Joe's Movie Reviews

Monday, January 31, 2005

The Horror, The Horror

1. "Malevolence". Another of those low-budget horror films that creep into town unannounced, starring no-one you've ever hear of, directed by no-one you've ever heard of, and an hour after you see it, you won't remember what you saw. A quartet of bank robbers flee the cops and head toward the "safe house" one of them has found, way out in the country. Trouble is, it not only isn't "safe", it isn't deserted, either... a legendary serial killer who lived right next door is holding a couple prisoners there, and he doesn't like being disturbed. Nothing original, and once you've seen the first five minutes, you know the rest of the film... right up to and including the final scene. The one semi-interesting thing is their attempt to make viewers think of "The Ring" by making one of those prisoners a mid-thirties blonde woman with a British/Australian accent and a definite resemblance to Naomi Watts. But all that does is make you wish you were watching "The Ring" instead.

2. "Bad Education". In a story supposedly based partially on his early life, Pedro Almodovar brings us the story of a man who was abused by the priest who taught him during Catholic school as a boy, and now, years later, decides that the best way to make some needed money is to blackmail that priest. It's a powerful story that loses just a BIT of its power because Almodovar takes the plot into melodramatic areas that don't really resemble any of the controversial real-life stories that have been in the headlines in recent years, and that seem unlikely to actually happen. Still, there's plenty of strong film-making here, and the very difficult topic is dealt with in a surprisingly restrained way. Of course, it will offend many, but there's a subject here that has to be dealt with, and few could have dealt with it more memorably and effectively than Almodovar.

3. "Hide And Seek". More cheesy horror, this time with a bunch of Oscar winners and nominees: Robert Deniro, Elizabeth Shue, Amy Irving, etc. A widowed father moves with his daughter out into the country to get away from it all, but daughter not only does not get over mom's death, but may be going psycho... or there MAY be an actualy supernatural element at work. Another totally predictable horror film, and the attempt to make star Dakota Fanning look sinister by giving her make-up like Christina Ricci as Wednesday Adams and having speak in a constant monotone are more funny than frightening. Certainly not horror on the level of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", the blog on which will hopefully be coming tomorrow.

Oscar List Change

Mark one change down on my list of Oscar picks as previously published. I miss out (by choice) on a lot of the really cheesy commercial films, but rarely the good art house flicks. However, "The Motorcycle Diaries" managed to come and go on its first run without my ever catching up with it. Thus, I didn't pick it for my personal choice as "Best Adapted Screenplay". Well, the 6-screen Hopkins (which, like the old, original torn-down-in-1985 Hopkins Theatre, often devotes at least one screen to artier stuff) is currently showing "Motorcycle Diaries" along with its more commercial second-run stuff, and I caught it this past Saturday. I would have picked it if I'd seen it before I wrote that list, and it goes on there now. A seriously good movie with a very insightful script. Anyone who says screenwriting isn't a real art... HAH!!

Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Oscars

I'm not very good at predicting what other people, including the academy, will think about a particular movie: I won a contest once in which I guessed all the major winners right, but that was back in 1988 (Johnny Carson still had four more years to go on "The Tonight Show" at that time), and I haven't been very close yet. Still, because a few people always ask each year, here are my own particular choices... what I'd vote for among the films and performances that were nominated... along with my guesses (I won't call them predictions) regarding what the academy might do.

Will win: John Logan, "The Aviator"
Should win: Keir Pearson and Terry George, "Hotel Rwanda"

Will win: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, "Sideways"
Should win: "Sideways"

Will win: Martin Scorcese, "The Aviator"
Should win: Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby"

Will Win: Cate Blanchett, "The Aviator"
Should win: Sophie Okonedo, "Hotel Rwanda"

Will win: Morgan Freeman, "Million Dollar Baby"
Should win: Morgan Freeman

Will win: Hillary Swank, "Million Dollar Baby"
Should win: Annette Bening, "Being Julia"

Will win: Jamie Foxx, "Ray"
Should win: Don Cheadle, "Hotel Rwanda"

Will win: "The Aviator"
Should win: "Ray"

It pains me to go with someone other than Jamie Foxx in "Ray" for best actor and Cate Blanchett for supporting actress in "The Aviator", and I certainly wouldn't be sad if they won... but Cheqadle and Okonedo were just so good. In fact, I think Terry George should have been nominated for best director for "Hotel Rwanda" and the movie itself for best film, as well. Not to mention how Sean Penn should have been nominated for "The Assassination of Richard Nixon", among a few other omissions. Oh, well... as Steven Wright once said: "You can't have everything... where would you put it?"

Coming next week, hopefully, in addition to more movie comments, by popular request, a blog entry or two about the best TV series of the past decade: "Buffy The Vampire Slayer".

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Johnny Carson

As in "I'm Sorry, I'll Read that Again", I'm going to make a short break here from the movie talk to mention my sadness about the death of Johnny Carson. Yes, I know I don't normally deal with television here other than my incessant references to "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", but Johnny was genuinely one of a kind. Other than Letterman, TV tqalk shows have become such an indistinguishable mess that we may forget that they were once original and actually funny. Even with my many fond memories of Carson's best bits (perhaps the all-time greatest: "The Copper Clapper Caper" with Jack Webb) I was a bit taken aback when I tuned in to the "Tonight Show" last night for the first time in a while and saw some of the old clips for the first time in a long time. The man puts nearly everyone doing the talk show routine today to shame. It's often said that "There will never be another". In this case, that's really true. Goodnight, Johnny... and thanks.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Now, this makes an interesting compare-and-contrast with "The Woodsman". Like that film, "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" takes you inside the mind of a man whose behavior we are not even remotely expected to sympathize with, but whom it is important that we understand. Unlike that film, however, this one succeeds at what it attempts.

Sam Bick (whose slightly-altered-for-dramatic-purposes story this film tells) was a salesman. Not a very good salesman, because he despised the lies that a career as a big-time successful salesman is built on. He was also not a very good husband... his wife left him, and after a year's separation, divorced him. Even his relationships with his children, his best friend, and his dog (yes, his dog) seemed to be coming apart at the fringe. A man with at best a precarious hold on reality, Bick finally snapped. Nobody in the world was noticing him, but he was determined to commit an act that guaranteed they would, and the film's title tells you the rest.

Bick was a madman, unquestionably. But the fact remains that his "ravings" about the American dream being denied to a considerable portion of the "little" people have more than a small element of truth. And his observations about the politically powerful of 1974 could, in large part, apply just as accurately to 2005. It's a little uncomfortable, perhaps, to realize that we could have anything to learn from a man like Bick, but it's also very difficult to deny. This is only one aspect of what makes this movie so powerful and unnerving.

Another element, of course, is the typically powerhouse performance of Sean Penn in the lead role. Penn does the same sensational job he did in "Dead Man Walking", diving headfirst into a twisted mind and making us see the world through his eyes. A mighty uncomfortable view that is, too, but what better way to truly understand his character?

Even the "minor" supporting roles, like Bick's estranged wife (Naomi Watts) and best friend (the better-be-Oscar-nominated Don Cheadle) (for both this and "Hotel Rwanda") are as well written and performed as Penn's, giving us a look at Bick through the perspectives of characters who cared about him, but found that more and more impossible to do.

"The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is an extremely potent tragedy on a number of levels.... the tragedy of a country, and the tragedy of a man who under other circumstances might have led a happy life. And of course, after all else is said and done, we're still left with plenty of food for thought about what those in power do to keep that power. If we admit that Bick had SOME observations worth considering, well... what are WE going to to about those questions?

By the time most of you read this, the 2005 Oscar nominations will have been announced. So let me say this right now: I'll be very shocked if this film isn't represented at least a couple of times on that list. Oh, and one other thing... great as he's been in everything he's done since seemingly forever, considering his track record of tragedy the past few years, isn't it time for a Sean Penn comedy? I mean, if Deniro and Hoffman can do it, why not? Let's just not have Penn co-starring with them in "Meet The Fockers Again"...

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Almost, Not Quite

1. "Assault On Precinct 13." 30 years ago, John Carpenter directed a lean, efficient, no-real-stars low-budget thriller that still has a reputation as one of the better films of its kind. Now Hollywood has attempted to remake this story in a contemporary setting with modern day bells and whistles, and it works a fair amount of the time, but in the end? Almost, not quite.

For those unfamiliar with the premise: it's New Year's Eve in Detroit, and a localpolice precinct is nearly deserted... understandably, since it's going to close after that night. But when the skeleton crew present winds up taking in a busload of lethal prisoners because of a crash right in front of the place during a snow storm, and a group of rogue police show up determined that those criminals will NOT get to prison alive... well, you can imagine the chaos.

Ethan Hawke does a very credible job as the head cop, just authoritative enough without being more fierce and commanding than he could bring off, but he's burdened with the very cliched back story of "the cop who was spooked by a badly botched job years ago and has never been the same since"... how many movies have we seen with THAT one? Gabriel Byrne as the leader of the rogue cops sleepwalks through his performance. On the other hand, Laurence Fishburn is outstanding as the most fearsome of the jailed criminals, and when the desperate, beseiged cops inthe station decide they're desperate enough to free the criminals and give them guns so they can help defend the station,you don't doubt for a second that Fishburn would naturally assume command of the "bad boys." He brings an amazing sense of power and dignity to his role. The nearly all-male cast manages to find room for two women: a police woman who acts more like a prostitute, and an alleged psychiatrist who becomes a frightened little girl at the first sign of violence. And why is it that, if an action movie features two women in the cast, you absolutely ALWAYS know that one of them will end up dead? Is there some kind of law not permitting two women to make it alive to the end of an action movie?

The action itself is expertly handled: you really get the sense of claustrophobia and fear someone would feel being trapped in a situation like this. And it keeps mounting right up until the very last scene. In this aspect, at least, they've done Carpenter proud.
But there are just a few too many questions and problems to keep it from being the model of the efficient little contemporary thriller that it might have been. I suppose you COULD be satisfied just to realize that the film makers in this case at least appear to have TRIED to update the original film into something that works just as well for the 21st century. You COULD... but I wasn't quite.

2. "White Noise". Michael Keaton (where has he been?) stars as a widower whose late wife appears to be trying to contact him from the beyond through means of the static (or "white noise") of electronic devbices such as TVs, radios, etc. Turns out that he's not the only person receiving these kinds of messages... and, furthermore, it isn't only benevolent spirits trying to get through to their loved ones who are using these channels of communication.

Admission time: I absolutely do not believe that it is possible to communicate with the dead. Not through white noise, not through mediums, ouija boards, not even through the internet. I'm not a sceptic: a sceptic is one who has doubts. I have no doubts: it just cannot be done. HOWEVER, that does not mean I can't suspend my disbelief and enjoy a film on this subject: after all, my favorite TV show is "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", and I certainly don't believe in vampires. First, though, this would have to actually BE a movie, and it's really more like a new-agey infomercial merged with a bad CBS (or Fox) TV series.

How many shows have there been in the past few years ("Early Edition", "Tru Calling") about characters privileged with supernatural knowledge of future events who try to prevent "future" disasters? When Keaton's wife begins sending him visions of violent deaths that haven't quite occurred yet, the film turns into something exactly like a feature film adaptation of one of those shows. Any attempt at horror (which we'd been led to believe is what they were trying to do up until then) goes out the window as the movie becomes "CSI: Transylvania Meets Early Edition." Is this really something worth going to a theatre to see?
Well, maybe if you're into the kind of cheap pseudo spiritualism that so many phonies like to exploit the grieving with in books and late-night TV, you could enjoy the lectures about the meaning of life and death you get periodically. But while I have absolutely no problem at all with the concept of faith in many circumstances... sometimes it's the only thing we have to get us by... there are also situations where skepticism would be well advised until you see some solid proof, and this movie just leaps wholeheartedly, unquestioningly, into new age waters so deep you could drown in them.

There have been at least two other movies made in the past few years with a roughly similar premise: one of them, "The Mothman Prophecies", starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney, is exactly what you'd hope for in a movie like this: it doesn't take itself too seriously, and just provides you with a good scary time. If you think the premise of "White Noise" sounds intriguing, you'd probably be better off looking up "The Mothman Prophecies" and watching it instead.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Oops... Sorry

The title of the first movie in the previous coumn is "The Woodsman". Also, sorry for somehow turning it into a link to a non-eixisten URL.
I still haven't mastered this blogging technology yet. (And none of the stuff says is supposed to let you edit your posts works the way they say it does. AARGGHH...


This is a film dealing with an extremely sensitive subject: Bacon plays a
convicted child molester just out of prison and trying to make a new life for himself, but not entirely sure if he's purged himself of the urges that destroyed his life before. The film certainly doesn't try to evoke sympathy for him... the movie never lets you forget the horror of what he's done... but it also doesn't just shrug off his situation with a "he's evil, that's all you need to know". Like Sean Penn's character in "Dead Man Walking", this is a man whose behavior you loath at the same time as you realize the importance of trying to understand him.

That's where the problem comes in. The film would like to believe it's providing you with deep insights into Bacon's character, Walter, but in fact the movie is not much more than a series of set pieces: Walter gets a job, Walter gets a girlfriend (played by Bacon's wife, Kyra Sedgewick), Walter spars with a pesky police detective (rapper Mos Def). And there are a few too many coincidences: how likely is it that Walter would be assigned an apartment right across the street from a grade school? One which, furthermore, is being haunted by another molester whose crimes throw false suspicion on Walter?

But then again there's Bacon, in possibly the best performance of his career. A good deal of what the screenplay lacks in helping you know who Walter is, is provided by Bacon's stunning acting job. When he's trying to restrain himself you can't miss the turmoil just underneath the surface, and when he breaks down... well, you'll wonder why Bacon's name didn't turn up in any Golden Globe nominations, and hope the Oscars correct that error.

SO... is it a film worth seeing? Tough call. But probably at matinee prices, the way I saw it. It would be a shame to miss one of the outstanding performances of the year. Just don't think too much about what the film overall could have been.

2. "Hotel Rwanda". You might have heard "Shindler's List" comparisons regarding this movie. Forget them. You have a true story that happens to have some of the same features as "Shindler's List"... were the film-makers supposed to deliberately falsify the story so it wouldn't seem too similar? The fact is, the story (both the real one and this film) take the premise off in enough different directions it shouldn't be a problem for any but the very, very picky.

In 1994 in Rwanda, a hotel manager (Don Cheadle, who nearly stole "Devil In A Blue Dress" from Denzel Washington, in another terriffic performance) who is so busy enjoying the high life that he has no sense of the political strife going on around him, is thrown into the middle of a violent, bloody revolution between the ruling Hutus and the seemingly outmatched rebel Tutsuis. At first he's not concerned... he's Hutu, after all. But when his hotel, pretty much against his will at first, becomes a makeshift camp for refugee Tutsuis, he gradually comes to see the truth of the old saying that no man is an island. "We have to help each other... that is the only thing keeping us alive", he exclaims. At the risk of his own life, he has to do SOMETHING.

The film doesn't let anyone off the hook, including the western super powers (read: the U.S.), reminding you (or informing you, if you didn't know the story) of how the nations of the West knew what was going on, knew about the blood bath the Hutus were inflicting on the Tutsuis, but turned a blind eye. Sometimes, when no-one else seems to care, when you know you can't do nearly enough, you're faced with the decision of whether or not to do some small part at great cost. What do you do? "Hotel Rwanda" is a difficult movie to watch, but one which everyone ought to see. It's both harrowing and inspirational... but not to a typically hoky Hollywood degree. As the old Chinese proverb says, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This is the story of a man who dared to take that step, and serve as a model of what a single individual can achieve. It may not be enough to change the world, but if only a small portion of people were to FOLLOW his example...

3. "In Good Company". Dennis Quaid stars as a 51-year-old advertising sales veteran who falls victim to the world of corporate mergers: another company buys the magazine he sells ad space for, and he's demoted to the position of assistant to the NEW head of ad sales: the inexperienced 26-year-old hot shot played by Topher Grace. The make matters worse, Grace begins dating Quaid's daughter (played by Scarlett Johansen).

The sitcom-like premise yields a feature film that will make you think you're sitting at home in front of the tube. No really deep insight into any of the characters... check... dialogue that seems to be made to have a laugh track inserted under it... check... so-called lessons in the viscious world of corporate life that you've learned many times already (the corporate world can be rough?... really, who would have guessed?)... check. Not to mention surface-level performances from actors who are capable of better (well, Quaid and Johansen are, anyhow), and a conclusion that wraps things up far too neatly and quickly.

If this is the sort of thing you really want to see, you can stay home and catch the same thing for free any night of the week. You'd probably be better off doing so.

4. "Elektra". We've had some very good Marvel comics-inspired movies the past few years, especially, of course, the two "Spider-Man" movies. On the other end of the spectrum, we also had "Daredevil". This more-or-less sort-of sequel to that film does us the favor of not bringing back Ben Affleck, but it also forgets to bring in a substantial plot, or characters, not to mention a lot of other things most people like to see in a movie.

"Elektra" has the feeling of what "Kill Bill" might have been like if it had been edited down to a single 90-minute film and made by someone with much less talent than Quentin Tarrantino. We start off halfway into the story (Elektra, brought back from the dead by a mysterious order of monks, is now a payed assassin, and finds she can't bring herself to carry out her latest assignment, so a group of super-powered replacement killers are brought in to finish off both her and the targets), and get the back story so sporadically and quickly that at the end of the film you STILL don't know a lot about what happened. The movie skips over huge chunks of story and apparently still expects the audience to understand the characters' motivations and why they behave the way they do. No such luck. Often times, an action movie that zips along at the speed of light can be an exhilerating joy ride... but it still helps to have genuine characters that all the action can happen to. "Elektra" never stays still long enough to provide you with any.

It also rips off other, better movies in greater number than you can keep track of, though some, like "The Replacement Killers", "The Matrix", and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", are obvious. And it has to be said that for the most part, the super-powered replacement killers are an extremely boring lot, with incredibly stupid powers, the sole exception being the fascinating "Tatoo" (no, not the one from Fantasy Island), who you'll wish you could see in a bigger role in a different, better movie. And oh, yeah... this is not exactly the character of Elektra as you saw her in the "Daredevil" movie, and nowhere NEAR the character from the original comics.

Are you a real comics devotee and in the mood for an outstanding example of how good a super hero movie can be when it's done right? That's easy enough... skip "Elektra" and watch "Spider-Man 2" again.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Robot Stories

Ending a week's run at the Oak Street Cinema tonight (sorry, folks, I've been without access to the internet for a few days now) is a strange four-part film dealing with what makes us human, how technology effects our lives, and all sorts of things that strike know-nothings who are so ignorant of science fiction that they actually call it "Sci-Fi" (such as, well, nobody comes to mind right now (Star-Tribune critic Colin Covert) as being unusual topics for it to deal with ("Sci-Fi is usually a hard-edged genre?" UGH!). How WELL this film deals with them is another question: two of the stories are the epitome of ultra-low budget indie film making that doesn't work, the other two are very moving.

It opens up with a real embarassment: "My Robot Baby", in which a couple who should never consider having children decide to try out the idea anyway by "renting" a robot baby that will be a test of the parenting skills they need to handle the real thing. Badly written and acted, it also doesn't help that the potential mother is a really stereotyped harpy, and that the "baby" looks more like a gigantic metal egg. This is the bad TV-movie version of science fiction.

The second story isn't really science fiction at all, but it's quite touching: "The Robot Fixer" deals with a mother whose thirty-something son is in a coma after being hit by a car. He had remained obsessed with the same robot action figures he loved as a child, and mom begins to seek out the ultra-rare and expensive replacement parts needed for the rarest figures in his collection and brings them in to his hospital room, in hopes that they'll spark some recovery. As she begins to get as fascinated with the figures as her son was, the resulting story is a fascinating blend of obsession and the strength of a mother's love for her child, and how far and long a person will literally hope against hope. An odd, but genuinely moving story.

Story three isn't an embarassment like story one, but it's certainly a weak link: "Machine Love" stars the film's writer/director Greg Pak as a humanoid robot designed to be the perfect office worker. There have been plenty of stories both on film and in print about robots who don't understand what it is to be human and try awkwardly to fit in, and this one brings nothing new to the genre. Pak's weak performance doesn't really help, either.

Story four, however, is a real stand out: in "Clay", an elderly sculptor with less than a year to live has to decide whether to simply die and go on to whatever awaits or doesn't await humans when they die, or to have his consciousness downloaded into electronic form and live virtually forever. His long-deceased wife, who had this done to herself, continues to try to convince him to take the same route, but he's not sure. Is it worth living forever if we have to give up being who we are? Or DO we really give that up by becoming something other than "human", whatever that may mean? Besides plenty of food for thought, "Clay" offers a deeply touching story with acting that could make you forget you ARE watching actors.

So all in all, in spite of a couple of less than stellar sections, "Robot Stories" is still well worth a look. And if you like what you in "The Robot Fixer" and "Clay", there are innumerable novels and short stories awaiting you in the science fiction section of book stores and libraries that are just as powerful, in spite of what certain critics for certain Minneapolis newspapers might think...

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

Virtually every movie with a sports backgroud claims to be "not really about (fill in name of sport), but perhaps once in a hundred times that will actually be true, and here's one of those hundred. Clint Eastwood's latest is NOT just a boxing movie, and those who aren't fond of the sport (such as, oh, myself) will still have plenty to be amazed by.

The story of a "trailer trash" waitress (playede by Hillary Swank) who persuades washed-up trainer Eastwood to train her to a championship match starts out seeming a touch forumulaic, and for a while I found myself thinking the film had been a bit over-rated. But it gains emotional power as it goes on, and by the time it reaches the final half hour, you'll feel the EMOTIONAL equivalent of a punch by a heavyweight champ. Eastwood is to be admired for not being afraid of the dark side... the man who gave us "Unforgiven" and "Mystic River" has not taken the easy way out here and made a stand-up-and-cheer sports rouser like "Rocky", no matter what some ads might make it seem like. This film leaves has much more power than something simple like that. It might even be more than fans of those kinds of rousers can handle. But people who avoid it for that reason will be missing out on one of the strongest commercial big-studio releases in a very long time. They'll also be missing out on evidence that Eastwood is as under-rated an actor as he has been praised as a director (not that he doesn't deserve that praise). He manages to showcase a surprising range of strong emotions with his very subtle approach.
ANd that's just what his excellent film does as well. If you think you don't like Clint Eastwood movies, or boxing movies, or big studio commerical movies... go see "Million Dollar Baby". You'll be surprised several times over.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Joe's Corner: Best ANd Worst Of 2004

Joe's Corner: Mixed Bag

To reiterate: my standards for "2004" are different fromt he Academy. I feel a movie should have an actual wide release in a given year to be considered a release of that year. So a number of films the academy thinks of as "2003" releases will be on this list because that's when 99.9 percent of the country saw them. Also, a number of "2004" releases aren't here because they still haven't had a wide release... they'll be eligigble for my list of best and worse of 2005. Also, I didn't do a "runners up" list because while I found enough films to make top ten lists, there weren't enough good ones for a runners-up list. And I don't have a "worst" list for the art house list because although there were plenty of art movies this year that I didn't much care for, I didn't really actively dislike very many of them. SO...

10. Collateral
9. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
8. The Aviator
7. Shaun of the Dead
6. Ray
5. Kill Bill, Volume Two
4. The Incredibles
3. Spider-man 2
2. Fahrenheit 9/11
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

10. Welcome to Mooseport
9. The Whole Ten Yards
8. Van Helsing
7. Exorcist: The Beginning
6. Connie and Carla
5. Envy
4. Spanglish
3. Meet the Fockers
2. (Broken Lizard's) Club Dread
1. Alexander

The 8th annual "Jerry Maguire" award for most over-rated movie of the year: "Open Water"

The 1st annual "Kevin Costner Bad Accent" award: Angelina Jolie for "Alexander".

10. In This World (England) (Oak Street Cinema)
9. At Five In The Afternoon (Iran) (Oak Street Cinema)
8. Primer (U.S.) (Lagoon)
7. The Machinist (U.S.) (Uptown)
6. Zatoichi (Japan) (MSPIFF Festival at Riverview)
5. The Story of the Weeping Camel (Mongolia)(MSPIFF Festival at the Bell)
4. Wellstone! (U.S.) (Bell Auditorium/formerly U. Film Society)
3. Mind The Gap (U.S.) (Parkway)
2. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (South Korea)(Edina)
1. The Twilight Samurai (Japan) (Edina)

Joe's Corner: Beyond The Prisoner Of Paradise Sea

Joe's Corner: Mixed Bag

1. "Beyond The Sea". Jamie Fox and Cate Blanchett have done such incredible jobs as Ray Charles and Katherine Hepburn recently that they've set the bar mighty high, and even an actor as good as Kevin Spacey has a lot to live up to. In "Beyond The Sea", Spacey's long-time dream project... a biography of Bobby Darin... he does a decent job, but never quite makes you forget you're watching Kevin Spacey PLAYING Bobby Darin, the way Fox and Blanchett make you forget.

I know Darin's MUSIC, of course, and the fact that he was married to Sandra Dee, but beyond that I don't really know much about the details of his life, or how close this film sticks to reality. I suspect there's a lot of make-believe in this movie. Some of it works, and some of it doesn't.

What works terrifically is Spacey's singing... no dubbing here, folks, Kevin Spacey sings Bobby Darin and sings at least as well as Darin himself. The thorny issue of his being eight years older than Darin was when he died (and 24 years older than he was when he had his first hit) is dealt with rather imaginatively, and Spacey is clearly having the time of his life playing this role, and it's hard not to "catch" his enthusiasm.

BUT... he never quite totally buries his own personality beneath the role of the person he's playing. And the rest of the cast often seems to be struggling with their roles, particularly the bland Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee. It's also slightly distressing to see performers of the calibre of Greta Scacchi and John Goodman given such nothing characters to play (in Scacchi's case, one of the oldest stereotypes in the book). And the musical numbers? Well, I realize that much of the film is supposed to taking place in Darin's mental fantasy world, but the film still often comes to a grinding halt when Darin suddenly bursts into song in the middle of a conversation like he was in a thirties musical. Understand, I have no problem with musicals... I loved "Chicago", "Moulin Rouge" and especially the "Once More With Feeling" musical episode of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer"... but it takes a real panache to pull off this kind of thing that "Beyond The Sea" doesn't quite have. A great musical makes you feel it's all actually taking place in front of you, and this film is just a little too artificial and forced, a little too often. And it skips over huge chunks of Darin's musical career while giving short shrift to some significant songs of his.

What does it all come down to? Well, have you ever had someone remark about a musical film that you might as well skip seeing it and buy the soundtrack instead? Well, even if you never have, you are now.

2. "Prisoner Of Paradise". The Parkway Theatre, at 48th and Chicago in Minneapolis, has just finished a run of the best American independent film of 2004, "Mind The Gap". Now they're bringing us the equally memorable (for very different reason) "Prisoner Of Paradise".

The Holocaust has been one of the most common subject of documentaries over the past couple of decades, but there are always powerful new stories to tell, and this is certainly one of them. It's the story of Kurt Gorren, German Jew, who was one of the biggest celebrities of the Berlin stage (and German film) in the 1920's and thirties, occasionally mocking the rising Nazi party. This came back to haunt him when they came to power, and Gorren became a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp, Terriesenstadt. But when the Nazis decided to film a fake documentary "proving" that the camp was a paradise on Earth in which Jews were pampered, they turned to the most logical person to direct it... Kurt Gorren.

If you had to chose between being executed or making such a film, what would you have done? Not an easy question to answer, of course... and this film doesn't make for easy viewing. But it is never less than riveting, asking the viewer to answer virtually unanswerable questions and painting an unforgettable portrait of a tragic time and place, and a man who found it impossible to see beyond his own celebrity and realize what was going on around him until it was too late. This kind of movie is a very difficult "sell"... not many people want to go out to a movie and ponder the kind of issues "Prisoner Of Paradise" raises. But anyone who thinks that movies should at least occasionally ask difficult questions and that films don't always have to make you feel good to be good films will appreciate this film. And they'll also be thankful that independent theatres like the Parkway are still around to bring us little masterpieces like "Prisoner Of Paradise" when they slip through the cracks at the chains.