Film reviews August 2002

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


Tadpole (3 stars, 2002, seen 8/31/2002, 1:18, rated PG-13):

Oscar Grubman (newcomer Aaron Stanford, who is really about 25 years old) is a precocious high school sophomore. Really precocious. He regularly speaks French in his normal life, and seems to always be reading Voltaire (the one liners seen throughout the film as inter-titles are apparently Voltaire quotes).

The film happens over a long Thanksgiving weekend in New York City. We first see Oscar on the train on his way home, briefly talking to a pretty classmate who seems interested in him. After she leaves, Oscar's friend Charlie (Robert Iler from “The Sopranos”), who may be the sanest character in the film, asks Oscar about her, and Oscar dismisses her by saying that her hands are those of a baby. Apparently he appreciates hands that show more character.

We soon learn that the hands he really likes belong to Eve (Sigourney Weaver). She's a medical researcher, whose marriage to Oscar's father, Stanley (John Ritter), makes her Oscar's stepmother. Oscar does not seem deterred by this little obstacle. I can see his point, as I am also a huge fan of Weaver's (even going so far as to see Heartbreakers), but the age difference is pretty extreme, not to mention that little almost incest issue.

Diane (Bebe Neuwirth from “Cheers”), is a chiropractor who is Eve's best friend. You might want to skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't know much about the film already. Oscar runs into Diane late at night after drinking too much, and when he smells Eve's perfume on a scarf Diane borrowed, Oscar “accidentally” ends up sleeping with her. This scenario is of course reminiscent of The Graduate, although Oscar's age causes some to question whether this is comedy or statutory rape. I vote for the former, and in fact Oscar's inexplicable ability to easily be served alcohol in a neighborhood bar bothered me more.

Much comedy ensues. In fact, it occurred to me later that low budget independent films are rarely comedies, and even more rarely this well done. The writing was was only adequate to good, but the performances were very good, especially from Bebe Neuwirth. And some of the wordless reaction shots are priceless.

The film was shot on digital video and transferred to film for distribution to most theaters. I have read complaints about the quality, but it seemed tolerable to me, except perhaps in the opening shots from the train. What matters is that it is not distracting.

I enjoyed this film quite a bit. It isn't life altering in the slightest, but it isn't trying to be. It's definitely worth checking out.


Kid Stays in the Picture, The (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 8/29/2002, 1:31, rated R):

This documentary is based on the autobiography of Robert Evans, the head of Paramount during its rise in the late 1960's and early 1970's, with films like Rosemary's Baby, Love Story, The Godfather, and Chinatown.

The film begins with a quote: “There are three sides to every story: my side, your side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently.” This film, being based on his autobiography and narrated by Evans himself, is clearly his side. This makes it less objective than one normally expects documentaries to be, but also way more entertaining.

When the film starts in the mid-1950's, Evans was already doing very well as an executive in the Evan-Picone women's clothing company. He was poolside in Beverly Hills when he was discovered by Norma Shearer, who decided he was the right person to play her late husband, Irving Thalberg, in the film Man of a Thousand Faces. Suddenly he became an actor on the west coast in addition to being a businessman on the east coast.

Next up was a key role in The Sun Also Rises, but Ernest Hemingway and a number of the other important people involved in making the film demanded that Evans be fired. The producer, Darryl Zanuck, arrived on location, where Evans had been practicing bullfighting for several months, and announced that “the kid stays in the picture.” Suddenly Evans realized that he really wanted to be a producer, so he could be the person who has that kind of power.

Evans' rise to the top is quite amazing. Only about 10 years after this pivotal event, he was running Paramount and was involved (instrumental, to hear him tell it) in some of the biggest films of the time.

The way Evans narrates the film is highly entertaining, both because of the actual content but also because you're always wondering just how much of what you're hearing is really true. But somehow he manages to weave enough self-deprecating words in amongst the self-congratulating ones to make you like him, in spite of his faults.

The film contains very little if any newly filmed material. It consists mostly of news footage, clips from films, and still pictures, with narration by Evans throughout. The handling of the still pictures was particularly interesting, because the foreground parts of the pictures were made to seem to float in a three-dimensional way above the backgrounds, making them far more alive and interesting than they could have been.

Unfortunately, this film has come and mostly gone already, but if it's still playing near you, I highly recommend that you make an effort to see it. And if you don't normally like documentaries, this one will change your mind.


Rivers and Tides (3.5 stars, 2001, seen 8/28/2002, 1:30, unrated):

This German documentary, in English, is about a Scottish environmental sculptor named Andy Goldsworthy. He makes art from objects he finds in nature. For example, early in the film we see him taking sections of icicles and “gluing” them together with a little moisture into a serpentine shape that seems to repeatedly go through a vertical rock.

Of course, the icicles melt, but that transience is a part of most of Goldsworthy's work. He goes to a site and gets a feeling for it, deciding intuitively what to make that day. He talks of having a “dialog” with the rocks and other materials that he works with, attempting to work with rather than against them. It might be stones, or flowers, or leaves, or sticks. The sculpture might last for minutes or years, or might not even last long enough to be completed and photographed. The work seems to be more of a process than a goal.

The film, and the work, is beautiful, inspiring, and thought provoking. It moves pretty slowly, which is appropriate for the material, but you should be sure to go when you have had a good night's sleep. But do go if you have the opportunity.

Click here, here, and/or here for some other pages about Andy Goldsworthy. Click here to read about a local Andy Goldsworthy sculpture at Stanford University. There are also several books available with photographs of his sculptures.


My thoughts: Skip reading this part if you want to find what this film means to you completely independently. I recall a couple of ideas that occurred to me while watching the film which I thought I would share for those of you still reading. First, the transitory nature of much of Andy Goldsworthy's work reminded me of the natural ebb and flow of human life. We're born, we live, and eventually we die. That's natural, and that's also naturally a part of Goldsworthy's art.

The other thought was to be awestruck with the way that Goldsworthy has managed to integrate his passion and his work so thoroughly into his life. Most of us have work which is tolerated at best, a life which we hardly notice living, and passions which we really mean to spend more time on, if we even remember what they are. Andy Goldsworthy has managed to create an amalgam of all of these aspects of his life that looks like it works very well, and is nourishing for him and those around him. Wow.


Metropolis (Classic!, 1927, seen 8/24/2002, 1:51, unrated):

I won't attempt to review this film, which is an amazing classic from the late silent era. I had seen it once before, on an atrocious DVD which looked like it had been created by aiming a camcorder, somewhat off center, at a screen. This screening, on the other hand, was of a wonderful new print from Kino International, with significant additional footage added back in, all digitally restored, and with a newly recorded soundtrack of the originally scored music. It looked and sounded great where I saw it at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

If this film comes to your area, see it. In Silicon Valley, it is expected to play in Palo Alto in September. And in any case, this version of the film is expected to be released on DVD early next year.


Bourne Identity, The (3 stars, 2002, seen 8/23/2002, 1:58, rated PG-13):

A man (Matt Damon) is found floating in the ocean, miles from shore, by the men of a fishing boat. He is presumed dead, but, quite surprisingly, he is alive. Before he regains consciousness, the ship's doctor sees two bullet wounds on his back, and removes the bullets. He also finds another scar that hides a small object which projects some numbers and letters.

After the man regains consciousness, he says that he doesn't remember who he is, how he was shot, or how he ended up floating in the ocean. He recovers physically, but still has no idea who he is.

After he goes ashore in southern France, he uses the clue of the numbers and letters that were embedded in his body to start to learn more about who he is, including that his name might be Jason Bourne. He meets Marie (Franka Potente), who helps him, which is good since it seems that many people would like to see him dead.

Meanwhile, we see CIA agent Conklin (Chris Cooper), who is trying to clean up after an assassination that was planned but never happened, by an agent who has disappeared.

The plot is more involved than this, to the point where I wasn't 100% sure that I followed everything. There are some things that don't make sense and others that seem a bit unlikely, but it makes enough sense to avoid distracting you from the action scenes, which are the reason this movie exists, and which work very well. That you don't know exactly what's going on, especially earlier in the film, keeps the tension effectively high. And the acting and the special effects, like the story, are good enough to avoid distracting you.

Unlike XXX, this film is definitely recommended if you're looking for an entertaining action film.


ivansxtc (3 stars, 2002, seen 8/21/2002, 1:34, unrated):

The film begins with Ivan Beckman's death. He says, in a phone call heard as we see various hazy images of Los Angeles, that the pain was so great that he took every pill in the house. He also says that he tried to think of one image that could help him get through it.

He does not get through it. So next we see his funeral, at which a fight breaks out between a screenwriter, who has recently been fired from his film, and the star of the film. We also hear people questioning the cause of death. They have been told that Ivan died of lung cancer, but they all assume that it was really drugs that brought him down.

And then suddenly we have jumped back in time, to the last part of Ivan's life. Ivan (played by Danny Huston, son of John Huston) is a Hollywood agent. He's trying to make a movie happen and to land the star, Don West (Peter Weller), as a client. The actual content of the script isn't important to Ivan, but the deal is. Other significant characters include the screenwriter Danny McTeague (played by James Merendino, who really is a writer) and Ivan's girlfriend Charlotte White (Lisa Enos, who also helped write and produce the film).

This is not a Hollywood film. It was shot on high definition video and doesn't look as good as some other high definition films I've seen. This plus the so-so acting of some of the minor character actors made the film feel amateurish at first, but after a while I was able to forget about the mechanics and get inside the story.

It is also clearly not a Hollywood film because of its very negative portrayal of the people in show business. Ivan is seen as a heavy drug user who doesn't really care about the film, and Don West (the star) is even less likable.

But while the characters may not be likable, they are all quite interesting. And the lessons about life and death and what happens in between also make this a film I was glad to have seen.


Credits: There's a new trend these days of saving all of the credits for the end, including the names of the stars and even the title. This film is the complete opposite — all of the credits are at the beginning of the film, leaving only the soundtrack credits for the end. I don't think this means anything, unless the filmmakers thought people would be walking out early, but it seemed worth mentioning. The credits do affect the feel of a film.


XXX (2 stars, 2002, seen 8/17/2002, 1:51, rated PG-13):

Maybe I expected too much. From the previews, it appeared that maybe this would be James Bond for the 21st century. It certainly tries to be:

The opening stunt is really good. The hero, Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) steals a Corvette, leads police on a chase, and jumps it off of a very high bridge, escaping by parachute. And he captures all of this on video from many angles. It turns out he's some sort of an extreme stunt and video game underground star. And when he gets home after all of this, there's a huge party waiting for him.

Meanwhile, Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) of the NSA (in the “M” role) is having problems. His agents, who are more in the James Bond mold, don't fit in with the people they are trying to spy on: an organization called Anarchy 99. He needs someone like Xander. So he recruits Xander and a few others like him, who are in trouble with the law or would be if they had been caught. Threatening Xander with jail time if he doesn't go along, Gibbons convinces him to become an agent.

Toby Lee Shavers (Michael Roof) is the NSA agent in the role like Bond's “Q.” He's just a geeky guy who has been in the agency for years and never sent into the field. He's the only comic relief in the movie, unless you count the unintentionally funny dialog.

Yelena (Asia Argento, who is actually Italian) is the girl. She doesn't get a last name, but at least she gets a first name and a mildly interesting character. The rest of the women in the movie are purely decoration. You would think that, if this is James Bond for a new generation, the status of women would be better. But in fact it is far worse.

Yorgi (Marton Csokas, from New Zealand) is the eastern European villain. He's fine but not very memorable. His fortress is cool, but his evil plan is more ridiculous than most James Bond villains' plans.

The cinematography was better than I expected. The filming was done in locations including Prague and Lake Tahoe, and it looks very good. The special effects generally didn't call attention to themselves, which is a good thing, except for an avalanche, which looked horribly fake.

The big problems with the movie have already been mentioned above. The dialog is distractingly bad. The villain isn't compelling. The special effects aren't always. Not mentioned yet is the soundtrack, which was heavy on rap and probably good for the target demographic, but not for me (I did appreciate hearing the theme from The Third Man being played briefly on the zither, but that doesn't make it onto the soundtrack CD).

I would recommend not seeing this movie. That said, some people have liked it far more than I did, and it has done very good box office business, so there will be sequels. I just hope they hire better writers next time.


Lilo & Stitch (3 stars, 2002, seen 8/16/2002, 1:25, rated PG):

When we meet Lilo, a little Hawaiian girl, she is swimming and body surfing in the ocean, which she loves so much that she's late for a rehearsal of a hula dance. Soon thereafter we learn that she lives with her older sister Nani (voice by Tia Carrere, who really is from Hawaii), and that they don't always get along. Furthermore, a social worker incongruously named Cobra Bubbles (Ving Rhames) is suggesting that Lilo be taken away from Nani unless things get better real soon.

Meanwhile, somewhere else in the universe, we meet Experiment 626 (who is later named Stitch, and whose voice is by one of the two directors). 626's mad scientist creator, Dr. Jumba Jookiba (David Ogden Stiers) has been put on trial for creating 626, a creature designed to be very powerful, intelligent, and dangerous. 626 is sentenced to exile, but escapes. And from the title of the film and the previews, you know that he ends up in Hawaii with Lilo.

The animation here is very different from the computer generated films that are common these days, and more like the two dimensional animated films of years past. The backgrounds are often lovely watercolors, and most of the animation is also hand drawn from what I've read, although based on the credits there is also some computer animation.

This is also not your usual Disney animated film, although it was made by Disney. Both Lilo and Stitch have some pretty objectionable habits, and the jokes target many pop culture icons. I heard that the film was made with much less detailed committee supervision than would usually be the case at Disney, in exchange for (as I recall) a smaller budget.

The soundtrack is good, including Hawaiian music as well as a bountiful selection of Elvis Presley songs (six, I believe).

The biggest downside to the film is that the message is a little too precious, although this is not a big complaint, and I found it less obnoxious than Ice Age in this regard. The basic message is one of family, whether or not that family is a traditional one with a mother and a father, or a makeshift one as we see in Lilo, Nani, and Stitch. The Hawaiian word “ohana” is used, which means more or less the same thing as “family.” This is timely for me since we just became members of the Hawaii International Film Festival's Ohana in preparation for attending their film festival in November.

This film is definitely recommended, even if you have no children. I originally gave it another half a star, so it's at the upper end of this rating. And I expect it to be a strong contender for the Academy Award for best animated film of 2002.


Minority Report (4 stars, 2002, seen 8/11/2002, 2:25, rated PG-13):

The year is 2054. Tom Cruise plays Detective John Anderton, who works in the “pre-crime” division of the Washington, D.C. police force, and is a key figure in a successful experimental program to arrest murderers before they commit the murder, based on the visions of three “pre-cogs” floating in a tank. The film opens with a “red ball” case, in which there is little warning and therefore time is of the essence. The pre-cogs provide visions and (inexplicably) the full names of the future murderer and the victim(s), but nothing else, so John is left to try to narrow down the location based on that limited data.

He goes to work in front of a futuristic wall sized display, using special gloves that recognize his movements and gestures as commands to zoom, discard, and so on. Classical music plays on the soundtrack, conveying the impression that he is as skilled as a concert musician at working his way through the data. Eventually he has enough clues to leap into action with the rest of the SWAT-like team, flying across town in a futuristic blade-less helicopter-like vehicle, trying to reach the murder scene before the murder occurs. The pre-cogs' determination of the time of the murder is down to the second, so they always know exactly how much time they have left.

Soon after they return, the pre-crime unit is visited by Detective Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), who has been sent from the Justice Department to looks for flaws in the system before an imminent critical vote on whether or not pre-crime should go nationwide. We also meet Anderton's boss (Max von Sydow) and learn more about Anderton's past.

If you've seen the previews, the next revelation will be no surprise, but you might want to stop reading now if you want to minimize your knowledge of the plot... John Anderton's name shows up in the system as a future murderer. It is predicted that he will murder someone who he has never met in less than 36 hours. He runs, and the movie takes off running with him.

I think what makes the film work so well is the story. It is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, whose short stories are also behind Blade Runner and Total Recall. One of the two screenwriters wrote the screenplays for both Get Shorty and Out of Sight. It's simply a first-rate whodunit with lots of twists and turns that feel real, with great humanity mixed in.

The film also presents a fully fleshed out view of the future. There are sensors in public places that can identify and track people by their retinal patterns, and in a memorable scene, mechanical spiders that fan out throughout an apartment building to scan all the occupants (the spiders are excellent computer animations, while the building itself was apparently a real set). There are newspapers that change to show the latest news, and advertising posters on the walls that customize themselves and talk directly to the specific people as they walk by (a particularly objectionable part of this future if you ask me).

The acting is solid if not spectacular, with the possible exception of Samantha Morton, who is very good as one of the pre-cogs. I also think Tim Blake Nelson is good in a small role.

The cinematography is consistently a little hazy looking and almost monochromatic. This is obviously an intentional effect, but it was a little distracting to me.

I just realized that I haven't mentioned that this film was directed by Steven Spielberg. This film is far from the cold detachment of Artificial Intelligence: AI and probably closer to some of his earlier work. Think of it as Close Encounters of the Third Kind with way more action, or Raiders of the Lost Ark with less but a more thought-provoking story.

This film is one of the few films that has gotten a wide release that I can recommend without reservation. This summer, this film and Road to Perdition are the best bets among the event films.


Gangster No. 1 (3 stars, 2000, seen 8/2/2002, 1:45, rated R):

As the film opens we see a table of men in later middle age, very well dressed, around a table having dinner. In the same room, nearby, there is a boxing match going on, mostly ignored or perhaps taken for granted. The men remember shared events, but with fading memories. Their heavy accents tell us that we are in England. And we begin to see that these are people are criminals. Our main focus is on a character (“Gangster 55”) played by Malcolm McDowell. When someone says that Freddie Mays is getting out of prison, Gangster 55 reacts and leaves the table.

We flash back to 1968. Now the Gangster 55 character is played by Paul Bettany (who played the roommate in A Beautiful Mind). We see him get recruited by Freddie Mays (David Thewlis), a.k.a., “the Butcher of Mayfair.” Freddie is dressed impeccably, as we hear Gangster 55 describe in the voiceover. Soon, after he joins Mays' gang, Gangster 55 is also.

I was reminded of a couple of films. It reminded me of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, in that it involved gangsters with heavy English accents. This film also has some flashy camera work, but on the whole is more straightforward than the earlier film. This is appropriate, because while I would call Lock primarily a comedy, this was most definitely not. While there were a small number of humorous times, on the whole this is a serious and far more violent film.

The other obvious connection is to A Clockwork Orange. The films are related because of Malcolm McDowell, who figures prominently in both films, by the way that the young Gangster 55 is photographed glaring into the camera in a very similar manner to McDowell's Alex in the earlier film, and by the general level of violence.

This isn't really my kind of film. I went because I read some very strong reviews. I admired it, but I felt drained when I left, and I couldn't really say that I enjoyed the experience. Even though that doesn't sound like a recommendation, it is, for the right people.


Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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