GLADIATOR - I DREAMED OF AFRICA
WHERE THE HEART IS - FREQUENCY
EAST IS EAST - U-571
After defeating the Germanians, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, "The Field") recognizes his oncoming death and the unsuitability of his son, Commodus (Joaquim Phoenix, "8MM"), as a ruler. Instead, Aurelius asks his great General Maximus (Russell Crowe, "The Insider"), who only wishes to return to his waiting wife and son, to take the throne. When Commodus is apprised of this plan, patricide and the murder of Maximus' family ensue, but Maximus himself escapes death and returns to Rome as the infamous fighting Spaniard in Ridley Scott's "Gladiator."
Laura's review of 'Gladiator':
It's been almost four decades since the last epic sword and sandal flick, Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus," and Ridley Scott, a great visualist ("Alien," "Blade Runner") seemed a promising choice to resurrect the genre. While "Gladiator" has its merits, it doesn't fully return on its hype investment.
The intense Australian actor Crowe is physically imposing as Maximus, although his intensity translates mostly to dourness here. The film opens as the farmer runs his hand through his golden field of wheat before spying his wife and small son - an image that will echo throughout the movie. Maximus initially refuses to cooperate with his new owner Proximo (the late Oliver Reed), a Gladiator trainer, but impresses with his skills when he's put in a fight or die situation.
Meanwhile, Commodus, who wants to squelsh the Senate his father had wished to rule Rome, announces 150 days of games (which his father had outlawed) in the Colliseum in order to win the love of the people. His sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen, "Mission to Mars"), who once loved Maximus, appeases her brother only to protect her young son Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark).
When Maximus and his compatriots enter the Colliseum cast as the Barbarians in the Battle of Carthage they reinvent history by winning an upset victory. Commodore raises his thumb and asks to meet the Spaniard but is aghast to find his foe still alive. Worse, Maximus wins the love of not only Commodus' people but of his sister Lucilla, whom Commodus lusts after. Lucilla risks all by joining forces with Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi, "I, Claudius") and clandestinely meeting with Maximus to plot against her brother.
Standouts in the cast include Joaquin Phoenix, who gives a tortured, tentative performance as the conflicted Commodus, his maturest turn to date. In his last role, Oliver Reed is amazingly restrained and surprisingly likeable. (Reed died during production and one scene features computer trickery to include him.) Richard Harris is an affecting, if unlikely, Aurelius and Djimon Hounsou ("Amistad") is a noble friend to Maximus. Nielsen looks fine as Lucilla but doesn't offer much dramatic punch.
Screenwriter William Nicholson emphasizes the spiritual and family in this dark epic. Although there's plenty of action, director Scott has oddly chosen murky visual effects combined with tight close up takes of his gladiator bouts which don't give the viewer a sense of epic sweep the genre cries out for. The hyper reality effects used in the battle of Germania and tiger fighting sequences played really well in "Three Kings," but are out of place in a film which takes place circa 200 A.D. Computer generated effects and matte shots are too obvious for a film of this caliber. Production design (Arthur Max, "G.I. Jane") and costume design (Janty Yates, "Plunkett & Macleane") are top notch (although they go a little overboard with a recreation of "Triumph of the Will" when Commodus reenters Rome as Emperor). Composer Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance), used so effectively in Crowe's previous film "The Insider," disappoints here, giving us pretty Enya-like warbling unsuitable for this story.
"Gladiator" gets kudos for attempting to give a fresh face to the genre but it's merely a good, not great, film.
Robin's review of 'Gladiator':
General Maximus (Russell Crowe) is at the pinnacle of his career. He has loyally served his emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), and led his men to defeat the heathen tribes of Germania in Northern Europe, the last battlefield for the Roman Empire to conquer. Maximus, ready to retire to his home, wife and son in Spain, is called upon by his emperor for one last task - to become the Protector of Rome and replace Emperor Marcus Aurelius's son and heir, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), as the leader of the empire. The wily Commodus is too smart to be so easily deposed and dispatches the old king to the afterlife before the plan can be announced. Maximus and his beloved wife and son are ordered to be put to death by the vengeful Commodus and eliminate his competition for the throne. Circumstance saves Maximus's life, but he is cast into slavery, then trained as a warrior in Ridley Scott's epic adventure, "Gladiator."
It has been 40 years since the last great gladiator epic, "Spartacus," hit the big screen in 1960. Except for a continued output of low-budget, gladiator flicks by Italy that lasted well into the 70's, there has been nothing akin to earlier classic's scope, except for, maybe, the lackluster Anthony Mann film, "The Fall of the Roman Empire," which shares a similar story with "Gladiator." Ridley Scott, like Mann, puts his own spin on history and tailors the events of the period into an exciting yarn of loyalty, self-sacrifice and revenge.
The screenplay, by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson, is a melding of fictionalized events with historically based fact for the recreation of Roman life, circa 180AD. It focuses on unpopularity of Commodus and his attempt to calm the disgruntled masses with the distraction of the gladiator games being staged by the cruel emperor for mass consumption in the Coliseum. The writers use the games being mortally played for "entertainment" as a metaphor for the modern day sports arena. Maximus, as he solidifies his numero uno status, becomes a high profile and influential figure in the world of gladiatorial contest. Instead of garnering an astronomical salary, as he would now, Maximus gains the support of the people in his revenge against his heartless emperor.
The parallelism with modern sports and sports flicks are obvious as Maximus starts his arena fighting career in small time bouts in some dusty little Roman one-horse town. His owner-trainer-manager, Proximo (the late Oliver Reed, who died at the end on the production of "Gladiator") is the Mickey to Maximus's Rocky and provides moral guidance that his number one fighter needs. When Maximus hits the big-time, the Coliseum, he is a lean, mean fighting machine and, of course, sees his fellow gladiators as able allies in his battle for revenge against Emperor Commodus. As the former general rallies his men to overcome their superior opponents in the arena, he builds up a Dream Team of gladiators that capture the hearts of the people. The numerous comparisons of the carnage of the ancient "games" to the choreographed brutality of the gridiron or the boxing ring are a prominent undertone of the story.
Russell Crowe acquits himself solidly, but emotionlessly, as the taciturn Maximus. The general is a true warrior who is willing to sacrifice himself for his emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Crowe shows the sullen intensity of a man carrying the burden of the world on his strong soldiers. His dedication to his emperor, and that man's vision even after his death at the hands of his own son, make Maximus a formidable foe for the tyrannical Commodus. It isn't the breakthrough mega-star perf that some might have expected this to be for Crowe. Veteran actors Richard Harris and Oliver Reed make lasting impressions as Marcus Aurelius and Proximo, respectively. Reed, in particular, as the ancient equivalent of a boxing promoter, helps give strength and guidance to his favorite gladiator. Joaquim Phoenix starts out a bit simpering, but grows quickly into his role as the wicked and selfish successor to the throne, giving an effective performance. Djimon Hounsou as fellow slave, Juba, and Connie Nielsen as Commodus's sister Lucilla provide some depth in their secondary roles.
The technical acumen displayed by helmer Scott make "Gladiator" a superior film in terms of production values. Scottish lenser John Mathieson brings some brilliant moments to the screen, capturing the majestic landscapes and violence of Mother Nature with an eye that is in perfect synch with the director. The open sequence, where Maximus and his legions conquer the barbaric Germanians, is breathtaking in its scope and visual intensity. There is liberal use of the hyper-real look that was so effective in the first 26 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan." Unfortunately, this super-realistic look takes on a more artificial tone in "Gladiator." Another complaint with the photography is the propensity to show the gladiatorial battles in tight, violent close-up. Opening the scope of the simultaneous fights taking place would have reinforced the spectacle of this brutal Bread & Circus, an event that went on for 150 bloody days.
Other tech credits are outstanding. Production design, by Arthur Max ("G.I. Jane") in his second outing with Scott, is on a par with the epic scope of the story. Ancient Rome is recreated with a combination of artistic matte shots and ample computer generation. The new technology rebuilds the ruins of the Eternal City to its grandeur at the height of ancient Rome's power. A discerning eye will be aware of the CGI effects, though, which draws attention to away from the story at times. Costuming, by Janty Yates ("Plunkett & Macleane") is first-rate, with a consistently interesting and look from the functional austerity of the battle armor worn by the gladiators and legionnaires to the opulent robes of Commodus and gowns of Lucilla.
The filmmakers, led by Scott, do a good job of bringing the spectacle of gladiatorial battle to the screen in this epic telling of one man's fight for truth, justice and the Roman way, but do not attain the grandeur of story and characterization that "Spartacus" had. That earlier film delved more deeply into the lives of the lesser characters, fleshing out the background persona to enhance the scope of the epic true story of the slave revolt against Rome. "Gladiator" tightens things up too much and focuses too closely on the few main characters to allow any richness and depth of story to develop. It's an exciting yarn, anyway, and does not disappoint the action junkie. It's just not great. I give it a B.
Kuki Gallmann (Kim Basinger) is a privileged woman living in pampered comfort in Italy. But, she also craves a freedom that she has dreamed of since she was a child - to live in the magical wilds of Africa. When she and her son Emanuele (Liam Aiken) pick up their roots and plant them in the wide-open and wild Kenyan countryside, her fairytale visions of the majestic land are challenged by wild elephants and lions, devastating storms and murderous poachers in the true life tale, "I Dreamed of Africa."
Robin's review of 'I Dreamed Of Africa':
Director Hugh Hudson made a remarkable debut with his first feature film, the multi-Oscar winning "Chariots of Fire." With "I Dreamed of Africa," the helmer draws upon the theme of woman's nobility in the face of enormous natural obstacles, similar to his hero in "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes." The heroine of his latest film, the very real Kuki Gallmann, is a woman from an affluent family. She lives in Italy, with her son, and is caretaker of the home of her socialite mother, Franca (Eva Marie Saint). But, she's not happy with her sedate life. A tragic car accident and long recovery prove to be a pivotal point as she falls for her friend, the adventurous Paulo Gallmann (Vincent Perez), marries him and readily agrees to move, with Paulo and Emanuele, to the wilds of Kenya.
Basinger plays Gallmann as a strong woman, both spiritually and physically, who takes on the bewildering challenges put forth by Africa, firmly resolved to stand up to anything the untamed country can dish out. The idyllic place that she expected to live with her son and new husband is tested almost immediately when Paulo and his cronies take off on a hunting trek with little notice and no word when they'll return. Kuki comes to realize that this is a way of life in Kenya. This untamed country has, she is told repeatedly, "has it's own rhythm." Kuki faces the challenge of the majestic but brutal land and overcomes many obstacles alone, without the help of her oft absent hubby. Her plucky demeanor is exemplified in one scene where her prized garden is invaded by an elephant. This final, invasive straw triggers a rage in the woman and she goes one-on-one with the large pachyderm, chasing the bewildered beast away. It's one woman against nature and Kuki isn't going down without a fight.
"I Dreamed of Africa" is an inspirational film about a proud and smart woman who faces incredible odds and obstacles in her search for adventure and spiritual freedom. It's a solidly crafted true-life story that takes on a travel log nature as we follow the brave Kuki, her young son Ema, and her husband Paulo to their newly acquired ranch, a dilapidated mess in the Kenyan wilds. The daunting task of rebuilding the place falls, often times, on Kuki's shoulders when Paulo and his pals take off for the bush. She is a resourceful woman, though, and has no trouble learning new skills - like driving a tractor and building a dam - to aid her in her quest to build a home for her and Emanuele.
The screenplay by Paula Milne and Susan Shilladay, based on the autobiography by Kuki Gallmann, focuses on the episodes of the woman's life that make up her adventure. This episodic nature carries us along as we see Kuki face one trial or another, in a series of events strung together like a bunch of short stories with a common thread. We watch as Kuki recovers from the horrible car accident that begins the movie. We're there when she decides to throw her pampered life away and move to the rugged Dark Continent. We see the plucky woman teach herself to drive a tractor and build a watering dam to save hers and the villagers' cattle. Each of these scenes has its own beginning-middle-end that keeps the incidental parts of the story from forming a complete whole. There are spurts of drama within each of the episodes, but there is not an overall excitement to Gallman's story to captivate the viewer. Even tragic death is little more than a blip on the radar of Kuki's life.
Basinger works hard on the physical requirements of her role as the tough, smart heroine. The actress has limited acting range, but uses everything she has to flesh out her Kuki. The actress selected her follow up role to her Oscar-winning performance in "LA Confidential" with great care and gives the performance her all. I can think of more than a couple actresses who would have been better as Kuki, though.
Vincent Perez has the harder supporting role as husband and gadabout, Paulo. He is forever packing up his guns and his Land Rover and heading into the bush for indeterminate lengths of time to go "hunting." His homecomings usually get the equivalent of "And, just where have you been?!" from Kuki. Luckily, the untested Italian transplant has the wherewithal to make things right. Paulo, in his dim machismo, must have instinctively known this, e.g. his cavalier exits from the homestead without a care. Eva Marie Saint lends dignity and elegance to her small perf as the caring mother who frets over her daughter's bizarre life choices. The boys who play Emanuele at 7-years and 17-years old, Liam Aiken and Garret Strommen, fit the bill as Kuki's son.
A team of longtime Hugh Hudson collaborators shares tech credits. Cinematographer Bernard Lutic ("Revolution") uses an almost documentary style to capture the majestic African and Italian landscapes. Lensing is National Geographic quality but doesn't lend the film the drama of the photography of the similar "Out of Africa." Production design, by Andrew Sanders ("Chariots of Fire"), is solid, particularly the ranch compound as it evolves from a ramshackle collection of dilapidated shacks to a lushly gardened compound like something out of a storybook. Costume designer Shirley Russell ("Greystoke") melds the dress, particularly Basinger's, into an organic blend with the lovely African scenery.
The blandness of "I Dreamed of Africa" keeps it from being more than just an average feminist biography. There's some good work from Basinger and solid (but also bland) techs and not too much else. I give it a C+.
Laura's review of 'I Dreamed Of Africa':
"I Dreamed of Africa" begins as a group of Italian sophisticates drive down a country road, are met by a wildly slalomming truck, and crash over the road barrier. Thus begins a tale where pleasure and beauty can quickly turn to terror and tragedy.
Driver Paolo (Vincent Perez, "The Crow: City of Angels") survives but loses his partner and passenger Kuki Gallmann, (Kim Bassinger, "L.A. Confidential") whom he barely knows, is pretty banged up. Hospital visits turn to romance and Paolo proposes marriage and a move to Kenya with Kuki and her young son Emanuele (Liam Aiken, "Stepmom"). While Kuki's mother (Eva Marie Saint, "North by Northwest") cautions against the move, Kuki has been brought up on stories of Africa from her father and she accepts the challenge.
The new family is met by expatriated Brits, who constantly tell Kuki that 'life has a different rhythm here,' a phrase she'll come to despise. The family finds a remote, open dwelling and Paulo sets to repairing the water hydraulics while Emanuele begins collecting various snakes. Then Paulo's called upon by their British mates for a hunting excursion and promises to be back in a few days which turn into ten. During that time, a frantic Kuki is faced with a lion who mauls one of their dogs (which she must shoot) and natives who water diseased cattle on Kuki's land, endangering their own animals. Kuki isn't pleased with Paulo upon his return and he's mightily amused to see her building a dam with a decrepit tractor. Kuki also learns that the British boarding school where they must send Emanuele doesn't allow weekend visits.
"I Dreamed of Africa" is a very episodic story that covers so much terrain it never seems to finish a thought. We see two scenes featuring the aftermath of poaching, one in which Paulo is angry and another in which Kuki is disgusted and are expected to make the leap that Kuki is a major animal rights activist. A sandstorm blows through practically destroying their home and the couple falls across their bed coated in dirt - cut to a pleasant scene where nothing's amiss. Disapproving mom arrives for so many visits (turned out in inappropriate clothing every time) that one wonders why she doesn't just move in. On the flip side, the major tragedies that befall Kuki are foreshadowed too many times so that by the time the actual event happens, one is numbed to it.
Bassinger, in her first role since winning her Oscar for "L.A. Confidential" is quite competent, if humorless, in the lead role. While she does exhibit strength ('I chased an elephant!'), she doesn't have a lot of sexual spark with Perez and almost comes across as a bit of a downer. Perez is quite believable as spiritted Italian Paulo, but the most involving performances come from the two actors who portray Emanuele - Liam Aiken and 17 year old Garrett Strommen making his acting debut. Eva Marie Saint provides a name and blonde resemblance to Bassinger.
Director Hugh Hudson ("My Life So Far") has assembled a film that maintains interest without ever achieving dramatic involvement (screenplay adaptation from the novel by Kuki Gallman by Paula Milne ("The Hollow Reed"). Cinematographer Bernard Lutic ("My Life So Far") captures the requisite beauty of Kenya. The score by Maurice Jarre ("Doctor Zhivago") echoes themes from his "Zhivago" score subtly to a very nice effect which works very well with the African folk music also on the soundtrack.
"I Dreamed of Africa" isn't a chore to sit through if one has an interest in the continent and is a sturdy followup vehicle for Bassinger. However, it's disturbing that the heroine's life work needs to be explained in text before the end credits roll.
When 17 and pregnant Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman, "Anywhere But Here") requests a bathroom break at an Oklahoma Wal-Mart while en route from Tennessee to California, she doesn't know her entire life is about to change. She's abandoned by her no good boyfriend Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno, "Saving Private Ryan") with nothing but change from a $10 and her instant camera. Six weeks later, she's a mini-celebrity, having given birth in the Wal-Mart (where she's also been living) and a quirky family grows around her in "Where the Heart Is."
Laura's review of 'Where The Heart Is':
"Where the Heart Is" takes a beautiful young woman with essentially no character flaws, surrounds her with a supporting cast with just enough quirks to convince mainstream filmgoers that they're quirky and pretty much strands them in America's Heartland to live through one tragedy after another before they all live happily ever after. While it does contain some small pleasures, it's mostly a very long, looping ride to a predetermined destination.
Novalee was initially abandoned by her mother (Sally Field, who has a very quick and funny cameo) at the age of 5 and has a bad luck phobia about that number. She has always lived in a trailer park and yearns for roots. When she loses her shoes out of the rusted out floor of Willy Jack's junker Plymouth, she buys a new pair at Wal-Mart and realizes her fate when the change is rung up to $5.55. Rushing out to the parking lot, she sees he's gone while the camera circles around her foreshadowing another cataclysmic event that, along with her new shoes, create a very loose "Wizard of Oz" analogy.
She then meets Sister Husband (Stockard Channing), who mistakes her for someone else and presents her with a good luck tree (her 'roots' as it were). When the tree begins to droop, Novalee visits Sequoia's library and meets the very odd Forney (James Frain, "Elizabeth"), a genius caring for a mysterious invalid who exhibits no patience with Novalee's lack of education but begins to watch her.
Post-delivery, Novalee meets Lexie (Ashley Judd), a no-nonsense nurse and single mother of four (all named after snacks) who attracts the worst sort of men and new pregnancies as she looks for a dad for the existing brood. When Novalee's mom arrives out of nowhere and departs just as abruptly, Sister Husband take her and the newborn, Americus, in. Sister, a born again recovered alcoholic who repents daily for lively fornications with Mr. Sprock (Richard Jones, "Lone Star") will provide Novalee roots for the rest of Novalee's days while Lexie will be her best friend and Forney a surrogate dad to her little girl. Meanwhile, we're made privy to Willy Jack's acquisition of a manager (Joan Cusack) and his climb up and down the ladder of country music success.
"Where the Heart Is," adapted from Billie Letts' novel by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel ("Ed TV," "A League of Their Own," "Parenthood"), loses its focus with its devotion to details and its details are often annoyingly vague. Not only are Sister Husband and Mr. Sprock presented as recovering alcoholics, but so is Sister's lawyer, while Forney's invalid turns out to be his non-recovered alcoholic sister. Strange coincidence? Who knows - we're never clued in. Novalee's fear of five waivers in and out of the story, but is never used consistently. A great character like Moses Whitecotton (Keith David, "Pitch Black"), the Wal-Mart photographer who urges Novalee to name her baby 'something strong' and inspires her career, isn't given as much screen time as Joan Cusack's Ruth Meyers, who does nothing to propel the story. During one of the film's largest climaxes, new characters are suddenly introduced, then immediately dropped. Lexie's bad beaus culminate in a child molester(!) which gives the film an emotionally climatic moment between her and Novalee, but is this film the place to introduce such monstrous details?
The cast can't be faulted here, although Portman is a bit too good to be true as an illiterate Tennessee trailer park offspring. Her accent isn't broad enough and her background can't be accounted for merely by sporting chipped blue nail polish. While I haven't read the source novel, it seems that Ganz and Mandel meander adapting it without ever giving it the strong core it needs. First time director Matt Williams II, producer of TV shows "Home Improvement" and "Roseanne," has produced a technically fine film with nice performances, but also doesn't seem to have a strong grip on his material and what, exactly, he wants to present to his audience.
"Where the Heart Is" needs bypass surgery.
Robin's review of 'Where The Heart Is':
Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) is a pregnant 17-year-old from Tennessee heading to California with her boyfriend Willy Jack (Dillon Bruno). When Novalee loses her shoes through a gaping hole in the floor of their $80 junkbox car, they stop at the local Wal-Mart in Sequoyah, Oklahoma to buy replacements. Willy abandons Novalee and the soon-to-be momma has no job, no skills and only $10 in her pocket. Secretly, she sets up residence in the Wal-Mart until her daughter, Americus, is born six weeks later. The kindness of some eccentric strangers in the town help Novalee make the decision to stay in the town, raise her daughter and rebuild her life in "Where the Heart Is."
Adapted from the novel by Billy Letts, the screenplay is by versatile writing hacks, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and is the feature directing debut by Matt Williams. "Where the Heart Is" stars Natalie Portman as the near-angelic Novalee, a girl so sweet and kind it's a wonder how she got herself into such dire straits. Her problems begin when she gets knocked up by her no good boyfriend, Willy Jack. When he strands her, alone, very pregnant and a stranger in Sequoya, she has nowhere to turn. A bout with nausea brought on by her desperation and pregnancy forces Novalee to become a freeloader at the expense of Wal-Mart. (But, the honest young lady keeps a running tally of the expenses she accrues, with every intention of paying back.)
The sudden, though not unexpected, labor incapacitates the girl in aisle 5 (a bad luck number for her), prompting her dramatic rescue by local recluse Forney Hull (James Frain). When Novalee awakens in the hospital under the care of a kind, big-sisterly nurse, Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), she learns that not only are the Wal-Mart folks not mad at her, she has become a minor celebrity as mother of "The Wal-Mart Baby." This sudden fame is the catalyst Novalee needs to turn her life around - with a little help and support from those eccentric folks in town who take the girl and her baby under their collective wing. The whole thing is a generic storytelling punched up with the inclusion of some quirky characters.
Natalie Portman, a beautiful young actress who is on the verge of full bloom, is a lovely object of attention as Novalee and holds the center stage effectively for a young actor. She reps a positive role model as she overcomes the problems of her foolish and careless youth and becomes a central figure in her nuclear family in Sequoia. Portman is in transition from playing children to being an adult. "Where the Heart Is" is a good showcase for the young thesp.
Ashley Judd and Stockard Channing are the anchor characters that make the film work better than it should, given the routine, non-dramatic drama. Judd, as nurse Lexie, is a counterpoint to Novalee. Lexie is in continuous, alternating states of looking for Mr. Right and getting pregnant by her selected amours. Lexie doesn't always make the smart choices either, as is shown in one of the film's few truly dramatic moments. She loves her kids, though, and provides that level of influence on Novalee, even if Lexie isn't the best of role models. Stockard Channing gives depth to her role as earth mother, Sister Husband. She is a product of the Bible Belt with her firm religious beliefs. But, she also has a sensible nature that tempers the religious zeal and couches it in practicality - when she asks God to bless her daily meals, she also puts in a request for His forgiveness for her fornication with live-in boyfriend, Mr. Sprock (Richard Jones).
There is an expected, inevitable love conflict introduced with the character Forney. Forney is smart, somewhat naive emotionally, and responsible for his alcoholic, psychologically challenged sister, the town librarian. And, he his mad about Novalee and Americus. The groundwork for this love interest is slowly, inexorably built up so that there is not doubt as to what will happen, come the film's end. As a matter of fact, the whole story wraps up neatly, with the major story threads all tied up in the end.
The script by Mandel and Ganz glosses over the oddball nature of the Novalee's life and provides little in the way of any real drama to the story. The parallel tale of Willy Jack's rise to relative fame as a country singer has an unhinged feel as attention is pulled away from Novalee and put on Willy. His story ain't all that interesting, either. Also, he has a terrible, debilitating accident that is supposed the draw sympathy from Novalee and from us, the viewer. It doesn't. There's a kidnapping incident, too, that involves a pair of bible-thumping fanatics, but the tensions that could have been played out by the crime are simply thrown away in a trite resolution. Teen angst is not an element of this story.
"Where the Heart Is" is a teen chick-flick, pure and simple. The trials and tribulations that Novalee faces are the kind of thing that the girl demographic will embrace and enjoy. The capable supporting cast, and the generally likable characters they create, help to bring life to the film, even if the script doesn't.
It hits the teen girl target it aims at, but "Where the Heart Is" is not the kind of film that will cross age and sex boundaries. I give it a C+.
What if you could communicate through time with your lost loved ones? What if the power of nature could create a rift in the space/time continuum that could bring the dead to life once again? What if you could change the past? These are questions that arise in the science fiction, time-travel flick, "Frequency," starring Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel as a father and son separated by death, but miraculously thrown together to talk to each other, over time, via an old ham radio.
Robin's review of 'Frequency':
Frank Sullivan (Quaid) is a much-decorated firefighter for the city of New York in 1969. He has a loving wife, Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell), whom he adores, and a six-year-old son, John. Little does Frank know that his idyllic life on earth is soon to end.
Flash forward to the same date in 1999. Frank's son John is now 36 years old, a NYPD detective, and a borderline alcoholic. He never got over the loss of his dad in a fire three decades before. When the son of John's boyhood friend, Gordon (Noah Emmerich), rummages through John's closet, they find Frank's old ham radio. Initial attempts to get it working fail, until, when alone, John hears a voice coming from the radio's speakers. Unbeknownst to John, the voice belongs to his late father and the two begin a conversation as strangers.
As you'd expect, Frank and John resist the realization of who the other person is. But, proofs are made quickly and the two accept the strange miracle. Now, as in any good time travel yarn, when simple changes are made in the past, they may alter the future dramatically. John become conscious that he can save his father's life and tells his dad how to avoid dying in the fire that was previously destined to kill the veteran firefighter. The warning works and Frank's destiny is changed. John senses the new memories and sees the documents of his father's life change before his eyes.
This is where the science fiction concepts of time travel get tricky. Making the one change in Frank's life spawns a slew of unexpected repercussions for his son. Before John's eyes, he sees the image of his mother disappear from the family photographs. He comes to learn that his mother became the victim of a serial killer 30 years before. He also learns that, before the change, the killer had a total of 3 victims. Now, he finds out, there are 10 and the killer was never caught. Frank and John join forces, over time, to try to stop the killer and save John's mother and the other victims.
The original first-time screenplay by Toby Emmerich treads carefully, for the most part, with the complicated material of travel in time. Other movies have covered the subject with varying degrees of success - "The Time Machine," "Time After Time" and the "Back to the Future" are several that come to mind. The best book, dealing with the effects of changes made in the past on the future, is Isaac Asimov's "The Ends of Eternity." That tome is exacting in its detail of how a simple alteration of the past can have catastrophic results on the future world. Screenwriter Emmerich attempts to capture this effect and does so pretty well until the film's end. At the point of the big climax, attention to detail goes and the F/X budget kicks in, putting time travel logic on the back burner.
Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel give convincing perfs as the oddball father-son combo. Quaid, in particular, gives a relaxed and assured showing as Frank, with the love he has for his family a palpable thing. He also shows the imperfections of his character as he chain-smokes Camels and is impatient with six-year old John as he tries to teach the boy, unsuccessfully, to ride a bike. Caviezel has the tough part as a man suffering inner turmoil over the loss of his father 30 years ago. He acquits himself well in the austere role.
Supporting cast is tiny, but well acted. Andre Braugher plays Satch, a cop who was friend with Frank years before and is now, in 1999, the partner and friend of John. He has to investigate his friend Frank's possible involvement in the serial killings in the 60's, then help John, 30 years later, with the investigation once again. Elizabeth Mitchell, as Frank's wife Julia, is endearing as the loving spouse and mother. The rest of the cast, even the killer (Shawn Doyle), are little more than background characters.
The production is first rate on all levels. The attention to the details of the Sullivan home, then and now, is careful - a cracked pain of glass in the house in the 60's is still there, unnoticed, in the 90's. The heroic firemen sequences, especially as the film opens, are exciting and suspenseful. F/X are good, especially the firefighter sequences. Set design compliments the 60's nicely. Photography by Alar Kivilo ("A Simple Plan") is nicely textured and crisply rendered, especially the nighttime scenes.
Time travel flicks have a hard time satisfying the sci-fi fans, who take great pleasure in dissecting the logic of this kind of movie. I know, 'cause I'm one of them. I was paying close attention to the filmmakers' adherence to the teachings of Stephen Hawkins on the possibilities of travel through time. Director Gregory Hoblit ("Primal Fear") and company do a mostly good job, only falling down as the film draws to a close. The extra special F/X money must have been burning a hole in their pocket as they toss the carefully built-up time travel logic and replace it with a get-the-bad-guy-with-flashy-F/X ending. Too bad, since they had me for most of the film.
"Frequency" is an intelligent science fiction thriller that also happens to be a solid father/son movie. It's entertainment aimed at the adult, not teen, audience and squarely hits the mark. Forgive the Hollywood ending. I give it a B.
George Khan (Om Puri, "My Son the Fanatic") is a devout Pakistani who wants the best for seven children. He visits his local mosque to make matches for his elder sons and his local merchant to buy their gold embroidered wedding finery and remains oblivious to a major obstacle. It's 1971 in Manchester, England and six of his seven children have embraced the modern Englishness of their mother Ella (Linda Bassett, "Beautiful People") in "East Is East."
Laura's review of 'East Is East':
Adapted from his play by Ayub Khan-Din, "East Is East" is a comedy of cultural and generational clash which also tackles harsher realities. Director Damien O'Donnell keeps his film barrelling along while placing his audience in the midst of a bustling, large family in an overstuffed row house.
The film opens as George's eldest, the handsome Nazir (Ian Aspinall), is about to be wed to an exotic beauty. Everyone's brilliant smiles are vanquished when Nazir abruptly bolts. George is unhinged and declares Nazir dead while his family resorts to illicitly keeping contact from a local phone box.
His next shock comes when his priest discovers that Sajid (Jordan Routledge), his youngest, hasn't been circumcised. That situation is quickly remedied once Saj is hauled from his hiding place in the outhouse, but Ella's loyalties to her husband are now becoming seriously divided.
To save face with his priest George agrees to match up his next two eldest boys with sisters from Bradford. While Abdul (Raji James) is a somewhat dutiful son, he's strongly under the influence of Tariq (Jimi Mistry), a sexy ladykiller with a Beatle haircut who passes for white at the local disco. Tariq decides to run for it and goes to Nazir for help (along with an unwanted entourage) and gets such a surprise at Nazir's new lifestyle that he returns home for the climatic meeting with the intended in-laws.
George lays down the law, even resorting to violence against Ella (this is pretty hard to take as Puri has made George a sympathetic character). Daughter Meenah (Archie Punjabi) is made to wear a sari and all remaining sons are lined up in their suited best, except for Saj who always wears a tatty parka and George's college student Saleem (Chris Bisson) who only arrives in time to place the straw on the proverbial camel's back. The Bradford snobs arrive with their homely daughters and the dominoes begin to fall...
"East Is East" is a raucously colorful film that skillfully juggles many themes. Racism is addressed by the neighboring Moorhouse family. Grandfather compaigns against and insults 'Pakis' while grandaughter Stella sneaks kisses from Tariq and grandson Earnest greets George in Arabic and plays with Saj. Both marital harmony and strife are present in the Khans' twenty-five year union (Puri and Bassett are fantastic together). George's habitual request to Ella's offer of tea is 'I'll have half a cup' representing the cultural mix of his family. Generational struggle is presently most strongly when Tariq tells his dad that he'll acquiesce and take a Pakistani wife - and then an English one, just like his dad.
Although some heavy moments are presented, the humor reigns (and, at times, is surprisingly raunchy!). George owns an English Chippy (fish and chips shop), yet it's Ella, her friend Peggy (Ruth Jones), and the kids who clearly do all the work. Sameer's college sculpture (his dad thinks he's an engineering student, not an art student) is unveiled to hilarious effect - twice. When Tariq and Abdul's future in-laws arrive, they're announced by Saj screaming 'The Pakis are here!' (clearly he doesn't believe he's one of them).
"East Is East" may deal with English and Pakistani characters, but its themes are universal.
"Heroes are ordinary men who do extraordinary things in extraordinary times." April 1942. Adolph Hitler's U-boat fleet has brought war and devastation to the United States, inflicted massive losses on Allied shipping up and down the East Coast. The US Navy struggles blindly and ineffectively against this Nazi onslaught, with one quarter of all Allied shipping being sunk right along the coast. The only hope for the Allies is to break the secret German code called "Enigma." Fate lends a hand when Nazi submarine U-571 sends an encoded distress message to the Fatherland. Savvy intelligence experts in the US realize that they may have one chance, and one chance only, to seize the U-boat and its precious Enigma box in the wartime action-thriller "U-571"
Robin's review of 'U-571':
The story of "U-571" is typical Hollywood. The true events surrounding the plot to secretly steal the Enigma coding machine from the Nazis took place well before the United States entered the war. A British submarine crew performed the actual heroic and dramatic deeds that led to the breaking of the German super-secret code and the defeat of the Nazi juggernaut. For "U-571," Hollywood, at the hand of screenwriter/director Jonathan Mostow, takes literary license with history and rewrites the exciting true-life story of the daring capture of Enigma and makes it a solely American adventure. (Note: the producers acknowledge Britain's contribution to the war effort with a short, pre-end-credits blurb, but that's Hollywood!)
Despite its Americanization of world history, "U-571" is a top-notch, high quality actioner that is destined to hit its male-oriented, testosterone-driven demographic and make a pile of money in the process. The market is ripe for a quality, reality-based action flick and this one fits the bill. From the exciting beginning, where the Nazi crew of U-571 gets into serious trouble and calls for help, right through the sweaty-palm, one-crisis-upon-another conclusion when the good guys win, this one will hold your attention.
The hefty ensemble cast stars Matthew McConaughey as Lt. Andrew Tyler, the executive officer of US submarine S33, a World War One vintage pigboat. The crew of the S33 is suddenly called upon to perform the high-profile espionage act of seizing a stranded German U-boat and absconding with the closely guarded Enigma machine. This plot device - a real mission impossible - is merely a plot device to get your attention. The real meat of "U-571" is the fast-paced action that carries the movie through its near 2-hour runtime, without so much as a thought to the time by the viewer.
The crew of S-33 are called back from their well-deserved 48-hour leave to find their boat suddenly looking an awful lot like a German sub. Two shadowy figures, Lt. Hirsch (Jake Webber) and Marine Major Coonan (David Keith), are brought on board with a bunch of mysterious equipment as the mission begins. Once the American boat is well at sea, the commander, Capt. Dahlgren (Bill Paxton), and his crew learn that they have been "volunteered" to board the stranded German boat, capture its crew and seize the precious Enigma box - without being detected! Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and the S33 is blown out of the water, killing most of the American and German crews. The remaining men, led by Tyler, are faced with the impossible task of getting the code box safely into Allied hands. This is where the action really kicks in.
When the film starts, we learn that Captain Dahlgren withheld recommendation for Tyler to get his own command. The skipper doesn't think his exec will be ready for the onerous burden until he is willing and able to order his men to certain death. Tyler puts the slight behind him, for the sake of the mission. Of course, things go bad in a hurry, or this would have been a 30 minute short, and Tyler is thrust into leadership of his remaining crew as they try to get the crippled U-boat to safety in England. From here on in, the tiny crew must face and overcome numerous dangers, from a torpedo-spewing enemy U-boat to a gun bristling German destroyer to the crushing pressures of the deep. It's wall to wall suspense as the brave little crew overcome insurmountable odds.
As you'd expect in an actioner like this, the acting takes a back seat to the in-your-face visuals. McConaughey has the strong-featured good looks to play the lead hero figure. The rest of his remaining crew includes Jon Bon Jovi, Harvey Keitel and a host of newcomers who fill in the background without creating much in the way of colorful characters. (See such submariner films as "Operation Pacific" and "Destination Tokyo" for wonderful examples of casting terrific characters.) Development of the players in "U-571" is minimal with McConaughey's Lt. Tyler getting the most fleshing out as a good man facing the most extraordinary challenge of his life - he proves, in the end, that he can handle command.
The special F/X and high production values give "U-571" an outstanding and realistic look. The under and above water action sequences represent real craftwork. The filmmakers built life-size, working submarines to get the details just right. The fine points of life aboard a submarine are handled with believability and accuracy. For example, when the S33 makes its first dive, the boat leaks like a sieve, but the crew pays no attention because that's what happens. This matter-of-factness and the credibility of the details in the film tempers the viewer's need to suspend disbelief at many of the tale's plot flaws.
Usually, when I spot a chick-flick that has something to it that's a draw for guys trying to make points, I'll recommend that movie as a good date flick. With "U-571," the roles are reversed: ladies, if you want to show your guy you care, take him to see this movie! You'll get to look at Matthew McConaughey and Jon Bon Jovi and your man will get what guys really want in a movie - action, explosions, suspense, heroes and villains! What more can one ask for? I give it a B+.
Laura's review of 'U-571':
"U-571," written and directed by Jonathan Mostow ("Breakdown"), could possibly escape down the 'leave your brain at the door' dumb fun actioner hatch if the filmmakers didn't hang their story so closely to actual events of WW II. This film's MacGuffin is the Enigma code used by the Nazis to communicate with their U-Boats. Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughy) and company race to reach the wounded U-571 before a rescue ship does in order to capture one of the encrypting machines (a feat actually pulled off by the British who are now rightfully up at arms over this movie).
Admittedly, "U-571" has popcorn movie appeal. It's exceedingly well-paced with non-stop action, beginning immediately as the U-571 and its original crew torpedo a British destroyer, only to be attacked from behind unexpectedly at their moment of triumph. The German U-Boat is barraged with depth charges that leave it limping and vulnerable.
We then meet up with the U.S. Navy in the form of Lt. Tyler, sulking most unprettily at the news that he's been passed over by his Captain for a promotion that would have given him command of his own ship. ('Don't worry, there are plenty of commands in the Navy' intones Cpt. Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) before introducing him and Wentz (Jack Noseworthy) to Lt. Hirsch (Jake Weber) who belittles Wentz in German until he provokes a response in the same language. Seems they're being dragged off mid-wedding reception so Marine Maj. Coonan (David Keith) can form a squad with unexperienced sailors on the S-33 (disguised as a Nazi sub) to board the damaged U-Boat masquerading as their supply party.
The faux boarding party is immediately detected by the U-571 crew and (confused) mayhem ensues. After most of the German crew have been moved to the S-33 (of course, we've seen that the U-571 crew mows down the survivors of their earlier attack) as POWs, it's blown out of the water by the late arriving rescue sub, which is now after the American helmed U-571.
McConaughy now goes through the checklist presented to him earlier by Dahlgren as to what it takes to be a Captain. He and his crew take the beleagered ship (which they learn to operate miraculously fast, even though the only problem shown is that Tyler can't translate the word 'klar' to the obvious 'clear') through more paces than a healthy race horse, diving to dangerous depths, evading torpedos that peel metal along its hull and diving under a German Destroyer by the breadth of a piece of toothenflossenstringe. It's also pretty handy that their mess cook can pinch hit as a pilot. Their radio guy (Jon Bon Jovi) can identify the splashes of depth charges hitting the water's surface, but not, apparently that the SOS signals he hears are coming from their own ship (must be because his ears were covered with those headphones).
The effects do their job, although they frequently seem overblown (one torpedo hit from the U-571 seemingly has the impact of the Hiroshima bomb), or too obviously computer generated. Sound effects achieve their desired response, although Mostow chooses to use a driving score when silence would have been more effective.
Absolutely no one in the cast, which also includes Harvey Keitel as Chief Klough, Tyler's effectiveness barometer, stands out.
"U-571" has suspenseful moments galore, but no emotional investment is required. For that, rent the masterpiece of all submarine flicks, the German "Das Boat."
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