Reviews

Boys And Girls


Directed by: Robert Iscove
Written by:Andrew Lowery, Andrew Miller
Starring: Freddie Prinze Jr, Claire Forlani, Jason Biggs, Heather Donahue
Released: November 9, 2000
Grade: C-

Despite my strong disliking for them, I’m usually in a relaxed frame of mind when checking out the latest teen flick.  No thought is required and a showcase of young talent on display.  Ten minutes into Boys And Girls, it occurred to me that I’ve just got to stop going to these movies - they may be addictive but they sure are bad.

The story opens with Ryan (Prinze Jnr) and Jennifer (Forlani) bumping into each other at several points across the early years of their lives.  When the film settles, we find them at college where they develop a strong friendship but neither seems to have much luck when it comes to love.  From the opening minute it is painfully clear to the audience that the two are perfect for each other and will ultimately end up together.  Yet somehow our two stars find it necessary to draw it out for another 93 minutes.

I squirmed and squirmed trying to slink deeper and deeper into my seat, wanting to escape from the whole experience.  When you take the director of She’s All That and combine with the writer of Color Of Night, you can start saying your prayers.  It’s a love story so commercial, you’ll feel like it’s been written straight from a screenwriter’s textbook.  Rule number 1: If you’re going to tackle a genre that’s been done many times before at least try to make it different.

I never walk out of films but this is as close as I’ve gone this year.  The last half hour was spent slipping in and out of consciousness.  Boys And Girls should not be approached at any cost and is considered dangerous to your future wellbeing.

    

The Replacements


Directed by: Howard Deutch
Written by:Vince McKewin
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Gene Hackman, Brooke Langton, Orlando Jones, Jack Warden
Released: November 9, 2000
Grade: B-

The players’ strike began officially at 4pm.  Washington team owner Ed O’Neil (Warden) calls in friend and former coach Jimmy McGinty (Hackman) to round up a team of “replacements” within a week.  Washington needs to win three of their last four games to make the playoffs.

McGinty wants total control over team selection.  His list of players consists entirely of “has beens” and those that “never were” but they’ve all caught the eye of McGinty some time over his career.  His quarterback is Shane Falco (Reeves), a college star who choked four years ago in the Sugarbowl (when the team lost by 45 points) and was never heard from again.

Athletes don’t often get a second chance but for this team, that opportunity has been presented to them.  They’ve got nothing to lose and everything to play for.  A chance to make amends for past disappointments.

The pitiful screenplay from Vince McKewin (Fly Away Home) takes stereotypes to an unattainable level.  Every team member has their own heartbreak story and it’s tiring to listen to and believe them all.  Reeves has a love interest in Brooke Langton which nothing more than a frivolous distraction.  It’s as if the story doesn’t know what it wants to be.  It tries to throw in laughs, romance, drama, action and in the end, it adds up to a zero interest value.

What they were thinking in getting Howard Deutch to direct?  Just look at his last two films, Grumpier Old Men and The Odd Couple 2, and one tells you that he’s not a guy who’ll bring flair to this production.  His direction is flat and when compared against that of Oliver Stone’s in this year’s other big football flick, Any Given Sunday, it looks even worse.  The football scenes were confusing and I could  not understand his insistence on showing the cheergirls every ten seconds.

As much as I loathed The Replacements, the two performances from Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman shone.  I have never rated Keanu Reeves as an actor but my respect has increased over the past two years.  When he rejected Speed 2, the press ridiculed him but he rebounded with The Matrix, winner of four Academy Awards.  Here, Reeves underplays his role and shows that a leader need not necessarily be the most outspoken.

Gene Hackman was equally impressive as coach McGinty.  He’s in a similar position to the replacements in that this is going to be one of his last opportunities to coach at this level.  He’s not loud, he doesn’t shout at the players - he’s there to have fun and it’s invigorating to see a coach played that way.  Hackman also has the honour of closing the film with a line that epitomises the feeling one has for his character - “greatness, however brief, stays with a man.”

     

What Lies Beneath


Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by:Clark Gregg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Scarwid, Joe Morton, James Remar, Miranda Otto, Katharine Towne
Released: November 2, 2000
Grade: B

We meet Dr Norman Spencer (Ford) and his wife Claire (Pfeiffer) in their perfect little house in a perfect part of the country and everything is well, perfect.  You sort of know what’s going to happen next now don’t you?  Everything becomes not quite so perfect.

Every time Norman is out, Claire hears strange creaks and noises from within the house.  At first she dispels these occurrences but when they persistently continue and an illusion starts appearing, things are getting a little scary. 

So who is this mysterious illusion and why does she inhabit their home?  I hate to give more away but if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll already know the answer.  Why 20th Century Fox would choose to give away the key secret of the film is beyond me.  It’s like telling everybody before the movie that in Psycho, Norman Bates was impersonating his mother.

Director Robert Zemeckis compares the 20th Century Fox strategy to that of McDonalds and its success.  The reason McDonalds is so popular is that there are no surprises and people know exactly what they’re getting.  It is Zemeckis’s theory that cinema goers work in a similar vein - people like to go to a movie knowing what they’re in for (and can I add Double Jeopardy as another good example this year).  This astounds me particularly when the whole point of a thriller is to shock and surprise.

Given I knew who the apparition was, I sat impatiently through the first hour waiting for her identity to be revealed.  It seems that this wasn’t the only ghost to appear - Alfred Hitchcock appears to have risen from the grave himself to direct What Lies Beneath.  I have the utmost respect for Zemeckis in light of his last film, Contact, but his insistence on creating a Hitchcock-like film doesn’t quite result in the intended effect.  Things have changed since his era.

Music is kept to a minimum, the smallest sounds are amplified, and tricky camera angles will have you jumping from your seat more than once.  The film is quite scary but ruined by a ludicrous ending that has you questioning rather than enjoying the finale.  At film’s end, someone tries to kill someone else (that’s all I can say).  Firstly, I cannot understand why the person in question would try to kill the other.  Secondly, I cannot understand the method of killing and finally, I cannot understand how the other person escapes.  That sounds very vague I know but you’ll read them in a new light once you’ve seen the movie.

Michelle Pfeiffer is well suited to her role despite it being very different from her “norm” and it’s great to see her in action.  Harrison Ford’s role is much smaller and fans will be disappointed by his weaker showing (both in terms of time and performance).  Australian fans hoping to catch Miranda Otto can stay home as she features for not much more than a minute.

After dominating the box-office in the United States, What Lies Beneath is yet another in the ever growing list of Dreamworks blockbusters.  A film worth recommending if only we didn’t know “what lies beneath”.

     

Snatch


Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Written by:Guy Ritchie
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Farina, Vinnie Jones, Brad Pitt, Jason Stratham, Ewen Bremner, Jason Flemyng
Released: November 9, 2000
Grade: B

In the tradition of his last film Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie has again followed the “English gangster” theme in his follow up, Snatch.  Practically a sequel, Snatch is the story of many people who’s lives cross in a series of coincidences.

Turkish (Stratham) and Tommy (Stephen Graham) are two regular guys setting up a rigged boxing match for Brick Top (Alan Ford).  They’ve arranged for their boxer to go down in the fourth round so Brick Top and his friends can cash in with the bookies.  Two days before the fight, Tommy goes in search of a new caravan for Turkish and winds up in a gypsy community.  When an argument over price ensues, the boxer is flattened by gypsy Mickey O’Neill (Pitt), leaving them without a fight.  To save face, they convince Mickey to take his place in the ring.

Meanwhile in America, Uncle Avi (Farina) is overjoyed to find the jewel heist he organised has gone off without a hitch.  Franky Four Fingers (Del Toro) with his Russian crew stole an 84-carat diamond in Antwerp and has fled to London waiting to return to the States.  Franky has a nasty gambling habit and Avi is just hoping Franky can stay out of trouble.  That won’t be as easy as Franky has gotten wind of the fixed fight and wants a piece of the action.

Russian Boris The Blade (Rade Serbedzija) isn’t letting Franky just walk out of London with the diamond.  He’s arranged two pawnshop owners, Vinny (Robbie Gee) and Sol (Lennie James) to intercept Franky at the fight.

There are even more characters but to save you from total confusion, we’ll leave it at that.  The fundamental problem with Snatch is whilst well acted and directed, it is all too similar to Lock, Stock and other recent English films.  The idea has been done to death and one gets the feeling the studios are become less and less adventurous.

A slick soundtrack and quick camerawork add to the film’s positives but a soft ending spoils much of the earlier work.  Rent Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.

     

Shaft


Directed by: John Singleton
Written by:Richard Price, John Singleton, Shane Salerno
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa L. Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Dan Hedaya, Toni Collette
Released: October 26, 2000
Grade: A-

John Shaft (Jackson) is the gun detective of the New York Police Department.   He’s the best there is but takes plenty of flack from the “whiteboys” and John’s worked damn hard to get where he is.  On his latest case, he’s taken to a bar where a young African-American has been bludgeoned to death in what appears to be racially motivated attack.  The top suspect is the son of wealthy real estate tycoon Walter Wade (Bale) but there’s little to hold him on and the only witness, Diane Palmieri (Collette), is keeping tight lipped.

When Wade is released on bail and flees the country, Shaft is disgusted but knows that one day he’ll get his man.  That date comes two years later when tipped off to his arrival back into the U.S. but  after arresting him again, the judge grants bail.  Fed up with the legal system, Shaft turns in his badge, says “fuck the job” and decides to take justice into his own hands.  His primary goal is to track down Diane and get her to testify before Wade and his hitmen get there first.

The original Shaft was released in 1971 and starred Richard Roundtree, who makes a cameo in this version as Shaft’s uncle.  Having never seen the original I cannot compare but a striking feature of the 2000 version is just how many aspects reminded me of the 1970s.  Whilst it’s a modern day setting (as you can tell with references to sports stars Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter), the police station, neighbourhood and other settings all have a 70s feel as does the snazzy film score from David Arnold.

John Singleton does a great job behind the camera given his passion for the subject material.  Whilst at times a blow ‘em up action fest, the film goes much deeper with its look at discrimination of the African-American community.  Singleton’s previous films include Boyz In The Hood, Poetic Justice and Higher Learning and given his own African-American heritage, you can sure tell he knows what he’s talking about. 

A great example of this comes from the relationship between Shaft and the police chief (played by Daniel von Bargen).  I bagged The Hurricane earlier this year complaining that the detective who put Rubin Carter in jail overplayed his racial intent.  In Shaft, both men are hospitable to each other but there is an underlying subtext in their conversations that shows the chief thinks less of Shaft because of his colour.  This provides more realism and interest by not painting the boundaries so clearly. 

Christian Bale plays the villain well and I still hope he’s in line for an Oscar nomination next February for American Psycho.  The villain is always the toughest character to play and Bale gives the role depth rather than turning into a James Bond-like super villain who makes all the right moves until the very end.  He’s also assembling some great wardrobes if you check out his costumes in both this and Psycho.

One can’t overlook Samuel L. Jackson who shows he’s always picking the right roles.  Since his Oscar nominated turn in Pulp Fiction six years ago, he’s built a stunning resume including roles in A Time To Kill, Jackie Brown, The Negotiator, Rules Of Engagement and The Phantom Menace.  This is one of his best performances and few can imagine anyone else filling Shaft’s shoes.  You can also tell just how much he enjoyed making this movie.

Don't be confused in thinking Shaft is a serious drama dealing with racist segregation.  It’s loads of fun mixed with slick lines and a surprising ending.  Be careful whom you do see it with as I haven’t seen more killings nor mentions of the word “fuck” in a single film this year.  Still, Shaft is still the man.

     

Billy Elliot


Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Written by:Lee Hall
Starring: Julie Walters, Jamie Bell, Jamie Draven, Gary Lewis, Jean Heywood
Released: November 2, 2000
Grade: A+

Every year we hear talk about an independent British film made on a shoestring budget that will  steal the hearts of Americans and figure prominently at the Academy Awards (e.g. The Full Monty and Four Weddings & A Funeral).  This year, Billy Elliot is Britain's heavyweight contender and not only does it meet the reputation preceding it, it’s one of the greatest films of all time!

Billy’s mother passed away last year and at age 11 he lives with his older brother Tony (Draven) and his dad (Lewis), both coal miners in a small Northern Ireland town.  The community is at boiling point with the miners on an enduring strike demanding better pay and the companies are refusing to concede to their demands.

Billy is given 50 pence each week by dad for boxing lessons but when he see the girls being taught ballet in the same hall, something inside tells him it’s more his style.  The ballet instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Walters), sees talent in Billy and persuades him to get serious so that he can audition for a spot at the Royal Ballet School in London.  Initially, Billy is doubtful, thinking that all male ballet dancers are “poofs” but the creative flair he has within is just waiting to burst out - he yearns to dance.  However, when his father and brother get word of the lessons, they’re determination to put a stop to it will be just one of many hurdles Billy will have to cross.

I have described Billy Elliot as apt I could but I cannot express the feeling and sentiment that any audience member will appreciate.  I was engrossed from opening to close and it was impossible not to get caught in Billy’s emotional story with its laughter, surprises, suspense and tears.

Director Stephen Daldry is a newcomer to filmmaking but is backed but a strong career in the theatre - his style is different.  During many of the film’s pivotal scenes, several stories are tied in by being shown at once, during the same song, with the camera crossing back and forth quickly between the stories.  He also uses well-crafted camera angles and subtly shows other characters in the background when focusing on one individual.

Lee Hall’s screenplay is also exceptional.  It revolves around the miners’ strike that actually did happen in 1984 and to which Hall was a witness.  Yet amongst all the bitterness it caused between families and in the community, he manages to craft a beautiful story between a boy and his father.  They share a scene on a fence near the film’s end that epitomises this beauty but the triumphant scene came when Billy danced in front of his father in the boxing hall to the music of composer Stephen Warbeck. 

It’s the little things that make the screenplay so rewarding.  The moment where Mrs. Wilkinson reads the letter from Billy’s mom.  The moment where Billy kisses Michael on the cheek and simply says “I’ll see you then”.  The moment where Billy and his father argue about the merits of ballet.  The moment Tony and his dad share at the mine when he crosses the picket line.  The moment when Billy asks “Miss, you don’t fancy me do you?”  The moment when Billy describes what it feels like when he’s dancing.  The moment where Billy opens the envelope from the Royal Ballet School.  Every scene as special as the next and will be long treasured.

The finale is a masterpiece in itself.  As Billy heads away, we see his father and brother going down the mine, Mrs. Wilkinson alone in the boxing hall and Billy alone on the bus.  All their lives have been touched by Billy’s electricity but now they return to the drone that is their lives – it’s the most moving part of the film.  In showing Billy at age 25 and then crossing to flashes of Billy jumping on his bed at age 11, we see just how far Billy has come.  He was once just a small boy with a big dream…

13-year old Jamie Bell plays Billy Elliot in a performance that will have you breathless.  Beating out over 2,000 others for the role, Jamie’s first film will be remembered for his refreshing innocence and his bashful smile.  Jamie has striking similarities with Billy in that he has been dancing since the age of 6 and hidden the talent from even his closest friends.  Since the film’s release, Jamie has been heckled by many for a kissing scene with another boy and had to hire bodyguards as a result.  It makes you wonder why people are insecure enough to focus on such an insignificant detail.  I’m sure they’re the same people who bag guys for getting into ballet and who provided the motivation for Billy Elliot in the first place.  Can a 13-year-old take home the best actor Oscar?  This is as good a chance as any.  The brilliant Julie Walters and Gary Lewis can also star preparing themselves for several acceptance speeches in the new year.

It is ironic that whilst not a film based on a true story, this is a true story based on a film in that Jamie’s life has many parallels with the screenplay.  It’s in a class of it’s own - a feel-good rollercoaster that words will never describe.  It’s “once in a lifetime” films like Billy Elliot that inspire people, including myself, to make the most of one’s life.  A flawless masterpiece.