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.

21 Grams
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Rating: 8/10
Alejandro González Iñárritu does indeed possess impressive directing skills, and 21 Grams is a piece of polished showboating. It's one story, three main characters, and no linear chronology -- the movie's scenes are out of order, with bits of the beginning, middle, and ending edited into a narrative maze. As a storytelling device, it's intriguing -- we are forced to spend at least the first hour of the movie trying to piece together the story. But González Iñárritu isn't being random -- the main narrative (the "spine," so to speak) is roughly loyal to path of forward-moving time, and, as a result, the story can be readily pieced together by any attentive viewer during the course of the film. However, once the puzzle is unraveled, the viewer may be left wondering why the form was necessary. The tale is mercilessly bleak and downbeat, and would likely be a chore to sit through were it not for the novelty of the storytelling technique. There's some top-notch acting here from Sean Penn (better, more subtle than he was in Mystic River), Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro, which is rewarding in and of itself. But after navigating the film's labyrinthine editing and being left with three portraits of utter misery, the viewing experience feels curiously empty. (added 12/17/2003)

28 Days Later
Director: Danny Boyle
Rating: 9/10
A sci-fi zombie movie that posits the question: who's more dangerous, the flesh-eating zombies or "civilized" people? As our heroes escape from the fastest living dead I've seen in a while (these guys run), they eventually encounter the smallest possible version of a sub-society, only to find their humanity more threatened by these supposed saviors than by the mindless infected hordes. The movie takes a stance in defense of the traits that makes us human, then goes on to demonstrate how terribly fragile they are. This is one of those horror movies with a brain; it's a bit light on the zombie action, which is appropriate because the true terror comes from elsewhere. It stretches its credibility in some places, though -- I'm sorry, without power tools, no one can change a tire that fast. (added 1/1/2004)

American Splendor
Director: Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman
Rating: 10/10
It's the meaning of life as explored through comic book writing. As an amateur comics writer/artist myself, I may not find another movie more meant for me than this. Not only does it present a fascinating account of the "ordinary" life of Harvey Pekar (who shows up in the film himself but is otherwise mostly played by Paul Giamatti), the put-upon writer of the underground comic book American Splendor, it also makes a good case for the constructiveness of working out the questions, issues, and problems one faces in life through the output of art. The movie studies the nature of identity by using multiple imagery to depict one being -- Pekar is drawn by several different artists and is played by actors in a play and in this film. What it may say is we are all as special as we make ourselves to be. While highlighting the comics as a creative medium, directors Pulcini and Berman make smart use of their own cinematic medium, using comics transitions and jumping in and out of the narrative to show how relative images are and how they are ever-present constructs. A wonderful movie. (added 12/16/2003)

Bad Boys II
Director: Michael Bay
Rating: 3/10
The problems in Bad Boys II are numerous indeed, and many of them are fairly symptomatic of the typical shallow action movie -- a throwaway plot, thinly drawn characters, questionable attempts at humor. But the main stuff, the action, is where explosion-savant Michael Bay should be succeeding, right? That's what was dismaying about this movie -- its numerous car chases and machine gun fights became boring. Its problem is that its montage rhythm is edited for a short-form, like, say, for a music video, but the danged thing goes on for 2 1/2 hours. The main characters (Martin Lawrence as the whiny bumbler, Will Smith as the smooth but hotheaded badass) are so one-dimensional they actually regress from their development in the original movie; hence, you don't really care what they're doing, so the action scenes end up existing for their own sake, without any weight or gravity. Or, to put it another way, there go the suspense and any chance for thrills. They're further hampered by the scenes' hyper-editing, which consists mostly of one-second cuts jumping from closeups of people yelling and random shots of cars screeching or bullets hitting people/walls. This prevents anyone from getting a sense of placement or space. Maybe the idea was to go for frenetic confusion all the way through, but, at this thing's length, that would be more than excessive. With the action sequences padded as they are with hammy scenes of Lawrence/Smith schtick (and the occasional tirades of one of the lamest screen villains I'd ever seen), the movie just sort of runs in place; meanwhile, it displays an attitude of hostile, angry humor, with a particular running gag poking fun at anger management psychiatry. It seems to suggest the movie is one big raging pile of macho steam-blowing. Maybe the participants got something out of their systems, but the result just feels like hot air. (added 7/6/2007)

The Barbarian Invasions
Director: Denys Arcand
Rating: 6/10
In Arcand's follow-up to his 1986 film, The Decline of the American Empire (which I haven't yet seen), a man's imminent death is the launching point for a movie with a lot to tackle on its plate. Stubborn, outspoken, liberal, lady-chasing history professor Rémy (Rémy Girard) might well be the luckiest man on earth -- he's on his deathbed with a chance to reconcile with his son, Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), who happens to be a millionaire and is able to arrange for a more hospitable room, video of Rémy's unavailable daughter, the visitation of his old friends, and illegal drugs to better ease his suffering. Eventually, Sébastien even manages to procure a cabin in the woods for his father's final days. In the meantime, the film gives socio-political commentary about the 20th century, juxtaposing the ideals of Rémy and his friends against the capitalist world which his son is very much a part of, before coming all the way back around to give the old blowhard the warmest sendoff anyone could ever ask for. It's either touching or annoying, depending on how you want to see it; and since the rest of the movie jumps around all over the place, following side characters to little alleys here and there, it feels either intriguing or unfocused. Personally, I thought it was ok, but felt it was trying to do too much with what looked increasingly like a fantasy premise. It also seems to be saying that no matter what path we take in our lives, no matter what causes we support and denounce, no matter what crazy events happen in this world, all that counts in the end is the love of our friends and family. And that's either very warm or very cynical, depending on how you want to see it. (added 1/11/2004)

Bend It Like Beckham (2002; released in U.S. in 2003)
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Rating: 6/10
Bend It Like Beckham is a Bollywood movie without the musical numbers, so what's left is a well-worn story told with emotional pulls. In this case, it's the story of the daughter who dreams of becoming something other than some arranged stranger's wife -- she's a gifted football ("soccer" to us Yanks) player -- which is of course crushingly disappointing to her parents, particularly the overbearing mother. Cliches and predictability abound, but that's never the point -- such films always comes down to actors and their direction, and here it can be said that Gurinder Chadha does a decent job directing, while Parminder Nagra does a good job acting. The movie's main problem is that it's a little more fussy than it needs to be -- there's an unnecessary romantic triangle complication for added drama, but perhaps more discouraging is its depiction of mothers as stubborn, misundertanding pains. Meanwhile, the fathers are acquitted by being good cops to their wives' bad cops. This is a bit inexcusable, given that the movie is directed by a woman, and that one of its obvious goals is the advocation of women's liberation -- one shouldn't necessarily smack down older women to raise up the younger ones -- but maybe this is also the truth the Chadha has experienced first hand. I can only assume. Either way, the movie passes as "inspirational entertainment," just overly familiar and a bit rough around the edges. (added 6/9/2008)

Bubba Ho-Tep
Director: Don Coscarelli
Rating: 7/10
It has a made-for-cult premise: Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell, Mr. Cult himself) is secretly alive, living in a Texas rest home, where he and a guy who thinks he's JFK (Ossie Davis) find out a soul-consuming Egyptian mummy is preying on the residents. It's played out in an amusing manner, naturally, but it's not wacky; the movie's actually pretty quiet and could be considered seriously pensive if it wasn't for its inherent goofiness. There's also quite a bit of fodder for the issue of how badly senior citizens are neglected as the end of their winters approach. Bubba Ho-Tep, with its leisurely pace and existential pondering, doesn't capitalize on its situations as much as some of us might've wanted it to, but it's worth a look just to see Campbell revive The King as a malcontent old guy who used to be able to rock, and who's now finding a new reason to get his groove on again. (added 6/2/2004)

Capturing the Friedmans
Director: Andrew Jarecki
Rating: 9/10
Effective documentary successfully holding up reality to our ideals, creating a portrait of devastation. It works on two levels: first, it shows how the innocent-until-proven-guilty concept is so easily ignored in the formation of rushes-to-judgment by justice-hungry small-town police investigations and sensationalist media; second, it reveals how the image of the nuclear family can act as a prison to a household that could never have fit the mold. The Friedmans make a fascinating subject for a piece on a dysfunctional family -- but are they dysfunctional because of their personalities or because of how society has treated them (first by offering them the illusion of a stable family, then by prosecuting them when the words "pedophile" and "child molester" trip the alarms in the heads of a community)? The documentary is presented in straightforward fashion, relying almost solely on recently conducted interviews and, in a bizarre gift from fate, honest fly-on-the-wall-like home video footage of the Friedmans dealing with their nightmare. No fancy technique here -- the subject matter does all the work of drawing in the viewer. (added 12/16/2003)

Charlotte Sometimes
Director: Eric Byler
Rating: 6/10
The critics who hailed Eric Byler as a new voice in cinema to pay attention to aren't mistaken -- Byler shows much confidence in being able to make a movie that conveys mood skillfully. Unfortunately, Charlotte Sometimes played to my bad side -- it's about the angst that comes with forbidden/unattainable love, already one of my less favorite subjects, and much less so when the protagonists are bound by their confused passiveness. This and other movies like it seem to say love is complicated and can cause much misery, but that never strikes me as insightful. Long periods of silence and awkward conversation are usually effective in this sub-genre, and Charlotte Sometimes, for better or for worse, keeps the tradition alive. The movie also happens to feature Asian-Americans in the key roles, and as a result it retains the environmental authenticity of an Asian-American's world (good detail on the interior decorating); that, combined with the idea that these characters didn't necessarily need to be Asians, is a good thing -- it evokes a welcome overall sense of normalcy rarely seen in American films featuring Asians. If the story could keep my interest, though, I would have been happier about it. (added 12/8/2003)

Concert for George
Director: David Leland
Rating: 9/10
Concert for George (Harrison, that is) is probaby just the way George would have liked it (that is, if the humble man would have even approved of something like this). This documentary covering his tribute concert is straightforward, no-nonsense, sap-free, and focused on the music. Those looking for information about the "Quiet Beatle" will have to look elsewhere -- the film gives no background, and works under the assumption that its viewers are friends and fans who loved the man and his work enough to already know the major details of his life. Name subtitles aren't even provided for various interviewees -- most of them are mentioned at some point or another, but formalities themselves are dispensed with. The idea isn't to be exclusive, but to make the setting feel more intimate, which is just fine to yours truly, a lifelong Beatles enthusiast. After all, it is the music that indeed shines through, and the performances of these great songs are truly heartfelt and emotional (I got chills more than a few times). My only major problem with the movie was how it kept cutting away from certain songs to show interviews with some of the performers -- hiccups like those make getting the DVD, which features the entire concert in order, a must for Harrison fans. (added 9/16/2004)

The Cooler
Director: Wayne Kramer
Rating: 5/10
A decent exercise in plain old-fashioned storytelling; unfortunately, the story itself is pretty cheesy. We see good acting efforts for cliched roles. The main characters aren't so bad -- William H. Macy plays a loser once again, and Maria Bello is the young and sexy casino floor waitress who falls for him. Both actors ground these standard roles with some level of believability, but they're surrounded by corny supporting parts, from Macy's character's punk of a grown son to typical Las Vegas casino thugs and high-level old bosses in suits. Then there's Alec Baldwin, whose crooked bad-tempered casino owner seems to have been rejected from a Scorsese movie; he goes up against Ron Livingston as a college-bred youngster who thinks he can step in and run the casino with all his textbook ideas. Of course Baldwin's character is going to lament that Vegas today is like Disney World, and that he misses the "old school" style of the city of sin. Of course he's going to take a cheater out back and beat the tar out of him with his thugs. The tone of the film is hard to pin down -- it uses an idea (luck as a highly tangible element) that should feel whimsical, but seems more interested in jarring us with extreme violence. Why? Because a Vegas movie just has to be that violent, I suppose. During a pivotal beating scene, I expected Joe Pesci to walk in with a hammer. (added 12/18/2003)

Dirty Pretty Things (2002; released in U.S. in 2003)
Director: Stephen Frears
Rating: 7/10
It's like a dark, grimy version of Casablanca. Playing the part of the trapped refugees are the lower-class illegal immigrants of London, looking for any way out and willing to make big sacrifices to obtain valuable passports. This time, though, our hero, played by the charismatic Chiwetel Ejiofor, doesn't own a cafe -- he's one of these poor put-upon souls, but he's able to contain any desperation he may have with his intelligence and rationality. The cafe, to carry on this silly analogy, is actually a hotel, its manager a ghetto-trawling Faustian devil who holds the high-priced tickets to freedom. The movie is enjoyable, although a bit hard to swallow and downright preachy and manipulative in some places; also, the female lead, played by Audrey Tautou, is treated miserably, both by the events of the story and by the character's depiction as a pitiful, shortsighted individual. The ending, though, is a wallop -- it really stretches its credibility, but it will heartily satiate anyone's appetite for poetic justice. (added 1/17/2004)

The Fog of War
Director: Errol Morris
Rating: 10/10
People who are blessed with sharp memories and who have lived fascinating lives through extraordinary times are to be valued, even if their opinions are as subjective as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's. Actually, I'd argue such subjectivity is inevitable for intelligent beings, and McNamara is a sure example. Whether you revile or admire him, you must admit his personal account of 20th century American history, with its special attention paid to the many wars it contains, is riveting and revealing; it is wisdom colored in dark shades, striking lines, and aggressive primary hues. He can boil conflicts down to its simple, human psychological components, and is the first to admit that these pieces are exactly what make every power struggle so complex. Director Errol Morris breaks down his interview with McNamara into eleven arbitrary "lessons," which is a loose attempt, at best, to thread a narrative through his subject's many disparate speeches. It wasn't necessary -- McNamara's words combined with Morris's visuals and editing are captivating enough. However, his biggest stroke of genius was employing composer Philip Glass, who writes an unforgettably haunting score that carries just the right amount of somber emotional weight as it frames the many sentences describing the cost calculation of mass, human death. The images and the music combine with McNamara's voice and expressions to create a flowing tapestry of a life lived toughly through a world that has looked over the edge at hell itself. (added 8/5/2004)

House of the Dead
Director: Uwe Boll
Rating: 1/10
Uwe Boll must be someone who thinks things that are not cool are cool. Or, rather, correction: he thinks things that are cool are that way by virtue of just being what they are, without taking into account that they must also be executed in a cool way. Take bullet-time, for example. In the middle of House of the Dead, there is an extended sequence in which every individual character goes bullet-time, and Boll must think it's so cool just because they're in bullet-time. I don't think he knows that most people will react by groaning or laughing. Meanwhile, yes, actually, I'll go back to my original statement: things that are not cool are cool to him too. Like intercutting flashes of footage from the actual video game. Can't you imagine him saying, "Yes, I'll put in footage from the game! That will be cool! It'll be like playing a video game and watching a movie, only you're doing them at the same time! Isn't that f---ing awesome?!" (added 7/1/2005)

Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem
Director: Kazuhisa Takenouchi
Rating: 7/10
A Daft Punk album set to anime that went straight-to-video in the U.S. Too bad -- this one might have worked nicely in a theater, with its electric visuals and hypnotic music. It's a fun concept coolly executed, but it doesn't feel particularly new -- its retro-anime style comes complete with the usual trappings, and little about the animation, story, or music makes the project as a whole rise high above curiosity-fulfillment material. This, of course, may not matter to anyone who digs anime or Daft Punk's flavor of dance beat, for whom it could easily be a dazzling delight. (added 1/1/2004)

The Italian Job
Director: F. Gary Gray
Rating: 5/10
A light caper movie, with heavy emphasis on the word "light" -- light plot, light action, light violence, light sex, light humor, light acting. Unfortunately, that all makes it rather kinda blah. If it wasn't for a couple of characters getting shot and killed suddenly, the movie might have even qualified for a PG rating (its PG-13 rating also cites "some language," but I can't recall any swearing). It could have been funner to sit through had any of the actors brought more life into their parts -- most of them seemed to phone it in, with sleepwalking Mark Wahlberg and Ed Norton snoring the most loudly from long distance. Only Seth Green seemed to relish his role, which only made it look like he was just really excited to play in the big kids' playground. All in all, the movie qualifies as an ok afternoon distraction. (added 3/2/2004)

Kal Ho Naa Ho
Director: Nikhil Advani
Rating: 9/10
Hip, unrestrained, and silly all at once, Kal Ho Naa Ho is an example of earnest, unfettered exuberance. This Bollywood flick benefits from a modern look and design -- set and shot in New York City, full of flashy camera effects, and armed with a postmodern, no-holds-barred approach to entertaining the audience -- which makes up for its old-fashioned storyline. It's not easy being ironic and sincere in sudden turns and be convincing the whole way through, but this movie somehow manages it through its characters and its musical numbers (and several of them are hilarious, including one that sends up Lagaan). It loses its way a bit in the second half, when a melodramatic turn of events coupled with a lessened focus on the personality of the female lead (Preity Zinta) threaten to bog things down. It pulls through, though, because it keeps its spirit up, and, perhaps mainly due to its Bollywood-standard running time of three hours, the characters genuinely start feeling like friends you've gotten to know well. (added 7/22/2004)

The Magdalene Sisters (2002; released in U.S. in 2003)
Director: Peter Mullan
Rating: 7/10
A clear agenda movie (the word "agitprop" has been used to describe it); as such, it's quite straightforward and easy to sum up. Based on facts, it's a story about a presently defunct Irish-Catholic institution that enforced acts of cruelty upon women in the name of reform. Its mode is that of "a story that needs to be told," lest we forget the marginalized lessons of history. The movie itself, structured as a prison movie complete with escape attempts, is one-sided, which is both expected and a fundamental weakness when present in non-fantasy-based drama (see also: Whale Rider); or, to put it more sarcastically, who would want to make time for the motivations of the nuns when they are just so clearly eeeevil? Just the same, Mullan does make the "story that needs to be told" worth seeing at least once, even if that does turn The Magdelene Sisters into a classic example of a "Gandhi Movie," defined in Roger Ebert's "Movie Glossary" as a film that is doubtlessly good but doesn't entice more than a single viewing in one's lifetime. (added 2/15/2004)

Millenium Actress (2002; released in U.S. in 2003)
Director: Satoshi Kon
Rating: 7/10
Now here's a reliable old romantic formula: woman chases unattainable man while being looked after by another who loves her. It's not used quite that simply in Millenium Actress, but the sentiments are similar -- the situation is utterly swoon-worthy, unless you're me and have a hard time these days finding enchantment in the interminable pursuit of unachievable, perfect love. The movie's outer spectacle works better than its story -- as the aging actress recalls her life story to a devoted documentarian and his cameraman, scenes from her movies are presented as parallels to her real-life, dedicated to completing her quest. In fact, all planes of reality are blurred as the two listeners find themselves taking part in the memory of her fantasy/history, populated mostly by certain key figures from her movie-making days. Empathy for the heroine depends strongly on whether or not you can identify with her search from the get-go; the film does little to sway the viewer too greatly in one direction or the other, concentrating on its visuals and the obsessive nature of her mission. (added 1/11/2004)

Director: Patty Jenkins
Rating: 8/10
The reports are true: Charlize Theron's transformation into prosititute-turned-serial killer Aileen Wuornos is amazing. Much credit goes to the makeup artists for hiding Theron's normally pretty face, but Theron herself deserves applause for making the rest of herself disappear. Her version of Wuornos is of a desperate woman who easily falls prey to her delusions; she's someone to pity because if she had a better general perspective, she might have had a chance at being successful and likeable. The movie may draw ire for portraying the murderer in a sympathetic light, but a key scene in which Wuornos is shown to have fallen into a state of unredeemable mercilessness demonstrates how the film isn't making a black-and-white case for her. It doesn't necessarily justify her actions; instead, it offers a rationalization that may offer insight without trying to wholly defend her. It's not entirely successful at this, however; its depiction of people and society in general is bitter and pessimistic, so criticizing the movie for placing more blame on outer forces than on Wuornos's own deficiencies isn't unfair. Overall, Theron's performance is a success, but it has the unfortunate side effect of overshadowing the rest of the movie, which seems content to stay within the dramatic confines of a tv-movie-of-the-week mode, therefore doing little to stand out on its own. Also, The Performance itself can be its own distraction -- I spent quite some time thinking, "I can't believe this is the same person from Sweet November." (added 1/9/2004)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2003, 2004

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