Monthly Archives: September 2003

Luther (2003)

Certain things can pass under my radar. Previously it’’s been items like female flirtation and the due dates of papers. So imagine my befuddled surprise when last weekend my father, himself a Lutheran minister, said the family was going to hop on over to the movie theater and catch a historic bio-flick about Martin Luther, plainly titled Luther. I had no idea this movie existed. And after seeing it, it left no strong memory that it did.

Luther (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love) is a 16th century German monk with some quibbles with the Catholic Church. Seems Luther doesn’’t like how the Church is preying upon people’’s faith for money, most notably its chief indulgence seller Johann Tetzel (Alfred Molina, with a criminally scant appearance). He makes up a list of 95 grievances, nails them to the doors of a church, and thus Protestantism is born. Luther’’s ideas catch on wit the lower classes through rampant publication, thanks to the newfound printing press. The princes of the German states also like what this monk is cooking, and they decide to hold him in safety. The Catholic Church, however, is none too pleased. They threaten excommunication and eventually death, and keep pushing for Luther to recant. But Luther feels he must stand strong in his convictions.

The acting is fine, and the direction is passable, but the pacing of Luther is like tracking the movement of a glacier. Some representative decisions are also fairly stupid. To try and communicate Luther’s internal struggle he hits his head and yells like at voices. The first time it’’s funny. The next five times, it’’s dumb. There’’s also a dirty peasant child who’’s crippled but still a big fan of the Luther Man. Her gaping tooth smile has more screen time than some characters. Later in the film the peasant revolts ravage through the country with thousands massacred. Luther visits the ruins and comes across the little girl’’s broken crutch and breaks down and cries. If you were in my theater you probably heard me hitting my forehead repeatedly (no voices though).

The film is an admirable effort, but Luther ultimately fails because of the measures of film. To try and tell the story of Luther would be more appropriate for the confines of a miniseries, not a two-hour movie. The Reformation and its players lose its impact in such a shrift retelling. What the audience gets is a pared Cliff notes version that misses the richness, and gives lip service to the historical importance. What we’re left with are endless scenes where people dress up and talk and talk and talk. Without a sense of weight for character or story, the countless talky moments blur into tedium. If I had a sleeping bag with me I would have curled up into it.

Another problem is the lack of makeup. The film spans thirty-some years and yet Fiennes doesn’’t age a day. My mother proposed that maybe he didn’’t want to look old and decrepit in the film. I responded by saying, “He let them shave his head but he didn’’t want anybody to splash some gray in his hair?”

I guess if you judge movies on costumes or production values, Luther would be competent. But does anyone go to a film saying, “”Man, I sure hope those costumes and sets are incredible! Fingers crossed!”?” Luther is a well-meaning bore that only historical enthusiasts and Lutherans might enjoy.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Rundown (2003)

In the beginning of the new action comedy The Rundown, Beck (The Rock), a bounty hunter, is entering a club on a job. On his way in Arnold Schwarzenegger passes him by and says, “”Have fun.”” Consider it a proverbial torch passing, because while Schwarzenegger is going to be busting the campaign trail, The Rundown establishes The Rock as the fresh and capable marquee name for all future action films. This man is a star.

Beck is offered a chance to square off all debts to mobster Billy Walker by agreeing to journey into the Brazilian jungle. His mission is to retrieve Travis (Seann William Scott), a hyperactive screw-up who happens to be Walker’’s son. One Beck travels to the Amazon he runs into Hatcher (Christopher Walken) who claims to own the jungle and whatever contents dwell within. He asserts that Travis has stumbled upon a wealthy artifact in his jungle and therefore refuses Beck to leave with Travis. It’’s at this point that the chase is on.

I don’’t care what your little sister told you, Vin Diesel is not the next face of action, no, it’’s The Rock. Despite only appearing in three movies (and he was only in The Mummy Returns for like three minutes), The Rock displays a razor-sharp sense of comedy. He’’s also huge, likeable, and he can even emote well during smaller moments, not that The Rundown will stretch you as an actor. He’’s also honed in excessive eyebrow arching.

Walken exists in a plane of brilliant weirdness that we simple human will never be able to coexist upon. His Hatcher is one mean villain who exploits indigenous workers, wears his pants up to his armpits, and says he put the “heart” in the darkness. Walken’’s hysterical tooth fairy monologue is worth the price of admission alone.

Director Peter Berg (Very Bad Things) adds a delectable cartoonish flavor to the film. His action sequences pop with exaggerated energy and zestful humor, like when Travis and Beck roll down a hill for a near minute. This is everything an action film should be: lively, funny, with keen action sequences that are low on CGI but filled with characters we care about. The Rundown is the best summer film not released during the summer.

The Rundown is an adrenalized punch of fabulous action and hilarious banter. When you’re not laughing and spilling your popcorn you’ll be sitting straight up to catch every lovely eyeful of spectacular action. It’s a terrifically entertaining and fun flick. The Rock has arrived.

Nate’s Grade: A

Lost in Translation (2003)

Sophia Coppola probably has had one of the most infamous beginnings in showbiz. Her father, Francis Ford, is one of the most famous directors of our times. He was getting ready to film Godfather Part III when Winona Ryder dropped out weeks before filming. Sophia Coppola, just at the age of 18, stepped into the role of Michael Corleone’’s daughter. The level of scathing reviews Coppola’s acting received is something perhaps only Tom Green and Britney Spears can relate to. Coppola never really acted again. Instead she married Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and adapted and directed the acclaimed indie flick, The Virgin Suicides. So now Coppola is back again with Lost in Translation, and if this is the kind of rewards reaped by bad reviews early in your career, then I’’m circling the 2008 Oscar date for Britney.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a washed up actor visiting Tokyo to film some well-paying whiskey commercials. Bob’’s long marriage is fading and he feels the pains of loneliness dig its claws into his soul. Bob finds a kindred spirit in Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson), a young newlywed who has followed her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to Japan and is second-guessing herself and her marriage. The two strike up a friendship of resistance as strangers in a strange land. They run around the big city and share enough adventures to leave an indelible impression on each other’’s life.

Lost in Translation is, simply put, a marvelously beautiful film. The emphasis for Coppola is less on a rigidly structured story and more on a consistently lovely mood of melancholy. There are many scenes of potent visual power, nuance of absence, that the viewer is left aching like the moments after a long, cleansing cry. There are certain images (like Johansson or Murray staring out at the impersonal glittering Tokyo) and certain scenes (like the final, tearful hug between the leads) that I will never forget. It’s one thing when a film opens on the quiet image of a woman’s derriere in pink panties and just holds onto it. It’’s quite another thing to do it and not draw laughs from an audience.

Murray is outstanding and heartbreaking. Had he not finally gotten the recognition he deserved with last year’s Oscar nomination I would have raged for a recounting of hanging chads. Murray has long been one of our most gifted funnymen, but later in his career he has been turning in soulful and stirring performances playing lonely men. When Murray sings Roxy Music’s “More Than This” to Johansson during a wild night out at a karaoke bar, the words penetrate you and symbolize the leads’ evolving relationship.

Johansson (Ghost World) herself is proving to be an acting revelation. It is the understatement of her words, the presence of a mature intelligence, and the totality of her wistful staring that nail the emotion of Charlotte. Never does the character falter into a Lolita-esque vibe. She’s a lonely soul and finds a beautiful match in Murray.

Lost in Translation is an epic exploration of connection, and the quintessential film that perfectly frames those inescapable moments of life where we come into contact with people who shape our lives by their short stays. This is a reserved love story where the most tender of actions are moments like Murray carrying a sleeping Johansson to her room, tucking her in, then locking the door behind. The comedy of disconnect is delightful, like when Murray receives incomprehensible direction at a photo shoot. The score by Jean-Benoît Dunckel, front man of the French duo Air, is ambient and wraps around you like a warm blanket. The cinematography is also an amazing experience to behold, especially the many shots of the vast glittering life of Tokyo and, equally, its strange emptiness.

Everything works so well in Lost in Translation, from the bravura acting, to the stirring story, to the confident direction, that the viewer will be caught up in its lovely swirl. The film ends up becoming a humanistic love letter to what brings us together and what shapes how we are as people. Coppola’s film is bursting with such sharply insightful, quietly touching moments, that the viewer is overwhelmed at seeing such a remarkably mature and honest movie. The enjoyment of Lost in Translation lies in the understanding the audience can feel with the characters and their plight for connection and human warmth. A work of art like this sure doesn’t come around every day.

Writer/director Sophia Coppola’’s come a long way from being Winona Ryder’’s last-second replacement, and if Lost in Translation, arguably the best film of 2003, is any indication, hopefully we’ll see even more brilliance yet to come. This is not going to be a film for everyone. A common argument from detractors is that Lost in Translation is a film lost without a plot. I’ve had just as many friends call this movie “boring and pointless” as I’ve had friends call it “brilliant and touching.” The right audience to enjoy Lost in Translation would be people who have some patience and are willing to immerse themselves in the nuances of character and silence.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Station Agent (2003)

This is the most charming film of 2003, and I’m not just saying this because I had an interview with one of its stars, Michelle Williams (Dawson’’s Creek). Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a man with dwarfism. With every step he takes every look he gives, you witness the years of torture he’s been through with glares and comments. He’s shut himself away from people and travels to an isolated train station to live. There he meets two other oddballs, a live-wire hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale) and a divorced mother (Patricia Clarkson). Together the three find a wonderful companionship and deep friendship. The moments showing the evolution of the relationship between the three are the film’s highlights. It’s a film driven by characters but well-rounded and remarkable characters. Dinklage gives perhaps one of the coolest performances ever as the unforgettable Fin. Cannavale is hilarious as the loudmouth best friend that wants a human connection. Clarkson is equally impressive as yet another fragile mother (a similar role in the equally good ‘Pieces of April’). The writing and acting of ‘The Station Agent’ are superb. It’s an unforgettable slice of Americana brought together by three oddballs and their real friendship. You’ll leave ‘The Station Agent’ abuzz in good feelings. This is a film you tell your friends about afterwards. There’s likely no shot for a dwarf to be nominated for an Oscar in our prejudiced times but Dinklage is deserving. ‘The Station Agent’ is everything you could want in an excellent independent movie. It tells a tale that would normally not get told. And this is one beauty of a tale.

Nate’’s Grade: A

Cabin Fever (2003)

Throw out all your foolhardy preconceived notions of what you believe to be man’s greatest endeavor. Fire, the wheel, antiseptics, flight? Toss them all in a big garbage can, because Cabin Fever is the greatest single thing human beings have ever and will ever create. I hear a select few countering, “What about the Renaissance?” Oh yeah, did the Renaissance have gratuitous nudity? Wait, scratch that. Did the Renaissance have indulgent nude scenes involving the former Yellow Power Ranger? I think not. Did your fancy-smantzy Renaissance have dogs ripping people apart, backwater yokels who perform kung fu and hobos being set on fire? That’s what I thought. Now who looks like the fool? If I had to live in a Cabin Fever-less world, I would hope it would collapse upon itself, because humanity shouldn’’t have to continue without this movie.

Cabin Fever is a delirious new horror film tweaking all the clichés and expectations of horror. Five friends who have just graduated from college rent a secluded cabin for a weekend. Then their numbers start dwindling through horrific killings. The brutal murderer? A flesh eating bacteria infecting their numbers, ravaging inside them and making flesh fall off like loose cheese on a pizza.

Once the group discovers that one of their friends has become infected they without hesitation quarantine her in a shed. They make failed attempts at getting outside assistance but are pushed back into the hot zone. Their fears and distrust manifest, and what was intended to be a sexual romp in he woods (we all know how that goes in horror flicks) has turned into a microcosm of Lord of the Flies meets Evil Dead II, with a dash of Night of the Living Dead.

What elevates Cabin Fever from similar brainless exercises in mutilating sexually active teens is its self-awareness and constant humor. It plays upon horror staples, particularly the notion of a nation of creepy backwoods folk waiting to take advantage of lost teens. Cabin Fever proudly wears its horror influences on its sleeve. The film is also relentlessly hilarious in its tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. I was laughing all the way through. The film even ends in an inter-racial ho-down with banjos!

The film isn’’t so much scary, though it does have a few shares of scares. The film also isn’’t as gory as you’d believe, but when it shows the gory goods Cabin Fever swings for the fences. Interesting enough, someone on the Cabin Fever crew actually suffered an attack by flesh-eating bacteria in their life and claims the gruesome makeup to be 100 percent authentic.

Writer/director Eli Roth’’s Cabin Fever is a scream. He has an amazing sense of visuals and creates a vivid picture of doom. He displays a sickly entertaining sense of humor, much like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson did before they went Hollywood. The photography is great, the disgusting makeup is skin-crawling (perhaps a more appropriate term than intended) and the performances are dead-on camp. Each of the characters fits into a horror archetype from innocent girl next-door (who gets infected first), sexy brunette vamp, loudmouth drunkard and nice guy who lacks confidence (Rider Strong of Boy Meets World).

Now some will take umbrage to the fact I’m giving a goo-filled horror flick such a high rating. Cabin Fever is the most fun I’ve had at the movies in some time, and is perfect for getting a group of your friends together to experience. I couldn’t ask for more breezy entertainment from a movie. You know what else your fancy Renaissance didn’’t have? People swallowing their harmonicas. I’’m pretty sure they didn’’t have that. Take that harmonica-less Michelangelo, you hack!

Nate’s Grade: A

Dirty Pretty Things (2003)

Director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) has shown an unflinching eye at the fringe elements of society. In the new thriller Dirty Pretty Things the focus is on the struggling lives of illegal immigrants in over their heads.

The London that Frears displays is the sordid underbelly, the type that hasn’’t seen the light in ages. These people are treated like they’re disposable. Those with whatever menial amount of power, even if it’s a single step higher, prey on these immigrants. “”How come I haven’’t seen you before?”” one character asks another. “”Because we are the people who are not seen,”” he replies.

The heart of the film (you’ll get the pun soon) follows the lives of two immigrants. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is from Nigeria and works days as a cab driver and nights as a front desk clerk at a hotel. Senay (Amelie’’s Audrey Tatou) is a Turkish housekeeper at the same sleazy hotel trying to stay one step ahead of immigration police. Okwe is instructed to ignore all the salient comings and goings of the hotel. “People come to us to do dirty things,” says the creepy hotel manager Mr. Sneaky (yes, that is his name). “It’s our job to make things pretty the next morning.” Things get more complicated when Okwe discovers a human heart clogging a room toilet. It seems that for some who check into the hotel, they don’t check out. Okwe and Senay become entangled in a bloody scheme that threatens their lives and their immigration status.

Dirty Pretty Things is never boring, sometimes compelling, and more thrilling than you would believe with a plot concerning immigration. The characters earn our attention and emotions with Senay’’s vulnerability to Okwe’’s tenderness and resolute integrity. They draw us in and we genuinely care what happens as they are snared into the creepy clutches of Mr. Sneaky.

It’’s here that I feel obliged to mention that Steven Knight, the writer of Dirty Pretty Things, is the co-creator of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Just consider the possibilities of future game show creators-turn-thriller screenwriters: Merv Griffin’’s hard hitting thriller on the lives of firemen, anyone? It could have the corny tagline, “”There’’s only one rule of firefighting –– never fall in love.”” Maybe this only fascinates me.

Frears’’ direction is rock solid. He plays to the best aspects of thrillers, like a suffocating feeling of paranoia but doesn’’t suffer the thriller flaws because of such resonant and buoyant characters. Frears is confidant to not overcompensate with his storytelling and lets the grimy locations create his stark mood for him. You can almost taste the stale air.

The acting is exceptional. Ejiofor is amazing. He gives a stellar performance rich in complexity, anxiety, uncertainty, and just plain goodness. He seems to be the last honest man in all of London. There are several scenes you can feel the debate of emotions raging inside him. Tatou, in her first English language role, gives a strong performance, though I’’m curious as to where her “Turkish” accent went. With her penetrating dark eyes and elfin smirk, Tatou is still one of the most adorable actresses on either side of the pond.

Dirty Pretty Things is a searing look at the faceless underprivileged seeking a new life, and those who would deviously prey upon them. The film is a smart, superbly directed, and wonderfully acted thriller. It’’s a thriller without weird kids who see ghosts, or lesbians with ice picks, but Dirty Pretty Things is a film that’ll stay with you long after the lights go up in the theater.

Nate’s Grade: A

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty) wrote, directed, produced, photographed, edited, and scored Once Upon a Time in Mexico. I’’m sure if you look further this jack-of-all-trades also provided coffee and donuts. Coming off his third Spy Kids feature, Rodriguez seems like the hardest working man in showbiz. Mexico, a sequel to 1995’’s Desperado, is one tasty burrito of stylish action, vigorous energy and the immensely appealing Johnny Depp.

Depp stars as Sands, an amoral CIA agent who calls Mexico his beat. Through the help of a one-eyed flunky (Cheech Marin), he recruits a mysterious gunman, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), to thwart a coup being lead by Marquez, a military general, and paid for by a drug cartel run by Barillo (Willem Dafoe, a.k.a. the Creepiest Man Alive). Then there’s also a retired FBI Agent (Ruben Blades) looking to settle a personal score with Barillo, a Federale (Eva Mendes) looking for some action, a nasty hired gun (Danny Trejo) itching to off a certain Mariachi, Mickey Rourke with a Chihuahua, Enrique Iglesias with a mole, and also the fact that Marquez, who Banderas has been assigned to kill, murdered Banderas’ wife (Salma Hayek) and daughter. I’ll stop so you can catch your breath. Ready? Okay.

You better think ahead and bring a second pair of pants because Depp will charm them right off as he plays yet another oddball. We are delighted with Sands and his multitude of fake mustaches, tacky T-shirts (one actually says “CIA”) and method of paying people through cash-filled nostalgic lunch boxes. Despite plotting near a Machiavellian level and shooting innocent chefs, the character settles into a lovable anti-hero that transforms into a blind reaper of vengeance. Depp is one of the best, if not the best, actors on the planet. Once again as he did in Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp gives life to a character and nourishes the film every time he’s onscreen. This is Depp’’s show. Mexico does have a noticeable lull whenever Depp is absent. I don’’t know anyone else that could actually become cooler AFTER what he goes through. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and Depp totally owns this movie and the 2003 year.

Banderas is smooth and has never looked better than playing the role of the silent-but-deadly musician. Hayek’s role amounts to little more than a cameo. She’s witnessed through flashbacks, but she still has a healthy smolder to her. Blades has the most integrity of all the characters. Most of the actors have fun with their roles, especially the ones that are bad (which accounts for most everyone), but you can’’t help but get the feeling that they’re being wasted for the most part.

Rodriguez’s overstuffed film is so delightfully over-the top and loopy that it crackles with an infectious kind of energy. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a wild and lively cartoon of an action movie with a very healthy sense of humor. Its action relies low on CGI and high on inventive, if slightly self-aware, camera angles and furious gun fights. A sequence involving Banderas and Hayek chained to the wrist and swinging one-by-one down the levels of a building is breathtaking.

What this spaghetti western below the border could have used is a little less of its myriad of twists, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and character subplots. By the time the Day of the Dead rolls on, you might need note cards to keep everything straight. Rodriguez’’s earlier Mariachi films were lean on plots which allowed for fun and grandiose action sequences. Perhaps Mexico could have shaved some of these needless characters (cough, Eva Mendes, cough) from its convoluted plot and drawn out its sometimes too quick bursts of stellar action.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a bloody good time. Depp amazes yet again in this bombastically silly yet undeniably fun south o’ the border shoot-em-up. If Rodriguez has any plans for an additional sequel (and he might given his insane work ethic) I’’d recommend following Depp’’s Sands character wherever the sands take him. To witness this incredibly cool, whip-smart character cut up in any land would certainly be music to my ears.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003)

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, being the egalitarian champions we all know celebrities to be, started a contest called Project Greenlight that allowed aspiring screenwriters to enter for a chance to have the winning script made into a movie by Miramax and the process documented for a behind the scenes reality show to run on HBO. Project Greenlight‘s first winner was the hapless Pete Jones. His winning screenplay gave birth to Stolen Summer, a maudlin coming-of-age story about a Catholic boy trying to get his ailing Jewish friend into heaven. You can feel the grating precociousness already. While Stolen Summer was an artistic yawn the HBO series was a hit as we the viewers saw every stupid mistake, naïve decision, and screaming matches during the production. Pete Jones’’ pain was our gain.

Unlike the first contest, this one had a separate entry for directors and the tag-team of Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin were picked to direct the winning screenplay The Battle of Shaker Heights, by Columbus, Ohio (represent) grad student Erica Beeny. Project Greenlight on HBO showcased the tension created by these butting heads. Beeny seemed ready to meltdown at a moment’s notice, probably because she let her good nature be taken advantage of by the egotistical, passive-aggressive, non-communicative, hilariously self-absorbed directors. This raises the question; did Affleck and Damon pick the best people or the people most likely to create the best television?

Once again, the winning screenplay involved a coming-of-age story, this time revolving around the life of Kelly (Shia LeBeouf), a glib teenage war re-enactor. Kelly befriends Bart (Elden Henson) during a battle reenactment. Bart is from a wealthy Wasp-y household where his college is already predetermined. Kelly, on the other hand, must sullenly deal with his father (William Sadler), a former junkie who wasted away his college fund, and his flighty mother (Kathleen Quinlan). Bart and Kelly scheme to teach a schoolyard bully a lesson, and in the process Kelly starts falling for Bart’’s attractive older sister Tabby (Amy Smart).

The character of Kelly doesn”’t seem to have any deep reflections of life or anything of substance, just wicked one-liners. The fact that Kelly comes off as a sympathetic hero goes fully to the charming LeBeouf, who displays a laid back sense of humor and allure that is reminiscent of a young John Cusack. LeBeouf gives a star-making performance that keeps the audience engaged, even if the story is turning them off.

One of several problems Shaker Heights suffers from is that the finished product is a one-man show. Kelly is such a dominating character, a whirlwind of misplaced rage that everyone that gets in his path suffers. His relationship with Tabby seems like nothing more than unrequited puppy love that doesn’’t need so much screen time being spent on a tired “will they or won’t they” diversion. Kelly’’s parents come off like they’re invisible. If you blink you may miss their entire time on screen. The father is more an absent force to drive Kelly’s angst, while his mother doesn’’t seem to have any purpose or influence whatsoever.

Shaker Heights feels like a film made by committee because –as Project Greenlight astutely documented– it was made by a committee. Miramax executives decided they could sell the film better as a pure comedy so they removed most of the winning screenplay’s drama. So now, with this new incarnation of Shaker Heights, the comedy never really emerges from more than a handful of superficially cute lines, and whenever a bit of drama does emerge it seems alien and disorienting. The heavy-handed direction by Potelle and Rankin paints in broad strokes, so the dramatic efforts come off as forced and overblown when they sneak up on an audience.

This incarnation of the movie may be entertaining to some, but with these cuts and directorial choices Shaker Heights seems horribly ordinary. Kelly is a disaffected teen with smart-ass comments; he lusts after the older girl who, of course, is with a supposed loser; his parents just don’t know what to do with him. The story is dulled down and all the edges seem polished off, and what an audience is left with is scenes, characters, and a story we’re already well familiar with. Does Project Greenlight seem to have a desire to select coming-of-age stories and then water them down to the point of distilling any original voice? The only interesting diversion in Shaker Heights is the war reenactment section, which is tragically too short.

The Battle of Shaker Heights is another theatrical dud from the Project Greenlight crew. Fans of teen melodrama might get some moderate enjoyment from it, but realistically, the only people who are going to pay any sort of money to see Shaker Heights are the people who avidly followed the Project Greenlight TV series. And in the end, one can’t shake the feeling that The Battle of Shaker Heights ultimately feels like a disappointing season finale to Project Greenlight.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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