Film reviews March 2003

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

Shanghai Knights (3 stars, 2003, seen 3/27/2003, 1:54, rated PG-13):

As in the first film, Jackie Chan plays Chon Wang, a Chinese martial arts expert out of place in late 1800's America, while Owen Wilson plays Roy O'Bannon, a former train robber whose mouth always seems to be three steps ahead of his ability. As the film opens, Wang is a sheriff somewhere in the western United States, and has been so successful that everyone who is wanted seems to have already been arrested. Meanwhile O'Bannon has written a series of books about the two of them, making it sound like Wang is just a lowly sidekick, and as a result has made himself relatively famous.

Meanwhile, back in China, we learn that Wang's father is the keeper of the official Imperial Seal, assisted by his daughter (Wang's sister Chon Lin, played by Fann Wong). Bad things happen (I don't want to give too much away), and the bad guy heads to England (hence the “Knights” in the film title). Wang hears about this, and heads to England after first stopping in New York to pick up O'Bannon. The one other actor I want to mention is Donnie Yen, from Once Upon a Time in China II and Iron Monkey, who gives this film a little more of a real martial arts pedigree than the previous film did.

This is a fun film, with both good comedy and good martial arts action. But while most reviewers seem to think that this is the rare sequel which is better than the first film, I have to disagree. It may simply be greater familiarity this time around, but this film feels slightly forced at times in a way that was more rare the first time. It's still worth seeing, but not a special effort.

Chicago (4 stars, 2002, seen 3/20/2003, 1:53, rated PG-13):

Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a vaudeville performer who is famous for the singing and dancing act that she does with her sister. As the film opens, she arrives late, without her sister but with blood on her hands, and makes it on stage just in time. She does her opening number (“All That Jazz”) and is then taken away by police, accused of killing both her husband and sister.

In the audience that night is Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger). From there Roxie goes back to her apartment with her boyfriend, who is a furniture salesman but has been telling Roxie that he can get her an audition at the club where Velma was performing. In fact it seems that he has been telling her this for a month, and yet the audition has still not happened. When she finally figures out that he has been lying to her to get sex, she is furious and kills him. She manages to convince her husband Amos (John C. Reilly) to cover for her and say that the dead man was a burglar and that he shot him, but once Amos figures out that the dead man is in fact the man who sold them their furniture, he tells the police the truth and Roxie is taken away.

The women's prison where both Velma and Roxie are being held is run by “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifah). The other significant character is Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), the best lawyer money can buy. Well, maybe “best” is the wrong word—but he is the most effective, and his standard method is to get his clients lots of publicity so that the public likes them too much to convict them.

Putting aside the excellent question of why the main characters are Hollywood actors rather than Broadway performers, how did they do? I thought Zeta-Jones was outstanding—she steals the show. In fact, she is so outstanding that I even forgot about all of her annoying T-Mobile commercials. Latifah and Reilly have smaller parts, but are pretty good in them (some people were substantially more impressed by Latifah's big musical number that I was). And I thought Zellweger and Gere were good enough to avoid embarrassing themselves, but not much better. It has been noted by others that some credit should go to the film's editor (Martin Walsh) for helping them look as good as they do. Unfortunately, a movie's job is to sell movie tickets, and putting known actors in the main roles does that better than choosing the best performers.

So why am I giving this film my highest rating? I actually didn't at first, but it has grown on me in the last few days. “Cell Block Tango” is a great number that happens shortly after Roxie is put in prison, and it's practically worth the cost of admission by itself. Velma's opening number is also very good, as is the finale, and also one number where Gere demonstrates his power to manipulate the press (speaking of which, Christine Baranski was good but underutilized as press corps member Mary Sunshine—why won't anyone ever give her a part she can sink her teeth into?). Many of these numbers are supposed to be dreams that Roxie is having, but it all washes over you in a way that makes the detailed mechanics of what is real and what is imagined just not matter. By the end credits you'll be tapping your foot and thinking about buying the soundtrack CD.

I saw a stage version of this film in 1997 in Washington, D.C., with the most known performer being Jasmine Guy. I can't say that I really got the plot then, so I have to say that that film is much better in that regard. And even though the choreography in the film is not officially done by Bob Fosse (the film's director, Rob Marshall, is credited), his influence is strong, and he was a genius.

The bottom line is that I enjoyed this movie a great deal, and it has gotten even better as I have thought about it since. I'll be happy to see it again, and there aren't many films I would say that about.

Unfaithful (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 3/18/2003 DVD, 2:04, rated R):

Connie (Diane Lane) and Edward (Richard Gere) Sumner are married with one eight-year-old son named Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan, the youngest on “Malcolm in the Middle”). They live in an impressive house in the country, within a fairly easy train commute distance of New York City. They seem reasonably happy, with Charlie trying to get away with playing violent video games or watch too much television when he knows he's not supposed to. Connie and Edward seem comfortable and affectionate, though not particularly passionate.

On the first day shown in the film, it is very windy. Edward suggests that she stay home, but she has work to do for a charity auction, so she goes into New York City. She's walking, or trying to walk, down a street with the wind and blowing parts of her clothing half blinding her when she literally runs into and falls on top of Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), a 28-year-old French book dealer carrying a tall stack of books. When neither of them can manage to flag down a cab, he invites her up to his place, which is right there, to bandage her bleeding knee. She's obviously uneasy about being alone in a man's apartment when she never met him before, or is that sexual tension? He doesn't help matters when he insists she take a book, leading her to one with a romantic, “damn the torpedoes” type of passage in it.

From the name of the film, you can pretty much guess that she does go back to see him again, but I don't want to give away any detail. I will warn you, however, that there is a non-trivial amount of violence in the film, in case that is an issue for you.

The core of the film is Lane, who definitely deserves her Oscar® nomination. She does an amazing job of conveying both pure and highly conflicted emotions, mostly without words. Gere, while not in the same league, is as good here as I can ever recall him being. Martinez is fine, but nothing special (the women in the audience might disagree). Sullivan is good as the child, demonstrating armpit farts early on, and generally managing to convey both exasperation and appreciation for what he views as his mother's somewhat controlling tendencies.

Without giving anything away, the ending is somewhat ambiguous, but the DVD also contains a somewhat less ambiguous alternate ending in case that works better for you. The DVD also reveals that the most famous scene of the film, with Connie on the train, was the director's idea (I had previously thought the editor had come up with it on her own).

This film is well worth seeing for Lane's extraordinary performance. If she had been merely adequate in the role, it would have lost at least half a star. That said, the film as a whole was better than I expected, so I can absolutely recommend it.

Home viewing: It's different watching a film at home. Despite my extensive DVD collection, I hardly ever do it. Since in this case I knew I would be writing up a review of the film, due to Lane's Oscar® nomination, I tried to make the experience a little more theater-like. No, I didn't hire people to talk behind me—I took the phone off the hook so that I could watch the film without any breaks. The option to take a break in the middle of a film is nice, but it does fundamentally change the experience in my opinion. If you have any other little tricks to make home viewing more like in a theater, drop me a line.

Stone Reader (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 3/16/2003, 2:07, unrated):

Mark Moskowitz, the director of this documentary, read a book review of The Stones of Summer in the New York Times back in the early 1970s, and bought the book then. He had trouble getting very far with it, but when he did finally finish the book in 1998, he thought it was so good he went looking for other books by the same author (Dow Mossman) and for copies of the book to give to his friends. He found neither. Well, he actually did find a few used copies of the book, which he bought.

Moskowitz was already a filmmaker, or more accurately a maker of political campaign spots (“thousands” of them) for Democratic candidates. So he started filming a documentary of his search for more information about the book and the author, in his spare time. He found that any information was very hard to come by. The book didn't sell very many copies, so very few had read it, and Mossman was similarly unknown. But I won't reveal what Moskowitz found out, to preserve your surprise.

The most amazing thing about the film is just how obsessed Moskowitz is with books. Whenever he is going to visit another book geek, he feels the need to bring a large box full of carefully selected books to discuss. Not that he and the other person actually open the books, mind you, but the books serve as props to remind each of the experience of reading that book. He feels excessive in this, but mostly in a charming and slightly inspiring manner rather than an annoying or scary one. But note the word “mostly.”

The production values of the film are fairly low. The camera shakes quite often, but Moskowitz's randomly interspersed nature footage, which in general feels unrelated to anything except padding the running time, does provide the viewer something of a rest from this SpastiCam™ effect. I also think I saw a microphone unintentionally on camera in one scene.

But on the whole this is actually a very fun documentary. It gives the viewer a view into a world of book lovers that is fairly rare today, and the mood is infectious. My only real complaint is that the film is focused on the process of Moskowitz's search for most of the film, but changes tone towards the end, becoming more intentional and self-conscious. This is not a fatal flaw, and the film is still very worth seeing if you have the chance.

I saw this in Campbell, CA with the Camera Cinema Club. The director was there to answer questions, although due to the film's long running time he was forced to keep the question and answer session short. This is where I learned about Moskowitz's career in political campaign messages, but there wasn't much else he said that I can reveal without spoiling the film.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (3 stars, 2002, seen 3/13/2003, 1:53, rated R):

The film opens in 1981. Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) is in a New York City hotel room, standing still, naked, even while a maid is vacuuming around him. Soon Penny (Drew Barrymore) comes to the door, having tracked him down because the note he wrote to her was on hotel stationery, and tries to talk him into coming with her.

Most of the story is told as a flashback from this point, going back to when Chuck was first trying to get into television and when he meets Penny, who sees something in him despite the fact that he really hadn't done anything at that point.

The story is based on the so-called “unauthorized autobiography” by the real Chuck Barris, who did in fact create “The Dating Game,” “The Newlywed Game,” and “The Gong Show” on television. But the book and this film tell a seriously bizarre (and almost certainly fabricated) story about what else Barris was doing while traveling around the world. I won't give away much more of the plot in case you haven't read any other reviews, but I will mention that George Clooney and Julia Roberts also play significant, though clearly supporting, roles. Also note that the screenplay was written by Charlie Kaufman, who wrote both Adaptation. and Being John Malkovich.

Clooney, besides acting in the film, also directed, which is his first time in that capacity. It is rumored that he had some help from executive producer Steven Soderbergh, but in any case I think he did a fine job. The colors, often super-saturated, seemed to be a character on their own. And the camera moves and other flashy techniques worked and did not seem overdone to me, although there are some who disagree.

I also thought that both Rockwell and Barrymore were surprisingly good in their roles. Barrymore was particularly impressive since her role was more human and less over-the-top, especially when compared to Rockwell.

This film is simply solid entertainment with some good performances and direction. On the whole I was quite glad I saw it, although my expectations were slightly too high and therefore I was a little disappointed.

Okay (3 stars, 2002, seen 3/7/2003, 1:33, unrated, in Danish with subtitles):

Nete (Paprika Steen, from many Dogme95 films) and Kristian are married with one teenaged daughter, Katrine. Nete is a social worker and Kristian is a would-be author and sometimes college teacher (why are non-working or semi-working husbands are always trying to be writers?). They don't have enough money for a decent car, but they are doing okay.

Nete's father lives nearby, a widower. He has a very bad cough, even coughing up blood very early in the film. Nete talks him into going to the doctor, who diagnoses him with inoperable cancer and says that he may only have three weeks to live. Nete insists that he move in with the family, in their already cramped apartment, to spend his final days.

[Warning: This paragraph contains what might be considered spoilers.] After three weeks Nete's father hasn't died. In fact, he seems to be getting a little better. The strain on everyone starts to build, although he gets along best with his granddaughter due to their shared addiction to television. We also learn that Nete has a gay brother who hasn't seen his father for eight years, and still doesn't really want to even given the new urgency.

The acting is very good all the way around, with Steen being the obvious standout. The film is more of a comedy (although I would still classify it as primarily a drama) and less dreary than one would expect given the subject matter and that it's a Danish film. I would definitely recommend this film.

I saw this at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA, where an earlier showing was the California premiere.

Hukkle (3 stars, 2002, seen 3/6/2003, 1:15, unrated):

This film was Hungary's submission for the best foreign film Oscar®, which is strange because there is no dialog. Actually, there is a tiny bit of singing, talking coming from a television, and background talking/mumbling, but the only time there are any subtitles is for a song or two near the end of the film. So let's look at the official Oscar rules:

A foreign language film is defined, for Academy Award® purposes, as a feature-length motion picture produced outside the United States of America with a predominantly non-English dialogue track.

So I guess Hungarian does predominate over English, since there is a tiny bit of the former and zero of the latter. But I digress...

The title means “hiccup” in Hungarian, and sure enough the start of the film seems to center on an old man with a very stubborn case. From there... well, there is hardly any plot, so I would hate to give any of it away. The cinematography is really great, and the sound is also quite well done. On the whole I enjoyed it, but mostly as an experimental film rather than a complete feature film experience. I overheard other people who thought it was possibly the best film they saw at the 2003 Cinequest film festival (Silicon Valley, CA), but that was not how I felt. You'll have to see it yourself to decide which camp you fall into.

Kuutamolla (3.5 stars, English title: Lovers & Leavers, 2002, seen 3/6/2003, 1:59, unrated, in Finnish with subtitles):

Iiris (Minna Haapkylä) is a 30-year-old movie lover—apparently mostly old classics and recent blockbusters—but she is unlucky in love, when she even tries that is. Her two friends are Anna, who values sex over love and isn't afraid to talk about it (sex, that is) graphically, and Laura, who is married to Sami with two kids. Iiris's mother Leila is also quite a character, as she is very sexual, and in fact opens an art exhibit consisting of photographs of the penises of her numerous former lovers.

We see the typical bad date scenes, when Iiris finally does try dating, but nothing works out. Throughout this period of time she can't sleep, once answering a question of when she last slept with “April.” Then one day at a party at Laura and Sami's, Iiris meets Marko. The meeting is complete with the full slow motion “love interest” treatment. He can match her movie quote for movie quote, they hit it off, and pretty soon they are a couple. Iiris is happier than she ever could have imagined.

There is much more to the story, but you'll have to see the film to find out what. The acting is very good, although I have to say that I thought the actor who played Sami fell short on one or two occasions. The main character changes significantly over the course of the film, but always believably. The use of black and white (and silence, if I recall correctly) for the flashback scenes works quite well. And I was very pleased that the ending is more complicated than expected.

Falling in love is easy. Being in love is hard. See this film!

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

Salvajes (3 stars, English title: Savages, 2001, seen 3/5/2003, 1:38, unrated, in Spanish with subtitles):

This film is pretty hard to follow at the beginning. The filming is very handheld, in what I would call TurboSpastiCam™, often very close-up and/or out of focus, contributing to the confusion. For me the film made the effort to figure this out well worth it, but I gather the verdict was mixed on this. I say all of this up front because if you keep reading, some of the parts of the story that the filmmaker intended to take work to understand will be prematurely revealed to you. You have been warned.

The story centers around Berta (Marisa Paredas), a single nurse in her roughly late 40's who lives with her late sister's three children. The older brother works for a man I would call a mob boss. He tricks his younger brother and his friends, who are all skinheads, into beating up a black man who owes money to the boss. The sister is a minor character, but is in a relationship, if you can call it that, with the mob boss—he tells her when she can and cannot speak, and when to give him a blow job. Meanwhile, the detective investigating the beat up black guy, Eduardo, comes into the hospital where Berta works for a shot, and they end up dating.

The acting is all reasonably good, but Paredas stands out. She makes Berta strangely compelling, so it is not at all surprising that she has been nominated for a number of prestigious awards.

The films ends strangely, with some documentary footage. But I was definitely glad I saw it for the overall feel and for Paredas's performance.

I saw this film at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA.

Anarchist Cookbook, The (2.5 stars, 2002, seen 3/3/2003, 1:41, unrated):

The fun part of this film is the character setup. Puck (Devon Gummersall) is the main character, a good student and also a laid back anarchist. He fits in reasonably well with the other members of the commune, including his best friend Double D, an older hippie couple named Johnny Red and (I'm not sure), a female slut named Karla, a male slut named (I think) Sweeney, and a number of granola-types living with their children in the back yard. Now shake all that up with the addition of Johnny Black (Dylan Bruno), a nihilist with a more radical bent.

But after this setup, there doesn't seem to be any payoff. Various things happen, but the characters never seem to turn into real people and so you don't care much how it all turns out. I actually felt a little like I had been ripped off.

I saw this film at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA. The sound often seemed a little out of synchronization, but that was probably the theater rather than the film itself.

Con Man (3.5 stars, 2003, seen 3/3/2003, 0:53, unrated):

When the director, Jesse Moss, was a sophomore at Palo Alto High School in California, there was another student named Jay Huntsman. Jay appeared out of nowhere in 1985, claiming to be a Swedish orphan from a commune in Nevada. He joined the track team and started breaking records in the longer distances. Then one day it was discovered that he was really named James Hogue and was really 26 years old. Moss became obsessed with Hogue back then, and eventually made this documentary.

Several years later after Palo Alto High School, Hogue applied, from his Utah jail cell, to Princeton. He was admitted, using the name Alexi Santana, and after managing to come up with a good excuse to delay his entry date (he was still in prison), he actually attended Princeton. And he did more than attend—he was a track star and got excellent grades.

The film is very good, with the obvious comparison being to Catch Me If You Can. This film has the advantage of being literally true, rather than simply being based on a true story, although it's definitely not as flashy as the Hollywood picture. It's worth seeing if you have a chance (it originally aired on HBO in March 2002).

I saw this film at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA, and the director was there briefly to answer questions. But the questions and answers seem to give away some of the surprises later in the film, so I won't elaborate here.

Tyven, tyven (3.5 stars, English title: Hold My Heart, 2002, seen 3/3/2003, 1:32, unrated, in Norwegian with subtitles):

Harald's (Jørgen Langhelle, who played the social worker in Elling) mother has died and today is her funeral. His seven-year-old daughter Lise (Vera Rudi) is supposed to be at her grandmother's funeral, but Harald's ex-wife (Lise's mother) Cecilie calls to say that Lise is sick and cannot make it. Harald goes to Lise's school and sees that she is there, and impulsively he kidnaps her.

I'll tell a little bit more of the story, so if you want to avoid learning any more, skip the rest of this paragraph. Harald and his ex-wife separated three or four years before the film takes place. He was alleged to have molested her, so he has been unable to see his daughter unsupervised, and rarely at that since his ex-wife's false claim that Lise is sick is not unusual. This explains Harald's desperation when a rare chance to see his daughter is unilaterally cancelled. And Lise barely knows her father since she has barely seen him since she was a toddler, which makes her less than cooperative under his care. The issue of father's rights, especially in cases of possible molestation, is a difficult one, and is well explored in this film.

Langhelle is excellent, conveying hopelessness, love for his daughter, and honesty. But as good as he is, Rudi is even better as his daughter—without a doubt the best character in the film. For whatever reason, I seem to always like Norwegian films, and this one is no exception, managing to be both compellingly dramatic and sweet.

I saw this film at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA. Note also that this was Norway's submission for the best foreign film Oscar®.

Expecting (3 stars, 2002, seen 3/2/2003, 1:31, unrated):

The film opens with Stephanie (Valerie Buhagiar), a very pregnant (8+ months) woman, dancing topless. Then she and Ian, her current lover, make love.

Soon Stephanie starts to go into labor. She has planned to give birth at home, with all of her friends around, as some sort of performance art piece. She calls her sister Anita, an uptight dermatologist obsessed with clothes and cleanliness, which seems to make the chances of she and her sister actually being genetically related remote. Anita is sure that Stephanie is imagining things, and comes over to confirm this assumption. The other friends are Anita's husband, Jack, Stephanie's television reporter/blond air head friend, Dani, who has the hots for Jack, an ex-lover of both Anita and Stephanie named Gary (Colin Mochrie from “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”), who has agreed to be the photographer/videographer, the midwife Julia, who has a longstanding feud with Anita, and Stephanie's co-worker, Azaan.

The film is a mixed bag. It is often pretty funny, and some of the characters (especially Stephanie) seem real, but some of the other characters seem a little two-dimensional. I also find some of the character transformations difficult to accept. But on the whole it is enjoyable enough to support a rating towards the lower end of 3 stars.

I saw this film at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA, and one of the filmmakers (possibly the director) was there to answer questions. Some of the highlights were:

Solitude (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 3/2/2003, 1:39, unrated):

Soledad is an artist and Hilary is representing her. They are supposed to be on their way to Flagstaff, but the truck won't start, so they hitch a ride to Phoenix, where Hilary's brother Louis lives, planning to borrow his car. When we first see him on screen, he's obviously in a pretty deep depression.

I really don't want to say anything more about the plot, because it's really hard to say much about this film without giving away some surprises. I will say that the middle of the film, when the biggest character transformations happen, made the whole film worth it for me. I will also say that I thought of the film Tape while watching this, and also the characters of Brenda and Billy Chenowith (Rachel Griffiths and Jeremy Sisto, respectively) on HBO's “Six Feet Under.” The similarities rest primarily in the fact that in all three cases the characters are interesting and intense, but not particularly likeable. There is also a similarity with Tape in that both this film and the earlier one are close to following the Dogme95 rules, although in this case there is a soundtrack.

I saw this film at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA. The directors and two of the three main actors were there to talk about the film:

If you like character-oriented dramas, I would recommend this film to you.

Brother Outsider: The Life of Baynard Rustin (3.5 stars, 2003, seen 3/2/2003, 1:23, unrated):

I had never heard of Bayard Rustin before I saw this excellent documentary. He was one of the most influential people in the American civil rights movement, but because he was black, openly gay, and a former member of the Communist Party, he was forced to mostly work behind the scenes for the men you have heard of, like Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson. He was an advocate of Gandhi's non-violent philosophy, and helped King (among others) keep this focus. And perhaps most importantly, he was the primary organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, which was the occasion of King's famous “I have a dream” speech.

The documentary is fairly straightforward. It uses archival footage and photographs, interviews with the people involved, and, to make Rustin's outsider position clear, voiceover excerpts from the file the FBI was compiling on him. The reasons it all works are that it tells the story of a man who was important but who you probably know nothing about, and because he was a very interesting, obviously intelligent man. It's too bad he didn't get the recognition he deserved when he was alive, but hopefully this film will help carry on his legacy.

I saw this film at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA because the buzz from an earlier showing was very positive. I'm glad I listened.

Potestad (2.5 stars, 2002, seen 3/2/2003, 1:30, unrated, in Spanish with subtitles):

Every so often there's a film that you know has something to offer, but it's really hard to stay awake to appreciate it. You don't know if it's just you, or if the film is also implicated. This was one such case.

Eduardo (Eduardo Pavlovsky) is riding on the train, and reality seems to be changing around him. He starts to re-experience earlier parts of his life, and we see him as he looks today, a distinguished gray haired surgeon, playing the part of the younger Eduardo, playing rugby in college, for example, surrounded by college age players. This disjointed reality is confusing to us, and it seems that it also represents Eduardo's inner conflict about a terrible loss earlier in his life. I see that the director has primarily been an editor before, so perhaps the frequent time shifts in the film are more comfortable to him than they are to us.

The film, which is from Argentina but has not yet played there, has very good production values, and the feel is effective. But it's not quite as gripping as it needs to be to prevent the audience from getting distracted.

I saw this film at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA, where an earlier showing was the U.S. premiere. The film was apparently based on a stage play written by the star, which was delivered as a monologue. The film is obviously quite different, but the jury is still out on whether or not it works.

Want (2.5 stars, 2002, seen 3/2/2003, 1:38, unrated):

It's 1999 in Silicon Valley. Trey Segal is an engineer, but he's way too distracted to do much of his real work, which is fixing software bugs. His main distraction is trying to come up with the next great idea for a startup company with his friend and coworker, Benjamin (Michael Wohl, who is also the director and one of the key people behind the Final Cut Pro editing software used on many small budget films, including this one). Trey's other distraction, which we see right away, is online pornography.

The other significant characters are Trey's homeless father Gene, Gene's girlfriend Starr, Trey's female coworker Dana, his female boss Lindsey, his mother, and a marketing guy named Rich. [Mild spoiler ahead! Skip to next paragraph to avoid it.] These six characters are actually played by three actors, each playing two roles, although I didn't realize this when I was watching the film. This is not just a money saving trick. That Trey's boss and mother would be the same actress has obvious overtones. Dana, a possible love interest for Trey, is played by the same actress as his father's girlfriend—that's a little creepy. The marketing guy, who is an obstacle between Trey and success, is played by the same actor as his father—hmmm.

The best parts of the film are the dot com boom nostalgia, although this might hit a bit too close to home for some, and the fake advertisements, which include digitally replaced billboards and radio bits. All of this is fun and light. But the disturbing pornographic imagery and other heavy material do not blend at all well with the rest of the film. To me this is the film's biggest problem. Another notable problem is that the digital production is fairly low quality. This is most obvious in the long shots, which exhibit obvious and very significant “jaggies.” I also found the acting to be adequate at best, although giving the film the benefit of the doubt, this may have been intentional.

I saw this at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA, where an earlier showing was the U.S. premiere. The director was there to answer questions:

Winning Girls Through Psychic Mind Control (2.5 stars, 2002, seen 3/1/2003, 1:33, unrated):

The two main characters are Devon (Bronson Pinchot from “Perfect Strangers”), a keyboard player, and Samuel (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), a drummer. They are lounge lizards. One day Samuel starts channeling someone or something called The Conductor. His body is taken over and he seems to know everything about everyone, which turns their lounge act into something very unfamiliar to them: a success.

I found the comedy in this film pretty funny. It had me laughing or at least smiling regularly. But the drama, which mostly revolves around Devon's wife Kathy, did not work for me. The film also seemed to just sort of end without reaching any sort of conclusion or intentional ambiguity. And finally, the timeline was confusing: I think it starts in the middle and then jumps back, but I could be wrong. Overall the film is entertaining but nothing special.

I saw the film at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA, and the filmmaker was there to answer a few questions. The film was apparently written as a play, and Spike Lee looked at it before they did. It was financed by individuals, and cost about $250,000 (as I recall) without salaries, which were all or almost all deferred. It was shot on 24P HD (24 frames/second progressive scan high definition video) and transferred to 35mm film, and I have to say that it looked good enough that I might easily have guessed that it was shot on film.

Weather Underground, The (4 stars, 2002, seen 3/1/2003, 1:32, unrated):

This is a documentary about the Weathermen, a group of radicals in the late 1960's and early 1970's who believed that the Vietnam War was so bad, and with it the U.S. government, that essentially any means of stopping the war would be appropriate. The group formed out of the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969, in a debate about whether or not violence was appropriate. This debate basically destroyed SDS, leaving only the most radical, violence advocating segment, called the Weathermen. Over their history they executed a number of bombings, and had to spend most of their time underground, completely cut off from their original lives and families.

The film is actually quite balanced on the subject of the Weathermen themselves, and even the former members who appear on screen in the film have doubts about whether or not what they did was for the best. The film is not balanced on the Vietnam War itself, which is shown to have included a variety of horrific atrocities, some of which I had not previously seen. The film also seemed unbalanced in its treatment of the U.S. government and its involvement in such acts as the killing of Black Panther leaders.

There is nothing really innovative about the documentary style, which is basically archival footage mixed with contemporary (although apparently pre-9/11) interviews. The reason it's so good is simply that it is about an interesting subject, and it is compellingly told.

When I saw this film at the 2003 Cinequest film festival in Silicon Valley, CA, some of the filmmakers were there to answer questions. They were too young to have known much if anything about the Weathermen when they existed. They spent a total of four years on the film, two of which were purely for research. The film premiered at Sundance, will have a theatrical run in June, followed by being on television on PBS, and will be released on home video after that.

Unless you're sure you hate all documentaries, you should definitely make it a point to see this one when you have a chance.

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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