Film reviews September 2002

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

Real Women Have Curves (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 9/28/2002, 1:30, rated PG-13):

At the start of the film, Ana's (America Ferrera) mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros) is sick in bed and asks Ana to stay home to make breakfast for everyone. Ana reminds her mother that it is her last day of high school, and she couldn't possibly miss it. This tension between what women are traditionally expected to do (e.g., cook) and what they may want to do (e.g., become educated) is perhaps the primary focus of the film.

Ana and her family are Mexican American (although their immigration status is not made clear), living in Los Angeles in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. But somehow Ana is attending high school in Beverly Hills (getting there requires a long walk and two buses), where her favorite teacher (played by George Lopez) is also, somewhat improbably, Hispanic. He urges Ana to apply to college, but she is sure that college cannot possibly be in her future. He presses the point with her family by showing up unannounced at her family home, but Ana's parents, especially her mother, believe it is time for Ana to start working in the factory with her mother and older sister Estela (Ingrid Oliu).

The worst thing you can say about this film is that once in a rare while you might get a hint of that “after school special” feeling. But at the same time this film absolutely does not follow the usual Hollywood rules for things like who the villains are (or if there even are any true villains) or how the story ends up. And the acting is generally outstanding, especially from the three female leads, two of whom (America and Lupe) won a special jury prize at Sundance this year for their work in this film. And, despite the film's relatively low budget ($3 million), it was shot on film, not video.

The film was based on an autobiographical play, which lately seems to be a pretty good sign (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, for one example). Apparently the play was very different, however, focusing on Estela rather than Ana, taking place entirely in the factory, and with a more sympathetic mother character. But the transformed version seen here works very well, with the exception of a few possible but improbable circumstances (the end of the high school year not being too late to apply to college, for example).

The film's title refers to another case of what is expected of women vs. what is real. In this case, the issue is body image, and there is an excellent scene near the end of the film that relates to this topic. I won't say anything more specific.

Besides the acting award at Sundance, this film also won the audience award there, so it should do reasonably well with independent film fans when it is released in October (it is scheduled to open locally on October 25th). Note that if you are adverse to subtitles, you should know that while the film is primarily in English, there are some subtitles when Spanish is used. But the film is absolutely worth the effort.

Talk Cinema: Talk Cinema is an existing organization that started in New York and is expanding. It shows high quality independent and foreign films before they are generally released, to audiences who do not know in advance what they will be seeing. This film was the first shown by Talk Cinema in Palo Alto, CA, a recent expansion location. I got in through a free offer in conjunction with the San Jose Mercury News, so I did not pay.

I am forced to compare Talk Cinema with the Camera Cinema Club, which is associated with the Camera Cinemas chain. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an investor in one of the Camera Cinemas theaters, and have been a member of the Camera Cinema Club for almost 2 years. Based on my one Talk Cinema experience, I would compare the two as follows:

  Camera Cinema Club Talk Cinema Advantage?
Price $109 for 10 events (before season starts)
$130 for 10 events (after, prorated)
$149 for 7 events Camera
Complimentary coffee and tea Yes Yes Tie
Food Bagels, pastries, etc. (complimentary) Bagels ($1 each) Camera
Concession stand (soda, popcorn, etc.) Open (usual prices) Open (usual prices) for second event on 10/12/2002 (was closed on 9/28) Tie
Trivia and prizes before the film Yes No Camera
Film selection Includes some films that may never be released Seems to only be films that are scheduled for release Matter of opinion
When you find out the film title When the titles roll on screen When you arrive at the event Matter of opinion

I do have to give the edge to Talk Cinema in one area. Their host in Palo Alto was and apparently will be Marlyn Fabe from the University of California at Berkeley. She also doubled as the guest speaker this time, and her thoughts after the film were quite interesting to me (note that a few of the ideas in the review above came from her, and might not have occurred to me independently), although it might have been just a touch longer than necessary. Camera Cinema Club sometimes has excellent guests, but on average I have to give this one to the newcomer. Of course this is based on one event — maybe Marlyn will get tired of this and put less into it as time goes by.

All the complaining aside, I would actually recommend Talk Cinema if, and this is not guaranteed in these economic times, you can afford it.

Blood Work (3 stars, 2002, seen 9/17/2002, 1:48, rated R):

Terry McCaleb (Clint Eastwood) is an FBI agent. When the film opens, he is arriving on a murder scene where detectives Arrango (Paul Rodriguez) and Waller are waiting. They don't like McCaleb very much, perhaps because he seems to attract all of the media publicity away from them. And McCaleb has also gotten the attention of a serial killer, who has left a note written in blood at the murder scene.

Shortly after this, there is a chase where McCaleb attempts to catch someone on foot. McCaleb has an apparent heart attack and collapses. As he loses consciousness, the camera is looking up at a police helicopter, shining a searchlight down on McCaleb. There is a marvelous cut (or was it a fade?) to an examination light, which is similar in shape and illumination to the helicopter and searchlight, in a hospital where McCaleb is waking up after a heart transplant. His doctor is Bonnie Fox , played by Anjelica Huston, who unfortunately is grossly underused in this film.

After release from the hospital, McCaleb is visited by Graciella Rivers (Wanda De Jesus), whose sister was murdered in a convenience store robbery. Graciella asks McCaleb to try to track down the killer, since the police have not been making much progress. The murder also left Graciella's nephew an orphan who now lives with her.

The rest of the film mostly revolves around this murder investigation, which McCaleb undertakes even though he has retired from the FBI and over his doctor's urgings to drop it. This aspect of the story is excellent, with many apparently right answers overturned as new evidence is uncovered or clues deciphered.

McCaleb's uncertain health is another important part of the story. The mortality that Eastwood embodies as McCaleb is palpable and refreshingly realistic, especially when compared to the impossibly invincible action heroes of most films.

The other significant characters are detective Winston (Tina Lifford), who knows McCaleb from way back, and Buddy (Jeff Daniels), who lives on the boat next to McCaleb's.

The story, or at least two thirds of it, is really good. I cannot reveal the one third of the story that didn't work for me without giving away too much, but the murder mystery in particular is very well done. The performances are also good, although none of them stand out to me as exceptional.

This film has mostly come and gone from local theaters, so if a well done murder mystery seems like what you're looking for, you should see this one as soon as possible or wait for home video.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (3 stars, 2002, seen 9/15/2002, 1:36, rated PG):

Fotoula Portokalos (who goes by the name Toula and is played in the film by Nia Vardalos) is Greek. She says in the voice-over narration that Greek women are supposed to marry a Greek man, have Greek babies, and feed everybody. She is 30 years old, single, and not even dating anyone, so she is really not living up to her parents' expectations. She is also somewhat unattractive, at least by typical Hollywood standards.

She works in the family restaurant in Chicago, Dancing Zorba's, which comes complete with a lame neon dancing Greek character on the building. One day Ian Miller (John Corbett from “Northern Exposure”) comes in, and Toula can't stop staring at him. He notices, more or less, but leaves without any meaningful connection being made.

Some weeks or months later, Toula has made some changes in her life, and she sees Ian again. This time the attraction seems to be mutual, and after some minor difficulty, they start to date. But Toula knows it can't work. Ian is not Greek.

Of course from the film's title you know that they at least try to find a way to work it out, but I won't give away much more. I will mention, however, that the parents are an important part of the film. Toula's parents are Gus (Michael Constantine from “Room 222”) and Maria (Lainie Kazan). They are emotional and old fashioned and, of course, Greek. Ian's parents, on the other hand, are very repressed and more modern, and in general are the exact opposite of the Portokalos family.

Nia Vardalos, the star, also wrote the screenplay for the film, based on her one woman play. Apparently Rita Wilson (who is part Greek) saw the play, brought her husband Tom Hanks to see it, and they helped get it made into a film, with both acting as producers on the film. Interesting note: Vardalos' real life husband is also named Ian, but he's Ian Gomez, who plays Ian Miller's friend Mike in the film.

The film is very fun and very funny, most of the time. I think that the one woman play on which it is based was probably a bit more like a stand up comedy act than a true play, and that comes across in the film. The jokes are great, but the story that connects them is not as strong. And the film structure, camera work, etc. are pretty simple and straightforward, not adding much. It's a testament to the material that the film is as enjoyable as it is. And it is enjoyable. And definitely recommended.

Possession (3 stars, 2002, seen 9/8/2002, 1:42, rated PG-13):

Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart, who I read recently lives nearby in Cupertino, CA) is an American living in London. He is working as an assistant to a literary professor and specializes in the work of Randolph Henry Ash, a 19th century poet known for his single-minded devotion to his wife. At the start of the film Roland is going through old books at the British Museum when he finds a letter between the pages. He brashly decides to “borrow” the letter, which seems to be a love letter from Ash to a woman who is not his wife.

The letter is written to Christabel LaMotte, another 19th century poet. The best expert on LaMotte is Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), so Roland goes to see her. At first she dismisses his suggestion that Ash and LaMotte had ever even met, much less carried on any sort of affair. But Roland and Maude dig further, finding out far more about these two long dead people than they ever expected.

As this mystery and investigation is going on in the present day, the movie begins to flash back to the 19th century story. We see Ash (Jeremy Northam) meet LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle, who visually reminded me a bit of Meryl Streep at times) at a party, and we see them develop a relationship through letters written back and forth. There is more, but I don't want to give away too much.

If you've heard anything about this film, you know that Roland and Maude also develop a relationship. But the construction of the two romances is far less parallel than I would have expected. Ash and LaMotte are immediately drawn to one another, but have serious social forces keeping them apart. Roland and Maude, on the other hand, have only their own internal issues keeping them apart. I don't think this was as clear to me as I watched the film as it is now, and it seems to add something to my appreciation of the film's structure.

The aspect of the film which bothered me a bit was the ease with which the modern couple solves the series of mysteries that they are confronted with. I can only think of one case where they initially guess wrong, and the certainty with which they move forward makes it seem as if they are also seeing the flashbacks to the 19th century that the film's audience is seeing, which confirm each of the steps along the way. On the positive side, the fast progression of the mystery kept the film from feeling as slow as I initially feared it might be.

In the film's favor is the cinematography, which captures England both present and past beautifully. The acting is fine but not memorable, perhaps because the characters seem to think more than they feel.

All in all, this film is a good romance that is well worth seeing.

24 Hour Party People (2.5 stars, 2002, seen 9/5/2002, 1:55, rated R):

Subjectivity: As much as any reviewer tries to see a film for what it is, the actual experience of seeing it is all there really is to go on. In the case of this film, I had seen the preview several times and was very motivated to see the film, but I waited until the last night it was playing nearby. That day I was seriously sleep deprived and also didn't have time for dinner, attempting to substitute a medium popcorn and a large Diet Coke. And I had a mild headache before the film started.

Someday I'll watch it again to see if the experience is different.

This film is about the early punk rock scene in Manchester, England, starting in 1976. Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) has a show called “So It Goes” on a local TV channel in Manchester where his bosses want him to do things like fly a hang glider and interview a dwarf elephant keeper. But he keeps reminding people that he went to Cambridge, and that this kind of thing is not why he became a journalist.

We learn that his real passion is music. Very early in the film he attends a concert of the Sex Pistols, correctly identifying this to be a key turning point in musical history despite the presence of only 42 people in the audience. He showcases them and other punk rock bands on his show, starts a record label (Factory Records), and opens a nightclub.

Besides the Sex Pistols, several other bands are featured, including Joy Division. The name of this particular band apparently comes from Nazi sex-slave camps, which some suggest is not a very good image for a band, but Wilson dismisses this issue with a comment about postmodernism and/or semiotics. Coogan manages to pull off this attitude in a believable and charming way, which is perhaps not surprising since he has apparently played a similar character on British TV for many years.

All of this is a great deal of fun, actually. My problem, at least of this day, was the presentation. From the start, the opening credits are essentially impossible to read, looking like they were passed through some sort of severe drug trip filter. The camera is highly unsteady, in the worst SpastiCam™ tradition. I started the film with a small headache and ended with a large headache and an upset stomach. The experience, for me, was unpleasant. Your mileage may, and hopefully will, vary.

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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