Columbus, Ohio USA
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by Kaizaad Kotwal

November 2000 - March 2003

March 2003
Best Achievements of 2002 in Eleven Major Categories

Last year was a great year for film. As usual, the flood of the best came pouring out towards the end of the year, and it has been a treat for cinephiles since October of 2002. (Note: This list was compiled before the Oscar nominations were announced.) While many critics' groups and Award's committees have heavily rewarded Spike Jonze and Charley Kaufman's Adaptation and Martin Scorsese's The Gangs Of New York, they were, in my opinion, highly overrated. Gangs, in particular is simply awful, but because Scorsese has been so slighted in the past for his truly great films (Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ), Hollywood has apparently decided it is finally time to compensate him for past snubs.

That said, here are my picks for the Best Achievements of 2002 in eleven major categories.

Best Cinematography

Dion Bebe (Chicago), Rodrigo Prieto (8 Mile), Edward Lachman (Far From Heaven), Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), Janusz Kaminski (Minority Report), Peter Andrews (Full Frontal), Pawel Edelman (The Pianist), and Conrad Hall (The Road To Perdition).

Andrew Lesnie's lush color palette and moody lighting lends the second Rings installation its out-of-this-world look. His is the most picture-perfect cinematography of the year.

Best Score

Alberto Iglesias and Antonio Carlos Jobin (Talk To Her), Philip Glass (The Hours), Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), Elliot Goldenthal (Frida), Elmer Bernstein (Far From Heaven), Wojciech Kilar (The Pianist), and Eminem (8 Mile).

Iglesias and Jobin's plush melodies and haunting refrains add much to this very accomplished film, making Talk To Her a sensory delight. They tie for this year's best original music with Eminem for his gritty, evocative and often humorous use of music in 8 Mile.

Best Costume Design

Colleen Atwood (Chicago), Ann Roth (The Hours), Julie Weiss (Frida), Sandy Powell (Far From Heaven), Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), Anna B. Sheppard (The Pianist), and Pascaline Chavanne (8 Women).

Sandy Powell's beautiful period costumes for Far From Heaven, re-creating 1950s Americana in all its vivid colors and joie de vivre, are simply stunning.

Best Art Direction

Andrew M. Stearn (Chicago), Nick Palmer, Mark Raggett and Judy Rhee (The Hours), Bernardo Trujillo (Frida), Peter Rogness (Far From Heaven), Sebastian T. Krawinkel (The Pianist), Joe Bleakley, Dan Hennah, Philip Ivey, Rob Outterside, Christian Rivers, and Mark Robins (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), and Ramsey Avery (Minority Report).

This is a tie between the team for The Two Towers and Peter Rogness for Far From Heaven. In the former, Joe Bleakley, Dan Hennah, Philip Ivey, Rob Outterside, Christian Rivers, and Mark Robins create theatrically bold images, contrasting realism with fantasy, allowing both the flamboyance and grittiness of Tolkein's high melodrama to show through vividly. In the latter, Rogness works with immaculate detail to re-create 1950s suburbia in all its showy outward glory and inward repression.

Best Screenplay:

Bill Condon (Chicago), David Hare (The Hours), Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (About Schmidt), Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, and Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), Pedro Almodovar (Talk To Her), and Ronald Harwood (The Pianist).

David Hare's adaptation of Michael Cunningham's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is sublime. Hare inter-weaves three disparate stories with grace and suspense, infusing every scene with utter and unmistakable humanity. Almodovar's non-linear and twisted tale of two men courting two women in comas is humorous, sad and deeply human. The Hours and Talk To Her are screenplays that are quite simply the best screenwriting of 2002.

Best Supporting Actor

Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), Stephen Dillane (The Hours), John C. Reilly (Chicago), Dennis Quaid (Far From Heaven), Paul Newman (The Road To Perdition), Chris Cooper (Adaptation), Jamie Bell (Nicholas Nickleby), and Christopher Plummer (Nicholas Nickleby).

Mortensen reprised his role as Aragorn with the same dignity and daring that he did in the first installation of Rings, but here he is the core of the film and truly shines. Reilly, who is also excellent in The

Hours, has a show-stopping number as Mr. Cellophane, the doormat husband of Roxie Hart. Cooper, toothless and grungy, is a funny, ferocious orchid thief in the mostly awful Adaptation, a film about making a film based on a novel by writer Susan Orlean. Paul Newman's quietly under-stated villainous turn was an old master at his best. Jamie Bell, as Smike, the crippled, abused orphan, and Plummer as the evil uncle in Nicholas Nickleby are both superb, albeit in different ways. Bell's innocence and pain are subtly modulated while Plummer's Machiavellian machina-tions are played out with superb aplomb.

I would split this year's best supporting actor performance between Dennis Quaid and Stephen Dillane. Quaid, a highly underused and understated character actor, is amazing as the perfect father and husband of the 1950s who is coming to terms with his homosexuality. Quaid's performance is subtle and brave. Dillane as Leonard Woolf, the stern and loving husband of author Virginia Woolf, turns in a riveting performance and his chemistry with Kidman as Virginia is marvelous.

Best Supporting Actress

Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago), Queen Latifah (Chicago), Julianne Moore (The Hours), Patricia Clarkson (Far From Heaven), Meryl Streep (Adaptation), Kathy Bates (About Schmidt), and Samantha Morton (Minority Report).

Zeta-Jones amazes as the tough-talking, sex kitten Velma Kelly and her energized dancing and singing are sublime. Latifah as Matron Mama Morton is bawdy, buxom and brilliant. Her funny number "Class" was cut (it will be on DVD) and that would have helped her chances at getting more attention in this category. Clarkson, as the bitchy, gossipy, and subtly homophobic neighbor in Heaven is a revelation. Streep is the best thing, as a novelist on a bizarre journey of self-revelation, in a very over-rated and stupid film. Streep manages to find depth and true emotion even when the film is careening horribly off-track like an unstoppable train wreck. Samantha Morton, an impeccably astute performer, was dazzling and ominous in Spielberg's futuristic film as a medium used by the police to predict future criminals who could be apprehended before they committed their heinous crimes. Kathy Bates bares body and soul with simple audacity as a Bohemian divorcee who helps Jack Nicholson's Schmidt find his way out of his old-age ennui.

I pick Julianne Moore as the winner for her minimalistic acting as a dowdy, frustrated 1950s housewife in The Hours. Moore captures perfectly, with precious few strokes, the depths of her character's depression and desire to choose a life that is true to who she really is, despite the devastating consequences her actions have on the lives of the rest of her family.

Best Actor

Alfred Molina (Frida), Eminem (8 Mile), Richard Gere (Chicago), Michael Caine (The Quiet American), Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt), Javier Camara (Talk To Her), and Adrien Brody (The Pianist).

Molina, as Frida's oversexed yet unconditionally loving husband Diego Rivera, filled the role with brash chutzpah. Gere, as Billy, a slick-willy of a lawyer in Chicago, is suave and seductive. His tap dance number, which truly razzle-dazzles us, alone deserves accolades. Caine is his usual self, acting his chops out in detailed and nuanced ways in this controversial tale set in Vietnam in 1952. Nicholson is restrained and subtle in a very funny and poignant film about a retired widower coming to terms with the twilight of his existence.

Eminem, as a white rapper who finds his voice and identity in 8 Mile, turns in the most unexpected performance of the year. He is simply brilliant as he inhabits the role with complete honesty. Many people have discredited his acting by dismissing him as merely playing his real-life persona. What many critics don't understand is that for an actor some of the hardest roles are ones that are closest to one's real self. Regardless of any of these weak dismissals, and even if he never gives another good performance again, Eminem was absolutely brilliant and deserves a lot of kudos and accolades.

Just edging Eminem out, for best actor of the year are Javier Camara and Adrien Brody. Brody's riveting turn as Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski's holocaust film The Pianist. This mesmerizing actor learned to play the piano for this role which is about the redemptive powers of music and he lost 30 pounds off his already gaunt frame to create the hunger caused by Szpilman's suffering. Brody's performance is utterly shattering as he goes from a privileged pianist to a desperate man on the run from the Nazis in Warsaw. Camara, one of the two leads in Almodovar's twisted tale of love and salvation, is pitch perfect in his portrayal of a man struggling with the demons of loneliness. Camara's performance is so natural and quietly effective that by the end he will tear your heart out with his painful admission of cosmic loneliness and his undying love for a woman who betrays him even while in a coma.

Best Actress

Salma Hayek (Frida), Meryl Streep (The Hours), Nicole Kidman (The Hours), Julianne Moore (Far From Heaven), Rene Zellweger (Chicago), and Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher).

This is the hardest category to judge. Hayek as bisexual painter and feminist icon Frida, brought a bravura and sensitivity to the role that was disarming. She also needs to be rewarded for struggling for eight years to bring this story to the screen. Huppert's stark and completely unsentimental performance as a repressed piano teacher who finds love and pleasure in a painful affair with a young student is compelling from start to finish. Zellweger, as the innocent, yet tough-as-nails and manipulative Roxie Hart, proves that her singing, dancing and acting are all that jazz and so much more. Kidman as Virginia Woolf creates a mesmerizing portrait of this iconic feminist writer, and with every stare, with every word she utters, Kidman dazzles. Moore is nothing short of sheer genius as the suffering housewife of a closeted homosexual who finds refuge in the arms of her black gardener.

The best actress nod, by a very fine hair, goes to Meryl Streep for her layered and nuanced Clarissa Vaughan in The Hours. She has created so real, so palpable a portrait of a modern day, urban woman who regrets her failed love affair with a gay poet and who is trying to find new meaning and love in her ten-year relation-ship with a woman, that she is breathtaking to watch in every frame.

Best Director

Rob Marshall (Chicago), Stephen Daldry (The Hours), Roman Polanski (The Pianist), Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), Pedro Almodovar (Talk To Her), Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), and Steven Spielberg (Minority Report).

Haynes' homage to the studio melodramas of the 1950s is artistically perfect and cinematically heavenly. There is so much love in Haynes' directing that every frame oozes power and passion. Marshall's fluid work in Chicago is stunning as he makes cinematic sense of a very theatrical stage piece. His directing and choreography are mesmerizing as he goes back and forth between the fantasy of the musical numbers and the pertinent realism of criminal celebrities in 1920s Chicago. Polanski has created a Holocaust film that is so direct and unsentimental that it unnerves one into a deep sense of anger and pain. He has taken a venerated and sometimes hackneyed genre and breathed new life into it. Jackson needs to be given a special Oscar for his work on the Rings trilogy. The second installment is even more breathtaking and compelling than the first, particularly the computer-generated characters of Gollum and Tree Beard. Spielberg's futuristic crime drama was stunningly visualized and compellingly directed.

It is Daldry's suspenseful and slick directing of The Hours, and Almodovar's work with Talk To Her, that ties for the award here. Daldry deftly meshes the three storylines and elicits magnificent perfor-mances from his dream ensemble. Almododvar's latest film is inspired genius. He's a cinematic Dali, magically weaving together hyperrealism and surrealism with a deft and moving touch.

Best Film

Chicago, The Hours, Bowling For Columbine, Far From Heaven, Talk To Her, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Pianist.

Heaven is a film that is both nostalgically old-world and wonderfully contemporary all at once. Haynes' script and directing are sheer cinematic bliss as are the performances by Moore and Quaid. It is a bold film with a lot of love, heart and intelligence.

Chicago is a stunning revelation of a lot of new talent, from first-time feature film director Rob Marshall to the latent musical theatre genius of Zellweger, Gere and Zeta-Jones. The theatricality of the film is beautiful to watch as the overall mise en scene unfolds with rich colors and plush imagery.

Bowling for Columbine, a documentary by Michael Moore is a compelling look at the gun culture in America. Often scary yet very witty, Moore turns all our precon-ceived notions, left-wing and right-wing, upside down. This is gritty, compelling filmmaking any way you cut it, documentary or fiction.

The Pianist, Polanski's starkly unsentimentalized vision of one man's struggle to stay alive in the face of the darkest horrors of the Holocaust is a grand film about the best and worst of humanity. And while this is a Holocaust film first and foremost, Polanski also weaves into his powerful imagery the redemptive power of art, not only on the suffering and oppressed, but also on those who are at their core, heartless monsters.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is filmmaking at its best. Jackson and his tireless team of actors and behind-the-scene artists are able to create fantasy and reality so beautifully that one is left in complete awe by the end.

This year's Best Film goes to the amazing adaptation of Michael Cunning-ham's Pulitzer winning-novel The Hours and to Almodovar's divine Talk To Her. Daldry's directing is sublime, Hare's script is mesmerizing, and the performances are pitch perfect. Talk To Her is pure Almodovar genius: quirky, bizarre and yet always unflinchingly human. Both of these are great cinema, any way you look at them, and clearly the best hours I spent at the movies in all of 2002. - (March 2003)

February 2003
A Quartet of Worthwhile Winter Watching

This is my favorite time of year, cinematically speaking. With awards season in full bloom, now is when many of the year's most intelligent and accomplished films are being released.

Chicago is All That Jazz and So Much More!

Our age is the age that has epitomized the cult of the celebrity criminal - our culture's guilty pleasure. They appeal to us because we build them up and then we get to tear them down.

When Kander and Ebb's dazzling musical Chicago opened in the '70s no one was ready to believe that celebrities had criminal potential or that in criminality lay the power of celebrity.

When Chicago was revived on Broadway in the mid-'90s, all of a sudden its prescient, prophetic foreshadowing from the '70s had come to manifest itself into powerful and palpable reality.

Now, veteran Broadway director and choreographer Rob Marshall has made a scintillating and sexy film that does ample justice to the musical while adding levels to the piece that were logistically impossible on stage.

Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones), arrested and imprisoned for a crime of passion, is transformed into a celebrity by her fast-talking, slick-willy of a lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Along comes Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) who kills a lying, scumbag of a lover. Flynn takes on Roxie's case and Velma is left to stew

in the possibility of the very sudden demise of her staggering celebrity. Easy come, easy go.

But when another crime of passion by a sultry Chicago socialite (a cameo by Lucy Liu) threatens to depose Roxie's celebrity, she must think hard and fast to keep the spotlight on her own shame and fame.

Chicago not only lambastes the cult of celebrity, but also ridicules how complicit the media and the legal system are in creating these monsters in the spotlight for our prurient interest and entertainment.

In particular, Marshall's visualization of "The Press Conference Rag," where Flynn completely manipulates the media in how to write Roxie's tale of innocence and redemption is one of the most stunning cinematic sequences in recent memory.

As the daring Velma Kelley, Catherine Zeta-Jones is a cinematic revelation. Her singing and dancing are energetic dynamites all the way through. She is particularly striking in the opening number "All That Jazz."

Billy Flynn, played to perfection by Richard Gere, reminds us precisely how charisma and manipulation don't give the law and jurisprudence a chance in hell of triumphing towards the betterment of our society. His rendition of the tongue-firmly-in-cheek number "All I Care About Is Love," is alone worth the price of admission.

But Gere's true show-stopping number, a brilliant tap dance, comes towards the end of the film, as Flynn works the jury like a glove-puppet in getting Roxie exonerated for her crime. Gere's dancing and Marshall's directing are simply sublime here.

John C. Reilly, as Roxie's doormat husband is quietly effective as he always is. His rendition of "Mr. Cellophane," reminiscent of an Al Jolson showstopper, is a heartbreaker.

Queen Latifah, as the prison warden Matron Mama Morton, displays her acting, singing and dancing chops to their fullest. Mama Morton fills up her piggy bank with money from the inmates in return for favors and the intimacy of their friendship. Latifah is immensely sexy and funny when she intones all the double-entendres in her dazzling rendition of "When You're Good To Mama, Mama's Good To You."

But the film belongs to the stunning Renee Zellweger who is a musical theatre revelation as she imbues Roxie with such human strength and manipulative vulnera-bility that it is impossible to take one's eyes off her. With no prior singing or dancing experience, Zellweger takes center stage with such confidence and aplomb that one can only hope to see her live on Broadway someday soon, singing and dancing her heart out as she does here.

John Myhre's production design, Col-leen Atwood's costumes, Martin Walsh's editing and Dion Beebe's cinematography are all splendid. Bill Condon has created a very imaginative screenplay for this musical, allowing the artifice of musical theatre to work on celluloid.

Marshall's direction and choreography (in homage to the original by Bob Fosse) are superb. Marshall, along with Condon and Walsh, has worked to create a film in which the musical numbers are all a part of Roxie's vivid imagination. The musical numbers jump back and forth from lurid fantasy to exaggerated realism, and the film works precisely because of this writing, directing and editing conceit.

Chicago is a film that is pure cinematic jazz. And a whole lot more!

The Most Unforgettable Hours at the Movies

Based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name (published in 1998), The Hours is an existential inquiry into the trials and tribulations of ordinary people leading what on the surface seem ordinary lives, when in reality they are nothing short of extraordinary.

The Hours masterfully interweaves the lives of three disparate yet vividly similar women living in different time periods, whose lives are inexorably linked to the literary masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway.

One of the women in this richly textured story is the author of Mrs. Dalloway herself, the enigmatic and tempestuous Virginia Woolf. Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is residing in a London suburb in the early 1920s while trying to recuperate from deep depressions that plagued her entire life. While in this idyllic (yet claustrophobic to her) environment, Woolf is struggling to commence writing Mrs. Dalloway.

Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is the second woman in The Hours, a young wife and mother in post-World War II Los Angeles who is just starting to read Woolf's novel. Brown is consumed by the novel, and struggling with her own mental illness, she is beginning to question the entire storybook existence she has chosen to live for herself.

The third woman in this tripartite tale is Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), living in New York in 2001, who seems to have become Mrs. Dalloway herself, as she is planning a party for her friend and former lover Richard (Ed Harris), who is in the final stages of AIDS-related mental and bodily breakdowns.

Two themes are rampant in Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway - the idea that all lives are somehow intertwined, literally, cosmically, karmically or in many other ways, and that even the most seemingly ordinary lives are truly extraordinary to those living them. These two themes are the very theses upon which The Hours builds its existential angst and augury.

Daldry and screenplay writer David Hare have taken Cunningham's non-linear literary masterpiece and created a singular cinematic tapestry that is breathtaking in the subtle and sublime ways in which it takes all the disparate threads and cohesively and suspensefully stitches them all together.

As the film moves fluidly between the lives of the three main women and their supporting characters, it mesmerizingly shows us how these three lives resonate in one another and how gestures, events and even entire lives can echo with such bitter pain and with such sweetly profound joy.

The supporting cast is supremely matched to the three leading ladies and as such, the entire ensemble is one of the most accomplished and most stunning ever assembled in contemporary cinema. Ed Harris who plays Richard, Clarissa's ex-lover, Allison Janney who plays Clarissa's lover Sally, Jeff Daniels who plays Richard's ex, and Claire Danes as Clarissa's daughter all turn in strong supporting roles.

John C. Reilly and Jack Rovello, as Laura Brown's husband and son respectively, turn in touching and stoic performances, neither hitting a false note ever. The amazing Toni Collette, who plays Laura's bubbly friend Kitty, who has just found out she has cancer, epitomizes the ideal of the '50s when reality and pain had to be stuffed away underneath a veneer of painted smiles and pretend happiness.

Miranda Richardson, playing Vanessa Bell, Woolf's sister, is marvelous as always. Richardson effectively struggles with the support for her depressed sister with her frustration over not knowing how to completely cure her talented sibling.

While the entire supporting cast is stunning, it is Stephen Dillane's turn as Leonard Woolf, Virginia's stern yet supportive husband, that is a dazzling piece of acting. Dillane's subtle displays of love coupled with his outbursts of frustra-tion at his wife's inability to get better are heartrendingly real. Dillane's performance here is a real revelation, and while Harris is getting all the supporting actor nods thus far, it will be a shame if Dillane is not recognized for his brilliant work.

And then there's the three leading ladies themselves. Each one is supreme in her own right and to have all three in the same film seems like a cinematic guilty-pleasure of hedonistic proportions.

Kidman as Woolf, isn't afraid to deglamorize herself with a prosthetic nose, wrinkled and freckled hands, and a raspy, base voice. Kidman is simply getting better with each role, and here she brings such depth and dignity to one of the most recognizable feminist icons, that one is left completely in awe.

Julianne Moore, who has already turned in one of the year's best performances in Todd Haynes' dazzling Far From Heaven, gets to play yet another 1950s woman, struggling with repression and the stifling claustrophobia of suburban motherhood and domesticity.

And then there's Streep, who with this role should become the most Oscar nominated actor (male or female) of all time. Her Clarissa is such a complex muse of a woman who is struggling with the seemingly exorbitant ennui of her every-day existence. Streep is an actress of such subtlety and depth that one expects great-ness from her, yet one is always amazed at how much depth and layering she is able to imbue her characters with. Philip Glass's score is evocative and moving, though at times it seems just a little bit too over the top, drawing undue attention to itself. Daldry's directing is sure-footed, well-paced, and dazzlingly fluid. He is clearly emerging as an important director of contemporary cinema, and I for one can't wait to see what he has to offer next.

The Hours will leave you breathless, not only by the artistry of the entire cast and creative team, but also by the sheer humanity that it explores with such sensitivity, humor and soulful depth. The film's exploration of life, death and depression is so attentively dealt with that by the end, one leaves the cinema completely uplifted. As Woolf herself believed, sometimes someone has to die to remind others how to live.

Virginia Woolf's voiceover ends the film with this: "Remember the hours. Always, remember the hours." I will. I always will. With such brilliance in every frame, how could one not?

Nicholson and Nickleby Delight

A big screen version of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby is a sumptuous adaptation, and most of the film works well, providing plenty of pleasurable entertainment. Dickens' novels are hard to pare down for film, yet writer and director Douglas McGrath has done an admirable job.

This Nicholas Nickleby has assembled a marvelous ensemble. Nathan Lane, up to his bubbly, lovable self, plays Vincent Crummles, a theatrical director who helps out Nicholas and Smike (Jamie Bell) in their journey to find justice and a safe home. Lane is flowery, funny and fabulous as he fumbles around with his amateur cast of actors in mounting a humorous production of the Bard's romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

Playing Lane's on-screen wife is Dame Edna Everage (Barry Humphrey's alter ego). As Mrs. Crummles, Dame Edna is a period version of her more contemporary drag persona ,and together with Lane, she is a complete hoot.

Jim Broadbent as the one-eyed mon-strosity, Mr. Wackford Squeers, who runs a boy's orphanage in England amidst the chaos of the Industrial Revolution, is pure evil and brilliantly hateful. Juliet Stevenson is equally despicable as his stern and humorless wife. Christopher Plummer as Ralph Nickleby, the evil uncle of the hero is in top form. He steals every scene as he struggles to destroy his nephew and to maintain his own status, power and wealth.

Jamie Bell, the brilliant young actor who was prodigiously brilliant in Billy Elliot, is amazing as the crippled Smike, once again turning in a very accomplished piece of acting. His every glance and nuance is pitch perfect. On the other hand, lead actor Charlie Hunnam, while handsome and physically commanding, is unfortunately rather wooden as he struggles to find the humanity and layers in Nicholas.

Nevertheless, Nicholas Nickleby is definitely worth watching. The second half moves along more deftly, and all the production values from the costumes and art direction to the cinematography and the score are masterful ingredients of this film.

About Schmidt is a cinematic version of Grant Wood's iconic painting American Gothic. In that painting, a farming couple stand still, looking the viewer directly in the eye. They epitomize hard-working and serene rural America and yet, in and behind them lurks something deeper, perhaps even ominous.

Based on Louis Begley's novel, writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor have painted a similar vision of Midwestern Americana, where Warren G. Schmidt, an actuarial specialist (at the symbolic Woodsmen of America Insurance Company in Omaha, Nebraska), finds that his life of serene routines and personal mediocrity is thrown into flux: first by his retirement and then by the sudden death of Helen, his wife of forty-two years.

Schmidt, in reexamining the meaning of life at the ripe old age of 66, ends up on two new journeys: first, after watching an infomercial, he becomes a foster parent to Ndugu, a Tanzanian orphan; and second, he piles into his Winnebago and takes an extended road trip to Denver where his daughter Jeannie is marrying Randall, a bed salesman with a hairdo resembling road kill.

Schmidt, in addition to the monthly check of $22 that he sends for Ndugu, also sends the orphan personal letters detailing the trials and tribulations of his rather humdrum existence. These letters provide the film with a lot of humorous fodder as two disparate worlds collide.

His road trip, like all such cinematic ventures, leads Schmidt towards an existential examination of his life, his marriage, and his impact on the world after he is gone. He returns from his daughter's wedding firmly convinced that his existence has not bettered the world one bit. But, a touching ending proves otherwise.

As Schmidt, Payne's Midwestern Everyman, Jack Nicholson is brilliant. He is a modern day Willy Loman, a man caught up in the everyday ennui yet searching for something extraordinary to do, so that his life may amount to something, if only infinitesimally. Nicholson turns in one of his most mature and nuanced performances of comedic genius and palpable pathos.

Hope Davis as Jeannie and Dermot Mulroney as Randall are impeccably real as a couple on the verge of marriage and a nervous breakdown. Kathy Bates, as Randall's mother, is pitch-perfect as a Bohemian divorcee whose penchant for straight talk is both disarming and downright embarrassing.

Kudos to Payne for directing a film that hones in beautifully, not simply on the Midwestern state of mind, but also on the existential angst of people in the twilight of their lives. And many, many kudos to Nicholson and Bates, who are not afraid to show aging in all its naked truth - literally and emotionally. They bare body and soul, not only to challenge Hollywood's eternal obsession with physical perfection, but also to challenge our ideas that old age is an automatic death sentence. About Schmidt reminds us of the adage that "we don't stop laughing when we grow old, but we grow old because we stop laughing." - (February 2003)

January 2003
The Ubiquitous Towers Two: The Uninspired Trash that is Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York"

It is with a most heavy heart and with many a tear in my eyes that I announce the demise of one of the greatest cinematic talents we have ever known. I am heartbroken and in a deep, dark grief over the death of one of the greatest directing talents contemporary cinema has known. I am speaking of none other than über-talent Martin Scorsese.

Well, Marty isn't actually dead, in the corporeal sense. But his latest debacle, Gangs of New York proves that his talent, his vision and his cinematic spirit are both feet at least six feet underground! Gangs of New York is, bar none, one of the worst films in recent memory. I am fully aware that I am flying well in the face of conventional opinions out there, but someone has to tell the truth about this awful piece of tripe masquerading as a great cinematic epic.

Scorsese has developed for himself such an aura of reverence that many critics feel that slamming his work comes across as ignorant, plebian and not with it, so to speak. They feel that if they don't get Marty's work, they'll be exposed as cinematic ignoramuses. After all, everything his genius touches has to be a masterpiece. Well, Gangs of New York is anything but.

The film has been in the making for a long time. It became one of his pet projects and has had a multitude of difficulties with production. Even after it was produced, the film sat in the can and on the shelves at Miramax for two years before its December 2002 release. Scorsese has been obsessed with this project for years and sometimes obsessions such as this can be very detrimental for the film as a whole. Remember what happened to Oprah Winfrey's obsession with her pet project of Beloved - a messy film at best, an utter bore and financial quicksand at worst.

Gangs of New York tells the story of, as the film's promotional tagline suggests, how "America Was Born On The Streets." Set in the mid-to-late-1800s in New York, Gangs is a potentially powerful tale about the immigration dilemma that has both plagued and blessed America since its inception with the arrival of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

Scorsese's self-proclaiming "epic" (read: "we want many Oscars!") tells the tale of an area in New York City called "The Five Points," the breeding ground of a lot of ethnic divisions, much gang-bred violence and a healthy dose of political corruption. In particular, Scorsese uses this historical era upon which to build his fictional tale of an evil man called Bill the Butcher (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) and a good lad, Amsterdam Vallon (played by the recently ubiquitous Leonardo DiCaprio).

The Butcher belongs to the indigenous residents of Five Points while Amsterdam belongs to the then arriving waves of Irish immigrants. The strife between the locals and the immigrants was enormous. The Butcher holds sway over the Five Points area by brutally mistreating the Irish and other immigrants, by running a ring of criminals who must give him a generous cut of the loot, and by getting in bed with the most influential politicians, people he happily blackmails and willfully uses to maintain and aggrandize his power.

Amsterdam and the Butcher share a violent past. In trying to establish who belonged in Five Points, Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam's father, Priest Vallon, had once fought a bloody and ferocious battle for ultimate rule. Amsterdam's gang fiercely and swiftly vanquished Vallon's Irish hordes and the Butcher brutally felled Priest Vallon. The young Amsterdam witnessed the gory massacre of his father and after years in reform school, he returns to the Five Points to figure out what it means to be a man.

When he gets back to the place where he was orphaned, Amsterdam tries to blend in incognito. But, he is soon recognized by his childhood friend Johnny as well as his father's loyal compatriots. In a predictable twist of fate, he is actually taken in by the Butcher and mentored in the ways of survival and manipulating the masses. Along the way, Amsterdam falls in love with one of the Butcher's damsels, pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (played by a gorgeous-looking Cameron Diaz).

Truth be told, all this material is the grist for some potentially powerful storytelling and cinematic bravery. But somehow, Scorsese seems to have no direction in his storytelling, and the film is a brutal mishmash of plot, characters with a befuddling blend of history and fiction.

The film is such a mess that one wonders what happened along the way.

There were many royal battles over writers who were hired and fired like temporary help at some fast-food restaurant. The budget kept getting inflated like the bosom of some silicone-crazed Hollywood starlet, and as the costs multiplied so did the pressures to make the film more commercially viable (read: dumbing it down and goring it up).

I am one of the most ardent Scorsese defenders around. He is indubitably one of the finest directors ever to have lived. He has created a healthy body of masterpieces from the mafia gem GoodFellas to the pugilist perfection of Raging Bull. Very often he has dared to go where most have not. With The Last Temptation of Christ, he created an examination of faith and religion that was more deeply spiritual and Christ-affirming than the collective beliefs of all those who protested the film without ever having seen it. Even with more commercial fare like the remake of Cape Fear and the glamorous Casino, Scorsese has always managed to create works with integrity and soul.

None of these – bravery, integrity, soul, or aesthetic wonder – are to be found in Gangs. The film is so bad that watching it for over two-and-a-half hours becomes a continual assault with bad acting, worse storytelling and an abominable regard for the one's intelligence.

Daniel Day-Lewis, an astounding actor of refined subtlety and rich intelligence, is reduced to a mere cartoon, a silly cross between a Dr. Seuss character and some blood-thirsty, two-bit mafioso from The Sopranos. Day-Lewis, who had retired from film in order to study as a cobbler's apprentice in Italy, was lured back by Scorsese to the silver screen. Day-Lewis is mostly a laughable caricature throughout the film. He has his moments which remind us of the dazzling work he is consistently capable of in films like My Left Foot, My Beautiful Laundrette, and The Crucible.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam is watchable, but someone with more honed acting chops could have done better service to this potentially complex and deep character. Cameron Diaz is beautiful, the most believable of the three stars, but too often simply a plot device in the film.

Nothing in the film is particularly stunning. Everything is given an "epic" feel with the warped understanding that more is more and bigger is better.

For those of you who don't want to read about how the film ends (although it is a no-brainer) might want to stop reading here. Actually I am not so much interested in giving away the ending as I am interested in displaying the utter stupidity with which this film has been made – something exemplified in the very last frame of the film.

The film ends with one of the most awful choices of cinematic images ever. The last frame of Gangs of New York is a digitally mastered shot of the skyline with the two World Trade Towers, pre-Septem-ber 11. It wasn't bad enough that one had to sit through a bad film, but then one is hit over the head with a terribly misplaced sense of patriotism and political pandering.

Perhaps Scorsese was convinced that he had made a terrible film and knew he had to do something to rally the audiences behind this celluloid debacle. Perhaps the honchos at Miramax were so concerned with the fact that the film may never return its investment that they forced Scorsese to tack on that tacky ending. (Gangs was completed before September 11 and sat on the shelf for a long time.) What works better these days than tapping into America's sense of hurt and violation and constantly referring everything back to September 11 and those two indelible symbols of that day of infamy?

I was so enraged by this overt pandering to our cheapest emotions by one of America's greatest directors that I had no words left to express my disappointment, my rage and my disgust. The real Butcher here is Scorsese – and anyone else responsible for the utter tripe that they have managed to shrink-wrap into cheapened patriotism and flag-waving frenzy. Scorsese has committed a spree of cinematic crimes that make all the Butcher's violence (and there is plenty of it) pale in comparison.

Gangs is already raking in awards and nominations by the dozens. I am one of a minority of critics who has hated this film with an intensity that few films have managed to engender. I simply hope that audiences have better taste and discernment than many of these "bandwagon" critics who believe that genius is beyond reproach, above criticism.

Marty Scorsese is a cautionary tale with regards to what goes wrong when genius is ignored for too long. It is without question that Scorsese has been given the raw end of the deal many a time by Hollywood, particularly by his peers. His past genius has been ignored, even maligned. Apparently, Scorsese has become so obsessed with getting that validation that he is willing to stoop to any depths to get there. My fear (and prediction) is that gangs of Hollywood are going to compensate Scorsese for their prior crimes and misdemeanors by rewarding him at this year's Oscars.

The Inspired Genius of Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"

At the other end of the spectrum is the superbly crafted and immensely entertaining true epic The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Peter Jackson, who has directed the trilogy, (and cowritten the dazzling and energetic screenplay) has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is a visionary director of fabulous daring and of great cinematic intelligence and integrity.

The second installment of the trilogy is even better and more compelling than the first, as though it were possible. The Fellowship of the Ring was a deeply moving film with daring special effects and compelling storytelling. Jackson ups the ante here and once again the gamble pays of handsomely.

The Two Towers picks up where the first one left off, and because The Fellowship of the Ring dealt with most of Tolkien's expository needs, the second film can immerse the viewer into the action and story from the start.

The film moves along at a brisk pace, but Jackson and his editor, D. Michael Horton, know exactly when to allow the audience (and their characters) breathing room. They skillfully weave in and out of the four varying plot lines of the journey across tormented terrains to destroy the ring that has the power to annhilate the human race.

The mise en scène of this film, much like in the first, is jaw-droppingly stunning! From the spectacular sets to the enrapturing digital effects, the entire art team manages to reach new heights with each installment. (And because all three films were shot at once, one can only expect the same with the release of The Return of the King later this year.)

Andrew Lesnie's cinematography (he won an Oscar for the first one) is absolutely fabulous. From the rich close-ups to the detailed long shots, Lesnie's camera knows precisely how to lead the audience's eye on this convoluted and treacherous journey.

The production design by Grant Major is nothing short of sheer inspiration and each vista unfolds with such creativity and depth of detail that it cannot help but take one's breath away.

The ensemble cast here, once again, does the material proud. The casting succeeds so beautifully because it is hard to imagine anyone else playing these roles. Elijah Woods is endearingly innocent as Frodo Baggins, and although his part here is diminished by the various storylines

that demand attention, Woods never disappoints. One can truly evince, in the subtle grimace of his face or in the fear in his soulful eyes, the burden that is the ring.

Sean Astin as Sam, Frodo's sidekick, is also endearing and effective. He brings a levity and loyalty to the relationship that is marvelous. The only complaint I have against Astin is that his accent isn't always consistent.

Ian McKellan as Gandalf the White, and Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn are stunning in the quiet power they bring to their respective roles. McKellan (nominated for a supporting actor Oscar last year) is sublime as the good wizard who tries to keep evil at bay every step of the way.

Mortensen, it seems, was born to play Aragorn. He is the embodiment of bravery and chivalry, yet Mortensen is able to tinge his portrayal with enough vulnerability and sensitivity that he becomes powerfully human and super-human all at once.

The main four are astutely helped along by four other skilled actors - John Rhys-Davies as Gimli, Dominic Monaghan as Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck, Miranda Otto as Eowyn, and Orlando Bloom as Legolas Greenleaf.

There are two digital aspects of the film that deserve special attention. The first is Gollum, the archetypal creature in this film who embodies the struggle between good and evil. Once a Hobbit-like creature, Gollum possessed the Ring of Power for 500 years, just as Frodo carries it now. But the evil powers of the Ring got to Gollum, deforming his body and warping his mind. Created digitally, Gollum is a marvel of computer animation and a feat of cinematic chutzpah. Gollum will enrage you and make you weep, sometimes all at once.

The second feat of digital wizardry is the creation of the Old Forest characters, led by Treebeard, a wise and ancient tree. The sequences with Gimli and Merry, who are lost in this forest and are eventually led out by Treebeard, are amazingly beautiful and utterly spiritual. And the grand finale, where these ancient trees join in the battle to destroy Sauron and his evil domain is sheer cinematic genius.

Kudos to Jackson and his entire team who have managed to create a film, with four separate storylines, and weave them into a celluloid carpet so magical that all the high praise and innumerable awards will be deemed insufficient. - (January 2003)

October 2002
Chronicles of an Incurable Cinemaphile: Films That Shaped My Life: Part One

Cinema has been in my blood since birth. My paternal grandfather was a film producer and distributor in India during the heyday of Indian filmmaking – its so-called Golden Age. Due to some family saga and soap opera, worthy of a film or miniseries itself, the family business didn't pass down to my father or myself. So I assumed that the film industry was not where I would end up.

I did grow up with film all around me though. My father was a cinephile, as was one of his aunts, Jer, who used to live with us. Jer loved everything from the black-and-white Hindi epics of yesteryear to Julie Andrews' musicals and other flamboyant Hollywood fare. Her sweet wrinkled face would light up like a child as she watched and rewatched her favorite films, her beloved stars, indulging in one of her life's greatest passions. Her eyes came aglow and a benevolent smile lit up her lips. I grew up immersed in film, but never more than as a diversion, something to kill the time with.

However, the older I grew, the more meaningful cinema became in my life, the more integral it became to my existence. Today, not only am I an incurable cinephile, but I also teach it and am involved in it as much as I can manage, from writing and acting, to directing and producing. If I am blessed enough, I intend to make it my life's work someday.

We live in an age of lists. The "Best of This," "The Top 100 of That." What follows then, is a personal list of films that have shaped not only my aesthetic and my artistry, but also my sense of self, my awareness of the world, and my interpretation of life as I know it.

Although there are some films included on this list that one could classify as masterpieces in terms of technique and artistry, I have included them only because of their lasting emotional and intellectual impact on me. Thus, many so-called classics, particularly those deemed so by the cinematic elite and academics, may be absent from my list of most-influential films. One more thing: this list is not in any particular order of partiality, but rather in chronological order from those that impacted my early life to ones that I was introduced to later.

Two very early films, which had an indelible impact on me, were Sholay and Operation Daybreak. The former, a contemporary Indian classic from the '70s, still remains the longest-running film in Indian cinema history. It ran in movie houses every day, 4-5 shows a day, for five years continuously. This groundbreaking film, which tells the story of two best friends who set out to rid a mountainous region of a grizzly dacoit and his gang of thugs, is both immensely entertaining and deeply moving. The film's central friendship impacted me profoundly – the sense of love, sacrifice, and togetherness that these friends shared, unconsciously I am sure, became a guidepost for my friendships in the years to come.

The film, reminiscent of many of the John Ford westerns, is not entirely derivative. It has its own sense of cinematic appeal and storytelling chutzpah. What I found so amazing about Sholay was that it balanced perfectly the odd mix of comedy, action-adventure, romance, music, dance, and melodrama.

The film also appealed to me as a youngster because of its strong statement against injustice, which has become a guiding principle through much of my life. The film has strongly melodramatic ideals of heroes and villains, and of course, the villains win. When I saw the film at the age of seven, I had not an ounce of cynicism in me nor a bit of the jaded critic I have become. The film's statement about the triumph of good over evil (albeit after a protracted struggle) hit home even at that nubile age.

Sholay is a perfect example of a film that was constructed as a blockbuster, overflowing with pure entertainment value. And yet, there is such intelligence, sensitivity, and social and political awareness in the film. It was the first time I understood the power of being attracted to celluloid personas as I was mesmerized by the two lead heroes and the two heroines of the film. Sholay also has marvelously constructed images, and although I have not seen the film since the late '70s, I can vividly recall many of its striking shots.

Operation Daybreak also has at its core a profound friendship, an inimitable brotherhood, between two young men attempting to topple Hitler's apple cart by assassinating one of his leading generals in Czechoslovakia. This film once again exposed me to life's inhumanity and injustice (one on the scale of the Holocaust), and these issues have remained with me.

Operation Daybreak is a masterful war film, one that is unfortunately lost to most audiences today. I recently watched it again and found that none of its original power, none of its inherent poignancy had faded with time, with my becoming more worldly, more jaded. Here was another film, basically an action-adventure set in World War II, that was intelligently and sensitively made. The ending, faced by the two protagonists with such love and devotion to each other and their cause, was truly devastating.

This film also set me on a course of becoming an early fan of war films, and while I have seen many great ones, from Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Mallick's The Thin Red Line to David Lean's The Bridge Over the River Kwai and Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, it is Operation Daybreak that sticks with me the strongest.

With these early two films about friendship and humanity's battles against injustice, cinema had forever found a way into my heart.

My father was devoted to the marvelous oeuvre of films made by the inimitable Charlie Chaplin. Many of my fondest childhood memories include going to Sunday matinee shows, after breakfast at some restaurant, to view a Chaplin film. Chaplin's comedy was simply marvelous and never failed to get me rolling in the aisles, even after having watched the same film multiple times.

And yet, underneath the slapstick of that genius, lay the sadder visage of the Tramp's persona. That melancholy-tinged farce and satire is some of the best cinema ever made. In particular, three of his films that have stuck with me are The Kid, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator.

The Kid thrilled me at every level, from the shenanigans of the Tramp and the orphaned boy, to the tender love story, to the social commentary made about those poor parentless kids, those children of a lesser god. Jackie Coogan as the orphaned kid was a revelation and matched Chaplin, step for step, every frame of the film.

Modern Times, with its attack against the ravages of the Industrial Revolution, was my first introduction to a truly political film presented in the guise of rollicking comedy. Made before the era of special effects and computer graphics, Modern Times is a truly avant-garde film, technically ahead of its time. The mise en scène, replete with gigantic mechanical gizmos and clockwork-precision gadgets, is a feast for the senses. What's amazing about a film like Modern Times (and all great art by extension) is that it remains timeless, it continues to be prescient in its sensibilities about the foibles of the human race, about the continued arrogance of human nature.

The Great Dictator was most satisfying for its truly brilliant performance by Chaplin in the dual role of the Fuhrer and a barber who resembles the megalomaniac himself. It was a rare genius Sholay, an Indian classic from the '70s like Chaplin, who could take on the gravitas of the Holocaust and Hitler, milk it for comedy and never once cheapen history or mitigate the polemics of that grizzly era of human suffering.

I am aware that Chaplin recanted his own film, saying that had he truly understood the horrors of the Holocaust Chaplin's films, made in an era of solely black-and-white movies, are gems of technical artistry. The lighting, the magnificent spectrum of well-modulated chiaroscuro, remain to me as masterful as the brilliant paintings of the Dutch master Rembrandt.

While making the film, he never would have made it in the first place. I must respectfully disagree. The ancient Greeks actually believed that comedy was a method with which to expose humanity to its foibles, its weaknesses with the intention of ameliorating the human condition. All of Chaplin's films, including The Great Dictator, live up to that Hellenistic ideal.

I love the silent nature of Chaplin's films, where so much more is left to the imagination, where so much depends on masterful cinematic impulses and well-honed celluloid communication. Not only is the silent film a lost art today, but I am also saddened that many will never know the abundant joys of watching a well-crafted silent film. Moreover, Chaplin's films, made in an era of solely black-and-white movies, are gems of technical artistry. The lighting, the magnificent spectrum of well-modulated chiaroscuro, remain to me as masterful as the brilliant paintings of the Dutch master Rembrandt.

Growing up in Bombay in the '70s and early '80s was an experience marked by a cruel paucity of good cinema, especially western imports. We got the James Bond films religiously, which I truly enjoyed, and some classics from time to time. But current Hollywood fare rarely made it to Indian cinema halls in those days.

My parents were affiliated with several organizations in Bombay that were offshoots of foreign embassies, and through these organizations, particularly the ones run by the United States, French, German, and British, we were able to view some amazing cinema.

It was at the United States Information Services (USIS) that I saw Robert Redford's masterpiece directorial debut in Ordinary People. I was completely swept away by the quiet power of that film. I was scarcely 12 when I saw it, and I think in some way it actually made me grow as a person in the span of its two-hour running time. The story twisted my gut into a hard knot, and those brave performances, particularly by Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore, have left an indelible mark in my psyche.

It was also at the USIS that I saw a very different, yet equally satisfying film, the musical Singing in the Rain. The sheer joie de vivre and celebration in that film was infectious. I was mesmerized by the scintillating tap dancing, the memorable music, and the sheer love of filmmaking that came through in every frame. I fell in love with Gene Kelly, and he has remained one of my favorite film stars of all time.

Singing in the Rain is of that old school of filmmaking where cinema could be purely entertaining and yet be immensely successful. It showed me that not all art, not all film was about politics or issue-oriented, but that good art could also celebrate life with sunny exuberance and unmitigated joy.

An Officer and a Gentleman was another film from my youth in Bombay that had a deep impact on me. Here too, I was drawn to the spirit of friendship that is at the core of the story. But the film, with the gorgeous Richard Gere and the sexy Debra Winger, also came to me at the time of my own sexual and adolescent awakenings. An Officer and a Gentleman demonstrated to me for the first time that cinema could have a very raw sexual and sensual power – something that scares many people even today.

It was the first film in which I saw sex and sexuality openly, and like any hormonal teen, I felt both titillated and bashful watching it with others around. But An Officer and a Gentleman is about so much more than sex and sexuality. Like Ordinary People, there is a grittiness to the film, a real politique about everyday human beings, that touched me and that I identified with deeply. I have watched the film numerous times since and it still remains a favorite of mine.

Writing all this brings back a lot of memories. It also makes me want to watch the films again! These were the movies that shaped my cinematic upbringing during my youth and teen years in Bombay. In the next part of this series, I will go back down celluloid memory lane to the time when I came to the United States as a precocious undergrad and wary immigrant. That cinematic coming of age reflects a rather different collection of films. And yet, many of the thematic strains from my formative years of film-watching recur during this period as well.

Till then, I am going to run down to the local video store and check out some of the films discussed here. For in re-watching them, not only will I see how they might seem different now (or the same), but more importantly, I will be able to recognize in what ways the films have influenced me. That is, to me, the essence of great art, of deeply personal cultural artifacts. - (October 2002)

May 2002
Bollywood Goes To Hollywood: -
India's Lagaan woos Oscar

Gracy Singh and Aamir Khan in the Bollywood Musical Lagaan, an Academy Award nominee, to be re-released by Sony Classics on May 10 Bollywood is the official land of myth and hyperbole in the movie-making capital of the world. India churns out more films per annum than any other country, and the center of this entire cinematic hullabaloo is in India's commercial capital of Bombay. Bollywood is to India what Hollywood is to the United States, with a few striking similarities and a few salient differences. The similarities are that both Hollywood and Bollywood churn out a lot of trash, celluloid doo-doo for the masses. Both favor high melodrama and a lot of over-the-top action over films where the craft is focused on powerful storytelling, three-dimensional characters and compelling plots.

The major difference, however, is that the average Bollywood film still costs a paltry sum compared to Hollywood fare. The most expensive Bollywood film ever made, Kabhi Khushi, Kabhi Ghum, at an estimated cost of $10 million, pales in comparison to even some of the so-called independent movies made in Hollywood. (As an aside it must be noted that Kabhi Khushi, Kabhi Ghum, released recently and raking it in at the box office, is such a bad piece of cinema that to call it shit would be to insult fecal matter!)

But recently, another film from India, named Lagaan, has been making waves all over the world, particularly because it snagged one of the coveted five nomina-tions for Best Foreign Film at this year's Academy Awards. This was India's third nomination in that category, an appalling record for a country that makes so much cinema. Incidentally, No Man's Land from Bosnia won over Lagaan this year, beating out even the French favorite Amelie. Lagaan has already been released in major U.S. cities with a nationwide splash on May 10 courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Lagaan is a very interesting case, not only in Indian cinema, but also in terms of world cinema, and merits scrutiny here even though most Americans will not end up seeing the film. By and large it is a film worth seeing because it is one of the best things India has put out in years, but also because it is a lesson on the influence of marketing and political correctness in cinema these days.

The term "lagaan" means a land tax, and in the film we are taken back to the days of colonial rule in India when the British were strangling the indigenous people with their heinous measures of taxation and looting, plundering the natural resources of a very wealthy nation for consumption on the British Isles, a geographical desert in terms of natural resources and raw materials.

The rains have failed, and the people of a small Indian village in Victorian India hope that they will be excused from paying the crippling land tax that their British rulers have imposed. They band together and ask the ruler of their region, the Maharajah, to intervene on their behalf and ask the British to exempt them from the tax in light of the drought.

At first, the capricious British officer in charge refuses such a daring plea. But when they persist, he challenges the villagers to a game of cricket, a game totally alien and unknown to the Indian natives. If the Indians win, they get their wish; if they lose, however, the tax burden will be tripled and destroy their lives. Of course, the British officer is so certain that he and his cohorts will crush the Indians at this game that he delights in the challenge and starts to count his chickens well before they are hatched.

The people of the village are terrified, but one man, Bhuvan, thinks the challenge is worth staking their entire future on. He first has to convince the villagers to give it their best shot because most of the villagers are certain that this lopsided bet is sure to bring disaster rather than any sort of tax relief. The protagonist, played to perfection by Aamir Khan, is a shrewd organizer, a master of persuasion, and a hard-working dreamer who insists that he and his fellow villagers deserve a better life and can indeed have one.

The first part of the film follows the struggle of the villagers, first as they are devastated by the drought, and then as they decide on whether to accept this ridiculously lopsided challenge or not. The second half of the film is the cricket match itself where the two sides battle it out for both sporting victory and more importantly, nationalistic pride.

At its core, Lagaan is a melodrama where the forces of good and evil are so clearly marked out you'd think it was written in committee by the 12 Apostles. The heart of the film plays to the masses in that it identifies with the poor suffering hoards of Indian villagers today who still live in destitute conditions and under the thumb of landowners as cruel as or even more cruel than the British were. The villagers are shown as honest, hard working, genteel, genuinely good rural folk. Their exploitation by the British is very real and very harsh in the film, and the masses today feed right into that.

That is not to say that the film is not a good film. Lagaan is by all means a very solid film, well made, well acted, and brilliantly marketed. The story by Ashutosh Gowariker (also the film's director) is solid, properly paced, and the characters are finely delineated. Even though the films comes in at a little under four hours (average for Bollywood fare), the length is hardly noticeable, particularly in the second half where the cricket match plays very effectively on screen. Gowariker's direction is sure-footed, and he creates a compelling, suspenseful film despite the fact that one knows the film's outcome well before it is over.

The cinematography by Anil Mehta (formerly an ad filmmaker) is crisp, earthy and suits the film. His shots are fluid, concise and never draw attention to themselves, except in one awfully self-conscious musical number. In particular, his camera work for the cricket match is stunningly effective and never misses a step. Overall, the performances are amazing. The cast has been very carefully selected and they click seamlessly together. Even though the characters are very stereotypically melodramatic arche-types, the directing and virtuosic perfor-mances save this film from becoming just another Bollywood hack job.

Gracie Singh, as the young village ingénue, Gauri, is a stellar new find. She is a joy to watch as she exudes youth and innocence, even in a time and place troubled by hardships and evil. Her eyes seem to hold the secrets of the universe and her smile seems to be where the sun shines from each day. Her moments of petty jealousy, as she sees the English madam become close to Bhuvan, the leader of the cricket team, are sweet and filled with naughtiness.

The two British stars of the film are fantastic as well. Paul Blackthorne (you know it's a melodrama when the actors name is so melodramatic as well) plays Captain Andrew Russell with a wicked glee and delight that is sickening. He makes you want to spit on him - so evil are his glances and his frigid deeds. Like the vicious Duke in Moulin Rouge, this Captain's defeat at the end is only to be cheered (as almost all Indian audiences who saw the film were wont to do.)

Rachel Shelley plays the white ingénue of the film - Elizabeth Russell, the Captain's virginal and decent sibling. She hates what her brother is doing to the poor Indians and tries to help them defeat her own brother at his evil, sneaking off from the comfort of her palace, into the heat of the draught-ridden desert village to champion the villagers. Elizabeth in helping Bhuvan and his dirty dozen learn the British game of cricket, which the villagers find strange and alien, begins to fall in love with Bhuvan. Of course the color and status issues complicate such a love bearing any kind of fruition. Shelley's performance is fabulous, and she too saves a potentially soppy character from becoming caricature.

Finally, Aamir Khan as Bhuvan is simply perfect. Khan, probably the most talented actor, barring none, working in Indian cinema today, has proven to be a cinematic maverick; and here he cements that reputation as a risk taker and an actor with taste and integrity. His portrayal of Bhuvan is a marvelous one to watch as he goes from angry subject of the British Empire to calculating and successful victor over the darker forces of the universe.

Khan understands perfectly when to underplay a moment and when to play it up to the max! He uses his body like few Indian actors do, and his range is marvelous. Khan's Bhuvan is a cinematic hero in the vein of a Luke Skywalker. Boyish, yet one who soon becomes a man many have to count on for their survival.

Khan is also the marketing mastermind behind Lagaan, taking it all the way to Best Foreign Film Academy nomination - and the hoopla still continues in India. Bollywood has been having a drought in the foreign market and Lagaan's success has brought some hope to a hopeless (puns generously intended) industry.

The film is definitely worth seeing, but there are a few problems with an otherwise greatly entertaining epic. Firstly, at almost four hours, the editor needs to look up his job description a bit more carefully and live up to the title more seriously. Secondly, while all the music and dance sequences are brilliantly executed and never seem gratuitous, there is one number that is totally ludicrous and destroys some of the credibility and integrity of the project. In a truly tacky number, Elizabeth, Gauri and Bhuvan sing about their feelings and unrequited loves for each other. The film seems to have had some other director and writers for that part. Or, they were hopelessly pandering to the masses. In that number, a lovelorn Elizabeth swoons and struts all over the palace like some model in heat and her dresses are completely out of period and simply silly. She goes from Victorian garb to modern chiffons and fifties maxis.

The two largest problems with the film have to do with the immense political correctness and political incorrectness that attempt to coexhist. The team that Bhuvan pulls together is like some cross between the United Nations and the Special Olympics. Remember, India is a secular nation that still struggles deeply with communal disharmony. (Right around the Oscars we were experiencing our worst communal killings in over ten years.)

In order to send today's audiences some great hope for the future, Bhuvan's team comprises not only just about every communal enemy in India (Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims), but also a cripple and an untouchable. It is nice that the filmmakers want to send messages to the masses who lap up the film, particularly in more rural and illiterate areas where issues of untouchability, communal disharmony and other prejudices still waft rampant; however, such political correctness can seem disingenuous and doesn't always make for great cinema.

The biggest problem I have with the film is in the character of Elizabeth. She is the one who teaches the Indians how to play cricket and helps them to stay together as a team. It is her sacrifices against the wishes of her evil brother that help the Indians save the day. This sort of colonial pandering is sickening and annoying to say the least. Indian cinema still feels obliged to somehow give the British credit. Without the colonizer we simply can't seem to manage to pull ourselves together. While there is the evil colonizer strutting his stuff in full glory, the film's message still seems to be that without the "good" colonizer, Indians couldn't have victory on their own.

This ideology is neither very appealing nor very modern. The post-colonial rhetoric has yet to find its way into Indian cinema, and by extension into the Indian masses. It is the same drivel that gave the white plantation women much of the credit for slave emancipation, because supposedly it was these women who taught the miserable slaves to read (from the Bible mainly), which then gave the slaves ideas about emancipation and abolition and the like.

I also need to remind myself that I see the film through the lens of my Western education, from my heavily anti-colonial politics, and from my sense of need to move beyond pandering to the masses in art and entertainment.

Lagaan is, despite the few criticisms here, a well-made, entertaining and accomplished piece of Bolly-wood cinema. As to how many doors it will open for Indian cinema in Hollywood, that is left to be seen. After all, it took a black woman 74 years to knock down a major door at the Oscars this year when Halle Berry became the first black actress to win a major acting award. Will it be another 74 years before a brown man or woman knocks down some other door? Sometimes, to succeed in Hollywood as a person of color, one has to first pay a very, very heavy lagaan! - (May 2002)

February 2002
All That Glitters: The Best in Film For 2001

It's that time of year again. When all that glitters is gold and when all that matters glitters. It's Oscar time again with the nominations being announced a few days from now, and the race will begin in earnest. The past year was, for the most part, a very mediocre year in celluloid, but there were some noteworthy exceptions and some interesting trends. There were some knockout performances, mostly in smaller independent films, and the musical genre received a much needed kick in the pants with the dazzling Moulin Rouge and the inimitable Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

It also needs to be remembered that as the Oscar nominations come out, some will be deserving while others will be more motivated by politics, past snubs will be re-compensated now, and other factors having less to do with merit will affect judgment. So before the list is announced by the Academy, I would like to provide a nomination ballot of the most deserving of 2001, some may coincide with the Academy's choices and others will most certainly be snubbed by them.

In the Best Supporting Actor category, I would nominate: Steve Buscemi for his wonderfully subtle and revealing turn as a record collector who becomes the object of a disaffected teenager's affections in Terry Zwigoff's poignant Ghost World. Richard Roxburgh as the sleazy and slick Duke in Moulin Rouge was grand in a stomach-churning, skin-tingling kind of way.

Brian Cox was spooky as a pot-bellied pedophile in the controversial L.I.E. where he created a predator whom the audience could both be revolted by and sympathize with. Ben Kingsley forever erased all connections to Gandhi by turning in a blood-curdling job as a violent, erratic, Cockney gangster in Sexy Beast. Tony Shaloub turned in his best work yet as a fast-talking, swaggering lawyer in The Man Who Wasn't There. He was the best thing in an otherwise mediocre film from the Coen brothers. And finally, Carl Reiner, as a retired conartist, who returns for one last job in Steven Soderbergh's stylish Rat-pack remake of Ocean's Eleven, was brilliantly funny and subtle.

Other noteworthy performances in the Best Supporting Actor category include Jude Law as the robotic gigolo in A.I., suave, sexy and very scintillating to watch as always. Jim Broadbent had two praiseworthy turns this year. First as the owner Ziegfeld of the Moulin Rouge nightclub and second as the faithful husband of famed novelist Iris Murdoch in Iris. I would split this year's award among Shaloub, Kingsley, and Cox. The Academy will likely snub Cox completely.

The competition in the Best Supporting Actress category was full of dazzling performances: Frances O'Connor as the conflicted mother in Steven Spielberg's A.I. was moving as she doted on her mechanical son and chilling when she realized that she had to abandon him in order to retain her own humanity. Marisa Tomei, who may have been seen as a fluke winner of her previous Oscar for My Cousin Vinny, erases all doubts with a moving turn as an abused mother of two who has a fling with a teenaged boy in In The Bedroom.

Robert Altman's Gosford Park had three performances that are worthy of a nomination here. Newcomer Kelly MacDonald, as a maid to the Countess (Dame Maggie Smith) is the grounding center of the film with her wide-eyed innocence and youthful curiosity. Dame Maggie Smith as Constance, Countess of Trentham is priceless with her dry wit and sharp irony. It is good to see her back in top form and she never ever misses a beat in Gosford Park. The third Oscar hopeful from the same film is the ever amazing Helen Mirren who plays Mrs. Wilson, the housekeeper of Gosford Park. Her stern exterior and ultra-efficient demeanor seem to be cloaking some very dark secrets and Mirren's journey from the "perfect servant" to a broken woman is heartbreaking to watch.

Some other noteworthy turns in the Supporting Actress category include: Jane Adams as a neurotic mother in The Anniversary Party, a delight to watch as she unraveled on account of her plethora of neuroses; Jennifer Connelly as the doting wife of mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind was engaging and real every step of the way. Angelica Houston as Etheline Tanenbaum in the quirky comedy The Royal Tenenbaums is both funny and poignant as a woman trying to hold her family together and trying to forgive her separated husband for all his royal pain-in-the-ass shenanigans. I would give the Oscar to Dame Maggie Smith myself. But look for Connelly to steal the award.

The Best Screenplay of the year should include the following nominees: Christopher Nolan for the cinematic puzzle Memento, which took mind-bending twists and turns, creating a most unique film experience. Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubric for a daring (and yes, sometimes messy) A.I., which had the moxie to raise potent issues and ask questions with stunning prescience and diligent insight. Julian Fellowes for his engrossing and multi-layered Gosford Park which starts out as a murder mystery and ends up as an intelligent and subtle examination of class, gender and sexual mores of '30s England. Guillaume Laurant for a funny and moving Amelie, and Lukas Moodysson for a wonderfully retro and frank Together. The last two don't have a chance. I would split the award between Memento and Gosford Park.

Cinematographically, the following Directors of Photography stood out: Giles Nutgens for his metaphorical and layered camera work in The Deep End. Roger Deakins for the subtle film-noir look in the black and white The Man Who Wasn't There. Janusz Kaminski for his multidimensional camera work in A.I., creating vistas that were both fantastical and yet deeply rooted in recognizable realties. Andrew Lesnie's lush and energetic camera work in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is certainly some of the best work this year. Donald McAlpine's kaleidoscopic work in Moulin Rouge is overwhelming at first but works brilliantly for the film overall. And finally, Andrew Dunn's fluid and beautifully lit work in Gosford Park. I would give the award to Janusz Kaminski for A.I.

The Best Actors this year came from films both large and deeply intimate in scope. John Cameron Mitchell was dazzlingly powerful and gut-wrenchingly revealing as the transvestite with a botched sex change operation in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Guy Pearce, underused and underrated, was simply flawless as the man with no short-term memory on the hunt for his wife's murder in Memento. Haley Joel Osment deserves a nomination for his moving portrayal of a mechanical boy in search of a human heart in A.I.

Another child actor who shone this year is Paul Franklin Dano as the young Howie in L.I.E. Dano is moving and powerful as a gay teenager who slowly learns how to survive a broken family, a self-destructive best friend, and the Machiavellian manipulations of the town's pot-bellied pedophile. Gene Hackman was priceless as Royal, the patriarch of the quirky Tenenbaum family. His impeccable timing and sheer enjoyment of the role are a reminder as to why he has endured so long in Hollywood. And finally, Tom Wilkinson, as a quiet husband and acquiescing father, who must find his courage and spine, in In The Bedroom, was subtle and most convincing as an American, being a Brit himself. I would unequivocally give this year's award to John Cameron Mitchell, but he doesn't even have a prayer of a nomination.

Look for the Academy to nominate big stars this year including Billy Bob Thornton, either for The Man Who Wasn't There, or for Monster's Ball. Last year's undeserving winner Russell Crowe should get nominated again as mathematician Robert Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Will Smith is most certain to be acknowledged as Muhammad Ali and Denzel Washington is a hot favorite for Training Day, a rather bad film. Sean Penn could sneak in with his turn as a mentally challenged father in I Am Sam. Hackman will probably be put in the Supporting Actor category and will win there. So look for Denzel Washington to win this year in a completely inexplicable move by the Academy.

The Best Actress nominations, from me, also include some veterans and some relative newcomers. Thora Birch, brilliant in American Beauty, is once again brilliant as a disenchanted, disaffected, jaded and cynical teenager, who underneath all that harsh exterior is a young girl in Ghost World. Tilda Swinton, an actress of rare subtlety and technical grace, was marvelous as Margaret Hall in The Deep End. Hers is a pitch perfect performance. She never falters in her honesty as she shows us a mother who is trying to protect her gay son from being convicted of murder while she is falling in love with a mysterious and enigmatic blackmailer who threatens to destroy her son and her family.

Audrey Tatou as the introverted and accidental patron saint of the downtrodden in Amelie deserves a nod for a refreshingly smart, funny, and touching role. Nicole Kidman was a sheer revelation in Moulin Rouge as the courtesan who finds true love in a struggling poet. And finally, Sissy Spacek as a wronged mother, who loses control after the death of her teenaged son, has the comeback performance of the year. Although I am very partial to Swinton's performance. I would have to say that the award unequivocally belongs to Kidman. The Academy will probably nominate Halle Berry in Monster's Ball over Tatou or even Birch. Stockard Channning may get a nod for The Business of Strangers.

The Best Director nominations should be bestowed upon: Baz Luhrmann for his kaleidoscopic and psychedelic love story musical Moulin Rouge, Steven Spielberg for his intelligent A.I., Christopher Nolan for the convoluted and thrilling Memento, Robert Altman for his fluid and mesmerizing Gosford Park, and John Cameron Mitchell for Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I would split the award between Altman and Luhrmann for two very different and equally engaging films, where the director's overall impact is what makes these two films pure genius.

The Best Films of the year are: Moulin Rouge for being bold, flashy, garish and unapologetic in its sentimental romanticism and baroque aesthetic. This film also receives kudos for reviving popular interest in the musical film genre. Memento was a unique film experience which had both brains and style and its puzzle-like structure was carried off deftly and with sheer genius. A.I. was a sometimes messy and sometimes over-indulgent film and yet it was a very brave piece of cinema that didn't do well because it was too intelligent for audiences expecting to see typical Spielberg fare.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch was a beautiful film at every level, from its unusual story to its wonderful music and its brilliant performances. But Hedwig is too alternative and too edgy for the Academy. My fifth choice would be the epic The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. This film is amazingly conceptualized and executed and is one of the few big films in the last few years to actually deserve a Best Film nomination. The film was a bit too long and some of the violence a bit gratuitous. Nevertheless, it is a bold film and intelligently done. And the final vote goes to Gosford Park for taking the murder-mystery genre and turning it over on its head to create an ingenious piece of cinema with a brilliant ensemble cast.

Other notable films of the year include Terry Zwigoff's wry Ghost World, Michael Cuesta's gutsy L.I.E., the French import Amelie, and the animated Shrek. All four are longshots with Amelie assured a Best Foreign Language Film nomination. Look for the Academy to give a lot of ballyhoo to the critically acclaimed In The Bedroom which is highly overrated, and were it not for the brave performances, the film is a mediocre, clichéd made-for-television movie. Ali and A Beautiful Mind could also feature well with the Academy. And in a time when patriotism is at an all-time high look for Black Hawk Down to get a nomination for best film. I would split this year's best film award between Moulin Rouge and Gosford Park but I don't think either has a chance at the Academy Awards.

So take out your pens, call your bookies, and set your wagers to see who does get nominated and to see who does indeed go home with the awards. - (February 2002)

December 2001
Synchronous Serendipity: The Man Who Wasn't There and The Woman Who Was!

Love and Hope in the Fish Bowl of Life

Love and hope are the two ingredients that one cannot imagine life without. And they are abundantly floating around in the mesmerizing new French film Amelie, an intricately woven tale of fate and destiny surrounding the rather unamazing life of an amazing young woman named Amelie.

Born into a fairly unremarkable family, this heroine sets out to make other ordinary lives just a little bit extraordinary. Her father, a medical man, is neurotic but not as neurotic as her mother. Their little familial unit is so mundane and yet so oddly eccentric that the family goldfish has attempted suicide on a few occasions by jumping out of the fishbowl and flailing on the floor hoping for release from this tedium. The quirkiness of the fish suicide episode both defines the sense of humor in the film as well as the menagerie of charac-ters introduced to us through the doleful yet impish eyes of its heroine, Amelie.

Amelie grows up shy and introverted, after a very freakish accident (symbolic of much of the black comedy in the film) leaves her mother dead at the entrance to a church. She works in a café in Paris with an odd assortment of individuals and lives with an even more quaint collection of characters. They all have their own neuroses, their individual quirks and tragic flaws. What they all seem to lack is some hope, some real love. They are all lonely, like the goldfish, searching for some meaning in the big fishbowl of life.

Amelie, through a series of synchronous events, discovers a time capsule of sorts under the floorboards in her apartment. It is a small tin box with a child's memorabilia, presumably left there when the child was still a lad. She decides to track down the man, now middle aged, and give him back a piece of his life. In the process, she comes to realize that doing good for others, that performing random acts of kindness, is her calling in life. She starts to commit other acts of kindness, all of them anonymously, in trying to better the lot of her neighbors, her family, her co-workers and her friends. And she begins to succeed. When necessary, she even commits random acts of benign revenge, to help the mean and nasty change their misanthropic ways.

In very small and large ways, her stratagems begin to bear fruit and this brings a sense of fulfillment to her own lonely and drab existence. Amelie begins to see herself as the savior of the lonely, the harbinger of hope for the hopeless, and the resuscitator of life for those breathing but not really alive!

Although she becomes the patron saint of hope and love to those around her, she can't seem to work the same magic in her own life. Amelie herself remains lonely, aloof and without true love. Eventually she bumps into a man at the train station who seems as lonely, aloof and as much of an oddball as she is. It is destiny that they fall in love, as long as Amelie knows how to harness that magical moment into a life's dream fulfilled.

The film is all about karma and the screwball serendipities of life. Destiny, the film seems to be saying, is inescapable, as long as one know how to read the tea leaves of fate that float in on an enchanted breeze and land gracefully in one's lap. Life, as this film depicts it, is a series of synchronous events, which individually and collectively impact our lives in ways both known and unbeknownst to us.

Amelie, as created by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is a whimsical, inebriating and enchanted tale that is part Alice in Wonderland, part Run Lola Run - the brilliant German film from a few years ago about the sacred nature of serendipity - and partly indebted to Krystof Kiezlowski's masterpiece trilogy Red, White, and Blue.

The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel in Amelie is absolutely brilliant. Technically this is a very deftly made piece of cinema that uses conventional cinematic techniques along with newfangled digital effects to create one heck of a magic carpet ride. The colors of the film, warm and contrasting reds, yellows and greens, flood every vista, creating an other-worldly feel to the piece. There is a dreamy, surreal feel to much of the movie; and yet, the characters ground it in a vivid sense of naturalism.

The ensemble here is extremely strong and each actor creates a fully fleshed human being in the menagerie of Amelie's quirky world. All the characters are part of the intricate fabric of humanity in a little corner of Paris. From the overly possessive lover to his hypochondriacal girlfriend, and from the man with brittle bones who re-creates Renoir masterpieces to the dim-witted yet affable grocer's assistant, Amelie is flooded with an intoxicating blend of very human and very intriguing individuals.

Mathieu Kassovitz, who plays Nino, the object of Amelie's affections, is charmingly effective in playing a socially inept man who has the same dreams of love and fulfillment as Amelie. He plays Nino with an affable aura of longing and loneliness. This very handsome yet unconfident man has an interesting hobby. He collects discarded snapshots at one of those automatic photo booths where people sit to have their images taken for passports or other such mundane reasons. Nino's quirky pastime is a brilliant device for the filmmakers to explore not only the immense wave of humanity that flows through the train station in Paris, but it also allows the writer and director a metaphor to illustrate the ways in which human connections appear so random and yet so predestined, preordained by some higher power in the universe.

Audrey Tautou plays the title role with impish relish and a deep joie de vivre as she goes around mending broken loves and lives that seem to have an inescapable sense of ennui. Tautou imbues Amelie with a neurotic charm all her own and plays a character who is complex to the core. Tautou never plays for cheap sentiment or schmaltzy emotions. She seems to be having a whale of a time playing this patron saint of the lonely hearts. Hopefully, Tautou will be acknowledged with a Best Actress nomination at next year's Oscars.

Amelie's director, writer, and cinema-tographer should also feature well at next year's awards, making this film a sure-fire contender in the Best Foreign Language film category. In fact, if the Academy had real sense, they would nominate this deeply intelligent yet human film with a Best Picture nomination.

I have a minor quibble with this film. Sometimes the technical wizardry calls attention to itself and distances one from getting emotionally sucked into the story. I never thought I'd say this, but here is a film that could have used a bit more schmaltz, a bit more sappiness, and a bit more tugging at the heart. A heroine like Amelie deserves that and more. Neverthe-less, Amelie is a moving and mesmerizing film, definitely one of the best of the year. In these times, of deep existential angst, when hope seems fleeting and love seems imperative, Amelie offers up Extra Biggie size servings of both.

Barber Noir: A Cut Above the Rest

Interestingly, the Coen Brothers' new film, The Man Who Wasn't There, also deals with the metaphysical inquiries of serendipity and synchronicity. Here however, the tale is much darker and the characters' moralities much murkier than in Amelie.

But, like the heroine Amelie, the hero (if you can call him that) of The Man Who Wasn't There, Ed Crane, is also a socially awkward and invisible sort of man. He simply doesn't take up much space in life as we know it. He is the second barber in his brother-in-law's shop, and he goes about his business without saying much. He goes through life without doing much – until fate and serendipity come knocking on his barber shop door.

His chatty wife, Doris, is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave, and Ed decides to blackmail Big Dave for ten thousand dollars. Ed wants to use the money to invest in the new-fangled venture of dry cleaning so that he can make something more of his life. The film, which takes place in 1949, turns these mundane, domesticated suburban Americans into calculating, confused con artists who get mired in the dark deceptions of murder and familial mayhem. Like Amelie, The Man Who Wasn't There, is about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations, except that in the former it is more joyful and in the latter it is a more bleak and hopeless universe.

Presented as a black-and-white film noir piece, the Coen brothers have once again created a solid product that is compelling in its story line and characters and stylishly seductive in its visuals and over-all mise-en-scène. The Coen brothers are undoubtedly filmmakers who create com-plicated and cogent pieces of cinema that regularly flirt with the thin line between hyperreality and bold satire. In lesser hands, these two poles could become messy, but with the Coen brothers the work is always interesting and sometimes unforgettable.

Their amazingly brilliant Fargo was a case in point. Since then, however, with The Big Lebowski, O Brother! Where Art Thou? and now The Man Who Wasn't There, they come up with compelling and interesting bits, but the whole isn't quite as satisfying or worth remembering.

In The Man Who Wasn't There, the story itself is rather fresh and tightly woven around Ed and his search for some excitement in life. The characters are intricately sketched out and they are brilliantly played by an awesome cast. The visuals are beautiful. And yet, at the end of the film one is left somewhat unsatiated, somewhat disappointed and somewhat let down by the promise of all the parts which never add up to an overwhelming whole.

As Ed, Billy Bob Thornton has a tough job because the role is so minimal, so quiet. He performs admirably and lends the role its necessary gravitas, but at times his acting comes across simply as a series of grimaces, frowns and staged looks that are supposed to convey the internal turmoil of this invisible man. There's a lot of buzz about an Oscar for him, but it seems highly overrated since this is clearly not his best performance.

The incomparable Frances McDormand plays Doris with a nice sense of fun and frivolity. And yet when necessary, she lends the character a good sense of depth and seriousness. McDormand is always good, and here she adds to an already impressive resume. Her toughness, tinged with vulnerability is a joy to watch.

The ubiquitous James Gandolfini plays Big Dave with a bumbling sense of pathos and cruelty. He has a small role but he fills the screen when he appears on it. Scarlett Johansson, who plays a young pianist with some sort of unspoken desire for Ed is mediocre. Johansson, who has done well in other films and who has also become ubiquitous recently, seems to be turning disaffectedness into an entire school of acting. Her range has become limited too soon, using technique over emotion to her disadvantage. Through most of the film she appears to be posturing rather than acting in any organic sort of way. Perhaps it was the pressure to be film-noirish, but she isn't up to the challenge here.

The man who steals the show here, and who should get a Supporting Actor nod at next year's Oscars is Tony Shalhoub as the fast-talking, quick-thinking, slick lawyer who comes in to save Ed and Doris from the murders they are implicated in. Shalhoub, one of the most underrated actors around, performs marvelously. His comic timing is impeccable and he runs away with the most interesting character and portrayal in the film. His energy engulfs the screen. He is simply electric.

The script, written by Ethan and Joel Coen is strong for the most part. The Lolita-esque subplot seems superfluous and poorly created and makes the film drag on a bit more than it should. However, there are moments of sheer genius in their writing as always, particularly the Tony Shalhoub part and the role of Big Dave's wife, who introduces the paranormal sightings of UFOs into the storyline and their ludicrous yet plausible connection to the murders. The films is filled with plenty of dark satire and even slapstick humor which blends brilliantly with the film noir ambiance of the whole piece.

The Man Who Wasn't There is an interesting film worth watching. The philosophical ruminations on life and fate are smartly discussed and the ending is quietly powerful. However, the film's flaws leave one hoping for the film that could have been there! - (December 2001)

November 2001
Amores Perros
"Loving is a bitch ... and then you find redemption!"

In Hollywood, nothing would be possible without great marketing. In fact, without the marketing machine wrought by Hollywood, much of this country's GDP would take a nose dive. Remember that Hollywood doesn't just market its films, it helps sell everything from Happy Meal tchatchkas made in Taiwan to fashion trends concocted on Madison Avenue. And, of course, when marketing works its magic, movies make mounds of money. But the real genius of marketing is when, while selling one film, the marketers manage to obscure, obliterate, and obfuscate another film which may be far better, much more compelling and more worthy of audience attention than its well-publicized competitor.

This year, it was precisely such a well-orchestrated marketing campaign that put two foreign films in such a predicament. The winner of last year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was largely successful because of the marketing mavens that turned the American public sweet on this magically made martial arts movie. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an accomplished and entertaining piece of cinema that deserved many of its kudos. But a lesser-known film from Mexico, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros, not marketed to the same extent, is a far more compelling film and amazingly accomplished in its storytelling, its brilliant ensemble performances, and its commentary about contemporary life in the modern metropolis of Mexico City. Amores Perros should have won the Academy Award hands down; however, as Amores Perros demonstrates, in life there is no justice!

Amores Perros, which when translated literally means "love's a bitch," is more closely a movie about the fact that loving someone can be a real bitch! The film (in homage to the non-linear styles of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and with reference to the multiple and intersecting story lines of Robert Altman's Short Cuts and Kevin Anderson's Magnolia) weaves together three stories all bizarrely connected by a horrendous car crash.

In "Octavio and Susana," the first fragment of this intricate story, Octavio, a handsome teenager who lusts after his brother's wife Susana, is thrust into the world of brutal dog fights in order to raise money so that they can elope. "Daniel and Valeria" is the second segment, telling the tale of a middle-aged businessman who sacrifices his family, his stability and his sanity, to start life anew with a beautiful young model who is soon disfigured in the aforementioned car crash. Finally, in "El Chivo and Maru," a revolutionary-turned-assassin finds salvation and redemption after witnessing the life-altering car crash.

The film is unforgettably real and relentlessly profound, taking on classical themes and metaphysical madness to create an original and richly textured drama. This is a cinematic triptych, so vivid, so intricate and so audacious that it explodes through the confines of the screen from the starting car crash (re-created with such authenticity that it may put the fear of driving in even the most daredevil of car racers) to the final moments of reconciliation and redemption (so gut-wrenchingly human that they promise to haunt one for days on end).

González Iñárritu, the film's director, has boldly made a film that has deservedly garnered a lot of critical attention. If only that could have been translated into wider audiences. Speaking of the setting of the film, Mexico City, González Iñárritu states that, "I'm one of the twenty-one million people who live in the world's largest and most populated city, a city with inordinately high rates of pollution, violence and corruption. However, as incredible and paradoxical as it may sound, Mexico City is beautiful and fascinating. Amores Perros is a product of this contradiction, a reflection of the baroque and the complex mosaic that is Mexico City and, ultimately, life itself."

Thus, even though the film is distinctly Mexican, Iñárritu's vast humanity floods every frame of his high voltage film, making this an exceptionally relevant and universal piece of cinema.

When the film premiered in America, much was made about how Amores Perros was indebted to Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, particularly for its up-front and close gore and violence. It is true that both films have their share of very bloody, very brutal and very disturbing violence. But that is where the comparison between Mr. Tarantino and Mr. Iñárritu ends. The violence in Tarantino's world is always real but also always terribly self-aware - he depicts violence not simply as a fact of life, but as a glorified and often gratuitous fact of life.

For Iñárritu, violence is the hell that humans must inhabit due to class, gender, politics, economics, sex, race, nationality and inbred human corruption, and it is through deliberate measures or chance that humans may be able to escape that violence-drenched nether world so that retribution and redemption flood the soul thereafter. Iñárritu never makes the mistake of glamorizing violence or seducing his audience with it.

As a result, Iñárritu's film is a deeply moral and profoundly philosophical exploration of the human condition. Violence in Amores Perros always has a consequence, and in that sense Iñárritu's probing of the human soul and psyche is very classically Greek. In fact the film, intentionally or subliminally, is deeply Biblical, acknowledging the profoundly Catholic nature of the Mexican people.

It is estimated that there are over one million homeless or stray dogs in Mexico City. Iñárritu acknowledges that dogs are very integral to the landscape of that metropolis. These canines become the central theme and metaphor in Amores Perros, inextricably linked to the fates and follies of the characters in the film, and yet they themselves are nothing more than innocent victims of their human owners.

In a dog-eat-dog world, Iñárritu seems to be saying, human beings are no better than animals. In fact, animals, without consciousness, morality, or the ability to make choices, have no other option than to be animalistic. But what of humans who do have consciousness, who do have moral awareness and do have the ability to make choices? Why then do we continue to do the things that we do? Are we in essence not only no better than dogs, but in fact worse than animals?

Iñárritu has said that no other animal could have said as much about the film as dogs. In the press materials he notes that, "We use dogs in this film because I believe they are animals who are the closest to us in nature. Dogs can be loyal, faithful, humble, gentle, and generous. But, at the same time, they can kill if threatened. Actually, our animal nature is worse than theirs because we kill for money, ambition, and power, while dogs kill only to survive."

Iñárritu is an incredibly intelligent and astute filmmaker. He is willing to ask tough questions in very forthright and uncensored ways. And, of course, Iñárritu would not have been able to make the film that he has without the charged, cohesive and corrosive screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga. As a writer, Arriaga infuses his script with many issues, a plethora of questions and a host of incredibly complex and dynamic human beings. And yet nothing in Arriaga's script feels shallow, unsubstantial, unnecessary or gratuitous.

In the first story-line thread of this magic carpet screenplay, Octavio, a scruffy yet beautiful teenager is brimming with untamed lust, passion and idealism. He falls in love with his older brother's young voluptuous wife Susana and is determined to free her from the ill-treatment at the hands of her husband. She is nothing more than a caretaker and baby machine and Octavio firmly believes that he is her salvation. But like all illicit loves, almost Orphean in its overtones, Octavio is forced to descend into the hell of the dog-fighting world, littered by ingrates, infidels and infamous individuals, so that he can raise money to free himself and Susana from their urban purgatory. Cofi the dog, docile and flabby on the exterior, has the killer instincts of an injured shark and soon the money starts to roll in. Like all star-crossed lovers, these two must bear the consequences of their actions and choices.

Vanessa Bauche plays Susana with a naturalistic flair that is amazingly authentic. She infuses the role with subtle inner turmoil, and her journey as a woman caught between the impossible and the even more impossible is touching and tormented. Gael Garcia Bernal as Octavio is nothing short of stunning. His charisma, his smoldering looks and his boldly beautiful acting is refreshingly honest for so young a performer in a medium where youthful looks and posturing have been sold to audiences over real acting. He is a true find and hopefully we will be seeing much more of his talent on screen.

The second string in this story, reminiscent of many of the films of the late Polish director Kristof Kyszlowski, is a parable about the transitoriness of youth and beauty. Daniel, a well-settled, wealthy, and bored businessman leaves his family, his future and his filial duties to go start anew with Valeria, a leggy model whose beauty is legendary in the city. She is badly disfigured in the central car crash of the film, and now Daniel and Valeria must struggle to see if they can stay together when the original reason for their coming together, i.e. her fame and beauty, is no longer a tangible commodity. The companies she models for drop Valeria like a burnt hot potato, and these two must search the depths of their souls to see how true love can transcend the shallow, the superficial and the superfluous.

In a very funny yet macabre series of events, Valeria's prized dog gets trapped under the floorboards of their chic, expensive loft style apartment. In a brilliantly metaphorical way, this floundering and flailing couple spends many a long hour trying to feel out the whereabouts of the dog under the wooden slats, and every time they sense something they rip out several planks in the flooring. By the end of the film, much like the floor, their relationship still stands but its original beauty and luster is destroyed and there is a lot of mending to be done before anything will be whole again.

Goya Toledo as Valeria and Alvaro Guerrero as Daniel turn in very affecting performances as this turbulent pair. Their struggle to keep love alive is deeply moving and profoundly philosophical in an era obsessed with youth, money and commodities.

In the final matrix of this vivid and kaleidoscopic filmic fabric, we are told the story of El Chivo, a homeless vagrant who takes in all the stray dogs that he can find. He is a disillusioned and desolate ex-revolutionary, an activist who realized that the causes he fought for never came to fruition and abandoned him when his usefulness waned. In order to right the wrongs of the world, he abandoned his family, his beautiful wife and daughter, and in becoming a slave to the unjust macro-cosm of the corrupt world, he destroys and decimates the pure microcosm of his familial sanctuary. He finds his redemption and the essence of his soul at the end of the film when he is confronted in a bizarre assassin-for-hire scheme by a pair of brothers who make Cain and Able look like the Brady bunch!

Veteran actor Emilio Echevarria plays El Chivo with depth and complexity that is truly admirable. His work is solid, never once revealing a false move, and his transformation through the film from scraggly vagabond to born-again father and citizen of the world is at the core of Iñárritu and Arriaga's urban fable. Echevarria should have been nominated for a best actor Oscar last year, but then again Amores Perros should have won best foreign language film.

At the end of the film, the following statement fills the screen: "We also become that which has been taken away from us." This pithy maxim, suitably sums up Iñárritu and Arriaga's sentiments. When life deals us a lot of obstacles from time to time, we believe that we are who we are because of the sum total of all that we have been dealt. But we are equally who we are by virtue of those things that are taken away from us, those things that are snatched from right beneath our noses - our innocence, our youth, our idealism, our love and our virtues.

Despite its gritty violence (and the dog-fighting scenes in which no animals were harmed are so real that they will make your stomach churn) and its classically tragic obsession with illicit love, death, corrup-tion and human alienation, Amores Perros in its final frames emerges as a deeply hopeful and uplifting film. Above all it teaches us that loving someone, truly loving someone, is a real bitch! And that beast of love, that lives in each and every one of us, once awakened has got to be dealt with, has got to be tamed. It is in how we tame that love that we find the essence of our souls, that we find the meaning of life, and we are able to find that there is no hell in life worse than never having loved or been loved by someone else. - (November 2001)

August 2001
The Real Intelligence Behind Steven Spielberg's A.I. - The not so fairy tale life of a futuristic Pinocchio -

Steven Spielberg is in many ways the Madonna of the movie world. He reinvents himself from time to time just like the popsuperstar does. He's gone from making wildly successful escapist melodramas from Jaws and the Indiana Jones trilogy to making films of social conscience including Amistad, Schindler's List, and Saving Private Ryan, just like Ms. Ciccone has gone from pulsating pop tunes to belting Broadway ballads. Like many of Madonna bombs, Spielberg too has a list of disasters, à la Hook and Always. The pop diva has also been severely misunderstood from time to time and hasn't gotten her due as an artist just as Mr. Spielberg has been grossly lambasted for true masterpieces like The Color Purple. They're both incredibly rich and they have both created some seminal pieces of pop culture and contemporary artistic folklore. Most importantly, their success, their marketing genius, their artistic chutzpah and their power has made both Mr. Spielberg and Ms. Ciccone untouchable. They get to do anything they wish and will continue to for quite some time.

Spielberg has always been a man of his own vision and making. Many times he is incapable of escaping his own trademark touches and fantastical approaches. Thus, if one studies a film like Schindler's List carefully, one will see cinematic echoes from films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If one scrutinizes The Color Purple carefully, one will conclude that it is cinematically indebted to Jaws and E.T. And once again with his latest touchstone A.I. Artificial Intelligence in an already impressive film oeuvre, Spielberg has created an amalga-mation of influences from sundry Spielberg films; and yet, he has managed to make a film that is unique, brilliantly constructed and masterfully delivered with a lot of eye candy and a large dose of soul (searching).

I can say without a shadow of a doubt that A.I. is by far one of the most disturbing films ever made. Disturbing not because it is particularly violent (at least not physically) and not because it has gratuitous and voyeuristic sex, but immensely unsettling because of the deliberate way in which it raises issues that are both fantastical and yet so real.

Spielberg has always been interested in technology both as content and context. In Jurassic Park I (also II, and III - only recently released) Spielberg capitalized on the then emerging computer graphic technologies to create a cinematic reality that only such a medium could have made real. But even in that film, trashily melodramatic and predictable as it was, Spielberg was dealing with themes about the abuse of biogenetic technologies (cloning, DNA regeneration etc.) and the potential pitfalls of playing God. In all his other films the technologies of cinematic craftsmanship always play a prominent role - from editing and camera work to his ground-breaking work with sound and image-generation capabilities.

Thus, it is only natural, that Spielberg the technophile, take on the subject matter of the next frontier in technology, that of Artificial Intelligence. And he does it with amazing confidence, elatory artistry and prophetic genius. He is also being guided by the equally prolific and avant garde ghost of the late Stanley Kubrick. While I was completely blown away by this film, I have given Spielberg and Kubrick both their critical due when it comes to their awful (and offal) pieces of filmmaking. In other writings, I have harshly chided Spielberg for his racist, culturally offensive and downright inaccurate portrayal of Indians (the ones Columbus originally set out to find) in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I have also often joked with friends, only seriously, that I too would have wanted to die after making a cinematic piece of tripe like Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

So, it's nice to see Kubrick return to some semblance of respectability and a hearkening back to his genius in such masterpieces as 2001 A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. And it's nice to see Spielberg return to his roots in fantasy and combine them with his recent interest in all issues: social, cultural and political. Kubrick had worked on A.I. for many years, as he was wont to do in his perfectionist and anally retentive way, but he decided to pass the project to Spielberg, and upon the former's death the latter decided to dedicate himself solely to bringing that vision to the screen. And truth be told, only Spielberg's artistic chutzpah and economic clout could have made this Kubrickian dream a reality.

The inimitable and prolific Jude Law plays Gigolo Joe with such seductive sexuality and such charismatic aplomb that even the most machine-like human would fall prey to his wily ways and his titillating temptations.

A.I. is almost overwhelming in the themes that it chooses to tackle and its bite is that much more sharp because of Spielberg's unrelenting visual and directorial perspicuity. The film is an assault on one's senses, on one's soul and on one's entire state of being in a way that few films are able to affect an individual.

The film tells the story of a time in human evolution, not that far into the future, when natural resources are limited in an environmentally ravaged and weary world. But the galloping pace of technol-ogy has ensured that human's are not extinct however closely monitored their every move might be. Robots have become the answer to almost every human need, particularly the need to control the population (scarce resources and all) coupled with the innate human desire to be a nurturer and procreator.

Emotion is the last and incontrovertibly controversial frontier in robotic technologies. In this future, robots have been invented to deal with every human need except the need to be loved and love in return. Professor Hobby, so ironically and ominously named, creates a boy robot, the first one programmed to love. This test machine is adopted by an employee of the robot's manufacturing company Cybertronics, and his wife. They are deemed as the perfect test "parents" for David the boy robot because their own biological son has been cryogenically frozen until a cure is found for his terminal illness.

This experiment soon runs afoul when the cryogenically frozen son returns to life, creating a unique case of sibling rivalry. And while the robot child may be able to love them, the parents are confused about how exactly to love a machine in return. Ultimately abandoned in the woods by his mother, in a horrifyingly chilling sequence, David embarks on a journey to find his soul, his cosmic purpose, and the elusive love of a mother that he now desires so desperately. Pandora's Box has been opened wide and it threatens to swallow everything in its path.

David's journey, from adopted machine to abandoned offspring to prodigal son, is a phantasmagoric allegory so brilliantly created by Spielberg and his collaborators that it awakens in one feelings and ideas that are both profound and painful. David bumps into Gigolo Joe, a robot created to satiate women's sexual desires without the remotest possibility of procreating unwanted babies in times of resource scarcities. Gigolo Joe is a lean, mean love machine who with a crick of the neck can produce mood music and whose nimble feet and lithe body would have made Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire blush in humility. (As an interesting and very relevant aside I need to point out an extremely astute observation made by my friend Fritz with whom I saw the film. He noticed that David and Gigolo Joe were robots created to respectively fulfill the nurturing and sexual needs of a woman. The gender issues raised therein are worth more in-depth scrutiny.)

David and Gigolo Joe are captured by a robot hunter to take to the "Flesh Fair," a dark and macabre futuristic sporting arena where humans gleefully watch as outmoded and superfluous robots (categorized as "Mechas" for mechanical) are heinously destroyed with deliberate violence by the humans (Categorized as "Orga" for organic). Spielberg is revisiting familiar territory here from Schindler's List, and in A.I., the images of such racial genocide parallel anything from his Holocaust masterpiece in terms of their raw power and visual honesty. The humans, worried about being overrun by their own technological creations are fighting back for supremacy and survival and Spielberg's slant is undeniable: He argues unflinchingly that technology is not the panacea to our social ills, rather it only reinforces the timeless problems and brings with it a whole host of new dilemmas. The very abbreviation "mecha" to denote the mechanical beings overrunning the planet is a nice play on words also alluding to a "mecca," a holy site of pilgrimage, a false religion that humans have created, dedicated to an obsession and over-dependence on machines and technology.

The two manage to escape this "Flesh Fair" and set off on the final journey, to find David a mother's love - a love that he needs so desperately that the final lines between human and machine have been undeniably blurred. As David goes on his quest he lands in Rouge City (reminiscent of the faux Shanghai Spielberg created for the opening sequences of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) where, like some tragic Greek protagonist, he must solve certain riddles of a futuristic Sphinx, in order to move further on his quest for maternal love.

David is eventually reunited with his creator, Professor Hobby, who now wants to study David for the results that programmable love have wrought. In one of the films most quietly chilling sequences, David wanders into a room where robotic clones of himself hang, disassembled and lifeless in an assembly line of a futuristic hell and purgatory. When David realizes that he is not unique anymore, the film goes on its final leg of the voyage (something I won't divulge for those who haven't seen this film.)

In that final place where David searches one last time for maternal love, Spielberg revisits not only his own E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but also pays visual and contextual homage to many of Kubrick's visionary works. In fact, Kubrick's aloof celluloid soul is well and alive in this film, coupled with Spielberg's sentimentalism and emotional vibrancy. The result for some may be frustratingly jarring. Kubrick was a master of keeping the audience distanced from his protagonists and subject matter, and Spielberg is his antithesis, using every trick in the cinematic bag to pull the audience deep into the heart of the film. For the most part, this contradictory and paradoxical blending of styles works brilliantly well. It allows one to connect deeply with the film, yet it keeps one distant enough to pay close attention to the issues and ideologies inherent in this prophetic examination of the future of the human race.

Spielberg, who casts as meticulously as he directs, has gathered together an ensemble that is combustible and a sheer joy to watch. Australian actress Frances O'Connor and American actor Sam Robards play David's adoptive parents with all the confusion and racist superiority that they can muster. A more chilling portrait of what it means to be (a dysfunctional) family has not been created on celluloid since Robert Redford's brilliant Ordinary People.

The inimitable and prolific Jude Law plays Gigolo Joe with such seductive sexuality and such charismatic aplomb that even the most machine-like human would fall prey to his wily ways and his titillating temptations. Law, one of the most mercurial performers around, creates a character who is so layered and nuanced that he becomes not only David's guide through the film but also ushers the audience through this futuristic fiasco.

Heading the cast, as David, is the amazing Haley Joel Osment who has cemented his reputation as a stupendous actor (child or adult) who under Spielberg's spell may walk away with the second Oscar nomination of his young life. Osment will break your heart and Spielberg knows that fully well. As Osment becomes the Pinocchio of the future, an inanimate doll who so desperate-ly wants to be human that he will try anything and literally go to the ends of the earth, this young actor so convincingly layers his character's hopes and failings that one wonders if Osment is not some perfectly manufactured actor who never misses a beat.

Michael Kahn's editing is fluid and effortlessly seduces or distances the viewer as the needs may be. Janusz Kaminski's camera work is flawless. He enables Spielberg's vision with such grace and beauty that this film is as stellar to behold as it is stunning to contemplate. Rick Carter's production design is mesmerizing, and he along with Kahn and Kaminski could very well walk off with more Oscars next year to add to the ones that they have already won for previous collaborations with Spielberg. The costumes by Bob Ringwood are exemplary and his work enhances this vision of the future with artistic purity and visionary prowess.

While Spielberg deserves many, many kudos for his work on A.I., he probably deserves the biggest congratulations for reigning in John Williams's score, which is so understated and bolsters the film so beautifully. It is hard to imagine that this score belongs to Williams, a prolific composer who often likes to call attention to his work by overtaking the other aspects of the film with its loudness, its unrelenting emotional manipulation and its often hackneyed and regurgitated melodies. Here, Williams is in a "less is more" mode and it works wonders for the film.

Spielberg is a master of excesses and sometimes he triumphs with his over-indulgences and sometimes he falls flat. If there is one flaw in this film, it is that Spielberg doesn't know when to call it quits. His final sequence, although integral to David's magnificent voyage, with its emphasis on aliens and extra-terrestrial life forms, dilutes the very pertinent issues that the rest of the film raises about love, the double-edged sword that is Artificial Intelligence, and about the nature of nurturing.

Regardless of this flaw, arising from hallmark overindulgence on Spielberg's part, A.I. is an extremely relevant, incredibly important and undyingly avant garde in its prophetic subtexts. Once again Spielberg has reinvented himself without betraying his core cinematic values and beliefs. Once again he has created a seminal piece of cinema. And once again Spielberg has proven that he is one of the most amazing directors ever. There is absolutely nothing artificial about the sheer intelligence and artistic genius with which this film has been made by Spielberg and his prolific collaborators. - (August 2001)

July 2001
War is hell ... and so is this movie: The bomb that is Pearl Harbor!

War is hell! And film has been interested in capturing that hell, with varying degrees of success, from the black-and-white epics of yesteryear to the digitally manufactured Technicolor extravaganzas of today. What makes war hell is not simply the devastating destruction of property and the colossal death toll that ensues, but the reverberating psychological effects, for ages to come, on both those who fought the war and those who survived it. There are many brilliant examples of great war movies that are great not because they displayed in explosive detail the ways in which bombs blow up and guns kill, but because of the ways in which they were able to portray how that hell lingers in the hearts and minds and souls of those touched by war.

In recent years, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Mallick's The Thin Red Line, have both shown the existential effects of war that are far more compelling than limbs being blown off, jugulars bleeding profusely or bodies flying through the air like some cadaveresque ballet. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse
Now, recently re-released with extra footage, was a mind-blowing film about the psychological degradation caused by war - the hell that exists within, created by the hell witnessed from without.

Now we have Pearl Harbor, a film touching one of the most pivotal moments not only in American history but in World history. Brought to the silver screen by Director Michael Bay and Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Pearl Harbor is a messy film that tends to meander aimlessly and seems to suggest that hell in war is simply the pyrotechnics of it all. As a result, the film comes across as some sort of action adventure peppered with a good heaping of romance, making one wonder how badly history can possibly be reinterpreted, retold and repackaged.

With all due respect to the very successful, very powerful, and very rich Bay and Bruckheimer, Pearl Harbor has more holes in it than the fastest sinking ships on that fateful day of December 7, 1941. The movie, which has been showing previews for the better part of a year before its release, has done terribly at the box office, has been lambasted by most critics; and Disney, who bankrolled and distributed the film, has been floundering to repackage it in order to sell the film to more and more audiences worldwide.

By all prior buzz, Pearl Harbor had the potential to do explosively well. After all, it would pull in the World War II crowd interested in seeing a film about what Roosevelt called "a date that will live in infamy." And because of the romantic ménage à trois at the center of the film, the Titanic crowd was expected to pour in and make Pearl Harbor an unsinkable success!

Again, with all due deference to Bay and Bruckheimer, who have given us such blockbuster films as Bad Boys (with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence), The Rock (with Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage), and Armageddon (with Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler), they were simply the wrong team to entrust this subject matter with. Both Bay and Bruckheimer come from the world of advertising. To entrust them with creating a meaningful film about the events surrounding Pearl Harbor is like expecting Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to effectively and honestly co-author a book about "The Valuable Virtues and Amazing Attributes of Liberalism."

Bay directs Pearl Harbor like an extensive commercial for Kodak. The kaleidoscopic colors are vibrant and saturated, the hallucinatory hues are popping off the screen as if to say "Buy me! Buy me!" The glossy quality creates an illusory distancing that seems to detract and diminish the gore, the guts and the glory of the subject and its protagonists.

At the center of the film are two daring young pilots, Rafe and Danny Walker played by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett respectively. At the center of their lives is a vivacious young nurse Evelyn Johnson played by British screen siren Kate Beckinsale. These three are not historical figures but amalgamated fictions, and therein lies the main problem in the film. It seems as though the filmmakers couldn't decide whether they were making a war film with a romance in it or a romantic film where war was merely the backdrop for their broken hearts, their gooey-eyed reminiscings and their unrequited yearnings. The "date" that truly "live[s] in infamy" here is not December 7, 1941, but rather the moment when these star-crossed lovers first meet.

Rafe falls in love with Evelyn very rapidly and in a very goofy sequence of events where she immunizes him on his bare bottom and overdoses him with the vaccine. Rafe is then called away to England to fight with the Royal Air Force (an historical inaccuracy and improbability - one of many in the film). News gets back to Evelyn that Rafe has died in valiant service to his nation. She dolefully mourns him, her sorry soul making her all the more attractive to Danny, Rafe's best friend and karmic brother.

Eventually, Evelyn decides that she must move on, realizing that Rafe will not be coming back. (She's in a Hollywood blockbuster! What was she thinking? Of course he's coming back!) So Rafe returns to find Evelyn and Danny well settled; and war be damned, Rafe finds this battle far more significant than anything going on in Europe at the time. Danny, Rafe and Evelyn are split asunder. As though these many clichés were not enough, we are bombarded with the issue of a baby germinating somewhere in Evelyn's anorexic womb. Oh, woe is them! (Interpersonal) war is indeed hell!!!

Somewhere around this corny ménage à trois, a smallish event known as the invasion of Pearl Harbor comes along to further complicate these poor lovers' plight! How dare the Japanese! I mean, weren't they thinking of what this would do to these three, once-good friends, now mortal enemies worse
than the Japanese and the Americans!

If my description of events seems ridiculous, you can't imagine how much more ridiculous it was to actually watch it all. In fact, the scenes where Evelyn writes letters to Danny or reads one of the millions of letters he seems to have sent to her during his brief stint in Europe are amazingly ludicrous. She is always sitting by crashing waves or in a dazzling sunset, making all those sequences seem like some tawdry commercial for a feminine hygiene product. Pearl Harbor meets Vagisil!

Of course, war happens, martyrs are made, and Rafe, Evelyn and Danny are eventually reconciled. The film seems to give as much importance to the ravages of the actual invasion as it does to the ravages of love on these three terribly photogenic, terribly virtuous, and terribly trite caricatures. And it seems to give as much glory to the eventual victory of the Americans as it does to the eventual reconciliation of the three lovers. It's a messy, messy film; and just because it looks good doesn't mean it's good to look at!

There's a very crucial moment that gives away the shallowness of this film. In the middle of the most horrendous invasion that America has ever witnessed and probably will ever witness, the film throws in a scene between Danny and Evelyn in which Danny whimpers and whines about how he can't understand how Evelyn could have moved on and got it on with Danny! Rafe simply doesn't comprehend why Evelyn didn't give herself up to some nunnery and sacrifice herself to lifelong celibacy. You dolt! She thought you were dead!

It is with this scene, sequenced during the battle and the ensuing plot to avenge the Japanese, that we realize this film has been made with a very, very contemporary lens, that it has been made with the attitudes of the "Me Generation" of the 1980s and 1990s, and not with the sacrificial and patriotic lens of the World War II heroes. Rafe comes across as a childish, irrational and whiny man-child, and truly if the likes of Rafe had been entrusted with the war, Main Streets all across America today would be known as Tokyo Avenue!

Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale and Josh Hartnett do what they can given this clumsy script by Randall Wallace (Braveheart). Affleck is a true superstar now and his portrayals have subsequently become more and more image oriented as opposed to having anything to do with serious acting. Beckinsale does what she can given that she seems to be floating through an extended, nostalgic-laden commercial for Coke or Vagisil. As long as she smiles well and bobs her hair with the right energy and in the right direction, director Bay seems to think she's been acting.

Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in an insulting role as a gung-ho lowlife in the navy who actually gets to shoot down some planes and prove that black people are as good as whites! John Voight's performance as President Roosevelt is astonishingly good, and Alec Baldwin pulls his own weight as Colonel James H. Doolittle. In a laughably ludicrous scene (totally historically inaccurate), "Roosevelt struggles and stands up on his crippled feet to prove to his advisers that if he can stand up, gosh darn it, then America can beat those sneaky japs!" It's stupid moments like this that make Pearl Harbor sink faster than the Titanic.

The film is not all bad. But given the gravities of the history behind the events at Pearl Harbor, a golden opportunity has been squandered away by a pair of film-makers who should stick to fantasy action-adventures where gloss overrules guts and glory. In June the film was opened to a crowd of 30,000 Japanese citizens in the Tokyo Dome. In the land of the rising sun, the film was packaged purely as a romantic extravaganza. Sort of a South Pacific meets Gone With the Wind. And, of course, it was retooled a bit to make it less offensive to the Japanese.

I am certain that the intentions of Disney, Bay, and Bruckheimer were indeed honest, grand, and genuine. Yet, given their past filmmaking experiences and their proclivity towards spectacle over story, they ended up with an irritating grain of sand and no pearl whatsoever.

Here's the true moral of the story. Bay, Bruckheimer, and Disney, because of the sensitive nature of the history and the huge budget poured into it, were backed into a corner of having to make both a commercially correct film and a politically correct film. Neither approach is honest and together they are somewhat irreconcilable, giving new box-office meaning to the bombing of "Pearl Harbor." War may be hell, but it doesn't compare to three hours of a botched cinematic event. Anyone who managed to sit through this mangled mess deserves their medal of valor and honor!!! - (July 2001)

May 2001
Around The World in Three Films: Blow, The Widow of Saint-Pierre, and Yi Yi

With last year's Oscars just past, the new season of films has begun. And, as usual this early on, most of the releases are pure duds or geared mainly towards the Clearsil and younger generations. But a few films have managed to stick out, and I would argue that there are even some sure-fire awards contenders already.

The New Line Cinema release Blow tells the true-to-life story of the introduction of cocaine into the United States as a cool, chic consumer drug during the 1970s. Because of the startling efforts and business acumen of George Jung, and a cohort of other smugglers, pushers and peddlers, a relatively obscure drug becomes a multi-million dollar business of international proportions.

Blow tells the story of the young and entrepreneurial Jung who understands the how-to's of the American Dream all too well and becomes an overnight star, a star who burns strong and bright, never once wavering from his chosen profession.

This very American tale of boy-next-door turned drug kingpin has garnered a lot of hostility from some in the conservative press and public for portraying a drug lord with sympathy, humanity and even some sense of heroic dignity. These are the same people who would tell you that the war on drugs is working! So consider the source. It always amazes me when I hear people talking about how such movies glorify the drug trade and the related habit, thereby encouraging vulnerable viewers to indulge. Balderdash! I have seen just about every drug film there is and I have yet to snort my first line of blow! This film will no more convince people to do cocaine than "Snow White" convinced people to stay away from apples.

Blow, as directed by Ted Demme, is no cinematic masterpiece, but it is a film worth watching for its period nuances and its overall strong performances. Johnny Depp, who is always interesting to watch, portrays the playboy Jung. Spanish star and uber-beauty Penelope Cruz plays Mirtha, the ravishing party girl who becomes Jung's wife. Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths play George's parents, who as your middle-of-the-road average Americans, are unable to deal with their prodigious and prodigal son. Paul Reubens of Pee-wee Herman fame, does a turn as Derek Foreal, a hairdresser who uses his salon as a front for trafficking in obscene amounts of dope and blow.

The film's twists and turns of typical drug-related betrayals and back-stabbings come as no surprise. After all, these people were hardly looking for sanctification from the Pope. Yet, when the film focuses on the human stories of George, his parents, and his cabal of cocaine connections, the story achieves some depth and emotional interest.

Depp's performance is assertive and surefooted. He doesn't reach for cheap sentiments or hokey emotions as an actor, and it serves him extremely well. Cruz, who is probably one of the most stunningly beautiful people to have graced the silver screen in recent memory, turns in a fiery and fiercely flamboyant performance as the party girl who loves the highs but can't cope with the lows. Liotta and Griffiths as the Jung parents are strong, although their roles have been written in with some clichés and cartoonesque absurdities that even these accomplished actors aren't always able to escape.

From the drug-drenched seventies, the next movie under discussion transports us to the cold landscape of the French settle-ments on the eastern islands of Canada. The Widow of Saint-Pierre, a French import, starring the ever-luminous Juliet Binoche and the ever-consistent Daniel Auteuil, is a stunningly vivid and volup-tuous film that takes us into the heart of capital punishment.

Last month, Ohio was plunged into debate over the execution of J.D. Scott, who was set to die despite many expert opinions that he was mentally ill. A last-minute reprieve from the Ohio Supreme Court ensures that this debate will continue unabated. And this month, not only does Timothy McVeigh, notorious mastermind behind the Oklahoma City bombing, get executed, but his death by lethal injection will be broadcast to survivors and family members of the victims of that epoch of American terrorism. Capital punishment continues to be a tenacious and polarizing issue in America and the world at large. The Widow of Saint-Pierre is a study of the long-standing traditions behind such punishment and the lasting issues that have continued to confound the modern world, supposedly more civilized than its predecessors.

The film is really a meditation on the power of capital punishment and those that apply it. But it is also a sobering investigation into the power of redemption and the ability of humans to change, from within, beyond recognition. Binoche, who is amazingly quiet and powerful in this performance, plays the Captain's (Auteuil) wife, a woman who makes it her mission to transform the prisoner who has been sentenced to die. The prisoner, Neel Auguste, played with grace and dignity by Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica, is at the center of the debate about death and redemption.

The fledgling settlement off the coast of Newfoundland in 1850, having sentenced its first murderer to die, finds itself in the odd position of not having a guillotine to carry out the deed. As they wait for the device to arrive, by ship from France, the movie delves into the debate of crime and punishment, often taking the position that the punishment is a crime itself. Stunningly shot, brilliantly acted, strongly directed by veteran auteur Patrice Leconte and passionately told, this film is a must-see, particularly in our day and age, when guillotines abound, but the struggle over capital punishment remains unabated and unmitigatingly unresolved.

Leaving colonial Canada behind, Yi Yi allows us to journey to contemporary Taiwan, to a world that is precariously caught between the ancient and the modern. Yi Yi is an amazingly quiet film that is so brimming with emotional undulations and humanistic undercurrents that by the end of this celluloid experience, the heart and the mind are absolutely overflowing.

It is unarguably true that in the last decade or so Chinese films have been some of the best-made in the world and Yi Yi is the best of the best. Set in contemporary Taiwan, the film tells the story of a menagerie of individuals, most of them from one family, who are caught up in the minutiae of life. The film relates multiple stories, all inexorably intertwined, like some ball of cosmic yarn; and each story is told with detailed emotional dexterity and nuanced human yearnings.

In Yi Yi (which gets its title from a jazz syncopation meaning "a one and a two"), there is the father who is trying to hold his family together as his mother lies in a stroke-induced coma. There is his wife, who seems to have lost all sense of self and certainty, deciding to run off to the mountains in search of spiritual salvation. There are their two children, a teen-aged daughter who feels responsible for her grandma's illness, and the eight-year-old son who, unbeknownst to himself, is a philosopher searching for cosmic mysteries through his camera.

In addition to this nuclear family, there are a host of relatives, friends and neighbors, all tossing and turning on the waves of life's vast waters. The film makes no commentary about these tumultuous lives, it doesn't deign to preach about our universal longings, and it never once pretends to answer the questions that it so deftly and deliberately deposits into our collective consciousness and consciences.

The film is shot with such restraint and reticence that the audience is consistently watching these lives, but always from a bit of a distance, although never voyeuristical-ly intrusive. This psychological proclivity of the lens is amazingly powerful in its cumulative impact by the end of the film, which is sure to overwhelm.

The performances here are equally brilliant and brimming over with the burdens, banalities and effulgence of human existence. No one misses a step, and this is an ensemble film if ever there was one. The film and its prolific performances unfold like a Zen meditation, a slow dance between life and death. There is magic in the simplest moments and monumental mysteries in the minutiae of life. Jonathan Chang who plays the young son is superbly moving in an unassuming yet mesmerizing performance. He is the soul of the film, the hope for the jaded and the seeker of truth.

Yi Yi is not to be missed. It is nowhere as flashy as the hugely popular Crouching Tiger! Hidden Dragon, the most recent Chinese import from Taiwanese director Ang Lee. But in many ways Yi Yi is a far more sophisticated and stunning film. It creeps up on you like a long-lost friend or lover in whose warm embrace you instantly overflow with love, longing and lust for this crazy dance we call life. (May 2001)

March 2001
Oscars' Faux Pas: 18 Inches of Gilded Regrets

It is hard to live by regrets alone. Especially in the world of the arts where artists are supposed to do what they do because they love the process of creation and communicating to the world about the human condition and all that good stuff! But let's face it, everyone loves recognition, even the most introspective of artists. So with the onset of awards season, with the Oscar nominations just announced, it's time to take a trip down memory lane to some of the most regrettable omissions and snubs in the last two decades of the golden boy with 18 inches!

Before launching into a mournful paean to those who should have been nominated or those who were but didn't win, let me say two things. These are simply my opinions. Based, of course, on careful study, detailed insights and an astute understanding of cinematic history and aesthetics. So if you don't agree, too bad! Go write your own list of regrets. Secondly, it is important to acknowledge the obvious. The Oscars are not so much about who deserves to win, but rather about two factors completely outside of artistic merit. Firstly, the more you are snubbed for great work, the greater chance you have of getting a consolation prize many years down the road. And secondly, if you have a great marketing machine behind you, mediocrity not only gets nominated, it oftentimes wins. So much for what's truly deserving. See, even Hollywood has its imperfections and burdens to cart around.

This year has already started out with some miserable oversights on the part of the Academy. How could this year's list of major nominees not have given more credence to Billy Elliot and Dancer in the Dark, and their two respective stars Jamie Bell and Bjork. Both should have been up for best film, and both Bell and Bjork should have been nominated in their acting categories. Bell is too young and frankly too good for most Academy voters.

If Haley Joel Osment deserved an Oscar nod last year for his brilliant turn in The Sixth Sense, then Bell should have been given the statuette this year. Instead, he doesn't even get a nomination. Geoffrey Rush, who is normally brilliant gets a nod for Quills, a terrible film at best. Ralph Feinnes who played men from three Hungarian generations in Sunshine, deserved it over Rush. In Oscar Land there is no thespian justice.

Bjork's performance was so nakedly vulnerable and mesmerizingly marvelous that she should have been given a special Oscar this year for breaking all the boundaries of brilliant performances. Moreover, her meticulous score and haunting musical numbers should have been nominated as well. She did get a Best Song nomination but will probably lose to sentimental favorite Bob Dylan whose win this year will be a life-time achievement award as opposed to Best Song for this year. Catherine Deneuve should also have been nominated as Supporting Actress for Dancer, but the movie was too honest, too daring and too bleak for the Academy which favors sentimental schlock more often than not. Which is also why Traffic, although nominated for Best Film, has a snowball's chance in hell of winning the top honor.

But Bjork, Bell and Deneuve are not the first to be snubbed for their brilliance. My first memories of true Oscar horrors are from 1985 when Steven Spielberg's epic The Color Purple, had 11 nominations and didn't win a single one. It should have clean swept them all. To not have given Whoopi Goldberg that year's Best Actress trophy is a crying shame and to have denied Oprah Winfrey the Supporting Actress Award is equally dismal. Margaret Avery who played Shug in The Color Purple should have tied with Oprah that year. But Spielberg was not the favorite son then and the uproar from the African-American community over a white man making a great black film didn't help, it only distracted from the true genius and beauty of that film. In 1990, Whoopi was compensated for that awards' gaff with a Supporting Actress trophy for the good yet not quite Oscar caliber performance in Ghost.

Robert Downey, Jr. should have won the Best Actor trophy hands down in 1992 for playing Charlie Chaplin. Instead, Al Pacino was rewarded for Scent of A Woman, a sentimental role, yet not one of his best pieces of acting, ignored many times before by the voters. The following year Ralph Feinnes should have won for playing the evil Amon Goethe in Schindler's List, but he lost to Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive. Two probable explanations can be given for this. Firstly, Tommy Lee Jones was in virtually every film around that time and so his face was unmissable. Secondly, by rewarding Feinnes with the prize, the Academy didn't want to appear as giving a nod to a hateful Nazi. Only Hollywood can think that simplistically sometimes.

That Forest Gump won over Pulp Fiction in 1994 is a crime worse than any depicted in the latter of the two films. In 1997, Matt Damon lost to Jack Nicholson. While Nicholson was as good as he gets in As Good As It Gets, Damon's turn in Good Will Hunting was a very brave and honest performance. That same year Mark Wahlberg should have been nominated in Damon's category for his great acting in Boogie Nights.

In 1998, Cate Blanchett should have beaten Gwyneth Paltrow. Blanchett's depiction of Elizabeth I was far more complex than the romantic ingenue played by Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love. But oftentimes Americans edge out foreigners in tightly run races proving that Hollywood is only truly global when it comes to counting box office receipts.

Damon was robbed again in 1999 when he didn't even get nominated for his maniacal misfit in The Talented Mr. Ripley. That too was a complex and brave bit of acting, and the film itself should have been more richly rewarded. But the Academy apparently thought that Minghella had been aptly rewarded for his The English Patient in 1997 and thus decided to give others a turn in 1999. Damon's snub notwithstanding, that year's Best Actor nod should have gone to Russell Crowe for his sharp turn in The Insider over Spacey's good but same-as-always acting in American Beauty. Now because of that year's silliness we'll have to sit and watch Russell Crowe be compen-sated this year for Gladiator.Some other noteworthy snubs in the past 20 years include: Toni Collette not being nominated and winning for the sadly funny Muriel's Wedding; Gattaca and Searching for Bobby Fisher, not getting plenty of nominations and awards making them two of the most underrated films ever; Michelle Pfeiffer not being nominated for her over-the-top Catwoman; and the fact that Martin Scorsese has not yet won a Best Director trophy while Kevin Costner, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and Mel Gibson all have.

This year too, in addition to the awful snubs to Dancer in the Dark and Billy Elliot, there will be silly voting choices that have little to do with who deserves the award and more as to who needs compensation and who had the best marketing. How else to explain Chocolat's five nominations over much better films this year. Harvey Weinstein of Miramax bought Chocolat's nods this year. A Czech immigrant from Dancer, and a male dancer named Billy Elliot from Northern England don't stand a chance against that kind of buying power.

Sometimes, even a gilded 18 inches doesn't go very far in Hollywood! (March 2001)

Danish Director Creates Mesmerizing Musical

The best musical film in a very, very long time has a very odd cinematic lineage - set in 1964 in the Pacific Northwest, it stars a divine French actress, and Icelandic techno-pop star waif, directed by a Danish director and immerses itself in issues of blindness, motherhood, the working class, and capital punishment. But this musical is also about the power of musicals as escapism. As such it breathes new life into our understanding regarding the impact of music on the human psyche.

The movie under scrutiny here is Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark starring Catherine Deneuve, Bjork, David Morse, and American musical theatre legend Joel Gray. A few years ago, Von Trier gave us an equally complex and brilliant film in Breaking the Waves, helping to launch the career of dazzling Emily Watson. In that film he gave us the story of a crippled husband living out his depraved sexual fantasies by turning his wife into a whore. Watson was deservedly nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and, if the Academy has any sense and even one aesthetic bone in its collective body, Dancer in the Dark should garner many nominations - Best Actress, Song and Music for Bjork, Best Supporting Actress for Deneuve, and Best Director, Screenplay and Film for Von Trier.

Dancer starts off as a very engaging, slice-of-life, social drama before it transports you deliriously into its surrealistic world of a musically obsessed woman, Selma (Bjork). Selma, a Czech immigrant working in a tool shop, is rapidly losing her eyesight. Her son, Gene (Vladica Kostic) is also affected by the family disease, but it's not too late for him to be saved by a very costly operation. Selma scrimps and saves and works double shifts, despite her optical condition, for her son's procedure. In all this drab and dreary drudgery she does find time for her one indulgence - musicals.

Selma is an ardent Fred Astaire fan and she and her factory mate, Kathy (Deneuve), steal away to matinees and are rehearsing in the local amateur production of The Sound of Music. The movie takes a surreal and dark turn when Selma is fired from her job and framed for the brutal murder of her scummy landlord who is also the town sheriff (David Morse). Selma's life begins to unravel and her plans to cure her son are derailed. What ensues is a gory and metaphysical train wreck, a series of episodes that spiral out of control, leading to an ending that is predictable, yet doesn't fail to deeply affect one's heart, mind, and soul.

It may seem ridiculous, even sacrilegious, to inject musical numbers into such a story, but Von Trier's sheer genius allows him to create a seamless whole that is deeply magical and hauntingly real. All but the last musical number are escapist pieces, concocted by Selma, to keep her alive, quite literally and metaphorically. While they are sunny and radiant, the song and dance sequences reveal the undercurrents of pathos, tragedy, and impending human peril.

As Selma's sight deteriorates, sound becomes her entrée into images. Von Trier's directing is at its best as we see Selma sublimate the mundane world of sight for the explosive galaxies of sound and music. Of course, Von Trier has exceptional musical help from his star Bjork, who has written and performed the music with sublime perfection. The detail in images constructed around the deterioration of Selma's sight are supremely haunting and tragic.

Bjork's performance is so good it seems hard to believe. This is probably the best debut performance in a very long time and it deservedly won Best Actress at Cannes this year. Hilary Swank's performance last year in Boy's Don't Cry was superb and Bjork's performance is as good and as daring if not more so. Deneuve has never seemed this comfortable in a role and the subtlety and love that she infuses her performance with is a rarity in modern cinema.

Von Trier shot the film digitally, allowing him to do some cutting edge work with closeups, camera work, and image quality. The musical sequences are shot in a crisp, color-rich format while the "real life" scenes are grainier, more subdued in the palette. This visual contrast and disjunction metaphorically and visually spells out the distinction between reality and fantasy according to Von Trier's escapist notions. Much of Von Trier's cinematic style includes the jittery use of handheld cameras. While this is really effective at times it does get in the way sometimes. If there is one criticism here it is that Von Trier should use his hand-held camera with more discretion – it would increase the power of his images and the impact of his films, as though that were possible!

The ending of Dancer, much like Breaking the Waves, is devastating. In one simple image, as Kathy hands Selma her son's eyeglasses, Selma's martyrdom becomes prolifically holy. There is a lot of spiritual imagery in his films and Von Trier is obsessed with issues of sacrifice and martyrdom amongst women. This is as much a movie about motherhood as it is about anything else.

It is hard to believe a review as glowing as this, so I must temper my enthusiasm with some real reactions I have received from some of my friends. People either love it or hate it. My friend Sean and I agree that it is brilliant, and in some ways we think that to give it Oscars and awards would somehow cheapen the sheer genius of the film, its maker and its performers. My friend Greg, on the other hand, hated the film violently, claiming that he would "rather have pushed thumb tacks into his eyeballs" and that "Von Trier is the one who should have been hanged at the end." Regardless, it seems that Von Trier is incapable of eliciting moderate or lukewarm reactions to his movies.

Dancer in the Dark is a very brave, very honest, and very moving film. The last 15 minutes are earth-shattering in their emotional rawness and poignancy. Von Trier develops a beautiful relationship in the prison between Selma and one of her female guards, who turns in one of the film's richest supporting roles. As Selma stands strapped to a board, waiting to be hanged, she sings one last song, which is the only non-fantasy number in the film. It is gut wrenching in Bjork's complete release at the end. Von Trier is certainly not a sentimentalist. In many ways he is an anti-sentimentalist and yet his images are as powerful and meaningful as any in contemporary cinema. (2000)

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