Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Sleeping Dictionary (2003) [R] ***

John Truscott (played by Hugh Dancy) is a stiff, conservative young English colonial officer posted in the 1930s to Sarawak, in the lush, emerald tropical forest on the northwest coast of the island of Borneo. Upon his arrival Truscott discovers that he’s been assigned a sleeping dictionary, a beautiful young native girl named Selima (enchantingly played by Jessica Alba), to help him learn the Iban language as well as to be his personal concubine. Finding himself in a moral dilemma (unable to separate sex from romantic love), Truscott cannot take advantage of his good fortune, nor can Selima fulfill her role. This leads to frustration on both sides, and is a source of tension between the two. Slowly the tension is resolved as Truscott unwittingly takes the only path open to him – he falls passionately in love with Selima. Forbidden by the British government, as well as by native custom, to marry a native girl, the besotted, tormented young man recklessly ignites a chain of events that unfolds like a train wreck in slow motion.

The Sleeping Dictionary is an entertaining romantic drama, set against the backdrop of British colonial expansion into Indonesia. Writer/director Guy Jenkin has crafted a plausible story with well-developed characters, a clear story arc featuring unexpected twists and turns, mystery, jealousy, lust and betrayal, and a story that touches on the problems the British faced early in the 20th century in managing their far-flung empire. Jessica Alba and Hugh Dancy are very attractive and have excellent romantic chemistry. There is nudity throughout the film, although Alba, who was just in her early twenties, understandably used a body double for those scenes. If you enjoy going native romantic dramas, films like Avatar or Dances with Wolves, you’ll probably enjoy The Sleeping Dictionary

Labels: drama, romance   
Internet Movie Database   
Tomatometer (critics=NA, viewers=67)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Dopamine (2003) [R] ***

Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd) is an artist and day-care teacher. Rand (John Livingston) is a software developer, a member of a team that has created an artificial intelligence graphics program. Sarah and Rand meet in the context of testing the program on her preschoolers. It's the classic situation of the right-brained, feeling artist trying to communicate with the left-brained, thinking engineer. Sarah talks about attraction in terms of her feelings, while Rand talks about attraction in terms of brain chemicals such as endorphins and dopamine.  Both of them recognize the possibilities, but both have been scarred by personal tragedy in the past.

This story bears a passing resemblance to Bed of Roses starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Christian Slater, but with the gender roles reversed. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert gave Dopamine 3.5 out of 4 stars and wrote: What's alluring is the way the characters played by John Livingston and Sabrina Lloyd savor each other, in between their troubles. Movies are too quick to interrupt romance with sex. Sarah and Rand fascinate us with their dance of dread and desire.

Labels: comedy, drama, romance
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 52/100
Tomatometer (critics=51, viewers=51)

Hope Springs (2003) [PG-13] **

This romantic comedy is essentially a two girls and a guy triangle. British artist Colin (Colin Firth) is dumped by his British fiancee Vera (Minnie Driver). As part of his healing process, he moves to the New England town of Hope, and there he encounters a group of eccentric residents including Joanie (Mary Steenburgen) the motel manager, Doug (Oliver Platt) the town mayor, and Mandy (Heather Graham) a nursing home caregiver cheerfully determined to nurse him back to mental and emotional health.

These five are excellent actors, and if they'd been given good material, this could have been a very funny film. Unfortunately, Vera is the obstacle keeping Colin and Mandy apart, and she's neither funny nor evil, but just irritating. Colin Firth, who can do excellent work when given a part with substance, has a weakly written character and no direction. The only reason to watch Hope Springs is to enjoy the lovely Heather Graham, who is equally enchanting whether clothed or not. If you agree, you may also enjoy two other Heather Graham films about romantic triangles: Two Girls and a Guy, and Gray Matters. Regardless, if you like romantic comedies like The Accidental Husband, Down with Love, Must Love Dogs, Sweet Home Alabama, or The Wedding Planner, you might enjoy Hope Springs

Labels: comedy, romance   
Internet Movie Database  
Tomatometer (critics=25, viewers=30)  

Le Divorce (2003) [PG-13] ***

A film review by Roger Ebert, August 8, 2003.

Le Divorce, which is about contrary French and American standards for marriage, adultery, divorce and affairs, finds that the two nations are simply incompatible. While there are too many characters in too much story for the movie to really involve us, it's amusing as a series of sketches about how the French think they are a funny race (or the Americans, take your choice). I am reminded of the British writer Peter Nobel, who said everything he knew about France could be summed up in this story: An English guy walks into a cafe in Cannes and asks if they have a men's room. The waiter replies: 'Monsieur! I have only two hands!' 

The movie stars Naomi Watts as Roxeanne, a pregnant American whose faithless French husband, Charles-Henri de Persand (Melvil Poupaud), has walked out on her because of his obsession with a married Russian woman named Magda. Roxeanne's sister, Isabel (Kate Hudson), flies to Paris to support her sister, and soon promotes an affair for herself with Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), the brother of Roxeanne's mother-in-law. Meanwhile, Magda's American husband (Matthew Modine) becomes a stalker, threatening Roxeanne. Doesn't he understand that it was her husband who stole away his wife? Roxeanne's husband begs for a divorce. She must understand, her husband patiently explains to Isabel, that I have met the love of my life. He sees himself as the wronged party. Meanwhile, Edgar moves swiftly on his first lunch date with Isabel, explaining that the only question before them is whether she will become his mistress. What... ah... what exactly would that involve, Isabel asks, in a moment that reminds us Kate Hudson is Goldie Hawn's daughter and has that same eyelid-batting trick of seeming naive and insinuating at the same time. Edgar explains that they would amuse each other: I find you entertaining, and I hope you find me entertaining. Isabel says she wouldn't want their families to know. Frankly, he says, it would never occur to me to tell them.

The movie is based on a best-selling novel by Diane Johnson, and has been directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant, working with their usual screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The Merchant-Ivory firm are masters of movies about manners, and have fun with the rules by which Edgar conducts his affairs. A new conquest is immediately given a Kelly bag; that's a $6,000-and-up purse from Hermes, of the sort Grace Kelly always carried. Glenn Close, who plays an expatriate American writer in Paris, was a lover of Edgar's years ago, we learn, and observes that his affairs always begin with the bag, and end with the gift of a scarf.

What is remarkable is that Suzanne de Persand (Leslie Caron), Edgar's sister, immediately finds out about the affair, and soon so does his wife. Caron makes a bracing analysis of the situation: It is bad enough that her son [Charles-Henri] has behaved foolishly by allowing such a troublesome emotion as love to cause disrepair to his marriage, but for Isabel to fall for Edgar's tired routine is unforgivable, especially at a time like this. The Americans, she observes, have no idea how to conduct affairs, and do not realize they are intended to be temporary. When one ends, they get all serious and tragic. Even Edgar has his doubts, telling Isabel: If you are keeping a diary, I hope your style will meet the expectations of the French public. And then, fearing the feckless American will not understand the Gallic sense of humor: You're not, are you?

The movie is so heavy on story that no character fully engages our sympathy--although some don't take long to make us dislike them. There's a subplot involving a painting that belongs to Isabel and Roxeanne's family, and which the faithless husband, incredibly, believes is half his. That leads to an amusing excursion into art values, with an expert from the Louvre pronouncing the painting inferior, and an expert from Christie's insisting it is by the master La Tour. The Christie's man is played by Stephen Fry, tall, cheery and plummy, who explains why museums undervalue paintings and auction houses overvalue them. It's entertaining, but is it on topic? I could have done without Matthew Modine's jealous husband, a dizzy basket case who generates a contrived and unnecessary scene atop the Eiffel Tower. But Stockard Channing is wonderful as the mother of the American girls. As sophisticated in her American way as the Leslie Caron character, she takes the wind out of French sails with her no-B.S. California style. I admire those who speak French whether or not they can, as when she orders in a restaurant: Could I just get like a steak poivre and a salad vert, tres well?

Le Divorce doesn't work on its intended level, because we don't care enough about the interactions of the enormous cast. But it works in another way, as a sophisticated and knowledgeable portrait of values in collision. If you are familiar with France and have a love-hate affair with that most cryptic of nations, you are likely to enjoy the movie from moment to moment, whether or not it adds up for you.

Labels: comedy, cross-cultural, drama, Paris, romance  
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 51/100  
Tomatometer (critics=37, viewers=27)  

The Barbarian Invasions (2003) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for

The Barbarian Invasions (Les Invasions barbares) is a follow-up (calling it a sequel seems too trite for such a sublime motion picture) to director Denys Arcand's 1986 international art-house hit, The Decline of the American Empire. Obviously, after the decline and fall, the barbarians arrive. (This seems to be stretching the metaphor too far, but whatever...) Where the earlier movie was about sex and vitality, The Barbarian Invasions deals with an equally universal topic: mortality. However, although the specter of death hovers over the entire film, it is neither a grim nor a depressing experience. Arcand has injected a great deal of wit into the movie, and it meshes perfectly with the anticipated pathos. And one could easily make the argument that The Barbarian Invasions is as much about life as it is about death, and, considering how intertwined the subjects are, it's hard to form a counter-argument.

The film opens with one of the protagonists from The Decline of the American Empire, Rémy (Rémy Girard), facing death. Before Rémy's days are done, his ex-wife, Louise (Dorothée Berryman), persuades the dying man's estranged son, Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), to make the trans-Atlantic journey from London to Montreal for a reconciliation. Their initial meetings are not promising, but a thaw begins with Sébastian recruiting many of Rémy's old friends to join him at his bedside. In addition, there is one newcomer - the deeply troubled Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), who is recruited by Stéphane to provide heroin used to dull Rémy's pain. However, as a drug addict, not only is she unreliable, but the potential for an overdose may mean that she has less time to live than Rémy.

The film starts out slowly, and, for a while, it looks like it might be just another movie about a fractured family coming to grips with its dysfunction. Indeed, the underlying material of The Barbarian Invasions could easily have been used to develop a soap opera, so Arcand must be given credit for detouring the storyline off the main track and onto a road that, while moving on a parallel trajectory, is less melodramatic and more intellectually satisfying. In the end, our tears are because we identify with these characters, not because the script has inelegantly manipulated our emotions.

The film contains scenes of offbeat comedy. For example, when Sébastian is trying to obtain heroin to ease his father's pain, he deduces that the most likely people to inform him where to find a dealer are the police. So he goes to the nearest police station, requests to see a narcotics officer, and asks his question. He is firmly told that the police are in the business of taking dealers off the street, not providing them with new customers. Arcand finds the right tone for this scene and others like it. It is not so fatuous that it becomes mocking, but the humor in the situation is evident.

The acting is uniformly good, although few of the actors will be known outside of Canadian circles. One exception is Marie-Josée Croze, who won the Cannes acting award for Best Actress. She was a standout in Ararat and has appeared in a number of movies obtaining U.S. theatrical release. In a way, however, having a cast of relative unknowns serves only to enhance The Barbarian Invasions' effectiveness, since there are no familiarity issues to get between the viewer and the characters.

This is a movie in which words and interaction take precedence over plot and action - a so-called character piece. It's a film in which friends gather to meditate upon history, philosophy, and their shared pasts. In many ways, Rémy's death is the kind of passing we might all wish for. He does not suffer for long, goes out on his own terms, and, at the end, is surrounded by his friends and loved ones. He is also given the opportunity to heal old wounds and speak his mind. Who could ask for anything more?

Labels: comedy, crime, drama, mystery, romance, tragedy

Solaris (2002) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for

Solaris may be the first big budget science fiction motion picture that belongs in an art house rather than a multiplex. The movie bears a stronger resemblance to 2001: A Space Odyssey than to Star Wars, with an emphasis on ideas over action. Those expecting to see space battles and bug-eyed aliens will be disappointed. There's nothing like that here. The experience of watching Solaris doesn't just invite thought and rumination; it demands it.

Of his last four films, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh has developed three remakes (besides this one, the other two are Traffic and Ocean's 11). Solaris is based on the novel by Stanisalw Lem, which was first brought to the screen in 1972 by Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. The earlier film, which clocks in at a lengthy 165 minutes, is as slow as it is fascinating. Soderbergh's re-interpretation, which is more economical (it's about 65 minutes shorter), has many of the same strengths as Tarkovsky's version without the somnambulant pace. Soderbergh's Solaris establishes a dreamlike state that allows events to unfold in an unhurried fashion without losing a patient audience's attention.

Solaris transpires at an unspecified time in the near future. Therapist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) travels to a space station orbiting the distant planet of Solaris after a friend requests his help analyzing a problem that the crew of the station has encountered. When Chris arrives, he finds that his friend is among the dead, and there are only two survivors – the laid-back Snow (Jeremy Davies) and the paranoid Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis). Although neither Snow nor Gordon provides helpful information, Chris soon discovers on his own what's transpiring when he receives a visitation from his dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Rheya does not appear to be a hallucination or a ghost, and that leaves Chris with a serious issue to resolve: Is she real or not, and, if she is, what is she?

Solaris examines weighty issues like the power of guilt, the nature of life, and the importance of memory. There are no traditional antagonists in this film; Chris' greatest enemy is a burden of conscience that he carries with him, the presence of which weighs down his soul and clouds his judgment. Initially, he doesn't believe his visitor is Rheya. Later, he no longer cares. The presence of someone who looks, feels, and sounds identical to his dead wife gives him an opportunity to assuage the pain of misplaced responsibility.

For George Clooney, while appearing in this movie may not be a big career risk, it's certainly an atypical choice. Known for playing supremely confident men in mainstream Hollywood outings, Clooney uses this opportunity to display his range and perhaps court a different audience. (His safety net may be that he has worked twice previously with Soderbergh and obviously feels comfortable with the director.) He capably brings out the deeply rooted pain and need in Chris, and we never have any difficulty accepting him in this role. The other performers have less significant parts. Clooney is the one who carries the film.

Solaris, brought to the screen by Soderbergh and James Cameron (who produced), is a gorgeously rendered motion picture. The cinematography connects us with Chris, allowing us to experience things through his perspective (sometimes literally). Flashbacks fill in the story of Chris' tempestuous marriage to Rheya, including how it began and ended. The special effects are breathtaking and flawless – some of the best to grace the screen this year. They don't represent a big part of the story, but, when they are used, they are effective.

The number of thinking science fiction films is small, and most are produced on small budgets for start-up directors. The first-rate production values and A-list star make Solaris an exception – and a rewarding one, at that. This is the first film I have seen in a long time to make me feel some of the things I experienced while watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. Solaris is neither as effective nor as ambitious as Kubrick's masterpiece, but it's still a compelling cinematic experience for those who are willing to abandon themselves to the unforced, measured rhythms of an issues-based motion picture.

Labels: drama, mystery, romance, sci-fi