CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND
"Never let them see you sweat" is a tagline that apparently went unheeded by George Clooney, who huffs and puffs mightily in his directorial debut. This adaptation of Chuck Barris' memoirs, in which the creator of The Gong Show (among other TV inanities) claims to have been an assassin-for-hire for the CIA, is a genuine mixed bag, full of entertaining moments but also bogged down by Clooney's overwhelming desire to emulate his frequent screen collaborator Steven Soderbergh. Trying for an air of hip irreverence that, let's be honest, was never Soderbergh's strongest filmmaking attribute either, this follows Barris (Sam Rockwell) as he balances a successful TV career and a steady sweetheart (Drew Barrymore) with his clandestine activities for the government, represented here by a CIA mentor (Clooney) and a sexy super-spy (Julia Roberts). Appearing in virtually every scene, Rockwell (The Green Mile) is well-cast up to a point, but he has yet to provide any afterlife to any of his screen personas; he doesn't inhabit his characters as much as get assimilated by them (despite having seen him in a dozen pictures, he has yet to deliver a performance that sticks in my mind). But Clooney as actor nicely underplays, while Roberts is used far more effectively than in Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven. 1/2
Charles Dickens' assorted works have been brought to the screen on close to 100 occasions, but the number of Nicholas Nicklebys can be counted on one hand with the thumb tucked out of sight. This new Nickleby, the first since 1947, has been pared down from the original text by writer-director Douglas McGrath, who brought Jane Austen's Emma to the screen in 1996. Whereas the Royal Shakespeare Company's landmark stage production ran nine hours, this film clocks in at a little more than two hours; yet this Reader's Digest approach is remarkably fluid and full-bodied, if lacking the emotional wallop of the recent Austen adaptations. As Nicholas, a decent young man determined to protect his family and friends from the harsh circumstances that seemingly dog their every move, newcomer Charlie Hunnam is passable (though rather modern, in that GQ-hunk sort of way); he's surrounded by an able cast of familiar faces, including Christopher Plummer, Nathan Lane, Timothy Spall and, in a pair of standout performances, Jim Broadbent as Wackford Squeers, the cruel head of a decrepit boys' school, and Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell as Smike, the abused orphan that Nicholas takes under his wing.
Perhaps mellowing with age, the unpredictable Roman Polanski has made one of the most traditional pictures of his storied career, a Holocaust drama that rarely ventures from the path already trodden by such exemplary efforts as Schindler's List and the TV miniseries Holocaust. Yet the director, whose mother died in a concentration camp, has also made one of the most personal and heartfelt pictures of his career, and his anger and sadness emanate from virtually every frame. Winner of the top prize at Cannes, this recounts the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish Jew and classical musician who, through the kindness of strangers and breaks of good fortune, managed to survive the Holocaust. The first half of the picture, more familiar but also more emotionally draining, centers on the Nazi atrocities occurring to those around Szpilman, while the second part shifts gears as it concentrates on how he basically had to spend the remaining part of the war hiding out on his own, spending countless months with nothing to do, nothing to see, and usually nothing to eat. More reflective and deliberately paced than many films of this nature, this nevertheless contains some truly disturbing scenes that will be tough for many viewers to take.
After years of Hollywood servitude as a hired-gun (Sliver, The Saint), Australian director Phillip Noyce came charging back last year with two comparatively small-scale gems: Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American (opening locally February 14). Fence, one of those "based on a true story" sagas that showcase humanity at its vilest, concerns itself with an Australian policy (in effect until 1970) that allowed the government to take half-caste children (part white, part Aborigine) away from their Aboriginal families and integrate them into white society (the idea was that after a couple of generations, all traces of "native" blood would be erased from the family line). Here, the focus is three girls ages 14, 10 and 8 (earnestly played by non-professionals Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan); stolen from their moms and sent to a school 1,200 miles away, they soon escape and attempt to walk the entire distance back home. Despite sounding like a human version of Disney's popular Incredible Journey films (indeed, with a PG rating, this would be fine for older children), this isn't exactly an uplifting tale of the indomitability of the human spirit; rather, there are many heartbreaking moments, and the coda delivers an additional wallop. The great David Gulpilil, 31 years after Walkabout, co-stars as a veteran tracker, while Kenneth Branagh appears in several scenes as A.O. Neville, the misguided bureaucrat who plays God with the country's indigenous people.
Being John Malkovich was an act anybody would be hard-pressed to follow, yet here are director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman attempting to capture lightning in a bottle for the second straight time. While falling short of Malkovich's brilliance, this loopy comedy certainly scores points for originality -- or at least until it writes itself into a corner during the final half-hour. It's almost impossible to convey the complexity of the plot in just a couple of lines, as Kaufman has inserted himself into the film as the main character. The movie's Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) suffers from writer's block as he attempts to adapt the nonfiction book The Orchid Thief; complicating his task are his encounters with his twin brother Donald (Cage again), the book's author (Meryl Streep), and the book's subject, an eccentric flower breeder (Chris Cooper). A dense picture operating on more than one level, this works as long as it's relying on its warped comic touch and free-flowing performances by the three principals. But apparently not knowing how to end this thing -- or worse, cynically ending it in a manner that hammers home an obvious point about the state of Hollywood filmmaking -- Kaufman comes up with a sour conclusion that flies in the face of everything that has come before. What remains, on balance, is a good film, but not the great one that was within its grasp.
Not only for theater aficionados, this adaptation of the stage hit is a musical for people who don't even like musicals, weaving its deliriously dark tale with enough cyanide-laced cynicism to win over moviegoers who wouldn't know Oklahoma! from Oh! Calcutta! Director-choreographer Rob Marshall and Oscar-winning scripter Bill Condon (Gods & Monsters) keep the proceedings both lively and lacerating, and if, after years of overexposure, the story's themes relating to the cult of celebrity have all the bite of a toothless gerbil, at least they're presented in an engaging fashion. Among other things, this knockout of a musical finds Catherine Zeta-Jones in her best screen work to date, Richard Gere putting forth his finest effort since An Officer and a Gentleman, and Renee Zellweger adding to her string of unassailable performances. Zellweger, that most Kewpie Doll of actresses, turns into Lethal Barbie as she handles the role of Roxie Hart, a starlet wanna-be in Prohibition-era Chicago who, like fellow singer-dancer Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), is behind bars for murder. Both women's public images are carefully handled by slick lawyer Billy Flynn (Gere), and all three work the angles to ensure they each land on top. The actors' exuberance and Marshall's imaginative staging just might be enough to raise this once-revered genre from the dead. 1/2
Like The English Patient and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Hours is one of those reputedly "unfilmable" novels that has bucked the odds to emerge as an exquisite motion picture in its own right. Adapting Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winner, director Stephen Daldry and scripter David Hare have crafted a richly textured film that spans decades to concentrate on three troubled women who are all connected in one way or another to British author Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway. First, there's Woolf herself (played by an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman), battling the mental illness that is starting to overtake her as she begins to write Mrs. Dalloway in the 1920s. Then there's Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a suburban housewife in 1950s Los Angeles who, while reading the book, begins to focus on her own misery and how she might best change her lot in life. And finally, there's Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a New York literary agent -- and modern-day Clarissa Dalloway -- who's busy preparing a party for a former lover (Ed Harris) now dying of AIDS. It's deeply rewarding to witness how the movie jumps between time periods, using an event in one storyline to beautifully segue into one of the others -- the result is a film of great cumulative power, sparked in no small part by a superlative cast. Added bonus: A rich score by Philip Glass that might be the year's best. 1/2
Aside from Disney's 1940 masterpiece, Carlos Collodi's Pinocchio has been the source of many dubious film versions, from 1964's animated Pinocchio In Outer Space to the X-rated Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio (advertised with the tagline "It's Not His Nose That Grows") to the dismal 1996 adaptation with Martin Landau and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. In the annals of bad cinema, though, no version will ever approach Roberto Benigni's take on the tale, which, released at the end of December, just beat the buzzer to emerge as the worst film of 2002. This is a monumental achievement in practically every facet of inept filmmaking: joyless, idiotic, annoying, heavy-handed, visually atrocious, and often downright creepy. The 50-year-old Benigni has cast himself as the wooden puppet who longs to become a real boy, and his performance is both tiresome and terrifying; ditto for the Cricket who looks like Otto Preminger, and the Fox and the Cat whose presence might disturb impressionable young minds for years to come. Had this been released stateside with its original Italian soundtrack, it might have escaped as being merely awful on a mortal level; instead, the poor dubbing by English-speaking actors like Breckin Meyer (as Pinocchio), Glenn Close and Regis Philbin (their words match the lip movements about as well as in imported kung fu flicks from the 70s), renders it completely unwatchable.
Almost as much as Woody Allen, Lee makes movies that are in some way or another tributes to the Big Apple, yet what makes 25th Hour different is its post-9/11 topicality. This one isn't centrally about that tragic day, yet its specter hangs over the entire film: Characters view the decimated Ground Zero; they discuss the tragedy; they reflect on it. Watching these scenes, it's hard to shake the feeling that this was the movie Lee really wanted to make, one that explored the crisis in depth and how it deeply affected the very soul of the city. Instead, the focus of 25th Hour, based on a novel by David Benioff written before 9/11 (Benioff also wrote the script), is Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a drug dealer on the verge of being sent away to prison for seven years. Monty's dilemma is that he needs to find out who ratted on him -- could it really have been his sweetheart (Rosario Dawson)? This angle is the least interesting part of the picture; more compelling are the scenes involving his relationship with his dad (Brian Cox), and his camaraderie with his two disparate childhood pals, one now a Wall Street hotshot (Barry Pepper), the other a high school teacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) lusting after one of his students (Anna Paquin). Portions of 25th Hour clearly don't work, yet this big, bold picture reaffirms the image of Spike Lee as a cinematic iconoclast -- and one who steadfastly refuses to take prisoners.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
(Sam Rockwell, George Clooney).
(Chaney Kley, Emma Caulfield).
(Charlie Hunnam, Christopher Plummer).
(Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann).