Film reviews December 2001

The films are rated on a 4 star scale. Any comments should be addressed to Mike Weston at

In the Bedroom (4 stars, 2001, seen 12/31/2001, 2:10, rated R):

Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play Matt and Ruth Fowler, a fifty-something couple in a small fishing town in Maine. He's a doctor and she teaches music at the local high school. Their only son, Frank (Nick Stahl), is home from college and is involved with Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), an older woman and the mother of two boys. William Mapother plays her estranged, abusive husband, Richard.

Too many reviews of this film go into the plot and give away too much in the process, so I'll leave it at that. But what I will say that first-time director Todd Field has done amazing work here. Perhaps directors who come from acting, as he has done, know better how to get the best performances out of their actors, for the acting in this film is Oscar-caliber across the board (especially from Spacek). The directing and cinematography touches are also excellent, as is the writing, at least through the first two-thirds of the film.

I've now seen this film twice, the first time at the Toronto International Film Festival on 9/9/2001, when it was apparently 6 minutes longer (I can't say I noticed the cuts, and it still has a fairly deliberate pace). At the time I ranked it the top film of the 43 I saw there, and my opinion has not diminished with time or a second viewing. This time I also figured out the meaning of the title: the “bedroom” is a chamber in a lobster trap with room for two but not three.

Ali (3 stars, 2001, seen 12/27/2001, 2:38, rated R):

This film covers 10 years in the life of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, from his fight with Sonny Liston in 1964 through “The Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman. While the film certainly contains a fair amount of boxing—and does it well, at least to the eye of this non-boxing fan—it is really much more about the convictions and the weaknesses of Ali, as well as the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It made me want to learn more.

As a film it had nice images, some interesting direction and editing, and generally good acting (Jon Voight's complete transformation into Howard Cosell is remarkable), although the pace is a bit slow and the screenplay did not seem to have any particular focus.

Ocean's Eleven (3 stars, 2001, seen 12/25/2001, 1:56, rated PG-13):

George Clooney's character, Danny Ocean, is released from prison and immediately begins to organize an elaborate robbery of the vault of three Las Vegas casinos in this remake of the 1960 “Rat Pack” film of the same name. The name, incidentally, refers to the number of people involved in the heist, most of whom are played by major Hollywood stars.

The film is very light weight but also very fun, and seems better to me than this year's Heist, although it aims lower. I found the acting of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts somewhat above the level of the rest. The cinematography seemed slightly fuzzy at times for no obvious artistic reason, although perhaps the theater's projection was to blame for this.

Vanilla Sky (3 stars, 2001, seen 12/24/2001, 2:15, rated R):

The film is a psychological thriller which largely deals with dreams, memories, and questions of sanity. It uses a very convoluted timeline to bring the viewer into a similar mental state as the main character, somewhat reminiscently to Memento.

My expectations were low, since a friend had given me his rather low opinion, but on the whole I enjoyed the film and its images, and the acting was generally good from Tom Cruise and especially Cameron Diaz. On the negative side, Penélope Cruz was a disappointment and the ending was a little too tidy given the uncertainty which preceded it. For the record, I have not seen the 1997 Spanish film on which this film is based.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (3.5 stars, 2001, seen 12/23/2001, 2:32, rated PG):

Most of you have probably read the book, but for those of you who, like me, have not, this is the story of an 11-year-old boy who is living with very unloving adoptive parents, when he is invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. During the course of the film he gradually learns why everyone else seems to know much more about his past than he does. It is a story of growth, friendship, mystery, adventure, and much more.

My memory is that when the late Gene Siskel picked Babe: Pig in the City as the best film of 1998, he did it in part because it created a whole world that is very different from the real world, but yet is completely believable and engaging. This is the feeling I got from this film. For example, early in the film when Harry is taken by Hagrid to buy his school supplies, they enter an unseen world apparently coexisting with London, where the sale of cauldrons and magic wands is just everyday business.

The special effects are generally convincing and only occasionally distracting. The child actors, while not exceptional, seem very natural and comfortable in their roles, while the adult actors are marvelous (Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman as Hagrid and Professor Snape, respectively, stand out in my memory). One complaint I had was that some of the story seemed corny, but then it was pointed out this is also true of Star Wars.

Waking Life (2.5 stars, 2001, seen 12/1/2001, 1:39, rated R):

The story isn't very important to this film, and this is its biggest weakness. What this film is most about is style, and in that respect it can be considered a pioneer. From what I understand, this film was actually shot as live action on digital video, and then several artists animated it on top of the live action images. This is called rotoscoping, although using a much more technological process than this term would have implied in years past. The effect can be entertaining, and takes you a little closer to the dream-like state that the characters in the film occupy.

The dialogue is dominated by philosophical discussions that got old for this viewer, although perhaps it would have been better if I had been a little drunk. Or maybe that would have just increased the chances that I would fall asleep. Having seen some of director Richard Linklater's earlier films (Slacker or Before Sunrise) might also have helped.

Warning: Often the various parts of the frame seem to swim about, drifting relative to each other in a manner that could cause some to become nauseous.

External filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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Copyright © 2001-2003 by Michael S. Weston. All rights reserved.