Films I Watched - January, 2005

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  • 1/30 - Gandhi - When the dust of pulverized proximity has blown clear from the last century, I suspect many of the now-famous men and women will be largely lost with the years. I also suspect that if only one person is remembered, it may well be Mahatma Gandhi. His radical, non-violent approach to changing the course of a colonized country shocked the world, and his ideas fired our own nation’s civil rights movement, especially as embodied by the Reverend King. It is a life, however, that seems to defy dramatic depiction. Sure, his actions were bold and daring enough to hold the interest, but his life was frankly submerged in virtual sainthood. If there is any sloppy scandal or huge, gapping fault, I am largely unaware of it. How do you paint a picture of a life that seems lacking in the large weaknesses modern biography tends to thrive upon? Richard Attenborough obviously spied the solution in the template of David Lean’s epics. Like Lean’s Lawrence, Attenborough’s Gandhi largely remains a mystery, a man known only through his great actions and perhaps, ultimately, unknowable. Even the timing of the film’s intermission echoes Lean’s masterpiece. Unlike the older epic's hero, Gandhi, while a man of great action and vitality, was a man of non-violence, and it is to Attenborough’s great credit that through his film’s three-hour-plus running time, the screen is never less that captivating. Ben Kingsley's performance is perfect, retaining the mystery and the movement of this truly great human. In the end, the film cannot top Lawrence of Arabia, but then, it does not have to. It simply had to succeed as a great film in its own right, and that it does gloriously. ****

  • 1/23 - The Bridge on the River Kwai - How many adventure films spend this much time exploring the nearly hidden motives of the major characters? How many two-and-a-half-hour films pack so much insightful content into every scene with nary a stray, useless thread? How many epic films can come close to artistic high of The Bridge on the River Kwai? Not very many, not very many at all. ****

  • 1/22 - Finding Neverland - There is every chance that film critics have a shelf life, an expiry date, and if that is true, perhaps everybody on this site should simply start ignoring me now. I expected Finding Neverland to prove a clump of clotted cheese; instead, I discovered one of my favorite films of the year. The film and I could have lived without a few scenes, but I found this simple drama about the life of the man who wrote Peter Pan to be incredibly moving, touching stuff. The acting is naturally superb, but the directing is just as impressive. Marc Forster knows when to sell the material and when to sit back and let the drama sell itself. Luckily, the screenplay provides marvelous material, touching upon the emotional life of several characters without overplaying the subtexts or simplifying complicated situations. What can I say? Maybe I related all too much to the story, but I really, really loved this film. Stick a fork in me; no doubt, I’m done... ****

  • 1/21 - Hotel Rwanda - John Irving famously opened his novel A Prayer for Owen Meany with this quote from Leon Bloy, “Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.” It is a confronting quote; it challenges people as to how far they are willing to go in order to uphold the values they claim to be most dear. Living in the land of comfort and in the buckle of the Bible belt, I know many people who claim many values. I also sadly know how quickly those values melt in the heat of desire or conflict. Hotel Rwanda, like Schindler’s List, in many ways throws down the same gauntlet; when the gas is turned up, how far will average people go to uphold their beliefs in major matters such as freedom, tolerance, and the right to life of every human. Don Cheadle embodies that conflict, and he delivers a performance that deserves the Oscar nomination he will most likely get. Moments click here, but unfortunately, the movie seems a bit soft-padded, allowing oddly cheesy scenes into a hard-nosed drama that has little room for them. These slips do not ruin the film, but they do handicap it and keep it from soaring as high as Cheadle’s performance. Still, despite the flaws, this is challenging stuff. ***

  • 1/18 - The Manchurian Candidate - Regulars here have probably picked up on one of my pet peeves I often encounter with movie buffs. When a classic film gets remade, the reaction is often, “Do we really need a remake of that?” Naturally, the answer is no, but then I think, “Did we really need the original?” Is art a need? Do we really need a remake of the classic The Manchurian Candidate? Nope; we didn’t the original either. I am glad we got it, though, and even if the remake is not quite as great Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, it is still pretty terrific. Jonathan Demme seems back in form, closing in on tense faces and ratcheting the tension up to a deliciously paranoid level. Denzel Washington realizes Bennett Marco’s slow transformation with excellent skill, and heck, if it was up to me, I might well give the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Liev Schreiber, who wows playing a vice-presidential candidate caught up in a plot he can hardly imagine. Perhaps the most impressive fact here is that Demme delivers a politically charged thriller without letting the politics get in the way of the thrilling. The screenplay updates the archaic original excellently; the film plays about as current as last night’s edition of CNN Headline News. The Manchurian Candidate is an excellent summer blockbuster that painlessly slides in substance like a Teflon-coated implant. As an odd side note, this is the third film with Jon Voight I have watched in a week, and I forgive him for Superbabies... *** 1/2

  • 1/16 - House of Flying Daggers - Zhang Yimou returns to the martial arts well once more, and while this film cannot compare to the previous Hero, it is still worth watching. Swapping out political philosophy in the limelight with romance and passion, the story twists and turns as much as the flying daggers, and the visuals bathe the eyes in sumptuous shades of lush glory. The fight scenes are a little less spectacular, and the story lacks the suspense and, at times, the logic of the pervious film, but the acting is fantastic, and with Zhang Yimou behind the camera, this certainly stands above most martial arts films. Still, I admit I kind of hope that the director has this out of his system now, and that he will give us another haunting drama worthy of his early and mid-nineties peak. ***

  • 1/16 - Midnight Cowboy - Some of the psychedelic touches do not play as the innovative leaps they used to play as, and this once-X-rated film does not have a prayer of shocking us like it did its original 1969 audience, but even stripped of those advantages, this film is a classic. Behind all that flash and temporary sparkle, Midnight Cowboy captures one of the best stories ever told on the big screen about friendship. Hoffman and Voight both deserve much of the credit, but let us also praise John Schlesinger, who nails the pacing and knows when to not push the drama and to let the material carry the film. This is depressing, yet redemptive stuff; one wonders if this could even come close to getting nominated for an Oscar today… ****

  • 1/14 - A Very Long Engagement - The latest film from Jean-Pierre Jeunet and actress Audrey Tautou plays as something of the antithesis to Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator; this film is often a bit messy and plagued by missteps, but at its core throbs a truly romantic pulse, and despite any flaws, A Very Long Engagement winds up being a very moving, emotional experience. Thoroughly ignoring Hollywood conventions of romance, such as meeting cute and verbal sparring, this films aims for old-fashioned romance, tracing a lifelong love affair through the troubled times of World War I. In fact, so much attention is spent on that event that the film ends up an intriguing hybrid of romance, mystery, and war. At times, the oil and vinegar do not mix, but any film that can represent craving and delight as well as this one does really should not be graded too harshly on technicalities. It earns its grand, epic sweep, and its ravishingly glorious longings of love. A few minor scenes that do not mesh cannot hold it back. *** 1/2

  • 1/13 - Garden State - If Garden State starts off as a sort of The Graduate for the new century, I guess that makes Zach Braff Dustin Hoffman by way of Adam Sandler. That description reads pretty scary, but with a kooky visual sense and a script that veers closer to Harold and Maude towards the center act, it plays as a rather funny delight. Natalie Portman plays the life-affirming free spirit, a near one-eighty from her role in the same year’s Closer; between those two films, my respect for Portman has skyrocketed. At times, especially towards the end, the screenplay shoulders up a little too closely to easy answers that border on cliché, but the film never plays as less than fascinating and touching. While Braff has proven himself as a fine comedic actor with the television show Scrubs, with Garden State, he has also shown the world that he is a filmmaking talent on the rise. Judged by any standard, this film is a complete success; as a debut, it is smoking. *** 1/2

  • 1/11 - Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 - Wow, am I shocked. I expected a cheap, crass rip-off of the cheap, crass first film, but instead, I discovered one of the best films of 2004! Yeah, I shouldn't play poker. This was one of the worst films I have seen in ages. I plan on catching Midnight Cowboy at the Circle Theater this weekend, so I am trying to forget this for poor Jon Voight's sake. For what it is worth, the nieces loved it. 1/2

  • 1/9 - How Green Was My Valley - The first twenty minutes are nearly too sweet to sit through, especially with that damn narrator trying to wax poetic about his nostalgic remembrances, but smart people will not be fooled; this is not a particularly happy film. In fact, some scenes are devastating and heart breaking. Watch Mr. Gruffydd emerge from the church in the background, or Bronwyn hear the news. This is really a pretty rough story of a family battered by tough economics and loose tongues in a small Welsh town, and despite the gorgeous, picture card scenes Ford scatters throughout the film, and despite the influence of Hollywood on the lens we watch the story through, this film ends up being an incredibly moving, emotional experience that stays with the viewer for some time. This is obviously one of the better Best Picture winners in history. ****

  • 1/8 - Bright Leaves - Unless you already know the work of Ross McElwee, this is not what you are expecting from a documentary on North Carolina tobacco growing. McElwee learns an old Hollywood film about a battle between two tobacco farmers might have been based on his great grandfather’s life. He begins to explore both the film and his ancestor, delving into the world of growing the crop in the process. This highly personal documentary is not only oddly touching, but also very, very funny. I laughed louder here than at most new comedies I have watched over the last year. In fact, I will take this film over most of the more highly praised documentaries from the last two years, and I am not just saying that because Hal Hartley’s name appears in the Special Thanks section of the credits. In the end of this exploration, few answers appear, but the journey is worth your time. *** 1/2

  • 1/4 - Rosenstrasse - It is pretty easy to either undervalue or overvalue German Holocaust films when it seems that every other film coming out of the country at least touches upon the subject, if not centers on it. Margarethe von Trotta’s interesting approach to this history helps buoy this project a bit above the typical take on this dark event. Taking elements of the classic Hollywood women’s films (perhaps by way of Talk To Her and Far From Heaven), she and Pamela Katz try to tell a story of wartime Germany from the point of view of women. This slant both works and fails; the emotional intensity of melodrama seems even more moving when attached to a subject truly tragic, but the tendency of the stylistic template towards pat answers and resolutions sells the drama a bit short. The film certainly plays the heartstrings, sometimes very successfully, but the conclusions are much too predictable and, frankly, bright for this setting. The concerns are real, as the bonds of marriage and family are tested in terrible times, and the noble stories do dig beneath the skin. The women here give some terrific portrayals, and from her work here and on Aimee and Jaguar, I will be keeping my eye on Maria Schrader. These merits do make Rosenstrasse a film to see, even if the shortcomings keep it from being a film to single out for high praise. ***

  • 1/2 - My Favorite Wife - Nick Arden’s wife dies on a boat trip. Seven years later, he marries another woman. Naturally, that very day, his first wife, Ellen, appears again. She was not dead, merely shipwrecked on an island. Nick now has two wives. Luckily, that is only the first of the nutty developments in this delightfully wacky comedy. Randolph Scott does tricks with the rings, Irene Dunne is thoroughly enchanting, and let’s face it, Cary Grant can do this stuff in his sleep. I still stand by the declaration that the screwball comedy craze of the thirties and the forties produced more great comedies than any other movement, and this is just one more proof of why I believe that. ****

  • 1/1 - The Aviator - We probably expect too much from Martin Scorsese. How else can I explain the fact that The Aviator is a perfectly enjoyable film, impressive on numerous fronts, and still, I was a little disappointed with the results? The directing is superb; Marty juggles actors, quiet moments of insanity, and grand moments of thrilling, well, insanity without missing a beat. The early scenes of death-defying aerodynamic stunts are stunning and rank with the best cinematic moments of the year. As a major bonus, Leonardo DiCaprio is terrific, delivering his first really great performance in quite some time. Cate Blanchett stole my heart as my original girlfriend, Katharine Hepburn, even if the portrayal comes a bit too close to mere impersonation at times, and Kelli Garner came close to stealing my heart as Kelli Garner. So, what’s my beef? I am putting blame on the screenplay, which manages to cross every ‘t’ while still not engaging us on the emotional level it aspires to often enough. The Aviator, though, is an impressive achievement; it is simply not as moving as one feels like it should have been. ***
Author Comments: 

I'm rating the films on a zero to four star basis. ** 1/2 is average.

Having just played hookey from my crazy life the other day and stealing two plus hours to see the Aviator. I see I dont need to espouse my own opinion since the renowned Mr. Bangs seems to have done a remarkable job of capturing my thoughts once again. Leonardo for once in a long time, Very good. Cate Blanchett very, very good. Movie good but still lacking something. My only original thought Scorsese does a Citizen Kane lite.

Oh BTW, I agree on My Favorite Wife too.

Since Im not doing lists anymore I guess this is is as good as anywhere to do a few plugs for movies I did like. De-lovely was quite good even though it did sanitize Cole Porter's life a little too much. Cant argue with the music.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the Manchurain Canditate remake. I expected to hate it but Demme, Denzel and especially Streep did the old girl proud.

Thanks, although I confess I could bop myself for preventing you from writing a review! You are missed!

I have little interest in De-Lovely (though you just sparked it a bit), but I am VERY interested in the MC remake. I keep hoping for another great film out of Demme, and I hope this is it.

Again, it is great to hear from you!

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Thanks for the queue adjustments, fellas! And it sure is great to hear from you, jgandcag! Please do keep making these surprise visits; they make my day.

Aw, the days of Netflix...

It shan't be long!

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Was My Favorite Wife the gap? I'm not sure that it's an absolute essential, but it is really hilarious. I agree wholeheartedly with your last sentence.

Here's a great point I heard from a lukewarm review of The Aviator:

I don't know how many times this scene actually happens in the film, but it seems like twenty:

Noah Dietrich: Howard you can't do this? You have to give up _____, or you're going to lose everything.
Hughes: Dammit, Noah, mortgage the ________, sell the __________, take out a loan from _______ using _______ as collateral.
Noah: But if the __________ fails, you'll lose everything.
Hughes: But it won't. Now dammit, Noah, just get it done.

Just cutting out those scenes would have made the film a two hour picture. I got the point the first time.

Nah, My Favorite Wife simply came on television very late at night. I have watched that film more times than I care to admit (I bought the video in junior high).

That criticism of The Aviator is pretty spot-on!

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Thanks for your three latest reviews! Over the past couple weeks I've lowered my expectations for House of Flying Daggers a bit, but I still can't wait. As for Zhang's next project, I think it's more in line with what you're hoping for (although I've also heard he may return to the wuxia genre after his next movie).

I was amazed by how much I liked Midnight Cowboy, given my general lukewarm feelings towards many acclaimed 70s movies.

Finally, A Very Long Engagement has mysteriously failed to spark my interest despite loving Amelie and Jeunet's work in general, so you've provided the needed nudge to make me queue it. Thanks!

I think you will enjoy House of Flying Daggers as long as you don't set the bar too high. It is a fine film, and it pampers the eyes.

I think Midnight Cowboy is easily one of the more accessible 'classics' of the outlaw generation, despite its dated touches. Heck, for an X-rated film to win Best Picture, it has to speak to a pretty broad audience.

Not everybody will dig Engagement as much as I did, but it is touching. It is not as great as Amelie, but still...

Naturally, I am very interested in Zhang's next film. Thanks for the link.

Oh, and thanks for the comments; it is wonderful to know that somebody reads this stuff... :)

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

It's an interesting question, the "did we really need a remake of that?" question. If we're supposed to evaluate each work of art on its own terms, should we even consider remakes with different eyes than those with which we view original works, or book adaptations (sequels are different because they continue a previous storyline (generally)? Should the fact that something's a remake factor into our critical assessment even a little bit? What about when it's a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho? The existence of the original does provide a reference point, but should it be used? Can we help it?

I'm not really expecting answers, but feel free! :-)

You liked The Manchurian Candidate more than I did, I think, but I did enjoy it. It's grown on me with time, and I really understated how much I enjoyed Liev Schreiber in my own review (although I did compare his performance to Denzel's, which should be high praise in any actor's book).

Angela Lansbury eats Meryl Streep's lunch though. At least this time.

I certainly won't box you over the Lansbury comment. Streep was a bit off, while Lansbury devoured the role.

Wow, how much should we consider the original? My first reaction would be, "as little as possible," but of course your Psycho question poses a problem. Can we help but see films in a cinematic background of the times, and how can we not consider the original Psycho when it has become a huge part of that background?

Again, I still tend towards as little as possible, even if that little is quite large. That is certainly no definitive answer, but I guess that is what I work with.

I tend to think remakes that are slaveishly faithful to the original seem a bit tired and stale simply from the lack of creative spark, but who knows, maybe my previous experience of the original is bleeding in here more than I know.

I guess it is rather like my approach to mainstream news journalism - as objective as possible, knowing that complete objectivity is impossible.

But I'm usually wrong.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Sounds about right to me. We can strive towards the idealistic goal of evaluating the art in front of our noses on its own terms, but there's just no way to shut off those parts of our brains that are screaming out "I've seen this already, and it was better!"

Ah, Jim, why does it sound so much better coming from you?

Alas, as I was reminded last night, I really am pretty stupid...

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Funny, I kinda thought my post was a mere remake of yours!

Sorry to hear about last night's reminder, whatever it was. I like to think I'm smart, so I'm always depressed each time the reality of my intelligence is revealed to me. You'd think by now my illusions would be shattered, eh?

Case in point: today I will likely write a middling-to-positive review of Paycheck, a feat that will doubtless send me into a fit of self-recrimination and a big tub of Rocky Road ice cream.

I am actually still a bit interested in that film, but then you and I are both known for liking Mr. Woo's work quite a bit.

Besides, anything that leads to ice cream can't be all bad, right?

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Alrighty, done. When I looked at how the movies were broken out for that year, I wasn't able to rank it higher than I did. The passage of time has not been kind to my estimation of the movie, but I still found a lot to like, albeit with major offsetting weaknesses.

I keep being surprised at how well Finding Neverland is faring among critics I respect, and now I can add you to that list! I may actually have to start looking forward to it.

I'm so psyched Don Cheadle is getting so much attention for Hotel Rwanda. He's been playing second fiddle for far too long. Hopefully the Oscar attention won't ruin him (I guess that doesn't happen unless he wins).

Cheadle is even better than the film he is in. I was a bit taken aback to see his co-star get nominated as well...

I am floored by how much I liked Finding Neverland. I had pretty much written it off as the generic Oscar Fluff film of the year. I like being wrong at times. :)

I will probably give in and watch Paycheck when it hits the premium channels. If nothing else, I can handle watching Uma be Uma!

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Well, I was judging your post on its own terms... :)

If you are not a smart man, Jim, then I accept that fact that I am not either.

I mean, as for myself, not smart I understand, but stupid?

La vie. I will muddle through somehow. :)

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs