Film reviews May 2002

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

Y tu mamá también (3.5 stars, English title: And Your Mother Too, 2001, seen 5/24/2002, 1:45, unrated, in Spanish with subtitles):

Julio (Gael García Bernal from Amores Perros) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) are both nearing college age and living in Mexico City, but are seemingly improbable friends. Julio comes from a lower middle class family, while Tenoch's father is a rich politician, but they are inseparable except for when they are having sex with their girlfriends (an instance of which opens the film—note that the film is unrated but is almost certainly beyond an R). Their girlfriends go away to Europe for the summer, leaving Julio and Tenoch restless. At a party at Tenoch's house (to give you a picture, the President of Mexico attends and the bodyguards outnumber the guests), Tenoch and Julio meet Luisa (Maribel Verdú), a very attractive, somewhat older woman (perhaps in her late 20's) who is married to Tenoch's cousin. Not knowing who she is, they invite her to go on a trip to a secret beach they say they know but which in fact they have made up.

A few days later Luisa gets a call from her husband, who is totally drunk, and who confesses that he has slept with another woman. We see Luisa react. Later Luisa calls Tenoch to see if the offer of the trip still stands. Even though they don't really know where they're going, Tenoch and Julio agree immediately. And even though they believe their girlfriends are being faithful while they visit Europe, Julio and Tenoch are obviously hoping that Luisa will not be faithful to her husband. And so the road trip begins.

Throughout the course of the film, we also get a perspective on the real Mexico. We see it through the car windows, and we hear the narrator describe other events that we do not see. The difference in social class is illustrated, though not with a heavy hand, and is mirrored in the differences between Tenoch and Julio. The cinematography brings us this Mexico in a realistic but not self-consciously gritty way.

All three of the lead actors are very very good. Maribel Verdú plays the central character, with the most complex emotions to show, while Bernal and Luna are teenagers in the process of growing up. Assuming that the sexual subject matter is not an obstacle, the film is well worth watching on many levels, and these performances are the primary reason why.

Spider-Man (2.5 stars, 2002, seen 5/17/2002, 2:01, rated PG-13):

Peter Parker (played by Tobey Maguire) is a very smart, very socially awkward high school student who lives with his aunt and uncle. He is in love with Mary Jane Watson (a.k.a., “M.J.”, played by Kirsten Dunst), and has been since she moved in next door when they were both children. One day they are both on a field trip, and a genetically altered, radioactive spider bites Peter. He feels ill and goes home to fall asleep. When he wakes up he begins to figure out that his body has changed. He is far stronger, can stick to surfaces, and then there are the webs.

Meanwhile, Peter's best friend's father, Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), runs a large company attempting to sell advanced technology to the military. When an experiment in human augmentation stalls, he decides to make himself a human guinea pig, and he begins his transformation into the extremely schizophrenic Green Goblin.

That's just the set-up. There's a lot more story, as Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man, and then, with the help of his uncle, figures out what Spider-Man should stand for. Tobey Maguire does a better job of this transition than most actors one might have thought of casting for a superhero role would have, but he isn't given enough to work with. And Kirsten Dunst has even less to do. Willem Dafoe might be the stand out, but only because he is supposed to chew the scenery and does, quite effectively.

Director Sam Raimi is apparently a huge fan of the comic book hero, and he has given this film a distinctly comic book feel, starting from the comic book opening credits. This can be charming at times, but, for me at least, falls flat at many others. The dialog is unintentionally funny far too often.

I'll sum up here with my summary as we left the theater: This movie somehow manages to be both entertaining and lame.

Emploi du temps, L' (3.5 stars, English title: Time Out, 2001, seen 5/14/2002, 2:12, rated PG-13, in French with subtitles):

As the film opens, we see a man sleeping in the front seat of a car. His cell phone rings (perhaps a clever way to get the audience to check and turn off their cell phones!), waking him up. We get a picture of a man, named Vincent, who is not working but is pretending with his friends and family that he is. He talks about meetings that he claims to be attending but clearly is not. Compounding matters, he starts to talk about a new job that he might get in Switzerland, working for the United Nations. Once news of that starts to spread, he has to pretend that he does get the job. He borrows money from his father, ostensibly to buy an apartment in Geneva but really just to keep himself and his family afloat as if he was still employed. Vincent's fabrications begin to get more elaborate, as his grip on his old, successful life begins to slip away.

The film moves slowly. The melancholy strings in the score convey the mood of Vincent's deepening depression quite effectively, bringing us along and down with him. Aurélien Recoing's performance as Vincent is understated but extremely effective and believable, as much as we wish it was not. The rest of the cast is also good, as is the cinematography—some of the Swiss scenery is just breathtakingly beautiful.

If the slow pace and the downbeat story don't scare you off, this film is very highly recommended.

Dogtown and Z-Boys (3 stars, 2001, seen 5/11/2002, 1:29, rated PG-13):

This documentary traces the origins and life of the Zephyr skateboard team, using original film shot in the 1970s (mostly by Craig Stecyk) combined with interviews of the team members and other influential people today.

The first part of the film documents how the “Dogtown” section of Venice, CA came to be, starting back around the turn of the century when the town was created to be a Venice, Italy-like European city. By the 1970's, the one remaining local attraction, the Pacific Ocean Park, had been abandoned, leaving a beach with lots of exposed piers and other hazards. The poor kids living in the area had nothing better to do than surf, and they excelled despite (or perhaps because of) their surroundings. Because the waves dissipated in the afternoon, they took up skateboarding to fill their time, and the empty swimming pools caused by the drought during those years plus their surfing backgrounds led them to create the vertical skateboarding style that is mainstream today.

I found that the film covered much more about surfing than I expected, which seemed like a bonus since I really didn't know much about surfing or skateboarding before I watched the film. The soundtrack, not surprisingly, was good as well. I also liked how these kids were just following their passion and generally ended up better off for the experience. The parts that didn't work so well for me were the drama that they tried to create, which seemed somewhat forced, and the team's somewhat overinflated sense of self-importance (although this is probably just left-over street attitude from where they grew up). This is not to say that they didn't have significant influence, but only that it seems extremely likely that there were other factors as well.

One note: My wife is more affected than most to nausea when films use what we refer to as SpastiCam™ (wiggling camera movements). This film is often guilty, so if you are so afflicted, be warned.

I would recommend this film to anyone, but especially to anyone with skateboarding and/or surfing in their history.

Frailty (3 stars, 2001, seen 5/7/2002, 1:40, rated R):

Using a structure similar to The Usual Suspects, the story is told by a man who introduces himself as Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) to FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe). He says that his brother, Adam, is the “God's Hands” serial murderer that Doyle is in charge of finding. The bulk of the film is Meiks' story.

The story begins when Fenton and Adam are young boys, living with their father (played by Bill Paxton, who also directed). It shows how Fenton takes care of his younger brother, since their mother died giving birth to him. Fenton cooks dinner, does the dishes, and so on. It's a simple life, but it works for him.

Then one night the father has a vision of an angel, who tells him that the end of the world is near, and that he and his sons are needed to destroy demons who live as and appear to be normal people. Fenton hopes that this was a bad dream, but soon finds that his world, which the film just showed as being simple and comfortable, has been turned upside down. And worse, unlike his younger brother, he doesn't believe that his father has really heard from an angel. He believes that his father has simply gone crazy. The only thing keeping Fenton from running away is his fear for Adam's life, and Adam refuses to listen.

Thrillers are not a genre that I generally seek out. This one seems to be a good example, with the added dimensions of the effect on the two boys and of questioning faith. Thankfully, the serious violence is generally kept off screen, although watching the reactions of the boys witnessing their father committing murder/destroying demons is still hard to watch.

The story doesn't go where I expected it to. At least one review I read found the ending to be a problem, but I found that the twists made the film more interesting to me, almost reaching another half a star in my rating. The performances are good, but not exemplary, although the young actor who played Fenton as a boy stood out. This is Paxton's first film as director, and his work here is good. In fact I would say that this film is better than most of the films he has appeared in as an actor.

I would definitely recommend this film to you if this description sounds good. For people like me who don't normally go to thiller/horror films, this might or might not be worth breaking your normal patterns to see.

Maelström (3.5 stars, 2000, seen 5/5/2002, 1:27, rated R, in French, English, and Norwegian with subtitles):

The film opens with a large, visibly injured, and obviously fake fish talking directly to the audience. Nearby a man is cutting up fish. The talking fish says that his life in nearly over, and he would like to tell a “pretty” story with his last breaths. Then we cut to a beautiful woman, in a doctor's office. We soon figure out that she is having an abortion. As we see the fetal matter being incinerated and her leaving the building, the grossly perky song “Good Morning Starshine” begins to play. Okay... This is obviously not going to be your normal film.

The woman is named Bibiane (Marie-Josée Croze), and she turns out to be the main character. Perhaps related to the abortion, it soon becomes clear that her life is not going too well right now. Not long into the film she is removed from her position in the family business, a chain of upscale clothing stores, by her brother (although at first I thought he was her estranged or ex-husband).

Most reviews or plot summaries go into more detail about events that occur in the middle and end of the film, but I'll keep it to that. There are some rather unlikely coincidences along the way, in case that sort of thing bothers you. And there is a distinct water theme, which is not surprising given the title. I would classify the film as primarily a drama, since the laughs are mostly at surprising events rather than strictly funny ones, and because the film kept me feeling slightly uncomfortable throughout.

Marie-Josée Croze is very good here. The cinematography is excellent, with at least one shot that took my breath away. The story and the direction, both by Denis Villeneuve, on the other hand, are somewhat suspect. Besides the aforementioned coincidences, several scenes are juxtaposed in a seemly random manner, and you can't figure them out until later if then. Now this could just be a mechanism to get you to think, and in the wake of Memento (which came out at about the same time as this film) one is becoming used to the idea of the film structure mirroring the main character's thought processes. I'm not sure I completely buy this argument, but I'll give it a little leeway.

This film won the best picture, direction, cinematography, screenplay, and actress awards in Canada at their equivalent of the Academy Awards, but it is only just now getting to the United States, where it is expected to play for a very short time. In the San Jose, CA area it is expected on May 17th.

Seen at the Camera Cinema Club in San Jose, CA.

Spagnola, La (2.5 stars, 2001, seen 5/1/2002, 1:27, unrated, in Spanish, Italian, and English with subtitles):

Lucía is a 14-year-old girl living in Australia with her beautiful Spanish mother, Lola (the title refers to her and means “Spanish woman”), while her Italian father (named Ricardo) has run off with an Australian woman. Lola is a woman of fiery emotions, which she demonstrates very quickly by throwing herself on top of and then in front of the car as Ricardo attempts to drive off. She wants him back, or at least for him to pay her bills, and failing that she wants revenge. Lucía would just like a normal family and to spend time with the family chickens and the goat named Elvis.

That barely gives a hint of the flavor of the film, which is very quirky, often darkly humorous, and sometimes dramatic. I enjoyed individual bits (Lourdes Bartolomé steals the scenes she's in as Lucía's aunt Manola), but on the whole it didn't really work for me. Still, there's enough here to give it a mild recommendation.

This was Australia's nomination for the best foreign language film of 2001, which is an interesting concept in that Australia is an English speaking country, but this is in fact a foreign language film. It is currently playing in Europe, but the director (who was at the San Francisco International Film Festival screening where I saw it to introduce it but not for questions) does not expect it to get distribution in the U.S.

Rigtigt menneske, Et (3 stars, English title: Truly Human, 2001, seen 5/1/2002, 1:35, unrated, in Danish with subtitles):

Walther and Charlotte are a not-so-happily married couple with a daughter named Lisa, and would have had an older son if they hadn't chosen to abort him. Lisa imagines that her brother lives inside the wall of their apartment. As this Dogme95 film opens, the building that they live in is about to be torn down, and when it is torn down, we see someone crawl out of the rubble. He thinks he is Walther and Charlotte's son and he appears to be in his early 20's, but he doesn't know his own name or have any idea about even the most simple aspects of daily life. How this simple man interacts with the not-so-simple world is reminiscent of Chauncey Gardner in Being There, while the strange aspects of his origins makes it feel just a little like The Sixth Sense.

This fantasy aspect makes this an unusual Dogme95 film, and would seem to break rule #8 (genre movies). It seems likely to me that rule #2 (sound) was also broken at times, and I'm not sure about #5 (optical work and filters). As far as the acting, which is normally what makes or breaks a Dogme95 film, the parents and other “normal” people were fairly good, while the main character was a bit weak. If you're a fan of Dogme95 films or if the description sounds intriguing, this film is definitely worth seeing. Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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