Monthly Archives: December 2004

Closer (2004)

A funny thing happened to me when I sat in a theater to see Closer. It was packed, surely due to the film’s heavy star power. As the film played out I began to notice that my audience was laughing consistently, at moments that weren’t necessarily meant for humor. I don’t think they were laughing at the film, instead I think it was a defense. You see, I’m sure the majority of those couples read Closer to be a much different film than it is. They saw the pretty faces of Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts. They were expecting something, let’s say, lighter than the cruel savagery of Closer. When America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts compares the taste of two men’s semen, you know this isn’t any Gary Marshall movie (forgetting Exit to Eden, and please do).

Dan (Jude Law) is an obituary writer planning to pen a novel one of these days. He locks his eyes on Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper from the States, while walking one day. She gets hit by a car and Dan takes her to a hospital. Flash forward and Dan and Alice are dating but his eyes are already wandering. During a photography session with Anna (Julia Roberts) he kisses her but is spurned. He takes his revenge on some soul in cyberspace, pretending to be Anna and arranging a meeting. That sap turns out to be Larry (Clive Owen), and they actually do start dating. Then things get messy. Couples leave one another, get back together, swap lovers, and come crawling and begging for forgiveness or punishment. The rest of Closer is like a long game of relationship Red Rover.

Director Mike Nichols has a definite affinity for his four actors (they are the only ones in the film with speaking parts). He shoots Closer as an actor’s showcase, with constant close-ups and no handheld camerawork. He places the emphasis on his actors. The results are more familiar to Nichols’ early films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge. However, Closer isn’t as insightful as it thinks it is. It presents cruel characters doing dastardly acts, but this is stuff that wouldn’t impress Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men). There is intelligence to the film?s dialogue but it’s wasted on a ramshackle story.

The acting of Closer both helps and hurts the film. It seems that the two primarily wronged characters (Larry, Alice) give the better performances.

Owen is the standout performer of the ensemble. Playing the Dan role onstage has given him an intimate feel for the story’s characters. He’s the most decent of all four until the weight of circumstances finally pushes him to the limit. He’s the character the audience sees themselves in, so it helps that Owen gives a great performance of quiet dignity and slow self-destruction. He expresses more emotional turmoil in his eyes than most actors do with their whole body. Portman is having a breakthrough year for herself. First she showed pluck and grace in Garden State, and now with Closer she has graduated to the adult table. She radiates a fragility that makes you want to hug her. Portman will probably always look like a little doll (which works for her role as a stripper).

The beauty of Roberts and Law hurts the ugliness of their characters. I make no bones about my general dislike of Roberts as an actress. Her acting in Closer is like a soft-spoken, pouty child. She jumps from man to man, looking sullen or pensive, but comes off more petulant. Law is better, but his handsome devil is not in the details. Dan is a womanizing cad but we never get any understanding for why he acts as he does. Law can be hypnotizing, but like Roberts, his pretty facade takes away from the impact of Dan’s ugly behavior.

Despite the title, you get no closer to getting to know or understand the characters. It’s really almost a stretch to call them characters because they’re more accurately different positions in an argument. The only characterization Closer has to offer is suffering and inflicting suffering. Closer really has one voice coming out of the mouths of different pretty actors.

The film has the annoying habit of skipping ahead in time and not telling the audience. We’re left to catch verbal asides that time has passed. After a while you’ll get the hang of it simply by assuming that the beginning of every new scene is the start of a new date in time. Closer is nothing but a string of uncollected scenes, usually involving people leaving a lover or starting a new fling. The actors come on, do their part, then they leave and we move on to a different scene. This is not staged as a movie.

The trouble with Closer is that it never really feels like it’s going anywhere. There’s no progression. Sure, couples swap, people get revenge, but the connection of sequences is lacking. The way it is, Closer could have gone on forever. It’s a series of scenes smashed together, not a story that rises and falls and builds to a climax.

Closer is an exploration into the darkness of human behavior starring some of the prettiest actors Hollywood can spare. The story goes nowhere, the ending doesn’t accomplish much, the characters lack convincing depth, but some of the acting is good and there is a ray of intelligence to the film. Fans of the above-the-title actors should enter Closer with caution. It’s a dark film with little to feel good about. Closer is brooding, moody, and probably the first and last time we?ll hear Julia Roberts talk about the taste of semen. Unless, of course, Gary Marshall starts pre-production on Exit to Eden 2: Rosie O’Donnell’s Bondage Boogaloo.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby, much like its fledgling female boxing character, has come out of nowhere and made a considerable deal of noise. This little homespun film directed by Clint Eastwood didn’t have the glitz and sheen of other awards friendly movies, but now it seems that Eastwood?s own baby may clean up come Oscar time. Can Million Dollar Baby tackle the enormous hype surrounding it? Yes and no.

]Frankie (Eastwood) is a hardened boxing trainer too concerned for his fighters’ welfare to allow them to fight in championship bouts. He’s the kind of cynical old man that enjoys pestering a priest and causing him to unleash an F-bomb. Frankie and his longtime friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman) run a rundown gym and talk un-sentimentally about their older days as prize fighters. Then along comes Maggie (Hilary Swank), a 32-year old waitress who’s got nothing to believe in except her possibility as a boxer. She wants Frank to train her into the champ she knows she can be. He refuses saying he doesn’t train girls. She’s so determined she won’t take no for an answer. Frank finally agrees, especially after some help from Scrap, and starts to teach Maggie everything she needs to know to be a star pugilist. The two begin to open up to each other emotionally and Maggie seems destined to become a force in the ring.

Million Dollar Baby‘s greasiest attribute is its trio of knockout performances. Swank owns every second of this movie. She’s unremittingly perky, conscientious but also dogged, stubborn, and irresistibly lovable. Swank embodies the role with a startling muscular physique and a million dollar smile. Her performance is equal parts charming and heartbreaking. Maggie’s the heart of Million Dollar Baby and Swank doesn’t let you forget it for a millisecond. Come Oscar time, I’m sure she will be walking onstage to grab her second Best Actress Oscar in five years.

No one does grizzled better than Eastwood, and maybe no other actor has made as much of an acting mark by squinting a lot. Million Dollar Baby is probably his best performance to date, though for a good while it sounds like Frank has something lodged in his throat (pride?). Frank has the greatest transformation, and Eastwood brilliantly understates each stop on the journey until landing in a vulnerable, emotionally needy place.

Freeman once again serves as a film’s gentle narrator. There isn’t a movie that can’t be made better by a Morgan Freeman performance. His give-and-take with Frank feels natural and casual to the point that it seems improvised on the spot. Freeman unloads some great monologues like he’s relishing every syllable, chief among them about how he lost his eye. It’s wonderful to watch such a great actor sink his teeth into ripe material and deliver a performance that may net him a long-awaited Oscar (I think he’s due, and likely so will the Academy).

For whatever reason, Eastwood is hitting a directing groove in his twilight years. First came Mystic River, an ordinary police whodunnit made exceptional by incredible acting. Now Eastwood follows up with Baby, an ordinary sports film made extraordinary by incredible acting. Hmmm, a pattern is forming. The cinematography is crisp and makes great use of light and shadow to convey emotion. Eastwood’s score is also appropriately delicate and somber. The boxing sequences are brief but efficient.

Million Dollar Baby is a very traditional story that is at times surprisingly ordinary. Maggie’s the scrappy underdog that just needs a chance, Frank’s the old timer that needs to find personal redemption, and Scrap?s the wise old black man. Once again, an old curmudgeon takes on a rookie and in the process has their tough facade melt away as the inevitable victories pile up. Million Dollar Baby is a very familiar story but then again most boxing tales are fairly the same in scope.

What eventually separates Million Dollar Baby from the pack is its third act twist. You think you know where Eastwood’s film is headed, especially given the well-worn terrain, but you have no clue where this story will wind up. The plot turn deepens the characters and their relationships to each other in very surprising ways. You may be flat-out shocked how much you’ve found yourself caring for the people onscreen. It almost seems like Eastwood and company have used the familiar rags-to-riches underdog drama to sucker punch an audience into Million Dollar Baby‘s final 30 minutes. We’re transported into an uncomfortable and challenging position, and Eastwood won’t let an audience turn away.

Million Dollar Baby is not the colossal masterpiece that critics have been drooling over. For one thing, the group of antagonists is not nearly as textured as our trio of leads. They’re actually more stock roles that further enforce the ordinary story of Million Dollar Baby. Maggie’s trailer trash family is lazy unsupportive batch of stereotypes. The evil female boxing champ just happens to be a German who doesn’t mind playing dirty. One of the boxers at Frank’s gym is an arrogant showboat just waiting to be nasty while the teacher’s back is turned. Million Dollar Baby excels at showing depth and humanity with its lead trio, yet it seems if you aren’t in that circle you’re doomed to wade in the shallow end.

Eastwood shows that great acting and great characters you love can elevate a common framework. The package may be similar to a lot of films before about scrappy underdogs, but Million Dollar Baby lacks comparison in its genre when it comes to its enthralling acting and characters. The father-daughter bond between Frank and Maggie is heartwarming. The final reveal of what her Gaelic boxing name means may just bring tears to your eyes. The results are a very fulfilling movie going experience, albeit one that regrettably may not live up to such hype.

Million Dollar Baby has been showered with heapings of praise and become a formidable Oscar contender. The story treads familiar waters but its outstanding acting and deep and humane characters elevate the material. The film can’t match the hyperbole of critics but Million Dollar Baby is an ordinary but greatly satisfying ride led by compelling acting. The film hums with professionalism and seems to just glide when everything comes together magnificently, particularly in that last 30 minutes. Eastwood is hitting an artistic stride and it’s actually exciting to see what Clint will do next. Million Dollar Baby may not be a first round knockout but it definitely wins by decision.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Beyond the Sea (2004)

I really don’t think a lot of people know Bobby Darren. It seems that today most people would recognize him from singing “Beyond the Sea” over the closing credits of Finding Nemo. He wasn’t supposed to live past 17 but went on and wrote 400 plus songs including “Mack the Knife,” “Splish Splash,” and “Dream Lover.” Seems like there could be some interesting ground for a biopic. Kevin Spacey is one of our most celebrated actors and earned two very well deserved Oscars. Spacey has a strong passion for Darren and has been dreaming of portraying his life story for years. Passion is good for a role, right? Sam Raimi had passion for Spider-Man and look how those movies turned out. Well, with Beyond the Sea it seems that Spacey is less passionate about Bobby Darren and more passionate about his love of Kevin Spacey.

The film opens with the 37-year-old Darren (Spacey) reliving his life via a biographical movie he’s filming (yes, it’s a movie-within-a-movie). With the help of a younger movie self as a guide, Darren traces his rise from the streets of Brooklyn to headlining the Cococabana club. As a young child, doctors feared that Darren wouldn’t outlive his teens with his weak heart. Bedridden often, he found inspiration in music with his flamboyant yet supportive mother (Brenda Blethyn). Darren is driven to succeed and soon lands on top of the charts with a string of hits. Next he?s starring in movies with Rock Hudson and Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), a chickadee that Darren is just as determined to succeed with. They marry, have a child, but Darren doesn’t feel fulfilled. He needs to push his music further whether or not it alienates everyone around him.

If you thought Beyond the Sea was the story of Bobby Darren, you’d be pitifully wrong. It’s really the story of Kevin Spacey, actor/writer/director/singer/dancer. That’s why we get to see flashy, superfluous dance numbers, that’s why we get to watch Spacey sing 12-15 times, and that’s why Spacey went to the trouble of re-recording all of Darren’s songs so that?s it?s Spacey belting out the tunes. Because, remember, this is a film about Spacey, not Bobby Darren.

Spacey is also much too old to be playing Darren, who died suddenly at age 37. He comes off lechery, especially during his courtship with the young Sandra Dee. Spacey isn’t unaware of this problem because in the opening minutes of Beyond the Sea someone accuses Bobby Darren of being to old to play himself in his movie. The response: “He was born to play this part!” There you go folks, case closed.

The acting in Beyond the Sea isn’t really an issue. Spacey has a genuine bounce to his song renditions and proves to be a capable dancer. John Goodman plays yet another gruff but lovable sidekick. It’s always good to see Bob Hoskins onscreen, no matter what the role may be. Bosworth comes away the best as she shifts from stars-in-the-eyes naivetĂ© to a harder edge (you may rethink that whole song from Grease).

The dialogue is played so straight that it’s often hilarious: “Memories are like moonbeams, we do with them what we like.” With all due respect, what the hell does that mean?! I think I get the idea but what can anyone really do with moonbeams? If this line isn’t bad enough it becomes a central idea for Beyond the Sea which Spacey/Darren uses to excuse his flagrant gaps in time and fact.

Beyond the Sea gets so caught up in the Kevin Spacey Variety Hour that it fails to tell its audience why they should even care about Darren. Was he an inspiration because he outlived doctor expectations? Did he liven up old songs? Was he a remarkably versatile talent? Who knows? You’re on your own. Spacey’s too busy singing and dancing to explain the relevancy of Bobby Darren or why this movie should even exist.

There must be some interesting facts about Darren. I did not know that he wrote “Splish Splash” let alone that he wrote the whole song in 20 minutes. I didn’t know Darren required a toupee at such a young age. That stuff is interesting. It’s too bad it all takes a back seat because Spacey wants to emphasize his singing. Seriously, I get it; you can sing, Kevin Spacey. Can I see more of Bobby Darren and less of Spacey now?

Beyond the Sea portrays Darren so single-mindedly. He’s always focused on his music and nothing else, whether that be a budding acting career (he was nominated for an Oscar), the advice of his friends, or the love of his family. Darren kind of comes across as a self-centered jerk a lot of the time in Beyond the Sea.

I don’t know which is worse, Spacey the director or Spacey the writer. It’s not that he’s inept at either end but he just makes decisions that kill the material. There has to be a better framing device than having Darren star in a movie about his life. There have to be better transitional ideas than having New York City explode into choreographed dances. To top it off, when the movie reaches its very protracted climax, we see the adult Bobby Darren in a tap duet with his younger self. Beyond the Sea loses whatever earnest intentions it had and melts away into one strange metaphysical song and dance revue.

Beyond the Sea has been a pet project for Kevin Spacey for so long that the focus has shifted from Bobby Darren to Spacey himself. This movie exists so that Spacey can celebrate himself. To say Beyond the Sea is a showcase of megalomania would be an understatement. Many scenes exist for no reason other than to give Spacey another opportunity to dance or sing. Re-dubbing all of Darrens songs seems a tad unnecessary and a whole lot about ego. Die-hard fans of Darren or Spacey may enjoy Beyond the Sea, but most people will grow tired of seeing Spacey congratulate himself for being an autuer. This is a self-indulgent nightclub act posing as a film. Memories are like moonbeams, and I’m forgetting this movie as fast as possible.

Nate’s Grade: D

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Deep in the heart of WWI trenches, we begin this sprawling tale by narrowing in on five French soldiers. Each man has been accused of self-inflicting a wound to escape service, and each man is sentenced to spend the rest of their likely short lives in No Man’s Land, the stretch of bare land between the two trenches. One of these men is Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), a young country boy engaged to the charming Mathilde (Audrey Tautou). When she learns his fated punishment and fails to hear word from Manech, she steps out to launch her own investigation into the possible whereabouts of Manech or the possible details of her fiancĂ©’s demise. She enlists her family, solicits strangers, and puts ads in newspapers to unravel the truth. Along the way she hears various stories from all sorts of people and attempts to form them into a clear picture of what went on in that trench, good or bad.

A Very Long Engagement could be flippantly described as “Rashomon in a trench,” but from the get-go it grabs you by the lapels and will not let go. Once again, Jeunet tells his story in a criss-crossing narrative. Front and center we learn about each doomed man’s life in snapshot, and while the device has a slight eulogy feel, it’s a fantastic way to show the depth of characters in such brevity. A Very Long Engagement is an immeasurably rich film where each detail is threaded into the film to create a magnificent artistic tapestry beyond compare. The tiniest details in the film like Mathilde’s tuba playing (the only instrument whose sound mimics a distress call), to the mail carrier choosing to slide his bike over gravel just further enhance the vibrant, animated world of Jeunet.

Jeunet is quite possibly the most visually gifted director working today (he turned down Harry Potter 5). He couldn’t film an ugly shot composition if he tried with all his French might. As expected, A Very Long Engagement is gorgeous to look at. The production design is massively intricate, the cinematography, while computer assisted, has a shimmering radiance to it. This is simply the best looking film of all 2004, Hero be damned. You could pause any second in this film and use it as a glossy postcard. Jeunet has the technical credentials to fasten together complex and beautiful worlds. A Very Long Engagement is a technical marvel and gorgeous to experience.

Tautou, also as expected, is wonderful once more. She’s the anchor of the film and the audience feels every heartbreak and glimmer of hope this talented actress explores. The supporting cast is full of familiar Jeunet players and each performance adds to the richness of the film. They feel like characters and not stock roles or cliches.

There is some difficulty with following the storyline. There are so many subplots built upon other subplots that the film’s momentum takes a bit of a dive in the second act. A Very Long Engagement can also get very confusing when it comes to remembering so many names. There are maybe 30 characters to keep track of and as the subplots mount new characters are added to the pile, including a widow played by a surprisingly fluent Jodie Foster. It’s best to employ some kind of memory trick to keep the many colorful characters of Jeunet’s world straightened.

The focus of A Very Long Engagement is on Mathilde’s investigation into what really happened in that trench. She wants to know what happened to her beloved, and as her search picks up steam we get further glimpses of her relationship with Manech. One of my biggest problems I had with 2003’s Cold Mountain was that Jude Law was travailing through hell and back to get back to his beloved Nicole Kidman even though their relationship pre-war lasted as long as a Super Bowl commercial. It’s not that I disbelieve the overpowering nature of love, but I need more from my characters than shifty glances and a quick ejaculation of love (get your mind out of the gutter). Now, in A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet opens by showing the measures Manech will endure to return to his beloved, however, as the film goes on we also see enough peeks into the depths of their relationship beforehand, which dates all the way back to when they were children

A Very Long Engagement forges such a grand and sweeping love story that the audience gets just as immersed as Mathilde about the search for her man. There are so many lovely, intelligent moments between Mathilde and Manech, like their first sexual encounter. Every time Manech lights a new match Mathilde removes an article of clothing until, under the soft light of the newly lit match, she’s nude and blows the match out herself. The characters’ overriding love also taps into small truisms like when Mathilde makes arbitrary games for herself to ensure her love’s safety. (“If I can count to ten before that car passes, then he is alive.”) Mathilde’s faith and devotion are driving her investigation and the audience is behind her 100% of the way, fully invested in this mystery. When we reach our conclusion, I don’t mind telling you I was bawling like a baby.

The film has a merry whimsical tone during its origami-like narrative, but when it hits the trenches the film gets down and dirty. Jeunet shows a fascinating view into the hardships of everyday trench life as well as the machinery of death. Storming the other side’s trench, or “going over the top” as it was called, is seen in all its sordid features. There are hearty splashes of blood and gore that can be jarring.

There’s one terrifying scene in A Very Long Engagement involving the explosion of a makeshift hospital. The hospital is inside a hangar for zeppelins (hydrogen gas) and a missile has crashed into the roof with its nose sticking inside. One of the zeppelins becomes loose and slowly floats to the missile nose with unforgivable certainty. People are running around trying to shield themselves from the inevitable, but it does nothing. The moment is played so agonizingly slow that we become overwhelmed with terror. This was the life of WWI warfare.

Having said this, the stark war violence doesn’t exactly gel exceedingly well with the whimsical romantic elements. For some, A Very Long Engagement will seem like two very tonally different movies butting heads and intruding upon the other (perhaps Amelie Goes to War?). Sometimes it does take a while to adjust to one tone after spending time with the other. I feel that the emotional investment in the characters and the anticipation of unraveling the mystery serves as thematic glue over the disproportionate tones. Some will feel chaffed by the two stark tones, but I think the power of the love story will conquer most hearts into experiencing the bloodshed of war to earn the shedding of tears by the film’s romance.

Jeunet has re-teamed with Tautou and created another masterpiece. A Very Long Engagement took hold of me from the start and mesmerized me with its beauty, grace, cruelty, excitement, and warmth. This is a great mystery and a great love story with great visuals and great characters. The opposing tones (whimsy vs. violence) won’t work for everyone, and the film takes one too many divergent paths in the middle, but A Very Long Engagement is a film of such startling originality and feeling that it should be treasured. I was floored by what Jeunet had to offer and deeply moved by the time I had to leave the theater. They don’t make them like this much anymore. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye.

Nate’s Grade: A

Ocean’s 12 (2004)

In 2001, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven was a giant surprise. It was a blast of fun with an impressive collection of Hollywood royalty. It had clever dialogue, fun characters, and a gala of amusing plot twists. It was one of the breeziest, most entertaining movies in years. Now, come late 2004, Ocean’s Twelve is released with the entire cast returning, including the lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones in tow. Expectations are high for another glitzy romp, but what you’re left with in Ocean’s Twelve is all glitz and no romp.

It’s been three years after the gang robbed ruthless casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) of 160 million dollars. Benedict tracks down each member of Ocean’s Eleven and gives them the same ultimatum: either pay back what they stole, with interest, in two weeks or they’ll be killed. Danny Ocean (George Clooney) leaves his attempts at normal home life with Tess (Julia Roberts) and reassembles the team, many of whom have burned through their shares of the millions. Danny and his right-hand man Rusty (Brad Pitt) figure they’re too hot stateside so they’ll need to travel overseas if they’re to steal their fortunes. Linus (Matt Damon) also wants to have a greater role in the heist this time around.

In Europe, Ocean is challenged by a French playboy (Vincent Cassel) who moonlights as the notorious thief, the Night Fox. The challenge is to see who can steal a priceless Faberge egg, and if bested the Night Fox promises to pay all of Ocean’s debts to Benedict. Hot on the heels of both thieves is Isabel (Zeta-Jones), an expert police officer that also happens to be the former girlfriend to Rusty.

Ocean’s Twelve does not work as a heist picture. For starters, the audience has no idea what’s going on for most of it. A general heist movie bylaw is to explain what the heist will entail, and then we watch the team hit it step by step. Forget that. In Ocean’s Twelve we’re never told how they are going to do their heist, and as they commence with their plan it’s not surprising to an audience, only confusing. I had to wait until the very end for some character to go into a monologue to explain how they accomplished their heist, and let me say, it was not worth two hours of waiting and scratching my head. The result seems to push away an audience instead of involving them in the fun of the scheme.

The story doesn’t utilize the talents of the assembled members. There’s a reason you hire a demolitions expert or a pick pocket, and that’s to let them work their skill. Well in Ocean’s Twelve we get none of that. Most of the cast’s skills are not ever put to use, which further gunks up a heist movie. The movie really errs by putting many of its eleven on ice for long stretches of the film. Around the second act almost everyone gets arrested. Pity poor Bernie Mac, who is in jail for near the whole movie. It seems that Soderbergh doesn’t know what to do with all his characters, and the new additions, so he stashes them away for long stages of time hoping an audience won’t notice.

Soderbergh is in danger of becoming a parody of himself. His usual narrative flourishes are present, including jumps in time and perspective; however, they don’t add up to much except unnecessary showmanship. The nonlinear leaps and shell game of information do not add to the film. Soderbergh keeps his audience in the dark for too long and then cheats us with the ending. Ocean’s Twelve is a good looking film (the vistas look beautiful), but it’s a good looking movie with nowhere to go. What’s even more frustrating is the ending to Ocean’s Twelve. You see, in the end we find out that the last hour plus of the movie was unnecessary. Yes, the movie actually makes a reveal that nullifies over half of the film. It’s cheap and unappreciated. Ocean’s Twelve, there’s a difference between tricking an audience and conning them. Maybe some day you’ll realize this.

The new storylines never really develop. Zeta-Jones doesn’t add much besides another authority figure to chase after Ocean and the boys. Her subplot involving finding her master thief father is abrupt and easy. The best new addition to Ocean’s Twelve was the prospect of a rival, but again nothing really happens with our French thief. He’s more of a catalyst for the plot than anything else, and it’s a shame, because he could have opened the door for a great film pitting two competitive teams of thieves against each other.

Ocean’s Twelve is too satisfied with itself to be that entertaining. It’s now actually reminiscent of the 1960 original film (my grandmother swears it’s wonderful, take that for what you will), starring the Rat Pack. Plot and logic are secondary to a bunch of cool characters having fun. I really enjoyed Ocean’s Eleven (the 2001 film, not my grandmother’s preferred version), but this new sequel lacks any charm and verve. I can’t even say there were many good scenes, just some good ideas that they didn’t fully actualize, like stowing Yen in baggage and then losing their luggage (nothing comes of this). There’s a fun scene involving Topher Grace spoofing his own micro-celebrity, but beyond that many of the scenes and ideas don’t seem developed. The best moment of Ocean’s Twelve, for me, was when I saw Eddie Izzard, the funniest man on the face of the Earth and then some, chat with Hollywood’s A-list on screen. God bless you Eddie Izzard.

Ocean’s Twelve wilts in comparison to its witty, effervescent predecessor. Ocean’s Eleven was fun and hip but didn’t need to coast on star appeal. It had a believable heist, engaging personalities, and it was fun because we knew what was going on and it mattered! I’m sure the cast of Ocean’s Twelve had a blast making the movie together, and their friendly camaraderie shows, but when I left the theater I felt like I had been stuck with the bill for someone else?s good time.

Nate’s Grade: C

Michael Moore Hates America (2004)

Mike Wilson is an ordinary guy. He saw some of Michael Moore’s documentaries, listened to some of his interview bits, and didn’t appreciate what he saw and heard. But unlike the rest of us, Wilson grabbed a camera and did something. He spent the next couple years scouring the country trying to score an interview with Moore and reevaluate some of his assertions. Wilson’s final product is Michael Moore Hates America, a small but potent documentary that’s far sweeter than the title may have you believe.

With camera in hand, Wilson travels around the country to find out what ordinary Americans have to say about Moore’s viewpoints. He visits Flint Michigan, Moore’s self-proclaimed hometown (his real hometown is a middle class suburb) and finds success stories. Wilson interviews various figures from Moore’s films, like bank workers in the opening of Bowling for Columbine and an amputated soldier shown in Fahrenheit 9/11 without his knowledge. Wilson also speaks with some of Moore’s fans who chillingly declare not to care if Moore misleads or makes up facts, because to them the end justifies the means. All the while Wilson hunts for his interview with Moore but is rebuffed at every pass. Moore even goes on air saying Wilson and his movie do not exist at all.

Wilson weaves three subjects into his film: 1) an analysis of Moore’s filmmaking tactics and statements, 2) a look at what America means to people, and 3) Wilson?s own hunt for an interview with Moore. Wilson’s interview pursuit resembles Moore’s own dogged pursuit of an interview with General Motors CEO Roger Smith in 1989’s Roger and Me.

Michael Moore Hates America is the best of the rebuttal films because Wilson smartly refrains from preaching. He doesn’t stick to party rhetoric or unleash baseless claims without supporting evidence. The name may seem mean spirited and spiteful, but Wilson’s film may be one of the most fairly balanced looks at politics and film in recent years. This is an attempt to understand why Moore does what he does, and if his actions are honest. Wilson is tackling more than Moore’s questionable tactics; he’s examining the nature of documentary film itself. Is it even possible to be objective when it comes to documentaries? Wilson interviews, among others, legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter) and Penn Jilette (of Penn and Teller fame) and gets insights into the troubles of objective editing, context, and overriding agendas.

Michael Moore Hates America is pleasantly well made and articulated. This isn’t some ribald shout-fest. It isn’t some home movie made in someone’s basement either. Wilson’s pacing is tight and he knows when to use humor to assist his points. An animated game show called “Six Degrees of Conspiracy Theory” is a fun way to deflate Moore’s contention about why Disney dropped Fahrenheit 9/11. It’s a shame Wilson doesn’t go back to this segment again. There’s also a funny montage of Moore backing unsuccessful political candidates, topped off by him predicting George Bush senior would eat Bill Clinton alive. It’s a fun sequence but it also proves Wilson’s point that Moore isn’t necessarily mirroring the views of America despite his claims. There is an actual thematic reason for its inclusion in Wilson’s film.

The most frustrating thing about Moore, as Wilson’s film agrees, is the needless sleight-of-hand when it comes to the facts. It’s not too difficult to make President Bush look foolish; just give him enough rope to hang himself. Nor is it too difficult to make a convincing argument that the war in Iraq was misguided (All you’d have to do is quote the 9/11 Commission’s report). But Moore has the maddening habit of putting two images together, or separate pieces of information, and creating meaning when there was none before.

Take for instance Heston’s post-Columbine speech in Bowling for Columbine. In Moore’s film, we see harrowing security camera footage of the school massacre, and then Heston pops onscreen, rifle in non-cold, non-dead hand, proclaiming defiance. Moore narrates that Heston and the NRA came to Denver shortly after the tragedy as a shameless PR ploy. Not so fast. As Wilson’s film illustrates, Moore has cut and pasted different speeches into one false, defiant statement. The image of Heston clenching the rifle comes from a NRA gathering a whole year after Columbine. The NRA had a Denver gathering scheduled a week after Columbine and was legally obligated to hold the gathering because there wasn’t enough time to contact its millions of members and reschedule. Events in Bowling for Columbine seem a tad different when the harsh light of truth shines upon them. Wilson questions why Moore needs to fudge facts so egregiously to deliver his message.

While watching Michael Moore Hates America, one gets the distinct impression that Moore cannot take criticism of any kind. One subject calls it Moore’s Achilles’ heel. Wilson attends a Moore speaking engagement at the University of Minnesota. He steps up to the mic, requests a brief interview, tells the name of his film, and Moore shouts him down, talks over him, and then cuts Wilson with 7,000 people cheering. Afterwards, some fans do come up to Wilson to comment on his courage or disapprove of how Moore refused to listen to differing points of view. Moore’s die-hard fans seem to refuse to entertain any notion that Moore’s films could be anything but gospel truth, and it’s a shame they’ll likely never view Michael Moore Hates America.

Wilson even finds himself in some sticky ethical situations. He gets an interview from the mayor of Moore’s hometown by disingenuously telling him that he?s making a film about the appeal of small town America. Wilson prods the mayor for any info on local celebrities. Later, Wilson feels so guilty about misinforming the mayor that he sends him an e-mail apologizing and being upfront about his true intentions. The scene is both surprising and slightly amazing to witness, because it speaks volumes to the brevity of Wilson’s ego. It’s quite something that Wilson actually went through with the apology, but it’s even more impressive that he put the whole incident in his own movie. You think Moore ever sent an e-mail to the people he’s misinformed in his films? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Michael Moore Hates America does have some non-authoritative talking heads. Quotes about the violence in Canada and the resurgence of Flint are not necessarily all encompassing, but I think Wilson is just trying to show different sides of an argument and not the end of an argument.

Ultimately, Mike Wilson has created a good-natured rebuttal. Michael Moore Hates America may be a visceral title, but the movie is a balanced, intelligent, above average examination on Moore and the nature of the documentary film field. Wilson doesn’t rely on misinformation and emotional appeals; he’s looking at all the evidence and instructing us to judge for ourselves. Moore?s fans and enemies would be equally entertained to see what Wilson has captured on film.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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