WHEN WE WERE KINGS - KAMA SUTRA
CITY OF INDUSTRY - LIAR, LIAR - SELENA
WHEN WE WERE KINGS
"When We Were Kings" is the Oscar-winning documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle - the fight in Zaire where Muhammad Ali regained his world heavyweight championship title from the seemingly invincable and 7 year younger George Foreman. Director Leon Gast spent 2 months in Zaire filming not only the fight and the three day music festival which preceded it, but hours of additional footage of Ali when an injury to Foreman delayed the fight by 6 weeks. It then took him an additional 22 years of editting and raising money to complete the film. Director Taylor Hackford (also a producer/editor) stepped in to direct the present day interviews with the likes of Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who had covered the event.
It's ironic, but the two decade delay in bringing "When We Were Kings" to the screen probably did nothing but help gain a historical and emotional perspective it would never have had otherwise. Director Spike Lee, one of the present day interview subjects, laments that kids today don't have any awareness of the greats of the past, like Muhammad Ali. This film should help turn that around to some small degree.
Not only was Ali one of the greatest boxers ever to enter the ring, he was also extremely witty (his 'poems' are part of his legend), a believer in the Muslim religion, a peace protester (his refusal to fight in Viet Nam resulted in his title being stripped and a jail sentence) and an advocate for Black pride. His journey back to Africa to fight was a personal journey and the African people loved him as their champion - he was constantly greeted with shouts of "Ali, Boyame!" which means "Ali, kill him."
Foreman, on the other hand, was not known in Africa (they were surprised to find out he was also a black man). An intimidating man of few words, Foreman arrived in Africa with his German shepherd, a breed associated with the Belgian Congo police by the Africans.
This documentary covers so much territory in a relatively short running time - it's a marvel of both material and editting. We see a recap of Ali's early career, Don King's promotion of the event (truly a genius of dealmaking with Zaire's President Mobutu), the incredible logistics involved in bringing not only the fighters and sportswriters, but an entire music festival including the likes of James Brown, B.B. King and Miriam Makeba, to Africa. Ali's incredible charisma is evident as he marvels at black pilots flying a plane and speaking 3 languages and the dignity of the poor Africans - he now has a message of self enpowerment to bring back to the blacks of America.
The fight itself is topnotch drama. No one truly believed Ali could win. Although Ali constantly peppered the press with great quotes like "If you were stunned when Nixon resigned, wait'll you see me kick George Foreman's behind" and "I'm so fast that last night when I hit the light switch I was in bed before the room got dark," Gast obtains fight footage that clearly indicates in Ali's face that he might be in trouble. But Ali did the unthinkable, landing 12 right leads with brilliant strategizing and obtaining the only knockout against Foreman in Foreman's career.
A native witchdoctor had predicted that a 'woman with trembling hands' or a sucubus, would take hold of Foreman - the filmmakers illustrate this bit of the supernatural by superimposinng footage of Miriam Makeba eerily 'clicking' to the music over the fighters.
The defining moment of the entire film for me was the only still photograph obtained of Ali landing that knockout punch - in the background we see two of our most prominent present day narrators, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton with their mouths agape - a true laugh-out-loud shot!
Another relevation was Norman Mailer as an interview subject - the man really knows how to tell an anecdote and I give him enormous credit for fleshing out and adding color to both the event and Ali.
"When We Were Kings" is a truly marvelous piece of work. I highly recommend it.
"When We Were Kings," both I and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences think, is the best documentary of the year.
It may have taken Leon Gast and company 20+ years to bring this effort to the big screen, but, boy, is it worth the wait. The addition of 90's commentary of the event by attendees Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, lends a historical perspective that would be missing if Gast had succeeded in the 70's.
The structure of the documentary shows that deft and talented hands were at work cutting and pasting this effort together. Starting with the initial deal for the fight, displaying Don King,s manipulative talents at their best, to the arrival, in Zaire, by the fighters, to the planning and staging of the musical event that accompanied the fighters - James Brown, B.B.King and The Spinners, Miriam Makeba, and more, are not a shoddy group of musicians to have on hand - and, finally, the fight itself.
Gast builds these series of events steadily upward, with the fight the incredible climax of the film. The photography of this amazing battle of titans clearly shows Ali to be the greatest boxer ever. It documents a master at his art turning his own confusion and fear during the early rounds into a studied victory over his opponent, George Foreman.
This is all the more meaningful a film in that the homage it pays to Mohammed Ali is, if anything, fitting right now. "When We Were Kings" exemplifies the fact that Ali is the greatest boxer to ever enter the ring. In my mind, anyway.
This is a great documentary film and a must for fans of the sport and Ali.
KAMA SUTRA: A TALE OF LOVE
Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, who created the modern fables, "Salaam Bombay!" and "Mississippi Masala," delves into her country's erotic past with her latest film, "Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love."
Set in 17th century India, the story is about two young women, Maya, a servant in the royal court, and Tara, a noble-born princess. Though friends since childhood, Maya's intense sensuality threatens Tara, forcing her to lash out at the servant.
On the eve of Tara's wedding to the great king Raj Singh, Maya seeks her revenge by seducing the king and cementing her position as a royal courtesan. The ensuing emotional conflict soon expands to include a handsome young artist, Jai Kumar, who is also taken by Maya's beauty.
Overall, "Kama Sutra" is a soap opera story with so many romantic triangles and quadrangles going on, it would make the creators of "All My Children" proud. This, by itself, would not be a draw for a working class critic like myself.
However, Nair also introduces some of the most erotic and sensual scenes to the film, so it also provides a fair amount of titillation to the viewer. Shot mainly in hues of red, the look of the film nicely complements the erotic nature of the story.
Leading ladies are both lovely, with Indira Varma's Maya getting the edge for looks and Sarita Choudhury, as Tara, showing more acting experience. Both are easy on the eye.
Male leads - Naveen Andrews ("The English Patient") as the Raj and Ramon Tikaram as Jai Kamur - are suitably handsome. Andrews does well as a king obsessed with Maya. Ramon Tikaram does well as the romantic artist. His introduction into the story is inadvertently funny, coming across like James Bond - "My name is Jai. Jai Kamur." The male leads definitely take a back seat to Varma and Choudhury.
Set design and costume design are in keeping with the sensuality Nair evokes from her cast.
The teachings of the Kama Sutra are nicely integrated into the overall story.
As a soap opera, I give it a C. As an example of classy eroticism, I give it an A. I'm splitting the difference and give "Kama Sutra" a sweaty B.
Although "Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love" takes its name from the famous book of sex and spirituality which was written around 300 A.D., the story itself is set in 16th century India and only uses the book as a springboard for its tale of sexual politics.
Maya (Indira Varma) is a servant girl who seems to do everything better than Tara (Sarita Choudhury, "Mississippi Masala"), the princess she serves, and resents her position and the cast off clothes she's given to wear. When a marriage is arranged between Tara and Raj Singh (Naveen Andrews, "The English Patient"), a neighboring King, Maya gets her revenge on Tara by sleeping with him the night before the wedding. This sets off a tragic chain of events.
Maya's deed is discovered and she's banished from the kingdom in disgrace. She meets up with an exotically handsome stone carver, Jai Kumar (Ramon Tikaram), who finds lodging for her with the local teacher of the lessons of the Kama Sutra - perfect training grounds for becoming a courtesan at the king's court.
Of couse, Maya and Jai fall in love, but he's not ready to make a commitment, forcing Maya to go to Raj Singh's court in a turn of splendiferous nose thumbing. There she tussles with Tara (although they eventually find sisterhood) and has the decadent king so besotted it becomes his political downfalling.
If this sounds like the stuff of soap opera, it is! When Maya first meets Jai he tells her "My name is Jai Kumar - you don't know this, but you inspire my work." Come and see my etchings, anyone?
Although I found "Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love" to be incredibly beautiful in its location photography, costuming and casting, on the whole it got a bit silly. It's a historical bodice ripper posing as an art film.
CITY OF INDUSTRY
"City of Industry" stars Harvey Keitel as Roy Egan, a successful thief who gets roped into an elaborate diamond heist by his brother Lee (Timothy Hutton). Lee has also recruited Jorge Montana (Wade Dominguez "Dangerous Minds") a small time loser with a wife Rachel (Famke Jansen "Goldeneye") and kids and a wild, hair-trigger type, Skip (Stephen Dorff "Backbeat") as their driver. Although the heist is successful, the amoral Skip takes the loot for himself leaving everyone dead except for Roy who manages to escape. Roy seeks out Rachel as a means of tracing Skip and they strike a strange bargain to hunt down Skip, who turns out to have some pretty powerful allies in the underworld.
"City of Industry" is a very stylish retro-noir directed by John Irvin (who's gone the gamut from "Hamburger Hill" to "A Month by the Lake"). It begins with an outstanding title sequence - all freeways and overpasses intercut with ethereal music. The one problem I had with the film is Stephen Dorff's peformance as Skip. He makes a great entrance and is unsettling UNTIL the film turns into a cat and mouse revenge flick in its second half. Then, Dorff's performance becomes silly and over the top.
Harvey Keitel, on the other hand, turns in one of his best performances in this small film. He's a troubled but incredibly smart loner with a Terminator-like ability to just keep going in the face of adversity. He shows us he's not a brute, though, by the tiniest gesture. As he finishes a cup of coffee right before executing the heist, he pats his lips with a napkin. He also clearly loves and enjoys his brother's company. His relationship with Rachel is the most interesting aspect of the film - she initially only loathes what she perceives him to be all about but gradually comes to regard him as a heroic type. Credit goes to the filmmakers from not taking the standard turn into a love affair between the two.
Timothy Hutton is also very good as the gung-ho Lee. It's a more down and dirty performance than we're used to seeing from him. Wade Dominguez is effective as a guy wanting to do the right thing by his family but always a step away from a jail sentence.
Famke Jansen is surprisingly good as Rachel, bringing a subtlty to her acting that wasn't present in "Lord of Illusions" or "Goldeneye." She's a survivor with a hard exterior fighting for her family whose softer interior is discovered by Egan when he questions her about her Virgin Mary statue.
While the big climax at an oil refinery is a bit anticlimatic and the final coda put me in mind of "The Shawshank Redemption," I still found "City of Industry" to be a worthwhile film for its style, a great central performance, and some very good supporting ones.
In "City of Industry," Harvey Keitel once again proves himself to be one of America's great character actors. He gives a nuanced performance, showing a multifaceted character, exhibiting emotions from compassion to brutality effectively. He's always a pleasure to watch, even in a bad film. He is also one of the few things of interest in the "City of Industry."
Famke Janssen, the Dutch-born actress who played evil assassin Xenia Onatopp in last year's Bond hit "Goldeneye," does a convincing turn as the stoic wife who, literally, loses her husband, Jorge Montana (Wade Dominguez), to his chosen criminal profession. The chemistry between Janssen and Keitel is palpable. Unfortunately, the story does not take advantage of this chemistry. Hopefully, they get another chance together. Janssen also does a pretty damn good job at a working class American accent.
Stephen Dorff starts off pretty good. He is convincing as a man living on the edge, right up to the moment of the double cross. He is manic, a man possessed by his own destructiveness. After he does double cross his partners, his character takes on a more mundane nastiness, causing a drop off in interest for the character. He is pretty much an asswhole through the last hour and I, the viewer, pretty much just wanted Keitel's Roy Egan to exact the revenge so richly deserved.
Timothy Hutton, though only on screen for the first 30 minutes, does a decent job as Roy's brother, Lee, and mastermind of the heist. I would have preferred Hutton and Dorff swap characters. I think Hutton would have been better in the over the top role.
The screenplay grabs the viewer right away and for the first 30 minutes of the film, you feel like your in for one hell of a ride. It abruptly halts when Dorff shags his partners, failing to kill Keitel. The story changes direction and becomes a chase film, with the two men hunting each other down. The inevitability of the events of the last hour destroys and wonder the viewer might have had. You know there's showdown a-comin'!
Getting to that showdown is the problem with the film. Nothing really happens for the hour it takes to get there. Fortunately, the above mentioned chemistry between Keitel and Janssen helps get through the time, at least a little bit.
Tech aspects are mundane. The photography is murky,
Supporting cast is minimal, but does well.
"City of Industry" falls short.
In "Liar Liar," Jim Carrey plays Fletcher Reede, a hotshot attorney who has a "talent" for bending the truth to suit his client,s needs. This talent of habitual lying helps his career, but taxes Fletcher,s ability to be honest with his son, Max (Justin Cooper).
He has broken his word to Max so many times, including his promise to attend his son,s very important 5th birthday party, that the boy makes the ultimate wish - have his dad tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, for 24 hours.
Suddenly, Fletcher is faced with the dilemma that his biggest asset, his mouth, is now his biggest liability.
For a big budget, high-profile Jim Carrey film, "Liar Liar" is a particularly sad effort. Ten years ago, this project might have starred Steve Martin and might have had writers and a director who might have given some thought to the story, supporting characters, etc. But, now, in the comedy-light era of the 90,s, Hollywood has deemed fit to feed its star-machine with the likes of Jim Carrey and produce a product that has nothing, zero, zip going for it besides the presence of its star.
None of the supporting cast, with the exception of the Justin Cooper, playing Carrey's son, Max, have anything to do. Any scene with Carrey - quite literally, every scene in the film - has other cast members standing around, blankly, waiting, as Carrey does his patented mugging for the camera. Two versatile actresses who usually perform well in comedies, Jennifer Tilly and Swoozie Kurtz, are completely wasted here. It,s as if the writers are afraid of offending Carrey by giving anyone else anything funny to say.
Production values are a cut above TV, but a small cut. There is no imagination to any of the technical aspects of "Liar Liar."
I walked into "Liar Liar" expecting a no-brainer. I,m surprised that I got less than that.
"Liar Liar" will be a big hit among Carrey's fans. It's wall-to-wall Jim Carrey, and that will satisfy their craving. I'm not a fan.
I give it a C-.
"Liar Liar" is a calculated attempt to put Jim Carrey's career back on track after the box office failure of last year's "The Cable Guy." Unfortunately it seems to be working, having just obtained the highest March opening in film history. I for one, found "The Cable Guy" to be the most interesting work Carrey's put on film. Unfortunately the public seems to want their Carrey lite.
This is one of those films that you've seen already if you've seen the trailer. It's entirely predictable. It's only saving graces are some admittedly funny Carrey set pieces (his efforts to be able to call his blue pen red and a scene where a partner invites him to tell the head of the firm just what he really thinks of him) and two fine supporting characters - Cary Elwes' pathetic Jerry and Anne Haney's amusing Greta. Even fine actors like Jennifer Tilly and Swoozie Kurtz are wasted here. Elwes is Audrey Reede's (Carrey's ex) new flame who truly cares for her son Max (Justin Cooper). He's obviously a pale imitation of Fletcher Reede (Carrey) in both looks and his attempts to amuse Max, with a wholesomeness than only works against him. Anne Haney plays Carrey's secretary at the law firm who isn't valued enough by her boss until she quits in a pique after she forces him to tell the truth about the raise she didn't get.
While Carrey gets plenty of opportunity to do his schtick, the treacliness of the family values plotline doesn't work convincingly - it's just a retread of last year's worst film, "Jingle All the Way." As if to atone for the cruel beating he inflicted on someone in a men's room in "The Cable Guy," he beats himself up in a men's room here and just made me recall how much more interesting he was with those dark undertones last year. Too bad he didn't knock some sense into himself.
Writer/director Gregory Nava largely reassembles the cast of his 1996 film, "Mi Familia," to create the biopic "Selena." Jennifer Lopez stars as the first woman to rule southwestern tejano music. At the age of 23, just as she was completing her first English language recording which everyone believed would allow her to cross over into the national mainstream, she was shot and killed by the president of her fan club after the family had accused her of stealing money from the fan club.
The film begins with Selena's father's experiences in the music business where his group was rejected by white audiences for being Mexican American and rejected by Mexican American audiences for singing white music. Selena's dad, played by Edward James Olmos, was the driving force that caused the entire Quintanilla family to become the success that was Selena.
"Selena" beings, oddly enough, with Selena singing "I Will Survive" at her triumphant Houston Astrodome concert in Febuary of 1995, one month before she was killed. I suppose Nava intended this to be ironic, but my reaction was more of a why start this film about the woman who conquered tejano music with a disco anthem? The next two numbers we get are "Last Dance" and "On the Radio" - huh? True, Selena says later in the film that she likes Donna Summer (she initially rejects her father's attempts to have her sing traditional music in Spanish, a language she never learned well), but I don't believe that's the music she's remembered for.
"Selena" isn't just a film about the singer herself - it's really a family epic, a theme that Nava seems attracted to. Unfortunately, I frequently felt I was watching the Partridge Family - the Quntanillas are so wholesome and squeaky clean that Selena's idea of being mischievous is to steal her sister's Doritos. We also get a lot of slapstick from Dad, who's frequently blowing up equipment or falling over drum kits. A truly gag-inducing scene involves Selena's efforts to sweet talk Dad into allowing her to wear a bustier on stage. We also get such cornball writing as having the young Selena climb onto her house's roof to gaze at the moon and tell her sister that 'I can dream....'
OK, now that I've gotten (most of) my snarking over with, the film does have some merit, mostly in Lopez' performance. She's really engaging and has a real stage presence as she dances and lip syncs her way through the film. I also liked Jon Seda ("I Like it Like That") as Chris Perez, the heavy metal guitarist that Selena falls for - he has a quiet intensity masking insecurities that Selena helps him overcome. Also very good is Constance Marie as Selena's mom - the more understanding of the two parents. Becky Lee Meza is convincing and enthusiastic as the young Selena. Unfortunately, I found Edward James Olmos's performance to be somewhat embarrassing.
The film has some strange gaps in its presentation - the initial recordings (two of which went Gold, one of which one a Grammy) just suddenly are there. The family's out in their old bus doing the regional appearances and suddenly Selena's got a number 1 hit on the radio! We're also never shown the actual murder - some might say this is tasteful, but I say it's handled with too much cotton batting. The transition to this scene is very awkwardly handled - we're shown a bullet going across the screen superimposed over the motel where the event took place. Another bad transition is the introduction of the Yolanda Saldivar character (Selena's eventual murderer) - for all the subtly used, the filmmakers might as well have put horns on her head and had a big red flashing arrow pointing to her.
Selena's fans will more than likely enjoy "Selena." I could have done without it.
"Selena" is an old-fashioned bio-pic with its concentration on all the "good" aspect of its title character and all of those around her (except for one, but I'll get to that later).
Jennifer Lopez is outstanding as Selena, lending ability and grace to the stage numbers, in particular, but throughout the film, in general. Reading up on Lopez, I discovered that she was one of the Fly Girls on TV's "In Living Color." Her skill as a dancer comes to the fore nicely as she recreates Selena's style on-stage.
Edward James Olmos, always a convincing character actor, conveys his vast experience and humor to the film as Selena's father and mentor. He pulls off the blustering, flustering dad routine, but it gives the film more of a sit-com flavor at times.
Simple handling of the story works pretty well, without much embellishment on Selena,s recording career, concentrating mainly on her live performances. This is a good thing due to the film's 2+ hour runtime. The song and dance stage numbers keep the pace steady. The runtime is excessive and the film would have benefited from about 20 minutes of cutting.
Supporting cast is suitable without being notable.
As I said at the start, everyone is portrayed as sweet and good. The exception, and the biggest laugh/groaner in the film, is when Selena's killer, Yolanda Saldivar (Lupe Ontiveros), is introduced into the story, the filmmakers make this ominous introduction so obvious and heavy handed that the poor woman almost has "murderer" tattooed to her forehead, just to make sure the viewers notice.
Music numbers are handled nicely with snappy sets and costume, coupled with choreography that appears to come real close to the real Selena's performances.
Selena's father, Abraham Quintanilla, is the executive producer and driving force behind making "Selena." He has helped create a biography that will please Selena's fans and followers. I don't think it will cause much in the way of expanding her audience, but the film is a warm, loving homage to an artist and daughter who is, still, truly loved.
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