Film reviews July 2002

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


Austin Powers in Goldmember (2.5 stars, 2002, seen 7/25/2002, 1:34, rated PG-13):

The plot is not really important. Essentially all of the characters from the previous film are back, except that this episode's female sidekick is Foxy Cleopatra (singer Beyoncé Knowles). Star Mike Myers has also added a new character named Goldmember, who lost his, uh, member in “an unfortunate smelting accident” and likes to eat the pieces of his skin that flake off regularly. He is also Dutch, which provided numerous opportunities for Dutch jokes, which aren't funny but are supposed to be because they aren't. Visually he reminded me a bit of Arte Johnson.

Also new is Austin's father, played by the ideal British actor (I won't reveal who) for the part. He helped fill in some of Austin's history and was generally good in the role, but I couldn't help but feel that something was missing.

One good scene involved the use of subtitles when some characters were speaking in Japanese. Specifically, the white subtitles were made partially invisible by a partially white background. This being an Austin Powers film, the remaining letters spelled out dirty jokes, but the fun part was that the characters were aware of the subtitles, reading them and taking steps to eliminate the white background so that they became legible. It wasn't actually the funniest scene in the film, but perhaps the most inventive.

But for me the two things that worked the best were 1) the cameos by some really big stars, and 2) the musical numbers. Maybe halfway through the film I thought that it was basically a musical, but unfortunately as the plot (such as it was) got going, the musical numbers dropped off. And since the cameos were also concentrated up front, I found this to be a film that promised a great deal but then mostly failed to deliver. Still, the best scenes make it marginally worth seeing, and if you liked the second film, you'll like this one.


Camera 7 Theater: I saw this at the new Camera 7 theater in the PruneYard in Campbell, CA. This is the theater that I invested in as a “limited partner,” so I was invited to the party the night before the grand opening where this film and Lovely and Amazing were shown. As a slightly biased observer, I think it's a great theater, with the most comfortable theater seats I have ever encountered, great food available in the lobby, big screens, and so on. To be completely honest, they didn't have the projection quite right, but they should be able to fix that. And the first row in at least one theater is essentially unusable. But I'm definitely looking forward to seeing films there.


Pianiste, La (3 stars, English title:The Piano Teacher, 2001, seen 7/24/2002, 2:10, unrated, in French with subtitles):

It better be art, because it sure isn't entertainment.

Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) is a 40ish music professor who teaches people to play the piano. When the film opens she has come home later than expected to the apartment that she shares with her mother (Annie Girardot). Her mother is upset that Erika is so late and demands an explanation, going through Erika's purse when Erika won't say anything except that she was out walking. They have a huge fight and an equally passionate reconciliation where Erika's mother excuses both of them by saying that they have always been “hot blooded.” And when they go to sleep, we see that they sleep in the same bed. And all this happens before the opening credits.

The opening credits are the first example of the interesting use of sound in this film. We see piano lessons being given, but when the credits are intercut, the sound goes away completely and suddenly, only to come back just as suddenly. The other sound-related technique I noticed was very long sound bridges, where the sound continues from one scene many seconds after the visual cut to the next, or vice versa where the sound starts significantly early. Perhaps this disconnection of the audio and the video is because Erika's work (music) and her personal life are so disconnected.

I don't want to give too much away, but if you've seen or read anything at all about this film, you know that there is a relationship with a much younger male student. His name is Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), and he becomes fascinated with her at a recital in a private home where she plays and later he plays. Although he is majoring in engineering (the subtitles initially say “low voltage” as I recall), he pursues her, wanting to take lessons from her, and more. He is very confident, which is perhaps not a surprise for someone with such diverse talents.

This film won a grand jury prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, and Huppert and Magimel won the best actress and actor prizes there as well. Of these awards, Huppert's seems the most deserved. She manages to play someone who is generally very reserved and controlled, while somehow subtly hinting at the extreme turmoil below the surface. There are often very long takes of her where there is almost no motion, and yet there are shifts. It's pretty amazing.

I saw this film because of the awards, but I knew that it was going to be difficult going, and it was. And in some scenes it went well beyond what I was expecting. In order to avoid spoiling the film I have not told you what the difficult things are, but they are definitely there. You should only see this film if you are very open minded and also able to leave films behind when you leave the theater. This one may stick with you even if most challenging films do not.


Importance of Being Earnest, The (3 stars, 2002, seen 7/15/2002, 1:37, rated PG):

This is the story of two men in England in the late 1800's. Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett) lives primarily in the city, while his good friend Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) lives primarily in the country. Jack calls himself Earnest when he is in the city, so Algernon calls him that. Jack also uses the name Earnest to refer to an imaginary brother who lives in the city and always needs assistance, giving him an excuse to go to the city. Similarly, Algernon is always leaving the city to attend to an imaginary friend named Bunbury.

Jack is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax (Frances O'Connor from Artificial Intelligence: AI), who lives in the city and therefore knows him as Earnest. Gwendolen's mother is Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench), who is also Algernon's aunt. And the final main character is Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon), who is Jack's ward, and who Algernon introduces himself to as Earnest. This of course makes sense to Cecily because she knows of Jack's brother (but obviously not that he is imaginary).

There is more to the story, but I don't want to give away too much, not that the story is really the important thing anyway. This is a comedy and not a serious period drama, and what makes it work is the dialog, which is based on the play of the same name by Oscar Wilde and adapted for the screen by the film's director, Oliver Parker. I enjoyed it more than I expected to, but I have not read the play or seen any other adaptations. My wife, who has, was disappointed, because apparently too little of Wilde's words remain in the finished product.

The acting talent is first rate, including, in addition to those mentioned above, Tom Wilkinson from In the Bedroom. They do very well with the material, but it's so light you don't think about the skill required.

The bottom line is that this film is a good choice if you are looking for something frothy and entertaining, yet respectable, and you keep your expectations fairly low.


Lovely & Amazing (3 stars, 2001, seen 7/14/2002, 1:29, rated R):

This is a film about Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) and her three daughters. Jane is reasonably well off but is getting older and heavier, and, hoping to improve her love life, decides to undergo liposuction. Besides herself, she also obsesses about how other things look, buying so many pillows to put on her bed that one of her daughters remarks that there is nowhere to sleep. And Jane is also very particular about how they are arranged.

Jane's oldest daughter is Michelle (Catherine Keener). Michelle was the high school homecoming queen, continuing the image obsession pattern, but that seems to have been the high point of her life. She is married with one daughter, but the marriage is far from a happy one. She makes crafts, exemplified by some overdone miniature chairs, and tries unsuccessfully to sell them. She is a very angry woman, using the F-word frequently and wondering why other people don't do the same. She hasn't ever had a real job.

The next daughter is Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), who is an actress with some small level of success but is very insecure. She is unmarried and has no children, although she is unable to resist bringing home stray dogs. Her nature journalist boyfriend is no help in the self esteem department, seemingly having infinite disdain for everything she does. When we first see Elizabeth, she is posing for a photo for a fashion magazine to promote a film she has a small part in. She is uncomfortable with the clothes and with the heavy makeup, but reluctantly goes along with the shoot anyway because she doesn't feel she has a choice.

The final daughter is much younger. Annie (first time actress Raven Goodwin) is an 8 year old adopted black girl who is close to her mother but not her two much older sisters. She is overweight, but her image issues also involve her skin color and her hair. She freely tells anyone who asks that her birth mother was a crack addict.

The men in the film have smaller roles because this is a film about (but not exclusively for) women. They include Jane's cosmetic surgeon, Michelle's husband, Elizabeth's boyfriend, Kevin McCabe (a star who Elizabeth reads for a part with, played by Dermot Mulroney), and one more I won't mention since to explain his role would give away a small plot point.

Okay, if you insist. If you want to avoid learning more about the plot, skip the rest of this paragraph and all of the next one... Michelle does eventually decide to take a real job, although she just takes the first job she sees, developing snapshots at a one hour photo place. Despite the fact that Michelle reminds her 17 year old boss (Jake Gyllenhaal) of his mother, he is attracted to her (he does comment that his mother is cute).

[keep skipping] The scene that is most talked about is one in which Elizabeth stands naked in front of Kevin McCabe and insists that he critique her body with complete honesty. He agrees only under extreme duress. She is particularly self conscious about her arms, which she believes are flabby but which he does not mention until she asks.

This is the second film that writer/director Nicole Holofcener has made, and I think that she has succeeded very well in making a highly original film with very interesting characters. Some people feel that the dialog is very good, although on occasion it felt a bit off to me. The story doesn't really go much of anywhere, but that's not really the point of a film like this. The acting was uniformly very good among the adult Marks women. I thought Raven Goodwin was also very good as Annie, which is slightly surprising since the only other child in the film was Michelle's daughter, who may not even have had any lines (I can't remember any).

I did not learn until after the film had ended that it had been shot on 24 frame/second high definition video and later transferred to film. While the look is not that of a highly polished Hollywood film, the quality of the picture was fine throughout.

I saw the film at the Camera Cinema Club in San Jose, CA. It opens locally on 7/19/2002, and is recommended to anyone who likes original independent films.


Road to Perdition (4 stars, 2002, seen 7/8/2002, 1:59, rated R):

Very early in the film there is a wake, which is held at the grand house of John Rooney (Paul Newman). One of his employees has died, which is not so unlikely because it seems that everyone in this rural Depression era midwestern town works for him in one way or another. We meet Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), who over time we learn was orphaned as a boy and brought up by Mr. Rooney as his son. Michael has a wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two sons named Michael Jr. (12 years old) and Peter (younger). We learn that John Rooney also has a son of his own, named Connor (Daniel Craig), who is a bit of a disappointment. The party is interrupted when someone who has a little too much to drink starts noisily comparing John Rooney to God, in that both have benevolent and vengeful sides. Michael and Connor handle the situation, respectively calmly and rashly. John Rooney sides with Michael, and asks them to talk to the man later.

If you want to avoid learning much about the plot, stop reading now, although I won't give away even as much as most other reviews.

Michael's sons are not sure what he does for a living, although they believe it is dangerous. Michael Jr. hides in the car when his father goes with Connor to see the man from the party. Connor overreacts and shoots the man, while Michael Jr. watches, unobserved until after the killing. This puts the Sullivans' lives in danger, and eventually (after other events which I will not reveal) results in Michael and Michael Jr. leaving town.

The people in this film are members of the Irish Mob in and near Chicago in 1931. We don't see Al Capone (I read that he was played by Anthony LaPaglia and his scenes were cut, which explains why he was the first person thanked in the closing credits), but we do see Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci). My memory is that the Irish accents were somewhat variable, but generally not too distracting.

The acting was good but not quite up to the levels that these actors are capable of. Tom Hanks plays a man who is at least on some levels evil, but we can see the usual Tom Hanks goodness underneath. While this is somewhat intentional due to the complexity of the character, the evil parts were harder to believe than the good parts. Paul Newman was quite good, in my opinion, but was not on the screen nearly as much. Tyler Hoechlin, the newcomer who plays Michael Jr., was unconvincing to me on some occasions, but was generally acceptable. As usual, the underrated Stanley Tucci is in a small role but is very good. And Jude Law, who I did not mention above because he shows up late in the film, is fine but in a role that is rather shallowly defined.

The story is good and fairly complex, especially considering it is based on a “graphic novel,” but it seems to have been handled in a little bit more of a Hollywood way than I would prefer. There is one voice over very near the end which really bothered me, because the filmmakers didn't seem to trust their audience to get the message without it.

I've said several negative things about the film, so why am I giving it my highest rating? Well, first of all, the rating is on the low side of 4 stars. Second, with a cast and crew this talented (and I haven't even mentioned Sam Mendes, who directed American Beauty before this film), my expectations were extremely high and made any shortcomings stand out. And finally, there was the cinematography. If Conrad L. Hall (American Beauty and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, among others) does not at least get nominated for an Academy Award for this film, something is very wrong. The landscapes, the shadows, the rain—it's all amazing.

If you're only going to see one film this summer and you can't make it to the art houses, pick either this one or Minority Report.


Men in Black II (3 stars, 2002, seen 7/3/2002, 1:28, rated PG-13):

I think I'll reverse the normal structure and start with my conclusions before I describe the film. I'm a big fan of the original film, and from the previews I had hopes that this one might be better. Then I read Roger Ebert's review of this film, where he gave it 1 1/2 stars, and I thought it might be awful.

My experience was in between. This film is definitely not as good as the first film, and the previews contain most of the best bits, but it is often quite entertaining without ever really having any parts that I would call bad. I left the theater happier than when I entered. In contrast, both Spider-Man and Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones had definite lame moments and disappointed me on the whole, and so I felt that a slightly higher rating was due to this film.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled film description...

The film opens with a clip from a television show hosted by Peter Graves. It has amazingly bad, Ed Wood level special effects, and it tells the story of the “Light of Zartha.” Even though this clip is mostly repeated later in the film, I can't remember exactly how the story goes, which doesn't speak well for the screenplay. In any case, we soon see a spaceship land in a scene very similar to one from the TV show. The alien inside, named Serleena, is made up of an innumerable set of tentacles, but it morphs into the form of Lara Flynn Boyle after seeing a Victoria's Secret advertisement in a magazine.

Meanwhile, Agent J (Will Smith) and his partner Agent T (Patrick Warburton) have to convince a very large alien worm-thing to stay in the part of the subway system where it's supposed to be. Apparently J has had many partners since K (Tommy Lee Jones) left at the end of the first film, and soon he is again without a partner. He is assigned to a case of alien murder, initially partnered with Agent F (the talking dog from the first film, used much more extensively here). In the process he meets a waitress named Rita (Rosario Dawson), who witnessed the murder.

The big thing that worked in the first film was the interaction between Smith and Jones, and it takes quite a while for the two of them to get back together here. As you probably recall, Agent K was neuralized (caused to forget his agent years) at the end of the previous film, so bringing him back takes some effort. But as you already know from the posters, K does come back and the old chemistry is still there, pretty much. But then again, I thought Agents T and F were pretty fun too, in their own ways.

There are some parts and people that don't work as well. Boyle is an interesting, which is to say wrong, choice to play the villain. The part was originally given to Famke Janssen, who would have probably been better. The special effects aren't bad, exactly, but they do seem a little cheesy at times. What was original in 1997 is derivative five years later. But if you're a fan of the first film, as I am, you'll want to see this one.


Animated short: The film was preceded by a cartoon titled The ChubbChubbs are Coming!, which is not listed on IMDb yet but does have an official site here. It's not quite as good as For the Birds, which preceded Monsters, Inc., but it is very funny, with references to Star Wars (Yoda and Jar Jar Binks), E.T., and I'm sure others I've forgotten. Call it 3.5 stars.


Elling (4 stars, 2001, seen 7/2/2002 and 9/7/2001, 1:29, rated R, in Norwegian with subtitles):

During the opening credits we learn that the title character was a “momma's boy.” When she dies he is about 40, and he has to be forcibly removed from the house (actually he's huddling in a closet) by the police. He is taken to a mental institution where he has a roommate named Kjell Bjarne, who is a very large man who is obsessed with food and women (although he is quite naive about the latter), and unfamiliar with personal hygiene. Elling makes up stories, mostly about women, which Kjell Bjarne initially takes as the truth, and when he finds out that they are fiction he asks Elling to continue telling them.

Very shortly into the film, Elling and Kjell Bjarne are given a small government paid apartment in downtown Oslo. They are put under the occasional care of Frank Åsli, a social worker who lets them know that they need to take care of themselves or they will be sent back to the mental institution. But this is much more easily said than done. Elling's first trip to the grocery store, which is made under extreme duress, is a complete fiasco. And both of them are afraid to answer the phone.

There are a couple of other significant characters who enter the story a bit later, although in the spirit of not giving away too much, I won't go into any more detail.

I found this film utterly charming both times I have seen it. The first time was at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was my second favorite film of the 43 I saw there. There isn't anything flashy about it, and it might move a bit slowly for some, but it is very well made and acted by all concerned, and the story shows the trials and the joy of everyday life and of friendship. It was one of the final nominees for the best foreign language film Academy Award for 2001. If you don't set your expectations sky high, I think you will be very pleased that you saw this little gem.


Remakes: According to IMDb, this film is scheduled to be remade by Trigger Street in 2003. Trigger Street is the production company of Kevin Spacey, although there are conflicting rumors as to whether or not he will be part of the cast. While I'm glad that this will probably result in more exposure for the the original film and this wonderful story, it's sad that American audiences have to see an English language film with recognizable actors before they'll even notice a film.


Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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