Film reviews December 2003

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

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (3.5 stars, 2003, seen 12/28/2003, 3:21, rated PG-13):

[if I write a review of this film, the review will appear here]

House of Sand and Fog (3.5 stars, 2003, seen 12/27/2003, 2:06, rated R):

No one's perfect. Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a recovering addict with a serious depression problem. At the start of the film she gets notice that her house is being repossessed for non-payment of taxes. Behrani (Ben Kingsley) is an Iranian immigrant who works in a menial job, but is possessed by dreams of returning to a past, more affluent lifestyle. His wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) hasn't even really acknowledged losing that lifestyle. They have one son, who, unlike his parents, is well integrated into life in the United States.

Behrani sees that Kathy's house is up for auction, and the wheels are in motion. Add a police detective (Ron Eldard), and you know all of the significant players.

The film works very well on many levels. The cinematography, by Roger Deakins (five time Oscar® nominee), captures the San Francisco coastal atmosphere beautifully. The acting by everyone is excellent, especially by Kingsley, but also by Connelly and Aghdashloo. The story itself is both believable and original, presenting a much less predictable sequence of events than I expected. This is a film that captures shades of gray wonderfully.

Last Samurai, The (3 stars, 2003, seen 12/26/2003, 2:24, rated R):

Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a veteran of many wars against the Indians, and is a self-proclaimed “bona fide hero,” but the effect these wars have had on him is substantial. He has frequent nightmares and he drinks excessively to numb the pain. But he needs to eat, so when he is approached to train an army in Japan to quell a samurai rebellion, he agrees. This is despite the involvement of Colonel Bagley, a man who Algren has a distinctly unpleasant history with.

If you haven't seen the previews and want an unspoiled experience, skip the rest of this paragraph. Algren is captured by the opposing forces, led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), and is taken to a remote Japanese village for study. As he gets to know the country and the people, he starts to feel more comfortable with himself than he has in many years.

The Japanese scenery (although some of the film was made in New Zealand) and cinematography is spectacular. Cruise is much better than I feared but not quite as good as I hoped. Watanabe is clearly the standout in the cast, albeit in a smaller role. Timothy Spall (All or Nothing) has an even smaller part, as an Englishman living in Japan, and he is good as he always is. On the whole, this film was better than I expected of a big budget Hollywood movie, and I'm glad I saw it.

Shattered Glass (3.5 stars, 2003, seen 12/14/2003, 1:35, rated PG-13):

Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) was an actual reporter for The New Republic, a real magazine that was once known as “the in-flight magazine of Air Force One.” Glass was very young, but so were almost all of his colleagues, and he was a rising star because he got all of the most interesting stories while remaining generally humble. In fact, he was always doing favors for his co-workers (two of whom are played by Peter Sarsgaard and Chloë Sevigny), which may be part of the reason why he was able to make up so many stories before he was finally caught in 1998.

I knew this basic story going in, and for much of the film it seemed like what we had was a realistically acted portrayal of that story and the arc that it must inevitably take. But towards the end, as the facts begin to close in on Glass, and Glass's inner workings begin to be subtly explored, it became more than just a very well done docudrama. It became a very engrossing film.

Christensen is quite good here, especially if all you have to compare with is Star Wars: Episode II. He still has a little bit of that annoying whininess, but it's consistent with the character. Sarsgaard is even better, and Sevigny is fine with a relatively small part.

I would have missed this film, except it was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best independent film, and I'm really glad that got me into the theater. You probably won't be able to see it that way, but it should be fine on the small screen once it comes out on DVD. Check it out.

Real life: This page has many links, both to Glass's articles (most of which have been pulled due to their falsehoods) and to articles about him. Unfortunately many of these links didn't work for me, but the ones that do might be interesting. That The New Republic requires money to access essentially all of their content doesn't help. I also recommend this page, written by a more recent employee of The New Republic after he saw the film. And there's lot's more out there if you look for it.

21 Grams (4 stars, 2003, seen 12/13/2003, 2:05, rated R):

If you've read anything at all about this film, it's that the scenes are not in order. The naysayers would claim that the editor took all of the scenes, tossed them in the air, and put them back together in random order. They would also suggest that simply putting the film in chronological order would make an incomprehensible film clearer, and apparently better.

I am not one of those people.

While a chronological version of this film would probably have been fine, this film is, in a word, brilliant. The scenes are not in random order, but rather in an order that leaves you with just enough to put the pieces together for yourself, while slowly circling in on the key scenes. These key scenes would have been in the middle of a chronological narrative. To compare this technique to the invention of the flashback might be slightly overstating its impact, and certainly other directors have used non-linear structures before (e.g., Pulp Fiction, Memento, and so on), but this really does feel like a breakthrough.

The three main characters are played by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro. All give performances worthy of at least consideration at Oscar® time, with Penn's, surprisingly, the most restrained and nuanced of the three. The supporting performances are also quite good.

The director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, previously directed Amores perros. That excellent film was in Spanish and was filmed in Mexico, whereas this film is in English and was filmed primarily in New Mexico. This film has a look that is gritty, but not quite as much so as the earlier film. And if I recall correctly, this film is also shot with a steadier hand, with less frequent use of SpastiCam™.

The bottom line is, if you're willing to work to understand the story and difficult subject matter isn't a problem, I can't recommend this film highly enough. And if you're not and/or it is, then that's your loss.

Note: You presumably noticed that I have not discussed the plot or even the characters at all. This is intentional, because anything of that sort will deprive you of the pleasure of figuring it out on your own.

Elf (3 stars, 2003, seen 12/6/2003, 1:35, rated PG):

Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a human infant who ends up at the North Pole as an after a mix-up, and is raised by elves. But of course he's way too big to be an elf, and he doesn't have the toy-making ability that comes naturally to real elves, so he sets out to find his real father, in New York City.

This film works far better than I would have expected based on the premise. The key is Ferrell, who plays the role absolutely, 100% straight. The other key is the supporting cast, including Bob Newhart as his adoptive father, James Caan as his real father, Ed Asner as Santa Claus, Zooey Deschanel (who played the best character in The Good Girl) as the love interest. And finally, for the most part the jokes come logically from the situation, with the bathroom humor aimed at (and exclusively funny to) 14-year-old boys kept mostly at bay. It's not great cinema, but it is a worthy, sweet film.

My Flesh and Blood (4 stars, 2003, seen 12/3/2003, 1:23, unrated):

Susan Tom had two birth children, but once she started to adopt children with special needs, she seemingly couldn't stop, ending up with 13 children. Susan herself is quite overweight, has no other job (the government supports her and pays for the extensive medical needs of her family), and is also divorced. This documentary chronicles one year in the life of this unique family.

Joe is 15 and seems almost normal. But he has cystic fibrosis and is often hospitalized. He's also emotionally all over the map, sometimes graspingly loving, and other times abusively hateful. He is a victim of repeated childhood abandonment, starting with his methamphetamine addict birth mother, who is now a recovering addict and does appear in the film. His biggest emotional problem, in my opinion, is the lack of any real father figure or even other men in his life.

Anthony, the only other boy (Susan's two birth children were boys, but they are grown and gone), has a disease that is killing him. It is called dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, and the result is that he has horrible blisters that look like he is burned over much of his body. His hands and feet appear to have almost fused into stump-like appendages. He is 19 years old, but he seems somehow both older and younger than that. His story is the most difficult to watch.

Faith, 8, was burned as an infant, mostly on her face and head, and at first she is also very difficult to look at. But as you get to know her, she seems more and more normal.

Perhaps the most uplifting are Xenia, 13, and another sister whose name I don't recall. Both of them have no legs, yet they seem happy, well adjusted, otherwise healthy, and not very affected by their handicap. They participate quite fully in life and even school sports. More fully than many normal kids.

Susan's oldest adopted child, Margaret, is normal. She starts college during the year of filming, but still helps out at home a great deal, generally without complaint. While Susan argues that having a large number of children isn't much harder than a few, through Margaret eye's we see the impact of Susan's lack of individual time and energy.

This is a powerful film, especially when you begin to see the people emerge from beneath the initially challenging exteriors. If you miss it in the theaters, it is expected to show on HBO in the Spring of 2004, and to be released on home video later that year. But do see it.

Real life: This is a documentary, and the family is real. In fact they live nearby, in Fairfield, CA. A web site set up for the family provides a way to donate money for the college education of the children. Click here if you're interested. There are also links there to web sites that describe the most serious of the depicted diseases.

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

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