Film reviews January 2002

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


Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The (3 stars, 2001, seen 1/27/2002, 2:58, rated PG-13):

Unfortunately, I have not read the books. For the few other people like me, the story revolves around a magic ring which, when possessed by its original owner, gives absolute power. And, as they say, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and in this case the ring seems to corrupt essentially everyone who it comes near, to one degree or another. Hobbits, who are basically small mellow people, seem less corruptible than the dwarves, elves, and especially the humans that they share this world with. The main character, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), is the reluctant ring bearer in a quest to destroy the ring.

I think if I had read the books I would have been able to surrender myself much better to this world (my wife, who has read all of the books several times, loved it). But I found myself seriously distracted by the stilted speech and the unnatural acting, although Gandalf (Ian McKellen) manages to pull it off better than I expected based on the previews. The special effects are, for the most part, quite spectacular, but some of the glowing effects and the vision we see from Frodo's perspective when he puts on the ring, just seem cheesy to me. The makeup, on the other hand, is uniformly excellent and believable. At about 3 hours, even given the source material, the film seems slightly longer than it needs to be.


Lantana (4 stars, 2001, seen 1/16/2002, 2:01, rated R):

The title of this drama refers to an Australian plant with dense, thorny branches, which describes the film well as it concerns four Australian couples with densely interconnected, thorny lives. Leon and Sonja, played by Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong, are having marital problems. He's having an affair with Jane, who in turn is separated from Pete. Sonja is seeing a therapist (played by Barbara Hershey), who is married to John (Geoffrey Rush)—their marriage is also struggling under a numbness caused by the loss of their only child. Jane lives next door to Nik and Paula, who are struggling to get by financially.

As the film opens, a woman's dead body is seen in the lantana. Eventually we find out whose body it probably is, and the film takes on the outward form of a murder mystery. But that is just the surface, with the struggles of everyday life visible beneath and forming the real reason for this film to exist.

I found several things amazing about this film. First, the script painted each of these major characters as a whole person rather than the mere cartoon character they would have been in lesser hands, and created this wonderful interconnectedness to help illustrate the relationships and to marvel at on its own as a thing of beauty. Second, the performances are uniformly excellent, although perhaps a notch below those of In the Bedroom. This film basically swept the Australian Film Institute awards (acting times four, directing, screenplay, and best film), and for good reason. It should not be missed.


No Man's Land (4 stars, 2001, seen 1/15/2002, 1:38, rated R, in Bosnian/etc. with subtitles):

This film takes place in Bosnia in 1993. It opens with a group of Croatian soldiers lost in the fog at night while trying to find their front line position. In the morning they find that they are in “no man's land,” between the front lines of the two sides of the conflict. Being deliberately vague, since I find that most reviews give away too much, the Croatian(s) from this group who survive end up in a trench with one or more Serbians from the other side. Other characters include soldiers from the United Nations, who have a difficult time finding a common language in which to communicate, and members of the news media, who seem to affect the news as much as they cover it.

The film has many comic moments, but is at its heart a drama. It is often difficult to watch, both because of tense situations and because the inhumanity of war is difficult to watch when it is brought down to the level of individual humans. The film is lovely to watch, however, as the Slovenian countryside in which the filming took place is very pretty and the film's cinematography is excellent, which in turn makes the war seem even more insane. The acting by the principal characters is very natural, although some of the other characters are less well developed. If you are willing to be involved rather than merely entertained, this film is highly recommended.


waydowntown (3 stars, 2000, seen 1/13/2002, 1:27, rated R):

This very low budget Canadian feature takes place almost entirely over one long lunch hour. The primary characters, all 20-somethings in marginal entry level jobs played by actors you have very likely never heard of, have made a bet to see who can stay indoors for the longest time. That the city contains a large number of interconnected buildings with apartments, malls, and offices makes it possible to get as far as they have (almost a month), but the claustrophobic comparisons to the Ant Farm that the protagonist keeps on his desk are fairly clear.

The result is a scathing black comedic commentary on the corporate business environment. The innovative direction also makes it visually very interesting, while the acting is nothing special but good enough to not distract. Those prone to motion sickness, on the other hand, may be very distracted by the handheld camera work. This film may remind you a bit of Office Space, although more arty and less polished.

I saw this at the Camera Cinema Club, and the director (Gary Burns) and one of the main actors (Don McKellar, who also co-wrote The Red Violin) were on hand to answer questions afterwards.


Gosford Park (3 stars, 2001, seen 1/7/2002, 2:17, rated R):

This Robert Altman film is like Agatha Christie meets The Rules of the Game. A large group of people gather for a hunting weekend in the country. Downstairs their servants form a parallel gathering. There is bickering, complaining, romance, and intrigue within and between the two groups. Not everyone is who they appear to be. Suddenly, a shot rang out (well, actually a scream), and someone is discovered murdered.

But unlike an Agatha Christie-penned film, whodunit is not really the point (in fact Altman claims that the murder is not solved, although it appears to me that it is, more or less). It's the performances and the interactions that are the point, in addition to the message of class conflict. The performances, from the mostly British cast, are all very good, with Maggie Smith as the obvious standout. But for me—and I should mention that I haven't really “gotten” any Altman films to date—the characters never really became people who I cared about. One other small complaint is that the dialog was a little hard to hear at times (subtitles might actually be useful).


Royal Tenenbaums, The (3.5 stars, 2001, seen 1/5/2002, 1:49, rated R):

Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, the patriarch of a famous family. He and his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) have been separated for many years, but when her accountant (played by Danny Glover) proposes to her, Royal fakes terminal illness to—well, it's not entirely clear why—perhaps just to mess up her life, or perhaps something else. Their three children (played as adults by Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Luke Wilson) were all very successful when younger, but none have been very successful lately, and all move back to the house for various reasons. So the core of the movie is set up once all of the original family is back in the house. Other important characters are played by Owen Wilson (who also co-wrote) and Bill Murray. All of these characters are delightfully eccentric (although some critics would substitute the word “annoyingly” for “delightfully”), in a dry, underplayed manner.

There are few big laughs, but there is generous humor throughout. The acting is, as stated before, underplayed, but Hackman and Paltrow manage to show the human character beneath the eccentricities. The direction and cinematography keep things interesting. The bottom line is that I really enjoyed this film, although I'm still having a hard time putting my finger on exactly why.


Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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Copyright © 2002-2003 by Michael S. Weston. All rights reserved.