Saturday, February 12, 2011

Frequency (2000) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Roger Ebert, April 28, 2000.

I know exactly where the tape is, in which box, on which shelf. It's an old reel-to-reel tape I used with the tape recorder my dad bought me in grade school. It has his voice on it. The box has moved around with me for a long time, but I have never listened to the tape since my dad died. I don't think I could stand it. It would be too heartbreaking.

I thought about the tape as I was watching Gregory Hoblit's Frequency. Here is a movie that uses the notion of time travel to set up a situation where a man in 1999 is able to talk to his father in 1969, even though his father died when the man was 6. The movie harnesses this notion to a lot of nonsense, including a double showdown with a killer, but the central idea is strong and carries us along. There must be something universal about our desire to defeat time, which in the end defeats us.

The father in 1969 is named Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid). He is a firefighter, and he dies heroically while trying to save a life in a warehouse fire. The son in 1999 is named John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel), and he has broken with three generations of family tradition to become a policeman instead of a fireman. One night he's rummaging under the stairs of the family house where he still lives and finds a trunk containing his dad's old ham radio. The plot provides some nonsense about sunspots and the Northern Lights, but never mind: What matters is that the father and the son can speak to each other across a gap of 30 years.

The paradox of time travel is familiar. If you could travel back in time to change the past in order to change the future, you would already have done so, and therefore the changes would have resulted in the present that you now occupy. Of course the latest theories of quantum physics speculate that time may be a malleable dimension, and that countless new universes are splitting off from countless old ones all the time - we can't see them because we're always on the train, not in the station, and the view out the window is of this and this and this, not that and that.

But Frequency is not about physics, and the heroes are as baffled as we are by the paradoxes they get involved in. Consider a scene where the father uses a soldering iron to burn into a desk the message: I'm still here, Chief. His son sees the letters literally appearing in 1999 as they are written in 1969. How can this be? If they were written in 1969, wouldn't they have already been on the desk for 30 years? Not at all, the movie argues, because every action in the past changes the future into a world in which that action has taken place.

Therefore - and here is the heart of the story - the son, knowing what he knows now, can reach back in time and save his father's life by telling him what he did wrong during that fatal fire. And the father and son can exchange information that will help each one fight a serial killer who, in various timeline configurations, is active now, then and in between, and threatens both men, and in some configurations, the fireman's wife. How do the voices know they can trust each other? The voice in the future can tell the voice in the past exactly what's going to happen with the Amazing Mets in the '69 series.

Are you following this? Neither did I, half the time. At one point both the father and the son are fighting the same man at points 30 years separated, and when the father shoots off the 1969 man's hand, it disappears from the 1999 version of the man. But then the 1999 man would remember how he lost the hand, right? And therefore would know - but, no, not in this time line he wouldn't.

There may be holes and inconsistencies in the plot. I was too confused to be sure. And I don't much care, anyway, because the underlying idea is so appealing - that a son who doesn't remember his father could talk to him via radio and they could try to help each other. This notion is fleshed out by the father's wife (Elizabeth Mitchell), who must also be saved by the time-talkers, by partners in the fire and police department, and so on. By the end of the movie, the villain (Shawn Doyle) is fighting father and son simultaneously, and there is only one way to watch the movie, and that is with complete and unquestioning credulity. To attempt to unravel the plot leads to frustration, if not madness.

Moviegoers seem to like supernatural stories that promise some kind of escape from our mutual doom. Frequency is likely to appeal to the fans of The Sixth Sense, Ghost and other movies where the characters find a loophole in reality. What it also has in common with those two movies is warmth and emotion. Quaid and Caviezel bond over the radio, and we believe the feelings they share. The ending of the movie is contrived, but then of course it is. The whole movie is contrived. The screenplay conferences on Frequency must have gone on and on, as writer Toby Emmerich and the filmmakers tried to fight their way through the maze they were creating. The result, however, appeals to us for reasons as simple as hearing the voice of a father who you thought you would never hear again. [Ebert’s rating: *** ½ out of 4]

Labels: crime, drama, sci-fi, space-time, thriller

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Closer (2004) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for

If you pay attention to Hollywood's romantic comedies, the interaction between men and women is all about love and companionship. If you instead rely upon the philosophy of Closer, it's all about power. Closer starts like a nice romantic drama, with a couple of meet cutes (as Roger Ebert called them), then does a 180-degree turn and shows what happens when happily ever after rots from the inside out. It isn't just the relationships that curdle, but the characters. Their interaction becomes bitter and cynical. Sex is a tool used in power struggles and one-upmanship games. Although the word love is mentioned a few times, it has little place in this movie, where emotions are weaknesses to be exploited by others. With Closer, director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Patrick Marber (translating his stage play) have ventured into Neil LaBute territory (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors). For Nichols, this is not new terrain - he has visited here twice previously, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge. Put those two older films together with Closer and you get a grim trilogy that doesn't have a lot of good things to say about the human condition.

On the surface, Closer is the story of two couples whose infidelities rip them apart. Dan (Jude Law) and Alice (Natalie Portman) meet on the streets of London when she is hit by a car and he comes to her rescue. He takes her to a hospital and the pair are soon living together. But Dan, an obituary writer who has penned a novel, finds himself obsessed with Anna (Julia Roberts), the photographer who took the picture for his book jacket. He wants her, and tells her so, but she demurs when she learns he has a live-in girlfriend. You're taken, she comments, as if that puts an end to things. Dan inadvertently introduces Larry, a dermatologist, (Clive Owen) to Anna when a practical joke (in which he pretends to be Anna in an Internet sex chat room) goes awry. The two start a romance, and are eventually married. But there's sexual chemistry between Dan and Anna, and, to a lesser extent, between Larry and Alice. Over the next four years (the film occasionally jumps forward by months in order to span that much time), infidelities occur, betrayals are discovered, and all manner of ugliness ensues. From a physical standpoint, Closer is not a violent film. From an emotional one, it's brutal. Nichols doesn't pull his punches. You leave the theater shaken.

The film is notable for its frank dialogue. There's plenty of profanity and also a host of interesting observations. (Although these characters speak with an erudition not found in conversations between real people.) Closer is talky, but in a smart way. You never feel that the characters are talking to hear their own words or to fill up screen time. Nevertheless, those unaware that the story began its life as a play will not be surprised to learn this fact. Yet the rawness of emotions keeps us from noticing how few sets there are, and how little conventional action occurs.

The film turns the tables on just about everyone. Users become victims, and vice versa. Innocence is corrupted, and corruption learns too late that there's no return path. Alice, who is arguably the most naïve member of the ensemble (despite being a stripper by profession), is hurt the most deeply, and that pain results in an irrevocable change. Larry, a decent guy when the film starts, turns into a cold, calculating man, having sex on at least two occasions to torment Dan. In the end, he wants to possess Anna not out of love, but because doing so means beating Dan. But to paint Dan as guiltless is unfair - he's a weasel (albeit a charming one) and an instigator. He cheats without concern for repercussions, then is astounded when any of them impact him. Anna is fundamentally weak and dishonest. She doles out and receives hurt in equal measures.

In Closer, the actors get a chance to shine, and no one is brighter than Clive Owen. Despite a number of memorable turns (and one big mistake: King Arthur), Owen still lacks household recognition. A likely (and deserved) Oscar nomination for this performance will change that. The ferocity with which Owen delivers his lines, and the restless energy he imparts to Larry, electrifies every scene that he's in. Closer's two most riveting sequences involve Owen and Natalie Portman - one in an art gallery where they first meet, and the other in a strip club where he has all the money but she has the power, and uses it.

Portman, in what has been called her first truly adult role (it's certainly nowhere close to Queen Amidala), is also very, very good. Like Owen, she must essay a character who undergoes a complete personality transformation - from vulnerable waif to ice queen seductress. There's a rawness and courage to her work (and, although there's no overt physical nudity due to camera placement, her scenes in the strip club are frank). The aforementioned scenes are Portman's highlights as well as Owen's, and she has one other - a heartbreaking moment in which she turns to the camera with tears on her face, and we recognize that the first piece of Alice's innocence has been stolen.

It would be unfair to describe either Julia Roberts' or Jude Law's performances as lesser, but the two high-profile actors are not on the same level as their compatriots. Each has their moments, but neither captures the attention of the camera with the intensity of Owen or Portman. This is Roberts the actress, not Roberts the movie star (see Notting Hill if you crave the latter), and her dedication to the role rather than glamour serves her well. Law is a little flat; I actually found him more convincing in Alfie.

Movies that look deeply into the human soul and uncover putrefaction are hard sells. But they are also some of the most fascinating films to be found. Are Nichols and Marber's characters too cynically drawn? Perhaps. Do they occasionally seem like marionettes manipulated by a clever writer? Yes. But those things don't diminish the film's compelling emotional qualities. Closer is powerful and disturbing stuff. It is not life-affirming, and it's not for those who want to leave a movie theater uplifted and convinced that fairy tale endings can happen. And this is most definitely not a date movie. But if you appreciate films that are more substance than style, that take challenges and don't follow formulas, and that feature Oscar-caliber performances, Closer is not to be missed. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** ½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, romance