The Man Who Viewed Too
Jump back, sit back, get back, relax...it's okay.
I called in sick, I won't go to work today.
I'd rather be with the one I love.
I neglect my duties; I'll be in trouble, but:
"Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town," Talking Heads
No, no, you're right. I can't deny it. I have been remiss. No doubt
you're all expecting the usual convoluted compendium of excuses and
justifications and rationalizations, but in fact I can sum up the reason
for my pseudo-critical neglect in just two words: new girlfriend. (I was
about to sum it up in three words, but the object of my adoration -- who,
for reasons too complicated to get into here, is justifiably a tad
paranoid -- has requested that I not refer to her by name.) (No, she's
not famous.) (Yet.) Enough said, yes? You're all hip to the way that
love, in its initial amphetaminic stages, envelopes your existence
and hijacks your attention span and makes you wonder why the hell you
ever bothered performing any of the mundane daily tasks that had once
seemed so all-fired important, right? Suffice to say that since about
mid-January I have been, with respect to this column, The Man Who Wooed
Upshot is that I've once again got more movies in the ol' queue than I can
reasonably tackle in one column in my standard format; and since I plan
to address another two dozen films (albeit briefly) in my
subsequent annual New Directors/New films column, it would behoove me to
get my passion-addled ass in some remote facsimile of gear, here. To speed
things along, therefore, I've decided for this installment to borrow the
format that my friend Charles
François used for his invaluable reports from the 1997
Toronto International Film Festival. (Charles is currently in the process
of adding slightly revised versions of these reports to
his own site; here's an example,
to whet your appetite.) I refer to this format as "notes for a review I
probably won't ever get around to writing, knowing me"; employing it will
allow me to address the salient issues in each case without pausing to
think up clever segues or strained witticisms. (I'll be curious to see
whether mail urging me to stick to this format comes a-pourin' in. For
the record, I don't intend to. Stick to it, that is.) Unlike Charles, I
don't actually jot anything down, either during or immediately after a
film, but I do generally make copious mental notes on the way home, and a
handful of those usually forms the basis of my subsequent review. So what
you'll see this week is more or less my immediate post-film thinking --
as I remember it, anyway -- unadulterated by my anal-retentive desire to
progress from point to point in a logical and orderly (if terminally
digressive) fashion. Welcome, in short, to my mind: a nice place to visit
but. If you know what I mean.
The Spanish Prisoner
Director: David Mamet
Screenplay: David Mamet
Cast: Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin
- As Charles notes, the less you know about this film going in, the
better. Of course, simply being told that in advance is enough to put you
on your guard, so it's really a no-win situation.
- Having been utterly bamboozled by Mamet's House of Games eleven
years ago, I was suspicious of everything and everybody, and wound up
consistently one step ahead of the labyrinthine plot. And yet the
stately, precise movement of the gears is so intensely satisfying --
nobody else wants to make movies like this anymore -- that I didn't
much mind not being surprised. The best pure plot I've encountered in
too long to recall.
- Few actors truly excel with Mamet's terse, mannered dialogue. Add
Steve Martin to the list. And there's more: Martin's goofball persona
has been so firmly established over the past two decades that it never
even occurred to me that that persona is really just a stone's throw from
genuine menace. Here, his eyes narrowed, his baritone flat and curiously
affectless, his manner alternately/simultaneously avuncular and
dispassionate, he's absolutely riveting. An inspired choice, and the
front-runner for my supporting actor award this year.
- Wow: now that I check, this is the first time I've seen Martin
onscreen since 1992's HouseSitter. And I'm not really sure why I
even saw that, actually. Chris, why did we go see that?
- So is it a) that Mamet consistently marries women who can't act, or b)
that Mamet's wives are less inclined than anybody else to take his
unorthodox theory of acting with a grain of salt? Either way, Pidgeon is
the weak link here, just as Lindsay Crouse was in House of Games.
Her character's supposed to be ambiguity personified, but Pidgeon's
performance is so relentlessly chipper (in a weird, animatronic sort of
way -- she has no sense of how to gracefully handle Mamet's repetitions
and deliberate pauses) that I never had the slightest doubt about her
(the character's) intentions.
- Mamet here turns his penchant for withholding information into a
running gag, to good effect. When a dollar amount is written on a
chalkboard, only the $ is visible in the frame; when Martin shows Scott a
picture of his sister, he holds it at the precise angle at which the glare
from the light source completely obscures the woman's face. Not unlike
the lamp gag in Big Night, but with an extra
- Strong contender for Line of the Year: "My troika was pursued by
- Resolution a tad anticlimactic, I thought. Especially for Mamet.
- Carter Burwell is apparently incapable of writing an
- Note to Theo: I guess I do look a bit like Campbell Scott, now
that I've stared at him for two solid hours. (Judge
A Price Above Rubies
Director: Boaz Yakin
Screenplay: Boaz Yakin
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Christopher Eccleston, Glenn
- Gotta give Yakin credit: the man's got guts. First he tackled the
story of a pre-teen "inner-city" drug courier (and with such authority
that New Yorker critic Anthony Lane mistakenly assumed that he,
Yakin, is black); now he's turned his attention to the secretive,
patriarchal world of New York City's Hasidim. Clearly he has no fear of
- Unfortunately, where Fresh (which made my top ten list for 1994) was tightly -- some might argue
too-schematically -- plotted, Rubies is hopelessly muddled,
drifting from scene to scene with no sense of narrative rhythm or pacing
and precious little sense full-stop. Recurring fantastical elements --
the ghost of a dead sibling; a mysterious bag lady -- seem especially
- Performances a mixed bag: Zellweger demonstrates again that she can do
more than Cute; Glenn Fitzgerald, as the devout hubbie, is hit and miss
(but brilliant whenever he hits); Christopher Eccleston might as well be
wearing a set of plastic horns and carrying a rubber pitchfork.
- Scores bonus points for ambition and the occasional direct hit (e.g.
the final scene, beautifully played by Zellweger and Fitzgerald).
- A bizarre plot twist in which our heroine's sexual passion is
apparently indirectly responsible for the 1994 death of Rebbe Menachem
Schneerson (unnamed here, but who else is it supposed to be?) is maybe the
dumbest thing I've seen so far this year. Truly chortle-worthy.
- I'm a sucker for movies in which an apparently inconsequential minor
character turns out to be neither inconsequential nor particularly minor.
Serious film buffs don't often get to enjoy such machinations, because
we're more familiar than most with the character actors who tend to be
cast in such roles; I was fooled here, however, and happy to be fooled.
I'll say no more.
- In Defense of Screen Nudity: Ms. Zellweger apparently declined to
reveal her body, which is her right; unfortunately, the contortions
required to avoid exposing her erogenous zones to the lens during a
lengthy montage sequence depicting her character's trip to some kind of
creepy (at least as photographed by Yakin) ritual bath are not merely
distracting but downright irritating. Either cast actors without hangups,
or have the characters keep their clothes on. The coy alternative is too
jarring. (This goes double for frontal male nudity.)
- The fine musical score is credited to one "Lesley Barber," who either
is Stewart Copeland in drag or was hired specifically because of her
uncanny ability to write and orchestrate in blatantly Copelandesque
fashion. (Copeland wrote the score for Fresh, and since this was
one of those credits-at-the-end type deals I simply assumed throughout
that Yakin had returned to him; nothing in the movie was as shocking or
surprising to me as the revelation that he hadn't.)
- Personal aside: one scene in this film was shot like a minute's walk
away from my current abode.
The Newton Boys
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater & Claude Stanush & Clark Lee Walker
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich
- Not quite a return to form for Linklater, whose first three films --
Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise --
are among the sharpest and most entertaining independent pictures of the
decade. Following last year's stagy, hectoring adaptation of Eric
Bogosian's subUrbia, however, it's a
welcome step back in the right direction.
- Straying for the first time from his patented "a day in the life"
structure -- this is the first of his films in which the action continues
for more than 24 consecutive hours -- Linklater attempts that most
frustrating of cinematic genres, the biopic, chronicling the pleasantly
low-key exploits of the eponymous siblings, allegedly the most successful
bank robbers in history.
- Not really a whole heckuva lot going on here dramatically, but the
lackadaisical tone is surprisingly agreeable, especially after five years
of Tarantino-inspired films in which nattily dressed criminals alternately
trade hip, profane one-liners and sever each other's limbs and digits and
heads and such. That it's so stubbornly angst-free occasionally makes it
feel slight (since it isn't primarily a comedy, despite many funny
moments), but at least it doesn't come across as cynical and nihilistic.
- Best scenes depict the gung-ho, devil-may-care, borderline inept
manner in which the boys attempt (often successfully) to liberate other
folks' cash. Worth the price of admission all by its lonesome is the
wonderfully incredulous can-you-believe-this? look Ethan Hawke
shoots the camera as he attempts to make off with a bag full of money
while a security guard clings tenaciously to one of his legs.
- Speaking of Hawke, somebody should advise him to stick close by
Linklater's side -- he (Hawke) tends to come off as smug and irritating in
other people's pictures, but both here and in Before Sunrise he's
relaxed and charismatic.
- ...though not half as charismatic as fellow Linklater alum Matthew
McConaughey (the jailbait-addled stoner in Dazed and Confused), who
can so act, and I don't care what anybody says. Granted, his range
isn't the widest -- my nightmares are still plagued by the specter of Contact's touchy-feely hunk o' priest
Palmer Joss -- but the role of Willis Newton is tailor-made for his
limited abilities, and he effortlessly carries the picture with a cocky
grin here and a passionately sincere monologue there.
- The other two Newtons are something of a wash. Skeet Ulrich is
saddled with a boring character, the conscience of the family (just the
role you'd expect, uh, Johnny Depp to play...); Vincent D'Onofrio,
meanwhile, as the fourth Newton (I'm tempted to refer to him as the fig
Newton, since a fig is pretty much what we don't give about him) is given
nothing at all to do -- his part could have been played just as
convincingly by a gibbon in a heavy overcoat. (Ironic, that, since
D'Onofrio is fully capable of wiping the mat with his three co-stars,
given the opportunity.)
- Overshadowing the young turks, in any case, is country-music star
Dwight Yoakam, as convincing here as a soft-spoken explosives expert as he
was in Sling Blade as a loudmouthed, abusive hick.
I must confess that I've never heard any of Yoakam's tunes, as I have a
longstanding aversion to his chosen musical genre (patent anomalies like
k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett excepted); but if he's half as good a musician
as he is a thespian, I think I may be in the market for some first-class
- You probably won't need me to tell you this, but stick around for the
closing credits, which feature plentiful footage of the real Willis and
Joe Newton, circa the mid-1970s. (The events in the film take place in
- Any time Julianna Margulies is on-screen, conversely, is a primo time
to visit the restroom or refreshment stand, if you're so inclined. Enough
with the perfunctory romantic subplots, people.
Director: Mike van Diem
Screenplay: Mike van Diem and Laurens Geels and Ruud van Megen
Cast: Fedja van Huet, Jan Decleir, Victor Löw
- I feel like scheduling a massive group therapy session for those
members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences who voluntarily
chose to serve on 1997's Foreign-Language committee. Four of the five
nominees in the category this past spring -- including this, the eventual
winner -- are primarily concerned with parent-child angst,
invariably from the point of view of the wounded child. Unresolved
issues? Are these the same guys who broke down when Ray Kinsella asked
his spectral dad if he wanted to play catch? If you film it, they will
- Very Dickensian story involves a protracted power struggle between a
powerful, heartless "bailiff" (according to the subtitles -- this is
apparently a different job description in the Netherlands than in the
U.S., where bailiffs mostly clear courtrooms for ticked-off judges) and
his illegitimate son. Is Dad, who repeatedly uses his vast influence to
wreak havoc with his offspring's burgeoning law career, the total bastard
that he appears to be? Or do his Machiavellian machinations hint at more
complex emotions? Gee, the former doesn't sound too interesting, does it?
- Arresting pre-title sequence promises a corker of a climax, which
corker never in fact arrives. Gotta love that shot of Junior sailing over
the lens like a manic track-and-fielder, though.
- Entire lengthy film builds rather mechanically to a single-word
revelation of either ineffable beauty (AMPAS voters) or banal
schmaltzitude (yours truly). Keep in mind, though, that I don't respond
to this kind of familial heart-tugging the way that most do; if you
felt weepy during last year's Oscar-winner, Kolya, odds are there's another lump in
your throat's future.
- Fine acting, elegant camerawork, and remarkable production design make
the shaggy-dog aspect of the film's emotional arc more tolerable as it
unfolds than it seems in retrospect. I was occasionally exasperated, but
- Highest marks to Victor Löw as the Dutch equivalent of Mushmouth
on "Fat Albert." He and Billy Bob Thornton should get together and
compare jaw muscles.
Brigands: Chapter VII
Director: Otar Iosseliani
Screenplay: Otar Iosseliani
Cast: Amiran Amiranashvili, Alexi Djakeli, Keli Kapanadze
- Tiresome, didactic Eurosludge, courtesy of one of those justifiably
obscure auteurs with profound ideas aplenty but zero interest in framing
said ideas in a context that might engage the audience emotionally. The
cinematic equivalent of a two-hour semiotics lecture by a frustrated T.A.
- Structurally similar to Bill Forsyth's
underrated-but-still-not-terribly-good Being Human, with the actors
playing multiple roles in separate stories (interwoven rather than
consecutive, in this case) that span several centuries. Determining how
these unconnected narratives inform one another is the only respite from
boredom to be found.
- Iosseliani's thesis seems to be that cruelty and malice and brutality
have existed throughout human history, and that the notion that any era is
or was more "civilized" than another is laughably naïve. Like, is
it just me, or is this not exactly a breaking story?
- In any case, much of what Iosseliani attempts to convey here has been
depicted with considerably more panache and less pretension by others.
One lengthy, monotonous scene observes the humdrum daily existence of the
men who prepare and distribute instruments of torture to those conducting
official interrogations; Terry Gilliam took about 30 seconds to tackle the
same subject in the same depth in Brazil ("Cor! These 'elmets don't
'alf make your 'ead itch!" "Don't mention it! And they make you
sweat!"), while telling an engaging story at the same time.
- Why "Chapter VII"? Is it an 8 ½ kinda thing? Sometimes I
wish I were a real critic, so I could consult the press kit.
- Enough said, especially since virtually nobody reading this
(including, if they're out there, most real press-kit-receiving critics)
will ever have an opportunity to see it.
The Big Lebowski
Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore
- The best example of the concept of 'diminishing returns' I've seen
since jr.-high econ: one hour of inspired nonsense followed by about
thirty minutes of nonsense that's considerably less inspired followed by
twenty minutes or so of furtive-wristwatch-glancing-caliber nonsense. But
those initial sixty minutes more than compensate for the frustration and
exasperation to come.
- Trailers and commercials implied a wacky romp involving an amateur
bowling tournament, which in retrospect I rather wish that it had in fact
turned out to be. Instead, our hilariously passive protagonist, The Dude,
winds up involved in a convoluted noir-type scenario, which scenario I
won't bother to summarize since it becomes increasingly clear, as the film
progresses, that the Brothers couldn't care less about the elaborate plot
that they've constructed. Turns out that its only real function is to
provide a context for their favorite joke: The Dude's general lethargy in
the face of crisis and intrigue. (Imagine Tommy Chong as Marlowe in
The Big Sleep.)
- And a fine joke it is, too -- especially as interpreted by Bridges,
whose befuddled delivery of The Dude's terminally distracted dialogue (his
response to an imminent-ass-kicking threat: "Yeah well, that's just, ya
know, like, your opinion, man") is the stuff of comedic legend.
Inevitably, though, the gag begins to wear thin, and what remains is
tedium occasionally enlivened by surreal flights of fancy (e.g., the
wacked-out hallucination set to "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My
Condition Was In), and why didn't anybody tell me Kenny Rogers had talent
once upon a time?).
- So am I the only one who's noticed how sloppy and careless Joel &
Ethan's writing has become of late? Raising Arizona, for all its
excesses and digressions, is a model of narrative economy compared to both
this film and the wildly overrated Fargo; the
latter attempted to disguise its weaknesses by pretending to be based on
untidy real-life events, while Lebowski is openly contemptuous of
anybody who invests time or energy into making sense of who's doing what
to whom. Yeah, okay, they warn you in advance, courtesy Sam Elliott's
meandering narration and the tumbleweed imagery, but it still strikes me
as hindsight justification. Again, I wish that they'd discarded the
byzantine kidnapping/extortion crap (especially since this is their
third kidnapping movie to date -- enough already) and just made a
largely plotless bowling comedy.
- All of that said, a mediocre Coen film is still superior to the best
that just about everybody else in Hollywood has to offer, and the first
reels of this one are marvelous. Terrific performances abound (I
especially enjoyed Phillip Seymour Hoffman's unctuous toady); the dialogue
is as sharp as ever; the camera is rarely where you'd expect to find it.
Not until Julianne Moore turns up halfway through as an unfunny caricature
of a feminist performance artist (gender politics in this movie are less
than cool, frankly) do things begin to go awry, and it's a fairly gentle
grade downhill from there.
- Terrific cameo by John Turturro as a bizarrely effete bowler named
Jesus (not Hayzeus, mind you -- Jeezus); one of the few advantages to
writing this review two months late is that I can now point out that
Turturro also has a cameo appearance in Spike Lee's He Got Game,
playing opposite a character named Jesus (also pronounced the same
way as the New Testament bigwig). Too bizarre.
- Go buy the soundtrack ASAP: it's the best, most deliriously eclectic
collection of music for a single movie since Pulp Fiction, and odds
are you currently own little or none of it.
(Right about here, your intrepid correspondent suffered
his first-ever kidney stone attack, involving a couple of days'
hospitalization and the regular post-discharge ingestion of codeine, a
drug known less for its mind-expanding powers of creative enhancement
than for its soporific side effects. Now that I've awakened from my
pharmaceutical coma (seeing Easy Rider again during the interim
didn't help any, man), I've decided that it would behoove both myself and
my patient readers if I put early spring's lineup behind me and returned
to my standard semi-weekly format. Accordingly, I've written the
remaining half-dozen reviews in Haiku, employing a mere 17 syllables per
film in the American (I think) 5-7-5 structure. Incisive, yet concise.
And fast -- did I mention fast?)
Men with Guns
Director: John Sayles
Screenplay: John Sayles
Cast: Federico Luppi, Damián Delgado, Dan Rivera
Like many Sayles films,
This should have been a novel.
And yet it still works.
Director: Robert Benton
Screenplay: Robert Benton & Richard Russo
Cast: Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman
Some damn fine acting
In service of a subpar
Movie of the week.
Director: Marleen Gorris
Screenplay: Eileen Atkins
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Natascha McElhone, Rupert Graves
Much like Orlando,
This proves that film directors
Should leave Woolf alone.
Director: Alex Proyas
Screenplay: Alex Proyas and Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer
Cast: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland
Better than The Crow,
But then, I mean, jesus christ,
It'd have to be.
Moon over Broadway
Directors: D A Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus
You've seen Noises Off?
This doc's a facsimile,
But minus the jokes.