Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Intolerable Cruelty / ** (2003)

Give a wise man a few dollars and he'll probably invest them into something worthwhile; give the money to the Coen brothers, and chances are you'll watch it whirl down the drain. Those peculiar, ironic directors of films like "Fargo" and "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" are heavily influenced by quirks and oddities when it comes to moviemaking — some of it too brilliant for words — but when their style is tuned under the influence of a Hollywood-sized budget, the results can be less than satisfying. Consider their last endeavor "The Man Who Wasn't There," a film noir vehicle saturated by the prospect of being shot in gorgeous black and white—once you strip away the uncanny sense of style, the movie itself lacks personality and rhythm. On the other hand, a film with such subtle traces of financial backing as "Fargo" is quite inverted; though technique isn't exactly cutting edge, the amount of thought applied to the screenplay is so grand that nothing else matters. There is no denying that the Coen brothers are satisfactory directors at the core, but do they truly know what it takes to establish consistency?

Johnstown Flood / **1/2 (2003)

Until a DVD copy of the recently-released "Johnstown Flood" found its way onto my doorstep in early August, I never even knew of such a Pennsylvania-based disaster, much less expected to see a documentary based on one. And yet there it was, an hour-long historical look at an event that might have seemed fabricated had no one been specifically told otherwise. If there is indeed a much greater purpose to the documentary world than just elaborating on major issues for those seeking thorough perspective, then here is a product that tests out some of that wisdom—in the end, no matter how much you think you know about your own culture, chances are there's always something that has been overlooked.

The Matrix Revolutions / *** (2003)

To see the latest (and probably last) "Matrix" installment right on the heels of its sensational predecessor, "The Matrix Reloaded," is to see a solid and exciting finale to the sci-fi series that jump-started a new era of technological and psychological ingenuity. Viewing the movie itself as a completely separate entity, however, the result represents efforts that are far inferior to those that came before. That's because "The Matrix Revolutions" plays less like an actual movie and more like a detached climax; it lacks the ideas that were instituted earlier in the series because it's too busy wrapping up loose ends left over from the second chapter in the trilogy, which made its way onto theater screens earlier this year. No, this is not the brilliant marriage of action and concept we saw with the first two installments in this franchise. But it is, at its core, an entertaining and engrossing action vehicle, and though it tries little in the way of new plot devices, it does manage to keep the eyes intrigued for two hours of solid and well-photographed action sequences.

Mystic River / ***1/2 (2003)

Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" opens with an event that will inevitably challenge every moral character throughout the movie, a scene in which one of three childhood friends is dragged off against his will in the back seat of a car as his buddies watch on in paralyzed gazes. Two days later, the lad emerges from a nearby wooded area shaken and scarred by the abduction, enough so that it actually prevents him from openly discussing specific events of it with anyone. For some, that kind of detached response is just step one in dealing with the trauma and moving on, but for innocent little Dave, it is like an infected wound that is simply too painful to medicate. The passage of time doesn't do much to help soothe the soars, either, and eventually they evolve into something far more devastating and tragic than even the victim himself could have imagined. He may have escaped his captors, but his spirit never came home with him.

Pieces of April / *** (2003)

Peter Hedges's "Pieces of April" is the kind of movie you have to watch without the slightest cynicism, otherwise you find yourself dismissing a perfectly acceptable story because of a technical shortcoming that nearly buries its virtues. When I refer to this problem, I don't actually mean to dismiss it completely as a flaw, either; for what it's worth, this is the kind of movie that knows what it is doing and genuinely believes the technique is appropriate for the material. But alas it is not; shot on a minuscule budget completely with handheld digital cameras, the film is ugly and shoddy, almost as if the celluloid had passed through a coat of bleach before winding up on the projection reel. Scenes of high emotion are undermined by a washed out exterior, while less important moments seem lifted to much greater importance because they have strangely different contrasts and hues from other surrounding scenes. This is not just a miscalculation for the source material, but a significant distraction as well.

Runaway Jury / ***1/2 (2003)

The typical John Grisham crime thriller has this irritating tendency of assuming that excitement can be spurred by the heated exchange of a lot of legal psycho-babble. As a device for generating thrills, this is as halfhearted an approach as they come. Even the average Joe at a movie theater will tell you that establishing tension depends on more than just characters saying things or making threats; it depends on a combination of elements falling into place, each of them stressing one another in order to generate interest and create buildup without letting ambiguity become implausible blather. With a casual look back at the films utilizing Grisham's novels as source material, one or more of the aforementioned necessities is either misplaced or detached from the setup. In "The Firm," for example, a strong sense of tension is undermined by countless scenes of foolish storytelling, while in "The Client," we get the interesting buildup without the actual final payoff.

Veronica Guerin / *** (2003)

Defining the spirit of a hero conjures up more than just images of stealth and perseverance, but also those of sacrifice and tragedy. That's because most true heroes, particularly in the movies, are martyrs; their attempts to spur change for the better often come at the cost of their own happiness, even when the price is high enough for them to clearly realize the deadly risks involved. Yet somehow, someway, they shrug off the danger and face the odds head-on, seemingly invulnerable to the threats and almost surprised when their own lives are put in potentially mortal danger. Is it foolishness that guides them? Perhaps. But at the core all they want to do is make a difference, a factor that buries every trace of naivety until it's too late.