Film Reviews

Otherworldly

Generally, in the realm of motion pictures, producers are evil, actors are pathetic, screenwriters are delusional, agents are bottom-feeders, and true directors scarcely exist. Contrary to the glitzy stories the mainstream media continually jams down your throat, making movies is quite often an ugly, unpleasant business, based on the ultimate goal of separating you from your hard-earned. If the corporate tie-ins aren't shoving you toward the box office, the moronic payola "critics" are, and even if a movie tanks (or stanks), you're being trained to own it, own it, own it on DVD. In this distasteful environment, the discerning consumer scarcely stands a chance.

But whoa. What's this? As far as cinema is concerned, did we just have… a good year? Why, it sure looks like it -- quite possibly a great year. If you can get past the junk -- with titles not unlike Drek, Drivel, Monsters Stink, Ocean's Elegy and Don't Lay a Turd (tagline: "I'll never smell…") -- there was much to rock and revel to in 2001. Come, let us survey the field of recent cinematic endeavor.

Last winter, in an unusual move, Hollywood forwent its usual bevy of babes long enough to sell us two portly old actors waddling through dire circumstances. With Sean Penn's The Pledge and Ridley Scott's Hannibal, we got Jack Nicholson (doing his crude Christian Slater imitation) and Anthony Hopkins (punching the "aplomb" button) representing two sides of murderous evil and AARP eligibility. Both films are gloriously atmospheric, a tad boring and end on nasty downers, but at least we learned that Benicio Del Toro has a talent for Muppet voices and Ray Liotta has brains. Well, had brains, anyway, but post-sauté he got himself wedged into the cleavage of Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt in the ironically flat Heartbreakers.

Speaking of which: Attention, Mr. Hackman, please take a year off to refresh yourself! Heartbreakers was one of five feature outings for our friend Gene this year, revealing -- along with The Mexican (clunky), Behind Enemy Lines (pointless), The Royal Tenenbaums (floundering) and Heist (utterly lousy) -- that the septuagenarian thesp works in exactly two modes: pugnacious jerk and sappy jerk. Spewing Heist's ultratrite dialogue by director David Mamet (who also trited up Hannibal), Gene actually makes one pine for the year's (shud-der) superior caper movies, such as Frank Oz's The Score and Barry Levinson's Bandits. Really, did we do something wrong? Is this stuff a punishment?

But I mentioned a good year, right? With a few exceptions (we'll get to them), it was mostly uphill from this fodder. The ever-dependable Johnny Depp came through for us twice -- oddly, both times in praise of narcotics. Adding glamorous sleaze to Ted Demme's American coke epic, Blow, Depp traded on every '70s hairstyle in the book, yet still avoided upstaging adventurous co-stars Penélope Cruz, Paul Reubens and Franka Potente (the Run Lola Run star who reteamed with Tom Tykwer for the less-than-dazzling The Princess and the Warrior). Depp also played with laudanum while sniffing out Ian Holm in Albert and Allen Hughes's wicked adaptation of Alan Moore's dense Jack the Ripper comic, From Hell.

There was also a lot of impressive material out there having to do with the shocking thesis that alienated people tend to feel alienated. In Charlotte Gray, Cate Blanchett (a.k.a. the female Gene Hackman) takes her stab at the ultimate Outsider Chick. She's eclipsed, however, by Thora Birch in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World and Leelee Sobieski in Christine Lahti's My First Mister, who hit their miserable notes with rare precision, even if their overwrought performances aren't much fun to behold. Essentially dismal and hopeful sides of the same archetype (arty girl who hates everyone), the films gave us memorable work from Steve Buscemi and Albert Brooks, who stride the volatile middle ground between boyfriend and patriarch.

Actually, a dearth of dependable fathers informed a great many movies this year, ranging from ambitious indie trash such as Cory McAbee's The American Astronaut to schmaltzy Hollywood fare such as Irwin Winkler's Life as a House and Scott Hicks's Hearts in Atlantis. Confused, disturbed young men roamed the cinema, as usual, from John Singleton's touching Baby Boy to Eric Bana's grisly, engrossing portrayal of Mark "Chopper" Read in Andrew Dominik's Chopper to Guy Pierce (all teeth and torso) in Christopher Nolan's mildly diverting gimmick flick Memento to Jake Gyllenhaal striding the beautiful nightmare realm of Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko. (The latter is one of three films this year -- including Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast and Mia Trachinger's Bunny -- to feature a huge anthropomorphized rabbit, but that's another essay.) Even Ali fits this mold, although only its first, Sam Cooke-tinged segment really flies, and the producers missed a golden opportunity to cast superior actor Jeffrey Wright in the lead.

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Gregory Weinkauf