Film reviews February 2003

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

Osynlige, Den (3 stars, English title: The Invisible, 2002, seen 2/28/2003, 1:35, unrated, in Swedish with subtitles):

This Swedish thriller centers on Nicklas (Gustaf Skarsgård, son of Stellan), a high school student whose mother both spoils and controls him. He is brilliant, making good steady money by writing school papers for others. He wants to go to writer's school in London, but his mother, who both spoils and smothers him, can't bear to have him leave. His best friend is an immigrant outsider at school, and the other key character is Anneli, a female leader of a school gang.

It would be difficult to write much more about the plot without giving away a surprise or two, so for a pristine viewing experience, you should skip the rest of this paragraph. The gang robs a store and is turned in, they think by Nicklas's friend, who, thinking that Nicklas has left the country for writer's school, turns the gang on Nicklas. Nicklas ends up being killed, or so it seems. He is still there, walking around, but no one else can see or feel him. Hence the film's title.

The story is good, with some interesting touches, and the production values are all quite good. The acting is fine but nothing special, and the actors never really did convince me that they were high school age. On the whole the film is worth seeing, but has not remained fresh in my memory in the 2 1/2 weeks since I saw it at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA.

Ravaryete makdush (2.5 stars, English title: Black Tape: A Tehran Diary, the Videotape Fariborz Kambari Found In the Garbage, 2002, seen 2/28/2003, 1:23, unrated, in Farsi and Kurdish with subtitles):

The concept behind this film is that the video tape was found in a garbage can. This is about as true as the statement that the people who shot the video for The Blair Witch Project were never found, but it serves as the film's structure, and also explains its extraordinary lack of production values.

As the film opens, the video camera passes through the hands of a couple of brief owners, but very quickly we are at the birthday party of Galavije, a young, attractive, upscale, somewhat Westernized Kurdish woman. She is married to Parviz, an older Iranian, who is clearly in charge.

I don't want to give away the ending of the story, and frankly a fair amount of the middle was difficult for me to follow, so I won't try. I will give a very strong warning to all who are susceptible to motion sickness during films with significant camera movement: this is as good an example as any of what I would call TurboSpastiCam™. The camera is handled by many people, including a child and several people who aren't even sure what it does, so needless to say the video is sometimes unexpected (like when the camera is put down on its side for most of a scene).

The topics covered are pretty heavy, though, and, as is common for an Iranian film, the emotions are raw and challenging. I found the film worth the effort, but not all would agree.

I saw this film at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA, where this showing was reportedly the U.S. premiere.

Movie Hero, The (3 stars, 2002, seen 2/27/2003, 1:38, unrated):

Blake Gardner (Jeremy Sisto from “Six Feet Under”) talks to the camera in this film. Constantly. You see, he believes that he has an audience following him everywhere he goes, and that he is the star in his own movie. He can tell where his audience is, much as a movie actor knows where the camera is. When he sees a suspicious character (Peter Stormare from Fargo), he decides that he is not just a suspicious character, but the Suspicious Character, which is to say, The Villain of the movie.

Meanwhile, no one else in the film can see Blake's audience, so they generally regard him as insane, or perhaps just a little eccentric. His parents have seen this all before and generally tolerate him, but don't really believe him any more than others do. The other two significant characters are Elizabeth, the Love Interest (Dina Meyer from Starship Troopers, which is appropriate since she seemed only slightly more believable in this role as Denise Richards did as a nuclear scientist in The World Is Not Enough), and Antoine, the Sidekick (Brian J. White).

Early on I found the dialog lame, the characters cardboard, and the general premise a little grating, but it grew on me. Significantly. It helps that there is lots of good film-related humor. For example, at one point Blake says, to the camera, something like “if we had an abrupt and vague ending here, that might please the European members of my audience.” There's also a great movie-related version of the Lord's Prayer, which you can find on the official film web site.

If you're a film fan and you have the chance, this is a film worth seeing. But if you're not or you have to go very far out of your way, it's probably not worth it.

Cinequest 2003: This was the opening night gala film at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA. Seeing as how this was also the world premiere, the writer/director (Brad T. Gottfred) was there to answer questions, like:

Pianist, The (4 stars, 2002, seen 2/20/2003, 2:28, rated R, in English and German with subtitles):

The title character is named Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), whose memoirs the film is based on. He is a classical pianist living in Poland during World War II, after Germany has taken over the country. The Szpilmans are Jewish, and the restrictions on Jews in German-occupied Poland are getting more and more humiliating every day. One day it's a restaurant closed to Jews, and the next they are are forced to wear armbands so that they can be easily picked out. They are even forbidden from using the sidewalks—a German soldier insists that Szpilman's father walk in the gutter. The big change happens [mild spoiler here...] when all of the Jews are herded into one small section of the city, which is then literally closed in with a tall brick wall topped with barbed wire. In this ghetto the formerly wealthy Szpilmans are forced to live in very little space on almost no money, and therefore, almost no food. And from there things get worse.

This is a film that feels a little cold and detached, but I think that the people who lived these scenes were probably like that. On the one hand, the Germans treated the Jews as animals, and mostly useless ones at that, so there was no real emotion in their abuse and killing. And the Jews had no choice but to be stoic and ignore everything around them to avoid going crazy and, perhaps more importantly, to avoid drawing attention. Brody plays the main character very subtly, but with depth and courage. And his transformation from simply thin to painfully, dangerously, thin is quite remarkable. His Oscar® nomination is well deserved.

The film is a very personal statement by the director, Roman Polanski, who himself grew up in the ghettoes of Poland and had to hide to escape death. He presents a picture that is matter of fact, letting the viewer decide what to think, rather than forcing a particular point of view. Whatever you think of Polanski as a person, this is impressive work. The cinematography, while intentionally muted, is also quite good, and I think the sound is better than most films at recreating the off-camera space in the viewer's mind.

The Pianist isn't a film that you really enjoy, but it is one that you can admire and that you will remember for a long time after the lights have come back up.

Gangs of New York (2.5 stars, 2002, seen 2/20/2003, 2:46, rated R):

This film starts with an epic, yet old-fashioned feel to it, even using an iris effect or two in the opening. We meet “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson), the leader of the Dead Rabbits gang in the “Five Points” section of New York City in 1846, and his young son Amsterdam. The Dead Rabbits are the immigrant gang, and the rival gang is called the Natives, led by Bill Cutting (a.k.a., “The Butcher,” played by Daniel Day-Lewis). The gangs meet in the snow in typical movie fashion, with the front line of men (and women, interestingly) on each side in straight horizontal rows, facing each other. Neither side backs down, and so the battle is joined.

Make no mistake about it: this is a very violent film. There is lots of blood, and human lives are obviously not considered very precious, as they are today in most parts of the United States. But I have to say that much of the violence happens just off camera, and is a little more stylized than I expected, so the audience doesn't feel it quite as much as it might.

The bulk of the film takes place 16 years later, when Vallon's son Amsterdam has grown up to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio. He is not recognized by most people, and he uses this anonymity to start to gain access to the Natives in general and to The Butcher in particular. The other significant characters are Jenny Everdeane (a very accomplished thief, played by Cameron Diaz), William “Boss” Tweed (a corrupt politician and actual historical figure, played by Jim Broadbent), and Happy Jack (the ubiquitous John C. Reilly).

The worst of these performances (Diaz) was generally better than I had feared, while the best (Day-Lewis) was very good in a creepy, over-the-top way, but possibly not quite Oscar® caliber (although he has been nominated).

But the real problem is the story, the editing, and, it's hard to say this about Martin Scorsese, the direction, all three of which are up for Oscars®. While I said above that it starts out feeling epic and a bit old-fashioned, it gets jumbled in the middle and late going, and ends with a completely out-of-place (but Oscar® nominated) song by U2 for the closing credits. The editing and re-editing that apparently occurred to get the film down to a commercially accessible length left more than one cut that felt jarring and almost certainly wasn't meant to be. Why this film has been nominated for editing is beyond me, except perhaps out of sympathy for the editors who presumably worked very hard to get it to look this good. But at least the cinematography, also Oscar® nominated, was good.

The bottom line is that this is a film just barely worth seeing, primarily for Daniel Day-Lewis' performance.

Quiet American, The (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 2/15/2003, 1:58, rated R):

Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is a British war correspondent in Saigon in 1952. At this point in history, it is the French who are fighting the North Vietnamese (perhaps France's reluctance to get involved in Iraq today means they learned something from this experience a half-century ago). He hasn't written much lately, because he has become too comfortable with his young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong, who he “rescued” from the local dance hall/brothel, and with his occasional opium smoking. His editors are getting antsy.

One day, at the outdoor cafe of the local western hotel, Fowler meets Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser). Pyle is an American medical worker trying to help the Vietnamese with a specific form of eye disease. He meets Phuong, and soon begins to fall in love with her. Fowler does not want to lose her to Pyle, going so far as to say, “If I were to lose Phuong, it would be the beginning of death,” and yet somehow Pyle's announced interest in Phuong does not seem to significantly harm the loose friendship which has developed between the two men.

If you have seen the previews, you know that there are some action sequences in this film. These worked very well to keep the story interesting, without getting in the way of the real heart of the film, which is the characters and how they evolve.

Caine's performance is getting more press than any other aspect of this film, not to mention an Oscar® nomination for best actor. I found him excellent, but perhaps due to my sky-high expectations, I was slightly disappointed. I actually found Fraser equally good, in a somewhat less showy role with wonderful subtlety. But if I had to pick one person associated with this film to give an Oscar® to, it would be Christopher Doyle for the stunning cinematography, done primarily on location in Vietnam.

This is a very good film that I definitely recommend. If I had to pick a film to compare it with, it would be The Year of Living Dangerously. That's pretty high praise.

Politics: This film was originally scheduled to be released in 2001, shortly after 9/11. Because it presents a somewhat negative view of the American involvement in Vietnam, which feels unpatriotic and therefore politically incorrect post-9/11, the film was delayed, potentially indefinitely. Michael Caine finally persuaded Miramax to take it back off the shelf, so we are able to finally seen this film.

Adding to the political atmosphere around this film for me, I saw it in London on the day of the largest demonstration ever in that city, with crowd estimates ranging near 1 million. There were many protesters passing through Leicester Square, where I was at the time, on their way to the demonstration. When I came out after the film in the mid-afternoon, there were helicopters hovering over the city, keeping an eye on the situation, which thankfully remained peaceful. The feeling of unrest in the real world was amplified by the events in the film.

Theater vs. Theatre: There were a few things different about seeing a film in the United Kingdom. First, the price was high: £8 (about $13.39) for a matinee. It was also an assigned seat, which I have never seen done for a film theater in the United States. And there were fewer previews and more commercials before the film than I am used to. Luckily, the commercials were all new to me, making them more entertaining than annoying, but it would be different if I lived there.

I also see that IMDb lists a shorter running time for this film in the United Kingdom. I don't know if that is really accurate, but perhaps I missed a few minutes that I would have seen if I had seen this film at home. If anyone knows about the differences (or lack thereof), please send me an e-mail.

Lost In La Mancha (3 stars, 2002, seen 2/2/2003, 1:33, rated R):

This is a documentary. It was intended to be a “making of” about Terry Gilliam's (director of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brazil, and The Fisher King, among others) film of a screenplay titled “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” The directors did a similar documentary about Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. If you don't know how the Quixote film turned out, you obviously haven't seen any previews or reviews of this film. If you don't want to know, you'll have to stop reading now.

The documentary starts months before filming is to start. The budget is substantially smaller than Gilliam would have liked to fully realize his vision of the film, due to his inability to find any U.S. investors. But he and his production crew charge ahead anyway. We see Gilliam drawing story boards (remember that he was responsible for the cartoons in the “Monty Python” series). We see people building sets pieces and props, some of which are quite elaborate. And no matter how imaginative they are, Gilliam is always able to come up with new ideas to make them better. And these ideas come after the work is mostly or completely done already. There are also difficulties getting the stars (including Johnny Depp) for rehearsals and costume fittings because for the low salaries they have accepted, they can't afford much extra time. We in the audience get nervous.

What is impressive about this documentary is just how quickly and completely everything falls apart. What I outlined above is certainly cause for concern, but the problems that really matter are much bigger. Essentially everything that could go wrong, plus some things that couldn't, do go wrong. Somehow Gilliam manages to be relatively pleasant throughout, and he never asks the documentary filmmakers to shut off their camera.

The star rating I gave above is for normal filmgoers. If you have an interest in the filmmaking process, you simply have to see this documentary. It goes to 11.

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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