Film reviews December 2002

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


Adaptation. (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 12/30/2002, 1:54, rated R):

Charlie Kaufman is a real writer whose first film was Being John Malkovich. He apparently really did get the job of adapting a non-fiction book called The Orchid Thief, which was written by Susan Orlean, also real. He found the book almost impossible to turn into a film, so he instead wrote a screenplay about the process of adapting the book into a screenplay. So Charlie Kaufman, Susan Orlean, and several other real people became characters in the film. It might remind you of the scene in Being John Malkovich where [warning: mild spoiler for the earlier film] John Malkovich enters the portal in his own brain. Twisted? Yes. Entertaining and engaging? Definitely!

Charlie Kaufman is played in the film by Nicolas Cage, while Susan Orlean is played by Meryl Streep. The other two main characters in the film are John Laroche, the title character in Orlean's book, who is played in the film by Chris Cooper, and Donald Kaufman, Charlie's identical twin brother, who is of course also played by Cage. It is said that Donald doesn't really exist, but he is listed as this film's co-writer, and Charlie is vague on the subject. [Trivia: Orlean's husband is played by Curtis Hanson, the director of L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile.]

The film opens with Charlie Kaufman in a lunch meeting with an executive for the film, Valerie (Tilda Swinton), who does not seem to be a real person since there are no Valeries in the credits. We hear Charlie's thoughts in voiceover—he is very insecure about his weight and his baldness, among other things. He really has no idea how to adapt the book, but he blunders his way through lunch. Then he returns to his typewriter to spend some quality time with his huge case of writer's block.

Actually, he does know how he could adapt the story, if he were willing to use what he considers cop-outs, like adding sex or violence. These mainstream approaches are embodied by Robert McKee, who is a real writer and lecturer on the subject of screenwriting, and is played in the film by Brian Cox. These approaches are also embodied by Donald, who takes McKee's class and starts to write a screenplay based on its principles.

With all of these self-referential complications, plus a tendency to leap about in time, the film is far easier to follow than you might expect. Cage is quite good in the double role, somehow conveying with posture and/or voice which of the two brothers he is portraying. Personally I wouldn't nominate him for an Academy Award, but some people are predicting that. They also predict that Streep could get a supporting nomination, and while she is also good, her past performances are the main reason she might get one. It's really Cooper who steals most of his scenes, aided by having the most outrageous character to play.

[This paragraph contains a non-trivial spoiler.] The screenplay that Donald writes in the film is about three characters who are really the same person. It seems like Charlie and Donald could and probably do represent two aspects of the real Charlie Kaufman's personality, but one wonders if the Orlean and Laroche characters are somehow also parts of him. After all, part of the film's tag line reads “One story... Four Lives...” I also considered the possibility that Charlie's girlfriend could be the third character (correlating better with the three number in Donald's script), but her part is so small that doesn't seem quite right.

The last act feels like a different film, but that is precisely the point, although I didn't completely get it at the time. I thank James Berardinelli at ReelViews, whose review made this clearer for me. I'm remaining deliberately vague here to avoid saying too much.

This film is quite enjoyable, and also makes you think. It's taken me about two weeks to get around to writing this review, and the memory of the film has improved with age. It is highly recommended.


Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 12/29/2002, 2:59, rated PG-13):

Part I, take 2: Last year's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring didn't impress me that much. In re-reading that review again now, I see that I thought it was too long. What's interesting is that I very recently watched Fellowship again, only this time it was the extended DVD edition, which adds about 30 minutes to the running time. And I liked it much better than I did when I watched it the first time. The main reason is probably that I had the opportunity to learn the characters and the story much better, stopping the DVD as needed to ask questions (I still have not read the books). And this increased familiarity was, I believe, the key reason why I liked Two Towers better than I originally liked the first one.


The film opens by going back [if you haven't seen the first film or read the books, there are spoilers here, so please stop reading now] to where Gandalf (a wizard, played by Ian McKellen) confronted the Balrog in the mines and both seemingly fell to their deaths. The bulk of this film, however, has Frodo Baggins (a hobbit, played by Elijah Wood) and Samwise Gamgee (another hobbit, played by Sean Astin) continuing on their journey to attempt to destroy the One Ring, both with and without companionship, while Aragorn (a man, played by Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (a dwarf, played by John Rhys-Davies), and Legolas (an elf, played by Orlando Bloom) get involved in some large epic (and probably somewhat more violent than in Fellowship) battles against the evil forces of Saruman (Christopher Lee). The other two hobbits, Pippin and Merry (Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan), as well as elves Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) play slightly smaller roles this time around. And there are certainly new characters as well, but I'm not planning to go that deeply into the plot.

There is one sort-of new character that deserves special mention. We saw Gollum (computer-generated visually, with voice by Andy Serkis) a little in the first film, but he is seen far more this time around. “He” is a big step forward in computer-generated characters. You know he's not real, most of the time. But sometimes you might forget, which I find pretty amazing. Put simply, he is the most convincing digital actor I've yet seen, and he makes the possibility of a digital actor who is indistinguishable from a human actor start to seem like a question of when, not if. And beyond Gollum the other special effects also seem to be a bit better this time around.

Last time out I had a problem with the dialog, saying that it seemed stilted. This time it sounds more familiar and thus less jarring, although I still wouldn't nominate any of the acting here for Academy Awards. I also found that Gimli was used for comic relief a bit more than I would have liked.

“Look! An epic!” This expression was coined by my wife to refer to The English Patient, which seemed to both of us to be an epic film in search of a point. The Two Towers, on the other hand, seems to know what it's about, although to be fair, Patient did have much better acting. But if I'm comparing this film to a Best Picture Oscar® winner (over the much better Secrets & Lies, but I digress), this must be a pretty good film.

The bottom line is that if you liked, or grew to like, Fellowship, you should like this one at least as well.


Hable con ella (3.5 stars, English title: Talk to Her, 2002, seen 12/29/2002, 1:52, rated R, in Spanish with subtitles):

This film is about two “couples.” The first is Benigno (Javier Cámara), a male nurse who seems slightly slow, and Alicia (Leonor Watling), a dancer. The other is Marco (Darío Grandinetti), a travel writer, and Lydia (Rosario Flores), a bullfighter. The two men are connected at the very start of the film, when they are coincidentally seated next to one another watching a film in which two women are apparently sleepwalking in a room full of chairs, while one man runs around clearing the way for one of the women. Benigno sees Marco cry and comments on this later to Alicia, who, I should mention, is in a long-term coma in a clinic, under Benigno's care.

The film jumps backward and forward in time frequently, mostly with good warning but occasionally without. In a flashback we learn more about how Marco came to know Lydia. He wants to write a story about her because female bullfighters are very unusual, but she thinks that he just wants to know about her recent breakup with her famous boyfriend, like everyone else.

If you haven't read anything about the film, you should skip the rest of this paragraph. Lydia also ends up in a long-term coma in the same clinic where Alicia is staying, so Marco and Benigno meet again. Benigno advises Marco to talk to Lydia (hence the title), even though science would say that she can't possibly hear. And over time they develop a friendship of sorts. The connection of this with the opening film of the sleepwalking women is pretty clear.

Besides the opening film-within-a-film, there is also a silent film that Benigno goes to see because he knows that Alicia liked silent films. But this is unlike any silent film you have ever seen, or are likely to see again. Let's just say that this film is rated R for a reason.

The images in the film are beautiful—it's not surprising that the previews concentrate on them to the exclusion of the story or any dialog (which also avoids drawing attention to the subtitles, as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did before). The acting by the male leads is also very good, especially Cámara.

The whole film is illogical. Because of the unusual imagery, the jumps in time, and the basic subject matter, it appeals more to the right brain than the left. It is about friendship, devotion, caring, and honoring. But what holds this film back from greatness for me is that somehow it does this while feeling cold when it need not. But almost great is still pretty darn good, so do see this film.


Secretary (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 12/22/2002, 1:44, rated R):

Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal, older sister of Jake) is a young woman (perhaps early college age) just getting out of a mental institution. It's going to be a stressful day because her older sister is getting married. The reception is at the family house, her alcoholic father is drinking, and Lee is overwhelmed. She looks fragile and tentative, and so she retreats to her room and gets out a box from under her mattress. It's decorated with stickers, reflecting the young age Lee first collected the sharp implements and antiseptic contained inside. She feels the familiar urge to hurt herself, in a scene that is difficult to watch but somehow manages to be more sad than sick.

Lee needs to get a job since she's not going to school, so she gets out the newspaper. She circles the advertisement from one E. Edward Grey (James Spader, perfectly cast), a lawyer who is looking for a secretary. Lee's mother (Lesley Ann Warren) drives her to the interview, where we see a lighted “secretary wanted” sign outside (which seems a little weird, and we find out that this is just the tip of the iceberg). Grey asks Lee a number of questions (almost all of which are illegal to ask), and is impressed with her typing scores. He explains that he only wants her to type (and only on a typewriter—no computers here) and answer the phone, and then offers her the job.

The story moves from there, and rather than reveal any more of the plot, I'll talk about the atmosphere and feelings. This film is sometimes funny, touching, disturbing, sexy, and both hard to watch and impossible to stop watching. I would absolutely not recommend this as a first date movie, although if you were still talking afterwards it might be a pretty enlightening conversation.

Spader is good in the less showy role of E. Edward Grey, and in fact thinking back on it I realized that he perhaps had a more difficult role than Gyllenhaal. That said, Gyllenhaal is very impressive and courageous. She manages to have an amazing range of looks and feelings, and in one scene I recall her conveying that her character was rapidly changing her mind back and worth, using just her face. That's certainly not the best scene, but it's one that stuck in my mind. She deserves serious consideration for an Academy Award for this performance, but due to the subject matter will probably not get it.

This film has since disappeared from local theaters, but if it comes back out or you can see it on home video, I highly recommend it. Just keep an open mind. You won't soon forget this film.


Crimen del padre Amaro, El (3 stars, English title: The Crime of Father Amaro, 2002, seen 12/22/2002, 2:00, rated R, in Spanish with subtitles):

This film is based on a 19th century Portuguese novel, but it is set in present day Mexico, where it has become the highest grossing domestic film of all time, due at least in part to the film's being denounced by the Catholic Church. The recently ordained 24-year-old Father Amaro (Gael García Bernal, from Y tu mamá también and Amores perros) is sent to a small church in the small town of Los Reyes. Along his bus journey to the church at the start of the film, we see Amaro do something very kind for someone he only just met, so we are inclined to be on his side.

Amaro is a favorite of the bishop, who we suspect has sent him to Los Reyes to check on Father Benito (Sancho Gracia) because we learn early on that Benito is sleeping with a local restaurant owner (played by Angélica Aragón). There are also some questions about Benito's very ambitious hospital project, as well as another local priest (Father Natalio, played by Damián Alcázar).

The real heat of the film, and what undoubtedly helped made the film so popular in Mexico, involves the relationship that develops between Amaro and Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón), the very religious young daughter of the restaurant owner whose reporter boyfriend doesn't understand why the Church is so important to her. There are lots of other characters, too, like the crazy woman who takes a wafer from communion and feeds it to her cat.

In a time of controversy in the Catholic Church, this film is neither an indictment nor a defender. Earlier in the film it seems to be pulling in both directions, but as the film progresses everything seems to move to the ambiguous middle, and, to me at least, it becomes more powerful, interesting, and unsettling. Bernal is good, especially in the later scenes.

This film is worth seeing, but if you haven't seen Y tu mamá también or Amores perros yet, they are both better films.


Far from Heaven (4 stars, 2002, seen 12/22/2002, 1:47, rated PG-13):

Welcome to Hartford, Connecticut, in the fall of 1957. Homemaker Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), her very successful executive husband Frank (Dennis Quaid), and their children David and Janice live in a picture perfect house on a picture perfect street lined with trees covered in beautiful fall foliage. Cathy is getting help from her best friend and neighbor, Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson), in preparing for the Whitaker's big annual party for all of their friends. She has to scold her son when he says “geez,” telling him that she doesn't want to hear “language like that in this house.”

Cathy and Frank really are the model couple. In fact they appear as “Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech” in advertisements from Frank's company. Early in the film Cathy is interviewed by a local society rag. During the interview she sees someone unexpected in the yard. She goes to investigate and finds Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). He tells Cathy that his father, who used to be her gardner, has died, and that Raymond has taken over the business. Expressing her condolences, Cathy puts her hand on Raymond's chest. The journalists write this up by saying that Cathy is a “friend to negroes.” I didn't mention Raymond's race before, but his race is certainly the first thing that most people in the film would notice. Of course as is common in cases of white people becoming friends with black people on film, the black people are particularly accomplished—in this case we learn that Raymond went to business school and also appreciates modern art.

But beyond the pervasive racism, there are other issues bubbling under the surface of this seemingly perfect community. Frank always seems to be working late, and as we follow along we get hints of what he is struggling with, which comes out clearly later in the film. Most reviews will reveal more on this point, but I prefer not to.

To me the best scene is one when Raymond is talking to Cathy. He asks whether or not you can really see past the surface. That's a reasonably good question today, and it was an even bigger issue in the 1950s. What I particularly appreciated about this scene was that it took place just outside a movie theater. Film is by definition a two-dimensional medium, where everything is surface—or is it? This tension between the artificial surface and the underlying truth was and still is an issue, and I think this is the reason I left the film feeling tense. The film affected me.

Moore is amazing in this film, even beyond her usual excellence. She is certainly deserving of Oscar® consideration. Haysbert was also very good, although in a more restrained, low-key way. Quaid did not quite seem up to the challenge, although he only seemed out of his depth in one scene that I can recall.

The cinematography is very good, and is probably worth another Oscar® nomination, although I have to say that Road to Perdition would get my vote. Perhaps Mark Friedberg, who did the production design here and also for The Ice Storm, is really the person to award for the look of this film. The score, by Oscar® winner Elmer Bernstein, was well suited to the mood of the film.

Besides Quaid's performance, my only complaint would be that the film seemed to go on a bit longer than it really should, although I'm not sure where I would have cut it off. But these are very minor quibbles. This film is outstanding, and I highly recommend it.


Punch-Drunk Love (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 12/18/2002, 1:34, rated R):

I've never seen an “Adam Sandler movie” before. Even after seeing this film, I still may not have.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, who runs a small business selling novelty toilet plungers. We first see him on the phone with people from Healthy Choice, trying to figure out a promotion they are running to get frequent flyer miles for buying their products. He points out to them that the value of the promotion's payoff might actually exceed the cost, but the droid on the other end of the phone doesn't seem to understand or care (the frequent flier promotion aspect of the plot is apparently a true story, by the way).

Next he walks out to the street where he sees a couple of very unexpected things, the second of which is a harmonium (a small organ, so far as I can tell). And then the third unexpected thing happens: a woman named Lena (Emily Watson) drives up to leave her car with the neighboring repair business, which is not yet open for the day, and she strikes up a bit of a conversation with Barry.

We learn that Barry has seven sisters. There is a birthday party, and none of them expect him to show up (he has a history of such things), so they all call (well, maybe only three or four) to see if he's coming. Each call interrupts him while he's trying to sell a new wedding-theme plunger to a customer.

There is more setup, but in a film that seems to thrive on surprises, you shouldn't have too many spoiled for you. These surprises are the work of writer/director/producer Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights and Magnolia). Between the over-the-top events and the occasional psychedelic 1960's-feeling colors that appear on screen, I wonder if this film is even supposed to be taken as real, or if it's some sort of surreal dreamlike experience.

Sandler is a real revelation. I have found myself thinking about his deeply conflicted character over the few days since I saw the film. There's an amazing mix of intelligence, rage, innocence, rabid insecurity, love, and more all bubbling around inside there. This is a man with serious inner demons. I don't know if this film proves that Sandler can really act, or if the role is just perfect for him.

Meanwhile, Watson is also a more complex character than she first appears to be. After all, why else would she be drawn to Sandler's Barry? And the film also includes Anderson regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guzmán in relatively small roles.

I went to this film because of the director. I thought his previous films made this one a good bet. If anything, he solidified his reputation with me. This is audacious filmmaking that essentially all works, and it is highly recommended.


Rabbit-Proof Fence (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 12/14/2002, 1:34, rated PG):

The film opens in 1931 in Jigalong, in western Australia. Molly, 14, and her two younger cousins Daisy and Gracie, live with Molly's mother, who is an Aborigine. The three girls, on the other hand, are half white, having fathers who came to the area to build the rabbit-proof fence that the film is named for across the continent to stop a huge infestation of rabbits. The fathers, having finished the fence, have long since left.

From about 1910 to 1970, the Australian government had a program to remove so called “half-caste” children from the Aborigine world and attempt to integrate them into the white world. Or at least that's how they thought of it. As shown in this film, the part-Aborigine children are treated like animals (e.g., they travel by train in what can only be called a cage), raised in orphanages designed to break their spirit, and trained to be servants or worse. These children came to be called the “stolen generations.”

The three girls are traumatically removed from their home and taken away to an orphanage 1500 miles away. They see that a girl who escapes is quickly hunted down by an Aborigine tracker named Moodoo (David Gulpilil from Walkabout, The Last Wave, and Crocodile Dundee) and returned to camp and punished. But Molly is very smart, and picks an optimal time to escape with her cousins. They attempt to make it home on foot with Moodoo tracking them and the rest of the government pitching in as well.

This film works very well for a number of reasons. First, the three child actors, all of whom are newcomers, are very good, as is Gulpilil and the rest of the cast. The head of the government agency in charge of the Aborigines is played by Kenneth Branagh. While the captives call him “Mr. Devil,” he somehow manages to infuse the role with just enough ambiguity so that you don't hate him 100%.

The second reason this film works is the cinematography (by Christopher Doyle, who is better known for his Hong Kong films like Ashes of Time). The Australian Outback looks both beautiful and menacing here. There are also good perspective shots from the angle of the little girls.

The story, which is based on a true account, is quite extraordinary. And finally, the director (Phillip Noyce, who is Australian but has been better known as the director of such Hollywood movies as Clear and Present Danger) does a very good job of telling the story.

The film is highly recommended and has a clear if slightly heavy-handed message about the hubris of the West in deciding how other indigenous cultures should live their lives. This of course echoes the treatment of Native Americans in this country, and it could certainly also be taken as an indictment of the current U.S.-Iraq conflict. The only reservation I have is the heavy-handedness that I mentioned, but I actually found it less objectionable in hindsight than I did while watching the film. Interesting.


Talk Cinema: I saw this at Talk Cinema in Palo Alto, CA. This was the final film in the fall series. The earlier films were Real Women Have Curves, Auto Focus, Far from Heaven, El Crimen del padre Amaro (English title: The Crime of Father Amaro), Personal Velocity: Three Portraits, About Schmidt, and this film.

The pluses of Talk Cinema are high quality of the films and the regular host (Marlyn Fabe). The minuses are the high price ($149 for the quarter or $25 for an individual film), the guest speakers (who are never as good as Marlyn), and the fact that all of the films shown open in normal theaters within a few weeks. For me the money is an issue, so I expect to only attend once or twice in the next quarter.


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (3 stars, 2002, seen 12/13/2002, 2:41, rated PG):

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) went back to live with his “muggle” (non-magic) aunt and uncle after his first year at Hogwart's School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. They still treat him like a third-class citizen, but at least now he has a real bedroom. One day he is visited by an elf named Dobby, a computer graphic character who is less annoying than Jar Jar Binks but still makes you uncomfortably think of a black slave. Dobby warns, no, begs, Harry not to return to Hogwart's because of some unspecified mortal danger.

But Harry decides to return anyway. Actually getting there is substantially more difficult than it should be after he and his friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) miss the train and they decide to take his family's flying car.

I don't want to give away much more of the plot, although it obviously involves the legendary Chamber of Secrets mentioned in the film title. All of the original characters are back, including Hermione Granger (Emma Watson, who unfortunately doesn't figure quite as prominently in this film), McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Dumbledore (Richard Harris, who died since filming ended), Snape (Alan Rickman), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and the rest.

There are several new characters, including Professor Sprout (Miriam Margolyes), the biology teacher who teaches the children about the mandrake plant in what was probably my favorite scene in the film. The other major new character is Professor Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), who wrote a best selling autobiographical book about magic, but whose mistakes serve as comic relief.

As a disclaimer, I should mention that I have not read the books. I liked the first film because it was a whole new world, very well realized. This film is too, and the special effects are probably a bit better. But my problem is that it feels like it's the same film. It follows a story line that seems awfully familiar and doesn't introduce as many fun new ideas as the first did. Of course if I hadn't seen the first one, this one might have seemed more original. Either way it's entertaining and worth seeing, but I just wasn't smiling quite as broadly when it was over.


About Schmidt (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 12/7/2002, 2:04, rated R):

The previews for this film, which is scheduled to be released over the next month depending on where you are, do an admirable job of not revealing many of the film's surprises, so I'll be extra careful to do the same.

Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson, looking his age) is an insurance executive for a company called Woodmen in Omaha, Nebraska. The film opens with a long series of still shots of the tall Woodmen building, gradually getting closer and more oblique as the camera is forced to tilt up. Next we see Schmidt in his office, all packed as if he is moving, just watching the clock. A few seconds after 5 P.M. he stands up, a little reluctantly and sadly, and leaves his office. He's retiring today after many decades on the job, to be replaced by a much younger man.

Warren is married to Helen (June Squibb, who is actually slightly older than Nicholson, in stark contrast to his usually much younger screen companions). They have a daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), who lives in Denver and is getting married soon to Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney). Warren doesn't think Randall is good enough for his daughter, although Helen reminds him that her father didn't like him at first either. To finish introducing the main characters, Randall's divorced parents are Roberta (Kathy Bates) and Larry (Howard Hesseman from “WKRP in Cincinnati”).

I don't want to reveal much more of the plot. The previews do reveal that Warren ends up on the road, and as often happens in road pictures, he learns something about himself in the process. Note also that the film is being advertised mostly as a comedy, but this is really a drama, and what comedy is there is definitely black.

The cinematography is sometimes pretty and uses interesting angles. It also often feels harsh, as if we are shining a bright light on the subject. Early in film it seems like the camera is static—there are almost no moving camera shots—but as the film progresses it gets more mobile. I would hazard a guess that this mirrors Warren's mental state.

The acting is excellent by everyone, and Nicholson is widely expected to get an Oscar® nomination for this film. It would be deserved, although he will have stiff competition.

I saw this at Talk Cinema in Palo Alto, CA. Glenn Lovell from The San Jose Mercury News was there to lead the discussion afterwards, along with regular host Marlyn Fabe. Among many other things, the following observations were made (there may be mild spoilers in this section):

Summing up for my own feelings, while I was watching this film it didn't feel like it all fit together perfectly, but in retrospect it feels much more organic. This plus Nicholson's performance make it a film well worth seeing.


8 Mile (2.5 stars, 2002, seen 12/5/2002, 1:50, rated R):

As the film opens, Jimmy (called “Rabbit” and played by Eminem) is in a grimy men's restroom. He's locked the door and is preparing to go on stage in a rap contest. He seems okay, but is apparently so nervous that he throws up. He has to change his shirt (he is keeping his clothes—and maybe all of his possessions—in a garbage bag outside), and manages to get on stage in time. But then he totally chokes.

We learn that Rabbit just broke up with his girlfriend, who said she was pregnant so he has given her his car. He moves back in with his mother (Kim Basinger, who is obviously not expecting him), who lives in a mobile home with her other child, a little girl named Lily. She's seeing a man who is not much older than Rabbit and doesn't like him very much. Rabbit has dreams of getting enough money together to make a demo tape, but those dreams seem pretty unrealistic.

Rabbit's friends include Future (Mekhi Phifer), who runs the rap contests Rabbit choked at, and Cheddar Bob. There is also a girl named Alex (Brittany Murphy).

I saw this film mostly because it was directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys), but unlike those films this one seemed relatively conventional to me. The acting was good, with Eminem showing good screen presence and Basinger being more convincing as trailer trash than I would have expected. But unless you are an Eminem fan, the film probably isn't worth seeking out.


Standing in the Shadows of Motown (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 12/4/2002, 1:56, rated PG):

You already know the hits from Motown in the 1960's and very early 1970's, such as “You've Really Got a Hold on Me” (The Miracles), “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” (Jimmy Ruffin), “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (Gladys Knight and the Pips, and also Marvin Gaye). They had different songwriters and lead singers, but they all had the same musicians. It turns out that a group of musicians who came to call themselves the Funk Brothers were instrumental (as it were) for more number one hits than the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and Elvis, combined. And yet they were never even credited until very near the end of their time together.

Over the course of this film you get to know various members of the Funk Brothers, in the present day (those who are still alive got together for the first time in 30 years), in archival footage, and occasionally in reenactments using actors. Names like James Jamerson, Joe Hunter, Benny Benjamin, and Joe Messina become familiar, as does the Detroit studio where it all happened, dubbed the “snake pit.” Actually, it isn't fair to say that everything happened there, because the Funk Brothers often played in local clubs, experimenting and coming up with new ideas that they would incorporate into their studio sessions.

The stories are good, and it is cool to hear from a few of their children what it was like having one of the Funk Brothers as a father (there were no Funk Sisters, by the way, although the group did have a little racial diversity). But the heart of the film is the music. One memorable scene shows them adding one instrument at a time, slowing building up the Motown sound for the song “Ain't No Mountain High Enough.” And once they get going, it's hard to stay completely still in your theater seat.

The reunion recordings were done with new lead singers, such as Chaka Khan and Joan Osborne. This is to demonstrate that the original leads didn't make the songs, although new takes on old material does change the results a little. The songs are still good, but I think this mildly detracts from the film's premise.

As a documentary, the structure is pretty straightforward and simple, but it works. And the newly recorded footage looks better than you would expect a low budget documentary to look.

If you like Motown songs at all, you should absolutely see this film. You may even want to buy the soundtrack (Amazon.com).


Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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