Category Archives: 2002 Movies
A most amazing thing occurred when I sat down in my theater to watch Steven Soderbergh’s sci-fi remake, Solaris. The majority of the theater was women, no small part I’m sure to George Clooney and the promise to see his posterior not once but twice. As the film progressed I kept hearing the rattling of seats and the exit doors. When the lights came back on more than half my theater had walked out on Solaris. I have never seen this many walk outs for any film before, and if one has to hold this title Solaris certainly does not deserve this dubious honor.
Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, super future psychologist who is struggling to overcome the grief over the suicide of his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Clooney is dispatched to a space station orbiting the mysterious glowing planet Solaris. Seems strange goings on, are, well, going on. When he arrives he finds that the station head has taken his own life and the two remaining crew members on board could use more than a few hugs. Clooney goes to sleep (in a bed resembling bubble-wrap) and is startled awake when his dead wife is suddenly lying right beside him. But is it his wife? Is it merely his memories being recounted? Is it Solaris messing with his gray matter? Does Rheya have consciousness of the past or of her self? What are her thoughts on her new materialization? Good luck Steven Soderbergh, existentialist party of one.
It’s not that Solaris is necessarily a bad film, it’s just that it’s plodding, mechanical and overly ambitious. There are long periods of staring, followed by brief exposition, then more staring, sometimes earnestly but mostly slack-jawed. Solaris is attempting to be an existential meditation on identity and self, but what really occurs is a lot of nothingness. For a movie that was over three hours in its original 1971 Russian conception, and a mere 93 minutes in its slimmer Soderbergh size, I could likely get this movie done in 6 minutes. It could be argued that its arduous pacing amplifies its methodical subject matter but whatever.
Clooney has said in interviews how Solaris was the most challenging role of his career. To this I make a collective noise of disagreement. Clooney turns from grief-stricken to confusion, then back to grief-stricken with nary a line of dialogue. The effect is more dampening than emotional. Clooney’s conscience gets even worse when he banishes New Rheya into the cold vacuum of space then Another Rheya appears the next night. He just can’’t escape this dead woman.
I’m very pleased to see the glassy-eyed, apple-cheeked actress McElhone in movies again. She seemed to be on the cusp of mainstream acceptance after prominent roles in 1998’s Truman Show and Ronin, yet she just disappeared. McElhone is a wonderfully expressive actress and deserves to be a leading lady.
Soderbergh’s take on existential dread could be described as a noble failure. Solaris is the type of overreaching, underachieving film only really talented people could make. And for anyone wanting to leave after the double dose of Clooney’s derriere, they both happen in the first 30 minutes. You can go after that if you so choose.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I think Steven Soderbergh is the perfect film artist to discuss the topic of the “noble failure.” That’s what I dubbed his remake of Solaris in 2002, and having re-watched it twenty years later I would still concur. Soderbergh is the ultimate idiosyncratic indie auteur who, miraculously, found himself Hollywood success and power. Soderbergh is probably best known for the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy of slick, star-powered heist movies, or his Oscar-winning 2000 movies Traffic and Erin Brockovich. The last time a person scored two Best Director nominations in the same year was 1938 (Michael Curtiz for Angels with Dirty Faces and Four Daughters, if you are dying to know). Soderbergh has never rested on his many laurels, and every new mainstream success inevitably saw the man flirt with new narrative and technical experimentation. It seems like Soderbergh gets restless every so often and needs to find a different reason to excite him about a filmmaking challenge. He made a small indie about workers in a decaying doll factory that was released same day on DVD as it was in theaters. He made a two-movie political epic on the rise and fall of revolutionary Che Guevara to showcase the amazing capabilities RED high-definition digital camera. He created an action vehicle for MMA fighter Gina Carano because he saw a future star-in the-making in her bouts. He filmed a movie entirely on an iPhone camera because he could. He made a movie about male strippers based upon Channing Tatum’s past experiences and it became one of the most successful movies of his career.
In short, Soderbergh is a restless artist who always seems to be trying to challenge himself. However, many of those experiments don’t always work. 2018’s Unsane would have been forgettable minus its iPhone gimmick. 2006’s The Good German would have been forgettable without its pastiche to older Hollywood style. Even when his movies do not fully work, you feel Soderbergh’s passion to experiment and push his boundaries. It’s with this context that I re-watched 2002’s Solaris, based upon the 1972 meditative and melancholic sci-fi movie by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s amazing to me that Soderbergh, right after his twin Oscar noms and the box-office success of 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven gave him artistic cache, said, “I want to remake a three-hour Russian movie from thirty years ago.” And the studio said, “Oh, well, keep it under 50 million and half as long and we don’t care.” In 2002, Solaris was one of my more memorable theatergoing experiences, as I detailed in my original review. I’ve had walkouts during other divisive movies but nothing like what happened for Solaris. I’m fairly certain it was a matter of the crowd being sold a sci-fi movie with Clooney’s handsome mug, “from the director of Ocean’s Eleven,” and the promise of catching some Clooney rear nudity (12 days prior, the movie had received an R-rating before successfully appealing to a PG-13). They weren’t expecting a very minimalist, cerebral, and slow movie about grief and identity (it got a rare F grade from opening weekend Cinemascore audiences). By the end of the movie, the majority of patrons in my theater had left early. I thought maybe revisiting this movie twenty years later would perhaps allow me to find new artistic merit into this box-office dud. I have not.
There are ideas here worth exploring and unpacking, especially once the main conflict is fully established, namely Clooney’s dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Why is she coming back is less an interesting question, and thankfully the screenplay by Soderbergh ignores answering. It’s all about the effect it’s having on her husband and whether or not she is who she is. There’s an existential question of whether or not she constitutes living and what aspects do we hold onto to prove we are who we are? Is this the real Rheya, has she been plucked back from an afterlife? Is this a Rheya who has access to her earlier memories? Or is this Rheya merely a composite of her husband’s memories and personal and flawed interpretations? The mind boggles.
It’s that final question that presents the most intriguing exploration, as it presents Rheya less a fully-dimensional character and more a prisoner to her husband’s perspective. His view of Rheya can be biased, flawed, filling in gaps with assumptions and speculations, like his speculation that the real Rheya was so remorseful about aborting her child that she took her own life after being confronted by her husband. This leads the Solaris-rebooted version of Rheya to be more undone by depression and suicidal impulses. I enjoyed this portion because it shifted the criticism onto Clooney who refused to let her be gone. He even plans on taking Rheya back to Earth, even though that might not be possible. Will she evaporate if she gets too far away from the orbit of Solaris? We’ve gone beyond whether or not Rheya is a hallucination because the other crew mates (Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis) see her too. The movie flirts with the confrontation of Clooney’s character’s implicit control, that he’s literally dreaming a version of her for his emotional needs and he doesn’t care whether or not it’s the real Rheya. It begs the question of how well anyone can truly know another person. There will always be some observer distance, unable to fully delve into every hidden quarter of another person’s mind and heart. Clooney accepting his loss would have been a fine ending point, or refusing to, and Solaris does end on a similar downer ending, though with more radiant ambiguity. It’s interesting but it doesn’t really open up thematically or character-wise, keeping Clooney’s mournful space psychologist at a unsatisfying clinical distance. Just because we see moments of characters longing and looking emotionally bereft does not mean we know them. Maybe, in the end, that was Soderbergh’s meta-textual in-movie criticism.
At 93 minutes, there’s not much to Solaris beyond its intriguing questions that feel only fitfully toyed with. There is a lot of empty space here for diving deeper into the characters and the relationships and big questions, but the movie feels too weighed down with its overwrought import. Scenes don’t play out so much as escape from the ponderous atmosphere. There are intriguing questions here but there isn’t enough story material to keep me connected. As a result, I became restless myself, zoning out while I watched a person stare off into the distance for the eleventh time, this time knowing that their internal thinking had to be different, somehow, from the ten other times. It’s a sci-fi movie without big special effects or action sequences. It’s starring George Clooney in, possibly, his most insular, minimalist role of his career. It was never going to be a jaunty crowd-pleaser. I haven’t seen the 1972 Russian movie but given its lengthy running time and the fact that it’s reflective of a Russian cultural experience, I have to assume there is more substance there and an adequate foundation to tease out these questions, but I’m free to admit my assumptions, much like Clooney’s character, could be all wrong.
As for my original review in 2002, I got to hand it to my twenty-year-old self. This is a solid analysis and with some snappy wordplay to boot. I’m impressed by this review. Solaris is another of Soderbergh’s “noble failures,” a project that cannot quite grasp its reach, but I’d rather artists like Soderbergh keep trying and litter the cinema with noble failures than inundate us with the same-old same-old.
Re-View Grade: C+
Originally released October 11, 2002:
Documentary filmmaker, political activist and corporate pot-stirrer Michael Moore prefaces his latest film Bowling for Columbine by admitting his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association (NRA). He even received a marksmanship award as a teenager in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Bowling for Columbine is Moore’s sprawling and hilarious search for answers among America’s zealous gun culture and alarmingly high number of homicides. It’s the tangents Moore just can’t help but take along the ride that add some of the more fun moments.
He opens a checking account at a Michigan bank that’s offering a gun for new customer accounts. Moore astutely asks an employee, “Do you think it’s a good idea handing out guns in a bank?” Moore travels to Canada to find out what reasons exist that make our cultures so different when it comes to crime. After hearing from citizens about how they don’t lock their doors, Moore decides to go door-to-door and see for himself. Sure enough, he walks into half-a-dozen homes.
Moore is better at pointing the finger than fathoming real answers. He touches media sensationalism, our nation’s bloody history, corporate greed, past military involvement, and an environment of fear being developed by those who profit from such actions. The sobering truth is that there are no easy answers to be debunked. The film’s climax involves an impromptu sit-down with NRA president Charlton Heston. Moore questions the sensitivity of the NRA after it held support rallies days after the school shootings in Littleton and Flint. Heston becomes weary and walks out of the interview after five minutes.
The film demands to be seen. It’s complex, challenging, and thought-provoking. Not only is Bowling for Columbine the most important film of 2002, it’s also one of the best.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I was a junior in high school when the horrific massacre at Columbine happened in April of 1999. I remember the shock that washed over the country. I remember the daze and sorrow. I remember students not coming back to school for days, some because they feared that our Ohio school could be the next site of the next tragedy because of how upending the Columbine school shooting had been for the general sense of security. “How could this happen?’ we solemnly asked. I remember exasperated politicians wringing their hands, grasping for solutions and scapegoats alike, and I most remember just the overall gravity of the whole situation, the sense of loss, and the sense that this meant something significant. Flash forward twenty years, and the Columbine school shootings, which snuffed out 15 lives that fateful morning, is now ranked fifth on the list of deadliest school shootings in the United States, having been gut-wrenchingly eclipsed by the 18 at Parkland in 2018, the 22 in Uvalde in 2022, the 28 in Sandy Hook in 2012, and the 33 in Virginia Tech in 2007. Since then, mass shootings and spree killers have become so common that the satirical news website The Onion keeps recycling the same condemning headline with the latest mass shooting: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” (this damning headline has been repeated 22 times in eight years time, and it’s only a matter of months at most before it gets repeated yet again if history is anything).
After each new tragedy, we’ve been inured to the reality of anything of merit being done in the way of reform; we move from “thoughts and prayers” to, “let’s not politicize this now,” to, “you’ll never solve every problem,” and then finally to a litany of social issues that conveniently are the real culprits, and never the guns mind you, of course. It’s easy to be cynical that, in our current day and age, no gun tragedy will ever move politicians to make real changes. After Sandy Hook, the most watered down of reforms, increasing background checks, was met with stonewalling from Republicans and those funded by the formidable National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby. After 60 people were slaughtered during a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, the next hopeful reform was eliminating bump stocks. That didn’t happen. The patterns emerge and become their own tragic parody of performative action masquerading as meaningful action.
When people argue, “Well criminals will just ignore the new laws we pass anyway,” I’m dumbfounded by this logic, as if that is reason enough to cancel all attempts at law and governance. The oft-quoted axiom of a “good guy with a gun” being the only real solution to a “bad guy with a gun” is equally nonsensical to me. If that’s the case, then the rising presence of guns would better police these matters, mitigating their deadliness, and that is definitely not the case. The good guys with the guns aren’t working. The challenge is determining who is a good guy with a gun or a bad guy with a gun. This reflexive thinking never applies to other tragedies: “The only way to battle a bad drunk driver is with a good drunk driver.” It’s maddening for any citizen genuinely seeking common sense gun reform that’s supported by a far majority of voters.
America’s fixation with our gun culture was already a potent issue in 2002 when political muckraker Michael Moore elevated himself to new commercial and critical heights, and it’s only become even more essential to unpacking twenty years later. Moore had restyled documentary filmmaking with his searing and tragic-comic 1989 Roger and Me, his documentation of the fall of the American auto industry in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, where my mother grew up, and his search for answers with General Motors’ CEO, Roger B. Smith. Moore put himself front and center in his films, the schlubby everyman trying to hold truth to power, though he himself would have a slippery hold on it as well. Moore directed two more features in the 1990s, The Big One and Canadian Bacon, his only non-documentary film. But Moore catapulted into a new stratosphere of media attention and derision in the George W. Bush era, first with 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, which won him his first Oscar and set doc box-office records, and then in 2004 for Fahrenheit 9/11, which obliterated the box-office records Moore had just set and would have likely won him another Oscar but he refused to submit in Documentary and only wanted to submit for Best Picture (Born into Brothels won that year instead, so thanks I guess).
Bowling for Columbine is an aggravating movie by design and through Moore’s tactics. The issue of guns and violence in America has only become more central to American lives. Moore’s thesis is messy because it’s hard to find a single cause for the root of America’s gun violence, ignoring, of course, the sheer number of guns, though he even says Canada has a high guns-per-resident ratio from their culture of hunting but lacks our murder rate. The section on the media sensationalism driving gun sales is potent, as a nation constantly in fear will reach for protection that is abundant supply and access. As the murder rate has gone down over the 1990s and 2000s, the network news’ reporting over violent crime has increased, as well as gun ownership. It’s a brew of paranoia that benefits politicians, media, and especially gun manufacturers. Gun sales soared once Barack Obama swept into office, not because he said he would take people’s guns, but a section sure trumpeted those fears for monetary gain. The extended anecdote on the mother of the youngest school shooter, a six-year-old, is a powerful indictment on welfare-to-work and a system that forces people into unlivable choices. I wish Moore had touched more upon the mental health aspect of the gun violence equation, as the far majority of gun violence are suicides and not homicides. Many were quick to deduce that the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were victims of bullying, but millions are victims of bullying and do not shoot up their schools. In a 2017 TED Talk, Dylan Klebold’s mother, Sue, discussed her personal process of coming to terms with her son’s actions and realizing how essential his desire to die was to his infamous actions. When people make irrational, impassioned, split-second decisions, and guns are readily available, then bad things can be made even worse. Moore doesn’t explore this angle, unfortunately. Some of his larger connections can seem very reaching, like when he tries to say that kids knowing their parents work for Lockheed Martin, a military weapons manufacturer, would be less likely to value human life.
But it’s the needless sleight-of-hand tactics with the truth that confound me with Moore, and these inevitably blunt the power of his message and ability to convert thinkers. This habit infuriates and flabbergasts me. Moore has so many good points already at his disposal, so many meaningful data points and heart-tugging anecdotes that he doesn’t need to stretch the truth to convey his message. I’ve since used Bowling for Columbine as an example in teaching credibility gaps and the concept of ethos with public speaking. This is epitomized in the handling of NRA president Charlton Heston. Shortly after the events of Columbine are replayed for us, including frantic 911 calls and security camera footage, Moore cuts to Heston defiantly declaring, “With my cold dead hands,” and informs the viewer that within ten days that the NRA held their annual conference in Denver, despite pleas from local leaders for distance and sensitivity. “Don’t come here? We’re already here,” Heston replies to applause. The problem is that Moore has stitched together two separate Heston speeches to seem as one, including the “From my cold dead hands” intro, which was given an entire year after the Columbine shooting. He also excludes pertinent details like the fact that the meeting in Denver was scheduled a year in advance, the NRA was required by law to notify all four million of its members ten days before a location change, and all other NRA events were canceled except for the meeting required by corporate law. When you look at the parts of Heston’s speech Moore picked from, anyone could follow the same approach and edit the speech to say whatever message they desired. The climax of the movie is Moore sitting down with Heston, but when he peppers him with questions about his speech days after Columbine, and Heston has no idea what he’s talking about, it’s because Moore isn’t playing fair. Then also take into account the aged actor likely going through the Althzeimer’s that caused him to step down from acting and the NRA in 2002. Look, I’m no fan of the NRA, and I personally believe their self-serving actions perform a genuine harm to the country, but this is just self-righteously badgering an ailing old man.
Moore is not the only documentary filmmaker to make use of selective editing, anecdotal evidence extrapolated, and narrative cheats for manipulative emotional purposes, but when you’re being provocative, you’re going to get push back, and when you use deceitful storytelling methods with your facts, you are a disservice to your cause and your message. There’s so much on this topic that Moore can effectively criticize, like the handy media scapegoats, the failings of zero tolerance and school resource officers, the obvious hypocrisy of do-nothing elected officials, the fear-mongering news seeking out consistent sensationalism, a deference to the military industrial complex, and the fact that the rest of the world watches the same movies, listens to the same music, plays the same violent video games, and yet, to paraphrase The Onion, we’re the only country where this happens all the time. Sadly, no place is safe in the U.S. from a possible mass shooting, and yet a good portion of this country will shrug and say that’s just the price we have to pay for living our freedoms. There are so many fallible arguments to poke apart, and that’s why I’m so frustrated with Moore’s misuse of his platform, giving his opponents the ammunition to dismiss his points.
Moore’s career has fallen quite a bit from his meteoric height in 2002 and 2004, last releasing Fahrenheit 11/9 in 2018 to warn about the lasting dangers of an inactive voting public and Donald Trump as president (it grossed $6.3 million, approximately five percent of the gargantuan $119 million gross of Fahrenheit 9/11). It feels like Moore’s style, once so revolutionary, prankish, and urgent, has now become stale. As I wrote in 2018: “If our country ever needed Moore, it would be now, but his time might have already passed as an influencer. The last time Moore was breaking through into the cultural conversation was with Sicko in 2007, years before the formation of the ACA. Since then we’ve seen the rise of social media, YouTube, and the instant commentaries of media old and new, all trying to one-up one another in expediency and exclusivity. Is Moore just another member of the old guard he laments has become obsolete?” It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker to lose their edge or passion after 30 years. It’s also not uncommon for the envelope-pushers to become part of an establishment that a younger public starts tuning out for lack of relevance. I don’t know if Moore has a real audience any more.
Re-reading my old 2002 review, I’m sure glad I kept a paper copy of each of my published film reviews for my college newspaper because it was the only surviving copy I could find. I could not find my review for Bowling for Columbine on any of the websites and blogs I’ve used over the years, so in 2022, I literally sat with my twenty-year-old newspaper and retyped my relatively brief review from 2002. Thank you, me, for stubbornly holding onto these yellowing papers. I remember being more taken with the film in 2002, so much so that I would brush aside criticisms from my other friends who made valid points about Moore’s larger thesis (they just “didn’t get it,” I’m sure I incredulously scoffed). My apologies, my put-upon and sensible friends.
In the scheme of Moore’s catalog of films, I still think Roger and Me is his finest work and much of this is because it’s the most personal of his movies, chronicling the decline of his hometown with his special access. It’s the one that feels most essential for him to be the face of the movie. Bowling for Columbine is a messy movie but all Moore’s films are scattershot entertainments in retrospect, each deserving of reflection but also outside verification. As a result, the movies never become more than the sum of their parts and floating ideas and interviews and stunts and his loose thesis statements rarely coalesce into anything definitive, like an Alex Gibney documentary. Moore can be hectoring and disingenuous, especially during his interviews, and most of all aggravatingly short-sighted in his techniques, but he is a documentary industry unto himself and with good reason. Bowling for Columbine is the start of a conversation, with many asides both illuminating and diversionary, and it’s still worth watching twenty years later, as gun violence has only gotten worse. I think it’s likely Moore’s third best film, after 2007’s Sicko, but maybe I’ll change my mind in 2027. Until then, I’m lowering the film grade from an A to a B.
Re-Review Grade: B
Do we regularly invite strangers to view the picturesque and personal moments of our life like marriages, celebrations, and maybe even a handful of hastily conceived topless photos? Well we all do every time we drop off a roll of film for development.
Robin Williams continues his 2002 Tour of the Dark Side (Death to Smoochy, Insomnia) as way of Sy, your friendly photo guy working at your local Sav-mart superstore. Sy takes an intense artistic pride in the quality of prints he gives. He knows customers by name and can recite addresses verbatim. One family in particular Sy has become fond of is the Yorkins, mother Nina (Connie Nielsen), father Will (Michael Vartan) and nine-year-old Jake. The Yorkins have been coming to Sav-mart and Sy for over 11 years to have their photos developed. He tells Nina that he almost feels like Uncle Sy to the family. For Sy, the Yorkins are the ideal postcard family with perennially smiling faces and the happiest of birthdays. He fantasizes about sharing holidays with them and even going to the bathroom in their posh home.
Sy is an emotionally suppressed and deeply lonely man caught in his delusions. In one of the eerier moments of the film we see that Sy has an entire wall made up of hundreds of the Yorkin’s personal pictures. When Sy attempts to become closer to the objects of his infatuation that’s when things begin to unravel at a serious pace. The more Sy learns that the Yorkins are not the perfect family he yearns for the more he tries to correct it and at any cost.
One Hour Photo is an impressive film debut by music video maven Mark Romanek (best known for the NIN “Closer” video). Romanek also wrote the darkly unrepentant story as well. One Hour Photo is a delicate voyage into the workings of Sy’s instability with lushly colorful metaphors. Romanek’s color scheme is a lovely treat, with vibrant colors popping out and Sy’s life being dominated by cold, sterilized whites. His direction is chillingly effective.
This may be the first time we can truly say Robin Williams has not merely played a version of Robin Williams in a movie. Sy’s thick glasses and thinning peroxide-like hair coupled with an array of facial pocks allow us to truly forget that the man behind the mask is Mork. His performance is unnerving and engrossing. The supporting cast all work well. Nielsen (Gladiator) is a sympathetic wife even if her hair looks like it was cut with her eyes closed. Vartan (Vaughn on ABC’s wonderful Alias) plays understandably wary of Sy’s friendliness. The great Gary Cole has a small role as Sav-mart’s manager who grows tired of Sy’s outbursts and peculiarities.
One Hour Photo is rife with nervous moments and titters. Williams almost has an uneasy predatory feel to him when left alone with Jake. The greatest achievement the film has is that is depicts the scariest person youll ever see, sans hockey mask, and by the end of the film you actually feel degrees of warmth for this odd duck.
Not everything clicks in Romanek’s dark opus. A late out-of-left-field revelation by Sy feels forced and needlessly tacked on. The Yorkin family photos all appear to be taken by a third party, since the majority of them involve all three of them in frame. The climax to One Hour Photo also feels anything but climactic.
A compellingly creepy outing, One Hour Photo is fine entertainment with beautiful visuals and a haunting score. And maybe, in the end, it really does take an obsessive knife-wielding stalker to make us realize the importance of family.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I miss Robin Williams. I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment. I can still recall the visceral recoil I had learning about the news of his suicide in 2014. It’s one of the celebrity deaths that hit me hard, as I think many people have fond memories of their childhood linked to Williams and his litany of cherished comedy hits. As boundlessly hilarious as he was, I never felt he got his due as a dramatic actor. He was a four-time Oscar nominee, starting with 1988’s Good Morning Vietnam and concluding with a win for Best Supporting Actor for 1997’s Good Will Hunting, but I think his famous funny side always overshadowed the plaudits for his drama. Nobody could do what he did when it came to comedy; just being a good-to-great dramatic actor didn’t make him as unique in that field of performers, so I think his efforts were often discounted. Williams is one of several comedians who tried their hand at drama, to be deemed a Serious Actor, like Jim Carrey (The Truman Show, The Majestic) and Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love, Uncut Gems) and Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) and Will Ferrell (Stranger than Fiction.) and Bill Murray (Lost in Translation) and Sarah Silverman (I Smile Back) and Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). After 2000, Williams had even more dramatic performances than comedic ones, and I termed 2002 his World Tour of Darkness where he co-starred in Death to Smoochy, Insomnia, and One Hour Photo all that same year. Revisiting the stalker thriller One Hour Photo, it’s easy to think of the time gone by, and it’s also easy to further appreciate just what an interesting actor Robin Williams could be no matter the project.
This is an intriguing character study of obsession, trauma, and perversion, but I wish it had even more material to better build upon the excellent unease and tension of Sy Parrish (Williams). We learn pretty effectively how lonely and sad Sy is, enough so that even a perceptive little boy can sense that this older man working for years at the photo department of a Wal-Mart-esque big box store is in need of some happy thoughts. He’s dedicated to his job and his regular customers, and that’s about the extent of his purpose because his happy home is so empty that he resorts to filling it with the personal pictures of the Yorkin family. He dreams about the Yorkins inviting him into their home, accepting him as “Uncle Sy,” and providing a welcomed belonging. This is a story of one man projecting all of his hope and envy onto a family unit that cannot live up to Sy’s unrealistic expectations of Hallmark bliss. Sy narrates early that our pictures are the moments we want to remember, the moments we want to treasure and share. “No one ever takes a photo of something they want to forget,” he intones. It’s a theme that bears even more relevancy in our modern age of curated social media versions of ourselves, presenting the best possible versions for consumption by our friends and family and various Internet strangers.
There was more room to explore with this thematic contrast, the idealized versions of ourselves presented to the outside world and the real versions, often with more insecurity and flaws. Sy takes his simmering anger out mostly on the family patriarch, Will (Michael Vartan), and how he doesn’t appreciate what he has. I think it would have been even more intriguing if each member of the Yorkin clan was somehow failing to live up to Sy’s expectations and how this unraveled his delicate psyche and patience. He develops their photos for years, and the Yorkins seem like the happiest and healthiest family, at least to Sy, a family he’d like to call his own. It would have been more compelling if each family member had their own unique way of falling short. Imagine the mother having a secret drinking problem. Or maybe little Jakob is slouching when it comes to his studies, or he needs to learn how to play baseball better, or he’s bullying some kids. The movie would have extra conflict if Sy was having difficulty with more than one family member and inserted himself to resolve it, but the others skate by as Sy’s contempt is directed solely at the bad dad. There is a narrative reason for this, beyond mere plot convenience, and it relates to the ending reveal that gives the audience the biggest clue about what has driven Sy’s desperation.
I called the final reveal in 2002 to be a bit “forced and needlessly tacked on,” and it’s certainly handled in such a haphazard way that you feel like it’s more sleight than it should be. However, having re-watched the film in 2022, it’s this scene, and especially William’s performance, that clinches the movie for me. Sy is sitting in police custody and it’s this setting that establishes the movie’s question of what did this man do and who did he harm. The obvious culprit would be Will as he’s the one wrecking this family unit with his affair, so it’s a nice surprise when the movie subverts our expectations and it turns out Sy hasn’t killed anyone after all. And the pictures he took of Will and his mistress, naked and trembling as he ordered them to strike poses while he brandished a knife, are simply of ordinary objects and exteriors. Both of these mitigate the danger of our knife-wielding, unstable protagonist. Then Williams delivers a tragic monologue about Sy’s father taking pornographic pictures of him while he was a child. It’s never hinted at before but it’s a final puzzle piece that makes sense, especially his ire for Will. It’s a major reveal but it’s not sensationalized, and Williams’ angry yet weary performance feels absolutely in-character and also devoid of prurient sensationalism. While the movie is structured as a crazy person escalating their crazy and ensnaring others, it’s also a dive into a sad man’s tragic life brought about from a tragic past that made him eager for another family’s illusion.
This was director Mark Romanek’s second movie, though his first since gaining industry-wide acclaim as a premiere 1990s music video director (Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” to name a couple). It’s always interesting to me what projects esteemed music video directors decide to tackle for their big picture debuts. Very often they’re tasked with horror movies (Marcus Nispel, Samuel Bayer), as music videos are heavy on atmosphere and visually striking arrangements. Romanek chose to helm his own original screenplay about a sad, scary man at a photo booth who obsessed over another family. It’s a gamble, one that Romanek never was able to repeat. He began as the director for 2010’s The Wolfman before being fired and replaced by Joe Johnston. That same year his last film was released, the exquisitely heartbreaking Never Let Me Go. He hasn’t directed a movie since, returning to music videos, commercials, and TV pilots, and this is a shame.
Twenty years later, one-hour photo stations have also been relegated to the dustbin of history. The majority of Americans use their smartphone as their primary picture-taking device, and digital has overtaken film stock for its value and ease. In that regard, it’s also a time capsule of its own, including the humorous montage of Sy’s regular customers (enjoy a young Jim Rash as an amateur smut photographer). It’s just yet another reminder about the changes over time, and it made me reflect even more upon how many years it’s been since we lost Williams.
One Hour Photo is a good movie, elevated by one of the few Williams performances where he disappears inside the character, but it definitely could have been even greater. It’s solid, sleek, and effectively unnerving, but you can also wish it was a little more. The textured yet streamlined score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek stands out, as it should considering this is the same dynamic team behind Run Lola Run, Cloud Atlas, and HBO’s Deadwood, all sensational scores. The cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, has worked on three of the last four David Fincher movies. The editor, Jeffrey Ford, has since gone on to edit nine Marvel movies. The art director, Michael Manson, went on to work on Doctor Strange and The Mandalorian TV show. In short, there was a lot of talent here to help usher Romanek’s vision to the screen. One Hour Photo is a tantalizing movie that still entertains, especially watching Williams rock the role of a disturbed loner reaching his nadir. As I said in 2002: “A compellingly creepy outing, One Hour Photo is fine entertainment with beautiful visuals and a haunting score. And maybe, in the end, it really does take an obsessive knife-wielding stalker to make us realize the importance of family.”
Re-View Grade: B
Originally released September 20, 2002:
Secretary is a new romantic comedy with a few kinks to it. It’s actually the most romantic S&M movie ever. It’s the first S&M romantic comedy since maybe Garry Marshall’s disastrous 1994 Exit to Eden. I’m still trying to get the image of Rosie O’Donnell in a bondage mask out of my ongoing nightmares.
Lee Halloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is fresh from a stop at a mental institution for her hazardous habit of cutting herself to feel relief. Her overbearing mother stashes the entire kitchen cutlery in a locked cabinet. The sheltered Lee resorts back to a kiddy make-up box stashed under her home bed. Instead of colorful brushes and arrays of lipstick, she has a selection of sharp objects. Lee goes job hunting to step back from her habit, and is hired as a secretary to E. Edward Gray (James Spader). He is a rigid taskmaster who delights in pointing out typographical errors with his red marker, his weapon of choice. Gray enjoys his dominance and Lee complies, even if it’s routing through garbage. He ticks away Lee’s flaws like a checklist of annoyance but also appears to have genuine concern for her. When he notices her wounds Gray confronts her and convinces Lee to stop cutting herself.
The turning point arrives when Gray orders Lee into his office one afternoon. He commands her to bend over his desk and then delivers a sound spanking. Lee stares at her purple rump with fascination, like something has been awakened inside her. Soon enough Lee purposely makes typos so she can re-assume her spanking position.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is a cinematic find with a fearless and breathtaking performance that is at once delicate, nervous, self-controlled, seductive and delightful. Gyllenhaal, with her heart-like face and pert lips, radiates star quality. She allows the audience into Lee”s head and we quickly fall in love with this peculiar yet charming heroine. If there is any justice in this world Gyllenhaal should at least get an Oscar nomination (she didn’t). Spader can do this left-of-center creepy character stuff in his sleep.
Secretary on the surface may seem like a fetish flick but it’s no different than boy (sadist) meets girl (masochist) and falls in love. Director Steven Shainberg treads carefully around serious subject matter, like Lee’s self-mutilation, to focus on these two very special characters. Secretary isn’t making any loud statements on sadomasochism or post-feminism, it’s just showing us that S&M is the route these two people take to find true love. It doesn’t judge them for their unconventional tastes and neither should we. This is one of the finest romances in recent memory and it seems to come from one of the most unlikely places.
Sadomasochism has been predominantly shown involving pain or some leather-masked madman evoking torture. Secretary may be the film that shows there can be pleasures with pain. Some people regard what Lee and Edward do as sick, perverted, or downright wrong. Secretary is a foot in the door to get people to understand what willing sadomasochism really is about. We all have fetishes and interests, and S&M is the number one fetish truth be told. This isn’t your everyday romance.
Obviously, this is a movie that will not appeal to everyone. The relationship between our leads is surprisingly complex but gentle and even sweet (if that’s the proper word for an S&M romantic comedy). Secretary shows that it truly takes different strokes and, despite an overly silly ending, is the most pleasing romance of the year. You’ll never look at red felt pens the same.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, because I think you deserve that. I didn’t recently re-watch Secretary. I did re-watch it a year or two ago, and the return experience was so jarring that I didn’t feel that I would greatly benefit from watching it so soon again, but I knew I would have to include it on my 2002 re-watch list when it was time. When I first watched it in 2002, I was smitten with its offbeat charms about an unconventional romance through the BDSM community and a young woman’s self-actualization through accepting her kinks. It was a star-making performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal (originally was going to be Gwyneth Paltrow) and as a sucker for quirky romances, it was one of my favorite films of the year. Nearly two decades later, I took out my DVD copy to share with my now fiancé, who is also a fan of quirky romances and who had never watched Secretary. Surely, I thought, she would be entertained. Dear reader, she was very not entertained. She was horrified. She was shaking with disgust. She was having a literal violent reaction to the movie and its onscreen display of what constituted romance, and I will say it struck me differently too. I understand that not every film will age well, as our sense of what is funny or acceptable or what is even compelling will change over time as our culture inevitably shifts. That’s art. But hoo boy has Secretary aged about as well as milk in the ensuing twenty years.
The very nature of the S&M relationship between boss and secretary was already problematic when it was released in 2002, but in a post-Me Too universe it is inexcusable and taints any charms the movie may have had. Mr. Grey (James Spader), the dominant boss and rigid stickler for rules, is the villain of the movie and not its Byronic hero, the brooding and damaged man that a pure-hearted woman just needs to find a magical way to reach and reform. He is not romantic. He is appalling, and the early critical praise, myself included, excused far too much of his behavior. While not condoning his excesses, critics may have given more leeway because the end result was framed as a happy ending, with Lee (Gyllenhaal) being cared for by Mr. Grey. However, he completely uses his position of authority in many inappropriate manners, and while they do develop a mutual relationship, eventually, the power dynamic is not equal at all. This takes away the agency of Lee and makes the romance feel like a false choice. Much of her relationship can be summarized by the awful moment he ejaculates on her back: she just has to take whatever he dishes and like it. That’s not romantic. That’s not cute. That’s toxic. It also hurts the overall movie that the way Lee proves her devotion as the film’s climax is to stay fixed at her boss’ desk for many days, to the detriment of her physical health. Yes, Mr. Grey gets Lee to kick her habit of self-harming but she replaces one need with another. He resembles a predator by most every definition, and to try and say, “Well, he’s just complicated,” is bad man excuse-making.
I tried imagining tweaks and alterations that could make this all work, but anything where he is her boss muddies the issue of consent. Maybe if he was a visiting businessman, but that would also offer a questionable dynamic. The core of Secretary is built upon the secretary/boss interplay and imagery. The tagline is, “Assume the position,” and depending upon the poster, you might only get a woman’s rear in fishnets as the sole imagery. Director Steven Shainberg (Fur) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Chloe, The Girl on the Train) are clearly veering into the obvious office power dynamics for provocation. They are very intentional about subverting romantic clichés and looking for something different for our heroine. We have a nice guy, played with squirmy energy by Jeremy Davies, who just won’t cut it. He’s too vanilla for her and afraid to be too forceful in his spanking. It’s like the filmmakers are declaring that Lee demands more, and her specific combination of qualities just so happens to align with this gross man. The movie wants us to hold our judgment, and I could in 2002 in a “love is love” declaration, but what I see on-screen in 2022 is not indicative of love. It’s obsession. It’s codependency. It’s sad.
The other problem, sadly, is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fragile performance. The choices she makes collapse Lee, greatly infantilizing her and magnifying all the icky feelings I had. She’s playing Lee less like an adult woman who is struggling to figure out her confusing life, and impulses, and more like a teenager who woke up in the body of an adult woman. Part of this is the screenplay but it’s not helped by the acting choices that Gyllenhaal engages with. I do really enjoy her as an actress, and it’s easy to see why she could captivate so many circa 2002 with this performance, but it plays so differently now. Today, she comes across as another young woman trying to remodel herself to please a man. Her little girl acting choices only make the courtship feel even more abhorrent. I wonder if they were trying to aim for the movie to be its own kinky fable, wherein the infantilization would harken back to older fairy tale tropes and Mr. Grey as the unorthodox knight in shining armor.
This is one of the biggest critical swings I’ve had since re-watching twenty-year-old movies and my initial reviews, and I’d say even one of my biggest changes on any movie I’ve watched. I do think you can make a funny and sexy S&M rom-com; for years I thought Secretary was it. Not so. I wouldn’t even recommend this movie and it used to be in my top of 2002. I suppose people who are curious could give it a chance, but I think the objections outweigh whatever positives can be gained from viewing. Oh well. That’s the nature of art. Not every movie or book or song will have the same power over time. They stay the same but we, the prism upon which art is judged and related, are constantly in flux. That’s just the way it is. This won’t be the last movie where my opinion changes dramatically. I just won’t watch Secretary again, and that’s okay.
And you’ll never be able to convince me that E.L. James didn’t take her BDSM character’s name from this film.
Re-View Grade: D
Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) needs a hit. His new movie is in the can but his temperamental star (Wynona Ryder in a juicy cameo) pulls out and demands all footage of her be left on the cutting room floor. The studio is close to dropping Taransky’s film deal, and the studio head just happens to be Taransky’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener).
Under this intense pressure Taransky retreats to mourn his failed potential, until an eccentric one-eyed computer engineer gives him the key to his solution. It seems that instead of interacting with actors and their egos and trailer demands, Taransky has found a new movie star — one completely made up of ones and zeroes named Simone. Taransky edits Simone into his film and soon after the nation is in love with the digital blonde. Simone mania sweeps the nation and soon her smiling image graces all sorts of memorabilia. The public can’t get enough of the mysterious Simone who never goes to public functions and only seems to speak or appear for Taransky.
Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) has some fun with the premise but tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his satire. S1mone starts out satirizing egotistical stars, then the Hollywood system, then the press, then the public as star worshipers. The movie is all over the map trying to have something witty to say about all these different topics but is too busy to settle down on any one for a while. The satire S1mone embodies feels deflated from all the work it’s trying to do.
Pacino has always been able to do comedy but seems wearier than ever. He indulges in his comic like over-the-top aggression he’s been doing since Dick Tracy. Keener plays another of her icy businesswomen roles although she thaws quite easily and quickly in the film.
There’s a rather funny subplot involving Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters on the prowl of the elusive Simone that deserves much more attention than it gets. The bulk of the movie could have been these two entertaining characters.
When Taransky finds that his creation has become more than he can handle he tries to discredit her through a series of funny public appearances and avante garde film choices. But then S1mone sadly goes back to its more mediocre roots. Taransky tries to get rid of Simone but it all horribly backfires.
As the film progresses you start to realize all the gaping holes that come up – like how can Taransky, a self-described computer illiterate, handle the most technical computer program of all time? How come no one would find out that Simone lacks a birth certificate, social security number or even tax records for her studio work? And why does the audience have to sit through the disgustingly cute daughter of Taransky and Keener, who just happens to be a computer whiz-kid, besides the fact she’ll have a late fourth quarter save of dad?
It’s not that S1mone is necessarily a bad film; it just has this missing piece to it when you watch it. Some scenes are funny, many drag, and the whole thing needed to be tighter and punchier. And to clear up any confusion, it is indeed an ACTRESS who plays Simone. Her name is Rachel Roberts.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I cannot stand movie titles that try and force numbers into the place of letters. Don’t be Fant4stick, be Fantastic Four. Don’t be Thir13en Ghosts, be Thirteen Ghosts. Don’t be L4yer Cak3, be Layer Cake. Even one of my favorite movies of all time, Se7en, is guilty of this. I hate the implication of how you’re intended to say the new forced titled (Examples: Fant-Four-Stick, L-Four-Yer Cak-Three, Se-Seven-En). I find this all to be annoying, and I refuse to type S1mone as it was originally entitled, with a one replacing the “I” and a zero replacing the “O.” You get one number, that’s it, because it’s all my power to only do that much. End of re-view preface.
I thought going back to 2002’s S1mone could be interesting considering it was about cutting-edge technology possibly replacing actors and revolutionizing the film industry. Around 2001, with advancing special effects starting to touch the possibility of photo realism, this seemed like a possible turning point. Writer/director Andrew Niccol even considered using an all-digital actress for the title role of his industry satire after viewing footage of 2001’s Final Fantasy movie. He eventually decided against it, and we’re all the better for it because imagine re-watching this movie with twenty-year-old technology that fools the entire world into thinking Simone is real (cue teenage snickering). The character was played by model-turned-actress Rachel Roberts and her identity was kept a big secret around the time of the movie to keep the illusion that S1mone was cutting-edge technology. It’s ultimately proof that the real thing, whether that’s practical in-camera effects or even live actors, will always age better and have a place in moviemaking. As I said revisiting Final Fantasy: “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.” But hey, Roberts and Niccol have been married since 2002 and have two children together, so at least something came out of S1mone besides a title that causes me pain to type.
The big problem I have with S1mone, besides its title spelling, is that its satire with no bite, and its chosen point of view is actually the villain. First, this movie just isn’t funny. I was more charitable when I originally reviewed it back in 2002 but I didn’t laugh once throughout the near two hours. It weirdly feels absent much in the way of social commentary. Simone is an instant star and everyone falls in love with her. There’s a beginning entry into commentary when her creator, Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), attempts to sully her image but only proves to make her more popular, but then that’s it. There’s a goofy, near-farcical quality to Taransky trying to hide the pretend nature of the world’s most desired actor. He even drives a car while operating a mannequin to provide cover. If Niccol wanted to really push this angle, there would be considerably more challenges for Taransky to maintain his illusion, getting more and more outrageous like steam building to a blowup. It’s not that this doesn’t happen but that Niccol’s screenplay makes it so absurdly easy for Taransky. He dictates that Simone wishes for her privacy and occasionally leaves behind some detritus of human life and that’s all it takes to establish a convincing existence. Nobody challenges him, at least not in a serious manner, which negates the conflicts and possible comedy of keeping the farce. Everything comes so easily and it makes the ensuring comedy barely explored if evident.
Another major drawback is that Taransky is the villain but the movie thinks otherwise. He’s sick and tired of the demands of actors. He has his complaints about working within the contradictory Hollywood studio system, but his major gripe is with working with actors. When the possibility of a photo-realistic replacement that will do whatever he says is offered, he snatches it. It’s because Viktor doesn’t view actors as people, and he feels the need to control and not to collaborate. He’s an artist with a capital-A but it’s the actors with their unwieldy egos, of course. It’s even more nefarious when you add an icky layer of misogyny to his actions. He wants a young woman who will do anything and everything he demands for his pictures. When the studio boss questions the extensive level of nudity for his next movie, Taransky says Simone will do it without hesitation because that’s what the role requires to accomplish his true vision. All he wants is a living doll to respond to his button-pushing without reserve or complaint. He wants an actor, and especially a woman of conventional attraction, to do his every selfish bidding.
At no point does the movie present our hero’s actions as being questionable or possessive. For him, all actors should just be replaced with ones and zeroes that will do whatever he wants, even nudity, and his perspective is strangely rewarded given Simone’s instant success within the industry. She literally ties with herself for the Best Actress Oscar. There may be a satirical commentary available about how quickly the public falls in love with their oblivious perception of celebrity, and how little they actually know the person behind the headlines, much like all celebrities of old and new, but the thematic work isn’t there. I kept waiting for Viktor to earn his delayed comeuppance, humility, or at least learn something of value, but through this misadventure he’s able to relaunch his career and even get his ex-wife back, so hooray?
This is also a peculiar outlier for Niccol as both a screenwriter and a director. He favors high-concept sci-fi scenarios, like 1997’s genetic have/have nots allegory, Gattaca, or 1998’s reality TV gone to its extremes drama, The Truman Show. 2005’s Lord of War is a powerful and slickly stylish condemnation on the global impact of arms dealers and gun trafficking and the bloody footprint of capitalism. S1mone is the lightest movie of the man’s career. Maybe he wanted a break from working on high-concept studio releases. 2011’s disappointing In Time likely lead him to a safer studio territory of adapting and directing 2013’s The Host based upon the YA novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. I didn’t even know that Niccol has made two other movies since, 2014’s Good Kill and 2018’s Anon on Netflix. He’s listed as being the screenwriter for a 2027 Monopoly adaptation, so that could be a thing. Niccol is the kind of storyteller I want more often, a man with clear visions and ideas, but S1mone proves that he’s best suited for headier realms. Comedy is not the best fit for this man’s talents (I think we’re supposed to laugh at the very image of Pacino applying lipstick to kiss autograph photos).
Is there anything of entertainment value here? There are ideas that could work with more attention and development. I liked the team of Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as investigators tracking down the pieces that don’t quite add up about Simone. I think there was a real opportunity to deconstruct the star-system of Hollywood and have Taransky finally able to launch his true artistic pursuits that had previously been denied without Simone’s attachment. Perhaps the movie just narrows completely to the window of Taransky making his dream project while maintaining his deep secret. Perhaps even make the movie a mockumentary, like the documentary camera crew has discovered this amazing fact and are promised continued access as long as they can help keep the secret for like two years, enough for the director to see his vision through and then use this as his swan song. Then the movie becomes focused on the mishaps and chaotic complications of getting one project off the ground while having asides that can tweak the egos of actors and producers and studio suits eager to work with the next big thing. I think that would have been an improvement over a movie where an aging director gets his groove back by fooling the world and suffers next to nothing in the process. The climax is low stakes just like the rest of the movie because the protagonist gets everything he desires with minimal effort. S1mone is an intriguing idea of movie that suffers from misapplication, under development, and a bad protagonist to celebrate and reward.
My initial review in 2002 was too kind. There’s too little below these ones and zeroes to count.
Re-View Grade: C-
There’s a rule of thumb I’ve come to find in Hollywood, something so certain you could set your watch to it. No, not the Emmys nominating Frasier for everything. I’m talking about man-owl Larry King, who seems to dabble in the land of film reviews. Kindly readers beware, if you see an ad for a film and it has Larry King’s salivating blurb in it, run away. Run away like the plague, like Pamplona. Just run. The only films I can remember off hand (though this theory has come true every time) are 15 Minutes and Wind Talkers. And now there is the horrifically titled sub-sub movie K-19: The Widowmaker.
K-19 should not be confused with K-9, the Jim Belushi teams up with a dog to fight crime film. No this one takes place in the early 60s in the thicket of the Cold War. An opening title sequence tells us Russia has enough nuclear weapons to blow up the world two times, but the United States has enough to blow up the world six times over. Whoo! U-S-A! The maker of widows is itself a docked submarine in the Russian navy in preparation for combat. Before it even leaves the shore it is said to be cursed, having five men die already from its widow maker-y hands. Liam Neeson is the captain of K-19 and well respected and beloved by his crew. However, Neeson is willing to put the lives of his men ahead of the agenda of the state, so the Communist government places Harrison Ford on the sub and gives him the reigns of command. Ford is a rigorous taskmaster who puts his men through countless drills and does not exactly see eye-to-eye with the more empathetic Neeson.
The story’s real turn comes about midway in, when after successfully launching a test missile above the arctic ice the nuclear core of the sub springs a leak. If something is not done to slow down the heating core the men could be vaporized in a mushroom cloud. Except that patrolling the waters nearby is a Unites States destroyer and thus would be destroyed as well, surely igniting the start of World War III. Crew members take shifts to enter the radioactive core area to try and do what they can. The situation gets even direr when the men come out looking like something from a George Romero film.
K-19‘s biggest fault is fictionalizing what would have been an interesting hour block on The History Channel. The Neeson and Ford characters feel like two sides of a debate, not exactly characters. The whole movie has been Americanized with heroic proportions. Instead of compelling drama we’re left adrift with what the studio wants as a summer movie with material that should no way be associated with it. I mean, the horribly dishonest marketing campaign actually has a crew member shout “Torpedo headed straight for us!” then shows a torpedo surging ahead. There was never a torpedo in the entire movie or a scene where they were being attacked! Somewhere in this ho-hum story is an exciting tale of the courage these men were forced into as well as the strain of not being able to tell their friends or family about anything that happened.
Submarine movies have so many limitations to them thats it’s hard to make a unique one anymore. Everyone knows there’ll be a point where they go beyond THE RED AREA with the needle and hear the hull ache and creak. Everyone knows they’ll have to stop an onslaught of water leaking. Everyone knows that if you talk about writing a letter to your girlfriend at home in case you die, well, the fates have it in for you. Either you love seeing these things a million times in cramped space or you grow tired of the expectations.
Director Kathryn Bigalow (Strange Days) manages to give it the ole college try with the long camera movements inside and the close-ups of men glaring at one another. Although technically able, Bigalow doesn’t do anything to transcend the limitations she has to work with. And while she meets her mark as a director, it is neither spectacular nor worthwhile.
Ford has a horrible Russian accent he likes to flirt around with through the film. I don’t exactly know if people are supposed to like his character, being rigid and pragmatic at the expense of human life. Neeson, on the other hand, is quite capable and shines in his role. The rest of the crew alternates between Russian accents to even some Australian ones I heard.
K-19: The Widowmaker tells us that this story could not be told until the fall of communism, except at the end it shows a clip of the Berlin Wall coming down and the crew then gathering to finally remember their fallen comrades. Some people just don’t have their dates right, and some people just don’t know how to take an interesting unknown slice of history and tell it well. Damn you Larry King.
Nate’s Grade: C
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I just think submarine thrillers aren’t for me. I won’t argue there aren’t good movies based almost entirely in the tight quarters of subs, like Das Boot or Crimson Tide, but I think most of them just blur together into a wash of genre cliches. As I so presciently wrote in 2002 for my review of the submarine drama, K-19: The Widowmaker: “Submarine movies have so many limitations to them that’s it’s hard to make a unique one anymore. Everyone knows there will be a point where they go beyond THE RED AREA with the needle and hear the hull ache and creak. Everyone knows they’ll have to stop an onslaught of water leaking. Everyone knows that if you talk about writing a letter to your girlfriend at home in case you die, well, the fates have it in for you. Either you love seeing these things a million times in cramped space or you grow tired of the expectations.” I’ve grown even more bored by these sub-genre staples. In some ways, submarine movies are a precursor to the Hollywood fascination of the contained thriller, the limited location setting that acts as a pressure cooker of conflict. However, the setting isn’t as important and the people and the conflicts that reside inside those cramped quarters. For Crimson Tide, the reason that movie really worked is because of the feud between its stars, each man fighting for dominance and gaining allies and plotting mutinous moves in the name of security. You could have told that same story in a military base on land and it would succeed. The problem with K-19 is that the true story is more interesting than a rehash of submarine cliches.
Here is a forgotten chapter in history of heroism and sacrifice, and the fact that it’s from a Russian perspective during the height of the Cold War makes it unique, at least as such in an American marketplace. The movie also feels so out of time thanks to the last decade of Russian aggression under Vladimir Putin. But for a time in the early 2000s, Russia opened up its naval shipyards to Hollywood to tell a very Hollywood version of their own history they had, for decades, insisted be kept only as secret. The crew aboard the K-19 avoided an escalation that would have likely triggered World War III. They were victims of their country’s arms race, building Russia’s first nuclear submarine to compete with the Americans but not building it to ship-shape shape, a point Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) cites during an electrical malfunction. For those well-versed in USSR history, or having seen the truly excellent HBO mini-series Chernobyl, this shoddy workmanship is hardly uncommon when the government insists on results through fear and dire repercussions, and so the state meets its quota, though perhaps only on paper to satisfy a bureaucrat who doesn’t want to be shot by his own government. This is one reason why the real story of these men was withheld for 30 years, as it would cheapen the image of the Soviet state during a time where any mistake is viewed as weakness. I would have preferred a movie that opened up more of the men on this submarine, that really dealt with their hopes and fears more in a more personal and intimate way rather than just hand-waving “Cold War destruction” as it’s catch-all for drama and stakes. Let’s also really dwell on the sacrifices of these men taking turns to venture into a highly irradiated nuclear core to stop it from exploding. Let’s let these men feel like people rather than as indistinguishable and plentiful sacrificial offerings.
This could better be accomplished by removing the core of the script by playwright-turned-screenwriter Christopher Kyle (The Way of Water, Alexander), namely the fight for control of the sub between the old captain (Neeson) and the new captain, Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). The mutiny subplot even becomes the focus of the third act, even after the development with the broken reactor, as if settling this command squabble was more entertaining to an audience. Vostrikov is willing to risk the lives of the men for the goals of the state; Plenin is not. It’s an easy setup to root for one man and hiss at another, but their glorified personality clash doesn’t have near the crackle of Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide. The fact that a mutinous conspiracy can outflank the danger of a nuclear accident will only work if the characters are that compelling, and woe they are not. We’re given some fleeting information about their backstories, with Vostrikov’s father having once been a hero of “the Revolution” but ultimately ended up in a gulag like so many one-time heroes for the Soviet state. There just isn’t enough here to really care. We side with Neeson because he’s more loyal to his crew, but this is also benefited with the hindsight that we know this real incident did not trigger a real war. When either actor begins their hard-line posturing, it feels like watching two older dads argue in a parking lot. Both of the actors suffer from their catastrophically bad Russian accents. If I was director Kathryn Bigelow, I would have just given up and said, “All right, forget accents. Everyone just speaks in their native tongue and we’ll just shrug it off.”
A more interesting tangent, at least for me as a film critic, is my opening salvo savaging the film tastes of the late Larry King (1933-2021) and the topic of “blurb whores,” critics who are so easily amused that their excitable, adjective-ready blurbs in the advertisement for a movie can be a bad sign of the movie’s ultimate quality. A website (eFilmCritic) used to track the most egregious examples of “film critics” offering their “takes” on movies in a scathing series called Critic Watch. Neither the series nor the website seem to be active any longer, but I remember every year checking in and taking stock and shaking my head in incredulous disdain. These were usually populated by the same names like Peter Travers from Rolling Stone, Shawn Edwards from the local Kansas City news station, Jeffrey Lyons and then eventually his son Ben Lyons, Pete Hammond for Maxim, and the most curious case was that of Earl Dittman from Wireless, the publication being like one of those little insert pamphlets for oblivious satellite TV subscribers.
Dittman was the king of blurbs on questionable movies, and his verbal ejaculate over Robots might be the best indication. He said of the 2005 animated film, “…Even more spectacular, computer-animated film than The Incredibles … In fact, the term ‘brilliant’ fails to accurately describe how wondrously witty and innovative Robot [sic] really is … If you thought the superheroes of The Incredibles and the ocean-dwellers of Finding Nemo were humorous, you haven’t heard nothing yet. The side-splitting humor of the mechanical beings in Robots is worthy of a capital ‘H’ … Forget The Incredibles, Robots is one heck of a funny animated comedy … Robots is a hilariously awesome and breathlessly inventive work of entertaining animated brilliance… You can’t afford to miss a single frame of this amazing, unforgettable animated classic.” Wow. He gave TEN different paragraph-length blurbs over Robots to the studio, an okay animated movie at best, and surely not one “more spectacular” than The Incredibles. I can even recall seeing a TV ad for Robots that was nothing but wall-to-wall Dittman quotes. With the man’s hyperbolic, effusive praise for even the crappiest of films, like calling Shark Boy and Lava Girl a “masterpiece” and Hostage as “more electrifying than Die Hard” (what????), there was a theory that the elusive Dittman didn’t even exist. Sony had been ridiculed when it was revealed in 2002 that “David Manning” was a fake critic they had created to positive blurb their movies (The Animal: “The producing team of Big Daddy has delivered another winner!”). Sony even had to pay out a modest settlement in a class action suit to any filmgoer having felt duped to see four movies. And then somebody proved Dittman was real, a freelance writer from Houston, and just a guy who seemed to love all movies and wasn’t that interesting. I don’t think he’s blurbed again since 2007. May he enjoy his retirement.
All of this is my way of saying K-19: The Widowmaker is a submarine movie where submarine movie stuff happens. If you can’t get enough of the likes of U-571 and Greyhound, then that would probably be all you would ask for in your nautical storytelling. Everyone attached has done better, though the old age makeup during an epilogue set in 1989 was eerie about what an older Harrison Ford would look like, so well done, makeup team. My review from 2002 rings so true twenty years later that I’ve had to resort to thinking what else can be added in discussion. That’s always nice, to recognize my critical self from twenty years hence was right on the money. K-19 is long, misshapen in its structure and attention, and bogged down with cliches. My initial grade still stands.
Re-View Grade: C
Adam Sandler seems like the reason they created the “no shirt no shoes” policy for restaurants. His niche is playing the lovable goodhearted goofball that triumphs over the pretentious jackass and somehow wins the heart of the fawning one-dimensional love interest. Sandler appeals to the masses as our nation’s greatest warm-hearted simpleton. He’s the Jimmy Stewart of slobbery. So why mess with that? Well for starters, if you want entertainment anymore you might want to.
Mr. Deeds, Sandler’s latest idiot opus, is disastrously, even tragically unfunny. In the film Sandler stars as the only known heir of a multi-billionaire media mogul. Longfellow Deeds (Sandler) is a simple New Hampshire pizza delivery boy who treats people with respect and kindness. However, the mantra “cruel to be kind” must be alive and well because Sandler mercilessly beats people to about an inch of their life throughout Mr. Deeds for brutish comic effect.
Peter Gallagher and his monstrous eyebrows serve as the stand-in villain. Hes a greedy tycoon who wants the Deeds fortune all to himself. Gallagher actually plays his part well and seems to at least have some fun with the broad comedy role. Winona Ryder, on the other hand, does not. Ryder has never proven she can handle any comedy other than black, and slapstick just ain’t her thing. She painfully goes from scene to scene clueless as a tabloid journalist hiding her identity so she can get the scoop on Deeds, only to fall madly in love with him.
The film has some glimmers of comedy, mostly from its supporting cast including John Turturro as a very sneaky Spanish butler. It’s nice to see Turturro in something this high profile and get some recognition this journeyman deserves. There’s also a really funny cameo served up by a former tennis giant himself known for his boorish temperament. Steve Buscemi should be charged with grand theft movie because his three minutes on screen as the crazy-eyed local are funnier than anything with Sandler onscreen.
The movie becomes far too redundant of Sandler’s other comedies to the point where seeing former stars like Rob Schneider in his Big Daddy character is somehow supposed to be funny. This kind of stuff is strewn throughout the film. It feels like everyone’s going through the motions. Now I’m not a total Sandler basher, because I do believe the man can be funny when worked right. Billy Madison is still hysterical to me upon every viewing and I do get some fun watching The Wedding Singer, but Mr. Deeds is sub-par Sandler even for Sandler.
I’m sure most of the people buying tickets for this have no idea that the concept is based upon the Frank Capra film starring Gary Cooper. But what good is Gary Cooper? He didn’t write cutesy greeting cards or save a litter of kittens from a raging inferno like Sandler’s Deeds. In the end, this mostly laugh-free comedy is short on imagination, energy, and entertainment.
Nate’s Grade: C-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Adam Sandler became his own industry. The Saturday Night Live funnyman became a movie favorite starting in 1995’s Billy Madison, still my favorite of the early Sandler era, finding the right balance of stupid, irony, absurdity, and crass humor. His ribald comedy albums were must-owns for any teenager in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, he had accumulated a team of collaborators of directors (Steve Brill, Frank Coraci, Dennis Dugan) and writers (Tim Herlihy, Fred Wolf, Steve Koren) who would churn out comedies on a near yearly basis. From 1998-2015, Sandler starred in 20 movies that can be deemed Sandler vehicles, a soft-spoken schlub with a heart of gold who is prone to explosions of violence and seems endlessly underestimated or misunderstood by a larger world of condescending, out-of-touch elites. There is a wild spectrum of quality during this period, and as the years progressed Sandler began to transform from the slovenly goofball provocateur to the laid-back, wisecracking family man trying to convince non-believers of his righteous old-fashioned wisdom. His once outsider status had calcified into a sentimental, middle-aged “these kids today don’t get it” laziness. Many of his later movies felt like glorified excuses for his family and friends to take extended vacations around the world. Since 2016, Sandler has migrated his slob squad to Netflix and continued his usual schtick to lesser publicity. The only time Sandler seems to have broken through since he hit that late 2000s plateau is his occasional dramatic performance, like 2019’s intense and gritty Uncut Gems. He’ll even star in a basketball drama for Netflix this month (Hustle). The real reason I picked Mr. Deeds to re-watch for this month was so I could better compare and contrast for a later re-watching of 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler’s first dramatic acting revelation thanks to Paul Thomas Anderson. As for Sandler’s take on Frank Capra, it never overcomes his trademark laziness.
The story of Mr. Deeds began as a heartwarming tale about a small-town man whisked away to the big city who provides a little small-town good charm to those in need. 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Actor for Gary Cooper, Best Picture, which it lost to The Great Ziegfeld, and Capra winning the Oscar for Best Director. It’s a well-regarded and wholesome movie that champions many of the major themes prevalent in Capra’s popular filmography. To take this starting point and say, “what if we made Adam Sandler the star and he just assaults people before convincing people to follow their dreams?” The problem with Mr. Deeds is that everything comes at great ease for our protagonist, who is never asked to change or think differently; no, it is the world that needs to change and be a little more like Longfellow Deeds (Sandler). He’s a humble man-of-the-people who will literally carry the elderly on his back to help them cross the street. The New York City natives just view him as a small-town rube but he’ll convince them all that his simple ways are the real way to live. Except if you watch this movie and think, “I need to pattern myself after that guy,” then you are either wholly susceptible to the slightest influence or you’re looking for an excuse to hurt others with impunity. Mr. Deeds regularly beats the crap out of people who he feels have crossed a line. His newfound riches essentially inoculate him from any consequences (as is the American way). I guess the slapstick is supposed to be riotous but it just made me uncomfortable and bored. Apparently, when Sandler tackled Allen Covert to the ground to beat him silly, Covert really did hit his head against the pavement and went unconscious for a minute. The entire concept of the movie rests upon Deeds being a likeable fellow others wish to emulate, but under the guise of Sandler-ification, he comes across as the kind of guy you’d walk across the street to avoid.
Let me use one example to highlight the failure of the Deeds character. He’s in a fancy restaurant and is hailed over by a gathering of rich elites who want to hobnob with the newest moneyman. For whatever reason, their suck-up turns into broad insults, which is confusing considering how many of them are financially dependent on his company. As they yuk it up in sycophantic laughter, Deeds shakes his head and says, “You all invited me here so you could look down on me. Well, let me tell you that here you may all laugh at me, but down in Mandrake Falls we would laugh at you all.” Examine that for just a little bit longer, dear reader. He’s not saying that the good people of his hometown would act better than these big city folk, accepting others for who they are and being welcoming and sincere. No, he’s saying if they were in Mandrake Falls, they would be laughed at and made fun of for being all different. It’s less a declaration that his small-town way of life is better and more wholesome and more a confessed threat if they ever found themselves in the minority. I think Sandler and company thought they had their hero on a moral high ground, but this line proves otherwise, and then he just physically assaults them all too.
The comedy is predictable and lackluster, and the longer the movie went the further I sank into a general state of apathy. The poems by Mr. Deeds are supposed to be lame, so I guess the comedy is just how bad they are? That just sounds like excuse-making, though thankfully it’s just one trifling example and not much is hinged upon Deed’s greeting card dream. Much of the movie revolves around the budding romance with an undercover reporter, Babe (Winona Ryder), who comes to love the man for some reason unknown to anyone observing. It becomes a bit of a screwball comedy with her attempts to keep her cover, but by the end she’s meant to serve as the audience surrogate and convince us that this man was worth our investment. The only parts of Mr. Deeds that made me smile or come close to laughing were the absurd supporting characters getting little moments. I loved Steve Buscemi, who became a Sandler regular, as a crazy-eyed town weirdo spouting bon mots like, “Time heals all wounds… except these crazy eyes.” I enjoyed John Turturro’s commitment to his sneaky yet helpful Spanish butler. I enjoyed the John McEnroe cameo and night on the town indulging their boorish behavior. I enjoyed watching Jared Harris go broad comedy as an obnoxious newsman. The actor has such innate, weathered pathos to him that I cannot even recall ever seeing him in another comedic role. I liked Eric Avari (The Mummy) as the second-in-command guy who chums it up with Deeds. I enjoyed moments that didn’t involve Sandler or Rider, but those are the two main stars, so time away from them was fleeting though appreciated. The general unfunny nature didn’t offend me like some other bad comedies, but it sapped whatever care and energy I had for the movie.
In the realm of Sandler cinema, Mr. Deeds is on the lower end. It’s not among the worst of his worst. It’s passable to watch if you’re just skimming for the occasional comedy nugget. I didn’t feel insulted but I was also coming to this movie with decades of hindsight of the Sandler cinematic universe, able to discern his more prominent themes and cliches and reflexes. I’ve never watched the 1936 Capra movie though I’m curious to do so now for the simple reason of seeing just how far away Sandler’s version veers. They also turned the Mr. Deeds story into one season of a 1970 TV series starring Monte Markham (Captain Don Thorpe on Baywatch!). There’s something inherently engaging about a moral person placed in a new environment and how the environment changes to that person rather than the other way around. It’s essentially the plot of WALL-E, one of my favorite movies. It works. Except with Sandler’s version, the filmmakers were on Sandler autopilot, a condition he rarely broke free from (Drew Barrymore collabs seem to be the exception). From here, the Sandler movies got lazier and stodgier and more sentimental yet also phonier. I haven’t watched a Sandler-lead comedy since 2016’s The Ridiculous Six, his first Netflix release. I genuinely wish he would stick to more dramas. He has real acting strength, first explored in Punch-Drunk Love (you can’t get here soon enough), and I’m hoping I’ll only better appreciate that movie having re-watched a shining example of what Paul Thomas Anderson was aiming to deconstruct.
As for my earlier review in 2002, it’s entirely accurate. Everything I said still applies, even the C-minus grade. You could charitably say Mr. Deeds was where the Sandler formula became fully entrenched. It was a big hit ($170 million worldwide) and vindication after Sandler attempted something truly weird and different that flopped (2001’s Little Nicky). You can see the gears turning, and so the next decade-plus brought us more of the same Sandler schtick. For one of the most dangerous comics, he became safe and sated and all too happy to pack it in for mass appeal. Consider this otherwise forgettable movie a footnote in the arc of Sandler’s comedy oeuvre, and that’s about it. Mr. Deeds is just as shrug-worthy in 2022 as it was back in 2002.
Re-View Grade: C-
Originally released May 16, 2002:
Yes, it’s easy to say that Attack of the Clones is better than Phantom Menace, but hey, most anything was better than watching that movie about trade and taxes. The truth of the matter is that for a long while Clones is just as boring as Menace, especially anything involving Anakin onscreen. It’s slow moving, dull, and remarkably poorly written. Lucas cannot write dialogue and someone needs to take away his yellow writing notebooks before he strikes again. The movie only shows life during the last 45 minutes when it finally cooks with a non-stop rush of action. Before then though I would recommend resting up for this period.
Can anyone ever say “no” to the Jedi master in plaid? What Lucas needs desperately is collaboration, writing and directing. Lucas needs to loosen up the reign of his empire before the three Star Wars prequels undermine the original set. He may have the technology to create any manner of CGI creature but he has no power to get his actors to show any of the realistic and animated life. It seems all Lucas cares about is directing blue screens and leaving his actors out to dry.
And that much ballyhooed romance between Anakin and Amidala? Oh ye God, what romance? You could find something more alive in a monastery. Portman and Christensen have as absolutely no chemistry (unlike the romantic pairs in another, huge Hollywood movie out now). Portman has perfected the staring ahead method. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be romantic. Now I like Natalie Portman, I really do. Her performance in The Professional gets me every time, but her acting is stiff and overly serious here.
I thought Anakin could not get any more annoying than Jake Lloyd’s awful “yippee”-filled run in Menace, but I’m starting to reconsider this begrudgingly. It’s easy to see why Christensen was chosen, he looks like the lost N’SYNC member. His acting on the other hand is not with the force. The Clones Anakin mopes around and when he gets upset he whines in a falsetto voice. It’s actually quite funny to see the future Darth Vader, evil master of the Dark Side and much feared, whining like a six year old throwing a tantrum. This Anakin needs a time out and a lolly.
When Anakin returns to become a protector for the senator, upon their first meet in ten years he shoots her the puppy eyes and says, “I see you have grown as well — grown more beautiful.” Subtlety, thy name is not Anakin Skywalker. The very next scene where they’re alone he’s trying to put the moves on her, though he does not try and use the force to undo her bra. Then somewhere along the line his dogged persistence just wears Amidala down and she relents. She says, “I’ve been dying a little bit day by day, ever since you re-entered my life.” Ugh. You’re likely to find more romantic passages in a Harlequin bodice ripper at 7-11.
The romance in Clones is like spontaneous romance. There is no beginning, the nurturing of it is not shown, we don’t see the eventual progress. All that happens is he shows up and then instant romance. It just happens. I don’t think so. It’s like a kid went to a girl’s third grade birthday party, then they meet in high school for the first time since that day and are instantly in love. Do you buy that? Well I certainly don’t.
The scenes revolving around Obi-Wan are the only ones worth opening your eyes for. Ewan McGregor has got the Alec Guiness voice down and proves to be a capable leading hero. His voyage to see the clone army and Jango Fett is the subplot that we want, but the movie keeps skipping back and forth between this and the inept romance. By this time everyone knows that Yoda shows off his fighting mettle with a light saber. This is a great idea and the audience I saw it with was having the time of their life during this moment. It’s the only part of the movie that taps into the feeling of whimsical fun of the original trilogy.
Lucas curtailed the criticism of Menace saying it was the setup for all five other movies. I imagine he’ll say the same thing with this one, except that it was setup for four movies. Yes it’ll make a huge amount of bank. Yes it’s a technical achievement but what good are all the bells and whistles if we as an audience are bored? You’ve got one more Star Wars left George, please do it right.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Something unexpected has happened in the ensuring twenty years since the Star Wars prequels were first released to a generally muted response from the rabid fandom. A generation has grown up with these movies as “their Star Wars.” In my own anecdotal experiences, many teenagers do not just view Episodes I-III as entertaining movies, they even view them as their preferable Star Wars trilogy. After the latest Star Wars movies, Episodes VII-IX, some fans have even been looking back on George Lucas’ much maligned prequels with revised appreciation. “At least there was a cohesive vision,” they’ll say, in comparison to the wild pendulum swings between directors J.J. Abrams (Force Awakens, Rise of Skywalker) and Rian Johnson (Last Jedi). Have we all been too harsh on Lucas and his moribund attempts to inject life into his three-movie arc charting the fall from grace from legendary villain, Darth Vader a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker? The short answer is… no. While I agree that children who grew up with the likes of Jar Jar Binks and CGI overkill will consider Episodes I-III more their style, the flaws of these films are undeniable when compared to the superior storytelling and characterization of the others. Even in comparison to the new Star Wars, these movies still suffer. So please remove your rose-colored glasses, fandom, and accept that even with time, Attack of the Clones is still a lousy adventure.
I think a majority of Star Wars fans experienced the five stages of grief upon the 1999 release of The Phantom Menace, the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. I remember a classmate who wore Star Wars T-shirts every day for weeks in fevered anticipation of the new movie, including T-shirts relating to the new characters and merchandizing opportunities (what the “new characters” were, even Darth Maul). After the movie came out, I remember charting over the last weeks of school his response, going from claiming that, “Of course it was great,” to a more measured, “Well, it wasn’t what the originals were, but it’s still good,” to, “It has its problems but…” and finally the acceptance that it just wasn’t a very good Star Wars movie or even a good movie. He stopped wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Phantom Menace characters.
This was the backdrop for the production of 2002’s Attack of the Clones, a realization that must have spurred Lucas to do better. During the many years of pre-production for Phantom Menace, Lucas was cloistered by yes men agreeing that every new addition was going to be sensational. Lucas was astonished to learn about the volume of hatred against Jar Jar Binks, a character he thought would transcend and become the most popular character in all of Star Wars. The intense negative feedback threw the old Jedi Master in plaid for a loop. Maybe residing in a creative bubble that only reinforces everything you say isn’t the best environment. We were told that Lucas had learned from his mistakes from Phantom Menace. He even brought on another screenwriter to help him, Jonathan Hale (The Young Indiana Jones TV series), something he didn’t do for the concluding Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. At the time, I was among the throng of fandom that wanted to cling to hope, that maybe The Phantom Menace was an aberration, that maybe that same feeling of elation could return of the Star Wars of old. And then I watched Attack of the Clones and it confirmed what I and many feared: Phantom Menace was no fluke; it was merely the way things were going to be from here onward.
The prequels had two major storytelling goals: 1) to explain the transformation of Anakin Skyler into the mighty Darth Vader, and 2) to explain the rise of the evil Empire and its Emperor. To offer some compliments before the onslaught of criticisms is unleashed, I think Lucas does an agreeable job with developing the latter goal. This movie came out around the time of Bush’s War on Terror where the threat of attack was enough to call pre-emptive strikes and where the president was given special war powers that, to this day, and the formal conclusion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, haven’t been fully relinquished. There are several obvious and eerie parallels to the political instability of its initial release but also for today in 2022. We are witnessing one political party lurching toward rampant authoritarianism, a repudiation of democratic norms and ideals, and celebrating personality over principles and winning at any cost. Watching the different alien races of the Republic champion the need for a strong, decisive ruler to cut through the bureaucratic red tape of representative democracy, someone who seems above politics, someone who will protect the people, and someone who sees opponents as enemies of the state, well it’s not hard to make the connections. This is the path of fascism, the rise of dictators, and it was the same brew of nationalism, grievance, fear-mongering, bigotry, scape-goating, and information distortion during the 1930s as it is during the 2020s. For those angry Star Wars fans upset by the diversity of the newer movies, screaming, “Keep politics out of my Star Wars,” you do understand the entire thing has been a metaphor for fighting fascism, right? It’s not even subtle.
However, where the movie pitifully fails is by linking Anakin’s downfall with his romantic relationship with Padme (Natalie Portman). There was potential here with a forbidden romance where Anakin fights against the oath of chastity to the Jedi and both must try their best to subsume their out-of-control feelings. I’m sure that’s what Lucas thought he was making. It didn’t quite work out that way. The romance in Attack of the Clones is laughably bad. The dialogue is cringe-worthy and deeply inauthentic. Every character speaks like a robot. When Anakin starts to finally court Padme, he shares his infamous “I don’t like sand” observation, but he directly pivots toward liking his current location because it’s “soft and smooth,” and it is WITHIN SECONDS of saying this that he stares weirdly at Padme and they share their first kiss. That line worked! Upon meeting Anakin, almost every character remarks how much he’s grown up, as if Lucas is trying to say, “He’s no longer a kid, so it’s okay for him to try and get some.” Padme repeats this observation at several points, and I started to question what exactly was the age difference between these two. Nothing about this romance feels genuine. At one point, they literally roll down a hill like two children rough housing. The romance is so hilarious juvenile and poorly developed. In my original review in 2002, I referred to it as a “spontaneous romance,” and that’s exactly what it feels like. Anakin’s yearning looks more like a child having a temper tantrum. Also, Padme ignores a host of red flags including when Anakin confesses to killing “men, women, and children” in a blind rage upon his mother dying. She also tells him to stop looking at her because it makes her uncomfortable, and does he stop? No.
The other problem is that the actors are clearly bored with one another. Natalie Portman has since become of my favorite actors, but she’s always been an actress that has trouble hiding her boredom with a role she doesn’t connect with. You can feel her eagerness to be done with the franchise in every green screen scene (just keep chanting, “Only one more movie, Natalie”). Her destiny is to be a mother and to be the catalyst for Darth Vader becoming Darth Vader, and she’s never been looked as anything more. Sure, you can argue she’s headstrong and resourceful in a general sense, but then she has to be scraped by an arena monster so she can bare her midriff during the climactic action scuffle. I don’t think any actress can make this clunky dialogue work, like, “I’ve been dying a little every day since you came back into my life.” Is that supposed to be complimentary? Another quick dialogue criticism: EVERYONE is always addressing everyone all the time with titles. “My old friend,” and, “Master,” and, “My Padewan,” and, “Master Jedi,” in case anyone forgets for a moment what the character relationships are.
This was Hayden Christenson’s first movie as Anakin and it’s worth noting that for a time being he was regarded as a hot up and coming actor. He was nominated for a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for 2001’s My Life as a House, and he’s genuinely fantastic in 2003’s genuinely fantastic Shattered Glass, a film role that takes full advantage of the actor’s whiny, pubescent acting tendencies. Christenson was widely lambasted for his performances in Episodes II and III. His performance is definitely weak, especially compared to the heft of James Earl Jones’ voice. He’s not good as Anakin Skywalker but nobody would have survived this role. It was one thing to find out big bad Darth Vader used to be an annoying little twerp of a kid, and it’s not that much better to also discover that annoying kid matured into an annoying, moody teenager. It’s demystifying one of cinema’s greatest villains and providing so very little in return. Patton Oswalt had a comedy bit about not caring where the stuff you love actually comes from. There was a rash of villain back-stories in 2000s cinema, with Vader and Hannibal Lector and Michael Myers, and none of these stories lived up to providing a satisfying explanation. Christensen has been unable to exit the shadow of the Star Wars series. He has a brief stint as a leading man, most notably in 2008’s Jumper, but has receded into the world of direct-to-DVD offerings, appearing in five movies since 2010. He’ll be reprising Darth Vader in Disney’s upcoming Star Wars TV series, so it will be interesting to see if the brunt of fandom that once rejected him now accepts him.
The other sad aspect of the prequel trilogy is just how meaningless so much of the action feels. I was watching the extended climax on Genosis, which feels clearly inspired by 2000’s Gladiator, and just shrugging at all the onscreen CGI carnage. I just didn’t care. While the prequels have more action and special effects wizardry, and the lightsaber battles are more intense and acrobatic, the emotional stakes are still so absent. Watching a dozen CGI characters kill a different dozen CGI characters is no more exciting than watching dominoes fall unless there is an emotional connection to what is happening. Any emotional connection with the prequels is strictly imported from the prior movies. I find it hard to believe that people can watch Episodes I-III and genuinely care about the conflicts of these characters. The prequels also reveal that Lucas was at his best not just with collaboration but also with restraints. With all the money in the world, the man doubles down on his worst directing and writing impulses, and everything onscreen feels weightless and vapid and intended to sell a new line of toys. The movie takes so long to get going because it divides its time between a romance that does not work and an investigation into a clone army that can only go so far. It’s memorable and a little fun to watch Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) as a mighty Jedi lightsaber warrior, but that’s about all that I found Attack of the Clones had for me as far as intentional entertainment value.
I also want to note that the movie really clears any doubt about the aura and competency of the Jedi. These guys suck at everything. They get killed pretty easily. They are terrible at sensing the encroaching Sith and Dark Side. They are terrible at upholding rules, order, galactic safety. They just suck at everything they do. They carry a cool laser sword and can play mind tricks and that’s about it. Maybe Lucas was intentionally laying a critique at the guardrails of democracy, saying we cannot trust the guardians to stand alone to protect against the rise of fascism, but I think I’m projecting too much thematic clarity onto a man that thought Jar Jar Binks was destined for greatness. Another side note: it’s hilarious to me that Lucas has Jar Jar as the Senator that proposes giving Palpatine the emergency war powers. It’s like Lucas said, “Oh, you don’t like my silly Jamaican rabbit alien? Well, what if I made him an essential footnote to the end of the Republic? You can’t erase him now, unless you’re me, and I’ll tinker however I want!”
My 2002 movie review was right on, which has been something of a rarity for the early part of this re-review. I enjoyed the line about this Anakin needing a “timeout and a lolly.” I would probably lower my rating down to a C. I’d rather watch this or any of the prequels before 2019’s Rise of Skywalker, but that’s because I was more invested in those characters and their stories and thus far more disappointed in how Abrams handled his finale. Maybe that’s to its benefit, that the characters are so poorly written, and poorly acted, and the CGI action is so blandly imagined, that I’d rather watch Attack of the Clones and let my eyes glaze over.
Re-View Grade: C
Hollywood take note, Spider-Man is the prototype for a summer popcorn movie. It has all the necessary elements. It has exciting action, great effects used effectively, characters an audience can care for, a well toned story that gives shades of humanity to those onscreen, fine acting and proper and expert direction. I recommend movie execs take several note pads and go see Spider-Man (if they can get in one of the many sold out shows). What summer needs are more movies in the same vein as Spider-Man, and less Tomb Raider’s and Planet of the Apes.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a dweebish photographer for his school yearbook clinging to the lowest rung of the popularity ladder. He lives with his loving Aunt and Uncle who treat him like a son. Peter has been smitten with girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) ever since he can remember, but he’s been too timid to say anything.
At a field trip to the genetically altered spider place (there’s one in every town) Peter is snapping pictures when he is bitten by one of the eight-legged creatures. He thinks nothing of it and awakes the next day to a startling change. He has no need for his rimmed glasses anymore and has a physique that diet ads would kill for. He also discovers he can cling to surfaces, jump tall building in a single bound and shoot a sticky rope-like substance from his wrists. Hairs on his palms and shooting a sticky substance from his body? Hello puberty allusion! Peter tries to use his new abilities to win the girl and when that doesn’t work out he turns to profiting from them. He enters a wrestling contest in a homemade costume and proceeds to whup Randy Savage. Following the fight Peter’s Uncle Ben is dying after being involved in a car jacking Peter inadvertently let happen. Haunted by grief Peter becomes Spider-Man and swings from building to building as an amazing arachnid crime stopper.
But every hero needs a villain, and that is personified in the Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), scientist and businessman. Osborn is experimenting with an aerial rocket glider and a dangerous growth serum. When the military threatens to cut his funding and shop elsewhere Osborn haphazardly undergoes the serum himself. What it creates is a duality of personalities; one is Norman, the other is a sinister and pragmatic one. The evil alter ego dons the glider and an exoskeleton suit and calls himself the Green Goblin. The Goblin destroys all that are in his way, and has his yellow eyes set on the pesky Spider-Man.
The casting of mopey-eyed indie actor Tobey Maguire over more commercial names like a DiCaprio or a Prinze Jr. (I shudder to think of a Freddie Prinze Jr. Spider-Man) left some people scratching their heads. Of course the casting of Mr. Mom to portray the Dark Knight likely got the same reaction in the 80s. Maguire plays the nerdish and nervous Peter Parker to a perfected awkwardness with his sensitive passivity. When he explores his new powers with exuberant abandon then begins crime fighting, we as an audience are with him every step of the way pulling for Peter.
Kirsten Dunst was also a surprising casting choice but works out very well. She allows the audience to fall for her along with Peter. Her chemistry with Maguire is great and could be a major reason why rumors have surfaced about the two leads taking the onscreen romance off screen.
Willem Dafoe is one of the creepiest actors in the business (though he made an effective creepy-free Jesus) and delves deliciously headfirst into the cackling menace of Spider-Man’s nemesis. Dafoe, with a face that looks like hardened silly putty and jutting rows of teeth, relishes every maniacal glare and endless evil grin. But instead of being one-note he adds certain amounts of sympathy and understanding as Norman Obsorn. No one could have done this role better than Dafoe.
Director Sam Raimi was most known for his cult splatter house Evil Dead series, but he’s got a new resume topper now. Raimi was chosen over a field of directors because of his passion for the character and story. Raimi brings along integrity but with a joyous gluttony of spectacular action sequences. He expertly handles the action and daring-do all the while smoothly transitioning to the sweet love story. He has created the movie Spidey fans have been dreaming of for 40 years.
Spider-Man swings because of the respect the source material has been given, much like 2000’s X-Men. The story follows the exploits of the comic fairly well but has some stable legs of its own. The multitudes of characters are filled with life and roundness to them, as well as definite elements of humanity. You can feel the sweet romance budding between the two young stars, the tension and affection between Osborn and son, but also the struggle with Norman and his new sinister alter ego.We all know villains are the coolest part anyway. Isn’t that the only reason the last two Batman films were made?
There’s the occasional cheesy dialogue piece but there is that one standard groaner line. In X-Men it was Halle Berry’s query about what happens when lightening hits a toad. In Spider-Manit was the response to the Green Goblin’s offer to join him, to which he asked “Are you in or are you out?” (Obviously channeling George Clooney). The dreaded response: “You’re the one who’s out Goblin. Out of his mind!” Sigh. Maybe a well placed “freaking” before “mind” would have made the line better.
Spider-Man is the best kind of popcorn film: one that leaves me anxiously anticipating the sequel (which will come out two years to the day the first one was released).
Nate’s Grade: A-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Twenty years ago, 2002’s Spider-Man changed the landscape of studio blockbusters. Since swinging into theaters twenty years ago, we’ve gone through three different actors playing three different Spider-Men in three different franchises, plus an Oscar-winning animated movie, and oodles of toys. If X-Men’s success in 2000 made Spider-Man possible, then Spider-Man’s record-breaking success, the first film to earn more than $100 million in a weekend, made the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the defining chain of blockbusters for our age, possible. X-Men provided a template and Spider-Man was the confirmation for those curious bean counters in studio offices. From there, it was a gold rush to secure their own superhero franchise. Universal launched Hulk. Fox launched Daredevil and the Fantastic Four. Warner Brothers started trying to reboot Batman and Superman again. It was an IP scramble and not every property proved worthy (see: 2004’s Catwoman, or better yet don’t see it). For better or worse, 2002’s Spider-Man ushered in the modern era of superhero mega blockbusters. Now with twenty years of hindsight and influence, it’s interesting to go back to the OG Spider-Man, especially after the nostalgic revisit with 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, and see why this movie was so successful.
Created in 1962 by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man took a circuitous path toward big screen stardom. He had a popular cartoon in the 1970s, a cheesy U.S. tv show, and Lee even licensed the character into a 1978 television series in Japan that is well and truly insane. The main character is a racer injected with alien blood, from planet Spider no less, who leaps into a giant robot to fight giant monsters (it’s basically Power Rangers before Power Rangers). Legendary genre house Cannon Films bought the film rights and then sold them to Carolco, the studio killed by Cutthroat Island’s bombing in 1995. Carolco reached out to reported king of the (blockbuster) world James Cameron to rewrite an existing draft with Peter in college. He envisioned Edward Furlong as Perter Parker and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Octopus. Later, his new Spider-Man script was reset in high school, brought back in a previously absent Mary Jane, and involved Electro and Sandman as the primary villains, and apparently was going for an R-rating with language and an intended sex scene between Peter and Mary Jane on the Brooklyn Bridge, which brings into further question his organic web-shooting inclusion.
It all fell apart when it was revealed Carolco didn’t actually own the full rights to Spider-Man. After Carolco’s bankruptcy and the ensuing legal wrangling, Sony eventually ended up with the rights for a deal that is absolutely brutal in retrospect: a mere $7 million plus five percent of film grosses and half of merchandising. That’s it. For a character that earns over a literal billion dollars a year in merchandise even when there are no movies being released. As of this writing, No Way Home has made almost two billion dollars world-wide at the box-office.
Sam Raimi was picked as director because he was so passionate for the project, owning over 20,000 comic books and knowing the character and his universe inside and out. It’s not like Raimi was some schlub that Sony just drafted from the street in a contest either. The man was a genre visionary from the beginning with the chaotically kinetic Evil Dead movies. When the studios were unsure about tapping him for comic book movies, Raimi decided to make his own with 1991’s Darkman, a gloriously fun, weird, and gory Phantom of the Opera-esque action movie with Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand. After that, Raimi expanded his style by directing four very different movies in different genres (The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan, For Love of the Game, The Gift), and by that time the studios had come around to embracing Raimi as their trusted shepherd of coveted comic book IP. Director Chris Columbus also turned down the job first, instead opting for the Harry Potter cinematic universe. I don’t know if Spider-Man would have been as successful with anyone else at the helm. Let’s not pretend that the movie would have been a commercial failure with some other director attached (I’m sure, prior to Cutthroat Island, there was a very real chance of “Renny Harlan’s Spider-Man” – that’s right, the hits just keep on coming, Cutthroat Island). But Sam Raimi perfectly encapsulates the combination that has worked so well for other later superhero directors: passion and peculiarity.
Raimi is a first-rate visual stylist with the comedy of The Three Stooges, and I don’t mean this as a negative. He has a rare, instinctive sense, much like Cameron and Steven Spielberg, about what will play best on the big screen with a packed crowd, those kinds of blockbuster moments. The one thing you can say about any Raimi feature is that they are exploding with verve and energy. The man nailed a camera to a plank of wood and chased after Bruce Campbell in 1980, and he’s been running wild ever since. That gleeful, childlike sense of entertainment exists in a Raimi picture. His horror instincts and influences are readily apparent in his editing, tone, and setup, across all pictures and genres. Horror is such a precise genre, and Raimi knows the ins and outs of developing scares, tension, and payoffs, and he also knows that editing can make everything sing. A Raimi film might be more self-conscious with its antic camera angles, movements, and editing, but this man is a natural conductor of the chaos of moviemaking. He is a natural for big stages and has only made one movie for less than a hundred million in the last twenty years (2009’s throwback, Drag Me to Hell). It’s also a little disappointing that Raimi has only directed one movie in the last 13 years (2013’s failed franchise-starter, Oz: The Great and Powerful).
Raimi’s movies also have a deep sense of humor, twisted and loony, not afraid to get gross or goofy. When I watched Drag Me to Hell, his first film after leaving Peter Parker’s orbit, I was busting a gut as often as my stomach was churning. Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 sequence where Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) awakens and his cybernetic arms slaughter the doctors has been repeatedly re-evaluated in social media circles as a nigh perfect sequence. Raimi isn’t afraid to veer to the edges of what is considered conventional; he’s not afraid to be goofy just as he’s not afraid to be sincere. This is a director who embraces his peculiarities but also has a reverence for visual storytelling and blockbusters. With the exception of Oz, I cannot recall a Raimi film that just felt like a slapdash work-for-hire job. The man has a signature style. It was what Marvel insisted they wanted when they hired him to direct the Doctor Strange sequel (now in theaters!). Finding auteurs with peculiar sensibilities, zany humor, and new ideas for studio projects is what has allowed directors such as Joss Whedon (Avengers), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), and Jon Watts (the Tom Holland Spidey films) to flourish.
Revisiting OG Spider-Man, we have two more versions of this universe to compare with, three if you count the animated escapades of 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse, so some things just seem a little more quaint, like an old story from your childhood. Part of this is because the character and his lore have become as familiar in popular culture as Batman or Superman. That’s why the Holland version skipped the origin part of how Peter Parker got his super powers and lost his dear old dead Uncle Ben (just like we don’t need to ever see Batman’s parents die onscreen again). The first two Spider-Man films still hold up; I re-watched Spider-Man 2 shortly after 2017’s Homecoming to see which was the overall best Spider-Man film, and it was still very good. They’re earnest and cheesy but easily transporting and you feel the passion for those involved. Raimi clearly loves this character and wants you to love him as well, and we do. There are a few moments that just speak to the dated nature of culture from twenty years hence, like Peter Parker cracking an unfortunate homophobic joke about his wrestling opponent. The special effects are still strong throughout and benefit from Spider-Man’s costume lacking exposed skin. The action sequences are a bit tame and especially lacking compared to even later Spider-Man films.
Maguire might even be regarded as the least favorite Spider-Man actor at this time after the successful revamping of Andrew Garfield’s version from No Way Home. He stands out from Garfield and forever boyish Holland. He was 26 when he began playing Peter the high schooler. His prior indie film roles would make him seem more likely to be cast as a moody school shooter than as a clean-cut superhero (I guess it worked for Ezra Miller), and the fact that he pulled it off is a credit to both Maguire and Raimi. Maguire hasn’t been able to escape the long shadow of Spider-Man and he seems to be fine with that, having only appeared in one movie since 2014. The conniving celebrity poker player that Michael Cera played in Molly’s Game is believed to be Maguire in real life. Dunst was maligned throughout the original trilogy and you can clearly see her disinterest in the character. To her credit, this iteration of Mary Jane is fairly one-dimensional. She’s little more than the object of Peter’s desires and a damsel to be saved. Dunst has become a much more interesting actress after shedding the Spider-Man universe with Melancholia, season 2 of Fargo, and The Power of the Dog, earning her first Oscar nomination.
Dafoe had to beat out many actors for the role that seems perfected by him. Raimi intended for Billy Crudup (Almost Famous) to be his Norman Osbourn but the producers worried Crudup was too young to portray a middle-aged scientist. Dafoe’s normal face already resembles the Goblin mask. He demanded to do as many of his stunts as possible, and apparently he was a natural learner with the Green Goblin’s winged glider. Dafoe loved the part so much he begged Raimi to find ways to include him again even after his character died. I grew to love him even more after No Way Home reminded everyone of the mental anguish of Norman, a man torn apart by his demons. Dafoe is so maniacal and vulnerable and indispensable in this role. It’s no wonder they even bent space and time to have him generously visit us once more.
I was worried that my older review from 2002 was going to be overly flattering, gushing about what the filmmakers had gotten right and a little too pleased with results that haven’t aged as well with so many others running with what Raimi and company established. It’s still a solidly enjoyable movie that moves along at a steady pace and still finds time to have important character moments so that the quiet still matters paired with the spectacle. We’ve had a generation grow up with the Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and for many of us these early superhero films have a special place in our hearts. There’s a nostalgic factor. The first Spider-Man was more successful in creating an exciting kickoff than X-Men, though that film had bigger hurdles in adaptation, and it still has a lasting appeal at its core because of the skill and passion of the filmmakers involved. I’m very curious about revisiting 2007’s Spider-Man 3, where it all fell apart and seeing if it’s due some begrudging respect, though I doubt it (I know what I’ll be watching in 2027). Spider-Man is a little dated but still swings mighty high.
Re-View Grade: B+
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman jumped on to Hollywood’s A-list when his feature debut Being John Malkovich was unleashed in 1999. Malkovich was a brilliant original satire on identity, be it celebrity or sexual, and was filled with riotous humor but also blended beautifully with a rich story that bordered on genius that longer it went. Now Kaufman tries his hand expounding at the meaning of civilization versus animal instinct in Human Nature. As one character tells another, “Just remember, don’t do whatever your body is telling you to do and you’ll be fine.”
Lila (Patricia Arquette) is a woman burdened with excessive body hair ever since she was old enough for a training bra (with the younger version played by Disney’s Lizzie McGuire). Lila feels ashamed by her body and morbidly humiliated. She runs away to the forest to enjoy a life free from the critical eyes of other men. Here she can commune with nature and feel that she belongs.
Nathan (Tim Robbins) is an anal retentive scientist obsessed with etiquette. As a young boy Nathan was sent to his room for picking the wrong fork to eat his meal with. He is now trying his best to teach mice table manners so he can prove that if etiquette can be taught to animals it can be ingrained toward humanity. Lila and Nathan become lovers when she ventures back into the city, eliminating her body hair for now, because of something infinitely in human nature – hormones. The two of them find a form of content, as neither had known the intimate touch of another human being.
“Puff” (Rhys Ifans) is a grown man living his life in the woods convinced by his father that he is an ape. One day while walking through the woods, Nathan and Lila discover the ape-man and have differing opinions on what should be done with him. Nathan is convinced that he should be brought into civilization and be taught the rules, etiquette, and things that make us “human.” It would also be his greatest experiment. Lila feels that he should maintain his freedom and live as he does in nature, how he feels he should.
What follows is a bizarre love triangle over the reeducation of “Puff,” as Nathan’s slinky French assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) names him. Lila is torn over the treatment of Puff and also her own society induced shame of her abundant amount of body hair. Nathan feels like he is saving Puff from his wayward primal urges, as he himself becomes a victim of them when he starts having an affair with Gabrielle. Puff, as he tells a congressional committee, was playing their game so he could find some action and “get a piece of that.”
Kaufman has written a movie in the same vein as Being John Malkovich but missing the pathos and, sadly, the humor. Human Nature tries too hard to be funny and isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is. Many quirky elements are thrown out but don’t have the same sticking power as Kaufman’s previous film. It’s a fine line between being quirky just for quirky’s sake (like the atrocious Gummo) and turning quirky into something fantastic (like Rushmore or Raising Arizona). Human Nature is too quirky for its own good without having the balance of substance to enhance the weirdness further. There are many interesting parts to this story but as a whole they don’t ever seriously gel.
Debut director Michel Gondry cut his teeth in the realm of MTV making surreal videos for Bjork and others (including the Lego animated one for The White Stripes). He also has done numerous commercials, most infamously the creepy-as-all-hell singing navels Levi ad. Gondry does have a vision, and that vision is “Copy What Spike Jonze Did as Best as Possible.” Gondry’s direction never really registers, except for some attractive time shifts, but feels more like a rehash of Jonze’s work on, yep you guessed it, Being John Malkovich.
Arquette and Robbins do fine jobs in their roles with Arquette given a bit more, dare I say it, humanity. Her Lila is trapped between knowing what is true to herself and fitting into a society that tells her that it’s unhealthy and wrong. Ifans has fun with his character and lets it show. The acting in Human Nature is never really the problem.
While Human Nature is certainly an interesting film (hey it has Arquette singing a song in the buff and Rosie Perez as an electrologist) but the sum of its whole is lacking. It’s unfair to keep comparing it to the earlier Malkovich but the film is trying too hard to emulate what made that movie so successful. Human Nature just doesn’t have the gravity that could turn a quirky film into a brilliant one.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I’m at a loss with 2002’s Human Nature. I thought in the ensuing twenty years I would have more to say with coming back to the early burst of brilliant writer Charlie Kaufman in the immediate wake of his successful debut, 1999’s Being John Malkovich. 2002 was a big year for Kaufman; he had three movies released that he wrote, all of them wildly different. His best work was Adaptation, a reteaming with Malkovich’s Oscar-nominated director Spike Jonze, that earned Chris Cooper a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Kaufman was close to winning for Best Original Screenplay and sharing the honor with his pretend twin brother, the both of whom were portrayed by Nicolas Cage. It was the most challenging and creative and fulfilling of the three. There was also Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the debut for George Clooney as a director, was a lark of a movie, taking Gong Show host Chuck Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography” where he claimed he was doubling as a CIA black ops hitman. I recently re-watched this one months ago and my opinion even lowered because there’s nothing to the movie beyond the central irony of the unexpected reality of this unexpected man being a spy and assassin. There’s no real insight into Barris as a character and he comes across as scummy and unworthy of a big screen examination. It’s a story that only exists to be ironic and missing the messy humanity and pathos of Kaufman’s best.
But Kaufman’s most forgotten movie in his screenwriting career is definitely Human Nature, the debut film for Michel Gondry, one of Kaufman’s other collaborators along with Jonze, both men having gained great acclaim for eclectic and visionary and just plain weird music videos. It follows three main characters, each debriefing their tale to an audience. Lila (Patricia Arquette) is accused of murder and discussing her lifelong malady of growing intense amounts of body hair, enough so that she worked as a gorilla woman in a circus sideshow. Puff (Rhys Ifans) is a man raised in the wild who intended to be an ape and returned to society, been trained in etiquette, and become an example of the transformative power of civilization. Dr. Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins) is telling his story after death with a bullet hole in the middle of his pasty forehead, as the scientist who found Puff, trained him, and romanced Lila before cheating on her with his French assistant (Miranda Otto). Immediately, the movie presents questions for us to unpack: how did Nathan die? Who was really responsible? What will be the connections between these three very different characters? Then there are assorted kooky side characters that come in and out, but the focus is mostly on this trio, perhaps a foursome with Otto, and the shame is that there is only one really interesting character among them.
Lila is the only protagonist worth following. She feels like a freak, even served in a “freak show,” and must hide her secret from lovers who would object to her untamed mane. She’s vulnerable and hopeful but pressured to conform to be accepted, and her journey to radical self-acceptance would have been an entertaining movie all on its own. However, by fragmenting the narrative with Puff and Nathan, she gets far less attention and her story becomes, for far too long, just her willfully sublimating herself to Nathan’s standards of beauty. Lila frustratingly feels like a character furiously trying to do whatever she can to keep the affections of a bad man. It’s reductive to the movie’s most interesting character. Puff and Nathan, in contrast, just feel like ideas, opposite poles in a discussion over the differences between animal instinct and the ideals of human civilization in all its hypocritical splendor. Even though both men are given comic-tragic back-stories, neither is really a richly defined character. Puff is all impulses and his urges become a tiresome comic device when we watch him hump somebody or something for the eightieth time. Nathan’s preoccupation with social niceties is meant to be absurd (teaching table manners to mice?) and petty, a meaningless articulation of “high culture and values.” I did laugh out loud when Nathan was teaching Puff how to respond at the opera, complete with a constructed box seat. Nathan is a satirical punching bag for a bourgeois sensibility. Neither him nor Puff feel like characters, instead more like conflicting points of view of humanity.
The other disappointing aspect to Human Nature is as I declared in 2002, it feels like quirky for quirky’s sake screenwriting. Kaufman has become a screenwriting legend and he’s able to marry absurd, bizarre, and dangerous elements into meaningful and subversive and satirical masterstrokes, but the man cannot be expected to perform at the highest heights every time. Human Nature is stuffed full of wacky moments and wacky characters and it doesn’t feel like it ever amounts to more than the sum of its transitory parts. In contrast, 2022’s Everything Everywhere All At Once is an example of how one can take the most bizarre ideas and still find ways to tie them back in meaningful ways that braid into the larger theme. However, much of Human Nature feels like a quirk dartboard being hit over and over, a catalog of strange visuals and goofy ideas (Lila breaks out into song!) that fails to coalesce into a larger thesis like an Adaptation or an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the vastly underrated Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s directorial debut. He’s a master of the idiosyncratic, but Human Nature suffers because ultimately what does it have to say? Puff is set up for ridicule. Nathan is set up for ridicule. Even Lila is set up, though for murder. In the end, when Puff returns to the wild in a public galivanting that feels like a ceremonial bon voyage from the society that came to love him, he then scampers out of the woods and escapes back to the comforts of society with Nathan’s French mistress. In the end, is the point that we’re all rubes and hypocrites?
This was Gondry’s first film and it feels like a training vehicle for what would be his real masterpiece, 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favorite films ever. Gondry’s style is still recognizable, especially reminiscent of his tactile, kitschy, avant garde music videos he directed for Bjork, the queen of weird 1990s music videos. Gondry’s hardscrabble, idiosyncratic style was a natural match with Kaufman’s vivid imagination. It’s surprising that they never reunited after Eternal Sunshine. Gondry had a few movies (2006’s The Science of Sleep, 2008’s Be Kind Rewind) but they felt lacking, trifling without a stronger writer to guide and ground them in human drama. Gondry even tried his hand at studio action to middling results with 2010’s The Green Hornet. He mostly retreated back to music videos and commercials and had a short lived series on Showtime with Jim Carrey as a former children’s TV entertainer whose fantasy is blending with reality. It seemed like a good fit for Gondry, and a nice starring role for Carrey, but it was canceled after two seasons. Even the realm of music videos seems so far removed now, where Hollywood was snatching up every visual virtuoso.
Human Nature has plenty of familiar faces, no doubt eager to attach their names to a daring Kaufman movie. Arquette is winning and the best part of the movie. She would later win an Academy Award for her decade-in-the-making performance in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Now I enjoy her in a chilly, villainous role as the shady corporate boss on Apple TV’s stunning sci-fi satire, Severance. Robbins is officious to a fault here. He too would later win an Oscar for 2003’s Mystic River. Poor Ifans, so big after his scene-stealing role in 1999’s Notting Hill, who never seemed to capitalize on his success (even his Spider-Man villain got the weakest treatment in No Way Home). He’s had a long career and prominent TV roles with Berlin Station and the Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon. I did laugh out loud at his “yahoo” after being zapped by his electric shock collar. You’ll also see Rosie Perez, Peter Dinklage, Robert Forster, Toby Huss, Hillary Duff, and Mary Kay Place. As I said in 2002, acting is not the problem with Human Nature. It’s the writing and characterization that lets these people down.
I usually like to devote a paragraph to going back and re-evaluating my initial words from twenty years ago, but I agree with everything I wrote. Everything. That’s initially why I thought this would be a shorter review. What more am I going to say other than my initial opinion of this movie is the same opinion I have upon re-watching? With the distance, it’s even more clear to me that Human Nature is the weakest film of Kaufman’s career. Even a movie I didn’t really gel with, like 2020’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, at least has a lot more ambition I can recognize. It’s a character study obfuscated with too much eccentric clutter but there’s still an artistic vision there, even if it didn’t work for me. Kaufman is too unique a voice to only have made three movies in the last 14 years, and it makes it even more frustrating when I don’t connect with his long-in-the-making projects. Human Nature is too limited in scope and characterization. It’s slightly interesting as a footnote to a great screenwriter but little more.
Re-Review Grade: C