I write about culture from a pro-Black perspective

My favorite films of 1999

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. Links have been updated.

1999 was an oddly rich year for films. It seemed like Hollywood had finally taken a hint from the indie world and made films that challenged viewers to think while watching, to dream, to question, to laugh with characters not at them.

Even studios tried and true disappointers, the romantic comedy and the teen comedy, were above average. Movies like Cruel Intentions, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Notting Hill succeeded largely because they were based in strong writing and the fact that the female leads (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Julia Stiles, and Julia Roberts) turned in finely crafted, multi-layered performances.

But in my opinion, 1999 was the year of the director. The year where not only the writing was inventive and strong, but the directors did great things with new types of material and new things with old stuff. Everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Doug Liman was taking their art forward&#133and still managed to entertain and inform.

So without further ado…

10. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut
Like all Kubrick’s films, his real interest lies in the subtext and he is the master of it. Eyes Wide Shut is a difficult film only because the rumors surrounding its creation and content made it impossible for people to be pleased. I mean if you think that you’re gonna get to see the biggest film star in history butt a** naked and bangin’ his (then) wife on film for the first time, you might not be inclined to look for much else. But people forgot that this was a Kubrick film, not a Tom Cruise film.

As such Tom Cruise gives what I truly believe to be his best performance to date (and that includes Collateral and Magnolia which are right behind) as a man who cannot come to grips with the possibility that his wife is not totally devoted to him. In a stunning comment on patriarchal control, Kubrick uses Tom’s character to dissect the psyche of the modern man who can’t seem to let go of antiquated notions of marriage and devotion.

What Kubrick says with this film is really quite simple…that feeling doesn’t really go away, it’s natural. The film feels odd and unformed because Cruise’s character never leaves the turmoil of his odyssey because the purpose of it was for him to realize that the turmoil he’s feeling isn’t supposed to abate on its own.

9. Alexander Payne’s Election
This is one of those films that gets funnier every time you see it. It is so superbly crafted and depending on your perspective when you see it, the film still works. Films that work on many levels are few and far between, but Election proves that all you have to do is take your subject seriously enough to really skewer it a billion times. Reese Witherspoon, as usual, is tremendous, as is Matthew Broderick but Chris Klein’s performance as the dumb jock who can’t seem to realize that his whole world is a big joke on him rings so true to me, that I refuse to watch anything else he does. That’s the biggest compliment I think can be paid to him. His work is unflappable and so is the film.

8. Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry
Hilary Swank broke my heart in this film. What a performance! I think the true strength of this film though is in how clearly we see every character in this film. From Chloe Sevigny to Brendan Sexton III to the highly overlooked and underappreciated performance of Peter Sarsgaard. Pierce’s starkly lyrical film is so mordantly and beautifully jarring in its linear and simple portrayal of Brandon Teena’s world. The final act is the second most chilling moment on screen that year because it is presented so simply. The tension comes from the coldness of the characters, the bareness of the landscape, and Swank’s Brandon Teena.

7. Andrew Fleming’s Dick
Of all the actors on Dawson’s Creek Michelle Williams has the most interesting and (in terms of sheer breadth) successful career. She manages to create such fascinating portraits and it all started here with this fine film. She has the juiciest role and she steals every scene.

Watch the precise way she and Kirsten Dunst play the ditsy Betsy and Arlene. Films like this are delicate balancing acts and the kind of comedic timing that Dunst and Williams show while simultaneously layering intelligence and heart underneath it, is astounding. The moment Williams comes to grips with who Nixon is is one of the most poignant moments of the year.

And that doesn’t even count the fact that as a political satire, Dick is the finest cinematic gem since Dave.

6. Sam Mendes’ American Beauty
Again, not a particularly original choice, but American Beauty is a rare gem, a studio film that satirizes, in an unflinchingly way, the very people it wants to plop down $8 to see it. Funny enough, the film has always been misunderstood in my opinion. The film is more about a family than it is about Lester Burnam or rather, two families incapable of adjusting to the reality of suburban living and must find beauty in different places. Featuring the year’s strongest ensemble and the sharpest satirical writing, American Beauty caps off a year that was all about satirization.

5. Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother
All About My Mother marked a turning point in Almodovar’s work. It gets everything right that was wrong with his previous films and expands upon all the aspects of his films that seemed to be so effortlessly sharp before. It could be that the story of a woman’s journey through pain after the unfortunate death of her teenage son is the most emotionally resonant one of Almodovar’s career, but that is to slight the wonderful direction, the performances, and the vibrancy of the subplots that mesh so well with the main story. His direction has a focus and a keen eye for detail it didn’t seem to have to the same degree before. To be blunt, it’s the most complete movie to come out of Spain in a very long time and one of the finest pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen.

4. Doug Liman’s GO
It needs to be stated that the so-called Tarantino style of interconnecting plotlines is done to much richer effect here. Where as Tarantino’s use of said style is purely for style reasons, in GO the style serves the plotlines themselves. Plus, it is just done with less arrogance and more restraint and whole ideas aren’t ripped off from better filmmakers.

Liman’s film works because the characters are taken seriously, especially the more eccentric and strange ones, because it has to in order to be funny (esp. in the Scott Wolf/Jay Mohr sequence) and interesting. There is not a weak link in the cast but special note for me must go to Mohr and Wolf who are a f*cking riot.

3. Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam
I’ve read a lot of reviews of this film that knock the film for not being about Son of Sam. And that is rather silly, given the title of the film. The film is about the summer that Son of Sam terrorized New York. The film shares a kinship with Lee’s masterpiece Do The Right Thing in that it is about the effects that outsiders (or the perception of an outsider) have on isolated communities. The film is riveting and features career making performances by Adrien Brody, John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, and Jennifer Esposito who turns a one-note character into a fascinating portrait of co-dependency.

2. David Fincher’s Fight Club
This isn’t a fairly imaginative choice, but the simple fact is that Fight Club is a masterpiece. It’s as intellectually arresting as it is visually arresting. Brad Pitt is flawless in a caged performance of smirking arrogance and Edward Norton, as his foil, gives yet another perfect performance. But the film is a directing triumph, from the blown-out colors to the set design to the vivid way Norton’s character’s psyche is depicted. This is yet another film that deals with men of generation x and where to place all their notions of patriarchy and male primacy in a world that is critiquing the values of those things.

1. Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley
It’s never been fully stated what a fascinating interpretation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley really is. It would be nearly unfilmable to make the protagonist a cold-hearted killer in a film unless there was something, anything redeemable about him. Highsmith’s Ripley is irredeemable and in a novel that can, and often does, work.

What Minghella did was try to get at what could make Tom Ripley do the things he did. He found the locus for Tom’s rage and it was a bottomless pit of insecurity. That kind of naked desire and passion and self-loathing is repulsive to us because we live in such a cold-hearted society where any amount of real emotion for another human being, especially a man for another man, is mistaken for co-dependency and psychological deficiency.

But Minghella saw Tom Ripley as a shell, a man so desperate for the one thing he’s never had—love. The film is so eerily and creepily disturbing that it is completely understandable why people didn’t like it. It is not, however, acceptable to dismiss the flawless craft of the movie as a result.

1. Splendor
2. South Park: Bigger, Louder, and Uncut
3. Three Kings
4. Being John Malkovich
5. The Insider
6. Dogma
7. An Ideal Husband
8. Cradle Will Rock
9. Sunshine
10. 10 Things I Hate About You

Best Director: Anthony Minghella, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Runners-up: Sam Mendes and Spike Jonze

Best Ensemble: Cast of American Beauty
Runner-up: Cast of GO

Best Actor: Matt Damon, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Runners-up: John Leguizamo and Tom Cruise

Best Actress: Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry

Best Supporting Actor: Adrien Brody, Summer of Sam
Runners-up: Chris Klein and Peter Sarsgaard

Best Supporting Actress: Chloe Sevigny, Boys Don’t Cry
Runners-up: Mena Suvari and Jennifer Esposito

Breakthrough Performances (in order):
1. Wes Bentley in American Beauty
2. Scott Wolf in GO
3. Michelle Williams in Dick
4. Matt Keeslar in Splendor
5. Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich
6. Ice Cube in Three Kings

Posted on April 25th, 2005 - Filed under Film

Reviewing ‘Six Degrees of Separation’

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here.

Six Degrees of Separation film posterFor me, Will Smith is the most confounding black movie star to emerge in the 90’s. He wields tons of power but doesn’t seem concerned with developing too many of his own projects, especially of a decidedly black nature. Unlike Sam Jackson (producer of Kasi Lemmons stellar films, Eve’s Bayou and The Caveman’s Valentine) he doesn’t stray to far from what is expected from him.

So after the hoopla surrounding Ali has died down, we are left to contemplate what Big Will’s next move will be. Being a matinee junior Denzel Washington brings in the money and Will does have his Malcolm X. But unlike Washington he doesn’t have a Mo Better BluesCourage Under Fire, or a Devil In A Blue Dress to remind all those who get tired of the &#147Big Will” persona that, yes indeed, this black man can also act. He has never done much character work, which is confounding because his character work is solid, if not stellar, more times than not.

His bit part in the obscure-but-shouldn’t-be ensemble film Where The Day Takes You is notable for its breadth and depth taking into consideration the truncated screen time. In a film with revelatory work by Sean Astin (foreshadowing his triumph in Rudy) and Dermot Mulroney it is understandable that Big Will was overlooked.

This brings me to Six Degrees Of Separation, Will’s greatest triumph. Forget Ali he was undermined by a sh*tty script. This is great work. Studied, complex, and filled with depth. This is not just great technique, an accent, mannerisms…Will gives Paul heart and soul and that is often what is missing from the stage interpretations of the character.

The plot is relatively simple. Flan and Ouisa Kitteridge (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) are a wealthy, posh Manhattan couple who, while entertaining an old friend (Sir Ian McKellan) from South Africa, are bombarded by a wounded Will Smith playing Paul, a young man claiming to be Sidney Poitier’s son. He dazzles them with his wit, sophistication, and promise of a part in the movie version of CATS (a hilarious running gag). The Kitteridges love him so much they give him a shirt (another funny gag) and set him up in their youngest daughter’s room. But when they discover he has brought home a boy, their fragile sensibilities are shattered. The rest of the movie is a dissection of their odd connection to Paul and trying to find out just who he is and how he got to be who he is.

The acting is perfect. It strikes a delicate balance between its stage roots and the more relaxed style of a film. There are scenes that belie the staginess that couldn’t have been lost in the film translation and they do feel kind of silly onscreen, but they are crucial moments. Paul’s big speech is deep and penetrating, but how else would a philosophical discussion play out…with the occasional “dudes” and “You know what I’m sayings?” No. The sophistication of the language, while seemingly overwritten, exists for a reason. Twofold. One, to skewer the pretensions of upper class America, with its empty conversations, and pompous self-absorption. And two, to depict that very world in order to accurately deconstruct it. Take the film for what it is, that is the only way to appreciate it.

Stockard Channing dominates the movie. Ouisa is a complex woman. She has an endless capacity for empathy and she feels for Paul in a way that is new to her. Channing realizes that she is responding to Paul because he is open to love in a way the people in her world never are, even her children. There is a wonderful helplessness to her scenes with her children (particularly the last phone conversation with her daughter). Personally, I believe Channing deserved the 1994 Oscar. But what do I know, I think Denzel should have got it for Malcolm X? Go figure.

Donald Sutherland has, what I believe, to be the hardest part in the film. Flanders is right on the line of selfish self-importance and arrogance, but Donald’s line readings are right on. The last scene with Ouisa, Paul, and Flan on the phone (the best in the film) is key to understanding Flanders Kitteridge. He doesn’t hate or even pity Paul, he resents the challenge to his life. Sutherland lets us know, from his line readings to his deterioration into a man who is fed up, that he is comfortable and doesn’t enjoy being the butt of Paul’s (perceived) joke. It is an immensely comical performance with a thread of real sadness. Ouisa makes the change, Flanders is incapable of it.

Compared to Ali this is clearly Will’s better performance, although both are fascinating studies in an actor’s commitment to technique (accent, mannerism, etc). Perhaps it is because it is a “normal” person, not a cultural icon. In a sense, Will was never gonna capture Ali. It is akin to someone playing Elvis…the legend and spectacle are larger than method acting could ever recreate. This is not to say his performance in Ali was bad, because it clearly wasn’t.

But Paul has layers that we, as common folk, can readily understand and identify with. He has layers that are part of who he is, not what his persona has dictated like Ali. Paul is the static character. He doesn’t change. He too is incapable, but for different reasons than Flan. He is the catalyst for the Kitteridges (and to some extent, the others he visits) to reexamine their lives. He wants to be a part of their world just as much as he wants to expose it for the shallow selfishness of it.

Smith is astute enough to know that Paul is just as selfish as the Kitteridges are and perhaps even more so. The last phone conversation shows this perfectly. He is unwilling to make a change unless Ouisa and Flan make one first. It can be construed that he doesn’t trust them, and that is part of it, but really it is that Paul doesn’t really think he’s done anything wrong (and in a legal sense, he hasn’t) and he really believes his own hype. He expects more of them than perhaps they are willing to expect of him. That conversation is great because we see that with all the knowledge given to him (by a flawless Anthony Michael Hall as Trent) doesn’t change who he is. If it had, then we would have hated the Kitteridges for not being better people for having the same knowledge.

Six Degrees of Separation is famous for its line about how everyone on the planet is connected by a trail of six people, but that is hardly the point of the movie. The movie calls into question just how connected that trail really is and/or can be. Ouisa is the key to this idea. She like everyone of her class in the movie, is outraged (and a little amused) by Paul’s daring, but as the elaborate scheme unfolds there is a sense of being connected to all these seemingly random people that makes Ouisa feel like a part of something. It is a feeling that she has never really had.

The line she repeats at the end, “I will not turn him into an anecdote. It was an experience,” is great because Ouisa is our “in” and its dangerous because on the surface Ouisa’s arc paints her as that paternalistic benefactor that was so prevalent in high society during Harlem Renaissance. She walks a fine line of being genuinely moved by the Paul experience and the experience really just being an anecdote. Her ending joy doesn’t really erase the fact that little in her life has changed but it clearly puts forth Ouisa’s desire to be more than a paternalistic benefactor.

The whole movie is this kind of exaggerated rendering of Paul’s exploits and he nearly is an anecdote, but after that final phone conversation, Ouisa is unwilling to keep talking about the whole ordeal. It truly affected her that she couldn’t help Paul, a man whose real name she didn’t know, a man who she ultimately felt close to. To reduce the experience to anecdote, is to diminish her feelings. To diminish her capacity to feel empathy and care for other people. That is what makes her final moment work.

So Will may never do character work again, and while that saddens me (I hate when black folks and people of color attain a certain status and “get lazy”), we have Six Degrees of Separation, a superb film about what draws people together and what has been keeping them apart. Yes, it is stagy, but it is also astute, heartfelt, and beautifully directed. The film’s set design and cinematography are breathtaking, simultaneously awe-inspiring and cold, allowing us to maybe envy the world of the Kitteridges and still feel like it might not be as great as it seems.

5 stars.

Posted on November 29th, 2003 - Filed under Film

The Year of Predictability or Tigger’s Most Enjoyable Movies Experiences In 2002

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. Links have been updated.

I’ma just say it…

The last 3 or 4 months of 2002 were a big f*cking letdown. I wasn’t impressed by any of the late offerings. They were predictable, well made mostly, but predictably cloying, melodramatic, and sweeping (down to the score, kids). Even the Sundance offering had the feeling of wanting to be independent, without actually achieving it.

In short…it all seemed to be business as usual dressed up as great filmmaking.

But strangely, the movies I did adore weren’t mind-blowing technically. Weren’t original in the sense of screaming their conceit to you a la Adaptation, daring you to hate them for being self-consciously in love with their own cleverness. Weren’t showy in the casting of great actors who cry, scream, loose or gain weight, play down or play up and off of beauty. Weren’t Big Films, with all the fanfare and hype that ensures that you’ll either automatically love it upon purchase of ticket or hate it just to be “different” and “original”. (I wonder if this list’ll make me the latter).

While 1999, for instance, was a flashy year, their seemed to be heart and soul underneath the pomp and circumstance. American Beauty might have been doggedly linear and showy, it still resonated in the way in which the characters interacted. In films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Adaptation the characters seemed to suit the whims and egos of the writers, directors, and movie star/actors who wanted a “cool” Gen-X Kaufmann film on their resume to remind the public that it, after all, is really about the craft.

All that said, here is my list of enjoyable and well made and flat out stellar films of 2002.

Note: I chose 13 films because I thought it would be fun, because I can (it’s my list) and because even though I hated most of the films I saw this year, I still saw more than 10 superb films.

13. Tim Story’s Barbershop
Barbershop is the kind of film Hollywood wants you to believe are what they are really about. Relevant, but not too relevant. Formulaic, without being mindless. A crowdpleaser, without pandering too much. And it is all those things. But it represents a benchmark in the black comedy…one that is rooted in the humor of our people, the culture of our people, and the struggle of our people. Oh, and Ice Cube gives a strong nuanced performance that proves Three Kings wasn’t a fluke.

12. Sandra Goldbacher’s Me Without You
Michelle Williams is the kind of actress who continually surprises you because she never seems to be acting. She is the actress who is beautiful but can just seem to fit in whatever film environment she is given. That, admittedly, has next to nothing to do with her acting at all. Luckily, she can do that in ways the talented, but overrated Katie Holmes, can’t. Me Without You is a film about the friendship of two British girls (Williams and Anna Friel). It’s not really anything new but the levels of said friendship are so unique to who these girls are that you will be surprised how you will forgive the somewhat predictable plot (which is really just incidental).

11. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow
Damn if Kirsten Dunst isn’t the most amazing young actress working. Not because she’s the best…she isn’t. But just because she will take a part that you wouldn’t expect her to be able to do and nails it. Her Marion Davies is not quite as dumb or disloyal as one might first think. Dunst always keeps you wondering. The fun of the film lies in watching these characters become more and more ridiculous and self-conscious. It makes for a difficult and oddly prurient film experience.

10. Rob Marshall’s Chicago
Just plain fun. Not much else really. Great casting. Great singing and imaginative structure make for a surprisingly weighty musical. Even with Mya. Kudos to John C Reilly and Queen Latifah for reminding me there really isn’t anything they can’t do.

9. Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven
I was a fan of Velvet Goldmine and from that I watched Safe. All hail visual stylists who can find the heart in scripts too. I’ve heard many interpretations of the film, but to me I found that by making the film as authentic to the style of 50’s filmmaking and moires, Haynes used Moore’s character to poke holes of reality into it. It’s subtle and not overbearing which can make it drag in places, but it’s important in making the point that film doesn’t really represent life, but an idea of what life could, should, or would be depending on the filmmaker.

8. Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction
Damn if this film isn’t more impressive now that I’ve seen it on DVD. Unlike the self-consciousness of some of the late 2002 entries, the style serves the characters, the story, and what I see as the message of the film…that yes the 20’s are hard, but only because it is hard when you realize you aren’t the center of the universe. James Van Der Beek’s performance is quite good, but it’s really Ian Somerhalder who makes the film. Daring, bold, and remarkably nuanced, Somerhalder defines the role of the self-loathing 20-something. (That really is a compliment, most actors can’t do it)

7. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Anyone who uses “It doesn’t have an ending or a beginning” as a reason to slight Jackson’s masterpiece is really stupid. It’s like going ice skating and complaining about the cold. You knew it would be cold. That said, really all there is to say is that Legolas is f*cking cool.

6. Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour
I absolutely can not understand how Spike’s style and design are continually maligned, when the prevailing styles of anyone from Scorsese (sweeping, almost ungainly, films) to Spielberg (self-righteously sentimental at the expense of common sense and character) to Allen (nebbish Jewish guy infatuated with younger women) define their genius and the adoration they enjoy, but with Spike (the didactic structure, casting himself, and dolly shot) are what he is crucified with. I’d scream racism, but that isn’t it…not entirely. It’s simply the fact that Spike doesn’t have the answers, knows it and will make you realize you don’t either. And isn’t that kind of depressing…America is so great.

Anyway, The 25th Hour isn’t really a typical Lee flick. It is more about one man’s reevaluation of his life and less about society’s involvement in making us who we are (although that is there a bit too). It makes for a film that critics loved just because. Lucky for Spike, it really is that good. I enjoyed the dynamics of the characters and it is sweet when you find that Spike can still be great with actual three-dimensional characters. Big ups to Barry Pepper for a truly astonishing performance…who knew?

5. Todd Solondz’ Storytelling
I loved this film, good Lord, I did. I love when the curtain we place around our security and sheltered existence is ripped away. No one does that better than Solondz. He did it with adolescence in Welcome to the Dollhouse and suburban sprawl in Happiness. Now he takes it to the abstract with Fiction and Non-Fiction. Playing with the ideas of how we define it, how it manifests itself and, ultimately, what it means, Solondz exposes our society’s hypocrisies (none more so than the infamous “rape” scene). Kudos to Mark Webber for a truly stunning performance as Scooby.

4. Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien
Teen comedy, my ass! This film was sadder than most films that were shoved down our throats as weepy dramas (The Hours, anyone?). It was poetic, lyrical, and honest. It’s the kind of film that is frank without being aware of it and funny without being obnoxious. Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal make adolescence look like more joy and pain than any actors in recent memory.

3. Almodovar’s Talk To Her
You know what. I loved it. It was flawless and if you want to know why read d_fienberg‘s review. I couldn’t have said it any better. I told Dan I was working on a review, but I never finished it. It’s sitting on my computer. But the gist is that Almodovar loves to find the humanity in what is most disturbing and off kilter to the mainstream. He enjoys examining how people rationalize their fetishes, their desires. He does it without once belittling and few can say that.

2. Burr Steers’ Igby Goes Down
Finally a film that makes me feel some sympathy for spoiled self-centered rich white boys. It never seemed earned before. But Steers has made a film that exists in the world of the upper class without really defining the film by it. It’s a film defined almost entirely by the ghost of one character, Bill Pullman’s Jason. Through that absence one is supposed to filter Igby’s experience. Why wasn’t Culkin nominated? Or Sarandon? Shit even, Ryan Phillippe, who proves in the DVD deleted scenes, that his portrayal was more nuanced that I’d previously believed…he keeps this up I might forget 54.

1. Peter Care’s The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
I enjoyed that this film didn’t make fun of religion. I enjoyed that the characters were believably awkward and not that scripted stammering crap TV actors do with adolescents. I liked that there has never been a young girl as tragic and complex for me as Jena Malone’s Margie Flynn. I loved that the animation complemented and broadened the depth and meaning of the boys, the film and religion. I loved that it was so good you had to hate it for being predictable. I loved it because Kieran Culkin is clearly more deserving of all the hoopla Jake Gyllenhaal is getting but, because he is not, will probably keep on making great films.


Most Disappointing
THE INDIE OUTPUT…TadpoleThe Good GirlMoonlight Mile, and Pumpkin
I bet on paper, these all seemed like great flicks. Mike White proves with The Good Girl that I wasn’t wrong about Chuck and Buck he does sacrifice three dimensional characters for the sake of making a point. Moonlight Mile forgot to tell the audience what it was about until Jake Gyllenhaal brilliant crying scene about 2/3 of the way into the film. Tadpole did have Bebe Neuwirth (and that brilliant restaurant scene) and that makes everything better. And well, as far as Pumpkin…lets just remember 1998 as Christina Ricci’s year.

Most Overrated
Minority Report and Punch-Drunk Love
Simply put, you fell for the hooks. The Intelligent Popcorn Flick. The Branching Out of Adam Sandler a la Jim Carrey. And you were baited, gutted, and fried up with some lemon and butter. Really people, Minority Report…why did home granny kiss Tom and why did the nurse chick grab Tom’s butt…no one can give me an acceptable reason. And yes, I realize that you have to accept that Sandler’s persona fuels the film, but once the tank is full, shouldn’t someone steer? Worth seeing? Yes. Worth all the love and hoopla? HELLS NO!!!!!!!!!!!!

1. Spider-Man
2. Insomnia
3. Catch Me If You Can
4. Frida
5. Gangs of New York
6. The Bourne Identity
7. Brown Sugar
8. About Schmidt
9. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
10. The Importance of Being Earnest
11. Frailty

Best Actor-Kieran Culkin Igby Goes Down
runner up-Mark Webber Storytelling

Best Actress-(tie) Julianne Moore Far From Heaven
runner up-Jena Malone Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys

Best Director-Almodovar Talk To Her
runner up-Peter Jackson

Best Supporting Actor-(tie) Michael Ealy Barbershop Christopher Walken Catch Me If You Can

Best Supporting Actress-(tie)Queen Latifah Chicago and Susan Sarandon in Igby Goes Down and Moonlight Mile

Award for Actor who made a lot of bad movies but was fine in them. Jake Gyllenhaal.

1. Emilie Hirsch The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
2. Mark Webber Storytelling
3. Maggie Gyllenhaal Secretary
4. Michelle Williams Me Without You
5. Emily Mortimer Lovely and Amazing
6. Bill Pullman Igby Goes Down
7. Adam Sandler Punch-Drunk Love
8. Salma Hayek Frida
9. Matthew McConaughey Frailty

So that’s it. And yes I saw About Schmidt and all these other flicks..they were aight.

Posted on March 9th, 2003 - Filed under Film

Reviewing ‘Vanilla Sky’: Rent the Original

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. This is gonna be a dual review that critiques both Vanilla Sky and Abre Los Ojos . I decided that the only way to truly talk about one was to talk about the other. I can understand if you think it is a bit off-topic.

Vanilla Sky movie posterI have never been so disappointed in a film. I’m gonna come straight out and say that Cameron Crowe is a great director. And he is a great director. But Vanilla Sky was not the film for Crowe. I mean even Steven Soderbergh messed up with Kafka so I’m not gonna say Crowe’s career is over. Far from it. This is just not the right film for his sensibilities. Much the way Spielberg was all wrong for A.I. 

He fills the film with flashy techniques he has never used before and it shows. The ending shot when Cruise jumps up on the ledge is thrilling but also overkill. The worst scene though is the back and forth edits between Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz (who, as much as I hate to admit it, is the best thing about the film) during the sex scene. That is not in Abre Los Ojos and it is flashy and it makes clear what is more understated and powerful and crucial inAbre Los Ojos .

Having just watched both films back to back something becomes abundantly clear. Vanilla Sky is WAY too aware of its cleverness (it can be argued that Abre Los Ojos is too but I believe that to be part the tone of that film.). At every turn, we have flashy camera tricks, forced moments (a silly nod to Jerry Maguire-like awkwardness [“I’m gonna go to work” + plus toothy grin = bleech] is just…well, awkward), and cliche metaphors and unintentionally extraneous dialogue (Cruise’s “I’m straight” line comes to mind…) and the end result is something that resembles a thoughtful, complex puzzler but is really just a beautiful mess.

Point one. The dialogue is classic Crowe. 
It is both reflective and studied awareness. It is beautiful and yet disarmingly cliche in places. But mostly it is just out of place. Lines like Cruz’s “She looks like the saddest girl to ever hold a martini” is great but tonally all wrong. Crowe tries to marry his romantic comedy sensibilities to a character driven thought piece and just isn’t capable of it. The line comes off forced and over-the-top just because of its existence in the wrong kind of film (having nothing to do with Cruz’ very good performance). Same with the stupid a** line “I see you in another life when we are cats” or something to that effect. That Crowe’s impulse for Tom Cruise to laugh at the line means it should have been cut in the first place.

Point two. Tom Cruise is woefully miscast. 
Other than Magnolia Cruise has never fully become a character before and that is essential to this story. In both versions, the protagonist is a loathsome lothario who is somehow redeemed as he finds out what is really happening in his head. Cruise plays David like he played his earlier roles, with plenty of swagger and not an ounce of intention, weight, or honesty. Part of the problem is that much of the distress is placed into the real world scenes and not into the discussions with the psychologist as in Abre Los Ojos.

In Vanilla Sky the emphasis seems to be on just how weird all this can be, and in Abre Los Ojos the emphasis is on how each time we come back to the prison sequence we have gotten more insight into Cesar (David in our version) and it becomes more fascinating. But in Vanilla Sky Cruise seems forced to go over the top and yet sound so mannered (esp. in the doctor scene where he is given the mask).

Unfortunately, I think this is the kind of role that requires less of the movie star baggage. Or at least a movie star who can convincingly become his character. Tom Cruise, as good as he is, is not that actor. I can’t help wondering how much better (but still not perfect…remember, it is poorly written) this would have been if Billy Crudup were in the role or Jason Patric. Admittedly, that is unfair but Cruise is a disaster and as much as I wanna blame it on the script (and I will, partly) he, as a producer, should have known better.

Point three. Focus. 
Crowe has turned a beautiful study of the ambiguity of conscious vs. subconscious into a vanity piece. What made Abre Los Ojos work despite its “let’s explain the film” ending, is that Cesar is completely incapable of distinguishing reality from dream and that pain and anguish is felt in those scenes in the prison with the psychologist. Because in the end the irony is that the one constant, the prison and the psychologist, is also a dream. Thus subtly driving home the point of “where is the line between our conscious and subconscious.”

Eduardo Norieaga, as Cesar, has a simmering kind of anger that, as the film progresses, becomes true despair. He has no clue if he killed Nuria (the fuckbuddy, played with dizzying weight by Najwa Nimri) or Sofia (Penelope Cruz) and though we never get a clue who it is he killed, we know that it is tearing him up just by the way those scenes are short, intense, and darkly comic.

But in Vanilla Sky all of the anguish is felt in the real life scenes, here elongated and not well. We get a drunken Tom Cruise (in yet another elongated scene) overacting and being obnoxious. We get countless scenes of Cruise pacing while giving overtly silly speeches (like in the the drunken scene and with the doctors). And we get added scenes of the business world which, admittedly, are lacking in Abre Los Ojos but here only serve to make Cruise seem as big as Crowe, as writer, infer’s Cesar was in Abre Los Ojos . It comes across as contrived and overkill. Cruise’s swagger is more than enough macho posturing, why corporatize it? And of course we get all the long looks in the mirror. What makes it worse is that Tom Cruise has not really aged all that well. Besides the point, right? No, this is exactly the point. This makes the film seem like Cruise’s last ditch effort to be seen as a masculine alpha male, but the combination of that Freudian slip (“I’m straight”) and the mirror preening, Tom seems like a peacock strutting around wondering why he, of all people must turn 40 soon.

While Kurt Russell is quite good (and nice to see him back), his character is muted in the film and it dilutes the true central relationship and ultimately his performance becomes all wrong. In Abre Los Ojos the only person Cesar really interacts with is the psychologist and the weight is felt at the end when he is truly shown to be a figment of his imagination. Sofia, in both films, is an ideal. She is not a character, per se. And Penelope Cruz’s portrayals in both films is truly superb because she is lilting and coy (without being obnoxious) and not easily impressed and that makes her all the more beguiling to Cesar/David.

But in Vanilla Sky that true central relationship is never established because Crowe makes the crushing decision to make Russell’s psychologist too removed from the relationship…he is supposed to have dinner (or lunch…I don’t remember exactly) with his two daughters. But then he is more interested in the “crime” than David’s mind. In Abre Los Ojos the two daughters thing is a passing reference to another patient and the psychologist becomes enraptured by Cesar’s seeming psychosis.

Ultimately, at the end Russell’s psychologist pleads for understanding and it just seems silly. Whereas in Abre Los Ojos the psychologist is angry at the notion that he isn’t real. Again, the line between conscious and subconscious is blurred.

Both films suffer from a strange desire to explain everything at the end of the film. And both waste perfectly good cast members (Fele Martinez and Jason Lee as the best friend). And both structurally can’t bear the weight of their ideals. Part of this I believe (esp. in Crowe’s case) is that they are misreading their own ideas or perhaps underestimating the subtext and just trying to appease an audience, who gets sunrises and universe disaster averted endings from Hollywood, they also underestimate. Crowe’s is more offensive because he misread or underestimated someone else’s film and then tried to make it over, diluting the best elements and focusing on all the wrong ones.

Since I did see the original first, it is entirely possible that I was never gonna like Vanilla Sky but I highly doubt it. Admittedly, reviewing it against Abre Los Ojos might make Vanilla Sky seem doubly bad. But really it only illuminates the elements of the film that I think people who didn’t like it are seeing. Feel free to totally disagree…as I’m sure you will. Maybe you liked it being a vanity piece and less intriguing but I didn’t.

Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky gets 2 stars, one for each actress. Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos gets 4 stars.

Posted on January 13th, 2002 - Filed under Film