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Craig's Movie Club
Film/Video Reviews
Drama

Dramas reviewed with a discerning eye.


Boogie Nights (1997)

"Marky Mark" Wahlberg (I imagine he hates that by now) is Dirk Diggler (the man with the 13-inch talent), but Julianne Moore shows off more than just her skin in an Oscar-nominated performance that encompasses all the emotions. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson deftly juggles over a dozen major characters in this story of the ups and downs of the minds and bodies behind the adult film industry of the late 70's and early 80's. The also-nominated Burt Reynolds finally shows everyone else what many knew--he doesn't always have to play "Burt Reynolds," he can act if called upon to do so.

Boogie Nights is a perfect period piece that captures the essence of the 70's and 80's very well while involving us in an epic story that is also engrossing. Fabulous performances all around, especially Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the late Robert Ridgeley as "the Colonel."

Watch out for Michael Penn (folk-rock singer and the film's composer) and Robert Downey, Sr., in the music studio.



Ghost World (2001)

Director Terry Zwigoff has avoided the dreaded "sophomore slump" by sticking with the same theme as his acclaimed documentary Crumb--comics. Choosing to adapt Daniel Clowes' graphic novel Ghost World, he has taken it to a whole new level while retaining the original's charm.

The film taps into the relationships of Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) and their days just after graduation. They want to get an apartment together but don't yet have the money. Another obstacle is that Enid has to retake an art class in summer school.

Their relationship begins to crumble when Enid decides pull an anonymous prank on an unfortunate-looking fellow named Seymour (Steve Buscemi), sitting back to watch from a distance. Afterwards, she begins to regret it and looks to learn more about him. She comes to spend more time with Seymour than with Rebecca, eventually causing the downfall of her friendship with Rebecca, Seymour's career, and her own happiness.

The acting here is first-rate. The relationship between the two girls felt absolutely genuine from the start. I was immediately pulled into their lifelong friendship, never once thinking that these were simply two actresses working together for the first time. Steve Buscemi gives one of his best performances here as the collector of records who sabotages his relationships with women. Brad Renfro's role is a departure, the opposite of the normal disturbed teens he usually plays. Josh is simply a down-and-out teen with a crap job whose sole role in this film is to give the girls someone to hassle and bum rides from.

The ending breaks from the real-feeling style of the film into fantasy, but in retrospect, it seems to fit. Zwigoff has put a lot of effort into making his film a true portrait of a post-high school summer, and I for one never doubted these characters' existences for a moment.



Godfather Part III, The (1990)

What can I say? It's not the first two, but it's all right. It's certainly not as bad as some say, although Sofia Coppola's performance still grates after all these years.

Pacino, of course, carries the film, but he could play Michael Corleone in his sleep. This is more of a Learish turn for him. He gets to act as if he is in Shakespeare. And it is that kind of tragic story.

All in all, I liked it. A standout is Andy Garcia, whose is the one character that makes a real impression, somehow without going over the top. But Garcia always does good work.



Gosford Park (2001)

One of my criteria for how good a movie is has to do with how much I remember of it on Monday, after watching it on Friday. Gosford Park, unfortunately, fails that test. I'd forgotten most of it by Saturday.

While I was watching it, I was involved, but now all I motice is what was missing. All these wonderful actors gathered in one place, under the guiding hand of Robert Altman, and most of them (excluding a few notables) are completely wasted. Why was Derek Jacobi even here? An unknown could have played his role. And Stephen Fry? His character was entirely out of place and the imbecile cop (not Fry's fault). Maggie Smith? Kristin Scott-Thomas? Bob Balaban? Ryan Phillippe? All wasted or not up to the challenge.

Perhaps I should concentrate on what was good about it. I'll name a few names: Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Alan Bates, Kelly McDonald. Well, that's about it. The sets were wonderful. The detail was marvelous. This is one of the situations when a solid script--followed with discipline--would have been a credit. Altman's improvisational style just does not go with the repressed English culture of this film.

It's especially bad when what starts out as a whodunit turns into a whoaholdonaminute and takes two-and-a-half hours to do it.


JFK (1991)

It has been said that JFK is Oliver Stone's favorite of his films, and I can understand why. In many ways, it is his best. It is certainly his most ambitious. Even if taken only in terms of its visuals and editing, this was an ambitious undertaking. And he's taken it a step further. He has taken the dry minutiae (whether you can give a label of "hard facts" is debatable) and not only kept it from being boring, but has also made it compelling, gripping cinema. Three hours go by without a yawn.

JFK is Stone's rendering of the primary conspiracy theories regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In his time, Kennedy was a mythological figure, seemingly the president for everyone, especially the downtrodden. His administration was even nicknamed "Camelot," with Kennedy cast as America's savior King Arthur and wife Jacqueline as its Guinevere (of course the infidelity in this story went the other way, but that's for another time). And if you consider that the lies the American people were fed by the government for years, JFK may even be "fairy tale" enough to be reviewed on Green Man Review.

Culled from two major sources--On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison (who is the lead character played by Kevin Costner) and Crossfire by Jim Marrs--as well as other governmental records and his own interviews, JFK is an almost complete picture of what information was available at the time.

Also involved in the film's riveting status is the all-star cast Stone has hired to portray important characters. A listing of actors in this film includes: Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Sissy Spacek, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Candy, and Gary Oldman. Donald Sutherland (playing "X," a character based on Fletcher Prouty) gives a ten-minute monologue that should have been dull as dishwater, but it is so chock-full of information combined with intercut dramatizations and John Williams stunning score, that it is a pivotal (and my favorite) scene in the movie.

There is so much information involved here that it could have easily become confusing or overwhelming but Stone and co-screenwriter Zachary Sklar have assembled the pieces in a narrative form--often having the information come out in the form of character interviews--and doesn't talk down to its audience. Also, the mix of film types--grainy documentary-like footage, differences in lighting and colored filters mixed with footage from the Zapruder film--was surely a step toward the making of Natural Born Killers a scant few years later.

My only question lies in Kevin Costner's performance as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. He gives his normal measured performance, but, apart from a workable Louisiana accent, never really delves into the character. Perhaps this is deliberate. After all, Garrison is only the means Stone uses to tell his story (putting other people's theories in the character's mouth along the way), so why wouldn't the actor playing him be just as much of a conduit? A familiar face that we have come to trust through his relationships with other quality films playing a man who we need to trust for the film to work. If this is so, it also explains the stunt casting of the key personalities: give us familiar faces so we don't have to learn new identities, we can just take what we know of their past performances and subconsciously layer that over the new ones.

I could keep going on but suffice to say that JFK is one of my favorite films and I recommend it highly as entertainment--regardless of what you think about the cause of the assassination.

(Other good reading on the subject is Don DeLillo's novel Libra, which suggests that Lee Harvey Oswald was hired to pull off an unsuccessful attempt on the president in order to blame it on Cuba and warn Kennedy to change his administration's relationship with that country.)


Man Who Cried, The (2000)

This is a great "acting" movie. The stars are great, but the rest of the movie was missing something--my interest.

I'm not saying it was bad. The acting was wonderful, masterful even. The cast consists of Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp, John Turturro, and Cate Blanchett, all doing work that is equivalent to their best. Ricci, especially, as the main character, gets to run the gamut of emotions and I couldn't take my eyes off her. Blanchett does a thick accent that is hard to understand sometimes, but her performance was as good as I've seen her give. And as for Depp and Turturro, well, they don't make wrong moves. Even if they are in bad films now and again, they can always be depended upon to give superb performances.

No, the cast was not the problem. It was the story. I just didn't care what was happening. I liked watching great actors practice their craft, and I cared about them, but I couldn't get involved in the story. I know there was some subplot involving a white horse, but I couldn't tell you the significance, except to make the Johnny Depp character look sensitive, but he does that anyway.

I would definitely recommend it for fans of the actors, but I couldn't recommend it as entertainment.

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The Man Who Cried

Nashville (1975)

This has to be one of those occasions where everyone says it's a great film because everyone else said it was.

Or maybe you have to be on drugs. Personally, I just don't get it.

How else could you possibly not notice that there is no discernible plot, nothing but holes in the storyline, and several events that don't make sense and are not explained. As well as characters that have no place in this film except to fill screen space. Is Jeff Goldblum's character only there to shoot the guy in the end? Couldn't somebody else have done that instead and expressed some motivation as well as saving the studio an extra salary?

I saw Nashville in a revival house, thinking I was going to be amazed, and, well, I certainly was--I walked out dumbfounded.

I've enjoyed Altman's work in the past: McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player, and M*A*S*H are all excellent films. And whatever you say about Popeye and Prêt-à-Porter, they're at the very least infinitely more entertaining than this mess.

My advice to you--in case you didn't get my drift yet--is to avoid this film at all costs. The only things that save this from being a total disaster are the acting and the songs (and I'm not a country music fan). But don't waste two-and-a-half hours of your life just to hear Keith Carradine sing the Oscar-winning "I'm Easy," because, really, it's a great song, but it's just not worth the price you pay.



Sense and Sensibility (1995)

I've never read the book, but if it's anything like this film, it must be just wonderful. I tend to credit Emma Thompson and Ang Lee, the screenwriter and director, respectively, for making a "classic" book into a period piece with a modern feel.

Thompson gives another restrained performance on the same level as her work in The Remains of the Day and Howard's End. (Is she being typecast, or is she just the only one who can do these roles?) But right on her tail are Kate Winslet, just coming into her own at this stage but giving her character the full treatment (somehow she does despair just perfectly), and Alan Rickman, giving an unusually restrained performance as the Colonel who loves Kate's character while she instead loves Greg Wise's.

Emma, instead gets to have lovely confusion with Hugh Grant. The mistakes feel contrived but they give terrific opportunity for Emma to act all upset while not showing it.

Of, course there is a happy ending, after all we've been put through, there'd better be, but in general, it's a fun movie, and I was fully caught up in it.



Sexy Beast (2001)

With all the talk about Ben Kingsley's image-breaking performance in Sexy Beast, another terrific performance was all but ignored--that of lead Ray Winstone. Winstone's character is not only the cement that holds the movie together, his Gal is also the character who goes through the change necessary to create dramatic tension.

Actually, I thought Kingsley was over the top in the way that Al Pacino has been lately. But I noticed something I didn't expect. Kingsley made Don Logan into not only an intensely scary person, he also showed the pathetic helpless insecurity that fed the anger burning on the surface.

All in all, it was a good film. I enjoyed the performances and the tension, but I left wondering if it was all worth it. I don't think I came away from Sexy Beast with anything new to add to my self, and with a drama like this, one tends to expect that sort of thing.



The Straight Story (1999)

Richard Farnsworth stars as Alvin Straight in a David Lynch departure: a G-rated film with no weird subtext. The Straight Story is the simple tale of a 73-year-old man who travels on his riding lawnmower over 300 miles to see his estranged brother who just had a stroke.

The film takes its time telling its story, giving us plenty of opportunity to study Alvin and all the characters he meets along the way to Wisconsin to see his brother Lyle (Lynch regular Harry Dean Stanton). Alvin leaves his daughter (Sissy Spacek) to take what he feels is his last opportunity to make up with Lyle. Farnsworth is the show here, though, and he never stoops to make Alvin pathetic or pitiable. His strength (some may say stubbornness, but there's no meanspiritedness about it) should be an inspiration; he has to walk with two canes so every step in a journey in itself.

David Lynch surprised many people (he hasn't told a "straight story" since 1980's The Elephant Man) by delivering a film that does not manipulate and never sentimentalizes--and it's not weird! There is a moment near the end where true feeling is elicited (probably more so if you have a sibling, as I do not) but it is not forced. This true story is a drama of a different kind, one that Hollywood couldn't repeat if it wanted as this type of film depends on the perfect combination of story, director, and actor that rarely comes together. We should feel lucky that The Straight Story was even made and appreciate it for what it is, and for what it tells us about the potential of ourselves.


Unfaithful (2002)

Diane Lane gives the performance of her career as the wife who--despite being married to Richard Gere--becomes Unfaithful. Adrian Lyne directed this adaptation of La Femme infidèle (The Unfaithful Wife) by Claude Chabrol and he merely adds more sex and violence.

Olivier Martinez is fine as the object of Lane's newfound affection, but it's Lane herself who is the reason to watch this overdone potboiler which, nevertheless, surprised me with its twists. Her show of emotion runs the gamut of human expression, specifically on her train ride back from their first indiscretion. Few actresses could have pulled off the complexity required from this role, and fewer still would be able to play it while in various stages of undress.

Gere also surprises in his role as the cuckold. Although he is not able to completely embody the emotions his character is expressing, he stretches himself farther than I have ever seen him before. Taken all together, Unfaithful is not much more than a typical Hollywood melodrama, but the acting raises it above the norm.


Wit (2001)

Emma Thompson and Mike Nichols team up to bring us a heart-wrenching adaptation of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Emma stars as Vivian Bearing ("B-E-A-R-I-N-G")--a scholar and professor of the metaphysical poetry of John Donne--who is going through chemotherapy ("the full dose") for Stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer ("there is no Stage 5").

Emma is absolutely believable in this tough role. She brings the sickness to life while making us sympathetic towards an unsympathetic (and "uncompromising") woman. I bought it all the way. Also of note are Audra McDonald as Nurse Susie, and Jonathan M. Woodward as Jason, a former student of Vivian's who is now her doctor.

Nichols and Thompson adapted the screenplay (teleplay?) and expanded the setting, making it a fuller experience. As this was made for HBO, they were not tied down by expectations of box-office success and were thus able to create the true film that needed to be made. This is one of those rare films that is perfect in every way.

(Note: in the advertising for the Broadway run, the title was often written as "W;t" as the semi-colon figures in the plot.)



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