Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ocean’s Eleven (2001) [PG-13] ****

Danny Ocean (George Clooney) has just been released from prison in New Jersey and he’s already planning his next heist. But this one will dwarf them all. Danny plans to rob three Las Vegas casinos simultaneously – the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand - by breaking into the secure vault located two hundred feet below the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip, and getting away with $160 million. 

The three hotels are owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) who’s made a number of enemies over the years, including Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould). Reuben decides to bankroll Danny and his team, which includes blackjack dealer Frank (Bernie Mac), Danny’s right hand man Rusty (Brad Pitt), brother drivers Virgil & Turk (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan), electronics expert Livingston (Eddie Jemison), gymnast Yen (Shaobo Qin), con artist Saul (Carl Reiner), pickpocket Linus (Matt Damon) and demolitions expert Basher (Don Cheadle). And when Rusty spots Danny’s ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) in the casino, and learns that she’s now Benedict’s girlfriend, he realizes that this heist isn’t just about money – it also about Danny getting some payback.

Ocean’s Eleven features an inventive screenplay and a great cast; clearly they had fun making this film. It has aged well, and it provides just the right combination of comedy and drama for an ensemble heist thriller. It is fast-paced enough, and requires just enough suspension of disbelief that repeat viewings continue to entertain us, even though we know how it is going to end. If you enjoyed films like Bandits, RED, and Sneakers, you will really enjoy Ocean’s Eleven

Labels: crime, thriller   
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 74/100   
Tomatometer (critics=82, viewers=79)   

Bandits (2001) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Mick LaSalle, S.F. Chronicle ( on Oct. 12, 2001.

Bandits is an unusual concoction. As a comedy, it comes up short on laughs. As a caper movie, it lacks suspense. And as a romance, it lays down a perennially interesting proposition -- the menage a trois -- then doesn't develop it very seriously.

Yet taken as a whole, Bandits is a success, a two-hour entertainment that floats along, stumbling into various genres, discovering its moments. The cast -- Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett -- is as eclectic and unexpectedly charming as the movie. 

Somehow, Bandits works -- except with movies there is no somehow. Director Barry Levinson brought this one home, finding, amid the flashy performances and wild swings of tone, a thin cord of truth, between zaniness and naturalism, that allows it to hang together.

Any time someone makes a film that's not quite like any other, that's good news for two reasons. The first is that any artistic advance, however minor, is welcome. The other is that movies that aren't designed to formula are rarely financed. They're harder to make and even harder to market. Bandits isn't any better than a good formula picture -- it isn't incisive or memorable, just light and amusing -- but it's different.

Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton play Joe and Terry, convicts who break out of prison one afternoon and have to improvise from there. They rob a bank and hide out, then devise a plan to rob more banks, in order to raise money for a beachfront restaurant in Mexico. Everybody has a dream, and that's theirs.

To minimize their risks, they come up with a novel way to rob banks. They show up at the bank manager's home the night before, sleep over and go to work with the manager the next morning. The safe is opened. They take the money and leave.

The bank scenes, even when things go wrong, play flatter than they should. The audience is so sure -- too sure -- of Joe and Terry's basic decency that there's no real worry that they might hurt somebody. This is where the comedy drains some of the suspense, perhaps more than necessary. The filmmakers might have taken more of a chance with the audience's affections and made Joe and Terry just a bit darker.

As Terry, Thornton has the crowd-pleasing role. He's a worrier and a mass of imagined ailments, plagued by hypochondria, fits of blinking and some unique and inspired phobias, including Benjamin Disraeli's hair. He is so easy to manipulate that, at one point, Joe tells him a fake story about a brain-tumor victim, knowing this will result in Terry's becoming immobilized with the same symptoms. Thornton has some funny moments of physical comedy, as he gradually imagines that his entire right side has become paralyzed.

Willis as Joe is like the Willis of a dozen other movies, but that's not a bad thing. His masculine authority provides the movie's only -- and much- needed -- dose of menace. His stillness can be alarming, even if it's undercut here by the most unconvincing hairpiece of his career.

The performance of Cate Blanchett would be a revelation, except that her versatility has been demonstrated in every film she has made since Elizabeth.  Here she is a neglected trophy wife who becomes Joe and Terry's willing hostage. Kate (Blanchett) is unbalanced and miserable, a combustible element brought into the men's partnership. Even worse, she's a Bonnie Tyler (Total Eclipse of the Heart) fan.

The men fall in love with her, but at least they're harder to get than the audience, which needs only a single shot: Blanchett replaces her refrigerator light with a blue bulb. The shot of Blanchett bathed in blue light is stunning, her face glowing like that of a star from the glamour era. As the picture wears on, the focus is less on crime and more on the three-way romance. Blanchett makes the shift in emphasis seem right.

Bandits was shot on location throughout Oregon and Northern California, and Bay Area audiences may recognize some locations, which include the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa and the Charthouse Restaurant in Montara. This film contains sexual situations and mild violence. [LaSalle's rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: comedy, crime, drama, romance   
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 60/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=61, viewers=62)  

The Anniversary Party (2001) [R] ****

Joe Therrian (Alan Cumming) is a popular British novelist, a bad-boy who grew up, married Hollywood film star Sally Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and settled down among the eucalyptus trees in the Malibu hills. Joe and Sally are having a party to celebrate their sixth anniversary although they've only been back together five months since a separation caused by Joe's marital infidelity. They've invited friends, cast members and their families, and the next-door neighbors.

Joe was recently offered a deal to direct his first film; however he really doesn't like movies all that much. The film’s screenplay was adapted from his latest novel, whose main character was based on his wife Sally, although the film's producers have given the role of Sally to young starlet Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow) whom Sally intensely dislikes, but whom Joe invited to the party anyway. Meanwhile, Sally has been cast in a comedy, together with Oscar winner Cal Gold (Kevin Kline). They're being directed by Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly) who brought tapes of the dailies to the party, and who is panicked because Sally is phoning in her performance, and Mac isn’t sure he can edit around her poor performance.

The Anniversary Party is based on Cumming and Leigh's finely-crafted screenplay, which feels like a stage play because it takes place in and around Joe and Sally's home, over the course of a single day and night. The film’s pacing is perfect, there are no extraneous sub-plots and all of the lead performances are outstanding. Even the supporting cast is excellent, especially Phoebe Cates, as Cal Gold’s wife Sophia (as well as Kevin Kline’s real-life wife), Jane Adams as Mac’s wife Clair, Jennifer Beals as Joe’s friend Gina, and Parker Posey and John Benjamin Hickey as the neighbor couple.

If you enjoy multi-layered, character-driven, conversation-laden, ensemble comedy-dramas, with a film industry setting, films that contain moments of intense euphoria and intense tragedy, then you probably will enjoy this film. And while there are few films with which to compare The Anniversary Party, it is similar in some ways to films like Crazy, Stupid, Love.Dan in Real Life, Elizabethtown, Feast of Love, He’s Just Not That Into You, Rachel Getting Married, State and Main, and Stuck in Love.

Labels: comedy, drama, filmmaking
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 56/100
Tomatometer (critics=60, viewers=58)

Iris (2001) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for

Those who have had a loved one fall prey to the mental ravages of Alzheimer's will see in Iris a depiction that is so lucid and accurate that it may be painful to observe. Anyone who has been spared an intimate encounter with this cruelest of diseases will gain a measure of understanding. Based on the memoir of John Bayley, Iris tells of the first and last days of his relationship with his wife, philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. It's a powerful, affecting tale that uses scenes of the young couple's new love as a counterpoint to Iris' final days - memories of a brightest spring echoing in the darkest depths of winter.

Iris' main storyline unfolds in the early 1990s, when Iris (Judi Dench), regarded by some as the foremost novelist of her generation begins to experience the first stirrings of the disease that would eventually reduce her to a state of childlike helplessness. At first, she forgets things, and, for someone with a deep and abiding passion for words, her inability to recall the best one becomes a frustrating experience. Eventually, she loses more than just words. She can no longer write or even think coherently. The unknown frightens her. She sits in front of the television, watching shows designed for children. Her husband, John (Jim Broadbent), comfortable for forty years being the weaker half of the union, is now thrust into the role of caregiver. There are times when he is found lacking, but his love for his wife ensures that he will not give up on her until the end.

Intercut with the '90s scenes are sequences from the '50s, when John (Hugh Bonneville) first meets and falls in love with the young, vivacious Iris (Kate Winslet), who loves nude swimming, fast biking, and no-strings-attached sex. Unaccountably, Iris is as drawn to John as he is to her, and it's not long before some of her free-spiritedness rubs off on him. They are a classic case of opposites attracting. She introduces him to sex and he shows her the rewards of simple, honest tenderness. It is in these flashback moments that Iris derives a measure of its power. Through them, we see Iris at her strongest, and understand the foundation of her relationship with John.

Iris persuasively illustrates how Alzheimer's affects not only the afflicted, but those who are close to the victim. During the early stages, Iris - once brilliant, now faltering - is at the tragedy's epicenter. But, as the disease advances, the burden shifts to John. By then, Iris has been reduced to a state where she is unaware of what has happened to her. She is an infant in an adult's body. She does not recognize that her brilliance has been obliterated. That cross is John's to bear. Director Richard Eyre (primarily known for his stage work in England) facilitates our empathy for a man who is powerless to act as the most important person in his life is slowly, inexorably diminished before his eyes. We share John's pain because we, through the flashbacks, have known the younger Iris and recognize what the two mean to one another. And we know that he is ill-suited to care for her (the unhealthy state of their house - with litter and grime all over - emphasizes this).

Because the focus of this film is on character more than plot, Iris demands strong performances. There are four of them (three of which have been honored by the Academy with Oscar nominations). Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, each doing some of the best screen acting of her career, bring Iris to life as both a young and older woman. Their work ensures that Iris' tragedy inspires not pity, but an awareness of loss. Remarkably, contrary to what is often the case when one individual is played by two actors, we never lose sight of the reality that there's only one character. In part because of makeup, costumes, and hairstyling, Dench and Winslet resemble each other, so we never have difficulty reconciling the youthful Iris with her mature counterpart. Similar comments can be made regarding Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville. The actors are physically similar and adopt the same mannerisms. Their performances are not as flashy as Dench and Winslet's, but they are no less crucial to the movie's success.

Lest Iris seem like too much of a downer, there are moments of light humor to go along with the poignancy. Iris and John's courtship is presented playfully, and Eyre's decision to sprinkle the flashbacks throughout the film (rather than present them in one long block) gives us moments of needed respite from the sadness that accompanies Iris' downward spiral. And, while this is a story about the effects and ramifications of a disease, it is also a tale of the unbreakable power of love. While Alzheimer's defeats Iris' intellect, it never sunders the bond that she and John have formed. For that reason, many of the tears to fall during Iris will be shed not only out of sadness.

Labels: biography, drama, romance

Moulin Rouge! (2001) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Roger Ebert, June 1, 2001.

Like almost every American college boy who ever took a cut-rate flight to Paris, I went to the Moulin Rouge on my first night in town. I had a cheap standing-room ticket way in the back, and over the heads of the crowd, through a haze of smoke, I could vaguely see the dancing girls. The tragedy of the Moulin Rouge is that by the time you can afford a better seat, you've outgrown the show.

Moulin Rouge! the movie is more like the Moulin Rouge of my adolescent fantasies than the real Moulin Rouge ever could be. It isn't about tired, decadent people, but about glorious romantics, who believe in the glitz and the tinsel -- who see the nightclub not as a shabby tourist trap but as a stage for their dreams. Even its villain is a love-struck duke who gnashes his way into the fantasy, content to play a starring role however venal.

The film is constructed like the fevered snapshots created by your imagination before an anticipated erotic encounter. It doesn't depend on dialogue or situation but on the way you imagine a fantasy object first from one angle and then another. Satine, the heroine, is seen not so much in dramatic situations as in poses -- in postcards for the yearning mind. The movie is about how we imagine its world. It is perfectly appropriate that it was filmed on sound stages in Australia; Paris has always existed best in the minds of its admirers.

The film stars Nicole Kidman as Satine, a star dancer who has a deadly secret; she is dying of tuberculosis. This is not a secret from the audience, which learns it early on, but from Christian (Ewan McGregor), the would-be writer who loves her. Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), the dwarf artist, lives above Christian, and one day comes crashing through the ceiling of their flimsy tenement, sparking a friendship and collaboration: They will write a show to spotlight Satine's brilliance, as well as truth, beauty, freedom and love. (I was reminded of Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor's motto in Singin' in the RainDignity. Always dignity.) The show must be financed; enter the venal Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), who wants to pay for the show and for Satine's favors. The ringmaster is Zidler (Jim Broadbent), impresario of the Moulin Rouge.

Each of these characters is seen in terms of their own fantasies about themselves. Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, is flamboyant and romantic; Christian is lonely and lovelorn; Satine has a good heart and only seems to be a bad girl; Zidler pretends to be all business but is a softy, and the Duke can be so easily duped because being duped is the essence of his role in life. Those who think they can buy affection are suckers; a wise man is content to rent it.

The movie was directed by Baz Luhrmann, an Australian with a background in opera, whose two previous films were also experiments in exuberant excess. Strictly Ballroom made a ballroom competition into a flamboyant theatrical exercise, and his William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet updated the play into a contempo teenage rumble. He constructs Moulin Rouge! with the melodrama of a 19th century opera, the Technicolor brashness of a 1950s Hollywood musical and the quick-cutting frenzy of a music video. Nothing is really period about the movie -- it's like a costume revue taking place right now, with hit songs from the 1970s and 1980s (you will get the idea if I mention that Jim Broadbent sings Like a Virgin).

I am often impatient with directors who use so many cuts their films seem to have been fed through electric fans. For Luhrmann and this material, it is the right approach. He uses so many different setups and camera angles that some of the songs seem to be cut not on every word of the lyrics, but on every syllable. There's no breathing room. The whole movie is on the same manic pitch as O'Connor's Make 'em Laugh number in Singin' in the Rain. Everything is screwed to a breakneck pitch, as if the characters have died and their lives are flashing before our eyes.

This means the actors do not create their characters but embody them. Who is Satine? A leggy redhead who can look like a million in a nightclub costume, and then melt into a guy's arms. Who is Christian? A man who embodies longing with his eyes and sighs -- whose very essence, whose entire being, is composed of need for Satine. With the Duke, one is reminded of silent films in which the titles said The Duke, and then he sneered at you.

The movie is all color and music, sound and motion, kinetic energy, broad strokes, operatic excess. While it might be most convenient to see it from the beginning, it hardly makes any difference; walk in at any moment and you'll quickly know who is good and bad, who is in love and why -- and then all the rest is song, dance, spectacular production numbers, protestations of love, exhalations of regret, vows of revenge and grand destructive gestures. It's like being trapped on an elevator with the circus.

Labels: drama, musical, Paris, romance  
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 66/100  
Tomatometer (critics=76, viewers=90)