THE BUTCHER BOY - PAULIE - NIGHTWATCH
THE BIG ONE - CITY OF ANGELS
THE BUTCHER BOY
At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, young Francie Brady is about to go through his own crisis in Neil Jordan's "The Butcher Boy," winner of this year's Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Francie lives in the poor part of Carn, a small town outside Dublin, with his mentally fragile, beloved Ma and his alcoholic musician Da (Stephen Rea, who also provides the film's narration). Francie's best friend and blood brother is Joe who lives in the better part of town next door to Francie's arch enemy, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), who sets Francie off on a downward spiral after branding him and his parents pigs after Francie and Joe steal her son Phillip's comic books.
After serving up such Hollywood fare as "Interview With the Vampire" and "Michael Collins," Neil Jordan returns to his Irish Indie roots of "The Crying Game" with the audacious "The Butcher Boy," which defies conventional filmmaking mores with its mix of black comedy, horror and coming of age film.
Jordan has his actors deliver their lines with an almost music hall-inspired fever pitch which perfectly suits his wild combination of the fantastical with the all too depressingly realistic. Here's a story where a young mother's descent into madness is displayed by an overexhuberance in making Christmas cakes, where a young boy receives a visitation by the Virgin Mary (Sinead O'Connor) in a peat bog and where his retelling of that event fires an old priest's sexual fantasies. The film's eclectic soundtrack features "Mack the Knife," "Never Do a Tango With an Eskimo," the theme from "The Lone Ranger," and the haunting, traditional "The Butcher Boy" sung by Sinead O'Connor.
The young protagonist, Francie, is played in a simply amazing turn by non-professional Eamonn Owens as a brash innocent with a heavy dollop of Irish roguery who's betrayed by all those around him. After a picture of childhood bliss as he plays cowboys and Indians with Joe in the Irish countryside, Francie is dealt one blow after another until his rage explodes when he trashes and fouls the Nugent home. He escapes from the boys' home his Da's sent him to after being profoundly disturbed by a letter from Joe assuring him that Phillip Nugent is really OK - Phillip's given Joe a goldfish which he won. At home, with his Ma now dead, he's become the responsible for running the household, taking a job with the local pig slaughterer. Eventually even Joe must turn from Francie as his violent behavior escalates until Francie decides he must deal with the bane of his existence, the loathed Mrs. Nugent.
"The Butcher Boy" manages to present scenes of violence and despair within a carnival atmosphere, yet still touches us, largely due to Jordan's assured hand in directing this complex tale and the amazing debut performance of Eamonn Owens (he won a special award at the Berlin Festival "for his astonishing work.") When Francie travels to a seaside resort to make real his idealized vision of his parents' early days and finds out things were much to the contrary, his grief is palpable.
The film is given a spectacular background with its combination of location photography, fantasy sequences (which prominently feature visions of a nuclear apocalypse and aliens from "The Brain from Planet Arous") and black and white television sequences from "The Lone Ranger" and "The Fugitive."
Eamon Owens, as the volatile Francie Brady, the butcher boy of the film's title, is electrifying in his intensity as a young boy whose precious childhood is stolen away from him by the circumstances of his life. His mother is spiraling into madness before the boy's eyes, a drunkard father is rapidly poisoning himself to death with alcohol, and a feud begins with his snooty neighbor, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), all of which propel Francie into his own burgeoning madness. The boy loses those he loves - his mom, his dad, and, most significantly, the friendship of his boyhood pal, Joe (Alan Boyle), who is repelled by the dark changes in Francie. I don't know what planet Eamonn Owens came from, but he gives one of the most stunning debut performances I have ever seen.
The screenplay by director Neil Jordan and Patrick McCabe, adapted from McCabe's novel, is caustically and darkly funny through most of the film, but with a budding dark and sinister seed that starts small and becomes all encompassing of Francie as the boy is forced to cope with the indifference of those around him to his personal tragedies. The unrelenting nature of the story makes "The Butcher Boy" a harsh undertaking, making it a film addict's kind of film, and not mainstream viewing.
Supporting cast, led by Stephen Rea as Francie's father, and Shaw, as the symbol of oppression Mrs. Nugent, are solid in their backing of Owens dominating perf. Stephen Rea also provides the voice-over narration, from the novel, that supplements the visual story quite well.
Technically, the film has a hard edged photography that crisply chronicles Francie's decline. The sets captures the Cold War paranoia of the early 60's, using period colors, old TV shows ("The Lone Ranger," "The Fugitive") and the Cuban Missile Crisis (representing the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust). One imaginative fantasy sequence has Francie and Joe wandering through a post apocalypse landscape scattered with the corpses of pigs, the animal that symbolizes Francie's life. "The Butcher Boy" is a hard film to take - the violent climax is shocking - and not for all viewers. Young Eamonn Owens steals the show, though, from the solid team of filmmakers. If you love movies, it is well worth the effort. I give it a B+.
Paulie is a parrot with a problem. He can talk. Not just mimic a few phrases, but really talk. And that's his problem. He doesn't know when to keep his beak shut, causing him to be separated from his first owner, and first love, little Marie Allweather (Hallie Kate Eisenberg). Paulie begins an arduous cross-country trek to find his little love, meeting all manner of people along the way, some good, some not so good, in "Paulie."
More reminiscent of Disney's 1963 film "The Incredible Journey" or its 1993 remake "Homeward Bound," "Paulie," unfortunately, is being compared to the fantasy film masterpiece, "Babe," - a very different kind of film. "Paulie" is the straightforward telling of one little parrot's efforts to get back to his best friend, Marie. The little bird is fluent in English and a speech therapist who, remarkably, helps little Marie cure her serious stutter. That Paulie can speak is immediately accepted by the viewer as the filmmakers make you suspend your disbelief. Within seconds of Paulie's first coherent utterance, his anthropomorphic self kicks in and a talking parrot becomes the most acceptable of things. Where "Babe" is pure fantasy, "Paulie" is a simple yarn about a not-so-simple bird and his journey home.
The original screenplay by newcomer Laurie Craig is an episodic rendering of Paulie's trek across the country in search of Marie. Each episode showcases the human talent of a series of unique characters, with Gena Rowlands, Tony Shaloub, Cheech Marin, Bruce Davidson, Buddy Hackett and Jay Mohr providing the diminutive bird with both help and hindrance. Mohr affords a fun dual role as the voice of Paulie and as the larcenous Benny, a man who abuses Paulie's talent by using him as an ATM thief. All seem to be having a good time as they totally accept the conversant little guy and his plight. Gena Rowlands, as the elderly Ivy, gives the most sentimental performance as she helps Paulie go home. Cheech Marin has the most fun as Ignacio, the owner of three dancing parrots and a taco stand in East LA. Little Halle Kate Eisenberg is adorable as Paulie's best friend, Marie.
The special effects, like the story, are straightforward, too. So much so that they take a back seat to the snappy dialog of Paulie. His wisecracking insolence masks the fact that you are seeing a talking parrot as you ease right in to his witty, sarcastic patter. Live animal and animatronic combinations are seamlessly done. F/X are so matter-of-fact you kind of forget that they are F/X.
In his first outing as director for a major studio movie, John Roberts shows little individual style in his handling of the material. A more experienced hand could have helped overcome the piecemeal feel of each episode. A flow that draws all the vignettes together would have helped to add an overall coherence to the film.
"Paulie" is, first, a kids movie and its star is a very appealing little guy. Parents will be mildly amused, too. I give it a B-
Danish director Ole Bornedal remakes his 1995 "Nattevagten," which broke all Danish box office records, for the English speaking filmgoer with "Nightwatch." Ewan McGregor ("Trainspotting") stars as Martin Bells, a young LA law student who takes a job in the city morgue just as some recent killings are being branded those of a serial killer by Inspector Cray (Nick Nolte) on the local news. Strange things begin happening at the morgue, as well as with Martin's sadistic, thrill-seeking friend James (Josh Brolin), and Martin realizes he's being set up as the killer.
"Nightwatch" has been queued up for release for nearly a year now. This in itself is a bad sign, but I still had high hopes after reading about "Nattevagten." Unfortunately, "Nightwatch" is a frustrating experience for the horror film afficienado - it gets so many things right, but ultimately fails because its storyline is cliche-ridden.
On its plus side, Bornedal creates LA locations that provide a noirish, Lynchian dread (the casting of Patricia Arquette as Martin's girlfriend, complete with her blonde "Lost Highway" vamp hairdo, adds to the Lynchian feel). The morgue itself is an example of brilliant art direction, with its cavernous entry hall's doorways festooned with rippling sheets of dark plastic and its glassed-in watchman's booth plunked down from another era. Its subterranean floors feature a laboratory with creepy things floating in jars, a red-lit room Martin is warned to stay out of by his cadaverous predecessor, and the morgue itself - glaring white with two rows of steel tables on either side of the device at the opposite end which Martin must enter his key into to prove he's done his rounds. There are also cords dangling over the sheeted cadavars so that in case one should wake up, an alarm can be set off in Martin's booth upstairs!
Another plus is the way Bornedal deglamorizes serial killing after Hollywood, with a few notable exceptions, has numbed its audience with the subject. The opening sequence is truly horrific, as a prostitute, playing 'dead' for her customer, is violently betrayed while her bound hands bring the 1940's ceiling fan overhead crashing down to the floor. This film actually made me feel scummy, a reaction long absent from horror films.
Unfortunately, atmosphere is all this film has going for it. With a cast that includes Nick Nolte, Ewan McGregor, Patricia Arquette and Brad Dourif, only relative unknown Alix Koromzay displays any noteworthy acting, with her small but pivotal role as Joyce, a young junkie hooker James brings into Martin's life. The Macguffins are far too obvious (why would relatively nice guy Martin hang out with James who treats his girlfriend and everyone else badly?). The identity of the real killer is a big yawn, and once he's exposed, the film becomes almost laughable.
Miramax should have learned from another foreign horror film which was remade for the U.S. with poor results (the Netherlands' "The Vanishing") and simply released the original Danish film. I'll still give this version some credit for its style, which also includes an interesting punk rock soundtrack.
THE BIG ONE
Michael Moore, who made a big first time splash with his 1989 award-winning documentary "Roger & Me," is back on a rampage against big corporations and their abandonment of the American people in "The Big One." Moore, on the road to tout his best-selling Random House book, "Downsize This! Random Threats From An Unarmed American," uses the opportunity to chronicle his journey through middle America, unveiling hard times for US. workers when its corporations are showing record profits and salaries to CEOs have gone through the roof.
Where Moore suffused "Roger & Me" with a dark irony, he is almost comical in his presentation of "The Big One." It is an ambitious effort as Moore and his guerrilla camera crew criss-cross the country following the filmmaker on his book signing tour with 47 cities visited in about as many days. Moore took the time to research, via the internet, the economic state of each city, discovering many large corporations abandoning the American people who made them successful, in the first place, in favor of lower wages in foreign countries. He used his research to ambush the corporate PR flacks, on video tape, in an effort to get in to talk to a CEO, any CEO, about the corporate abandonment of America.
Moore infuses lots of humor into "The Big One," using the experience gained from his award-winning renegade television show, "TV Nation," to put an upbeat spin on some serious subject matters. The humor does not overshadow the issues Moore takes up in his crusade against corporate America and its trend to downsize jobs in favor of increased profits. Along with his diatribe against America's corporations, Moore also provides the viewer with a great deal of variety:
- an evening spent riffing Bob Dylan songs with guitarist Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick. - interviewing an ex-convict who, while in prison, was employed as a reservations clerk for TWA. - a cross country search for a CEO willing to talk about the downsizing phenomenon. - an eleventh hour invitation for an interview, cameras allowed, with Nike chairman, Phil Knight. - a visit to a secret meeting of employees of Borders Books who are trying to form a union. - a proposal to change the name of the US. to something more exciting - The Big One - with a new national anthem, Queen's "We Will Rock You."
The combination of unrelenting statistics on America's corporations and their disdain for its workers is tempered with Moore's wit, particularly in his talks to the workers in the different cities he visited. He sees the humor in the sometimes desperate situations without making light of it the plight of the minimum wage earner.
"The Big One" is a fine balance of the serious and the comical, representing an incredibly assured work by Michael Moore. I Give it a B+.
Michael Moore's kind-of sequel to his "Roger and Me," isn't as focussed as his first documentary, which concentrated on his home town of Flint, MI and the devastation on its citizens when GM closed a factory there, but it's more entertaining. Moore gathers a young film crew to follow him on his unorthodox book tour promoting his "Downsize This! Random Threats >From an Unarmed American," and in each city he stops in, he ambushes Corporate America by presenting certificates to companies who've managed to downsize while posting record-breaking profits.
We're treated to a struggle between Moore and Borders Bookstores, who cancel many of his appearances as he encourages their $6.25/hr. employees to unionize (they meet him in a parking lot at night after having been banned from his signing appearance). Most entertaining (and frightening) is Moore's chance encounter with a heavily tatooed ex-con in the Mall of the Americas who describes how he worked as a TWA reservationist in prison while professing not to give a &^%# about anybody - he's a scary individual. Johnson Controls is bagged moving a plant to Mexico, where workers will receive 80 cents an hour, Pay Day candy is shutting a plant that posted a $20 million profit and tries to have Moore arrested, and Pillsbury is challenged for spending $11 million in welfare money to promote their Doughboy in third world countries.
Moore also champions former welfare recipients in their State House, plays guitar with Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick in his living room, plays a practical joke on one of his Random House escorts and makes fun of our country's name on an L.A. radio show, where he redubs the USA "The Big One" and suggests "We Will Rock You" as the national anthem!
"The Big One" also features Moore as stand-up comedian as well as labor activist. In one hilarious talk, Moore speculates that Steve Forbes isn't human because he never blinks. He further stirs things up in the political arena by sending checks to the then-candidates - $100 from The Hemp Growers of American to the Clinton campaign, another $100 from "Pedophiles for Trade" for Perot while "Abortionists for Buchanan" also make a contribution. Moore's tickled pink that each and every check is cashed.
Technically, this is guerilla filmmaking, where the cameras are never turned off, despite threats and false direction from Moore to do so.
The film ends on an upbeat note - those Borders' employees are shown in several cities celebrating the creation of their labor unions.
CITY OF ANGELS
Loosely adapted from the Wim Wenders masterpiece "Wings of Desire," "City of Angels" loses the political subtext of a newly reunited Berlin and concentrates on the love story between an angel and a human. Set in Los Angeles, Nicolas Cage is Seth, an angel who cannot experience touch or taste, nor see color. When he goes to escort a man who will die on the operating table to the afterlife, Seth is overwhelmed by the young heart surgeon, Maggie played by Meg Ryan, who goes beyond the call of duty to save the man. Seth makes himself seen to Maggie, who also finds herself passionately drawn to him. He now faces a choice - stay in heavenly beauty for eternity as an angel or "fall" and become human.
"City of Angels" is an unabashedly romantic chick flick. As I admittedly would watch Nicolas Cage read the phone book, I couldn't help but be completely drawn into this film flaws and all.
We're introduced to Seth as he assists a dying little girl and immediately know that the filmmakers are going full tilt to manipulating our heart strings and tear ducts. Cage plays Seth as a somewhat alien, soft spoken, doe-eyed spirtualist with an inquisitive nature. When Meg Ryan's Maggie declares "You are so beautiful," I know exactly what she means. Ryan is immediately tagged as a free spirit because we see her riding a bike to work in car conscience L.A. Ryan is as believable as an extremely confident heart surgeon as Elizabeth Shue was laughable as a nuclear scientist in "The Saint." Maggie goes through a personal crisis when she loses a patient in what's supposed to be a textbook case. Dennis Franz gives a delightful performance as another of Maggie's patients who frustrates her by continuing to indulge his lust for high fat foods and cigarettes. He becomes Seth and Maggie's literal Cupid and gives the film a much needed boost of humor.
The script, by Dana Stevens ("Blink"), is even in the storytelling department, but uneven in the dialogue. There are some marvelously written scenes, such as when Seth is observing Maggie in surgery, and while listening to her thoughts, discovers she's attracted to him - those thoughts? "I am stuck on BandAids, cuz BandAids' stuck on me, I am stuck on BandAids, cuz BandAids' stuck on me. I wonder why Seth didn't give me his phone number. I am stuck...." Delightful. On the other hand, while telling fellow angel Cassiel (Andre Braugher of TV's "Homicide") about how the little girl who died wanted angel wings, he says her response to his offer to make some out of paper was "What good would wings be if I couldn't feel the wind on my face?" What small child would say something like that? Herein lies "City of Angels" biggest problem - there's a somberness to the proceedings and an archaic formality to some of the dialogue which weight too heavily. The score does'nt help matters.
Director of Photography John Seale ("The English Patient") gives us a beautiful view of L.A. aglow with pastels with lots of overhead shots from the angels' point of view. The modern public library, where the angels choose to live, is pristine white with several floors overlooking an open atrium - here the angels glide to the balconies to observe the romance of Seth and Maggie.
The film's final segment is it's best, when Seth finally falls after Maggie tells him she'll marry her boyfriend because he knows her lifestyle. (The transition from angel to human is handled very well, with Seth's new senses presented by a jarring use of sound.) Seth fights his way to her hideaway in Reno and comes alive experiencing being human - his performance becomes ignited here.
Not a perfect film, but one of many affecting moments, which gets stronger as it goes along.
City of Angels" is one of the bigger disappointments out of Hollywood so far this year. I thought that a work based on the material used to create the fascinating 1988 German/French film, "Wings of Desire," by director Wim Wenders, would, at least, attempt to capture the lyrical quality of the earlier film. It does not
The problem with "City of Angels" is its sterility. It is an emotionally uninvolving flick that attempts to play on the heart strings of the viewer and fails in its effort. I'm a sap for emotionally manipulative films - I had tears in my eyes when Kim Novak loses her witchly powers in "Bell, Book and Candle," just to show the kind of sap I am - but, "City of Angels" failed to appeal to even MY rank sentimentality.
Meg Ryan gives her most nondescript performance in years as heart surgeon Dr. Maggie Rice. Much is made to show off her dedication to her patients and profession, but nothing is done to bring the viewer inside the character. Ryan has been providing a number of striking performances - see her under-rated performances in "Courage Under Fire" and "Addicted to Love" for better examples of her acting talent - but, here, she's only along for the ride.
Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage is saddled with the least forgiving role in "City of Angels" as celestial being, Seth. Since, for much of the film, he's invisible to the earthly inhabitants in his care, he does not have a great deal of dialogue, relying on mournful and melancholy facial expressions to provide the emotional turmoil Seth is confronted with after meeting Maggie. A little mournful expression goes a long way. It's far too much here. Cage appears sincere, but comes nowhere near his Oscar winning performance in "Leaving Las Vegas."
The best thing, by far, in "City of Angels" is the sparkling performance by Dennis Franz as "fallen" angel Nathaniel Messinger. He acts as the earthly muse to Seth, instructing the angel on the wonderment of living as a human being, feeling physical pleasure and pain and loving every minute of his finite life on earth. Franz is positively exuberant in his performance and outshines the leads with embarrassing ease.
A hint to the mediocrity of "City of Angels" came about two-thirds of the way through when a member of the audience blurted out, "This movie sucks!" I don't know if I would go that far, but I can say that it is squarely aimed at the adult female population as its target audience and no one else. For the guys out there - if you really, really want to make points with your significant other, agree to go see "City"." If you don't need the points, run, do not walk, to another movie.
I give "City of Angels" a disappointing C-
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