Film reviews October 2003

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

Five Years (3 stars, 2002, seen 10/31/2003, 1:29, unrated):

The film opens with 16-year-old Colson Unger (Todd Swenson) driving from a small Ohio town to a city. Unknown to him, he is followed by his father Byron (Byron West) and older brother Eric (Timothy Altmeyer), who see him enter a house in a very seedy part of town. They assume that he is buying drugs, so his father goes in after him. We don't see what happens inside, at least not until later in the film, but the man who lives in the house is killed and Colson is sent to juvenile prison for five years.

Cut to five years later. Eric is married to Renee (Kris Carr) and they both run a thriving contracting/building business. When Colson is about to be released from prison, Eric fires Renee's brother Dean (Michael Buscemi, brother of Steve). There's good reason, since Dean is always drunk and late to work, but the timing complicates things.

This is a very low budget film, shot on 16mm film but shown at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival on video due to lack of budget for making 35mm prints. I found the dialog and acting to be mostly wooden and stilted. And the screenplay, by first-time feature director Brett W. Wagner, has a few holes. But, the plot holes are tolerable and the film had me thinking about it for a couple of days afterwards, which earned it an extra half a star over my initial reaction. I'm glad I had a chance to see it.

Filmmaker: Wagner introduced the film and then stayed afterwards to answer questions. Although he was raised in Ohio, he moved to Hawaii since making the film. Here are a few things that we learned (spoilers possible):

Tokyo Godfathers (3 stars, 2003, seen 10/31/2003, 1:30, rated PG-13, in Japanese with subtitles):

Gin (a.k.a., Geezer) is a former professional bicycle racer. Hana is a transvestite who really wants to be a mother. And Miyuki is a young girl. All three are homeless and living in Japan (presumably Tokyo—it is a big city in any case). On Christmas eve they find a baby girl in a dump, and they try to track the parents down. This being an animated film, my first thought was that the plot sounded a lot like Ice Age, except with homeless people instead of prehistoric animals. But while I enjoyed Ice Age, this film is more complex and un-Hollywood-like, which is generally a good thing.

This is anime (Japanese animation), and the film shows all of the great style that that entails. There are scenes that look photo realistic (are they actually photographic, realistic drawings, or something in between?), some that are unquestionably drawn but still realistic, and still others that are quite stylized. I'm still quite new at appreciating anime, but this is a very good example, from a director (Satoshi Kon) who has won awards for his earlier work (Millennium Actress).

After watching this film I had a great conversation about coincidences in films. Sometimes coincidences feel like cheating by the writer, and other times they just feel magical. This film is filled with coincidences, but happily they fall into the latter category. They just work. The bottom line is that I enjoyed this film and would definitely recommend it. Unfortunately I was a little sleepy when I saw it, and as a result I missed a few plot points. If I had been fully awake I suspect I would have given it another 1/2 a star.

Seen at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival. Note that this film is quite new, but it is getting a release in Los Angeles on December 5, 2003. This is in order to qualify for the Academy Awards®, so hopefully it will be released more generally in the United States soon after that.

Go Further (2.5 stars, 2003, seen 10/31/2003, 1:20, unrated):

“No hippies were harmed in the making of this film.”—film credits

This is a documentary, sort of. You could say that it's really more of a position piece, like Bowling for Columbine, in that it has a point of view and doesn't really give time to the opposition. On the other hand, it does seem to document an actual event, namely a bus tour from Washington state south to Los Angeles, and do it without ignoring the embarrassing moments too blatantly.

The basic idea is that Woody Harrelson gets some other like-minded people together, and they tour the West Coast, stopping at colleges and a few other places (e.g., a worm farm) to preach the gospel of living a life that impacts the planet as little as possible. For example, the bus is powered by bio-fuel, they eat organic, “raw” vegetarian food, practice yoga, and so on. Some of these ideas are inspiring, or least were to me, such as eating organic food more often and using efficient fluorescent bulbs to save energy. On the other hand, bio-fuel isn't really practical, as demonstrated by the fact that the camera crew traveled in a traditionally-fueled SUV, and the bio-fuel had to be delivered by a normal truck. And most of us, and even some of the people Woody recruited, aren't likely to change to a raw vegetarian diet in the near future.

While there are some parts that were filmed on 35mm film, the bulk of this “film” was recorded on video, which is too bad since there were some nice views which would have been nice to see more clearly. There are also a couple of musical numbers, such as one by Natalie Merchant, but they feel tacked on and unrelated to the rest of the material.

Seen at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival. I can't recommend that anyone make a special effort to see this, but it is a mildly enjoyable experience if the opportunity presents itself.

Intolerable Cruelty (3 stars, 2003, seen 10/26/2003, 1:40, rated PG-13):

The film opens with Donovan Donaly (Geoffrey Rush) coming home in his Jaguar convertible, singing badly along with the Simon and Garfunkel song playing on the stereo. He notices a pool service van in the driveway, which is strange because they do not have a pool, and then he finds his wife with the pool guy. This situation mainly serves to introduce us to Miles Massey (George Clooney), a very good divorce attorney. Or maybe a better word would be “effective,” since “good” might also imply ethics, a class which Massey seems to have skipped in law school.

Soon we meet Massey's next client, Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann), who is married to Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones) but is fooling around with other women (yes, that seems insane). The chemistry between Marylin and her soon-to-be-ex's attorney is immediate and palpable, and serves as the core of the story, of which I have only revealed a very small part.

I thought Clooney and Zeta-Jones were quite good in their roles, and I also want to mention Julia Duffy, who plays Marylin's friend Sarah Sorkin (notice all the doubled initials) with all of the seven-time Emmy-nominated skill that she brought to the Stephanie Vanderkellen role on “Newhart.” It's a small role, but a good one.

I went into this film hoping for something as fun as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which also starred Clooney and was also written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. The previews had some great lines, and those lines were great in the film too. The problem is that the previews seemed to include the vast majority of the best moments, and the film didn't live up to my rather high expectations. That doesn't mean that it was at all bad, just that it didn't live up to its promise.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (3.5 stars, 2003, seen 10/26/2003, 1:51, rated R):

To cut (now there's an appropriate word…) to the chase, this amazing film frequently had me grinning and/or tapping my foot to the music. The only thing keeping it from a full four stars is that it does end rather abruptly. This film is the first part of what was originally going to be just one film, but at the last minute was split into two films, with the latter volume scheduled for release in February 2004. And while it is clear that some editing was done to make this film seem like a coherent whole, it still feels like some things have been left dangling for volume 2.

Like in director Quentin Tarantino's earlier film Pulp Fiction, this film jumps around in time. There are chapter title cards to keep it all quite clear, but we start with The Bride (a.k.a., Black Mamba, played by Uma Thurman) as a bloody mess, in black and white as I recall. She and the rest of the wedding party have been (or are in the process of being) killed in a small church in Texas. This vicious act was ordered by Bill (played by David Carradine, the star of “Kung Fu” from the 1970s) and carried out by the other members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, of which The Bride had been a member.

It is definitely not giving much away to say that The Bride survives, and that she's pissed. She wants revenge—at the very start of the film we see a title card that says, “Revenge is a dish best served cold” (“an old Klingon proverb”)—and she knows how to get it.

Uma Thurman is very good. This is not a simple character, and her acting is possibly award-worthy, although it seems unlikely that the Academy® will recognize a role like this one. Lucy Liu has a much smaller part, but she's in one scene that I swear she was born to play. And the actress who plays Go Go, a 17 year old assistant to Lucy Liu's character, is also very good, in a slacker, Japanese, no regard for human life kind of way.

Speaking of Japanese, there is quite a bit of Japanese spoken in this film. There are subtitles, but it still feels like a better understanding of some slices of Japanese culture would help here.

Perhaps at its core, this film is an homage to 1970s martial arts films, such as those made in Hong Kong by the Shaw Brothers (in fact the very start, after the Miramax logo clip, is what might have been displayed on the movie screen at the start of just such a 1970s film). The soundtrack is also very 1970s, and works as well as I can ever recall a soundtrack working before, to set the mood and dictate the flow. It's magic.

Quentin Tarantino is back.

School of Rock (3 stars, 2003, seen 10/18/2003, 1:48, rated PG-13):

Dewey Finn (Jack Black) is in a rock band, or at least he is until his band mates kick him out for his self-indulgent on-stage behavior. And while the band thing wasn't paying the bills, it seems that Dewey has long managed to skate by due to the generosity of his friends, like Ned Schneebly (Mike White, who also wrote this film as well as The Good Girl, for which he won an Independent Spirit Award). But Ned has a girlfriend now, and she isn't so keen to have Dewey sleeping on their couch, especially rent-free.

Dewey is placed in a tempting situation when a call for a substitute teacher comes in for Ned, and Dewey cannot help himself—he impersonates Ned and takes the job. And of course he eventually decides to teach them how to be a rock band, so that they can enter the Battle of the Bands and beat his old band in the process. He certainly has nothing else that he can teach them, except maybe about hangovers and how to sleep during the day.

There are some really good scenes in this film, when Dewey really shows his passion and geekiness for rock music and all that that entails, and when the kids (who are almost all newcomers) are seeming like real children. But these scenes are too far apart. In between I found myself struggling to suspend my disbelief that 1) no one would hear them practicing in a classroom, 2) no one would see them bringing musical instruments in and out every day, 3) none of the kids would tell their parents, and so on.

This is a perfect leading role for Jack Black, although perhaps he is better suited to supporting roles (e.g., High Fidelity). I thought Joan Cusack was good as the school principal, who is not just a two-dimensional, pure villianess. But perhaps the filmmakers' resistance to allowing her (or really any significant character) to be dislikable made the overall effect a little too precious.

I think when I heard this was a “good kids movie,” I heard the word “good” but missed the word “kids.” The bottom line is that while this film was written and directed by people who normally make interesting independent films (the aforementioned Mike White and director Richard Linklater), this is just a simple, utterly predictable film that is fun, some of the time. If that's what you're looking for, you will find that this film is a well-made example. And if you do see it, stay for the ending credits—they're among the most enjoyable ending credits I have seen.

Lost in Translation (4 stars, 2003, seen 10/18/2003, 1:42, rated R):

Tokyo is a big, flashy, intimidating city. If you are an American, don't speak Japanese, are jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, and are by yourself, you could just as well be on another planet.

That's the world that Bob Harris (Bill Murray) finds himself in. He's an actor on the downward, back end of his career, making some easy money shooting a commercial for a Japanese whiskey company. His wife is back home with the kids, and he's just biding his time, waiting until it's time to go back home.

Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson, playing a character several years older than her 18 years) tagged along to Tokyo with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), but he's mostly gone, leaving her to spend time in the hotel room, the hotel bar, going on sightseeing trips to shrines, and basically just killing time.

Bob and Charlotte are staying in the same hotel, and eventually meet. The film is sort of a romance, but the key phase there is “sort of,” which is a good thing seeing as how Murray is 34 years older than Johansson. The film isn't really about anything so much as it about a place and two characters. The place is Tokyo, and as I said before, it's big and flashy. The cinematography is great, especially for a low budget independent film, capturing the city wonderfully, often in breathtaking little shots. And the characters are perfect, with Murray using his personality in an impressively restrained way, and without ever overusing it. Johansson has seemed good before in teenage roles, but she is a revelation here as a Yale-educated, 25-year-old young married woman. Both are perfect at portraying the first word of the film title, and both deserve Oscar® nominations.

This is a small film. Don't expect big… anything. The laughs are good, but small, such as when the hotel room curtains decide that it's time for Bob to wake up and they open by themselves, or when Bob towers over everyone else, silently, in an elevator. The sense of disconnectedness is emphasized by the Japanese dialog not being translated in subtitles, so the audience is as lost as the characters, and by an editing style that strings together a series of short, mostly silent scenes, with no connection from one to the next (“time samples,” I might call it). Second time writer/director/producer Sophia Coppola (daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, who is an executive producer) has done an amazing job—this is a great film.

Matchstick Men (3 stars, 2003, seen 10/16/2003, 1:56, rated PG-13):

Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). He locks and unlocks doors three times, is completely gonzo about every speck of dirt or misaligned fiber in his carpet, and so on. He's a con artist, and his partner is Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell). Roy ends up needing to find a new psychiatrist, and Dr. Klein helps him connect with the child he thought he might have, who turns out to be 14-year-old Angela (Alison Lohman, who would have been about 23 when this was filmed).

I don't want to say too much and spoil the surprises. The film is sweet at times and not at others, both simple and complex, and it shows the life of con men (a.k.a., “matchstick men”) quite well. All of the actors are very good, but the performances didn't seem quite award-worthy to me. The soundtrack is well done, with a heavy emphasis on Frank Sinatra and the like. Some others have singled out the screenplay as being especially good, but I would have to disagree, which is probably why my overall opinion is a touch lower than most.

Connections: One distraction for me was trying to figure out where I knew the actress who plays the supermarket checker from. The actress turns out to be Sheila Kelley, and I probably recognized her from “L.A. Law” (where she played Arnie Becker's secretary Gwen) or “Sisters.” And it turns out she's married to Richard Schiff, who plays Toby on “The West Wing.” It's fun to track these things down sometimes.

Zero Day (4 stars, 2003, seen 10/12/2003, 1:32, unrated):

Looking at the notes I wrote down immediately after seeing this film, I can tell that a “normal” review isn't going to work. Normally I write down plot points, notes about which actors gave especially good or bad performances, and the like. This time my notes are devoted almost entirely to reactions that the film evoked. I should also mention up front that I saw this film at the Camera Cinema Club, in Campbell, CA, so some of the thoughts here are directly or indirectly related to what other members of the club said in the after-film discussion.

This film is done in the style of The Blair Witch Project, not that I ever seen that film. Namely, it is shot on consumer-level camcorders, and is intended to appear to have been shot by the characters in the film (warning: this film contains almost constant SpastiCam™ and occasional TurboSpastiCam™, so filmgoers with weak stomachs are strongly cautioned). The main two characters here are Andre and Cal (short for Calvin), both played by first-time film actors who have the same first names as the characters. Andre turns 18 years old very near the start of the film, and both are in high school in an unnamed upper middle class town. They call themselves the “Army of Two,” and they have serious plans to kill a large number of people at their school someday soon. The connections to Columbine High School in Colorado are obvious.

The acting, while it generally appeared believable, was nothing special. The overall production values were quite low, both by design and by necessity. The story was fine but straightforward. And so on. So why is it four stars? First, it really does feel like it could be real. I decided early on that the story was fictional because I remembered reading about a film like this one and assumed that I was watching that film (I was wrong, because I was thinking of Elephant). When the film was over I felt like I had hardly breathed for the whole 92 minutes, and I still felt a little unsettled several hours later. And it gave me a lot to think about. It wasn't a pleasant experience by any means, but this film is a shining example of why I like small, independent films. I was very happy to have spent part of my birthday watching it.

If you would like to form your own reactions to the film, it might be best to just stop reading now, except to know that this film is scheduled to open locally on December 5. See it.

The most perceptive comment I heard after the film (thanks, Barry) is that the filmmaker worked hard to eliminate all motivations for the kids' behavior, so that any motivations that the filmgoers see are projections. If you see a lack of connection with their parents (played by the actors' real life parents, by the way), for example, maybe that's your issue. In other words, the film is an excellent mirror.

What I saw personally was that the main characters seemed to have only shallow connections with everyone: their parents, Cal with his girlfriend, and so on. They don't even seem to be connected to themselves or their own feelings in any real way. It's very easy to fall into this pattern, especially as a man in western society, but it leaves us feeling isolated, and working on this is something that I have focused on more in the last year or so. The world would be a better place if everyone felt safe to make real connections with the other people in their lives.

Mystic River (4 stars, 2003, seen 10/6/2003, 2:17, rated R):

Jimmy (Sean Penn), Sean (Kevin Bacon), and Dave (Tim Robbins) grew up together as kids in a working class area of Boston. We first see them as children, in the 1970s, playing in the street and writing their names in wet concrete. When Dave is halfway finished writing his name, a car drives up, a man gets out, identifies himself as a policeman, and asks them to explain themselves. After making them all squirm, he makes Dave get in the back of the car, and we see Dave looking out the back window at his two friends as he is driven away. In staccato repressed memory shots we see that Dave was held hostage in a basement, and escaped breathlessly on foot through the woods.

Cut to the present day. Dave has a son, is married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), and still lives in the same neighborhood. We learn that Jimmy is married to Annabeth (Laura Linney) and runs a small grocery store nearby, helped out by the oldest of his three daughters, Katie. And Sean is a police officer, working in the area with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne).

I actually feel like I have given too much away already, so I won't comment on the key event that drives the story, although if you have seen the commercials or previews, you almost certainly know. Suffice it to say that there is a well developed plot, which serves to keep a sense of forward motion and to provide motivation, sometimes hidden or fuzzy, for the characters' actions. But like another excellent film, Lantana, the film exists for those characters more so than for the plot.

The performances are all superb. Penn gives a performance that rivals, I think, his Oscar®-nominated performance in I Am Sam, although he is a bit over the top. Robbins' inwardly focused, tortured portrayal was even better, and another young actor in a smaller role (Tom Guiry, who coincidentally shares my birthday) quite impressed me as well. This is not a film with large parts for women, but Harden and Linney were both very much up for their roles. That five of the seven actors I have named have been nominated for or won Oscars® is not a surprise. This is an amazing cast.

Lastly, I must mention that this film was directed by Clint Eastwood, who decided, perhaps wisely after Blood Work, to stay exclusively behind the camera. Actually, that film was fine, but this one is infinitely better. Here's just one touch I noticed: There seemed to be an unusual number of overhead shots, looking down on the proceedings. I think this might be connected to the theme of religion (crosses, churches, etc.) that runs through the film.

This is not a film I can recommend to everyone. It is challenging, and it is also hard to find any characters to really connect with. But for all people who appreciate film as art and not simply as entertainment, this is a film you should put on your “must see” list. Hopefully the members of the Academy will too. It opens locally on October 15th.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (3 stars, 2003, seen 10/2/2003, 1:49, rated R):

This is, obviously, the third film in the series, and given Arnold Schwarzenegger's age and political position (I saw this a few days before he was elected Governor of California), may be the last. Surprisingly, it's pretty good.

In case you haven't seen the first two films, the premise is that in the future machines become sentient and take over the world, and John Connor (played here by Nick Stahl) is the leader of the human resistance. The machines, in an effort to stop this resistance, send terminators back in time to eliminate Connor. In the first film they attempt to eliminate Connor's mother (played by Linda Hamilton), and in the second Connor was a teenager (played by Edward Furlong).

By the time this film opens, Connor's mother has died, convinced to the end that their efforts in part II had not been enough. John too has nightmares of a war with the machines, and he lives off the grid to avoid being found in case he (and his mother) turn out to be right.

It's not going to give too much away to say that Connor's fears are well founded, because there wouldn't be anything to do otherwise. As was the case in part II, Schwarzenegger plays the good machine/robot/android. This time around the bad terminator is in female form—a terminatrix known as T-X and played by Kristanna Loken.

I think Stahl is quite good as the young man with the weight of the future world weighing on his shoulders. Claire Danes, the female lead and love interest, seems irritatingly overwrought, but her character is new to this robots from the future trying to kill you thing, so maybe that's realistic. And Schwarzenegger and Loken play robots, which doesn't require much acting, and which they accomplish admirably. Loken looks great, and Arnold looks good too—for a man his age.

I think the film works for a few reasons. First, the story is simple but seems to make sense, given the assumptions already established in the first two films. The plot holes are few and far between, as compared with, say, Collateral Damage. The action sequences are done well, with the computer effects used sparingly, compared with a film like Spider-Man. And this film is also a little more self-aware than the first two, making it funnier than I expected. I had fun, and you probably will too.

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

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