Film reviews August 2003

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

Swimming Pool (3.5 stars, 2003, seen 8/31/2003, 1:43, rated R):

Review 1: Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) is an English author of crime novels. She's in a bit of a rut and she's getting grumpy, even to her fans (or maybe especially to her fans). Her publisher is paying more attention to the new author, making Sarah even grumpier. So to placate her, he sends her off to his vacation house in France. The one with the swimming pool.

She arrives at the house and sets up to work on her next novel. She actually starts to relax, but then her publisher's daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) arrives. Julie is young, loud, inconsiderate, and seems to bring a new sexual partner home each night. Sarah watches all of this, unsure if she should be appalled or envious.

But is all of this as it appears on the surface? I'm still not sure.

Review 2: Writer/director François Ozon previously teamed with Rampling in the outstanding Under the Sand, and with Sagnier in 8 Women, which has grown on me since I wrote that review. That was enough to get me into the theater.

This film doesn't have nearly the emotional impact of the former or quite the exuberance of the latter, but it does keep you thinking for days, if not weeks, after you leave the theater. That's impressive.

Review 3 (minor spoilers): Sagnier is lovely, and very frequently naked. Do you need more? Rampling, the sexiest 58-year-old actress I can think of (though this opinion is based more on her work in Under the Sand, when she was “only” 55), eventually is too. Sorry, but I'm a guy.

And for women viewers, there is one brief shot of male frontal nudity. Not that you're into that...

Review 4 (nuthin' but spoilers): If you haven't seen the film already and there's any chance you will, stop reading this immediately. I mean it.

Roger Ebert believes that Julie is never really at the house in France. She is just a figment of Sarah's imagination as she works on her novel. This does seem to explain essentially everything in the twist at the end, but it feels a little too easy. That said, there are some scenes that were obviously someone's imagination, so you can't say that everything is real either. The men Julie brings home seem more age-appropriate for Sarah, so that fits with it really taking place in Sarah's imagination (although another theory I read somewhere is that Julie is starved for her father's attention, and so she is attracted to older men). The reappearing cross and Julie's scar might indicate a past abortion, and in fact Julie might represent an aborted daughter that Sarah would have had with her publisher (the tension between them makes a past sexual relationship seem likely). The accident/murder and cover-up seem pretty far-fetched, as does the gardner's dwarf wife, so perhaps it is more plausible to say that those are just plot points in a novel.

Another theory that I read on the Yahoo! Movies message board for this film is that Julie is the mother of Julia, the publisher's real daughter. Under this theory Julie might still be imaginary, since the dwarf says that the girl's mother is dead.

Very few if any of the above ideas are mine. What ran through my head was that Sarah is Julie's mother, but doesn't know it for some reason. And in fact neither does anyone else except probably Julie's father—Sarah's publisher—and he has intentionally kept quiet. So when the old manuscript shows up, it is something that easily resonates for Sarah, because she wrote it. Sarah wearing and looking comfortable in the red robe that was in the house also fits. So does Sarah helping dispose of the body, because a mother might do that for her daughter. I still like this concept, but it doesn't explain why the alternate Julie (named Julia) who shows up at the end looks different, unless there are two daughters.

What do you think? Write me.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (3 stars, 2003, seen 8/30/2003, 2:23, rated PG-13):

A little girl is on a sailing ship at sea, singing to herself about pirates. She spots a boy on a piece of wreckage, and when he is brought aboard unconscious, she is the only one to spot a gold medallion around his neck. The medallion has a skull on it, so she takes it off of him so he won't be labeled a pirate.

Years later, she's the grown daughter (now played by Keira Knightley) of the governor (a badly underused Jonathan Pryce), and still has a crush on the boy, who has grown up (and is now played by Orlando Bloom) to become a blacksmith , and also an expert at swordplay. But the politically expedient thing for her to do is to marry the new Commodore of the Navy. Meanwhile, pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has arrived in town, just barely, his ship sinking literally as it arrives at the dock.

The plot is pretty silly, but does actually hold together and make substantially more sense than most summer blockbusters, thankfully not trying too hard to be faithful to the “source material” (the ride at Disneyland). Despite the long length, the film is nicely paced, and the score is good and heroic when it needs to be. All in all, it's fun and entertaining.

The main reason this all works is Depp, has said that his character was modeled after a combination of Keith Richards (of The Rolling Stones) and cartoon character Pepé le Pew (first seen here). And another key actor who makes this film work is Geoffrey Rush, as a pirate named Barbossa. There's a reason this film's box office numbers haven't fallen off as quickly as those of its competition—it's worth seeing.

Seabiscuit (3.5 stars, 2003, seen 8/10/2003, 2:20, rated PG-13):

This true story from the Depression era comes together from four parts. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) makes his mark (and his fortune) in the early automobile business in San Francisco, and ends up looking for something new to try. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) really understands and values horses. And “Red” Pollard (played by Tobey Maguire once the character has grown up) is raised to love books and fine literature, but turns out to be a natural at riding horses. And the final part is Seabiscuit himself, a race horse who is too small and who no one else really wants.

One other character is worth noting, because he is so entertaining. “Tick Tock” McGlaughlin (William H. Macy) is the race announcer and radio personality, and he gets all the best, and funniest, lines. He's worth half a star all by himself. That said, the performances by the other major actors are just as good.

You get a view of horse racing that makes you consider going to the track, even if you've never even considered it before. And you also realize that there is way more strategy and skill in racing than I ever realized before. You do not just keep the horse pointed down the track and see which one is fastest.

The film is a little corny and predictable, but so well done that you forgive it. It's well worth seeing.

American Splendor (4 stars, 2003, seen 8/3/2003, 1:40, rated R):

Harvey Pekar (pronounced Pee´ · kar) is not a superhero. It's the 1970s, he works as a filing clerk in a windowless room of a Veteran's Administration hospital in Cleveland, and, now that his second wife has left him, he lives alone in a very messy house. He's also unable to talk above the level of a whisper due to a problem with his vocal chords that the doctors don't seem to be able to solve. On the mildly positive side, he's very well read, knows music, and seems to be quite intelligent.

He also has an interest in comics, brought on in part when he became friends with Robert Crumb (the subject of the documentary Crumb). Harvey decides that his own life, even though, or perhaps because, it is utterly ordinary, is worth writing about, so he writes out some comics, but his drawing is limited to incredibly simplistic stick figures (so simple that he draws the body line down to become one leg, leaving only one leg to draw). Crumb offers to illustrate the comics, and thus the comic book series American Splendor is born. It's self-published and has a small circulation, but at least some people seem to like it. Important life events occur, and we meet several other important characters, including Joyce Brabner, the love interest.

One quote seems to summarize Harvey and the feel of the comic. He walks by a mirror and thinks to himself, “Now there's a reliable disappointment…” We know what he's thinking because the live action scene is briefly replaced by the comic book frame, complete with the thought balloon. This combination of live action and comics works really well, and in fact we don't just see Harvey's life through two perspectives. The live action Harvey is mostly done by actor Paul Giamatti, but in some scenes we see the real Harvey Pekar, playing himself in the later (older) scenes and, even more innovatively, in a backstage, documentary-like setting. Harvey also narrates the film. Plus we also see a scene from a stage production of American Splendor, with Donal Logue (The Tao of Steve) playing Harvey. So counting the comics, that's four or five different takes on the same person. And it works extraordinarily well. Even the transitions between Giamatti and Pekar, who don't really look that similar, flow comfortably.

It's hard to describe why I liked this film so well, and I'm sure the marketing people will have a similarly hard time getting audiences to fill the seats. It's fun, it's also serious, and above all it's real. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance as well as a significant award at Cannes. And I insist that you go see it. Trust me.

The film opens in Silicon Valley, CA on August 22.

Camera Cinema Club: I saw this film at the Camera Cinema Club in Campbell, CA. The real Harvey, Joyce (who was played in the film by Hope Davis in the sections where Harvey was played by Giamatti), and their daughter Danielle Batone were there to answer questions afterwards. Here are some of my notes, which may include spoilers:

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.