Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Waterboy (1998)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

American critics tend to point towards comedies starring Adam Sandler as one of the signs of decline of Western Civilisation. The author of this review often found those views amusing after watching Adam Sandler in films that were much better than in those apocalyptic visions. However, there are some instances when the critics proved to be right. THE WATERBOY, 1998 comedy directed by Frank Coraci, is one of them.

In this film Adam Sandler plays Bobby Boucher, 31-year old man who spent his entire life with his overprotective mother Helen (played by Kathy Bates) in Louisiana bayou. He earns his living as the water boy for one of America’s leading college football team whose members see his lack of social skills and speech impediment as good excuse for endless ridicule and bullying. Finding this sort of amusement distracting, the coach Red Beaulieu (played by Jerry Reed) fires Bobby who later gets job in a losing team, led by emotionally insecure coach Klein (played by Henry Winkler). There it turns out that seemingly harmless Bobby, when he is provoked enough, possesses ability to tackle football players. Klein sees Bobby as his team’s secret weapon, but in order to play, Bobby must first go to college.

THE WATERBOY is based on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch and it shares the flaw of many such movies. What works in a short scene isn’t enough for a feature film. Sandler and his co-writer Tim Herlihy try to compensate by combining sentimental sports movie clichés with toilet humour and often annoying cultural stereotypes. The result of their efforts is a comedy that would cause more yawns than laughs. When laughs happen, they could be attributed to Adam Sandler’s comedic talent rather than quality of the script. Scenes that work also include Henry Winkler who brilliantly plays protagonist’s emotionally insecure mentor. The rest of the cast is disappointing – Fairuza Balk is forgettable in the obligatory role of protagonist’s romantic interest and same can be said of otherwise dependable Kathy Bates as hyperventilating Mrs. Boucher.

THE WATERBOY had good results at American box office but they are usually attributed to the STAR WARS fans eager to see trailer for upcoming PHANTOM MENACE. Today, when it can be watched only by its own merit, THE WATERBOY is a disappointment, even by standards associated with Adam Sandler’s work.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

Review written on February 27th 2005

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Winslow Boy (1999)

David Mamet has built his reputation of Hollywood’s top script doctor thanks to his talent with words. Those words often belonged to sections of vocabulary not particularly liked by MPAA. So, it was quite a surprise to see THE WINSLOW BOY, David Mamet’s 1999 drama, receive G-rating, something that only the harmless family-friendly cartoons can expect to get these days.

The family-friendly rating can be, at least partially, explained by the film’s setting. The story brings viewer to the world where four-letter words weren’t supposed to exist – upper-to-middle class England in the beginning of 20th Century. It is Christmas 1911 and Arthur Winslow (played by Nigel Hawthorne), retired London banker, looks forward to the marriage of his daughter Catherine (played by Rebecca Pidgeon) to Captain John Waterstone (played by Aden Gillett), son of even more respected family. This bliss is shattered when Arthur’s 13-year old son Ronnie (played by Guy Edwards) returns home after being expelled from elite naval academy over alleged theft. When Ronnie says that he was wrongfully accused, Arthur sees no other alternative but to defend the honour of his family with an unprecedented action – he sues British Admiralty. Since it is almost unimaginable that a private individual could sue the state, he hires the best legal aid he could get – Sir Robert Morton (played by Jeremy Northam), member of Parliament and one of the best legal minds of the era. Catherine, left-wing suffragette, is not so enthusiastic towards Morton, who happens to be conservative opponent of women’s suffrage, but she feels attracted to his legal skills. In the meantime, the case creates media hysteria and puts the heavy toll on Winslows – they are forced to sell family assets to cover legal expenses and Captain Waterstone breaks engagement with Catherine.

THE WINSLOW BOY is based on real events that served as inspiration for 1946 stage play by Terence Rattigan and four subsequent screen adaptations. In this version Mamet clearly points to the stage origin of the film – the most important event, which has sparked the drama, happens off-screen; same goes for the entire legal procedure. The audience is therefore left only with the effects of those events on the characters. And this deprives the film of the main dramatic conflict. Winslows are portrayed as loving and functioning family - embodiment of all the social virtues of Edwardian England. Even the encroaching modernity in the form of Catherine’s feminism is harmless.

In many films this could be a major problem, but Mamet saw it as a challenge. He manages to keep the audience’s attention with excellent dialogue. He also paid great attention to period details – despite being shot in Massachussetts, THE WINSLOW BOY perfectly recreates Edwardian England. This could be attributed to Alaric Jans’ music score which sounds very much like the works of Edward Elgar. But the film’s greatest asset is acting. Dependable cast, which includes names like Sir Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam and Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon, compensates for the lack of film’s dramatic potential. THE WINSLOW BOY might be triumph of style over substance, but sometimes, like in this case, style is what separates good from bad films.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

1970s nostalgia, phenomenon responsible for the series of usually forgettable Holylwood products in 1990s, affected even some filmmakers who are usually associated with art house cinema. One of them was Todd Haynes, who had reached fame with few unconventional and controversial films in 1990s. VELVET GOLDMINE, his movie dealing with glam rock, 1970s style of British rock music and subculture created around it, was one of the most heavily anticipated films on 1998 Cannes Festival.

After a bizarre prologue that links aliens and Oscar Wilde with contemporary rock musicians, the plot begins in 1974. Glam rock is leading style of popular music in the world, and its undisputed king is flamboyant and openly bisexual British performer Brian Slade (played by Jonathan Rhys-Myers). At one concert he stages mock assassination as a publicity stunt, but his fans aren’t amused – his career quickly fades away. Ten years later, in now conservative Reagan’s America, journalist Arthur Stuart (played by Christian Bale) is assigned to write an article about the 10th anniversary of the event. For Stuart this task has personal dimension – he was not only great fan of Slade, but Slade’s lifestyle also helped him discover his own homosexuality. With Slade vanished from public life, Stuart tries to reconstruct his whereabouts by interviewing his former friends, business associates and ex-wife Mandy (played by Toni Colette). Through flashbacks, the audience follows Slade’s career and his fateful encounter with Curt Wild (played by Ewan McGregor) with whom he would cooperate both at stage and in bed.

Haynes has worked very hard in order to reconstruct the past. Many prominent musicians of the era contributed on the original soundtrack that sounds almost indistinguishable from the early 1970s rock. The costumes are authentic and Haynes employs all kinds of inventive filmmaking techniques in order to bring back the flamboyance, hedonism and atmosphere of excess that had dominated the era.

Unfortunately, whenever film switches from music to people, it stops being that interesting. Haynes, who is openly gay, takes very personal and subjective approach to those times. Glam rock, which was, in its essence, nothing more than clever publicity stunt associated with popular music, is unconvincingly portrayed as some kind of a socio-cultural movement. Haynes would like viewers to believe that the stars of glam rock were on the way to alter the world – their unashamedly unconventional lifestyles, combined with immense popularity, were on the way to finally blur the lines between mainstream and fringe in popular culture, as well as the line between heterosexual majority and homosexual minority. But, for some reason, glam rock faded away and historic opportunity was lost, leading 1980s, in Haynes’ mind as bleak and oppressive as in Orwell’s dystopic vision.

There is nothing wrong in interpreting history from personal perspective, but in VELVET GOLDMINE it often looks pretentious and preposterous. Narrative technique, which is unashamedly taken from CITIZEN KANE, only adds to that effect. Haynes makes another mistake by having two instead of one protagonist. Each of them, despite being played by otherwise dependable actors, isn’t that particularly interesting. Androgynous Slade, whose life revolves about nothing more than self-gratification and excess, only underlines the emptiness of the whole glam rock phenomenon – something that Haynes desperately tries to avoid. More realistic and down-to-earth character of Stuart isn’t that convincing because he just happens to have some kind of “magic” connection with his youth idol. But the most annoying element of Haynes’ film is pacing – the ending happens at least half an hour later than it should. By that point most of the audience is likely to agree that the cultural phenomenon described in VELVET GOLDMINE should remain the thing of the past.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

Friday, February 18, 2005

A Civil Action (1998)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Hollywood has benefited a lot from Anglo-Saxon legal tradition that, unlike its Continental counterpart, provides some drama into what otherwise would look like utterly boring and prosaic process. In past decade, thanks to the adaptations of John Grisham’s books, Hollywood courtroom dramas often included plenty of larger-than-life characters and situations, often at the expense of realism. Steve Zaillian, scriptwriter of SCHINDLER’S LIST, tried to remind the audience that courtroom dramas after all have some connection with the real events. In 1998 he based his film A CIVIL ACTION on Jonathan Harr’s book describing true story.

The film’s protagonist is Jan Schlichtman (played by John Travolta), trial lawyer specialised in damage claims who enjoys enormous success, fame and prestigious title of Boston’s most desirable bachelor. One day Schilchtman is approached by two citizens of small Massachusetts town of Waburn who attribute large number of leukaemia cases to water supply with a strange taste. Schlichtman is unwilling to take their case until he realises that two powerful and rich corporations – “Grace” and “Beatrice Foods” – have their industrial plants nearby. He sees opportunity to earn huge amount of money and fame and files lawsuits against them, claiming that their industrial waste was carcinogenic and demanding gigantic compensations for his clients. “Beatrice Foods” responds by hiring Jerome Facher (played by Robert Duvall), eccentric but very experienced attorney who has a perfect and simple solution for these sorts of legal problems – instead of defending the company and refuting Schlichtman’s claims he merely uses many clever tricks to delay the proceedings and increase its cost to the levels that would prove to be unbearable for Schlichtman and his clients. As times goes by, the strategy begins to work and Schlichtman is close to bankruptcy, now more determined to seek justice than any financial gain.

The value of A CIVIL ACTION is in its stark realism, so different from courtroom dramas where single righteous protagonist brings down corrupt system or TV shows where the complicated issues get resolved in 45 minutes. The case depicted in this film lasts for years, jury doesn’t even get involved and, just like in real life, having moral arguments on your side is less likely to affect the outcome than having large financial resources at your disposal. This dark and depressing vision of American justice system is well-displayed in the first half of a film. In the second half Zaillian succumbs to melodrama and doesn’t properly explain how his greedy and arrogant protagonist transforms into righteous crusader. Zaillian is much less effective as a director than writer – the film is slightly overlong and the ending is anti-cathartic. The cast is good, though – John Travolta is aided by small army of very capable character actors. However, despite its educational value, A CIVIL ACTION leaves impression of 60 million US$ being spent on what amounts to looks like an average TV movie.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Gloria (1999)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Pointless remakes represent the disease that affects even the most talented filmmakers and those who should have known better. Sydney Lumet, one of the prolific, but also one of the most respected American filmmakers, succumbed it when agreed to direct GLORIA, 1999 film based on the screenplay for John Cassavettes’ 1980 drama of the same.

Titular heroine of the film (played by Sharon Stone), street-savvy New York woman who spent some years behind bars in order to protect her boyfriend, small-time Irish gang boss Kevin (played by Jeremy Northam). She expects some kind of award for trouble, but Kevin proves to be ungrateful and more concerned with some his close associates. One of them is Porto Rican accountant who collected all kinds of incriminating evidence against Kevin and his organisation; Kevin solves that problem by having him and his family brutally murdered. The only survivor is Nicky Nunez (played by Jean-Luke Figueroa), accountant’s 7-year old son. Due to a confusing set of circumstances Gloria takes away Nicky and tries to bring him to safety. However, Nicky’s lack of relatives and Gloria’s lack of parenting experiences leads to all kinds of problems, not including Gloria’s inability to turn little child to more appropriate sort of care. In the meantime, both of them are relentlessly pursued by underworld killers.

GLORIA is another sad example of what happens to old masters when they become too prolific. The film is overlong, poorly edited and every scene looks more like a work of third-grade television hack than someone responsible for the likes 12 ANGRY MEN and DOG DAY AFTERNOON. The only thing that might keep audience’s attention is in Sharon Stone’s attempts to prove that she can play tough street women just like she can play refined seductresses. Those attempts, even when they fail, are sometimes entertaining in a morbid sort of way. However, even sadder than this film is realisation that so many great talents got wasted in this pointless effort, including great George C. Scott, whose brief appearance in the role of courtly mob boss (and one of his last roles), represents one of this film’s few bright moments.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

American Splendor (2003)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Thanks to Hollywood, when people today hear of comic books they imagine larger-than-life superheroes whose spectacular adventures can’t be adequately reconstructed on screen without hundreds of millions of dollars spent on CGI effects. AMERICAN SPLENDOR, 2003 biographic drama directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, represents antithesis of that vision.

The protagonist of this film is Harvey Pekar (played by Paul Giamatti), chronically depressed hospital file clerk from Cleveland who spent much of his life reading comic books. Along the way he befriended Robert Crumb (played by Robert Wosniak), cult author of underground comics and that served him as an inspiration to start his “American Splendor” - series of autobiographic comic book chronicling his own mundane and depressing existence. The series is great success which will bring him fame, guest appearances on David Letterman Show and marriage to Joyce Brabner (played by Hope Davis), great fan and inspiration for his future work. But this doesn’t bring him happiness and the life has a nasty surprise for him in the form of cancer.

Authors of AMERICAN SPLENDOR try very hard to make the film look as unconventional as the life and character they portray. This is seen in the decision to employ three different ways to reconstruct Harvey Pekar’s life – one is conventional film storytelling with actors; another is use of animated clips and images inspired by Pekar’s comic books; the third is use of real-life Harvey Pekar who not only narrates his life but also uses opportunity to comment on actors portraying him and his friends. This combination of techniques not only manages to attract audiences’ attention but also provides a lot of humour in otherwise very depressive film.

However, that very technique is also the film’s main flaw. Paul Giamatti is great actor and Hope Davis, when put in the same shot with real Joyce, can put Charlize Theron and her MONSTER transformation to shame. However, despite their efforts they simply can’t hold the candle to real characters and suspension of disbelief, necessary for audience to truly enjoy film, is nowhere to be seen. This doesn’t mean that watching AMERICAN SPLENDOR represents waste of time. Good acting and confident direction are accompanied with likeable jazz music score that contributes a lot to the atmosphere of the film. However, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, despite being interesting and likeable, is a film that could be truly enjoyed only by the fans of Harvey Pekar’s work.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

American Beauty (1999)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Very few films that win “Oscars” these days can expect to have their reputation last for long. Well-orchestrated publicity campaigns and Hollywood politics are more likely to bring prestigious golden statues to producers than the actual quality of their product. Once the hype is over, any of those films starts the inevitable plunge into oblivion. AMERICAN BEAUTY, 1999 drama directed by Sam Mendes, is one of those films.

The script, written by Alan Ball, chronicles the last year in life of Lester Durnham (played by Kevin Spacey), 42-year old man who becomes increasingly unhappy with his life in seemingly idyllic middle-class suburb. He is becoming estranged from his workaholic wife Carolyn (played by Annette Benning) and teenage daughter Jane (played by Thora Birch) who hates her parents. Lester’s life begins to change after the chance encounter with Jane’s high school friend Angela Hayes (played by Mena Suvari) who will become an object of his lust. Because of that and loss of his job he starts to drastically change his lifestyle – he starts working out and smoking marijuana. Those changes begin to affect Carolyn who seeks comfort in the arms of her business rival Buddy Kane (played by Peter Gallagher). In the meantime, Jane became the object of interest of a new neighbour – Ricky Fitts (played by Wes Bentley), quiet teenager obsessed with video equipment who supports his hobby with drug dealing. His ultra-conservative father (played by Chris Cooper) doesn’t have a clue about his son’s activities.

AMERICAN BEAUTY was a feature film debut for its director Sam Mendes. However, it doesn’t show on the screen. Mendes confidently deals with camera and uses every trick on his disposal, especially when showing Lester’s lust over Angela – those are the most memorable scenes in the film. The acting is also very good, but this is hardly surprising because of truly talented and highly respected cast. Kevin Spacey has deserved his “Oscar”, just as Benning deserved her “Oscar” nomination. Their efforts were matched by those of always dependable Chris Cooper as well as their younger colleagues like Suvari, Birch and Bentley.

Alan Ball’s script, despite receiving another of the film’s “Oscars”, leaves much to be desired though. At the beginning it starts promising – when we are slowly introduced to the characters the film looks like deliciously subversive black comedy that reveals all the hypocrisy, frustration and general unhappiness behind the façade of American suburban utopia. Unfortunately, Ball gradually begins to shift from humour to more serious tone only to end the film with pathetically predictable melodrama. Even bigger problem for the film is lack of characters with whom the audience could identify with – every major character in the film is either hypocritical, psychotic or in some other way dislikeable. The only exception could be found in the character of Lester with whose personal rebellion against the establishment the audience could sympathise, but only until the very end when AMERICAN BEAUTY succumbs to 1990s Hollywood conventions of morality.

Despite being seemingly subversive, AMERICAN BEAUTY is actually very establishment film, at least if 1990s mainstream Hollywood and its collective mindset could be described as “establishment”. The movie argues that the source of all unhappiness in America, country which in 1990s looked blissfully unaffected with war and poverty is suppression of individuals’ feelings and desires – suppression which is always associated with socially conservative values of Republican Party, the party whose dominance in Congress was the only black spot on the otherwise perfect image of Clintonian utopia. Ball doesn’t show much subtlety in making this point – the least likeable of all characters in the film is revealed to be outspoken follower of Ronald Reagan and closet Nazi at the same time.

As the world changed in the past five years, so did the relevance of AMERICAN BEAUTY. It is a watchable film and it will remain one of the shiniest points in many artists’ careers, but, just like so many “Oscar” winners, it very unlikely to reach the immortality usually associated with that prestigious golden statue.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

The Bone Collector (1999)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

By the end of 1990s Hollywood producers were beginning to realise how derivative their serial killer films were and that sooner or later the audience would realise that too. In order to prevent that, they tried very hard to make some of those films at least look fresh and innovative. THE BONE COLLECTOR, 1999 film directed by Philip Noyce, shows that in some instances they didn’t try hard enough.

The protagonist of the film, based on the novel by Jeffery Deaver, is Lincoln Rhyme (played by Denzel Washington), one of the top forensic experts in America whose career ended with accident resulting with debilitating spinal injury. Now he is forced to spend the rest of his days in bed, plagued by seizures that might turn him into vegetable. His thoughts of euthanasia are interrupted by old friend, NYPD Detective Paulie Sellito (played by Ed O’Neill) who requests his expert assistance in solving series of grisly murders. Rhyme agrees and later can’t fail to notice the natural talent for forensics in Amelia Donaghy (played by Angelina Jolie), patrolwoman who discovered one of the corpses. Rhyme insists that she becomes part of the investigative team. In the meantime, it becomes apparent that the killer too has a good knowledge of forensic science and many of his murder scenes are carefully staged in order to lead investigators exactly where he wants them.

Jeremy Iacone’s script for THE BONE COLLECTOR follows the usual pattern of Hollywood serial killer movies – the psychopathic monster, whose sadistic imagination is matched only by his apparently limitless financial resources, is using the murders in order to play elaborate mind game with frustrated investigator who, apart from investigation, must also fight his personal demon. The film tries to add twist in the form of investigator being quadriplegic and having to rely on a sidekick who just happens to be young attractive woman. Iacone’s script reconciles Hollywood looks of that character with the grittiness of her profession in the scene that shows that she used to be a model.

Sadly, this is the only scene in which THE BONE COLLECTOR shows that its creators paid some attention to viewers’ intelligence. The rest of film is familiar mix of clichés and situations that, despite Noyce’s direction and all the efforts of capable cast, look utterly predictable. Not much experience is needed for the viewer to determine the identity of the killer early on – appearance and subsequent disappearance of certain character who happens to be played by certain second-tier actor points towards a clear conclusion. This happens despite Noyce’s attempts to take away viewer’s attention through series of scenes that depict sadistic murders in disturbing level of detail. Also disturbing is the attempt to add extra spice into this story with scenes that suggest that the quadriplegic protagonist might sexually attract his female sidekick. Well-acted and, to a certain degree, well-directed, THE BONE COLLECTOR, can’t overcome limits of its script and it is unlikely to remain in viewers’ memory for a long time.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

Run Lola Run (1998)

(LOLA RENNT) (1998)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Few years ago one of the movie magazines in my country ran an article about German film history which tried to sum it up as a story of three Lolas – heroines of the films that, in some sort of way, represented three important periods. The last one was the heroine of RUN LOLA RUN, 1998 film directed by Tom Tykwer. Their contemporaries, including the writer of the article, took this film as a proof that German cinema enjoy another golden. It won rave reviews, the soundtrack – aggressively promoted on European music TV stations – topped the charts and the box-office results were good even outside German-speaking countries.

The plot of the film is relatively simple. Manni (played by Moritz Bleibtreu) is a Berlin youth who works as a courier for vicious drug-dealing characters. One day he accidentally loses a bag containing 100,000 DM of syndicate’s money. With twenty minutes before the scheduled delivery he calls his girlfriend Lola (played by Franka Potente), informs her about his predicament and says that he will rob a liquor store in a desperate bid to make up for his loss. Lola has exactly twenty minutes to prevent that folly or try to find some alternative source of money. The plot than shows Lola’s efforts three times – in each of those occasions one of random and seemingly unimportant actions leads to completely different outcome.

The “gimmick” behind RUN LOLA RUN isn’t particularly original. In the same year it was used by British romantic comedy SLIDING DOORS. In Tykwer’s film the concept is more explicitly explained to the audience and the plot is, therefore, less confusing. However, the real reason why this film won audiences and critics is in its palpable energy. Accompanied by techno music and populated by young and likeable “hip” protagonists, RUN LOLA RUN is very pleasing to the eyes and ears of its viewers. Tykwer also shows great talent as a director. He throws every trick in the book in order to prevent the variations of the same story from being repetitive – each is told in slightly different style. However, with his emphasis on style he ignores the film’s substance. Thankfully, RUN LOLA RUN is not only fast-paced but also a very short and this leaves audience with little opportunity to reflect on protagonists not being properly fleshed out or some of the situations being too preposterous to be taken seriously. However, despite being far from a masterpiece, RUN LOLA RUN deserved its place in history by serving one important purpose. With this film German cinema was triumphantly brought back to the world’s stage, adding another iconic image – orange-haired Franka Potente – to her long and glorious history.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Out of Time (2003)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Florida is slowly becoming the most popular film noir setting in contemporary Hollywood. Another example of that trend could be found in OUT OF TIME, 2003 film directed by Carl Franklin.

The plot is set in sleepy Miami suburb where local police chief Matthias Lee Whitlock (played by Denzel Washington) enjoys a good life – crime rate is low, citizens love him and the only important event of his career was a major drug bust that left a significant sum of impounded money in his police evidence room. His private life, however, leaves something to be desired. His wife Alex (played by Eva Mendes) was too ambitious and left him for the sake of homicide detective career in Miami. Matthias sought comfort in the arms of Ann Merai Harrison (played by Sanaa Lathan), his high school sweetheart whose husband Chris (played by Dean Cain), a disgruntled ex-football player, seems to have a taste for beating her. Ann’s marital problems are apparently nothing compared to her health – she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Matthias, in despair, tries to save her by stealing the money from evidence room in pay for Ann’s experimental treatment. But things aren’t always what they seem and Matthias soon finds himself investigating a grisly double murder with all evidence pointing at him as the perpetrator.

After failing to properly tackle complicated issues of military justice in his previous film HIGH CRIMES, Franklin goes to familiar genre territory described in David Collard’s script for OUT OF TIME. Convoluted plot doesn’t seem particularly original and even those viewers who didn’t watch many film noirs will have a clear picture of all the film’s twists long time before they happen. Franklin seems to be aware that the audience knows what is going to happen. So, the real issue of the film is how the plot progresses to its predictable point. Franklin keeps the audience’s attention with a series of brilliantly directed scenes, especially those in which the protagonist tries to suppress incriminating evidence. Because of that, OUT OF TIME successfully deals both with script and content limitations – even the accustomed to much saucier scenes in Florida noir films like BODY HEAT will hardly notice film’s otherwise debilitating PG-13 rating. The cast is also very good, although Denzel Washington – always dependable in the role of lawman in difficult situations – gets overshadowed by Peter Billingsley who plays town’s medical examiner, his best friend and film’s very effective “comic relief”. OUT OF TIME is not going to remain in viewers’ memories for long, but while it does it will remain as an enjoyable experience.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Saturday, February 12, 2005

House of Sand and Fog (2003)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

It is estimated that average American changes home at least three times during his lifetime. Under such circumstances it is difficult to imagine people getting emotionally attached to real estate, at least not in a way people in Old World do. Since “moving to the greener pastures” is one of the important elements of American Dream, Americans tend to see fights over tiny pieces of land as something than happens only to savage Balkans tribes of gangs in inner-city ghettos. They might change their mind if they see HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, 2003 drama directed by Vadim Perelman.

The plot, based on the best-selling novel by Andre Dubus III, starts with Kathy Nicolo (played by Jennifer Connelly), recovering alcoholic whose husband left her eight months ago. Because of that she was so depressed that she didn’t open her mail, and when the tax authorities evict her from her Northern California bungalow over unpaid taxes, it is too late to do anything about. That bungalow is auction and later bought at bargain prices by Bahrani (played by Ben Kingsley), former Iranian Air Force Colonel exiled to America after Islamic Revolution. For years he had to work all kinds of menial jobs in order to support his aristocratic wife Nadi (played by Shoreh Aghdashloo) and provide façade of respectability within his community. His plan is to sell the bungalow at full market price and thus regain wealth and respect he once had. But Kathy, now forced to sleep in her car, wants her house back and her, apparently hopeless, cause is taken by Lester Burdon (played by Ron Eldard), Sheriff’s Deputy who fell madly in love and her. Lester will stop at nothing to get Kathy back in the house, even if it means breaking the very law he is supposed to protect. But Bahrani is equally determined to protect his new treasure and all the conflict escalates until tragedy becomes unavoidable.

There are few films that depend so much on acting as HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG does. First time director Vadim Perelman did very good job and had excellent collaborators in veteran composer James Horner and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins. But the real treasure of this film can be found in actors. Shoreh Aghdashloo, Iranian actress who had to quit her career because of Islamic Revolution, brings a lot of her own experience to the role and makes the character of Nadi, seemingly the least important of them all, into one of one the most memorable. Her “Oscar” nomination for that role was quite justified. Her efforts were well-matched by two previous “Oscar” winners in the roles of main adversaries. Jennifer Connelly tries very hard and mostly succeeds in making blue-collar heroine likeable to the audience despite most of them not being sympathetic to her lost (and ultimately unjust) cause. Kingsley is even more effective in the role that requires him to switch between family tyrant, loving father and husband, hard-working immigrant, social hypocrite and pathetic wreck.

Great acting aside, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG is very good, but not great film. While the plot rested on sound foundations of gritty realism, its tragic resolution depends too much on the all-too-convenient twists and characters acting in the most stupid ways imaginable. But the biggest problem is in its lack of the very objectivity Perelman tried to achieve. Through suggestive editing Perelman tries to paint Kathy and Bahrani as two sides of the same coins – two people who try to pursue the very same American Dream and who lay the very same claim on life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, it isn’t very hard for the audience to completely take the side of Bahrani. On one side there is a dedicated family man who endured the lifetime of hardship and humiliation in order to provide decent future for his loved ones. On the other side is someone who wasted her life through addiction and self-pity. For overwhelming majority of the audience taking sides among two main protagonists isn’t the much of a choice.

There are some critics who view HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG as a some sort of allegoric comment on recent events. Scenes in which Bahranis – Middle Eastern immigrants - are mistreated by Lester – representative of American law enforcement – can be put in the context of the abuses in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. The scene at the very beginning, when Kathy wakes up only to find her house put on auction, shows the shock very much like the one experienced by USA on September 11th 2001 – when the country, which had taken its liberal democracy, security and prosperity for granted, had her illusions shattered in one terrifying instant. Others see the unfolding tragedy of HOUSE OF SAND A FOG as a story of misunderstanding – Kathy and Lester repeatedly fail to interpret Bahranis in proper way, especially Lester who uses racists “towel head” stereotypes to conform to his personal illusions. But misunderstanding isn’t limited to great unwashed masses. This could also be interpreted as a criticism of American Left, especially Limousine Liberals who seems to be equally detached from reality as blue-collar crypto-racists. In a brief, but brilliant scene, Bahrani visits the office of Kathy’s idealistic lawyer and can’t fail to notice a Soviet WW2 mobilisation poster accompanied with the words praising the concept of revolution as something “cool” and “hip”. With Bahrani and his disdain for the poster can identify anyone whose experiences don’t allow taking liberal democracy for granted nor understanding of its alternatives, regardless how fashionable they might look.

Even with contemporary politics put aside and with many of its flaws taken into account, HOUSE OF SAND A FOG is an intense, thought-provoking movie experience.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

Thursday, February 10, 2005

End of Days (1999)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Most Hollywood films made in the past decade didn’t withstand the test of time. Very few of them had that happen so quickly as in the case of END OF DAYS, 1999 supernatural thriller directed by Peter Hyams.

The script by Andrew B. Marlowe (of SEVEN fame) was one of many that tried to exploit “Millennium Zeitgeist”. The basic idea behind the plot was inspired by the belief – fuelled by mainstream media and fundamentalist Christians alike - that something spectacularly bad was supposed to happen on January 1st 2000. Hollywood was quick to have at least one blockbuster with such subject and have it released before that date. When END OF DAYS arrived to Croatian cinema in the early 2000, the movie lost all of its impact due to audience knowing that everything described in that film was a fiction.

And even if someone watched this film earlier, he could hardly take seriously chaotic and complicated plot that would insult the intelligence and religious beliefs alike. On the other hand, Marlowe should be at least praised for the very original interpretation of ancient Apocalyptic texts – according to him, Satan comes every one thousand years to Earth in order to have sex with specifically chosen woman and thus trigger the end of the world. Since the woman in question is Christina York (played by Robbin Tunne), 21-year old New Yorker with history of strange vision, Satan takes human form of New York banker (played by Gabriel Byrne). Satan’s plans are going to be stopped by unlikely hero – Jericho Kane (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), former policeman who works as a bodyguard and who turned to alcohol after the tragic death of his family.

The author of this review doesn’t consider himself to be a theology expert, but something tells him that plot of END OF DAYS is as close to mainstream theology as the plot BRAVEHEART was accurate in its depiction of Scottish history. However, even without that, Marlowe’s script is too confusing and too burdened with plot holes to be taken seriously. Even more pathetic than the script is Schwarzenegger’s attempt to prove his ability as serious dramatic actor in the scenes that depict him as a world-weary embittered alcoholic. Thankfully (and predictably), Schwarzenegger relatively quickly discards his “Oscar” ambitions for the sake of more conventional action superhero able to dispose dozens of Satan’s minions with the help of automatic weapons.

Director Peter Hyams also does his part to rescue this film from being completely unwatchable. He provides some interesting scenes, especially with Gabriel Byrne who obviously takes great pleasure in playing character which is supposed to be the ultimate screen villain of all times. Scenes during which Satan creates apocalyptic mayhem all over New York or tries to bribe the protagonist are the best part of the film. This can’t be said for those that feature completely bland Robin Tunne or uninspired Kevin Pollack in the role of comic relief.

END OF DAYS isn’t complete waste of time but all those who watch it would probably agree that this film’s days were numbered long time ago.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

Double Jeopardy (1999)

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Thanks to Hollywood, most people in the world are more familiar with US laws than the laws of their own countries. That includes “Double Jeopardy” – legal concept which prevents people from being repeatedly tried for the same crime. This concept was used as the main plot gimmick in DOUBLE JEOPARDY, 1999 thriller directed by Bruce Beresford.

The plot of this film begins in the state of Washington where Libby Parsons (played by Ashley Judd) is married to local tycoon Nick Parsons (played by Bruce Greenwood) with whom she has a five-year old son. Her idyllic life shatters when Nick mysteriously disappears with all the evidence suggesting his violent death and Libby as the murderer. After being for murder, Libby discovers that Nick is alive and that he staged the crime in order to collect insurance money and start new life with Libby’s best friend Angela Greene (played by Annabeth Gish). Disgraced and humiliated, Libby is determined to seek vengeance, knowing that she can kill her husband without fear of being prosecuted, thanks to “Double Jeopardy” rule. After six years she is released under parole, but her efforts to locate Nick and Angela are hampered by Travis Lehman (played by Tommy Lee Jones), her relentless parole officer.

According to most legal experts, the concept behind the film – murder becoming legal thanks to “Double Jeopardy” rule - couldn’t hold water in real life. The way the screenwriters treat the law is in many ways similar to way they treat intelligence of the viewers. Plot is the series of contrivances and implausibilities and even those viewers who haven’t seen the trailer (where the entire plot was telegraphed in full detail) won’t have any problems in determining how the story will unfold. It looks like DOUBLE JEOPARDY was initially conceived as some a parody of FUGITIVE. Unfortunately, veteran Australian director Bruce Bereseford treats as a straight-forward thriller, with little care for the predictability of the plot or preposterousness of the action scenes. Main actors also don’t seem to care about the film. This is especially evident in the case of Tommy Lee Jones, who was probably aware that he only repeated the role of determined lawman from FUGITIVE. However, unlike FUGITIVE, there was little chance for Jones to get an Academy Award so he wisely chose not to bother with some great acting. Viewers interested in intelligent or entertaining thrillers are also going to make a wise choice if they skip DOUBLE JEOPARDY.

RATING: 2/10 (-)

American Pie (1999)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

When AMERICAN PIE, 1999 teen comedy directed by Paul Weitz, appeared in Croatian cinemas, the viewers were confronted with the film which had been almost universally panned by American critics and enthusiastically embraced by American public. The former called the film “crude, sexist and vulgar”. Re-appearance of ticket-scalpers – people who vanished with the arrival of VCRs in this part of the world – clearly showed which verdict Croatian public had accepted.

The sight of ticket-scalpers – phenomenon associated with what many people here refer to as “good old times” – partially explains the success of the film. AMERICAN PIE benefited from 1980s nostalgia, cultural trend spotted and exploited by Hollywood. One element of 1980s popular culture were teen comedies which, unlike their 1990s counterparts, weren’t burdened with “political correctness” and neo-Puritanical content standards. The difference between 1980s and 1990s teen comedies is best seen in the treatment of the issue most interesting to its teen audience – sex. The idea behind AMERICAN PIE was very simple – to resurrect 1980s teen comedy through more sexually explicit content.

This is achieved through rather simple plot which switches its protagonists’ priorities from romance to sex. Four friends, who are 18-year old, realise that they are virgins and make a pact to lose that virginity before the prom night. Their attempts to have sex lead to all kinds of humorous situations.

A year earlier many attacked Farrelly Brothers for the low standards of their toilet humour in their THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT MARY. This film goes even lower, with overwhelming majority of jokes being related to various bodily fluids. And, unlike most of good comedies, many of those jokes ask viewers to suspend not only their disbelief but also a great deal of their intellectual capabilities. The scene featuring Czech exchange student Nadia (played by Shannon Elizabeth) is one of such examples. However, despite all that, many jokes work and AMERICAN PIE is, for the most part, pleasant viewing experience. This could be attributed to likeable and talented young cast, but the best impression was left by Eugene Levy in the role of Jim Levenstein, one of the protagonists’ fathers. His scenes, which have more to do with real humour and less with foul language, bare women’s breasts and bodily fluids, are among the brighter moments of the film. Because of that AMERICAN PIE is pleasant movie experience, despite the fact that many viewers might feel guilty about it.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Sixth Sense (1999)

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

The author of this review is accustomed to being in minority on many issues. One of those is a career of M. Night Shyamalan. Most critics tend to think that Shyamalan’s first major film, 1999 horror THE SIXTH SENSE, is his best and that his subsequent films are significantly worse. The author of this review thinks otherwise. Shyamalan’s filmmaking skills actually improved over time and his subsequent films are actually better than THE SIXTH SENSE.

That doesn’t mean that THE SIXTH SENSE is bad film. On the surface, it was a great success. It was one of the big commercial surprises of 1999 and the excellent box-office results were followed by rave reviews and series of “Oscar” nominations. This very success was hard to repeat and any subsequent Shyamalan’s film was seen as a disappointment or at least inferior to its glorious predecessor.

The plot begins when Dr. Malcolm Crowe (played by Bruce Willis), one of Philadelphia’s most respected child psychiatrists receives mayor’s reward for his professional achievements. On the very night of celebration Crowe’s home is invaded by Vincent Grey (played by Donnie Wahlberg), Crowe’s former patient who shoots Crowe before taking his own life. Months have passed and Crowe tries to get over this traumatic incident by taking the case of Cole Sear (played by Haley Joel Osment), young boy who suffers from the same symptoms that had plagued Vincent Grey. Cole, despite all the care by his mother Lynn (played by Toni Colette), looks scared all the time. Crowe uses all of his skills to win the boy’s trust only to find that Cole believes that he can see ghosts who ask him all kinds of favours. Crowe is convinced that Cole suffers from schizophrenia, but he is nevertheless determined to cure him, even if its means becoming alienated from his wife Anne (played by Olivia Williams).

The most memorable element of THE SIXTH SENSE is the famous plot twist at the end. This would become Shyamalan’s trademark. However, this film earns viewers’ attention even long before that. Shyamalan uses the Gothic surrounding of his home city of Philadelphia to build the atmosphere that would carry the plot rather than conventional horror genre techniques. His direction is superb and in subsequent viewings it is possible to detect many fine details that point to the twist at the end.

Another memorable element of THE SIXTH SENSE is the acting. Haley Joel Osment was wonderful in his role. His Cole Sear is a very complex character – a bright child who is both terrified and resigned by his predicament. Shyamalan cleverly presents the events from his perspective and in those moments the film is the scariest and the most effective. Bruce Willis was very good as partner. THE SIXTH SENSE was opportunity for him to show that he can grow as an actor and this opportunity was exploited. His role of guilt-struck psychiatrist is much better than the similar role he played in COLOR OF NIGHT.

THE SIXTH SENSE has great acting, great directing and great plot twist, yet it lacks some things necessary to become an undisputed classic. The most obvious is the script. Shyamalan is a great director but in this film his scriptwriting abilities left too much to be desired. The plot seems more suitable for the TWILIGHT ZONE episode than a feature film. Shyamalan extends it at the expense of the film’s pace. Some scenes look repetitive and some subplots are unnecessary and predictable. Because of that THE SIXTH SENSE, although good enough to justify its commercial and critical success, isn’t great. Thankfully, Shyamalan learned from some of his mistakes and his subsequent films were better. THE SIXTH SENSE, in a way, describes itself through its title – a good film that shows even better things that lie in the future.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Few films can be branded with the words “product of its time” like FAHRENHEIT 9/11, Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary, can. In was one of the past year’s most successful films, beloved by critics and seen by the millions of the people all over the world. And, just like many successful films of the past, the true measure of the film could be seen only with a passage of time. In case of FAHRENHEIT 9/11 this time was much shorter than usual.

Basically, judging FAHRENHEIT 9/11 is simply impossible without putting it into the context of 2004 US presidential election. This film owes much of its commercial and critical success to the global dislike of US president George W. Bush and the fact that his ouster from the White House was one of the film’s explicit purposes. It wasn’t the only documentary with such intentions, but it was the only to have an author able to combine his reputation, charisma and passion with the perfect timing and skilfully orchestrated hype. Just like in many previous instances, many critics allowed themselves to be swept by tide and FAHRENHEIT 9/11 was lauded as one of the greatest films of all times and Michael Moore as one of the greatest filmmakers in history.

The history, however, proved to be most unkind to his film. George W. Bush was re-elected to US presidency and, therefore, this film is a failure.

Those who hailed FAHRENHEIT 9/11 as masterpiece can, however, claim that they made their judgement independent of its political purpose and that this film can stand on its own as a genuine and timeless work of art. The author of this review, who was initially very sceptical towards “Palm d’Or”, rave reviews, millions at the US box offices and all other manifestations of enthusiasm for FAHRENHEIT 9/11, disagrees. For me this film lost most of its relevance on November 3rd 2004.

This doesn’t mean that the film is completely worthless and insignificant in these times. It still can be valuable tool for the historians in the future because it documents the way world saw USA and its administration in the first decade of 21st Century. FAHRENHEIT 9/11 was and still is immensely popular in the world because it perfectly corresponds with the mindset that dominates the world way. Moore not only compresses the criticism of Bush and his administration in two hours; he also uses themes that could be applied to the administrations that preceded it and that can succeed it. FAHRENHEIT 9/11 paints a dark picture of USA as a country where the democracy is a sham and where real power lies in military-industrial complex; where the incompetent government is unable to deal with small bands of terrorists but it is skilful enough to manipulate entire nation with fear and turn one of the oldest world democracies into police state; where military is used to wage wars of aggression for the sake of corporate profit and at the expense of impoverished blue-collar masses who pay the butcher’s bill. This picture isn’t exactly new – similar thoughts have been expressed in the past times and applied to different administrations.

However, there is one important difference which is hinted in the film’s opening. The word “dream” is used for the events that describe the world before 2000 election which, according to Michael Moore, has brought all the misery documented in this film. In this world big US corporations were the engine of global prosperity, US military was the humanitarian tool used in painless and bloodless PG-13 wars, US democracy was the most perfect of all world’s systems of government and Hollywood and US President, whom the world as the most beloved, the most progressive and the most benevolent of all leaders, were playing for the same team. In that world, which so many people in USA begin to see as some kind of Arthurian Golden Age, people like Michael Moore belonged to the fringe. This image, which had been, of course, maintained by Hollywood, was first shaken by Florida fiasco only to be forever shattered by the events of September 11th 2001. With USA revealed to be vulnerable and imperfect, all those who had built their own worldviews on those false assumptions turned their disappointment into anger which Moore and many like him exploited. Some facts and figures, which had been ignored or swept under carpet, were suddenly delivered into world’s and American cinema theatres as some kind of religious revelation.

And this points to the main problem of FAHRENHEIT 9/11. Not only that many of film’s “revelations” aren’t that new to those who followed US and world politics more closely, but many of those “revelations” actually can’t withstand much scrutiny. Moore subjected his film to a single purpose – showing George W. Bush and his policies in the worst way possible in the hope that the American viewers will endorse Moore’s view and vote him out of office. For that very purpose Moore does exactly what he accused Bush of doing. Bush decided to invade Iraq and used phantom Weapons of Mass Destruction as a pretext, not allowing any facts to collide with his decision. Moore also doesn’t allow any facts to collide with his desire to vote Bush out of office. And, just like with BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, Moore contradicts himself. When it comes to preventing 9/11 disaster Bush’s administration is portrayed as bunch of pathetic incompetents; when it comes to manipulating public with Patriot Act and Iraq War, they are evil geniuses. Manipulative editing, taking statements out of context and use of questionable facts and figures may lead to some passionate cinema and look excellent to politically partisan critics, but it decreases the value of this film as a documentary.

On the other hand, with all those questionable techniques Moore succeeded in something that most contemporary filmmakers – at least those belonging to Hollywood mainstream – fail to do. Those who watch FAHRENHEIT 9/11, regardless of what their political views might be, can sense genuine passion that guided its author. That and the boost its success gave to the once neglected and ignored documentary genre, are reasons enough for FAHRENHEIT 9/11 to deserve at least some praise.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

Review written on February 6th 2005

New Start

Today I decided to revamp this blog and instead of only storing my old material, use it to publish new one.

So, from this day onward Draxblog Movie Reviews is the place where you are going to find what I think about some films I have seen in recent pasts.

Any kind of constructive comments is more than welcomed.