Reviews

Men Of Honor


Directed by: George Tillman Jr.
Written by:Scott Marshall Smith
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Cuba Gooding Jr, Charlize Theron, Michael Rapaport
Released: February 22, 2001
Grade: B

An adaptation of actual events, Men Of Honor dictates the story of Carl Brasher (played by Cuba Gooding Jr).  As a youth, he toiled on his father's land but enlisted in the U.S. Navy just following World War II to make something of himself.  African-Americans were treated as lower class and Carl's duties were confined to the kitchen aboard the H.M.S. Hoist.  It is there he first met the Navy’s best deep sea diver, Master Chief Billy Sunday (DeNiro).  Billy was the best but in a dangerous rescue attempt he sustained injuries to his lungs and would never dive again.  Carl now knows what he wants.  He wants to become even better than Billy - he wants to become a deep sea diver himself.

Two years pass and Carl breaks long standing barriers to become the first African-American admitted to the Navy's diving school.  Surprisingly enough, the head of the division is Billy Sunday who has taken the position as compensation for his forced retirement.  Carl goes through all the dramas associated with being black in a white man's world but his determination and vow to his father keeps him from giving in.

Without discrediting the African-American's plight for equality, I felt I'd seen this film before and it offered little new perspective.  I knew exactly what would happen and am tiring quickly of films featuring leading black actors in roles that show how the race has been discriminated against (just look at The Hurricane, Rules Of Engagement and Shaft which have all been released in the past 12 months).  I know life hasn't been easy for many but we don't live in a perfect world and many are trying to make it better.

Whilst I don't know Carl Brasher's story personally, it's had a pretty good makeover for cinematic purposes.  I am also getting annoyed with “bad guy” actors overplaying their roles – they’re too smug and too obvious.  In Men Of Honor, it was David Conrad as Commander Hanks who tries to keep Carl Brasher from realising his dreams.

I enjoyed the performances although Charlize Theron's tiny role was fruitless and confusing.  Gooding Jr and DeNiro share passionate scenes together and watching their relationship evolve is the highlight of the film.  Director George Tillman Jr (Soul Food) should also be congratulated as the film features many tense underwater scenes which can be very difficult to shoot.

Men Of Honor tries to inspire but the considerable length and tiring screenplay will distract most audiences leading up to the final courtroom scene.  He may be a great man and a great hero but you just get the feeling that 20th Century Fox is trying just a little too hard.

    

Pay It Forward


Directed by: Mimi Leder
Written by:Leslie Dixon
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Jay Mohr, Jim Caviezel
Released: February 22, 2001
Grade: A-

"Think of an idea to change our world and put the idea into action."  It's an assignment that teacher Eugene Simonet (Spacey) asks his social studies class on the first day of every.  It is for extra credit and those students keen to take up his offer have the whole year to complete it.

11-year-old Trevor McKinney (Osment) tackles Mr Simonet's challenge and comes up with an idea.  It begins simply enough - you do three huge favours for three other people and it has to be something big, something that they can't do for themselves.  Then, when they ask how they can pay you back, you tell them to pay it forward and do three huge favours for three other people.  Thus, in a short space of time, people should be doing favours for everyone all over the world.

Eugene is impressed with Trevor's suggestion but understands that it revolves entirely around the honour system and to put the idea into practice would be an impossibility - there just isn't enough faith in the world.  Soon enough though, Trevor tests his theory and one of his favours is to set up the lonely Mr Simonet with his equally lonely mother, Arlene (Hunt).  Both have been scarred by past relationships but slowly, Trevor melts the hesitation between them.  Can they find the courage from within to let go and take a chance?

Meanwhile, there is a journalist in Los Angeles named Chris Chandler (Mohr) who is involved in a car accident and is given a brand new Jaguar by a stranger in the street under the condition that he pay the favour forward.  This could be a great story.  So he starts out tracing the "movement" back to where it began...

Having read the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, I felt that Pay It Forward would translate into overly sentimental tripe on the big screen.  I was wrong.  The adaptation was true to the story's heart and was told in a more concise and interesting fashion.  We know that the "pay it forward" idea has been successful given that Chris is tracing it back but it's great to watch both stories concurrently.  We see the beginning and the end and we're working towards the middle.  On a side note, Eugene's character in the book is black and I am at a loss to explain why he was not so in the film.  Perhaps the filmmakers felt the racial issue would complicate things too much but I'm not sure if it was the right thing to do.

What stops Pay It Forward breaking through into a higher class is an overuse of perfect dialogue.  Arlene does not talk to her son like he's an 11-year-old and the dialogue between Eugene and Arlene is too analytical.  It may sound like a trivial point but every time I found myself sucked in by the film, a silly scene would ruin it and bring me back to reality.

Performances are all great and Haley Joel Osment's youthful enthusiasm rubs off on both Spacey and Hunt who make a believable couple.  The tension and apprehension between the two that took so much time to develop in the novel, is evident right away and it's a tribute to the talents both actors possess.

It's hard to conclude on the whole "pay it forward" idea.  In general is the world a good place, a bad place, or do we even care at all?  If someone did a huge favour for me and asked me to pay it forward, would I do it?  Would you do it?  Do we give those around us more credit or less credit than they truly deserve?  This film doesn't offer any answers, but it does raise interesting questions.  Worth thinking about.

    

Duets


Directed by: Bruce Paltrow
Written by:John Byrum
Starring: Maria Bello, Andrew Braugher, Paul Giamatti, Huey Lewis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scott Speedman, Marian Seldes
Released: February 8, 2001
Grade: C+

Right off the bat I was comparing this film against Magnolia and found it vastly inferior.  Duets is a group of seemingly unrelated stories and characters who come together in the end for a purpose.  The purpose is karaoke.

A professional singer and hustler, Ricky Dean (Lewis) is returning to Las Vegas for a funeral.  There, he meets his daughter, Liv (Paltrow), whom he hasn't seen in over ten years.  Meanwhile, there's Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti), a salesman who travels all over America making a fortune only to have no respect from his wife and kids.  In frustration, he storms out of the house and just starts driving with no intended destination.  In the desert, he comes across hitchhiker, Reggie Kane (Braugher) who has a mysterious past.  Finally, there's Billy Hannon (Speedman) who's just found out his girlfriend is sleeping with his best friend and he heads to a bar to drown his sorrows.  There, he meets a zany singer named Suzi Loomis (Bello) who wants a lift to California and in a drunken stupor, he agrees.

We criss-cross back and forth between the three "duos" until they all converge at a $5,000 karaoke challenge in Nevada where only one will be the winner.  There was zero care factor for any of the stories and I could not have cared less how they unfolded.  I'm glad I didn't because the ending was very weak and offered little in the way of resolution.  Dumb stuff.

Gwyneth Paltrow's father, Bruce Paltrow, makes nothing of his chance behind the camera and I expect he won’t be receiving many more offers following Duets.  It's a lifeless tale that thinks it's witty when it couldn't be further from it.  Even the karaoke scenes are a bore but at least they provide a break from the main stories.

Interestingly, all the film’s stars have the opportunity to sing and all but one uses their real voice with Scott Speedman relying on voice over.  Incidentally, Speedman's role was originally written for Brad Pitt (when both he and Gwyneth were dating) but as time as shown, not all things work out.  This film is a perfect example.

    

Chocolat


Directed by: Lasse Hallstrom
Written by:Robert Nelson Jacobs
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, Peter Stormare
Released: February 15, 2001
Grade: B+

Steadfast in their ways, there once was small French town whose residents always followed custom.  Then, on a cold winter morning, a young lady and her daughter blew in with the Northern winds.  Renting a shop and residence in the centre of town, the lady refurbished the store and cooked batch after batch of her finest chocolates.  Soon the doors opened on Maya's Chocolaterie. 

The ultimate traditionalist, the town's Mayor saw the new shop as an evil influence.  How dare she open a chocolaterie just in time for lent when townsfolk should be avoiding such pleasures?  Not to worry, she'll be out of business by Easter.  To make sure of it, he’s had a quiet word in the local priest's ear to ensure he preach the importance of abstinence during his sermons.

Slowly however, the residents warmed to the shop and were lured by its sweet delights.  The lady had a knack for picking everyone's favourites and sure enough, they kept coming back for more and more.  To make matters worse for the Mayor, a group of gypsies had arrived and set up camp by the river.  With the town rapidly in the midst of change, the Mayor’s given no choice but to take forceful action.  At a council meeting, he imposed everyone take a "boycott and morality" stance and not serve or talk with any gypsy forcing them away from the town.

Yet there was one lady open to these newcomers - the owner of the chocolaterie and together they became allies against the determined Mayor and his cohorts.  Will the town remain the same forever or will change sweep through it like the cold winter winds?

Based on the seductive novel by Joanne Harris and directed by Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules), Chocolat is an inherently charming film with a blend of touching drama and giggling comedy.  Having read the book, I was disappointed by the heavy alterations made for the cinematic adaptation with particular emphasis on the ending.

The cast are top-notch.  Apart from Juliette Binoche, brilliant performances were turned in from Judi Dench (as always) and Lena Olin (the wife of Hallstrom).  It's a lavish production filled with great sets, costumes, make-up and another engaging score from composer Rachel Portman.

It is a very nice film but I do not consider it amongst the best of the year.  The reason I make such a statement is that 36 hours prior to seeing Chocolat, it was nominated as one of the five best pictures of the year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  The press have been justifiably critical and their comments are true in that the Oscars have become little more than a political and marketing campaign.  An incredible $1.8m was spent on "For Your Consideration" ads for the film in Hollywood's leading publications and I guess that in the end it was worth it for Miramax Pictures which has now had a best picture nominee for nine straight years.  The film will be remembered as one of history's most suspect best picture nominees.

Not one to pass over, Chocolat is a "delicious" fable but don't arrive with high expectations.  Just a little too "sweet" for my appetite.

    

The Legend Of Bagger Vance


Directed by: Robert Redford
Written by:Jeremy Leven
Starring: Will Smith, Matt Damon, Charlize Theron, Bruce McGill, Joel Gretsch, Lane Smith, Jack Lemmon
Released: February 8, 2001
Grade: B-

It's the great depression and the people of Savannah, Georgia are struggling.  Wealthy businessman John Invergordon poured millions into creating one of the world's finest golf courses only to go broke.  He ended his problems with a single bullet to the head leaving the property to his daughter, Adele (Theron) who is not relenting to the Council’s pressure for her to sell the land.

To help promote the course, Adele has organised one of the wealthiest exhibitions ever staged.  4-time U.S. Open and grand slam champion Bobby Jones will take on 5-time U.S. PGA winner Walter Hagen for the princely sum of $10,000.  The residents of Savannah are interested but want to be represented in the match - they want a local Southerner to take on the triumphant duo.

Rannulph Junuh (Damon) happens to be the man.  As a youngster, he won tournaments all over the country and looked set to be one of golf's great players.  But World War I then began and after enlisting for combat, he returned a changed individual.  His golf was never the same again.

A former love interest of Adele, Junuh wants no part of the match but that inner burning he'd long forgotten was resurfacing - that ultimate challenge between man and ball that can never be won.  His game is rusty and he just can't seem to find his swing until he comes across a mysterious gentleman named Bagger Vance (Smith) whose philosophies rub off on Junuh helping his game to return.

The Legend Of Bagger Vance could be compared in its own terminology - an up and down ride that featured a few birdies but just too many bogies.  There was much to like but ultimately the screenplay was the let down.  The film plays like a fairy tale which is evident from Jack Lemmon’s short introduction.  Just because it's pure fiction doesn't forgive the sappy dialogue.  Will Smith pulls out every quote in the book to the point where it becomes embarrassing to watch.  There's a moment on the 16th hole in the final round where Junuh lines up a shot from the woods and Bagger talks him through his demons.  It's way too much.

Golf fans are going to get more out of the film.  The two actors selected to play Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen (Joel Gretsch and Bruce McGill) are fantastic and both have the look, mannerisms and swing of the real Jones and Hagen.  Of the others, Charlize Theron stood out and her complicated relationship with Matt Damon was unexpectedly worth watching.  Damon had never before played golf prior to shooting and practiced non-stop for a month to the point where his hands were covered in blisters.  It shows dedication and apparently he's become a real golf nut since.  Will Smith again left me unimpressed and I cannot understand why he has top billing in this film over Damon.

Robert Redford's direction wasn't quite what I expected but I liked the style.  He immaculately captured the beauty of both the course and the era and the camera angles he used to follow the golf balls were entrancing.  Redford has also created wonderful tension by letting the crowd's emotions do the talking and watching them get excited, made me get excited.  Other crew worth complimenting are production designer Stuart Craig (The English Patient) and costume designer Judianna Makovsky (Pleasantville).  One thing I can't understand though is the annoying sound effect used for when the ball hits the ground after a drive.  Trust me, a real ball doesn't make that sound.

When you break it down, The Legend Of Bagger Vance is a story of life, love and golf.  It tries to tell us that golf is just a game and that life is the real challenge.  I agree completely but I think it's a fact most are already aware of.

    

Hannibal


Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by:David Mamet, Steven Zaillian
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Giancarlo Giannini, Ray Liotta, Gary Oldman
Released: February 15, 2001
Grade: C+

Even before I saw Hannibal, I knew it had no chance of matching its predecessor, Silence Of The Lambs, which won five Oscars and is one of only three films to win the big four - picture, director, actor and actress (the other two being It Happened One Night in 1934 and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in 1975).  This sequel has been in the works for some time as a result of casting problems.  Jodie Foster turned it down as did original director, Jonathan Demme, who was replaced by Ridley Scott (Gladiator).  This is one of those films that despite the profit it will produce, should never have been made.

Clarice Starling (Moore) has just received a severe reprimand following a botched FBI raid.  In the subsequent whirlwind of media attention, she gets a call from Mason Verger (Oldman), one of Hannibal's former victims who lived to tell the tale.  It has been 10 years since her famous encounter with Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) and Verger provides Clarice with new information and combined with a letter from Dr. Lecter himself, her passion for the case is reignited.

For the film's first hour and a half, we see Clarice in America perusing over evidence trying to pinpoint Dr. Lecter's location.  Meanwhile, an Italian detective has put the pieces together and realised than Dr. Lecter is living in Florence as a librarian and seeks the $3,000,000 reward on offer for his capture.  After receiving word of the detective’s discovery, Clarice warns him to be careful but alas, he is killed (but not before much time wastage).

Dr. Lecter finally heads back to the States to meet with Clarice and it provides the material for the film's final 35 minutes.  The film was somewhat compelling to this point but became a laughing stock as a result of what followed.  I can't give much away but the demise of both Mason Verger and FBI agent Paul Krendler (Liotta) was incredibly stupid and incredibly disgusting.  I didn't want to discuss the ratings debacle that has surrounded the film's Australian release but I have to add my two cents.  Based on these two scenes, I cannot understand how the film escaped with a mere MA rating.  It was never to the point where I would have walked out (as some critics have) but it was clearly in bad taste and the original never went this far.

There's nothing much more to say except to emphasise my severe disappointment with Hannibal.  There were no thrills, no resolutions and no sense behind it all.  Two audience members in front of me said at the very end, "is that it?"  Whilst I wasn't prepared to yell my own opinions, I knew exactly how they felt.