Category Archives: Review Re-View

Spider-Man (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released May 3, 2002:

Hollywood take note, Spider-Man is the prototype for a summer popcorn movie. It has all the necessary elements. It has exciting action, great effects used effectively, characters an audience can care for, a well toned story that gives shades of humanity to those onscreen, fine acting and proper and expert direction. I recommend movie execs take several note pads and go see Spider-Man (if they can get in one of the many sold out shows). What summer needs are more movies in the same vein as Spider-Man, and less Tomb Raider’s and Planet of the Apes.

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a dweebish photographer for his school yearbook clinging to the lowest rung of the popularity ladder. He lives with his loving Aunt and Uncle who treat him like a son. Peter has been smitten with girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) ever since he can remember, but he’s been too timid to say anything.

At a field trip to the genetically altered spider place (there’s one in every town) Peter is snapping pictures when he is bitten by one of the eight-legged creatures. He thinks nothing of it and awakes the next day to a startling change. He has no need for his rimmed glasses anymore and has a physique that diet ads would kill for. He also discovers he can cling to surfaces, jump tall building in a single bound and shoot a sticky rope-like substance from his wrists. Hairs on his palms and shooting a sticky substance from his body? Hello puberty allusion! Peter tries to use his new abilities to win the girl and when that doesn’t work out he turns to profiting from them. He enters a wrestling contest in a homemade costume and proceeds to whup Randy Savage. Following the fight Peter’s Uncle Ben is dying after being involved in a car jacking Peter inadvertently let happen. Haunted by grief Peter becomes Spider-Man and swings from building to building as an amazing arachnid crime stopper.

But every hero needs a villain, and that is personified in the Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), scientist and businessman. Osborn is experimenting with an aerial rocket glider and a dangerous growth serum. When the military threatens to cut his funding and shop elsewhere Osborn haphazardly undergoes the serum himself. What it creates is a duality of personalities; one is Norman, the other is a sinister and pragmatic one. The evil alter ego dons the glider and an exoskeleton suit and calls himself the Green Goblin. The Goblin destroys all that are in his way, and has his yellow eyes set on the pesky Spider-Man.

The casting of mopey-eyed indie actor Tobey Maguire over more commercial names like a DiCaprio or a Prinze Jr. (I shudder to think of a Freddie Prinze Jr. Spider-Man) left some people scratching their heads. Of course the casting of Mr. Mom to portray the Dark Knight likely got the same reaction in the 80s. Maguire plays the nerdish and nervous Peter Parker to a perfected awkwardness with his sensitive passivity. When he explores his new powers with exuberant abandon then begins crime fighting, we as an audience are with him every step of the way pulling for Peter.

Kirsten Dunst was also a surprising casting choice but works out very well. She allows the audience to fall for her along with Peter. Her chemistry with Maguire is great and could be a major reason why rumors have surfaced about the two leads taking the onscreen romance off screen.

Willem Dafoe is one of the creepiest actors in the business (though he made an effective creepy-free Jesus) and delves deliciously headfirst into the cackling menace of Spider-Man’s nemesis. Dafoe, with a face that looks like hardened silly putty and jutting rows of teeth, relishes every maniacal glare and endless evil grin. But instead of being one-note he adds certain amounts of sympathy and understanding as Norman Obsorn. No one could have done this role better than Dafoe.

Director Sam Raimi was most known for his cult splatter house Evil Dead series, but he’s got a new resume topper now. Raimi was chosen over a field of directors because of his passion for the character and story. Raimi brings along integrity but with a joyous gluttony of spectacular action sequences. He expertly handles the action and daring-do all the while smoothly transitioning to the sweet love story. He has created the movie Spidey fans have been dreaming of for 40 years.

Spider-Man swings because of the respect the source material has been given, much like 2000’s X-Men. The story follows the exploits of the comic fairly well but has some stable legs of its own. The multitudes of characters are filled with life and roundness to them, as well as definite elements of humanity. You can feel the sweet romance budding between the two young stars, the tension and affection between Osborn and son, but also the struggle with Norman and his new sinister alter ego.We all know villains are the coolest part anyway. Isn’t that the only reason the last two Batman films were made?

There’s the occasional cheesy dialogue piece but there is that one standard groaner line. In X-Men it was Halle Berry’s query about what happens when lightening hits a toad. In Spider-Manit was the response to the Green Goblin’s offer to join him, to which he asked “Are you in or are you out?” (Obviously channeling George Clooney). The dreaded response: “You’re the one who’s out Goblin. Out of his mind!” Sigh. Maybe a well placed “freaking” before “mind” would have made the line better.

Spider-Man is the best kind of popcorn film: one that leaves me anxiously anticipating the sequel (which will come out two years to the day the first one was released).

Nate’s Grade: A-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Twenty years ago, 2002’s Spider-Man changed the landscape of studio blockbusters. Since swinging into theaters twenty years ago, we’ve gone through three different actors playing three different Spider-Men in three different franchises, plus an Oscar-winning animated movie, and oodles of toys. If X-Men’s success in 2000 made Spider-Man possible, then Spider-Man’s record-breaking success, the first film to earn more than $100 million in a weekend, made the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the defining chain of blockbusters for our age, possible. X-Men provided a template and Spider-Man was the confirmation for those curious bean counters in studio offices. From there, it was a gold rush to secure their own superhero franchise. Universal launched Hulk. Fox launched Daredevil and the Fantastic Four. Warner Brothers started trying to reboot Batman and Superman again. It was an IP scramble and not every property proved worthy (see: 2004’s Catwoman, or better yet don’t see it). For better or worse, 2002’s Spider-Man ushered in the modern era of superhero mega blockbusters. Now with twenty years of hindsight and influence, it’s interesting to go back to the OG Spider-Man, especially after the nostalgic revisit with 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, and see why this movie was so successful. 

Created in 1962 by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man took a circuitous path toward big screen stardom. He had a popular cartoon in the 1970s, a cheesy U.S. tv show, and Lee even licensed the character into a 1978 television series in Japan that is well and truly insane. The main character is a racer injected with alien blood, from planet Spider no less, who leaps into a giant robot to fight giant monsters (it’s basically Power Rangers before Power Rangers). Legendary genre house Cannon Films bought the film rights and then sold them to Carolco, the studio killed by Cutthroat Island’s bombing in 1995. Carolco reached out to reported king of the (blockbuster) world James Cameron to rewrite an existing draft with Peter in college. He envisioned Edward Furlong as Perter Parker and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Octopus. Later, his new Spider-Man script was reset in high school, brought back in a previously absent Mary Jane, and involved Electro and Sandman as the primary villains, and apparently was going for an R-rating with language and an intended sex scene between Peter and Mary Jane on the Brooklyn Bridge, which brings into further question his organic web-shooting inclusion.

It all fell apart when it was revealed Carolco didn’t actually own the full rights to Spider-Man. After Carolco’s bankruptcy and the ensuing legal wrangling, Sony eventually ended up with the rights for a deal that is absolutely brutal in retrospect: a mere $7 million plus five percent of film grosses and half of merchandising. That’s it. For a character that earns over a literal billion dollars a year in merchandise even when there are no movies being released. As of this writing, No Way Home has made almost two billion dollars world-wide at the box-office.

Sam Raimi was picked as director because he was so passionate for the project, owning over 20,000 comic books and knowing the character and his universe inside and out. It’s not like Raimi was some schlub that Sony just drafted from the street in a contest either. The man was a genre visionary from the beginning with the chaotically kinetic Evil Dead movies. When the studios were unsure about tapping him for comic book movies, Raimi decided to make his own with 1991’s Darkman, a gloriously fun, weird, and gory Phantom of the Opera-esque action movie with Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand. After that, Raimi expanded his style by directing four very different movies in different genres (The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan, For Love of the Game, The Gift), and by that time the studios had come around to embracing Raimi as their trusted shepherd of coveted comic book IP. Director Chris Columbus also turned down the job first, instead opting for the Harry Potter cinematic universe. I don’t know if Spider-Man would have been as successful with anyone else at the helm. Let’s not pretend that the movie would have been a commercial failure with some other director attached (I’m sure, prior to Cutthroat Island, there was a very real chance of “Renny Harlan’s Spider-Man” – that’s right, the hits just keep on coming, Cutthroat Island). But Sam Raimi perfectly encapsulates the combination that has worked so well for other later superhero directors: passion and peculiarity. 

Raimi is a first-rate visual stylist with the comedy of The Three Stooges, and I don’t mean this as a negative. He has a rare, instinctive sense, much like Cameron and Steven Spielberg, about what will play best on the big screen with a packed crowd, those kinds of blockbuster moments. The one thing you can say about any Raimi feature is that they are exploding with verve and energy. The man nailed a camera to a plank of wood and chased after Bruce Campbell in 1980, and he’s been running wild ever since. That gleeful, childlike sense of entertainment exists in a Raimi picture. His horror instincts and influences are readily apparent in his editing, tone, and setup, across all pictures and genres. Horror is such a precise genre, and Raimi knows the ins and outs of developing scares, tension, and payoffs, and he also knows that editing can make everything sing. A Raimi film might be more self-conscious with its antic camera angles, movements, and editing, but this man is a natural conductor of the chaos of moviemaking. He is a natural for big stages and has only made one movie for less than a hundred million in the last twenty years (2009’s throwback, Drag Me to Hell). It’s also a little disappointing that Raimi has only directed one movie in the last 13 years (2013’s failed franchise-starter, Oz: The Great and Powerful).

Raimi’s movies also have a deep sense of humor, twisted and loony, not afraid to get gross or goofy. When I watched Drag Me to Hell, his first film after leaving Peter Parker’s orbit, I was busting a gut as often as my stomach was churning. Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 sequence where Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) awakens and his cybernetic arms slaughter the doctors has been repeatedly re-evaluated in social media circles as a nigh perfect sequence. Raimi isn’t afraid to veer to the edges of what is considered conventional; he’s not afraid to be goofy just as he’s not afraid to be sincere. This is a director who embraces his peculiarities but also has a reverence for visual storytelling and blockbusters. With the exception of Oz, I cannot recall a Raimi film that just felt like a slapdash work-for-hire job. The man has a signature style. It was what Marvel insisted they wanted when they hired him to direct the Doctor Strange sequel (now in theaters!). Finding auteurs with peculiar sensibilities, zany humor, and new ideas for studio projects is what has allowed directors such as Joss Whedon (Avengers), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), and Jon Watts (the Tom Holland Spidey films) to flourish. 

Revisiting OG Spider-Man, we have two more versions of this universe to compare with, three if you count the animated escapades of 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse, so some things just seem a little more quaint, like an old story from your childhood. Part of this is because the character and his lore have become as familiar in popular culture as Batman or Superman. That’s why the Holland version skipped the origin part of how Peter Parker got his super powers and lost his dear old dead Uncle Ben (just like we don’t need to ever see Batman’s parents die onscreen again). The first two Spider-Man films still hold up; I re-watched Spider-Man 2 shortly after 2017’s Homecoming to see which was the overall best Spider-Man film, and it was still very good. They’re earnest and cheesy but easily transporting and you feel the passion for those involved. Raimi clearly loves this character and wants you to love him as well, and we do. There are a few moments that just speak to the dated nature of culture from twenty years hence, like Peter Parker cracking an unfortunate homophobic joke about his wrestling opponent. The special effects are still strong throughout and benefit from Spider-Man’s costume lacking exposed skin. The action sequences are a bit tame and especially lacking compared to even later Spider-Man films.

Maguire might even be regarded as the least favorite Spider-Man actor at this time after the successful revamping of Andrew Garfield’s version from No Way Home. He stands out from Garfield and forever boyish Holland. He was 26 when he began playing Peter the high schooler. His prior indie film roles would make him seem more likely to be cast as a moody school shooter than as a clean-cut superhero (I guess it worked for Ezra Miller), and the fact that he pulled it off is a credit to both Maguire and Raimi. Maguire hasn’t been able to escape the long shadow of Spider-Man and he seems to be fine with that, having only appeared in one movie since 2014. The conniving celebrity poker player that Michael Cera played in Molly’s Game is believed to be Maguire in real life. Dunst was maligned throughout the original trilogy and you can clearly see her disinterest in the character. To her credit, this iteration of Mary Jane is fairly one-dimensional. She’s little more than the object of Peter’s desires and a damsel to be saved. Dunst has become a much more interesting actress after shedding the Spider-Man universe with Melancholia, season 2 of Fargo, and The Power of the Dog, earning her first Oscar nomination. 

Dafoe had to beat out many actors for the role that seems perfected by him. Raimi intended for Billy Crudup (Almost Famous) to be his Norman Osbourn but the producers worried Crudup was too young to portray a middle-aged scientist. Dafoe’s normal face already resembles the Goblin mask. He demanded to do as many of his stunts as possible, and apparently he was a natural learner with the Green Goblin’s winged glider. Dafoe loved the part so much he begged Raimi to find ways to include him again even after his character died. I grew to love him even more after No Way Home reminded everyone of the mental anguish of Norman, a man torn apart by his demons. Dafoe is so maniacal and vulnerable and indispensable in this role. It’s no wonder they even bent space and time to have him generously visit us once more. 

I was worried that my older review from 2002 was going to be overly flattering, gushing about what the filmmakers had gotten right and a little too pleased with results that haven’t aged as well with so many others running with what Raimi and company established. It’s still a solidly enjoyable movie that moves along at a steady pace and still finds time to have important character moments so that the quiet still matters paired with the spectacle. We’ve had a generation grow up with the Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and for many of us these early superhero films have a special place in our hearts. There’s a nostalgic factor. The first Spider-Man was more successful in creating an exciting kickoff than X-Men, though that film had bigger hurdles in adaptation, and it still has a lasting appeal at its core because of the skill and passion of the filmmakers involved. I’m very curious about revisiting 2007’s Spider-Man 3, where it all fell apart and seeing if it’s due some begrudging respect, though I doubt it (I know what I’ll be watching in 2027). Spider-Man is a little dated but still swings mighty high. 

Re-View Grade: B+

Human Nature (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released April 12, 2002:

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman jumped on to Hollywood’s A-list when his feature debut Being John Malkovich was unleashed in 1999. Malkovich was a brilliant original satire on identity, be it celebrity or sexual, and was filled with riotous humor but also blended beautifully with a rich story that bordered on genius that longer it went. Now Kaufman tries his hand expounding at the meaning of civilization versus animal instinct in Human Nature. As one character tells another, “Just remember, don’t do whatever your body is telling you to do and you’ll be fine.”

Lila (Patricia Arquette) is a woman burdened with excessive body hair ever since she was old enough for a training bra (with the younger version played by Disney’s Lizzie McGuire). Lila feels ashamed by her body and morbidly humiliated. She runs away to the forest to enjoy a life free from the critical eyes of other men. Here she can commune with nature and feel that she belongs.

Nathan (Tim Robbins) is an anal retentive scientist obsessed with etiquette. As a young boy Nathan was sent to his room for picking the wrong fork to eat his meal with. He is now trying his best to teach mice table manners so he can prove that if etiquette can be taught to animals it can be ingrained toward humanity. Lila and Nathan become lovers when she ventures back into the city, eliminating her body hair for now, because of something infinitely in human nature – hormones. The two of them find a form of content, as neither had known the intimate touch of another human being.

“Puff” (Rhys Ifans) is a grown man living his life in the woods convinced by his father that he is an ape. One day while walking through the woods, Nathan and Lila discover the ape-man and have differing opinions on what should be done with him. Nathan is convinced that he should be brought into civilization and be taught the rules, etiquette, and things that make us “human.” It would also be his greatest experiment. Lila feels that he should maintain his freedom and live as he does in nature, how he feels he should.

What follows is a bizarre love triangle over the reeducation of “Puff,” as Nathan’s slinky French assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) names him. Lila is torn over the treatment of Puff and also her own society induced shame of her abundant amount of body hair. Nathan feels like he is saving Puff from his wayward primal urges, as he himself becomes a victim of them when he starts having an affair with Gabrielle. Puff, as he tells a congressional committee, was playing their game so he could find some action and “get a piece of that.”

Kaufman has written a movie in the same vein as Being John Malkovich but missing the pathos and, sadly, the humor. Human Nature tries too hard to be funny and isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is. Many quirky elements are thrown out but don’t have the same sticking power as Kaufman’s previous film. It’s a fine line between being quirky just for quirky’s sake (like the atrocious Gummo) and turning quirky into something fantastic (like Rushmore or Raising Arizona). Human Nature is too quirky for its own good without having the balance of substance to enhance the weirdness further. There are many interesting parts to this story but as a whole they don’t ever seriously gel.

Debut director Michel Gondry cut his teeth in the realm of MTV making surreal videos for Bjork and others (including the Lego animated one for The White Stripes). He also has done numerous commercials, most infamously the creepy-as-all-hell singing navels Levi ad. Gondry does have a vision, and that vision is “Copy What Spike Jonze Did as Best as Possible.” Gondry’s direction never really registers, except for some attractive time shifts, but feels more like a rehash of Jonze’s work on, yep you guessed it, Being John Malkovich.

Arquette and Robbins do fine jobs in their roles with Arquette given a bit more, dare I say it, humanity. Her Lila is trapped between knowing what is true to herself and fitting into a society that tells her that it’s unhealthy and wrong. Ifans has fun with his character and lets it show. The acting in Human Nature is never really the problem.

While Human Nature is certainly an interesting film (hey it has Arquette singing a song in the buff and Rosie Perez as an electrologist) but the sum of its whole is lacking. It’s unfair to keep comparing it to the earlier Malkovich but the film is trying too hard to emulate what made that movie so successful. Human Nature just doesn’t have the gravity that could turn a quirky film into a brilliant one.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I’m at a loss with 2002’s Human Nature. I thought in the ensuing twenty years I would have more to say with coming back to the early burst of brilliant writer Charlie Kaufman in the immediate wake of his successful debut, 1999’s Being John Malkovich. 2002 was a big year for Kaufman; he had three movies released that he wrote, all of them wildly different. His best work was Adaptation, a reteaming with Malkovich’s Oscar-nominated director Spike Jonze, that earned Chris Cooper a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Kaufman was close to winning for Best Original Screenplay and sharing the honor with his pretend twin brother, the both of whom were portrayed by Nicolas Cage. It was the most challenging and creative and fulfilling of the three. There was also Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the debut for George Clooney as a director, was a lark of a movie, taking Gong Show host Chuck Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography” where he claimed he was doubling as a CIA black ops hitman. I recently re-watched this one months ago and my opinion even lowered because there’s nothing to the movie beyond the central irony of the unexpected reality of this unexpected man being a spy and assassin. There’s no real insight into Barris as a character and he comes across as scummy and unworthy of a big screen examination. It’s a story that only exists to be ironic and missing the messy humanity and pathos of Kaufman’s best.

But Kaufman’s most forgotten movie in his screenwriting career is definitely Human Nature, the debut film for Michel Gondry, one of Kaufman’s other collaborators along with Jonze, both men having gained great acclaim for eclectic and visionary and just plain weird music videos. It follows three main characters, each debriefing their tale to an audience. Lila (Patricia Arquette) is accused of murder and discussing her lifelong malady of growing intense amounts of body hair, enough so that she worked as a gorilla woman in a circus sideshow. Puff (Rhys Ifans) is a man raised in the wild who intended to be an ape and returned to society, been trained in etiquette, and become an example of the transformative power of civilization. Dr. Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins) is telling his story after death with a bullet hole in the middle of his pasty forehead, as the scientist who found Puff, trained him, and romanced Lila before cheating on her with his French assistant (Miranda Otto). Immediately, the movie presents questions for us to unpack: how did Nathan die? Who was really responsible? What will be the connections between these three very different characters? Then there are assorted kooky side characters that come in and out, but the focus is mostly on this trio, perhaps a foursome with Otto, and the shame is that there is only one really interesting character among them.

Lila is the only protagonist worth following. She feels like a freak, even served in a “freak show,” and must hide her secret from lovers who would object to her untamed mane. She’s vulnerable and hopeful but pressured to conform to be accepted, and her journey to radical self-acceptance would have been an entertaining movie all on its own. However, by fragmenting the narrative with Puff and Nathan, she gets far less attention and her story becomes, for far too long, just her willfully sublimating herself to Nathan’s standards of beauty. Lila frustratingly feels like a character furiously trying to do whatever she can to keep the affections of a bad man. It’s reductive to the movie’s most interesting character. Puff and Nathan, in contrast, just feel like ideas, opposite poles in a discussion over the differences between animal instinct and the ideals of human civilization in all its hypocritical splendor. Even though both men are given comic-tragic back-stories, neither is really a richly defined character. Puff is all impulses and his urges become a tiresome comic device when we watch him hump somebody or something for the eightieth time. Nathan’s preoccupation with social niceties is meant to be absurd (teaching table manners to mice?) and petty, a meaningless articulation of “high culture and values.” I did laugh out loud when Nathan was teaching Puff how to respond at the opera, complete with a constructed box seat. Nathan is a satirical punching bag for a bourgeois sensibility. Neither him nor Puff feel like characters, instead more like conflicting points of view of humanity.
The other disappointing aspect to Human Nature is as I declared in 2002, it feels like quirky for quirky’s sake screenwriting. Kaufman has become a screenwriting legend and he’s able to marry absurd, bizarre, and dangerous elements into meaningful and subversive and satirical masterstrokes, but the man cannot be expected to perform at the highest heights every time. Human Nature is stuffed full of wacky moments and wacky characters and it doesn’t feel like it ever amounts to more than the sum of its transitory parts. In contrast, 2022’s Everything Everywhere All At Once is an example of how one can take the most bizarre ideas and still find ways to tie them back in meaningful ways that braid into the larger theme. However, much of Human Nature feels like a quirk dartboard being hit over and over, a catalog of strange visuals and goofy ideas (Lila breaks out into song!) that fails to coalesce into a larger thesis like an Adaptation or an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the vastly underrated Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s directorial debut. He’s a master of the idiosyncratic, but Human Nature suffers because ultimately what does it have to say? Puff is set up for ridicule. Nathan is set up for ridicule. Even Lila is set up, though for murder. In the end, when Puff returns to the wild in a public galivanting that feels like a ceremonial bon voyage from the society that came to love him, he then scampers out of the woods and escapes back to the comforts of society with Nathan’s French mistress. In the end, is the point that we’re all rubes and hypocrites?

This was Gondry’s first film and it feels like a training vehicle for what would be his real masterpiece, 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favorite films ever. Gondry’s style is still recognizable, especially reminiscent of his tactile, kitschy, avant garde music videos he directed for Bjork, the queen of weird 1990s music videos. Gondry’s hardscrabble, idiosyncratic style was a natural match with Kaufman’s vivid imagination. It’s surprising that they never reunited after Eternal Sunshine. Gondry had a few movies (2006’s The Science of Sleep, 2008’s Be Kind Rewind) but they felt lacking, trifling without a stronger writer to guide and ground them in human drama. Gondry even tried his hand at studio action to middling results with 2010’s The Green Hornet. He mostly retreated back to music videos and commercials and had a short lived series on Showtime with Jim Carrey as a former children’s TV entertainer whose fantasy is blending with reality. It seemed like a good fit for Gondry, and a nice starring role for Carrey, but it was canceled after two seasons. Even the realm of music videos seems so far removed now, where Hollywood was snatching up every visual virtuoso.

Human Nature has plenty of familiar faces, no doubt eager to attach their names to a daring Kaufman movie. Arquette is winning and the best part of the movie. She would later win an Academy Award for her decade-in-the-making performance in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Now I enjoy her in a chilly, villainous role as the shady corporate boss on Apple TV’s stunning sci-fi satire, Severance. Robbins is officious to a fault here. He too would later win an Oscar for 2003’s Mystic River. Poor Ifans, so big after his scene-stealing role in 1999’s Notting Hill, who never seemed to capitalize on his success (even his Spider-Man villain got the weakest treatment in No Way Home). He’s had a long career and prominent TV roles with Berlin Station and the Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon. I did laugh out loud at his “yahoo” after being zapped by his electric shock collar. You’ll also see Rosie Perez, Peter Dinklage, Robert Forster, Toby Huss, Hillary Duff, and Mary Kay Place. As I said in 2002, acting is not the problem with Human Nature. It’s the writing and characterization that lets these people down.

I usually like to devote a paragraph to going back and re-evaluating my initial words from twenty years ago, but I agree with everything I wrote. Everything. That’s initially why I thought this would be a shorter review. What more am I going to say other than my initial opinion of this movie is the same opinion I have upon re-watching? With the distance, it’s even more clear to me that Human Nature is the weakest film of Kaufman’s career. Even a movie I didn’t really gel with, like 2020’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, at least has a lot more ambition I can recognize. It’s a character study obfuscated with too much eccentric clutter but there’s still an artistic vision there, even if it didn’t work for me. Kaufman is too unique a voice to only have made three movies in the last 14 years, and it makes it even more frustrating when I don’t connect with his long-in-the-making projects. Human Nature is too limited in scope and characterization. It’s slightly interesting as a footnote to a great screenwriter but little more.

Re-Review Grade: C

The Time Machine (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released March 8, 2002:

The Time Machine is one of the most famous works of fiction in history. It was writen long long ago by the great H.G. Wells. It presents a fantasy glimpse into our future, but in it Wells also gave readers the opportunity to ponder what would happen if they could go back and change their own lives. People have used the story as a cautionary allegory to our own times, like the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. Now, a bigger budget Hollywood remake attempts to put another spin on the Wells classic.

Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) is an absent-minded professor interested in cracking down the physics of time. He’s chided by some of his peers for crackpot theories and his fascination with any new gadget. He’s supposed to meet Emma (Sienna Guillory) at Central Park and tonight’s the big night he plans to propose to her. He eventually catches up to Emma and the two go strolling off into the park. Shortly after popping the question the two become victims of a mugging and in the fray Emma is left dead. The death drives Alex to create his fanciful time machine, which only happens to take four years time.

Alex gives his big brass LA-Z-Boy looking machine a try and travels back to that fateful night to avoid Emma’s death. Alex avoids the mugger all right, but while purchasing flowers his fiancé gets plowed over by a runaway carriage instead. It seems that one cannot change the past. Alex decides to give the future a chance and travels to a very Back to the Future 2 looking 2037. Someone astutely asks Alex if his time traveling machine makes a good cappuccino.

When Alex hops a little further into the future the moon is breaking up because of ill-fated lunar construction. Moon rocks are hurtling toward the surface and disrupting everyone’s day. (It was in this moment that a scene of rocks smashing into the World Trade Center was cut for taste) Alex jumps back into his machine but is konked out by some lunar cheese and falls asleep at the wheel. The next thing you know Alex is in a mysterious future world.

The place where The Time Machine really bogs down is once Alex arrives in 80,000 something or other. The child-like thrills and adventure of Alex zipping between the past and near future are buried underneath the standard post-apocalyptic movie world. The people dress in loin cloths and rags (though some of the female natives wear revealing tops that look like see-through chain mail) but still have perfect teeth. When Alex doesn’t understand the linguistics of 80,000 AD the next words that he hears are English from Mara (pop star Samantha Mumba). It’s amazing that English survived 81,000 years when Latin didn’t last a mere 2,000 and change.

It turns out these people who live in huts resembling hot air balloons along the faces of cliffs are called Eloi. The Eloi don’t have anyone looking old enough to carry an AARP membership and are apprehensive to speak of why. Perhaps it’s because creatures resembling something that would belong in The Mummy Returns pop up from the sand to capture whatever slow moving prey they can and return to for an underground feast.

The creatures, called Morlocks, are the offshoots of evolution. Seems after the whole moon destruction thing (whoops!) those who took refuge below the surface have evolved into dusty hunchbacked cannibals. Their rowdy ranks are controlled by Uber-Morlock (I’m not making up that name) who resembles an albino bassist for Poison or Skid Row. It’s actually acclaimed actor Jeremy Irons under all that pancake makeup and fleshy spine-showing prosthetic. The less said about Irons the better.

It’s during this part that The Time Machine reverts into a half-baked Stargate. Alex encourages the Eloi race to stand up to their oppressors and fight for their freedom. He becomes part of the Eloi community, rallies the troops into rebellion, and also has to save the damsel in distress.

The Time Machine remake isn’t the political statement the 1960 film was on man’s folly with technology, particularly nuclear weapons. What this suped-up version is all about is special effects and plenty of them. The effects are for the most part dazzling, especially the scene where Alex travels to 2037 and we see the development of New York City with skyscrapers assembling themselves.

Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt) directed this remake and is actually the great-grandson of the famous adventure’s author, H. G. Wells. Trivial Pursuit fans everywhere rejoice. Wells had to sit out the last 18 days of shooting due to “exhaustion” and Gore Verbinsky came off the bench to finish the directorial duties. The film clocks in at a scant 90 minutes but there are definite moments of drag.

Pearce (Memento) is a hunky hero and for the most part is admirably gung-ho with the role. Samantha Mumba’s motivation must have been to stand and look pretty the entire film. To think that Mumba might be the most talented of the recent singers-come-actors (Mandy Moore and Britney Spears) is a distressing thought all its own.

As The Time Machine kept dragging into its Mumba-filled period, I began day dreaming of an alternate, darkly comic version. In my head, Pearce’s character keeps traveling back again and again to save his beloved only to lose her a different way each time. I could picture a humorous montage of his girlfriend dying an assortment of colorful deaths and Pearce just getting more frustrated and jaded. I could picture them skating only to have her plunge below the ice. I could picture the couple dining at a fine restaurant only to have her choke and Pearce just throw his napkin onto the table and sigh loudly. I was enjoying my alternate take on The Time Machine so much that I didn’t want to return to the one that was playing.

The Time Machine has its moments of thrills and excitement but they are mostly condensed to the opening third. This remake doesn’t have the political edge or wow-factor the original did. It plays more to the rules of conventional Hollywood than the wide open possibilities Wells wrote about. Pearce tries valiantly and the special effects are really something, but more often than not The Time Machine is not worth your time.

Nate’s Grade: C

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

The 2002 Time Machine is fanciful schlock on the verge of being populist spectacle. It’s not just another adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells sci-fi novel, it’s also emerging from the shadow of the 1960 movie that broke ground in the realm of special effects. Storytellers will often find new relevant meaning to be mined from the resources of old, and literature with classic stories can still be compelling decades and centuries hence as long as they are served with care and empathy. In theory, another Time Machine movie could be a worthy venture especially in a realm of modern special effects marvels and a more socially conscious viewpoint. If the 1960 film was a cautionary tale about mankind’s impending doom from nuclear arms and technological hubris, you would think a movie born from the ashes of the Cold War would follow a different approach, perhaps something more in line with the colonialism critiques from Wells. It’s surprising then that the 2002 movie also follows the “be careful with your machines, mankind” thematic warning of the earlier version. It made me think of Tim Burton’s maligned 2001 Planet of the Apes remake where they could have gone with ANY ending possible except one, the original’s famous twist ending, one of the most famous endings ever, and what did the new movie do? The same ending. Re-watching the 2002 Time Machine, it’s more fun than it has any right to be and there are aspects worth celebrating, but much like its hero, it’s a victim of unmet potential.

Firstly, this is a pretty entertaining studio movie that blows by quickly at only 96 minutes. The screenplay is by John Logan, the same writer with credits like Gladiator, The Aviator, Rango, Hugo, Skyfall, and other quite successful, quite large studio hits. And yet this movie doesn’t just feel like another paycheck for the man. The opening half of this relatively brief movie definitely feels like the favorite half. It’s here where the movie introduces the protagonist’s personal loss being the motivating force that drives him to make a time machine, something absent from the 1960 original and an exciting and emotional way to separate itself. Watching Alexander (Guy Pearce) go back to save his love has an immediate appeal, and watching him fail again brings forth the idea of being unable to change the past. Even twenty years later, I still think about the darkly comic version of this story, just as I did in my initial review in 2002, where Alexander tries again and again to save his beloved only to lose her to some new calamity. It would have a lighter approach even while dealing with darker humor, and it would certainly contribute to the film’s central thesis that man is unable to change the miscues of the past.

You would think The Time Machine would follow a theme about correcting the mistakes of the past to prevent future danger; many time travel tales follow a hero trying to thwart a terrible future, although sometimes they inadvertently cause that same terrible future in grand ironic tradition. This movie doesn’t really dwell on fixing the past but more so upon learning from it. During its post-apocalyptic second half, the focus isn’t on preventing it or going back to warn mankind of the folly of its ways. It’s about adapting to change, which can be viewed as defeatist or pragmatic. The future world of 800,000 years ahead is messed up because of the actions of mankind’s past, namely the lunar collision thanks to bad condo construction (thanks, capitalism!). It’s none too difficult to place a general ecological/climate change message in place, the exploitation of the present spoiling the future for generations yet to come. However, the movie isn’t about Alexander going back to teach mankind how to avoid its own mistakes. Unlike the 1960 original, he stays put in this uncertain future world with his new Eloi family and Eloi girlfriend (Samantha Mumba). He’s content to remain in this new time and live his life, ignoring the foresight of a time machine. There’s a message there about looking ahead in one’s life, not dwelling on the past at the expense of the future, but it’s also unexpected for a time travel action adventure. It’s usually about preventing the horrible future, not learning to live with it and make a better tomorrow. This also could be read as the present giving up on avoiding the mistakes of contemporary excess.

You can probably tell what kind of person that you are depending upon which half of The Time Machine you prefer. For me, the first half has all the surprises and time jumping and fun, and the second half settles into standard post-apocalyptic rally-the-masses formula. It’s not bad but it honestly feels like an entire second act is missing from the development of the plot. In quick succession, Alexander learns he’s in a far-flung future, the customs of the Eloi, the danger of the Morlocks, their hunting practices, their cannibalistic impulses, what caused them, and then who their leader is, and how there are multiple Eloi-Morlock colonies throughout the world. It’s a lot of absurdly fast exposition that just unfolds to the convenience of our hero, and so little of it occurs from the virtual A.I. figure (Orlando Jones) that seems entirely designed to be an exposition device. It’s during the second half that the playfulness and ideas give way to a grungy future with efficient if unspectacular chase scenes from monsters. I am convinced that the Morlock leader played by Jeremy Irons was originally intended to be the older, more evolved, and more callous ends-justify-the-means version of Alexander. That kind of twist would have brought things back to the personal realm of those first minutes traveling through time. Alas, he’s just another monster with bad hair. It seems like wasted potential for the last twenty minutes of this movie to just be another climax involving blowing up the monsters and rescuing the damsel.

Apparently there was significant contention behind the scenes over the look of the Morlocks. The creatures were designed by the famous Stan Winston studios and then director Simon Wells and the producers wanted to change their look, making them more humanoid and recognizable. This infuriated the effects team who strongly disapproved of this creative direction. I appreciate that the production went to the trouble of expensive prosthetics and costumes rather than just making all of the Morlocks ugly CGI monstrosities. I was worried that twenty-year-old humanoid CGI would not age well, but thankfully I didn’t have to bother with that fear.

This was the first live-action movie for Wells as director. He spent over a decade in the world of animation and helmed An American Tale: Fievel Goes West, Balto, and The Prince of Egypt. After the mediocre reception to The Time Machine, Wells didn’t direct another movie until almost ten years later, 2011’s Mars Needs Moms, a film that reportedly cost the studio over $200 million in losses. It was one of the biggest box-office bombs ever. It’s not much of a surprise then that Wells hasn’t been able to direct another studio movie until just this year, and even that is a small-scale adaptation of a children’s TV show, to the best of my knowledge. The man has directed two movies in the last two decades. On a more fortunate note, Wells has had steady work in his old field of animation as a consultant and storyboard artist for just about every Dreamworks cartoon (Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, The Croods, etc).

Re-reading my old review, there’s not much more to extrapolate. I agree with just about every word I wrote back in 2002. It’s fun for me when I watch these films twenty years later and have the same remarks in my head only to discover my younger self had the exact same response.

While not breaking new ground or even attaining its own creative potential, the 2002 Time Machine is a perfectly reasonable genre movie that you could put on and kill 90 minutes. It’s relatively fun, has some bigger ideas, and some surprising moments where it appears on the verge of poignancy. One of those is when the A.I., who has survived 800,000 years of isolation, talks about the misery of remembering every face he ever interacted with, cataloging every detail, and how this is tearing him apart and how valued having a lone friend was for him. It’s such a thoughtful and empathetic moment that seems to come out of nowhere and leave just as fast before you can really dig into it for genuine pathos. The Time Machine feels this way, like whenever it presents something intriguing, intelligent, or emotive, it then it has to veer sharply back to the bigger, dumber lane of blockbuster filmmaking for the masses.

Re-View Grade: C+

Crossroads (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released February 15, 2002:

When informed that her feature film debut was receiving shrieks of laughter during advanced screenings for critics, Britney Spears said she was glad because she never likes the same films the critics do. Well Ms. Not That Innocent, the truth hurts; you’re not a girl, not yet an actress. Crossroads is really the filmic adventures of Britney Spears and her ever-present navel. The navel should get second billing, but alas, we do not live in a society of equality for navels.

The film opens up with three 10-year-old best friends burying a box of wishes and dreams and promising to be bestest friends forever and ever. They make a pact to come back and dig up the box on the night of their high school graduation. Flash to the present and the word “bestest” isn’t what it used to be. Lucy (Britney Spears) has become the virginal nerd preparing to give her speech as valedictorian. Kit (Zoe Saldana) has become the haughty popular snob, obsessed over getting married ever since she got her first Bridal Barbie. Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant and become the trailer trash girl that everyone sees fit to remind her of. Despite their growth apart they all do come together to reopen their box of dreams. Mimi informs the others that she plans to head to California to audition for a record deal in an open contest. Kit decides to use this opportunity to check up on her boyfriend at UCLA who has been strangely evasive. Lucy complains that by having her nose in a book her entire high school experience she never got to go to a football game or even “hang out.” Somewhere a small violin is playing. She decides to jump at this chance and possibly see her mother in Arizona, who ran out on Lucy and her father (Dan Akroyd) when she was only three. The wheels of their adventure are provided by guitar-playing mystery Ben (Anson Mount). He pilots them on their travels to the Pacific coast, though the girls think he might have killed someone, but oh well.

Crossroads is filled to the brim with every imaginable road trip cliché. The girls “open up” after getting drunk, have a scuffle in a bar, reap in the sights of nature, and perhaps create some sparks of romance with their hunky heartthrob of a driver. The car also inevitably breaks down and the girls have to find a way to scrape some quick cash together. They enter in a karaoke contest and Britney proceeds to sing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” with her two gal pals providing backup. But no, this isn’t the last time you’ll hear Ms. Brit sing. In an effort to pad as well as become a showcase for its star, Crossroads gives us many scenes of the girls just singing to the radio. Besides Jett, Shania Twain’s “Man I Feel Like a Woman” and Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” are also on the chopping block. You’ll also be accosted by the movie’s single “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” several times, including one scene where Poet Britney is asked to share her poem and it ends up being the song’s lyrics.

Saldana (Center Stage) is not given much, as the attention is always centered on Britney, so she merely comes off like a token conceited character. Only Taryn Manning (crazy/beautiful) comes away with a little dignity. She gives Mimi a lot more heart than should be there and shows some honest reflections for her character. She also, coincidentally enough, looks like a dead ringer for Joan Jett with her black bangs.

Crossroads is nothing but a star vanity project for Spears, with some not-so-subliminal Pepsi product placement here and there. This was not a script looking for a lead; this was something Britney’s management team suited for her, and Crossroads is perfectly suited for Britney. It allows for many ogling periods of booty shaking. The majority of the film’s drama doesn’t even concern her, and when she does have to act, her scenes are cut short to help her when the real drama unfolds. The movie’s true intentions are revealed when Britney is shown in her pink underwear twice in the first 15 minutes.

Crossroads moves along on gratuitous skin shots of Spears half-naked body every 20 minutes until it reaches its torture chamber of a final act. In this very melodramatic period we get abandonment, date rape, infidelity, and even a miscarriage in one of the film’s most shameless plot devices. Of course none of these horrors matter, especially a psychologically damaging miscarriage, because Britney has to get to her BIG audition in order to perform, yep you guessed it, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” She also has to wear what looks like kitchen drapes while she sings.

You’ll walk out of the theater wondering many things. Why does Britney wear pink in EVERY single scene she’s in? There’s even one scene where she changes from a pink top to another pink top and is FOLDING a third pink top into a suitcase. Are we to believe that Akroyd and Spears share some kind of genetics? In what high school would Britney be considered a nerd?

Hopefully Crossroads will be the pop princess’ last foray into film, but I strongly doubt this is the last we’ve seen of Britney Spears. Crossroads is a terrible girl-power trip. Only Spears’ target demographic will enjoy this melodramatic mess. Truly, the two largest groups that will see this film are adolescent girls and creepy older men who fawn after adolescent girls. Crossroads is exactly everything you’d expect.

Nate’s Grade: F

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I’ve been waiting for this mea culpa for twenty years. In 2002, I saw Britney Spears’ movie debut, Crossroads, opening weekend with some friends with the chief purpose of seeing how bad it would be and tearing it to shreds for my collegiate newspaper. I graded it an F and sharpened my knives to eviscerate the star vanity project and everything it supposedly represented, eventually declaring it the worst film of 2002. Many years later, I have to wonder just exactly what was I so upset about with a middling road trip drama? What made this movie more deserving of a critical take-down than any other movie of that year? Had Spears not been its star, I doubt I would have expelled as much vitriol. So then the big question becomes, what did Britney Spears do to deserve so much ire from the 19-year-old version of myself? After some further reflection, I think I have some answers, and I’m glad I’ve had some significant growing up since then. I think it comes down to a personal animus blinding me as a critic, and this is something I’ve tried to push through and shed as I’ve gotten older and hopefully more experienced at evaluating art.

Flashback to the mid-to-late 1990s, and it was a golden time for fans of alternative rock, such as myself, bands that were cutting edge, audacious, and reaping the commercial rewards as well. MTV was filled with bizarre and exciting music videos from eclectic artists that were given an elevated platform. I grew my sense of self through my burgeoning musical taste, enveloping myself in the sounds of the Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Tori Amos, and many more. And then the pop infusion began in 1997 with Hanson and really exploded with the emergence of the boy band craze and young pop stars like Spears and Christina Aguilera and others. Suddenly the music I was accustomed to, the music that to me was built on artistic integrity and depth, was being pushed aside for music that felt shallow and inferior, driven by exploiting the clean-cut physical beauty of the performers as compensation for substance. My younger self felt irritated that the music I considered to be genuine and revelatory was supplanted by bubblegum pop ditties. In my sophomore year of high school, for a Canterbury Tales group assignment, I co-wrote an epic quest for a strange band of characters to go to a Hanson concert and kill the three mop-headed brothers (I also had the collective pre-teen audience rise up and retaliate, killing our band of heroes). Looking back, there’s nothing new about any of this. Music has gone through many spells where pretty pop stars have coasted because of their looks and sex appeal. For whatever reasons, it felt personable, like an attack, and that is such a misplaced assessment on the winds of popularity.

I’ve tried to eliminate anything that feels like a personal attack from my film criticism, because at the end of the day it’s just a movie, and whether or not it works for me, and it may work for others, it’s still only a movie. It’s not like the filmmakers personally robbed me of anything other than my time, and as my friends will often chide me, I chose to watch these movies I knew would be almost certainly dubious entertainment options. I’ve re-read several past film reviews and winced as I found myself resorting to low blows or critiques about body appearance. My review of 2008’s The Hottie and the Nottie (for the record: not a good movie) was a glorified take-down of Paris Hilton and everything she supposedly represented, a prized vapidity. I deleted heavy portions of it, especially those shaming Hilton for her promiscuity. It made me ashamed. As I’ve grown, I’ve tried to focus solely on the art and story of each movie. If the performance was weak, it’s just a reflection of a bad performance and not a bad person deserving of some sort of misplaced score-settling by yet another angry random guy on the Internet.

That brings me back to the star of Crossroads, Britney Spears, who in the ensuing decades had the culture rally to her back as well as re-evaluate the treatment of the paparazzi-heavy targets of the 2000s. She was celebrated for her sexuality and demonized for it as well, again not exactly new in the realm of media. After so many years under the harsh scrutiny of the public spotlight, in 2007, Spears shaved her head, attacked a paparazzi car, and checked in for much-needed mental help, and in doing so essentially signed her life away for the next 14 years to her father, who had the final say over her finances and tour commitments and even whether or not Spears could have an IUD removed. She was finally released from her conservatorship after a groundswell of public support in 2021. She’s released many more albums, had a long-standing residency in Las Vegas, and has even talked about turning her struggle for agency into a big screen movie.

Crossroads is an odd concoction because of how many people went on to have robust careers. Chief among them is the credited screenwriter Shonda Rhimes who would become one of the preeminent TV power producers of the twenty-first century with Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and Bridgerton. Fans of Rhimes’ adult soaps might find recognizable traces of her plotting with the overly melodramatic third act of Crossroads. This was also one of the earliest movies for Zoe Saldana, an integral part of THREE high-profile, highly successful sci-fi series, Avatar (where she has blue skin), Guardians of the Galaxy (where she has green skin), and the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (natural skin). She was also in the first Pirates of the Caribbean just a year after Crossroads. Then there’s Taryn Manning who found memorable parts in 8 Mile, Hustle and Flow, before redefining her career as the memorable, and dental-deficient, Pensatucky on Orange is the New Black. Anson Mount would later go on to prominence in TV series like Hell on Wheels and Star Trek Discovery (less so Marvel’s Inhumans). Apparently many of the other actors in Crossroads agreed to sign on just to meet Spears, like Dan Akroyd, Kim Catrall, and Justin Long. Even Mount was hesitant until the urging of none other than Robert DeNiro, who read lines with Mount from the Crossroads script during their downtime on 2002’s City by the Sea (DeNiro reed Britney’s lines, which makes me wonder what he could have done in the lead).

Reading back over my original 2002 review, I actually think most if not all the criticisms of the movie still land. The movie is rife with road trip cliches. The third act is indeed a torture chamber that really tilts the drama into overdrive, though smartly places the workload on the abilities of Saldana and Manning. There is definitely an unsettling preoccupation with Spears’ sexuality with the film. I wrote, “The movie’s true intentions are revealed when Britney is shown in her pink underwear twice in the first 15 minutes,” and I can’t disagree. It’s an uncomfortable watch at points, not because anything on screen is so salacious or ribald (Spears in fact insisted on her character’s use of profanity to be stricken to maintain her image) but because of what it thinks its audience wants. I suppose there were thousands of teenage girls looking to someone famous like Britney Spears for inspiration, and the lesson of waiting until you feel comfortable with a partner, and it’s your choice, is worthy, but the primacy emphasis on Spears’ body feels wrong.

My concluding line in my review was meant to summarize my stance, indicating that Crossroads is “exactly what you expect it to be,” and in 2002 I guess that meant the worst of the worst. In 2022, that just means a familiar, formulaic road trip movie with lots of melodrama. Yes, it’s a star vehicle for Spears’ acting career and there are many opportunities for singing, but that doesn’t make it any worse than any other mediocre drama aimed at a teenage demographic. And in 2022, I can say that I appreciate the pop music of the 90s. There were some real top-notch ear worms there and they still stand up to this day, easily hum-able when they reappear on radio. Spears and her ilk did not get the full credit they deserve during their reign. Crossroads is, to excuse a forced metaphor, a sort of crossroads for myself as a critic, something I’ve tried to improve upon as I got older. Movies are good and bad. Their intentions might even be noble or prurient or purely driven by money, but they’re still only movies and not personal attacks. I’m sorry Ms. Spears for unfairly maligning you, your acting ability, and your movie. Crossroads is easily not the worst movie of 2002. It’s merely mediocre at best and undeserving of antipathy.

Re-View Grade: C

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released January 25, 2002:

Call it swash without the buckle. While The Count of Monte Cristo does an adequate job of telling the Alexander Dumas story (heavily editing chapters and making the leads friends in this version) the whole experience feels very rote. The sword fighting scenes are nowhere what they were billed as and the direction is surprisingly lackluster. Only the actors allow this film to arise mediocrity particularly with a devious turn from Guy Pierce (Memento). Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) directed this film and proves he doesn’t need Kevin Costner to screw something up. Somewhere Costner is laughing. Actually, somewhere Costner is likely crying in his beer wondering what happened to him. “I was the king of the cinema…”

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I think 2002 is going to be my potential apology tour year when it comes to reviewing my initial film criticism of twenty years hence. The Count of Monte Cristo is my first entry for the new year and I already cringe re-reading my initial review. I think some of my early film reviews went overboard on snark, trying to establish a cool, chipper-than-thou attitude, but this was the early 2000s writing default for many. It was better to make quips, take some cheap shots, and sprinkle in some actual film criticism on top, and it’s a style of writing I’ve tried to grow out of as I’ve aged. I began writing film criticism back in 1999 as a means of expressing myself and showcasing my cinephile knowledge, and in many ways it was like learning to crack a puzzle, why a movie worked or didn’t work and what decisions lead to this eventual outcome. In some ways, early on, it was showing off and exploring my evolving writerly abilities, and sometimes that meant prioritizing cleverness over sincerity. I know I’m going to be reliving this with Crossroads but I’m reminded already with my first movie re-examination for the year 2002. So, to the filmmakers of The Count of Monte Cristo, on behalf of my then-19-year-old self, I apologize. Your movie is actually pretty good and, strangely, even makes some deviations from the book for the better.

Based upon the famous novel by Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), it’s a classic tale of vengeance and it’s plenty fun to watch because it feels like a movie that is giving you so many different turns at once. It’s almost structured like 30-minute episodes, and while being deemed “episodic” is usually regarded as a negative for a film story, I think this is an improvement. The beginning segment establishes how Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) gets into trouble, and he might just be the biggest idiot in the world. The opening features him and his best pal, Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), seeking assistance for their ailing ship captain on the island of Elba during the time of Napoleon’s exile. Edmond agrees to deliver a letter from the deposed emperor to “an old friend” of his and then Edmond gets charged with treason in France. His shocked, incredulous response is absolutely hilarious (“What? Napoleon… USED me? I’m starting to rethink my whole appraisal of this man who tried to conquer the European continent.”). There’s a conspiracy by a government official to cover up his father being a Napoleon loyalist, the intended recipient of the letter, but it almost feels like Edmond deserves to be in jail for being this naively stupid. The first half hour sets up the villains, Edmond’s BFF betraying him to covet Edmond’s attractive wife, and the starting point for vengeance to be had. It’s economical storytelling and works well, and each thirty minutes feels like they are defined by a “very special guest star” who comes and goes.

The next thirty minutes explores Edmond’s life and routines in prison, lorded over by a cruel warden (Michael Wincott), and where he finds his mentor and salvation with an old priest, Abbe Faria (Richard Harris). Again, screenwriter Jay Wolpet efficiently establishes the routine, the passage of time, the means of how Edmond might escape, and his growing relationship and tutelage under a new unexpected friend. It’s kind of funny to watch old man Richard Harris (Gladiator) teach the considerably younger Caviezel how to sword fight, especially knowing that Harris would pass away later in 2002 at the age of 72. He needs the training because our first impression of this man is not favorable. Once Fernand betrays him, Edmond engages in what might be the most pathetic excuse for sword fighting I have ever seen. I know the classic character arc of starting inexperienced and weak and coming into experience and strength needs to be laid out, but man this guy just sucks. He runs around like a lame animal, crashing into furniture, meekly pushing glasses off a table and flopping like a soccer player trying to score a penalty card. However, the crucible of vengeance will temper this man into a dashing fighting machine. The prison segment establishes rules, develops a central antagonistic and mentor relationship, develops a prison break, and then provides Edmond with his first victory, first villain to topple, and shows his new cunning.

The next thirty minutes is almost a buddy movie between Edmond and Jacopo (Luis Guzman), the “best knife fighter in the world,” a smuggler whose life Edmond saves before joining the gang. Together they seek out the island of Monte Cristo, find a bountiful fortune thanks to Faria’s confiscated treasure map, and then Edmond reinvents himself as a mysterious count. He makes quite a flamboyant entrance, almost like a dapper nineteenth-century Great Gatsby, flaunting his extravagance and theatricality to make his mark with the upper social classes. His calculated social graces reminded me of any number of costume drama series that are predicated on operating within a rigid system of social manners and expectations. It’s about establishing his new reputation and working his way back into a position that he can tear apart whatever advantages Fernand has gotten used to. His former friend has married his wife, though he flaunts his infidelity, and he also is raising a son, Albert (Henry Cavill), that may or may not belong to Edmond. It’s through this son that Edmond sees his way back into the good graces of this family, staging a kidnapping and his rescue that gives him the standing he needs. Naturally, Edmond’s wife recognizes her former husband instantly, though he tries to deny her claims. This segment establishes the new normal, Edmond’s traps being set, and then it heads into its fitting climax.

Much of these plot points are from Dumas’ original novel, which is so tailor-made to make for an engaging adventure with a thirst for blood. It’s such a sturdy structure that provides satisfaction, as revenge stories often will; they are so easy to root for because it’s so utterly primal. There’s a reason there is an entire sub-genre of exploitation films is nothing but revenge (and yes, sadly, too often including rape as the inciting wrong to be avenged). It’s an easy hook for an audience to get onboard and root for. Wolpert’s adaptation makes some smart changes to better transform the story for the visual medium. By making Edmond and Fernand friends, it does make the betrayal feel even more bitter. Also, the means of vengeance is simply more engaging here. In the novel, Fernand’s bad deeds are exposed publicly and he’s humiliated and kills himself. He’s not even the final villain that Edmond gets vengeance upon. The 2002 movie improves a classic novel and makes the ending feel even more climactic. Watching a villain like Fernand just slink away would not be as satisfying as a finale (that’s not even the story’s finale). Wolpert, who is also credited with the screen story for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, died very recently as of this writing, on January 3, 2022.

Director Kevin Reynolds was two movies removed from 1995’s Waterworld, an expensive post-apocalyptic action movie set mainly at sea, and a movie that does not deserve its disastrous reputation. It’s a pretty fun sci-fi action movie with a great Denis Hopper villain and plenty of splashy, big screen spectacle. It was turned into a longstanding and well-received Universal Studios stunt show if it’s any consolation. Reynolds hasn’t really made much of a career after the long shadow of a supposed costly flop (only two movies since Monte Cristo), but if Renny Harlin, he of the also super expensive, studio-killing flop Cutthroat Island, can continue churning out genre dreck, why can’t Reynolds? The man has a natural feel for big screen spectacle, and with 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he’s proven that he can capture traditional settings and make them feel in keeping with modern tastes, and he can capture futuristic settings while making them feel grounded.

I’m sorry, Mr. Reynolds, because you did not “screw something up” with this movie (fun fact: Reynolds was the screenwriter for Red Dawn). However fair or unfair, the man is defined by his relationship to Kevin Costner, most recently with the 2012 Hatfield and McCoys miniseries and beginning with 1985’s Fandango, which began as a student film that Costner lost out on a role for. None other than Steven Spielberg recruited Reynolds to make a feature version of his short.

It’s strange to go back to The Count of Monte Cristo because of Caviezel’s god and martyr complex. I’m speaking of his 2004 portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s biblically successful Passion of the Christ, but he’s gone even further now, fully adopting the QAnon conspiracy of a cabal of liberal elites harvesting the blood of children, possibly while trafficked in Wayfair furniture, for Satanic rituals. His persecution complex was already alive years ago, saying he was made a “pariah” in Hollywood after Passion of the Christ, despite its international success, and ignoring the fact he starred in a TV series on CBS that ran for five seasons. I guess that’s what he means when he stars in QAnon-related biopics that nobody wants to release (Sound of Freedom is slated to have been released in January 2022, but I cannot find any evidence this has happened). It’s just sad to recall an actor before they so thoroughly declared themselves to be dangerous and/or crazy, but I’m sure to those who knew him, these uncomfortable impulses and proclivities and conspiracy leanings were already there.

The best reason to watch The Count of Monte Cristo is the supporting cast. Pearce is delightfully wicked and enjoying himself. Harris has such weathered gravitas to him. Guzman is hilarious and his modern acting approach just does not fit with the overall vibe of the movie, but that disconnect is part of his amusement. Even Cavill is fun to watch, especially since he was only 18 years old at the time (Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays his mother, is only seven years older). You’ll see the early indications of the swagger and presence that will define him as a square-jawed leading man. The Count of Monte Cristo is a well made, exciting, and satisfying revenge thriller, as well as a smart adaptation of a classic work of literature that actively finds ways to improve upon it, insofar as a big screen movie. I’m sorry I was so snide twenty years ago (the Costner jab was an unnecessary cheap shot). It’s certainly swash, with the buckle, and deserves a better grade and better appraisal after all these years apart.

Re-View Grade: B

Monster’s Ball (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released December 26, 2001:

Monster’s Ball has already garnered two Oscar nominations, including one for the lovely Halle Berry for Best Actress, and received numerous end of the year accolades. Is Monster’s Ball the startling ruminations on race that you’re being told? Well… yes and no.

Set in the South, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are prison guards at the state penitentiary and preparing for an execution. The man to die is Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) who will be leaving behind an young son and making a widow out of Leticia (Halle Berry). The tension in the Grotowski home escalates especially as Hank has chosen to care for his own ailing father (Peter Boyle), who still finds the time to spout out racist rhetoric through an oxygen mask. One last confrontation leaves a permanent mark of emptiness on the family.

Leticia is struggling to just make ends meet and fight an impending eviction. Her car keeps breaking down on her, she’s been let go from her job as a waitress and she has to raise a son by herself all the while trying to encourage him to lose weight. Leticia is breaking down and her world around her is crumbling. One night Leticia gets into an accident walking home along the roadside and needs assistance badly. The one who pulls the car aside to help is actually Hank. As time goes by he helps Leticia however he can whether its giving her a ride home from the diner or just staying with her so she won’t be alone.

Hank and Leticia come together out of mutual need and grief. They are two people entirely wrong for each other that kindle a passion that seems to transcend race. Leticia needs someone to take care of her, after having a husband on death row and fighting to stay above the poverty line. Hank needs someone to take care of, out of a mixture of compounded loneliness and grief.

Thornton reprises the repressed protagonist of The Man Who Wasn’t There with his portrayal of Hank. His lips are pursed, looking a tad like Mr. Limpet, and he expresses more with a furrowed brow and stare than words could manage. Thornton’s performance is good, and the audience does really end up rooting for Hank, but the performance doesn’t resonate, possibly because of the writing for the character. I guess one could say Monster’s Ball is Halle Berry’s legitimization as an actress. Berry gives the performance of her career and has moments where she’s on the verge of ripping your heart out.

Monster’s Ball is not exactly the scorching portrait of race relations that it has been hyped to be. It’s really more of a story about two characters with race being underscored except for a convenient occasion where it can become the catalyst to a fight.

The film also takes some of its metaphors rather simply. The connection between father and son includes Hank and Sonny using the same prostitute. Hank eats every night in the same diner and always orders a bowl of chocolate ice cream (get it?) and black coffee (get it?).

All the ballyhoo over the explicit sex scene (thank you so much news-fluff) is undeserving. The sex scene is no different than a hundred seen before and many on Showtime during the late hours. The scene serves its purpose thematically in the story for its characters but it really isn’t “hot and steamy” as it’s been dubbed to be. Move along, folks.

Besides the acting Monster’s Ball has some other accomplishments up its sleeve. The cinematography is gorgeous and uses lights and darks to an incredibly effective degree. There are many scenes where you might be paying more attention to how the scene looks than the scene itself. The music is also commendable for the simple task of not becoming intrusive and actually enhancing the story. This is what scores are intended to do.

Monster’s Ball may be the biggest suck-in-air-uncomfortably movie to come out in a long time. I found myself enacting this measure every time someone did something horrible, said something racist or surprisingly died. This may be because I had the entire theater to myself for my own amusement. Monster’s Ball is certainly a well-written and well-acted film. It’s just not up to snuff when it comes to Best Picture speculation.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Monster’s Ball was Lee Daniels’ first movie as a producer and years before his first directing effort, 2005’s Shadowboxer, but it’s clear as ever in 2021 that his influence is all over this movie. The elements that would come to define Daniels’ later movies, like Precious and The Paperboy and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, are here, and that’s the awkward and sometimes jarring discordant elements of the serious and the soapy, of camp and sincerity (the movies are also so unabashedly horny). A Lee Daniels’ movie is trying to say something, sometimes poorly, often too many things and too spread out, and Monster’s Ball is one of those statement movies, or at least it was upon release. It was a screenplay developed in the mid 1990s by actors Milo Aaddica and Will Rokos, and while it attracted talent at points it didn’t really gain traction until Daniels came onboard as its shepherd. You can see what would be so attractive to Daniels, with the mixture of odd elements as its own eclectic brew. It’s a romance that should not work. It’s life lessons about racism that seem heavy-handed. It’s a thrust-heavy sex scene that goes on for four uncomfortable minutes. I think there’s a recognizable argument to be had that this romance doesn’t quite work. It’s more out of necessity than connection, but maybe that’s even the point. These are two wounded people finding solace in one another, and maybe that’s enough in a world of pain and uncertainty, just finding someone who, in Leticia’s words, “makes you feel good.” Monster’s Ball isn’t as wild and campy as other Daniels’ joints, but you can see the DNA of his other movies, the seeds of artistic flowers that would bloom into his style. It’s got a bit more of an arty, indie sheen here, but Monster’s Ball might as well be Lee Daniels’ Monster’s Ball as far as its key influence, certainly more than director Marc Forster.

Re-watching this movie many years later, it’s clear to me that it is not a movie about race relations, though this is an implicit subject as well, but much more an examination on generational toxic masculinity. This makes much more sense for me with the prominence given to Hank’s (Billy Bob Thornton) perspective over Leticia (Halle Berry). It’s about him learning to break free of his racial prejudices, yes, but that’s more one sign of him learning to break free of the tyranny of his father’s influence, and his father (Peter Boyle) is an infirm cartoon of toxic masculinity. This is a man who brags about his wife dying and how many women he cheated on her with. This is a man who calls his grandson Sonny (Heath Ledger) weak because he displayed empathy for an inmate on death row. It’s his close-minded, harmful definition of what constitutes a “real man” that has become the lingering poison infecting the Grotowski family tree. It’s not subtle in the slightest, but Monster’s Ball is effective in communicating cycles of abuse. Hank carries many of his father’s tendencies and views his own son with contempt for not being able to meet these same restrictive definitions of manliness that his father imposed on him. When his son needs him the most, in his cry for help, is where Hank fails him, telling him he does in fact hate him, and that’s when he loses him forever. The rest of the movie is tracing Hank’s journey to breaking free from the vile influence of a decrepit old man.

To that end, the story structure of Monster’s Ball works better. In the span of 110 minutes, Hank has to reflect on what the negative influences of his life are and to break free of them. When he finally decides to put his father in a nursing home, the lady in charge smiles and says, “You must love your father.” Hank is quick to reply, “No, I don’t. But he’s my father.” There is no love between these men because love was most likely viewed as weakness. It’s the last thing Sonny says before killing himself, after his father says he hates him: “Well I’ve always loved you.” When Leticia looks at a picture of Sonny, something that Hank doesn’t share until late in the film, she remarks that Sonny doesn’t look like Hank. He replies that Sonny has his mother in him, implying the things that made him better came from her. This is a character journey that literally culminates in a man performing oral sex on a woman as a sign of his personal growth. Taken by itself, it sounds laughable, but it mostly works in the context of the movie. Surely his father would view the giving of pleasure to another as a waste of energy and time, so his desire to give rather than receive ends up being his character’s defining push away from the negativity of his father.

My issue is that Leticia feels less like a fully-fleshed out person and more like an infantilized victim. She’s a single mother struggling to keep her job, keep her home, and keep her son’s weight in check. Her husband is on death row. She’s got a lot of opportunities to be given dimension and insight. However, the movie never seems to deem her ready for that attention until the very very end, literally the last scene of the movie. Beforehand, she’s more a prop to the development of others, someone to gauge Hank’s personal growth and someone to be inflicted with all manners of indignities and abuses. When she interacts with Hank’s father, and he’s as awful as you would expect, her residual pain and outrage is the final straw for Hank who then moves the old man out. Her entire relationship with her son feels awkwardly handled. Fiction can illuminate the lives of complicated people, people with flaws that don’t always make the best decisions, but her single-minded obsession with her son’s weight, and her subsequent beating of him, feels like another chain of abuse but without the explanation. Otherwise, it’s just a woman in pain berating her son, and then the boy has to die, and it feels excessive. I know that Hank and Leticia bond over their mutual grief over having lost a son, but it feels like Leticia is more a martyr for Hank’s growth. During their protracted sex scene, her voice cracks and sounds uncomfortably childish. At the end, she asks Hank to take care of her because she needs it. She comes across like an infantilized version of a woman who is there to cry and be pretty.

That’s why the final moment of the movie rings so curious for me. After Hank puts his father away, what is the conflict here? Leticia agrees to move in with Hank after being evicted, and it all seems to be going well. Then while he’s out retrieving his favorite ice cream, she discovers that Hank has drawings by her late husband, reshaping her understanding of Hank. But what is that reshaping? Before he was a guy she served at a diner who happened to help her during the most trying time in her life. Does she think he was seeking her out to take advantage of her? How? She got the diner job because she lost her previous job, and it’s not like he sought her out, but she might not be privy to any of that context. It feels like an artificial conflict that’s meant to boil over and possibly spell doom between these two. Can this budding relationship survive this revelation? But I’m still unclear what exactly the revelation is. He worked at the prison? He was involved in the execution of her husband in a way, walking him to the chair? This seems artificially inflated to me. And yet it is only here that the movie gives her the final say, allowing Berry to wordlessly process this new information and whether or not it dramatically changes anything between her and Hank. She never comments to him about it. You just have to study her face, and it’s here where the movie at long last treats Leticia with the courtesy of nuance.

Monster’s Ball was made famous for two reasons: the extended sex scene between Berry and Thornton and her Best Actress Oscar victory, the first ever for a woman of color (and still the only one twenty years later). Let’s start with Berry’s performance, which was definitely a leap above what she had been demonstrating with trashy thrillers and lame comedies. Berry is good here but the Lee Daniels of it all makes it feel like her performance is being pulled into less subtle, more overtly soapy directions against her better judgements. When she gets into a whiny space, I kind of winced, not because her character was undeserving of complaint, but because the movie was shifting her into that infantilized victim box. Berry is good here, but after re-watching Sissy Spacek’s In the Bedroom performance and Nicole Kidman’s Moulin Rouge! performance, I’d rate her third of the chief 2001 Best Actress nominees. Berry is an actress I had mixed feelings about early in my critical career (2004’s Catwoman did not help), but I’ve come around to appreciate her more. I greatly enjoyed her varied performances in 2012’s Cloud Atlas. She recently directed her first movie where she plays a middle-aged kick boxer, and that sounds punishing and possibly eye-opening.

I’m not the only one that seems to come back to the infamous sex scene; it constitutes almost all of the trivia about the film on IMDB (interesting not-sex-scene fact: Wes Bentley was going to play Sonny but mysteriously dropped out –he admitted to struggling with heroin addiction later– and the studio gave the production 48 hours to find a replacement, and that’s how Heath Ledger got it). Also, I had to revise this paragraph several times to remove any phrases that might come across as unintended innuendos. You could argue the sex scene is a turning point. It happens at the halfway point of Monster’s Ball and beforehand Leticia and Hank have expressed no romantic interest. Afterwards, it becomes about their possible odd-couple romance, if that’s what it can even be called. The scene is played raw and desperate, which is why it made me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t because I was watching two actors pretend to physically go at it for an extended period, it’s because these characters were so sad and reaching out in desperation to feel anything fleeting. The attention given to the scene just feels thematically wrong. It’s not offensively gross but it feels a little too prurient, a little too salacious for what the characters are going through emotionally. Thornton has even said in interviews that this movie might have contributed to his eventual divorce from Angelina Jolie, which seems strange to me considering she was also filming steamy scenes with Antonio Banderas at about the same time (2001’s Original Sin).

Director Marc Forster has had an interesting career since helming this four-million dollar indie. He’s done Oscar-bait dramas (Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner) and quirky indies (Stranger Than Fiction, Stay) and big Hollywood action movies (Quantum of Solace, World War Z). He was hand-selected by producer Brad Pitt to direct World War Z. Forster has no distinct, visible style to him but effectively alters to the genre and story he’s directing. In some ways, this is what a director should be, and yet Forster has never gotten credit for his versatility. Nobody is going to say Quantum of Solace is their favorite James Bond movie, or even the best of Daniel Craig’s run, but it’s not really Forster’s fault that movie didn’t work. His last two movies were smaller dramas, 2016’s All I See is You and 2018’s misguided Christopher Robin, and he’s attached to movies about the Holocaust, a downed World War II pilot, the formation of Greenpeace, and Thomas the Tank Engine, so the man’s versatility continues to go undervalued.

This is my final re-review of the 2001 film slate, and my original review I think mostly holds up. I was thinking the same thing about lazy metaphors and lacking substantial racial commentary, but I better appreciated the scope of the movie not on race but on the effects of toxic masculinity. I think I was more dazzled by the photography in 2001 (or 2002 when it was made available to us in central Ohio) than in 2021. Monster’s Ball is a clumsy but well-intentioned movie that has some pristine elements to it but I don’t quite know if it ever coalesces into the important movie it desires. It’s an interesting artifact of Lee Daniels before he became an industry unto himself, and with Berry showcasing just what she was capable of if given the right opportunity. This began a run of “pretty actress goes drab” of Oscar winners (2002’s Nicole Kidman, 2003’s Charlize Theron, 2004’s Hilary Swank), and so the biggest lesson of Monster’s Ball after all might have been providing a successful template for future actresses to follow a path to Oscar gold.

Re-View Grade: B-

Vanilla Sky (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released December 14, 2001:

Talk about a film’s back story. Tom Cruise signed on to do a remake of the 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) which was directed by Alejandro Amenabar. During the filming the romance between Cruise and Penelope Cruz (no relation) got a little hotter than expected onscreen and broke up his long-standing marriage to Nicole Kidman. At the time she was finishing filming The Others which is the second film by Amenabar. This, by the way, is much more interesting than Vanilla Sky unfortunately.

Cameron Crowe’s remake starts off promising enough with Tom Cruise running around an empty Times Square like a Twilight Zone episode. Afterwards the film begins to create a story that collapses under its own weight. David (Cruise) is a rich boy in control of a publishing empire inherited through his dear old deceased dad. He has the time to throw huge parties where even Spielberg hugs him, and even have crazy sex with crazy Cameron Diaz, whom he tells his best friend (Jason Lee) is his “f*** buddy.” David begins to see a softer side of life with the entrance of bouncy and lively Sophia (Cruz) and contemplates that he might be really falling in love for the first time. But this happiness doesn’t last long as jealous Diaz picks up David in her car then speeds it off a bridge killing her. Then things get sticky including David’s disfiguration, his attempts to regain that one night of budding love and a supposed murder that he committed.

Crowe is in over his head with this territory. His knack for wonderful exchanges of dialogue and the perfect song to place over a scene are intact, but cannot help him with this mess. Vanilla Sky is an awkward mish-mash of science fiction. The film’s protagonist is standoffish for an audience and many of the story’s so-called resolutions toward the end are more perfunctory than functional. The ending as a whole is dissatisfying and unimaginative. By the time the wonderful Tilda Swinton shows up you’ll likely either be asleep or ready to press the eject button yelling “cop out!”

Seeing Vanilla Sky has made me want to hunt for Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos and see what all the hype was about, because if it is anything like its glossy American counterpart then I have no idea why world audiences went wild for it.

Nate’s Grade: C

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Movies have long resorted to being interactive puzzles, inviting audiences to unravel the mystery and hunt for clues as detectives. That’s essentially what Vanilla Sky is at its best, a messy mishmash of a movie that aims a little too high and pins its hopes with a generally unlikeable lead. This psychodrama is meant for dissection, not in a dreamy, obtuse way that David Lynch films invite but more in a canny re-calibration of pop-culture homages and fantasies. The big twist of the movie is that David (Tom Cruise), a rich publishing scion recovering from a savage accident, has elected to live in a simulation, a lucid dream that has been his home for the last hundred-plus years (how kind of the multiple generations of knob-turners to keep things operating). Other stories have followed a similar Twilight Zone-esque twist on the same territory, including the beloved “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror (that’s right, spoilers, spoilers all around for older sci-fi). Writer/director Cameron Crowe has stated there are over 400 pop-culture connections and references to be had with this movie. The movie is wall-to-wall cultivated jams, as expected from a Crowe picture, but the homages and recreations go beyond simply placing a piece of music to a scene or name dropping an artist. The visual language of the movie is intended to be deconstructed, built upon twentieth-century album covers, music, movies, and plenty more. It’s a dense artistic gamble and, ultimately, I question who is even going to care enough to dive into this movie? Who is going to want to watch Vanilla Sky as a detective?

This American remake of a 1997 Spanish movie was, in hindsight, the beginning of the end of Crowe’s career as a major director of studio movies for adults. Crowe had just experienced the apex of his career with 2000’s luminescent Almost Famous, a warm hug of a movie, and he had won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It makes sense to try for something big, reunite with his Jerry Maguire star, and go outside his comfort zone with a wide artistic berth of freedom. The 2001 movie just did not work, though not strictly because of Crowe’s game efforts. This is not a miscalculated folly, an artist flying too close to the sun and getting burnt by their arrogance. I think the major flaw comes down to pinning the mystery on the recovery of the romantic and social life of a disagreeable lead character. Early on, David is established as rich, careless, and smug. He keeps his responsibilities as fleeting as his relationships with women. When his on-again-off-again paramour, Julie (Cameron Diaz), drives off a bridge with David inside, part of you might be thinking he deserves what he got for being so callously indifferent with other people. That’s harsh, I realize, but people will not like David, and this is amplified by the general public’s diastase for Cruise himself. Therefore, watching a movie where he tries to overcome him disfigurement and disability and stop being a jerk to everyone in his life is not a journey that invites the viewer to come aboard. He’s just not that interesting as our centerpiece. What’s happening to him can prove interesting, especially as the movie plays with our mind, but at no point will the extended pity party for poor rich David feel compelling as its own drama.

This is the problem with movies that are built around Big Twists: limited replay value. After you know the super twist, very often these movies fail to justify another two-hour investment. Take for instance 1997’s The Game, the forgotten David Fincher movie. It’s a thriller where Michael Douglas is on the run and doesn’t know who is responsible for chasing him. Then the movie says, “Surprise, it’s [blank],” and then it ends. Not every twist unlocks a new and exciting prism of how to view the preceding hours, like a Sixth Sense or Fight Club. Most movies built upon a big reveal as their conclusion tend to deflate immediately. There’s no real reason to watch The Game a second time if you already know what is happening. There’s no real reason to watch 2003’s Identity again once you know all the ridiculous secrets. There’s no real reason to watch Vanilla Sky once you know the explanation for all the strange little hiccups along David’s fraying mental state.

Look, tons of movies are built around extended mysteries, from Agatha Christie to Knives Out, but the pleasure goes beyond simply solving of the puzzle. It’s the characters, the red herrings, the inspectors or detectives or chief solver of mystery. There is more there for entertainment. With Vanilla Sky, what we’re left with is a lackluster romance of a former pretty boy moping over his slightly adjusted privilege. It’s not like David’s character arc is illuminating or insightful. It’s not like we’re watching the battle over his soul here. He’s just kind of an affable jerk, and then David becomes a scarred jerk, and then he decides to wake up and be a jerk in real life. Progress?

There is a discussion to be had about how much of the movie is a dream, or where real life ends and the dream begins, and apparently even Crowe has determined there are six general interpretations, from the movie’s true and when Tech Support (Noah Taylor) says he switches over is when the dream occurs, to the unfulfilling “it was all a dream” interpretation. I suppose this could be fun for others but again I don’t think there are enough enjoyable components in the movie to incentivize the debate.

In some ways, this is one of Cruise’s most vain-free performances, yet there is an undercurrent that only seems even more vain. First the obvious; he plays a womanizer who also wears a mask for half of the movie to cover his scarred Phantom of the Opera visage. There’s a lack of vanity playing an annoying, arrogant, unpleasant person, something Cruise has done before and quite well, especially in his extraordinary Oscar-nominated turn in 1999’s Magnolia. He’s even played characters with physical disabilities before, like 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July. However, this “lack of vanity” really plays out as a vain attempt to be even more impressive as a respected thespian. The movie was positioned for a mid-December release, and with Crowe and Cruise on board, it seemed like a legitimate awards contender, until that is it opened wide. While Cruise’s performance is fine, his time under the mask doesn’t proverbially unmask his character for our better consumption.

Vanilla Sky is mostly known as the big American debut of Penelope Cruz. She was already a muse for Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and known well in the indie circuit, but from here she became Hollywood’s newest It Girl, only to be stranded in mediocre studio movie after mediocre studio movie (Does anyone remember Captain Corelli’s Mandolin?). It wasn’t until Almodóvar’s 2006 film Volver that studio execs seemed to finally understand how best to utilize her great talent. She won an Oscar for 2008’s Vicky Christina Barcelona and was nominated the following year for the musical Nine. She recently reunited with Almodóvar for 2021’s Parallel Mothers and again is wowing audiences. From early on, she definitely has a spark, an effervescence to her performance in Vanilla Sky. She’s also fighting against being forcibly elbowed into the swampy Manic Pixie Dream Girl category, a term that was originally coined for Crowe’s follow-up film, 2005’s Elizabethtown. Crowe loves writing women under these quirky conditions, however, the movie is told from a flawed male dream perspective, so it also makes sense if its portrayal of David’s idyllic dream woman happens to flatten her down.

It’s true that the story behind the scenes of Vanilla Sky proves more intriguing than the film itself. Cruise and Nicole Kidman were the Hollywood power couple. The ensuing tabloid feeding frenzy over their breakup and Cruise/Cruz relationship outlived the legacy of Vanilla Sky. This was the most ambitious and experimental movie in Crowe’s tenure as a writer/director, and he would never again return to science-fiction as a genre, keeping to the familiar lane of prestige dramas declining in prestige with each new film. My original review in the closing weeks of 2001 was pretty minimal in analysis. I knew this movie didn’t quite work then and it still doesn’t work now. If you’re eager for a dissertation-level analysis on its pop-culture fantasia, then God’s speed to you and your infinite free time.

Re-View Grade: C

In the Bedroom (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released November 23, 2001:

In the Bedroom hits all the right notes of agonizing pain, devastation and loss. The heart of the film is on the grief encompassing Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) over the loss of their son. The Fowlers are well regarded in their cozy New England town. Matt is a flourishing local doctor and Ruth teaches a chorus of local high school girls.

In the Bedroom opens with Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) chasing his older girlfriend Natalie (Marisa Tomei) across an open grassy field. Frank is a budding architecture student home for the summer and thinking of prolonging his time so he can stay together with Natalie. Frank and Natalie have a distinct age divide but also seem to have been given different lots in life. She has a pair of boys from her abusive husband Richard (William Mapother) that she is finalizing a divorce from. Richard is hopeful he can reconcile with Natalie if he just gets another chance, but Natalie is stern in her refusal.

Ruth sees the relationship as a detriment to her son’s future. She’s even more upset that Matt is so casual with their son dating an older, working-class mother. Frank rushes over to calm Natalie after another of Richard’s outbursts of violence has left her house in shambles. She rushes her children upstairs just as Richard returns back. He manages to sneak in through a back door and confronts Frank in their kitchen, shooting and killing him. What should seem like a clear-cut case begins to unspool. Natalie admits she didn’t actually see the gun fire and the charges are dropped from murder to manslaughter. Richard is released on bail and free to stroll around occasionally bumping into the grieving and outraged Fowlers.

The majority of the film is the aftermath of the murder and the strain it puts upon Matt and Ruth and their marriage. Beforehand jealousy, anger, and bitterness would simply sit but slowly the tension begins to bubble to the surface. Ruth holds resentment and blames the leniency of Matt for the death of their son. Matt tries to get out of the house as much as possible, even if it means sitting in his car in their driveway at night.

One of the most harrowing scenes of In the Bedroom is also its emotional and acting centerpiece. After the mounting frustration with justice, Ruth and Matt explode into an argument that had slowly been building long before their son’s death. This is the first time they have truly talked about the whole situation and accusations fly like bullets in their first emotional confrontation. In the Bedroom could have easily fallen into the area of sticky made-for-TV land, but the exceptional performances all around by the cast and the deft and studied direction never allow it to falter.

Spacek (Carrie, Coal Miner’s Daughter) can begin writing her Oscar acceptance speech right now. Her portrayal of Ruth displays the pride and seething anger, but keeps her human throughout. She exhibits pure, raw emotion that strikes directly inside you leaving a knot in your stomach and in your throat. Her performance is truly breathtaking and so emotionally visceral to watch. Wilkinson (The Full Monty) plays Matt with passive-aggressive doubt and repression. He dominates in any scene he is in and takes the audience on a wide range of emotions. He has a commanding presence and compliments Spacek’s Ruth nicely. Perhaps the greatest thing Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, Slums of Beverly Hills) was known for was miraculously winning an Oscar and dumbfounding a nation. With In the Bedroom she is given the ubiquitous “And” credit at the end of the opening cast list. She has less to work with and less screen time to work it, fully earning the “And”‘ credit she has.

Todd Field is an actor-turned-director and has appeared in such a wide array of films from Twister to Eyes Wide Shut. Field has layered his film with rich symbolism and an intelligent, patient pace. Most of the action in movies is centered on what is going on in a scene, but the most telling moments of In the Bedroom are what are not going on in the scenes. Field creates such an intimate portrait that the camera almost turns into another character, catching the lingering silences and the burgeoning inner turmoil. Field also adapted the screenplay from a short story by Andre Dubus, whom he dedicates the film to.

In the Bedroom is not going to be for everyone. Some will find it slow and some might even find it boring. As it stands, it is a powerful film on the study of loss that grips you and refuses to let go. You will feel all the blame, jealousy, anger, and pain of this family and for such emotions to resonate from the screen to the audience is a great achievement.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Twenty years later and it seems like nobody really talks about Todd Field’s In the Bedroom any longer, which is a crying shame. The movie was hailed by critics upon its release in late 2001 and earned five Academy Award nominations including Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Picture. Field would then adapt Tom Perotta’s novel Little Children and direct its 2006 adaptation, again earning favorable reviews and multiple Oscar nominations, revitalizing the career of Jackie Earl Haley. And then Field seemed to vanish from view. There are a few dropped projects and a potential upcoming series with Daniel Craig, but Field has been too quiet as a director for over 15 years, and that’s far too long for a man that showcased such immediate natural talent from his very first opportunity in the director’s chair. In the Bedroom was a movie that I wasn’t exactly excited to come back to on my list of 2001 re-watches; it’s a heavy drama about grief and suffering and that’s not exactly the best entertainment remedy during the holidays. I’m happy to have gone back to the movie, as well as cross it off my list, because this return reaffirmed for me just how great Field is as a director, and a screenwriter, and just how vital this indie film feels. It’s the real deal when it comes to authenticity and emotional power, and watching this as a 39-year-old rather than a 19-year-old gave the enduring two hours added heft for its family tragedy.

The plot centers on the spiraling consequences of one death. Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) is the 18-year-old son of Ruth (Sissy Spacek) and Matt (Tom Wilkinson), upper-middle class and pleasant but pointed. Frank is dating Natalie Strout (Marissa Tomei), an older woman and the ex-wife (though not yet legally divorced) of Richard Trout (William Mapother), a violent and unstable man and also heir to the local canning company. One fateful day, Richard angrily confronts Frank, a gunshot is heard, and Frank is dead. Richard swears it was self-defense, but Natalie is convinced her jealous ex was finishing the threats he had been making about her ever leaving him. The murder happens at the 40-minute mark, and from there the movie becomes a long examination on grief and guilt and blame, where characters drift from scene to scene like ghosts, some avoiding the painful realities of their enormous grief, finding hobbies or distractions, but most unable to fully articulate the resounding pain and emotions brimming under the surface.

Under Field’s attentive care, there is a palpable dread hanging over every scene. The script allows different bereft perspectives, each person wrestling with feelings of personal guilt. Natalie blames herself for holding onto the relationship, bringing him into her world. Matt blames himself for not calling the police after an earlier fight between Frank and Richard, and he doubts whether he should have pushed harder on his feelings of reservation about the relationship with Natalie. Ruth has escaped into her insurmountable anger and uses it as the fuel to keep her going. The friends and neighbors do their best to be supportive but every conversation or poker game has the danger of veering too close to The Topic, and the awkward but well-meaning silences permeate and become more awkward. It’s a movie about people trying to get on with their lives but not knowing how to reassemble the broken pieces. By itself, that is enough meaty drama worthy of examination by top-notch actors and considerate screenwriting that allows us to really dwell in the beautiful discomfort. Field adds extra degrees of turmoil from the possibility that Richard will be given a slap on the wrists by the indifferent legal system. Richard posts bail thanks to his family’s wealth and even casually strolls through the town like nothing happened, making appearances while Ruth is shopping like her living in an inescapable nightmare. The Fowlers are consistently having their pain poked and prodded and reopened. One friend suggests if Matt has contemplated moving, and he admits he’s considered it, but it wouldn’t change what happened or lessen the pain of having their son’s killer protected by his status.

As you can imagine with that kind of material, In the Bedroom is an actor’s showcase. Wilkinson is the more featured role, and he’s the more laid back one, the one trying to make sense of things as best he can and failing. Wilkinson is terrific in the role and his hangdog expression from scene to scene denotes so much unspoken pain he’s grappling with behind his placid veneer. Just watching this man try and keep his life together is worthy of study. The weariness is harder to note with his performance but more rewarding to watch. Spacek is great herself but playing a role with less dimension. She is the stern voice of outrage and blame, the one who never liked Natalie and always suspected the worst. She has her signature blowup scene that serves as a long-in-the-making emotional confrontation with her husband, who she accuses of hiding from his grief rather than embracing it. However, her character is also painted in an unflattering and I would say unfair characterization. In the heat of their fight, Matt accuses his wife of being so controlling, so unforgiving that her son had no choice but to run away from her. While the character has been presented as cold and disapproving, she’s a victim too. This was Tomei’s confirmation as an actress that her surprise 1993 Oscar victory was no accident. She’s strong in her brief moments, especially when she’s recounting Frank’s murder under oath and realizes her inability to help the case with her conflicting witness testimony. It’s devastating to watch as she processes in the moment the doubt and then utter terror as she realizes that her next words, of honest yet painful reflection, will undermine the case she so desperately needs. I know the slap between Spacek and Tomei got more attention, but this is her clincher.

All of this well-wrought examination of grief and guilt is sturdily handled, and it effectively sets up the last fifteen minutes of the movie into its own indie thriller. Finally pushed far enough, Matt takes matters into his own hands to find justice. The entire sequence is played out so deliberately that you might not breathe from the protracted suspense. Field and co-screenwriter Robert Festinger (Trust) have patiently built up these characters and their conflicts with such precision that they have developed genuine emotional stakes and uncertainty for the end. For first-time viewers, I imagine there will be legitimate doubt how the final events will play out. Is Matt being honest with his offer to have Richard run away from town? Is he making his stand in secret to absolve his wife of more pain and to rise to her verbal challenges of being too timid, or is she in collusion and possibly the Lady Macbeth from the bedroom shadows? It’s a long, taut sequence that feels like a fitting culmination of the many little details that have been set up, from character dimensions and motivations to small details that come together so smoothly, like a bridge worker or a friend’s large estate. It’s been twenty years since I’ve seen the movie and it still had my heart elevated, and I knew the ending.

Where In the Bedroom separates itself from the dramatic pack, and where it’s deserving of more attention and notoriety in retrospect, is how remarkably considered and assured this movie is about assembling its details and atmosphere. This is a deeply felt and deeply authentic movie that fills out the innumerable edges of this small coastal town with colorful characters that feel genuine, lives that feel lived-in, details that feel authentic without being obvious, and all without losing focus on the central performers as they struggle with their consuming grief. There are great artistic touches too for emphasis, like when Matt seeks out his lawyer to question points of strategy, and when the officious man retreats back to polite deferrals that fall back on the limits of the judicial system, the camera focuses on tight edits, first the man’s mustachioed mouth, then his fiddling hand in his pocket jangling his keys, a sound that intensifies into that of a jackhammer. It’s a clever and effective means of conveying the fractured, infuriating, dismayed response of Matt. However, most of the movie avoids flashy style that calls attention to itself. The very framing of the characters in the shots is so elegantly composed, making fine use of spaces and windows to help convey extra layers. This is a movie that does not feel like a first-time filmmaker or screenwriter. This same measured assurance can be seen in 2006’s Little Children, an equally well-observed, detail-rich, non-judgmental slice-of-life of small-town ennui. We need more Todd Field movies considering he’s two-for-two with literary adaptations.

My original review in 2001 has some sentimental value for me. It was one of the first reviews I ever wrote for my college newspaper, The Chimes, in the position of film critic, an official role I held for five straight semesters (2002-2004). It was a goal of mine arriving at school and I saw it through, and this first review reminds me of the next stage of my career in film criticism and of my good times in small-scale publishing. My 2001 review gets some things right but I cringe at how awkwardly it’s trying to grasp for further meaning without understanding how to clarify my explanations. Maybe I was more taken with writing to my college-aged audience, hence why I devote a paragraph to explaining the use of the “And” credit in movie casting. There are some good points here and there, and the distillation of the plot and conflicts is solid, but as I’ve noticed with more than a few of my earlier reviews, the depth of critical analysis is shallower than I would prefer. Also, my hasty prediction that Spacek should “begin writing her Oscar acceptance speech now” was short-sighted, as she lost Best Actress to Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball (see you next in December, movie). In the Bedroom is a movie worthy of your time and a cultural re-examination.

Nate’s Grade: A

Mulholland Drive (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released October 19, 2001:

Mulholland Dr. has had a long and winding path to get to the state it is presented today. In the beginning it was 120 minutes of a pilot for ABC, though it was skimmed to 90 for the insertion of commercials. But ABC just didn’t seem to get it and declined to pick up David Lynch’s bizarre pilot. Contacted by the French producers of Lynch’s last film, The Straight Story, it was then financed to be a feature film. Lynch went about regathering his cast and filming an additional twenty minutes of material to be added to the 120-minute pilot. And now Mulholland Dr. has gone on to win the Best Director award at Cannes and Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Association.

Laura Harring plays a woman who survives a car crash one night. It appears just before a speeding car full of reckless teens collided into her limo she was intended to be bumped off. She stumbles across the dark streets of Hollywood and finds shelter in an empty apartment where she rests. Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) is a young girl that just got off the bus to sunny California with aspirations of being a big time movie star. She enters her aunt’s apartment to find a nude woman (Harring) in the shower. She tells Betty her name is Rita after glancing at a hanging poster of Rita Hayworth. Rita is suffering from amnesia and has no idea who she is, or for that fact, why her purse is full of thousands of dollars. Betty eagerly wants to help Rita discover who she is and they set off trying to unravel this mystery.

Across town, young hotshot director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is getting ready to go into production for his new film. He angers his mob producers by refusing to cast their chosen girl for his movie. After some harassment, threats, and a visit by an eyebrow-less cowboy assassin (God bless you David Lynch), he relents.

In the meanwhile, people are tracking the streets looking for Rita. Betty and Rita do some detective work and begin amassing clues to her true identify. As they plunge further into their investigation the two also plunge into the roles of lovers. Rita discovers a mysterious blue box and key in her possession. After a night out with Betty she decides to open it, and just when she does and the audience thinks it has a hold on the film, the camera zooms into the abyss of the box and our whole world is turned upside down.

David Lynch has made a meditation on dreams, for that is at the heart of Mulholland Dr. His direction is swift and careful and his writing is just as precise. The noir archetypes are doing battle with noir expectations. The lesbian love scenes could have been handled to look like late night Cinemax fluff, but instead Lynch’s finesse pays off in creating some truly erotic moments. Despite the population of espresso despising mobsters, wheelchair bound dwarfs, and role-reversal lesbians, the audience knows that it is in hands that they can trust. It’s Lynch back to his glorious incomprehensible roots.

Watts is the true breakthrough of Lynch’s casting and she will surely be seen in more films. Watts has to play many facets of possibly the same character, from starry-eyed perky Nancy Drew to a forceful and embittered lesbian lover.

One scene stands out as a perfect example of the talent Watts possesses. Betty has just been shuffled off to an audition for a film and rehearsing with Rita all morning. She’s introduced to her leathery co-star and the directors await her to play out the audition scene of two kids and their forbidden love. As soon as the scene begins Betty vanishes and is totally inhabited by the spirit of her character. She speaks her lines in a breathy, yet whisper-like, voice running over with sensuality but also elements of power. In this moment the characters know, as the audience does, that Betty and Naomi Watts are born movie stars.

It’s not too difficult for a viewer to figure out what portions of the film are from the pilot and what were shot afterwards. I truly doubt if ABC’s standards and practices allows for lesbian sex. The pilot parts seem to have more sheen to them and simpler camera moves, nothing too fancy. The additional footage seems completely opposite and to great effect. Mulholland Dr. has many plot threads that go nowhere or are never touched upon again, most likely parts that were going to be reincorporated with the series.

The truly weirdest part of Mulholland Drive is that the film seems to be working best when it actually is still the pilot. The story is intriguing and one that earns its suspense, mystery, and humor that oozes from this noir heavy dreamscape. The additional twenty minutes of story could be successfully argued one of two ways. It could be said it’s there just to confound an audience and self-indulgent to the good story it abandons. It could also be argued that the ending is meticulously thought out and accentuates the 120 minutes before it with more thought and understanding.

Mulholland Dr. is a tale that would have made an intriguing ongoing television series complete with ripe characters and drama. However, as a movie it still exceeds in entertainment but seems more promising in a different venue.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

How much is a dream worth to you? That’s my main takeaway re-watching David Lynch’s surreal indie Mulholland Drive twenty years later from its release. Lynch has had plenty of his own run-ins with the dream makers of Tinseltown, from the difficulty to see his admittedly weird projects off the ground to the swift cancellation of his once zeitgeist, and deeply weird, TV series, Twin Peaks. It’s common knowledge now that Mulholland Drive began as a 1999 TV pilot that Lynch re-conceived as a movie, shot 30 minutes of additional footage, and earned a 2001 Best Directing Oscar nomination for his perseverance and creative adaptability. The movie has since taken on quite a reputation. The BBC and Los Angeles Society of Film Critics have both hailed it as the best film of the twenty-first century (so far). Lynch has retreated back to his insular world of weirdness with hypnotic, over-indulgent retreads, Inland Empire, and bringing back his signature TV series for a Showtime run in 2017. In 2001, Mulholland’s Drive’s success seemed to be the last point with Lynch working with the studio system he so despised. In a way, this is his farewell letter to chasing his own dreams of stardom, at least as far as a director can have creative control and a steady supply of protection and money to see his vision through. Watching Mulholland Drive is like stepping through a dream, which has been the hallmark of Lynch’s more celebrated, obtuse filmography from 1977’s Eraserhead onward. The movie is meant to operate on a certain dream logic, sustained with choices that seem artistically self-destructive, but the journey might feel as emotionally or intellectually fleeting as a dream as well, so I ask you, dear reader, to think as you continue, how much is a dream worth?

The failed pilot serves as a majority of the film’s running time and it’s filled with peculiar beginnings that will never pay off. There are actors like Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) and Brent Briscoe (Sling Blade) who show up for one whole scene and then are never seen again. Presumably, the roles would have been more significant as detectives snooping around from the peripheral. There are mysterious forces chasing after “Rita” (Laura Harring), an important-looking woman who has conveniently lost her memory and adopted her name after seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth. She’s got a bag filled with money, a gun, and blue key. One would assume over the course of a network season that we would get closer to discovering the real identity of our amnesiac leading lady. There are also scenes that seem to exist as their own short films, like the darkly comedic hapless hitman and the scared man detailing his spooky dream to a concerned friend in a diner. These characters, presumably, would come back for more significance or at least larger interplay. The same with the mysterious locked box and key. You can practically identify the J.J. Abrams “mystery box”-style of storytelling for future intrigue. The role of a TV pilot is to serve up a storytelling engine that can keep churning, as well as ensuring that there’s enough curiosity to hook an audience through commercial breaks. Lynch is used to inserting strange symbols and starts in his movies that potentially go nowhere, so the difference between a Lynch pilot and a Lynch movie aren’t terribly noticeable. These characters, clues, and moments were perhaps intended to be developed further, or perhaps they never were. It’s as if the movie itself is a nightmare of different television programs colliding incoherently.

There does seem to be a consensus interpretation for Mulholland Drive, one that synchs up the various doubles and symbols. For two hours, we’re riding along with Betty (Naomi Watts) as she moves to L.A. with big dreams and perky naivete. She finds the amnesiac Rita in her aunt’s apartment and takes it upon herself to give her a home and investigate her identity. They grow close together, Betty nails her big acting audition, and then Betty and Rita become lovers. They go to a club (Silencio) where performance artists insist “everything is recorded,” and thus already happened, phony, and a replication of memory, and then Rita inserts that mystery blue key into the mystery box and mysteriously vanishes. We next return to the scene of Diane, who at first was a dead body that Rita and Betty found during their investigation. Now it’s Betty, or at least Watts playing her, and she’s a struggling actress who is jealous of the success and favor her girlfriend, Camilla (also played by Harring), is indulging in from their seedy director, Adam (Justin Theroux). Overcome with torment, she hires a hitman to kill Camilla. From there, she’s attacked by a homeless monster, tiny versions of the people portraying Betty’s parents in the first part, and she takes her own life in grief and guilt. The most common interpretation is that the final twenty or so minutes with Watts as Diane is the real story and that the proceedings 110 minutes was Diane’s dream trying to process her guilty conscience and mixed emotions. The blue key, the symbol from Diane’s hired hitman of a job completed, is the point of transportation between the dream and returning to a living nightmare of regret. Adam’s prominence in the first two hours is explained as punishment from Diane’s mind, so this is why he is emasculated repeatedly, from being robbed of control over his movie, his marriage, and ultimately his future.

Just because this is the most prominent interpretation, and even perhaps the author’s intended one, doesn’t mean other viewers cannot find equally valid and differing interpretations. That’s the appeal or point of frustration with Lynch’s most Lynchian work. However, the problem with asserting that the first two hours of your two-hour-plus movie were all a dream can make it feel overindulgent and unsatisfying. The TV pilot segments are shot in a way that evokes the cliché storytelling stye that prevailed at the time, with overly lit scenes and flat acting. I cannot say for certain but it feels like Lynch purposely told Watts (King Kong) to try and be hammy. Lynch has been known to purposely ape the style of prime-time soaps to provide subtle satirical contexts. Is Watts doing a bad job with the purpose of making us think of other bad actors from soaps? The one scene Betty comes alive is during her audition scene. We’ve already seen her act it out once so we’re expecting more of the same, but in that moment, she comes alive with sensuality, taking control from the aged acting partner who was just there to exploit some young new starlets. The intensity she unleashes, a mixture of carnal desire and self-loathing, is nothing like bright-eyed Betty. Is the irony that when Betty is pretending to be someone else that’s when the performance excels? You can see the points for interpretation, especially considering the ending thesis, but if so, it’s such a bold gamble by Lynch that could prove so alienating. You’re deliberately having your lead actress act in a cliched and stilted manner to perhaps make a point fewer will grasp? Obviously, the ending wasn’t intended to pair with the pilot parts, so it feels like projecting an unintended meaning onto the intentions of acting decisions, but dreams are murky that way.

I wouldn’t be surprised if just as many people are tested by Mulholland Drive as they are mesmerized. It’s a combination of different genres and film iconography, from Manning as a living-breathing femme fatale, to dark whimsical comedy, to surreal mystery, to tawdry erotic drama, to industry-obsessed soap. As much as it feels like a pilot retooled into a new beast, it also feels like a collection of genres being retooled for whatever intended association Lynch wants to impart. It’s ready-made for dissection and ready to take apart the Hollywood studio system. I enjoyed some of the strange moments that felt most ancillary, like the mobster with the extremely refined taste for espressos, and the eyebrow-less cowboy assassin threatening Adam. That scene in particular still has an unsettling menace to it, as Lynch takes what could have been absurd and finds a way to make this man overtly threatening without ever explicitly doing anything threatening. His browbeating to Adam over the difference between listening and hearing is well written and ends perfectly: “You will see me one more time, if you do good. You will see me… two more times, if you do bad. Good night.” I wish more sequences like this could stand on their own. So much of Mulholland Drive seems intended to provide a skeleton for meaning to be provided later as the added meat that Lynch didn’t value as highly.

Watts became a star from this movie and was taken to another level with the success of 2002’s The Ring. From there, she was in the Hollywood system of stars and after toiling for ten years from rejected interviews to rejected interviews. She was thinking of quitting acting and going back to her native Australia at the time she got asked to play Betty/Diane. The audition scene, the later distraught and frail Diane, as well as the mannered Betty served as an acting reel for every casting agent that had rejected her. Here was Watts, capable of doing it all and then some (she was nominated for two Oscars – 2003’s 21 Grams and 2012’s The Impossible).

My original review in 2001 is also wrestling with the question over interpretation versus intention, with the genre mash-ups as symbolic satire or as laborious TV pandering. Mulholland Drive is like watching a dream and trying to dissect its many meanings. Some people will relish the puzzle pieces that Lynch has provided and finding further hidden mirrored meanings, and other people will throw up their hands and ask for a road map, or lose interest by then. I don’t think this is the best film of the first twenty years of this new century. I don’t even think it’s close. I think at its best it can be hypnotic and intriguing; it’s a shame that these are only moments for me, and twenty years later these moments felt even further spaced apart. I just didn’t find Lynch’s movie quite worth the long, surreal drive into the dark of his imagination.

Re-View Grade: B-

Donnie Darko (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released October 26, 2001:

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is your normal malcontent teenager in late 1980s Reagan America. He bickers with his older sister, worries over the right moment he’ll kiss his new girlfriend, and tries to ignore the advice of many imprudent adults. Donnie’s your typical teenager, except for his imaginary friend Frank. Frank is a sinister looking six-foot tall rabbit that encourages Donnie into mischief and gives a countdown to the impending apocalypse. And I haven’t even gotten to the time travel yet.

One night as Donnie wanders from his home at the behest of Frank, an airline engine mysteriously crashes through the Darko home and lands directly in Donnie’s room. The airlines are all at a loss for explanation, as it seems no one will take responsibility for the engine or knows where it came from. Donnie becomes a mild celebrity at school and initiates a relationship with a new girl, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). One of his classes consists of watching videos of self-help guru and new age enlightenment pitchman Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). His school has even, under the persistence of self-righteous pain Kitty Farmer, persuaded Cunningham to speak and try to help students conquer their “fears.”

Donnie is also seeing a therapist for his emotional problems and taking medication for borderline schizophrenia. Around this time is when Donnie starts to inquire about a strange old woman, obsess over the possibilities of time travel, as well as see weird phosphorescent pools extend from people’s chests. He also floods his school at the urging of Frank. This is no Harvey-type rabbit.

The longer Donnie Darko goes on the more tightly complex and imaginative the story gets. First time writer-director Richard Kelly has forged an excitingly original film that is incredibly engaging with charm and wit. He masterfully mixes themes of alienation, dark comedy, romance, science fiction, and a sublime satire of high school. Donnie Darko is the most unique, head-trip of a movie unleashed on the public since Being John Malkovich. Kelly has a created an astonishing breakthrough for himself and has ensured he is a talent to look out for in the future.

Gyllenhaal (October Sky) is superb as disenchanted Donnie, a Holden Caulfield for middle suburbia. His ghastly stare conveys the darkness of Donnie but his laid-back nature allows the audience to care about what could have merely been another angst-ridden teenager. Swayze is hysterical as the scenery-chewing Cunningham. The rest of the cast is mainly underwritten in their roles, including stars Drew Barrymore (who was executive producer) and ER‘s Noah Wyle, but all perform admirably with the amount they are given. Not every plot thread is exactly tidied up but this can easily be forgiven.

Donnie Darko is a film that demands your intelligence and requires you to stay on your toes, so you can forget any bathroom breaks. The film is one of the best of 2001 but also one of the funniest. You’ll be honestly surprised the amount of times you laugh out loud with this flick. The theater I saw this in erupted every half a minute or so with boisterous laughter.

Donnie Darko is a film of daring skill and great imagination. You don’t see too many of these around anymore.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Not to sound too annoying, but I’ll cash in my hipster points here and declare that I was on the Donnie Darko bandwagon from the start. The eventual cult phenom was originally released in October 2001, mere weeks removed from 9/11, dooming its commercial appeal considering a major plot point happens to involve deadly airline debris. I was a sophomore in college across from a little indie movie theater, the Drexel, that was like a wonderful escape for a budding cinephile looking for his next fix of weird and daring movie experiences. I recall seeing the trailer for Donnie Darko and being immediately intrigued, but its release date kept bouncing back month after month until it finally opened at the Drexel in February 2002, and I was there opening day. I saw it twice, brought friends with me, and I wrote about it as one of my earliest reviews as my college newspaper’s film critic. I wanted to get the word out that this was something special. The first day it was available on DVD, I went to Best Buy looking for a copy and the store employee was deeply confused about its existence. He probably knows now, as the movie achieved cult status on DVD and became an iconic indie fixture for many a Millennial.

Revisiting the films of 2001 has been reliving many films that made such formative impacts on my life: Memento and its airtight structural sleight-of-hand, Moulin Rouge and its ambitious and messy celebration of old, new, reverent and irreverent, and now Donnie Darko (this isn’t even counting films I never wrote reviews for and thus were ineligible for this re-watch, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Amelie – 2001 was an excellent year at the movies). I have probably watched this movie more than any other in the 2000s, with the late exception perhaps of The Room that came on strong for me at the end. My friends and I would debate it, quote it, and work toward bringing others into the cult of Darko. Looking back now twenty years, I’m happy to report the movie’s power is still just as alluring and transcendental. What earned this movie its fawning fandom? Why did writer/director Richard Kelly, only in his early 20s, find success with his weird little indie while others went painfully ignored? I think it comes down to Kelly’s ambiguous approach, threading a delicate needle so that there are enough pieces present to put together an interpretation that can prove satisfying while personal and potentially different from your friend or neighbor with an equally valid interpretation.

What helps is that Donnie Darko doesn’t feel like it’s weird for weird’s sake, like a formless collection of strange ideas and confounding imagery operating on an unknowable surreal dream logic. What Kelly has done is mix and match parts of an intriguing apocalyptic puzzle. There’s relatable high school drama about pushing back against the hypocrites and phonies of the adult world, there’s a mystery about who or what is behind Frank the bunny, the creepy otherworldly figure serving as Donnie’s Virgil-like guide, and the character study of a lonely, troubled kid trying to find a better sense of understanding of himself, his place in the world, and his sense of what lies beyond. I could just as readily view Donnie Darko as a spiritual refresher, and I’ve always sided more with a divine interpretation than sci-fi. Donnie and his therapist talk about the question over God’s existence and Donnie says he doesn’t feel like he can get anywhere debating it, so he has simply agreed to give up. Donnie talks about dying alone and how if everyone is resigned to do so then this must be a condemnation of God. Kelly establishes these early conditions as the beginning of an arc that leads to Donnie not just accepting a messianic status but volunteering for one, dying alone but in a manner that serves as victory. This to me is why he laughs at the end after being transported back to a fateful spot. He rolls over in his bed and closes his eyes knowing an end for him is not an end but a vindication (the honking from Frank the second time serving as a “we did it” victory celebration). Through his sacrifice, the world will continue (“I hope when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.”). Through bizarre circumstances, a young man has found spiritual renewal, bringing him to a personal fulfillment as well as the larger picture of averting a looming apocalypse for a tangent world.

This has been my preferred reading of Donnie Darko, with divine forces selecting Donnie as the universe’s lone hero and mysteriously guiding him along his journey, each intervention and urging from Frank leading to the culmination of events that would convince Donnie of his duty. When Donnie is talking to Frank the bunny in an empty movie theater (playing a double feature of Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ, one of my favorite jokes), he asks Frank, “Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?” Frank turns and asks, “Why do you wear that stupid man suit?” Under my interpretation, Frank is a supernatural force, call it an angel or whatever you want, but he is not human and only using the form of a doomed man as a necessary vessel. When Donnie breaks into his school and breaks the water main, under the hypnotic control of Frank’s urging, we see that the vandal has also spray-painted “They made me do it” on the school mascot. The school and police go class-by-class and have students rewrite the phrase on a chalkboard, analyzing their handwriting. Donnie’s handwriting is clearly different. Could it be that Donnie, under the influence of Frank, also wrote as him, adopting his handwriting? With that, perhaps instead of Donnie writing a would-be confession it was actually Frank. “They made me do it,” Frank writes in apology to Donnie, not just for prodding him along but ultimately for the pain and suffering the real Frank of this world will cause for Donnie. “I’m sorry that all of this has to happen to you, Donnie. It wasn’t my choice. They made me do it for their plan.” I think that’s a more intriguing examination than Donnie just saying he was told to flood the school by his imaginary friend.

This is one reason why I was not a big fan of Kelly’s eventual director’s cut DVD release in 2004, which added twenty minutes to the film and changed many edits, song choices, and special effects sequences. The director’s cut went too far for me, specifically spelling out Kelly’s vision of time travelers from the future trying to coach Donnie as their variable. Whole sections from Roberta Sparrow’s book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, were printed on screen, explicitly connecting the various pieces in a way that had previously been left as ambiguous. My disappointment with the director’s cut reminded me of the disappointment Star Wars fans felt when George Lucas went back and tinkered with the original trilogy. Lucas has said the re-releases were the films he had always intended them to be, that the earlier theatrical editions were the imperfect versions of his creative intentions. The problem is that millions fell in love with those versions of the movie, even if they were an imperfect vision of their creator. Richard Kelly always intended for the opening song to be INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart,” but hearing that felt wrong to me after watching the same scene played to Echo and the Bunnyman’s “The Killing Moon” with the theatrical cut. Kelly’s imperfect version was the one I fell in love with, the one that spoke to me as a 19-year-old and as a 39-year-old, and that’s the one I vastly prefer.

Another reason for Donnie Darko’s success is more than likely the appeal and performance of young Jake Gyllenhaal. Over twenty years, Gyllenhaal has become one of the best actors of his generation and criminally overlooked by the Academy. He’s only been nominated for one Oscar for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, not for 2017’s Stronger, or 2007’s Zodiac, or, most egregiously, for his hypnotically disturbing portrayal in 2014’s Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal has mesmerized for so long and handles the many confusing aspects of Donnie with aplomb. It would be easy to play Donnie as a cliched rebellious teenager, but Gyllenhaal really digs into his questioning nature; he’s hungry for answers, desperate even, and tired of being disappointed in the adults of his life. That’s why it becomes emotionally satisfying for me when Donnie appears to achieve some semblance of answers by the end, his laughter is victorious and cathartic.

Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific but the rest of the cast is outstanding. This was the first time I saw Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Donnie’s older sister, one year before her star-making turn in 2002’s Secretary (stay tuned, 2022). Jena Malone (The Hunger Games sequels) was a remarkably downhearted presence, able to imbue teenage heartache and unease so preternaturally. Ever since her role as the snitty, judgmental gym teacher Kitty Farmer, I perk up whenever I see Beth Grant in a movie or show. To this day I still consider her wondrous line reading of, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” to be one of the greatest achievements in mankind’s history. Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica) has two scenes that still get me as Donnie’s mother, where she fights back tears at the suggestion of Donnie’s therapist to up his medication as doing what she thinks is right for her son, and a final scene with that same son where she responds to his query that having a “weirdo for a son” is, in fact, wonderful. The parental care and empathy that she exudes is poignant. I still laugh when Holmes Osborne, as Donnie’s father, cannot contain his inappropriate titter to hearing about his son’s vulgar outburst directed at Ms. Farmer. The adult actors (Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle) all got the bigger headlines at the time, but it’s these actors that have stayed with me the most.

With so many people being launched into success and acclaim from this movie, it’s a sad surprise that Richard Kelly himself was never able to recreate his winning alchemy. He wrote the shooting draft for 2005’s Domino, a needlessly excessive and irritating movie. His big follow-up, 2008’s Southland Tales, was a disaster at the Cannes Film Festival and Kelly cut a half-hour before it was ultimately released stateside to head-scratching. I was eagerly anticipating Southland Tales and then I watched it and minute-by-minute the sinking realization set in that this was not going anywhere and anytime soon. It was like Kelly was trying to throw every dispirit idea he ever had into one movie for fear he’d never make another. I haven’t re-watched it since and feel no need to do so. The last movie Kelly directed was 2009’s The Box, an adaption of the William Matheson short story featured on newer incarnations of The Twilight Zone. It too failed at the box-office, suffered from a confusing and muddled narrative, and from there Kelly was radioactive to Hollywood. He hasn’t a credit to his name since. With each directorial effort, you can feel Kelly trying to recreate that formula from Darko, bringing the different weird pieces and tones together by the end to form a satisfying mosaic open to interpretation. Southland and The Box both feel over-extended, strained, and cluttered with too much salient junk. I truly wish Kelly has another shot to tell a big screen story after everything he’s been through. I’m sure he has more stories to tickle our brains. Maybe he just needs an editorial guidance.

The other thing of curious note is that a sequel, S. Darko, was released in 2009 starring Donnie’s little sister Samantha, played by Daveigh Chase (The Ring). It’s not very good at all and strains to be an imitation of its predecessor, right down to Samantha having to be the sacrifice to go back in time and save her friend’s life. Kelly had nothing to do with the sequel, which was written by Nate Adkins, who would go onto create the Netflix franchise, The Christmas Prince. There is nothing of note in this cash-grab of a sequel to even reward your curiosity in watching it.

Donnie Darko was a movie I loved when I originally saw it and I’m happy so many others were able to become fans and share the good news of Darko. I’m happy this movie exists and has stuck with me all these years. It’s still transporting and invigorating and funny and soulful and tantalizing. I still love the lilt of Michael Andrews’ minimalist score. I love the scene of Donnie reaching out to Cherita Chen, the target of rampant bullying, to promise her one day everything will be better for her. I still get fascinated by the instant-iconic design of that Frank the bunny mask, an image that has lead to thousands of Halloween costume imitations. My original review was more driven by distilling its plot so that I could hook a reader into making the trip for themselves. Otherwise, my thoughts remain relative the same in twenty years of reflection. This is a gem of a movie that was never really recreated by its creator, which makes it all the more remarkable and special. If you haven’t joined the cult of Donnie Darko, there’s no time like the present, folks.

Re-View Grade: A

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