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Reviews

The Wicker Man
(2006)

Next year, Neil LaBute.
I am a big fan of the original Wicker Man. I found it darkly delightful and wholly original. LaBute has adapted that gem of a screenplay into this appalling train wreck. In order to manage this, he had to make every conceivably wrong decision during the adaptation. It is as if he carefully analyzed the original to identify the elements that made it work so well, and then dislodged every single one of them.

The policeman is no longer devoutly religious, smugly "just the facts" and virginal. Instead he is so traumatized by an incident in his past that he sees visions every fifteen minutes. The island and its people are no longer sunny and joyful in their oddity. Instead they all act as if they had just stepped off the cover of a Black Sabbath album. The islanders are no longer focused on fertility and abundance (despite their language);Their culture is now all about matriarchal rule, an element that serves the story in no way whatsoever. Finally, and most inexplicably, the film is PG-13, robbing it of the ability to portray in any effective way key aspects of the islanders' beliefs that in the original went a long way toward unhinging the policeman.

That LaBute has so completely destroyed a great story is something of an improbable accomplishment. While I concur with the many other reviewers that just about every aspect of this film sucks, the majority of the credit must be reserved for Neil LaBute. Burdened by this screenplay, the rest of the cast and crew did not stand a chance.

She Hate Me
(2004)

Could Spike have multiple personality disorder?
That's what I found myself wondering as I watched She Hate Me. What else could account for the improbability that the same filmmaker gave us both the magnificent 25th Hour and this dreadful film?

I won't dwell on the details, but to summarize: The film has two main plot lines. One paints a cartoonish picture of corporate corruption at a pharmaceutical company, complete with "business talk" as mis-imagined by a writer who clearly has never worked in such environments. Ellen Barkin and Woody Harrelson waste themselves in these scenes.

The second plot line is where this train wreck gets truly sad. Jack Armstrong, our protagonist, agrees to impregnate his ex-fiancée (Fatima, who has since come out as a lesbian) and her lover for money. Fatima decides to refer other lesbians to Jack for the a cut of the fee. We are expected to believe that nearly every one of these gay women elects to be impregnated via intercourse with Jack, rather than by artificial insemination.

Along the way we are subjected to a truly embarrassing fantasy confrontation between Watergate security guard Frank Wills and most the the upper echelon of the Nixon White House.

The saddest aspect of She Hate Me is that so many talents (John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Isiah Whitlock), none greater than the wonderful composer Terence Blanchard, were wasted on a script that is at once ridiculous and insulting to the viewer.

Spike, get some therapy.

The Incredibles
(2004)

Very good but hardly great
I am commenting on The Incredibles only because I appear to be in the minority. While I admired the witty writing, the amazing animation, and most of the voice work, I was not as impressed with The Incredibles as were most of the other reviewers.

I had two main problems with this film: First, it is simply too long. There should be far more deleted scenes on the DVD. It must be heartbreaking to cut scenes into which the film makers have poured so much love and effort, both of which are evident here. Nevertheless, had it been, say, 20 minutes shorter, it would have been a better film.

Second, this film does not find an effective balance between being funny and being moving. The silliness is great, but when they get into territory that ought to move us -- and they do appear to be trying to move us, the feeling is one of detachment.

The other reviewers have done a wonderful job of hailing the film's many strengths. I want only to round out the picture with these impressions.

Melvin Goes to Dinner
(2003)

The rest of your party is already seated
Nearly all of Melvin Goes to Dinner's brief running time is spent observing a rambling but always interesting dinner conversation among four variously connected people in their late twenties. I was very impressed by both the writing and the acting. It's rare enough that we get even brief conversations that sound right, like real people really speak to each other; Here we have over an hour's worth.

All of the performances are very good. I especially liked Stephanie Courtney's ability to make Alex simultaneously annoying and charming. Others have noted the wonderful cameo by Jack Black as a mental patient with an impressively detailed conception of reality.

If you find yourself looking for a break from CGI and other special effects, give Melvin Goes to Dinner a try. The best thing I can say about it is that as soon as it ended, I wanted to watch it again from the beginning.

EvenHand
(2002)

If John Sayles adapted a Joseph Wambaugh story...
Evenhand is a very impressive accomplishment: a quiet, thoughtful cop film. Its premise is familiar: two very different personalities working to adapt to each other and to the many demands of their jobs as patrolmen. So it's very much a character study, and the two principal actors -- Bill Sage and Bill Dawes -- do an excellent job of realizing their characters. As the film's energy is derived from their characters' different natures, it would have been very easy for each of their performances to become caricatures. They did not. In each, you see a fully-dimensioned person, including echoes of his partner's traits. That's good acting of good writing.

I also enjoyed the matter-of-fact style of the film, which reminded me of Victor Nunez's wonderful and under-appreciated Ruby In Paradise.

The Salton Sea
(2002)

Much better than average neo-noir, beautifully shot.
Val Kilmer gives us Tom Van Allen, a jazz musician embarked on a quest through the world of methamphetamine dealers, users and other predators. Kilmer is wonderful, as usual, in this alternately harrowing and hilarious post-Pulp Fiction noir thriller.

The whole cast is pretty wonderful as well. I especially enjoyed Vincent D'Onofrio as an eccentric drug dealer who has clearly been too long in the high desert.

The real standout element of the film, however, is the photography by Amir Mokri. Unlike some neo-noir, Mokri and director D.J. Caruso effectively balance high-key daytime shots with the darker interior and night shots, and all of them are excellently done.

The best elements of the screenplay are the many funny scenes, including a might-have-been heist gone wrong, a recreation of the JFK assassination, and a wonderful update of the "Easy Andy" scene from Taxi Driver.

The Salton Sea is worth seeing for fans of Kilmer, noir or both.

Independent Lens: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
(2005)
Episode 22, Season 8

Read the far superior Eichenwald book instead
After hearing so much about Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, I was eager to see it. What a disappointment. The underlying story is deep and worthwhile, so I was amazed that the film makers opted at every turn for cuteness over insight. Let me offer two specific examples:

1. Among many examples of a diseased corporate culture run amok, perhaps the purest were the special purpose entities created by Andrew Fastow,ostensibly to hedge risks for Enron, but in actuality to take debt off its balance sheet at great expense to shareholders, while enriching Fastow and his partners. These transactions were complex, but comprehensible, yet the film makers spent virtually no time trying to help us understand them except at the most superficial level.

2. Much is made of Enron's behavior during the crisis in the California wholesale electricity market. While this made for some flashy scenes, and allowed the use of shocking audio tapes of Enron traders being ruthless money-makers, it did very little to illuminate the failings that were particular to Enron. The trading behavior we witness was -- as the film points out -- also happening at other firms at the same time. Moreover, the opportunity to take such wanton advantage of the taxpayers and consumers of California was the result of deeply flawed market design. Finally, in order to maintain laser focus on Enron, the film makers allow Gray Davis and others who bear no small accountability for this disaster to make self-serving, and completely unchallenged statements.

If you have any interest in the Enron story -- and if you're in business, you should -- PLEASE read Kurt Eichenwald's excellent book "Conspiracy of Fools." Afterward, this film provides a useful supplement in that it does allow you to see and hear the amazing lies directly from Lay, Skilling, Fastow and others. This film is worth seeing, but compared with the depth of coverage in a typical Frontline, this is a music video.

Missile
(1988)

How very real people are prepared to wage unimaginable war
In this wonderful and quietly devastating documentary, Wiseman visits with the members of the U.S. Air Force who would be ordered to launch our strategic nuclear missiles in the event of total war.

The story progresses matter-of-factly through classrooms and training exercises to final evaluations. Wiseman's familiar narrative-free style is particularly effective here, because the subject matter is so extreme and yet the participants seem relatively at ease with what they are about. The result is that the tension and amazement that are not apparent on-screen instead build up in the viewer. The final 15 minutes contained a revelation that taught me something about myself I had not previously known.

I recommend this film highly to everyone. My only warning is that you need to hang in through the endless military and technical jargon, which goes almost entirely unexplained to no ill effect. It's not what matters here anyway.

The Maker
(1997)

Another fine picture from Tim Hunter
Tim Hunter made one of my favorite films: River's Edge, so I was eager to see anything else of his. He didn't let me down. The Maker is not as grab-you-by-the throat as River's Edge, but it shares that film's overall look and feel. The Maker also is set among the same people, more or less. If you didn't catch River's Edge, imagine crime film by Victor Nunez and you'll have the spirit of this one.

Clay Pigeons
(1998)

If you like John Dahl...
...you'll probably like this one. It's not too far from Red Rock West, or Blood Simple, for that matter. It shares their ambiance and twisted sense of humor. I knew I liked Joaquin Phoenix when I went into this film, but until I saw it I didn't realize how good Vince Vaughan could be. I had enjoyed his work in Swingers, but here he creates a very different character with complete success. Frankly, I am surprised by the negative comments I found here on this film. It's a hoot.

Sweet Nothing
(1995)

A good story elevated by fine acting
I caught this one on cable during a night of insomnia. I dialed it in so I could sleep, but it kept me completely awake. The story is small, simple, and familiar. What kept me watching were the wonderful, understated performances by just about everyone, which is usually a tribute to the director as well as the cast. This is not a big film, but it is quite memorable.

The Sixth Sense
(1999)

About as good as horror films get
I concur with the majority of comments thus far: The Sixth Sense is an outstanding example of the horror genre. Like The Shining, it is genuinely creepy, but like The Dead Zone, it retains its humanity; the combination makes it so affecting.

I was worried that the trailers had tipped too much, but I was wrong. While I could have done without them, in the end they did little to dilute the pleasure and power of this fine film. Even if you are not usually inclined to view horror films, or Bruce Willis films, for that matter, I highly recommend that you catch The Sixth Sense soon, in a real theater, with an audience. It is well worth your time.

The Thin Red Line
(1998)

Malick As Cinematic Storyteller
Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line is not so much a war movie as it is a nature film, featuring a wider-than-usual variety of wildlife. Current reviews understandably cannot resist the urge to compare it to Saving Private Ryan. Rather than thinking of it as the second major film this year set in World War II, I think it is more appropriate to see it as Terrence Malick's third film. It follows Badlands and Days of Heaven in the way that Casino followed Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence.

The Thin Red Line continues the storytelling style of his first two films, and it is every frame a Terrence Malick picture. Malick favors sights, sounds and music over words. He uses composition more than cutting and lighting more than action. He favors, in particular, low-angle side- and front-lighting, and all forms of light diffusion. In this film, as in his others, the pictures not only tell the story, they really are the story. As with 2001: A Space Odyssey, the words are barely captions to the pictures.

If you're looking for an action film, skip it. (The trailer is misleading.) If you're looking for a feel-good film, this is not it. If you didn't like Days of Heaven, you probably won't like this one either. If, however, you'd like to see a film that is completely, stunningly cinematic, you could not do better than The Thin Red Line. I found it spellbinding.

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