Film reviews June 2002

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

Sunshine State (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 6/28/2002, 2:21, rated PG-13):

This film has more real, three dimensional characters than two or three normal films, played by actors who are familiar and very good, but not stars. The main characters are probably Marly Temple (Edie Falco from “The Sopranos”) and Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett from How Stella Got Her Groove Back). Marly runs the family business, a motel and coffee shop next to the Florida coast in the small town where this film takes place, but prefers to delegate as much of the actual operation as possible. Her father (Ralph Waite from “The Waltons”), who started the business, is mostly blind, and her mother (Jane Alexander from Testament) teaches drama.

Meanwhile Desiree has returned home for a visit with her new anesthesiologist husband (James McDaniel from “NYPD Blue”) after leaving town suddenly as a teenager, although about 18 years ago she did come back for one day for her father's funeral. She was interested in acting long ago, but has only found success making infomercials. Her mother (Mary Alice) still lives in town and is raising a teenage boy, who we see in the opening shot setting fire to what appears to be a sailing ship.

The town is in the midst of Buccaneer Days, a small town event organized by Francine Pickney (Mary Steenburgen), with some help from her depressed husband (Gordon Clapp from “NYPD Blue”).

The outside influence is provided by some developers, who are in town to break ground on a project and to attempt to buy up some additional property by whatever means possible. The main character among them is Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton from Ordinary People), who gets to know Marly. The opposition to the developers is primarily organized by Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs).

All of the above characters and more who I haven't even mentioned are very good and interesting, as are the performances by the actors playing them and the dialog they are given to speak. The only false note I can recall was by the chairperson of the city council, who only appeared in one scene.

The film was written, directed, and edited by John Sayles, whose previous work I have been negligent about seeing, except for Lone Star. I absolutely loved this film until maybe three quarters of the way through, when it seemed to start to drag a bit. I started to wonder if it was ever going to go anywhere, and while it did reveal a few mysteries, it really didn't, at least for me. That said, the film is still so much better than almost anything else you could see.

Insomnia (3 stars, 2002, seen 6/23/2002, 1:58, rated R):

I remember the point during this film when the first event happened that would be a spoiler if I mentioned it, and it wasn't very far into the film. So don't expect this review to give much more than a feeling for who most of the characters are and the general atmosphere.

The film opens with detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart being flown over some lovely but forbidding landscape in a twin engine float plane, discussing an investigation that Internal Affairs is doing on them back in Los Angeles. They arrive in Nightmute, Alaska, and are met by a junior detective named Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) who is a big fan of Dormer's—even having written a paper on one of his cases when she was at the police academy. Dormer looks tired already, and he hasn't even figured out yet that the sun won't set during his entire stay in this town.

The case they have been sent here to help out on is a murder of a high school girl. The very early parts of the investigation are routine, with the Los Angeles cops bringing a great deal of expertise to bear, helping the locals see what they may have missed or assumed. Then the aforementioned event happens, and the film becomes more interesting and also much more tense.

The performances are good, though unremarkable. Pacino is unable to sleep (hence the film's title), and becomes more and more tired as the days go by, and this seems believable. Swank is fine but isn't given as much to work with, except perhaps in one brief scene near the end. I did like Paul Dooley (who played the father in Breaking Away) in the small role of the local police chief.

This film was directed by Christopher Nolan, whose previous film was the outstanding Memento. This is a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, which is available on DVD but which I have not seen. This film doesn't use as obvious of a hook as did Memento, but it does frequently use short flash images to show what Dormer is thinking about. Not all of these images make sense at first, but eventually things do come together. And speaking of images, the cinematography is very good, especially of the Alaskan countryside (although much of the film was shot in British Columbia).

This film is very good, to the extent that I have been very close to giving it another half star. It's starting to disappear in the theaters here, so see it soon if you can.

About a Boy (3 stars, 2002, seen 6/21/2002, 1:41, rated PG-13):

Hugh Grant plays Will, who is independently wealthy because his father wrote one hit song many years ago. His house looks like a Sharper Image catalog and he drives an Audi TT, but his friends, who are all married with children, keep asking him if he wants anything more out of life. One couple asks him to be their child's godfather, and Will suggests that that would be a really bad idea.

Will gets set up with a woman who turns out to be a single mother, which surprisingly turns out pretty well for him when she breaks up with him just as he starts to tire of her (he's never had a relationship last longer then two months). So he invents an imaginary son and attends a group meeting for single parents. As a result, he eventually meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), who is a 12 year old boy. His mother (Toni Collette) is a vegetarian hippy who dresses Marcus funny, but he loves her anyway. He ends up taking a liking to Will, and the bulk of the film revolves around them. A great deal of the narrative is carried in the form of voice overs by the characters, which works but may take you a little out of the film after a while.

The acting is good. This is perhaps the most interesting role I can recall Hugh Grant playing, since he begins the film as a proudly shallow man and evolves, in fits and starts, over the course of the film. Nicholas Hoult does a convincing job of portraying a child who doesn't really fit in anywhere. Toni Collette, as my wife pointed out, is under utilized, but is still good. All in all, the film presents an interesting set of characters that I was glad to have had a chance to meet.

One interesting technique which I don't recall being used before was what I would call a pan cut. The film pans from one scene to another, so that in the middle of the pan the left half of the frame is a different scene than the right half. I guess it's just a wipe, except with the camera movement of a pan. I imagine that it was probably done digitally.

The film is based on a novel by Nick Hornby, who also wrote High Fidelity. In the early parts of this film, I was really enjoying myself and felt that it was in the same league, but in the end it didn't feel as complete somehow. But since that's a pretty high standard, I would definitely still recommend this film.

Maryam (3.5 stars, 2000, seen 6/19/2002, 1:27, unrated):

The year is 1979. There are lines at the gas stations and a revolution in Iran. As the film opens, we see archival news footage from the latter story as the soundtrack plays “Good Times Roll” by The Cars. We meet Maryam (Mariam Parris), who is a high school senior in New Jersey. She was born in Iran, but knows almost nothing of that culture. She is the anchor for the school television news program, goes by the name Mary at school, and generally seems comfortable in her life, although her parents are a little more strict than most.

Soon she learns that her cousin Ali (David Ackert) is coming from Iran to live with the family and attend a local university. Ali's father died years ago, and his mother recently died as well. When he arrives, he seems very uncomfortable with American life—people (even women!) shake hands, dance, and do all sorts of things that Ali is used to thinking of as immoral in his native, Ayatollah Khomeini-controlled country. Ali thinks the Ayatollah has been a good change for Iran, and that the deposed Shah is evil. Maryam's reply is that the Ayatollah “calls the U.S. the Great Satan. I mean, the guy could lighten up a little.”

The key characters in the film are Maryam and Ali. I thought Parris was outstanding in the former role, showing both emotion and typical high school irreverence with equal skill. Ackert was harder to judge, but he did make me believe that Ali was very uncomfortable with most of what he saw of America, and I can't recall any sour notes in his performance, so it was at least acceptable. The remaining actors, especially Maryam's parents, were less developed but also quite believable.

The writing, direction, cinematography, and so on were also quite good, but what really sets this film apart is the way that it shows how hateful and intolerant American society can be. Especially after the American embassy hostages are taken, almost everyone becomes very cold to the entire family—the militant Islamic Ali as well as the totally Americanized Maryam—regardless of past friendships. Because we have had the opportunity to get to know these Iranians as human beings, the escalating hatred is that much harder to watch.

This film was made well before the events of 9/11, so the obvious parallels to the current distrust of anyone who looks like he might be Afghani were not planned. But this film is outstanding in its ability to remind us to see the person and not the label. See it if you have the chance. Unfortunately, it is closing where I saw it, so you might be forced to wait (and hope) for home video.

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2.5 stars, 2002, seen 6/16/2002, 2:22, rated PG):

The Republic and its Jedi Knights are facing a growing crisis. The separatists (the Federation, I think they are called, which is too similar a word to Republic to keep straight which is which) are growing stronger, and the Jedis' ability to sense what's going on through The Force is being clouded by an increase in energy from The Dark Side. Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) is needed for a crucial vote and is being protected by Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Jedi-in-training Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). There are some exciting scenes in the movie, but the overall story really is almost as dull as this sounds.

Jar Jar Binks is, thankfully, seen and heard far less than he was in part I. Yoda has become a purely computer generated character, like Jar Jar but not annoying. R2-D2 and C-3PO provide comic relief, although the latter's puns seem out of place on at least one occasion. The human dialogue is stiff throughout the movie, but the love story between Padme and Anakin is especially painful. And Christensen's Anakin at times seems to change 180º from one line to the next, which might be intended to suggest how unstable he's becoming as he prepares to become Darth Vader in part III, but just seems ludicrous in the context of this movie. There is absolutely no acting here that could be considered very good, for which I would have to blame George Lucas, as writer and director, since these actors have shown that they can be significantly better than this.

In the movie's defense, there are some very entertaining scenes. Near the beginning, the three dimensional chase through the city is reminiscent of The Fifth Element, only better. And there are some big battles later in the movie, after everyone is finally talked out. But after all I had heard about these final scenes, I was surprised when the end of the movie arrived, because what I had seen had not lived up to the hype.

See this is you want to be entertained. If you want to see a fine example of film making, on the other hand, try something else.

Digital cinema: This movie was not filmed. It was recorded on high definition (about 2 million pixels/frame) 24 frame/second video, and all of the special effects and editing was done digitally. At most theaters, the digital images have been converted to film for normal projection, but I did seek out one of the few theaters that is projecting the movie digitally. Specifically I saw it at the Century 22 in San Jose, CA, sitting near the center of the third row.

I have to saw that I was quite disappointed. Even before the movie began, the text displayed during the advertising spot for the digital projection system demonstrated glaringly apparent jagged edges on the diagonals (I overheard someone else use the term “jaggies,” so it wasn't just me). Throughout the movie I was periodically reminded that this was digital—it looked like a giant projection television (which of course is exactly what it was)—although I was able to forget this for stretches of several minutes.

The benefits of digital projection were also apparent: the picture looked just the same as it would have when the movie first played, because there is no physical film to wear and tear. And the picture was stable, without any jitteryness or, as I have seen on occasion with film, gross misalignment.

There are stories that the next (and last) part of the Star Wars series will be shot with cameras capable of recording about 10 million pixels/frame. That, combined with a somewhat smaller screen and/or a less demanding seat, might allow digital cinema to compete with film. But we're not there yet. For now, digital projection should be used only for low budget movies that have been shot on relatively low resolution video. For these movies, removing the expensive requirement of a transfer to film will make a big difference in how much money is available for the rest of the production.

Believer, The (3.5 stars, 2001, seen 6/9/2002, 1:38, rated R):

If you don't want to know anything about this film, stop reading now, although I'll try not to give away any more than most reviews do, and in any case you probably should see the film.

At the start of the film, we see the main character, Danny (played by Ryan Gosling), intimidate a Jewish student on a subway, follow him, and beat him up. If you had never heard of this film, you would have been able to watch this sequence without knowing... (last chance to stop reading) ...that despite having a shaved head and wearing Nazi emblems, Danny is in fact Jewish. I had heard of the film, however. In fact I was scheduled to see it on September 13th at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival, but due to the events two days prior it was pulled from the festival.

Early on, the film also shows flashbacks to Danny's days as a young boy in Jewish school, arguing with the teacher that any God who would order someone kill their own child is basically a bully. In this scene and in his scenes as a 20-something adult, Danny is shown as the most intelligent, articulate, and charismatic character on the screen, even when what he has to say is completely repugnant. He starts the film single-minded, but later he begins to become more conflicted and complex.

The keys to the film are Gosling's possibly Oscar®-worthy performance in the lead role, and the words that the writers have provided him to say. What works far less well are the other characters, who seem either one-dimensional or totally undefined. Mostly this didn't bother me while I was watching the film, with the exception of Lina's daughter Carla (Summer Phoenix), the love interest, who never made much sense.

The editing seemed interesting. There were many jump cuts, which I guessed might have been made simply to get the best moments in various takes. But based on an interview I read with the first time director (Henry Bean, who also wrote the film), this was done to show that in a sense there are multiple Dannys. Note also that there is extensive use of handheld and often unsteady cameras (SpastiCam™).

This film is actually based on the true story of a Jew who was a member of the Nazi party and also the KKK until he was “outed” by a journalist in 1965. Despite winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in early 2001, it has had trouble getting distribution, finally showing on cable on Showtime in March (making Gosling's performance ineligible for an Oscar®), and only now getting theatrical distribution (locally starting 6/14/2002).

I saw this at Camera Cinema Club in San Jose, CA. Unfortunately, no one from the film was available to talk, but the audience discussion was quite interesting. If you do get a chance to see the film, and I definitely recommend it, try to see it with an open minded group of people who can discuss it afterwards.

Rain (3 stars, 2001, seen 6/3/2002, 1:32, unrated):

A family of four vacations at their beach house in 1970's New Zealand. The parents are Kate (played by Sarah Peirse) and Ed (Alistair Browning), while the children are Janey (Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki, about 13 years old) and Jim (Aaron Murphy, about 8). This sounds rather idyllic, but it is almost immediately obvious that Kate and Ed's marriage is on shaky ground. While the children get along better than most siblings and the parents do seem to care for their children, the adults in the film all drink large quantities of alcohol to numb themselves. The one other significant character is a photographer named Cady (Marton Csokas) who lives on his boat and reminded me a bit of fellow New Zealand actor Russell Crowe. I won't give away much of the plot, because there isn't much there to give away. This is not a criticism—if anything, it is a compliment to the writers for avoiding unnecessary complications.

The main character is Janey, who is in transition from girl to woman. The young first time actress is extremely good and quite believable with this complex material. The boy who plays her brother is also very natural. The adults didn't impress me as much, but then again they were supposed to appear emotionally shut down, and they succeeded admirably. That much of the film's feeling is conveyed without words is a tribute to both the actors and to the direction (by first time director Christine Jeffs). The cinematography didn't seem to me to draw attention to itself, except one shot looking backwards through a hand pushed lawn mower.

The New Zealand accents were a bit difficult to understand at times. Without subtitles or the ability to back up and listen again, I did miss a few lines. Home video will likely make this aspect easier, but since much of the film is set outdoors, some of the atmosphere would be lost on the small screen.

I am surprised that none of the reviews I have seen compared this film to The Ice Storm. Both films are set in the 1970's with parents who are emotionally distant and children (child in this case) who are becoming adults. While Ang Lee's film is definitely better in my view, that there is a comparison at all speaks highly for this effort. Rain is worth seeing, though probably not going out of your way for.

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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