by Jerry Salisbury
Click on a movie's name to go directly to the review, or scroll down and proceed through them all.
Ali, Amelie, A Beautiful Mind, From Hell, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, K-Pax, Last Castle, Lord of the Rings, The Majestic, The Man Who Wasn't There, Monsters, Inc., Mulholland Drive, Oceans 11, Riding in Cars With Boys, Serendipity, Training Day, Vanilla Sky
Few men, let alone people, would ever want to get in the ring and go at it with a heavyweight boxer. For fear of injury, humiliation, or just because of intelligence or pride stopping them doing so, most of us will suffice to just sit, watch and cheer or jeer. However, anyone wondering what it would have felt like to go a few rounds with the one known as The Greatest need only sit through this tiring, sometimes flashy recreation of an important period in the life of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. It is at times amazing to watch Smith bring Ali's spirit and energy to life, but unfortunately this performance becomes bogged down with prolonged shots with only the musical score behind it and inconsistent pacing and transitions, which give this film the exhausting feeling of cinematic rope-a-dope.
Ali focuses on the most formulative and important years of his life, covering his ascension to the championship (by defeating Sonny Liston) through his religious conversion to Islam and the pressure, both external and internal, created by that, through two of his wives, his refusal to serve in the Army, and concluding with the infamous Rumble in The Jungle (wonderfully chronicled in the far superior documentary When We Were Kings). This seems like a lot of ground to cover for a movie, and director Michael Mann does allow sufficient time to develop and delve into each event which molded Clay/Ali into the athletic and social icon that he is today. However he fails to move smoothly from scene to scene, instead choosing to hold long, introspective scenes backed with some nice soulful music, but lending little atmosphere or deeper meaning to the events. In the end, Ali's life seems even more crowded, uncomfortable and disheveled than it really was. While things are really nice to look at, and hear, it gets very tiring, and any semblance of interest or curiosity generated is slowly beaten down, and finally away. The fight scenes, while well done, also become laborious, losing their intensity and effectiveness, and making us wish, as we do with the movie, that it would just be over. Forget the questions of historical accuracies, the lack of interest generated fails to make the audience even remotely care about them. This is something that I've stated, that films about real life must do in order to succeed, generate interest. I knew a lot about Ali already, but the aspects touched on here only made me remotely curious when introduced, and by their conclusion, created an ambivalent sense of exhaustion. There are so many flashes of brilliance, and of what could have been, in the hands of a director more used to dealing sports films (Ron Shelton maybe, to make up for Play it To The Bone), but instead Mann, more used to character-based films than biographical ones, fumbles the creation, while wasting some genuinely great performances.
Leading the way, far and above the rest, is Will Smith as Ali, putting to rest once again, those who doubt his genuine acting ability as a dramatic performer. He proved it to me in his volatile, vulnerable, powerful turn in Six Degrees of Separation, and once again here, as he embodies and becomes the Champ, in the same vein that Jim Carrey became Andy Kaufman. It is a truly haunting performance and one that deserves recognition but also one that deserved a much better film. Jon Voight seems to be getting the lion's share of the buzz in his turn as Cosell, and while he does get lost in the makeup being unrecognizable and captures Howard's true nature, even if softened a bit, the supporting performance to take away from this film is that of Jamie Foxx, as the troubled but loyal Drew Bundini. Foxx is making steps to be taken seriously as an actor, just as Smith did in his Six Degrees turn. Between this role and Any Given Sunday, Foxx shows an unexpected but wonderful diversity that should be noticed and recognized. Overall, the casting was perfect and dead on, but lost amidst the cluttered yet lethargic delivery of the film.
Ultimately, Ali is a sometimes flashy but mostly lethargic and exhausting exercise in futility which fails to recapture the heart and soul of a man revered by most, and respected by all who were influence by his presence. To truly capture a moment in time, all aspects must be covered, honored, and given their just due, in a consistent, smooth manner. Mann may have tackled more than he could handle by trying to bottle the Champ into just two plus hours. His life could be a miniseries that, if done well, could hold attention and create conversation long after. When We were Kings showed there is a story to be told about Ali, but it stuck more to reality, rather than recreation, and therein lay its success between the contender, and the pretender. Ali KO'd me early on, and even after some brilliant flashes and jabs, it still could not recover and ends up falling listlessly, and slightly, into the also-rans of the cinematic year.
Amelie (Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, Le)
Audrey Tautou has the look. Those eyes, full of playful innocence and exuberance, and that smile which could melt the polar ice caps, make it no coincidence that she shares a first name with Ms. Hepburn, who also embodied those qualities. As the centerpiece of Amelie, an amazingly sweet, wonderful and beautiful visual journey into the world of anonymous good deeds, Tautou carries the film on her sprightly frame and brings us along on her playful quest to spread happiness and joy through a world that seems to lack it, or focus in the wrong direction.
Recently, I've discovered that while it's the larger things we seek, it's the littler occurrences which hold stronger memories and relevance. We, as people, are defined initially by our external appearances, but as someone learns more about what's inside, and underneath, therein lies the key to building a strong bond. Amelie personifies this by relating smaller, seemingly inconsequential events together in its opening sequence, then defining each character by their minute likes and dislikes, even visualizing them for us. We learn that Amelie's father abhors clingy swim trunks, but loves cleaning out his toolbox. Her mother dislikes touches from strangers, but loves cleaning her parquet floors and purses. The early relevance of such material and petty events is not lost either. Poor Amelie is disconnected from true love and emotion by parents who rarely show her attention, thus she retreats into her fantasy world, and we are taken along on the journey. Her world changes one day, in her early 20's, upon learning of the death of Princess Diana. Now it's not this event pretell that changes her, but rather what happens afterwards, showing that it's not always the actions, but the reactions, which make us who we are. Based on a discovery, Amelie sets out to be a pied piper of happiness, by performing random, anonymous acts of kindness (witness a wonderful scene where she walks a blind man through the streets, describing everything from grocery prices to blooming flowers). These acts are all craftily set into motion by the introduction of the residents of Amelie's real world. We learn their faults, and quirks, and thusly each one is unraveled before us without us realizing how well we know each one. Amelie sets out to improve everyone else's life, and maybe her own by doing so. The film is a subtle character study, with a sweet core to its actions.
The center of this core, undeniably, is Tautou, cast by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet after seeing her image on a movie poster. She embodies and makes this character hers alone. Sprightly dancing through the lives of others, she hearkens back, not unintentionally, to a young Hepburn (notice the scene where she dresses like her, scarf, sunglasses and all). She has stolen my heart, not only with her looks, but with her attitude, energy, and that look, those eyes, that smile, so full of the life that most of us dream, but that she chases through the satisfaction and smile of others. She is the title character, and she is this movie, and she makes this ride what it is.
Ultimately, Amelie is a feel-good trek through the simplicities and complications of life, led by a dreamer with a heart of gold, and a look of magic, potential and desire. There is no end to the amazing potential of the human imagination, and its ability to generate imagery and ideas. In Amelie, Jeunet not only modernizes Jane Austen's Emma, but also mixes in doses of everything from Slacker to Don Quixote to Magnolia. Along the way, he utilizes beautiful and creative cinematography (possibly inspired, in at least one instance, by Ally McBeal) and an insightful script which borders on sugary sweet, but never crosses the line into the unrealistic or impossible. The prevailing emotion, once a movie ends, is what they are remembered most for, and anyone who does not leave Amelie with a big smile, and tears of happiness, should have themselves checked for a heart. It is nearly impossible not to fall in love with Tautou, cheer for her triumphs, cry with her sorrows and melt with just a glance. For a nation healing, and a movie community grasping to regain its feet again, Amelie shows that triumph can be found in the face of adversity, and that the simplest things to one person, can be the most important to another. I am Jerry, I like the smell of rainstorms, the feeling of cracking my knuckles, and the way that new shoes feel on your feet. I dislike people who don't pull all the way up at gas pumps, the smell of electrical wire burning, and movies that don't make you feel that this one does.
A Beautiful Mind
It is unofficially time for Tom Hanks and Spencer Tracy to make room in movie history; Russell Crowe is about to join them. It may also be time for Ron Howard to make space on his mantle, and for Jennifer Connolly to be taken seriously by those who do not already. With A Beautiful Mind, an emotional journey into the mouth of madness, love and genius, the participants have come together to create the year's most intense and amazing movie experience. I must honestly admit that as the credits rolled, I was both crying and cheering, a dual achievement that is becoming even more rare as Hollywood drifts away from quality into the quantitative capitalistic mode of how much and how fast. This is proof that some people still care about making quality movies, and that it can be done.
The movie, taken from an autobiography by Sylvia Nasar, is based around events in the life of Nobel Prize winner, genius, and schizophrenic, John Forbes Nash. His theories changed the economic and social world in ways that we don't even realize. It begins during his years at Harvard, during his search for an original idea, in a mind full of so many. We are taken on a journey through his life and mind, meeting his future wife (Jennifer Connolly) his rambunctious roommate (A Knight's Tale's Paul Bettany) and a mysterious government agent (Ed Harris), as Nash fights to understand and explain everything in life through reason and intellect. As in any quality movie, to explain the rest of the plot would be to rob the movie of a part of its magic. The revelatory delivery is patient, powerful and painfully honest in showing the effects of Nash's illness on himself, and those around him.
This could very well be the pinnacle performance of Crowe's career. While he was very commanding and effective in Gladiator, I felt that was more of a makeup for his more deserving turn in The Insider. While this is typically the kind of role that is Oscar shoo-in, Crowe doesn't take the usual route with it, instead giving the role the edge it deserves, eliciting fear, appreciation, sympathy, laughter and compassion all at once. He, like Cate Blanchett, has shown the ability to glide effortlessly through not only chameleon-style appearance changes, but vocal tones as well. What separates this performance from so many others is the obvious heart and emotion seen Crowe's eyes while playing Nash. You can feel what he feels, good and bad, and you become a part of him, cheering for him, while understanding his plight, a consistency that Crowe elicits in his roles. This is the type of performance, not role, that deserves recognition and will get it for him this year. Along with him, Connolly deserves acknowledgement as well, for finally bringing to the mainstream what those who have seen her independent work have already known; she is a very talented and versatile actress. Her work in Requiem for a Dream and Waking the Dead was incredible, yet under-seen last year, but now the world will know what a treasure she is, not just to look at, but in her ability to show her emotions and bare her soul, inside and out, like few actresses working today, comparable maybe to Jodie Foster. Add in Ed Harris, who is consistent as usual, as the best supporting actor working today, and a comic turn from Bettany, who stole A Knights Tale, and Howard has amassed the near-perfect cast to effectively tell and relate his story in the wondrous, bitter, yet realistic manner which he does here.
Ultimately, A Beautiful Mind is 2001's most intense, realistic ride through the world of what we try to explain and do not understand. Crowe embodies Nash to perfection, while Roger Deakins (who also did magnificent work in The Man Who Wasn't There) has combined his visuals with simplistic, yet complex screenplay by Akiva Goldsmith (balancing intensity with humor) to take us along on Nash's battle to understand and grasp reality. I must admit a weakness for movies involving both genius and mental illness (dealing with both in my lifetime as well). The movie takes an amazingly subtle yet effective stance towards the maddening and frustrating fine line between brilliance and insanity. Most directors, writers, and actors for that matter, would have gone over the top and milked the heartstrings of this story until the audience is beaten into a sugar and hormonal induced coma. But Howard and Goldsmith have gently and tactfully crafted a message, which balances the delicate emotional moments, with the historical ones, to create a message, which strikes at the very heart of all humans who have tried to reason what can only be felt. Nash grasped and fought this his whole life, and Howard has captured it to near perfection. When March rolls around, everyone will know what most of us already do: that Crowe is a versatile, amazing actor, that Howard is not all full of overblown fluff, that Connolly has moved into the upper echelon of dramatic actresses, and that you should know more about John Forbes Nash.
One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the 20th century.
From Hell is a stylish but languishing attempt to show yet another perspective in the serial killer genre of films that recently has been dying a slow and painful death. The Hughes Brothers have delved back into history for the tale of one of the world's most infamous characters and legends, that of Jack The Ripper. However, instead of exploring any new ground, or utilizing the beautiful visuals, costumes and sets, they follow the prototype that films like Se7en had already established and done better. What's left is a methodically paced journey down the same path where only the costumes and calendars have changed, but the path has stayed the same.
Legend has it that Jack the Ripper terrorized the Whitechapel section of London during the late 1800's. His identity has never been officially discovered, but many speculations and background stories abound. From Hell delves into one of these stories, once again employing a lot of creative license. Johnny Depp plays an opium-addicted detective who does his best investigative work when he is asleep. He visualizes crimes and solutions in his dreams, and has a frightening rate of accuracy. He is chasing The Ripper, who is terrorizing prostitutes in said area of London and, conveniently enough, they all hang around in a group so that makes it easier for him to find them. The detective befriends one of the young ladies (Heather Graham), of course, and becomes involved with her, almost to the point of distraction from the case at hand. Sound familiar? It should: been there, done that, just in a different era. Also complicating the investigation is Depp's boss, and others who may or may not belong to the same group that the Ripper suspect does. What follows is the intermingling and intertwining of the investigation, and the love story aspect, to near pinpoint predictable proportions. It really saddened me that the movie took as few chances as it did, other than with its graphic visuals and beautiful cinematography. The red herrings were an interesting twist, and not pointless, but too drawn out and typical to elicit any kind of concern or question. The resolution is acceptable, since it was neither obvious nor out of left field, but still left me yearning for a more compact, intense package. No matter how much you dress up a story, or change the locale, it can't hide a script and storyline that is typical, boring and easy to predict.
The performers follow the path effectively enough, with no one really standing out or being too bad. Depp is stellar, as usual, in his understated role as the conflicted, imperfect detective. He is truly an underrated, and underappreciated actor (since he hasn't won any awards yet) who continues to show and broaden his horizons as an actor. Although this role is just a step to the right from Sleepy Hollow, his ease and comfort slipping into these roles is admirable. Graham is acceptable as the lady of the evening showing an innocent sensuality that has become a trademark of her roles, and Coletrane, Holm and Richardson all give effective supporting performances in a story that deserved better flexibility and direction than this one got.
Ultimately, From Hell is a Victorian serial killer movie that fails to explore or exploit available avenues of potential. Movies like this that explore the darker sides and capabilities of humanity, seek to scare us, shock us and create a sense of suspenseful terror at what could be lurking around every corner. From Hell's slow, deliberate pacing, meant to build suspense, instead robs the movie of it. The atmosphere and music set a chilling, suspenseful mood, which is betrayed by the pacing. The story, following patterns that have been seen before, doesn't open any new doors, or explore anything that hasn't already been done or speculated upon. Instead the film relies on conventional paths, bathed in a lush and beautiful background, leaving the viewer with a sense of visual fulfillment, but mental disappointment. From Hell is far from a bad movie, but isn't quite a good one. I was right down the middle on this one, but because of sense of slight emptiness when I left theater, I cannot quite recommend it. Appreciate it, yes, admire its vision, yes, but yearn for a darker, edgy retrospect on the world's first serial killer, most definitely.
Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone
There is a certain magic drawn from the mind and spirit of the young. The look in a child's eyes, the view of the innocent possibilities of the world, and the playful path, which is taken to adulthood, is something enjoyed by the young, and envied by the older, whom desire to be young at heart once again. Chris Columbus's long-awaited transference of the mega-popular Harry Potter book(s) is a magical (a word I will use again) journey through another world, and a time lost but sought to be regained. Many had ideas and visions of how the film should look (as most who read books will do) and few will be disappointed at the results. The near-perfect combination of faithfulness, effects, music, casting and sheer Hollywood magic make this film that hearkens, justifiably so, comparisons to Willy Wonka, Star Wars and Mary Poppins, if for no other reason, than it gives a new generation of kids a new movie to rally around, while giving adults a movie to recapture our youth with. Such universal appeal is rare, but magical, and captured to perfection by Columbus and company, using Row ling's story.
Okay, for those who have read the book, skim this part. For those who haven't, here is a crash course in Harry Potter 101. As an infant, young Mr. Potter lost his parents to an evil wizard (known as Voldemort, You-Know-Who, or He-Who's-Name-We-Dare-Not-Say). Since Harry survived, with only a lightning-shaped scar to show, he is considered a deity amongst the denizens of the magical world. Unfortunately, he is not deemed ready to receive training for his destiny until his 12th birthday; hence he must live amongst the commoners (or Muggles, as they are lovingly referred) until then. He lives with the Dursley's, his closest relatives, who treat him like an outcast. Finally, the day comes where Potter is brought to Hogwarts, an academy for young wizards, where he will be trained. There, he meets Hagrid, the caretaker, Dumbledore, the headmaster, Professors McGonagill and Snape, instructors, and his various classmates, including the fire haired Weasley's, Hermione (whose name pronunciation may incite riot amongst Potter fans), and his nemesis, Draco Malfoy. Now the rest of the film unfolds, based upon these events and characters, as Harry proceeds through training, and becomes a player in the #1 wizard game, Quidditch, a flying cricket/dodge ball style game. The remainder of the first book, and subsequent ones, are based around these facts, and I shall leave the movie to unveil them in its picture and word-perfect fashion. This is the truest form of an adapted screenplay than has ever existed in Hollywood. Columbus plays on the old adage of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." There is a reason the books worked so well, because they touched a chord, and found that middle ground and bridged that chasm between youth and adulthood. Why mess with that? Thankfully, Columbus does not. By doing so, he has created a nearly 2-and-a-half-hour film, which may drag by for those unfamiliar, but will fly for those of us familiar, because we know exactly where the story is, and where it has to go, because Columbus never strays and only omits small pieces on his way to the magical promised land of happiness and satisfaction that this movie gives everyone.
How many times can I say "cool", until it seems unprofessional…this movie seriously brings that into question and makes it hard to behave like an adult, when I just wanted to be 12 again and escape to a time when the world was simpler, and our eyes and souls were untainted. Each generation has one movie that captures this magic, but not since Star Wars have we had one. Now that we do, everyone should come along on Columbus's ride through the magical land.
Anyone who has ever read a book is probably guilty of envisioning how things and people look; it's part of the magic of the underappreciated wonder of reading. Our imaginations become the play toys of the author, and we each have our own creation of how things appear. Few who have read the books would be hard pressed to criticize any of the translations here, since the casting is exact and fitting and the actors, from Daniel Radcliffe to Emma Watson, to Rupert Grint as the kids and to the delicious casting of Alan Rickman as Snape (whenever I read the books now, I hear his voice and smile wickedly) and also a scene-stealing cameo from John Hurt. No one could have asked for a better translation. The effects are absolutely breathtaking and more wondrous than I imagined. From the Quidditch matches, to the haunted spirit of the castle, and even a three headed monster dog named Fluffy, the world comes alive so seamlessly that it seems like somewhere that we could easily envision and vacation to.
Ultimately, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone is a wondrous escape and magical journey into another world and another time, guided by the simple power of emotion and love. The simple complexity of the story carries through into the film's execution by never straying from the mood, spirit and attitude of the story, while using wonderful effects and a deliciously ear-pleasing score from John Williams to give birth to what our imaginations had only dreamed until now. I must plead impartiality from being able to gauge whether or not this succeeds as a standalone success, but I would like to think so, because from a cinematic aspect, it does nothing wrong. The script is solid, the performances are consistent and dead on, the effects and art direction are definitely award worthy. It will truly be an unforgivable crime if this movie does not cast its spell over at least these categories in March, along with Adapted Screenplay, since it personifies that like no other. Chris Columbus's love letter to the young and young at heart hits every right note, and for this 34-year-old Potter fan and movie fan, this is the reason they make movies, and the reason I go, the magic of cinema, and the wonder of it all.
I ain't happy/I'm feeling glad/I got sunshine, in a bag/ I'm useless, but not for long/The future is coming on
Apparently, there is an unwritten rule that there must be a speech or epilogue at the end of most recent efforts involving Kevin Spacey. In K-Pax that discusses the trend of the universe expanding and imploding upon itself, then repeating this process. The movie seems to follow a similar philosophy and unfortunately does not learn from its mistakes as the speech implies near its conclusion. There are genuine feel-good moments, some sparkling dialogue, revelations and messages, but it all gets cluttered up in predictable situations. Upon initial reflection, K-Pax struck me as a typical feel-good movie that fails in some of execution, by instilling situations for cinematic purposes only, so that they could be resolved and the audience could feel good. That opinion has not wavered, but I have had a change of heart on the film's conclusion. At first, I faulted it for being "contradictory to the principles that the movie preaches, but convoluted in that it throws numerous faux endings at us, until it finds one that sticks." But upon further review, and heeding the mantra of Spacey's masterful American Beauty, I looked closer, and actually now admire the way the film leaves things unresolved to the observant and attentive. So be forewarned, things may not always be as neat and tidy as they first appear.
Spacey is Prot, a mysterious man who is picked up by the police after telling them he's from another planet. As you would expect him to be, since I'm sure the asylums are full of people making such claims. But unlike 12 Monkeys for instance, director Iain Softley handles this one as his name suggests, softly but realistically. Prot claims to be from a wondrous and beautiful, yet emotionally disconnected planet called K-Pax. He claims to have traveled on a beam of light, and will be going back the same way. Of course everyone, including Jeff Bridges, as the doctor whom he is transferred to after nothing else seems to work, meets these claims with great skepticism. The good doctor is a workaholic, who is estranged from his son, and is losing touch with his wife and children. These are some of the plot manipulations, which just beg for resolution. The underlying theme is one that I truly admired, and will, or at least should, stimulate thought and conversation: Why is it that we will expend more energy trying to disprove something than actually believe or prove it? Blind faith (maybe represented by Prot spending the majority of the movie in sunglasses) is a message that the film could have focused more on, and hit home harder. Appreciate what you have around you; believe without cause or justification sometimes. We trust, know and base so many philosophies on things we cannot completely see or understand. So why then would it be impossible for there to be someone from another planet amongst us? That would entail a whole other debate that I'll stay clear from, as the movie does, save a couple of opening diatribes explaining certain obvious details. The film realizes that the focus is on Spacey; his character's simplicity amidst the chaos and complications would have worked a lot better if the film stuck to. The conclusion will probably be a sticking point for many, and I'll just say this. It appeared at first to come to multiple resolutions, before finally settling for the one it did. But in actuality, it was just strengthening the case for showing that not everything can be resolved or explained, that sometimes you just have to believe or trust. Just remember the details of what Prot knows, sees, and endures--that's all I will say. I really wanted to like this film more than I did, because it proclaims to preach a message of seeing the simplicity and beauty in life and not trying to over analyze things too much. When it stays this course, it works, when it drifts into crowd pleasing emotional heart manipulation, it stumbles, such as with the issue of Bridges' son. The overall effect is one of mixed satisfaction, and maybe slight confusion, but the X factor is Spacey, and he's worth seeing it for if nothing else.
As is usually the case, Spacey plays someone who may or may not know more than the rest of the cast. He does this through his smug yet vulnerable confidence, which he effortlessly exudes. His conversations with Bridges work wonderfully, now that Bridges has come full circle from his Starman episode to play the almost burned out, but still obsessive to a fault doctor (similar to his role in Arlington Road). Together, they carry the film through its troubled moments, and to its resolution. While the delivery is a bit diluted, the intention is very obvious, thanks to them, and some strong supporting performances from the inmates who run the typical asylum gamut but have an innocent, relatable charm, as the movie does for the most part.
Mystical? Maybe/Spiritual, hearable/What appears in you is a clearer view cause you're too crazyUltimately, K-Pax is a movie that makes you feel good when it works but at times betrayed by its own premise. There is a message here that comes across, but Softley tried so hard to beat it into the viewer, that he lost any effect. There is not always a need to have everything make sense or be resolved completely. Life doesn't always work out, or make sense, but it still goes on whether we like or not. The film works best when it sticks to the message of acceptance of something for what it is, instead of trying to expend energy better spent on trying to disprove what may seem implausible. One of Spacey's last comments discusses believing in the possibility of one thing, if Bridges will believe in another that seems irrational. Had the movie stuck to the simplicity of some of its dialogue and ideals, it would have been a much more powerful experience. By trying to do too much, director Softley doesn't achieve as much as he could have and leaves us with Spacey's performance, a non-Hollywood ending, and a lot of potential to remember this film by.
For the rest of the reviews, proceed to the next page.