Scotland, PA

I’m one of those guys can get away with saying “To be or not to be, that is the question” or “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well” and appear to be slightly literate. I also know a bit about the argument of whom actually wrote the works of Shakespeare, not just from some half assed Gwyneth Paltrow movie either, and I am aware that much of The Godfather is based on Coriolanus.

What is the point in all thisr That when I decided to go see Billy Morrisette’s new film Scotland, PA, I went in knowing it was a loose adaptation of The Scottish Play but was more interested in seeing the likes of Christopher Walken and James LeGros than I was playing “spot the Shakespeare references”. Lolita’s the resident Bard freak on this site. She’s got this book of Shakespeare’s work that’s 2,350 plus pages. It’s got every damn play, sonnet, song, movie, grocery list, suicide note and lists of MP3s he wanted to download sorted by decade, musical genre and artist. I borrowed this book from Lolita last month, because the lock on my front door broke and it keeps the vampires from tearing at my flesh while I sleep. You see, when I first moved to New York, I met a couple of goth chicks at a rave in Brooklyn and took them back to my place. I invited them in, and when I didn’t call them back after our night of passion, these bitches hound me all night. That book, along with the crosses I painted on my doors and windows, are the only things that keep me alive every night. But that’s another story for another day.

Lolita knew I was going to see the film with some friends, so she suggested I meet them at McBeth’s, this place down by Union Square the distributor of the film set up as a sort of fast food Shakespeare outlet. Lolita hangs out at the Gap near Union Square all the time, flirting with Jose, this Guatemalan guy who works in the Kids section. She took me into the Gap once and pointed Jose out to me. I think he’s one step from full John Leguizamo To Wong Foo drag queen extraordinaire, but if Lolita wants to date someone who deep down wants to be Charo, who am I to complainr Except the jailbait queen made it sound like it was a regular burger joint when she told me about it. Imagine my shock when I walk in expecting to save my friends a booth and find myself face to face with two guys performing Romeo and Juliet in a storefront performance space about half the size of a SoHo loft. There were illicit giggles from the six or so others gathered inside, as I apparently walked in just as this Josh Charles look-alike (or maybe it was Josh Charles, since I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since ABC cancelled “Sports Night”) asked Romeo where for art thou. I stuck around for a while, as all my loser buddies were late, and enjoyed snippets of plays and sonnets. Eventually, three of my loser friends showed up and we went off to have some grub at Duke’s.

We finally get to the theatre and for a Tuesday night 930PM showing, it’s surprisingly packed. Granted, the theatre only seats like 200 or so, but it’s got THX sound. And you know, an indie movie about American life in the mid 1970s just screams out for the best Monster Cables and JBL speakers money can buy. You think I’m joking, but I’m not. This is the decade when rock and roll really started to die, and this film’s soundtrack is chock full of the crap rock Bad Company and their ilk perfected, which sounds marginally better blasting out at high decibels through an enhanced Dolby SR system. After fifteen minutes of truly crappy previews, the movie begins. Scotland, Pennsylvania, is this small town hell hole with the kind of small town hell hole people you only find in these independent movies. You know, the real quirky types who sit around and have all-night Yahtzee tournaments in bars.

Maura Tierney and James LeGros play the McBeths, Joe and Pat, the whitest of white trash lowlifes, who slave away for Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn) at his donut shop-cum-burger joint, while dreaming of a better life for themselves. Joe’s got plans, you see. He dreams of his own burger joint, with a drive thru window where people can place orders without getting out of their cars. They hatch a plan to move forward with Joe’s dream, but things going horribly awry, as things must happen at Plot Point I. Norm dies, and the McBeths find themselves in possession of Duncan’s restaurant, as neither of his sons want anything to do with the family business. In quick succession… and I do mean quick, like within a month… Duncan’s becomes McBeth’s, replete not only with a drive-thru window but with an almost familiar arched “M” above the entrance. Business is booming, and the parking lot is packed with the best muscle cars of the day. But what comes up must indeed come down, and this is where McBeth’s antagonist, McDuff (Christopher Walken), must enter. Now a vegetarian lieutenant from out of town assigned to the case, McDuff finds the people of Scotland, PA, to be a strangely friendly lot indeed, particularly Anthony “Banko” Banconi (Kevin Corrigan), Joe’s friend, coworker and confidant. And the film continues down its path, as both Joe and Pat fall deeper into their individual psychosis, until its conclusion.

Now, why did I all of a sudden get quite abrupt in my summationr Those with some interest in the work of Shakespeare know what happens. But that’s what makes Scotland, PA as great of a film as it is. It takes the familiar and puts a wonderfully unique spin on it. This is one of those films that you’ll enjoy no matter how much you know going in, but will get more enjoyment out of the less you know. What you need to know is that Scotland, PA is a film you should seek out when your normal gigantoplex is sold out of their seven shows of We Were Soldiers, if the film even makes it to a theatre near you. Maura Tierney’s turn as the bitch on wheels Pat comes as a shock to those who only know her as the mousy wench from “News Radio” and “ER”. But then, her husband did write and direct the film, so he probably would know how to direct her. LeGros and Walken are solid, but that is to be expected. Andy Dick and Timothy “Speed” Levitch, who along with Amy Smart make up this story’s ghostly tormentors, are rightfully annoying.

I suspect Scotland, PA will end up much like Heathers, admired by those fortunate enough to have seen it in theatres, later to be “discovered” by many on video, although I doubt the story will lost much translation going down to the cathode tube. If you keep a list of films you want to see one way or another, you would be doing yourself a service by keeping this film high up on that list.

Rating: A
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Monsoon Wedding

I overheard all the yuppy bitches oohing and ahhhing over the whole movie, and afterwards excitedly gabbing with their friends how fabulous it would be to have a wedding like that. Think about it, you could make a killing; hire real Indian people to throw your wedding, and pretend to be your family. Someone would make a fortune.

Enough about weddings though; what the hell am I talking about, this whole MOVIE was about a wedding. Two in fact. And you know, even a cynical, sex-addicted freak like myself loved it. The characters were all real and honest, colorful and with hidden faults and desires all their own. The heroine, Aditi, is a Cosmo-reading woman, about to marry an Indian computer engineer from Texas, arranged by her parents. She’s also still fooling around with her ex-boyfriend, a married TV producer.

As cute as Aditi was in her infidelity to her fiance, the real stars of the movie are the minor characters. Especially P.K. Dubey, the exuberant, rude wedding organizer. His wild ways are stopped when he meets and falls for the quiet servant of the Verma family, Alice. From his addiction to eating marigolds to his poor mother, desperate for her successful son to give her grandchildren, Dubey steals all the scenes he’s in. His proposal to Alice at the end is one of the sweetest and most sincere (not to mention hilarious) that I’ve ever seen.

Aditi’s little brother Varun was also simply fabulous. Obsessed with watching cooking show, dancing, and being a little over-weight, Varun was infinitely more interesting than most of his simple family.

The sub-plot of the bad bad Uncle being a bad bad man with little girls was easily not necessary. It contributed nothing to the film, except the feeling of familial solidarity at the end. He was just a bad bad man, and we didn’t need to see any of it.

What I could have used more of was the gorgeous saris and outfits. You can never have too many great outfits, and this family lives by that saying.

One thing that troubled me, was during the movie, the people were laughing at the oddest places. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were laughing at the fact that this well-to-do Indian family in New Delhi had a nice house, with TVs, cell phones, and large property. As if they believed that Indians who don’t live in dirt huts in the crowded city are silly figments of the writer’s imagination. Or perhaps they just thought that it was simply amusing to see these Indians trying to get a good signal with their cell phones. Maybe I just don’t get it. I don’t give a fuck.

Last, but not least, I would like to congratulate Mira Nair for her wonderful film of love and marriage in the rain. I know I for one am anxiously searching for her previous films at this very moment.

Ta!

Rating: A-
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Brotherhood of the Wolf

Once in awhile, amid the stale predictability Hollywood has to offer, it’s nice to come out of a theater going, “What the hell WAS thatr” For the sake of classification, I’d call it historical fantasy, in the vein of Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow.” It is based upon a real place and time, real events and sometimes even real people, but that is where the historical ends and the fantasy begins.

“Brotherhood of the Wolf” begins by very graphically setting up the premise in a scene that seems to combine the kinetic violence of “Jaws” with the strobing, frenetic camerawork of “Saving Private Ryan.” Thank you, Spielberg. In fact, the film seems to be a two-and-a-half-hour homage to various American and Asian cinema conventions. The story is set in pre-Revolutionary France, where a small province is being ravaged by what is described by witnesses as a demonic creature. It is based upon the true accounts of the Beast of Gevaudan, which was allegedly responsible for over 100 brutal killings in the region over a period of several years.

Our hero, the dashing Chevalier de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his Mohawk/Iroquois companion, Mani (Mark Decascos, of “The Crow: Stairway to Heaven” fame), must determine what is behind the killings and stop it. That’s your basic premise, but it’s no standard Schwarzenegger bughunt. Throw in a bunch of snotty, inbred nobles, a tetchy priest, a nubile young maiden, a prostitute with an agenda, a veterinarian and his wild daughter who is prone to seizures, and you get a small taste of what’s in store… then there’s the fighting.

Good GOD, then there’s the fighting. We get not one, not two, but three showcases of Mani’s incredible ability to fight off a dozen foes at once. Xena Warrior Mohican. Mo Fu. Crouching Mani, Hidden Tomahawk. And that’s just the guy going solo. Then there’s the fighting with the actual hero of the picture, where we catch a glimpse of the French naturalist/adventurer who has understandably picked up the finer points of kung fu while hangin’ with the Mohawks in New France.

It sounds incredibly silly, doesn’t itr And yet, I swear to you, check your brain at the door and enjoy a beautiful, lyrical, disturbing piece of cinema. Acting is very good. Joseph LoDuca did the soundtrack – A ha! I knew there was a Xena connection! Cinematography includes a lot of over-the-top “Matrix Moments”, slow-mo and even freeze frame. There are some nice time-passing dissolves and well-done visual storytelling. The vistas, costumes, sets, lighting and art direction are all first rate. And when you think the plot and politics have more twists than a scoliotic contortionist, another one pops up.

Now the drawbacks: It runs long. Easily could have come in half an hour shorter without harming the story. It is very graphic, very bloody. The non-violent parts are very slowly paced. Be warned, ye who hate reading subtitles, it is in French with subtitles. And the most noticeable thing is the ending… and ending… and ending… and, oh, let’s have some more ending…

…and just a little more ending…

So why did none of these issues bother mer Because it is one of two recent films to perfectly capture the setting of my pet RPG project, Grimmworld (and yes, “Sleepy Hollow” is the other). The film runs like a roleplaying session. Things aren’t quite so neatly executed as they are in American mainstream cinema. The heroes are flawed versions of the archetypes we expect, and to any gamer, that makes them much more interesting! Weird things happen for no apparent reason, and that don’t necessarily further the story. And there’s two metric assloads of melee combat with people, animals and “supernatural” creatures.

For this reason alone I recommend “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” admittedly with the caveats above. Some of you will not like it. Some will not be able to get past the incongruity of Asian style martial arts in 18th century France, or past the horrible parts of the horror. It is as much an homage to Hammer’s and American International’s classic period horror films with Vincent Price and Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as it is to Hong Kong action cinema and Merchant-Ivory romances.

A mixed breed, certainly, and not for everyone. But if you share my love of dark historical fantasy, you will probably enjoy this film immensely.

Rating: A-
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The Royal Tenenbaums

How great it was that I didn’t let the comparison stop me from seeing what is the best films I saw in 2001.

I’ve been a fan of Wes Anderson’s from the beginning. I saw Bottle Rocket twice in theatres (a rare feat in itself outside of Star Wars movies) and even bought the film on laserdisc. And I saw Rushmore twice in theatres, but I felt guilty that I saw the first time on Lucasfilm’s dime, since I was doing THX theatre checks at the time. So with little trepidation, I trundled over to the Lincoln Square to catch the film…

SOLD OUT! A Monday evening show in a 375 seat theatre. Good job, Wes. Except I wanted to see the film. So I bought a ticket to Vanilla Sky and snuck into the other theatre with plenty of time to spare. That’s the good thing about arriving a half hour early.

The Tenenbaums are about the most pathetic family that’s been introduced to cinema goers in quite a while. Father Royal is a scoundrel lawyer who walks out on his family one day. Oldest son Chas is a sad sack of a kid with a penchant for money management. Daugther Margot is a brilliant writer who never gets any self respect due to her father’s constant pointing out she is adopted. Youngest son Richie was a champion tennis player who one day had a breakdown during the US Open and has just drifted around since then. Only mother Etheline is relatively self adjusted, having survived her husband’s abandonment by writing a best selling book about her three gifted children.

Now, what is most important to understand about Tenenbaums going in is that it takes its own sweet time to tell its story, much like a novel. The sections of the film are even broken into chapters, with closeup shots of pages where the next scene we are about to see is somewhat described in the top sentences of that page. The setup I described in the paragraph above covers nearly twenty minutes of screen time, neatly textured in detail with great voiceover narration by Alec Baldwin. And the rest of the film is structured much the same. Just a heads up.

Eventually, we are brought up to the present day. Royal Tenenbaum has been living in a hotel room since he left his family. Disbarred from practicing law and being evicted from the home he has known all these years, he devises a scheme to get back into his family’s life. Through a series of circumstances, each of the now adult Tenenbaum children return to the family home. And the rest of the film is how these five characters react to each other and their surroundings.

Tenenbaums is the type of movie someone like myself would want to recommend everyone seeing, yet don’t really want to tell you why you should see it. It’s one of the few films I wish there was more of, not just the particular style of filmmaking but in length. I could have easily spent an extra couple hours with this family. Mr. Anderson and his cowriter Owen Wilson have created a wonderfully rich, completely fleshed out New York family in a fantasy New York that mixes the past with the present that is both logical and reasonable.

The Royal Tenenbaums is truly a film you do not want to miss.

Rating: A
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I Am Sam

Sam Dawson is a retard who works at a Starbucks somewhere in Los Angeles. As the movie opens, Sam is meticulously putting all the various sweeteners together in the little sugar trays. Sugar, then Sweet and Low, then Equal and finally Sugar in the Raw as the first of many many Beatles songs done by other artists plays on the soundtrack. As the opening credits continue, we discover everyone knows Sam and at least tolerates, if not adores, him. The manager of the Starbucks tells Sam “It’s time” and Sam takes off. Sam heads over to a hospital, where some woman is giving birth. She rejects the baby, and Sam is given the child. He names her Lucy. Lucy Diamond Dawson. The next scene has Sam and the still unidentified woman leaving the hospital with the kid. As he boards a city bus with the kid, the woman mumbles something and runs off, leaving Sam to raise the child on his own.

Of course, Sam isn’t alone in raising the little brat. There’s his adorable clan of fellow retards who comes over for movie night every Wednesday and go out to IHOP every Monday… or was it IHOP every Wednesday and movie night every Mondayr And there is Annie, the obligatory neurotic artsy neighbor, who watches Lucy when Sam is at work. A montage shows Lucy continuing to grow up until she is the disgustingly adorable seven year old moppet the story needs her to be. Lucy has just started school, but is starting to fall behind in school. Learning that Lucy’s father is a moron, the heartless school board sics the even more heartless Child Services on Sam, taking his bundle of joy away from him. Through a series of misunderstandings only morons can come up with, Sam ends up getting Rita Harrison, a high class uberlawyer constantly pissed off about the most trivial of manners. But of course, she doesn’t want to take Sam’s case. But of course, she must, in order to propel the story forward. And she must be forced to do it to save face in front of her fellow workers.

Long story short, there is a series of hearings… Laura Dern is introduced as Lucy’s foster mother… Sam tries to become a better member of society… Rita becomes a human… Annie overcomes her thrity year plus phobia to testify on Sam’s behalf… and somehow, Sam overcomes all obstacles to get the brat back. Nothing is gained, and the only thing lost is two hours and ten minutes of your time, plus previews and commercials and public service ads.

The little girl, Dakota Fanning, is exactly what she was discovered to be… a little heartbreaker with big blue eyes and a flop of cute blonde hair. And that Lucy is the most interesting character in the entire film shows just how worthless this film really is. Sean Penn makes a good retard, but so whatr He’s still one of the best actors working today. What he needs is to do something like The Family Man, playing a seemingly normal character. He can do this part in his sleep. No one doubts that. And Michelle Pfieffer playing a cold hearted bitch who eventually becomes the sweet loveable mother we all knew she could ber Not much of a stretch. And the remainder of the supporting cast, including Dianne Weist, Richard Schiff, Ms. Dern and Loretta Devine, are nothing more than the flat one dimensional characters you’d come to expect from bleeding heart tear jerker wannabes that need bodies to help move the story along.

What truly sucks about this film are the number of scenes where a number of topics are just tapped on then thrown out before the scene is truly over because the director didn’t need anything else. An example scene is when Lucy wants to go to Bob’s Big Boy for a change instead of the IHOP. Sam unsuccessfully tries to order what he always gets from IHOP, which this restaurant does not carry. Sam has a meltdown right there in his booth while Lucy looks sadly at her father. Then we’re on to the next scene. What happened in the Big Boyr How did Lucy handle her fatherr Frankly, it doesn’t matter to the director. The scene was only meant to show how Sam is incapable of handling change in his routine.

Jessie Nelson, who previous wrote and directed the wretched child driven tear jerker Corrina Corrina, is about as subtle as a jackhammer. Who needs a consistent storyline with meaning when you’re just trying to show how bad the system is, anywayr Not one scene Ms. Nelson and her co-scenarist Kristine Johnson created shows us anything we haven’t already seen a hundred times before. You’ll probably sit there going “Yeah… yeah… yeah…” for the entire running time, waiting for something of merit to happen. It doesn’t.

The film is also chock full of Beatles covers done by the likes of Paul Westerberg, Sheryl Crow, The Black Crowes, Sarah McLachlan, The Wallflowers and Aimee Mann, who teams with her husband Michael Penn (Sean’s brother) on Two Of Us. Much like the movie, the covers don’t attempt to reinterpret that which is already familiar. Every song is basically note for note recreations of the originals.

The entire project screams “Why botherr”

Indeed.

Rating: D
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Gosford Park

Where LOTR failed miserably to entertain me, despite (or due to) it’s garish and overblown use of computer effects, Altman’s pic had me riveted throughout its 2 hours and 10 minutes. Truth be told, the film could have ran another 48 minutes (equaling LOTR’s running time) and I would have still be enthusiastic about watching, something I can’t say for Jackson’s effexfest.

“Gosford Park” is a remarkable work, not only for its style, cleverness, nonchalance and characters, but also for the fact that it got made. Hollywood is not a place that allows much character development, but even as Robert Altman fills the screen with over 15 leads, by the end we know something personal about them all, something hidden, something very real. Normally, in the fare vomited up by those ill-advised suits on the Quake Coast, even with three hours of film trolleying through the projector we’d be lucky if we knew more than the lead character’s favorite catch phrase. “Yippeekayay, motherfucker” comes to mind. Can one person who hadn’t read Tolkein’s novel tell me, based on Jackson’s first film installment, what motivated Saruman’s switch to the Dark Side (or whatever they call it)r Other than, of course, expediency of plotr

“Gosford Park” tells the story of a dinner and shooting party held in an old English estate, and the interactions between the rich guests and their innumerable servants. It’s also a whodunit, with a murder occurring virtually in Act 3, bucking Hollywood’s usual penchant for putting it in during the opening credits. But the mystery is very much secondary, almost a second film in itself that is interwoven with such excellence one really feels they got twice as much bang for their box office buck. It’s important to relax while watching “Gosford Park;” the barrage of Altman style crosstalk, thick British and Scottish accents, and jumping scenes from upstairs to downstairs character development can be intimidating at first. Trust Altman, this is his skill; by the end you will know what and who and when, and walk away feeling very much like a guest at the party, having come to know some of your new acquaintances better than others, but with opinions about them all.

Sets are gorgeous, both the ornate “upstairs” rooms of the estate, as well as the dreary “downstairs” cubbies and workspaces of the servants. Costuming is marvelous, lighting realistic but at times expressive. In fact, realism is the key production design element of “Gosford Park,” realism in sets, in characters, even in dialog. The film reveals aspects of servant life that we modern types could never imagine, such as the organizational requirements of planning large dinner parties in an era of firewood-cooked meals. Boringr No, this is the context of the film, the atmosphere the characters move through, as necessary as water to the goldfish.

I could go on, but you get the point. “Gosford Park” is a true film, one that touches the viewer on a very personal, but not intrusive level.

Yeegads, but what does this mean about mer Which is, of course, why you read reviews… to learn about me.

My favorite film of all time is “Il Postino.” I like “The English Patient.” I think Welles’ version of “The Trial” may have surpassed Citizen Kane.

But in my list of favorite films of all time are such genre flicks as “The Road Warrior” and “The Crow.” I’m a “Godzilla” fan, for heaven’s sake. I’ve WRITTEN comic books. So what gives with my reactions to the latest batch of genre releases, such as LOTR or Phantom Menace or Burton’s “Planet of the Apes,” all of which were, in my view, crapr

Well, whereas the fanboy geeks who largely drive the genre picture business have, for reasons I might postulate in a future article, stopped their maturation dead in its tracks, rolling through their twenties, thirties and forties still convinced that Twinkies make one helluva breakfast, Hulk # 145 was a travesty, only real men plan Dungeons & Dragons, a goatee makes you look tough (even if you still tip the scales at 200+) and using Stan Lee-like Shakespeak in normal conversation is the mark of intelligence, some of us moved on.

Some of us recognized that life is more than the immediate thrill, more than the adolescent notion that pleasure is something obvious, that realism can be as engaging as fantasy. Some of us know that good food isn’t always sweet, that the better beverages aren’t the ones with the highest alcohol level, good movies aren’t the ones with the best effects, and the best actors aren’t the oldest guys with the strongest British accents.

Point being, genre films need to raise their standards so they appeal not only to the stunted sensibilities of special effects fans, even if their numbers are growing at a frightening rate.

The oh-so-occasional gem like “Gosford Park” serves a dual purpose: to remind us how good films CAN be made in this age of lowered expectations, and at the same time point out what a sad day it is for Hollywood that these films only come about so infrequently.

Why bother with this whole articler First, it’s a review of “Gosford Park” — really, it is.

Second, it might help to explain my position on films a bit better for those who are still stunned to find out that I think the last few years of genre films largely sucked. Geeks be warned.

Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s simply that I’m turning into a stuffy, opinionated old bastard. Or maybe — just maybe — Hollywood sucks worse than a French whore on a German sub, and simply lacks the creative will to put out good movies that can appeal to both the geek and the intellectual in me.

Thank goodness for the Altmans and Finchers and Mendeses and Nolanses. They are exceptions to the rule.

Rating: A
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