Storytelling

Todd Solondz is the director behind the art-house hits Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. I regret to say that I have yet to see these films, so I saw Storytelling without the greater context of Solondz’s canon. Whether this is a positive or negative thing seems to be a hotly debated issue; I have friends who swear that Dollhouse is the worst film they have ever seen, while others cannot stop singing the praises of Happiness. The only common thread I picked up in reading articles on Solondz is that he is “ungenerous” to his characters – a claim that is certainly supported by Storytelling.

The film is split into two separate stories. The first, subtitled “Fiction,” centers around Vi (the always game Selma Blair), a college student taking a creative writing course. We meet Vi in the throes of passion with her boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), who has cerebral palsy. It’s clear Marcus is trading sex for Vi’s assessment of his stories. Later, in a brutal (but accurate) scene, Marcus’s story is torn to shreds by his writing workshop.

Brutal as it was, I enjoyed this scene. Solondz has clearly attended a writing workshop or two. The tentative attempts to find good things in the story, then the one criticism that opens the floodgates. The only wrong note is the creative writing teacher himself, who’s a bit more severe than any CW teacher I’ve ever met.

Following a break-up with Marcus, an upset Vi finds herself in a one-night stand with the writing teacher, a large, intimidating black man. Solondz is playing with dynamite here as about three or four cultural taboos (past and present, conscious and unconscious) take center stage. It’s difficult to describe the feelings the scene elicits. The professor practically (definitely?) rapes Vi while ordering her to scream racist obscenities at him. (Incidentally, the actual copulating figures are obscured by a red rectangle; the MPAA wouldn’t give Solondz an R rating with the scene as it was, so this is his way of underlining the censorship.) Yet, like Vi, any modern American viewer, raised in an era of tepid political correctness and smoldering undercurrents of racial conflict, will probably have a difficult time sorting out their assessment of the scene. My conclusion is that it was a rape. The difficulty was keeping race out of it.

The second story, entitled “Nonfiction,” focuses on an amateur filmmaker (Paul Giamatti) looking to make a documentary on the modern high school student. He settles on Scooby (Mark Webber), a slacker senior with no ambition other than to maybe get on television one day. Scooby is trapped in a suffocating upper-middle-class family (headed by a stern John Goodman, whose talent for displaying barely-concealed rage is put to good use). Even more interesting than Scooby is his kid brother, Mikey (Jonathan Osser), who torments the family’s El Salvadoran maid with seemingly innocent questions that shred the illusions of American class equality. The rage seething in this respectable, well-off Jewish family is fearsome.

I’ve never seen a filmmaker treat his characters with such near-contempt. He seems to have sympathy for no one – except, perhaps, the glumly passive Scooby. The Giamatti character (”Toby”) is, I would guess, intended as an avatar of Solondz himself. None of these characters are well-fleshed out, though some are creepy (particularly Mikey). I found it amusing that when Vi presents her rape as a story in class, one of the students asks the same question I was at the time – was it a rape? After all, Vi did what the professor asked. Of course, she was being intimidated – or was she? I think she was, but I suppose it’s open for interpretation.

Storytelling is not a film to move its viewers. Its mission is to shock, surprise, maybe even elicit a few nervous, guilty titters. How many directors would dare make a film that makes fun of people with cerebral palsy, has a black man rape a white girl, has a kid who mercilessly and innocuously torments his foreign au pair, and brutally exposes the raging undercurrent of middle class America? The film speaks the unspoken and dares us to face up to it. I only wish there were at least some spark of goodness to counter the cynicism.

Gladiator

At long last – a new movie review. It may be
telling that Gladiator is the first movie of 2000 that I had to
see opening weekend. It’s the firs tof the summer blockbusters, certainly – soon
to face serious competition from Scientologist founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield
Earth
, which I’m not particularly keen on, and then Mission Impossible 2,
which I’ve been waiting forever for. But I think Gladiator will beat out Mission
Impossible 2
for me, hands down. MI:2 will doubtlessly be your usual
testerone-charged double-gun John Woo blast factory, whereas Gladiator is
a well-made testerone-charged Ridley Scott heroic myth.  

The comparisons people have made to Braveheart are
well-founded. Both of these films center around a single hero who finds himself
at the mercy of powerful authoritative forces, and must use his combative wits
to fight his way out of each tough situation. Like Braveheart, Gladiator
is a "guy movie" with heart, one that women can go to and enjoy,
perhaps not as much as men (and certainly not for the same reasons), but at
least they won’t be bored. And if the women happen to enjoy gory
gladitorial combat, all the better.

Gore there is, and plenty of it, but don’t let that stop you
from seeing it. Braveheart had its share of gore as well, though perhaps
not so stylishly. For many of the fight scenes, Scott employs the same
high-speed, highly-detailed frames that Spielberg employed (for very different
reasons) in Saving Private Ryan. Other scenes blend realistic CGI
elements so seamlessly that your breath will be taken away as you watch a real
tiger leap upon a man.

At first, the plot seems at once complex yet familiar (warning:
some plot spoilers ahead
): the year is 180 AD. Roman Emperor Marcus
Aurelius (Richard Harris)
is finishing up a long series of invasions to capture territory in Germania. In
one final battle, Aurelius’ best general, Maximus (Russell
Crowe
), succeeds in crushing the Germanic tribe that opposes them. Aurelius’
son, Commodus (Joaquin
Phoenix
), arrives just in time to miss the battle. Aurelius, fearing the
effects of an overly ambitious and foolhardy Commodus as the emperor of Rome,
asks Maximus in private to be his successor. But before Maximus agrees, Aurelius

"dies," and Commodus declares himself emperor and jealously orders
Maximus executed and his family killed (this all occurs in the first twenty
minutes of the film). In a brutally violent sequence, Maximus escapes and heads
to Rome to try and save his family; but on the way, he is captured and sold into
slavery, eventually winding up as a gladiator.

I have to admit, I was skeptical about Crowe. His performance
in L.A. Confidential had been written rather over-the-top, so it was
difficult to determine just how good an actor he could be from that; his role as
the insane computer villain in Virtuosity suffered from the same problem.
I suppose his Oscar(NO copyright symbol, you Big Brother bastards!)
nomination for his performance in The Insider should have tipped me off,
but I haven’t seen that film yet. But in this film, Crowe gives a fine
performance for the macho-hero role he is given. In portraying Maximus, Crowe
finds the right balance of the simple farmer who is cursed with being the finest
killing machine – and military strategist – ever created.  The true emotion
Crowe brings to the role – the sad smile whenever Maximus thinks of his family –
saves the film from being "Mad Maximus" – a Roman version of Crowe’s
fellow Australian Mel Gibson’s breakout film. I was quite pleased; often, what
might have been a good movie is ruined by its human-tree-stump lead actor (The
Matrix
, anyone?). 

There are other very strong performances in the film. Djimon
Hounsou
(Amistad) is excellent as the fellow slave who befriends
Maximus as the two of them rise in the gladiator ranks; Harris gives the right
touch to the aging Maximus. Derek
Jacobi
(Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, Love is the Devil), always a
delight, seems to have had his role as Gracchus, a Roman senator, tailor-made
for him. Connie Nielsen (Rushmore,
Mission to Mars
), as Emperor Commodus’ sister, hits a few wrong notes, but
that’s mostly due to the script’s frequent ambiguity as to where her true
loyalties lie; they seem to fluctuate too often, and ultimately it weakens the
character. But Joaquin Phoenix, as the sickly and transparently evil Commodus,
is saddled with the most one-dimensional of the characters, and unfortunately he
is unable to rise above it.

The plot becomes more and more simple as the film goes on,
and the battles become longer and longer. While the battles are occasionally
drawn-out, they are nonetheless fascinating to watch. I found it ironic that
every time Crowe’s Maximus sliced off an arm or a head, the audience I attended
the film with would applaud and cheer – just like audiences did at the live
events 2000 years ago. While the movie is better than that – a lot better – it’s
nonetheless an element that cannot be ignored. 

The Talented Mr. Ripley

First off, let
me apologize for the lateness of this review. The pickings for movies have been
slim lately, and I haven’t been able to get myself off my lazy ass to see a
3-hour epic like Magnolia, no matter the quality. I’m already waiting for
the big guns to start hitting in the spring with American Psycho and Mission
Impossible 2
.

But anyway…The Talented Mr. Ripley. The last Matt
Damon movie I saw was Dogma; in that movie, he was still playing the
naive-young-guy role he seems to enjoy. This film, however, has shown me that
Mr. Damon does indeed have some true acting talent. He has finally made a film
which places him on  par with and, in my opinion, above his buddy
Ben. 

On the whole, the entire film is acted well. Jude Law (who
happens to share my birthday) plays Dickie Greenleaf, a spoiled rich brat who
lives the lazy life we all wish we could, hanging around in Italian villas with
his beautiful American girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow) while
impregnating his native mistress. Enter Thomas Ripley (Damon), a poor New Yorker
who, after being mistaken by Dickie’s father for a fellow Princeton alum like
Dickie, is sent by the father to bring Dickie back.

Predictably, Thomas gets caught up in the high life Dickie is
living, and fails in his task miserably while endearing himself to Dickie and
Marge. An interesting love triangle also develops, as Thomas begins to fall for
Dickie (yes, Dickie). The homoerotic overtones are handled with subtlety, and
Damon does a fantastic and believable job in striking the right balance between
Tom’s desires and his nature to be, as Dickie says, "boring," or, to
be less tactful, anal-retentive.

As the trailers hint, things eventually take an ugly turn,
and Tom soon finds himself performing acts he never would have thought himself
capable of. As the story progresses (and it does so very, very slowly,
one of the few flaws of the film), it tires to examine the emotions behind
"evil" – what causes people to do bad things, and how lies must build
upon themselves and crime breeds crime. While this theme is handled well, I’d
recommend Sam Raimi’s underrated A Simple Plan (1998) for a more in-depth
and masterful exploration of the same issues.

While Law and Damon shine, Paltrow is once again, like Shakespeare
in Love
, stuck in the role as the love interest, and she never really moves
beyond the role. Indeed, by the end of the film, her laborious sobbing and
histrionics are not only unconvincing, but irritating. More interesting is the
lovely Cate Blanchett as Meredith Logue, another American debutante spending
some time in Europe. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Dickie’s boorish friend Freddie
Miles, performs his role to irritating perfection and Jack Davenport gives a
nice touch of empathy to the tortured Tom.

As I mentioned before, the film does drag a bit, and
unfortunately, it’s not isolated to a particular portion of the film, but
infects the entire work – it’s as if the plot has been squashed a bit. Some
smart editing could have aided the film greatly. But the characters are
well-imagined and the plot and emotional subtexts are refreshingly complex; it’s
a film worth seeing, at least for Damon’s performance.

Man on the Moon

I never knew Andy Kaufman. I have a few vague memories of seeing
Latka on Taxi, and that’s about it. I knew he was some sort of pop
culture figure, because he was the subject of the REM song "Man on the
Moon." I knew he had done something with wrestling, but I wasn’t sure what.

A person I do know is Jim Carrey. Jim Carrey is one of the
definitive comedians/actors of my generation (or at least, my era); I’ve grown
up with him (though how much either of us has "grown up" is
debatable). Therefore, I was curious to see how well Jim Carrey could pull off
playing a role in which he had to capture the personality of another – quite
different – comedian. 

The result is intriguing. Whenever Carrey plays one of Kaufman’s
menagerie of characters – Latka, Tony Clifton, Elvis, etc.  – he is purely
Kaufman (or rather, purely Kaufman doing someone else). But then his voice drops
to normal, and he’s Jim Carrey acting as Andy Kaufman. Perhaps it’s a product of
the times; decades ago, it might have been more commonplace to have an a actor
portray a real-life person who was famous only a few short years before. As it
is, whenever Carrey’s character speaks "normally," I see Truman, I see
that drunk from the TV-movie Doing Time on Maple Drive, I see Carrey as
he acted when interviewed by Kurt Loder on MTV. I don’t see Andy; but then, I
didn’t know Andy.

The plot of the film moves swiftly from Kaufman’s childhood to
his first break-out show at a nightclub, when Kaufman, affecting a strange
foreign accent (the origin of Latka), went through four or five bad impressions
before bursting into a dead-on Elvis (in the film, the number of bad impressions
is shortened to 2). After meeting agent George Shapiro (played by Kaufman’s Taxi

costar Danny Devito), Kaufman’s career takes off – much to his consternation.
The rest of the film follows Kaufman’s attempt to stay true to his particular,
quirky brand of guerilla comedy – at one college appearance, his entire
performance consists of reading the entire novel The Great Gatsby aloud –
while his agent, friends, and network bosses try to rein him into the
mainstream. Kaufman’s only allies are Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti, aka "Pig
Vomit" of Howard Stern’s Private Parts fame), his best friend and
writer, and his girlfriend Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love), who is the only one
who may know the closest thing to the "real" Andy Kaufman.

The performances are all excellent, but the plot has several
faults. Both Giamatti and Love are underused, which is strange, considering
their importance to Kaufman’s life; his romance with Margulies is particularly
underplayed, a very disappointing aspect of the film. There is no sign of the
"real" Andy Kaufman here; we’re not getting under his skin. What we
get from Bob Zmuda, who co-produced the film, is Penn and Teller; Zmuda gives us
the machinations behind all of Kaufman’s gags, but no insight into the person
that was Andy Kaufman. This may, of course, be simply because Zmuda himself
never met the man – perhaps no one did.

The laughs, nonetheless, are there, and the film is touching and
poignant at times, as one would expect. Kaufman’s final days are somewhat
abridged, but since that was doubtlessly an intensely personal time, few details
may be known about it. But the funeral scene, both sad, funny, and inspiring, is
a perfect metaphor for the entire film; an amusing elegy to a brilliant, often
misunderstood, but beloved comedian. 

Galaxy Quest

Yeah. I like Star Trek. I admit it. 

I’m mostly a fan of The Next Generation, far and away the
only of the four ST series with the slightest attachment of what might
loosely be termed a "cool factor" among the all-important age 18-24
demographic (damn, as of December 29th, I’m on the older side of that bracket,
at 21. Sigh). Anyway, while being a fan of TNG, I certainly watched the Original
Series on syndication. It wasn’t as cool as TNG, but it was okay. The movies
were better.

So what about Galaxy Quest? Galaxy Quest is a
movie based on the premise: what if the actors from the Star Trek
franchise were suddenly picked up by an alien race that believed only the
fictional crew of the television show could save their race? It’s an intriguing
premise, and it’s very obvious that the Galaxy Quest crew was based on
our friends at Paramount. Tim Allen plays Jason Nesmith, who, on the show Galaxy
Quest
, is Commander Peter Quincy Taggart, the captain of the ship (got all
that?) He’s the Kirk figure. Then there’s Alan Rickman’s Alexander Dane, who, on
the show, is "Dr. Lazarus," some sort of hybrid between a Klingon and
Spock; and Sigourney Weaver plays the customary buxom female crewmember who
serves no useful purpose except repeating what the computer says to the captain
– and, of course, hanging half out of her uniform. Weaver actually looks good
with blonde hair – she’s sexier here than she was in Alien two decades
ago. Daryl Mitchell (of TV’s Veronica’s Closet) and Wings‘ Tony
Shalhoub round out the cast as the genius kid crewmember and the crack engineer,
respectively. 

Also a delight is Enrico Colantoni, the photographer on Just
Shoot Me
, who plays the leader of the aliens who enlist Allen’s Nesmith and
the rest of the cast (whose show has been off the air for 18 years) to save them
from a mean group of lobster-like aliens.

The movie moves quickly from the wearying series of convention
appearances that are a regular part of the actors’ lives to outer space, where
the aliens have constructed an exact (functional) replica of the spaceship on
the original television show. It’s fun to watch the actors try to deal with
"real-life" alien combat and imagine William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy
calling the same shots. 

One of the film’s most amusing moments arrives when Allen’s
Nesmith, needing to navigate through the bowels of the ship but unsure how,
contacts a rabid fan on Earth for directions. 

In the end, Galaxy Quest neither indicts the occasionally
over-zealousness of the fans, nor does it indict the actors’ for mistreating
them. It gives us a fair, fun ride, and it’s an entertaining hour-and-a-half in
the movie theater. It has action, humor, and science fiction geekiness.
Recommended for any fan of Star Trek, no matter the series, and any fan
of science fiction television in general.   

The World is Not Enough

For some reason, I never really got into James Bond. I knew he
existed, and I certainly thought secret agents were pretty cool and all, but I
just never saw any of the films, or if I did, I never got into them. I preferred
science fiction and fantasy as a kid, and pretty much stuck to those genres. So,
believe it or not, the very first James Bond film I ever saw was 1997’s Tomorrow
Never Dies
. I later saw Goldeneye, and then rented Dr. No, and
have also seen Never Say Never Again. I liked the Pierce Brosnan ones –
they were clearly the product of a culture that had been accustomed to
high-speed, high-body-count action films, a post-T2 cinematic audience.
As an action fan, I found them greatly enjoyable; but were they truly

"James Bond movies"? 

The answer is – I’m not certain. I suppose it depends on when
you became a Bond fan, who you consider the definitive Bond, and what aspects of
Bond films you like. Connery was the suave seducer, or so he seems; he was also
the misogynistic bastard who would shoot a woman ten minutes after sleeping with
her. I haven’t seen much of either Moore or Dalton, but Moore seems to be the
one who was usually wrapped up in the technologically-based plots, such as Moonraker
and the like, and Dalton was just so of an interim Bond (though one of my
friends, a Bond connoisseur, swears by Dalton). 

Brosnan, for better or for worse, must be the late-90’s bad-ass
action hero. He must shoot people – a lot of people. He must do unbelievable
stunts (see the opening sequence of Goldeneye – I mean, come on!).
He must cause explosions –  big ones, and lots of ’em.

There are tons of explosions in The World is Not
Enough
. I think just about every major set piece ends up getting blown up at
some point or another. I remember at one point, when Bond enters an interesting
new area, I turned to my friend and said, in my best approximation of Brosnan’s
accent, "Hmm, I’ll have a lot of fun blowing this place up." Sure
enough, less than ten minutes later – boom

But there’s really nothing wrong with the explosions. Then come
in between the usual Bond stand-bys – sleeping with beautiful women, making
double entendres that no woman would ever let a real man get away with
(especially not one she was going to sleep with), engaging in high-speed aquatic
chase scenes, engaging in high-speed ski chase scenes, playing with neato
gadgets, dodging helicopters sporting economy-size band saws, etc. All that, and
yes ladies, Mr. Brosnan looks damned good, doesn’t he?

While my Bond connoisseur friend has called TWINE his
favorite Brosnan Bond film so far, I have to say that while it was entertaining,
I’m not sure it was any more or less entertaining than the other two. Actually,
let me correct that. Plot and action-wise, none of the films have a particular
edge. But TWINE has Sophie Marceau and Denise Richards (who looks damned
good, even if I’ll never, ever believe she’s a nuclear scientist. Ever.).
The character that seems to be the film’s villain, Renard (Robert Carlyle) is
ignored for half the film and never really given the chance to develop – though
there’s something of a reason for that. Marceau shines, however, as the newest,
gloriously sexy Bond girl, with the hot accent (English is her fourth language,
or something like that). And for the first time, I found Denise Richards to be
hot. Nothing else I’ve seen her in (Starship Troopers, Wild Things, Drop
Dead Gorgeous
) managed to give her quite the same ring-a-ding-ding as this
film does.

Overall, TWINE is at least as good as its two
predecessors, and maybe a little better. So if you’re a Bond fan, an action
movie fan, or ideally both, make sure you check this film out.

Sleepy Hollow

I admit I had some bias coming in to Sleepy Hollow – I
was psyched for it. Totally psyched. I already had all four of the action
figures, including the deluxe Headless Horseman that included his horse. I had
the poster and the soundtrack. But what of it? Aren’t we movie reviewers
supposed to love movies? And if so, shouldn’t we get excited about them?

However, in the past, I’ve been willing to give somewhat
negative reviews of a film, no matter how much I was looking forward to them
(see The Phantom Menace). But luckily, Sleepy
Hollow
didn’t disappoint me in the slightest.

Directed by Tim Burton and written by Kevin Yagher, a long-time
film crewman but first-time screenwriter, Sleepy Hollow plays fast and
loose with the original tale, written by Washington Irving and known in full as The
Legend of Sleepy Hollow
. Set in 1799, just before "the dawn of a new
century," the film’s central character is Ichabod Crane (Johhny Depp), who
in the original story was a mild-mannered schoolteacher in the town of Sleepy
Hollow, but here is a New York cop who is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate
some murders involving beheadings.

Unlike the original story, which made it fairly clear that while
the town was virulently superstitious there was little actual evil magic about,
Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is a grove of witches, demons, and gates to Hell. The
plot is simple: Crane must figure out who is carrying out the gruesome
beheadings and capture him. Involved in his quest is Baltus Van Tassel (Michael
Gambon), a rich local baron, and his beautiful daughter, Katrina (Christina
Ricci). Along the way, Crane also enlists the help of a boy whose father is
murdered by the mysterious forces at work, Young Masbath (Marc Pickering). 

From the outset, Burton makes it quite clear to the audience
that we are not dealing with the flesh-and-blood murdered that Crane is looking
for, but a ghostly Headless Horseman that mercilessly slays his victims (each
beheading shown entirely in all its gory glory) and carries away their craniums
for unknown purposes. Gone is the theory that the Horseman uses the heads, at
least temporarily, to replace his own (thus making the Horseman’s main way of
killing somewhat less logical, in a minor plot issue); the Horseman’s motives
are unclear as he repeatedly rides out of the forest to claim another victim.

It’s important to note that part of what Burton was going for in
Sleepy Hollow was an homage to the Hammer horror films of the 1950s and
’60s. The gigantic moon, the painted sets, the stilted dialogue – these are all
aspects of those classic British films. Unlike his last effort to capture a
cinematic style of years past – the dismal Mars Attacks – Burton melds
the style of the Hammer films seamlessly into his bizarre microcosm of Sleepy
Hollow. 

Depp plays the idiosyncratic constable to a T, making him so
rational, and yet timid, that the simple phrase "It was a Headless
Horseman" becomes the funniest line in the entire film. Ricci, playing the
"beautiful American actress" archetypal role within the Hammer
tradition, is admiringly sweet and sensual despite her big dresses and
deliberately awkward dialogue. 

And then there’s the Headless Horseman himself. He is King
Bad-Ass. Riding like a bat out of hell – literally – from his haunted tree, on
his huge steed Daredevil (actually the name of the horse of Ichabod Crane’s
rival for Katrina’s affections, Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien), in the orginal
tale), sword in hand, ready to slay his next victim – the Horseman is truly the
image of the Grim Reaper. It’s worth noting that when in hand-to-hand combat,
the Horseman was played by Ray Park, Star Wars‘ infamous Darth Maul (Park
is given a deliciously ironic chance to give as good as he got in Star Wars
in one action-packed Sleepy Hollow scene). When his head is restored to
him, the Horseman is played by…but that would be telling.

Sleepy Hollow is a wonderfully Gothic fairy tale, rather
gory, but with wonderful characters and an intriguing, if occasionally
confusing, plot. Burton has given us a truly excellent traditional fairy tale,
and that’s a wonder in age where fantasy usually takes on the robes of science
fiction.   

Dogma

For some reason, I was pretty psyched to see Dogma. I’d
previously seen two other films by Kevin Smith – Clerks and Chasing
Amy
– both of which I’d liked, but neither of which became a particular
favorite of mine.

But for some reason, Dogma looked really promising. The
premise – two renegade angels find a loophole to get back into heaven – was
relevant to my current interest in Christian theology and issues of immortality
and its relation to loss and despair. Furthermore, anytime Christian theology
and pop culture mix, especially in a movie, there’s an opportunity for some very
interesting plots.

The result of Kevin Smith’s efforts is what amounts to a very
entertaining, and also enlightening, film about Christian and, more
particularly, Catholic values and their relevance in the modern world of the
Internet, rampant consumerism and a standard college-age atheism. But don’t be
fooled – Smith isn’t trying to explore the question "Does God exist?"
or "Does God matter anymore?" He comes down firmly on one side, that
of yes to both, but in doing so he creates a very fun and meaningful film.

The plot is deceptively complex: two renegade angels, Bartleby
and Loki (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, respectively) have been cast out of Heaven
for attempting to quit their jobs as God’s agents of wrath. Having chilled out
on Earth for thousands of years, they are given a shot at redemption, so to
speak, when they discover a loophole in Catholic theology: plenary indulgence. A
Catholic church in New Jersey, attempting to kick-start a new image for the
religion (Catholicism WOW!), is planning to hold a special ceremony in which
anyone who passes through the door of the church will be purged of all their
sins immediately. The angels’ plan: cut off their wings and transubstantiate to
human form, then walk through the doors. Thus, when the die, they will ascend to
heaven and rejoin the divine presence they so miss.

The Powers that Be can’t let this happen, so God’s divine
messenger, Metatron (Alan Rickman as his marvelously dry best) appears to the
Last Sion, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino). Bethany, who works in an abortion clinic,
is the archetypal doubting Catholic, dutifully going to church even though she’s
not sure what it means to her anymore. All that changes once she’s visited by
Metatron, and soon she finds herself on a quest to find Bartleby and Loki, and
prevent them from crossing the Church’s door. The stakes? If the angels cross
the door, then God is revealed to be fallible, and the entire universe unravels.

Along the way, Bethany is joined by two "prophets,"
Smith’s omnipresent Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and Smith
himself), as well as Chris Rock’s Rufus, the black 13th apostle who has returned
from the dead to help Bethany and, hopefully, have the story set straight
(according to Rufus, Jesus was a black man). They’re also joined by the Muse
Serendipity (Salma Hayek, who as always has to dance around half-naked before
getting down to brass acting tacks). While the occasionally irritating Jay and
Silent Bob seem to oddly fit with Bethany, Rufus and Serendipity seem like
strange hangers on, as if Smith found himself with a bunch of willing stars but
wasn’t sure what to do with them.

The films suffers from a bit of a dichotomy – sometimes it wants
to be an action-adventure flick, and at other times, most notably when Affleck’s
Bartleby is reflecting on his suffering and his relation to God and mankind, the
film is as honest and complex in its exploration of theology as any more
"serious" film. The film’s centerpiece is a tender scene between
Metatron and Bethany, as Bethany rages against her fate in the water of a lake
and Metatron walks on the water, where Metatron reveals to her some of the pain
and despair that God Himself has gone through for others.

Like any film – and literary work, and comic book, etc. – that
deals with a threat to God, there lingers over the film the same problem faced
by John Milton when he wrote Paradise Lost – how does one create any
drama, any sense of conflict, when God is omnipotent and can squash the threat
with less than a thought? Milton’s solution was to ignore the problem and give
us a wonderfully poetic and tragic view of Satan; similarly, Smith chooses to
ignore God’s omnipotence, at least briefly, through a few clever legal
technicalities that we, as the audience, must accept if we are to enjoy the film
at all.

In a world where God’s status is questionable, this may not be
as hard as it sounds. Nonetheless, Smith is giving us as faithful a vision of
Catholicism as any priest – despite what the Catholic League might scream about.
Furthermore, Smith has created a wonderfully fun and entertaining film, and
while being a little long, it sustains your interest until the very end.

And yes, Alanis Morissette plays God. 

Anywhere But Here

I didn’t plan to see Anywhere But Here. Natalie Portman
as a misunderstood teenager and Susan Sarandon as her free-spirit mother?

<<warning: uncharacteristically sexist comments to follow>> Hold on
girls, just let me grab my curling iron and waxing compound and we’ll psyche
ourselves up for this film!

Seriously though, there we were – stuck in the dirty, dirty town
of New Haven, with its ugly, ugly school of Yale, without our Yale connection so
we could go find a party at which to be sneered at and taunted for losing The
Game. So after treating ourselves to the gourmet delights of Popeye’s, where I
saw the fried corpses of at least two dozen chickens awaiting consumption on a
rack directly behind the cashiers, we trudged through the  miserable rain
to a run-down little theater. What was playing? Well, we had time to see either Three
Kings
or Anywhere But Here. I’d already seen Three Kings, and was also extraordinarily tired, so I figured I’d just go to the chick flick and
fall asleep.

Accursed crappy chairs! Accursed theater! Accursed movie! I find
myself somewhat hesitant to write this review, for the simple reason that my
classmate, Natalie Portman, might someday, for some ungodly reason, stumble
across my site – but the fact is, her acting, for the part, was fine. While I
admit playing an angst-filled teen isn’t a necessarily tricky role, Portman
actually brought a few endearing and complex touches to the character.

But the writing is horrendous. Horrendous. Some of the lines
just grated on my ears like my roommate’s snoring. And that’s like a buzzsaw in
itself. Even the plot is bizarre – for instance, <<spoilers ahead>> 
a character who seems to be integral to the story, who is definitely heading
toward some kind of important cathartic moment with Portman’s character, is
killed off in what seems an entirely random act. Killed off! My friends and I
just looked at each other and laughed at that point. What the hell was with this
movie?

As mentioned before, the dialogue is so wooden you could build a
campfire with it. It’s not Portman or Sarandon’s delivery – they’re just stuck
with crappy lines and a pair of bizarre characters. I suppose there’s some truth
to them – Sarandon’s character strongly reminds me of someone I know, actually –
but they just really started to irritate me in this film.

In summation, I’ll say this: I doubt I’ll ever watch this movie
again. 

So what’s the moral of the story? New Haven is a dirty, dirty
town, and I never want to go back.

Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich, a new film directed by Spike Jonze
(recently seen in Three Kings) and produced in part by
Michael Stipe of REM fame, is by far one of the freshest, funniest, and most
satirical films released this year. Never dumbing itself down to the studio
executive mentality, Being is a film that takes dozens of risks and
succeeds with almost all of them. It manages to be simultaneously entertaining
and thought-provoking, and always has a new surprise for the viewer.

The plot is deceptively simple, if bizarre. Craig Schwartz (John
Cusack), a puppeteer who can’t find work in this "wintry economical
climate," decides to use his fast fingers to get a job at a filing company.
Located on the 7 1/2 floor of an office building, Schwartz spends his days
filing and his nights at home with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). But all that
changes the day he discovers a tiny portal in his office – a portal that sends
you into John Malkovich’s mind for 15 minutes. Once it’s over, you’re dumped out
onto a ditch next to the New Jersey Turnpike.

One typically amusing moment of the film occurs when Schwartz
describes the experience to Maxine (Catherine Keener), a co-worker he hopes to
impress. Essentially summarizing the premise of the film, Schwartz ends with the
statement, "I don’t know how I can go on living my life the same way with
this knowledge." Without missing a beat, the uninterested Maxine offers him
her open window, then leaves the office. 

The rest of the film follows the premise logically to whatever
conclusion it can, however bizarre, from realizations of transgenderism to the
financial exploitation of Malkovich’s portal and even the permanent acquisition
of the actor’s mind. The film keeps the audience constantly confused as to who
the protagonist is – is it the tortured, megalomaniacal Schwartz, the
newly-awakened Lotte, the self-serving Maxine or poor Malkovich himself? Or
could it even be the kindly, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), Schwartz’s sex-obsessed,
105-year-old boss? There are no easy answers, and the focus shifts so constantly
that even by the end, one can’t be entirely sure whose story we just watched –
if anyone’s.

The performances are excellent, especially given the bizarre
material; Cusack and Diaz are nearly unrecognizable in their frumpy clothing and
down-to-earth make-up jobs, their appearances downplayed so the audience won’t
be distracted and Malkovich won’t be upstaged by these admittedly bigger-name
stars. Malkovich himself, playing a grotesque of the persona he portrays in his
better-known films, particularly In the Line of Fire, is just the type of
critically-acclaimed, publicly misunderstood actor the films needs. Keener gives
her Maxine the perfect note of the bitchy beautiful girl, but even she’s given
the chance to show a more tender side.

Charlie Kaufman’s script is outstanding, and the film delivers
as many laughs as dramatic and even disturbing moments. Being John Malkovich

a exceedingly clever, fresh, and funny, and though it’s playing in a rather
limited release, I urge you to see it as soon as you can – even if that’s on
video. The film’s premise is even a metaphor for the film itself – but instead
of 15 minutes, you get to spend two hours inside the head of Kaufman, Jonz, and
the actors themselves.

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