Reviews

Lucky Numbers


Directed by: Nora Ephron
Written by:Adam Resnick
Starring: John Travolta, Lisa Kudrow, Tim Roth, Ed O'Neill, Michael Rapaport, Daryl Mitchell, Bill Pullman
Released: February 8, 2001
Grade: C

You'd think the latest film from director Nora Ephron would have opened with more fanfare on a stream of multiplexes and with a wave of advertising.  Her films include Sleepless In Seattle, Michael and You've Got Mail which all grossed over $95m in the United States alone.  Strange indeed to see a film starring John Travolta and Lisa Kudrow sneak by and show for only a few weeks.  The mystery was solved once I saw this awful film.  It cost $65m to make and barely passed the $10m box-office mark in the States.  I'm surprised to see the film even released in Australia.

John Travolta is Russ Richards, a weatherman for a local news station.  Everyone seems to love him, including himself.  The money is good but he keeps blowing it on ridiculous business ventures.  His latest sees him open a snow mobile store only to see an unseasonably warm winter keep the snow away.  He's now flat broke and with the bank foreclosing on his lavish house, he's willing to try anything.

With the help of strip-club owner Gig (Roth) and lover Crystal (Kudrow), they devise a scheme to rig the local lottery and walk away with the $6.4m jackpot.  Amazingly, the plan works perfectly but the troubles don't arise until after the lotto has been won.  It seems there are many in the loop and all want a "fair" share of the loot.  With everything from blackmail to beatings, the upper hand keeps changing and just who is going to end up with the actual winning ticket?

It's not a particularly interesting idea and would have a better 10 minute short film because there is not enough material to make it stretch into a full feature.  The final half-hour was nuts as the film spiralled out of control.  Travolta's performance is woeful and his character’s smugness is so annoying.  Travolta seems like he's on autopilot.  The only decent cast member was Bill Pullman as a lethargic cop but the film is long gone by the time he makes his entrance.

It never got started and never went anywhere.  A few funny gags but there's little else to laugh about in this comedy.  Those unfortunate enough to see it won't feel very "lucky" at all.

    

Requiem For A Dream


Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by:Hubert Selby Jr, Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connolly, Marlon Wayans
Released: February 8, 2001
Grade: A+

"They held each other and kissed

and pushed each others' darkness into the corner,

believing in each others' light, each others' dream." - Hubert Selby Jr.

They say a picture paints a thousand words.  I've always believed film is an art form and anyone who thinks otherwise needs to see Requiem For A Dream.  Some movies are about more than big stars, popcorn and happy endings.  Some movies leave you thinking for a long time.

I left Requiem For A Dream an emotionally changed individual.  I walked out the Dendy Cinema doors with a wave of others and headed down Adelaide Street.  The whole time, the film's intense music score was repeating over and over through my mind.  All sense of reality had been taken from me during the film's final half-hour and it would take more than a short walk to get it back.

If I sound cryptic, it's just that this film is anything but standard.  Harry (Leto) is a guy who likes to get high on drugs whilst dealing a little on the side cause there's money to be made.  Also a junkie is his girlfriend, Marion (Connolly), who wants Harry to get some cash together to help create their future.  Helping Harry obtain the drugs for distribution is his partner Tyrone (Wayans).  Tyrone wants the respect that comes with being a powerful drug dealer.  Finally, there's Harry's mother, Sara (Burstyn).  She's fixated by television and on getting a letter in the mail offering her a chance to appear on a show, she knows this is her chance to shine.  To lose a few kilos in preparation, she gets the number of local doctor who can give her pills to lessen her appetite.

All four of these people want more out of life and have turned to drugs to do it.  Unlike many other films on the subject matter, the whole "drugs are bad" theme is not obviously stated.  You watch these four, watch what becomes of them and then you can decide for yourself the effect that drugs have.

31-year-old director Darren Aronofsky (Pi) has created a hypnotic experience reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia.  We have a bunch of related stories that when interwoven create a viewing experience that when mixed with Client Mansel's score, is impossible to look away from.  Aronofsky is bold and unafraid to push new techniques.  There were several scenes that were incredibly difficult to bear and I'm not just referring to those where people inject needles and get high.  To see Sara struggle with her "demon" refrigerator is a perfect example.

Since the award season has started, I have touted that if Julia Roberts' performance in Erin Brockovich was the best of year then I'm not here.  I can now sleep soundly having witnessed Ellen Burstyn’s incredible accomplishment.  Despite being 68 years of age, she creates a compassionate character, tortured by the effect of drugs and it must have been a very draining experience.  She was last nominated for an Academy Award twenty years ago and is a certainty to be rewarded with a nomination this year.

When you see as many films as I do, you often have preconceptions and end up finding yourself going through the motions by just ticking off each film as you see it.  Then out of nowhere, something comes along that reinvigorates your passion as both a viewer and a critic.  This is my drug.  This is what I get off on.  This is Requiem For A Dream.

    

Bedazzled


Directed by: Harold Ramis
Written by:Larry Gelbart, Harold Ramis, Peter Tolan
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Hurley, Frances O'Connor, Miriam Shor, Orlando Jones, Paul Adelstein
Released: January 25, 2001
Grade: B

A remake of the 1967 film of the same name, Bedazzled teams Brendan Fraser and Liz Hurley in a light-hearted comedy with mixed results.  Elliot Richards (Fraser) is a loser with no respect.  He works in a dead-end job and has never had the courage to ask out work colleague, Alison (O'Connor), despite the fact they've worked at the same company for over four years.

Enter Hurley as the Princess of Darkness.  In return for Elliot's soul, she promises seven wishes to help him become the person he's always wanted to be.  Of course, when you're dealing with the devil and the contract is thicker than the dictionary, Elliot’s going to be on the lesser end of the transaction.

It's a simple yet apt description.  Following the customary introduction, the story follows the fate of Elliot's seven wishes from which he will learn a valuable lesson.  There’s not much of a conclusion either but we don't usually go to silly comedies to take something away - we go to have fun.

The most likeable aspects of the Bedazzled are the performances of both Fraser and Hurley.  Fraser shows a large range in one of his best roles to date.  Hurley has a flood of great lines and combined, the two make a wickedly exciting pair.  Australian Frances O'Connor (Mansfield Park) is wonderful in her role as Alison and features strongly in much of the film.

A good opening title sequence is always a trigger for a good film and make sure you’re not late to miss the opening of Bedazzled.  The opening credits set the tone for the film and if used well, can capture the audience's attention from the very beginning.  Once you see the film you'll know what I mean but in this instance, I found them really inventive.

Whilst I’m not overly excited with Bedazzled, it certainly had its moments and is level with my benchmark for the genre.  It baffles me though why studios are increasing the number of remakes - are we that low on ideas?

    

Get Carter


Directed by: Stephen T. Kay
Written by:Ted Lewis
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Miranda Richardson, Rachel Leigh Cook, Michael Caine, Alan Cumming, Mickey Rourke
Released: February 1, 2001
Grade: C+

Apparently, if you have a problem you get Jack Carter (Stallone).  He's the guy that helps people remember promises they've somehow forgotten.  He's tough, mean, violent, unrelenting and isn't someone you want on your back.  His latest assignment though will take him beyond his call of duty - this time, it's personal (I am well aware of the cliché).

Jack's brother was killed in a drink driving incident and so he has travelled from Las Vegas to Seattle for the funeral.  He hadn't seen his brother or his wife Gloria (Richardson) and daughter Doreen (Cook) is almost five years.  Jack is suspicious of his brother's death and some light investigation confirms those thoughts.  Everyone just wants Jack to go back home but he's determined to get to the bottom of things and of course, you know he's going to.

The suspects are established early.  There's multi-millionaire Jeremy Kinnear (Cumming) whose computer wheelings and dealings have drawn attention.  There's nightclub owner Cyrus Paice (Rourke) who has established himself as a porn entrepreneur.  There's his brother’s boss Cliff Brumby (Caine) who knows something but isn't showing his cards just yet.  Finally, there's the mysterious Geraldine (Rhona Mitra) who attends the funeral and when confronted becomes defensive.

The film has promise and one cannot criticise the cast.  Rourke, Caine and Richardson and all great and Sylvester Stallone delivers a performance similar to the quiet style we witnessed in Copland.  In fact, much of the film reminded me of Copland with a dash of Mel Gibson's Payback thrown in.

The screenplay frustrates and from the expressions of those in the cinema I attended, others share this viewpoint.  The film begins encouragingly but mid-way through it starts slipping and the final stretch is a bore.  When all the secrets are finally revealed, it felt like a bad episode of Walker: Texas Ranger.

Overdrawn and repetitive is an apt description of director Stephen T. Kay’s direction and Jerry Greenberg’s editing.   In Get Carter, Stallone makes a valiant effort to break away from the action genre but this film will not be remembered.  Be forewarned that the film contains a high level of violence and some would be advised to stay at home.  In fact, I'd advise most to stay at home anyway.

    

The Family Man


Directed by: Brett Ratner
Written by:David Diamond, David Weissman
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Piven, Saul Rubinek
Released: January 25, 2001
Grade: B-

I'm tiring very quickly of Nicolas Cage's usual shtick.  He's churning out more movies than Matt Damon and Ben Affleck combined (and that's saying something).  I made a deliberate effort not to see The Family Man but on "friendly" advice, found myself in a darkened cinema on a Monday night.  I had other choices - I could have played tennis, I could have studied, or I could have even sat down and watched the two hour Friends marathon followed by other "quality" programming such as Jack & Jill.

Tell me if you've heard this one before.  Cage plays Jack Campbell, a millionaire working on Wall Street and ready to close another big deal.  He has a great car, great apartment, great job - he has everything he always thought he wanted.  Then out of the blue on Christmas Eve, Jack gets message from his secretary that Kate Reynolds (Leoni) phoned while he was out.  The two nearly married 13 years ago but their jobs kept them distanced and Jack decided to break things off.

Should he call her again after all this time?  His boss doesn't seem to think so - past relationships and like past tax returns, you hang on to them for three years and then get rid of them.  His secretary presents the opposite point of view - surely there must be a reason why she'd call so suddenly and unexpectedly?

Jack decides against calling and on his way home meets an interesting guy named Cash (Cheadle).  Jack thinks he has it all and there's nothing else he needs but Cash says he'll live to regret that comment.  Sure enough, when he awakes on Christmas Day, Jack finds he's not in the same bed and he's not even in the same house.  He is living the life he would have lived if he had married Kate 13 years ago.

Such films are becoming commonplace (Sliding Doors, Me Myself I) but one can see the inspiration for The Family Man coming from the brilliant 1939 classic, It's A Wonderful Life.  The fact that the film is centred on Christmas Eve is a dead giveaway. 

I know these films are make-believe fun but it’s just too much of a stretch to enjoy.  We go through the same old routine.  Jack wakes up and goes through the whole "I can't believe it" dramas.  Then, he fumbles his way through the next half-hour somehow managing to make his way through life despite the fact he knows nothing about it.  Finally, he comes to the realisation that this life is better before returning to his own world as a changed individual.  Just why are we being force-fed simplified stories with few surprises?  The whole "rich guy rediscovers the importance of life" movie is very, very tired.

Unlike past disappointments, Cage delivers a strong performance but Tea Leoni is the standout.  She is a fine actress but has been missing from the big screen for some time.  Since 1996's great sleeper, Flirting With Disaster, she has appeared in just one film - Deep Impact.

Director Brett Ratner (Money Talks, Rush Hour) also showed skill in helping rescue the screenplay with favourable direction.  The film is constantly moving and whilst you always know where it's heading, he tries to keep it interesting.  I was also struck by the creative camera angles and it came as no surprise to see dual Academy Award nominated cinematographer Dante Spinotti (The Insider, L.A. Confidential) behind the lens.

The cast and crew have saved The Family Man from following many recent "what if" films into oblivion.  We always ask ourselves just what would happen if we did this, or this, or even this.  I wonder what would have happened if I didn't watch The Family Man and instead stayed home and watched Jack & Jill.  In hindsight, Jack & Jill may have been more interesting.  But who cares?  My point exactly.

    

Small Time Crooks


Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by:Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, Jon Lovitz, Elaine May, Hugh Grant
Released: January 26, 2001
Grade: A-

Ray Winkler (Allen) has come up with another hair-brained scheme.  He’s noticed the pizza shop two stores down from the bank has closed down and the place is for rent.  With friends Denny (Rapaport) and Tommy (Darrow), he intends to lease the shop and use it as a front whilst a tunnel is dug underneath into the bank vault.  Frenchy (Ullman), his wife, is sceptical but comes around with a little persuasion - she can operate the store selling her delicious cookies.

The plan is in trouble early with another party beating Ray to the lease.  It happens that an old friend from jail, Benny (Lovitz), wanted the lease so he could burn the place down and claim the insurance.  As Ray explains to Benny, you can’t keep making a living from petty insurance scams and offers him a share in the bank heist in return for the lease.

Ray, Denny, Tommy and Benny are not the brightest criminals and everything goes wrong.  Yet the biggest surprise comes from Frenchy whose cookies become a city-wide success story resulting in massive exposure for the store - not exactly the ideal cover.

Every year I look forward to the new Woody Allen movie and as always, I was not disappointed.  Allen has his own style of intelligent comedy that other filmmakers don’t have the guts to attempt.  Studios have been following the recent trend of “gross-out” comedies that are humorous to an extent but familiarity breeds contempt.  There were so many scenes during Small Time Crooks where I had to laugh out loud at its originality.  The film takes a different path midway through but it only provides even more material for Allen to work with.

Tracey Ullman is fantastic as the wife as is Elaine May as a friend and employee of the store.  The male leads are underwhelming but as is tradition with Allen, the females take centre billing.  It’s nice to see an experienced cast working really well together.  Allen’s films often don’t appeal to a wide audience but Small Time Crooks will suit most.