The films are rated on a 4 star scale. Any comments should be addressed to Mike Weston at email@example.com.
Monsoon Wedding (, 2001, seen 3/25/2002, 1:54, rated R, in English, Hindi, and Punjabi with subtitles):
The setting is a wedding in Delhi, between Aditi Verma, who is impatient with her married lover not committing to leaving his wife, and Hemant Rai, an Indian computer programmer who lives in Houston. The marriage has been arranged by Aditi's father, Lalit, and mother, Pimmi. Lalit worries about what everything is costing and about whether the wedding coordinator, P.K. Dube (who has a tendency to eat the marigolds, speak in both definite and vague language in the same sentence, and wonder whether he will even have the opportunity to coordinate his own wedding), will get everything done in time. And there are many more characters, most of whom you will be able to keep track of before the film is over.
They mostly speak English, but also speak Hindi and Punjabi, switching back and forth with more ease and frequency than the people of Quebec switch between French and English. You get a definite sense of place, and yet feel mostly at home. While it doesn't have the same over-the-top feeling of a typical Bollywood (the nickname of the Bombay-based film industry in India) production, there is still plenty of music, singing, and dancing, but here mostly in the believable context of a wedding and preparation for it. The colors are brilliant and alive.
And alive is probably the best description of the film. The emotions include an abundant measure of joy mixed with love, passion, anger, and more. The serious moments are fairly few in number and yet are done well. I really enjoyed this film.
Last Orders (, 2001, seen 3/19/2002, 1:49, rated R):
As the film opens, Jack Dodds (Michael Caine) has died and his ashes are being brought to the pub where he and his friends spent a great deal of time. Jack has made known that he wants his ashes scattered in the water at Margate, and the general structure of the film is his friends and his son Vince (Ray Winstone) on their way there, reminiscing about their lives. Jack's now widow, Amy (Helen Mirren), does not make the trip but is a major character nonetheless. This present day story is intercut with flashbacks of the characters at various stages of their lives, including Jack and Amy's first meeting and scenes from the war, when the characters are played by different actors, and more recent scenes when the same actors (including Caine, who obviously doesn't appear in the present) are seen.
The film is comfortable in dealing with the interconnections of life and death and between people, and while there is a surprise or two along the way, the journey seems to be the main point. Of the characters I have not already mentioned, Bob Hoskins as Ray was definitely my favorite.
The accents in the film are fairly thick and American viewers will miss some words. It's not bad enough to be a significant issue, but if I were to watch this on DVD I would probably turn on subtitles the first time I watched it.
Iris (, 2001, seen 3/19/2002, 1:30, rated R):
Iris Murdoch, based on what is said in this film, was perhaps the finest novelist of her generation. The film shows her as she is just starting her writing career, where she is played by Kate Winslet, and also when she is ending her career due to the swift onset of Alzheimer's, where she is played by Judi Dench. In the early years, Iris is a wildly energetic free spirit, sleeping with anyone and doing anything she chooses to. During this time she meets her future husband and fellow Oxford professor John Bayley (played by Hugh Bonneville in the early years and Jim Broadbent later), who is both incredibly awkward and incredibly smitten. The later period of the film starts just before the first signs of the disease begin to appear, and shows the effect of it both on her and on her husband. John's devotion to Iris in the early period of the film is critical in understanding and believing his devotion in the later period, when small good moments shine through the overwhelming difficulties.
Besides the basic story, the presentation is of both periods of Iris's life almost simultaneously, cut together everywhere. I noticed one particular cut where someone is going through a door, and as is normal practice the cut was between the person starting to open the door on one side to them coming through the door from the other, but in this case the place, person, and time were all different—cool.
The performances were all very good, with three of the primary characters up for Oscar consideration. I wasn't as blown away by Dench's performance as I expected to be, but with her expectations tend to be pretty high.
Lastly, I'll have to mildly agree with Roger Ebert that the story left me wanting to see something of the middle part of Iris's life, when she was at the height of her career.
Medicine Show, The (, 2001, seen 3/17/2002, 1:40, unrated):
Jonathan Silverman plays Taylor Darcy, who, as we learn within the first few minutes of the film, has colon cancer, and whose father died of colon cancer. We also learn from the beginning that he doesn't take anything seriously, preferring to deal with the world using his sarcastic wit. He tries to keep his cancer quiet at work, where he writes for cartoons, but soon everyone knows and is treating him as “special,” which he can't stand. Various tests leading up to his operation are shown, some (an incompetent nurse drawing blood) in more detail than I might have liked. Since the film is from Taylor's perspective, he is not conscious during the operation itself, so thankfully that is not shown. Silverman is excellent as Taylor, and a character named Lynn Piegi, who appears later in the film, is also played very well by Natasha Gregson Wagner (daughter of Natalie Wood and step-daughter of Robert Wagner).
But I think what really makes this excellent dark comedy (yes, a comedy about cancer) work is the script. The first time director, Wendell Morris, also wrote the script, and it turns out that what Taylor goes through is very much what Wendell went though (including being a cartoon writer).
I saw this film at the Camera Cinema Club, where Wendell spoke and answered questions after the film. It was made for a very low budget (shot in only 18 days), but because Silverman agreed to be in it enough money was available to shoot on film, and it looks reasonably good. It is expected to play on Showtime this summer.
Daughter From Danang (, 2002, seen 3/16/2002, 1:15, unrated, in English and Vietnamese with subtitles):
In 1975, as the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, some 2000 American/Vietnamese babies and children were airlifted from Vietnam to the United States. The official plan was that these children were to be limited to orphans, but many were not, given up by their Vietnamese parents in order to hopefully provide them with better opportunities, and also to prevent their persecution due to their partial American heritage. This documentary follows one particular girl who was 7 years old when she was sent away by her mother. 22 years later the mother and daughter are each seeking information about the other. The daughter, now named Heidi, has been raised in Tennessee in a society where her adoptive single mother feels it is best to hide the truth. The KKK parade that is shown seems to support this decision. With the help of the documentarians, mother and daughter are reunited. As we learned from the question and answer session after the film (shown in San Jose as part of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival), this reunion was set up very hastily, giving little time to prepare for the cultural differences which turn the later parts of this film far more challenging than the filmmakers expected.
This film won the grand jury prize for documentaries at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which might have set my expectations a bit too high. The film is expected to show on PBS in 2003.
I Am Sam (, 2001, seen 3/15/2002, 2:12, rated PG-13):
Sam Dawson, played by Sean Penn, is mentally retarded. As the film opens we see him working very diligently and effectively at Starbuck's, organizing the sweeteners, busing the tables, and delivering the coffees. He complements everyone on having made “an excellent choice.” Then he is reminded that today is the big day and that he needs to go to the hospital, where his daughter is born. When the mother runs away, he is left with the baby, who he names Lucy. While he is overwhelmed with the task of raising a daughter (which we see by the camera swirling around him to show his confusion), he gets some help from a neighbor (played very well by Dianne Wiest in a small role) and manages to raise her. The film goes through these early years quite quickly to get to the heart of the story, which is when Lucy begins to surpass her father's intelligence. The authorities decide that perhaps Sam is not such a good father after all, and he is forced to fight to keep her. He doesn't really understand what's going on, but manages through luck and determination to get a lawyer, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. This part of the film, which needed to be edited a little more aggressively, becomes a bit too manipulative and “movie of the week” for what would normally be my taste, but it is done so well that it worked for me, and I didn't mind.
Penn's acting is amazing, with only one brief moment when I saw his intelligence flash out from behind his character. You really can't appreciate what he does here from watching the clips or the movie trailer. Dakota Fanning, who plays Lucy, is also quite good most of the time, especially considering her age (7 in 2001). Pfeiffer is acceptable most of the time, but is obviously acting (or attempting to) in her biggest scene. I'll also mention that Brent Spiner has a very short part in one early scene (so small I expected him to be uncredited, but he is listed), and Laura Dern does good work when she appears later in the film.
And lastly, I should say that the soundtrack is made up of remakes of Beatles songs, which also fits into the story because Sam falls back on the lyrics of Beatles songs when he doesn't know what else to to (like when he names his daughter after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”). Surprisingly, I do not believe that “All You Need is Love” is used, because that would perhaps summarize the message of the movie.
Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (, 2001, seen 3/8/2002, 1:22, rated G):
If you've seen the previews, you have a pretty good idea of how the plot for this animated film works. The main character is a boy named Jimmy Neutron (his full name is James Isaac Neutron, but he is called Jimmy Nerdtron on more than one occasion) who is way smarter than any of his schoolmates or his parents. He has a robotic dog named Goddard and brings a shrink ray to school for “show and tell.” And part way through the film all of the parents are abducted by aliens.
The preview looked entertaining, but the worry was that the rest of the film wouldn't hold up or the whole premise would get old. If this hadn't gotten nominated for a best animated feature film Oscar, I probably wouldn't have seeked out one of the last places it was playing on a Friday afternoon (in a theater with two other people, one of whom was my wife). The pleasant surprise was that it was great fun from beginning to end, and the soundtrack wasn't bad either (e.g., “We Got the Beat” by The Go-Go's). It isn't great cinema, but it's a great guilty pleasure.
Corazones rotos (, English title: Broken Hearts, 2001, seen 3/3/2002, 2:00, unrated, in Spanish with subtitles):
This film takes place in a large apartment building in Mexico City. Many of the occupants are struggling financially, leading to them being behind in paying their dues and therefore leading to possible imminent eviction. A few are well off. One family was quite wealthy but has recently fallen on hard times, and the teenage children seem utterly incapable of understanding why they should suffer.
The large cast is easier to keep straight than I would have expected, but still there were times of confusion. The camera work was interesting in that the camera sometimes would do a slow roll (not a pan or a tilt), resulting in skewed angles.
When the film did not arrive at Cinequest, the first screening was canceled and the second was shown on video using the screener that the festival programmer had available, but luckily the film did arrive in time for an added screening on the last day of the festival.
On_Line (, 2002, seen 3/3/2002, 1:37, unrated):
This film, which won the jury prize at Cinequest for best narrative feature, is nominally about two roommates who start an internet sex site. But happily the film is about more than that. It is also about real life interactions, and about the confusing lines of public vs. private on the internet.
The director was there to answer questions, and the story behind the film was also pretty interesting. Most of the online interactions really did happen in real-time, although often over local network connections between people in nearby rooms rather than over the internet. In one case people who were supposedly in different states were actually in rooms on adjacent floors of a dilapidated building, and they had to take care to make sure that the one on the upper floor didn't cause dust to rain down on the other person. The film was shot in 18 days on digital video, and it appears that it will likely get distributed.
Design (, 2002, seen 3/3/2002, 1:52, unrated):
This film is about a set of interconnected characters and their fates. It is very dark, as the characters all seem to be doomed, disturbed, or both. The performances are all very good, with Daniel J. Travanti standing out as the alcoholic father/salesman. It is also visually very striking, including the use of flash frames. The look is also partly the result of it being shot on a type of film which is close to obsolete, called Super 16 reversal. The story was apparently inspired by a poem of the same name by Robert Frost. Seen at Cinequest.
Note that the cinematographer is the infamous Pete Biagi of HBO “Project Greenlight” fame, although the director of this film (who also wrote the film and played one of the main characters) swears that Pete was great to work with and plans to continue to work with him.
Grownups (, 2001, seen 3/2/2002, 1:30, unrated):
Two childhood best friends grow up and are still best friends at age 30, but now are both married, one to his first girlfriend. Their lives have become far more boring than they would like, and what were once jokes about wife swapping begin to be taken seriously, first by the men and eventually by the women, as a last act of wildness before becoming grownups.
The comedy works fairly well, but the actors are not good enough to make the premise believable or to carry off the dramatic scenes. To the writers' credit, the complications that ensue are not simply the obvious ones. The film has high production values and it tied for the audience award at Cinequest for best dramatic feature, so perhaps it has a chance of getting distribution.
Yank Tanks (, 2002, seen 3/2/2002, 1:11, unrated, in Spanish with subtitles):
When the U.S. embargo of Cuba began in 1961, 150,000 American cars were in the country. Cut off from a supply of parts and with insufficient money to replace these cars, the people of Cuba have been remarkably inventive in keeping these cars running. With humor and great music, this film tells the story of the owners, the mechanics, and of course the cars. It tied for the audience award for best documentary at Cinequest, and this was the world premiere screening.
I hadn't originally intended to see this film, but on the opening night of the festival I was accosted by the director outside of a nearby bookstore.
Come Together (, 2001, seen 3/2/2002, 1:18, unrated):
The main character is a 28-year-old greeting-card writer named Ewan who is in town for the wedding of his ex-girlfriend to a much more successful man. Ewan unexpectedly meets Amy, a high school girl who doesn't even know how to drive. Despite their age difference, some romance develops, so perhaps it is good that Ewan seems younger than his age.
The film makes good use of video, which was nominally taken by the main character when he was dating his ex-girlfriend, to fill in some of the backstory. The relationships become more complex as the film progresses, and on the whole this was better than I expected. Seen at Cinequest.
Tribute (, 2001, seen 3/1/2002, 1:30, unrated):
This documentary tells the story of several cover bands. The bands in question include Sheer Heart Attack (Queen), Larger than Life (KISS), and Missing Links (The Monkeys). One fan of Sheer Heart Attack, dubbed the “Superfan,” was particularly interesting and scary. He saw everything in his life through Queen-colored glasses, had an extensive set of T-shirts with a long story behind each one, and even had a set routine for show nights.
One was reminded of another documentary about obsessive fans: Trekkies (which I just noticed was directed by the editor of The Search for John Gissing).
When I saw this at Cinequest, Larger than Life came out after the film in full KISS costumes and makeup.
Family Affair, A (, 2001, seen 3/1/2002, 1:47, unrated):
Rachel is a Jewish lesbian. Her parents are initially shocked by this revelation (the lesbian part, that is), but have come around so far that they are now leaders of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays). After a long, on again, off again relationship with a woman named Reggie in New York, Rachel moves to southern California and meets Christine.
This romantic comedy stars Helen Lesnick, who also wrote and directed it. Her character breaks the fourth wall frequently, speaking to the camera on and off from the very beginning of the film. While I really enjoyed the film, a couple of minor problems stood out: the actress/writer/director looks much closer to the age of the actress playing her mother than to that of her love interest, and the dialog seemed stilted and occasionally badly overdubbed. I can't help but compare this to Kissing Jessica Stein, which I saw in Toronto last year but is only now being released in theaters. This film is more real, but is not as inventive or as well delivered, so I would have to give the edge to KJS. Seen at Cinequest.
Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.
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Copyright © 2002-2003 by Michael S. Weston. All rights reserved.