Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Perfect Storm (2000) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli for

I can still recall the power and fury of the storm now, nearly nine years after it struck - the rain playing an incessant staccato drum-beat on my windows, the wind shaking the shutters until they broke free and blew away into the mid-day's twilight gloom, and the lightning lancing the sky despite the chilly temperatures. The storm, which struck with a suddenness that wrecked almost every weatherman's three-day forecast, was given many names in the popular media, including the Great Halloween Nor'easter and the Storm of the Century. Meteorologists called it The Perfect Storm - an example of the kind of weather event that can only occur under the rarest of circumstances. In this case, it took the convergence of an eastward-moving cold front, a low pressure system off Sable Island, and a hurricane headed out to sea to create a monster.

In 1997, almost six years after the Great Halloween Nor'easter, journalist Sebastian Junger published The Perfect Storm, an account of some of the most dramatic and memorable events associated with the late-October 1991 weather system. His novel, which was uncompromisingly factual (he neither speculated on things that no living man had seen nor invented dialogue) gave insights into meteorology, the fishing industry, Coast Guard rescue operations, and how dozens of individuals were affected by the storm. The book, which is a taut thriller, became a surprising #1 best-seller. I read it based on word-of-mouth and concluded that it was not likely to be made into a movie, even though studios were trying to nail down the rights. I was, of course, wrong.

Given that I believed The Perfect Storm to be unfilmable, I approached the motion picture with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. I was pleasantly surprised by the result. The movie is as faithful to the novel as a non-documentary could be, sticking close to the facts and excising few of the book's numerous subplots. Much of the detailed scientific jargon has been removed, but enough remains that we understand exactly what is happening and what it portends. And the sense of danger and urgency that compels a viewer to turn the pages of Junger's book is much in evidence throughout the 128-minute film.

When the summer is complete, Gladiator may stand out as the best mainstream release, but The Perfect Storm will almost certainly be the most intense. Directed by veteran filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen, who is responsible for the greatest submarine movie of all time, Das Boot, as well as American thrillers like In the Line of Fire and Air Force One, the film, which starts out slowly and calmly with 45 minutes of set-up, turns into a white-knuckle ride into a psychotic weather system. The Perfect Storm is not without flaws - there is too much going on and some of the invented dialogue is cheesy - but it is undeniably a thrilling experience.

The primary focus of the film (as well as the book) is the six-man crew of the sword-fishing vessel Andrea Gail -- Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), Dale Murph Murphy (John C. Reilly), David Sully Sullivan (William Fichtner), Michael Bugsy Moran (John Hawkes), Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne), and the captain, Billy Tyne (George Clooney).

After returning to shore with a poor haul that earns him less than $6000 (and members of his crew under $3000), Tyne decides to take the Andrea Gail out one more time this season, intending to head east past his usual fishing grounds, the Grand Banks, all the way to the Flemish Cap, which is almost off most North American fishing charts. The five members of his crew grumble (in fact, one backs out and is replaced by Sullivan), but agree to come because they need the money. Shatford, urged by his girlfriend Christina (Diane Lane) to stay behind, almost isn't on the boat when it sails. As he tells Tyne, I love the sea, but I can't stand to be more than two feet from my woman.

The trip to the Flemish Cap is relatively eventless, but, as the Andrea Gail heads east, bad weather is brewing behind them, blocking their return home. Later, after they have filled their cargo holds and are on their way back, they lose radio contact and are unaware of the strength of the storm ahead of them. A Coast Guard rescue helicopter, dispatched to save the crew of the sailboat Mistral, is sent to look for the Andrea Gail and runs into more trouble than the experienced flying crew can handle. Meanwhile, Tyne is encountering the roughest seas of his career, with waves topping out at perhaps 100 feet.

The movie is at its best when it stays with the crew of the Andrea Gail, which it does most of the time. The opening half-hour, before the ship sails, does a good job introducing the characters and letting us know what makes them tick. The only piece of character interaction that isn't effective is the bickering between Murph and Sully (which leads to more than one passage of badly written dialogue). The sequences with these six men braving the rough seas and bad weather represent some of The Perfect Storm's most suspenseful moments. For those who are unaware of the Andrea Gail's fate, there will be more than one nail-biting moment.

The secondary plot, featuring the efforts of the Coast Guard to save the three person crew of the Mistral, and then locate the Andrea Gail, is less compelling because we don't have much invested in these characters. At times, this part of the movie seems like filler. The Mistral scenes probably could have been cut without damaging the flow of the story. They're useful in the book, but don't add much (except about seven minutes of running time) to the movie. Towards the end of the film, Petersen effectively cuts back and forth between the Coast Guard and the Andrea Gail to build tension.

Making use of impressive visuals (many of which were enhanced, if not generated altogether, by digital technology), The Perfect Storm gives a sense of the awe-inspiring power of a raging sea. With mountainous swells that dwarf even large boats and no place to hide or take refuge, the ocean can easily become a very dangerous place. As the scenes with the Coast Guard illustrate, issuing a Mayday is a far different thing than actually being rescued, and there are times when the rescuers may end up needing to be rescued. The Perfect Storm is not the first motion picture to pit man against the sea, but this is not a common genre, mainly because of the difficulty of crafting believable action. (One of the reasons The Poseidon Adventure is regarded as a camp classic is because of the unconvincing nature of the special effects.) It has been four years since a movie even remotely like this, Ridley Scott's White Squall, has reached movie screens. (Titanic doesn't count - it's a different sort of water disaster.)

In choosing his cast, Petersen has gone for recognizable but not A-list names. He wanted performers who weren't afraid to look grubby and unkempt on-screen - like they had gone for weeks without a proper bath. George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, re-united from Three Kings, top the marquee. Character actors like John C. Reilly and William Fichtner have significant roles. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays the captain of the Andrea Gail's sister ship, the Hannah Boden, and Michael Ironside is the man who owns both boats. Karen AllenBob Gunton, and Christopher McDonald all have small, supporting roles.

The Perfect Storm may be too much of a downer to become a huge summer hit, although that remains to be seen. Its box office potential relies more on the storytelling ability of Petersen than on the star power of a big name (unlike its chief head-to-head competition, The Patriot). The movie is exciting, engaging, and, at times, majestic, but it does not change the historical facts to make for a more crowd-pleasing story. For the first time since Das Boot, Petersen has taken his cast, crew, and cameras back into the water; the result is definitely not all wet.

Labels: action, adventure, drama, thriller, tragedy

Friday, April 15, 2011

What Women Want (2000) [PG-13] ****

Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) is a man's man, a leader of the pack. He was raised by a single mother, who was a Las Vegas showgirl, and his male role models treated women as sex objects. Now, in his forties, Nick's an advertising executive at a big NYC agency, where he's responsible for all the sexist babes-in-bikinis advertising.

Nick doesn't realize how much the advertising world has changed until a hoped-for promotion is given to newly-hired Darcy McGuire (Helen Hunt). That same night, Nick has an electrifying accident in his bathroom, and when he awakens on the floor the following morning he discovers that he's able to hear what women are thinking... including what they really think of him!

Desperate to find a way to quiet the female voices in his head, Nick visits a therapist (Bette Midler) who convinces him that he should take advantage of this marvelous gift. She observes: If men are from Mars, and women are from Venus, and you speak Venusian... you can rule! At first Nick uses his new gift to manipulate women to get what he wants... sex. But, later, while doing research for a Nike ad campaign, Nick starts to listen to the voices in a different way, and he is transformed by what he learns. He begins to understand what women value, what concerns them and what they want out of life. And Nick begins to appreciate what women have to offer, to value them for themselves, rather than just for what they can do for him. Nick's transformation reminded me of similar transformations experienced by Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, and Nicolas Cage in The Family Man. Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt have terrific chemistry in this outstanding date movie. Don't miss What Women Want. With an incredible supporting cast including: Marisa Tomei, Alan Alda, Ashley Johnson, Mark Feuerstein, Lauren Holly, Delta Burke, Valerie Perrine, Judy Greer, Sarah Paulson and Lisa Edelstein.

Labels: comedy, fantasy, romance
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 47/100    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=57, viewers=62)

Cast Away (2000) [PG-13] ****

Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is an overworked FedEx global systems analyst who sails boats for relaxation. It's December, 1995 and he's flying back to Memphis from an assignment in Moscow, Russia. He plans to spend Christmas with his soon-to-be-fiancee Kelly (Helen Hunt), as well as to see a dentist about a badly abscessed tooth, but an emergency assignment to Malaysia interrupts his plans.

And then disaster strikes; his FedEx cargo plane goes down in a storm in the south Pacific, 400 miles off course. Chuck is the lone survivor and finds himself marooned on a desert island, without a radio distress beacon, in a search area twice the size of Texas. He collects and opens the FedEx parcels that wash up on the beach, and gradually rediscovers his survival skills - finding water, building a signal fire, catching and cooking fish and crabs. But as he painfully discovers, his island is ringed by treacherous reefs and towering waves, for which he and his rubber life raft are no match.

Four years go by, and with only his memories of Kelly and a human-faced volleyball named Wilson for company, Chuck has become resigned to his fate. And then the tide brings him a sail - two tall sidewalls from a plastic port-a-potty - and Chuck decides to build a log raft, use the tides and offshore breezes to challenge the reefs and the waves, and take his chances for rescue out on the open ocean. Tom Hanks gives an incredible performance. The film took nearly two years to make during which he gained weight for his early scenes, and then lost fifty pounds for his later ones. The sense of island solitude and loneliness is emphasized by the absence of a soundtrack; for over an hour we hear only the sounds of Nature, and Hanks' own voice. Cast Away is a quiet meditation that encourages us to contemplate our own life, to imagine how quickly and unexpectedly it could change, and to be grateful for the comforts and conveniences we each take for granted every day. 

Labels: adventure, drama, romance     
Internet Movie Database 7.8/10    
Metacritic 73/100    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=74, viewers=70)     

Mission to Mars (2000) [PG] **

This rather disappointing, slow-moving, highly derivative sci-fi, adventure, drama tells the story of a rescue mission to Mars. When the first manned mission to the red planet meets with an unexplained catastrophe, a rescue mission is launched to investigate the mysterious disaster and bring back any survivors. Rescue mission astronauts include Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen as a married couple, Gary Sinise and Jerry O'Connell, while Don Cheadle plays the sole survivor of the original manned mission. 

Given that the film was co-written by the prolific writing team of brothers Jim Thomas and John Thomas (Predator, Wild Wild West), and Graham Yost (Speed, Broken Arrow), and directed by the usually-impressive Brian De Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), Mission to Mars should have been a far, far better sci-fi thriller than it is. The best thing one can say about it, if we overlook the plodding pacing, plot holes and scientific inaccuracies, is that it is mildly entertaining and evokes memories of 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, The Abyss, Apollo 13, and Contact. Still, it is difficult to recommend this film, unless you are a long-term, forgiving fan of Gary Sinise or Tim Robbins. 

Labels:  adventure, drama, sci-fi   
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 34/100   
Tomatometer (critics=25, viewers=30)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

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

The unyielding morality of a small, rural French town is strained when single mother Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) arrives with her young daughter Anouk early in 1959, just as Lent begins. Across the town square from the church, Vianne opens Chocolaterie Maya, featuring exotic chocolates made from pre-Columbian Mayan recipes. Vianne’s special gift is to be able to guess each customer’s favorite, and as she gradually wins over the townspeople, the rigid mayor Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) believes he’s in a battle with the Devil for their souls, and he enlists his young priest Pere Henri (Hugh O'Conor) to get his message across.

This delightful, character-driven, romantic comedy-drama features an outstanding supporting cast including Judi Dench and Carrie-Anne Moss as an estranged mother and daughter, Lena Olin who takes refuge with Vianne and learns the craft of chocolate making, and Johnny Depp as Roux, a gypsy who lives on the river in a houseboat. If you’ve forgotten how sensual, decadent and delicious chocolate, in all its forms, can be, Chocolat will reawaken those memories.

Labels: comedy, drama, food, romance
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 64/100
Tomatometer (critics=63, viewers=83)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cupid & Cate (2000) [UR] ***

Cate (Mary-Louise Parker) is the youngest of four sisters. Her mother died when she was a child, the victim of cancer and alcohol abuse. Cate has grown up with a domineering father Dominic (Philip Bosco) who continually criticizes her, and three older sisters who try to tell her how to live her life.

To create some space for herself, Cate has opened a vintage and consignment clothing shop. She has a boyfriend Philip (David Lansbury) who's from an aristocratic, old-money family, although Cate doesn't understand what he sees in her, and she knows his parents don't approve of her. Then, at a family gathering Cate meets Harry (Peter Gallagher), an attorney who accepts her for herself and doesn't want to control her life.

Soon afterward, Philip proposes marriage, because it's the next logical step. Cate accepts, but as she gets to know Harry, and compares him with Philip, she sees how much Philip is like her father, criticizing her and controlling her. Cate makes a decision, and she and Harry get married. Then Harry is diagnosed with leukemia, and Cate discovers she's pregnant. Over the following year, Cate and Harry deal with his cancer, and her pregnancy, while tensions between Cate and her father escalate, until there's a pivotal scene at a family gathering. Sitting around the dining table, Cate's sisters realize that the only way they can keep the family together and move forward is to stand up to their father, in support of Cate.

Mary-Louise Parker and Peter Gallagher have subdued romantic chemistry, and there's a great supporting cast, including Cate's sisters Cynthia (Joanna Going) and Francesca (Bebe Neuwirth). If you like low-key, character-driven, female-centered, family-focused, multi-generational dramas like How to Make an American Quilt and Hope Floats then you probably will enjoy Cupid & Cate.

Labels: drama, romance
Internet Movie Database
Tomatometer (critics=NA, viewers=56)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Family Man (2000) [PG-13] *****

Jack Campbell has the perfect life - playboy and millionaire New York investment banker, with beautiful women and fast cars. But something is missing. Thirteen years earlier Jack had left his girlfriend Kate at JFK airport when he departed for a one-year banking internship in England. He didn't come back and they split up and lost contact.

Then Jack has a rare opportunity. He goes to sleep on Christmas Eve, slips through a crack in the space-time continuum and wakes up on Christmas morning in suburban New Jersey, married to Kate for thirteen years, with a family and a completely different history. There's just one problem - he remembers his millionaire investment banker life and not his thirteen years with Kate. In the ultimate what-if scenario, Jack experiences the path not taken as a glimpse, a temporary life, and a divine gift. The wisdom he gains and his reawakened love for Kate cause him to reevaluate his life and understand what he has missed.

This is a wonderful movie about giving love a second chance. Nicolas Cage and Téa Leoni have incredible chemistry together. You won't want the story to end. And, as an added bit of humor, Jeremy Piven plays Arnie, Jack's suburban neighbor and bowling buddy. When Jack briefly contemplates cheating on Kate with an attractive neighbor, Arnie reminds him, in a hushed, intense whisper: Fidelity Bank and Trust is a tough creditor. You make a deposit someplace else and they close your account - forever! If you like second-chance romances, I highly recommend The Family Man. 

Jack's Ferrari is a 1999 550 Maranello. Apparently Nicolas Cage actually owned the vehicle prior to filming, but he didn't own it at the time the movie was filmed.

Labels: Christmas, comedy, drama, fantasy, Ferrari, romance, space-time     
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 42/100    
Tomatometer (critics=53, viewers=67)     

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Me Myself I (2000) [R] ***

This film invites a direct comparison with a better known path-not-taken film, The Family Man starring Nicolas Cage and Téa Leoni. In fact, the plotlines are much the same. In both films the main character is living a single, urban lifestyle, in control of their own destiny. Then they slip through a gap in the time-space continuum, appearing in a suburban family setting, with the spouse that got away thirteen years earlier, young children, a much less fulfilling job, and no memory of the thirteen years of married, domestic life.
While Rachel Griffiths is an excellent actress, most of her work has been as an ensemble cast member in a TV series, or in a film supporting role. Rarely has she been called upon to open a film, and it isn't clear that she's strong enough to carry it off. In addition, the screenplay, direction, supporting cast, sets, soundtrack and production values in Me Myself I just do not approach the professional level found in major studio films like The Family Man. While I really do enjoy watching Rachel Griffiths, I found her much more appealing in the family-oriented film, The Rookie in which she played Lorri, the supportive wife of rookie major-leaguer Jim Morris (played by Dennis Quaid). Regardless, if you enjoy path-not-taken romantic comedy-drama, you might give Me Myself I a chance. 

Labels: comedy, romance, space-time   
Internet Movie Database  
Metacritic 46/100   
Tomatometer (critics=63, viewers=59)