Category Archives: 2001 Movies
Monster’s Ball has already garnered two Oscar nominations, including one for the lovely Halle Berry for Best Actress, and received numerous end of the year accolades. Is Monster’s Ball the startling ruminations on race that you’re being told? Well… yes and no.
Set in the South, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are prison guards at the state penitentiary and preparing for an execution. The man to die is Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) who will be leaving behind an young son and making a widow out of Leticia (Halle Berry). The tension in the Grotowski home escalates especially as Hank has chosen to care for his own ailing father (Peter Boyle), who still finds the time to spout out racist rhetoric through an oxygen mask. One last confrontation leaves a permanent mark of emptiness on the family.
Leticia is struggling to just make ends meet and fight an impending eviction. Her car keeps breaking down on her, she’s been let go from her job as a waitress and she has to raise a son by herself all the while trying to encourage him to lose weight. Leticia is breaking down and her world around her is crumbling. One night Leticia gets into an accident walking home along the roadside and needs assistance badly. The one who pulls the car aside to help is actually Hank. As time goes by he helps Leticia however he can whether its giving her a ride home from the diner or just staying with her so she won’t be alone.
Hank and Leticia come together out of mutual need and grief. They are two people entirely wrong for each other that kindle a passion that seems to transcend race. Leticia needs someone to take care of her, after having a husband on death row and fighting to stay above the poverty line. Hank needs someone to take care of, out of a mixture of compounded loneliness and grief.
Thornton reprises the repressed protagonist of The Man Who Wasn’t There with his portrayal of Hank. His lips are pursed, looking a tad like Mr. Limpet, and he expresses more with a furrowed brow and stare than words could manage. Thornton’s performance is good, and the audience does really end up rooting for Hank, but the performance doesn’t resonate, possibly because of the writing for the character. I guess one could say Monster’s Ball is Halle Berry’s legitimization as an actress. Berry gives the performance of her career and has moments where she’s on the verge of ripping your heart out.
Monster’s Ball is not exactly the scorching portrait of race relations that it has been hyped to be. It’s really more of a story about two characters with race being underscored except for a convenient occasion where it can become the catalyst to a fight.
The film also takes some of its metaphors rather simply. The connection between father and son includes Hank and Sonny using the same prostitute. Hank eats every night in the same diner and always orders a bowl of chocolate ice cream (get it?) and black coffee (get it?).
All the ballyhoo over the explicit sex scene (thank you so much news-fluff) is undeserving. The sex scene is no different than a hundred seen before and many on Showtime during the late hours. The scene serves its purpose thematically in the story for its characters but it really isn’t “hot and steamy” as it’s been dubbed to be. Move along, folks.
Besides the acting Monster’s Ball has some other accomplishments up its sleeve. The cinematography is gorgeous and uses lights and darks to an incredibly effective degree. There are many scenes where you might be paying more attention to how the scene looks than the scene itself. The music is also commendable for the simple task of not becoming intrusive and actually enhancing the story. This is what scores are intended to do.
Monster’s Ball may be the biggest suck-in-air-uncomfortably movie to come out in a long time. I found myself enacting this measure every time someone did something horrible, said something racist or surprisingly died. This may be because I had the entire theater to myself for my own amusement. Monster’s Ball is certainly a well-written and well-acted film. It’s just not up to snuff when it comes to Best Picture speculation.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Monster’s Ball was Lee Daniels’ first movie as a producer and years before his first directing effort, 2005’s Shadowboxer, but it’s clear as ever in 2021 that his influence is all over this movie. The elements that would come to define Daniels’ later movies, like Precious and The Paperboy and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, are here, and that’s the awkward and sometimes jarring discordant elements of the serious and the soapy, of camp and sincerity (the movies are also so unabashedly horny). A Lee Daniels’ movie is trying to say something, sometimes poorly, often too many things and too spread out, and Monster’s Ball is one of those statement movies, or at least it was upon release. It was a screenplay developed in the mid 1990s by actors Milo Aaddica and Will Rokos, and while it attracted talent at points it didn’t really gain traction until Daniels came onboard as its shepherd. You can see what would be so attractive to Daniels, with the mixture of odd elements as its own eclectic brew. It’s a romance that should not work. It’s life lessons about racism that seem heavy-handed. It’s a thrust-heavy sex scene that goes on for four uncomfortable minutes. I think there’s a recognizable argument to be had that this romance doesn’t quite work. It’s more out of necessity than connection, but maybe that’s even the point. These are two wounded people finding solace in one another, and maybe that’s enough in a world of pain and uncertainty, just finding someone who, in Leticia’s words, “makes you feel good.” Monster’s Ball isn’t as wild and campy as other Daniels’ joints, but you can see the DNA of his other movies, the seeds of artistic flowers that would bloom into his style. It’s got a bit more of an arty, indie sheen here, but Monster’s Ball might as well be Lee Daniels’ Monster’s Ball as far as its key influence, certainly more than director Marc Forster.
Re-watching this movie many years later, it’s clear to me that it is not a movie about race relations, though this is an implicit subject as well, but much more an examination on generational toxic masculinity. This makes much more sense for me with the prominence given to Hank’s (Billy Bob Thornton) perspective over Leticia (Halle Berry). It’s about him learning to break free of his racial prejudices, yes, but that’s more one sign of him learning to break free of the tyranny of his father’s influence, and his father (Peter Boyle) is an infirm cartoon of toxic masculinity. This is a man who brags about his wife dying and how many women he cheated on her with. This is a man who calls his grandson Sonny (Heath Ledger) weak because he displayed empathy for an inmate on death row. It’s his close-minded, harmful definition of what constitutes a “real man” that has become the lingering poison infecting the Grotowski family tree. It’s not subtle in the slightest, but Monster’s Ball is effective in communicating cycles of abuse. Hank carries many of his father’s tendencies and views his own son with contempt for not being able to meet these same restrictive definitions of manliness that his father imposed on him. When his son needs him the most, in his cry for help, is where Hank fails him, telling him he does in fact hate him, and that’s when he loses him forever. The rest of the movie is tracing Hank’s journey to breaking free from the vile influence of a decrepit old man.
To that end, the story structure of Monster’s Ball works better. In the span of 110 minutes, Hank has to reflect on what the negative influences of his life are and to break free of them. When he finally decides to put his father in a nursing home, the lady in charge smiles and says, “You must love your father.” Hank is quick to reply, “No, I don’t. But he’s my father.” There is no love between these men because love was most likely viewed as weakness. It’s the last thing Sonny says before killing himself, after his father says he hates him: “Well I’ve always loved you.” When Leticia looks at a picture of Sonny, something that Hank doesn’t share until late in the film, she remarks that Sonny doesn’t look like Hank. He replies that Sonny has his mother in him, implying the things that made him better came from her. This is a character journey that literally culminates in a man performing oral sex on a woman as a sign of his personal growth. Taken by itself, it sounds laughable, but it mostly works in the context of the movie. Surely his father would view the giving of pleasure to another as a waste of energy and time, so his desire to give rather than receive ends up being his character’s defining push away from the negativity of his father.
My issue is that Leticia feels less like a fully-fleshed out person and more like an infantilized victim. She’s a single mother struggling to keep her job, keep her home, and keep her son’s weight in check. Her husband is on death row. She’s got a lot of opportunities to be given dimension and insight. However, the movie never seems to deem her ready for that attention until the very very end, literally the last scene of the movie. Beforehand, she’s more a prop to the development of others, someone to gauge Hank’s personal growth and someone to be inflicted with all manners of indignities and abuses. When she interacts with Hank’s father, and he’s as awful as you would expect, her residual pain and outrage is the final straw for Hank who then moves the old man out. Her entire relationship with her son feels awkwardly handled. Fiction can illuminate the lives of complicated people, people with flaws that don’t always make the best decisions, but her single-minded obsession with her son’s weight, and her subsequent beating of him, feels like another chain of abuse but without the explanation. Otherwise, it’s just a woman in pain berating her son, and then the boy has to die, and it feels excessive. I know that Hank and Leticia bond over their mutual grief over having lost a son, but it feels like Leticia is more a martyr for Hank’s growth. During their protracted sex scene, her voice cracks and sounds uncomfortably childish. At the end, she asks Hank to take care of her because she needs it. She comes across like an infantilized version of a woman who is there to cry and be pretty.
That’s why the final moment of the movie rings so curious for me. After Hank puts his father away, what is the conflict here? Leticia agrees to move in with Hank after being evicted, and it all seems to be going well. Then while he’s out retrieving his favorite ice cream, she discovers that Hank has drawings by her late husband, reshaping her understanding of Hank. But what is that reshaping? Before he was a guy she served at a diner who happened to help her during the most trying time in her life. Does she think he was seeking her out to take advantage of her? How? She got the diner job because she lost her previous job, and it’s not like he sought her out, but she might not be privy to any of that context. It feels like an artificial conflict that’s meant to boil over and possibly spell doom between these two. Can this budding relationship survive this revelation? But I’m still unclear what exactly the revelation is. He worked at the prison? He was involved in the execution of her husband in a way, walking him to the chair? This seems artificially inflated to me. And yet it is only here that the movie gives her the final say, allowing Berry to wordlessly process this new information and whether or not it dramatically changes anything between her and Hank. She never comments to him about it. You just have to study her face, and it’s here where the movie at long last treats Leticia with the courtesy of nuance.
Monster’s Ball was made famous for two reasons: the extended sex scene between Berry and Thornton and her Best Actress Oscar victory, the first ever for a woman of color (and still the only one twenty years later). Let’s start with Berry’s performance, which was definitely a leap above what she had been demonstrating with trashy thrillers and lame comedies. Berry is good here but the Lee Daniels of it all makes it feel like her performance is being pulled into less subtle, more overtly soapy directions against her better judgements. When she gets into a whiny space, I kind of winced, not because her character was undeserving of complaint, but because the movie was shifting her into that infantilized victim box. Berry is good here, but after re-watching Sissy Spacek’s In the Bedroom performance and Nicole Kidman’s Moulin Rouge! performance, I’d rate her third of the chief 2001 Best Actress nominees. Berry is an actress I had mixed feelings about early in my critical career (2004’s Catwoman did not help), but I’ve come around to appreciate her more. I greatly enjoyed her varied performances in 2012’s Cloud Atlas. She recently directed her first movie where she plays a middle-aged kick boxer, and that sounds punishing and possibly eye-opening.
I’m not the only one that seems to come back to the infamous sex scene; it constitutes almost all of the trivia about the film on IMDB (interesting not-sex-scene fact: Wes Bentley was going to play Sonny but mysteriously dropped out –he admitted to struggling with heroin addiction later– and the studio gave the production 48 hours to find a replacement, and that’s how Heath Ledger got it). Also, I had to revise this paragraph several times to remove any phrases that might come across as unintended innuendos. You could argue the sex scene is a turning point. It happens at the halfway point of Monster’s Ball and beforehand Leticia and Hank have expressed no romantic interest. Afterwards, it becomes about their possible odd-couple romance, if that’s what it can even be called. The scene is played raw and desperate, which is why it made me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t because I was watching two actors pretend to physically go at it for an extended period, it’s because these characters were so sad and reaching out in desperation to feel anything fleeting. The attention given to the scene just feels thematically wrong. It’s not offensively gross but it feels a little too prurient, a little too salacious for what the characters are going through emotionally. Thornton has even said in interviews that this movie might have contributed to his eventual divorce from Angelina Jolie, which seems strange to me considering she was also filming steamy scenes with Antonio Banderas at about the same time (2001’s Original Sin).
Director Marc Forster has had an interesting career since helming this four-million dollar indie. He’s done Oscar-bait dramas (Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner) and quirky indies (Stranger Than Fiction, Stay) and big Hollywood action movies (Quantum of Solace, World War Z). He was hand-selected by producer Brad Pitt to direct World War Z. Forster has no distinct, visible style to him but effectively alters to the genre and story he’s directing. In some ways, this is what a director should be, and yet Forster has never gotten credit for his versatility. Nobody is going to say Quantum of Solace is their favorite James Bond movie, or even the best of Daniel Craig’s run, but it’s not really Forster’s fault that movie didn’t work. His last two movies were smaller dramas, 2016’s All I See is You and 2018’s misguided Christopher Robin, and he’s attached to movies about the Holocaust, a downed World War II pilot, the formation of Greenpeace, and Thomas the Tank Engine, so the man’s versatility continues to go undervalued.
This is my final re-review of the 2001 film slate, and my original review I think mostly holds up. I was thinking the same thing about lazy metaphors and lacking substantial racial commentary, but I better appreciated the scope of the movie not on race but on the effects of toxic masculinity. I think I was more dazzled by the photography in 2001 (or 2002 when it was made available to us in central Ohio) than in 2021. Monster’s Ball is a clumsy but well-intentioned movie that has some pristine elements to it but I don’t quite know if it ever coalesces into the important movie it desires. It’s an interesting artifact of Lee Daniels before he became an industry unto himself, and with Berry showcasing just what she was capable of if given the right opportunity. This began a run of “pretty actress goes drab” of Oscar winners (2002’s Nicole Kidman, 2003’s Charlize Theron, 2004’s Hilary Swank), and so the biggest lesson of Monster’s Ball after all might have been providing a successful template for future actresses to follow a path to Oscar gold.
Re-View Grade: B-
Talk about a film’s back story. Tom Cruise signed on to do a remake of the 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) which was directed by Alejandro Amenabar. During the filming the romance between Cruise and Penelope Cruz (no relation) got a little hotter than expected onscreen and broke up his long-standing marriage to Nicole Kidman. At the time she was finishing filming The Others which is the second film by Amenabar. This, by the way, is much more interesting than Vanilla Sky unfortunately.
Cameron Crowe’s remake starts off promising enough with Tom Cruise running around an empty Times Square like a Twilight Zone episode. Afterwards the film begins to create a story that collapses under its own weight. David (Cruise) is a rich boy in control of a publishing empire inherited through his dear old deceased dad. He has the time to throw huge parties where even Spielberg hugs him, and even have crazy sex with crazy Cameron Diaz, whom he tells his best friend (Jason Lee) is his “f*** buddy.” David begins to see a softer side of life with the entrance of bouncy and lively Sophia (Cruz) and contemplates that he might be really falling in love for the first time. But this happiness doesn’t last long as jealous Diaz picks up David in her car then speeds it off a bridge killing her. Then things get sticky including David’s disfiguration, his attempts to regain that one night of budding love and a supposed murder that he committed.
Crowe is in over his head with this territory. His knack for wonderful exchanges of dialogue and the perfect song to place over a scene are intact, but cannot help him with this mess. Vanilla Sky is an awkward mish-mash of science fiction. The film’s protagonist is standoffish for an audience and many of the story’s so-called resolutions toward the end are more perfunctory than functional. The ending as a whole is dissatisfying and unimaginative. By the time the wonderful Tilda Swinton shows up you’ll likely either be asleep or ready to press the eject button yelling “cop out!”
Seeing Vanilla Sky has made me want to hunt for Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos and see what all the hype was about, because if it is anything like its glossy American counterpart then I have no idea why world audiences went wild for it.
Nate’s Grade: C
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Movies have long resorted to being interactive puzzles, inviting audiences to unravel the mystery and hunt for clues as detectives. That’s essentially what Vanilla Sky is at its best, a messy mishmash of a movie that aims a little too high and pins its hopes with a generally unlikeable lead. This psychodrama is meant for dissection, not in a dreamy, obtuse way that David Lynch films invite but more in a canny re-calibration of pop-culture homages and fantasies. The big twist of the movie is that David (Tom Cruise), a rich publishing scion recovering from a savage accident, has elected to live in a simulation, a lucid dream that has been his home for the last hundred-plus years (how kind of the multiple generations of knob-turners to keep things operating). Other stories have followed a similar Twilight Zone-esque twist on the same territory, including the beloved “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror (that’s right, spoilers, spoilers all around for older sci-fi). Writer/director Cameron Crowe has stated there are over 400 pop-culture connections and references to be had with this movie. The movie is wall-to-wall cultivated jams, as expected from a Crowe picture, but the homages and recreations go beyond simply placing a piece of music to a scene or name dropping an artist. The visual language of the movie is intended to be deconstructed, built upon twentieth-century album covers, music, movies, and plenty more. It’s a dense artistic gamble and, ultimately, I question who is even going to care enough to dive into this movie? Who is going to want to watch Vanilla Sky as a detective?
This American remake of a 1997 Spanish movie was, in hindsight, the beginning of the end of Crowe’s career as a major director of studio movies for adults. Crowe had just experienced the apex of his career with 2000’s luminescent Almost Famous, a warm hug of a movie, and he had won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It makes sense to try for something big, reunite with his Jerry Maguire star, and go outside his comfort zone with a wide artistic berth of freedom. The 2001 movie just did not work, though not strictly because of Crowe’s game efforts. This is not a miscalculated folly, an artist flying too close to the sun and getting burnt by their arrogance. I think the major flaw comes down to pinning the mystery on the recovery of the romantic and social life of a disagreeable lead character. Early on, David is established as rich, careless, and smug. He keeps his responsibilities as fleeting as his relationships with women. When his on-again-off-again paramour, Julie (Cameron Diaz), drives off a bridge with David inside, part of you might be thinking he deserves what he got for being so callously indifferent with other people. That’s harsh, I realize, but people will not like David, and this is amplified by the general public’s diastase for Cruise himself. Therefore, watching a movie where he tries to overcome him disfigurement and disability and stop being a jerk to everyone in his life is not a journey that invites the viewer to come aboard. He’s just not that interesting as our centerpiece. What’s happening to him can prove interesting, especially as the movie plays with our mind, but at no point will the extended pity party for poor rich David feel compelling as its own drama.
This is the problem with movies that are built around Big Twists: limited replay value. After you know the super twist, very often these movies fail to justify another two-hour investment. Take for instance 1997’s The Game, the forgotten David Fincher movie. It’s a thriller where Michael Douglas is on the run and doesn’t know who is responsible for chasing him. Then the movie says, “Surprise, it’s [blank],” and then it ends. Not every twist unlocks a new and exciting prism of how to view the preceding hours, like a Sixth Sense or Fight Club. Most movies built upon a big reveal as their conclusion tend to deflate immediately. There’s no real reason to watch The Game a second time if you already know what is happening. There’s no real reason to watch 2003’s Identity again once you know all the ridiculous secrets. There’s no real reason to watch Vanilla Sky once you know the explanation for all the strange little hiccups along David’s fraying mental state.
Look, tons of movies are built around extended mysteries, from Agatha Christie to Knives Out, but the pleasure goes beyond simply solving of the puzzle. It’s the characters, the red herrings, the inspectors or detectives or chief solver of mystery. There is more there for entertainment. With Vanilla Sky, what we’re left with is a lackluster romance of a former pretty boy moping over his slightly adjusted privilege. It’s not like David’s character arc is illuminating or insightful. It’s not like we’re watching the battle over his soul here. He’s just kind of an affable jerk, and then David becomes a scarred jerk, and then he decides to wake up and be a jerk in real life. Progress?
There is a discussion to be had about how much of the movie is a dream, or where real life ends and the dream begins, and apparently even Crowe has determined there are six general interpretations, from the movie’s true and when Tech Support (Noah Taylor) says he switches over is when the dream occurs, to the unfulfilling “it was all a dream” interpretation. I suppose this could be fun for others but again I don’t think there are enough enjoyable components in the movie to incentivize the debate.
In some ways, this is one of Cruise’s most vain-free performances, yet there is an undercurrent that only seems even more vain. First the obvious; he plays a womanizer who also wears a mask for half of the movie to cover his scarred Phantom of the Opera visage. There’s a lack of vanity playing an annoying, arrogant, unpleasant person, something Cruise has done before and quite well, especially in his extraordinary Oscar-nominated turn in 1999’s Magnolia. He’s even played characters with physical disabilities before, like 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July. However, this “lack of vanity” really plays out as a vain attempt to be even more impressive as a respected thespian. The movie was positioned for a mid-December release, and with Crowe and Cruise on board, it seemed like a legitimate awards contender, until that is it opened wide. While Cruise’s performance is fine, his time under the mask doesn’t proverbially unmask his character for our better consumption.
Vanilla Sky is mostly known as the big American debut of Penelope Cruz. She was already a muse for Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and known well in the indie circuit, but from here she became Hollywood’s newest It Girl, only to be stranded in mediocre studio movie after mediocre studio movie (Does anyone remember Captain Corelli’s Mandolin?). It wasn’t until Almodóvar’s 2006 film Volver that studio execs seemed to finally understand how best to utilize her great talent. She won an Oscar for 2008’s Vicky Christina Barcelona and was nominated the following year for the musical Nine. She recently reunited with Almodóvar for 2021’s Parallel Mothers and again is wowing audiences. From early on, she definitely has a spark, an effervescence to her performance in Vanilla Sky. She’s also fighting against being forcibly elbowed into the swampy Manic Pixie Dream Girl category, a term that was originally coined for Crowe’s follow-up film, 2005’s Elizabethtown. Crowe loves writing women under these quirky conditions, however, the movie is told from a flawed male dream perspective, so it also makes sense if its portrayal of David’s idyllic dream woman happens to flatten her down.
It’s true that the story behind the scenes of Vanilla Sky proves more intriguing than the film itself. Cruise and Nicole Kidman were the Hollywood power couple. The ensuing tabloid feeding frenzy over their breakup and Cruise/Cruz relationship outlived the legacy of Vanilla Sky. This was the most ambitious and experimental movie in Crowe’s tenure as a writer/director, and he would never again return to science-fiction as a genre, keeping to the familiar lane of prestige dramas declining in prestige with each new film. My original review in the closing weeks of 2001 was pretty minimal in analysis. I knew this movie didn’t quite work then and it still doesn’t work now. If you’re eager for a dissertation-level analysis on its pop-culture fantasia, then God’s speed to you and your infinite free time.
Re-View Grade: C
Originally released November 23, 2001:
In the Bedroom hits all the right notes of agonizing pain, devastation and loss. The heart of the film is on the grief encompassing Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) over the loss of their son. The Fowlers are well regarded in their cozy New England town. Matt is a flourishing local doctor and Ruth teaches a chorus of local high school girls.
In the Bedroom opens with Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) chasing his older girlfriend Natalie (Marisa Tomei) across an open grassy field. Frank is a budding architecture student home for the summer and thinking of prolonging his time so he can stay together with Natalie. Frank and Natalie have a distinct age divide but also seem to have been given different lots in life. She has a pair of boys from her abusive husband Richard (William Mapother) that she is finalizing a divorce from. Richard is hopeful he can reconcile with Natalie if he just gets another chance, but Natalie is stern in her refusal.
Ruth sees the relationship as a detriment to her son’s future. She’s even more upset that Matt is so casual with their son dating an older, working-class mother. Frank rushes over to calm Natalie after another of Richard’s outbursts of violence has left her house in shambles. She rushes her children upstairs just as Richard returns back. He manages to sneak in through a back door and confronts Frank in their kitchen, shooting and killing him. What should seem like a clear-cut case begins to unspool. Natalie admits she didn’t actually see the gun fire and the charges are dropped from murder to manslaughter. Richard is released on bail and free to stroll around occasionally bumping into the grieving and outraged Fowlers.
The majority of the film is the aftermath of the murder and the strain it puts upon Matt and Ruth and their marriage. Beforehand jealousy, anger, and bitterness would simply sit but slowly the tension begins to bubble to the surface. Ruth holds resentment and blames the leniency of Matt for the death of their son. Matt tries to get out of the house as much as possible, even if it means sitting in his car in their driveway at night.
One of the most harrowing scenes of In the Bedroom is also its emotional and acting centerpiece. After the mounting frustration with justice, Ruth and Matt explode into an argument that had slowly been building long before their son’s death. This is the first time they have truly talked about the whole situation and accusations fly like bullets in their first emotional confrontation. In the Bedroom could have easily fallen into the area of sticky made-for-TV land, but the exceptional performances all around by the cast and the deft and studied direction never allow it to falter.
Spacek (Carrie, Coal Miner’s Daughter) can begin writing her Oscar acceptance speech right now. Her portrayal of Ruth displays the pride and seething anger, but keeps her human throughout. She exhibits pure, raw emotion that strikes directly inside you leaving a knot in your stomach and in your throat. Her performance is truly breathtaking and so emotionally visceral to watch. Wilkinson (The Full Monty) plays Matt with passive-aggressive doubt and repression. He dominates in any scene he is in and takes the audience on a wide range of emotions. He has a commanding presence and compliments Spacek’s Ruth nicely. Perhaps the greatest thing Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, Slums of Beverly Hills) was known for was miraculously winning an Oscar and dumbfounding a nation. With In the Bedroom she is given the ubiquitous “And” credit at the end of the opening cast list. She has less to work with and less screen time to work it, fully earning the “And”‘ credit she has.
Todd Field is an actor-turned-director and has appeared in such a wide array of films from Twister to Eyes Wide Shut. Field has layered his film with rich symbolism and an intelligent, patient pace. Most of the action in movies is centered on what is going on in a scene, but the most telling moments of In the Bedroom are what are not going on in the scenes. Field creates such an intimate portrait that the camera almost turns into another character, catching the lingering silences and the burgeoning inner turmoil. Field also adapted the screenplay from a short story by Andre Dubus, whom he dedicates the film to.
In the Bedroom is not going to be for everyone. Some will find it slow and some might even find it boring. As it stands, it is a powerful film on the study of loss that grips you and refuses to let go. You will feel all the blame, jealousy, anger, and pain of this family and for such emotions to resonate from the screen to the audience is a great achievement.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Twenty years later and it seems like nobody really talks about Todd Field’s In the Bedroom any longer, which is a crying shame. The movie was hailed by critics upon its release in late 2001 and earned five Academy Award nominations including Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Picture. Field would then adapt Tom Perotta’s novel Little Children and direct its 2006 adaptation, again earning favorable reviews and multiple Oscar nominations, revitalizing the career of Jackie Earl Haley. And then Field seemed to vanish from view. There are a few dropped projects and a potential upcoming series with Daniel Craig, but Field has been too quiet as a director for over 15 years, and that’s far too long for a man that showcased such immediate natural talent from his very first opportunity in the director’s chair. In the Bedroom was a movie that I wasn’t exactly excited to come back to on my list of 2001 re-watches; it’s a heavy drama about grief and suffering and that’s not exactly the best entertainment remedy during the holidays. I’m happy to have gone back to the movie, as well as cross it off my list, because this return reaffirmed for me just how great Field is as a director, and a screenwriter, and just how vital this indie film feels. It’s the real deal when it comes to authenticity and emotional power, and watching this as a 39-year-old rather than a 19-year-old gave the enduring two hours added heft for its family tragedy.
The plot centers on the spiraling consequences of one death. Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) is the 18-year-old son of Ruth (Sissy Spacek) and Matt (Tom Wilkinson), upper-middle class and pleasant but pointed. Frank is dating Natalie Strout (Marissa Tomei), an older woman and the ex-wife (though not yet legally divorced) of Richard Trout (William Mapother), a violent and unstable man and also heir to the local canning company. One fateful day, Richard angrily confronts Frank, a gunshot is heard, and Frank is dead. Richard swears it was self-defense, but Natalie is convinced her jealous ex was finishing the threats he had been making about her ever leaving him. The murder happens at the 40-minute mark, and from there the movie becomes a long examination on grief and guilt and blame, where characters drift from scene to scene like ghosts, some avoiding the painful realities of their enormous grief, finding hobbies or distractions, but most unable to fully articulate the resounding pain and emotions brimming under the surface.
Under Field’s attentive care, there is a palpable dread hanging over every scene. The script allows different bereft perspectives, each person wrestling with feelings of personal guilt. Natalie blames herself for holding onto the relationship, bringing him into her world. Matt blames himself for not calling the police after an earlier fight between Frank and Richard, and he doubts whether he should have pushed harder on his feelings of reservation about the relationship with Natalie. Ruth has escaped into her insurmountable anger and uses it as the fuel to keep her going. The friends and neighbors do their best to be supportive but every conversation or poker game has the danger of veering too close to The Topic, and the awkward but well-meaning silences permeate and become more awkward. It’s a movie about people trying to get on with their lives but not knowing how to reassemble the broken pieces. By itself, that is enough meaty drama worthy of examination by top-notch actors and considerate screenwriting that allows us to really dwell in the beautiful discomfort. Field adds extra degrees of turmoil from the possibility that Richard will be given a slap on the wrists by the indifferent legal system. Richard posts bail thanks to his family’s wealth and even casually strolls through the town like nothing happened, making appearances while Ruth is shopping like her living in an inescapable nightmare. The Fowlers are consistently having their pain poked and prodded and reopened. One friend suggests if Matt has contemplated moving, and he admits he’s considered it, but it wouldn’t change what happened or lessen the pain of having their son’s killer protected by his status.
As you can imagine with that kind of material, In the Bedroom is an actor’s showcase. Wilkinson is the more featured role, and he’s the more laid back one, the one trying to make sense of things as best he can and failing. Wilkinson is terrific in the role and his hangdog expression from scene to scene denotes so much unspoken pain he’s grappling with behind his placid veneer. Just watching this man try and keep his life together is worthy of study. The weariness is harder to note with his performance but more rewarding to watch. Spacek is great herself but playing a role with less dimension. She is the stern voice of outrage and blame, the one who never liked Natalie and always suspected the worst. She has her signature blowup scene that serves as a long-in-the-making emotional confrontation with her husband, who she accuses of hiding from his grief rather than embracing it. However, her character is also painted in an unflattering and I would say unfair characterization. In the heat of their fight, Matt accuses his wife of being so controlling, so unforgiving that her son had no choice but to run away from her. While the character has been presented as cold and disapproving, she’s a victim too. This was Tomei’s confirmation as an actress that her surprise 1993 Oscar victory was no accident. She’s strong in her brief moments, especially when she’s recounting Frank’s murder under oath and realizes her inability to help the case with her conflicting witness testimony. It’s devastating to watch as she processes in the moment the doubt and then utter terror as she realizes that her next words, of honest yet painful reflection, will undermine the case she so desperately needs. I know the slap between Spacek and Tomei got more attention, but this is her clincher.
All of this well-wrought examination of grief and guilt is sturdily handled, and it effectively sets up the last fifteen minutes of the movie into its own indie thriller. Finally pushed far enough, Matt takes matters into his own hands to find justice. The entire sequence is played out so deliberately that you might not breathe from the protracted suspense. Field and co-screenwriter Robert Festinger (Trust) have patiently built up these characters and their conflicts with such precision that they have developed genuine emotional stakes and uncertainty for the end. For first-time viewers, I imagine there will be legitimate doubt how the final events will play out. Is Matt being honest with his offer to have Richard run away from town? Is he making his stand in secret to absolve his wife of more pain and to rise to her verbal challenges of being too timid, or is she in collusion and possibly the Lady Macbeth from the bedroom shadows? It’s a long, taut sequence that feels like a fitting culmination of the many little details that have been set up, from character dimensions and motivations to small details that come together so smoothly, like a bridge worker or a friend’s large estate. It’s been twenty years since I’ve seen the movie and it still had my heart elevated, and I knew the ending.
Where In the Bedroom separates itself from the dramatic pack, and where it’s deserving of more attention and notoriety in retrospect, is how remarkably considered and assured this movie is about assembling its details and atmosphere. This is a deeply felt and deeply authentic movie that fills out the innumerable edges of this small coastal town with colorful characters that feel genuine, lives that feel lived-in, details that feel authentic without being obvious, and all without losing focus on the central performers as they struggle with their consuming grief. There are great artistic touches too for emphasis, like when Matt seeks out his lawyer to question points of strategy, and when the officious man retreats back to polite deferrals that fall back on the limits of the judicial system, the camera focuses on tight edits, first the man’s mustachioed mouth, then his fiddling hand in his pocket jangling his keys, a sound that intensifies into that of a jackhammer. It’s a clever and effective means of conveying the fractured, infuriating, dismayed response of Matt. However, most of the movie avoids flashy style that calls attention to itself. The very framing of the characters in the shots is so elegantly composed, making fine use of spaces and windows to help convey extra layers. This is a movie that does not feel like a first-time filmmaker or screenwriter. This same measured assurance can be seen in 2006’s Little Children, an equally well-observed, detail-rich, non-judgmental slice-of-life of small-town ennui. We need more Todd Field movies considering he’s two-for-two with literary adaptations.
My original review in 2001 has some sentimental value for me. It was one of the first reviews I ever wrote for my college newspaper, The Chimes, in the position of film critic, an official role I held for five straight semesters (2002-2004). It was a goal of mine arriving at school and I saw it through, and this first review reminds me of the next stage of my career in film criticism and of my good times in small-scale publishing. My 2001 review gets some things right but I cringe at how awkwardly it’s trying to grasp for further meaning without understanding how to clarify my explanations. Maybe I was more taken with writing to my college-aged audience, hence why I devote a paragraph to explaining the use of the “And” credit in movie casting. There are some good points here and there, and the distillation of the plot and conflicts is solid, but as I’ve noticed with more than a few of my earlier reviews, the depth of critical analysis is shallower than I would prefer. Also, my hasty prediction that Spacek should “begin writing her Oscar acceptance speech now” was short-sighted, as she lost Best Actress to Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball (see you next in December, movie). In the Bedroom is a movie worthy of your time and a cultural re-examination.
Nate’s Grade: A
Originally released October 19, 2001:
Mulholland Dr. has had a long and winding path to get to the state it is presented today. In the beginning it was 120 minutes of a pilot for ABC, though it was skimmed to 90 for the insertion of commercials. But ABC just didn’t seem to get it and declined to pick up David Lynch’s bizarre pilot. Contacted by the French producers of Lynch’s last film, The Straight Story, it was then financed to be a feature film. Lynch went about regathering his cast and filming an additional twenty minutes of material to be added to the 120-minute pilot. And now Mulholland Dr. has gone on to win the Best Director award at Cannes and Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Association.
Laura Harring plays a woman who survives a car crash one night. It appears just before a speeding car full of reckless teens collided into her limo she was intended to be bumped off. She stumbles across the dark streets of Hollywood and finds shelter in an empty apartment where she rests. Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) is a young girl that just got off the bus to sunny California with aspirations of being a big time movie star. She enters her aunt’s apartment to find a nude woman (Harring) in the shower. She tells Betty her name is Rita after glancing at a hanging poster of Rita Hayworth. Rita is suffering from amnesia and has no idea who she is, or for that fact, why her purse is full of thousands of dollars. Betty eagerly wants to help Rita discover who she is and they set off trying to unravel this mystery.
Across town, young hotshot director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is getting ready to go into production for his new film. He angers his mob producers by refusing to cast their chosen girl for his movie. After some harassment, threats, and a visit by an eyebrow-less cowboy assassin (God bless you David Lynch), he relents.
In the meanwhile, people are tracking the streets looking for Rita. Betty and Rita do some detective work and begin amassing clues to her true identify. As they plunge further into their investigation the two also plunge into the roles of lovers. Rita discovers a mysterious blue box and key in her possession. After a night out with Betty she decides to open it, and just when she does and the audience thinks it has a hold on the film, the camera zooms into the abyss of the box and our whole world is turned upside down.
David Lynch has made a meditation on dreams, for that is at the heart of Mulholland Dr. His direction is swift and careful and his writing is just as precise. The noir archetypes are doing battle with noir expectations. The lesbian love scenes could have been handled to look like late night Cinemax fluff, but instead Lynch’s finesse pays off in creating some truly erotic moments. Despite the population of espresso despising mobsters, wheelchair bound dwarfs, and role-reversal lesbians, the audience knows that it is in hands that they can trust. It’s Lynch back to his glorious incomprehensible roots.
Watts is the true breakthrough of Lynch’s casting and she will surely be seen in more films. Watts has to play many facets of possibly the same character, from starry-eyed perky Nancy Drew to a forceful and embittered lesbian lover.
One scene stands out as a perfect example of the talent Watts possesses. Betty has just been shuffled off to an audition for a film and rehearsing with Rita all morning. She’s introduced to her leathery co-star and the directors await her to play out the audition scene of two kids and their forbidden love. As soon as the scene begins Betty vanishes and is totally inhabited by the spirit of her character. She speaks her lines in a breathy, yet whisper-like, voice running over with sensuality but also elements of power. In this moment the characters know, as the audience does, that Betty and Naomi Watts are born movie stars.
It’s not too difficult for a viewer to figure out what portions of the film are from the pilot and what were shot afterwards. I truly doubt if ABC’s standards and practices allows for lesbian sex. The pilot parts seem to have more sheen to them and simpler camera moves, nothing too fancy. The additional footage seems completely opposite and to great effect. Mulholland Dr. has many plot threads that go nowhere or are never touched upon again, most likely parts that were going to be reincorporated with the series.
The truly weirdest part of Mulholland Drive is that the film seems to be working best when it actually is still the pilot. The story is intriguing and one that earns its suspense, mystery, and humor that oozes from this noir heavy dreamscape. The additional twenty minutes of story could be successfully argued one of two ways. It could be said it’s there just to confound an audience and self-indulgent to the good story it abandons. It could also be argued that the ending is meticulously thought out and accentuates the 120 minutes before it with more thought and understanding.
Mulholland Dr. is a tale that would have made an intriguing ongoing television series complete with ripe characters and drama. However, as a movie it still exceeds in entertainment but seems more promising in a different venue.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
How much is a dream worth to you? That’s my main takeaway re-watching David Lynch’s surreal indie Mulholland Drive twenty years later from its release. Lynch has had plenty of his own run-ins with the dream makers of Tinseltown, from the difficulty to see his admittedly weird projects off the ground to the swift cancellation of his once zeitgeist, and deeply weird, TV series, Twin Peaks. It’s common knowledge now that Mulholland Drive began as a 1999 TV pilot that Lynch re-conceived as a movie, shot 30 minutes of additional footage, and earned a 2001 Best Directing Oscar nomination for his perseverance and creative adaptability. The movie has since taken on quite a reputation. The BBC and Los Angeles Society of Film Critics have both hailed it as the best film of the twenty-first century (so far). Lynch has retreated back to his insular world of weirdness with hypnotic, over-indulgent retreads, Inland Empire, and bringing back his signature TV series for a Showtime run in 2017. In 2001, Mulholland’s Drive’s success seemed to be the last point with Lynch working with the studio system he so despised. In a way, this is his farewell letter to chasing his own dreams of stardom, at least as far as a director can have creative control and a steady supply of protection and money to see his vision through. Watching Mulholland Drive is like stepping through a dream, which has been the hallmark of Lynch’s more celebrated, obtuse filmography from 1977’s Eraserhead onward. The movie is meant to operate on a certain dream logic, sustained with choices that seem artistically self-destructive, but the journey might feel as emotionally or intellectually fleeting as a dream as well, so I ask you, dear reader, to think as you continue, how much is a dream worth?
The failed pilot serves as a majority of the film’s running time and it’s filled with peculiar beginnings that will never pay off. There are actors like Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) and Brent Briscoe (Sling Blade) who show up for one whole scene and then are never seen again. Presumably, the roles would have been more significant as detectives snooping around from the peripheral. There are mysterious forces chasing after “Rita” (Laura Harring), an important-looking woman who has conveniently lost her memory and adopted her name after seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth. She’s got a bag filled with money, a gun, and blue key. One would assume over the course of a network season that we would get closer to discovering the real identity of our amnesiac leading lady. There are also scenes that seem to exist as their own short films, like the darkly comedic hapless hitman and the scared man detailing his spooky dream to a concerned friend in a diner. These characters, presumably, would come back for more significance or at least larger interplay. The same with the mysterious locked box and key. You can practically identify the J.J. Abrams “mystery box”-style of storytelling for future intrigue. The role of a TV pilot is to serve up a storytelling engine that can keep churning, as well as ensuring that there’s enough curiosity to hook an audience through commercial breaks. Lynch is used to inserting strange symbols and starts in his movies that potentially go nowhere, so the difference between a Lynch pilot and a Lynch movie aren’t terribly noticeable. These characters, clues, and moments were perhaps intended to be developed further, or perhaps they never were. It’s as if the movie itself is a nightmare of different television programs colliding incoherently.
There does seem to be a consensus interpretation for Mulholland Drive, one that synchs up the various doubles and symbols. For two hours, we’re riding along with Betty (Naomi Watts) as she moves to L.A. with big dreams and perky naivete. She finds the amnesiac Rita in her aunt’s apartment and takes it upon herself to give her a home and investigate her identity. They grow close together, Betty nails her big acting audition, and then Betty and Rita become lovers. They go to a club (Silencio) where performance artists insist “everything is recorded,” and thus already happened, phony, and a replication of memory, and then Rita inserts that mystery blue key into the mystery box and mysteriously vanishes. We next return to the scene of Diane, who at first was a dead body that Rita and Betty found during their investigation. Now it’s Betty, or at least Watts playing her, and she’s a struggling actress who is jealous of the success and favor her girlfriend, Camilla (also played by Harring), is indulging in from their seedy director, Adam (Justin Theroux). Overcome with torment, she hires a hitman to kill Camilla. From there, she’s attacked by a homeless monster, tiny versions of the people portraying Betty’s parents in the first part, and she takes her own life in grief and guilt. The most common interpretation is that the final twenty or so minutes with Watts as Diane is the real story and that the proceedings 110 minutes was Diane’s dream trying to process her guilty conscience and mixed emotions. The blue key, the symbol from Diane’s hired hitman of a job completed, is the point of transportation between the dream and returning to a living nightmare of regret. Adam’s prominence in the first two hours is explained as punishment from Diane’s mind, so this is why he is emasculated repeatedly, from being robbed of control over his movie, his marriage, and ultimately his future.
Just because this is the most prominent interpretation, and even perhaps the author’s intended one, doesn’t mean other viewers cannot find equally valid and differing interpretations. That’s the appeal or point of frustration with Lynch’s most Lynchian work. However, the problem with asserting that the first two hours of your two-hour-plus movie were all a dream can make it feel overindulgent and unsatisfying. The TV pilot segments are shot in a way that evokes the cliché storytelling stye that prevailed at the time, with overly lit scenes and flat acting. I cannot say for certain but it feels like Lynch purposely told Watts (King Kong) to try and be hammy. Lynch has been known to purposely ape the style of prime-time soaps to provide subtle satirical contexts. Is Watts doing a bad job with the purpose of making us think of other bad actors from soaps? The one scene Betty comes alive is during her audition scene. We’ve already seen her act it out once so we’re expecting more of the same, but in that moment, she comes alive with sensuality, taking control from the aged acting partner who was just there to exploit some young new starlets. The intensity she unleashes, a mixture of carnal desire and self-loathing, is nothing like bright-eyed Betty. Is the irony that when Betty is pretending to be someone else that’s when the performance excels? You can see the points for interpretation, especially considering the ending thesis, but if so, it’s such a bold gamble by Lynch that could prove so alienating. You’re deliberately having your lead actress act in a cliched and stilted manner to perhaps make a point fewer will grasp? Obviously, the ending wasn’t intended to pair with the pilot parts, so it feels like projecting an unintended meaning onto the intentions of acting decisions, but dreams are murky that way.
I wouldn’t be surprised if just as many people are tested by Mulholland Drive as they are mesmerized. It’s a combination of different genres and film iconography, from Manning as a living-breathing femme fatale, to dark whimsical comedy, to surreal mystery, to tawdry erotic drama, to industry-obsessed soap. As much as it feels like a pilot retooled into a new beast, it also feels like a collection of genres being retooled for whatever intended association Lynch wants to impart. It’s ready-made for dissection and ready to take apart the Hollywood studio system. I enjoyed some of the strange moments that felt most ancillary, like the mobster with the extremely refined taste for espressos, and the eyebrow-less cowboy assassin threatening Adam. That scene in particular still has an unsettling menace to it, as Lynch takes what could have been absurd and finds a way to make this man overtly threatening without ever explicitly doing anything threatening. His browbeating to Adam over the difference between listening and hearing is well written and ends perfectly: “You will see me one more time, if you do good. You will see me… two more times, if you do bad. Good night.” I wish more sequences like this could stand on their own. So much of Mulholland Drive seems intended to provide a skeleton for meaning to be provided later as the added meat that Lynch didn’t value as highly.
Watts became a star from this movie and was taken to another level with the success of 2002’s The Ring. From there, she was in the Hollywood system of stars and after toiling for ten years from rejected interviews to rejected interviews. She was thinking of quitting acting and going back to her native Australia at the time she got asked to play Betty/Diane. The audition scene, the later distraught and frail Diane, as well as the mannered Betty served as an acting reel for every casting agent that had rejected her. Here was Watts, capable of doing it all and then some (she was nominated for two Oscars – 2003’s 21 Grams and 2012’s The Impossible).
My original review in 2001 is also wrestling with the question over interpretation versus intention, with the genre mash-ups as symbolic satire or as laborious TV pandering. Mulholland Drive is like watching a dream and trying to dissect its many meanings. Some people will relish the puzzle pieces that Lynch has provided and finding further hidden mirrored meanings, and other people will throw up their hands and ask for a road map, or lose interest by then. I don’t think this is the best film of the first twenty years of this new century. I don’t even think it’s close. I think at its best it can be hypnotic and intriguing; it’s a shame that these are only moments for me, and twenty years later these moments felt even further spaced apart. I just didn’t find Lynch’s movie quite worth the long, surreal drive into the dark of his imagination.
Re-View Grade: B-
Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is your normal malcontent teenager in late 1980s Reagan America. He bickers with his older sister, worries over the right moment he’ll kiss his new girlfriend, and tries to ignore the advice of many imprudent adults. Donnie’s your typical teenager, except for his imaginary friend Frank. Frank is a sinister looking six-foot tall rabbit that encourages Donnie into mischief and gives a countdown to the impending apocalypse. And I haven’t even gotten to the time travel yet.
One night as Donnie wanders from his home at the behest of Frank, an airline engine mysteriously crashes through the Darko home and lands directly in Donnie’s room. The airlines are all at a loss for explanation, as it seems no one will take responsibility for the engine or knows where it came from. Donnie becomes a mild celebrity at school and initiates a relationship with a new girl, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). One of his classes consists of watching videos of self-help guru and new age enlightenment pitchman Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). His school has even, under the persistence of self-righteous pain Kitty Farmer, persuaded Cunningham to speak and try to help students conquer their “fears.”
Donnie is also seeing a therapist for his emotional problems and taking medication for borderline schizophrenia. Around this time is when Donnie starts to inquire about a strange old woman, obsess over the possibilities of time travel, as well as see weird phosphorescent pools extend from people’s chests. He also floods his school at the urging of Frank. This is no Harvey-type rabbit.
The longer Donnie Darko goes on the more tightly complex and imaginative the story gets. First time writer-director Richard Kelly has forged an excitingly original film that is incredibly engaging with charm and wit. He masterfully mixes themes of alienation, dark comedy, romance, science fiction, and a sublime satire of high school. Donnie Darko is the most unique, head-trip of a movie unleashed on the public since Being John Malkovich. Kelly has a created an astonishing breakthrough for himself and has ensured he is a talent to look out for in the future.
Gyllenhaal (October Sky) is superb as disenchanted Donnie, a Holden Caulfield for middle suburbia. His ghastly stare conveys the darkness of Donnie but his laid-back nature allows the audience to care about what could have merely been another angst-ridden teenager. Swayze is hysterical as the scenery-chewing Cunningham. The rest of the cast is mainly underwritten in their roles, including stars Drew Barrymore (who was executive producer) and ER‘s Noah Wyle, but all perform admirably with the amount they are given. Not every plot thread is exactly tidied up but this can easily be forgiven.
Donnie Darko is a film that demands your intelligence and requires you to stay on your toes, so you can forget any bathroom breaks. The film is one of the best of 2001 but also one of the funniest. You’ll be honestly surprised the amount of times you laugh out loud with this flick. The theater I saw this in erupted every half a minute or so with boisterous laughter.
Donnie Darko is a film of daring skill and great imagination. You don’t see too many of these around anymore.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Not to sound too annoying, but I’ll cash in my hipster points here and declare that I was on the Donnie Darko bandwagon from the start. The eventual cult phenom was originally released in October 2001, mere weeks removed from 9/11, dooming its commercial appeal considering a major plot point happens to involve deadly airline debris. I was a sophomore in college across from a little indie movie theater, the Drexel, that was like a wonderful escape for a budding cinephile looking for his next fix of weird and daring movie experiences. I recall seeing the trailer for Donnie Darko and being immediately intrigued, but its release date kept bouncing back month after month until it finally opened at the Drexel in February 2002, and I was there opening day. I saw it twice, brought friends with me, and I wrote about it as one of my earliest reviews as my college newspaper’s film critic. I wanted to get the word out that this was something special. The first day it was available on DVD, I went to Best Buy looking for a copy and the store employee was deeply confused about its existence. He probably knows now, as the movie achieved cult status on DVD and became an iconic indie fixture for many a Millennial.
Revisiting the films of 2001 has been reliving many films that made such formative impacts on my life: Memento and its airtight structural sleight-of-hand, Moulin Rouge and its ambitious and messy celebration of old, new, reverent and irreverent, and now Donnie Darko (this isn’t even counting films I never wrote reviews for and thus were ineligible for this re-watch, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Amelie – 2001 was an excellent year at the movies). I have probably watched this movie more than any other in the 2000s, with the late exception perhaps of The Room that came on strong for me at the end. My friends and I would debate it, quote it, and work toward bringing others into the cult of Darko. Looking back now twenty years, I’m happy to report the movie’s power is still just as alluring and transcendental. What earned this movie its fawning fandom? Why did writer/director Richard Kelly, only in his early 20s, find success with his weird little indie while others went painfully ignored? I think it comes down to Kelly’s ambiguous approach, threading a delicate needle so that there are enough pieces present to put together an interpretation that can prove satisfying while personal and potentially different from your friend or neighbor with an equally valid interpretation.
What helps is that Donnie Darko doesn’t feel like it’s weird for weird’s sake, like a formless collection of strange ideas and confounding imagery operating on an unknowable surreal dream logic. What Kelly has done is mix and match parts of an intriguing apocalyptic puzzle. There’s relatable high school drama about pushing back against the hypocrites and phonies of the adult world, there’s a mystery about who or what is behind Frank the bunny, the creepy otherworldly figure serving as Donnie’s Virgil-like guide, and the character study of a lonely, troubled kid trying to find a better sense of understanding of himself, his place in the world, and his sense of what lies beyond. I could just as readily view Donnie Darko as a spiritual refresher, and I’ve always sided more with a divine interpretation than sci-fi. Donnie and his therapist talk about the question over God’s existence and Donnie says he doesn’t feel like he can get anywhere debating it, so he has simply agreed to give up. Donnie talks about dying alone and how if everyone is resigned to do so then this must be a condemnation of God. Kelly establishes these early conditions as the beginning of an arc that leads to Donnie not just accepting a messianic status but volunteering for one, dying alone but in a manner that serves as victory. This to me is why he laughs at the end after being transported back to a fateful spot. He rolls over in his bed and closes his eyes knowing an end for him is not an end but a vindication (the honking from Frank the second time serving as a “we did it” victory celebration). Through his sacrifice, the world will continue (“I hope when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.”). Through bizarre circumstances, a young man has found spiritual renewal, bringing him to a personal fulfillment as well as the larger picture of averting a looming apocalypse for a tangent world.
This has been my preferred reading of Donnie Darko, with divine forces selecting Donnie as the universe’s lone hero and mysteriously guiding him along his journey, each intervention and urging from Frank leading to the culmination of events that would convince Donnie of his duty. When Donnie is talking to Frank the bunny in an empty movie theater (playing a double feature of Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ, one of my favorite jokes), he asks Frank, “Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?” Frank turns and asks, “Why do you wear that stupid man suit?” Under my interpretation, Frank is a supernatural force, call it an angel or whatever you want, but he is not human and only using the form of a doomed man as a necessary vessel. When Donnie breaks into his school and breaks the water main, under the hypnotic control of Frank’s urging, we see that the vandal has also spray-painted “They made me do it” on the school mascot. The school and police go class-by-class and have students rewrite the phrase on a chalkboard, analyzing their handwriting. Donnie’s handwriting is clearly different. Could it be that Donnie, under the influence of Frank, also wrote as him, adopting his handwriting? With that, perhaps instead of Donnie writing a would-be confession it was actually Frank. “They made me do it,” Frank writes in apology to Donnie, not just for prodding him along but ultimately for the pain and suffering the real Frank of this world will cause for Donnie. “I’m sorry that all of this has to happen to you, Donnie. It wasn’t my choice. They made me do it for their plan.” I think that’s a more intriguing examination than Donnie just saying he was told to flood the school by his imaginary friend.
This is one reason why I was not a big fan of Kelly’s eventual director’s cut DVD release in 2004, which added twenty minutes to the film and changed many edits, song choices, and special effects sequences. The director’s cut went too far for me, specifically spelling out Kelly’s vision of time travelers from the future trying to coach Donnie as their variable. Whole sections from Roberta Sparrow’s book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, were printed on screen, explicitly connecting the various pieces in a way that had previously been left as ambiguous. My disappointment with the director’s cut reminded me of the disappointment Star Wars fans felt when George Lucas went back and tinkered with the original trilogy. Lucas has said the re-releases were the films he had always intended them to be, that the earlier theatrical editions were the imperfect versions of his creative intentions. The problem is that millions fell in love with those versions of the movie, even if they were an imperfect vision of their creator. Richard Kelly always intended for the opening song to be INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart,” but hearing that felt wrong to me after watching the same scene played to Echo and the Bunnyman’s “The Killing Moon” with the theatrical cut. Kelly’s imperfect version was the one I fell in love with, the one that spoke to me as a 19-year-old and as a 39-year-old, and that’s the one I vastly prefer.
Another reason for Donnie Darko’s success is more than likely the appeal and performance of young Jake Gyllenhaal. Over twenty years, Gyllenhaal has become one of the best actors of his generation and criminally overlooked by the Academy. He’s only been nominated for one Oscar for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, not for 2017’s Stronger, or 2007’s Zodiac, or, most egregiously, for his hypnotically disturbing portrayal in 2014’s Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal has mesmerized for so long and handles the many confusing aspects of Donnie with aplomb. It would be easy to play Donnie as a cliched rebellious teenager, but Gyllenhaal really digs into his questioning nature; he’s hungry for answers, desperate even, and tired of being disappointed in the adults of his life. That’s why it becomes emotionally satisfying for me when Donnie appears to achieve some semblance of answers by the end, his laughter is victorious and cathartic.
Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific but the rest of the cast is outstanding. This was the first time I saw Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Donnie’s older sister, one year before her star-making turn in 2002’s Secretary (stay tuned, 2022). Jena Malone (The Hunger Games sequels) was a remarkably downhearted presence, able to imbue teenage heartache and unease so preternaturally. Ever since her role as the snitty, judgmental gym teacher Kitty Farmer, I perk up whenever I see Beth Grant in a movie or show. To this day I still consider her wondrous line reading of, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” to be one of the greatest achievements in mankind’s history. Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica) has two scenes that still get me as Donnie’s mother, where she fights back tears at the suggestion of Donnie’s therapist to up his medication as doing what she thinks is right for her son, and a final scene with that same son where she responds to his query that having a “weirdo for a son” is, in fact, wonderful. The parental care and empathy that she exudes is poignant. I still laugh when Holmes Osborne, as Donnie’s father, cannot contain his inappropriate titter to hearing about his son’s vulgar outburst directed at Ms. Farmer. The adult actors (Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle) all got the bigger headlines at the time, but it’s these actors that have stayed with me the most.
With so many people being launched into success and acclaim from this movie, it’s a sad surprise that Richard Kelly himself was never able to recreate his winning alchemy. He wrote the shooting draft for 2005’s Domino, a needlessly excessive and irritating movie. His big follow-up, 2008’s Southland Tales, was a disaster at the Cannes Film Festival and Kelly cut a half-hour before it was ultimately released stateside to head-scratching. I was eagerly anticipating Southland Tales and then I watched it and minute-by-minute the sinking realization set in that this was not going anywhere and anytime soon. It was like Kelly was trying to throw every dispirit idea he ever had into one movie for fear he’d never make another. I haven’t re-watched it since and feel no need to do so. The last movie Kelly directed was 2009’s The Box, an adaption of the William Matheson short story featured on newer incarnations of The Twilight Zone. It too failed at the box-office, suffered from a confusing and muddled narrative, and from there Kelly was radioactive to Hollywood. He hasn’t a credit to his name since. With each directorial effort, you can feel Kelly trying to recreate that formula from Darko, bringing the different weird pieces and tones together by the end to form a satisfying mosaic open to interpretation. Southland and The Box both feel over-extended, strained, and cluttered with too much salient junk. I truly wish Kelly has another shot to tell a big screen story after everything he’s been through. I’m sure he has more stories to tickle our brains. Maybe he just needs an editorial guidance.
The other thing of curious note is that a sequel, S. Darko, was released in 2009 starring Donnie’s little sister Samantha, played by Daveigh Chase (The Ring). It’s not very good at all and strains to be an imitation of its predecessor, right down to Samantha having to be the sacrifice to go back in time and save her friend’s life. Kelly had nothing to do with the sequel, which was written by Nate Adkins, who would go onto create the Netflix franchise, The Christmas Prince. There is nothing of note in this cash-grab of a sequel to even reward your curiosity in watching it.
Donnie Darko was a movie I loved when I originally saw it and I’m happy so many others were able to become fans and share the good news of Darko. I’m happy this movie exists and has stuck with me all these years. It’s still transporting and invigorating and funny and soulful and tantalizing. I still love the lilt of Michael Andrews’ minimalist score. I love the scene of Donnie reaching out to Cherita Chen, the target of rampant bullying, to promise her one day everything will be better for her. I still get fascinated by the instant-iconic design of that Frank the bunny mask, an image that has lead to thousands of Halloween costume imitations. My original review was more driven by distilling its plot so that I could hook a reader into making the trip for themselves. Otherwise, my thoughts remain relative the same in twenty years of reflection. This is a gem of a movie that was never really recreated by its creator, which makes it all the more remarkable and special. If you haven’t joined the cult of Donnie Darko, there’s no time like the present, folks.
Re-View Grade: A
Originally released September 21, 2001:
It must be seen to be believed. A new college crap-fest drinking game has begun. Begin the Glitter midnight shows! A new age is upon us! Here are a few handful of Glitter‘s bon-mots it serves up to its audience:
-Mariah Carey is shown leaving her real mom at age 8 with her kitten. Somewhere through Glitter she has a fight with her boyfriend and takes her cat (yes the very same immortal cat that must have been pushing 20) and leaves.
-She has a fight with said boyfriend and they both try and write a love song to show their remorse. Except they BOTH come up with the EXACT same song word for word, note for note, and NO ONE thinks this is the creepiest thing ever.
-The movie freakin’ ends with Carey’s boyfriend getting shot and killed. Yes, this is truly how the thing ends. Oh, like any of you cared about plot spoilers anyway.
-Da Brat is in it for “comic relief.”
-The movie is inexplicably set in the 1980s for no reason.
Anyone would have to be crazy thinking Glitter ever remotely resembled art. It’s so bad it’s awesome to watch. Bring some friends over, open up some alcohol, and let the fun times begin.
Nate’s Grade: F, like it matters though
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Apologies to Mariah Carey, but it’s impossible for me to think about Glitter without thinking about 9/11. I’m not intending to make some snide, crass joke about Carey’s film debut/vanity project bombing so spectacularly considering the tragic terrorist attack that changed everything occurred the week prior to its release. 9/11 was the seminal event of the twenty-first century and a “where were you on that day?” question for Millennials and older generations. As we approach twenty years since that fateful day, it’s hard not to reminisce and pontificate about tragedy, art, and possible catharsis, and yes, eventually Glitter will factor into this prosaic essay too.
Every person has a story. I was a sophomore in college, walking to the campus center to collect a copy of The New York Times, a subscription had been a requirement of my Political Science 101 class. I grabbed my day’s edition and another student said, “Hey, did you hear? Planes hit the World Trade Center.” I remember it not really processing for me and wondering what he was talking about. I went back to my dorm, turned on the news, and was quickly dumbstruck. I eventually wandered into my friend Amanda Hickey’s dorm and we stared glued at the TV as the towers fell and I remember the news people trying to square what was happening. It wasn’t just the south wall coming down, it was the entire building. As the day continued, and more attacks commenced, I remember one girl shaking saying she had just been to the Trade Center (over six months ago, so not exactly like a near miss), and another girl scared that our Jewish-heavy suburb could be the next target. To be fair, it was an alarming time, and nobody quite knew how many more potential planes were to be hijacked next. Nobody quite knew how many potential targets there would be. The federal buildings across the country were shut down. Parents pulled their kids out of school. We all felt vulnerable. Some of us more than others. I had a friend at school, Gavin, who was from New York and whose mother worked in the Trade Center. He was wrecked trying to get a hold of her, and fortunately she did make it out of the second tower and survived. I remember the numbness and feeling like you were watching a movie, like it wasn’t really happening, it was only special effects. It couldn’t possibly be real.
In the weeks and months to come from 9/11, America was looking for an outlet, looking for some kind of unifying force to heal, and that reluctant recipient ended up being Glitter. The movie was clearly intended to be a vehicle for Carey to stretch herself as an actress. It didn’t turn out that way for her though Carey did a more measured (and less glamorous! they always wanted us to know for publicity) supporting turn later in 2009’s Precious. Glitter was a project Carey had been working towards for years. At the start of 2001, Carey signed a $100-million-dollar contract for five albums for Virgin Records. She left her first husband, the controlling music exec Tommy Mottola, in 1998, left Columbia Records, and felt the pressure to deliver. She was one of the best-selling, most successful artists of the 1990s and was declared Billboard’s Artist of the Decade. From July 2001, Carey began behaving erratically. In promotion on MTV’s Total Request Live, she appeared with an ice cream cart, performed an awkward strip tease, and was shortly after hospitalized for a breakdown. On her website she posted: “I’m trying to understand things in life right now and so I really don’t feel that I should be doing music right now… All I really want is [to] just be me and that’s what I should have done in the first place … I don’t say this much but guess what, I don’t take care of myself.” She did not promote Glitter. The soundtrack was released on… September 11 and was also Carey’s lowest-selling album of her career. The movie was released on September 21 and grossed only four million. In 2002, Virgin bought out her $100-million contract for only $28 million.
With the wounds of 9/11 so fresh, it was easy to pile onto Glitter, the first new Hollywood release, as the bad movie that the nation needed right now to hate watch to feel better about itself. The New York Times said it was “an unintentionally hilarious compendium of time-tested cinematic cliches.” Variety said, “as phony a vehicle as one could concoct for a wannabe movie star.” The Village Voice said, “A heart-wrenching debacle from the start of the gun.” The Miami Herald said, “The kind of movie only 11-year-old girls who dot their I’s with hearts would find bearable.” Roger Ebert said the film lacked joy. The New York Daily News said it was “the worst performance by a pop star in a dramatic role since Madonna suited up for Shanghai Surprise.” The Washington Post said the movie was more a showcase for Carey’s breasts. The film appeared on numerous Worst of the Year lists and was nominated for 6 Razzies including Worst Film, with Carey winning the ignoble Worst Actress Award (over fellow nominees, and future Academy nominees, Penelope Cruz, Charlize Theron, and Angelina Jolie).
My review was among that throng so eager to find an outlet for our pain, a needed distraction from the harsh reality of wall-to-wall news. I gave the movie a failing grade and declared, “It must be seen to be believed. A new college crap-fest drinking game has begun. Begin the Glitter midnight shows! A new age is upon us!” Suffice to say, Glitter never entered the holy circuit of so-bad-it’s-good movies. I’ve never watched it again in the ensuring twenty years, and upon finally coming back to Glitter in 2021, I have concluded that it’s just thoroughly mediocre and dull. It’s not a good movie. It’s a limp retelling of A Star is Born with a weak romance between Carey’s character Billie Frank and her music producer boyfriend Julian who eventually dies, killed by none other than Terrence Howard (Iron Man), playing a scornful competing music producer who demanded money for “leasing” Billie from his employ as a backup singer. It’s just so thoroughly dull. It’s filled with listless songs from Carey, tracks she had reportedly been working on for years beforehand, and the rise to stardom is absent anything engaging. There are a handful of quirks, like the fact that Billie’s cat seems to be immortal and that she and her boyfriend, separated after a fight, both pen the exact same makeup song. These are fleeting moments but only moments of bizarre fascination. The movie is just an earnest, cloying, and altogether boring retelling of a formula you’ve seen in a thousand other dull movies. It’s not even great at being bad. Everything about Glitter is dull, middling, and not worth your time. Freddy Got Fingered was clearly the worst film of 2001 and still resonates as one of the worst films.
So why did everyone delight in ripping apart this mediocre movie from a troubled pop star? Maybe some were looking for a scapegoat for derision, something to feel superior to at a time where political upheaval made many of us feel like we were plummeting and lost. Maybe it was simply a distraction at a point of feeling overwhelmed by the elevated seriousness of the world, of the news, of our post-9/11 reality and its implications. In some way, Glitter was the first step in the process of art as processing for trauma. I’m not being hyperbolic. We needed Glitter.
In the years to come, a question emerged whether American audiences would want to see movies examining 9/11 and the subsequent War in Iraq. In 2006, Paul Greengrass directed a stirring recreation of the events of Flight 93 on 9/11, the one plane that crashed before its intended target, believed to be the U.S. Capitol. It was my top film of 2006, and Greengrass was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards. I remember a conversation where the other person argued it was “too soon” for these kinds of movies. That was the criticism you heard repeated, “too soon,” though that determination will always be different for everyone. Some may find the act of viewership with drama as a therapeutic exercise that can help process complex feelings from trauma. Storytelling can lead people to potential catharsis, a release of heavy emotions, and maybe even a sense of clarity or closure. I remember being an emotional wreck during my 2006 screening and listening to the handful of other people in the theater openly sob. How does one eat a bucket of popcorn to such a movie? The same could be said of a movie about the Holocaust, or slavery, or any of the horrors of history depicted on screen. Storytelling is how we process, learn, and relate to history and its numerous dicey moments. With art, we can possibly achieve catharsis through recognition. Again, not everyone will follow the same therapeutic path. I can completely understand if a person declares they never need to see a movie about the Holocaust, but I would lament that they will miss out on some of cinema’s masterpieces of drama. Art allows us to better know ourselves and to heal and better ourselves under the right context.
If Glitter had come out in 2002, I doubt it would have received the intensity of the critical drubbing it did in the week after 9/11. It’s not a good movie today. It will never be a good movie, but it’s not one of the worst movies of all time, or even of 2001, and the community went overboard because we needed an escape and a collective joke that we could all be amused from amidst the grind of tragedy and tumult. I think even the scathing and sexist critiques of Carey at the time would be pulled back for sensitivity of a woman clearly going through mental health issues. The Razzies nominated Carey’s breasts for Worst Onscreen Pair, a strange and icky joke that I still don’t even know is intended to be defamatory or gross admiration. With twenty years of hindsight, as we approach the anniversary of 9/11, I’ve become less hostile to Glitter. It came out during a time of national psychological need and served a purpose, entertainment even if it was misidentified as so-bad-it’s-good in the zeal to find a powerful escape. The history of Glitter will always be tied to a national tragedy but, oddly enough, its legacy shouldn’t be about Carey’s faulty acting career, or personal troubles, but as the healing nature of art itself. Take that for what it’s worth as you’re doing the math to figure out how old Billie’s cat is.
Re-Review Grade: C-
Kevin Smith returns back to his comedy roots. No more movies with a message (Chasing Amy and Dogma) it’s back to good ole’ snowballing and stink palming. His latest, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, is like a giant thank-you card to all his fans that have made the man who he is today. It ties up the entire View Askew universe so Kevin can drift off into uncharted ventures of film making and not have to keep referencing the same damn characters. Plus there’s plenty of good-natured vulgarity to go around.
The plot of Jay and Silent Bob is nothing too heavy but seems to keep the film on a continuous pace, unlike the sometimes stagnant feel Mallrats had (what, they’re in one location for 90 minutes). It seems that after getting a restraining order at the Quick Stop on them, Jay and Silent Bob learn that Miramax is making a movie from a comic book that is in fact based off of them. Learned of the riches they could make they seek out the comic’s author Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck’s first appearance in the film) and demand a piece of the pie. Holden tells them that he long ago sold his right to his partner Banky Edwards (Jason Lee, in his second appearance in the film) and that there’s nothing they can do to stop the film. Jay suddenly gets the idea that if they stop the movie from ever getting made then they don’t have to worry. So off go our stoner duo on a mission to sabotage and satirize Hollywood.
Along the way are a hitch-hiker (George Carlin) advising the best way to get a ride is to go down in your morals, a confused nun (Carrie Fisher), the cast of Scooby Doo offering a ride (which will be 100x funnier than the feature film coming out next summer), a beautiful band of international diamond thieves (Eliza Dusku, Ali Larter, Jennifer Swalbach-Smith, Shannon Elizabeth), a rescued chimpanzee, a dogged Wildlife agent (Will Ferrell), and a full barrage of hilarity once Hollywood is finally hit.
The best barbs are laid out by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon bickering about the other’s film choices on the set of Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season. This moment is truly inspired and full of great humor from Gus van Sant too busy counting his money to yell action to Damon turning into a vigilante hero. I almost fell on the floor laughing during this sequence.
When Jay and Silent Bob hit Hollywood is when the comedy starts hitting its stride as this Jersey Greek chorus interacts with the Hollywood life and encounters many a celebrity. The jokes are usually right on target except for Chris Rock’s performance of a racism obsessed film director. Rock’s portrayal becomes grating to the moviegoer far before it’s over, though he does get a few choice lines.
Smith as a director has finally elevated his visual art into something that can sustain itself instead of his earlier just-hold-the-camera-and-shoot movies. There are pans, zooms, quick cuts, cranes, action sequences, and even CGI. Smith is evolving as an artist but still staying his “dick and fart joke” self, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is evidence. And that’s fine by me.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
This was the one movie I was dreading more than any others on my 2001 re-watch. I’ve been a Kevin Smith fan since my teenage years and the man’s brilliantly vulgar movies had a formative effect on shaping my love of comedy, cinema, and even language itself. I don’t know if I can say I’ve been a fan of Smith as a filmmaker for some time. He took a more schlocky genre-based turn the last decade to diminished results; I enjoyed the change of pace from 2011’s Red State but found my interest deflating with 2014’s Tusk and 2016’s Yoga Hosiers. It wasn’t until 2019’s Jay and Silent Bob Reboot that my worry was unable to be suppressed. Had the filmmaker stopped growing or had I simply outgrown the filmmaker? The old jokes and self-serving references felt too labored, too stagnant, and like an old man repeating the hits for the same group of fans to laugh at the same recognizable and tired punchlines. By nature, comedy has the shortest shelf life of entertainment, and I was dreading that the original Jay and Silent Bob big screen adventure was going to feel so outdated and pitiful, especially since it’s the least substantial of all of Smith’s early films and was intended as a silly crowd-pleasing romp for his fandom. In 2001, I was a big participant of that group. In 2021, I don’t know if I still am.
This 2001 movie was always intended to be rather insular, pitched to the diehards who would understand references to chocolate-covered pretzels and the backseats of Volkswagens, but the star-studded affair was also intended to close the book on the View Askewniverse, the interconnected world comprising the first five films of Smith’s career. Smith had intended to move on and tell new stories unbound by the confines of his continuity and the demands fans would have that the new stuff tonally aligned with the old stuff. This never really happened. Smith tried something different with 2004’s father/daughter dramedy Jersey Girl and upon its theatrical demise retreated back to the safety of his View Askew universe. To be fair, he has branched out with bold experiments in horror, some of them rather successful, but it always feels like Smith is too afraid to move too far ahead of the fandom he credits so much for his success. Hey, people go to concerts and they want to hear the hits. I understand the appeal. I chuckled at points of familiarity in Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, and also Strike Back upon re-watch, but when you’re talking storytelling and comedy, stagnation isn’t growth. It’s a self-imposed ceiling.
It was very early that my sinking feeling for Strike Back became my default setting. The characters of Jay and Silent Bob are not built to carry an entire movie, especially when one of them is mostly mute. It becomes the Jay (Jason Mewes) show and he overstays his welcome. There are definite limitations to these two stoners being the primary characters, and that’s why Jay seems to vary from scene-to-scene for the sake of comedy. In some scenes he’ll be clever, in others powerfully stupid, and in others so specific, like when he’s referencing Prince Valiant or rhapsodizing a Planet of the Apes apocalyptic fantasy that is too involved to come from the mind of this dumb stoner. This is the same guy who didn’t know you had to pay to ride a bus. The character unpredictability would be more acceptable if those leaps lead to worthwhile comedy bits that couldn’t otherwise be bridged by the operating persona of the long-haired foul-mouthed horndog. Therein lies the issue. The humor of Strike Back is too scattershot and too obvious to really land consistently. The fourth-wall breaks are painful and plentiful. The constant exclamation of “bong” is never funny. The random inclusion of the Mystery Machine, with a Velma openly lusting after women, is lazy. The fact that people are fighting with bong lightsabers and dildos is lazy. The joke that everyone on the Internet complaining about pop culture is just a teen dweeb is lazy and almost Aaron Sorkin-esque in its snide broad-brush painting of technology and youth. As I said in my review of Reboot: “Smith has never been one to hinge on set pieces and more on character interactions, usually profane conversations with the occasional slapstick element. This is one reason why the original Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back suffers in comparison to his more character-driven comedies.” This movie is wall-to-wall wacky slapstick and road trip pieces that fail to transcend their cultural references.
And the comedy aspect that has aged the worse, by far, is the rampant gay jokes. At the time of its theatrical release, G.L.A.A.D. was openly decrying the film for its copious jokes at the expense of being mistaken as gay. I’m all but certain that 2001 me would have voiced the opinion that this was absurd, that of course Smith isn’t a homophobe, and he’s merely satirizing homophobia. The problem is that being gay is such a repeated joke of derision and hysteria. Wildlife Marshal Willenholly (Will Ferrell, one of the better reasons to still watch) admits he’s only a man on the outside, and I guess that’s a joke? Gay jokes are definitely one of the kinds of comedy that has aged the worst in the ensuing twenty years. Think back to 2005’s extended riff-fest between Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd in The 40-Year-Old Virgin where they try to top one another how they know the other is really gay. That would never happen in a studio comedy today. Times change and so do the mores of comedy. Things we thought were funny decades ago we might not feel the same way. That’s the nature of comedy. The overall comedy of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back feels tacky and dated, so the onslaught of gay panic and derision only makes the rest of the comedy feel just as sad and pitiful.
There are two hooks to this movie, the relationship that forms between Jay and Justice (Shannon Elizabeth), one of the members of a girl gang of jewel thieves, and the havoc and industry satire of the guys running through the Miramax studio lot. Heather Graham reportedly turned down the role of Justice because she could not understand what woman would fall in love with Jay, and she’s completely right. The girl gang seems included because it felt like the hot thing to do at the time after Charlie’s Angels, to include some sexy ladies in cat suits, give them slow-motion scenes where they wink at the camera about how sexy they must look in magazine cover poses, and seem to be in on the joke while just objectifying these one-note characters with air quotes. Just because Smith later has the girl gang underline their cliché nature doesn’t make them any less of a cliché, and their entire inclusion feels like fulfilling a personal demand for Smith rather than satirizing the shallow depiction of “strong action heroine” in Hollywood blockbusters. The other hook is the actual industry satire, strictly under the guidance of lampooning Miramax and their hits and indie darling culture, all of which has the pall of Harvey Weinstein cast over it. The industry jokes aren’t exactly very cutting. It’s difficult to even label this as satire. It’s more a madcap chase that resembles a crude version of Pee Wee Herman’s studio escapades. It too feels predicated on fulfilling personal demands for Smith, like literally fighting Luke Skywalker in a lightsaber duel. I’ll agree with my 2001 self that the comedy is on stronger footing during this final act, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the rest of the movie. Strike Back doesn’t strike hard enough.
There is one reason to watch this movie and it has always been the unique fascination of Jason Mewes as a performer. He was not even an actor when Smith put him in his indie breakout film, 1994’s Clerks. He has such an unpolished appeal and there were several line readings where he took a bizarre, immediately intriguing angle, something that made the line funny because of his delivery and conviction. Mewes is a genuinely underrated comic actor. He was also battling heroin withdrawal throughout the production and turned to getting drunk as a backup coping mechanism. As soon as filming was done, he began using drugs again and eventually Smith would drive his buddy to rehab and offer a place in his home if it meant he had someone to make sure he stayed sober. The friendship between Mewes and Smith, and the hell they’ve gone through together from his addiction, is truly heartwarming and would genuinely make an interesting movie all its own.
I come back to my review for Jay and Silent Bob Reboot because I wrestled with these same feelings back then, and re-watching Strike Back only provided disappointing confirmation. As I said in 2019, “The highly verbose filmmaker has been a favorite of mine since I discovered a VHS copy of Clerks in the late 90s. I will always have a special place reserved for the man and see any of his movies, even if I’m discovering that maybe some of the appeal is starting to fade… As a storyteller, I’ll always be front and center for this gregarious and generous man. As a filmmaker, I’ll always be thankful for his impact he had on my fledgling ideas of indie cinema and comedy, even if that means an inevitable parting of ways as he charts a well-trod familiar path.” Going back to the crude comedies of Kevin Smith feels like meeting old friends and realizing how little you might have in common now, and that’s okay. They still were important, they won’t be forgotten, but some things just aren’t built to last, especially comedy. I guess don’t be sad because it’s over but smile because it happened, including the many, many dick and fart jokes.
Re-View Grade: C
Nicole Kidman has saved the summer of 2001 – it is now official. In what would have been deemed a pit of mediocrity and nightmares consisting of Angelina Jolie as some raider of tombs or Marky Mark making dough-eyes at attractive apes, has now been bookended by two terrific Kidman films. First Moulin Rouge ushered us in and now The Others is leading us the way out.
The Others is the tale of Grace (Kidman) trying to take care of her two ailing young children shortly after the end of World War II. Kidman is waiting for the return of her husband from the war and is all alone in a giant Gothic mansion. Her two children suffer from a rare allergy to sunlight that is so severe that if exposed long enough their bodies will develop markings and they will asphyxiate to death. To accommodate this illness the entire Kidman household is in the dark and grounded in stern rules. No door is to be unlocked without locking the last, like trapping water in compartments of a sinking ship.
Grace discovers that she does need help and accepts three mysterious strangers that have said they were caretakers to this house once before. Before long the children start reporting odd events occurring that resemble ghosts; a door is opened when it shouldn’t be, someone is making noise where there is no one, and the children report having interaction with otherworldly spirits. Grace scoffs at any notion of the paranormal and goes back to instructing her children with the Bible and its accounts of penance and hell. The incidences begin to build further and further until The Others becomes a full-fledged ghost spectacle.
Spanish writer/director Alejandro Amenábar’s first English feature film is one of carefully textured craft and effective mood. The Others follows the points of ghost stories closely from dark hallways to the creepy and slightly dilapidated house closely. Every move, though, is so well in tune that they are highly effective in creating actual suspense and spookiness. One may have seen the same items numerous times before, however The Others utilizes them so gracefully that it achieves the full desired impact each can bring. Amenábar has created a ghost story that is genuinely creepy and at times scary.
Kidman shines as the dutiful and determined mother. Her performance is one of great dedication and she just consumes whole-heartedly the distress, confusion, and fear of this lonely mother. She is a true anchor for a film. Watching every moment of her on screen is amazing as well as invigorating. This role may lead to possible Oscar buzz come the end of the year but that is just speculation for now.
The rest of the acting is very thorough and well handled by the few other cast members. James Bentley and Alakina Mann portray Kidman’s afflicted children and have much of the movie hinging on their performances. Not to worry, these two excel and give credence to being two of the more gifted child actors in a while. Their efforts greatly induce sympathy as well as great scares at key moments.
The story of The Others by Amenábar may seem simplistic, or even predictable, but the more I thought of the structure and the order of events the more well oiled and calculated it became. This is a delicate story told with great precision with a fantastic knockout ending that had me reworking everything. The Others is an example of why screenwriting is not yet dead in Hollywood.
The Others is a wonderfully brooding film with real scares and great performances, as well as terrific turns in writing and directing by Amenábar. Nicole Kidman has thankfully done it again, and if anyone dares doubt the power and newfound importance of her then see the rest of the summer of 2001’s offerings.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
They don’t really make movies like The Others any more. It’s a patient movie with lots of old-fashioned craft and has more in common with horror movies from a different era. While I would claim that the popular Conjuring franchise, at least the James Wan entries, is a successful Old School horror throwback, its execution can also become quite extreme and ridiculous. Something like The Others dutifully takes its time and nips at your nerves, knowing precisely what key piece of information to tantalize and when to provide more, just enough to grab you deeper into its central mystery and worry over the looming danger for the characters. Twenty years later, the movie plays just as splendidly as it did initially in 2001 but now I have more reverence and appreciation for how it goes about telling its ghost story in a very methodical manner. Not every horror movie ages well. I’m sure that modern audiences could watch The Exorcist and laugh at what, in 1973, scared people to the point of vomiting in theater aisles. If you’re not executing at a high level, it could make for a tragically boring movie. It’s a good thing then that The Others is a PG-13 horror movie that plays all of its limitations to its many artistic advantages.
Coming at the end of a mediocre summer slate of movies in 2001, The Others was a surprise hit, earning over $200 million dollars on a modest budget of $17 million. It helps when your entire movie takes place in one Gothic house and one of the biggest fears is being caught in the light. The premise involves a World War II-era estate where Grace (Nicole Kidman) is seeking help for her two children, Anne and Nicholas, who have a rare photo sensitivity allergy. Direct sunlight will cause them to break out in lesions and potentially asphyxiate (this is a real and rare condition afflicting around 1000 people on the planet). This is a brilliant turn because it means that most of the movie must take place in darkness and even the hint of light could be enough to start causing trembles. A late scare in the movie is simply the realization by Grace that all of the curtains have been removed from the house. Taken without context, that can seem laughable or ludicrous for a horror movie. With the proper context, it becomes a devastating turn. Much like A Quiet Place so brilliantly made sound the enemy, The Others makes the prospect of light the enemy. We start to associate darkness with safety, and then writer/director Alejandro Amenabar uses that environment to drive minimalist horror to great effect. The sound design of whispers, of footsteps, of something that shouldn’t be there is elevated, and the intrusion into the safe space of the vulnerable children makes us all feel a little more vulnerable. It takes the familiar setting of old Gothic horror tales about dark corridors and creaky attics and elevates it anew.
The story is simple but so excellently structured and performed. A mother and her two children are terrorized by ghosts in an old house. Three caretakers arrive to help who know more than what they let on. These characters allow Grace to have someone to question and share her emotional state of mind but they also provide dramatic irony and dread for the audience. They know what’s going on with the house and they’re hiding something, initially tombstones they will later reveal but who do they belong to? They know the house intimately but what is their actual connection to its history? Early on we already have our concerns, as the notice Grace sent out seeking help was never mailed. Halfway through, the caretakers discuss among themselves a secret they are hiding relating to the history of the house. By this point, we have already had a few ghostly encounters so our assumption is that it will relate with the otherworldly intruders. These characters are conflict stirring and keepers of secrets to be revealed in time. Amenabar has a divine instinct of when to drop a new clue, when to pick up the escalation, and when to finally lay out his plot particulars. The big twist has been hiding in plain sight from the start, from the very opening image of Grace gasping awake in her bed and coming down from her frantic distress.
The ultimate revelation that Grace and her children are not being haunted by malevolent spirits but are in fact the real malevolent spirits is a terrific rug-puller. Much like the best twist endings, many of which occurred in contemporaries like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, you can re-watch the movie and see all the clues you missed or how the added perspective reinterprets sequences for added depth. It’s not just a great twist but a culmination of an emotional catharsis; much like The Sixth Sense, it’s a ghost coming to terms with accepting their ghostly identity. Unlike The Sixth Sense, our ghostly protagonist refuses to go gently into the light. Grace has her children repeat to her, “This is our house,” and they refuse to budge. One of the final images, of Anne dancing in the sunlight, is both a victory and condemnation. She can at long last not worry about the rays of sunlight harming her and can live life like an average child. However, she has no life to live and can never leave the house, never grow old, and refuses to part under the rigid determination of her mother, the same woman who killed her and doomed her to purgatory. In some regard it’s a happy ending because hooray the kids can relax, and in many other more disturbing implications, it’s a guilt-ridden murderous mother refusing to let go of her children even after killing them. The movie serves as an empathy experiment to provide back-story for the kind of specters that would haunt an old Hammer horror movie. It might make you rethink other ghost stories or at least try and see things from the ghostly perspective.
I will say that this movie was also maddeningly hard to hear at times. I had to crank up my TV to unheard of volume levels to clearly make out what people were saying. Kidman is quite good but she has a habit of falling back on very breathy acting, relying on whispered intonation. I’m glad I already saw the movie but the sound levels forced me to actively pay attention. Maybe your TV will be different.
Amenabar is a Spanish filmmaker that rose to international acclaim with 1997’s Open Your Eyes, starring Penelope Cruz and later remade into Vanilla Sky, also starring Penelope Cruz (coming to a Re-Veiw in December!). The Others was a significant breakthrough, and in 2004 Amenabar won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for The Sea Inside, a true-life drama where Javier Bardem portrays a man fighting for the right to end his own life. He seemed like an international director on an accelerated ascent, and it all came to a crash with 2009’s costly historical intolerance drama, Agora, starring Rachel Weisz and Oscar Isaac that examined the contentious relationship between Christians and Pagans in fourth century Egypt. It cost $70 million dollars, was over two hours, and made a pittance at the U.S. box-office. From there, Amenabar has primarily worked within the Spanish cinema (2019’s While at War), Spanish TV (2021’s La Fortuna), and one schlocky horror movie about a Satanic cult (2015’s Regression, a title that is too on-the-nose perfect). Admittedly, I haven’t watched any of these follow-ups and the Spanish productions could genuinely be great. I think Amenabar’s early success helped pave the way for another Spanish filmmaker, J.A. Bayona, whose 2007’s haunted manor movie The Orphanage was an excellent Old School horror that could be sincerely scary while still patiently building its unsettling atmosphere.
Looking back at my review from 2001, I think my love of Moulin Rouge carried over into my overly enthusiastic evaluation of Kidman’s increasingly unraveled performance. She’s good but she’s not quite at Oscar levels of accomplishment here, and yet Kidman was nominated for a BAFTA for this role instead of the singing courtesan. The child actors are both good, though neither acted again in credited roles after the mid-2000s, but for me to cite them as “two of the most gifted child actors in a while” reads like hyperbole. My original analysis didn’t get too deep into the mechanics of why everything worked so well, for fear of spoiling its big surprises, and instead kept to admiring its craft, care, and execution, aspects that are still easily apparent and admirable in 2021 as well. The Others is a splendid ghost story no matter the year and will likely still prove to be many years from now.
Re-View Grade: A
Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.
The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.
Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.
Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.
The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.
Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.
The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.
The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
There was a time where the world wondered whether 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was going to put actors out of business. The Columbia/Sony animated feature, the first the studio released theatrically since the second Care Bears Movie, was a big technological leap. Square Studios, the makers behind the extremely popular video game RPG series, opened a new studio stationed in Hawaii to enter the realm of Hollywood, and they devoted four years and countless hours of processing to create photo-realistic visuals. This was still at the dawn of CGI animated features taking over the landscape and the leap was impressive. None other than Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he considered the movie a milestone along the lines of the first talkies. Before its release, there was scuttlebutt whether or not this was the wave of the future and actors would be replaced with computer versions, never mind that vocal actors were still being employed. The lead “actor,” Aki, was depicted in a swimsuit on a Maxim cover as an icky promotion. The 2002 movie S1mone satirizes this concept further, with Al Pacino fed up with temperamental industry actors so he secretly uses a photo-realistic computer program instead.
I don’t really know why people got so worried. There are nuances that humans can convey that machines cannot, but even beyond that distinction, it’s simply a lot cheaper to hire an actor, put a costume on them, and record them than to build a model from scratch in a computer and toil for hours just to get the right look of the character raising an eyebrow. The listed budget for Spirits Within is $137 million, though has been rumored to be as high as $170 million (even more than Waterworld). For reference, the budgets of other 2001 movies include $125 million for the first Harry Potter, $93 million for Jurassic Park 3, $100 million for the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes, and $93 million for The Fellowship of the Ring. Even if you view Spirits Within as paving the way for motion-capture animated movies, the kind Robert Zemeckis spent a decade of his career slaving over, even those were eventually deemed too expensive for their returns. I think we can, at least for the time being, put this question to rest. Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.
Twenty years later, the animation that once inspired awe now feels dated and surpassed. That’s the nature of the speed of technological advancement; even the company had to redesign scenes from the movie as they finished because the tech improved dramatically over the four-year development process. The visuals of the movie have become the norm for modern-day video games. There are aspects of the animation that are missing or just unable to be fully formed at the time. The faces look too slick and plastic, absent grooves and pores and imperfections that provide texture to people’s faces. The human appendages move like rubber. The hair seems to flow like it’s captured from a bouncy shampoo ad (apparently a fifth of the processing power went to animate the lead heroine’s 60,000 follicles). The character’s mouths look to be wired shut and unable to articulate their words. From a 2021 standpoint, the animation looks more like an extended video game cut scene from late 2000s. Its innovation has become commonplace.
It should be no surprise that the script went through numerous rewrites. All the attention for Sony and Square was on the technical achievements and much less so on the story, which I guess they assumed would come together at some point. The project began with the Final Fantasy writers coming up with the initial plot, which would make sense until you realize the RPG fantasy series isn’t known for its sense of realism or cohesion. The plot of Spirits Within is not very in keeping with the more fantastical Final Fantasy series world. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar (I, Robot) was asked to read the script because the studio reportedly did not understand the project at all. His analysis was that they should completely start from scratch. The studio asked if he wanted to rewrite the script and gave him three weeks. His words were translated from English to Japanese and then back into English, which left something lost in translation a couple times over.
It’s surprising that the movie is even slightly coherent with everything it’s been through. It’s still a mess of a plot, with aliens having crashed onto Earth and made parts of the planet uninhabitable by their presence. They’re also revealed to be ghosts. So… alien ghosts. And there are eight horcruxes, I mean, um, spirits that need to be found to… something. The screenplay, under all of its laborious mutations, is really about a military team and a pair of scientists collecting MacGuffins and trying to use dreams to thwart a fascist from using a doomsday laser. It is simultaneously overly simplistic and overly complicated and quite silly. The villain, voiced by James Woods, even gets the full Nazi wardrobe but his viewpoint seems logical considering he’s pitted against scientists saying they need to break through to the “spirit of the Earth.” It’s hard to take their claims and wild speculation seriously in this more realistic world. Apparently, there was a plot development where Aki was revealed to be pregnant and her unborn child was the eighth and final spirit needed. You can still see its place in the plot. Reportedly, this storyline was cut because it was deemed “too Japanese” and I have no idea what that means.
The real reason to ever watch The Spirits Within has come and gone. It’s now a footnote in animation history and a mild curiosity at best. I suppose you can still try and think how cool everything must have been to experience in 2001, and then your mind will wander because the nonsensical story will do little to hold your attention. It was such a financial disaster that Square Studios closed down and the company went back to focusing on video games full time with the occasional CGI direct-to-DVD movie (2004’s Advent Children and 2016’s Kingsglaive). Square Studio did make one of the CGI animated segments for 2003’s Animatrix, a concept paving the way for other ambitious animated anthologies like Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots. The entire emphasis of this expensive production was slated onto its visual decadence, but the story was muddled, confusing, trite, and alien to the source material and the fanbase it was appealing to. I want to give my 2001 self a high-five because I’m happy that even at 19 years old in my original review I could see the evident faults of the mediocre storytelling as well as the arguments for replacing real actors with virtual facsimiles. Back in 2001, I said Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had the benefit of always giving the viewer “something to sit in wonder and take in.” Twenty years later, that lone benefit has all but disappeared. Conversely, video games have become so much more ambitious, artistic, and emotionally engaging since 2001. So skip the movie and just play a game instead.
Re-View Grade: C
A.I. is the merger of two powerhouses of cinema – Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The very mysterious film was given to Spielberg by Kubrick himself who thought ole’ Steven would be a better fit to direct it. The two did keep communication open for like a decade on their ideas for the project until Kubrick’s death in March of 1999. What follows is an imaginative futuristic fairy tale that almost grabs the brass ring but falls short due to an inferior ending. More on that later.
In the future technological advances allow for intelligent robotic creatures (called “mechas”) to be constructed and implemented in society. William Hurt has the vision to create a robot more real than any his company has ever embarked on before. He wants to make a robot that can know real love. Flash ahead several months to Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Conner) who are dealing with their own son in an indefinite coma. Henry is given the opportunity to try out a prototype from his company of a new mecha boy. His wife naturally believes that her son could not be replaced and her emotions smoothed over. Soon enough they both decide to give the boy a try and on delivery comes David (Haley Joel Osment) ready to begin new life in a family. David struggles to fit in with his human counterparts and even goes to lengths to belong like mimicking the motions of eating despite his lack of need to consume. Gradually David becomes a true part of the family and Monica has warmed up to him and ready to bestow real love onto their mecha son.
It’s at this point when things are going well for David that the Swinton’s son Martin comes out of his coma and returns back to his parents. Sibling rivalry between the two develops for the attention and adoration of their parents. Through mounting unfortunate circumstances the Swintons believe that David is a threat and decide to take him away. The corporation that manufactured David had implicit instructions that the loving David if desired to be returned had to be destroyed. Monica takes too much pity on David that she ditches him in the woods and speeds off instead of allowing him to be destroyed.
David wanders around searching for the Blue Fairy he remembers from the child’s book Pinocchio read to him at the Swinton home. He is looking for this magical creature with the desire she will turn him into a real boy and his human mother will love him again. Along David’s path he buddies up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pleasure ‘bot that tells the ladies they’re never the same once he’s through. The two traverse such sights as a mecha-destroying circus called ‘Flesh Fairs’ complete with what must be the WWF fans of the future, as well as the bright lights of flashy sin cities and the submerged remains of a flooded New York. David’s journey is almost like Alice’s, minus of course the gigolo robot of pleasure.
There are many startling scenes of visual wonder in A.I. and some truly magical moments onscreen. Spielberg goes darker than he’s even been and the territory does him good. Osment is magnificent as the robotic boy yearning to become real, but Jude Law steals the show. His physical movement, gestures, and vocal mannerisms are highly entertaining to watch as he fully inhibits the body and programmed mind of Gigolo Joe. Every time Law is allowed to be onscreen the movie sparkles.
It’s not too difficult to figure out which plot elements belong to Spielberg and which belong to Kubrick, since both are almost polar opposites when it comes to the feelings of their films. Spielberg is an idealistic imaginative child while Kubrick was a colder yet more methodical storyteller with his tales of woe and thought. The collaboration of two master artists of cinema is the biggest draw going here. A.I.‘s feel ends up being Spielberg interpreting Kubrick, since the late great Stanley was dead and gone before he could get his pet project for over a decade ready. The war of giants has more Spielberg but you can definitely tell the Kubrick elements running around, and they are a gift from beyond the grave.
I thought at one point with the first half of A.I. I was seeing possibly the best film of the year, and the second half didn’t have the pull of the first half but still moves along nicely and entertained. But then came the ending, which ruined everything. There is a moment in the film where it feels like the movie is set to end and it would’ve ended with an appropriate ending that could have produced lingering talk afterwards. I’m positive this is the ending Kubrick had in mind. But this perfect ending point is NOT the ending, no sir! Instead another twenty minutes follows that destroys the realm of belief for this film. The tacked on cloying happy ending feels so contrived and so inane. It doesn’t just stop but keeps going and only gets dumber and more preposterous form there. I won’t go to the liberty of spoiling the ending but I’ll give this warning to ensure better enjoyment of the film: when you think the movie has ended RUN OUT OF THE THEATER! Don’t look back or pay attention to what you hear. You’ll be glad you did later on when you discover what really happens.
The whole Blue Fairy search is far too whimsical for its own good. It could have just been given to the audience in a form of a symbolic idea instead of building the last half of the film for the search for this fictional creature’s whereabouts. The idea is being pounded into the heads of the audience by Spielberg with a damn sledge hammer. He just can’t leave well enough alone and lets it take off even more in those last atrocious twenty minutes.
A.I. is a generally involving film with some wonderfully fantastic sequences and some excellent performances. But sadly the ending really ruins the movie like none other I can remember recently. What could have been a stupendous film with Kubrick’s imprint all over turns out to be a good film with Spielberg’s hands all over the end.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
There are two aspects that people remember vividly about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and that’s the fascinating collaboration of two of the most influential filmmakers of all time and its much-debated and much-derided extended ending. Before we get into either, though, a fun fact about its very helpful title for Luddites. Originally the title was only going to be A.I. but the studio found that test audiences were confused by the two-word abbreviation and several clueless souls thought it was the number one and not the capital letter “I.” The studio didn’t want their high-concept meeting of cinematic masters to be confused with a popular steak sauce.
In the realm of cinematic titans, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick rise to the top for their artistic ambitions, innovations, versatility, and great influence on future generations, but you’d be hard-pressed to see a uniquely shared sensibility. Kubrick’s films are known for his detached, mercurial perspective, flawless technical execution, leisurely pacing, and a pessimistic or cynical view of humanity. Spielberg’s films are known for their blockbuster populism, grand imagination and whimsy, as well as the director’s softer, squishier, and more sentimental view of humanity. It almost feels like a mixture of oil and water with their contradictory sensibilities. And yet Kubrick and Spielberg developed A.I. for decades, starting in the late 1970s when Kubrick optioned the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. Kubrick felt that Spielberg was a better fit for director in the mid-1980s, but Spielberg kept trying to convince Kubrick to direct. Both took on other projects and kept kicking A.I. down the road, also because Kubrick was dissatisfied with the state of special effects to conceive his “lifelike” robot boy. Kubrick died in early 1999 and Spielberg elected to finally helm A.I. and finish their creative partnership. He went back to the original 90-page treatment Kubrick developed with sci-fi novelist Ian Watson and wrote the final screenplay, Spielberg’s first screenwriting credit since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and his only one since 2001). I view the final movie as a labor of love as Spielberg’s ode to Kubrick and his parting gift to his fallen friend.
Watching A.I. again, it is a recognizable Kubrick movie but through the lens of Spielberg’s camera and budget. In some ways, it feels like Spielberg’s two-hour-plus homage to his departed mentor. The movie moves gradually and gracefully and, with a few delicate turns, could just as easily be viewed as a horror movie than anything overtly cloying or maudlin. The opening 45 minutes introduces a family whose child is comatose with some mystery illness and the likelihood he may never return to them. The husband (Sam Robards) is gifted with a shiny new robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment), as a trial from his big tech boss (William Hurt) who wants to see if he can make a robot child who will love unconditionally. The early scenes with David integrating into the family play like a horror movie, with the intruder inside the family unit, and David’s offhand mimicry of trying to fit in can make you shudder. All it would take is an ominous score under the scenes and they play completely differently. One scene, which is played as an ice breaker, is when David, studying his parents at the dinner table, breaks out into loud cackling laughter. It triggers his parents to laugh alongside him, but it’s so weird and sudden and creepy. David’s non-blinking, ever-eager presence is off-putting and creepy and Monica (Frances O’Connor), the mother, is rightfully horrified and insulted by having a “replacement child.” However, her emotional neediness steadily whittles away her resistance and she elects to have David imprint. This is a no-turning-back serious decision, having David imprint eternal love and adoration onto her, and if she or her husband were to change their minds, David cannot be reprogrammed. He would need to be disassembled. With this family, David is more or less a house pet kept around for adoration and then discarded when he no longer serves the same comforting alternative. Once the couple’s biological child reawakens, it’s not long before jealousy and misunderstanding lead David to being ditched on the side of the road as an act of “mercy.”
From there, the movie becomes much more episodic with David and less interesting. The Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) addition furthers the story in a thematic sense and less so in plot. Gigolo Joe is a robotic lover on command, and framed for murder, and just as disposable and mistreated as David. From a plot standpoint, David’s odyssey is to seek out the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, a book his mother read to him, and to wish to become a real boy and be finally accepted as his mother’s legitimate son. Thematically, David’s real odyssey is to understand that human beings are cruel masters. In short, people suck in this universe and they don’t get any better.
People, or “orga” as they refer to organic life, are mean and indifferent to artificial life, viewing the realistic mechanical beings, or “mecha” as they are referred to, as little more than disposable toys. Despite its cheery happy ending (and I will definitely be getting to that), the movie is awash in Kubrick’s trademark pessimism. Early on, David is stabbed by another boy just to test his pain defense system. David is only spared destruction from the Flesh Fair, a traveling circus where ticket-buyers enjoy the spectacle of robot torture, because the blood-thirsty audience thinks he’s too uncomfortably realistic. I don’t know if they’re supposed to be confused whether he is actually a robot considering that the adult models look just as realistic. He’s not like a super advanced model, he’s just the first robot kid, but applying the same torture spectacle to a crying robot child is too much for the fairgoers. However, this emergent reprieve might be short-lived once these same people become morally inured to the presence of robot kids after they flood the consumer market. Once the “newness” wears off, he’ll be viewed just as cruelly as the other older models also pleading for their pitiful mecha lives.
The tragedy of David is that he can never truly be real but he’ll never realize it. His personal journey takes him all over the nation and into the depth of the rising oceans, and it’s all to fulfill a wish from a benevolent make-believe surrogate mother. His programming traps David into seeing the world as a child, so no matter how old his circuits might be, he’ll always maintain a childish view of the world and its inhabitants. He’ll never age physically but he’ll also never mature or grow emotionally. Because of those limitations, he’s stuck seeing his mother in a halo of goodness that the actual woman doesn’t deserve. Monica felt like she was being helpful by ditching David before returning him to his makers, but this boy is not equipped to survive in the adult world let alone the human world. He cannot understand people and relationships outside the limited confines of a child. So to David, he doesn’t see the cowardice and emotional withdrawal of his mother. She knew the consequences of imprinting but she wanted to feel the unconditional love of a child again and when that got too inconvenient she abandoned him. Their relationship is completely one-sided with David always giving and his mother only taking. David’s goal is to be accepted by a woman who will never accept him and care for him like her organic child. She will never view David as hers no matter how hard David loves her. He cannot recognize this toxic usury relationship because he’ll never have any conception of that. David is trying to be loved by people undeserving of his earnest efforts and unflinching affections.
Let’s finally tackle that controversial ending, shall we? The natural ending comes at about two hours in, with David in a submersible at the bottom of the ocean and pleading with a statue of the Blue Fairy in Coney Island to make him a real boy. He keeps whispering again and again to her, and the camera pulls out, his pleading getting fainter and fainter. The vessel is trapped under the water, so he’ll likely live out the rest of his battery life hopefully, and hopelessly, asking for his wish. It feels deeply Kubrickian and a fitting end for a tragic and unsparing movie about human cruelty and our lack of empathy. It’s also, in its own way, slightly optimistic. Because David is so fixated, he’ll spend the rest of his existence in anticipation of his dream possibly being granted with the next request. He has no real concept of time so hundreds of years can feel like seconds. Everything about this moment screams the natural ending, and then, oh and then, it keeps going, and the ensuring twenty additional minutes try and force a sentimental ending that does not work or fit with the two hours of movie prior. Two thousand years into the future, David is rescued by advanced robots (I thought they were aliens, and likely you will too) who finally grant his wish thanks to some convenient DNA of his two-thousand-year dead mother. These advanced robots can bring the dead back to life except they will only last one day, so David will have one last day to share with his mother before she passes back into the dark. However, David’s conception of his mother isn’t the actual woman, so his rose-colored glasses distortion means he gets a final goodbye from not just a clone but one attuned to his vision. It’s false, and the fact that the movie tries to convince you it’s a happy ending feels wrong. Also, the world of 4124 still has the World Trade Center because A.I. was released three months before the attacks on September 11th. It’s just another reminder of how wrong the epilogue feels.
This extended epilogue desperately tries to attach the treacly sentimentality that was absent from the rest of A.I., which is why many critics felt it was Spielberg asserting himself. Apparently, we were all wrong. According to an interview with Variety in 2002, the opening 45 minutes is taken word-for-word from Kubrick’s outline and the extended ending, including the misplaced happy every after, is also strictly from Kubrick’s original treatment. It was Kubrick who went all-in on the Pinocchio references and parallels. Even the walking teddy bear was his idea. Watson said, “Those scenes were exactly what I wrote for Stanley and exactly what he wanted, filmed faithfully by Spielberg.” The middle portion was Spielberg’s greatest writing contribution, otherwise known as the darkest moments in the movie like the Flesh Fair and robot hunts. The movie is much more sexual than I associate with Spielberg. There has been sex in Spielberg’s past films, but it’s usually played as frothy fun desire with cheeky womanizers (Catch Me If You Can) or as a transaction with unspoken demands (Schindler’s List, The Color Purple). Then again, when Spielberg really leaned into a sex scene, we got the awkward and thematically clunky “climax” of Munich. With A.I., the perverse nature of humanity is another layer that reflects how awful these people are to the wide array or robots being mistreated, abused, and assaulted on an hourly basis in perpetuity.
Twenty years later, the movie still relatively holds up well and is good, not great. It’s more a fascinating collaboration between two cinematic giants, and the fun is recognizing the different elements and themes and attributing them (wrongly) to their respective creator. The special effects are still impressive and lifelike even by 2021 standards. Even though the movie is set in 2124, so over 100 years into the far-flung future, everyone still dresses and looks like they’re from the familiar twentieth century (maybe it’s retro fashion?). It’s a slightly distracting technical element for a movie otherwise supremely polished. There is a heavy emphasis on visual reflections and refractions of David in his family home, exploring the wavering identity and conceptions of this robo kid. Spielberg’s direction feels in keeping with Kubrick’s personal style and sensibility. A.I. is a labor of love for Spielberg to honor Kubrick, and he went another step further with the 2018 adaptation of Ready Player One where one of the missions was exploring a virtual reality recreation of the famous Overlook Hotel from The Shining. In my original 2001 review, I took the same level of umbrage with the miscalculated ending as I do in 2021. In the many years since its release, A.I. has been my go-to example of a movie that didn’t know where to properly end. As a result, it’s still a fascinating if frustrating experience on the verge of greatness.
Re-View Grade: B