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Erin Brockovich

Plays like 'The Insider' infused with Capra
I don't know how much of the "based on a true story" proviso is lip service, but the film's generally mild, sunny disposition at least FEELS like honesty. No one is ever particularly menacing or even mean to Ms. Roberts during her exertions, although there's a good deal of curt retorts along the way. The punchlines and feel-good moments are expected but welcome. The laughs are genuine. The ending is cute. Soderbergh plays the proceedings surprisingly straight for a change. No stunts, no gimmicks. "All heart," I'm sure the marketers would hasten to add. But it's pleasant (if ultimately unexceptional) to view a movie where the exploitation is kept to a minimum.


it's about a song
Every so often, in the general way of the world, lives overlap. When this occurs, and the participants are unaware of the meta-confluence, a state of grace is achieved. This is the foundation of all great narratives, the architecture of the so-called collective consciousness. Let's call it culture.

One of the great levelers in any society is an awareness of suffering. This is often considered to be an Eastern perspective, but look me in the eye and tell me that every belief system is not in some way motivated by the knowledge of suffering -- whether it operates as an aversion or an affinity. Let's call it a coping mechanism (term encompasses religion/philosophy).

People often do terrible things when they're suffering. Any number of calamities, abuses, crimes, conniptions, and conflagrations comes to mind. But less often, a mind, in its suffering, creates an object for that suffering, and transmutes the agency of the pain. Let's call it art.

For me, Magnolia is a film about people who are hurting. They've intermittently hurt other people, and they've just as frequently hurt themselves. There's a baseline for the sadness these characters share, and when the singing sequence kicks in, it represents -- to me -- the one golden moment when, unbeknownst to them, they are not alone. With a simple common pop-cultural reference, their despair is elevated/objectified into art. It's harmonious -- literally and figuratively. For once, none of them is participating in the pain of anyone else. They're just singing, quietly, expressing a universal lament.

It's the fulcrum of the film. Afterwards, some characters end up being healed, others saved, and some destroyed, but the point is that something meaningful and transcendent has transpired. And that's the most we can hope for in an agnostic universe that continually confuses and confounds us with its pyrotechnic virtuosity and its mind-bending distortions.


Cheap, but striking
A curiously captivating character study set against France's working class coastal community. The plot is true and vivid, but there are two matters of filmic technique that I must comment on. In this otherwise gritty, drab film, there is this unbelievably poetic slow-motion tracking shot of one of the main characters being dragged out of the titular revel by gendarmes. We're talking time dilation, confetti, clean vectors. Gorgeous.

The other notable visual moment is when the same character sets a dog on fire. What TERRIBLE "special" effects. First of all, as soon as he does the deed, the "dog" is very obviously, like, a bunch of oily rags on a wheel barrow being pushed around. Super fake. And there are all these strange ambient lighting effects that look like they've been applied directly to the celluloid with orange and red crayons! Cheap. Had a laughing fit right there in the theater.

Sex: The Annabel Chong Story

Not as much fun as you might expect
Nauseating and riveting. I went into this one expecting a vivacious, devil-may-care portrayal of a shameless nymphomaniac. Instead, I was treated to an uneven documentary (so many questions raised and left unanswered, especially as concerns the logistics of the pivotal gang bang at the center of the story)about an emotionally unstable self-mutilator. Profoundly screwed up. These glutinous noises of revulsion kept rising up from the (packed) audience -- waves of stiffness and discomfort.


It's got the attitude, but it's a little trite ... maybe a lot trite
Basically LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS meets TRAINSPOTTING. And as labored as that combination sounds -- and the film does suffer from numerous forced moments -- there are some genuine instances of under-your-skin verve and inventiveness . especially a particularly gruesome homicide facilitated by Q-Tips. Not pretty. And the lead actor, a cross between Brad Pitt and Ewan McGregor, is guaranteed to make teenage girls everywhere salivate, presuming he ever works again.

Final Cut

Expletive deleted
Absolute drivel. I was really psyched about this movie because the posters had a great tagline -- JUDE IS DEAD -- but the actual film on display was terrible. It's this quasi-verite retroactive murder mystery -- superficially like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT in a lot of ways, and that's sorta the problem. BLAIR is so damn good that this terrible, pretentious, fake, and causally barren film pales -- understatement -- by comparison. The characters are one-note and inscrutable, and the emotions on display are contemptibly stuck-on and just plain awful.

Happy, Texas

A patently unfunny sitcom episode of a film
I didn't laugh once. Could Steve Zahn be any more overrated? Could Jeremy Northam possibly have any less charisma? Actually, the person who fares the worst in this sad, sad production is Ally Walker. Her made-for-television acting consists of eye-fluttering and grimacing. Pure, unadulterated badness. And all the stereotyping this story engages in: hick cliches, gay cliches, romantic cliches. What a stinker.

8 ½ Women

It makes "Eyes Wide Shut" look like "Basic Instinct"
Stilted, stagy, strange and opaque, if visually striking ... a wannabe-erotic fantasy. Really boring, way too much male nudity (including father-son incest), and just a sort of shameless pointlessness. I will confess, however, that certain passages of dialogue, taken on their own terms, do have a lulling, haunting quality.

Fucking Åmål

A small, sexy film
The chicks in this film are statutory-hot, and the title had me champing to see it. It turned out to be a pretty decent character study about these two nascent lesbians and the small town they're trapped in (the Amal of the title, in Iceland). The look of the film is 8mm-ugly, and there is way too much cheesy Europop on the soundtrack, but this movie definitely has balls. Potential American remake material?

Cradle Will Rock

About as "immediate" and "relevant" as "Twelve Angry Men"
Self-conscious and not nearly as "vital" and striking as it supposes itself to be. A fine ensemble cast mostly goes through the motions of a very obvious agenda. Somehow, a populist urban polemic about McCarthyism set against the backdrop of public theater doesn't seem very relevant in 1999. The time-warping ending, presumably attempting to address qualms of appositeness, is laughably heavy-handed.

An Ideal Husband

Pretty, and pretty terrible
Trite, precious, rote, hackneyed, tired, terrible. I can't summon enough pejoratives to disparage this period-piece mess. First off, I didn't appreciate the obvious digital trickery employed to make this moderately budgeted production "handsome." Lots of mathematically blatant composites -- foreground too crisp, background too Gaussian-fuzzy -- and simulated crowd scenes. The whole film has this peculiar, hermetically sealed quality -- as if nothing contained within it has any causative relation to the world at large. Indeed, the forced drollery of the script made my eyes roll back into my head. It was painful to watch perfectly wonderful actors -- Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchette, Rupert Everett, Minnie Driver -- gesticulate their way through the wildly unfunny material, and even more painful to witness the usually insipid Jeremy Northam get way too much screen time. Pass.


Nothing to write home about
Uneven. A lot of funny and interesting ideas, but the whole thing sags halfway through -- degenerating into dueling rhetorical monologues, and the end is just plain in-your-face inept in terms of technique and craft. The film does score points for casting Selma Hayek and Linda Fiorentino -- both with charisma to spare. Terrible visual effects, by the way.

Return to Oz

A Film That Needs To Be Re-evaluated -- Upwards
Just finished watching Return To Oz, which arrived today. I'm still pondering it. The production values are first-rate, the conception and execution are absolutely stunning, and the music and cinematography are manifestations of some unspoken poetry. The drunken fanfares and weeping strings on the soundtrack, the poised, meditative composition of the shots, the way animatronics and claymation are used far more effectively in the absence of CGI than anything I've seen in the last four months, easily. It was courageous of director Walter Murch (who never worked in that capacity again, although he's since received Oscars and all sorts of other technical citations for his editing work on such films as The English Patient) to basically construct the film as a sort of tone poem to childhood, to the way a flat and unchanging Midwestern sky can crush a little girl's spirit.

From what I can remember, the film was a financial disaster. The pre-Eisner-Wells Disney poured roughly $30 million into the production -- a fortune at the time. The money is all up on the screen, however. The sets are intricate and spectacular.

Ultimately, this film lands somewhere between The Neverending Story and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in my estimation. It doesn't descend into eighties camp the way the former seems to have in hindsight, but ultimately it's not quite as sophisticated or consistent as Terry Gilliam's work. You get the idea that Murch & Co. received pressure from the suits to push the film into a more kid-friendly direction (on a par with the execrable Judy Garland version), whereas their creative impetus drove them into dark psychological territory. The end result is striking.

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