Category Archives: 2003 Movies
I consider myself to be a connoisseur of crappy cinema, thanks in large part to growing up on the fabulous TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000. To me, truly bad movies can be just as enjoyable to witness as great, competent works of filmic art. So imagine my surprise when it I had never heard of a little flick called The Room until a month ago. I was reading an Entertainment Weekly article about this tiny 2003 movie that has developed a rabid cult following. I felt betrayed. How did I go five years without ever hearing about this movie? The Room is writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau’s magnum opus. It must be seen to be fully believed.
To watch The Room is truly a life-altering experience. This movie goes beyond bad. It’s so bad that it almost seems like Wiseau is a mad genius. This movie is bad on multiple levels and hooks you from the beginning, instantly daring the audience to stick around to see if it gets worse. And it does in the most wonderful ways. If I was stranded on a deserted island and could only bring five movies, right now The Room would be one of them (I may even be tempted to just bring five copies of this movie). Wiseau’s film cannot displace Manos: The Hands of Fate as the worst film of all time, but The Room easily belongs in the upper echelon of craptacular cinema among the likes of The Land of Faraway and Lady Terminator and Bulletproof Monk. I am simultaneously appalled, bewildered, fascinated, delighted, and comforted by this movie, comforted by the fact that something this singularly inept could still sneak through the system. But this film is so perfectly inept on a multitude of levels that it feels like it could never be recreated again, like the human race benefited from this chance artistic encounter. The only way I can fully describe my unhealthy appreciation for this cinematic slice of the absurd is to simply list off my list of loves.
1) The film’s plot involves a love triangle with the three least personable people imaginable. Johnny (Wiseau) is a broad shouldered, marble-mouth Austrian who supposedly works at a bank, we’re told. Lisa (Juliette Danielle) stays in their apartment doing very little, though she says that she shouldn’t have gotten into the computer business because it’s “too competitive.” Lisa declares in damn near every scene that after five years together (though the characters say seven at the end of the film) she no longer loves Johnny. She now loves Mark (Greg Sestero), Johnny’s best friend. And if you forget that key point then Mark will assist you because one third of his dialogue is declarations of “Johnny’s my best friend.” Another third of his dialogue might as well be, “What are you doing?” Mark is one of the thickest dolts in history. Even after Lisa has sex with him twice, calls him repeatedly, and leads him to places where they can be alone and intimate, he looks at her dumbfounded and says, “What are you doing?” like a kid who will never comprehend that 2 + 2 = 4. This is the basis of the plot and yet so much of the movie is gloriously repetitive and involves characters sitting around, saying the same things over, without ever really advancing the plot.
2) The Room hooks you from the start, and it’s all thanks to the weird neighbor kid/surrogate son Denny (Philip Haldiman). This supposed student is an orphan that Johnny has taken a shine to; Denny has his rent and tuition generously paid for by Johnny. In the very opening scene Johnny gives Lisa a slinky red dress as a gift. She tries it on and both Denny and Johnny make favorable remarks. Johnny says he’s a bit tired and leads Lisa by the hand up the stairs. The camera stays on Denny, who, instead of taking the hint and leaving, remains standing, grabs an apple, takes a bite out of it, then slowly walks up the stairs after the amorous couple. He then hops on their bed and joins in on their pillow fight foreplay. The characters have to literally spell it out to the guy that they want some privacy for sex. “I know, I just like to watch you guys,” Denny responds. What? Denny confesses to Johnny about experiencing weird feelings for Lisa. This kid is supposed to be in college but he acts like he’s developmentally challenged. My wife has a theory that Denny has a confusing gay crush on Johnny, but I believe that would be way more deep and subtle than the movie seems capable of.
3) The movie is littered with subplots that come out of nowhere and never resurface again. All of a sudden Lisa’s materialistic mother (Carolyn Minnott) announces she has breast cancer. This is never commented upon again. All of a sudden Denny is confronted by an angry drug dealer who wants his money, which means he’s also the world’s worst drug dealer if he’s willing to give out drugs on credit. The characters all collect on the roof and yell. This is never commented upon again. Lisa makes up a story that Johnny hit her. He publicly denies it. This is never dealt with again in any capacity. Lisa lies to Johnny that she’s pregnant, just to “make things interesting.” Her rationale is that they’ll eventually start trying to have a baby anyway, which conflicts with her frequent statements that she doesn’t love Johnny and wants to leave. This fake baby is never commented upon again. About thirty minutes into the movie, another couple sneaks into Johnny’s apartment to have sex. Why I cannot fathom. When Lisa and her mother intrude upon this scene, the mother asks astutely, “Who are these characters?” Exactly madam. The movie keeps going over the same material because nothing new ever sticks.
4) The line readings are astoundingly inauthentic. Half of the film seems to be dubbed, especially Johnny’s lines. Much of the dubbed dialogue fails to match up with the actor’s mouth movements. There is one sequence in a flower shop that is nothing but dubbed dialogue and it happens so quick. The scene itself lasts like 10 seconds but it still manages to squeeze in this entire conversation: “Oh hey Johnny, I didn’t see you there.” “Yep, it’s me.” “Here are the flowers you wanted.” “How much?” “18 dollars.” “Here ya go. Keep the change. Hi doggy.” “You’re my favorite customer, Johnny.” “Byeee.” It happens so rapidly with so little breath in between. Wiseau’s quick changes in temperament with consecutive lines will amaze you. He goes directly from, “I did not hit her! I did not! I did naaaaaaaut,” to a very casual, “Oh hey, Mark,” in a nano-second flat. The speech patterns rarely approach realistic human cadences.
5) Lisa is routinely told by the several male characters that she is exceptionally beautiful and lovely, but this woman’s personality is like a dead plant. Danielle is a fine enough looking woman, though the hair and makeup people do her no help with those thick eyebrows, but as a beauty that could manipulate multiple men? I don’t think so. Danielle has a bit of a tummy to her, which is fine by my standards of beauty, but from a Hollywood perspective a woman that lacks a concave stomach is considered “fat.” Lisa’s friend Michelle (Robyn Paris) is in fact a more attractive female and might have served as a better Lisa. I think perhaps Danielle was willing to do nudity and Paris was not, but really, if you’re a struggling L.A. actor and you’re willing to agree to be apart of something like The Room, surely you’ve already ignored any internal misgivings. What possible hang-ups could there be left?
6) The film is structured like the soft-core porn that dot the late hours of premium cable channels. There are four lengthy sex scenes in the first hour, though one of them is composed almost entirely with recycled footage from the first bout of lovemaking between Lisa and Johnny. The sex scenes are deeply un-erotic and consist of several camera angles that make it impossible to see what is actually happening. There is nothing sexy about watching Wiseau’s pasty posterior humping the hips of Danielle (seriously, the body alignments are way off here). When Lisa and Mark have sex on top of a spiral staircase, Wisuea can barely frame the action coherently. Why would anyone want to have sex on a spiral staircase? That’s just asking for chronic back pain. Mark fails to even take his pants off. For such lengthy sex scenes, Wiseau does so little with the talent on display. What makes all the sex scenes even better is that they each get a wretched pop song as a soundtrack. It’s all mid 1990s R&B with some growling sex guitar, and it’s all awful. There’s one song that repeats the phrase “you are my rose” like nine times in a row. If you fail to cringe and howl from the sex scenes then the songs ought to do it.
7) Wiseau makes the most mysterious decisions as an artist. He sticks to a minimum of locations and one of them happens to be the roof of Johnny’s apartment complex. The sensible thing would be to film on an actual roof. Wiseau decided to film on a roof set and use an ineffective green screen backdrop that makes San Francisco look like it inherited Los Angeles’ smog. The film keeps cutting back to exterior stock footage of the city that signifies the passage of hours, a day, or no time whatsoever. When Denny is confronted on the same rooftop about his sudden drug disclosure, Lisa berates him. As she cries and shrieks and overacts, you cannot see it because Wiseau’s camera has cut her facial reactions out of frame. The scene cuts back and forth between Denny facing the camera and the left side of Lisa’s head. At another point Lisa is talking about her cheating ways with her pal Michelle, who seems way too giggly to be disapproving. During this scene Lisa has angled her body in such a manner that when she speaks it appears like a subcutaneous alien is about to burst forth from beneath her neck. Wiseau did not catch this unnerving and distracting sight. The film’s lone idea of male bonding involves tossing a football together. So Mark and Johnny will go out running in a park and toss a football back and forth, all the while having a faint conversation that gets drowned out by an overly anxious score. There will be swaths of the film where the score just competes with the onscreen dialogue.
8) There’s like a whole other level of offhand dialogue throughout, where characters will stand around and Johnny or someone else will mumble to no one in particular. The actual dialogue is full of other memorable head-scratchers, such as:
Random disapproving guy to Mark: “Keep your stupid comments in your pockets!”
Same disapproving man: “It feels like I’m sitting on an atom bomb that is going to explode!”
Michelle using chocolate candies as a means of foreplay: “Chocolate is a sign of love.”
Lisa’s mother: “Nobody ever listens to me.”
Lisa: “You’re probably right about that, mom.”
Johnny’s profound wisdom: “You know, if more people love each other the world would be a better place.”
Johnny refers to someone as a chicken and then proceeds to make this accompanying sound: “Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheeeaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiip.” This bizarre chicken impression will be repeated no less than three times.
Mark: How was work today?
Johnny: Oh pretty good. We got a new client… at the bank. We make a lot of money.
Mark: What client?
Johnny: I cannot tell you. It’s confidential.
Mark: Oh come on. Why not?
Johnny: No I can’t. Anyway, how is your sex life?
And finally, the signature line, where Johnny has had enough of Lisa’s mental games and he roars, “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!”
I could keep citing further evidence of The Room‘s cinematic shortcomings, but listing the faults of one of the worst films ever made can be pointless after a while. The staggering amount of faults in Wiseau’s film is also its combined strength. Most bad movies have a finite level of badness, like a poor plot or some troublesome acting. The Room is a movie composed of nothing but 99 complete minutes of badness at every facet of filmmaking. I am a more complete person having seen this remarkable film. I highly recommend gathering a group of friends around and holding a viewing party; the movie plays to even higher levels of enjoyment with a group atmosphere. The Room is Tommy Wiseau’s accidental masterpiece and, to me, proof that a loving God exists.
Artistic Merit: F
Entertainment Value: A+
House of the Dead is Uwe Boll’s first foray into the video game-to-movie niche he’s carved himself. It’s based on a first-person-shooter by Sega that lets players blast their way through a haunted house and its undead tenants. There’s not much to the game. In interviews Boll has remarked at how he hated the film’s jokey script and rewrote much of it on the fly, trapping the film between the genres of horror and action. In the DVD jacket, executive producer/co-writer Mark A. Altman says, “House of the Dead is no Citizen Kane.” This may be the understatement of the millennium, comparable only to Napoleon saying Russia might be a tad cold.
Matt (Steve Byers), Greg (Will Sanderson), Simon (Tyron Leitso) are meeting with fellow college students Alicia (Ona Grauer), Karma (Enuka Okuma), and Cynthia (Sonya Salomaa). They’re ready to party at the rave of the century. This rave of raves takes place on the ominously named Isle del Muerte (The Island of the Dead). I suppose this proves that no one on the rave planning board speaks Spanish. The kids eventually hitch a ride to the island from Captain Kirk (Jurgen Prochnow) and his first mate (Clint Howard). Hot on Kirk’s heels is Casper (Ellie Kornell), a border agent after Kirk for gunrunning. Once they arrive at the island, the kids are shocked to find the rave site vacated, destroyed, and swarming with zombies. Everyone makes a run for it and regroups with some of the rave’s survivors, led by Rudy (Jonathon Cherry). The groups team up, armed by Kirk, and set out to shoot their way home. But there’s also a very evil figure roaming about that has more sinister plans for the island’s fresh meat.
House of the Dead isn’t a horror movie at all. Boll has no idea how to stage scenes with tension. He has no feel for mood or atmosphere, which are the foundations of a good horror flick. So instead, House of the Dead is a riotously dumb action movie. But under Boll’s direction, it’s not even good at that. The action is repetitious and pedestrian. Boll’s big melee sequence becomes boring because it doesn’t progress. There’s just ten minutes of wall-to-wall shooting zombies, but there isn’t any order to it, no rhyme or reason. If you want a perfect example of Boll’s inept staging, skim to 47:20 into the DVD and watch. You’ll see a zombie leap onto a jumping platform and launch himself into the air. House of the Dead actually has scenes where we see exposed jumping pads and landing mats.
Boll gets drunk on special effects very easily. He loves the bullet time effect and throws it in at odd points. Every single character gets a tiresome slow-mo camera spin as they fire a gun. After the ninth and tenth time, the thing gets old. The characters don’t even have the same weapons in the shots before the slow-mo jazz. Boll doesn’t use flashy effects to benefit his narrative, unlike The Matrix. Boll actually thinks using clips from the actual video game is a good device to transition between scenes. There will be moments where screen shots of the game just pop up. Boll is a kid with toys and no clue when to put them back into the box.
This movie’s silliness is jaw dropping. The so-called rave of the century seems to be poorly attended, and the better for it since it takes place on the Island of the Dead (Isle del Muerte). Is that really the best place to host a social gathering? Perhaps everyone gets what they deserve for being stupid. Kirk, after shooting several zombies, limply remarks, “Now I know why they call this the Island of the Dead.” The line should be accompanied by a rim shot. The movie doesn’t even live up to the lofty ambitions of its title. The film should be renamed Island of the Dead.
By far the most ludicrous story element is the film’s villain, Castillo (David Palffy). It seems that before he stalked the island in a hooded cloak, looking like Robert DeNiro in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, he was a Spanish pirate/doctor. He tried to experiment on living tissue in order to unlock the secret of how to be immortal. He was imprisoned on a Spanish ship and was shipwrecked on the Island of the Dead (what are the odds?). He’s concocted a special Kool-Aid that will bring the dead back to life, though I don’t know why he’s still stuck on an island if he can’t drown. I guess he’s been biding his time and waiting for stupid college students so he can see some T&A.
The characters are made up of people interested in attending a rave, but when the action hits they’re all instantly adept at weaponry and kung-fu. That’s not the typical raver I know, and these people must be super ravers if they’re going to the rave of the century. Simon is described as “the biggest underwear model in America,” and for all I know underwear models encounter a lot of gunfire on the runway. The DVD jacket has character profiles where it lists their name, age, weapon of choice, and skill. After having watched House of the Dead, the skills are laughable at best. Simon the runway model’s skill is “tactical planning.” I also seriously question Rudy’s “leadership” skills since he gets everyone killed.
Of course everyone in the movie is profoundly stupid. While trapped in the island’s only house, Rudy says the kegs of gunpowder are useless without a charge, and then he walks past a series of lit candles. The whole house upon arrival is filled with lit candles (who has the time for that, by the way?). Alicia is convinced that the rave site being deserted, destroyed, and zombie-infested is all a practical joke, as if Ashton Kutcher is just around a tree poised to yell, “You suckas just got punk’d!” There are numerous moments where a character will wander into the dark and say, “[Insert name], is that you?” Kirk takes the last stick of dynamite and plans to sacrifice himself by blowing up some zombies good. He lights the stick, wanders outside their barricaded stronghold, and blows himself sky high. What Kirk failed to do was move far enough from the house, because he also blows the front door wide open and the zombies filter inside. No wonder Picard is the better Starfleet captain.
The acting doesn’t even rise to the level of camp. The actors feel unrestrained and marooned, typical of a Uwe Boll film. The man has no feel for actors and this explains why his films have some of the worst line readings I’ve ever heard (2000’s Dungeons and Dragons is still the worst). Casper acts like a crabby fitness instructor. The dialogue is bad as is, but when added with the poor line readings it turns every spoken sentence into something of unintentional hilarity. Take this nugget from Simon: “We got to the boat but it wasn’t there.” Well, then did you actually get to it?
House of the Dead can be enjoyed for the depths it plumbs. The dialogue is cheesy and leaden. The movie is bad enough that if you have some friends over, drink steadily, you’ll have a blast laughing and hurling popcorn at the screen. The movie does have a decent amount of blood and gore and the make-up effects are good but limited. You can enjoy House of the Dead in a fun derisive way, and it’s hard to argue with the price some retailers charge (I bought it on Amazon.com for 75 cents plus shipping). The DVD commentary is also good for a laugh, that is, if Boll’s self-flagellating remarks are serious. At one point he compares his zombie action movie to Shindler’s List. Boll also marvels at an actor’s ability to carry objects and make them seem heavy. I’m not sure if Boll is serious or just making fun of the movie like everyone else.
House of the Dead is a dull action movie within the framework of a horror flick. The characters are powerfully stupid, the action is redundant, the effects are chintzy and overused, and the direction is lackluster. Boll has added little in transitioning a game about poppin’ zombies onto the silver screen. The video game is flimsy and the movie based upon it manages to be even flimsier. House of the Dead is incredibly dumb entertainment and the fact that a sequel is well underway cannot be a good sign for human existence. I never thought I’d utter these words but . . . Clint Howard, you’re too good for this.
Nate’s Grade: D
Note: Boll re-released a recut House of the Dead as a comedy. I haven’t seen “the funny version” but I can’t imagine that it could possibly be any funnier than the original.
The film spans one morning of a “normal” high school in Oregon (it looks like the school is a three-story motel). It’s the last day of school and everyone is ready to jump into the real world. The storylines are rife with every high school cliché that can be found. Drum roll please, and they are:
1) Good Virgin (Stefanie MacGillivray) is dumped by Jerky Jock (Will Sanderson) because she refuses to put out. The majority of this storyline takes place in the guy’s car where he sadistically tells her all the details of the many other girls he was “forced” to sleep with (“The whole school f***s. Everybody except you.”). One of these girls is the transient High Girl (Elisabeth Rosen), who has fallen in love with Jerky Jock over the course of him using her for sex.
2) High Girl has no parental involvement and lots of free time. She thusly gets high a lot and trips out for most of the movie. Dealer Dude spends all day implausibly hanging around the high school with sacks of drugs to sell. He’s stopped by Idealist Guidance Counselor (Maria Conchita Alonso) who wants to make a difference.
3) Good Student apparently wasn’t good at contraceptive planning because she’s pregnant. She wants an abortion and her life back. She’s also really snotty to her Boyfriend who wants to keep the baby and support her but is also willing to support whatever decision she makes. Man, he’s such a jerk. Way jerkier than Jerky Jock.
4) Mean Creative Writing Teacher (Michael Paré) gets a good talking-to by the school principal (Jurgen Prochnow). The teacher is struggling with his own writing and taking out his frustrations by being overly critical of his students’ works. His grades appear to be unfair and unprofessional. One of his students is High Girl.
5) A team of bullies regularly beat up and humiliates Barry (Michael Belyea) and Daniel, who masterminds a plot for revenge. Daniel (Kett Turton) is tormented by his abusive father (Clint Howard) who just laughs when he sees bruises and black eyes on his son. The bullies are lead by King Bully (Brendan Fletcher) who is visited by his older brother, Former King Bully (Steve Byers), who reminisces about the good ole days of beating people up because they were different. These storylines mix and match until our inevitable shoot-em-up conclusion.
Heart of America is based on a story by Boll and written by Robert Dean Klein (Blackwoods). The plot structure is competent and the film is mildly entertaining, which was a great surprise for me. The cinematography is above average for its budget and the score is quiet and reflective. Heart of America, with all its shortcomings, is still a better movie than Gus van Sant’s school shooter opus, Elephant (I dread to see this statement on the front of a re-released DVD).
Despite all of its simplicity, Heart of America makes some boneheaded decisions. It closes with lengthy text detailing other school shooters in the previous years. The text takes away from the drama and has no significant purpose other than to say, “You’ve just watched kids shoot up their school. Here’s how some other kids did it. If you’d like to learn more, visit your local library.” Heart of America also lacks subtlety; every item that is meant to carry a message of significance is hit so hard you’ll wonder if a gong is rattling. Then again, Boll isn’t well known for subtlety. This should explain Heart of America’s aches and pains with revealing its twists and revelations.
For two acts we’re led to believe that Daniel and Barry are the ones who are going to shoot up their school. Daniel IM’s his co-conspirator and reminds them not to “punk out on him.” Then minutes before the bloodbath it’s revealed that his co-conspirator is . . . another person! It’s High Girl, who takes a gun and gladly goes about killing classmates. Heart of America intentionally teases the viewer whether Barry will not follow through and this twist is intended to be something of a surprise. Trouble is someone should have told that to the DVD manufacturing folks. On the Heart of America DVD cover (as you can see for yourselves above) are the faces of Daniel and High Girl side-by-side. Superimposed over them is a list of school shooting locations that have been crossed out (it’s little wonder that Boll held back from the final one saying, “Anytown, U.S.A.”). Below all of these images is another picture of High Girl, this time standing in class and pointing an accusatory finger at some unforeseen figure. Any person intending to watch Heart of America will instantly associate High Girl with Daniel and already be thinking they’re Bonnie and Clyde. You can’t have a twist when you’re advertising it on the front cover of your DVD. Would The Sixth Sense have been as effective if the poster had Bruce Willis walking through walls like Ghost Dad (no respect to Ghost Dad intended)?
The most disturbing moment in Heart of America doesn’t even take place around the school. It involves a story Big Brother tells his bully clan about his greatest accomplishments. One of these is inviting a mentally challenged girl into his basement, getting her drunk, and then gang-banging her. At first I thought it was rather unwarranted and unethical to have flashbacks of Big Bro’s story so that we can actually see the rape. Then it hit a slightly interesting juxtaposition, as Big Bro’s positive recount of his victim’s experience doesn’t exactly match what we see happening. So I was willing to let it slide until the film hit a deplorable low – a gratuitous nude scene of the mentally challenged girl (dubbed “Slow White”). You can tell it’s gratuitous too because most of the scene isn’t even shot at angles that expose the breasts. It’s disturbing on the level that Boll was knowingly trying to shoehorn in some nudity and elicit titillation. The decision actually detracts from the power of the scene because it feels so tackily gratuitous. Is it too much to ask that if we have a mentally challenged girl being raped that we don’t also have a needless nude scene? This whole moment is egregiously disgusting because it’s done for titillation.
Once the end credits start to roll, the casual viewer will think two things: 1) What is that awful, tonally inappropriate pop song playing that actually has the lyrics, “The roads you made are the ones you pave,” and 2) what the hell was the message of Heart of America? In the first ten minutes or so we see teens on drugs, teens on medication, teens with no parental involvement, teens with parental abuse, and teens bullying to feel better about themselves. Do any of these things cause school violence, or is it some kind of magic combination? I never expected Heart of America to fashion a thesis on why kids grab guns and shoot up their schools but the ending feels ridiculously, artlessly devoid of meaning.
To further get into this point of discussion I will be spoiling all of the major plot lines of the movie, so in the rare instance anyone is remotely interested in watching Heart of America and/or its sick mentally challenged nude scene, scroll down. You won’t be missing much, trust me.
As expected, Daniel and High Girl get revenge primarily upon their tormentors. What I don’t get is that before High Girl sweeps into her classroom for her vengeance, she tells Dealer Dude, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” Huh? Does she mean she wouldn’t have gone to these lengths had she not be high? Or is this statement farther reaching, like blaming Dealer Dude for being apart of a system that has turned her into a degenerate drug user? I have no idea, but High Girl struts into class and kills Creative Writing Teacher, who had made fun of her and forced her to read her poetry aloud. Got it. But then she aims her pistol at Jerky Jock, whispers “I love you,” and then shoots Good Virgin to death. Apparently High Girl did not catch the news that Jerky Jock had dumped her minutes earlier. So what is the point of Good Virgin’s storyline? The only thing I can surmise is that if you don’t have sex you will be killed. If Good Virgin had given up her goodly virginity then Jerky Jock wouldn’t have been on the prowl, and he wouldn’t have used High Girl for throwaway sex, and then she wouldn’t have shot Good Virgin in jealousy. You see how this works? It’s the exact opposite of a horror movie. Daniel also shoots and kills Good Student’s boyfriend/father of her baby. What is that saying? Is it some kind of ironic statement on abortion? Why couldn’t any of the shooters have clipped Patrick Muldoon’s nails-on-the-chalkboard horndog sex ed teacher? It seems Boll has a soapbox but he has nothing understandable to say.
Heart of America makes the audience not only side with the school shooters but also practically roots for them. Daniel and Barry undergo constant bullying from the get go. The film, in its simplistic approach, plays the bullies as irredeemable assholes and Daniel and Barry are the hapless victims. Heart of America practically justifies its characters resorting to violence. Sure some innocent people get caught in the fray, but then aren’t they all to blame somehow? Again, I have no idea what Boll is trying to say.
Despite Boll having no command with actors (Muldoon is a constant reminder of this), the younger actors in Heart of America give pretty good performances. Turton (Saved!, Walking Tall) really festers with anger and discontent but also gives insights into a fragile kid just wanting to live. Belyea really works his nervous indecision to a nub, going so far as to hide his mother’s car keys so she won’t chance going to his school. Fletcher (Freddy vs. Jason) is a grinning monster as a bully but, in the film’s lone turn at character depth, also shows how uncomfortable he is being a bully. It seems that he too is just doing it to fit in. Fletcher’s pained and awkward reactions are a welcome sign of humanity, though it seems to be too little too late when we the climax hits. Rosen seems decidedly disconnected and dead-eyed scary.
It’s puzzling that the top listed actors in Heart of America’s credits are as follows; Jurgen Prochnow, Michael Paré, Patrick Muldoon, and Maria Conchita Alonso. All four of those actors amount to about ten minutes of total screen time; Muldoon essentially has a grating cameo. Why are the kids not credited as the rightful stars of the show? The adults give terrible performances (seriously, I cannot overstate how creepy Muldoon is) but the kids are all right. The most shocking fact about the cast is that somewhere in this mix is Emmy-nominated Mad Men actress Elisabeth Moss. Look for her in here somewhere as “Robin Walters.”
Heart of America works with paint-by-numbers characters and Boll only doles out one color. The jock is a jerk. The virgin is good. The bullies are mean. The stoners are high. Very seldom does the film delve any deeper than these cursory characterizations. Because of this simplicity Heart of America strains credibility during its more unrealistic moments. At one point, King Bully and his posse force Daniel and Barry to eat dog poop and the moment is played as a defining point of drama. Does this stuff really happen? If it does then it certainly doesn’t happen often enough to be included in Boll’s depiction of a “normal” school. Then again, Boll’s idea of a normal American educational environment also involves raping mentally challenged girls. The name of the movie itself indicates how typical everything is supposed to seem.
This is a thought-provoking film, with the main thought being “What the hell is the movie trying to say?” Heart of America wades in a kiddy pool of high school clichés. The characters are paint-by-numbers and lack definition beyond their social title (Virgin, Jock, Bully, etc.). This film is awash in unresolved statements and stacks the deck so the audience will practically root for the school shooters. With no help from Uwe Boll, the younger actors are the movie’s stars and give good performances despite the limited range of their characters. You won’t know anything deeper after watching Heart of America. It’s Boll’s Big Statement Film but your guess is as good as mine as to whatever that is. Violence breeds violence? Parents need to spend more time with their kids? Don’t force kids to eat poo if they’re not ready? Heart of America is unrealistic, strained, unfocused, shallow and clumsy, and it’s also Boll’s best work to date.
Nate’s Grade: C
Monster follows the life of Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron, now nominated for a Best Actress Oscar), Americas only known female serial killer. In the late 1980s, Wueros was a roadside prostitute flexing her muscles with Florida motorists. She describes hookin’ as the only things shes ever been good at. One day Wuornos has the full intention of taking her own life, but she meets 18-year-old Selby (Christina Ricci) at a lesbian bar and finds a companion. Driven by a growing hatred of men from sexual abuse, Wuorno’s starts killing her johns to try and establish a comfortable life for her and Selby.
Let’s not mince words; Theron gives one of the best performances I have ever seen in my life. Yes, that’s right. One of. The. Best. Performances. Ever. This is no exaggeration. I’m not just throwing out niceties. Theron is completely unrecognizable under a mass of facial prosthetics, 30 extra pounds, fake teeth and a total lack of eyebrows. But this is more than a hollow ploy to attract serious attention to the acting of a pretty face. Theron does more than simple imitation; she fully inhabits the skin of Aileen Wuornos. The closest comparison I can think of is Val Kilmer playing Jim Morrison in The Doors.
Theron is commanding, brave, distressing, ferocious, terrifying, brutal, stirring, mesmerizing and always captivating. It may be a cliché, but you really cannot take your eyes off of her. Her performance is that amazing. To say that Theron in Monster is an acting revelation is perhaps the understatement of the year.
With previous acting roles in Reindeer Games and The Cider House Rules, Theron is usually delegated to pretty girlfriend roles (who occasionally shows her breasts). Who in the world thought she had this kind of acting capability? I certainly did not. If Nicole Kidman can win an Oscar for putting on a fake nose and a so-so performance, surely Theron should win an Oscar for her absolute transformation of character and giving the performance of a lifetime.
With this being said, and most likely over said, Monster is by no means a perfect film. Minus the terrific central performance, Monster is more of an everyday profile of a grotesque personality. The film weakly tries to portray Wuornos more as a victim, but by the end of the film, and six murdered men later, sympathy is eradicated as Wuornos transforms into the titular monster. Some supporting characters, like Ricci’s narrow-minded Christian up bringers, are flat characters bordering on parody. The supporting characters are generally underwritten, especially the male roles that serve as mere cameos in a film dominated by Sapphic love.
Monster is proof positive that human beings will never be phased out by advancing machinery when it comes to acting. Monster boasts one of the greatest acting achievements in recent cinematic history, but it also coasts on sharp cinematography and a moody and ambient score by BT (Go). Monster is a haunting film that you wont want to blink for fear of taking your eyes off of Theron. She gives an unforgettable tour de force performance that will become legendary.
Nate’s Grade: B
Premise: At the end of the Civil War, Inman (Jude Law, scruffy) deserts the Confederate lines to journey back home to Ada (Nicole Kidman), the love of his life he’s spent a combined 10 minutes with.
Results: Terribly uneven, Cold Mountain‘s drama is shackled by a love story that doesnt register the faintest of heartbeats. Kidman is wildly miscast, as she was in The Human Stain, and her beauty betrays her character. She also can’t really do a Southern accent top save her life (I’m starting to believe the only accent she can do is faux British). Laws ever-changing beard is even more interesting than her prissy character. Renee Zellweger, as a no-nonsense Ma Clampett get-your-hands-dirty type, is a breath of fresh air in an overly stuff film; however, her acting is quite transparent in an, ”Aw sucks, give me one dem Oscars, ya’ll way.”
Nate’s Grade: C
Premise: Alcoholic Civil War vet (Tom Cruise) is hired by the Japanese emperor to modernize his army. After being captured by samurai, he finds solace and fights alongside his former enemy against the emperors modernized army.
Results: A miscast Cruise is not turning Japanese, no matter if he really thinks so. The Last Samurai is a conservative by-the-book epic the limply transports the framework of Dances with Wolves and effectively creates Dances with Japanese People. Dont believe me? Lets go to the videotape. Civil War vet (check) haunted by massacre of Native Americans (check), finds peace with a foreign culture (check), falls in love with one of the foreign women (check), and must battle the invading former culture that threatens his new happiness (check). The film does have lovely cinematography and production design, if that means something to you.
Nate’s Grade: C+
To all those hairy-footed Tolkien geeks that chewed me out for having the audacity to call 2002’s Two Towers, of all things, boring, let me say this: while I still find the second entry of The Lord of the Rings to be disappointing and pretty flawed, the final chapter, Return of the King, is a glorious and satisfying conclusion. Instead of doing a usual review (plot synopsis, strengths/weaknesses, etc.), I’m going to bring back the charges I had against Two Towers and explain why Return of the King does not suffer from these ills. Will the defendant please rise as I read aloud the charges.
Charge Number One: Two Towers has nothing going on for its majority except hyping an oncoming battle.
And I still feel this way. Short of the great Helms Deep battle, there was oh so little going on in Two Towers that they could have easily trimmed an hour away from it. And don’t give me this crap about the whole kingdom of man subplot or Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) realizing his eventual responsibilities. Whatever. Now, in Return of the King, there is so much going on and the pacing is so tight, that despite being the longest film by far (3 hours and 20 minutes), this is the FIRST Lord of the Rings films that has not put me to sleep in the theaters. The nearly hour-long battle involving the 200,000 Orc army with its huge elephant creatures is mesmerizing and visually stunning. But even after the battle and before, unlike Two Towers, there is plenty going on that actually matters, not just three characters running around endlessly.
So even though little is going on, Two Towers still doesn’t use all this free space to deepen characters. But in Return of the King, the characters come through and shine. The hobbits are back to the front burner and the film is better for it. Sam (Sean Astin, in the finest performance of the film) and Frodos journey becomes increasingly important and the strain and deception of Gollum puts a wedge between their friendship. When Frodo (Elijah Wood) looks scornfully at Sam and dismisses him from their journey, it’s heartbreaking. Why? Because after two years we as an audience have come attached to these characters and do feel for their struggle. When Sam, toward the climax, says, “I may not be able to carry the ring, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you!” I dare anyone to try not choking up. We also get deeper moments of character with peripheral characters, like Faramir realizing he can only satisfy his father by a suicidal mission. Even the smaller characters from the second film, like Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and her kingly father Theoden (Bernard Hill), have wonderful moments where the emphasis is on characterization. Return of the King is filled with rich character moments that remind us how much we enjoy and feel for these people … uh, and hobbits.
Charge Number Three: Most of the characters from Fellowship of the Ring have scant appearances in Two Towers.
This still holds true. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, brilliant) returned from the dead but had about three minutes of screen time. The elves (Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett) were given the amount of screen time most people would consider cameos. And then the hobbits were left alone for the overlong subplot involving Theoden and his clan. What Two Towers really was was the dwarf, elf, and Aragorn movie. And I like each of those characters but this story is not theirs its the hobbits. So the disproportionate amount of time spent with Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Aragorn felt like what would happen if, in Star Wars, C-3PO and R2D2 had their own film. It wasn’t as interesting and it wasn’t right. But with Return of the King, the attention is back to the hobbits, and all of the characters in the entire film have at least one stirring moment of quality time. Gandalf is back in a big way and its welcomed. What else is welcomed is the increasing attention Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have. They started as merrymakers, but by this trilogys end they are desperate to join the ranks and fight. The shared moments between Merry and Eowyn in battle are great. The moments between Pippin and Gandalf are even better. And even though the elves still get the short end of the stick, they make lengthier appearances that are more satisfying. It appears, though, that Cate Blanchett’s longest amount of time in this whole trilogy was narrating the opening prologue.
Even if you disagree with me on the previous three charges, you must agree with me that Two Towers had about a million dwarf jokes too many. Return of the King, to my knowledge, doesn’t even have ONE dwarf joke. Fabulous. This is not to say I want less Gimli. The subplot involving the Two Towers trio seeking an army of the dead (a tad deus ex machine) is intriguing, and his competitive banter with Legolas is still ripe (Bah! That still counts as one!).
Return of the King is an amazing experience and one that is a fully satisfying conclusion, unlike say, I don’t know, maybe the last two Matrix films. The danger feels more abundant now that the end is near and the tension mounts. The payoffs are rewarding and the climax is fittingly climactic. However, the 20-minute resolution is a bit drawn out. It seems director Peter Jackson can give us three hours of fast-paced action but cant speed through a medley of hugs. You think its over…. and then theres more, then you think its over…. then there’s more. This is a small quibble for such an epic trilogy, and Return of the King proves that it’s really one large triumphant film, with a bit of a sag in the middle. What? Did you think I’d get through all this Lord of the Rings love-fest and not take one last jab at Two Towers? Though I still prefer Fellowship of the Ring out of the three, Return of the King cements the trilogys cinematic greatness in our time. Oh yeah, and the cinematography, special effects, production design, makeup, and score are magnificent too.
The defendant is cleared of all charges.
Nate’s Grade: A
Premise: A mathematician (Sean Penn) in need of a heart transplant, a recovering addict (Naomi Watts) mourning the loss of her husband and children, and an ex-con (Benicio Del Toro) whos found redemption in Jesus, are all linked by a horrific car accident. The aftermath will bring them together out of grief, guilt, and revenge.
Results: The greatest asset 21 Grams has, bar none, is the trio of breathtaking performances. De Toro gives a powerful performance as a man consumed by grief and seeking answers in the unknown. Watts gives the definition of a raw performance. What isn’t cool is the structure, told out of order like the directors first film, the brilliant Amorres Perros, translated: Loves a Bitch. But the mixed-up structure of 21 Grams is needlessly complicated d frustrating, plus it pulls you out of the movie. Im sure theres a rationale reason for it, but the surprises and expectations it produces are minimal. The whole thing would have been better plunked in an old-fashioned linear structure. The sensational performances and intelligent story will stay with you long after the film ends.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Premise: Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) has lost her family home due to a bureaucratic error, and a former Iranian colonel (Ben Kingsley) and his family move in for a rock-bottom price. Neither is willing to budge, and their turf tussle soon becomes a tragedy.
Results: Perhaps the first real estate thriller, House of Sand and Fog is a smartly written, emotionally harrowing film with phenomenal acting. Kingsley is superb and deserves a Best Actor nomination. Shohreh Aghdashloo is heartbreaking as Kingsley’s wife, who doesn’t know a lot of English but loses sleep over the word ”deportation.” The drama is meant to convey that both sides have a convincing claim to the house, but who are audiences going to side with, an American screw-up who could have avoided the whole mess by mailing in a letter, or a hard-working family ere the son is willing to take a second paper route to help out? The final act is a bit overly bleak, and the cop boyfriend character is an easy go-to for plot turns. House of Sand and Fog is one of the more compelling films of the year. What more could you want in a prestige picture?
Nate’s Grade: B+
Premise: Estranged son Will (Billy Crudup) travels back home in an effort to know his ailing father Edward Bloom (Albert Finney; Ewan McGregor as the younger version). Will hopes to learn the truth behind a man who spent a lifetime spinning extravagant tall tales.
Results: Despite a shaky first half, Big Fish becomes a surprisingly elegant romance matched by director Tim Burtion’s visual whimsy. McGregor’s shining big-grinned optimism is charming. Not to be confused with the similar but too mawkish Forrest Gump, Burton’s father-son meditation will have you quite choked up at its moving climax. Fair warning to those with father issues, you may want to steer clear from Big Fish. You know who you are.
Nate’s Grade: B+