reel reviews

A Home at the End of the WorldLittle Black BookThe Manchurian CandidateStory of the Weeping Camel

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

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Little Black Book
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There are a number of clichéd elements that you’re sure to find in a typical chick flick. Just when you start checking them off one-by-one while watching Little Black Book, the movie adds a welcome, unexpected facet that sets it apart from the rest.

Brittany Murphy leads a capable cast as Stacey, a newly hired associate producer on a sleazy TV talk show hosted by Kippie Kann (About Schmidt’s Kathy Bates).

Stacy suspects that her boyfriend Derek (Ron Livingston from Office Space) is hiding things from his past. At the urging of her co-worker Barb, played by Holly Hunter (Thirteen), Stacy snoops into Derek’s Palm Pilot and looks up information on his former lovers.

Stacy yearns to grill these women about Derek’s past, but has to come up with a ruse so that they won’t know that she’s currently shacking up with him. She decides to pose as Barb, who is doing research for possible new “theme shows” for Kippie’s TV gabfest. Naturally, Stacy feels a little guilty while snooping into Derek’s past…but not enough to stop. As one of the ongoing chick flick clichés insists, “All’s fair in love and war.”

Murphy is a fine actress who has proven herself in number of dramatic roles (Girl Interrupted, Don’t Say a Word, 8 Mile). She’s also displayed a ditzy appeal as a light comedienne (Just Married, Uptown Girls).

Murphy’s innate likeability makes Stacy tolerable even when the character is engaged in some pretty unethical behavior. When guilt begins to take over, Stacy begins to question her motives. Murphy’s acting chops are very much in evidence as her character completes this dramatic arch.

Still, Little Black Book is, for the most part, formulaic Hollywood product. One might wonder, therefore, why picky actors like Hunter and Bates would choose to participate (financial considerations not withstanding). The answer probably has something to do with the movie’s take on sordid TV talk shows.

First time screenwriter Melissa Carter and veteran British television director Nick Hurran take dead aim at the unscrupulous drivel that makes up much of daytime TV. The fact that they were able to do this in the context of a silly Hollywood comedy is a small, but notable accomplishment.

Ultimately, however, it’s a clever twist that gives Little Black Book its slight edge over others of its ilk. It helps to make up for many of the film’s otherwise irritating, by-the-numbers clichés. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 8/6/04

The Story of the Weeping Camel
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The Story of the Weeping Camel is the undoubtedly best Mongolian film of the year. The fact that it may be the only Mongolian film to be released this year doesn’t diminish that accomplishment.

A simple, yet surprisingly insightful film from first-time directors Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni (from a story idea by Davaa and Batbayar Davgadorj), The Story of the Weeping Camel immerses its audience in an utterly alien environment. At the same time, it presents universal themes that people can relate to from any culture.

This straightforward tale involves an extended family of herdsmen living in the harsh reaches of the Gobi Desert, at least fifty kilometers from the nearest town. Without electricity and most current technology, they live much as their ancestors did centuries ago. The very existence of these hard-working folks depends entirely on their sheep and camels. Their lives are so intertwined that the smallest disruption in the flock can precipitate a crisis.

One such crisis occurs when one of camels gives birth to a rare white offspring. After a long and difficult labor, the mother rejects its baby. Unless the herdsmen can convince the mother to suckle the newborn, it will surely die.

As is their ancient custom, they call on a musician to come and perform a ritual to reunite mother and child. According to legend, the ceremony is so moving that the camel will ultimately burst into tears.

Although this isn’t technically a documentary, the filmmakers took great pains to find actual herdsmen to reenact their everyday lives for the camera. Their dialogue is improvised and, for the most part, the events actually happened as they are depicted.

Although the filmmakers had much of the story decided upon beforehand, there were fortuitous circumstances that greatly aided their efforts. They were able to shoot the actual birth of a rare white camel whose mother did indeed reject it. They also got footage of the musical ceremony that, reportedly, reunited them.

The performers who were recruited for the film are utterly guileless, able to ignore the cameras and allow the filmmakers to get a fly-on-the-wall perspective into their lives. As the family interacts with one another and their flocks, we see the parallels between their lives and those of their animals. This interconnection of man and nature is the movie’s overriding theme. Our technological drive, it is implied, is counterproductive.

Although the world of the Weeping Camel is harsh, it is hardly austere. It’s got heart. (PG) Rating: 4; Posted 8/6/04

A Home at the End of the World
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When his unconventional relationships are questioned, Bobby Morrow is likely to say, “It’s just love.”

Those words seem to be the guiding principle behind the well-meaning, but somewhat stilted drama, A Home at the End of the World. Director Michael Mayer’s debut film is something of a coming of age drama about an enigmatic young man who never quite comes of age. He’s a kind-hearted soul, but that is about all we ever really know about him.

Based upon a novel by Michael Cunningham (The Hours), A Home at the End of the World begins in 1967 when an impressionable Cleveland boy named Bobby Morrow (Andrew Chalmers) is seven years old, and it follows the trials and tribulations of his life through the mid-1980s.

Bobby’s older brother introduces him to the joys of recreational drugs and an accompanying laid back philosophy. Sadly, all of the members of Bobby’s nuclear family die over a period of a few short years.

In 1974, the lonely teenage Bobby (Erik Smith) meets Jonathan (Harris Allan). Jonathan and Bobby experiment with gay sex and, ultimately, Bobby becomes a member of Jonathan’s extended family. Eager to please a find a place to “fit in,” Bobby introduces Jonathan’s mother Alice (Sissy Spacek) to the joys of pot and Laura Nyro, while Alice teaches Bobby to bake.

By the time the early ‘80s roll around, Alice has to gently suggest that Bobby (Colin Farrell), now a professional baker, find a home of his own. He travels to New York City to join his “brother” Jonathan (Dallas Roberts), who is engaged in a promiscuous gay lifestyle. Jonathan’s eccentric roommate Clare (Robin Wright Penn) immediately takes to Bobby, and the threesome form an alternative, sexually ambiguous family. As Bobby would say, “It’s just love.”

Mayer does a good job of relating a sense of time and place, skillfully recreating the era. He has a little more trouble with establishing believable relationships.

Spacek is spot on as Alice and Penn and Roberts give workmanlike performances. Farrell’s characterization is a bit more problematic, however. He’s certainly sincere, but also awkwardly “actor-ish” and never completely convincing in the role. Bobby rolls with the punches and tries hard to please, but we’re never sure what he wants. The only clue we’re given into his motivations is when he admits to Clare, “I can’t be alone.”

The film is occasionally touching and has its heart in the right place, but it lacks insight. Perhaps the novel elucidated Bobby’s feelings, but they didn’t make it on the screen. (R) Rating: 2.5; Posted 8/6/04

The Manchurian Candidate
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

When it comes to remakes, film fans typically fall into two categories: those who object to remakes on principle and those who feel that anything goes. The industry is rife with exquisite examples of remakes gone wrong. The Vanishing and the ironically named Point of No Return are two that immediately come to mind. However, there are notable exceptions: An Affair to Remember was a remake and The Maltese Falcon was actually the third film version of Hammett’s novel.

Jonathan Demme’s take on The Manchurian Candidate should find some acceptable middle ground. With top tier stars Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, and a prime summer release date, Hollywood has no doubt calculated this to be an easy success with little risk or originality. However, to assume that this version can only succeed as standard thriller fare, with none of the historical underpinnings and special niche status of the original is a mistake. The proximal context of John F. Kennedy’s murder, McCarthyism and the Red Menace paranoia of the time have been replaced by nefarious corporate activity, the Patriot Act and contemporary wars. This Manchurian Candidate may not be as creepy and off-kilter as the original, but it’s no less grounded in relevant political themes.

Denzel Washington plays Ben Marco, a Gulf War vet plagued with horrific dreams that conflict with the inspirational speeches he gives detailing his platoon’s victory after an ambush in the Kuwaiti desert. Others in his platoon can relate the story verbatim, with Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Shreiber) cast as their savior, his heroic deeds meriting him the Medal of Honor. As Raymond Shaw is thrown into national limelight as a vice presidential candidate, under the ambitious guidance of his mother, Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), Marco’s nightmares become more pressing. Filled with visions of murder and mind-control, Marco’s apparent paranoia casts him as a crazed misfit in the eyes of those who know him. Marco nevertheless sets out to unravel the truth against the high stakes race for the presidency.

Streep’s character is especially well played as the bogeywoman of contemporary misogynists. The original senator’s wife is now a senator in her own right, and comparisons to Hillary Clinton have been bandied about with glee. Sen. Shaw’s unchecked ambition coupled with maternal affection, reek of Freudian chauvinism and mirror a mainstream media message: Powerful women are evil. Unfortunately, while the film’s political allegories may be on target, the sexual politics lack irony.

Filmgoers who are indifferent to the notion of remakes should find The Manchurian Candidate a satisfying and politically relevant experience. Those who object to its sheer existence can exercise their freedom of choice. That is, while they still have any. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 8/5/04

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