Film reviews January 2003

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


Hours, The (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 1/30/2003, 1:54, rated PG-13):

It's 1941 in England. Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman wearing a fake nose) is writing notes, which it quickly becomes clear are suicide notes. She walks to the river, puts rocks in her pockets, and wades in.

Flash back to Woolf in 1923. We meet her husband (Stephen Dillane) and, a little later, her sister (Miranda Richardson). Woolf is starting to write the novel Mrs. Dalloway. It is clear that the depression that causes her to be suicidal 14 years later is already present.

Now flash forward to 1951 in Southern California. Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) has a doting husband named Dan (John C. Reilly) and a son named Ritchie. Her neighbor, Kitty, is played by Toni Collette. It's Dan's birthday, but the effort and concentration required to make a birthday cake seems beyond her grasp. We also see that she is starting to read Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf's novel.

The final time and place is New York City in 2001. Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) lives with her lesbian lover Sally (Allison Janney), looks after her ex-husband Richard (Ed Harris), who is dying of AIDS. Richard has been chosen to receive a very big honor for his poetry, and Clarissa is throwing him a party to celebrate, living up to Richard's nickname for her, Mrs. Dalloway.

What most impressed me was the way that the stories were blended together, sometimes cutting back and forth in time and place every few seconds, and yet not confusing the audience. And, like Woolf's novel, almost all of the story takes place in one day, or rather, one day in each time period. These techniques really worked well for me.

Of course with a cast this talented, it's not surprising that the acting is very good. Of the actors listed above, most are at least nominees for past Academy Awards, and more nominations seem inevitable this year. That said, the performances felt a little distant, and I wouldn't personally nominate them if I had a vote. And as to the question of which of the three leading women play lead roles and which play supporting roles, I would be hard pressed to pick.

This is a very good film. It didn't quite reach the levels I hoped it might, although if I had read either Mrs. Dalloway or the novel from which this film is directly adapted, I suspect I might have gotten a little bit more out of it. Either way, it is highly recommended.


Morvern Callar (3 stars, 2002, seen 1/26/2003, 1:37, unrated):

The film starts with disorienting close-ups of a woman, illuminated by flashing colored lights. The lights are from a small Christmas tree, and over time we see that the lights also illuminate her boyfriend, dead, face down on the floor in the doorway from the kitchen to the living room. He has slashed his wrists, and there is obvious blood on the floor in the kitchen. He left a suicide note and a finished but unpublished novel on the computer.

The woman, who we eventually confirm is the title character (and who is played by Samantha Morton), is stunned, not knowing what to do or even what to think, but she dresses up and goes out, telling friends that her boyfriend is back at home. We meet Morvern's best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott).

There's really not a whole lot of plot in this film, or more accurately even though various things happen, the point is not so much the events as the opportunity they afford to see different sides of the characters. And even though the small surprises are not critical, I would rather not give them away.

The buzz on this film is that Morton's performance is very good, but I found it difficult to appreciate. Her roles in Sweet and Lowdown and Minority Report seemed much better to me. McDermott has the showier role and did very well with it, especially considering that this is her very first film.

The soundtrack is interesting because it is part of the story. Morvern's boyfriend left her a tape of songs he selected as one of his Christmas gifts to her. It's a clever device, and even better, I liked the music. And while we're on the subject of sound, the Scottish accents of most of the cast are a bit difficult to decipher at times, while Morton's more English-sounding accent (no explanation is given for the difference) is a bit easier.

This is director Lynne Ramsay's second feature film, after Ratcatcher. As before, the film is set in Scotland, and the atmosphere is more important than the plot. I have to say that the first film impressed me a bit more, but this one may just have been a little too subtle for me on this particular day. I was still glad to have seen it.


Catch Me If You Can (3 stars, 2002, seen 1/24/2003, 2:21, rated PG-13):

The film starts with the main character, Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) in jail in France. FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is there to extradite Frank Jr. back to the United States to face trial. The bulk of the film is told in flashback.

The youngest we see Frank Jr. is when his father, Frank Abagnale Sr. (Christopher Walken), is being given an award by the local Rotary Club in suburban New York state in the mid-1960s. In his acceptance speech, he tells of a pair of mice dropped into some cream. One mouse gives up quickly and drowns, while the other one struggles valiantly until the cream has been churned into butter, and he walks out.

The first con job we see is instigated by Frank Sr. He is having problems with the I.R.S. and would like a loan. He borrows Frank Jr. for the day, manages to talk his way into borrowing a suit for him, and has Frank Jr. drive their Cadillac as a chauffeur, to make Frank Sr. look impressive as he arrives to ask for the loan. The father says to his son, by way of explanation, that the Yankees win not because of Mickey Mantle but because their opponents can't take their eyes off the pinstripes.

Alas, Frank Sr. does not get the loan, so he is forced to sell the car and the house to cut expenses. They move, and when Frank Jr. shows up at his new high school and the French teacher is not there, he spontaneously decides to pretend that he is the substitute teacher. He doesn't know the subject, but manages to manipulate the class into teaching themselves. He even bluffs his way past the real substitute teacher when she shows up. The con man gene has obviously passed from father to son.

You probably have some idea what kinds of cons Frank Jr. pulls if you have seen the previews or read any other reviews, but I think I've said enough about the plot already.

The film is very entertaining, but at the same time has a somber side. We know from the opening that Frank Jr. is going to get caught, and we also know that there are some difficult things going on with his parents. These more serious elements can be thought of as an added dimension to the pure entertainment of the chase, or you could conclude that the film just can't decide which way it wants to go. Immediately after the film I was more in the former camp, thinking that the drama added to the pure entertainment aspects of the film, but wishing that there had been a bit more of the drama. Since then I have to say that I've migrated more towards thinking that the film is trying too hard to be both. Maybe that's why this entertainment film is so long.

DiCaprio manages to pull off a substantially younger character, believably, and Walken deserves the praise he has gotten for his supporting performance as the father. On the other hand, this is not Hanks' best role, and several people have complained that the Boston accent that he uses in the film is inconsistent and just plain strange, although it didn't distract me much. The late 1960's clothes look perfect, and the score (by John Williams) is also well suited to the time period.

I've said some negative things above, but they are actually small complaints. In this time of serious Oscar® contenders on the one side and bad formula Hollywood films being dumped in January on the other, this film is an excellent breath of fresh air. If you want entertainment but you don't want to be forced to leave your brain at the door, this is probably your best bet.


Antwone Fisher (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 1/23/2003, 2:00, rated PG-13):

The film is named for a real man named Antwone Fisher, on whose life story the film is based. He grew up in a foster home without knowing either of his parents, and eventually joined the Navy. Antwone (played as an adult by Derek Luke) has a tendency to get into fights, one of which lands him in the office of a Navy psychiatrist named Dr. Davenport (Denzel Washington).

They are only supposed to have three sessions, and Antwone doesn't think that Davenport has anything to say that he hasn't heard already, so there is a lot of silence. Antwone is stubborn, but Davenport is patient, and the connection between these two men eventually forms the core of the film. I won't give away much of what happens, but the third significant character is Cheryl (Joy Bryant), who works in the Navy store on shore.

This is a very touching film. I would say that it is perhaps this year's I Am Sam, in that both are openly manipulative (this film slightly less so), but both work. A simple line like, “Just being you” brought tears to my eyes (no, I won't reveal the context of the line).

The story behind the film is also quite amazing. The real Antwone was working as a security guard at Sony when he wrote the screenplay, his first. Similarly, Derek Luke was also an an unknown when he auditioned for this, his first film role. He avoided mentioning that he knew Antwone, thinking that that might jeopardize his chances. And Washington, while certainly not a newcomer in front of the camera, chose this as his first film to direct. He does an excellent job telling the story straightforwardly, with a few flashbacks and a smaller number of slightly more flashy but still quite effective cinematic devices. Based on this effort, he has a good future ahead of him, on whichever side of the camera he decides to focus.

Speaking of which, I had heard so many good things about Luke's performance that I have to say that I was slightly disappointed, which is to say that he is merely very good. Washington, despite the distractions of directing, is also excellent, and Bryant is very good in her supporting role as well.

I highly recommend this film.


Max (3 stars, 2002, seen 1/12/2003, 1:46, rated R):

The film opens in an abandoned, leaky train station. But there is art hung up. Max Rothman (John Cusack) is a reasonably wealthy Jewish modern art dealer in post-World War I (as we call it today) Munich, and this is his gallery. He has an art show, and when, during the show, he goes outside to look for the last case of Champagne that has just arrived, a slightly nervous man named Adolph Hitler (Noah Taylor from Shine) is there.

Both Max and Hitler served during the war and both are about 30 years old. Max lost his right arm, while Hitler also seems somewhat damaged, although only in the financial and emotional sense. Hitler helps Max with the Champagne and tells Max that he is a painter. Max agrees to look at his work later.

Hitler doesn't like modern art at all, while Max specializes in it. But when Max suggests that Hitler try modern art, Hitler is so eager to succeed as an artist that he agrees to try. But it is difficult for him, and there are forces other than art at work in his life.

Probably the most interesting aspect of this film is that it treats Hitler as a human being. And even though you know what the outcome will be, you find yourself rooting for him to find his artistic vision to avoid the future we know he has. It's also quite strange to hear someone say “Hey, Hitler, why don't we go get a lemonade?”

Noah Taylor is quite impressive. You believe that he is struggling inside, and you get a glimpse of what might have been inside the real Adolph Hitler. I found Cusack disappointing, however. He seemed too modern in his language and speech, and just didn't seem believable. This film made me reevaluate whether I have liked his performances or his films and conclude it is more the latter. I will continue to respect him for the roles that he chooses (reportedly he took no salary for this role to help get the film made).

I'm sure this film will be condemned by many, most of whom will not have bothered to watch it. The history that it presents is apparently not completely accurate (there was no Max, for example, although there was apparently a Viennese art dealer), but that does not take away from the value of the film. It will make you think.

I saw the film at the Camera Cinema Club in Silicon Valley, CA. It opens locally on 1/24/2003.


Frida (3 stars, 2002, seen 1/9/2003, 1:58, rated R):

Frida Kahlo (played by Salma Hayek) starts the film as a grown woman. She is obviously in pain, and her bed is being loaded onto a truck. As the truck drives off with her on the back in her bed, the film flashes back to her school age days.

Frida is now roughly high school age. She and her friends harass Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) from the balcony of what looks like a church, calling him “fat” as he paints a nude woman. We learn that she is prone to causing trouble and ignoring societal expectations, and that she loves to paint. When, somewhat later, she goes to Rivera to ask him to critique her painting, she insists that he come downstairs, even though at the time he is a well-known painter and she is unknown. She knows what she wants, and is not afraid to ask for it.

Before she asks for Rivera's opinion, however, there is a critical event. Telling you about it risks spoiling a surprise, although if you have read any other reviews or know of her life, it will not be a surprise to you. You have been warned. She is involved in a serious accident. The accident itself is presented in a way that can only be called beautifully violent. It is almost operatic in feel. This accident has repercussions throughout the rest of her life, with the resulting pain coming out in her paintings.

The accident happens fairly early in the film and, for me, was probably the high point. This is not to say this is a bad film. In fact I found the film quite affecting at times, even causing my eyes to moisten a bit. Some of the effects are also quite innovative, such as where paintings fade into real life and one other large montage/drawing with Frida and Diego in the middle. But the film is uneven, and I found myself getting drowsy on a few other occasions.

Hayek's acting is probably the high point of her career based on the films I have seen her in, but unfortunately when compared with her roles in Dogma, Timecode, and Hotel, that isn't saying as much as it might. She is fine most of the time, but she is not believable as a high school girl. Molina is much better (as Rivera, not as a high school girl), and if you consider him to be in a supporting role, is possibly even Oscar® caliber. Edward Norton, Antonio Banderas, and Geoffrey Rush are in small parts (Norton, who is Hayek's boyfriend in real life, apparently also re-wrote the screenplay, but did not get credit or pay for it). Valeria Golino plays Rivera's ex-wife, but unfortunately only reminded me of the Hot Shots! movies.

Hayek apparently worked for many years to get this film made, and gets screen credit as a producer. I'm glad she stuck with it, and that I was able to enjoy the final result. I recommend this film.


Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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