered on.  And, once the title character showed up to balance out the hard to swallow milktoast Raoul we're expected to believe is Christine's once childhood crush (and now potentially great love...?!&*^&*?) -- indeed things began to (quite literally, as it often happened throughout the rest of the show) look up.  
     I've read reviews criticizing the production for its casting of a far from grotesque figure to portray what was apparently in the original novel by Gaston Leroux a hideous and loathsome creature.  Given the simplistic plot and dramatic appeal of the modern version, however, relies primarily on a love triangle between the Phantom, Christine and Raoul, it would hardly seem plausible that this lovely, talented young woman might be romantically drawn to something with bulging eye sockets in excess of 60 years age.  In light of the aforementioned assessment of Raoul's own questionable appeal, however, it becomes pretty easy to believe that a patron of the arts with excellent taste and a fair bit of talent in his own right -- albeit with a bit of (disguisable) facial deformity --  could prove a worthy contender in wooing the lass. And so, at last, we have a film.
     And, of course, if one adds murder to the mix, the ever looming sense of tragedy lurking just around the bend, and the genuine uncertainty as to where it all may lead, the overall spectacle becomes a rather engrossing one.  What's more the skillful use of lighting effects, color blooming from black and white transitions, and sets that are truly breathtaking in their beauty and atmospheric qualities as metaphor, one can't help but marvel at the visual as well as emotional artistry of the production as a whole. 
     Be that as it may, I suppose in the end it all comes down to the fact I'm eternally a sucker for hopeless romanticism, whatever the contrivances used to tug at those heartstrings.  And, in the case of Phantom of the Opera, the primary reason I'm ultimately championing it here is the frame tale in which its set...a tale which occupies only a tiny fraction of the film's more than two-hour running time, but which creates a snow and dust-filled world of shadows that contain the brightest colors of the entire "show".  And, indeed, in a fine example of saving the best for last, it is the final silent image we are left with that speaks the loudest.  For, although the "words" of that image are undeniably bittersweet, yet they also serve as a most eloquent reminder that "silence is the perfectest herald of joy"...and that the beauty of enduring love remains endlessly -- and timelessly -- appealing.


         Part political thriller, part personal human drama, it's the former of these which most likely sold The Interpreter at the box office...but it's undoubtedly the latter which sold me on it as a worthy selection to review -- and, more importantly, recommend -- here on this page.  
     As you've probably seen in TV ads for the film, the basic storyline involves a potential assassination plot overheard by a U.N. interpreter, and subsequently reported to the proper authorities.  While this results in secret service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) being assigned to protect the foreign dignitary believed to be in danger, his focus soon shifts to Sylvia Broome (Nicole Kidman)...the interpreter who made the report, and who happens to also be a woman carrying a host of grief and secrets -- circumstances Tobin himself relates to all too well.
     It is this shared experience, therefore, which creates the emotional center of the picture, and allows for the brilliant Penn to showcase his uncannily real understanding of and caring for Sylvia's own feelings -- an understanding most notably displayed in a particularly moving (and well-written) scene which takes place on a park bench late in the film...the dialogue from which I would very much like to quote here; however, as I don't want to spoil the impact as it unfolds before the listener, I will leave its few brief, but unforgettable lines to be experienced for yourself.
     With that in mind, I'm keeping this review far shorter than is my custom.  So much of this film builds on discoveries made along the way, and the balance of trust in an individual you "know" versus all you know about that individual, that to reveal too many details in advance would undoubtedly tip the scales in a direction most unfair to the new viewer.  I will therefore add only that I enjoyed this film immensely, and indeed encourage you to go see it yourself -- today!!!


     Before getting to the actual "review" of this particular film, I have to explain briefly a couple of related points.  First, I realize it's extremely odd that I'm only now discovering a film that's been around for a decade and a half -- one, incidentally, I'd first heard of several years back from an acting teacher/friend (from Brooklyn) who referenced it upon learning of a job I'd landed at the time, which required rehearsals in Queens (and if you haven't yet seen the film to catch that reference, yes, that means Queens is a place of which he was less than fond).  Second, I have to myself reference a more recent film, (covered a bit further down this page), Ash Wednesday.  At the time I first ran across this later work, I found it curious that Ed Burns had departed so completely from his usual fare of contemporary relationship explorations to return to the 1980's and New York City's Irish mob for this particular effort -- and wondered as I watched what might have inspired such a drastic change.  
    Not long after the ending credits had rolled on State of Grace, however, I realized it was very possible Burns had been as taken as I by what transpired in the 2+ hours leading up to them.  And, it's therefore likewise possible his own tale of two brothers in Hell's Kitchen might have sprung from the words "what if" regarding certain aspects of this one.  
     Be that as it may, it certainly seems likely Burns has at some point seen this fil
m...which is more than I can say for the "professional" critics whose reviews I looked into after seeing it myself -- the most glaringly inaccurate of which labeled one of its main characters "psychotic".  Interestingly, that character -- Jackie Flannery (impeccably played by Gary Oldman) -- while indeed quite possible "crazy" (as he himself professes) -- is the one whose actions are almost invariably followed by the assumedly sane "lead", Terry Noonan (played by the likewise excellent Sean Penn).  Interesting as well is the fact that a major component of psychosis is said to be a lack of real attachment to other people, along with which goes an inability to relate in any real way to their feelings, feel compassion for them in return, etc.  Yet, it is arguably the fact this particular character feels too much that proves his greatest "weakness" which indeed makes him dangerous -- though it's likewise arguable this weakness poses the greatest danger to himself.       
    I suppose one can follow the logic of the critics, however, if one merely takes at face value all events as they unfold, and if one merely dismisses Jack as one of the stereotypical, murderous miscreants that populate so many "run-of-the-mill" crime dramas.  Of course, such "logic" completely ignores the myriad of scenes in which the character appears, the bulk of which present an irrepressible individual whose generosity, caring and steadfast friendship quickly thwart the "best laid plans" that have suddenly brought Terry home.
     Make no mistake, however; Jackie Flannery is no saint.  He himself states at one point that, as a part of his "job", he "hurts people" (another interesting irony to which, however, is that throughout the first half of the film he invariably approaches physical combat in a strictly hand to hand manner; it is the supposedly more "controlled" Terry who repeatedly pulls a gun.)  After all, Jackie is a product of a culture steeped in blood -- both shared and shed -- and he clearly accepts the violence and death that are a part of his survival. Yet he also clearly retains an uncharacteristic level of respect, compassion, and almost childlike joy in living for what one conceives of as a "thug".  As the saying goes, "Love covers a multitude of sins",
and it remains an undeniable fact of Jack's character that this sinner is above all else a creature filled with love.  
      What's more, a major driving force behind this love seems an astonishing level of hope.  And, it's both the characterization and importance of Jackie's love and hope that the aforementioned professional critics have failed to understand.  Roger Ebert, for example, so completely missed the point that he described what is arguably the key scene depicting the fiercely determined nature of these qualities with the words, "[Jackie's] idea of making arson into fun is to pour the gasoline between himself and the door, and then see if he can run through it without killing himself."  Not exactly.
     Rather, when Jack breaks Terry in on his first "assignment" (working for Jackie's older brother Frank, the Irish mob's current leader) he likewise attempts to share with him the belief there are possibilities beyond their life of crime -- and offers this belief as an invitation, patiently awaiting Terry's assent before creating a mock "hell" of very real flames from which he and Terry escape via a fiery "hundred yard dash".  And, in so doing, it seems very likely that Jack's mission is not merely to create "fun", but much more, to offer Terry the seeds of his own faith in one day escaping -- together -- the greater Hell that is at present their real life in Hell's Kitchen.  (...and proving in the process he's by no means a person to seek the "easy way out" of a difficult situation). 
     Again, in fairness to the critics, though (as the above scene indicates), so many of the film's most meaningful themes are presented metaphorically -- no one is hit over the head with directly idealogical dialogue by any means....which is a part of what makes this film so deceptive in its lasting appeal.  One is simply on the edge of one's seat as tensions mount and actions build, and it's only as bits and pieces settle into one's consciousness over time that the enormity of what has been experienced is permitted to seep in.  As a result, it's debatable whether the entirety of the arson scene's meaning is clear even to Terry at the time it's taking place, as the reasons for and implications of his return to the neighborhood after a twelve year absence (which are not revealed until much later) necessarily provide a somewhat different perspective -- at first.  As time goes on, however, the lasting truth that seeps into Terry's consciousness is one described in the Proverb, "there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother".  And, it's the bond of Terry's and Jack's friendship that ultimately defines Terry's character...eventually leading him to conclude there may be no such thing as the state of grace he'd once conceived, and lending him the courage to seek out his own form of redemption.     


Moonlight Mile

     While searching for a couple of photos with which to augment this review, I ran across a bit of commentary describing Moonlight Mile as "a tender and touching tale of loss and the power of human connection" --  a wonderfully concise capturing of the picture's essence, I tend to think.  To offer a few more specifics, however, I should perhaps mention first that I saw bits and pieces of an interview with the film's creator, Brad Silberling, at the time it was initially released back in 2002.  And, as I quickly gathered its origins stemmed from the 1989 murder of his then-girlfriend, actress Rebecca Scheaffer, I mistakenly assumed it would most likely be a tale rife with unrelenting gloom.   That said, I'm sure I would have passed it by when it appeared on TV a few weeks back, were it not for the glowing recommendation for it I'd received from a friend only days before.  
     The theme of life's mixed bag of highs and lows -- sometimes even joy glimpsed through the tears of tragedy -- is hinted at even in the film's opening scenes, in which we watch a grieving family en route to their daughter's funeral -- and see through their car windows a glowing bride and groom emerge from a church they pass along the way.  This juxtaposition of darkness and light permeates the film, and it is arguably the struggle between these forces -- and which will be the one the characters ultimately embrace, that forms the story's underpinning of deeply personal conflict.
     Set in the Vietnam era, the film centers around Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal), the fiance of a young woman named Diana, who was killed for essentially no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time  (caught in the -- quite literal -- crossfire of two strangers' deadly domestic dispute).  Adding to the difficulties of coping with such a random act of violence, Diana's parents attempt to hang onto her by now hanging onto Joe, who takes up residence in their home and, almost without realizing he's done so, agrees to go into the commercial real estate business with Diana's father (Dustin Hoffman).  Uncomfortable with his new place in their family, and aware that at some point life must begin again for all of them, Joe chafes under this stricture, yet in the hopes of giving back some small portion of the peace and happiness so swiftly and brutally stolen from this unfortunate couple, he endures their plans for his future -- until, that is, he begins to form a few plans of his own.  
     In the process, secrets unfold on various levels, revealing more and more bits of character, and providing more and more reasons to emerge from the sleepwalking world of grief in which the characters mentioned above -- and a new character (played to perfection by newcomer Ellen Pompeo) who enters Joe's life -- reside.   
     Moreover, throughout the personal events with which each character struggles individually (recovery from alcoholism, career unrest, conflicting loyalties, et. al.), collectively they struggle with the common pursuit of bringing Diana's killer to justice -- a feat their sympathetic yet highly focused lawyer insists depends upon bringing Diana to life within the courtroom.  And, it is indeed Joe's ability to do precisely this which sets before them all a re-evaluated definition of what that word justice really means...and sets before them as well a choice between love and hate, truth or wishful thinking...and ultimately the bitterness of a living death, or the fullness  -- "warts and all" -- of life itself.   
     That said, I must confess it was not a matter of choice that this film quickly joined those already in the category of my all-time favorites.  Rather, it was arguably that aforementioned "power of human connection" -- between the audience and the characters within this film  -- that, quite unexpectedly,  placed it on this list of its own accord.   But don't take my word for it...journey this Moonlight Mile for yourself and discover the bittersweet joy you're likely to catch sight of through its tears -- or more accurately, through yours.


Ash Wednesday

     While flipping through the cable channels one night, this crime drama appeared on the screen, already in progress...and while that circumstance alone would normally prompt me to keep flipping, I immediately put the remote down upon spotting Ed Burns (you may recall I've mentioned elsewhere on this page Burns is a long-established fave of all of his identities -- i.e. actor, writer and director.  In fact, one of my all-time favorite movie lines was penned by him and appears in a scene from She's The One.  If you haven't seen that film, it's about two brothers and a sibling rivalry that leads the younger to begin an affair with the elder's former fiancee.  Throughout the film, the adulterous brother's wife frantically searches for the reasons he's ceased all romantic interest in (and activities with) her.  In attempting to explain this to his father at one point, the much more perceptive -- not to mention much more blunt -- dad says, "Let me get this straight.  You don't want to cheat on your girlfriend with your wife."  A perfect description of a perfectly ludicrous situation.)
     Back to this film, however, it soon became apparent that again Burns has used the relationship dynamic of two brothers as the core of his onscreen tale.   This time, however, there's the added twist of it appearing that Burns' character, Francis, had actually killed his brother, Sean (Elijah Wood) after Sean had killed three men he'd overheard plotting to kill Frances.  
     Sound complicated?  It is.  Particularly when you throw in the Irish and Italian mobs functioning in this 1980's version of New York City....the former of which includes Francis as a member.  And, when someone looking suspiciously like Sean starts appearing at various spots in his old neighborhood, questions arise regarding whether he's suddenly risen from the dead...or if, in fact, he never died.  Throw in a priest known to be a close friend of the brothers' family, Sean's wife who has moved on in what proves a most conflict-inspiring direction -- not to mention members of both mobs still seeking vengeance for their murdered comrades -- and the result is, well, perhaps not quite a top-notch thriller (nor a screenplay quite up to Burns' usually exceptional standards), but definitely a tale filled with more than its share of interesting characters and nail-biting suspense.
     The most glaring flaw, from my perspective, is the casting of Elijah Wood in the role of Sean.  For, even though it isn't outside the realm of possibility that the 30+ Francis might have a 21 or 22-year-old sibling, there's the implication of a normal sibling dynamic that could only reasonably exist if the two were much closer in age.  For example at one point, they discuss their memories of growing up together, each's perceptions of which brother the parents' favored, etc., that really have no relevance given the unusually large separation.  
     Be that as it may, at first blush it seems the film is called Ash Wednesday merely because the bulk of its events take place on that day of a particular year, and recall events that took place on that same day three years past.  And, having arrived at this assumption, a scene describing the day's theological significance may seem something of an odd note to include in a crime drama at the time its taking place. Ultimately, however, the scene serves to point up the key concept of the film:  it's the very moment in which we think ourselves the safest that proves the one in which we are instead the very most at risk.   And while I'm sure an at times profane and violent film isn't the type of illustration most commonly offered to make this concept real to those observing such a holy day's rituals, by the time the ending credits roll, I'd nonetheless be willing to bet Ash Wednesday's deeply serious meaning is a lesson you'll never forget.


  The Passion of the Christ

    I think it's important to preface my remarks about this film with three factors that play very strongly into my "critique" of it.  First, it should be noted that I'm familiar with and fully believe in the material on which it's based. Second, while I, of course, could not avoid discussions involving friends and family members who already had or wished to see the film, I made a point of not reading any professional reviews, nor listening to interviews with Mel Gibson or other participants in the making of the picture.  Thirdly, I approached the experience at the outset from a completely objective point of view...i.e. with an open mind regarding its potential merits or failures as both a religious "experience", if you will, and as a "mere" work of filmmaking art.
     That said, I should add as well that prior to seeing the film myself, I defended what I understood it contained of graphic material (although I am unabashedly squeamish and therefore avoid such material at any and all times possible in my "normal" filmgoing experiences). And, the reason for this defense, of course, is that I do agree with the importance of dealing honestly with the truly horrific suffering Jesus undoubtedly endured throughout the final hours of his earthly life...a suffering, moreover, the scriptures on which this film are based teach us he chose to endure because of his great love for Mankind.  With that in mind, I entered the theater fully aware that I was about to see a film filled with a much greater brutality level than that to which I am accustomed.  
     And, frankly, I thought the film started out with a great deal of promise.  I found the scenes in the Garden of Gethsemane both moving and fraught with both real and dramatic tension.  I agreed completely with the choice to let us hear a subtext that could only be conveyed via the languages of the day while allowing us to read the text itself through the effective use of subtitles.   And, I was very greatly impressed by the insight viewers were offered into the perspective of Jesus' mother.  For, while of course her presence is made known on this fateful day in brief passages of scripture, this film allows us the unique opportunity to follow her throughout the various stages of the unfolding events, and to deeply contemplate the pain, the sorrow -- indeed, truly, the horror -- that surely characterized this darkest of all days for an amazing woman with whom is most often associated the word, "blessed".  
     I believe it is likewise to the production's credit that Pontius Pilate is (along with his wife) portrayed as such a well-drawn and believable human character.  His inner conflict as a ruler and sympathetic nature as a man offer an objective voice of reason attempting to balance the heat of misplaced religious fervor...a task many objective voices yet today find a not always achievable task.  
     But the film loses credibility for me as the punishment of Jesus begins, and continues...and continues...and continues....and continues even more -- to a point that eventually drives out one's sense of compassion and horrified awe, replacing them instead with alternating numbness and anger -- the latter of which, I might add, had for me by this time started shifting irrevocably in the direction of Mel Gibson rather than the characters turned caricatures reveling with sadistic glee in their appointed "task".  Not only is the scene of Jesus' flogging unbelievably lengthy and brutal to a point it seems arguable he never would have survived long enough to actually be crucified, but from a purely common sense perspective, it seems illogical to me that these Roman soldiers would have really cared enough to bother being nearly so "thorough" in carrying out their duties as the film far more than merely implies.  In other words, it is my understanding that the "crimes" of which Jesus was accused were in fact crimes at all only (or at least primarily) in the eyes of the Jewish leadership; Pilate himself appeared to have little, if any, prior acquaintance with Jesus' activities...and how much less of a vendetta, then, would it seem likely the mere soldiers under Pilate's command would have borne against this man?  At the same time, obviously, the fact these soldiers routinely carried out floggings and crucifixions speaks for itself in that they were clearly understood to be a brutal and uncaring lot.  But to assume they treated Jesus as much more harshly as they are repeatedly shown to do than they did the prisoners crucified at the same time as Jesus, for example, raises severe questions regarding not merely why this should be the case, but why Mel Gibson would present such a seemingly skewed and ultimately self-defeating perspective.
     That said, to touch briefly on the fears expressed prior to the film's release that it might prompt outbreaks of anti-Semitism in its unsympathetic portrayal of the Jewish people, I think (and am very glad to have observed) that such fears are unfounded.  The scenes involving the Jewish Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus carry the cross, for example, offer a wonderfully full portrait of the finest in humanity, as do those of other such exemplary Jewish characters dotted throughout the film.  Based on the prior description of the Roman soldiers' behavior, however, it wouldn't seem to me unjust in the least if the citizens of that city were to (very loudly) voice complaint.
     In summation, I'd have to say that my overwhelming feeling about this film is an unmitigated sense of injustice -- not to mention just plain sorrow -- as I can't help but believe that in the final analysis what may now be the most famous depiction ever of arguably the most clearly tangible moments of Christ's great love are presented in this film via means of hate.  Moreover, his teachings, his miracles, the proofs of the aforementioned great love as lived by him throughout his days on earth (and predominantly his three years of ministry), are reduced to miniscule flashbacks -- and what's worse, many of which it is likely make no sense to those coming to this film as their first introduction to the details of Jesus' life.    Since, as I said initially, I have not heard Gibson's own explanations regarding the various decisions by which he proceeded with creation of this film, by openly criticizing his "achievement" on this page I am not herein questioning his intent; I am, however, personally disappointed by his judgment.  As one review I read after seeing the film noted, "it's a shame he has no faith in audiences to feel Jesus' pain without rubbing their noses in it."  For, indeed, by taking this approach, ultimately, "his Passion emerges as something [wholly] contrary to Jesus' spirit:  unforgiving." 
     And to that I can only say...  Amen. 


     I'm not sure where to begin what one might call a "review" of this film.  After all, how does one "rate" an experience that draws the viewer in so completely as a participant in the most profound complexities that characterize the mental, physical and emotional adjustments that are the affects of war (and the one particularly intimate aspect of war this work primarily deals with)...leaving him or her to sort out, just as the characters remaining at the end of the story must do, what he or she is left with?  It's a powerful dilemma, to be sure.  And, just as swift and sweeping changes in one's life often require a bit of time and distance -- a bit of healing, one might say -- to make sense of them in any way, so this is a film that requires one to step back a pace from the numbing events that follow so swiftly upon themselves in order to separate any cohesive intellectual meaning from the overwhelming sense of pain and uselessness that are arguably one's instinctive, and purely visceral, reaction.
          Superbly directed by Anthony Minghella, and acted by a stellar cast that includes supporting performances by Renee Zellweger (in a role both comically forthright and touchingly vulnerable), Philip Seymour Hoffman as a wayward preacher, and an unforgettable Natalie Portman as a young war widow, Cold Mountain offers a balanced view of both the soldier's plight and the profound changes in life on the home front. Contrary to its television advertising, however, the essence of the film is not merely a deeply moving love story, but perhaps might be more aptly described as a truly brilliant study in character.  As the wounded Inman (played to haunting perfection by Jude Law) makes his way back to the lovely Ada (Nicole Kidman), it is largely a matter of how both he and those he encounters react to the various situations that bring them together which determines whether he will indeed achieve his goal in finally reaching her.  It is also a matter of Ada's character (and the character of their love, subtly compared at one point to that of Cathy and Heathcliff in Bronte's Wuthering Heights) that determines whether she is still to be found at Cold Mountain when he arrives.  And, it is likewise a matter of character (i.e. the ways in which each has allowed the war to -- and not -- change them) that will decide their ultimate fate.
     Moreover, although the film is set during (primarily the final year of) the American Civil War, it is not a "Civil War" film, per se, at all.  The political issues at the heart of the conflict are really never touched on in any depth, and it is not a belief in "the cause" by any means that takes Inman away.  In fact, when gently accused by Ada's peace-favoring father (Cold Mountain's new Reverend) of the same misguided fervor toward some holy pursuit shared by the majority of his contemporaries, Inman mildly notes that he "expects God is weary of being called down on both sides" of a fight.  And, after years of fighting and the senseless bloodshed that finally leave him seriously wounded, far from his beloved homeland and his beloved at home, Inman himself eventually grows weary of the conflict and takes up arms to fully engage in the one battle he's always believed in -- true love.


     If you love great acting, you'll want to see this film for the performance by Jack Nicholson alone.  And, indeed, that performance pretty much is the film.  For, nearly every frame deals with some aspect of self-discovery on the part of the title character.  In fact, one might easily say that more than being "about Schmidt", rather the story consists almost solely of his own discoveries as to "what Schmidt's about".  And, in the process, of course, Warren R. Schmidt also learns what others are about, what life's about...and how these all tie together.
     The film opens with Warren's retirement from his job as vice-president at an Omaha, NE insurance firm.  Having defined his "self" and his purpose in life largely through his work, he suddenly finds himself without a routine, without a purpose, and with instead a lot of not merely unanswered, but rather unasked, questions.  While flipping through the channels from the clearly uncomfortable position of an easy chair, Warren stops at an advertisement for "Childreach", a sponsorship program for underprivileged children and their families in Africa.   Moved by the images of expressive doe-like eyes and tiny half-naked bodies surrounded by dire poverty, he picks up the phone to pledge $22/month for the care of his very own "foster" child.
     A few days later, an information packet arrives, along with a photo of "his" child, Ndugu, and a request that the new "parent" send a letter of introduction along with his contribution.  In greater need of someone to share with than he himself at first realized, Warren quickly begins taking advantage of this ongoing opportunity to share his true feelings about many topics, feelings he's unable to share with those around him back "home" in the U.S.  And, ultimately, this charitable act that seems at first a small aspect of his life -- in fact, that seems more a clever means of allowing the screenwriter to share some needed exposition than anything else-- turns out to be a wonderfully subtle yet significant plot device as well.  
    As very little happens, really, in terms of genuine action, the bulk of the film's interest lies in what seem such "little things" -- quirky habits, chance and yet routine encounters, etc.  After Warren's car breaks down, for instance, he starts driving his enormous Winnebago (in regard to which vehicle he tells his daughter, "I was willing to go as far as the 'Mini-Winnie', but no, your mother had to have the 'Adventurer'!") on even minor errands.  Later, we see him sipping soda from a 44-ounce convenience store cup while chatting with a Native American proprietor, a visit that prompts him to share with Ndugu in his next letter that these people "really got a raw deal".  While staying with his daughter's future in-laws he's introduced to sleeping in a waterbed, and nearly drowns in heretofore unseen sights all too common in this obliviously strange household headed up by the future mom-in-law, Roberta (the always truly amazing Kathy Bates).  
     Ostensibly, Warren's journey is undertaken so he might get to know his soon-to-be-married daughter better, a plan that very quickly goes awry.  Unbeknownst to him, however, by this time he's already begun the process of getting to know yet another familiar stranger...himself.  And, while he's not sure at times that he's so fond of this particular acquaintance, ultimately he's surprised to learn that Warren R. Schmidt has lived a life of more significance than the average Joe -- or rather, the average "Schmidt" this film's "about" -- would've ever thought.  


Life Or Something Like It

     Although this film stayed in theaters for all of about 12 seconds (and was given a far less than glowing 1-star review in Premiere magazine), I've gotta say I absolutely loved it.  Obviously, the fact that it starred two of my favorite actors didn't hurt its initial appeal...however, it was the combination of smart, witty dialogue, a well-paced plot, and, yes, the characteristically wonderful performances of Angelina Jolie and Edward Burns that left me completely satisfied with the work overall by the time the credits rolled.
      Young, upwardly mobile Seattle TV reporter Lanie Kerrigan has what she considers the perfect life...great looks, a great job that's about to springboard her to an even better one (on the national TV morning show, AM USA), a famous baseball player fiance -- everything.  Until that is, she's sent (along with her cameraman, Pete...a flannel-shirted everyman played to perfection by Burns) to interview the homeless "Prophet Jack", a local "psychic" who's less than confidence inspiring catchphrase is "I see, I say, you pay".  Yeah, he sounds reliable, right?  
     Well, that's what Lanie thinks, too -- at first.  When the two predictions he offers as part of the interview come to pass with eerie precision, however, she begins to question whether the third should be taken a bit more seriously -- the third being "and next Thursday you're going to die."
     With the possibility of it imminently ending, suddenly Lanie wonders if her life is indeed so perfect after all.  And within days of this pronouncement, her re-examination of it prompts her to "define life" anew...and wonder if what she has is really life at all -- or perhaps just something like it.
     There are indeed a few pretty glaring flaws -- arguably the worst of which is a phone conversation that takes place between Lanie and her fiance on the evening she first learns she may be about to die.  The dialogue is completely contrived -- ridiculous really, and the fiance character proves pretty much equally under-developed/annoyingly "stock" throughout his remaining scenes.
     The snappy lines between Lanie and Pete (particularly those that take place in the "payoff scene", if you will, near the end of the film) more than make up for this, however, helped largely by the sheer likeability of Burns' portrayal. And a clever metaphor using Altoids is, for my taste anyway, the stuff that surely makes one writer smile to have thought of it and another watching applaud the inspired moment of a comrade.
     It's been a while since I finished watching a movie and immediately wished I could start watching it all over again -- 'til this one came along.  And if only it hadn't been due back at the video store today, I'd probably be doing just that right now instead of talking about it here!
     But hey, that means there's one more copy available for you to rent this very night.  So go check it out yourself...and by all means, enjoy!!!


Moulin Rouge

     In light of all the positive things I'd heard about this film and my already long-established appreciation for the work of Ewan MacGregor, I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to actually watching it.  Although once I'd started, I've gotta admit I wasn't sure for quite some time if I shouldn't have waited longer...I always find the unnatural vehicle of almost solely musical speech a bit off-putting to begin with, and coupled with the determinedly campy approach to much of the film, I really wasn't sure if my final impression of it would turn out all that positive.  Boy, was I wrong!  Despite the contrivances, once you allow yourself to buy into the simple story of a tragic love affair, I dare you to resist the charm and believability of the protagonists and their affections.  And albeit perhaps insanely innocent and naive, the hopeless romantic in me couldn't help but love the idea of the simple song the lovers offer each other in times of doubt and difficulty as a reassurance of their lasting bond..."Never knew I could feel like this, like I've never seen the sky before...Come what may, come what may, I will love you until my dying day."
     It seems that via the aforementioned appreciation for his work, Ewan MacGregor is one actor who invariably leads me down cinematic paths I'd likely never travel without him (The Pillow Book, Little Voice, Eye of the Beholder, etc.).  And seldom, if ever, have I regretted such a journey.  Unfortunately, it seems in too many of these instances he's ended up impressing me most with his ability to very convincingly -- and tearfully -- convey a painful loss.  Yet the thing that makes him great in my eyes is his ability to not merely convey these losses, but more importantly, make me share in them...not to mention their accompanying tears.  And considering Moulin Rouge proved not the exception, but arguably an archetype in the level of joint participation in grief it ultimately inspired, one might wonder whether the decision to finally watch it was such a great one after all.  But if you've seen it yourself, you already know the answer  to that.  And if you haven't...well, what are you waiting for?! For, Moulin Rouge is a place I definitely recommend you visit -- "come what may..."


Waking the Dead

     I was first drawn to this film by a preview on a video my husband and I rented some time ago.  So, when it appeared in the listings for Showtime recently I decided to at last satisfy my curiosity.   And am I ever glad I did!
    The film opens with Fielding Pierce's discovery that his girlfriend, Sara, has been killed while working with a church group helping victims of a politically oppressive regime escape from Chile in the mid-1970's.   It then jumps 10 years ahead to a time of emotional crisis as a series of events lead him to question whether in fact she really died.
     Using flashbacks to unveil the tangled layers of the relationship Fielding and Sara shared and to help us understand the man he has since become, the film explores the reasons people of disparate backgrounds and ambitions are both brought together and, too often, torn apart.
     After accepting an opportunity to run for Senate, the always politically ambitious Fielding finds his campaign jeopardized through a series of encounters in which he believes to have seen Sara.  Torn between the certainty of his own insanity and the hope that her death was in fact a governmentally arranged hoax, Fielding tries to reconcile the political pawn he has become with the person of character Sara knew he had always been.  In a pivotal scene she attempts to illustrate for him the disservice he is committing against both the himself and the people he claims his political ambitions will assist.  "Don't become a cog in the machine," she pleads.  "Why not?" he counters testily.  "Sometimes cogs make machines run more smoothly."  "Sometimes," she replies.  "But usually they just go in circles, wear out and get replaced."
     And indeed as the campaign progresses Fielding finds these circles tightening and his mental stability wearing very thin.
     Featuring an excellent cast led by Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly, this film would be worth watching for the performances alone.  Crudup is truly unsettling as a character edging ever closer to the brink of insanity, and Connelly is beautifully affecting as a young woman of empathy and conviction.  Coupled with the genuine conflict of a difficult relationship and even more difficult separation, the reasons for watching are even that much more numerous and compelling.   In short, this is just "good stuff" -- well written, well acted and very well worth watching.  By all means, check it out!


A Beautiful Mind

     Recounting the tale of the genius mathematician, John Nash, from his college days in 1947 through his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in 1994, this is neither a stuffy biography nor a comfortingly rosy triumph-over-tragedy story with a conventional happy ending.  Rather, it is a frighteningly realistic and accessible portrait of one man's mental illness and the toll it exacts on both him and his wife.  It is also a portrait of strength, patience, discipline and an unparalleled determination to overcome simply by  refusing to be overcome by forces beyond one's control.
     I read in a newspaper article before seeing this film that it's a shame in retrospect Russell Crowe won the Best Actor Oscar last year (not that he was undeserving of that honor) since having done so may preclude his truly extraordinary, indeed even more deserving efforts in this film from being likewise recognized.   And now that I've seen his performance for myself I must agree.  Not only does Crowe portray Nash's descent into insanity and beyond with enviable credibility, but he likewise balances Nash's most negative personality traits (and at times quite excessive ego) with an underlying humanity that somehow keeps the audience at all times squarely on his side -- no small feat for one who introduces himself to a Princeton colleague by commenting on the complete ugliness of his tie and whose romantic approach to a first date consists of an inquiry into precisely how soon they might have intercourse (which wins him, incidentally, a well-deserved -- and very hard -- slap across the face).
     In conclusion, I can only add that even after seeing the film I'm not sure I consider "A Beautiful Mind" the best title to accurately describe the nature of the main character or his truly trying journey...especially since it is ultimately understood that real victory -- even over mental illness -- is more a matter of the heart.  Even so, I'm absolutely certain I consider this a beautiful film...even though the particular form of beauty it reveals is by no means at all times a pretty sight.


Vanilla Sky

     I read in a magazine article that director Cameron Crowe's purpose in making Vanilla Sky was two-fold:  to explore the consequences of casual sex and comment on the influence of pop-culture on our self-image.  And while I wouldn't argue that he completely missed the target on both counts by any means, I do have to contend that I somehow feel these aims could have been more effectively -- and interestingly -- achieved if gone about using a more direct and realistic approach.
     At the same time, I can see how such a complex and bizarre journey as that undergone by the film's main character would prove a draw to an actor in search of unusual challenges, and beyond question Tom Cruise proved himself more than up to the task -- alternating playing on his stereotypical leading man appeal and embarking on territory that pits him strongly against type.  The supporting cast likewise handles the difficult material very competently -- which probably explains one not completely losing interest when the plot begins to become clear (or completely unravel, depending on one's point of view) in a twist of psychological science-fiction that stretches the inherent bond between an audience willing to suspend disbelief and a director attempting to metaphorically deliver truth perhaps a bit too close to the breaking point.
     Be that as it may, there are indeed a few excellent moments and, of course,  an obligatory nugget of obvious wisdom, which perhaps explains the choice to release the film so close to the approach of a new year and its accompanying onslaught of resolutions:  "every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around"...a sentiment with which I do actually very much agree, but one which having been uttered in this particular film left me strongly tempted to go buy a ticket to another (and hopefully better) movie before I'd even left the theater.     

Autumn In New York

    I have to preface my discussion of this film by saying I don't believe I'd heard or read one positive word about it prior to actually watching it on a pay-tv-channel recently.  With that in mind, I'm not sure why exactly I felt so compelled to see it in the first place.  But after doing so I was far more concerned with attempting to figure out why it had been so universally panned as I have to admit I really thought it was just plain excellent -- at least in most respects.
     That said, I would have to agree with dissenters that neither the excessive age difference between the two main characters nor the plot contrivance of the heroine's terminal illness were necessary to convey or in any way bolster the overall point of the film, which is essentially that while inherently involving at times incomprehensible risk nonetheless love itself is the ultimate victory.
      I realize, of course, that this is a rather common theme in literature and films, but what set it apart in this particular case was an uncommon exploration of certain character elements that prevent many from ever "finding" love -- or more accurately the choices that sabotage love before it can reach anything approaching maturity.  Specifically, it explains the motivation of fear underlying the apparently careless immorality of the womanizer played by Richard Gere, and offers a very believable transformation in his character toward the beginnings of courage, accountability and ultimately acceptance -- of both the scoundrel those around him have long since become accustomed to him being, and more importantly, the human being he is at last allowing himself to become.

Almost Famous  (Best Original Screenplay Winner)

     I must confess I approached this film with a bit of skepticism, and in fact resisted it during its run at the local theater.  Somehow a memoir about the director's days as a rock-n-roll journalist in the seventies evoked images of a cross between a big-screen version of  "That Seventies Show" and a self-indulgent journey in search of his own lost youth -- neither of which made me exactly giddy with anticipation.  After having it recommended many times over by various friends and relatives, however, my husband and I finally found ourselves quite eagerly awaiting its home-video release, and I have to admit we rushed out to rent it as soon as it became available.  And contrary to my misguided pre-judgment (something you'd think we'd all learn one day that most pre-judgments are) I quickly found myself very pleasantly surprised.  Even before the story really started to draw me in, I became hooked on the fine acting of Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  In fact, I even enjoyed the opening credits sequence wherein a hand shown in close-up wrote the names of cast and crew on a ruled pad, a technique intercut with various images of objects/memorabilia that quickly established the setting.
     More significantly, it was fascinating how completely Cameron Crowe managed to keep the audience squarely focused on the main character's viewpoint, sharing in his alternate anxiety and wonder while still allowing each of the other characters to likewise unfold very completely before our eyes (in some cases before they began fully unfolding before his) -- thereby effectively creating a whole, and wholly believable world threatened at every turn by the conflicting needs and desires of parental concern, the loyalty -- and betrayal -- of friends and the confusion of romance.  A particularly memorable scene in an aircraft threatened by a storm both underscores this theme and serves to bring tensions brewing just below the surface most effectively to light.
     Best of all, just when it seems the end isn't going to turn out at all as one has been led to believe, events take yet another unexpected turn to make things end up...not at all as expected.  If you haven't seen the film and find that conclusion a little hard to make sense of, that's you'll have to rent the video to find out what it means.  I encourage you to do just that.  It may be called "Almost Famous" , but compared to so much of what passes for filmmaking these days, it's more than "almost" fantastic.


Erin Brockovich  (Best Actress Winner, Julia Roberts)

     Obviously, the subject matter of this film  -- namely the story of a community's residents grievously wronged by a polluting power company's deception -- and the enormous efforts (on the community's behalf) exerted by the true-life heroine after which it takes its name make the real-life participants in this drama worthy of some type of award (or many awards) in and of themselves.  Speaking strictly from a filmmaking perspective, however, I'm not convinced the same applies to Erin Brockovich, the movie.  Although the material is certainly handled competently and the acting is top-notch, I don't know that there is much besides sentiment to raise it above the "everyman" vs. "evil corporation" theme that has been used at least a hundred times before (Norma Rae most notably comes to mind).  By that I mean I tend to think of Oscar-caliber films  as somehow groundbreaking or at least less ordinary...although I admit that must seem to represent something of a confused viewpoint since I tend to adore "classic" tales or films based on "classic" literature (Of Mice and Men, The Cider House Rules, Cyrano DeBergerac, etc.), most of which not only recount common themes but appear in more than one film version based on the exact same work.  At the same time, the works I believe truly "Oscar-worthy" tend to be "bigger" somehow (Braveheart, Gladiator) or even smaller (as in more intimate -- such as the 1992 Gary Sinise version of Of Mice and Men) -- or perhaps somehow both at the same time (The Green Mile, for example).  Like great actors, great films have some indefinable yet unmistakable quality that makes them something (or someone) you truly come to know or experience rather than merely watch, that makes them something you may never need to see more than once to see time and again throughout the rest of your life (the Robert Downey, Jr. film Less Than Zero comes to mind).  They have something that makes them special, something that makes them -- well...great.   Erin Brockovich is good.  In fact, it's very good.  As for why I don't believe it's "great", to be honest I can't really say...I only know that if it truly were I wouldn't have to.
     Feel free to let me know how you feel about this perspective and, of course, to share your own on the   Share The Insanity Discussion Board.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Best Foreign Language Film Winner)

     In light of all the attention this film has received in recent weeks, I must confess I went to the theater with pretty high expectations.  And maybe these contributed to the less than wild enthusiasm I felt upon leaving.  Yet while the themes of living the time we have on earth to the fullest and remaining true to ourselves despite myriad temptations to be led astray are effectively conveyed, still somehow the film as a whole failed to really move or impress me.
     I suppose my single greatest objection really centers around the complete disregard of reality with respect to the fight sequences.  As a longtime fan of the late Brandon Lee and various film and television productions featuring the martial arts (among my favorites was the too-shortlived Vanishing Son series starring Russell Wong) -- all of which I realize also stretched the bounds of real hand-to-hand combat quite unmercifully -- something in me balks at the sight of people repeatedly running up and down vertical walls and literally flying through the air like Peter Pan in what purports itself as somehow a serious film.  I realize, too, that this is all intended for artistic effect, but I still find something much more admirable in the discipline and artistry (although, of course, not the sometimes incredibly violent results) of the real thing.
     All that aside, the acting is very good, the Chinese settings often breathtaking and a sequence involving a young girl's adventure leading into true love is very entertaining.  And, obviously, the recent critical and popular success of the film indicates many disagree with my assessment of it overall.  With that in mind, if you want my advice, go check it out and decide for yourself -- and don't forget to let me know what you think by voicing your opinion on the  Share The Insanity Discussion Board.


     I suppose I should first say that I'm definitely the squeamish type.  As a result, I avoided The Silence of the Lambs until just a few weeks ago when I at last succumbed to an edited version of it on the "Lifetime" channel.  Although still a bit unsettling even in this toned-down form, I must confess that I found it surprisingly interesting and enjoyable (except, of course, for a couple instances of incredibly lame dialogue and that end sequence where the killer is using the night-vision glasses -- I mean, he HAD her...give me a break!).
      But I digress.
     Anyway, the point is, having so recently been introduced to and intrigued by the "sophisticated" cannibal, Lecter,  of course my husband and I rushed out right away to catch this highly anticipated sequel.  And while the character of Hannibal himself again proved thrilling to watch -- in some very disturbing way -- ultimately the gore won out, and I have to admit I was grateful to have not eaten a very big lunch before the matinee since what little I had very nearly ended up on the floor of the theatre.
     That aside, we both agreed that Julianne Moore represented a huge improvement over Jodie Foster in the role of Clarice Starling.  Despite Foster's considerably greater acclaim, Moore seems to me a much more interesting actress, even if -- or perhaps because -- not one so studiedly exact. It was also to the film's credit that it carried through with the theory implied in The Silence of the Lambs regarding Lecter's choice of victims, that he only destroyed those who were in some way destructive to society themselves -- not that this by any means justifies his actions, of course, but it does remain the key element in one's perverse desire to see Hannibal remain alive and uncaptured, which the film clearly aims to again instill in the audience.
     Unfortunately, thanks largely to what I would guess to be its primary function -- the setup for yet another sequel -- Hannibal really covers astonishingly little ground.   Although it lavishly sprinkles new garnishes on the already "well-done" title character, little new substance of any kind is ever revealed.  Be that as it may, I think it's safe to bet that the eerie intonations of Hopkins' "Is that you, Clarice?" will be featured throughout the nightmares of many  generations to come.   At least I'm pretty sure that they'll for too long be in mine...

  State and Main

     But before I get to films that fall in the above category, I'll just comment quickly on this one which represents one of my most recent theatergoing experiences --  a choice prompted by the desire to see another fine performance by the incredibly talented Philip Seymour Hoffman.  And in this regard I was by no means disappointed.  As sensitive, put-upon writer Joe White he brought a believability to the character which evoked genuine sympathy and provided very necessary grounding to an otherwise less-than-satisfying film.  I'm sure most David Mamet fans will strongly disagree with this assessment and I completely respect their opinion, indeed welcome them to even love this picture.  To me, however, much of the dialogue seemed awkward and inadequate, and while I realize the overall spirit is intended to be highly satirical, I must confess I found the tone overly cynical instead, and the injustice of the conclusion more than a little disappointing.
     In all fairness, however, I did enjoy selected moments immensely  and appreciated several bits of very telling commentary.  For example, I related to the disrespect with which the writer's material (indeed, the writer himself)  was treated as I've become increasingly aware that in filmmaking the written word is regarded as far from sacred. But best of all, who could resist the explanation offered by Joe White's love interest Anne in response to his musings about why Dalmations became the mascots of all firemen... "the first fire service was founded in 647 on the border of Dalmatia and Sardinia.  It was either them or the sardine."   Good point...great line.


Finding Forrester

     Frankly, I don't know how to summarize my thoughts on this motivational tale about a gifted young writer named Jamal and the famous novelist he befriends.  While Rob Brown and Sean Connery (as these characters, respectively) elicit a deep willingness on the part of the audience to root for them both separately and together, the movie overall somehow falls short in providing that indefinable "something" that marks a film you just can't shake and know you'll one day wish to see again.  At the same time, it definitely has its moments, among my favorite of which occurs when Jamal asks a question about the soup Forrester has made and switches to a more probing one before getting an answer.  When Forrester does respond he tells Jamal, who has previously agreed to ask nothing personal of his new friend, that the soup question was a valid one, inherent with the potential of gaining useful information -- which should be the main intent of all inquiries.    As one might expect, this qualification resurfaces at a key point later, just after a certain "failure" on Jamal's part sparks curiosity about what really happened.  Unable to resist, Forrester finally asks him about the matter point blank.  And what's Jamal's response?  "That's not exactly a soup question, is it?"  As I said, it may not be a great film, but you've got to give it some credit for evidences such as this that it at least aspires to be.


 Hell's Kitchen

     While flipping through the Showtime package offerings on DirecTV a couple weeks back, my husband and I saw Angelina Jolie appear on the screen.  And, because she is a favorite   of ours for the amazing depth of intelligence, vulnerability -- which when shared honestly in acting I define "courage" -- and truth she brings to her roles, we stopped to check it out.  It turned out that the film was called Hell's Kitchen and dealt with the ways in which consequences from a robbery gone bad continue (five years later) to adversely affect the group of young people who had perpetrated the crime.   The story is told in a very gripping, immediate way, and is accompanied by a haunting soundtrack which adds to its already considerable emotional weight -- a weight I predict you'll still be feeling long after the credits roll.

   Return To Paradise

     A film I consider to be incredibly well-executed in every way.  Not only does it offer excellent insight into the nature of genuine commitment and integrity -- not to mention real compassion -- but it is also  amazingly entertaining for a story centered around subject matter as dark as the threat of impending death for an unjust criminal conviction.  To understand what I mean, take the restaurant scene wherein Anne Heche's character, Beth, is yet again attempting to persuade Vince Vaughn's Sherriff to assist her in her efforts to save their mutual friend.  A girl approaches their booth and throws a very full drink on Sherriff, while ranting to Beth (with whom he is at this time in no way romantically involved) about how he will use her, then dump her, etc., which speech the indignant girl closes with "unless, of course, you're some kind of whore"... A nonplused Beth responds, "I'm his wife".  Needless to say, this response took the girl back apace, as it likewise did Sherriff -- and the audience as well.

  The Shawshank Redemption

      Who could not be instantly drawn in by the wonderfully expressive voice of Morgan Freeman as he narrates this tale of injustice, despair, corruption, patience and, well -- redemption.  More than simply an inspiring story, this film throws down a challenge to all of us who are at times tempted to cry foul at the evils put upon us by Fate.   Unjustly convicted of murder after finding his wife involved in an adulterous affair, Andy seemed to have more reason than most of us could ever claim to shake his fist at God.  Rather, he chose to use his situation for the good of those around him, proving the power of persistence and the rewards of patience.  The summation of his philosophy:  "It's time to get busy livin' or get busy dyin'"...not a phrase which after its utterance leaves the viewer -- or Andy's friend Red -- feeling exactly cheery.   When the meaning of it finally becomes clear, however, and Red at last comes to fully share its most positive interpretation, I still tear up every time I hear him speak those words, "I hope to see my friend again.  I hope.  I hope."  And I can't help walking away from it with my own hope, not merely renewed, but rather positively soaring.           

A few other favorites:

  Dangerous Liaisons
(John Malkovich -- at his amazing best!)


                     Of Mice and Men
                                        (Gary Sinise, John Malkovich)



  Planes, Trains and Automobiles
(Steve Martin, John Candy)


                                                 The Spitfire Grill
(Allison Elliot, Ellen Burstyn)



(Robert Downey, Jr., Meg Ryan)



                                                       Sliding Doors
    (Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah)


  Ordinary People

     (Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland)

                                                    Purple Rain


    (Favorite Film Not Yet Made)
                Taking the Fall



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