Film reviews July 2003

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

Finding Nemo (3.5 stars, 2003, seen 7/20/2003, 1:41, rated G):

Marlin (voice by Albert Brooks) and his wife have just moved into a new home in a sea anemone, with lots of eggs ready to hatch, when (minor spoiler) his wife and all but one of the eggs are eaten by a barracuda. Marlin, who was cautious before, becomes compulsively (and somewhat annoyingly) over-cautious with the son, named Nemo, who is born from the one overlooked egg. Making matters worse, Nemo is born with the fin on his right side significantly under-sized. His father, being very politically correct, calls it Nemo's “lucky” fin.

On the first day of school, Nemo and three other “kids” go off the edge of the sea shelf, and when Marlin shows up and begs him to come back where it's safe, Nemo defies him by going all the way out to a boat that's anchored nearby. Nemo is (minor spoiler) captured by a diver, who leaves with him right away. Marlin follows frantically for a few minutes, losing the trail but picking up a companion, a blue tang named Dory (voice by Ellen DeGeneres). Dory is not too smart, but she is helpful to Marlin nonetheless. And she is also extremely helpful to the film, providing a large percentage of the entertaining moments.

The film is very fun, with lots of smaller characters, including Crush, the turtle who speaks like a surfer dude (with voice by Andrew Stanton, who co-wrote and co-directed the film). The film's almost constant stream of small throw-away bits are easily worth the price of admission, and the impressive visuals both above and below the surface of the water are also wonderful. And finally, the message that many of life's best moments don't happen without taking some risks is one worth remembering. Seeing this film, on the other hand, is no risk at all, as it is guaranteed to entertain. It doesn't quite measure up to Monsters, Inc. or Toy Story 2, but it isn't far behind.

Animated short: Knick Knack is a short film that was played before the feature. It was also done by Pixar, but is from all the way back in 1989, which is six years before the first full-length Pixar film, Toy Story. The main character is a snowman in a snow globe, who tries very hard to escape his globe to join the pool party that the other knick knacks (especially the flirtatious female doll) are having on another shelf. It doesn't measure up the For the Birds (which preceded Monsters, Inc.), but it was still quite good. I would expect it to be included on the DVD.

Magdalene Sisters, The (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 7/15/2003, 1:59, rated R):

“What a noble privilege is it of human reason to attain the knowledge of the supreme Being; and, from the visible works of nature, be enabled to infer so sublime a principle as its supreme Creator? But turn the reverse of the medal. Survey most nations and most ages. Examine the religious principles, which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You will scarcely be persuaded, that they are any thing but sick men's dreams: Or perhaps will regard them more as the playsome whimsies of monkies in human shape, than the serious, positive, dogmatical asseverations of a being, who dignifies himself with the name of rational.” — David Hume (1711-1776), Scottish philosopher [from]

An Irish man is drumming with impressive intensity. Sweat drips down his face. The people gathered together listening are dressed nicely, and it seems to be a wedding. We see a teenaged boy get the attention of a teenaged girl, and they leave the ceremony together. She doesn't know what he wants, but once they are alone he assaults and rapes her.

After she returns to the room, distraught, she tells her parents. They look towards the boy's family and back at their daughter, trying to figure out what to do. All of this story so far is conveyed without dialog. Impressive filmmaking.

The girl, Margaret, is one of three girls whose stories we see during the opening sequence. Rose has just had a child out of wedlock, and knows that it is wrong, but she loves her infant son with all of her being. Her parents, however, can barely stand to look at her, and force her to give up the son for adoption before they have even left the hospital. The final girl is Bernadette, who is living in an orphanage for girls. Her crime is that the boys who come to the schoolyard fence to leer have taken a special liking to her.

All three girls are brought by their families (or caretakers in the case of Bernadette) to the Magdalene Asylum, without the consent or input of the girls themselves, or really even warning them what is about to happen. The head nun, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan, the voice of the aunt in the Aardman Animations short Not Without My Handbag), makes it clear that they are there only to serve the nuns, and to atone for the horrible sins that they have committed against God and the Catholic Church.

They work very long hours in the laundry, which is how the Magdalene Asylums pay for themselves, and are fed minimalist food, while the nuns eat extravagantly secluded behind a screen. The girls must behave, work hard, rarely speak (and never have an opinion), and are disciplined with a stick or worse if they misbehave. In short, they are not given the respect given to most house pets.

The other significant character is another inmate girl named Crispina. She seems happier than most, probably because her IQ is quite low, and her belief in the Catholic Church is stronger than that of the other girls.

The story is devastating and bleak. The very rare moment of humor cannot really be enjoyed. But this is based entirely on actual events, so it is a film that must be seen even though it is far from entertainment. What is even more amazing is that this story is set in the 1960s, and that the last Magdalene (named for Mary Magdalene from The Bible) laundry did not close until just a few years ago.

The filmmaking, by first time director Peter Mullan (Daniel Dillon in The Claim), is impressive. The opening wordless scene, another shot with the image of Sister Bridget reflected in the eye of one of the girls, the symbolism of two keys, and more show that this is much more than just a sequence of events put together without skill or imagination. The performances are all very good, with frequent moments of greatness.

One cannot watch this film without wondering why the girls and their families did not fight this system more, and why the Church continued to advocate it until so recently. As the quote at the top of this review observes, many things done in the name of religion are far from divine.

I highly recommend this film to anyone and everyone who thinks they can handle it. It opens in San Francisco on August 1, and in Silicon Valley on the 22nd.

Questions and answers with the director: This event was put on by the Camera Cinema Club of Silicon Valley, CA. The film's director (Peter Mullan) was there afterwards to answer questions, and was both entertaining and emotionally authentic, at least when you could understand him through his thick Scottish accent. Some of the things I learned (warning: there are spoilers below) include:

Skin Deep (3 stars, 2003, seen 7/13/2003, 1:30, rated R):

In a surreal opening credits sequence we see two men finding something alarming in a hot tub. Their shocked reaction supports the assumption that it's a body, but we never see it, and due to the visual look, we also can't be sure if what we are seeing really happened or not.

Once the credits are over, we see a black couple in bed, having sex, and it becomes clear that she is the sexual aggressor. Eventually we figure out that the man, Tony, is married and has decided to break up with this woman, which she doesn't take very well. He rides off on his Harley anyway, returning to his impressive house in a sparsely populated area. Despite his very recent sexual adventures, Tony hits on his white wife (Vicky), who protests. The issue is resolved when the doorbell rings to announce the friends they have been expecting, Michael and Sarah (A.J. Johnson from Baby Boy), who are both black.

While the four of them are having lunch, Michael becomes upset with some perceived injustice against blacks, and begins attacking Vicky as the conveniently available white scapegoat. Michael has some reasonable points to make, but he makes them is an overly sensitive, paranoid way. And Vicky, for her part, seems oblivious to any discrimination against blacks despite being married to a black man. The argument wavers right on the line between friendly discussion and personal attack.

There's a little more setup, continuing on the already introduced general themes of sexual and racial tension, before we enter the meat of the film, where we find out how all of this relates to those disturbing opening credits. To avoid giving away any big surprises, I'll stop here, except to warn you that the film's official web site gives away more just in the image seen on its very first page.

The script seems very good in the way it gives you just enough data early enough to know what you need to know, without giving away too much. The acting is also pretty good, but I have to say that I found that the dialog seemed to fall flat on numerous occasions, and I wasn't sure if this was the fault of the writers or the actors. The production values belied the low budget (more about that below), and the tension developed in the audience over time was excellent, perhaps aided by an unobtrusive but effective score.

This film won both the top prize and the best actor award at the American Black Film Festival in Miami. That and the fact that I know the producer/co-writer (Ken Karn) make me slightly biased, but then again that just serves to balance the fact that this is not really the type of film that I usually like. The bottom line? If you like thrillers with a little bit more to say than most do, this would be a very good film to see.

Camera Cinema Club: I saw this film at the Camera Cinema Club in Campbell, CA. Sacha Parisot (writer/director/executive producer), Ken Karn (writer/producer), and actor A. J. Johnson were there to answer questions afterwards. Note also that until recently Ken was the director of the Camera Cinema Club, leaving because he needed to devote more time to this film, so the reception he got was quite warm.

During the course of the question and answer session, we learned that Ken, Sacha, and the Spanish director of photography (DP) originally met many years ago at De Anza College, which is located nearby in Cupertino, CA. The DP wasn't the only part of the film from Spain, since the composer was also from Spain (a friend of the DP), and the post production was done entirely in that country.

The film project started about 18 months ago when Sacha wrote the first draft in a period of three weeks. He got the idea from an experience he had with a banker friend who is a bit like the Michael character in his mistrust of non-black society, but none of the characters in the film represent real people. Ken got involved in the re-writes, and by May of 2002 they completed the final draft, the 12th overall. The script contained 27 instances of the “F word,” but the actors managed to ad lib it enough times that it occurs 63 times in the finished film. Sacha also mentioned that a film that he admires and emulated to a degree is Bound.

The film was shot in 15 days, and the house where it takes place belongs to a friend of the filmmakers. Sacha said that he typically got about four hours of sleep during the shoot. They described the lunch scene, which was scheduled to take an entire day to shoot in 20 shots, but due to time constraints was actually shot in four hours and with only six shots. And A.J. scenes kept her on set so close to when she had to get on an airplane that she literally didn't even have time to dry herself off from the hot tub before rushing to the airport.

The filmmakers have been getting calls from film festivals all over, including the very prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. They have also been getting calls from distributors, so it seems likely that you will have a chance to see it in a theater.

I Capture the Castle (3.5 stars, 2003, seen 7/10/2003, 1:53, rated R):

This is a charming little film. I suspect it is targeted at teenaged girls, or perhaps at older women who read the book when they were younger, but I actually think I enjoyed it more than my wife did. She says she has read the book at least twice, and found some parts spot on, but others over-explained a little more than she thought the book did. One note: The film is rated R, which will make it more difficult for the aforementioned teenaged girls to see. If any parents are reading this, I have to say that I do not understand how this got any worse than a PG-13, for brief nudity.

The story, set in England in the 1930s, centers on a 17-year-old girl named Cassie (short for Cassandra, played by Romola Garai). She recounts how her family came to live in the castle, in the first of an extensive series of voiceovers that are couched as Cassie writing in her extensive journal. It quickly becomes obvious that Cassie is very sharp.

Cassie's siblings are Rose, her slightly older, more obviously pretty, and not as sharp sister, and her younger brother who is if anything more precocious than Cassie. Their father James is the author of a very well-respected novel, but that was published over a decade ago and he hasn't written anything since, which means that the family is extremely poor. Their stepmother is Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald from Sirens), a free spirit who fits in as well as a stepmother could with the rest of this eccentric family.

The other characters of note are Stephen, a handsome former servant who still helps out even though the family no longer has any money to pay him, and Simon (Henry Thomas from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and Neil (Marc Blucas from Prey for Rock & Roll) Cotton, wealthy American brothers who show up unexpectedly one evening. Rose quickly sets her sights on Simon as the cure for the her and the family's financial problems.

I won't say much more about the story, except to say that it's a wonderful blend of quirky humor with romance, intrigue, and more. It reminds one just a bit of Sense and Sensibility, but a little more entertaining and a little less polished. The performances are generally quite good, with Garai being the clear stand out, managing to convincingly play the wide range of girl to woman parts that a character of her age would really be experiencing, and to make you care about what happens to her.

I saw this as a sneak preview sponsored by the Camera Cinema Club. It is scheduled to open locally on 7/18/2003. Seek it out.

Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (2.5 stars, 2003, seen 7/2/2003, 1:45, rated PG-13):

The plot... the plot is far less important than the costume changes in this film, and it would take pages to describe all of those (plus I would have had to take detailed notes). I thought the first film was a fun guilty pleasure, and at times this one is too, but to me it falls short. Why I would expect anything in this film to actually be plausible is hard to defend, but things become implausible on such a massive scale, and so early, that I found myself saying “oh, come on” a little too often. I think the first time was when all three Angels launch themselves under a table and out into a room, at least 10 times further than one might be able to believe. Not long afterwards there is a stunt somewhat reminiscent of the opening airplane stunt in GoldenEye, which itself was unbelievable, but this one is just laughable.

Oh, well. The cameos are fun, the soundtrack is very good, and complaints about Demi Moore's acting are unfair since the writers didn't give her anything to work with. But wait for the film to show up on cable—it's not worth paying for.

External filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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