reel reviews

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Hidalgo The Passion of the Christ
Secret Window
Taking LivesTouching the Void Troy

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Unsuspecting filmgoers choosing this month's romantic comedy starring
Jim Carrey will feel either misled and disappointed, or wholly
entertained and gratified. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is more melancholy than merry, and while the story's thesis is intrinsically romantic, viewers may find the flawed personalities and frustrated relationships not the escape they were looking for.

Although billed as a romantic comedy, Eternal Sunshine is better appreciated as an archetypal Charlie Kaufman film. Quirky and convoluted, Eternal Sunshine does not follow a linear time progression, and Kaufman’s hallmark philosophical ruminations and cultural and literary references abound. Filmgoers will need to pay attention.

The unique story trails the terminally drab Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and his interaction with his own memory, specifically as it concerns his relationship with his darling Clementine (Kate Winslet). Clementine appears only very briefly in the real world; she mostly exists in Joel’s head, thanks to a procedure to erase each other from their memories. The sci-fi elements of memory erasure are reduced to comically mundane and realistic details. As one character explains, “Technically, the procedure is brain damage, but it’s on par with a night of heavy drinking.”

Juxtaposing Joel’s central predicament, fighting the very memory erasure he initiates, is a satirical subplot involving the antics of the Eraser Team from Lacuna Inc. (Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson). While big events are transpiring in Joel’s head, the staff is involved in their own little personal dramas. “Blessed are the forgetful,” quotes naïve receptionist Kirsten Dunst. “For they get the better even of their blunders.” The reference to Nietzsche is not incidental: the ability to “say yes! to life” and to embrace conflict as life-affirming is at the heart of the film. Although all relationships eventually come to an end, Kauffman shows us that people start new ones – or rekindle old ones – and history repeats itself with uncanny precision.

As Joel and Clementine grow achingly familiar with each other’s character flaws, Clementine throws this dictum at Joel: “You’ll find things you don’t like about me, and I’ll get bored with you, because that’s what I do!” The ill-suited couple is poignantly believable in a way that is anathema to the genre. The realization that love is not without consequences is Joel’s ultimate redemption. (R) Rating: 4; Posted 3/22/04

Taking Lives
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It is understandable if one regrets the success of The Silence of the Lambs. Of course, anytime that a movie achieves that kind of esteem, it will spawn imitators.

With serial killer movies, however, the copies are usually extremely ugly and downright stupid. (Philip Kaufmann’s inane Twisted is a perfect example.)

To say that Taking Lives isn’t stupid may be damning it with faint praise. Truth is, it’s two-thirds of a solid thriller. The final third is where things fall apart.

Angelina Jolie stars as an FBI profiler who is recruited by the Montreal police department to help them investigate a series of brutal killings. (The graphic depiction of the victims is in keeping with the repellent nature of contemporary Hollywood films of this genre.)

Jolie learns that a local woman (Gena Rowlands) believes that her son has, for a number of years, been killing young men his own age and usurping their identities. (Keifer Sutherland, exuding appropriate menace, lurks in the shadows just long enough to raise the hairs on your neck.)

A suspect, played by Ethan Hawke, doesn’t fit the mold, so Jolie decides to use him as bait to capture the killer. That sets up the opportunity for the filmmakers build some tension as they place the stars in peril.

Director D.J. Caruso (The Salton Sea) and cinematographer Amir M. Mokri show a good deal of creativity in their efforts, especially in the film’s first reel. Their use of the Montreal locations also adds a welcome, distinctive element.

Hawke and Jolie provide strong performances, giving the movie a lot more appeal than it deserves. Tchéky Karyo, Jean-Hughes Anglade and Olivier Martinez add color as the French Canadian cops.

In the true spirit of Silence of the Lambs, the script attempts to link the killer and the profiler. Do they have a common bond, a similar prurient interest that shows they are cut from the same cloth? This is a potentially fascinating element that the filmmakers toy with, but never fully develop. In fact, we’re given so little background on Jolie’s character that this factor is ultimately rendered irrelevant.

Jon Bokenkamp’s screenplay, loosely based on Michael Pye’s novel, has some sharp dialogue, but it falls apart when the plot takes an absurd turn and disintegrates with an absurd and laughable conclusion. It is unusual for a film with dialogue this good to have this many plot holes.

What could have been an exceptional thriller is thus reduced to ‘standard’ status. Perhaps it will utterly fail and give this genre a much-needed rest. (R) – Rating: 3; Posted 3/22/04

The Passion of The Christ
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Bertrand Russell once wrote that religion is based primarily upon fear and that fear is the parent of cruelty. The Passion of The Christ does much to reinforce this notion. By highlighting the crucifixion of Jesus as the subject of his religious epic and mounting a prolonged one-note indulgence of blood-splattered brutality, Mel Gibson’s reconstruction smacks of fundamentalist fear mongering seeking to serve up fiction as Truth. It seems no coincidence that such a controversial spectacle arrives at a time when these same characteristics pervade the political landscape. In a nation whose leadership is distinctly divisive and where religion and politics mix as easily as the bloody mary needed to fortify oneself in such times, The Passion of The Christ will find a ripe audience.

In many respects, The Passion is a classic Hollywood epic, a kind of Braveheart does the Bible. Showcasing the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus, The Passion is ambitious and mostly successful in its sweeping cinematography, large crowd scenes and soft-focus flashbacks. And like Braveheart, this film is big on simple emotions like love, loyalty and treachery.

Although so much of the film is dedicated to fetishistic torture, the more meaningful moments occur in the sequences between flayings. When the film opens, Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is praying in the Garden of Olives, and we witness his struggle to overcome the temptations of a suitably creepy Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), an androgynous and inscrutable ashen figure, snaking about in a hooded cloak. We behold Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and Mary’s struggle to choose whether or not to witness her son’s suffering. We see a flashback memory of Jesus as a young boy. Perhaps one of the most lingering images is of the two Marys (Monica Bellucci and Maia Morgenstern) mopping up the blood of Jesus which has pooled around the pillar where he was thrashed. What is remarkably lacking is any substance surrounding Jesus’ religious life or teachings.

Unique in using Hebrew, Latin and Aramaic, apparently the spoken languages of the time, the sparse subtitles were added later and not everything gets translated for the audience. Unless you’re a linguistic specialist, you might miss the controversial line, "His blood is on us, on our children," which remains in the film but is not subtitled. A testament to the inherent power of the story, the presence of subtitles has failed to deter ardent interest from mainstream audiences who more typically ignore foreign language films.

While the performances are solid, they remain secondary to the chief concept, namely the idea that a man willingly died for the sins of humankind in a gruesomely violent way. Filmgoers who flock to that message have reported profoundness not apparent in other biblical epics. Bertrand Russell would counsel, “Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.” (PG-R) Rating: 2, Posted 3/15/04

Touching the Void
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

In 1985, two British mountain-climbers set out to scale the Siula Grande in Peru in an attempt to be the first to reach the 21,000-foot summit. What transpired became legendary in mountaineering circles, and the lives of the two climbers were forever changed. Touching the Void is a documentary based on the book of the same name by Joe Simpson about his harrowing near-death experience. While the book is dedicated to his climbing partner Simon Yates, Yates continues to be vilified in climbing circles as “the guy who cut the rope.”

Blurring the lines of true documentary, Touching the Void uses interviews with Joe Simpson interspersed with reenactment footage played by actors. The controversial technique brings an immediacy to the film and illuminates the physical and emotional extremes conquered in this traumatic story.

After two and a half days taking the summit successfully, disaster strikes during descent. The mountain is lined with formations that limit visibility. Downclimbing a 30-foot cliff, Joe’s ax rips out when the ice breaks away. He falls 20 feet and the impact rams his tibia through his knee and breaks his heel and ankle. At 20,000 feet, he knows that no rescue is available and that a fracture equals death. However, about an hour later, Simon appears by his side and improvises a heroic attempt to get them both down the mountain.

Suffering from frostbite and surrounded by a storm and darkness, Simon lowers Joe for close to 10 hours. Unaware that the worst is still before them, they advance toward an 80-foot cliff, at the base of which is a deep crevasse. When Joe goes over the cliff, Simon waits for the signal “ready” tug on the rope. However, Joe is actually suspended in mid air with no way to get purchase on the mountain and no way to communicate with Simon. Joe’s weight gradually pulls Simon toward the cliff’s edge and finally, believing Joe is dead from the fall, Simon cuts the rope, releasing Joe to another 70 foot plunge, this time headfirst into the crevasse. Incredibly, Joe survives, and what follows is a nightmarish, two-day journey back to base camp.

The story of the disastrous climb and survival is unmistakably compelling; watching the film is a visceral experience that from the comfort of the theatre begs the question: Why would a person choose such an endeavor? In an NPR interview, Joe Simpson lists the characteristics of the kind of climber he was before the Peru experience, namely, a sense of invincibility, too much testosterone, a lack of imagination, and the confidence of youth. No doubt these were the same attributes that bore him through the impossible ordeal, which he refers to as a long, drawn-out dying. Joe returned to the Siula Grande with Simon to perform the long shots of the climbers on the side of the mountain and not surprisingly suffered a nervous breakdown. What is remarkable, is that both Joe and Simon continued as ardent mountaineers after their catastrophic venture. (Not rated) Rating: 3; Posted 3/15/04

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you had just starred in the title role in Oscar-winning Best Picture of the year, how would you choose to follow it up? Would you consider tempting fate by trying your had in a genre that has proved to be box-office poison for the last few decades?

Viggo Mortensen, star of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, plays haggard cowboy Frank T. Hopkins in Hidalgo, a new Western from the folks at Disney. Allegedly based on a true story, Hidalgo concerns Hopkins’ involvement in a particularly grueling endurance race.

A one-time star of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, Hopkins was on his way to becoming an alcoholic has-been when he was presented with a challenge that he couldn’t refuse. Hopkins, who had a reputation as America’s greatest rider and was the winner of numerous long distance races, was a man sorely in need of a test.

Haunted by memories of the slaughter of Native Americans, Hopkins was ready to climb into a bottle when a wealthy Arabian sheik named Riyadh (Omar Sharif) invited him to participate in a grueling race called the Ocean of Fire. A 3,000-mile survival trek across the Arabian Desert, the contest involved the cream of the equestrian crop from across the Arab world. The chance to become the first American to win the race proved to be more than Hopkins could resist.

Hopping on a boat with his trusty mustang Hidalgo, Hopkins embarked on a journey that became the stuff of legend.

The events in Hidalgo, as presented by director Joe Johnston (Jumanji), stretch credibility at times. You might be tempted to wonder aloud how the cowboy and his steed could possibly have weathered the arduous challenges as they’re depicted in the film. (The racers endure assassination attempts, bandits, sandstorms and even locust plagues.) Still, the dramatic trials are presented in an entertainingly old fashioned way.

The film is less a stranger-in-a-strange-land story as it is a Rocky-style crowd pleaser, an underdog against the odds tale that (if given the right treatment) will always find an eager audience.

But what really makes Hidalgo work is the magnetic central performance by Mortensen. He has the tough guy charisma of the great Western stars while maintaining a romantic appeal for the ladies.

Perhaps Mortensen knows what he’s doing after all. Before The Lord of the Rings, no fantasy film had ever won an Oscar. (PG-13) Rating: 3, Posted 3/15/04

Secret Window
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Thanks to his Oscar-nominated turn in The Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp is getting a bit more notice for his acting chops. And due to his impressive performance in the new thriller Secret Window, audiences will probably forgive some of the movie’s shortcomings.

Based upon a Stephen King novella, Secret Window tells the story of a novelist named Mort Rainey (Depp), recently separated from his wife and experiencing writer’s block.
Stunned by his wife’s infidelity and holed up for months in a remote lakeside cabin, Rainey can’t quite seem to reconnect with his muse.

One day, a psycho writer from Mississippi named John Shooter (John Turturro) shows up and accuses Rainey of plagiarizing his story and threatens Rainey with violence. That’s when the merry mix-ups begin. Shooter demands that Rainey prove that he wrote the contested story, but Rainey’s attempts to do so are thwarted at every turn. Things really begin to get sticky when Shooter makes good on his threats and the bodies start to pile up.

Rainey enlists the aid of the local sheriff (Len Cariou) and a private investigator (Charles Dutton), but their efforts have limited effect. The canny Shooter is able to anticipate their moves and prevent them from interfering with his vendetta. Not bad for a Mississippi hick who sports a large, black Mennonite hat.

Secret Window displays some interesting stylistic flourishes, especially in an early scene where Depp’s character discovers his wife (Maria Bello) in bed with another man (Timothy Hutton). Director/screenwriter David Koepp (director of Stir of Echoes and writer of Panic Room) doesn’t allow his camera work to become overly showy until late in the third act when all heck breaks loose.

The nagging problems in Secret Window lie largely in King’s story. Its similarity to some of his other work is a bit too apparent, and the plot lacks a satisfying conclusion. (Oddly enough, Depp’s character proclaims that “The most important part of a story is the ending.” That’s just the place where Secret Window lets us down.)

Still, Depp’s performance saves the day. He seems to have an uncanny ability to add entertaining superfluities to his characterizations without ever detracting from their grounding in reality. He’s quickly emerging as a star who can be counted on to carry a picture, and he chooses his roles based on what is interesting to act rather than what will be big at the box-office. (R) Rating: 3, Posted 3/15/04

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