Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Searching for Debra Winger (2002) [R] ****

Written and directed by Rosanna Arquette, this revealing documentary is a series of interviews with various actresses about the sexism and ageism-related pressures women face working in the Hollywood film industry. The cast includes, among others, Patricia Arquette, Rosanna Arquette, Laura Dern, Jane Fonda, Teri Garr, Whoopi Goldberg, Melanie Griffith, Daryl Hannah, Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Kelly Lynch, Julianna Margulies, Samantha Mathis, Frances McDormand, Julia Ormond, Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlotte Rampling, Vanessa Redgrave, Theresa Russell, Meg Ryan, Ally Sheedy, Sharon Stone, Tracey Ullman, JoBeth Williams, Debra Winger, Alfre Woodard and Robin Wright.

Rosanna Arquette titled her documentary Searching for Debra Winger because at age forty Debra Winger took a six year hiatus from acting. Ostensibly this was because Winger had reached her expiration date and was no longer being offered challenging film roles, but, while this explanation makes Rosanna Arquette’s case, it may not have been the only reason. Debra Winger began receiving film role credits in 1976 at age 21. By 1984, just eight years later, she was well established as an A-list actress, having received Best Actress Oscar nominations for both An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Terms of Endearment (1983). A decade later, she had received a third Best Actress Oscar nomination for Shadowlands (1993). Despite her obvious talent, and her accomplishments, after filming Forget Paris in 1995, at age forty, six years would pass before she took another role, in Big Bad Love. While the expiration date explanation may be correct, it is also true that Winger had a reputation as a difficult actress, that she had publicly named Ivan Reitman and Taylor Hackford as the two worst directors she had ever worked with, and that at one point in her career she had walked out on her agency, CAA, for several years. Also, Winger had a second son at age 40, so her six-year hiatus from acting may have been the lack of substantive film roles, but it may also have been her biological alarm clock going off, and her desire to focus on motherhood.

In any case, one of the most enlightening aspects of the documentary is the in-depth interview with Jane Fonda, which begins at about the eighty-minute mark. Jane describes the peak experience of film-making as the thrill and terror of making the pivotal scene of a film. She characterizes this scene as one with an intense flow of emotions between the actors, a scene that the director tries to capture all in one take. She describes the enormous pressure this puts the actors under, since the success of the film often depends on the believability of the pivotal scene. She paints a vivid picture of sitting in her trailer waiting for those dreaded words We’re ready for you now, Miss Fonda, and then having to walk the gauntlet from trailer to film set, between rows of cast and crew, all of whom are thinking This had better be good. You’re the big star; you’re getting paid the big salary, so prove you’re worth it, because we’re all depending upon you. Jane reveals that, when the pivotal scene is successful, it is better than the most intense lovemaking. But, she also admits that she remembers having had the pivotal-scene, peak experience fewer than ten times in making over forty films since 1960, which means that she did NOT remember a pivotal-scene peak experience in over 75% of her films. Does this mean that three-quarters of films released are mediocre, or worse? It’s an interesting question.

Jane’s description of the pivotal scene was so vivid that I found myself reviewing some of my favorite films, as well as some of Jane Fonda's films, to find the pivotal scenes as she described them. On Golden Pond, for example, has always been considered a cathartic bonding of Jane and Henry Fonda, since the fictional daughter-father relationship between Chelsea and Norman Thayer seemed to closely mirror the cool, dispassionate real-life relationship between Jane and Henry. In that film there's a powerful pivotal scene in which Chelsea tells Norman that she'd like them to be friends, reaching out to touch his arm and causing his eyes to well up with tears. And in The Electric Horseman, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, there's a tender pivotal scene in which the two actors kiss, a scene director Sydney Pollack reportedly shot thirty times because he wanted to be sure he got it right.

For an enhanced understanding of the filmmaking process, the pressures that actresses endure in the film industry, and the difficulty of finding substantive roles, I highly recommend this documentary. Rosanna Arquette is to be commended.  

Label: documentary, filmmaking   
Internet Movie Database    
Tomatometer (critics=NA, viewers=47)

Dragonfly (2002) [PG-13] **

A film review by James Berardinelli, for

Dragonfly is the latest supernatural thriller to pour all of its energy into the big, surprise twist at the conclusion. However, for anyone who has been paying minimal attention to the less-than-subtle clues left by director Tom Shadyac, the gimmicky resolution will be obvious before the movie is 30 minutes old. That means more than an hour of fidgeting, twiddling one's fingers, and waiting for the inevitable to happen, since Dragonfly has nothing to offer besides the ending and a few unintentional laughs along the way. This is a tedious and insulting motion picture. The only ones likely to be surprised by the payoff are those who understandably dozed off fifteen minutes into the proceedings.

Kevin Costner plays Dr. Joe Darrow, an all-around good guy who heads the Emergency Room at a Chicago hospital. By the time Dragonfly's opening credits have ended, Joe's pregnant wife, Emily (Susanna Thompson), has died in an avalanche in a remote part of Venezuela, where she was working as a Red Cross volunteer. There's no body, though... hmmm, I wonder if that's important? Joe, meanwhile, suffers from a debilitating affliction commonly called SSS (Steven Seagal Syndrome), which results in his walking stiffly, talking in a monotone, and never showing more than one or two facial expressions. After Emily's death, Joe's condition worsens, and he now begins to experience strange, supernatural occurrences, like his pet parrot saying Honey, I'm home in the middle of the night, then going berserk. Could Emily be trying to reach out to him from beyond the grave? Eventually, Joe decides that the answers lie in the cancer ward at the hospital, where his wife used to work. Kids there have been dreaming about Emily, and Joe tries to piece together their visions, convinced that, if he can solve the puzzle, he'll find... what? (We already know, but it takes forever for him to find it out.) To drag out the movie's interminable running length, he has meaningless conversations with his fun-loving, lesbian neighbor (Kathy Bates) - usually about her caring for the parrot while he's away, harasses a nun (Linda Hunt) who's literally half his height, and plans a trip to go white-water rafting.

Hollywood must have a tragically low opinion of the average viewer's intelligence to foist something this poorly written and ineptly directed upon us. (I know this isn't the first time I have made that observation.) Shadyac, who is responsible for the likes of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Patch Adams (he must have an affinity for terminally ill children), italicizes every clue in bright, bold letters. And, once you have figured out the ending, there remains nothing to do but visit the rest room, pick up a tub of popcorn, and envy the dozing person in front of you. With the exception of one sloppily-directed scene that uses a pair of stock boo! clichés, Dragonfly never manages even a momentary fright, which is a bad sign for a ghost story.

The creepiest thing about this movie is watching Kevin Costner's zombie-like performance. One could easily imagine that, like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense (a movie that, to some extent, this one tries to emulate), Costner's character is actually dead - or at least he acts that way. Costner typically plays laconic individuals, but he takes low-key a few steps too far on this occasion - Joe is comatose. We're supposed to be invested in this character, not wondering if sticking a red-hot poker up his butt would generate a reaction. The movie spares its other actors any lingering shame by assuring that none of them makes more than a token appearance.

Dragonfly will undoubtedly trade heavily on its Sixth Sense similarities - the plodding male protagonist, the ghostly apparitions, and the gasp! ohmygod! ican'tbelievethisishappening! ending. But, much as I dislike M. Night Shyamalan's overrated Oscar nominee, it displays a level of craft that is entirely absent from Shadyac's misfire. This film is so badly made that it makes What Lies Beneath look like a masterpiece of supernatural suspense. The dragonfly is a sleek, graceful insect that doesn't deserve to have its reputation sullied by being associated with this pile of offal.

Labels: drama, fantasy, mystery, romance, thriller

Two Weeks Notice (2002) [PG-13] ***

There is a striking similarity between Two Weeks Notice and Music and Lyrics, both of which were written and directed by Marc Lawrence. Both films star Hugh Grant as a shy, self-deprecating celebrity, irresistible to women because of his wealth or star power. Both films co-star a lovely girl (Sandra Bullock in Two Weeks Notice, Drew Barrymore in Music and Lyrics) who has taken a relatively unglamorous path in life, and doesn't appear to be living up to her full potential. She is also poorly dressed and romance-deprived.

In both films Grant and the girl meet cute; Grant quickly appreciates her potential, and immediately offers her a seemingly incredible opportunity to work with him, which will allow her to express herself creatively. In both films the girl has to be convinced to accept Grant's offer. The two work well and productively together, albeit not without some friction, and a romance develops. But then, during the third act, Grant does or says something thoughtless and inconsiderate, something that threatens to destroy their relationship; at the last minute he realizes his error and brilliantly redeems himself by performing an extraordinary, romantic act which melts her heart.

Two Weeks Notice is about real estate development, lawyers and old money, and while Grant and Bullock have good chemistry, their relationship is much more about work than romance, and there's more drama than comedy. Music and Lyrics, by comparison, is about writing music and the New York entertainment scene. Grant and his co-star Drew Barrymore have great chemistry, their relationship is about romance as well as work, the romance is better developed and much more intense, and there's more comedy than drama. Music and Lyrics also features a better written script, a stronger supporting cast, and a bigger production budget, including an original soundtrack with some truly memorable songs. While Two Weeks Notice is a good film, Music and Lyrics, which was released five years later in 2007 is a great film, and could almost be thought of as Two Weeks Notice 2.0. If you have to make a choice, forget Two Weeks Notice and go for Music and Lyrics.  

Labels: comedy, drama, romance   
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 42/100   
Tomatometer (critics=42, viewers=63) 

Maid in Manhattan (2002) [PG-13] **

What if a hotel maid, trying on an outfit owned by a wealthy hotel guest, is mistaken for that guest by a well-known local politician, who then falls in love with her? It's a good idea, but it's poorly executed in this updated Cinderella story, which is a star vehicle for Jennifer Lopez, and not much more.

Ralph Fiennes, playing the assemblyman who falls for Lopez, is an excellent character actor, but he appears uncomfortable as a lead in a romantic comedy. There is absolutely no chemistry between Lopez and Fiennes, and their gratuitous love scene does nothing to create a bond between the two, or propel the action forward. Fiennes exhibits none of power and presence he displayed in The English Patient and The End of the Affair. Almost totally derivative, Maid in Manhattan manages to steal the shopping scene from Pretty Woman, and the ending from both Notting Hill and Sleepless in Seattle

Labels: comedy, drama, romance
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 45/100   
Tomatometer (critics=39, viewers=53)   

Prime (2005) [PG-13] ***+

A film review by James Berardinelli for

Consider a movie that takes place in the Big Apple and features a heterosexual romance with an age gap, a dose of Jewishness, a psychoanalyst, and an ending that doesn't pander to all the usual clichés. This may sound like Woody Allen - in fact, it often feels like Woody Allen (minus the expected helpings of angst) - but it's not. Prime is from writer/director Ben Younger and, while it's not up to the level of Allen's great romantic comedies (Annie Hall, Manhattan), it's better than anything the acclaimed New York auteur has brought to the screen in recent years.

Prime accedes to a number of the romantic comedy formulas to keep aficionados of the genre happy, while at the same time flouting enough of them to remain fresh and engaging. It also manages the difficult task of making the material funny without turning it into a sit-com. (Although there are a few times when it threatens to cross the line - consider the grandmother with the frying pan.) Prime is amusing and romantic, and offers a few intelligent opinions about the difficulties of bridging cultural and generational gaps in dating. Movies often treat these issues as either inconsequential or insurmountable. Prime falls more realistically in the middle ground; the keys to success are not love and passion, but commitment and maturity.

Rafael Rafi Gardet (Uma Thurman) is a 37-year old woman who, on the rebound from a messy divorce, finds herself head-over-heels in love with Dave Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg), a man 14 years her junior. And, as if the age gap is not enough, Dave is Jewish while Rafi is not. This doesn't mean much to Dave, but it's an issue for his mother, Lisa (Meryl Streep), who can't bear to think about her son in love with someone who isn't Jewish. Rafi confides all the intimate details of her new love affair with her therapist - the same Lisa Metzger who is Dave's mother. Both women are unaware of their non-professional connection until Lisa figures it out. At that point, she has a dilemma: terminate her sessions with Rafi or do her best to keep her composure and continue the therapy. While she is wrestling with this decision, Rafi and Dave encounter the first rough patches of their new relationship.

Prime treads carefully around the issue of ethics. For us to accept Lisa as more than an interfering mother, we have to believe she has Rafi's best interests at heart, and we do. Although Lisa's sessions with Rafi are laced with comedic moments (such as one in which Rafi confesses, [Dave's] penis is so beautiful I just want to knit it a hat - something I'm sure no mother wants to hear about her son, no matter how flattering the revelation may be), there's an undercurrent of seriousness. Give at least partial credit to Meryl Streep, who refuses to allow Lisa to sink to the level of a caricature. By keeping her real, the film avoids a significant misstep.

Having finished attempting to Kill Bill, Uma Thurman gets a chance to relax in a less physical role. She outshines her younger and less experienced co-star, Bryan Greenberg, but the two display enough chemistry to keep the film from stalling. It's easier to see what Dave sees in Rafi than the other way around. I suppose the allure of youth, physical attractiveness, and innocence is enough to blind Rafi to her lover's shortcomings - including a preference for playing video games over frolicking in the bedroom.

Although Rafi and Dave's relationship faces hurdles (including Dave’s one-night-stand with Sue (Mini Anden) a model who works with Rafi), the film does not throw the obligatory romantic complications subplot at us - at least not in the expected fashion. Prime is smarter and more sophisticated than that. And the resolution takes viewers in a different direction than that of most romantic comedies. We get to see what happens after the main story is over. Is the epilogue necessary? Probably not, but it adds another dimension to the movie, and makes me wish more romantic comedies would go this route.

The writer/director is Ben Younger, who is making his first feature since 2000's The Boiler Room. Prime is a different kind of project, but the screenplay shows evidence that Younger is a keen observer of human interaction, and there are enough small touches to indicate that he understands a little about the difficulties inherent in a coupling where one participant is significantly older than the other. Unlike many movies reaching theaters at this time of the year, Prime is not an Oscar contender, but it's a satisfying romantic comedy and a worthwhile diversion. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: comedy, drama, romance

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pearl Harbor (2001) [PG-13] ****

Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) were born in Tennessee at the end of WWI. Rafe's father was a crop-dusting pilot, and the boys grew up as best friends, with a love of flying. By 1941 they were both lieutenants in the Army Air Corps, and while undergoing an Army flight physical exam Rafe met and fell in love with Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), an Army nurse. Unfortunately, their romance was cut short when Rafe was accepted into the Eagle Squadron, a group of US Army pilots flying with the RAF during the WWII Battle of Britain.

Meanwhile Kate and Danny had been assigned to duty near Pearl Harbor on the island of O'ahu, Hawai'i. After Rafe was shot down over the English Channel and presumed dead, Kate and Danny consoled each other, and their friendship gradually grew into a romance. So it came as a surprise when Rafe arrived on O'ahu late in 1941, a man returned from the dead. Rafe's love for Evelyn had kept him alive, so her romance with Danny caused Rafe to feel bitter toward both of them.

This romantic triangle was interrupted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, depicted as a betrayal and a one-sided massacre. The attack impacts the viewer especially deeply because of the individual human dramas that are part of the larger story, including romances between Danny's pilot friends and Evelyn's nurse friends. The film's last act includes a portrayal of the Doolittle bombing raid over Tokyo, depicted as a suicide mission.

Pearl Harbor is successful both as a romantic drama and as a war epic. It's especially powerful and compelling when describing the sacrifices made by the millions of American men and women who fought and died in WWII, a group that has come to be called the greatest generation. The lead and supporting performances are excellent, the sets are incredible, the cinematography is breathtaking, the computer graphics are masterful, and the musical score by Hans Zimmer is thrilling. 

Labels: action, drama, romance, tragedy, war, WWII
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 44/100    
Tomatometer (critics=25, viewers=67)    

Pearl Harbor soundtrack:
Tennessee (1923)
Tennessee - Original Soundtrack Theme
First Kiss
And Then I Kissed Him
There You'll Be (Faith Hill)
Tennessee (final scene)

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Fast and the Furious (2001) [PG-13] ***

Dominic Toretto runs a performance auto shop and a diner, together with his girlfriend Letty, his sister Mia and some childhood buddies. But the two businesses are really just a front for Dominic's hijacking ring that preys on long-haul truckers carrying expensive consumer electronics across the California desert. Then one day, Brian Spilner walks into the diner, orders a tuna sandwich and starts flirting with Mia. It turns out that Spilner is really Brian O'Connor, an undercover police officer, and the trail of stolen electronics has led to Dominic.

The film was co-written by Ken Li, based on his magazine article Racer X, about street clubs that race Japanese cars late at night. There's a glimpse into the L.A. illegal street-racing subculture and how to use NOS to boost engine performance, some great car chase sequences, and a bit about Asian street gangs with motorcycles and automatic weapons with silencers. There's also a great tutorial on how to use three superfast and highly maneuverable street racers to overtake and hijack a speeding 18-wheeler, plus a sobering lesson on what happens when truck drivers decide to fight back.

Vin Diesel is excellent as Dominic, with just the right combination of street smarts, business skills, muscle and heart, and Michelle Rodriguez is passionate and compelling as his girlfriend Letty. Paul Walker is cool and detached as Brian Spilner/O'Connor, and while Jordana Brewster is attractive as Dominic's sister Mia, she has a small role and her romantic chemistry with Walker is understated at best. If you like action-adventure films with car chases and guns, films that give you an adrenalin rush, films like Fast & Furious (2009), Gone in 60 Seconds, The Italian Job, The Transporter and Transporter 2, then you should not miss The Fast and the Furious, the film that launched the film franchise.

The Ferrari used in the film is an F355 Spyder.

Labels: action, crime, Ferrari, thriller
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 58/100
Tomatometer (critics=54, viewers=68)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tortilla Soup (2001) [PG-13] ****

From the opening title you know this is going to be a sensual film... it's all about Mexican cuisine... the colors, smells, tastes, textures, and the sounds of food preparation. All of our senses are engaged and stimulated, and our mouths begin to water even before the first scene. Letitia, Carmen and Maribel Naranjo are three unmarried daughters living with their widowed father Martin (Hector Elizondo), who's part owner of a restaurant in Los Angeles. Martin never remarried and all he has left is his cooking, but now he's losing his sense of taste and smell.

His three daughters have their own daily lives but they all get together for Sunday dinner... it's a family tradition. Letitia (Elizabeth Pena) the oldest, is a high school chemistry teacher and a fervent, tightly-wound Christian. Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) is a smart, beautiful, high-powered businesswoman, with a healthy sex life, who likes to cook; she creates Mexican dishes her boyfriend calls Nuevo Latino. And Maribel (Tamara Mello), the youngest, is an innocent ingenue who works in a music store and is a bit obsessive compulsive. Add to the mixture Yolanda (Constance Marie), a lovely neighbor who's a divorcee and a single parent, whom Martin finds very attractive, Hortensia (Raquel Welch) her meddling, husband-hunting mother who cannot resist dispensing irritating advice, several of Letitia's high school students who play matchmaker for Letitia and the baseball coach, and a handsome Brazilian boy whom Maribel falls for, and you have all the ingredients for passion, romance and drama.

The screenplay is charming and the soundtrack is incredible. Hector Elizondo is terrific as Martin, the widower who holds the family together and prepares the delicious, mouth-watering Mexican cuisine. If you like warm, family-oriented, character-driven romantic comedy dramas, films like Fools Rush In, and you enjoy Mexican food, you will love Tortilla Soup. 

Labels: comedy, drama, food, romance     
Internet Movie Database     
Metacritic 58/100     
Tomatometer (critics=74, viewers=70)

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Cat's Meow (2001) [PG-13] ****

Did something tragic happen on William Randolph Hearst's yacht Oneidain 1924? We'll never know for sure, but The Cat's Meow offers one possible scenario. There are outstanding performances by Edward Herrmann as Hearst and by Kirsten Dunst as actress Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress. However, Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin was lackluster, especially when compared to the Oscar-worthy portrayal of Chaplin by Robert Downey, Jr. in Chaplin. Worse, the film's pacing was far too slow, especially the third act which should have been more powerful, emotional and fast-paced.

This period piece will mainly be enjoyed by viewers who are intrigued by Hollywood history, as well as fans of the radiant Kirsten Dunst. And, for those of you who enjoy watching Miss Dunst, I can highly recommend Wimbledon in which she and Paul Bettany have terrific chemistry in a tennis-themed romantic comedy-drama, as well as Elizabethtown in which she and Orlando Bloom have equally terrific chemistry in a romantic comedy-drama about giving life and love a second chance. 

Label: drama     
Internet Movie Database     
Metacritic 63/100     
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=65, viewers=62)