December 31, 2001

2001 Year-End Wrap-Up

My Top Five of the year: The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Monsters Inc., Ocean's Eleven, The Royal Tenembaums, and Shrek

December 26, 2001

A Beautiful Mind

The trailers and commercials hyped A Beautiful Mind as a code breaking spy thriller only if it were...

beautifulRussell Crowe stars in the story (based on real events) of John Forbes Nash Jr, a mathematics genius. In the first third of the film, we learn that Nash is brilliant, intolerant of lazy thinking, and introverted to a fault. "I don’t like other people, and they don’t like me" he remarks. His whole mind is tied to creating a 'truly original idea'. Director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Ransom) goes to great lengths to show us how revolutionary and cool Nash’s ideas are. Thankfully, Nash only explains himself once, and then at a suitably earthy level that everyone can understand.

The first half of the film feels like Good Will Hunting crossed with North By Northwest. A math genius plunged into cloak-and-dagger intrigue. Only at the midway point do we learn that there’s more in Nash’s (and Howard’s) Mind than we thought.

Howard is the king of the safe, dependable movie you can safely take your parents to see. Nothing challenging, nothing revolutionary, just quality, mainstream entertainment. There’s nothing remarkable here, except for another (sigh) revelatory performance from Russell Crowe. There are no great lines, no great scenes, but to watch Crowe react to the outside stimulus to his interior world. Howard draws out Nash’s overactive mind through a labyrinth of mathematical notation, but we can see Nash’s wheels turning in the eyes of Crowe.

Jennifer Connelly (Pollock, Requiem for a Dream), in her highest profile role of her career, is splendid as Nash’s wife and only connection to the real world. She is an intelligent, educated woman who loves Nash’s heart over his mind. Her character is well-formed on the page, and she plays the conflicts between the heart and mind, the real world and the metaphysical, with grace.

Ed Harris is Ed Harris. Always superb (Pollock, Apollo 13), he does a fine job as a G-man doggedly pursuing Nash’s genius for the good of the country. In his 1940’s spook suit, he looks tough and mean enough to beat up Humphrey Bogart.

The movie has the potential to be 'excellent', but steps back into 'very good' territory in the last third. When making a biopic of a real person (Nash is alive and well) you must choose whether to tell THE story OF a man’s life, or A story IN a man’s life. Howard tries for both and the movie suffers for it. Once Nash conquers his struggles, the film continues for (what feels like) twenty minutes, covering the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. This incredibly boring section is necessary to get us to a 1994 Nobel Prize ceremony scene, and a completely fictional accepance speech. The story IN his life was over decades earlier. If Nash were a fictional character, these 20 minutes would never have made the final cut. Howard felt the need (out of respect) to conclude the movie on the best, happiest, and least ambiguous note possible. No doubt can be left in the viewer’s mind that everything turned out okay.

Crowe shines in this otherwise solid, workmanlike biography. You can always count on Howard for quality product, but it wouldn’t hurt the film to trim a little. (AMC Framingham, wth my friend Lyza)

December 25, 2001

The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring

lordBetter than I hoped for. As soon as the closing credits began, I thought to myself "I could watch The Two Towers right this second. Bring it on! I am pretty sure I had read all of Fellowship before I saw the movie. I remember I wasn't finished reading all three books yet, though...

The first time I saw The Fellowship of the Ring was Christmas Day, at Showcase Cinemas Randolph. The second time I saw The Fellowship of the Ring was December 30, outside Salt Lake City, UT, with Laurie and Joel.

In the eight years + four months since I saw LOTR:FOTR, I have probably put this movie in my DVD player more than any other movie. That doesn't mean I've watched all three hours every time, but the LOTR movies are our first choice for "something to watch while puttering around the house on the weekend."

Overheard At A Lord Of The Rings Trilogy Marathon

  • "I know they're lonely and a long way from home, but should Sam and Frodo be spooning?"
  • "If the cave troll and the Incredible Hulk had a fight, who would win?"
  • "When do the Hobbits play Quidditch? Did I miss it?"
  • "I think I see Peter Jackson."
  • "You know, once you've made it with an elf, you never go back."
  • "Would it kill them to "accidentally" leave a few reels out?"
  • "If Frodo and Sam would just drive to Mount Doom, this film would be a lot shorter."
  • "I will not rest until there's a black elf in Hobbiton."
  • "You know what this film needs? More dancing."
  • "I think I sprained my imagination!"
  • "Gee, there are a lot of furry feet in this movie."
  • "I can't feel my ass- will you carry me to the bathroom?"
  • "I just stepped out to watch Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star next door. Did I miss anything?"
  • "Seven hours of trailers for "Return of the King," what were they thinking?"
  • "I think I just saw a Hobbit with Birkenstocks?"
  • "Frodo dies!" (shouted by interloper at theater door; riot ensues)
  • "Wow, these extra scenes add so much nuance to the zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz..."

December 16, 2001

Vanilla Sky

Vanilla Sky is a bold, experimental journey into man’s dreams and desires. But has Cameron Crowe has taken a radical departure from his typical style, or a departure from his senses?

Vanilla Sky is based on the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos, co-written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar (The Others). Tom Cruise plays David Aames, a millionaire playboy whose wild, womanizing ways have led him into a disastrous affair and a crippling accident with his lover, Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz). The same night of the accident, he meets another woman: the enigmatic, adorable Sofia (Penélope Cruz, who played this role in the original). After the accident, David’s life comes falling apart. His face resembling the Frankenstein monster and limping like Igor, he falls into a deep depression. His best friend (Jason Lee) appears to be stealing away Sofia, and control of his family business is slipping away at the hands of his board of directors. While we are supposed to believe that his mental crisis is abetted by the symptoms of his injuries, it’s hard not to believe that David’s depressed because, frankly, he’s gone from looking like Tom Cruise to the Elephant Man.

The events described above are told to us from prison. A police shrink (Kurt Russell) is evaluating David while he awaits a trial for murder. We know early on that he is supposed to have murdered someone, but for the first two thirds of the film, we are not sure exactly who. Until we learn more about this murder, it is fairly easy to take the narrative at face value. But when the shrink starts dragging more memories out of the reluctant David, we discover that not all of what we have seen makes sense.

vanillaThe last third of the film completely falls apart. We are shown more and more about what led David to be charged with murder, but there is no logical way to piece together the narrative. When the story started winding around itself like a boa constrictor, I held out hope that we were supposed to puzzle out the solution to the contradictions. We hope to get inside David’s head before the shrink does, but it’s not that simple. In fact, there’s no way to solve the puzzle. I am not going to reveal the film’s explanation for the contrarian nature of the plot. Audiences love to solve mysteries and draw their own conclusions, but in this film, the solution is given to you in the last half hour and the choice to interpret the events is yanked away.

Filmmakers love it when people walk out of the theater discussing their perspectives on the story, but after this film, you have nothing to do but scratch your head. We are forcibly pushed out of the film; when you don’t know who is real and what really happened, how are you supposed to care about the fate of the characters? While Cruise is effective as the former playboy tortured by the hand of fate, he plays at a strong disadvantage. For about a third of his screen time, he wears an amazing, award-worthy prosthetic face that transforms his million-dollar mug into a hideous, lopsided pile of skin and bone. For another third of the film, he wears a skin-tone therapeutic mask, which transforms him into a short, limping, well-dressed mannequin. The problem is, we only get to see any of his face for the scenes when he is untroubled and content- when he really gets to sink his teeth into meaty material, we can’t see it.

Penélope Cruz is the Hype of the Year. All she has to do here is talk sweet nothings with a Spanish accent, bat her fifty-yard eyelashes at Cruise, and her freckles are supposed to win me over? There’s nothing happening there. Cameron Diaz, however, is fabulous as the jilted lover on the verge of mental collapse. Diaz plays the quiet desperation and ragged edge of sanity with subtlety and aplomb. Given the chance to shine in a brief but complex role, it’s nice to see her rise to the occasion.

Something about the original 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) clearly drew Crowe and Cruise to this project. You have to respect them for attempting such an experiment. But that doesn’t mean you have to enjoy watching it. (Loews Boston Common)

December 9, 2001

Ocean's Eleven

It's all too rare that a film packed with big stars is any fun. When major studios put A-List, $20 million talent onscreen together, they don't want to take any chances on the movie- there’s so much money at stake, the final product is boring, but safe. The good news about Ocean's Eleven is that a studio did not put these stars onscreen together- Steven Soderbergh did. Since making a big splash with his debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, Soderbergh has earned the respect of actors with smart, classy, and sophisticated projects like Out Of Sight and The Limey. With the one-two punch of Erin Brockovich and Traffic in 2000, major studios are now willing to trust him with big budgets. However, the studio’s bankroll didn’t get all these names on the marquee- Soderbergh did, and he did it at a bargain.

oceansSoderbergh set out to make a fun, popcorn flick involving a casino heist, in the spirit of the Frank Sinatra/Rat Pack movie of 1960. The new Ocean's Eleven stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts. Clooney, with Pitt, scheme to steal $160 million from Andy Garcia's casino. They enlist nine con men and hustlers to make it happen. The Eleven of the title pull off the heist, Mission: Impossible style- no guns, no violence. Hardly anyone even gets their hair mussed. There are plenty of kinks in the plan as we go along- but are they kinks or a part of the plan we're unaware of?

The great casting continues below the title, with Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould as old-school Vegas cronies looking for one last hand; Don Cheadle as the bomb expert, Bernie Mac as the inside man at the casino; plus Casey Affleck and Scott Caan as the bratty, feuding footsoldiers of the gang. Everyone took pay cuts to join in the fun, and it shows; the set must have felt like a class reunion as it seems everyone has worked together before. Soderbergh has directed Clooney, Roberts, and Cheadle before; Clooney worked with Cheadle in Out Of Sight; Affleck and Damon were in Good Will Hunting, and Gould was on Friends with Brad Pitt's then-wife.

You'd think with a big cast and a fast-moving story, that there wouldn’t be enough screen time for all the principals. With such a long list of stars, you might expect some bruised egos as some of the cast could get short shrift. However, Soderbergh does a nice job of giving everyone at least one scene to shine. For example, Cheadle (Traffic, Boogie Nights), in some ways, is barely in the movie. But he gets a few brief moments to be noticed which count for a lot. A few of the great moments: Pitt's first and last scenes begin with his character eating junk food. We just watch him eating nachos for 5-10 seconds. How he can look so cool and yet funny while eating nachos is beyond me. Clooney has a scene where he plays with his wedding band. His character is not aware he's doing it, but he fiddles with his ring finger while talking to his estranged wife, and it says more about his feelings that any dialogue can.

I had some problems with the Roberts/Clooney relationship. Clooney played a similar role as a thief in Out Of Sight and squeezed out sexy sparks opposite Jennifer Lopez, including a pivotal scene at a secluded table in a dark restaurant. In Ocean’s Eleven, Clooney and Roberts’ big scenes take place in a similar setting, and suffer by comparison. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say her character is supposed to harbor a grudge against Clooney. She does unleash some sharp jabs in their snappy dialogue. However, we need more romantic magnetism underneath to develop her character arc.

It’s rare when all the pieces come together for a fun and exciting film these days. Hollywood seems to have forgotten that movies can be thrilling without gunplay, explosions, and car chases. We can only hope that the rest of Hollywood follows Soderbergh’s example. This film is not genius, it's just first-class entertainment.

Rated PG-13 for language, and one brief scene with a strip show in the background (no nudity). Hardly any violence (a few punches are thrown); no gun violence. Hardly any smoking. Hardly sounds like a Vegas movie, does it? (With Dan, Beth, and Mike. Mike announced LL was expecting twins! Framingham Premium Cinema)

December 1, 2001

075: Baby, We're The Same

  1. "88 Lines About 44 Women" The Nails; from Mood Swing [1984]
  2. "People Who Died" Jim Carroll Band [1980]
  3. "Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar" Bob Dylan, from the Biograph box set
  4. "Change The Locks" performed by Lucinda Williams, later covered by Tom Petty.
  5. "Cinammon Girl" Neil Young & Crazy Horse; from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere [1969]
  6. "Wicked Game" Chris Isaak
  7. "Easy" The Commodores [1977]
  8. "Slow Love" Prince; from Sign 'O The Times [1987]
  9. "If I Were You" (Single Version) k.d. lang [1995]
  10. "Could've Been Anyone" Aimee Mann; from Whatever [1993]
  11. "We're The Same" Matthew Sweet; from 100% Fun [1995]
  12. "Lady In The Front Row" [1993] This one-hit wonder from Redd Kross reminds me of my year interning at WFNX in 1993-94.
  13. "No More No More" Aerosmith; from Toys In The Attic [1975]
  14. "Give It Everything" I think I found this Al Green song on a soundtrack CD, but I don't have the CD anymore.
  15. "Mr. Wendal" [1992] from 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of...Arrested Development
  16. "I Know" (single edit) Dionne Farris used to be in Arrested Development. This single (which reached #4 in 1994) is from her solo debut, Wild Seed Wild Flower.
  17. "I Found A Love" I found this song (written by Leon Russell), with an awesome drum solo, on Eric Clapton's Crossroads box set.
  18. "What Is Life" George Harrison had just passed away from cancer (after a lifetime of cigarette smoking) when I made this mix.