Joe's Movie Reviews

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

One... Two... Oops!

1. "2046." Though there are filmgoers who haven't acquired the taste, there are many others who are convinced that Wong Kar-Wai is one of the genuine genius film-makers in the world. His latest, "2046", might not convince anyone who wasn't already on his side to begin with, but true believers such as myself will find all the more reason to believe.

Five years ago in "In The Mood For Love", Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) came very close to an affair with his great love, an unhappily married neighbor played by Maggie Cheung), but never actually crossed that line, a fact which has haunted his life ever since. He has since become a serial womanizer, pursuing affairs with a string of beautiful women while attempting to find with one of them the feelings he knew with his lost love, inevitably failing. Meanwhile, he writes the science fiction novel "2046", about a future in which nothing ever changes and where people who have been separated can reunite.

The film moves back and forth in time, and back and forth between the "real" world and the fictional world of his novel in a style that might frustrate those accustomed to straightforward, linear narratives, but which long-time Wong fans know adds depth and impact that standard storytelling techniques couldn't hope to do. Wong is also the master of loneliness, and together with Leung has created one of his classic lonely characters in Mr. Chow, a man who knows even as he desperately tries to recreate his great past happiness that he's doomed to fail. And as in Paul Haggis' "Crash", where a strong script inspired great performances in less than great actors, Wong's brilliant screenplay has brought forth surprisingly forceful acting from performers who haven't given us a lot of that lately, particularly Zhang Ziyi, who FINALLY reminds us once again of the promise she had in her earliest films.

"2046" is a unbelievably beautiful-looking film with a story at its heart that is painfully sad, and yet beautiful in its own way as well. It once again proves Wong Kar-Wai to be one of the world's great film makers, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai to be one of the world's great actors. You clearly don't need car chases and explosions to make a good movie... nothing makes for a more powerful story than the simple emotions that people struggle with every day. And nobody knows how to work that kind of magic better than Wong Kar-Wai.

2. "Cronicas." American moviegoers have gotten to know John Leguizamo as an over-the-top comedian and wise guy. And while he is a very good comic actor, he's capable of a lot more than that. The Mexican film "Cronicas", while by no means perfect, at the very least earns itself many points by allowing him to demonstrate that to us.

Leguizamo stars as a Miami-based tabloid television reporter not tremendously unlike Geraldo Rivera, who likes to put himself at the center of all of his stories. As the film opens, he has travelled down to Mexico to report on the serial killer who has murdered over a hundred area children. When a prisoner in the local jail attaches himself to Leguizamo and begins giving him exclusive tips that could lead to the killer's identity, he figures he has the story of a lifetime. But while it might make him a legend, the story could also destroy his reputation, or even his life.

Leguizamo's performance is expertly understated most of the time, with his flashes of intense emotion coming only where they're appropriate, and never going too far. His is a character you have to understand but not sympathize with... a very difficult combination... and he pulls it off perfectly.
The movie is an indictment of a too common kind of journalism, a kind that has inspired American movies that have taken easy aim at too many easy targets, reducing a complicated problem to a too-simple solution. "Cronicas" supplies us with none of those simple solutions, and in fact leads us to a point that has us shivering and uneasily asking ourselves how much of what it depicts is happening every day in the U.S.

On the other hand, the plotline could have used a few more complications. The lack of any real questions about the killer's identity go a way towards reducing the suspense. And there doesn't seem to be any real reason for Leguizamo's affair with his married co-worker other than that the script requires it. And why put an actor as accomplished as Alfred Molina in a film, only to give him just three scenes... and even then just glimpsed on a TV screen? But what the film does wrong is minor in comparison to what it does right. Most American thrillers are lucky if they can just accomplish the "thrill" part. "Cronicas" is a thriller that ALSO makes you THINK, and at a fraction of the usual Hollywood budget. Twin Cities audiences should seriously think about getting over to the Oak Street Cinema to check it out.

3. "The Brothers Grimm." Terry Gilliam has one of the most brilliant cinematic minds today... and I don't say that merely because he was born in Minneapolis. With a string of films like "Time Bandits", "Brazil", "Baron Munchausen", "The Fisher King" and "12 Monkeys", you had to wonder when he was finally going to show that he's only human after all, and give us a movie that just doesn't live up to his reputation. That time has finally arrived.

If you were expecting a biography of the famous brothers, forget it. This story re-imagines them as European ghostbusters, but phony ones... traveling from town to town claiming to be able to rid villages of assorted supernatural menaces, but faking every menace so that they will be guaranteed to triumph and the grateful villagerrs will reward them handsomely. But when they encounter the real thing, their abilities are really put to the test.

The central plot conceit is old and hackneyed, and a little too reminiscent of a film from about ten years ago called "The Frighteners", starring Michael J. Fox and directed by Peter Jackson. That's not really the kind of film that should serve as your role model if you want to impress audiences. Neither Matt Damon nor Heath Ledger seem to be giving it their all, or even their half. And the well-publicized battles over control of the film that Gilliam fought with the notorious Weinstein brothers, resulting in his walking off the movie and making another entire film (the upcoming "Tideland") before coming back to finish "The Brothers Grimm", show time and again throughout the movie.

But then there are the segments when the brothers encounter the very supernatural beings and situations that would "later" inspire their legendary fairy tales. These are the moments that show what a incredible creative imagination Gilliam has and are indeed worthy of any of his previous best work. Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, an extremely creepy/frightening and at the same time silly Gingerbread Man... these are the kinds of creations nobody else could hope to do as well, and that will make this film's audiences all the sadder that Gilliam wasn't able to give us an entire movie just with the fairy tales. Or maybe it WOULD HAVE also worked as a biofilm of the brothers with their famous characters added. We'll never know, unfortunately. As it is, I'm just eagerly awaiting the release of "Tideland" (in which Gilliam reuinites with his "Fisher King" star Jeff Bridges) and hoping that IT will be a genuine showcase for his strengths.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Long Overdue, Part Three

1. "The Skeleton Key." There are times I just wish that Hollywood would give up trying to do haunted house stories. I mean, haven't films like "13 Ghosts" and "The Haunting" taught them anything? Apparently not, because they're at it again in "The Skeleton Key", and by and large they're not doing it any more successfully than they have in the recent past.

Kate Hudson stars as a hospice worker who takes a job at a typically spooky southern mansion inhabited by a typically spooky southern couple played by Gena Rowlands and John Hurt. Hurt seemingly doesn't have long for this world, but Hudson soon learns that there may be SUPERnatural rather than natural reasons for his illness. And those forces seem to be coming for her, not caring in the least about the rule (repeated at tiresome length throughout the film) that magic and the supernatural "don't work if you don't believe."

Hudson's character is jaw-droppingly naive, doing things and going into places that nobody with half a brain would think of doing or going. And the script seems to be unsure of whether she's supposed to be a typical helpless horror movie female or a Sigourney Weaver/Ripley-like warrior against the forces of darkness. Rowlands and Hurt don't really fare much better either, and it's embarassing in particular to have to watch Hurt stuck in a nothing part that doesn't even let him use one of his greatest strengths, his voice. There's also the way that the very "Southern-ness" of most of the characters is supposed to make them all sinister and evil and out to get poor Northern Kate... and there are even times when the film is a touch racist.

On top of all of this, either the script was just badly written or the film was poorly edited, because we're constantly being told that the "rules" of the supernatural are such and such, only to have some spirit completely contradict them a little later in the movie. With all of this, though, it should be mentioned that the final ten minutes or so provide a real whallop... the kind of thing that might have made for a real gem of a movie if the entire film could have been on the same level. But Murphy's Law of Modern Horror Movies once again has proven to be too powerful a force to be defeated.

2. "The Great Raid." One of the final Miramax films to actually involve the Weinstein Brothers, "The Great Raid" is a relentlessly, ruthlessly, doggedly (sorry for the Nick Danger reference that most readers won't get) old-fashioned war movie, the kind that John Wayne would have been proud to star in back in the 1940's. (I do believe that Wayne made some fine films, mind you... it's just that all of THEM were WESTERNS.) The eerie thing is that although this is a World War II story, there are more than a few echoes of both the first and second Iraq Wars in its plot, and how you feel about that conflict can't quite help but effect part of your response to this film.

Even strong supporters of the Bush Iraq policy, though, may find themselves dismayed by the movie's wooden acting (Benjamin Bratt is not going to become an A-list star on the basis of his role in this film, and Joseph Fiennes continues to give us evidence that his performance in "Shakespeare In Love" was a fluke), and even though the film supposedly tells a true story, I can only say that it's amazing how much reality sometimes imitates war movie cliches.

It seems that near the final days of the war in Europe, the Allies were making a final push to retake territory near a notorious Nazi POW camp. But since the Nazis were aware of them, the Allies were concerned that they would kill all the prisoners before they got there rather than let them be rescued... so, a select group of soldier were given the assignment of conducting the great raid of the title to break into the camp and free the prisoners before the Allied forces arrived. With the utmost respect to the actual men who went through this experience... both the prisoners and the soldiers... this movie trivializes their experience and makes the reality of what they went through seem like something out of a bad war movie. It also makes the "Pearl Harbor" (hello, Michael Bay) mistake of too often giving us the actual historical events of the war as background to a love story, as if the romance is more important than the literally earth-shaking and history-making events going on around it.

We're treated to a musical score that's often more appropriate to a romantic film, as well. And perhaps most disappointing of all, director John dahl, who has given us such imaginative gems of modern noir as "Red Rock West", "Rounders" and "Joy Ride", has completely erased any detectable trace of his distinctive directorial style, and made a war movie that could have been made by any talentless assembly-line hack. I don't believe that directors should ONLY make films in what the public perceives as their little niche areas, mind you... only that I hope Dahl never tries to make another war movie. "The Great Raid" has actually been on the shelf unreleased since its completion about two years ago. Once you see it, you'll understand why.

3. "The Aristocrats." It's not that I am personally OFFENDED by "dirty" jokes, it's just that I feel that they're usually too easy a way of getting a laugh... people will laugh at the "dirty" element even if the joke isn't all that funny. With a few exceptions, it's the sort of material that doesn't produce even a mild grin for me. So when I heard the premise of "The Aristocrats"... a star-studded lineup of comedians telling their individual variations on what is claimed to be the dirtiest joke ever told... I wasn't very hopeful. Surprise, surprise.

The actual joke "The Aristocrats" really ISN'T all that spectacular, as several of the comics in this film note. What it DOES do, however, is allow every comic who tells it to improvise on it like a great jazz musician and do so many individual variations that they make it their own. As long as they open with a guy walking into an agent's office to talk about his new act, and finish with the agent asking the name of the act (which is, of course, "The Aristocrats!"), absolutely anything goes in between, as long long as it's guaranteed to offend somebody. It's absolutely amazing to see how many possible alternate versions there can be, and how each one is so very different from any of the others.

George Carlin manages to take perhaps the filthiest material of any of the versions and make it hysterical. Kevin Pollack does a very funny story about Christopher Walken telling the joke, and performs the joke imitating Walken. Tommy Smothers tells the joke to an uncomprehending Dicky (who has never heard it before), eliciting a response from Dicky that produces as big a laugh as the joke itself. Cathy Ladman even manages a version in which the middle portion describing the act is not just just clean and wholesome but extremely sweet, only to FINISH with an obscene PUNCHLINE. It really is like a summit of the greatest jazz players of all time... imagine a documentary featuring Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chet Baker and dozens of others each performing their own personalized version of the same song. That's not far from what "The Aristocrats" is like.

"The Aristocrats" is obviously not for everyone. Anybody who finds "blue" material offensive should probalby go to see "March Of The Penguins" (which does happen to be a very fine film) instead. But they'd be missing out on a rare lesson in just how comedy is created, sometimes out of the least promising material. I've often watched some of my favorite comedians and wondered how they shaped the jokes they're doing and how much of the humor is in the material as distinguished from the person performing it. This movie finally provided me with answers.

4. "Red Eye". Back inthe 70's and 80's, Wes Craven was a master of horror, one of the best makers of scary films of his time. But after the endless string of ever less impressive "Nightmare On Elm Street" movies, and pictures like last year's well-written (by Kevin Williamson) but badly directed werewolf film "Cursed", he had clearly lost the touch. In "Red Eye", he abandons the supernatural for a sinister villain who is entirely human, but is unable to stop his continuing downhill slide.

Boarding a latenight "Red Eye" flight, Rachel McAdams ("The Notebook") is surprised to find that the handsome, charming stranger she had run into in the airport is seated directly next to her... what a coincidence! But it's no coincidence... the stranger (played by Cillian Murphy, The Scarecrow of "Batman Begins") works for a very nasty group who plan a political assassination at the hotel McAdams works at, and it's Murphy's job to force her to reassign the victim's room to another location that will make the murder much easier. If she doesn't? Well, they have her father under close watch, and if she refuses, he dies.

The movie starts out quite promisingly, and for a while builds up a nice tension-filled atmosphere, in large part due to the performances of McAdams and Murphy. Murphy, in particular, makes for one of the best villains in a long time... I have honestly not seen any actor since Christopher Walken first came along over 25 years ago who just radiates such intense creepiness with everything he does and every line he says, but at the same time can be convincingly charming and sweet. If he turns out to have the kind of RANGE that Walken does, he's in for a great career, and we're in for some very interesting films.

This isn't ultimately one of those interesting films, though. For one thing, it takes the wonderful Brian Cox... the ORIGINAL Hannibal Lecter... and completely wastes him in the nothing part of McAdams' father, mostly just seen talking to hsi daughter on the phone. Then they make the major, major mistake of having the plane land at about the one-hour point, and when the characters get out into the world the claustrophobic tension dissipates and the movie becomes just another chase flick, and Murphy somehow apparently becomes as indestructible as The Terminator. I suppose that Craven did an overall better job with "Red Eye" than he did with "Cursed", and MAYBE this indicates an upturn in his career, but if this had been the kind of movie he started out making at the beginning, he wouldn't have the reputation he has today.

5. "Junebug." In "The Skeleton Key", Hollywood asked us to believe that everyone in the south was sinister and evil and out to corrupt and/or kill the pure, innocent northerners. In the independent "Junebug", we get a broader look at the American south, and find it to be a place where the range of people is just as wide as it is anywhere else... and the problems are very much the same, too.

Embeth Davidtz stars as a sophisticated art dealer who travels down to the south to convince a mentally retarded artist that he should grant her the right to do a New york gallery show of his paintings. Her husband is from the same area, so he travels down with her to visit the family (whom Davidtz has never met before), and her presumptions of superiority and assumptions that she knows everything about these people are definitely challenged. And yes, a lot of people go through a lot of changes as a result of the experience. But the movie isn't out to teach you any lessons, it's out to tell you a story.

And that story is a strange kind of "road" movie where the road being travelled is as much "inside" as it is an exterior path. This is not a "slam the big city northerner" movie either, and Davidtz plays a fully-rounded character who is simply the victim of some common prejudices and misconceptions, who winds up making a big journey along a road toward understanding that "others" are not so other. And some of the more reactionary southerners come to realize that northerners are just people, too.

Considerable, and poignant, drama is added to the proceedings by the most outstanding performance in the film... Amy Adams as Davidtz's sister-in-law, pregnant with her disinterested and emotionally distant husband's unwanted (by him) child, but still able to see the things that make life worth living. The combination of pain, joy and fierce optimism in Adams' character is amazing to watch, and if I had an Oscar vote, she would have a lock on a nomination right now.

"Little", quiet movies can sometimes have just as much impact in their own subtle ways as films that are big productions, often because they tend to be a lot closer to life as most people live it. "Junebug" is a fine example of that kind of film.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Long Overdue, Part Two

1. "Must Love Dogs". Well, since romance itself isn't really my "cup of tea" you naturally wouldn't expect romantic comedies to be my favorite movies, but that hasn't stopped me from enjoying some of the classic of the forties or more recent efforts like those from British writer Richard Curtis ("Notting HIll", "Love Actually"). And the cast of this film is exceptional. But the movie itself? Not so much.

Diane Lane play a 40-ish divorcee whose family feels she's been out of the dating game long enough, and are constantly tries to find her the perfect match. Her sister goes so far as to place an ad for her at an online dating site, which gives us the inevitable montage of losers... until she meets mister perfect, played by John Cusack. At which point the movie ought to logically be over, since there's absolutely no obstacle to their relationship. But this is Hollywood, where these things don't have to make sense, so it's stretched out for another hour.

Lane, Cusack, Christopher Plummer (as Lane's Father), and Elizabeth Perkins (as her sister) are all excellent, and there are some scattered witty one-liners here and there. But there simply is nothing for any of these people to work with. We know how the story's going to end, we know for that matter everything that's going to happen prior to that ending... and I guess there are people for whom that kind of thing is comforting. I just don't happen to be one of those who finds this much formula reassuring.

In the midst of all the formula, though, there is one genuinely real sub-plot. Christopher Plummer makes you feel both the pain he still has over his wife's death and the lonelyness he's trying to eliminate from his life by finding a relationship of his own, and the relationship he eventually strikes up with the widowed Stockard Channing has all the sense of reality that the rest of the film lacks. If there were ever a sequel to this film starring Lane and Cusack, I probably wouldn't bother, as much as I like them both. But if it were about Plummer and Channing, I'd be among the first in line.

2. "The Chumscrubber". Or, Hollywood tries and fails to get hip once again. This so-called independent film (distributed by a division of Dreamworks) tells the story of a group of alienated teens who spend most of their time spaced out on drugs... until the local supplier commits suicide. Then they're determined to force the dealer's best friend (played by "Billy Elliot"'s Jamei Bell) to tell them where his remaining stash was kept. Even if it means kidnapping his younger brother.

Of course, the kidnapping doesn't go as planned, and all kinds of mayhem results. Problem is, the stuff that's supposed to be funny is just lame, and the supposedly dramatic moments are totally unconvincing, especially when the characters are supposed to be having big, significant crises of conscience... they come across more like the characters being just mildy peeved.

It would probably help if the script bore even the slightest resemblance to how actual teens in real life act, talk or behave, but the writers of this film have apparently never met a real kid and have based everything they wrote about them here on characters from other teen movies. A lot more attention is spent on getting the supporting characters of the parents real, and the film actually manages that from time to time. Glenn Close makes up for her lackluster performance in "Heights" in her "Chumscrubber" role of the grieving mother of the suicidal drug dealer. Ralph Fiennes and Rita Wilson as the town Mayor and his fiancee give brief, fitful glimpses of the kind of "American beauty" horror underneath the perfect suburban marriage that few movies get right. And Allison Janney is both scary and funny as Bell's mother.

Unfortunately, all of them are only token supporting characters in a movie that devotes most of its time to trying to show how hip and contemporary the film-makers would like us to think they are. And all their efforts do is to show us how totally out of touch they are with what's going on with a generation they're no longer a part of. Does that sound like something you want to go to a theatre and pay to see? I didn't think so.

3. "Broken Flowers." After films like "Stranger Than paradise", "Mystery Train" and "Dead Man", Jim Jarmusch had established himself as one of the quirkiest... and most wonderfully inventine... truly independent film makers around. But when I heard the premise of "Broken Flowers" I was genuinely concerned that this would be the movie where Jarmusch sold out. Turns out I needn't have worried.

Bill Murray stars as a wealthy guy who's made tons of money off computers (but who doesn't actually own one), who one day receives an anonymous letter claiming to be from an former girlfriend, telling him that they had a son about twenty years earlier whom he doesn't know about, and that son is now trying to track down dear old dad. Murray's neighbor convinces him to go on a cross-country search looking up the five women he calculates might be the one who sent the letter, and is on the receiving end of some surprises from old flames like Sharon Stone and Tilda Swinton.
You can understand my concern.

But Jarmusch gives these characters all the quirks and eccentricities you'd expect from his previous films, and the cast absolutely refuses to play them with any of the standard over-the-top Hollywood style. Jarmusch is even still using the same kinds of camera tricks he used back on "Stranger Than Paradise" (as in when each scene fades completely to black before fading back up again for the next scene), and the story refuses to make any (well, hardly any) commercial compromises.

"Broken Flowers" is a SLIGHTLY more accessible Jarmusch film that is still clearly Jarmusch all the way. The film is alternately funny (in a very low-key way), serious and touching, and the cast is uniformly fine. Yes, even Sharon Stone. You don't find many directors these days who will take all the unhurried time a story and characters need to establish themselves, but when you can, the resulting film is almost always one you will remember. And more and more as time goes by, Jarmusch seems to slowly becoming very nearly the only game in town.

4. "Saraband". Ingmar Bergman announced his retirement as a director more than twenty years ago, and since then he has worked in theatre, in television, written a couple of novels and written a series of screenplays directed by others, but has stuck to his vow about directing. Now, in his late 80's, he has directed what will probably be his actual last film. Is it a classic on the same level as the ones that made his reputation? Not quite, no. But it's still head and shoulders over a huge portion of contemporary cinema, and not a bad film at all on which to go out.

In 1973, Bergman gave us a brutal analyses of a modern marriage in "Scenes From A Marriage". In "Saraband", we meet that same couple 32 years later, still played by the stars of that film, Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman. They haven't spoken in years, but some recent tragedies in Ullman's life have gotten her thinking about Josephson again, and wanting to get in touch. When she does, it seems like all the bitterness had never happened. But it doesn't take long...

It's one thing to simply have two people arguing and trying to tear the other apart. You see that all the time. It's quite another to see two people who clearly still care about each other as much as they did when they first married, but are unable to resist their personal, petty, selfish needs that lead them to destroy the other person out of sheer spite. This is strong stuff indeed for an American moviegoing audience that is not exactly accustomed to investing themselves emotionally in the films they see. In "Saraband", you may find yourself almost feeling guilty for eavesdropping on such sensitive subjects as Ullman and Josephson try and fail and try again to re-establish some kind of familial connection between themselves and their now-adult children.

A lot of moviegoers react the same whenever I try to recommend a movie to them that is definitely not typical "feel-good" stuff: "Oh, that sounds depressing, I don't want to see that!" But it's long been my contention that a movie doesn't always have to make you feel good to be a good movie, and that you can often learn valuable things from movies that take you outside of your normal comfort zone. Nobody has ever done that better than Bergman, and he does it yet again in "Saraband." Since he very likely won't ever be doing it again, you'll probably never get another chance to see it done this well. Better take that chance while you have it.

5. "The Edukators". This German film mostly features characters sitting around talking and debating ideas and philosophies. There is some occasional action... a break-in, a kidnapping... but those are over quickly and we get right back to the talking. Yes, this is actually a movie about IDEAS. Terrifying, isn't it?

The "Edukators" of the title are three German youths... two men and one woman... who break into the homes of the wealthy and powerful, not to steal anything, but to simply scare them with the knowledge that their secure homes can be violated so easily... and leave notes saying things like "Your days of plenty are numbered." These young people are what folks like George W. Bush would call radical leftists, and are beginning to realize that they will have to find some other way of getting their messages across, when they pull their last break-in, and wind up kidnapping the house's owner... who turns out to be a former student radical himself, now turned conservative and wealthy like so many of his former peers.

When so many people formerly dedicated to righting society's wrongs and helping the defenseless turn into selfish greedy types willing to step on anyone if it will help them get ahead, it isn't easy to maintain a belief in what matters most... especially when confronted with someone who used to be "one of your own", and who now lives by the philosophy of "Under 30 and not a liberal, no heart. Over 30 and still a liberal, no brains." How do you remain dedicated to doing what's right when everything you see around you seems to indicate that those who do what's convenient are the ones who get rewarded?

Instead of car crashes and explosions and the like, these are the kinds of things this movie is about. But that doesn't mean that you don't get well-rounded, well-written characters or weak performances. All of those are top notch. It's just that all of those things are in service of the film's ideas, and the debate over them is as fascinating as the action in any Michael Bay film. No, wait, what am I saying, that's way too much of a compliment to Michael Bay. It also has what has got to be a strong contender for the best ending of the year. "The Edukators" is a movie that will not only make you think, it will make you GLAD it did. How often are you going to get that in a movie theatre?

Long Overdue, Part One

It's been so long since I've sat down to do one of these things (no, I didn't used to do them standing up!), and I've accumulated so many films, that even after carefully selecting a few titles I've seen but won't review (don't worry that you'll miss a "Dukes Of Hazzard" review... haven't seen it, not going to), there are still too many to do in one column. So I'm going to TRY to do reviews three nights in a row, with five films in each column, and see if that works. Here goes...

1. "Yes". Some people... including movie critics... just don't know how to deal with films that present them with something they really haven't seen before, and they can actually become hostile and trash the film as a result. That's the only way I can account for the negative responses that have been received by Sally Potter's film "Yes", which I found to be one of the most original, passionate and fascinating films I've seen in a long time.

This is the story of a woman (played by Joan Allen) whose marriage to a respectable but dull man (played by Sam Neill) is falling apart. In the midst of this crisis, she meets and falls in love with a Lebanese chef (Simon Abkarian) who also happens to be a Muslim. All of the differences between the two cultures, and the hostilities too many in the West instinctively feel towards all Muslims, come into play... not only regarding their relationship, but the attitudes of others towards them. And, by the way, the entire script is written in Shakespearean-like Iambic Pentameter and rhyming couplets.

The story does NOT come across as phony or artificial at all. Seriously, folks... the average common person did NOT actually talk like that during Shakespeare's time, and people don't say HE was artificial! This is actually a stunningly effective way to communicate the heightened feelings and tensions that Potter is dealing with in her story. These characters make their passion and pain felt all the more deeply and artfully through this stylized dialogue than they ever could have with lines like "Hey, what's up?"

And then there's the powerfully direct insights into the Muslim/Western world. As Abkarian is filled with so much pain and rage he is barely able to speak lines like "You hear our children's screams, but you do not cry, because they are not yours", you get a very different look at who Muslims are and what they feel than George W. Bush will ever show you. But the film is not anti-Western any more than it's anti-Muslim (which it clearly is not). It's very pro-understanding, and argues that we need to become aware that what we have in common is more important than what separates us.

"Yes" is an incredible film that deserves more respect and attention than it's gotten. You can do your part by checking it out if you get the opportunity, and then spread the word. This film deserves it.

2. "Heights". I saw this film later the same day I saw "Yes". Maybe that accounts for my lukewarm reaction to it, because few films wouldn't seem inferior after seeing "Yes". MAYBE that's the reason, but I doubt it.

"Heights" is pretty much art-house soap opera. A photographer (Elizabeth Banks) has a fiancee (James Marsden) who has secrets from his past he's trying to conceal, secrets that seem to involve a neighbor in the apartment above theirs. Her mother (Glenn Close), a broadway diva starring in a production of "MacBeth", hates the fiancee and is willing to do anything she can to dissolve the relationship. And so on and so forth and blah blah blah...

Every line of dialogue and every plot twist is milked for its maximum melodrama, and the actors do their overwrought best to keep the performances on the same level. This might not seem so surprising from someone like Marsden, best known as Cyclops in the "X-Men" movies, but it's strange to see a performer as expert as Close resort to such tired hackwork... at least she's much better as one of the few highlights of "Chumscrubber", which you'll be reading about in Part II of this series.

With all of that, and plot twists that telegraph themselves from miles away, you wouldn't expect anything to get very excited about. And guess what... you'd be completely right. You can definitely afford to skip "Heights".

3. "The Island." Michael Bay strikes again. And you know what that means... a couple of ciphers as central characters, running, jumping, riding vehicles that explode as they leap out of them, firing exotic weapons... all this plus Steve Buscemi as the one element that keeps the film from putting you to sleep in spite of all the noise. Bay isn't the kind of guy who likes to surprise his audience, so that's exactly what you get in "The Island."

The story? Huh? Oh,yeah... I guess now that I think back, there was a kind of story. Sort of. In a sterile, futuristic, overpolluted society in which the only pure spot left is a place called "The Island", a lucky few are occasionally selected to leave the scummy world behind and go to The Island as the prize in a lottery. But there really is no Island, and those who "win" the chance to go there are never seen again. When a young woman played by Scarlett Johannson wins the lottery, she and her friend (Ewan McGregor) find out why, and go on the run... and run... and run... and very exhausting, repetitive run... from the authorities who try to keep them from letting their secret get out.

Most of this happens in the first half hour of this 2 and a quarter hour movie. The rest? The usual Bay fireworks. At least in "Armageddon", Buscemi has a substantial supporting role. Here, he's only on screen long enough to make you frustrated that he's on so little.

You don't even have an interesting futuristic world to distract you. "Logan's Run" is just one of tons of science-fiction movies of the past thirty or so years that are virtually cloned (hah!) to creat the society the heroes of "The Island" live in. It's not really true that if you've seen one science fiction movie you've seen them all... however, if you've ever seen even one, you've probably seen THIS one already.

So, folks, if you were wondering what kind of movie Michael Bay could make as a director without Jerry Bruckheimer as a producer any more, this is the depressing answer: one every bit as bad as the ones he made WITH him. If you were holding your breath waiting for Michael Bay to make a good film... well, actually, if you were, you aren't reading this column, because you're either dead or unconscious by now.

4. "Mail Order Wife". This is a very unusual and at times uneven film that takes a lot of risks that don't always pay off. But enough of them do to make it worthwhile.

A young man who epitomizes the classic slob loser tires of trying to find a mate in any of the usual ways, and orders a mail-order bride from Burma. But no sooner does she arrive than his inner sinister, controlling creep comes to the surface, and his new wife is forced to do degrading, depersonalizing things that send her running for comfort to the film-maker who's shooting a documentary about her and her American spose/captor. She has a few surprises regarding him, too... but everyone involved also has some major shocks coming when they find out more about the young Burmese woman they had assumed was so sweet, innocent and powerless.

"Mail Order Wife" starts out as a Christopher Guest-like mockumentary, switches abruptly into intense, harrowing and uncomfortable drama, and then turns back into a comedy... but of a somewhat different kind... about a half hour before the end of the film. You might find yourself a little uneasy at the transitions at times, laughing just minutes after some emotionally scalding sequence. But ultimately that helps the surprise factor... there are so many movies where you know exactly what's going to happen next. That certainly isn't the case with this film. And then there's also the amusing little "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" reference (you know a show has really arrived when it's being name-checked in no-budget independent films like this one).

If you like surprises around every corner, you're probably disappointed by a good many films... not only those from big studio Hollywood, but many of the ones from independent companies as well. So if the opportunity to see "Mail Order Wife" presents itself, you should take it. You'll most likely be glad you did.

5. "Murderball." "March Of The Penguins" isn't the only documentary in theatres deserving your attention. "Murderball" is such a powerful, sometimes brutal, occasionally inspiring (but never sappy) and always unique film that it even got me, notorious hater of all sports except baseball that I am, glad I went to see it.

Quad Rugby is a sport so violent it was originally called "Murderball" (but you couldn't sell that name to corporate sponsors). Quadriplegics, confined to wheelchairs through illness, accidents, and other causes and who were given no hope of achieving anything in life, took to it with a passion. Slamming into each other in motorized wheelchairs tricked out to become something more like a mechanical gladiator's chariot, they created a sport that brought them international fame and gold medals in the Paralympic games. This film looks at the American Paralympic team over a two-year period from 2002 to 2004, as the jealousy and bitterness of one team-mate causes him to leave and begin coaching the rival Canadian squad, aiming at defeating his former comrades. The American team responds to this about as well as you would expect them to.

The players are one of the most fascinating groups you've ever seen. Having been given up by society, they've determined not to let their disabilities limit them and have achieved amazing things. But if this sounds hokey and "feel-good", just wait... the movie has the same total lack of sentimentality about its subjects that they have about themselves, and not for one second does it ask you to pity them... in fact, if you told them you DID, they'd probably run over you in their chairs. These are guys who happen to BE IN wheelchairs, but they aren't defined by them... in either good or bad ways.

No matter how many "sports movies" you may have seen, you haven't seen one like "Murderball"... so any and all fans of sports movies should definitely go see it. And if you don't like sports movies at all (like I usually don't), it nonetheless tells an incredible story about a fascinating group of protagonists... just exactly what any good movie should do, so YOU should go to see it too. I'm not saying that "Murderball" is for everyone, but so many different groups who probably THINK they wouldn't like it will find themselves pleasantly surprised, that it would probably have a box office three or four times what it's gotten if everyone who would appreciate it gave it a chance. So why not you?