Category Archives: Review Re-View
A film is taking the nation by storm and it isn’t anything from a big studio. In fact it’s the first release of a new indie production house called New Market, and these people have lassoed a real winner. Memento is a murder mystery bubbling with perfect elements of noir, suspense, and trickery. Memento is the tale of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) who is searching desperately for John G., the culprit he believes that raped and murdered his wife. Along the way Leonard gets assistance from his friend Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie Anne-Moss), a down on her luck bartender.
Except Leonard has a peculiar problem plaguing his one-man investigation for justice. After the attack on his wife the assailant knocked him out, and Leonard was left with no short-term memory whatsoever. Leonard cannot develop new memories. So if something happens to him, he is liable to immediately forget it within five minutes. To aid himself he write on small post-its telling him which car is his, what hotel he’s at, etc. all over his body are tattoos of clues he has amassed. He takes Polaroids of people and writes their names on them to remind him of the faces he sees that he won’t remember. Leonard’s investigation is about what his notes tell him. He doesn’t know whom he can trust and whom he cannot.
If this wasn’t enough to make Memento interesting the entire tale is told out of sequence and run from end to beginning. The entire film is told backwards. This action robs the audience of the same information that escapes Leonard. We too know neither who to trust. The effect could fall into gimmick territory but makes the movie fresh and adds for some great comic situations as well, like when Leonard awakens with a bottle of champagne in his hand and tells himself he doesn’t feel drunk.
Pearce is gripping as the emotionally shattered and fractured Leonard. He is a man that can trust nothing and must live from repetition but is intent on bringing his wife’s killer to bloody justice. Pantoliano and Moss provide good support as the weary characters that weave into Leonard’s plight. The acting it excellent all around. They leave us guessing and reassembling our perceptions as more of the puzzle unravels.
Memento is top-notch film noir. It’s a breathless thriller of a first rate caliber. The direction given by Christopher Nolan from his screenplay is tight and highly effective. The character of Leonard is fleshed out in all his paranoia, pain, and frustration. Nolan has delivered a gift to movie audiences always hungry for fresh material. One has to see the film a second time just to see how well the segments play together.
Memento is the coolest movie around. Rush out and see it, then see it again, and then again. It’s the best movie of 2001 by far as of now and has the Best Original Screenplay Oscar locked [Editor’s note: it lost to Gosford Park of all things.] It’s destined to be a cinematic classic people will talk about for years.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Without a doubt, there has been no filmmaker that has had the meteoric rise over the last twenty years than Christopher Nolan. The man has entered that rare, hallowed upper echelon of the Steven Spielbergs and Quentin Tarantinos where his name alone is the selling point. You go to see a Nolan movie because you know it will be an experience that no other filmmaker can quite deliver, and from 2005’s Batman Begins onward, he’s been given immense studio resources and unchecked creative control to make his big dreams come true on the biggest stage. It’s thus very fun to go back to the little 2001 indie movie where it all started for the future box-office titan. It has many of the hallmarks that have followed the director’s ascendant career, like dead wives as back-story, cool emotions, an unreliable protagonist, and especially its crackerjack, air-tight narrative. Memento already had a dynamite premise, an amateur investigator seeking justice who couldn’t hold new memories because of a mental condition. It was based on an unpublished short story by his brother Jonathan (future frequent collaborator and creator of HBO’s Westworld), which is why it qualified as an original screenplay at the Oscars, to which it would eventually lose out to Gosford Park (go figure). Nolan deliberately made the story even harder to follow in a gambit that would come to define his screenwriting experimentation. He told the entire movie backwards, so that the story began at its ending and finished at its beginning. Every few minutes, we, like our memory-challenged lead Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), are left to ask, “How did we get here?” It puts you in the stark position of the lead’s perplexed and scrambling sensibility. It’s a raised bet of a storytelling check, one that Nolan delivers with incredible panache, but twenty years later, is Memento more than a brilliantly executed magic trick?
Even after watching Memento likely half a dozen times in my life, this is still one very confusing movie to follow. There are two current storylines that crisscross and eventually overlap, like tributaries reconnecting to a source. The black-and-white segments of Leonard narrating his rules, tattoos of key clues, practices, and investigative successes as he narrows his search for the mysterious “John G.,” the man he claims assaulted him and his wife, are filmed more objectively, playing out in linear fashion, given to rampant exposition to better orient the audience to the tricks of the movie. The color segments are the main action, watching Leonard go from murdering a confidant to then explaining how we got here, roping in scummy drug dealers, violent men, sad-eyed barmaids, and people looking to take advantage of Leonard and his unique disability (the motel owner rents him multiple rooms). These sequences are played in the backwards trajectory that drives the movie, so every pit stop essentially resets the movie as we know it. It’s an amazing device because it makes every scene its own little movie with its own little payoff, with a dopamine reward for seeing how the opening of the last image came to be. Some of these are played for laughs but many are extremely well thought out to keep an audience guessing. Leonard opens a closet to find a beaten and gagged man who swears it was Leonard who did this to him. Leonard begins in mid-chase, seeing a man running parallel to him. “Oh, I must be chasing this guy,” he comments in voice over, until seeing the man’s gun in hand and his advance. “No, he’s chasing me,” he corrects, and runs in the other direction. Then there’s the question of who Leonard can trust, and your assessment of the supporting characters in his orbit will shift. You’ll feel bamboozled just like Leonard, that is, if he could remember. The backwards-narrative allows Nolan to make his revenge thriller so much more mysterious and audacious and playful, and the director takes full advantage of the possibility. It’s a rare screenplay of near genius quality.
On a later DVD release, there was a hidden special feature that could be unlocked that would play the movie in chronological order, and I feel like this would be like watching a magic performance with X-ray vision. It would completely take away the appeal. While I think the level of details and continuity and thematic connections would be even more apparent with more traditional, linear plotting, it would seriously negate much of the fun and potential of the movie. That’s not to say that Memento is only effective because of its narrative shuffling. It’s still a lean thriller with a brimming confidence that can give you an artistic contact high. The character of Leonard Shelby is a fascinating and tragic figure worth exploration, which the movie allows for deeper discussion off-board. However, when you’re witnessing a thoroughly thought-out magic trick that is performed at such a heightened degree of excellence, why blow it up with asking for convention?
It’s also fun to revisit the 2001 movie and see many of Nolan’s staples of creative collaborators. There’s his brother, who he’s co-wrote a very successful Batman trilogy with, along with Doddy Dorn as the editor (Insomnia), David Julyan (The Prestige, Insomnia) as the composer, and especially Wally Phister as the cinematographer who helmed every Nolan movie from 2001 to 2012, winning an Oscar for 2010’s Inception.
I’ll preface these next two paragraphs with a spoiler warning, which I acknowledge is perhaps overdoing it for a movie that’s been available for twenty years, but I’m going to discuss the ending (beginning) of Memento and its implications, so if you’d prefer to be surprised and are one of the people on the planet who hasn’t seen this movie, or been spoiled, then go watch it and then come back to this review. The through line of Memento is Leonard’s murder of “John G,” a.k.a. Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a supposed ally that may work in law enforcement. The movie becomes a question over whether Teddy was guilty or whether Leonard was manipulated from beyond, and this proves to be the case, though the culprit is rather unexpected. It’s not Natalie (Carrie Anne-Moss) seeking vengeance for her dead drug-dealing boyfriend, though she plays her part, but the real manipulator is none other than Leonard himself. Teddy has set up a fall guy for Leonard to take out to get his long-sought vengeance, and maybe he can remember to be satisfied, but as Teddy recounts, it always fades. They’re always back repeating their old loops. Given the circumstances, Teddy sets up his pal to take out local lowlifes and figures why not profit from the experience (his warnings to ditch the drug dealer’s car go unheeded by Leonard, who instead chooses to drive it around town and even wear the clothes of his victim, a nice visual cue that leads to the big sucker punch reveal Nolan has coiled).
Teddy’s real offense, however, is telling Leonard a truth he does not want to accept. The back-story that has driven him is deemed fictional, conflated with an ongoing anecdotal analogy about Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a memory-impaired man whose wife tests him that results in her overdose on insulin. Leonard’s wife survived the assault. It was she who overdosed on insulin to test her husband’s condition. This truth runs counter to everything Leonard has defined himself by and he rejects it, and through that hostile rejection, he sets Teddy up for a cruel fate. He ensures Teddy will be hunted down as the next “John G.” suspect, and thus Leonard actively chooses to live the fiction than deal with truth. In 2021, especially after four years of a pungent presidency that shamelessly warped reality to whatever was deemed preferable, and with millions of gullible Americans still falling for the fantasy, the story of a man choosing the comforts of self-delusion over uncomfortable accountability is striking for its topicality. It’s about the lies we tell one another. Leonard says he deals with facts because memory can be fickle, it’s unreliable, and then the script proves this to be exactly the case, having hidden the answer right in front of your face. I love that the implications can be deliberated even twenty years later and the question of whether Leonard is a secret villain. He believes he’s doing righteous work, but he also proves he can never be satisfied and will very likely continue to hurt others to sustain his preferred reality. Because of the narrative trickery, or limitations of building from a foundation, it’s hard to say that Leonard is a deep character rather than a blunt force instrument. It’s in the revelation and lingering implications where the depth of Leonard Shelby emerges, and I think it’s a depth that often gets overlooked by those trying to keep up with the admittedly confusing storyline.
Revisiting Memento, there’s a definite nostalgia quality, watching two stars from The Matrix and the young upstart from L.A. Confidential bouncing around a Polaroid-snapping L.A. noir mystery from the man who would come to redefine blockbuster cinema. It’s not an understatement to say Nolan is in a class of his own, and his critical and commercial success seems to have convinced him that every movie needs his narrative sleight-of-hand. Some of those films didn’t really benefit from the extra complications. I thought the three timelines compressed on top of one another in 2017’s Dunkirk was entirely unnecessary and distracting. It got even worse in 2020’s deliberately palindromic Tenet, which was a puzzle box from Nolan I felt no desire to solve. Nolan has told movies with just about every construction of linear and non-linear plotting imaginable, and it’s hard not to feel like he’s struggling to find some new fix to hold his interest. Maybe the appeal of the Nolan signature magic trick is wearing off for me; I’ve been relatively disappointed with every Nolan movie since 2012’s Dark Knight Rises, which gets a bad rap for not being the zeitgeist-tapping flick that was The Dark Knight. Maybe he’s getting bored. It certainly felt like Tenet was more an intellectual exercise than an accessible entertainment for the masses. It would explain his experiments with indecipherable sound design. You don’t go to a Nolan movie to turn your brain off. There is an explicit demand that you will need to pay close attention. It just feels like the later films haven’t quite been worthy of the extra efforts.
Back in 2001, I recall being blown away by the narrative trickery of Memento. It was my top movie of that year, tying with Moulin Rouge! before I decided my heart was more aligned with Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy extravaganza (I’m looking forward to revisiting this one in two months). I didn’t have much in the way of critical analysis in 2001 beyond my exaltation of its greatness, declaring it a new classic that people would talk about for years. That’s partially true, but mainly because of the huge career that Nolan has undertaken since. My original review was also certain it would win that Best Original Screenplay Oscar and, honestly, this one still befuddles me (Gosford Park?). Twenty years later, Memento is still a daring and confusing movie, one that rewards close reading and invites deliberation and deconstruction. It’s a top-grade magic trick from an excellent illusionist and sometimes even that is enough. While I would argue it is more than its famous gimmick, it’s still enough to warrant two viewings for everyone’s lifetime.
Re-Review Grade: A
Trying to sequelize Silence of the Lambs is surely harder than trying to sequelize The Blair Witch Project. The novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris I don’t think will be confused as a necessary burst of creative ambition and more of a chance to cash in on the love of Hannibal Lector. Though I’ve not read a line from the book from what I’m told the movie is faithful until the much hated ending. Starting a film off a so-so book isn’t a good way to begin, especially when you lose four of the components that made it shine Oscar gold.
The element that Silence of the Lambs carried with it was stealthily gripping psychological horror. It hung with you in every closed breath you would take, surrounding you and blanketing your mind. I mean, there aren’t many serial killer movies that win a slew of Oscars. Lambs excelled at psychological horror, but with Hannibal the horror turns into a slasher film more or less. What Lambs held back and left us terrified, Hannibal joyfully bathes in excess and gore.
Julianne Moore, a competent actress, takes over from the ditching Jodie Foster to fill the shoes of FBI agent Clarice Starling. Throughout the picture you know she’s trying her damndest to get that Foster backwoods drawl she used on the original down. The problem for poor Moore though is that her character spends half of the film in the FBI basement being ogled by higher-up Ray Liotta. She doesn’t even meet Hannibal Lector until 3/4 through. Then again, the title of the film isn’t Starling.
Anthony Hopkins returns back to the devil in the flesh and seems to have a grand old time de-boweling everyone. Lector worked in Lambs because he was caged up, like a wild animal not meant for four glass walls, and you never knew what would happen. He’d get in your head and he would know what to do with your grey matter – not that he doesn’t have a culinary degree in that department in this film. Lector on the loose is no better than a man with a chainsaw and a hockey mask, though he has a better knowledge of Dante and Florentine romantic literature. Lector worked bottled up, staring at you with dead unblinking calm. He doesn’t work saying goofy “goody-goody” lines and popping out of the shadows.
Since the director, screenwriter, and female lead didn’t show up for the Lambs rehash, it feels a tad chilled with Ridley Scott’s fluid and smooth direction. The cinematography is lush and very warm. Gary Oldman steals the show as the horribly disfigured former client of Lector’s seeking out revenge. His make-up is utterly magnificent and the best part of the film; he is made to look like a human peeled grape. Oldman instills a Texan drawl into the character yet making him the Meryl Streep of villainy.
Hannibal is nowhere near the landmark in excellence that Silence of the Lambs was but it’s not too bad. It might even be good if it wasn’t the sequel to a great film. As it is, it stands as it stands.
Nate’s Grade: B-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Serial killer culture dominated the 1990s and oddly enough it’s only gotten more highbrow since. Oh, that’s not to say that you won’t have any shortage of hacky, exploitative movies featuring elaborate murderers with gimmicky calling cards (The Hangman, a killer who literally stages his crime scenes like an ongoing game of hangman). However, the dark obsession with dangerous men (it’s almost always men) has given life to thousands of prestige cable documentaries, true-crime books, and high-profile podcasts like Serial and My Favorite Murder. We still very much have an unchecked fascination for these real and fictitious serial killers and what that may say about our society. In 1992, a serial killer thriller swept the Oscars, one of only three movies to win Best Picture, Actress, Actor, Director, and Screenplay (the others: It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and American Beauty came close if it hadn’t been for Hilary Swank). That’s how good The Silence of the Lambs was as a movie to overcome the genre biases of older Academy membership (it also helped that there were other genre biases at play for the other Best Picture nominees like Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, and JFK). It was special.
All of this is to say that Silence of the Lambs was a near impossible project to follow, and author Thomas Harris proved it with the middling-yet-best-selling sequel novel in 1999. It was obvious that it would be adapted into a major feature film, but the only returning Oscar winner from that first foray was Anthony Hopkins, which is kind of important considering his character is the title. The sequel was directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator), adapted by none other than screenwriting titans David Mamet (The Untouchables) and Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List), and the movie made over $350 million worldwide at the box-office. By all accounts, it was a hit, but was it any good, or was it simply coasting from the acclaim and good will of its predecessor and the A-list cast and crew?
The first thing that becomes immediately apparent while watching Hannibal is that this is not Silence of the Lambs and not in a sense of its accomplishments but more in its chosen ambitions. This is not a psychological thriller in the slightest. It’s a boogeyman monster movie. Nobody here is given to intense introspection about man’s inhumanity to man and other such Topics of Grand Weight. Scott’s sequel is more a Gothic B-movie content to spill stomachs rather than quicken pulses. The opening botched FBI raid is chaotic, action-packed, and the flimsy excuse for why Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore taking over for Jodie Foster) is shelved for most of the movie. It feels like the filmmakers know they need to delay the reunion of our favorite cannibal therapist and FBI agent as long as possible, so the 130-minute film feels like a protracted setup to tease how far audience anticipation can possibly be sustained.
In the meantime, the plot alternates between Dr. Hannibal Lector living it up in Florence, Italy and Starling slumming it in the FBI basement. Slowly, oh so slowly, she picks up the pieces to track Lector’s whereabouts, but until then we indulge a lot of narrative bloat. Do we need to follow an Italian inspector who suspects “Dr. Fell” is not who he says he is and then enact plans to prove his identity and eventually cash in? This man is literally on screen longer than Clarice Starling. We’re introduced to a rich villain, Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), but he’s more plot device than character, an all-expenses bank account to track and apprehend Lector for his bloody violence. I wish there was more to Oldman’s character given the actor and the impressive practical make-up application. He’s a symbol of rot, of vengeance, of obsession. Likewise, Ray Liotta’s lecherous FBI superior to Starling is less a character and more a plot device. He’s the stand-in for the harassment and dismissal Starling receives from her male colleagues, but a little of him goes a long way. His scenes where every other word is some creepy come-on, some sexual entreaty, or some off-color joke (he refers to Lector in homophobic slurs) are excessive. He’s an awful person but every line doesn’t have to be eye-rolling in how obviously terrible he can be. Spending extended time with all of these supporting characters is just a reminder that the movie is looking for excuses to keep its chief participants as far away for as long as possible. It’s frustrating.
The depiction of Hannibal Lector in Silence versus Hannibal is also quite noticeably different. Like most things in this sequel, the character is baser, key characteristics heightened and broadened, and bordering on farce. He’s less a scary intellectual opponent and master manipulator and more a well-read serial killer on vacation. He is profoundly less interesting in Hannibal. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a pleasure to be had watching Hopkins slice and dice his way through Italy and elude capture. Hopkins seems to relish the amplification of the campy and grand Guignol tone of the sequel. He looks to be having a blast as an unleashed beast. His performance is fun but teeters over into self-parody at times. Hearing the erudite man spout ironic catchphrases meant for incongruous comedy de-fangs some of his mystique and intensity.
And yet there are things I still starkly remember even twenty years later. Hannibal is no Oscar-winning thriller operating at an ascendant technical level with engrossing multi-dimensional characters. It’s a boogeyman movie with a scary old man. The ambitions are just lower, but that doesn’t mean that Hannibal is subpar by those lowered goals. It’s still entertaining even when it’s getting silly or overly long. Scott’s visual presentation keeps things engaging and the lovely Italian art and locales are a definite benefit to establishing the gory, Gothic atmosphere. The makeup is outstanding and, as I said back in 2001, Verger resembles a human peeled grape. Feeding a man to wild boars is also quite memorable. The conclusion still has its squirm-worthy high-point with serving Liotta’s fresh brains to himself. It’s a gory comeuppance that feels fitting. In the original book, apparently Starling then bares her breast to Lector, and he goes down on one knee, and they run off together as fugitive lovers. Needless to say, this ending was met with controversy. The film smartly nixes this, especially since I never for one second felt a romantic coupling between these two embittered characters. The movie doesn’t kill the allure of the Hannibal character but it also positions him on the same level as Michael Myers instead of, say, John Doe (Seven). It’s like a Halloween mask version of a real serial killer, dulled and magnified in some ways, but still leaving a fair impression of its source.
The Hannibal Lector incarnation had two more big screen ventures, the 2002 prequel Red Dragon and 2007’s even-further prequel, Hannibal Rising. Neither was terrific, neither was awful, though the answers that Rising offered as to what made Lector the man he is would inevitably prove disappointing (hello, childhood trauma). Arguably the best incarnation of the character, more so than Hopkins or Brian Cox (Succession) as the first big-screen Lector in 1986’s Manhunter, was from NBC’s television series from 2013-2015. Developed by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, American Gods), and starring Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Doctor Strange) as America’s favorite high-class cannibal, the series found a way to make a weekly crime procedural operatic and hypnotic and disgustingly beautiful. It’s like the artistic sensibilities from Silence and Hannibal were perfectly blended into a strange lovechild that deserved an even longer time to shine. Recently, just the week of this writing, CBS has begun a 2021 Clarice Starling TV series, though because of rights issues they cannot even reference Hannibal Lector. They have the rights to the senator and her daughter who was kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, as if those characters were what the fanbase was really clamoring for more time with. It looks like any other grisly CBS crime procedural just with a different name. I fully expect it to be canceled after one season.
Looking back at my review from 2001, I found myself nodding in agreement with my younger self from the past. I try not to read my earlier reviews before re-watching the films in question and perhaps might surprise myself by coming up with the same critiques independently. I also quite enjoy this line: “Lector on the loose is no better than a man with a chainsaw and a hockey mask, though he has a better knowledge of Dante and Florentine romantic literature.” I would even keep my grade the same. Twenty years later, the Hannibal Lector character still captures our intrigue and fascination even if he’s deposited in a lesser escapade not fully worth his full abilities.
Re-View Grade: B-
The war on drugs may be one worth fighting but it’s a battle that every day seems more and more impossible. Traffic is a mirror that communicates the fruition of our current procedures to stop the illegal flow of drugs.
Traffic is told through three distinct and different narratives. One involves an Ohio Supreme Court justice (Michael Douglas) newly appointed as the nation’s next Drug Czar. While he accepts his position and promises to fight for our nation’s children, back at home, unbeknownst to him, his daughter is free-basing with her bad influence boyfriend. Another story involves a wealthy bourgeois wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) awakened to her husband’s arrest. Her shock continues when family lawyer Dennis Quaid informs her of her husband’s true source of income. He’s to be prosecuted by two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) unless she can do something. The final and most compelling narrative involves Benicio Del Toro as an honest cop in Tijuana battling frustration with the mass corruption surrounding the city. Each story weaves in and out at various points in the film.
Traffic was photographed and directed by the man with the hottest hand in Hollywood, Steven Soderbergh. He uses a documentary feel to his filming that adds to the realism. Different color tones are assigned toward the three narratives as reflections of the emotional background. Soderbergh expertly handles the many facets of the drug industry and pulls out his typical “career best” performances from his onslaught of actors.
Benicio Del Toro is the emotional center of Traffic. His solemn demeanor and hound dog exterior reflect a good man trying to fight the good fight in a corrupt environment. He effortlessly encompasses determination, courage, and compassion that you’ll easily forget the majority of his lines are in Espanol. Benicio is an incredibly talented actor and one with such vibrant energy whenever he flashes on screen. It’ll be wonderful watching him collect all his awards.
Catherine Zeta-Jones also shows strong signs there may well indeed be an actress under her features. Her role is one of almost terror as you watch her so easily slip into her imprisoned hubby’s shoes. The ease of transformation is startling, but in an “evil begets evil” kind of fashion. The fact that she’s pregnant through the entire movie only makes the shift from loving house wife to drug smuggler more chilling.
The entire cast does credible acting performances with particular attention paid toward the younger actors deservingly. Don Cheadle throws in another terrific performance showing he’s sublimely one of the best actors around today.
Traffic oversteps its ambitions and aims for a scope far too large. It is based on a 6 hour BBC mini-series, so trying to cram that material into a two hour plus format is taxing. As a result we get an assembly of characters, but too many with too little time in between to do any justice. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement) condenses the towering impact and influence drugs have well enough, but he intercuts the stories too sporadically that attachment never builds for either of the three narratives. He does balance the Douglas Drug Czar one carefully as not to fall into the cliched vigilante metamorphosis. But the mini-series had more characterization and depth to its tale.
Traffic is a good film but it has edges of greatness never fully visioned. Soderbergh shines bright yet again and all accolades will be deserved. Traffic is undeniably a good film, but it’s one you may not want to watch a second time.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
So twenty years later, how is that war on drugs going? Considering the billions of dollars and countless lives that have gone into trying to stop the intricate infrastructure of supply and demand for the drug trade, the United States has little to show for its efforts. If anything, there has been a dawning realization of the futility of playing cartel whack-a-mole, removing one leader just for another to take their place in the supply chain. There have also been movements toward treating addicts rather than incarcerating them. The country has stubbornly become more accommodating and understanding of the ravages of addiction; it only seemed to take the spread of the opioid crisis where affluent families in the suburbs were affected personally. Tragically, it seems too many Americans have to have an “it could happen to me!” moment before their empathy for another person’s struggles kicks in. These relaxing attitudes have translated into recreational marijuana being legal in 15 states as of this review. Many other states have decriminalized marijuana, and Oregon has recently voted to decriminalize all drugs. It seems that in 2020, our concept of the war on drugs has dramatically changed. Some may find these developments an admission of giving up, of retreating from some moral duty, but others have concluded that maybe we’ve been fighting all wrong for 50 years and the only thing we have to show for our blood-soaked efforts is that multiple criminal elements got much richer.
It’s an interesting social and cultural landscape for going back and re-watching 2000’s Traffic, the last film on my re-watch of 2000 cinema. Times have changed and this is felt in Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning ensemble covering the globe-trotting scope of the war on drugs. Traffic won four Oscars, including for Soderbergh for Director, Benicio Del Toro for Best Supporting Actor, and for editing and adapted screenplay. The only Oscar it was nominated for that it didn’t win was Best Picture, losing to Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals epic, Gladiator. It was an ambitious movie and had over 100 speaking roles. Soderbergh served as his own cinematographer and cameraman, bringing a docu-drama versatility to the movie that added its own sense of realism. 2000 was the year Soderbergh hit his critical peak. He was an indie darling from 1989’s influential sex, lies, and videotape and puttered throughout the 90s with small, personal, weird movies (I loved Schizopolis as a teenager), and then in 1998 he gained a new level of credibility providing sheen and heat to Out of Sight, the movie that cemented George Clooney as a major movie star. The one-two punch of Traffic and Erin Brockovich in 2000 earned Soderbergh two Oscar nominations for director, a feat not accomplished since 1938, and after 2001’s highly successful Ocean’s 11 remake, Soderbergh had jumped to the top of the industry while maintaining his indie artistic credentials. He’s been dabbling and experimenting since (A movie shot on an iPhone!) with mixed results, but the man’s track record is hard to digest into simple categorization. He can jump from an action showcase for an MMA fighter, to a gleeful male stripper romp, to a four-hour epic covering the life of Che Guevera. With Traffic, Soderbergh was working with his biggest budget and cast yet. The decision to use different color tones is smart to easily distinguish the various storyline locations so that an audience can be immediately oriented when jumping around from place to place. It’s also extremely hard on the eyes at times. The Mexican storyline is so washed out in bleached colors that it looks like an atomic bomb just went off in the distance and is filtering the world with an excess of bright light to make you squint. Soderbergh also has a penchant for natural light coming through windows to be seen as giant blocks of white. Again, it achieves its artistic purpose but it also makes you want to avert your gaze.
The 150-minute movie is based on a sprawling 1989 BBC miniseries that totaled six hours. Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) adapted the screenplay and he does a fine job of condensing the major plot points of the mini-series into a manageable feature length. He also does a fine job of articulating the many intertwined players and motivations and contradictions of the drug trade. However, I can’t help but feel like some of the nuance and character development is lost by condensing everything into the body of a manageable American feature production. Take for example the character Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago) plays, Helena Ayala. She’s a rich southern California housewife who has her life upturned when she discovers her husband, recently arrested by the DEA, is one of the chief distributors for a Mexican cartel. Her character is in disbelief and shock at first, then she tries to make due with legal bills and mortgage payments. Things get considerably worse when the cartel threatens her children if Helena can’t pay her husband’s outstanding debts that have now fallen onto her. Her character arc goes from an ignorant, privileged housewife into a ruthless co-conspirator willing to do whatever it takes to protect her family and maintain the cushy lifestyle they have become accustomed to. Over the course of the BBC miniseries, you watch that version of the character undergo significant changes in six hours. In the 2000 film, the character undergoes significant changes in a matter of scenes. Helena goes from desperate to duplicitous in literally minutes, and the jump feels too unearned. The rushed storytelling caps some naturalism. A character can go from not trusting the DEA to providing damning evidence to the DEA in three scenes. A character can go from bored, privileged teenager to junkie prostitute in three scenes. For a movie about gritty realism, these character leaps can feel overly forced and inauthentic. There are so many characters and storylines and political points to make that the overall narrative can feel crowded, so while it’s always interesting, it can inadvertently fashion its own ceiling for emotional engagement because the many characters feel like impressions hitting their marks rather than as fully developed portrayals of people.
The storyline that has aged the worst is Michael Douglas (Ant-Man) playing Robert Wakefield, a newly installed Drug Czar learning the ropes. For the majority, he’s akin to a 60 Minutes journalist just sitting in rooms and asking various professionals about their experiences and advice from their unique positions. From there, the storyline takes up the “it could happen to me!” trapping with Robert’s private school daughter (Erika Christensen) becoming an addict. It may have been surprising for a high-profile politician to have a child as an addict, but now this kind of irony feels passe. We’re used to politicians having ironic skeletons in their closet. The ongoing plot of her descent doesn’t really humanize her even as she makes some drastic decisions to chase that next high. She’s more an ironic counterpoint to shake her father, and the audience, of their preconceived mental imagery of what an addict might look like. It feels slightly retrograde and pearl-clutching, not simply that she goes through hell but that it’s set up to register that, oh my, WHITE PEOPLE, even RICH WHITE PEOPLE, can also be junkies. In 2000, this story might have been jolting and scared some older adults into wondering if this drug menace could find its way into their hallowed gated homes too. Nowadays, it seems obvious. If the storyline of a father dealing with his addict daughter had reveled more about one another as characters it would be worth the attention, but the daughter is kept as an example, a symbol, and Robert just has to take his lumps before the inevitable conclusion that his job is a lot harder than he would have imagined. His speech at his introduction at the White House has the hallmarks of drama ready and waiting, as he chokes over the political boilerplate he no longer believes in, but he simply walks out rather than sharing what he’s learned.
The best storyline in Traffic is, no surprise, the one closest to the action with Benicio Del Toro (Sicario) playing what feels like the only honest cop left in Mexico. Obviously that’s an over simplification, but the police force and political class are heavily corrupted by the cartels and their money. The character Javier Rodriguez has to navigate this tricky world without making himself as a target for those corrupt officials who think he’s an impediment. He’s trying to do good in a deeply flawed system and maybe even he knows he’s fighting a losing battle but he’s decided to keep his integrity while trying to fight what he considers is a worthy cause. A high-ranking general seeking his services reminds him of his lowly pay as a police officer, yet Javier Rodriguez is unmoved. Del Toro made a career of playing oddballs and sleazes, so it’s interesting to watch him play a fairly noble, straight forward role and in a language he didn’t speak before production (while born in Puerto Rico, he moved early and grew up in the U.S. and knew little Spanish). I don’t know if I would have awarded him the Oscar (my favorite for 2000 was Willem Dafoe as a vampire) but it’s certainly an understated performance with real gravitas. Del Toro is the quiet, churning contemplation of this movie and I would have been happy if the whole enterprise had been devoted to his south of the border exploits. I appreciated that the moves in this storyline would have larger effects on others, like a crackdown on a cartel being a reason why they need more money and the reason they now step up the pressure on Helena to pay up or else. It best encapsulates the knotty, interconnected framework that Gaghan and Soderbergh are going for.
Traffic is one of those movies you know are good. It’s well written, well acted, and has a definite vision it’s going for that it mostly achieves. It’s also a movie that engages more intellectually than emotionally. There are some deaths and downturns but I doubt you’ll feel much regret or catharsis. The movie unfolds like an in depth journalistic article, and the leaps in rushed characterization feel like a result of a looming deadline and a hard cap with its word count. It’s unfair for me to continue comparing the movie to its miniseries when that project had almost three times the length to fill out its tale (about poppy trafficking and heroin manufacturing in tribal Afghanistan) but it’s a clear cut case of crammed plotting. My initial review back in 2000 keeps mostly to the plot and the many actors, though I think I overstated Zeta-Jones being “chilling” and I think my love of Del Toro in Way of the Gun that year transferred some extra praise for his performance here. It’s hard to remember but I was really anticipating this film my freshmen year of college. Traffic is a good movie but it’s not exactly one people get excited over. Every aspect is professional, proficient, but there isn’t exactly a lingering takeaway that changes your perception of the war on drugs. I’ll hold to the same grade and say it’s an admirable accomplishment but one better suited for a mini-series (it was adapted back into a TV miniseries in 2004).
Re-View Grade: B
Strand Tom Hanks on a desert island for years? Sounds too good to be true to many a disgruntled movie goer. Such is the state in Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis’ existential meditation on man, nature, FedEx and their product placement checks, and of course… volleyballs.
Hanks is yet another everyman, except he’s a real stickler for time and order as a FedEx supervisor. His girlfriend (Helen Hunt) is pushing for marriage but hey – they’ve got all the time in the world, right? So Tom boards a FedEx flight headed for the South Pacific that hits a nasty collision with a powerful storm. The plane goes down abruptly in what is likely the most terrifying plane crash ever performed on film. Hanks washes ashore onto a mysterious deserted island after drifting alone in the vast ocean. Without civilization and without human contact he must start all over just to survive the day. So becomes the odyssey of Island Tom.
Cast Away hits one out of the park with its near dialogue free middle act with Tom’s first days upon his new island home. Hanks struggles to do everyday things from finding food to creating a makeshift shelter. As Hanks goes through these daily troubles the audience is with him every moment and learns as he does. Cast Away‘s middle is fascinating to watch. After a few days some packages from the crash wash ashore including a volleyball that Tom turns into his best friend. “Wilson” is Hanks’ companion and is totally understandable how one would branch out for contact under the circumstances. Plus, Wilson’s a dynamite celebrity of his own right now.
Hanks’ acting is his usually above average output, but his whole role seems more like a showcase for his method acting than the acting itself. The first half of Cast Away was shot then they took a year off so Hanks could become scruffy, thin Caveman/Unibomber Hanks. The transition is fun to watch and remarkable for an actor to devote himself completely to their role. But the part itself, and Hanks’ show, seem more spectacle than substance. Helen Hunt pops up in the beginning and end proving that she can somehow manage to be in every film in December. Pretty much the next actor in the film would be… well, a volleyball. Cast Away is basically a one-man show.
Despite a wonderful middle Cast Away is suffering from the opposite syndrome of Saving Private Ryan: strong middle, weaker beginning and end sandwiching it. Our opening plays like an extended commercial for FedEx, complete with the dazzling FedEx package POV cam (coming soon!). The end plays like a thank you card to FedEx. The ending also suffers from extreme let-down from multiple climaxes that don’t end the film but just give way to another climax. By the time the movie does end you’re exhausted.
Zemeckis lends a skilled hand toward the direction, the script plays to the strengths of the tale good enough, and Cast Away has its moments but becomes too heavy-handed at certain periods. Still, the volleyball is good. Go for the volleyball.
Nate’s Grade: B
(For fun, count the amount of times FedEx is mentioned or seen in the film. Hell, do it with this review too. I’ll even help you out – FedEx, FedEX, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx. Oh fun.)
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Twenty years later, Cast Away feels almost like finding a message in a bottle of another time, a time when director Robert Zemeckis was routinely making great movies, and when Tom Hanks ruled the box office and awards circuit (he has only been nominated for one Oscar since Cast Away, in 2019 for playing Fred Rogers). It’s also a movie that reminds you that despite all else that concept is king. It’s an especially easy movie to watch, and its middle portion is so beautifully clear and accessible that any group of people could keep up and find the island plot thrilling and fascinating. There are long, long portions where the only dialogue spoken in the movie is between one very harried man and a volleyball he has adopted as his only friend. Cast Away is in many ways a textbook example of elegant visual storytelling and also an example of the limitations of emotional engagement when there’s not much else going on but survival.
Please don’t get me wrong, I was mesmerized during the island portion of this movie, which makes about 80 minutes of an otherwise overly long 140-minute movie. When it’s Chuck Noland (Hanks) stranded on a deserted island and having to think step-by-step for shelter, food, and basic care, I was hooked. I was thinking each step of the way, learning and applying that new knowledge base with the main character, and it’s just an imminently enjoyable formula to witness a character work through problems and triumph under extreme circumstances. I felt the same thing with 2015’s The Martian, which was dubbed “Cast Away on Mars.” It even goes back to arguably the first novel, Robinson Crusoe, following one man and his wits and will alone on a perilous island. Very often the protagonist in these man-versus-nature stories is a stand-in for all of us, representing humanity’s quest to conquer the elements and prove our collective mettle to the universe. There is an immensely satisfying pleasure watching storytelling that is precise, efficient, and clean, imparting the necessary information to build onto the next scene and for each setup to expand your understanding and trace to the next payoff. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13, Planet of the Apes) deserves more plaudits than he has been given. The island portion of Cast Away is beautiful and near brilliant. Each moment builds so naturally. You learn the geography of the island, the mini goals of cracking open a coconut, building a fire, turning the FedEx trinkets into valuable tools of adaptation, it all builds and at your own pace.
When we make that four-year time jump, Zemeckis definitely wants it to be a showstopper moment and it is earned. The camera slowly pans to linger on the image of Chuck, much more tan, gaunt, and with a beard that I wrote in 2000 could rival the Unibomber. It’s such a striking image coming right after an unexpected time jump. That’s Tom Hanks, one of the members of Hollywood royalty, and he looks so different from his earlier, schlubby everyman self. The sight is also a stark reminder of Hanks’ physical dedication to the role. He spent a year losing 50 pounds and growing out his scraggly beard. The entire film production went on hiatus and Zemeckis shot an entire other movie released in 2000 (the unremarkable What Lies Beneath). His performance is genuinely great and perhaps more deserving of the Oscar that year than eventual winner Russell Crowe for Gladiator. It’s a performance that is more than a Method physical transformation. His terror, elation, and worry are readily apparent onscreen. It’s a one-man show so you better not get complacent because the audience has nothing else to hold its attention than watching your face, your expressions, your tumult. Not everyone can share the screen with a volleyball and make you feel something when that ball drifts away.
It’s all the rest of Cast Away that can’t quite add up. The first act is mostly establishing Chuck as a figure fated for grand ironic punishment, a workaholic taskmaster who has all the time in the world and nothing more to do but sit with his thoughts. The first act establishes his Before life for our contrast, so we know what he will be leaving behind, and this only really works when the final act rolls around to offer the After period. Now we check in on these minor characters and what four years have done for their lives, how they mourned and moved on from Chuck, and how they’re handling his miraculous re-appearance. You could make an entire movie about a woman whose former love comes back years later after being presumed dead and how this shakes up her current relationship and her own mental sense of self and yearning. That’s a tremendous amount of internal struggle to sift through. Except, with Cast Away, Chuck has lost something but it doesn’t really feel like he’s lost much. Our only time spent with Kelly (Helen Hunt) is during the first act, and while he holds onto her memory and she ostensibly serves as a motivational force for him to get off the island, it’s not felt by the viewer. So when we learn she’s married and a mother, it doesn’t feel so tragic as it does mundane. Life carries on.
By then it’s too late to make Chuck a more substantially interesting character. The point of interest was watching his survival on the island. Back at home, he’s just another guy, and there isn’t enough from an emotional standpoint to make him compelling. It’s not about him trying to readjust to a society he was ripped away from, catching up on lost time, feeling like a man who was in a coma and now has to pick up everything he’s been asleep for. These characterization shortcomings don’t become more notable until after Chuck gets rescued. Beforehand, I was caught in the immediate physical danger and conflicts of survival, but once we’re off the island, we’re just left with some guy. He hasn’t gone through a radical internal synthesis through his time on the island. He’ll probably be fine and live a normal life. The movie literally leaves him at a crossroads and sets up a handy romantic consolation for him. Does the audience really care which road Chuck takes from here? I doubt it. Chuck stops being interesting when he is saved.
Cast Away really was the last even semi-great movie by Zemeckis. He spent the bulk of the 2000s making animated movies using state-of-the-art motion capture technology. He’s since retreated back to live-action after his mo-cap experiments became too costly for studios. Strangely, Zemeckis has taken to remaking documentaries into entirely unnecessary dramatic features (2015’s The Walk, 2018’s Welcome to Marwen). The passion and pure filmmaking chops that placed Zemeckis as one of the most exciting filmmakers in Hollywood seems to have dimmed. Watch 2016’s Allied and tell me you feel passion. It’s like his interests in the technical side of filmmaking have swallowed his drive and creative expression as a storyteller. With Cast Away, it’s a return to basics of pure visual storytelling and Zemeckis excels so strongly. It makes me mourn what could have been considering Zemeckis abandoned live-action filmmaking, his own lost decade chasing after animated movies that felt like 3-D theme park rides. This is a man responsible for two of my favorite movies of all time (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) so I’ll always have hope that I can see glimmers of the same artist that delighted me.
Looking back at my original review from 2000, I’m becoming more and more proud of my younger self and his ability to analyze and articulate his film criticism. It’s a little fun to read words I wrote twenty years ago about a movie and nod along and go, “Right on,” with the same agreement to this day. I don’t want to get ahead of myself and say this was a shift in the complexity of my film reviews, but my major points still stand in 2020 as they did in 2000. Apparently, FedEx did not pay a dime for product placement, though the company reaped financial rewards for years after the exposure. They even made a Super Bowl ad in 2003 that provides a further epilogue where Chuck (Hanks again) finds out the one package he refused to open just had all these handy tools that could have saved him. Cast Away is still an invigorating movie today, even if that only amounts to 80 of its 140 minutes.
Re-View Grade: B+
Kenneth Lonergan has had quite an up and down year. He started the year co-writing the atrocious What Planet Are You From? and writing The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle to ending it with the character ensemble piece that ran away with an armful of awards at Sundance. Lonergan uses subtle moves to create a vivid mosaic of small town America and family relationships with You Can Count on Me. In film, quite often do we see the relationships of sisters or brothers (maybe too often). Rarely, though, do we see a thorough drama hinged upon the relationship of a brother and sister. Both torn by their genders yet always drawn together. You may kid, and get angry, but when danger arises you will always come to the defense of your sibling. It’s this seperational friction yet togetherness that creates the brother-sister bond.
Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo are brother and sister who years ago lost their parents to a horrible automobile accident when they were young. Forced with the battle of growing up with grief, each goes their separate way. Ruffalo is branded the “difficult” rebellious one, yet deep down he knows that his publicly deified sister is just as much the rebel. Linney is a single mother dealing with the pressures of raising her son (a Culkin kid) and working in her town’s bank branch headed by her new boss (Matthew Broderick). Her brother reappears in her life suddenly and the two learn a little form each other. With her brother she can rely on someone else to watch her child and experiences another flash of the mischief that she had to forfeit from her childhood in order to raise her younger brother. Ruffalo provides the male figure her son is lacking and begins to shed the boy’s over protection and opens him up to the world. One experiences responsibility, one experiences release. but do either learn? That is a good question.
Lonergan crafts a subtle texture that allows his characters to breathe and grow but not necessarily learn. His modest character-driven picture may make you think of Made for TV but its a slice of life that’s immersible. It’s hard to find a film that is subtle, at its own pace, and restrained when it needs to be.
Linney is fantastic as the sister that breaks loose and winds up sleeping with her boss with reckless childish rebellion. Her performance is an Oscar nomination lock as her character runs the emotional gamut. Ruffalo is amazing and establishes himself as one to surely look out for. his mannerisms and expressions are wonderful and his demeanor is reminiscent of Marlon Brando.
You Can Count On Me is a wonderfully affecting story about people who are more complicated then simple plot synopsis will allow. Lonergan has crafted something of an anomaly in modern cinema: a film that takes its time, doesn’t answer any questions, but makes us feel all the better after seeing it.
Nate’s Grade: B+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
You Can Count on Me was a breath of fresh air in 2000. It was an impressive star-making performance for Mark Ruffalo, who would go onto three Oscar nominations and be the Hulk people actually wanted to see. It was a showcase for Laura Linney, her biggest big screen role to date and earned her an Oscar nomination, her first of three. It was the first personal movie by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, a playwright who had become one of Hollywood’s popular writers for rewriting studio projects trapped in hell. Lonergan was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, losing to Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and then finally winning the same award for 2016’s emotionally devastating Manchester by the Sea. It’s strange to recall that the biggest name involved with this small, character-driven indie wasn’t any of these three but Matthew Broderick, drafting off his mordant turn in Alexander Payne’s Election. This is one of those slice-of-life movies where the characters are the driving force of the plot, where the small connections and mistakes are the ones that resonate most. And yet, I didn’t see it back in 2000 but I did upon my re-watch, there’s a degree of broad sentimental contrivance as well, an element missing in Lonergan’s latter efforts, including possible masterpiece, 2011’s Margaret.
We follow the lives of two very different and not so different siblings coming back together. They’ve been orphans since they were children and had to rely upon one another. Sammy (Linney) is the responsible one with the good job and a young son she’s raising on her own. Terry (Ruffalo) is the irresponsible one who gets into fights, can’t keep a job, and served a little time in jail he was embarrassed to tell his sister about. He comes back initially for some quick money, to the disappointment of Sammy, and then sticks around longer and longer, bonding with his nephew and going through old and new arguments with his sister over his life decisions and direction.
It doesn’t take long to realize Lonergan’s striking ability to compose naturalistic dialogue that has pinpoint precision when it comes to characterization. Watching any pairing of characters has the wonderful effect of the best plays, where that intriguing combination of character interactions is like an exciting chemical reaction, creating something new and welcomed. Every conversation then takes on meaning to see how the character interactions change or influence the participants. It means that Lonergan is generous and judicious with his details. A dinner meant to be celebratory can become a re-airing of grievances and disappointments. A night out hustling pool can go from being a bad idea to becoming a male bonding experience that has to stay a secret. The characters are so richly observed and developed that You Can Count on Me is implicitly saying to its audience, “Hey, no matter the scene, you can count on me.”
The relationship between Sammy and Terry is the most emotionally resonant and complex, with each of them defying the easy characterization they’ve been assigned as Good Kid and Bad Kid. He’s resentful of his sister and her judgement when he thinks she can be just as irresponsible. She’s resentful of her brother and his immaturity and inability to put down roots, bumming around and getting into the same old scrapes. Coming back together, each reconnects on a personal and family level where they may be combustible but they realize how much they need and love one another. A final heartfelt goodbye between them, while waiting for a bus to take Terry away, becomes an awkward but affecting moment because they really don’t know when their paths will cross once again. Sammy sure hopes it’s sooner, as her young son has grown attached to Terry. I think deep down Terry hopes it is as well and likes the comfort and support offered from this family that has an open spot in waiting for him on call. He’s ostensibly leaving to make things right with his girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend? It’s unclear since he’s been away) and has grown as a person from the experience of being an uncle. He’s not at the end of his arc, wherever that may eventually lead, but he’s moved closer on that journey. That’s a good summation for all the characters. There aren’t clearly designated arcs but nudges along a very human path to growing and learning.
Ruffalo (Spotlight) instantly grabs your attention. His performance almost has a shy obstinance, like he doesn’t want to be seen by the viewer, tired of the judgement he knows is coming, and he’s constantly retreating inward in defense and score-settling. He’s so immersed in the character that the actor dissolves entirely. His commitment to character is immediate. There was a reason he was drawing comparisons to Marlon Brando upon release. Linney (Love Actually) is terrific as well as the flabbergasted older sibling tired of having to play parent to her rebellious brother. She has many moments of exasperation with her brother, the men of this small town, her ineffectual boss she has a short-lived affair with. She’s drifting just like Terry but doesn’t realize it; Sammy vacillates between wanting to settle down with a nice boring guy who says he loves her. She’s been stuck fulfilling responsibilities for so long that her brother’s return allows her to cut loose a little bit, to be bad again, to make careless and selfish choices. Linney serves as a strong anchor for us as well as an example that being an adult doesn’t mean being in control.
Where You Can Count on Me slightly falters, and not by much, is the inclusion of storylines that feel a bit too maudlin and TV-movie-of-the-week. There are two tracks of emotions in the movie, subtle and overt, and it’s become clearer which is which upon re-watch twenty years later. I almost feel like Lonergan included some of these parts because they made selling his indie easier to studio executives. The affair Sammy has with her boring yet sleazy boss (Broderick) offers no real insights beyond Sammy’s capacity for self-destructive whims. She keeps coming back to this weak man, maybe because there’s no future with him since he’s married and his wife is pregnant, and maybe because she knows she can drop him. I started groaning whenever her boss called again, so desperate for one more last time, and that is likely the point. It’s watching someone continue down a path we all know should be avoided. It also explains how she might have ended up with her son’s father, played by Josh Lucas (villain in 2003’s first Hulk movie). Terry decides the little kid deserves to see his father and the unannounced visit doesn’t end well. The bad dad denies he is even the father, they get into a fistfight, and the little kid gets to feel abandoned all again. These broad dramatic moments stick out amidst the more subtle and naturalistic movements throughout. It’s not enough to drag down the whole of Lonergan’s enterprise but they feel like discordant notes in an otherwise sumptuous symphony where all the players are working in impressive synchronicity.
Looking back at my original review in 2000, it hits a lot of the same observations that came to me in 2020 re-watching the movie. The complexity of the characters, the unobtrusive direction, and the naturalism of top performers is as evident back then as it is now. It’s easy to see what drew such celebrated actors to bring life to these people. Lonergan gained confidence as a writer/director and held true to his visions, including a five-year struggle with producers over his ambitious artistic intentions for Margaret that brought in none other than Martin Scorsese to play as elder statesman deal-breaker. His works have become more intimate and insular. Looking back on his first film, which Lonergan even has a small acting role as the town pastor, is like watching the first steps of an artist who would later sprint. You Can Count on Me is a funny, poignant, and engrossing character piece on sibling rivalry and small-town conformity, but it’s also got a few issues that Lonergan would shed later in his career. Come to see a young Ruffalo tear through scenes and Linney match him moment-for-moment.
Re-View Grade: B+
These angels aren’t exactly what your father was enjoying when your mother was away fulfilling errands. These angels aren’t delegated as mere sex objects running around providing the jiggle entertainment that is (or was) supplied by today’s Baywatch. The 90s is a different decade after our minority movements and today’s woman is just as apt to do a flying kung-fu face plant into a baddie as any man. The angels of the film are action heroes for an armada of small girls needing some female empowerment when their only other choices consist of a barely clothed Britney or a barely covered Christina. These angels aren’t just the sex objects that the classic assortment of angelic 70s stars were; these angels are also tough-as-nails, resourceful, and not afraid to tussle or tango. Now that this exposition is out I can concentrate on the scattershot film Charlie’s Angels.
The film has been rumored to have at a minimum of 17 writers who tried shaping a story for Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Lui. The story is pretty much shelved toward the back so the forefront is our trio of ladies kicking ass then shaking it with zig-zaggy and wild camera movements from debut filmmaker and video director McG.
Charlie’s Angels is whiz-bang dumb fun. The overall feel of the film is something more difficult to get a grasp on. At times it shows itself as tongue-in-cheek and satirical but then at other times it seems overly serious or overly dumb. The characters are non-existent and basically only discernible by hair color. The characters are very wooden and I actually found more enjoyment watching the villains and seeing more of them; call it the Austin Powers dilemma. Diaz makes the only notable attempt as her goofy and light-hearted angel connects with the audience best. Lui plays a techno-babe dominatrix but is easy to see that she was the last angel chosen and doesn’t exactly gel with the others as much as she could have.
Charlie’s Angels is best when the action is pumping. The scenes are cut together in a jam-packing sequential way adding distinct flavor and style. McG is a true surprise in the effectiveness he can orchestrate his action motifs even if the Matrix effects and moves make absolutely no sense in the real world.
Crispin Glover shows himself as a silent assassin nicknamed “the thin creepy man.” Glover is so suave and slick in his role of the non-verbal Oddjob henchman role that he exhilarated me with every presence he made on screen. Goodness, he was too cool in this film and everyone gets brownie points for allowing him. He has such energy and charisma that I wanted the film to veer off into him and desert our angels. Seeing our ageless McFly perform action scenes and choreographed fights is something I will be pleased with until my grave. seeing Crispin in the excellent Nurse Betty and now huge exposure in this is a true joy. And man… he smokes a cigarette way too cool every time he’s in this film. Some people can smoke cool some of the time but Crispin does it all of the time. His mere presence almost cancels out the annoyance of Barrymore.
The line is drawn with Charlie’s Angels in that it’s sex-kitten jiggle and an acrobatic arrangement of (light) feminism and humor. These gals know they’re sex objects and they’ll use it to their advantage delighting in every second of it. Therefore, you could argue successfully that Angels is exploitation hiding as meaningful but hell… why think about this stuff? The movie rolls along at a fast pace where you don’t keep track of these issues. It’s just an easy sit down.
The gigantic success of Charlie’s Angels makes sequels and a possible franchise all but certain. I’d be happy for McG to hop back in his directorial chair but have a unique idea for Angels 2: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut… it involves Glover kicking a lot of ass really cool like.
Nate’s Grade: B-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
The 2000 Charlie’s Angels seems to understand that nobody should take this seriously. It even opens with an in-joke of T.J. Hooker: The Movie being inflight entertainment and an undercover character lamenting how bankrupt Hollywood is when it comes to recycling old TV shows. From there, our undercover angel literally exits with her target in the middle of the air and plummets to the water below, safely landing via parachute with a team meeting via helicopter aerial hook-up and a speedboat below. Why any of this? What sense does any of it make? It doesn’t matter in the slightest, and from the opening scene onward the movie lives by this credo, doing its best to be silly and have fun and just not care about the rest, and it shows. Twenty years ago, I think Charlie’s Angels benefited from low expectations as I recall mostly enjoying it. Now, having re-watched the movie for the first time in ages, I will say the fizzy appeal seems to be diluted. It’s still got energy to spare, though it feels a little too antic, a little too episodic and slipshod, and a little too proudly shallow, and that’s before you re-examine its depiction of the angels.
It took 17 writers and considering every under-30 actress in Hollywood to put together Charlie’s Angels. Drew Barrymore had bought the remake rights and wanted to make a big screen splash with a trio of kick-ass heroines that could better relate to the culture of the new century. I understand that Barrymore and her team wanted the angels to be sexy, yes, but also smart and funny and goofy and fearsome and all the things that little girls should believe possible. That’s commendable from a positive representation, but then so much emphasis is placed on their bodies and their off-the-charts sex appeal to bamboozle men that the goal becomes eclipsed. One could argue that Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Lui are embracing their sexuality, and that taking control of this is empowering, and if you feel empowered by Charlie’s Angels, by all right enjoy that and bless you. However, twenty years later, this feels less like the girls are in charge are more like they’re just being exploited in a manner we’re being sold as new feminism.
There are so many examples where the angels are in skimpy clothing or objectified. There was an entire clip of Diaz dancing in her underwear that I remember Harry Knowles of the early 2000s mainstay Ain’t It Cool News devoted a gross drooling essay to his obsession (“But to sum up, Cameron Diaz’s Swirling Ass is one of the greatest images and objects in the whole of human existence.”). Barrymore’s character is constantly getting undressed and using her body to disarm men. Again, duping men through their hormones can be a key asset as a spy, but it’s happening in every scene and at her disservice as well. She tumbles down a ravine naked in a last-second escape, and the movie treats it as cheeky comedy (no pun intended). Lui adopts a series of disguises that routinely sexualize her, from a masseuse to the most overt, a domineering corporate boss that resembles a dominatrix. They’re straight fetish roles. I’m surprised a Catholic schoolgirl outfit wasn’t adopted as a disguise. The movie’s depiction of its female stars and the emphasis on their bodies feels retrograde for its ideals. I know they wanted to improve upon the portrayals from the 1970s but we still got problems. McG’s stylish direction prioritizes the angels’ sexuality. They can be smart and kick ass but also in a sexy way, the movie is telling you. Thandie Newton was supposed to be an angel but schedule overruns from Mission: Impossible II got in the way, and later she admitted she had strong misgivings because her character was going to be introduced with a closeup of her denim-clad butt. No one is arguing that women should be barred from taking ownership of their sensuality, but the lens Charlie’s Angels utilizes is strictly a male gaze, and these women are repeatedly objectified.
As a result, the movie has a new sheen of discomfort during all the silly, sudsy spy missions and wardrobe changes. Before you might think, “Oh look, they’re dressing up as Japanese geisha girls, what fun,” and now you’re like, “Oh, somebody at the studio was getting off on this.” Before you might think, “Oh look, they’re dressing up as Middle Eastern belly dancers, what fun,” and now you’re like, “Oh, somebody at the studio was getting off on this.” There are a lot of ethnic disguises that would likely get axed today as cultural appropriation. The carefree, frivolous attitude of the movie is meant to be charming and low stakes, but when it’s applied to the exploitative nature of how the women are depicted, it all becomes a bit dodgier to accept.
This was the first real blockbuster after The Matrix reshaped action cinema and the stylish choices can run the gamut between exciting and cool to dated and shallow. Twenty years later, it’s just not as impressive that they used wires to swing their actors around for stunt choreography, or that they replicated key Matrix touches like bullet time. The fighting sequences are often choppy in editing and some of the moves meant to demonstrate the power of the angels just feel silly, like a moment where Diaz went full Lui Kang with her flying kicking feet. It’s moments like that where the style gets away from McG. The tonal trick is finding a balance between goofy and cool, exciting and cheesy, and I don’t think the movie achieves this with its action. The set pieces feel built around “cool moments” rather than using geography, organic complications, and escalation. It means that Charlie’s Angels has its share of cool moments but then they are fleeting and ultimately meaningless because they don’t better connect to character, story, or even simply their own satisfying action compositions. It’s like immediately disintegrating cotton candy. The dozens and dozens and dozens of needle-drop music cues feel like another potent example of this charge as well as some anticipated attempt to distract from its shallow and diverting design.
I was dreading revisiting my original review as an 18-year-old because I was convinced my younger self was going to conflate the portrayal of the women as taking ownership. I just knew this would be something I had bought into in 2000, and yet it wasn’t quite so: “The line is drawn with Charlie’s Angels in that it’s sex-kitten jiggle and an acrobatic arrangement of (light) feminism and humor. These gals know they’re sex objects and they’ll use it to their advantage delighting in every second of it. Therefore, you could argue successfully that Angels is exploitation hiding as meaningful but hell… why think about this stuff? The movie rolls along at a fast pace where you don’t keep track of these issues. It’s just an easy sit down.” Hooray for my younger self seeing through this movie’s sheen of empowerment. At the time, it bothered me less because the movie was dumb fun, and now it just seems less fun and also dumber. I was so taken with Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) and his creepy cool style, much of which was Glover’s doing. His character was supposed to have dialogue except he hated the lines and asked to be silent. That’s one way out of memorizing, and it worked because he was a breakout and appeared in the 2003 sequel. Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards) was also a fun discovery though he only gets good once he’s revealed as a baddie. He would reuse those dancing moves for Iron Man 2.
By the time 2003’s sequel Full Throttle rolled out, the appeal was gone. In my own brief review, I summarized, “It all seems so ho-hum and excessive at the same time. Quite an accomplishment. No more please.” I feel like the 2000 film also falls into this summary. It’s clearly not intending to be anything more than a goofy action movie, and I suppose the right person could still likely turn off the necessary parts of their brain to enjoy the rush of sights, sounds, and cleavage. There shouldn’t be a “wrong kind of feminism” so if this works for you, great. Many years later I felt that the male gaze was more ogling the women in the name of celebrating them. And yet Sony still felt there was material to be mined when they tried again with a failed 2019 reboot. The original Charlie’s Angels film is a cocktail of style with a creeping hangover right behind.
Re-Veiw Grade: C
Lars von Trier’s latest shaky video opus is likely the most unique movie going experience you’ll have all year. Dancer in the Dark is a clever, heartfelt, and achingly beautiful tale of sorrow and redemption. Dancer stars Iceland’s version of Madonna in the elfin Bjork. She plays Selma, quite possibly the nicest but also most stubborn person in the world. She’s an immigrant in 1960s America working long and odd hours to ensure that she can raise enough money for her son. You see Selma is slowly going blind but continuing to work so she can make sure her son will not have to suffer the same inherited illness. So she works late on heavy industrial machinery causing accidents as her condition worsens all to stop her son’s genetic curse she will give to him. Selma’s escape has always been musicals. In life she hears music in unusual places and visualizes life stopping to burst out into a vibrant fully choreographed musical number. Selma’s life continues to degenerate along with her vision as events pile on worse and worse until they all come crashing together.
Dancer in the Dark is no picnic in the park. The movie is haunting but incredibly depressing. Lars von Trier’s previous film (Breaking the Waves) was another wrenching drama with good people going through rough times with no fraction of light at any end of a tunnel. His jerky handheld video work is back capturing the life of Selma and seemingly framing it in a more realistic sense. The video images are edited to look like a documentary and the whole feel is one of raw power. You aren’t merely watching a film, it’s like you are in it witnessing the actions from the sidelines. The escapist musical numbers are shot in glorious still film to contrast the drab realism of video. The colors are bright, the faces are happy, and the cinematography is a wonder to envision.
Bjork soars and delivers what should be an Oscar-caliber performance. I never knew the queen of alt-rock had such emotive powers. Selma’s innocence is keenly expressed in Bjork and her glassy eyes. Her love for her son is no more evident then all the suffering and tragedy she goes through. All of the suffering and tragedy could be avoided – except her son would not be helped.
The ensemble around Bjork work fantastic magic as well. Peter Stormare is a sad figure trying to just get a glimpse of Selma’s attention. David Morse is a down-and-out policeman who is Selma’s landlord and in need of some cash. He’s afraid to tell his bourgeois wife they’ve run empty with money. Catherine Deneuve turns in the brightest supporting performance as Selma’s co-worker and friend Kathy. She’s torn between trying to stop Selma from continuing on her acts that could cause her harm and helping her along her determination. A great scene as example of her care for Selma is when the two of them are in a theater watching an old Hollywood musical. At this point Selma is completely blind and can’t see what’s going on, so Kathy takes Selma’s palm and dances her fingers in correlation with the actions on screen to Selma’s delight. A simple scene yet so elegant and beautiful.
Dancer in the Dark is a wonderful piece of original film making that gives us the escape of hope and the crush of despair. Selma’s love of musicals and their role in life is perfect symbolism for discussion. Dancer will leave you with a distinct feeling by the end credits. Whether it’s sorrow or bewilderment Dancer in the Dark is a film not to miss.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I knew going back to my first Lars von Trier film was not going to be a pleasant experience, and oh what an understatement that turned out to be. von Trier has compared himself to a Nazi, his intense methods have driven his actors to the brink, including Dancer in the Dark’s Bjork who swore off the entire profession of acting after her experiences working with him. I am not surprised by this response because his movies have famously followed a formula of a woman being tortured by men, by society, by forces outsider her control, and then she suffers for two hours and dies, a victim of the cruelty of the universe. Repeat. It’s a formula that I’ve since grown weary of and after 2018’s The House That Jack Built I contemplated not watching another von Trier movie again. He just can’t help himself and his nihilistic, heavy-handed impulses handicap his genuine artistic abilities and the merits of his storytelling. Back in 2000, it all felt relatively new. von Trier was the biggest name of the Dogme 95 movement, a Danish collective of filmmakers who swore to adhere to digital video and other aesthetic rules to better replicate reality as it was, ripping away the glossy artifice of Hollywood fantasy. von Trier was subversive, provocative, and exciting, and since then I’ve broken free from the von Trier spell. I was questioning whether I would share Requiem for a Dream or Dancer in the Dark with my girlfriend, who had seen neither, and in hindsight I’m glad I picked Requiem instead (think about that, yikes).
Dancer in the Dark is a powerful experience and one that is unfortunately smothered by von Trier’s heavy hand. It’s easy to root for Selma (Bjork), a Czech transplant in small-town 1960s America (the movie was filmed in Sweden because von Trier is afraid to fly). She already has so much going against her: 1) she’s a woman, 2) she’s an immigrant, 3) she’s poor, 4) she’s suffering from a degenerative disease that will rob her of her sight. Even worse, her son will suffer the same fate unless Selma raises enough money for an operation. She takes on extra work at her factory, even if she’s not exactly qualified, and she’s a hopeful yet stubborn woman who says what she means, earning friends who will champion her. She’s also a lover of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, as they presented an escape to her as a little girl growing up in poverty. America was the land of opportunity, where everyone dances all the time, sings their hearts out, and gets the girl or the guy by the conclusion of the finale. That dichotomy, between reality and fantasy, and all the cultural and psychological commentary within, is the strongest aspect of the film and a peak of ambition that von Trier never really got close to again with his later punishing dramaturgy. The first musical number doesn’t come until 45 minutes into the movie, and by that time we have had our heroine, her plight, and the first markers of a looming tragedy efficiently established.
Jeff (Peter Stormare), a lovesick co-worker who shows up every day to maybe drive Selma home, cannot understand musicals, saying people just burst out into song and how unrealistic this is, and Selma agrees, but for her it’s wonderful. She hears music in the world around her and it gives her life, especially as her vision deteriorates. As injustice after injustice falls upon her, Selma uses extravagant musicals as an escape, where everyone is a friend waiting to jump into the number and work together. A common refrain she sings is “there’s always someone to catch me,” referencing the choreography of musicals where the dancers frolic together but it’s also her request to the universe for a little help, for someone to catch her when she stumbles and provide that level support a woman of her means and background lacked in this landscape. The musical numbers staged by von Trier have a chaotic energy to them, assembled from dozens and dozens of sporadically placed cameras. They feel like a burst of imagination while keeping an improvisational feel; less drilled than managed. The first musical number “Cvalda” is a delirious daydream where Selma imagines the various sounds of the work machines creating a percussive symphony and she’s a Mary Poppins conductor. After Bill (David Morse) dies, she retreats to “Scatterheart” to make sense of her actions, with her son telling her she only did what she had to do and Bill rising from the dead to beg her forgiveness. When she’s in solitary confinement and can’t hear any sound, Selma goes into despair. She shouts the lyrics to selections from The Sound of Music to bring music back into her isolated world. Even on her march to execution, Selma copes by turning the “107 Steps” to the noose into a song. Her last words are her singing her final goodbyes to her off-screen son, so until the end musicals were how this woman chose to compensate for the rotten luck of her life. And oh boy was it ever rotten.
There’s one scene in the second half begging for symbolic unpacking where Selma is in the middle of her trial and the prosecution calls a famous Czech film actor and dancer to the stage. It’s none other than Oscar-winning theater legend Joel Grey (Cabaret) and his character doesn’t know who Selma is, even though she told the court she had been sending money to him (she listed her son’s account for his operation under a pseudonym to not risk it being derailed). This famous actor starred in movies in her native Czechoslovakia and crossed over to American cinema. He was an idol for young Selma and another figure to encapsulate the promise of America. Then as he’s testifying on the stand is when Selma drifts back into another rendition of “In the Musicals” and Grey joins her in tapping, and he confesses, “I didn’t mind it at all / That you were having a ball / at my musicals / And I was always there to catch you.” He understands and empathizes. This scene alone is just packed with so many layers of metaphor and projection and symbolic subtext and commentary and you could probably write an entire Master’s thesis on its myriad meanings. At its best, that’s Dancer in the Dark, when von Trier is using the language of musicals to subvert their form, to lay commentary on the un-reality is a rejection of the cruelty of real life, of finding order in disorder, finding community amid a nest of selfish vipers competing for dominance. It’s when von Trier uses our understanding of musicals to really make us think about the associations and contradictions that makes this movie a stirring and sometimes sensational experience.
Alas, the artistry is seriously wounded by von Trier’s heavy-handed approach to all drama. This has become even more pronounced after where von Trier has obliterated the entire world (2011’s Melancholia) and ruined a four-hour movie with a last-second dumb joke of an ending (2014’s two-part Nymphomaniac). Subtlety is not one of the tools von Trier prefers to dabble with. It’s a shame because he’s a natural storyteller when it comes to establishing vulnerable characters in fraught scenarios and slowly raising the temperature, organically transforming allies into enemies and friends into abusers. This is done very well in 2004’s Dogville as well, a movie I would argue both plays into and succeeds his tortured-woman formula of drama and political allegory. I would say Dogville is his second-best film precisely because I was expecting another unrelentingly unjust ending for another anguished woman. However, where a lighter touch could accomplish his points, von Trier instead brings out a bazooka. Selma’s deadly encounter with Bill happens at the halfway point in the film. From there there’s still another 65 minutes of her suffering to drag out to preposterous proportions. We go through the trial, her cross-examination, her willfully keeping secrets that will only make her look guilty to maintain a promise to a dead man, and then there’s her visitations in jail, her appeal, her rejection of her appeal because the costs will empty the fund’s for her son’s operation, the realization of her impending execution, the march to the execution, her being bound to a board because she cannot stand straight because she’s so scared, her rejection of the hood, her last song while she waits for the governor’s call, and then her abrupt death. There were several points where I was just pleading, “Enough already,” because it was so thoroughly exhausting.
Selma is served to be a martyr of an unjust system that looked suspiciously on immigrants, and Selma elects to accept her fate because anything less would endanger losing what she has set up for her son’s well-being. This woman takes all this punishment and that’s the story, America. That’s the story of America, America. That’s what von Trier is getting at, but the 140-minute movie is so overdone and so drawn out to obsess over the wrongs inflicted on this poor woman that it unintentionally blunts the message. The second half becomes a passion play where we watch our poor Selma elect to accept tragedy and self-sacrifice and endure all the injustices. It’s harrowing and upsetting but would still be so if we didn’t spend half of the movie dwelling on a litany of examples of her fated misery. I’m sure others will argue the crushing nature of the injustice is meant to convey for the viewer the feeling of aggravation and outrage. I would agree that outrage is sought, but when von Trier doesn’t let up, it tilts into overwrought self-parody.
Dancer in the Dark resonates as strongly as it does because Bjork gives every ounce of herself in this performance. She was originally just going to write songs but von Trier chased her for a year to convince her to also star as the lead. There are moments of awkwardness where it feels like maybe she’s confused in the scene with what her lines are supposed to be, but then her lack of polish is revealed for its true strength. It’s a deeply, deeply felt performance, stunning in how raw and empathetic she gets, subsuming herself into the character and her tribulations. You don’t see the craft so much here as you do sheer, undiluted passion and ferocious naturalism. She doesn’t hold anything back and gives the best performance in any von Trier movie. In my mind, she had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar that year but this was not the case; she was only nominated for Best Original Song (“I’ve Seen It All”) where she wore her famous swan dress that became a go-to punchline. She was, and continues to be, an eclectic artist and a really weird person, but man could she be a tremendous actress given the right circumstances. It’s a shame that von Trier’s sadistic directing style lead her to quit the entire profession.
Looking back on my original review, I remember seeing Dancer in the Dark with my freshman pal Kat Lewis, who was just the biggest Bjork fan you could find in all of Ohio in 2000. We were both floored by the movie, and Bjork, and cited it as uniformly brilliant. With twenty years of distance, I can say some of the ironic commentary of undercutting musical escapism feels too easy now, seeking credit for daring to ask, “Hey, what if musicals weren’t so happy, huh?” It’s still a worthwhile subversion to explore but simply presenting it as a subversion isn’t enough for a satisfying thematic focus. It’s funny that the moments that stood out to me as an 18-year-old, like Catherine Deneuve dancing her fingers on Selma’s palm to communicate the onscreen dance routine she can no longer see, are the same ones that stood out to me as a 38-year-old. Good writing will still make itself known and felt. There’s plenty to admire and, paradoxically, enjoy about such a depressing movie, but von Trier’s inability to self-edit and hold back his condemnation of humanity is what truly oppresses his movie.
Re-View Grade: B
Released October 6, 2000:
Rarely does a movie today affect you that when the end credits roll you’re left silent and unable to speak. Requiem for a Dream is an unforgettable and intensely harrowing experience. You can’t take your eyes away from it. Afterwards you’re left in disarray and unable to think straight for most of the day.
Requiem chronicles the lives of four individuals and their spiraling addictions and missed choices. Harry (Jared Leto) is a small time coke dealer along with his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) who can’t help to taste their merchandise and eventually end up broke again. Harry has gotten into the habit of routinely pawning his elderly mother’s TV set for some quick cash to score with. This happens so often that the pawn broker has a special folder for Sarah Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) and her televison. Harry is in love with his more positioned girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly). She’s given an annual allowance of money from her wealthy folks to spend in her own fashion, but she’s denied love or attention. It’s between these four main characters that we will go through hell with.
Ellen Burstyn shows her grace with age and utterly blows your mind with her jaw-dropping performance as the lonely and strung out Sarah. Sarah has no husband anymore or a son to look after. She is alone and old, and those are two bad ingredients. She lives in an apartment complex overlooking the decaying ruins of Coney Island. Sarah has a different addiction than her child, she is addicted to food and is overweight. One day she mistakes a random junk phone call as her ticket to appear on television. She daydreams about gliding across the stage in her red dress that she doesn’t be able to properly fill anymore. With her elderly peers aflutter she tries her best to stick to a diet to fit into her slender dress. When the temptation becomes overwhelming she consults a friend’s doctor for some special “pills” to suppress her appetite.
Harry and Tyrone are embarking on their own dealing dreams to eventually move up the ladder and score some pure coke. Marion and Harry experience their love through simultaneous shoot-ups that space them out and turn them into romantic philosophers. Harry speaks of great dreams he has and the yearning to be something. Tyrone is haunted by thoughts of himself as a child and disappointing his sweetly loving mother who was proud of her son no matter what.
The film starts off in the summer and we are in the good times for all four characters. Harry and Tyrone are successful and racking up profits. Sarah has an unusual amount of energy through her prescribed pills and feels good about herself when she sees actual results as the pounds begin to melt away. Marion dances in her love of Harry and is ambitious with plans for her own design store. Things never are as good as they are again. Fall rolls along and Tyrone and Harry lose their money and lose their ability to secure drugs to sell. Sarah is noticing her pills are not having the same effect they were earlier and decides to ignore guidelines and take them like M&Ms. Marion starts to lash out at Harry’s ineptness at scoring and begins to tear at their relationship. She gets pushed to the brink to score that she resorts to the practice of using her body to secure what she needs. This isn’t even the beginning of how dour and horrible events will become for these four.
One of the strengths of Reqiuem is the treatment of these characters. The film shows sympathy for them and their situations but never condone them. Harry and Sarah are a family that have much love between them they just don’t know how to express it. When Harry discovers his mother is on essentially speed when he pays her a visit he’s left a shattered and crying mess. Only an injection into his veins in that cab ride saves him from his emotions. The relationship between Harry and Marion is initially seen as puppy love or people brought together through a love of drugs, but there are moments where you see the true beauty they have. In the end when Harry is out of state and dramatically in the need of hospitalization he calls Marion just as she’s doing her make-up for a “special” get-together. In a hushed tone she asks when he will be coming home, to which he responds in a mix of pain that it will be soon. She then so sincerely and beautifully asks if he can come back today – to which through an array of tears he agrees. Her sincerity and emotion in this sequence is a powerful glimpse at the love that does exist between the two of them. The second time I watched this film I started crying at this moment.
Burstyn is the stand-out star and if she doesn’t at LEAST get an Oscar nomination then that is the most unjust crime of them all. It’s been some time since her roles in The Exorcist and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore but she still shines like a true gem. She magnificently portrays Sarah’s descent into madness and chemical dependency and leaves us with a chilling and haunting figure. Leto and Connelly show that they aren’t merely pretty faces and deliver their best performances of their lives. Both show incredible warmth and emotion.
Requiem was directed and adapted for the screen by Darren Aronofsky who gave us the head trip that was Pi. Here he uses camera trickery like speed up and slowed paces to show Sarah’s journey through her drugs. Other items include cameras mounted on the actors, split screens, and hyper edits to show the process of every drug shoot-up. His camera moves and tricks are never out of place though, as many gimmicky video director’s are. Each effect has a specific purpose. Aronofsky brilliantly uses a scene where Leto and Connelly are lying in bed besides one another but split screen to show the closeness they can strive but the distance that still exists. While each talks we see shots of the other’s hand carefully caress the other’s body. It’s a scene that’s as powerful as it it thematically romantic.
The tragedy of this is this film has been rated NC-17 by the MPAA and of course anyone who sees it knows the exact scene. The film is being released unrated by Artisan because NC-17 is a commercial kiss of death. The shame is this movie needs to be seen. Make it mandatory in schools. DARE isn’t working but this film will. No one with an urge to use drugs will have that same urge after seeing this harrowing film.
Nate’s Grade: A+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Requiem for a Dream was a seminal event for me. It floored me when I originally saw it during the fateful fall of 2000. I can still vividly recall wandering out into the daylight after the movie and feeling like a zombie, just left to walk aimlessly and mumble to myself. I remember my friend Kat Lewis and I were unable to even articulate sentences other than, “Wow,” and, “Ooof,” for like an hour as we processed the drug-fueled descent into madness and hell. It was a movie that struck me dumb and left a mark. I became a lifelong fan of writer/director Darren Aronofsky afterwards and haven’t been disappointed with his movies yet (his 2014 biblical epic Noah is criminally underrated). At the end of 2009, I declared it the second-best film of the decade. Requiem for a Dream is the kind of movie you can admire for its craft and crushing emotional impact but also one you may never want to watch a second time. I haven’t gone back to it for at least 15 years for that same reason, the hesitation to get back into the morass and experience the tumultuous tumble all over again. Except when I did sit and re-watch it for my twenty-year review, I was amazed how many moments felt strikingly familiar. I was anticipated specific actor inflections (“I’m lonely. I’m ollllld”), gestures, and even sound cues. It was a strange experience because it was like re-awakening dormant memories I had papered over. I thought I had forgotten the movie but, in reality, I must have watched it enough in those early 2000s days to commit so much to memory. I was afraid to dive back because of the depressing subject matter that I expected to rightfully wreck me. Instead I experienced a different sort of awakening, and that was my question whether the movie’s highs might be over inflated and whether the younger version of myself was dazzled by a movie with more evident problems.
This is not a subtle movie in the slightest, not in subject matter, form, or style, and I’m sure that was part of what 18-year-old me so valued. It’s a movie dripping with style and wild imagination with how best to visualize the elation and instability of drug abuse. The editing by Jay Rabinowitz (8 Mile, The Tree of Life) is abundantly hyperactive, amassing over 2,000 cuts over the course of only 95 minutes (an average “non-Michael Bay” film running the same length has maybe 700 edits). It is all deliberately overwhelming to convey the frenetic energy of the junkie, and the repetition of edits and structures creates visual routines that Aronofsky then escalates or deconstructs brilliantly, using the language of film to immerse the viewer in this world and blend our senses together into a rapturous contact high. It’s not hard to see the inspiration for Edgar Wright’s own hyper-kinetic visual style here. The entire movie becomes a visceral reflection of the characters’ physiological state. The photography by Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, Iron Man) can be alienating, disquieting, but also vibrantly alive and excitedly inventive. This is the first feature film I can recall that used Steadycam cameras and attached them to the actors so that as they moved through their world they remained our stable focal point. It’s such a great and unsettling convergence of perspective. We are attached to the actor close-up. The musical score by Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Moon) is instantly iconic thanks to its sense of foreboding and the central haunting theme from the Kronos Quartet that was used in a thousand trailers afterwards because it’s that gob-smackingly, recognizably brilliant. These talented men were the essential wingmen for Aronofsky to achieve his beautifully horrible vision.
The 90s indie scene and well into the early 2000s was an audacious time that pushed the limits of film style, reshaping our sensibilities of what movies could accomplish, and Aronofsky is a world-caliber stylist. After two low-budget indie films, it’s clear why Hollywood came knocking and offered the man many high-profile titles like rebooting the inactive Batman franchise. There are entire complicated setups devoted to capturing single shots, and there are so many stylish choices that come flying that part of the appeal of the movie is simply lying in wait for what Aronofsky will deliver next, like a magician that keeps you asking for the next trick and the next trick. Some highlights include Sara (Ellen Burstyn) being taunted by her fridge and the hunger pangs she feels, including a delusion where the household appliance comes alive like a monster from an early Peter Jackson horror flick. The use of split-screen is stunning to convey coordination and also disconnect. There’s a lovely scene where Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and Harry (Jared Leto) stare at one another, their fingertips stroking different portions of their bodies, and the editing jumps around from close-up inserts to their slightly disjointed alignment face-to-face. It’s both sensual and romantic. They’re close but also far away. This is the kind of move that attaches a camera to a bungee cord and throws it off the rooftop just for a couple second shot of free fall. It’s the kind of movie that seems to test every visual and audio setting of cinema. I admire the sheer gusto of Aronofsky as a filmmaker and his drive to push himself and his story to the limit.
However, at a super-charged 95 minutes before end credits, Requiem for a Dream is just too much. Its sledgehammer approach to drama had an odd effect on me as a 38-year-old versus than as an 18-year-old. My younger self was dazzled and left profoundly affected and devastated. My current self felt empathy for the suffering of the characters but I wasn’t emotionally connecting with them in the same way I did back in 2000. After some reflection, I think this is because the movie is just trying so hard that it feels like it’s speaking in nothing but exclamation marks, all capital-D drama, that it has its own numbing effect. Things do get considerably worse for our quartet of characters as they go through hell, but because the pacing is so amped, speeding along to get to its next fix, it doesn’t ever let the movie breathe and linger before hitting you again. It’s so fast-paced that the tone becomes more overtly theatrical, and I found myself less able to connect with the characters on a deeper and meaningful level. The limits of characterization were really felt with my recent re-watch, and the love story of Harry and Marion, which felt tragic for me in the early 2000s, now feels empty. Maybe that was the point and it took me decades to see it through, that the two of them are caught under the spell of infatuation but cannot fully grow together from a co-dependent relationship built around self-destruction. Or maybe they’re just underwritten tragic bohemians. The only character that really gets worthy consideration and nuance is Sara. If the movie had slowed down, or even been 20-30 minutes longer, I think it would have more room to make its drama felt in a way that didn’t feel so anxious to the point of bordering on desperation. There are points where Requiem for a Dream feels like an overblown indie version of an after-school special on drugs.
The real heart of the movie is with Burstyn who delivers a career-best performance (she lost the Best Actress Oscar that year to Julia Roberts). Sara Goldfarb is the kind of person everyone might know, an older retiree who feels overlooked, afraid of pushing too hard against a son she can’t control, and someone who wants to feel special one more time in her life. She doesn’t see herself as an addict and the movie portrays her struggle as being analogous to the cocaine and heroin abuse of the other users. Sugar, caffeine, starch, red meat, all common items that can be just as addictive to the brain and body, and Sara’s struggles to lose weight are relatable and take on a horrifying transformation after she starts using prescription drugs as a quick solution. Burstyn is the definition of heartbreaking here and that’s even before she starts popping pills. She delivers one hell of a monologue about her sad state of needing something, anything to cling onto to give her life a glimmer of needed hope. It was the moment that made me instantly recognize the levels of sadness we’re working with. I enjoyed the little burst of happiness she felt when the other neighborhood ladies admired her for her chance of being on television. for her, this was everything. Burstyn goes through a physical transformation, from padded body suits to emaciated and sweat-stained (this is a very very sweaty movie; you can practically taste the grime coating the actors). She’s unrecognizable by the end. Burstyn is so devastatingly good as her character literally loses her mind, becoming one of those crazy people on the street. You feel such a reservoir of grief knowing what drugs have done to demolish this woman’s identity and transmute her into a living phantom.
The social commentary isn’t prevalent, beyond the universality of personal addiction, but it has one major critique and it’s the indifference of the system to those in need. Three of these characters are living through poverty and limited means of self-sufficiency. Marion has a trust fund but has to jump through hoops to maintain it, including at different points selling her body. When Sara visits her doctor to inquire about possible medicine, he never looks at her once and quickly writes her a prescription. When she’s admitted to a psychiatric ward, the orderlies barely even view her as a human being and threaten her with physical harm if she will not swallow her food. The ward doctor can clearly tell she’s not of sound mind but gets her to “sign” her permission for dangerous, experimental electroshock therapy. These are bureaucrats, professionals, and people of means that simply don’t care. The institutions of this country are geared to let people down, to slip between the cracks, and the supports are insufficient. In this regard, Requiem for a Dream is a condemnation for the system and its lack of real compassion.
The closing montage of degradation is so gut-punching, so expertly edited together for maximum symmetry, and so disturbing that I can completely understand if nobody would ever want to watch Requiem for a Dream again. Early on, while re-watching this movie alone, I thought, “My girlfriend would really be intrigued by this and appreciate the style and verve,” and then by the end I reconsidered whether or not it all might be too much to endure. You feel a little dirty by the time it’s all over. I think this time, in 2020 as opposed to 2000, it was too much for me because I was feeling less attachment to the characters and more removed from their drama because everything was so operatic and going by so fast. The movie still has so much technical and artistic ambition to drop my rating too low, but this is not the near-perfect A+ movie I highly regarded in my youth. This is not the second-best films of the 2000s. It’s still a good movie and one that will be felt and remembered long after. It’s hard to shake off its effect which are still felt even if you have difficulty engaging with the people beyond a general level of human empathy. My original review consisted of mostly reciting the plot, an aspect of my reviews I’ve tried to steer away from. I hate reviews that are 80 percent plot synopsis and then only a paragraph or two of critical analysis and deliberation. Requiem for a Dream is still a powerful and immersive movie that masterfully uses the full gamut of film tricks as its disposal. While it might not be a personally-defining movie for me any longer as an adult, it still was for years in my youth, and while it shattered me and left me a shambling mess, it also made me realize just what movies can do.
Re-View Grade: B+
Can a fairy tale have a dark undertone below all the bubbly whimsy? Hell, the Grimm tales were barbaric before they became homogenized, sanitized, and finally Disneytized. Nurse Betty presents a modern day fairy tale with the strike of reality always below it — the strike of darkness and disappointment. Fairy tales are an escape from this, but what if one creates her own fairy tale and chooses to believe in it over the drab reality she presides in?
Neil LaBute, the director of the incessantly dark In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, collects together a whimsical modern day fable with a top-notch cast. Yes, to those fans of earlier LaBute offeriengs his name doesn’t seem synonymous with whimsical comedy – but in this flick LaBute cuts his teeth in the mainstream and earns his stripes if ever.
Baby-voiced and rosy-cheeked Renee Zellweger plays our heroine in diner worker and soap opera fanatic Betty. Betty finds solace from her life featuring a sleazy spouse, played with marvelous flair by Aaron Eckhart, in her favorite soap opera. When her louche of a hubby isn’t wiping his hands on the kitchen curtains or banging his secretary he tries proposing drug deals for shady characters. A recent drug peddling snafu sets him up to an ominous encounter with hitmen team Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock. Through a jarring scene of violence Betty’s husband is left brutally murdered and the only witness is Betty herself. The event causes Betty to slip into a fractured psychological state where she believes the world of her soap opera is alive and real with herself a vital character. She hops in one of her dead hubby’s used cars and drives off toward California to meet the doctor/soap star of her dreams in Greg Kinnear.
Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock mistake Betty for a criminal mastermind and believe her to have taken the drugs and run. They embark on their own mad dash to capture her and finish the job they were paid to complete. Along the way Betty encounters many people that are at first confused but ultimately charmed by this delusional dame. Through a series of events she meets up with the eternally smarmy Kinnear and begins to learn what happens when a fantasy is corrupted by the disappointment of reality. Allison Janey has a small part as a network executive that shines strong, and Crispin “McFly” Glovin is just nice to see in a film again. He doesn’t seem to age though. Maybe he has that Dick Clark disease.
The flow of Betty is well paced and a smart mix between drama, whimsy, and dark humor. Overlooking some sudden bursts of violence bookend the film it comes across as a sweet yet intelligent satire and fable. Betty is looking for her Prince Charming but will later learn that she doesn’t need one, that she is the fairy tale happy ending inside her.
The acting of Nurse Betty is never in danger of flat-lining. Zelwegger is a lovable and good-natured heroine. Freeman is a strong and deceptively hilarious actor along side a caustic yet down-to-earth Rock. And I make an outgoing question if there is an actor alive out there that can do smarm better than Kinnear — I think not.
Nurse Betty is a wonderful surprise. Check into your local theater, take one showing, and call me in the morning. You’ll be glad you did.
Nate’s Grade: A-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I was high on Nurse Betty in 2000 declaring it a modern-day fable with a darker undercurrent equivalent to that of the Grimms and their mixture of the everyday and extraordinary. In reality, Nurse Betty couldn’t feel more like a holdover of the 1990s indie scene where it might have been an unwritten rule that after Pulp Fiction every indie film had to have a subplot involving quippy hitmen (consider it the equivalent of every 1980s comedy having a mafia subplot for some unexplained reason). It feels engineered from a different era, and because of this, I’m sad to say that Nurse Betty hasn’t aged as well as I hoped. It’s not a bad movie but it feels more dated and peculiar, both in design and also unintentionally with its mishmashing tones that were more enticing twenty years ago.
The premise of Nurse Betty sounds like two movies smashed together. The movie is almost split evenly among its two storylines. We have Betty (Renee Zellweger) as the put-upon wife in Kansas dreaming of a better life, and maybe a better husband, who then has a mental breakdown and travels cross-country believing she’s in a real-life soap opera. Following suit is a pair of hitmen (Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock) who bicker and track her down, having their own cross-country road trip and getting on each other’s nerves. The problem with the screenplay by John C. Richards and James Flamberg is that these two competing stories could have existed on their own and probably would have been the better for it. It’s revealed late in the movie that Rock is the son of Freeman, and by that time of the reveal it doesn’t do much other than serve as a hasty attempt at a twist ending and to better push the fatalism of Freeman’s character, Charlie. However, if we knew from early on that this was a father-son hit team, think of the fun family squabbles and opportunities to present character development through these unique circumstances. It’s a father trying to train his son in his many years honed killing targets and not questioning why. You could tell a really quirky, compelling, and engaging family story through this dark comedy vehicle. Instead, the father-son hitmen are simply playing catch-up with Betty. Charlie becomes substantially less interesting the more obsessed with Betty he becomes because his character change is never really explained. Even he is unable to articulate why this one woman has entranced him. He stops being the scary, proud, and imposing figure who killed Betty’s husband and becomes a doddering, foolishly love-struck old man that loses his edge. Again, that arc could work but the screenplay essentially nullifies him as a threat and as a multi-dimensional character. If both of these dangerous men had driven off into their own movie, they and we would have better benefited.
The Betty half is the more entertaining portion because it’s more unpredictable and because Betty is, at her heart, a sweet human being who is looking for her dream. It doesn’t take much to emotionally identify with her mistreated character who seeks an outlet for her life’s disappointments. Her mental break produces a sizeable degree of nervous laughter whenever she encounters someone new who is taking her at literal face value. Should we be laughing at her? Should we be pitying her? Should we be worrying about her having reality crush her hopes? The movie doesn’t seem to be holding up Betty for cheap mockery, which is a relief considering the quantity of her mental illness and trauma leading her into increasingly comical scenarios. The baffled misunderstandings can supply amusement but it’s more waiting to see how Betty responds to adversity and waiting for reality to hit with crushing force, eventually snapping her back. It’s waiting for the realization, but until then you can enjoy Betty’s blissful delusion like a sitcom character being hit over the head and thinking they’re somebody new. The movie takes on a new level of entertainment when she meets the man of her desires, Dr. David (Greg Kinnear), actually the actor George in real-life, and he doesn’t reject her but becomes fascinated with her. He’s impressed by her level of commitment to Method acting, so he assumes, and is curious how far she can keep things going. Betty also seems to bring back George’s passion for acting, which has waned over years of playing the same over-the-top plot machinations of daytime television. That’s such a better storytelling choice than having her dream man push her away immediately for being outwardly crazy.
The winning feature of Nurse Betty is the relentless positivity and daffy, perky performance of Zellweger as our dream-seeker. She always has a smile and go-get-‘em attitude that makes her compelling to watch and also easy to root for, whether or not she ever comes out of her mental break. Her sunny demeanor in the face of medical horror and confused authority figures is reliably charming. Zellweger never plays like the joke should be on Betty. Often it boomerangs, like when her L.A. roommate wants to dash Betty’s dream by introducing her to the real George, but instead of disaster they walk off to spend the rest of the fancy soiree together. Zellweger is the best reason to step into Nurse Betty and her portrayal of mental illness is not meant for ridicule. After Nurse Betty, Zellweger went on a tear, getting three Oscar nominations in three years, and a win for 2003’s Cold Mountain, before disappearing from Hollywood to re-emerge with a different face.
The jumbled tones proved more amusing to me twenty years ago but now they feel sloppy and poorly integrated, hence why it feels like two separate movies inelegantly melded together. The violence can be jarring and too serious for a movie that also attempts goofball whimsy. It feels like Nurse Betty was assembled with all the loose, leftover bits of irony from the 90s indie scene. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge movie that feels like it was green-lit based upon as many of its discordant elements all appearing under the name of one movie. Soap operas. Housewives. Mental illness! Road trips! Hitmen! Oh my! The soap opera jokes and industry satire feel pretty dated and must have been stale even by the time the film was released twenty years ago. There are points watching Nurse Betty where you feel like it went shopping for its quirk and bought it whole sale.
Director Neil LaBute was a fascinating choice considering his prior work writing and directing very misanthropic small-scale ensemble dramas like 1997’s In the Company of Men where two toxic men set out to ruin an innocent deaf woman to punish the female gender they feel has done them wrong. This seemed like an odd fit but was a preview to LaBute’s attempts at being a journeyman mid-range director, helming the stunningly bad 2006’s Wicker Man remake as well as completely forgettable studio fare like Lakeview Terrace and the Death at a Funeral remake. LaBute has since found a home writing and directing in television, including writing 15 episodes of the SyFy Channel series, Van Helsing, which well and truly confounded me to learn. The man who was responsible for dark, David Mamet-esque plays about the searing depths of human depravity and toxic masculinity was writing low-budget vampire cable television. To be fair I haven’t watched a single episode so perhaps his prior writing experiences really added something to the tale of Vanessa Helsing kicking ass in a vampire-dominated future. Actually, I take it all back because that sounds like a fun show.
Nurse Betty is a dark comedy that surprises as often as it may frustrate, spinning two different stories on a collision course that would have benefited from a trial separation. It’s one of the first re-review films that has lost some of its magic for me. In 2000, this movie felt a lot more daring and hipper and I gave it credit for the inclusion of so many off-kilter elements. Nowadays, I need more from a movie than simply including unexpected elements. It has to make the most of them, incorporate them in meaningful and challenging ways, and justify their tonal integration. Reading over my original review twenty years ago, I cringe about how uncritical it proves to be. I clearly enjoyed the movie but couldn’t say much more than bad puns and obvious allusions (did you know fairy tales could be, get this, dark and unnerving?). This is not one of my finer film reviews and I won’t cut my 18-year-old self any slack because I’ve been impressed by the insights and writing style of my younger me before. I will hold my past self to higher standards, thank me.
Re-Review Grade: B-
Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 70s rock opus is like a gigantic hug. It’s warm, engrossing, feel good, and leaves you with a smile wishing for more. Almost Famous may be the best movie going experience of the year. You likely won’t have a better time from a movie.
Fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the 15-year-old version of Crowe who is a budding writer for Rolling Stone. He’s tapped to tour and send in a story on the fictional band Stillwater fronted by singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup. Stillwater is everything the typical early 70s rock band was and should be: long hair, tight pants, and continuous inner turmoil and squabbling. Little Fugit captures all of this with wide-eyed exploration as he stretches away from his overprotective mother played by the lovely Frances McDormand. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also pops in to do a brilliant portrayal of music critic Lester Bangs. Kate Hudson shines in a break-out performance as a “band-aid” to Stillwater; which is an uncertain mix of naive groupie and musical muse. She’s together with fellow “band-aids” Anna Paquin and Faruiza Balk.
The writing of Almost Famous is textured and fully satisfying. The turns it takes down the road are expert and you know you are in the hands of a true artist. Crowe’s direction again makes leaps and bounds in improvement with every new feature. He and his wife wrote all of the songs the fictional band performs and it sounds like, to my ears, he had a few more job offerings he could have easily been suited for.
The acting is phenomenal with every cast member contributing nicely to the fold. Crudup is the anchor, Hudson is the gleaming star, Fugit is the tender surprise, Lee is the emotional lightening rod, and Frances is the mother that we all would love to have deep down inside. She is at the level that is most difficult for a parent: she must begin to let go so they live their own life, yet she’s raised him from harm since he could spew mashed carrots. Surely, if the world had justice Frances will be winning her second Oscar.
Almost Famous is a breathing work that borderlines perfection. It’s a great time to be had just sitting and experiencing what the movie has to offer.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Cameron Crowe was a filmmaker on a hit streak from his debut as a screenwriter (Fast Times and Ridgemont High), to his debut as a writer/director (Say Anything) and throughout the 1990s, culminating in his greatest achievement, the Oscar-winning and semi-autobiographical Almost Famous in 2000. This is without question the pinnacle of Crowe’s career and he deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for a movie that feels so assuredly magical, textured, and lived-in, an authentic trip down one’s memory that doesn’t lose itself to empty nostalgia but reminds the viewer about the genuine appeal and connection of art, the ramshackle families it can build, and a shifting sense of self under construction that can provide armor and security. And strangely enough it was all dramatically downhill for there for the former hitmaker. Crowe followed up with 2001’s Vanilla Sky, a messy remake of a Spanish sci-fi head-scratcher, and then a slew of movies about bland, melancholy dudes going home to restart their cratering personal lives with the help of a good, patient woman, from 2005’s Elizabethtown, to 2011’s We Bought a Zoo, to 2015’s Aloha (infamously known as the film where Emma Stone plays a woman of Chinese descent). A “Cameron Crowe film” stopped becoming something you looked forward to, and then they stopped even happening. The man who made big studio comedies with big heart had seemed to lose his infallible touch. His last industry credit is creating the one-season Showtime TV series Roadies, following the lives of its subjects on a tour, and it felt clearly like he’s trying to tap back into his own past success. Still, if your career high point is Almost Famous, then it’s a mighty fine pinnacle that many would kill to have as their finest hurrah. It was even turned into a theatrical musical in Britain in 2019.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve revisited Almost Famous and in doing so for this twenty-year review I’ve now also watched the movie for the first time, so to speak. I didn’t realize I had found myself the 160-minute director’s cut (labeled “The Bootleg Cut”). I had always intended to watch this extended edition but never got around to it, and now having done so, I can’t imagine another version that better portrays the highs and lows of this story. The extra (approximately) 40 minutes are mostly extended scenes, conversations that carry on a little longer, pauses that feel more resonant, stories that have more shape, and an epic coming-of-age script set amidst the wonderful landscape of late 70s rock and roll music that now feels even more wonderfully alive. If you were a fan of the 122-minute theatrical version, I have to imagine you’ll be delighted by even more time spent in the company of these characters and inside this amiable world.
Crowe’s screenplay pools from his own personal experiences as a young reporter for Rolling Stone who traveled with The Allman Brothers Band as well as several famous anecdotes with real-life rock bands. The turbulent airplane that motivates conscious-clearing confessions was from Alice Cooper’s band with Crowe onboard. The guitarist almost being electrocuted onstage was from KISS. The journalist being pulled into the offstage pre-show huddle happened to Crowe by Pearl Jam. The “I am a golden god” line is taken from Robert Plant yelling on a hotel balcony. Lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is based on Glenn Fry of The Eagles, and the illustrious Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) is an amalgamation of multiple women. But far from just feeling like a muddled recounting of hazy personal stories, Crowe has done something rare and has melded his own experiences, and the rumors and legends of rock and roll, and transformed them into a movie that is universal, accessible, and brimming with gentle wisdom and hard-won joy. It’s both optimistic and pessimistic, generously character-based but also clearly goal-oriented in William’s (Patrick Fugit) quest to get his long-delayed interview and to write his breakthrough article. It’s an easy movie to fall in love with because Crowe has so expertly put in all the care needed for you to simply immerse yourself in this world and become awash in feeling.
It’s a canvas of insecure people using one another for personal gain. Legendary music critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) warns young William that rock stars are not to be trusted; they only want to make him feel special so they’ll get a good article in return. The Sweetwater band is wary of William and the power he wields, as well as his discretion with what he sees and experiences with them on the road. Russell may or may not be in love with Penny Lane and desires her comfort, but he’s also a perpetual one-foot-out-the-door kind of guy, striking up repeated threats to abandon the band and strike out on a solo career. Penny Lane is so obviously in love with Russell but committed relationships might run afoul of her free spirit sensibilities and her wish to be able to blow up her life and start over at a moment’s notice, channeling a new fantasy life. Lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) is distrustful of anyone that might sabotage the band and his ascent. He feels inferior to Russell’s talent. Manager Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor) wants to prove himself capable in direct competition with the much more connected and professional manager, Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon). The “band-aid” ladies desire proximity to fame, as well as indirectly serving as muses for the music they love. The band just “wants to look cool.” There’s so much broiling interpersonal conflict colliding, and that’s not even accounting for William’s intense, tenacious overly protective mother (Frances McDormand) who has sheltered him for his life and worries herself sick. All of these people have vibrant interior lives and are trying to project a best-case version of themselves. The illusion of rock and roll, media, and objectivity, personal and professional, eventually fades.
The performances were career-defining for many of the actors involved, two of whom were nominated for Oscars (McDormand and Hudson), but I want to first talk about Hoffman’s performance because, even though it is brief, I consider it one of his best in a storied career of great performances. Lester’s a cynic who believes rock and roll has long died from commercialization and is populated with phonies eager to taste the sweet life by any means. He’s dubious about William’s aims but becomes a trusted ally and pillar of support during his moments of doubt. He’s been where William has, swooned by interview subjects to diffuse his objectivity (“Friendship is the booze they feed you”). I think he sees himself in William and his desire to write about the industry he loves. Their final exchange is, quite simply, some of the finest writing that has ever existed in cinema. Lester connects with William over their shared “uncool” status, culminating in his greatest advice: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Hoffman starts his performance with breakneck cynicism and then by the end he’s become one of the most genuine believers in the power of human connection. The fact that Hoffman was deadly sick with the flu throughout his shooting days only makes his performance even more astonishing. While the rock and roll shenanigans prove fun, the realest relationship for me with Almost Famous was between these two “uncool” guys bonding.
Crudup (Watchmen) and Hudson (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) are so inexorably connected in their performances because their relationship forms one of the movie’s most heartfelt and heart-breaking storylines. Penny Lane is such an instantly transcendent character, drawing others into her orbit and lifting up the orphans of this world into a new family. She’s more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a term first coined in response to Crowe’s film, Elizabethtown); in fact, she’s never really manic in behavior. She wears heavy fur coats, conducts herself like the ringleader of a circus, and ensnares hearts and minds. She envisions herself as a muse, a lover of music, a spiritual guide for musicians to reach new heights, and definitely not just some “groupie.” However, she can’t help but circlle Russell and go against all her better instincts of playing it safe. Her reaction to hearing the news that Russell and the band “sold her” in a card game for beer is a beautifully underplayed moment for Hudson. Penny takes in the hard news, not wanting her carefree veneer to crack, then slightly dabs at a tear rolling down her cheek, adding with a crack of bemusement, “What kind of beer?” It’s so crushing in how underplayed the moment comes across, but you can tell Penny has been deeply wounded, things have gotten too real, and inside she’s rolling (“I always tell the girls, never take it seriously, if ya never take it seriously, ya never get hurt, ya never get hurt, ya always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.”). Hudson makes it inevitable that you will fall in love with Penny Lane just as rapidly as William. It’s a shame Hudson has been castigated to disposable rom-com junk for much of her career since breaking out.
Likewise, Crudup’s performance has much more self-awareness than anyone else, even when he’s flailing. He senses he’s not meeting his potential and that can cover his love life as well. He’s married but doesn’t seem too committed to maintaining those boundaries. He enjoys the fame and adulation of being a rock musician but wants more. At the same time, he desires truth, real-ness, and after being called out for his selfish stances, Russell flees the confines of the hotel with William and mingles with the “real people” at a house party. It’s a great little aside for the movie and one of the funnier sequences especially as William is forced into playing keeper. The sequence is a fun escape but it’s also emblematic of the contradiction of Russell as a character. He desires truth but cannot be fully honest with himself, his desires, and his own failings. Crudup is laid back and disarming as he opens up to Russell while still admonishing himself for doing so. By the end, the movie isn’t about William getting the girl, as my friend I saw the film with had hoped, but it’s about William getting his long-elusive interview, and by the end they’re both a little wiser, a little more world-weary, and the ending comes down to these two men and their shared love, not for Penny Lane, but for music itself and what it means to them. Originally Brad Pitt and Sarah Polley were set to play the roles of Russell and Penny Lane, and I cannot imagine both actors being able to out-perform who eventually filled these roles.
Fugit (Gone Girl) was the avatar for the audience and is far more reactionary, taking in the rock and roll lifestyle with so many strange and amusing people. We’re meant to be seduced like he is, and when he hits a personal high, we feel the same elation, like his first night as a journalist when he’s practically dancing back to his mother’s car. That entire plight of William trying to get into the Black Sabbath concert is a supremely written scene how it unfolds. Crowe spends the first 15 minutes of the movie to establish key family drama for William, including the fact that his college professor mother has accelerated his academics and lied about his age. He’s really two years younger than his peers, and I wondered why even include this aspect into the movie. You could readily tell the same story with a 17-year-old William as you could a 15-year-old William. Then I realized that this opening establishes William as always feeling out of place, of trying to catch up to an adulthood he might not be prepared for, and for having to cover an insecurity over his own identity. He’s looking to remake himself just as much as Penny Lane and the Stillwater musicians. Fugit feels like a young discovery without ever getting big moments to steal attention. His performance anchors the film while also being able to be invisible, our eyes and ears into this rarefied realm. I’m a little surprised he didn’t have as big a career as he deserved after Almost Famous, mostly sticking with quirky indie ensembles (Saved!, Wristcutters). He did play as Owen in the deeply polarizing Last of Us Part II video game, a fact might just set off more than a few readers into rage spirals.
Almost Famous is the kind of movie that has so much going on yet never strays far from its artistic aims, instead taking time to better flesh out re-creating this late 70s showbiz world and the supporting characters. Even a joke character like Fairuza Balk’s “band-aid #3” part gets to have a moment to shine, like when she answers a phone call from William’s mother. She of course blurts out something she shouldn’t, confirming the drug-fueled atmosphere of the mother’s alarmist fears, but then she realizes her miscue and corrects herself. Balk’s character (Sapphire) congratulates the mother on raising William to be a very respectful and good child, lamenting how rare such a thing is becoming, and relating some of her own family experiences. Then, as a comic capper, she ends the call by saying, “Oh, and this is the maid,” and hangs up. A small moment like that serves a plot purpose, amplifying the worry of William’s mother, but it can also be an opportunity for a small character to take the spotlight to make an impression. That is the gorgeous result of Crowe’s writing, that every scene has multiple levels going on, all connected to character and theme.
This is such a bounty of a movie ether at 122 minutes or 160 minutes. It’s an affectionate, humane tale that draws you in with its warmth and genial insights. In my original review, I compared Almost Famous to receiving a hug and, twenty years later, that’s exactly the same kind of feeling I got watching. I was smiling, I was laughing, and I felt nourished by Crowe’s creative opus. It’s a special movie and one that is exactly of its time but also timeless. You can pop this film on again and drift away, and that’s the transporting power of storytelling, acting, and directing all working harmoniously in sync to create a movie that feels just as satisfying as it did in 2000. My original review didn’t go into many specifics, and was a little too overblown about McDormand’s performance, but even at 18 years old, seeing this movie early as part of a college orientation with new friends in my life, I got the big things right. This movie sings.
Re-View Grade: A