After the Fact 2003

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Capsule reviews for movies released in the U.S. in 2003 viewed after 2003. Also includes movies seen in Nov/Dec 2003 at least a week after their U.S. release dates.

Old School
Director: Todd Phillips
Rating: 7/10
Its title is appropriate in more ways than one -- the movie feels much closer to those John Landis-style '80's comedies than anything else has recently. That's probably because it concentrates more on the personality/shtick-driven antics of its less-than-Phi Beta Kappa characters, while recent similar comedies concentrate more on sex and gross-outs. That's not to say, however, that nudity and other naughty comedy tools don't have a working contract here. The movie has a funny premise that isn't executed strongly, yet it's saved mostly by the performances of its leads: Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Will Ferrell. They all play themselves, really, which means they play to their strengths. Ferrell, though, goes the extra mile and becomes the life of the party. (added 1/1/2004)

Pieces of April
Director: Peter Hedges
Rating: 7/10
Katie Holmes holds together a short comedy about a family's journey to their black sheep daughter's home for a Thanksgiving dinner. Holmes is the young woman whose troubled past has estranged her from her mother (Patricia Clarkson) -- her performance is endearing but does little to reveal evidence of the supposedly awful creature she reformed from. Most of the movie consists of what I call "written randomness"; i.e., seemingly random events and characters are encountered, but they feel consciously written because of the consistent, rhythmic frequency with which they occur. That said, most of the writing is effectively funny, and Clarkson's performance gives the story's dramatic undercurrent some much needed weight, preventing it from feeling totally gratuitous. (added 1/1/2004)

School of Rock
Director: Richard Linklater
Rating: 9/10
The bus to the School of Rock runs on one source of fuel, and that is Jack Black. As a force of unrestrained exuberance, Black gives one of those performances many will call definitive whenever they talk about his career in the future. He elevates the spirit of what would otherwise be a fairly routine plot about an anti-establishment figure who opens the minds of a bunch of stuffy kids ("Dead Rock Musicians Society"?). Anyhow, Linklater directs the film as if the plot isn't the point, which is to say he takes the correct approach -- he mainly lets the personalities stand out, from the talented musician kids to Joan Cusack as the bitterly repressed principal to Black, of course, who preaches and teaches about rock music with that indescribable rock spirit, best expressed when his words are interrupted with the grunting sounds of the music that's obviously playing non-stop in his head. I'm not sure rocking out is something anyone can really teach, but if I had to try I'd recruit this guy. (added 3/15/2004)

Shattered Glass
Director: Billy Ray
Rating: 9/10
The thing I was wondering most while watching this was how oh how was this possible? How could someone do what Stephen Glass did? In some weird way, it's illustrative of how any good ideology, no matter how tightly implemented, can ultimately lose track of itself and allow posers, thieves, and men of ill-intent to puncture them. If something as microcosmic as a magazine of around twenty writers can allow something this embarassing to occur, what better chance do systems of government have? Anyway, aside from bringing up these concerns in my mind, the movie itself is quite engrossing. Hayden Christensen plays Glass as someone who's either very immature, slightly psychotic, or both -- and yet, he's got that thing that makes you believe him, possibly because he himself actually believes what he's saying. We don't find out why Glass did what he did, but in a world where we must watch for liars and crooks, maybe the why isn't as important as the how. Shattered Glass is asking us to stay on our toes. (added 12/8/2003)

Something's Gotta Give
Director: Nancy Meyers
Rating: 6/10
As expected, Something's Gotta Give is a performer's movie, carried on the shoulders of those old pros Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. The film should be thankful for its stars, for although it uses a debate-friendly topic (the appropriateness of dating others way outside your age range) as its narrative fulcrum, it's really just a simple romance that delivers the same ol' message about love being able to loosen people up. The plot feels more scripted than usual, with characters dropping in and out mainly to create the situations its two protagonists swim in -- but it's that swimming that people will be paying to see, anyway. The finale is particularly troublesome for its contrivances, forced happy ending, and the time it takes to get there, but watching Keaton and Nicholson feels cozy, like settling into a well-worn sweater, and it's amusing to see them try new ways (e.g., instant messenger) in this day and age to explore romance. (added 1/19/2004)

Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Rating: 9/10
A simple, no-frills documentary profiling eight spelling bee contestants and following them to the national competition has no right to be this insanely involving. It presents a positively hopeful slice of America, displaying a real patriotism in its depiction of the final contest as a level playing field on which all hard-workers can compete for achievement, regardless of gender and background. Watch the movie, pick your favorites among this diverse selection, and root for them -- it's way better than watching reality t.v.! (added 2/19/2004)

The Station Agent
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Rating: 9/10
In a way, this is the anti-Farrelly Brothers movie. The Farelly Brothers go to great lengths to include people of physical/mental disadvantage in their movies to show the audience how normal they can be, adapting just fine to life with humor and enthusiasm. In The Station Agent, the main character, a stoic dwarf named Fin (Peter Dinklage), tries hard to lead his version of a normal life, but his physical status inevitably affects the actions of the people around him -- and that can't be avoided. What he and the viewers learn about is the existence of a thick line that separates people who try to be friendly and people who are just plain mean. Genial patronization can often feel as insulting as flat-out denigration, but there is a distinct difference between a person who means well and a person who doesn't, and this is detectable. This is actually a pretty funny movie with humorous character interaction between three very different people at its center. It gets a little too dramatic at the end for my tastes, but it's primarily a solid movie that proves something I've always believed: that the first condition of the saying, "You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your relatives," isn't always true. (added 1/11/2004)

Swimming Pool
Director: François Ozon
Rating: 7/10
A lovely quiet and tense mood is present for Ozon's character study, which unfolds as a battle of wills between Charlotte Rampling's mystery novel author and Ludivine Sagnier's shapely, optionally-clothed boss's daughter. They're sharing the boss's French home for the summer and they don't like each other, since the author only wants to write in peace and the daughter only wants to romp. Is this a mystery thriller or a very slow comedy? Whatever it is, the two lead actresses make the task of finding out delectable, as Rampling is all neurotically repressed fire and Sagnier is sexuality bordering on psychosis. It's almost unfortunate the film has one of those mind-bending revelatory endings -- it makes the movie feel as if it came late to the party of 2001's spate of alternate reality movies (like Mulholland Drive, Vanilla Sky, and A Beautiful Mind). Whether you're scratching your head at Swimming Pool's finish or at the fact that this flick came out two years after this kind of movie was fashionable, you'd have to agree the atmosphere is sweet and the scenery is quite nice. (added 12/18/2003)

Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Rating: 6/10
From the opening sequence showing two girls under the influence punching each other and zooming in on a tongue ring, it's clear that Thirteen intends to horrify. But who is it trying to horrify? Its effect on a 13-year-old is questionable, given its dislikeable protagonist -- empathy seems less likely than denial that one could ever end up in her state. Meanwhile, the movie could shock parents of budding pre-teens into locking their kids in the house until the college years, but to what avail? It depicts any attempt by the mother (Holly Hunter) to curtail the downward spiral of her daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) as futile or ill-conceived. That's like watching a movie about a missile heading for your hometown and exploding on target no matter what anyone does -- it's scary, and that's about it. Thirteen has a little more to it, of course -- it can be admired for the truths it manages to expose -- but it can't shake off the cheap feel of its horror movie tactics, with body piercings, self-mutilation, and sexual shenanigans standing in for murder scenes. First-time director Hardwicke shows she has ambition when it comes to style, and will one day make a film that surpasses this one, especially if she can cast the effective Wood again. Meanwhile, if Thirteen (a bothersome title, since it implies a generalization) tries to prove there's nothing we can do when a teenage girl falls into an inevitable pit of self-loathing and disrespect, well, then... ok. Thanks. (added 2/5/2004)

The Triplets of Belleville
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Rating: 9/10
Insanely loony French animated feature feels like a cross between '60's Disney cartoon movies and Yellow Submarine. No, even that description is too simplistic. This is a comedic delight, full of visual gaggery, excellent timing, and practically no dialogue. Sylvain Chomet's basketful of film references is just one part of a feast of things to watch in this movie -- the extreme caricature-like drawings alone, from the bikers' physiques to the very tall ship to the square-shouldered thug pairs, are worth staring at for minutes at a time. Unique characters (the heroine has a physical deformity, her dog is humongous, and there's a guy that resembles a mouse) and inventive story elements (the dog's surreal dreams, the titular triplets' odd choice of diet, the reason for the kidnapping) are packed into a structure resembling silent comedy, and the results are often side-splitting. For all it's whimsy, though, the whole thing feels a little bit slight -- I attribute that to a rather one-dimensional depiction of the kidnapped son. He's treated rather cruelly but he's unresponsive, and we're not quite sure what to make of his being rescued. It may be an indication that the movie is more interested in being clever and funny than in taking a closer look at its serendipitous sources of emotion -- but at least it's very good at being funny. (added 12/17/2003)

Winged Migration (2001; released in U.S. in 2003)
Director: Jacques Perrin
Rating: 10/10
This kind of movie was made for people who are fascinated by nature, birds, their intelligence, and their ability to fly. Happily, I'm one of these people. Winged Migration is an entire film, sparsely narrated, showing almost nothing but birds flying. It's less a nature documentary than it is a movie that offers a transcendent experience through achieving a spiritual unity with nature. But the best documentaries about nature show it as beauty, grace, cruelty, and deadliness, all in the same strokes, and Winged Migration also does just that. The photography is just stunning -- we've all seen birds fly before, but have we ever flown next to them, watching their wings beat, actually wondering, perhaps for the first time, how tired they must get while endlessly flapping their wings? Maybe not until now. The movie is, in three words, beautiful beautiful beautiful. (added 11/24/2003)

Updated Top 10 list for 2003:
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (10/10)
2. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (10/10)
3. Finding Nemo (10/10)
4. American Splendor (10/10)
5. Winged Migration (10/10) - 2003 U.S. release
6. In America (10/10)
7. Down with Love (10/10)
8. The Company (10/10)
9. Raising Victor Vargas (10/10)
10. Rivers and Tides (9/10) - 2003 general U.S. release

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2003, 2004

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