SWEET AND LOWDOWN - ANY GIVEN SUNDAY
MAN ON THE MOON - THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER - THE END OF THE AFFAIR
THE WAR ZONE


SWEET AND LOWDOWN

"I'm the greatest guitarist in the world!" proclaims Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), a musical genius who always ends this quote with, "Well, there is that gypsy guy in France." Emmet idolizes and is in awe of Django Reinhardt; the Belgian gypsy who is considered by many in the know to be the greatest guitarist that ever lived. Ray's almost reverential worship of Reinhardt has kept him from attaining the greatness he believes he deserves. There's also the fact that Emmet is either late or drunk for nearly every gig he gets in Woody Allen's latest film, "Sweet and Lowdown."

Robin's review of 'Sweet And Lowdown':
Woody Allen has been marching to his own creative tune for many, many years. Boldly, he eschewed his light, goofy comedies, years ago, and began to plumb emotions far darker. He did his Bergman thing with "Interiors," and gave us a character study on murder in "Crimes and Misdemeanors. Even his comedy films have taken on a darker edge with looks into subjects like infidelity ("Hannah and Her Sisters"), prostitution ("Might Aphrodite"), historical docu-drama ("Zelig") and fantasy ("The Purple Rose of Cairo").

Throughout all the years and in most of his films, Allen has always had an important place for the music that he loves. Most spectacularly, in 1979's "Manhattan," Allen used the music of the great George Gershwin, as a major element of the film, to tremendous effect. Since then, he has always used his beloved jazz and Dixieland to varying degrees. Now, with "Sweet & Lowdown," the musical talents of the legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt are brought, fully, to modern listeners.

As he did with the innovative "Zelig," Allen introduces a fictional figure into our world and builds a story and a life around him. Again using a quasi-documentary style, the filmmaker mixes talking-head quotes from various jazz music authorities (including Allen, himself) with the live action portrayal of the life and times of Emmet Ray. Emmet is remarkably talented and he is one of the greatest living guitarists. But, his egotistical and talented personality is tainted by his self-destructive and hedonist nature. His inherent insecurity and loneliness always causes the man to make the wrong decisions in life and in love. The story follows the rise, fall and final vindication of the gifted Emmet Ray in an even-handed arc.

While none of the performances in "Sweet and Lowdown" are what I would call outstanding, there are notable perfs. Sean Penn, in particular, does a fine job as the almost childlike savant who is brilliant in his music but emotionally limited in his dealings with others, be they employers, friends or lovers. Sean's Emmet has not a clue of his value, seeing his guitar-playing talent as unparalleled, but failing to accept the responsibility this talent brings to his musical career. He equates his virtuoso ability with fame and fortune, but fails to see that hard work plays an equal part, too. Penn does a solid job in breathing life and an offbeat sweetness into Emmet Ray and looks darn convincing playing the guitar.

Supporting cast is relegated to a series of two-dimensional characters that act as background players to the unfocused Emmet. The one exception is Samantha Morton as the mute Hattie. Emmet falls for the silent girl, but his inability to commit to another, coupled with his emotionally retarded personality, causes him to lose the one person whom, silently, loves him. Hattie makes no demands on Emmet, but the guitarist sees this as a weakness and, eventually and unceremoniously, dumps her. Unknown to Emmet, this loss will effect him to the end. Morton, without a word uttered, speaks volumes.

The main draw, for me, to "Sweet and Lowdown" is the marvelous music used throughout the film. Django Reinhardt tunes are liberally scattered along the way, as are big-band numbers and classic tunes like "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Avalon" and "Aloha Oe." The music is a pleasure to hear from start to finish - especially if you're a fan - and is the main draw to go see (and hear) "Sweet and Lowdown."

Tech credits are solid all around. Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei ("Raise the Red Lantern") makes his western film debut and complements the production with his crisp lensing and soft lighting, accentuating the period feel. This feel is also apparent the production design by long-time Allen collaborator Santo Loquasto ("Bullets Over Broadway") and costuming by Laura Cunningham Bauer.

"Sweet and Lowdown" is a niche film for the prolific director. It does not have the broad appeal of his comedies and lacks the edge of his best, recent works. But, the music is superb and, for fans of big band and jazz (especially Django), the real reason to see this film. I give it a B.

Laura's review of 'Sweet And Lowdown':
Writer/director Woody Allen has served up a likeable confection for his thirtieth film (certainly more so than his last two efforts, the crummy "Celebrity" and nasty "Deconstructing Harry"), but considering the author's heavy choice of theme (the emotional irresponsibility afforded to artists), his movie is lighter than air.

Sean Penn simply disappears into the character of Emmet Ray, the 'second greatest jazz guitarist in the world.' Emmet is a man of abysmal character. He's a drunken, gambling kleptomaniac who dumps women quicker than you can say 'commitment,' yet Penn manages to make the character sweetly empathetic. He also pulls off his guitar picking with aplomb.

One day, as he hangs out with a friend on a boardwalk, he spies Hattie (Samantha Morton, "Under the Skin") and picks her up, only to learn he's been saddled with a mute. Hattie's so sweet and enthusiastic, however, that Emmet uncharacterstically ends up with a mate. Of course, that doesn't mean he's faithful nor above deserting her when the time seems right. Ironically he marries Blanche (Uma Thurman), a beautiful intellectual who becomes more enthralled with a mobster (Anthony LaPaglia) when her marriage begins to bore her. Emmet realizes that Hattie was the woman for him only when it's too late - his art transcends his second tier status as he suffers and opens up emotionally - then he disappears into oblivion.

Morton is engaging to watch as Hattie - she resembles a silent screen actress with her exageratedly awed expressions easily negating her need to speak. Thurman is over the top as Blanche, wearing outrageous costumes and horrible hairdos. No one else really registers (Gretchen Mol shows up in a bit part at film's end and John Waters seems out of place as a club owner).

Allen works for the first time with cinematographer Zhao Fei ("Raise the Red Lantern"), who gives the proceedings a nostalgic glow. Allen's script is lightly comical, which aids Penn vastly in making Emmet at all likeable (he faints when he meets his idol, Django Reinhardt), but needs more meat on its bones. Anyone familiar with Woody Allen movies will already be familiar with the music of Django Reinhardt, which is used extensively here as the fictional Ray's own.

"Sweet and Lowdown" is a pleasant experience while watching it, but it won't resonate much longer than its closing credits.

B-


ANY GIVEN SUNDAY

Fall, 2001. The AFFA (Association of Football Franchises of America) season is drawing to a close and the Miami Sharks are struggling for a playoff spot when disaster strikes. Not only is ace veteran quarterback, Jack "Cap" Rooney (Dennis Quaid) badly injured during the critical game and out for the regular season, the second string QB is taken out in the same first half. Coach Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) has no choice but to put his third stringer, Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), in for the second half. Willie amazes everyone when he turns the score around and gives the team the win. But, winning isn't everything in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday."

Laura's review of 'Any Given Sunday':
Co-writer/director Oliver Stone jumps into the fray at the last minute with one of the most enervating films of the holiday season. "Any Given Sunday" is a raucous look at the world of football and all the baggage its acquired over the years. This on and off the field look far surpasses what William Friedkin was trying to achieve with "Blue Chips," a similar look at sports within the world of college basketball. Stone's film is simply one of the best sports movies ever made, particularly as a representative of the current decade.

Al Pacino is Tony D'Amato, coach of the fictional Miami Sharks. He's at a crossroads as he's facing the aging of his star quarterback, Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid), the team's new owner and general manager, Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), and a four game losing streak approaching playoff time. When both Cap and the second string quarterback are both injured in the same game, Tony faces yet another challenge - his third string quarterback, Willie Beaman (TV's Jamie Foxx).

Christina's the daughter of the man Tony worked for for years, but she's all business with no real love of the game. Beaman, whose first time on the field is disgraced when he vomits on camera (although this habit becomes a kind of signature), starts off shakily, but soon becomes a hot shot star with no regard for his teammates or his coach's ability. Christina, of course, wants Beamann to continue to play and plots with the team doctor (James Woods) to make Cap 'unavailable.'

Stone's love of the game (he appears as an announcer), as well as his stylistic flourishes, can be seen throughout this high energy film. We immediately know we're in Stone territory when frenzied game footage is presented with Native American Indian chanting. The film barrels through time as if hyped on caffeine, yet keeps its audience hurtling along with it. Stone amalgamated three different scripts to come up with the one he uses here and its terrific work featuring complex characters and situations all blended together with an expert hand.

The cast is uniformly excellent and offers some surprises - most notably Lauren Holly in a small role as Cap's wife Cindy. She's sports royalty and acts it, dissing newcomer player girlfriends who aren't yet wives, doing anything to push her husband to maintain his position. In one scene she plays with Quaid, she drew gasps from the preview audience. Pacino is in his element as D'Amato, more multi-layered here than he had a chance to be in the earlier "The Insider." Do NOT leave when the film's credits begin or you'll miss one of his best scenes and the film's hilarious final kicker. Diaz holds her own against him, although her toughness pales before Holly's truly evil personage. It's good to see Quaid on screen in an interesting role again and he makes the most of his self-doubting, aging jock. Jamie Foxx is dead right and great casting coup as 'Steamin Beamen,' the brash young player who needs to get taken down a notch or two. Another MIA actor, Matthew Modine, gives an interesting turn as the moralistic team internist to Woods' hip, perk-loving orthopedist. The film also features good work from Ann-Margaret as Christina's booze-addled mom, Jim Brown as the defensive coordinator, Aaron Eckhart ("Your Friends and Neighbors") as the ambitious offensive coordinator, John C. McGinley as an irritating sports journalist, Lela Rocho as Beamen's no-nonsense girlfriend, Elizabeth Berkley ("Showgirls") as a high-priced call girl and Charlton Heston as the commissioner.

"Any Given Sunday" is a bold, staccato/rap football flick that goes out with one of the best endings of any film this year.

A

Robin's review of 'Any Given Sunday':
"Any Given Sunday" holds some similarity to the other Big League from movie earlier this year, "For Love of the Game," in its stance on the purity of the sport. ""Sunday" is more complex than the Sam Raimi flick as it deals with the struggle between the forces that strive to keep the sport and its integrity pure and the corporate monolith that only sees professional sports as a means to an end - money. Raimi's film, to his credit, does the better job in showing the essence and beauty of his sport. Oliver Stone concentrates more on the gladiatorial nature of football, playing up the life and death struggle faced by the players every Sunday in the fall, but not exploring the intricacy of the game fully.

The story, a conglomeration of several sources put together by Stone and co-scripter John Logan, breaks down into two parts - the game, and everything else. Outside the focus of the gridiron play, the story deals with the corporate absorption of The Game into just another moneymaking industry. There is an on-going struggle by Coach D'Amato to maintain his team's ability and desire to give the game their all for the love of the sport in the face of corporate greed. The Sharks' owner, Christina (Cameron Diaz), who treats the veteran coach and his team as mere employees in a business, personifies his dilemma. Where Tony believes that the game and how it is played is the most important thing, Christina sees only the win (and its monetary perks) as the all-important end.

The football sequences are very stylishly handled, almost too much so. The night game being played as the film opens is nice to look at with its dark, moody lighting and rapid fire editing, but it also looks artificial. Newcomer cinematogratrapher Salvatore Totino's commercial background shows through every game sequence, making them look like they belong in a Pepsi ad. The flashy photography, coupled with Stone's penchant for machine-gun editing, gives the film a nice look, but doesn't best capture the warrior nature of the sport. I prefer Robert Aldrich's "The Longest Yard" for the spectacle of men gripped in battle on the playing field.

Al Pacino gives an as-expected solid perf as Tony D'Amato. The coach is a complex man who is being torn apart by the business of football, while trying to preserve the sport's honesty and integrity. Tony believes that professional football should be on a pedestal, away from the muddy waters of corporate greed. When his team is torn apart by the ambition and anger of their new "star" quarterback, Tony feels every pain from every player. Coach D'Amato's battle with this corporate reality makes for an effective character study by Pacino. The actor, who also gives a first-class performance in "The Insider," is one of America's greatest and most versatile thesps and proves that mettle, again, in "Any Given Sunday."

Co-star Cameron Diaz is given a tough nut to crack in her role as Christina Pagniacci, co-owner and president of the Sharks franchise. The pretty young actress is more noted for her comedy performances in "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "There's Something About Mary" and has her hands full in the drama of "Any Given Sunday." Christina is a tough, practical businesswoman who sees only the dollar signs her team represents, lacking the love of the game that her late father tried to bestow on her. Diaz comes across well, with the requisite cold rich-bitch persona and hard-as-nails demeanor. It's a good performance, but could have used more edge.

Jamie Foxx, a newcomer to drama whose roots are in comedy, gives an effective performance as #13, Willie Beamen. A bad decision made in college cost the player a high rating in the draft roster and he has been relegated to warming the bench for the Sharks' star QB, Jack Rooney. When Willie finally gets to play, it is with anger and an overwhelming desire to win at any cost, but not for love for the game. Foxx gives the Beamen a seething intensity that palpably burns up the screen. This is a solid debut performance for the young actor.

The rest of cast is an embarrassment of underutilized riches. Besides the key actors in "Any Given Sunday," there are a bevy of others making a showing in small roles - Ann-Margret, Charleton Heston, Elizabeth Berkeley (looking sexy as a sympathetic football fan/hooker), James Woods, Matthew Modine and others flesh out this large ensemble cast. Lauren Holly, as Rooney's ambitious ruthless wife Cindy, gives a stunning performance that is the best one in the film. And, as one expects in a sports film of this caliber, the cameo appearances of current and former NFL names are many, with the likes of Lawrence Taylor, Jim Brown, Frank Gifford, Dick Butkus, Bob St. Clair, even the legendary Johnny Unitas, showing up in various small roles. Director Stone amusingly casts himself as color-man for the Sharks game broadcasts.

This isn't the best film by Oliver Stone, but it is a first-rate job nonetheless. The director moves his actors around his film in much the same way as Coach D'Amato moves his players in their game. Stone is a deft director and good storyteller. Combine these talents with his versatile ensemble cast makes for one good sports film. I give "Any Given Sunday" a B+.


MAN ON THE MOON

The long-awaited bio flick on the life and colorful career of comedian Andy Kaufman has finally come to the big screen in director Milos Forman's "Man on the Moon," starring Jim Carrey as the comic innovator.

Robin's review of 'Man On The Moon':
Andy Kaufman died 13 years ago of a rare form of lung cancer and his unique humor is still considered groundbreaking by many. Marching to his own drummer, Kaufman's characters and performances were what he wanted to do with his art, not what his audience always wanted. His innovative humor was akin to the great Ernie Kovacs. Like Kovacs, Kaufman used his own comedic style to test the patience of his audience. When he did his miming to the kid's song, "Old MacDonald," he got stares of bewilderment from many, but it also drew in others enough to get them to enjoy singing along with a "quack-quack here" and a "moo-moo there." His near-venomous foray into professional wrestling elicited as much anti-Kaufman negativity as it did laughs.

Jim Carrey, when he portrays Andy's on stage personalities, has some moments of near brilliance as he captures the tone and nuance of the man's performances. In particular, the pro-wrestling phase that Kaufman played with relish is depicted accurately, if only in a limited way. There are times when Carrey is almost spookily like the late comedian, making the viewer forget, for short spurts, that they are watching an actor, not Kaufman himself. The bridge sequences, where Carrey plays Kaufman as his real-life person (i.e. not on stage), are more like a routine biopic and fails to involve the viewer in what made Andy tick. I'm not sure that anyone, besides Kaufman intimates, knows what drove the man. Director Forman, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (both from Forman's "The People Vs Larry Flint") nor Jim Carrey really knows the inner man, either, and it shows in these sequences.

I'd comment on the supporting cast, but there really isn't one. This one-man show has Danny DeVito as Kaufman's manager, George Shapiro, Courtney Love as girlfriend/wife Lynn Margulies, and Paul Giamatti ("Donny Brasco") as his friend and co-writer Bob Zmuda, who also played Kaufman's alter ego Tony Clifton at times. The performances from these folk lack any spark and no there is any development beyond the two dimensional and symbolic. All are adequate, but nothing more. The only other per of note is by pro-wrestling star, Jerry Lawyer, who plays himself during Kaufman's wrestling imbroglio.

Helper Forman made a major splash a couple of years ago with his Larry Flint bio picture and the buzz on "Man on the Moon" has been the equal of the earlier movie - best actor nod for Carrey, best picture, etc. With the possible, slightly possible at this point, exception of Carrey getting award attention, there isn't anything else in the film that warrants that level of praise. Technically, there is nothing outstanding to see. As a matter of fact, the whole production doesn't rise above mediocre. Photography, sets and costume are not notable.

The screenplay is merely a string of Kaufman episodes on stage, from his first disastrous debut to his mea-production at Carnegie Hall, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Rockets and, even, Santa Claus. The Carnegie Hall bit is the best in the film and the biggest set piece. None of the stage stuff is new and, if you're a fan of Andy's, you probably saw all of these bits before with the real Kaufman. The rest of the film just strings these performances together. On the heals of their terrific screenplay for "The People Vs Larry Flynt," screenwriters Alexander and Karaszewski are sitting atop their earlier laurels. Nothing original comes from the writing for "Man on the Moon."

After the hype (which I usually ignore) and the anticipation, "Man on the Moon" is hard-pressed to live up to its expectations. I figured it a sure bet for Andy Kaufman fans, but even that draw is limited. Watching old Kaufman stuff on "Comedy Central" is more satisfying. I give it a B-.

Laura's review of 'Man On The Moon':
Most people know Andy Kaufman as Latka on TV's 'Taxi,' but he was actually a complex performance artist who hated what made him popular ('Taxi') and loved to shock and instigate his audience to the point that he was actually voted off the cast of 'Saturday Night Live' by the public. Andy was always 'on,' hiding behind a variety of his incarnations. When he died of a rare form of lung cancer in 1984, many believed it was just another of the comic's stunts.

Milos Forman ("Amadeus) and the screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski ("Ed Wood") would seemingly have a lock on the biopic these days, especially after their last collaberation, the underrated "The People vs. Larry Flynt." However, their new effort, while clearly a labor of love, is uneven and anemic - it's a cinematic version of the dramatic reenactments of shows like 'Unsolved Mysteries.'

The film begins with an attempt to explain the man by showing him frustrating his parents as a young boy by constantly performing TV shows to his bedroom wall. When his father insists that Andy at least have an audience, his little sister is recruited. Cut to the adult Andy, performing the exact same schtick for bewildered adults (and the cow went 'moo') before being fired from a job that didn't pay him in the first place.

Andy tries a new routine at the Comedy Club and intrigues George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) with a dead-on Elvis impersonation which seemingly was performed by a bumbling Eastern European (Latka's forerunner). Shapiro amazingly gets Andy his 'Taxi' role along with all the demands Andy makes in order to accept it (four appearances by his 'friend,' Tony Clifton, his own variety special, etc.). When the obnoxiously crude Clifton (also Kaufman or his writing partner Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti, "The Negotiator"), although he always denied it) shows up on the set, all hell breaks loose. The network refuses to run his special and Andy begins to taunt women into the wrestling ring.

"Man On the Moon" is entertaining while Carrey's recreating Kaufman's famous bits, such as his SNL Mighty Mouse singalong. Carrey perfectly captures Kaufman's ability to give the audience the flop sweat before finally pitching them a punch line they're more than eager to grab onto. He angers a college audience who want Latka by reading them 'The Great Gatsby' in its entirety. These crazy stunts got Kaufman headlines, but eventually lost him his audience. What made Kaufman tick? Why is the self-proclaimed 'song and dance man' presented as being so cut up about getting booted off SNL? I'm afraid "The Man On the Moon" tells us no more than watching Comedy Central's endless repeats of its Kaufman special.

The film's time line is off kilter as well. We're presented with a Taxi montage that runs less than five minutes (and features most of the original cast), then the show isn't mentioned again until about an hour later when we learn it's been cancelled (after having been unaware that Kaufman was still involved with it). The ending is a forced love fest, from a recreation of Andy's infamous Carnegie Hall Christmas show (the 'milk and cookies' incident), to a weird, singalong funeral to a post-mortem Clifton performance that suggests Andy's still alive (Zmuda's seen in the audience).

Carrey's highly touted performance is a mixed bag. He's eerily brilliant when recreating Kaufman's stage bits, but yanks us out of the film otherwise, when we all too aware it's Carrey we're watching. DeVito and Courtney Love (as Kaufman's girlfriend Lynne Margulies) stand around looking at Carrey either with reverence or misty eyes, humbled by their Kaufman icon, but certainly not creating characters of their own. Paul Giamatti creates more interest as Andy's coconspirator Zmuda, all adolescent glee at the thought of pulling the wool over peoples' eyes. The parental Kaufmans (Gerry Becker, Leslie Lyles) are a less media-savvy version of Tom Green's mom and dad.

"The Man On the Moon" is intermittently entertaining and wildly uneven. As with Kaufman's unique form of showmanship, one's left wondering who the intended audience is.

C+


THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY

When Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) borrows a Yale crested jacket to accompany a songstress on piano at a posh NYC gathering, he probably never imagined it would lead him to Italy's Amalfi coast, wealth, love affairs and murder. Tom Ripley has many talents, you see, forgery and mimicry among them. When shipbuilder Herb Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) pays Tom $1,000 plus expenses to travel to Italy and convince his son Dickie (Jude Law, "Gattaca") to return to the States, Tom ends up becoming fast friends with the charming, elegant Dickie and his fiance Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). When Dickie tires of Tom, however, Tom goes him one better - he becomes Dickie.

Laura's review of 'The Talented Mr. Ripley':
Director Anthony Mingella ("The English Patient") adapted "The Talented Mr. Ripley" from the 1950s novel by Patricia Highsmith ("Strangers on a Train") and rounded up a stellar cast to unfurl the tale in spectacular period settings. Filmed once before in 1960 as "Plein Soleil (Purple Noon)" starring Alain Deloin, this new version is less ambiguous, stressing the homosexual yearnings of its titular character.

Ripley is able to convince Dickie and Marge that he was a classmate of Dickie's at Yale and insinuate himself into their pampered lifestyle. Having studied up on Dickie before leaving NY, he can bond with his new friend over his love of jazz and his delight at seeing his father hoodwinked. As well as the threesome get along, however, its always apparent that Tom isn't quite of their class, with his wrong choices in apparel, inability to ski and lack of his own money. When an old classmate shows up (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Miles), Dickie's attentions turn to Freddie and their upcoming skiing trip and the supercilious snob Freddie views Tom with disdain and suspicion. Dickie's clearly ready to drop Tom as Tom's no longer getting any money from Greenleaf Sr., so the pair take one last trip together for a jazz weekend. Tom, miserable at being pushed away from Dickie's radiance, first comes on to him, then murders him.

From this point on Ripley must play a deft game, becoming Dickie Greenleaf for some, such as Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth"), whom he had met on arrival in Italy and lied to, while reverting to Tom for people like Marge and Freddie while maintaining a fiction that Dickie's alive and has moved to Rome. The local police start hanging around when another of this circle turns up dead and Dickie's dad has PI MacCarron (Philip Baker Hall, "Hard Eight") snooping around. Tom's also set his sights on a potential new lover, Marge's friend Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport, "Fierce Creatures"), while Meredith, believing he's Dickie, ardently pursues him.

Minghella's fashioned a terrific retro film which works on several layers, not the least of which is its intricate plotting. Mirrors and reflections are used to portray Ripley's duplicitous nature, yet Ripley astoundingly remains a sympathetic character - an outsider looking for love forced to live a lie of his own making. Interestingly enough, that also bears some resemblance to the charismatic Dickie, who's cheated on Marge with a local girl who commits suicide when she becomes pregnant.

Matt Damon does a credible job, portraying Tom Ripley as a bit of a blank slate with the ability to suck up the vocal inflections and mannerisms of those around him. He's rather pathetic in his neediness and one's left wondering what would have become of him if Greenleaf's astounding offer hadn't come his way. The film really belongs to Jude Law, however, who embodies his character with assurance and confidence. We also want to be able to orbit Dickie's sun, even when presented with his cruel ability to cut people off as it suits him. Also outstanding is Hoffman, a truly gifted young chameleon (he just played a drag queen in "Flawless"). His Freddie is the type of alumnus who gives Ivy League schools a bad name. He's a mincing, hedonistic snob, but he's sharp enought to quickly ascertain that there's something funny about Tom and we see it all in his eyes. Gwyneth seemingly plays herself as Marge, and that's fine as it suits the character. She quite believably transitions her liking for Tom into uneasiness, then hate. Blanchett offers another interesting performance as the American enthralled by a young man she can't get a bead on - she's all breathy immediate intimacy.

Technically, the film is of award nomination calibre from its stunning location photography by John Seale to 1950s production design by Roy Walker and costumes by Ann Roth and Gary Jones. Jazz is used to capture a sense of American hipness in a foreign land where the film's American characters are regarded as exotic.

"The Talented Mr. Ripley" would have been a natural for Hitchcock. Minghella may not equal that master's talent, but he's achieved a feel of an earlier (and often richer) filmmaking time with a high wattage modern cast.

A-

Robin's review of 'The Talented Mr. Ripley':
Director/writer Anthony Minghella is back at work following his tremendously successful, Academy Award-winning film, "The English Patient." This time, he adapts the Patricia Highsmith novel, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," starring golden boy Matt Damon, as the title character, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law.

Minghella, once again, shows his eclectic talents in his adaptation of the Highsmith novel. (Minghella also scripted "The English Patient" from Michael Ondaatje's book.) With "Ripley," the helmer has a more linear story than his earlier film and he tells it with confident ease.

Born on the wrong side of the tracks, Tom Ripley has had to work for everything in his life, sometimes breaking the law and learning shady trades, like forgery. He is attracted to wealth with a passion bordering on obsession when he insinuates himself with Richard Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), posing as a college mate to the wealthy financier's son, Dickie (Law). Dickie is living off of his allowance in sunny Italy and dad wants him back home and working. He hires Tom to go to Italy, find his son and bring him on home. Tom uses this agenda to plays both ends against the middle - taking Greenleaf's money and getting himself in Dickie's good graces.

Things go well for Tom as he gets used to the lifestyle of his friend. His presence, though, is not appreciated by Dickie's fiancee, Marge Sherwood (Paltrow). The young woman sees Tom as competition for the attention, if not the affection, of the philandering Dickie and distrusts the outsider from the start. As the story progresses, we learn bits of Ripley's past as he replaces Dickie, body and soul. Tom is ambitious and will stop at nothing, not even murder, to get what he wants from life. The story follows Tom Ripley as he takes on the persona of Dickie, borrowing the dead man's identity, bank account and life. There is a strong undercurrent of homosexuality in the story too, with Tom using whatever wiles he can to keep his new life.

Minghella tells this tale of deception and obsession with solid narrative flair. His "The English Patient" was more a film of looks than of substance. Here, in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," the helmer has a direct, linear story to tell and keeps the pace even and interesting for the film's 2+ hours. The yarn is aided greatly by the participation of cinematographer John Seale, who won an Academy Award for his lensing of "The English Patient." The lush photography used for "Ripley" gives the film a striking look that nicely complements the sunny Italian locations. Costuming, by Gary Jones and Ann Roth, is perfectly in synch with the period look. Minghella keeps the story in it's 1958 setting, instead of trying to make it contemporary, and the production effectively captures the feel of the time. The hip jazzy score provides additional period feel with tunes from the likes of Charlie "Bird" Parker.

Matt Damon does a competent job in his portrayal of Tom. Sometimes he comes across a bit mannered in his self-effacing depiction of the ambitious character, but mostly puts the right shading on Mr. Ripley. Everything he wants in life - lots of money, nice clothes, expensive digs, fast cars - is about to be taken away when Dickie becomes bored with him and his country mouse ways. After murdering his benefactor, Tom uses his real talents of forgery and impersonation to replace the deceased Dickie. Damon is working hard here.

Gwyneth Paltrow doesn't get to do much through most of the film, only having a chance to thesp near the end when she confronts Tom after finding the ring she gave Dickie - a ring he swore would never take off - among Ripley's things. Mostly, she is window dressing.

The stars are overshadowed by the smaller, supporting performances. Jude Law, as the rich, spoiled Dickie, gives an assured perf and dominates the screen with his presence. Law gives his character a hedonistic charm that make Dickie likable, despite his selfish nihilism. Hoffman, as the bored sophisticato Freddie Miles, nearly jumps off the screen in his dynamic portrayal of the wealthy friend of Dickie who sees right through Tom's conniving plans. The talented Hoffman is proving to be one of the most versatile young character actors in the business. Cate Blanchett is wonderful in the small role of spoiled little rich girl, Meredith Logue. James Reborn, always a good character actor, does a fine job as Dickie's dad.

This holiday movie-going season is inundated with book adaptations - "The Green Mile," "The Cider House Rules," and "Snow Falling On Cedars" are a few - so "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is in good literary company. (Note, too, that there is 1960 French version called "Purple Noon," re-released a few years ago, that's available on video.)

I give "The Talented Mr. Ripley" a B+.


ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER

Spanish director/writer Pedro Almodovar has always had a penchant for telling stories about women. His "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," a ladies' flick as you may guess from the title, propelled him to international attention and acclaim. Now, with "All About My Mother," he plumbs the depths of maternal love and devotion with his mother surrogate in the film, Manuela (Cecilia Roth). Following the sudden accidental death of her only son, Esteban (Eloy Azorin), Manuela vows to find the boy's long lost father to tell him that her son's thoughts were of him at the end. But, such a search cannot be easy. And indeed it isn't for the grieving mother.

Robin's review of 'All About My Mother':
Manuela's journey to Barcelona begins with her search for her ex-husband, nee Esteban (like their son), but now going by the name Lola. Esteban made the decision to become Lola at just the time Manuela became pregnant. She left him 18 years before and never looked back, telling their son only that his father is dead. Now, searching for Lola in "The Field," the local drag where the prostitute/transvestites ply their trade, she finds another old friend, Argado (Antonia San Juan). Argado, it turns out, had just been ripped off by Lola for all she had, but agrees to help Manuela in her search.

Almodovar works best with an ensemble cast and even better with an all female ensemble. Cecilia Roth is outstanding as Manuela - suffering the loss of her son, but stoic enough to follow through on her vow to the dead boy, as well as taking on the responsibility of caring for Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz). The young nun not only got pregnant by Lola, but also contracts the AIDS virus from him. Manuela is strong enough, even, to take on the task of raising Rosa's son (also named Esteban) after the nun dies of her HIV-caused disease.

The rest of the cast gathers closely around Manuela to give life affirming nurturing to her and each other. Cruz plays Rosa with a wispy vulnerability - although I question a devout nun giving herself to a transsexual with breast implants and AIDS. Marisa Paredes, as the actress Huma Rojo whom Esteban idolized, at first, stiffly, accepts Manuela and her friends, and then she too embraces them all. Antonia San Juan is a wonderful enigma as Argado. She is tough and streetwise, but is also a good and loyal friend to Manuela. San Juan gives the most notable performance in the film.

The screenplay, by Almodovar, is the weakest link in the film and is overshadowed by his actors. This is just as well, since plot points, like Rosa's pregnancy and Manuela stumbling into Argado after 18 years in the middle of an orgy-like atmosphere, are decidedly forced. The acting is so good, you accept or ignore the irrational or silly story lines. Fortunately, because of this acceptance of the plot, the acting is all the more satisfying.

The look of the film is in keeping of the story's tone and the upbeat mood of the women. Bright colors, like red and neon green, are used to liven up the look of the production, which takes place mostly in tight quarters. The action is limited, but the stage is there for the emotions of all to play out.

"All About My Mother" is a likeable film that benefits from a director who is in touch with his feminine side. With his solid cast of ladies helping the weak screenplay, I give it a B+.

Laura's review of 'All About My Mother':
Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodovar has always had a special affinity for women, but with "All About My Mother" he really celebrates the female - as actress, as mother, as daughter, as lover and as friend. While he's older and maybe a bit more subdued than his hellion days of "Law of Desire" and "Matador," his loving tribute is still peppered with outrageous, fringe characters and 70's style art direction.

Ceclilia Roth is Manuela, a nurse who coordinates organ donations and acts in the instructional tapes shown to med students (ironically, as we will see, as the berieved). Her son, Esteban (Eloy Azorin), requests a viewing of this session for his seventeenth birthday, as he's writing a piece on his mother. Later that night, Manuela watches in horror as her son is hit by car and killed while attempting to get the autograph of Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), who has just played Blanche in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' on the Madrid stage. As Esteban's notebook details his emotional void due to lack of knowledge about his father, Manuela decides to return to the Barcelona she left when pregnant to track down Esteban's dad.

The first stop she makes is an area where prostitutes hang out. As her taxi joins the circle of automobiles checking out the action, she calls for a halt to assist a woman being beaten. After clunking the male attacker on the head with a bottle, Manuela discovers she's rescued La Agrado (Antonia San Juan), an old friend who just happens to be a transvestite and the most recent roommate of Lola, Manuela's transvestite ex-husband. They go to Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz, "The Hi Lo Country") for job assistance for Manuela. Then everything's twisted upside down as everyone's paths cross and Manuela becomes the ultimate nurturer.

Essentially, Almodovar has fashioned a sweeping soap opera with obvious mentions of "All About Eve," "A Streetcar Named Desire," and "How to Marry a Millionaire" becoming subplots of his own story. Drugs cause losses of lovers and infection of innocents, but are sometimes triumphed over. Children are lost and regained. Fathers are present without actually being there. Women act together, cry together and help each other, even if they didn't exactly start out as women.

This is a warm, heartfelt, albeit offbeat and contrived story featuring three particularly good performances from Roth, San Juan and Paredes. "All About My Mother" doesn't have the wild humor of Almodovar's breakout hit, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." What it does provide is a satisfying emotional journey.

B+


THE END OF THE AFFAIR

When Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore) meets Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) at a party given by her dull, civil servant husband Henry (Stephen Rea), sparks fly between the two and they begin an illicit affair. However, after Maurice is nearly killed during the London Blitz, Sarah abruptly ends their relationship. Two years later, Maurice runs into Henry, who suspects Sarah of infidelity. Maurice, wild with jealousy, 'helps' his friend by arranging to have Sarah tailed in writer/director Neil Jordan's adaptation of Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair."

Laura's review of 'The End Of The Affair':
In this unique tale of love, jealousy, passion (or lack thereof) and spirituality, the central mystery is why Sarah so suddenly ended her affair with the man she swore she'd love forever. While most audiences will probably figure out the answer well before it's revealed, it's the depth of one character's belief in the truth of that answer, a second's scorn of it and the third's acceptance that makes this film interesting.

For a British wartime tale of marital infidelity, comparison with David Lean's "Brief Encounter" is inevitable. While that film may have provided more believable longing between its lovers, this film offers a more modern heat (in gorgeous period costume by 1998's Oscar winner Sandy Powell) and more complex resolution. The cuckolded husband of "Brief Encounter" was unaware of his status, while Stephen Rea's gently pathetic Henry is eventually brought fully into the collusion. We're also reminded of "The English Patient," where the morally suspect Ralph Fiennes romanced another man's wife away from him in arid desert rather than sodden London.

Bendrix informs us at the onset that 'this is a diary of hate.' He's a bitter, bereft writer who runs into his old friend Henry in the rain (oddly, these two always meet up in pouring rain) and is offered a drink and learns that Henry suspects Sarah of taking a lover. Bendrix belittles the role of jealous husband and takes upon himself the mantle of jealous lover in order to hire a private detective to unveil Sarah's treachery of him, rather than her husband. Mr. Parkis (Ian Hart, "Backbeat") and his birthmarked son Lance (Samuel Bould) enter the picture and act for us as Bendrix' eyes as the case against Sarah builds up, albeit with sympathy from the Parkis father/son duo when they witness her take refuge in a Catholic church.

"The End of the Affair" flashes forwards and backwards in Rashamon-like fashion as first we see Bendrix' suspicious casting of events, then Sarah's true actions. The third side of this triangle is never given a point of view, only poignancy. The three principle actors are all fine in their roles, with Ian Hart bringing a surprising amount of weight along with mild levity in his secondary part. The film has the look of a dusty old book shop which aids in its sense of nostalgia for the period but detracts somewhat with occasional murky visuals.

Unfortunately, for all the intellectual interest and mystical profundity this drama provokes, the lack of emotional connection between the two lovers blunts the overall effect. Still, "The End of the Affair" is a more mature look at the consequences of passion than movie audiences are usually offered.

B

Robin's review of 'The End Of The Affair':
Director/writer Neil Jordan has adapted author Graham Greene's 1955 novel, "The End of the Affair," in what has to be seen as "Brief Encounter" for the millennium. Similar in story, with a married woman meeting and falling in love with another man, this latest look into infidelity takes on the subject with a more cynical, emotionally charged manner than was possible in David Lean's 1946 romantic classic, starring Leslie Howard and Celia Johnson.

Where the older film is positively chaste in the romantic encounter between the its leads, Jordan's film takes on a sexual urgency as Sarah (Julianne Moore) falls for the charms of writer Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) at a time when her marriage is in name only. Sarah's faith prevents her from divorcing her husband, keeping up the facade of a stable marriage. Her desire for love, though, forces her to make a cuckold of husband Henry (Stephen Rea) with the handsome Bendrix.

As the story unfolds, we find out that Sarah is deeply religious, with a firm devotion to her God. The depths of this faith, self-acquired by Sarah, create an impasse for the young woman when, during the German Blitzkrieg of London during World War II, she literally sees Maurice blown out of sight from the blast of a buzz bomb. Her pleads to God to spare his life are met after Sarah vows to stop seeing Maurice should he live. She is willing to sacrifice her life's happiness to save Bendrix. When God answers her prayers, she is true to her word and ends the affair without explanation, casting Maurice into jealous turmoil.

While romantic, period movies about adultery are not necessarily my personal cup of tea, "The End of the Affair" is a first rate job by Jordan and his principles. The director takes a deft hand in moving the actors through the fabric of the story in flashback and flash-forward. This device gets a little muddled at times, for me, as he jumps from one year to another, from one encounter to the next (or previous). At a couple of points, scenes were so closely played together, that I really had to pay attention to when we were in the fabric of time in the film.

Acting is classy by the three members of the romantic triangle. Julianne Moore's Sarah is a complex woman with strong emotions and beliefs, even when her beliefs will undoubtedly hurt her deeply. Moore gives an expected strong performance. Ralph Fiennes, as the jealous, selfish Maurice is not a likable person at all, which is a credit to the actor. Stephen Rea, as the mournful, despairing husband, Henry - more pathetic than sympathetic - does a fine job in a difficult role, fleshing out the hapless hubby. Ian Hart stands out as the discreet private investigator, Mr. Parkis, hired by Maurice to follow Sarah and report on any other infidelities. Hart's is an understated but effective performance.

Tech credits, particularly Moore's striking costumes (by Academy Award winner Sandy Powell ("Shakespeare In Love")), are right on the money in depicting 30's and 40's London.

I give "The End of the Affair" a B.


THE WAR ZONE

Having moved from bustling London to the remote Devon countryside, fifteen year old Tom (newcomer Freddie Cunliffe) is bored and lonely for his old chums. Mum (Tilda Swinton, "Female Perversions") is keeping her chin up and absorbed with the arrival of a new baby while Dad (Ray Winstone, "Nil by Mouth") is reestablishing his business. When Tom spies his older sister Jessie (newcomer Lara Belmont) with their father in the bath, he confronts her with accusations of incest which she steadfastly denies. His sullen behavior is attributed to jealousy over the new baby, but he persists in discovering a truth which will blow the family apart in "The War Zone."

Laura's review of 'The War Zone':
Adapted from his own award winning novel by Alexander Stuart and novice director Tim Roth ("Rob Roy"), "The War Zone" is a bleak tale featuring unsympathetic characters. While Roth creates a moody sense of isolation with his locations, I kept waiting for the cast of this film to wake up.

Tilda Swinton is most successful at enlivening her character of the unsuspecting, earth mother Mum. It's shocking to see the usually alien looking, waiflike Swinton carrying the excess weight of pregnancy while slopping around in bulky woolen socks. Winstone alternates between a seemingly nice guy dad and creepy sexual preditor with no shading provided. Freddie Cunliffe provides a gloomy sulk for his performance and Lara Belmont's Jessie remains a complete enigma. This family unit carries a 60s hippie commune sensibility where nudity is an every day event.

The script features some inexplicable plot turns. When Mum rushes her baby to the hospital due to a mysterious 'illness' why does it take her son to point the finger at dad? Can't a hospital staff immediately devine signs of sexual abuse? Why does Jessie take Tom to an older friend's flat in London to lose his virginity and then nix the deal?

The film's ending is less than satisfactory with Tom wondering 'What do we do now?' While sexual child abuse has been handled artistically in such films as "The Sweet Hereafter," "The War Zone" sheds little light on the subject, instead wallowing in its own grim subject matter.

D+


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