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December 27, 2003

House of Sand and Fog
Vadim Perelman, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Warning: Anyone already suffering from seasonal depression should steer clear of this heavy, disturbing film (let's just say that its unbilled star is Suicide). Vadim Perelman's debut, an adaptation of the Oprah-endorsed Andre Dubus III best-seller, tells the rather straightforward story of the test of wills that develops when two parties stake a claim to the same house. In House of Sand and Fog, the parties involved, and the path they've taken to the depicted point in time, couldn't be more different. In one corner is Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), a recovering addict who loses her Northern California beach house through no fault of her own; the house is seized after Nicolo finds herself wrongly accused of failing to pay business taxes. In the other corner stands Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley, in stoic, Oscar-winning mode), a former Iranian Colonel who swoops in and purchases the house once it's put up for auction. Complicating matters is a deeply flawed deputy sheriff (Ron Eldard) who falls for Kathy and takes it upon himself to rectify the situation, with disastrous results. The film's final third, where everything comes to a head and the fate of the house is ultimately decided, is an incredible, intense depiction of a modern-day Greek tragedy. The conclusion will strike many viewers as rather implausible, but there's no denying the heartbreaking pathos of the key figures, especially Kingsley, whose performance as the proud, exiled Behrani is one of the year's best. Also worth noting is Shohreh Aghashloo's silently powerful performance as Behrani's shell of a wife.

::: Eric Grossman

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December 24, 2003

Morvern Callar
Lynne Ramsay, UK / Canada, 2002
Rating: 4.0
Based on Alan Warner's novel, Morvern Callar centers on a young Scottish woman who wakes up one morning to find her boyfriend dead, a terse suicide note on his computer screen and a disc containing his recently finished novel. Morvern (Samantha Morton) spends the rest of the film working out her feelings for the deceased, from grief to bewilderment to a renewed sense of purpose to get on with her life (despite only being in her early twenties). Without even bothering to read the novel, she erases her boyfriend's name, replaces it with her own and sends it out to a list of prospective publishers in the U.K. She then empties the boyfriend's bank account, disposes of his body (without alerting anyone), and goes on holiday to Spain with her friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). Director Lynne Ramsay confidently reveals Morvern's directionless nature, be it wandering around Glasgow in the dead of night or traipsing about sun-drenched Spanish beaches, without inserting a shred of formal plot into the proceedings. It's that confidence in lead Morton -- one of the best young actors working -- and a willingness to simply let the camera follow her in a realistic, almost willy-nilly manner, that prove the film's true strength. Even when contrivances arise (the book Morvern sends out is accepted for publication and she's offered a hundred thousand pounds to publish it), Morvern Callar never feels forced. It's a fascinating study in aimlessness, a portrait of a young woman not seeking herself, per se, but rather desiring to find a better world to inhabit.

::: Laurence Station

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December 18, 2003

Something's Gotta Give
Nancy Meyers, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Talk about method acting as a lifestyle choice. In Nancy Meyers' feather-light Something's Gotta Give, Jack Nicholson plays Harry Sanborn, a wealthy, 63-year-old smooth operator who limits his female options to women under 30. As the film begins, Harry's sights are set on Marin Barry (Amanda Peet). But before he can close the deal, Harry has a heart attack at Marin's mother's Hamptons retreat. Forbidden by his doctor (amiably played by Keanu Reeves, who's reduced here to little more than a romantic foil plot device) to travel, Harry hunkers down and discovers himself drawn to someone closer to his own age bracket: Marin's mother, Erica (Diane Keaton), a successful but creatively (and sexually) frustrated playwright. Despite the limitations of the too-obvious, semaphore-telegraphed script, Nicholson and Keaton are magical together, playing off of his shark-smelling-blood, sensitive-yet-manly playboy archetype and her coiled-tight, neurotic control freak persona. Like Meyers' previous entry, What Women Want, Something's Gotta Give breezily skates along the surface and resolves itself with too-easy, "Only in the movies" contrivances. One has to give Meyers credit for putting two legendary talents together, however. Fans of either -- or both -- will certainly enjoy seeing them make cinematic gold out of tired, leaden romantic-comedy material.

::: Laurence Station

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December 18, 2003

Stuck on You
Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, USA, 2003
Rating: 2.7
Leave it to the Farrelly brothers to tackle the subject of conjoined twins and cast two actors bearing little resemblance to each other (Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear). Stuck on You follows Bob (Damon) and Walt (Kinnear) Tenor as the twins leave the burger joint Bob runs on Martha's Vineyard to pursue Walt's dream of becoming a movie star in Hollywood. Cher (playing herself) attempts to exploit the duo to get out of a TV show she's contractually bound to by selecting Walt as her leading man. The studio doesn't budge, however, and attempts to film around Bob (who's attached by a nine-inch stretch of skin to Walt's side) fail miserably. Walt's condition soon becomes obvious, and the brothers hit the talk show circuit and soak up the obligatory fifteen minutes of fame. Tensions arise, however, as Bob gets homesick while Walt remains determined to cash in on his celebrity: Soon, the separation the duo's long put off suddenly becomes a viable, if risky, option. Fortunately, the decision to separate (Bob has most of the duo's liver, thus limiting Walt's chances of survival) is underplayed, and actually provokes one of the film's few laugh-out-loud moments. Unfortunately, the separated Bob and Walt are little fun to be around, each obviously missing the other after 32 years together. Stuck on You lacks the edgy, "anything goes" energy of There's Something About Mary, and the Farrelly brothers did a better job of entertaining and informing on the topic of judging people based on character rather than physical appearance with Shallow Hal. And, since Walt and Bob are never fully developed (there's no family history or relevant flashback sequences), it's difficult to form an emotional attachment. Ultimately, the only ones stuck on Bob and Walt are each other.

::: Laurence Station

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December 18, 2003

Spider
David Cronenberg, Canada / UK, 2002
Rating: 2.7
The danger of using an unreliable narrator is that the reader or audience must discern what is reality and what is not from the perspective of the lead voice or character, which is too often maddeningly opaque when it comes to specific details. Having no counterpoint to what we're told is like watching but one of the confessions from Kurosawa's Rashomon: You learn what has happened, but are convinced there is more to the story than meets the eye. David Cronenberg's Spider employs this device, as does the book upon which it's based (both written by Patrick McGrath). The story concerns a man (Ralph Fiennes) returning to his boyhood home after spending time in a mental institution. Staying at a halfway house until he's well enough to venture out on his own, we quickly discern that Fiennes' character, Spider (so nicknamed by his mother), is having great difficulty piecing together dark events from his childhood. Via Spider's memories (well staged by Cronenberg, having the adult Spider stand off to side watching as the various scenes involving young Spider unfold), we witness his parents' troubled marriage and glean that his father may have been having an affair. Of course, having Miranda Richardson play both Spider's mother and Yvonne, a local tart Spider imagines his father carousing with, further muddies the picture. Ultimately, despite the peerless cast and strong visual imprint, Spider leaves only a marginal impression, primarily because we never get a clear idea of what it was, exactly, Spider experienced in his youth that damaged him so deeply. Did he accidentally kill his mother? Did his father do her in? It's in situations like these that a more reliable counterpoint would definitely come in handy.

::: Laurence Station

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December 16, 2003

All the Real Girls
David Gordon Green, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.0
All the Real Girls, writer-director David Gordon Green's follow-up to his well-received 2000 debut George Washington, inhabits that earlier film's same small-town, North Carolina environment. It also exhibits the same loose plot structure, deliberate pacing and poetically graceful cinematography (courtesy of Tim Orr)  -- all hallmarks that further stamp Green as an auteur rather than industry hack. Paul Schneider, who had a less central role in Washington, gets to play lead here as a small town lothario (also named Paul) who's bedded all the available girls in town. When his best friend's virginal little sister Noel (Zooey Deschanel) returns from boarding school, the expected complications ensue. But Paul, despite having ample opportunity to do so, doesn't take Noel's virginity. Instead, he struggles with entering the first adult relationship of his life. Noel, eager to see what all the fuss is about, winds up having sex with someone else, and Paul is left to sort out just how deep his attachment to her has become. As opposed to the more abstract George Washington, here Green's vague, exposition-optional style works against him: All the Real Girls is a character-driven drama that fails to adequately flesh out its principals, thus leaving us with little to hold onto save its genuine performances and artfully executed visual set pieces.

::: Laurence Station

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December 16, 2003

Finding Nemo
Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.9
With Finding Nemo, Pixar continues its examination of how other creatures -- toys, monsters, etc., -- view the human world. This time we're given a fish-eye perspective, as we follow an overprotective clown fish, Marlin (voice of Albert Brooks), who goes on a long journey from the Great Barrier Reef to Sydney, Australia, in hopes of tracking down his son, Nemo (voice of Alexander Gould). Marlin’s concern for Nemo’s safety, aside from the obvious father-son relationship, stems from an (off-screen) shark attack that occurred shortly before Nemo was born in which Nemo’s mother and a few hundred unhatched siblings were killed. Nemo does a good job of cutting back and forth between Marlin's quest and Nemo's attempts to escape from a fish tank in a dentist's office. The patented Pixar animation is astounding, and the voice characterizations prove well-matched to their fish counterparts; Ellen DeGeneres stands out as a daft Regal Blue Tang named Dory. The inevitable reunion of father and son proves less spectacular than one might have hoped for, and the message of a parent trusting his or her children to go off on their own is jarringly unsubtle, even for an animated film. But Nemo still succeeds in entertaining without relying too heavily on digitized "wow" moments, and ultimately proves a sleeker, more efficient creation than the convoluted Monsters, Inc.

::: Laurence Station

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December 06, 2003

Winged Migration
Jacques Perrin, France / Germany / Italy / Spain / Switzerland, 2001
Rating: 2.8
The idea of following a variety of birds as they migrate for winter, of being side by side or behind the flocks as they soar, swoop, and travel across the sky, is an incredibly promising one. Jacques Perrin and his team trained groups of birds to ignore the cameras hovering near them and set about, over a three-year period, to document the migratory patterns, trials and travails of their subjects. Winged Migration contains many beautiful shots, and the Herculean effort that went into creating it is breathtaking. The film's narrative and structural problems, however, detract greatly from its effectiveness. The score is bland and New Age-y; intermittent narration and factoid subtitles seem disconnected from a larger script. And considering the birds were trained, it might have been more dramatically effective to follow a single group of, say, geese, instead of jumping between several flocks of birds throughout. Winged Migration's goal is unquestionably noble, but the end result never quite takes off.

::: Laurence Station

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November 13, 2003

Willard
Glen Morgan, USA, 2003
Rating: 2.0
The 2003 version of Willard provokes a few baffling, unanswered questions from the outset: Why a remake of the 1971 film, itself just barely a moderately profitable cult classic based on Stephen Gilber's equally obscure Ratman's Notebooks? Is it some warped shot-for-shot remake like Gus Van Sant's equally questionable rehashing of Alfred Hitchcock's imitable Psycho? Perhaps Willard was a dream project for one of its stars? Try this: Maybe a no-name director (Glen Morgan) and cinematographer (Robert McLachlan) were determined to make names for themselves by attaching their modest talents to (at least tangentially) recognizable source material? Alas, Willard is none of the above. It's an uninspired remake straight from the Tim Burton school of schlocky tracking camera shots, a sad and uninvolving tale of a man whose only friend is a rat, and who possesses the unique ability to command swarms of rodents on command -- a talent he utilizes to take revenge on those who have wronged him. The real reason Willard exists is because it pairs two of the great over-acting mavens of late 20th century cinema: Crispin Glover in the lead and "It sure has been a long time since Full Metal Jacket" R. Lee Ermey as Willard's cruel, destined-to-be-swarmed-by-hungry-rats boss. Watching this duo go at it almost makes Willard a semi-bearable exercise: A case study in How Not to Be Subtle with Either Dialogue or Mannerisms. Even then, it's still a stinker. Rent the original, or better yet, save time and put on "Ben," Michael Jackson's stirring ode (growing creepier as the years roll by) to a man's love for his pet rat.

::: Laurence Station

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September 16, 2003

Le Divorce
James Ivory, USA, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2003
Rating: 1.5
In your local community college's Introduction to Film 101, a course that the famous producer-director team of Merchant-Ivory could teach with its collective eyes closed, you would probably learn that for any film to be enjoyable, you'll need a coherent plot and characters worth caring about. (A photogenic and/or interesting location or background would be good, too.) In Le Divorce, Merchant-Ivory (director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) have churned out one of the least impressive films of their storied career by largely forgetting about those pesky plot and character parts (although in using Paris as the film's setting, they did nail the location bit). Le Divorce makes great waste of its impressive, international cast by staging scene after scene with little flow or feeling. Kate Hudson (playing the ditzy Californian role that her mom, Goldie Hawn, made famous) and Naomi Watts (adopting a shaky American accent that has made no one famous) handle the central roles, as a pair of sisters who find themselves in the City of Lights for wholly different reasons. Watts's Roxie is the permanent transplant, married to a stereotypically useless Frenchman (played with sufficient insouciance by Melvil Poupaud) and struggling to raise a young daughter. Hudson's Isabel comes to Paris to visit her sis, but all hell breaks loose soon thereafter when Roxie's husband leaves her for the dreaded another woman, while Isabel, for murky reasons, becomes the mistress of Roxie's ex's uncle. Got that? Don't bother, as you'll likely find yourself wondering if Merchant-Ivory even read Diane Johnson's bestselling novel before agreeing to make this unwatchable mess. Actually, there are several bearable scenes, thanks to sweeping views of Paris and Matthew Modine's shockingly awful performance as the scorned husband of the aforementioned another woman. About halfway through Le Divorce, you'll likely find yourself pining for another movie.

::: Eric Grossman

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May 11, 2003

Real Women Have Curves
Patricia Cardoso, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.8
Real Women Have Curves tackles a slew of family and women's issues, from dealing with one's self-image to the tricky dynamic of mother-daughter relationships. America Ferrera plays Ana, a hardworking student and recent high school grad who's smart and determined enough to want more from her life than working in an East L.A. dress-making sweatshop, as her mother does. When she's awarded a scholarship to Columbia University, Ana's dream of making a better life for herself appears to have come true. The only problem is, Ana's family doesn't want her to go, fearful that if she travels cross-country to New York she'll somehow be inalterably rending the fabric of her tightly knit Latino clan. Real Women Have Curves features a strong cast and sharp photography, but it's ultimately undone by a script that plays it ultra-safe when it comes to looking beneath the surface of things. The interaction between Ana and her mother (Lupe Ontiveros) is more a series of sitcom barbs than a serious exploration of the resentment some mothers feel at seeing their daughters avoid starting a family as soon as possible in favor of having a career first. Ana is so optimistic and resolute throughout that when she finally does make it to college there's no sense of achievement, as if she had to overcome difficult emotional and psychological obstacles to get there. She simply departs. Her mother sulks. It's more television pilot than challenging piece of filmmaking, a real shame given the talent of the participants involved.

::: Laurence Station

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May 11, 2003

Two Weeks Notice
Marc Lawrence, 2002
Rating: 3.5
Grading romantic comedies requires a curve: Since the unspoken point of the whole exercise is to bring together the film's leads inconsistencies in plot or structure are judged more leniently than they would otherwise be. Two Weeks Notice is a perfect example. Sandra Bullock, who also serves as producer, plays Lucy Kelson, a crusading attorney dedicated to environmental causes and arresting the more socially catastrophic effects of modern progress. Kelson becomes chief counsel for roguish developer George Wade (Hugh Grant), an affably charming executive living a life of indolent prosperity, in return for George's promise to spare a neighborhood community center from his company's wrecking ball. But of course, complications ensue, as Wade's genial, rich-guy demeanor clashes with Lucy's uptight proficiency. When he summons her away from her best friend's wedding to ask her opinion on his wardrobe, Lucy quits, proffering the titular two weeks' notice. We know that this separation will eventually bring them together, but as is all too often the case with romantic comedies, we're given scant reason to believe that this union should actually occur. But just as superhero or fantasy films require a suspension of disbelief, so do romantic comedies insist upon a leap of faith. This is made possible here due to the easygoing chemistry of the two leads: The perfect inevitability of the compatibility of their screen personas eases any doubts a real human being would have about their prospects for a long-term relationship. Writer/director Marc Lawrence, who also helped pen Bullock's Miss Congeniality and Forces of Nature, shows a workmanlike adeptness for the form in his directorial debut. Despite a few missteps (Alicia Witt proves far too nice in the role of Lucy's competitor for Wade's affection), Two Weeks Notice does its job ably and with a certain lightweight charm that should have no trouble eliciting the required sighs of contentment from female viewers that are the genre's only measurable yardstick for success.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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May 05, 2003

The Believer
Henry Bean, USA, 2001
Rating: 3.0
The Believer is a modest independent film inspired by the true story of Daniel Burros, an anti-Semite and one time member of both the Neo-Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan, who killed himself in 1965 when the New York Times reported that he was actually Jewish. Bean's film follows budding skinhead Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) as he attempts to come to terms with his rage and reconcile his conflicted heritage. Gosling gives a fantastic performance, which essentially carries a shoddily constructed film. We never get a clear indication of what transformed a bright Jewish student into a heritage-denying racist; what we do get is a too-easy rationale involving a weak father figure and natural inclination to challenge accepted wisdom, which undermines Danny's believability. Where does all the (mostly self-) hate come from? Failing this, we'd settle at least for a mentor/father figure: In the flawed yet potent American History X, Stacy Keach's Cameron profoundly influences young Derek's (Edward Norton) development as a racist thug, which when added to Derek's personal family misfortunes helped ground that film in some semblance of reality. The Believer offers no such grounding: Danny has no Cameron directing him, and his articulate, seemingly autodidactic arguments about the "disease" of the Jews sound more like propaganda posturing than deeply ingrained beliefs. The closest he gets to hate-mongering guidance is a pair of one-dimensional clichés with the regrettable names of Lina Moebius and Curtiz Zampf (Theresa Russell and Billy Zane, respectively), an unfortunate imagining, on the filmmaker's part, of what pseudo-intellectual right wing wannabe fascists are presumably supposed to be like. The Believer is worth seeing for Ryan Gosling's exceptional performance alone: The rest is too unbelievable to bother with.

::: Laurence Station

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May 04, 2003

Bloody Sunday
Paul Greengrass, Ireland/UK, 2002
Rating: 3.8
On January 30, 1972, 13 people were killed and scores wounded in the town of Derry, Northern Ireland. The incident took place during a civil rights march that was prohibited by the British-controlled government, and triggered decades of warfare between British troops and the Irish Republican Army. Director Paul Greengrass (The Theory of Flight) looks at the events of what has come to be known as Bloody Sunday with the immediacy of a war correspondent covering the action on foot; the fictionalized action is presented in a shaky, urgent and often chaotic mode. The closest Bloody Sunday comes to a protagonist is Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), a parliamentary representative who organizes the march and struggles to keep it peaceful. Unfortunately, local youths, hooligans and members of the IRA react violently to the heavily-armed British presence, triggering a chain of events that leads to civilians being shot dead in the streets. Greengrass avoids indicting any particular group for the bloodshed, though the British are clearly portrayed in the least sympathetic light. The main problem with Bloody Sunday is Greengrass' ambiguously unfocused narrative approach. Rather than follow the path a particular Irish youth takes in becoming an IRA fighter, we follow the ineffectual Cooper, who's merely a politician fighting a losing, pacifistic battle. Bloody Sunday is an undeniably powerful film, but one wishes the filmmakers had been bolder in taking a stand on who was to blame for the carnage and revealing more about the chain of events that conspire to create an IRA terrorist.

::: Laurence Station

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May 04, 2003

Darkness Falls
Jonathan Liebesman, USA, 2003
Rating: 1.2
Why in the world any place, even a sleepy old New England town, would call itself Darkness Falls is highly questionable. Thus, right off the bat we're hit with a credulity-stretching plot contrivance that proves to be the smoothest move made by the rookies helming this one-note wannabe horror project. The film centers on a legend passed down through the generations, about an old woman who was wrongly hanged when some children turned up missing (later to be found -- oops!), but not before placing a curse on Darkness Falls. Seems the crone did more than just place a curse on the town, though; she's an all-out avenging revenant whose preferred method of attack is swooping down on her victims, yanking them high in the air, ripping them to shreds and then dropping them back to earth. While the ghost's killing method might seem clear enough, nothing else makes much sense. For instance, the old woman fears light but, rather than eliminating the source of her weakness, she chooses instead to pummel her non-light emitting victims. That this ghostly hag can interact with material objects, yet avoids taking out the source of her pain from a safe distance is one of the many glaring holes in this ploddingly directed, poorly acted and written train wreck. Avoid it at all costs.

::: Laurence Station

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May 04, 2003

The Crime of Padre Amaro
Carlos Carrera, Mexico/Argentina/France/Spain/USA, 2002
Rating: 2.9
Want to generate instant, hot-button controversial buzz for your film? Mix the following ingredients: Catholicism; Mexico; and morally corrupt priests. Shake well before serving. Carlos Carrera concocts quite the contentious beverage with The Crime of Padre Amaro, but what he leaves out of this melodramatic brew is a deeper examination of corruption in the Roman Catholic church. Y Tu Mamá También's Gael García Bernal, the Mexican It-boy of the moment, is savvily cast as the titular clergyman who strays from his vows and has an affair with a beautiful young girl (Ana Claudia Talancon). Opting for obvious, soap-operatic elements -- an affair, unexpected pregnancy, drug dealers giving money to the church -- Carrera bypasses an opportunity to do something truly shocking and controversial: Question the moral resolve and ultimate infallibility of the Roman Catholic priesthood in Mexico. The gifted Bernal certainly can't be faulted for making the most of a shallow, two-dimensional role, and Sancho Gracia does notable work as Father Benito, a priest who's strayed too far from the righteous path. Fans of Bernal and over-the-top Spanish soap operas will get the most out of this one -- and apparently already have, as it's become the highest-grossing native-born film in Mexico's history. Now there's a real crime for you.

::: Laurence Station

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April 27, 2003

Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Paul Justman, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.8
Standing in the Shadows of Motown gives props to the Funk Brothers, the studio musicians behind Motown's string of hits during the classic Detroit period (1959-1972). As the Brothers prove, one of the shrewdest moves label founder Berry Gordy made was to assemble the best players he could find (which primarily involved those musicians with jazz backgrounds) and allow them to define the unmistakable Motown sound. Justman, whose documentary is based on the Allan Slutsky book of the same name, uses talking-head interviews, staged reenactments and, naturally, performances by the surviving Funk Brothers to convey the importance and magnitude of the outfit's contribution to the history of popular music. You're guaranteed to never hear another Motown single from the Funk Brothers' period without connecting the infectious sound to the talented performers backing such legends as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes. Tellingly, the live concert meant to pay tribute to the Funk Brothers features well-known artists of today (Joan Osborne, Meshell Ndegeocello) fronting the band. And, yet again, despite being the main subject in their own movie, the Brothers get pushed to the background. Regardless, it's a fantastic mix of history lesson and heartfelt tribute to a group of players whose impact on modern music cannot be overstated.

::: Laurence Station

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April 25, 2003

Children Underground
Edet Belzberg, Romania/USA, 2001
Rating: 4.0
In her debut effort, documentarian Edet Belzberg examines the fallout of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's disastrous policy of outlawing contraceptives, thus encouraging his people to have more children in an effort to bolster the country's workforce. Concentrating on five homeless/runaway children living in and around Bucharest's Victory Plaza subway terminal, Belzberg reveals the difficulties faced by these youths but also the sense of liberation they feel escaping from their dysfunctional homes or bleak orphanages. Sixteen-year-old Cristina shaves her head and downplays her femininity in an effort to not only protect herself but to show her toughness against potential adversaries. When asked if she believes in love, Cristina says no, she believes in God, because "he's bigger." This kind of only-the-strong mentality dominates the world of these street urchins, where a definite pecking order exists and the cruelty meted out by the stronger, usually older children painfully mirrors the conditions from which they're all seeking to escape. Belzberg doesn't attempt to sugarcoat her subjects' behavior, from huffing paint to cutting themselves when upset -- the circumstances and miseries suffered by the children serve as a scathingly clear indictment of Ceausescu and his corrupt regime. Despite being toppled from power and executed in 1989, the dictator's sad legacy lives on, a fact that Children Underground ensures the world won't soon forget.

::: Laurence Station

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April 19, 2003

Roger Dodger
Dylan Kidd, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.4
You've got to finish. That's the mantra the titular lead of writer/director Dylan Kidd's first feature film repeatedly emphasizes to his 16-year old nephew regarding the Manhattan dating game. Regrettably, Roger Dodger fails to finish, but it does provide an entertaining excursion through New York's nightlife before its unsatisfying conclusion. Campbell Scott (Singles, The Spanish Prisoner) comfortably inhabits the title role, bringing a loquacious charm to the quick-witted, razor-tongued Roger, while Jesse Eisenberg more than holds his own as Nick, Roger's sexually curious nephew up from Ohio on the pretense of scouting colleges. For the brainy but romantically inexperienced Nick, a night on the town with his successful uncle promises to be just the sort of coming-of-age adventure he needs before entering the more socially advanced world of college. What Kidd gets right is showing how lonely the outwardly affable, wry Roger truly is, and how shallow and empty the one-night stand dating game can be. What undermines the film are references to Roger's dead mother, his strained relationship with his older sister (Nick's mom) and distance from his father. Kidd introduces deeper pathos to Roger's behavior (his preference for older women, clinginess to his boss -- a sharp, refreshing Isabella Rossellini -- and utter disgust with the singles scene), but by the end of the film, doesn't follow through. The film fails to reconcile Roger's problems (e.g., a cathartic conversation with his sister or father), or to wrap up by showing us a Roger who continues to persist in his vicious cycle of self-created misery, trapped alone every night in his bed. Kidd would have been better off jettisoning the subtext altogether and merely focusing on what works (Roger's wild night out with his nephew) rather than closing with a half-hearted stab at closure that comes up short at the end, when the game's on the line and you've got to finish.

::: Laurence Station

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April 19, 2003

Femme Fatale
Brian De Palma, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.0
For those hoping Brian De Palma would move away from pedestrian, big-budget fare like Mission to Mars and Mission: Impossible and return to the trashy, shamelessly voyeuristic sleaze of the films that made his name (Dressed to Kill, Body Double), good news: Femme Fatale wallows in every De Palma cliché imaginable. Lesbian action? Check. Gratuitous scenes of women dressing and undressing? Check. Obligatory man with camera/telescopic device watching women? Check. Vaguely noirish, byzantine, Hitchcockian plot? Triple check. Femme Fatale is the sort of movie unimaginative film school students might hand in when assigned the task of scripting the ultimate De Palma film. Genetically flawless Rebecca Romijn-Stamos plays Laure Ash, a thief working the Cannes film festival circuit who literally steals a diamond-encrusted top off of a sexy model (Rie Rasmussen) while groping her in a bathroom stall. After betraying her two accomplices, Laure takes refuge in Paris, where a photographer (Antonio Banderas) takes snapshots of her and a mysterious female counterpart. And then the plot goes way off the deep end, with De Palma seemingly making up contrivances as he goes along in an effort to keep the audience guessing. De Palma's "What really happened" angle is hardly inspiring, but Romijn-Stamos proves more than capable of carrying on in the fine tradition of the De Palma blonde, a trashier equivalent to Hitchcock's famed stable of beauties. That aspect alone merits Femme Fatale a mild recommendation. Just take the batteries out of your thinking cap before sliding this one into your DVD player.

::: Laurence Station

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April 19, 2003

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Sam Jones, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.5
Sam Jones is a photographer by trade, and it shows. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the director's first stab at a feature length film -- tracking the making of and drama surrounding the release of Wilco's acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- certainly looks gorgeous. This is a good thing, since Jones' narrative chops leave something to be desired. The fly-on-the-wall approach is sincere and nakedly front-and-center throughout, with little in the way of context for non-Wilco fans or those not overly familiar with the band's music or the album's backstory. So newcomers won't get nearly as much out of such footage as the diehards will, but I Am Trying does effectively show the creative process at work, tracking Foxtrot's songs as they evolve from workspace jamming to studio mixing and final mastering. Lacking any cohesive narrative structure, Jones lucks out with the now told-to-death drama that unfolds: Reprise Records rejects YHF as unlistenable, the band subsequently buys back the record from the label and ultimately triumphs when it's eventually released on Nonesuch to overwhelming critical acclaim. It's refreshing to see the band's lack of tired rock-star trappings: No groupies or wild parties, just a hardworking, blue collar approach to songcraft. As cinema, however, D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 slice of Bob Dylan cinéma vérité, Don't Look Back, did a much more effective job with subject and setting. For serious Wilco fans, this is a slam-dunk 5.0 Holy Grail of insight into the making of what's been hailed as the band's masterpiece. Non-fans will have much less to relate to. But any music fan should enjoy seeing the blood, sweat and toil that goes into making the end product we all buy.

::: Laurence Station

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April 19, 2003

Code Unknown
Michael Haneke, France, 2000
Rating: 3.8
"Have you ever made somebody happy?" That's the key question Michael Haneke struggles to answer in Code Unknown, an intensely moral film that examines selfishness in an unsettling and intentionally fragmentary manner. Taking one incident on a Paris street corner and then tracking the lives of three people directly and indirectly involved, Haneke challenges his characters with the self-examination of their own selflessness. Juliette Binoche plays an actress dissatisfied with her photo-journalist husband; Luminita Gheorghiu is a Romanian reduced to begging on the street in an effort to support her family; and Ona Lu Yenke teaches deaf children how to communicate, and yet has trouble understanding her own fractured African family. The notion of personal satisfaction over global harmony drives the plot, via the choices the characters make and obstacles they are forced to overcome, and is at the crux of Haneke's dilemma. Though, from the very outset, it's clear on which side the extremely humanist director falls: Intolerance of others is damaging to everyone. The film and its moral are a bit heavy-handed in execution, but the dramatic editing -- cutting away from one scene to jump to another in the middle of dialogue, for instance -- and uniformly strong performances help elevate Code Unknown to the status of a message movie that doesn't probe its deeper intentions without selflessly giving solid entertainment in return.

::: Laurence Station

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March 13, 2003

Tears of the Sun
Antoine Fuqua, USA, 2003
Rating: 1.5
How does America deal with the legacy of artificial colonial boundaries that cut across ancient, contentious intertribal lines in Africa? Easy: Send in Navy SEAL Bruce Willis and his elite team to give hope to the hopeless, inspire the downtrodden and elevate the spirits of needy, presumably leaderless Africans everywhere. Tears of the Sun is a self-important, self-congratulatory, tediously paced (though gorgeously shot, thanks to exotic Hawaiian locations) non-action action movie that capitalizes on the image of America (strong but tender; tough but caring) as Big Brother to the world. It's a fantasy, presuming a few good Americans (other nationalities need not apply) can hoist the world on their sturdy shoulders and avenge ethic atrocities. And, oh yeah, finish their designated mission: Lead a Doctors Without Borders aide worker (Monica Bellucci, muddied but still beautiful) and her staff and patients to safety in a Central African country that has imploded into fractious civil war. The enemies are faceless drones, existing solely to get mowed down and trade shots with Willis' crew near the very end. The film's absolute wince-inducing moment comes when the lone black solider amongst Willis' men says the team needs to save the beleaguered Nigerians because they're "his people" and Willis agrees: He has to follow through for "our sins"! Horrible, horrible, horrible. Why couldn't Clemenza have been given this assignment?

::: Laurence Station

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March 09, 2003

The Ring
Gore Verbinski, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.3
The premise is undeniably intriguing: A video tape that, once seen, dooms the viewer to die in exactly seven days. Of course, there's an escape clause: Make a copy of the tape and pass it on to someone else before your seven days are spent, and you're off the hook. (Not that there are any convenient instructions explaining this loophole, of course.) It's an anti-chain letter of sorts. There's really no upside (other than saving one's neck) and the downside is as grim as it gets. Gore Verbinski (The Mexican) directs this remake of Ringu, the wildly popular 1998 Japanese original, and follows the same basic template: Young, attractive reporter (Naomi Watts) investigates the tape's origins, attempting to figure out where it came from and whether it's an elaborate hoax. After her young son Aidan (David Dorfman) watches the tape -- as she herself has done -- her interest in escaping the video's death sentence ratchets up the tension quotient considerably. On par with Ringu, The Ring manages some genuinely creepy moments, despite lackluster pacing in spots. The source of the tape's malice has been altered from the original, and its justification proves a little more coherent to this Western viewer's sensibility, shedding more light on the significance of the seven day waiting period and depth of evil at work behind the killer tape. Those stout of heart are encouraged to watch this one with the lights off.

::: Laurence Station

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March 09, 2003

The Banger Sisters
Bob Dolman, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.9
Leaving the past behind versus living in it full time serves as the primary conflict of The Banger Sisters, a lightweight comedy that gets a little too self-consciously serious for its own good. Goldie Hawn is Suzette, an aging groupie who loses her job at L.A.'s famed nightclub Whiskey A Go-Go and heads down to Phoenix to hit up old friend and former party girl, current mother of two and all around respectable citizen Lavinia (Susan Sarandon), for some cash. On the way she picks up miserable Harry Plumber (the great Geoffrey Rush), a man suffering from writer's block, not to mention from the fact that he hasn't had sex in ten years. Free spirit Suzette handles the getting laid part and, naturally, becomes Harry's muse in the process. The film's main focus, however, is on Lavinia's attempts to conceal her groupie past, and Suzette wondering if she's wasted her life as a plaything for traveling rock stars. It's easy to imagine Suzette and Lavinia as the girls from Almost Famous (Goldie Hawn-Kate Hudson mother-daughter connection duly noted), all grown up and traveling decidedly different paths further along the road. Director Dolman, meanwhile, fouls up a perfectly fun comedy by getting overly sentimental toward the end; there's simply not enough depth to the characters to merit deeper examinations of identity and aging gracefully. But it's the three top-notch leads that merit Banger Sisters enough clout for a mild recommendation.

::: Laurence Station

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March 05, 2003

All or Nothing
Mike Leigh, UK/France, 2002
Rating: 3.1
Serving up yet another slice of British working class miserablism, writer/director Mike Leigh verges dangerously close to self-parody with this unflinchingly realistic examination of several families in a cheerless London housing tenement. Using an overwhelming pile-it-on approach of various miseries (obesity, depression, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy) to go along with the "just getting by" financial hardships of his ensemble, Leigh minimizes, rather than emphasizes, his characters' travails. Where Leigh's 1996 masterpiece Secrets & Lies possessed a narrower, more concentrated focus, All or Nothing attempts to tackle no less than every conceivable malady of the lower classes and winds up firing wide of its mark on all fronts. On the upside, Leigh regular Timothy Spall (as the meek, fatalistically philosophical cab driver Phil) and Lesley Manville (as the long-suffering mother of his two children) accord themselves quite nicely. Both actors manage to rise above Leigh's draconian restrictions on joy and happiness and, by film's end, find a tiny pocket of grace in their bleak reality.

::: Laurence Station

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March 03, 2003

Old School
Todd Phillips, USA, 2003
Rating: 2.2
A lightweight Animal House crossed with a Pre-Middle-Aged Back to School, Todd Phillips' Old School is as derivative as it is safe. The plot is obvious (30ish man moves into house next to college; restless buddies decide to start fraternity), the conclusion predictable (will the frat avoid being shut down by the vindictive dean, or will the fraternal brothers pass a series of "school spirit" tests and persevere?), and the humor pedestrian (Will Ferrell running around naked is about as daring as it gets). Luke Wilson is likable enough as the everyman Mitch, and Ferrell and Vince Vaughn handle their respective parts fairly well (physical and verbal comedy, respectively). But there's no sense of tangible threat here (as opposed to Animal House), and the picture suffers from a lack of flat-out funny moments (Sam Kinison's Vietnam War "lecture" in Back to School). Old School doesn't even bother to offer an original comedic thought, or pursue a different take on collegiate life or the onset of mid-life crisis. Which ultimately leaves the film with very little to recommend it. Appealing leads are not enough to save this third-rate retread.

::: Laurence Station

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February 23, 2003

The Rules of Attraction
Roger Avary, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.0
Novelist Bret Easton Ellis despises the characters he writes about. There's a venomous quality to his fiction, a condemnation of the people whose lives he explores, be they burnout L.A. teens in Less Than Zero or psychotic Wall Street financier Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. In The Rules of Attraction, Ellis shows us the world of Patrick's younger brother Sean, dealing drugs at Camden College, a toney New England institution of higher learning; Easton's bitter assault on apathetic rich kids screwing each others' brains out, doing copious amounts of drugs and partying nonstop is presented without a shred of interest in such fundamentals as character development or believable dialogue or situations. Ellis has an ax to grind, literary conventions be damned. All of which poses a conundrum for any filmmaker interested in adapting the book for film. Roger Avary's solution is to impress the audience with clever photography (backwards tracking shots; snowflakes that strike cheeks and turn to tears; really, really tight close-ups of faces straining during sex), and the end result is a handsomely shot, obscenely excessive exercise in film school tomfoolery, one with absolutely nothing important to say about rich, jaded, good looking college students. James Van Der Beek plays the predatory Sean, Shannyn Sossamon is the virginal Lauren and Ian Somerhalder is Paul, a restless homosexual with a predilection for straight men. Do we learn anything about any of these characters during the near two-hour running time? No. Do we care about them, whether they live or die, find happiness or drop off the end of the earth? No. As a result, what's supposed to be a shocking and arresting look at real college life proves anything but: Van Wilder offered a deeper examination of the typical collegian's mentality. That would appear to be an impossible statement to make but, alas, Attraction, in neither adding nor subtracting from its source material, proves the exception to the rule.

::: Laurence Station

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February 16, 2003

The Cockettes
Billy Weber, David Weissman, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.7
The Cockettes, a late '60s/early '70s San Francisco-based group of transvestite performers, receive the documentary treatment in this entertaining film, which utilizes a wealth of archival footage and talking-head interviews to paint a vivid picture of the outfit during its heyday. Led by the charismatic Hibiscus, the Cockettes begin as a freewheeling song-and-dance variety company, soon gaining enough notoriety to take their show to New York. Hibiscus, fearing that the group is becoming too commercial, drops out; the remaining Cockettes bomb in New York, but regret nothing about their misguided shot at the big time -- or at least off-Broadway. Unsurprisingly, many of the members die of drug overdoes or succumb to AIDS in later years, but the refreshing aspect of the film is how unrepentant the surviving players are about the excesses and addictions that defined their lifestyle. This is one counterculture movie that manages -- through anecdotes and imagery -- to faithfully depict the spirit of the times.

::: Laurence Station

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February 16, 2003

Mad Love
Vicente Aranda, Italy/Spain/Portugal, 2001 (2002 domestic U.S. release)
Rating: 3.5
Mad Love -- a curious change by U.S. distributors from the more accurate Spanish title Juana la Loca (Juana the Mad) -- details the doomed marriage of Juana of Castile (newcomer Pilar López de Ayala, in a strong performance), daughter of Catholic monarchs Isabella (Susi Sánchez) and Ferdinand, and Archduke Philip of Flanders (hunky Daniele Liotti). The purely political union shows initial promise, as Philip awakens heretofore undiscovered passions in his young bride. Shortly, however, Philip is spending less time with his wife and enjoying the company of Juana's ladies-in-waiting. The situation is exacerbated when Isabella dies and Juana becomes Queen of Spain. In Castile, Philip falls under the spell of Aixa (Manuela Arcuri), a Moorish exotic dancer/temptress, which only inflames Juana's jealousies to the point that she begins neglecting her duties as Queen. While the film doesn't delve very far beneath the surface of its historical personages, the late 15th/early 16th century details look right and, despite our foreknowledge of the less than cheery outcome awaiting the two lovers, Mad Love creates an impressive amount of soap-operatic tension. Juana is treated compassionately here, portrayed more as a betrayed wife than a raving lunatic, and she remains faithfully devoted to her cheating husband until the very end. The decision to offer a Moorish prostitute -- in league with the devil, no less -- as a scapegoat is both silly and patently offensive, if understandable; after all, redeeming Juana's battered reputation is clearly on the filmmakers' agenda, and thus someone else must by necessity take the blame for her downfall. Such self-serving narrative devices undermine the film's credibility, however, further reducing its overall effectiveness.

::: Laurence Station

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February 04, 2003

Narc
Joe Carnahan, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.2
Joe Carnahan moves from the Tarantino-inspired frenzy of Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, his 1998 feature debut, to the realm of the gritty police drama. Narc follows recovering drug-abusing cop Nick Tellis (Jason Patric, recalling a role similar to the one he played in 1991's Rush), who's been suspended from active duty after recklessly killing an unborn child during a drug bust. Tellis is offered a chance to return to police work, if he'll assists loose canon Lt. Henry Oak (Ray Liotta, in fine, shit-kicking form) in solving the murder of an undercover cop. Tellis and Oak go through the standard procedure of shaking down inner-city Detroit scum, all the while piecing together clues that they hope will lead them to the killer(s) and murder weapon. Tellis soon starts to suspect that Oak might know more about the murder than he's telling, leading to an inevitable showdown wherein secrets are revealed and surprising truths uncovered. Figuring out what actually happened to the slain narc ultimately proves less important, however, than the issues of honor and redemption with which both men are clearly wrestling. Despite a strong buildup, Carnahan's payoff is too tidy, and the final big surprise only causes one to question why so involved a cover-up was needed in the first place. Also, Carnahan blows what early on seems a chance to explore the stresses felt by law-enforcement spouses in a fresh and fascinating way. Ultimately, Narc is tough, well acted and urgently edited, but it never quite adds up to the sum of its initially intriguing parts.

::: Laurence Station

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January 18, 2003

Time Out
Laurent Cantet, France, 2001 (2002 domestic U.S. release)
Rating: 4.3
Human Resources, Laurent Cantet's 1999 debut, dealt with interlocking themes of labor relations and family ties. For his follow up, Cantet treads familiar ground, focusing on modern society's emphasis on one's place in the workforce, although this time shifting the perspective from blue collar to white. Vincent (accomplished French stage actor Aurelien Recoing), a middle-aged family man stuck in middle-management limbo, has been fired from his job for lacking "company spirit." His apathy carries over into the façade he invents for his family's benefit: they believe he's still going to work everyday, when in reality he drives around aimlessly in hopes that something better will turn up before the financial strain becomes too much. Vincent rebels against his mundane existence by refusing to find gainful employment, but ends up moving his 9-5 grind from behind a desk to behind the wheel of his car. Very little has actually changed, save that Vincent is no longer getting paid for doing little of importance. Cantet patiently builds his narrative around Vincent's increasingly desperate and implausible lies, until the weight of his double life threatens to destroy his marriage and family. Recoing carries the picture marvelously, subtly revealing a man who's bought into his own fantasy world until he can no longer distinguish between what's real and what's not. His performance helps make Time Out a masterful study in middle-class desperation, both claustrophobically constrictive and benumbingly blissful -- often within the same manic space and moment.

::: Laurence Station

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