Film reviews October 2002

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


Moonlight Mile (4 stars, 2002, seen 10/29/2002, 1:52, rated PG-13):

The year is 1973. Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal from Lovely & Amazing and The Good Girl) wakes up from a dream that I'm sure will make more sense when I see this film again. He is currently living in the house of Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and JoJo Floss (Susan Sarandon), and they are all getting ready to go to the funeral of Diana Floss, who was Ben and JoJo's daughter and Joe's fiancée. Joe feeds the dog, named Nixon, adding a couple spoonfuls of Pepto-Bismol. The phone keeps ringing and Ben keeps answering it even when JoJo wishes he would just let it ring.

The reception/wake after the funeral is particularly telling. There are awkward moments when people are introduced to Joe. Once they realize who he is they don't know what to say. After everyone has left, Ben excuses them by saying that putting himself in their shoes, he wouldn't know what to say either. JoJo, on the other hand, says something to the effect that she'll be damned if she's going to put herself in other people's shoes. She's the one who lost her daughter. They can damn well put themselves in her shoes. No apologies. Just pain and honesty.

And Joe really doesn't know what to do either. Ben and JoJo seem to want to almost adopt him both as a son and as the strongest link they have to their daughter. And he has his own grief process that he is struggling with. All three of them are stuck.

[Skip this paragraph if you haven't read any other reviews and want to avoid very mild spoilers...] The other significant character is Bertie Knox (Ellen Pompeo, who reminded me a bit of Kate Hudson although just a touch less magnetic and perhaps a little better at acting — that she holds her own with the rest of this cast is impressive). Jake meets her when he goes to the Post Office to retrieve the wedding invitations before they go out, and there is a mutual attraction. And you may have seen Holly Hunter's name in the credits, but her part as the prosecutor of Diana's murderer is quite small.

The film is written and directed by Brad Silberling, whose loss of his girlfriend Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989 was the inspiration for this story. The direction didn't stand out, but I thought the writing was very good. These were interesting characters going through a difficult process in what felt like a believable way. To me the most interesting character was JoJo, and I thought Sarandon's performance was remarkable. This combination of writing and performance made JoJo a real person who I would like to know. Sarandon deserves to at least be considered when Oscar® nomination time comes around.

This film has gotten mixed reviews. Some feel that it is manipulative and obvious. It worked for others. I obviously side with the latter. See this film.


Bella Martha (3 stars, English title: Mostly Martha, 2001, seen 10/23/2002, 1:45, rated PG, in German with subtitles):

The film opens with Martha (Martina Gedeck, who looks like a younger and thinner Kirstie Alley) on a psychologist's couch. But instead of talking about normal counseling things, she is talking about what flavors go together and other food-oriented things. The psychologist asks why she bothers coming, and she says that she only comes because her boss insists.

It seems that Martha is an outstanding cook, but is a little temperamental. Okay, maybe more than a little. If a customer has a complaint, her response is to attack the customer's lack of taste rather than to smooth the situation over. One is reminded of Big Night in these scenes. Needless to say, this doesn't work well. Oh, and Martha also has a tendency to “hide” in the restaurant's walk-in freezer when she gets overwhelmed by what's going on around her in the kitchen.

The second main character is another chef named Mario (Sergio Castellitto, who looks a bit like Barry Manilow). Martha assumes that he is intended to replace her when her boss hires him, and in fact he is very talented. I won't say much more, although this axis of the film is not exactly surprising.

The third main character is actually introduced before Mario, but because this character is not on the film poster and there is more surprise involved, I won't say more, except that this character's introduction makes a very large difference in Martha's life.

It's very hard to pin this film down. It is often funny, but it's also a drama, and a cooking demonstration, and more. The performances are all good, the story moves clearly but not overly predictably, and the film looks good. It is surprising to learn that it was made by a first-time feature film director.

You won't finish the film as hungry as you would after seeing Big Night, but you will want something good to eat. As this film is now essentially gone from theaters, you will probably be seeing it at home, but do seek it out if the normal formula films are getting stale. Just make sure to stock your kitchen well first.


Good Thief, The (2.5 stars, 2002, seen 10/20/2002, 1:58, unrated):

Christopher Doogan is dressed nicely, walking along a street in a marginal neighborhood at night in the fog. He passes a street preacher, and later goes into a church. Later he goes into a somewhat sleazy-looking bar where people are surprised to see him. Like the fog we see outside, we're not at all clear on what is going on in the early minutes of this film.

I saw this at the Camera Cinema Club in Silicon Valley, CA. The director, R.T. Herwig, was there to answer questions afterwards. He said that the film is an “emotional tone poem,” and that making an understandable narrative was not his main focus. That's good, because the film was often fuzzy.

But despite the fact that the story is apparently not very important, you might still want to know about it. If you don't, you should skip the rest of this paragraph... Christopher has just been released from prison were he has been for a few years for his part in a robbery of some sort. Christopher loyally took the fall for a man named Banion and the rest of his gang, but Christopher isn't sure he wants back into a life of crime. He goes home, where his parents and grandmother live, and is welcomed except for by his retired-firefighter father. And later in the film, we learn, not surprisingly, that Banion has plans to use Christopher for at least one more job.

The film was shot on Super 16 and blown up to 35mm. Despite some people saying that it looked good, I thought it looked very grainy, especially in darker scenes like the church. It was shot in 14 days, and the finished film feels like it drags on nearly that long — it really needs some significant trimming. The performances by the unknown cast vary from marginal to good, but even the better actors are sometimes given very stilted lines to read. And the lead actor is way too short to plausibly be the child of the actors who play his parents.

On the positive side, the direction is more interesting than most mainstream films, probably because the director sincerely seems not to care if this film makes money or not. The camera angles are tilted more often than they are straight, which effectively conveys the subjectivity of the main character's mind, while possibly also keeping the audience more detached (one audience member's reaction). The film is made up almost entirely of long shots, both in terms of camera distance and the time between edits (one memorable shot is of a dinner, shot through the spindles of a railing, with two spindles visually keeping the three diners separate, and all done in one very long take).

I would probably give the film a slightly lower rating than I have, except that the director was very entertaining, despite his obvious discomfort at being in front of a crowd. He says he was depressed when he made the film, and it shows. He repeatedly brought up Charlie's Angels and Jackie Chan films, more or less saying that since his film is more original than those (which were popular), it must be good. He sited John Ford as his biggest influence, and The Informer as the film closest to what he was trying to make here.

I would recommend this film if the director will be there to answer questions afterwards, such as at a film festival. Frankly, I would be surprised if this film ever sees a normal distribution, but if it is (and the director is back home in the Philadelphia area), I would marginally recommend against seeing it.


8 femmes (3 stars, English title: 8 Women, 2002, seen 10/19/2002, 1:43, rated R, in French with subtitles):

This film looks like it was very fun to make, and thankfully it is also very fun to watch. Gaby (Catherine Deneuve) lives in a wonderfully grand country home, first seen from outside in the snow. The rest of the characters are all connected to her: her mother Mamy, sister Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), daughters Catherine and Suzon, maids Chanel and Louise, sister-in-law Pierrette, and husband (and token male) Marcel. All eight of the French actresses are well known to some, but certainly not all (I obviously need to see more French films).

The previews disclose that this is a murder mystery, and in fact the murder is discovered very early on. Someone comments that the dogs did not bark all night, so the murderer is probably still at the house. And, in classic tradition, the phone line has been cut.

But what really makes this film stand out from others of the murder mystery tradition is that it's a musical. I considered not disclosing this fact in my review since I had forgotten about it until the younger daughter first broke out in song, but this happens so early that it cannot be considered a spoiler. I overheard someone complain that the songs do not really advance the plot, but I dismiss that as this is not a plot-oriented film. It's the style, which is definitely in the classic musical mold of bright colors, bright lighting, and extravagant clothes (even on the maids). When Deneuve breaks into song, one is reminded a little of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

While the overall feel is that of a Hollywood musical, one also notices that it feels like a stage play, because almost all of the action takes place in one room of the house. Unlike some other recent films adapted from plays, this one probably uses this simplification so that the filming could be done quickly, since I assume that it was a challenge to schedule these actresses all at the same time.

The standout performance (not that any of them are bad) is by Huppert, who plays her part of the spinster sister wonderfully, making you wonder at her ability to play this part so lightly after the damaged character she played in The Piano Teacher. And Huppert is not the only person whose range is impressive. The director of this film is François Ozon, whose previous film (the excellent Under the Sand) deals primarily with death.

The only thing keeping this film from a higher rating is an event at the end which seems out of character with the rest of the film. But I still highly recommend it to anyone who likes musicals or original films.


Bloody Sunday (3 stars, 2002, seen 10/13/2002, 1:47, rated R):

This docudrama recreates the filmmakers' view of the events in the Northern Ireland city of Derry on January 30, 1972. It starts by showing an announcement by the British outlining the restrictions against public assembly in Northern Ireland. A protest march is clearly not approved.

The night before a planned civil rights march, Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt from Waking Ned Devine), a Protestant member of Parliament representing the Irish Catholic district where the illegal march will take place, is making preparations. We see him moving through the streets, greeting people and trying to reinforce peaceful, non-confrontational interactions with the “occupying” British military force. We see that there are doubts about whether the march should go on and whether or not the more radical marchers will remain peaceful, but Cooper is resolute: “If we don't march, civil rights is dead in this city.”

Meanwhile, the leaders of the British military know that a march is planned the next day. The upper-level officers give the directive that success will be defined by the number of so-called “hooligans” who are arrested. They make detailed plans for exactly where the march will go and where they will attempt to make the arrests. They spend little time planning what forms of force are appropriate.

And so the stage is set. With thousands of marchers, most will be peaceful while a few will inevitably push the boundaries. And on the military side, some will have measured responses while others will overreact.

The film style is intense. One is reminded of Black Hawk Down, with the washed out, almost monochromatic, color palette. Another similarity is the shaky handheld camera work, although I believe this film goes too far (TurboSpastiCam™). But a contrasting aspect of the style here is to cut to black and then pause briefly between scenes, which gives you a moment to think and catch your breath. The accents are difficult to follow, not just at the beginning of the film but throughout, and subtitles would probably help.

The acting is uniformly good, making you feel as if you are watching a true documentary, with James Nesbitt clearly standing out. He has the most interesting part, and he lets you inside to feel what he is feeling. The film has won many awards, including the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and an audience award at Sundance.

After the film is over, one is left to wonder just how accurately it portrays the events. Not having studied the history, I can't say for sure, although I suspect the film is somewhat biased, but is probably not blatantly so.

If you have trouble with shaking cameras, you should stay very far away from this film. For everyone else, this film is worth watching. And if you wait for the DVD, you can decide if subtitles help.


Auto Focus (3 stars, 2002, seen 10/12/2002, 1:47, rated R):

This is a controversial film. I saw it in Palo Alto, CA at Talk Cinema, where few people other than the professional critics (Jonathan Curiel from the San Francisco Chronicle, and the host, Marlyn Fabe) liked it. Because the title of the book it is based on is shown in the opening credits and telegraphs the eventual outcome, and because the previews make the real subject matter clear, this review is less concerned with spoilers than most that I write. So consider yourself warned.

This is the story of Bob Crane (played in the film by Greg Kinnear), who played the title character in “Hogan's Heroes” in the late 1960's. He starts the film as a part-time actor and full-time radio disc jockey. On his radio show he is interviewing Clayton Moore (“The Lone Ranger”), but is more interested in making jokes and playing the drums. Crane comes across as a nice, very friendly, outgoing puppy dog of a man.

When he gets offered the part of Hogan, his initial reaction is that a comedy about a German prisoner of war camp sounds like career suicide. His wife Anne (Rita Wilson) has the same reaction, but after reading the script, they both agree it might work. So he takes the job and starts to become famous as the show becomes a hit.

One day on the studio lot, Bob has a chance meeting with John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who is a provider of cutting edge audio and video equipment to the stars. He has just finished installing a fancy new stereo in Richard Dawson's trailer, and soon figures out that Crane's passion is photos. And once Carpenter introduces him to video equipment, Crane is hooked.

But the real change that Carpenter brings to Crane's life happens when he starts to invite Crane to go out to strip clubs after work. At first Crane continues to project a Boy Scout image, ordering straight grapefruit juice to drink and reminding interested women that he is married, but these barriers quickly fall and Crane begins his downward journey. And as he falls, the film changes from bright colors, steady camera work and upbeat music, to a washed-out, shaky SpastiCam™, downbeat mood. During this process, Crane seems remarkably oblivious to how different he is becoming from normal people, insisting to his critics, and to himself, that sex is normal. This is most evident during the taping of “Celebrity Cooks,” where Crane makes outrageous sexual comments about a woman in the audience.

The film is about addiction. Crane is addicted to sex and images of naked women, but I think also to attention of any kind. He loves to be recognized by fans, even when sex is not on the agenda. The film also offers a first hand look at how the temptations that accompany fame can bring someone down, which might change how you look at stories of powerful people doing stupid things (President Clinton's name came up more than once during the post-film discussion). This is a film with lots of nudity and a fair amount of sex, but it all feels dirty and/or empty. You'll leave not titillated, but feeling like you need to take a shower.

I cannot really recommend this film, since it seems that few will enjoy it. But it is well made, offers some excellent performances (especially by Dafoe), and will make you think. It opens locally in Silicon Valley on October 25th.


One Hour Photo (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 10/10/2002, 1:38, rated R):

For people who like their thrillers to be thrilling, this film makes a crucial mistake in the very beginning, by telling us more or less what the outcome is. Specifically, we see Seymour (“Sy”) Parrish (Robin Williams) in an amazingly sterile, bright white police facility having his picture taken and being questioned by a detective (Eriq La Salle from “ER”). The film is told in flashback.

Sy has been working for years as the photo developer at SavMart, which looks a lot like WalMart only brighter and less colorful, like the sterile police station seen earlier. We find out early that he has an interest in the Yorkin family — Nina (Connie Nielson from Gladiator), Will, and son Jakob — even memorizing their home address and giving Jakob a disposable camera for his birthday. Creepier still, he gets an extra set of their photos for himself.

I won't go into any more detail on the story, to save the remaining surprises.

The performance by Robin Williams is remarkable. Despite being very well known and familiar to the audience, he disappears into this character, leaving no trace of the stand-up comedian or Mrs. Doubtfire. He is bland and deliberate, but with turmoil sensed beneath the surface. This performance should be remembered at Oscar® nomination time.

But what really made me enjoy the film as much as I did was a feeling that it just worked. I don't really know how to describe this feeling I sometimes get (not often enough), except that the films that evoke it often win awards for screen writing. The story is simply told well.

But is it a thriller? It has been sold as one, and there are certainly many tense moments, but I think it is really more of a character study of someone you would normally hardly notice. When someone suddenly erupts in violence, going “postal,” the neighbors are very often heard to say “he was a quiet man.” Sy Parrish was a quiet man.


Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2.5 stars, 2002, seen 10/9/2002, 1:39, rated PG):

Carmen and Juni Cortez are official Spy Kids, working for an organization called OSS (which probably stands for something, but I'm not sure what). In the opening scenes we see the President's daughter, Alexandra (Taylor Momsen from How the Grinch Stole Christmas), as a special guest at a futuristic amusement park. When Alexandra gets herself in trouble on a ride called the Juggler (which actually juggles the cars containing the passengers!), Carmen and Juni are dispatched to help her. But then a backup Spy Kids team of Gary (Matt O'Leary from Frailty) and Gerti (Emily Osment, sister of Haley Joel) Giggles are sent in as well. The situation becomes competitive, with the Cortezes rescuing Alexandra while the Giggleses retrieve the dangerous device (the Transmooger) that she had stolen from her father's office.

As in the first film, Carmen and Juni's parents are Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino), who are also spies working for OSS. Gregorio is up for a major promotion, but like his children, he is also competing with the Giggles family. The dinner at which the winner of this promotion is announced is the launching pad for the heart of the film.

Other key characters returning from the first film are uncle “Machete” Cortez (Danny Trejo) and Felix Gumm (Cheech Marin). And then there is Doctor Romero (Steve Buscemi), who is a very interesting character.

The “film” was actually shot using high definition video, which looked good enough to never be a distraction. It had been transferred to film for exhibition, so the normal film wear and tear issues applied, especially since I saw it near the tail end of its theatrical run.

Besides using digital video, the director (Robert Rodriguez) also used another trick to save money: he did almost everything himself. He was the writer, cinematographer, editor, production designer, and visual effects supervisor, and also helped produce and score the film. Apparently he did much of this work in his garage in Austin, Texas.

The first film was very fun and unexpected. This one feels a little too much like more of the same, and it also adds a touch more gross humor than I think it needed to. It's still fun and definitely worth at least a rental, but it's not quite up to the level of the first film.


Good Girl, The (3 stars, 2002, seen 10/3/2002, 1:33, rated R):

Justine Last (Jennifer Aniston) works in a store called the Retail Rodeo, in a small town somewhere in Texas. It seems to be a downscale K-Mart with few customers and generally dysfunctional employees. Gwen works with Justine in cosmetics and seems overly perky but is possibly the most normal of the bunch. Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel from Almost Famous as well as the little-seen Manic) gives the “attention K-Mart shoppers” announcements, except her announcements tend to contain profanities, insult the customers, and/or degrade the products being announced. Corny (Mike White, who also wrote the script) is the evangelical security guard. Jack Field (John Carroll Lynch from Fargo) is the store manager. And Holden (the suddenly omnipresent Jake Gyllenhaal) is the new checkout guy who doesn't talk to anyone, eats lunch by himself, and is always reading The Catcher in the Rye.

Justine is dying of boredom and feels trapped in her job. She also feels trapped in her seven year marriage to Phil (John C. Reilly from Magnolia), who is a house painter. We mostly see Phil sitting on the sofa drinking beer, smoking pot, and watching television with his friend and fellow painter Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson from O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

So when Justine starts talking to Holden, she doesn't really understand what he is talking about, but she gets that he is very different from the other people she knows. And Holden also finds Justine different from other women because she is interested in him, which he takes to mean that she “gets” him. And so there is an attraction, despite her marriage and their age difference (she's 30 and he is 22).

I'm not sure if this film has a point, other than to avoid living in a small town and getting married too young. And maybe to change Jennifer Aniston's image, which it does quite effectively. The film is depressing despite its occasional humor, and there are no characters you can really like. But despite that, I felt that the rich set of characters (especially Holden, Justine, Phil, and Bubba) made the journey worth taking.

You'll probably have to take this journey on home video, since I waited until this film was about to disappear from theaters. It should lose little on the smaller screen.


Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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