Cold Creek Manor
From the director of Leaving Las Vegas
, the photographer of Vanya on 42nd Street
, and the editor of Boogie Nights
comes a typical Hollywood stalker thriller. That should pretty much tell you everything. High class talent fucking around with B-grade material, and for the most part it works quite well. Dennis Quaid, Sharon Stone, and their 2.0 kids (including the daughter from Panic Room
, already typecast as the kid who moves into the scary new house where violence will occur) emigrate from the mean streets of Manhattan to the calm of the country and buy a huge estate that used to be the property of evil redneck Stephen Dorff (you can tell he’s mean because he smokes hand-rolled cigarettes and wears a trucker cap attached to the ass end of his belt loop).
Typical stalker-killer plot ensues at the halfway point, as the bad guy tortures the innocent family with things that no one can prove, culminating in a violent showdown that allows Syd Field-educated screenwriter Richard Jefferies to pay off all of his obvious plants in the first act. Mike Figgis directs the hell out of it, though, shooting in lush 35mm for once and dollying his camera around at just the right moments and placing his lens at just the right length for maximum suspense. Quaid is solid, and surprisingly, Sharon Stone is quite tolerable and even humble – offering each scene to Quaid and Dorff and letting her nicely sketched character lend to the piece as a whole (rather than doing her energy-sucking self-absorption a la The Muse
). Even Juliette Lewis has a hilarious white trash turn (way too much make-up, pseudo-femullet cut), and the dialogue snaps when it needs to. Although the story is formulaic and nothing unpredictable ever happens, Figgis gets to address urban sprawl in a charmingly nasty fashion – putting his yuppies in grisly peril and pointing out that the roots of decay are in the family, not the environment.
(Dinky spoilage ahead -- nothing major gets revealed, but be cautious anyway.)
Another day, another highly anticipated horror film goes pffft
. This one, in particular, is absolutely maddening -- by all rights, it should work. Occasionally it does work, beautifully. But it's pretty clear from the outset that Eli Roth is a first-timer, and an accumulation of novice mistakes sink this puppy.
The premise is simple and well-worn: College kids go to a remote backwoods cabin and encounter something nasty; fun with blood 'n' guts ensues. Certainly, the film wants to be a throwback, a homage/companion piece to some acknowledged horror classics. No film with cabin-based hijinx can escape comparisons to "The Evil Dead", naturally, and there's also visual references to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Night of the Living Dead" (among others). Unfortunately for us, though, Roth's primary source of influence seems to have come from another heralded '70s monster -- "The Last House on the Left". To his credit, Roth imports the man's-inhumanity-to-man theme that gave "Last House" what small redeeming quality it had. It's significant to note that the loosing of the virus into the local reservoir could have been avoided had these five kids just helped the infected man who stopped at their cabin instead of chasing him away with baseball bats and torches and such. There's a neat parallel to that scene later when one of the kids becomes infected and drives into town looking for a doctor; the hostility he meets lies somewhere between callousness and just desserts. But Roth also nicked something else from "Last House", something a little more ill-advised: hick humor.
That's right, hick humor. Lots of it. In places it really shouldn't be. This movie is a tonal nightmare. It's bad enough that the five kids are jackasses for the first third of the film, thus inhibiting any kind of sympathising or identifying with them, but at least that can be overcome. But what are we to do with the other superfluous characters that populate this movie? Did we really need the friendly shopkeeper who may have uttered a racial slur, for example? Or the obnoxious skater with the big bag of weed? Or how about this film's most grievous offense -- the character of Deputy Winston, whose initial scene is so weird and off-putting that I figure it had to be a sick joke on the audience a la Tom Green. But no, Winston is meant to be taken seriously (or at least as seriously as his ridiculous character can be), and he has a major hand in the climax. Which is just wrong, if you ask me.
The biggest shame is that there's actually good stuff buried under this mountain of crap. When the film strips down to basics and actually concentrates on its main characters rather than these daffy asides, it's pretty good. There's some impressively nasty makeup FX and the latter half of the film (involving the rampaging virus, some angry rednecks and a very cheesed-off German Shepherd) works up a nice creepy vibe. The acting isn't that bad, either (though Joey Kern is essentially rehashing his sarcastic stoner kid from "Super Troopers"). I was especially impressed how the character of Bert slowly progressed from standard-issue-dim-jock-asshole into a sympathetic figure willing to stand by his friends. But after all that, we're left with about forty minutes of interesting stuff and fifty minutes of crap. (The last scene, in particular, is godawful.) I definitely think Eli Roth is a talented guy, but he's also seriously undisciplined. Next time, dude, concentrate on the gore and leave the hicks at home.
Toronto International Film Festival
2003, preliminary notes. (Reviews of specific films to follow, starting later in the week)
Other reviewers (the CBC and the Globe and Mail among them) have noted the preponderance of films dealing with mortality during this year's TIFF. It certainly struck me, when four of my first five films (Arcand's Invasions Barbares
; Thom Fitzgerald's The Event
; My Life Without Me
with Sarah Polley and Mark Ruffalo; Sarah Gavron's This Little Life
) included: three terminal illnesses, two assisted suicides, and one very premature baby fighting for his life. Later on, there are also: one sudden disappearance (and presumed murder) of a young boy; one heart transplant, one heart failure, one case of pancreatic cancer. The dark comedy/drama Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
(from the director of Italian for Beginners
) includes - surprise! - numerous suicide attempts. Margarethe von Trotta's Rosenstrasse
, set in WWII Berlin, looks at lives threatened by the Holocaust; Marcelo Pineyro's Kamchatka
, is set during the early months of the Argentinian military coup of 1976 - an event that left (estimates vary) 9,000-30,000 people "disappeared". Michael Haneke's Le Temps du loup
, is akin to a French After 28 Days
The theory is that this wave of films includes ones predominantly scripted in the shadow of 9/11, with screenwriters dwelling on themes of loss, death, and the question of how one lives in the shadow of death (whether one's own, or a loved one's). Whatever the merits of the theory, it was certainly a very dark crop of films. Hence, I appreciated all the more the cheerier films of the 33 seen: newcomer Jane Weinstock's Easy
, Richard Curtis' ensemble piece Love Actually
(both romantic comedies); and Coppola's Lost in Translation
. One "smaller" film The Station Agent
, and a kick-ass martial arts drama Ong Bak Muay: Thai Warrior
rounded off the list of notable titles.
Special Mention to AGF, the mutual funds company and a major TIFF sponsor, for their series of trailers. In one, an airline steward, while giving the pre-flight safety instructions, segues into "full thespian" mode. A second has a legal stenographer, when requested to "read the last few lines back", giving a dramatically scripted - and entirely fictitious - account of the court proceedings. In a third, a private investigator, presenting a client with videotaped evidence of his wife's infidelity, prattles on about how he tried to do "a sort of homage
to Godard...looking for an experimental quality". All finish with the (titled, but unspoken) tag lines: "What do you love to do? Why aren't you doing it?" Imaginative, humorous, and effective. I hope they give the ads wider distribution.
While I plan to be as non-specific as possible, some of my comments, when seen in the context of the film, may be spoilers. Joker has written a more spoiler-specific review
on his website.
I once read that the long con is an urban myth, the stuff of movies. It depends upon a series of contingencies that could cause it to fall apart at any moment. But, I like con movies, so I make allowances. I assume that the con men have alternate plans B, C, etc. However, the con that is at the heart of Matchstick Men
is dependent upon so many wildly uncontrollable variables that I'm going to suggest that, to the extent people are actually surprised by the ending (which is broadcasted in a dozen different ways), it's because the con is such a bad con. And that's cheating.
In fairness, though, Matchstick Men
is far more interested in its characters than its con. Which is fine, I guess, except that the story of the guy whose life is changed by meeting the child he never knew he had has been done to death. Here, the characters are reasonably well drawn, it's well acted and not terribly cloying. The interaction between Cage and Lohman is interesting, but the relationship between Cage's and Rockwell's characters is not very well developed. We're not sure why they're partners and we don't know if they're friends.
There were a fair amount of laughs. So, on the whole, a good film, not great.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Once Upon a Time In Mexico
ruins a terrific title, a movie name that’s part of a legacy, one that suggests the iconic majesty of the grand epics of Sergio Leone, later reinvented by Tsui Hark. In the opening credits Robert Rodriguez is given the knighting of Hyper-Auteur,
having “shot, cropped, scored,” produced, written, and directed the film-a new part of the constantly evolving story of the mariachi, the guitar carrying gunslayer from Rodriguez’s debut l
ow-budget action film El Mariachi
and his later, bigger budget sequel Desperado
. Antonio Banderas once again picks up the guitar and the gun to reprise his stoic Mexican hero, and along with him is Rodriguez’s usual cast-Selma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, some of which are resurrected, literally, from Desperado
-and they are joined by an offhand, sardonic Johnny Depp, a sexy Eva Mendes, a Mexican Willem Dafoe, a typically slimy Mickey Rourke, and too-good-to-be-in-this-movie Ruben Blades as a demented ex-FBI agent. Around them all is a thread of coherent plot as thin as a spaghetti strand; but one thing is clear, everyone is out for vengeance. There is about to be a coupe on the Mexican presidency by a rouge general funded by Dafoe’s drug czar, and everyone wants a piece of the action. Hayek, Banderas’ girl from Desperado
, is gunned down in flashback by the general and Banderas vows revenge. The FBI agent wants to avenge a dead comrade killed by Dafoe, and Depp, a CIA agent, is doing the American thing of trying to orchestrate the killing of everyone by everyone else.
Not that any of it comes together; despite the film’s $30 million budget and economic use of DV cameras (not to mention its almost one man crew) Once Upon a Time In Mexico
screams low-budget almost as loudly as it hollers “troubled shoot.” Each character seems separated from the other not through actual space but by an off-and-on shooting schedule. That Hayek, a major character of the previous film, is quickly killed off in flashback and Depp’s interaction with the rest of the cast consists of cellphone calls begins to nip at the idea that all of these actors were doing this movie as a favor and could not all show up on the same day. The prototypical sleazy Mexican action film that Once Upon a Time in Mexico
is trying to emulate never comes off sleazy enough, both due to the digital gloss that fails to convey the moral grime of everyone involved, but also because the film’s remarkable cast is each going off in their own direction. Ruben Blades pulls a Giancarlo Giannini from Hannibal
, playing a deep and interesting roll so well as to momentarily jump out of the bewildered source material, and Depp, who in 2003 seems to be adamant about hijacking every movie he is in by subverting his roles with the most sardonic, clever, funny, and damn-cool performances ever seen, upstages everyone as usual.
Impressive stuntwork is marred by Rodriguez’ inept ability to deliver action punch-lines, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico
only really ignites when it delves into the grotesque: Dafoe’s
brief role as a Mexican (amusing subverted later by an underused plastic surgery plotline); Depp waltzing around Mexico with a false left arm and a shirt that declares C.I.A. is big, bright letters; and finally the coup-de-grace of Depp’s knockout year in the movies: the agency puppetmaster is turned into an awesome cross between the blind swordfighter Zatoichi and the father and son samurai pair Lone Wolf and Cub. Whether the film is the result of studio tampering or simply problems resulting from Rodriguez trying to recreate the independent energy of his first film, Mexico
’s ridiculously hackneyed editing structure bares a creeping similarity to Leone’s initial theatrical release of Once Upon a Time In America
. But unlike that now-restored classic, little of the material in Rodriguez’s film has the ability to overshadow the film’s many, many technical flaws. Depp’s performance is not large enough to do for Mexico
what it did for Pirates
, and if Desperado did not prove to everyone that Rodriguez really is not the next John Woo, Mexico
is the nail in the coffin both for the mainstream auteur’s action career, but also his attempts at a return to his roots.
Lost in Translation
In a movie where the grotesquely tall Bill Murray goes to Japan one would expect endless jokes re: his height compared to the notoriously shorter
inhabitants of the country. Thankfully Lost in Translation
, writer/director Sofia Coppola’s second film, abstains from the obvious and keeps the visual gags down to just one brief elevator shot and the fact that Murray walks around Japan in shoes so large and colorful they could easily been for a clown. Coppola keeps much the humor the same throughout the film; she effortlessly keeps a delicate, softly humorous tone throughout. Murray play Bob Harris, a middle-aged actor going through a decline both in his career and his life, having just traveled to Japan to shoot a whiskey commercial for $2 million, and perhaps to escape his family. Away from his wife and kids, jet-lagged and without sleep in Tokyo, no one seems to speak real English, nor understand how to communicate to him-the commercial director instructs Bob to be more intense, more intense, and the photographer directs him to imitate the Rat Pack and Roger Moore). Invariably, Bob ends up drifting to the hotel bar night after night. There he spies Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson), another lost soul, albeit much younger, alienated from her husband of two years and finding little inspiration from within-where she tries to connect to her soul via music and self-help intructions-or from Japan, where she visits the gamut of tourism, from ancient shrines to digital arcades.
Coppola’s film is very unassuming, and she scripts a story that plays out just as one expects it; with Murray and Johannson both tied down by marriages that are only hinted at as being troublesome, their past lives obviously
tie them down too much to become physically romantically involved, and of course there is always the matter of their ages (Charlotte guesses that Bob is going through a midlife crisis). So instead of playing the situation off to an unlikely direction, Coppola sticks to keeping her film as tonally perfect as possible. Mixing her ethereal soundscape of Virgin Suicides
with good-rock filtered through bad-karaoke and achieving a surprisingly warm visual look out of cool colors by cinematographer Lance Acord, Coppola places her two wayward souls in the most foreign of environments but keeps them nestled snuggly in a unique world of low-key humor, laconic romance and beautiful environments. Murray milks all he can from his naturally tired and droopy look, and like much of the film itself, he underplays his comedy to the point of minimalist gesture, which keeps the laughs from being too loud, and the jabs at the Japanese from being unreasonable. Scarlett Johannson is loved, with every due cause, by Coppola’s camera, which seems to give her a soft-focus flourish every time Johannson takes a step or looks out a window. Neither Zwigoff nor the Coens do for Johannson’s young beauty what Lost in Translation
does (even the film’s opening shot is a loving tribute to the girl), and she rightly has shared billing with Murray. There is no mistaking why her maturity and talent as an actress has attracted the top independent talent, and no mistaking why her warm, delicate longing in Lost in Translation attracts Murray in the most natural of ways. She simply is too good to resist.
the film abstains from achieving the kind of humble transcendence it goes for, it is probably due to Tokyo. No fault of the city itself, for it does an appropriate job of isolating the duo in a lonely purgatory away from normal human contact, as well as loved ones. The film obviously loves the city, if not the country, a great deal, but Coppola’s enjoyment feels only superficial. Japan could be a stand-in for any foreign country, and what it really needs is a personality that changes with the characters; what starts out as alien and untranslatable eventually becomes a special place where Murray and Johnnson’s friendship uniquely exists. A deeper understanding, appreciation, or study of the environment is needed to truly push Lost in Translation
into a deeper place, though as is the film is a soft-spoken joy. If Japan and Tokyo do not stand out enough to place intelligent thought on the relationship between Bob and Charlotte, it is only in keeping with the film’s minimalism in its every movement. Sometimes, though, strict adherence stops one from achieving possible greatness.
Question of the Week
So much opened here this weekend, yet I only managed to see one film, The Secret Life of Dentists
; between friends, work, and the weather, I haven't yet to go to the Cinematheque (so many wuxia pian slipping away); and to top that off, my DVD player is officially kaput (though I'm going to get me a new and improved one some time early this week), so excuse me if this question of the week appears lazily conceived, because it was...
Though it is early in the decade, create a list of the Top 10 films of the 2000s, providing rationale for each choice
Not too hard, and it should be interesting, as a canon, whether official or unofficial has yet to be created for this decade. This question is open to all blog members and readers, but only one list per person. Toodles, off to watch the Conan O'Brien 10th Anniversary Special.
I've decided that I'm going to tally up all of the lists to create something of an unofficial Milk Plus writers/readers canon (i.e. the #1 film will get 10 points, the #2 film will get 9 points....), so jot down your list ASAP.
Polling ends at 9pm CST on 9-23, so if you want to vote, you better hurry up.
Nicholas Nickleby (2002)
is the seventh adaption of Dickens' novel, including two silent versions and a couple of television mini-series, one of which is nine hours long, which seems excessive. I saw a number of trailers for the movie, thought it looked promising, and waited and waited for it to come, but it never did, alas. I'm not sure it ever got a wide distribution, which is a shame because it really deserved to be seen on a big screen.
The story falls basically into five acts.
When Nicholas's father dies, 19 year-old Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam), his sister Kate (Romola Garai), and their mother (Stella Gonet) are destitute and forced to leave their home (They are unable to sell their home, which apparently is able to maintain itself in their absence.) They travel to London, where they seek assistance from Nicholas's uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer), who has made a great deal of money from speculation. One of the speculations which went bust wiped out Nicholas' father and led to his death. Uncle Ralph responds by finding Nicholas a job with the vile schoolmaster Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and promising that he will look out for Kate and her mother. The nature of Ralph's "help", which involves, among other things, humiliating Kate to promote his speculations, establishes him as one of Dickens' eviler villains.
finds Nickleby at Squeer's school, named Dotheboys, which suggests even worse goings on than what's actually going on. We are treated to a shot of the boys sleeping in crates with straw for their mattresses; they resemble a row of corpses in open coffins. Squeers is a sadistic schoolmaster and incompetent teacher. His wife (Juliet Stevenson) is even more vicious and has no redeeming characteristics at all. The romantic exchanges between the Squeers make me think that their sexual encounters must involve inventive use of props. Nicholas, who is desperate for the job, plays along with Squeers and manages some actual teaching, including teaching the boys French, presumably so they'll be able to speak one language fluently after Squeers gets done teaching them English. The students are kept healthy by meals of brimstone and treacle.
Also at the school is a boy named Smike, who used to be a student until the money ran out, then became an all-purpose slave laborer and whipping boy for the Squeers. Nickleby sympathizes with Smike, who is clearly in bad health, pathetically eager to please, and has such a large collection of Dodger tickets that I kept asking, "Is Smike going to die soon? Please? Pretty please?"
This section of the movie really didn't work for me. Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson are so over the top, her performance is so one-note, Nicholas is so good and noble, and Smike is so pathetic, that they all become caricatures. This section of the book had great impact in Dickens' time but that time is long past.
Anyway, after Nickleby's conscience is sufficiently tormented, he flees with Smike, and they encounter and join a group of travelling players, led by the Crummles, played by Nathan Lane and Dame Edna Everage (Barry Humphries), and containing Mr Folair (Alan Cummings, who really, really wants to demonstrate the Highland Fling), Mr. Leadville (Barry Humphries again), and the Infant Phenomenon (Eileen Walsh) who has been ten for eight years at least and is perpetually plastered. This section of the movie is delightful, with Lane and Everage chewing the scenery, but since they are playing troupers, this is perfectly appropriate and a wonder to see. Also a wonder to see is the background to the stage, which is perfectly hideous. Anyway, Nicholas and Smike join them and the other troupers, with Smike beginning a new career as the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet.
Alas, the troupe section is all too short, and Nicholas receives a message about the problems his mother and sister are having with Uncle Ralph and his friend, so he and Smike go to London to set things straight and stand up for his sister's honor. (Mailing her a few hatpins would have been a good start.) Nicholas has problems finding a job, but in the process meets Madeline Bray, who also is in a bad situation and looks just like a very beautiful Anne Hathaway, so she appeals both to the eye and his do-gooder instincts. Nicholas is instantly smitten, and I don't blame him. Madeline, alas, is bound by family duty to her tyrannical father, who is bound by debt to Nicholas' Uncle Ralph. (Nicholas actually met her earlier at his Uncle's, but I didn't remember that when I was watching the movie.)
However, while waiting outside the office where Madeline is looking for work, Nicholas meets Charles Cheeryble, who takes a liking to him and wants to offer him a job. Charles takes him home to meet his twin brother, Ned Cheeryble, who also likes Nicholas. The Cheerybles are rich and determined to set the world aright, and recognize a kindred spirit. Charles and Ned Cheeryble are played by Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan, who are having the time of their lives here. I had a silly grin every time they appeared.
(If you didn't know this was Dickens going in, the names Wackford Squeers, Smike and Cheeryble would have clued you in pretty quickly. There's also a Newman Nobbs.)
Anyway, evil Uncle Ralph, who has taken an intense hatred to Nicholas, decides to destroy Nicholas's happiness. (You can't blame Ralph in a way: Nicholas has mistreated the lovely Squeers, insulted Ralph's business partners over an affair of honor, associated with Cheerybles and has brought Smike to London--God knows what Nicholas will bring back next time. The man's a hopeless do-gooder and probably a liberal, dang it, what's a villain to do?) Ralph arranges for Squeers to kidnap Smike (Nicholas promptly frees him), then, discovering Madeline and Nicholas have fallen in love, arranges a marriage between Madeline and a particularly vile business partner, in exchange for writing off Madeline's father's debts. Ralph's butler, Newman Nobbs, who likes Nicholas and owes Nicholas's father a debt, sends word to Nicholas about these shenanigans, which Nick foils, with the help of an improbably timely death.
It never occurs to Nicholas that with all this misery in London, that he might inquire whether Madeline, Kate and his mother might consider the acting profession. After all, he and Smike are welcome back to the troupe anytime.
In the midst of this, Smike gets sicker, and is sent to the old Nickleby estate for his health, so he promptly cashes in his Artful Dodgers tickets. Maybe he would have been better off with Squeers after all, where he could have lived a long life as a hopeless wretch.
Well, Uncle Ralph has been spending two hours of our time engaging in numerous vile plots, doing his worst to Nicholas, Kate, and Smike, and it's time for his comeuppance. Thus:
MAJOR SPOILERS AN IMPROBABLE COINCIDENCES AHEAD: it's time for the speculator to lose his big gamble. While engaged unsuccessfully in tormenting Nicholas and company, Ralph has uncharacteristically neglected his business, and a 10,000 pound speculation has collapsed while he wasn't paying attention. Ralph is ruined. Worse, he is trapped in Dickensian plotting! For, you see, Nicholas, Nobbs, and the Cheerybles have put together the darkest secret of Ralph Nickleby's life, one so dark Ralph doesn't even know about it!
You see, it turns out that Ralph was once married to a woman, but couldn't reveal the marriage because she would have been disinherited. She had a child, whose existence had to be kept secret since the marriage was secret, and she died young. The child was hidden away in an attic, where he became sickly, and was sent off secretly to Dotheboys without Ralph's knowledge, because if he had been informed, then we wouldn't be having the big confrontation scene. Ralph thinks his son died, and of course he's right, but only off by fourteen years on the date of his death.
Confronted by the realization that he himself is responsible for bringing Smike into the world, Ralph has no choice but to end it all before he can reproduce again.
Act V, verily the epilog.
We are back to to Nickleby estate, where Nicholas and Madeline are getting married, and Kate is marrying a minor character. Nathan Lane gets to give a beautiful speech. (I think he's been the narrator all along; the speech answers a question from the opening monologue.) Nicholas and Madeline run off to visit the graves of Nicholas's father and Smike, who of course is Nicholas's cousin. They resolve to spend time at the graves every day, presumably picnicking above the bones of their relatives.
is very strong in its supporting characters, although as mentioned I had problems with Broadbent and Stevenson. Nathan Lane, Barry Humphries, Alan Cummings, Timothy Spall, Gerard Horan, Tom Courtenay and Anne Hathaway are all major reasons to see the movie. Christopher Plummer makes a good villain. Uncle Ralph makes you appreciate the common decency and lovableness of Ebernezer Scrooge. Scrooge, after all was a miser and misanthrope, but did a spark of humanity that could be brought out by shock treatment.
A weakness is in other Nicklebys, Charles Hunnam and Romola Gorai are pretty, but their characters are bland, close to caricatures of goodness. Nicholas's mother is a cipher. The Squeers didn't work for me. Juliet Stevenson in particular reminded me of Mrs. Tweedy from Chicken Run. And the climax was one of those outrageous moments that had me saying "Oh, COME ON now."
So, a mixed review of a movie with great weaknesses and a lot of strong points.