Alex's Review of Around the World in 80 Days
(For some stupid reason this won't let me rate anything, so I'll do it some other time.)
Around the World in 80 Days (1956) **
Laborious, leaden travelogue based on the famous Jules Verne story is notable only for its gargantuan array of cameos and dubious reputation as one of the worst Best Picture winners of all time. David Niven steps into the role of Phileas Fogg, a wealthy aristocrat who bets his fellow Reform Club members that he will go around the world in 80 days or less. He recruits the help of annoying bullfighting pervert Passepartout (Cantinflas) as his butler and whisks off to encounter a lot of "kooky" one-line characters and use every concievable transportation device known to man. The film serves mostly as a stereotyped travel brochure, showcasing beautiful locations and the stereotypes who live in them. The film's got some truly breathtaking locations and photography, but none of this can change the fact that the film is as dull as dishwater. Niven is a blank slate, completely free of charisma; Niven is usually a great actor, but here he brings an already dull character down. Nothing much happens in the movie; the characters simply go from point A to point B to point C and so on and such forth. The 40 or so cameos here are mostly expendable, although some (John Carradine, John Gielgud) provide some much needed laughs. It's an old Hollywood joke that this movie won only because everyone who was in it voted for it at the Oscars; I can't exactly think of a better reason. I haven't seen the remake, but I can bet that it's probably better than this... and when you can say that about a movie that stars Jackie Chan, Rob Schneider and Arnold...
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) ****1/2
The Coens are at it again, unsurprisingly. Never the kind to take the easy way out, America's (arguably) most reliable filmmakers tackle Homer's Odyssey, bluegrass style. Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) are three convicts who escape from jail to recover a huge amount of money that Everett claims he has buried. On the road to said loot, the three escapees come across sirens, a fast-talking, one-eyed travelling salesman (John Goodman), Babyface Nelson, the KKK and legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson... amongst others. As always, the Coens manage to make a film that bears their stamp yet resembles in no way their previous efforts. If Hudsucker Proxy was Capra, then O Brother is Sturges (it's no coincidence that the title is in fact taken from Sturges' Sullivan's Travels). The dialogue here flows off the screen; its drawls, inflections and non-words form a kind of backwoods poetry. Practically every single line here is quotable. Of course the cast here is on fire, for lack of a better term. Clooney is a hugely undervalued comedic talent, and he delivers what is probably his best performance ever here. Clooney's not much of a chameleon; he pretty much always looks and talks like George Clooney. Yet he has the kind of charm to pull it off, and this is no exception. Coen regular John Turturro and professional supporting hillbilly Tim Blake Nelson have less clearly defined roles but they hold their own against Clooney. The film's sepia-tinted photography (shot, of course, by the incredible Roger Deakins) and improbably best-selling soundtrack give the screenplay ample texture.
Farenheit 9/11 (2004) ****
With Bowling For Columbine and now this, Michael Moore has perfected the art of the filmed essay. It's become useless to call this a documentary; documentaries carry the improbable responsibility to present facts objectively. But then again, objectivity in politics is an oxymoron, and it's politics Moore tackles here... more specifically, his thoughts regarding the Bush administration. Through effective collage (there's less footage shot by Moore this time around and more piecing-together of stock footage, news shows and the like) Moore pieces together his controversial views on the most powerful man in the world. It's true that the film is one-sided and it's true that unless you agree with what Moore thinks, you won't be able to stand this movie. I'm not sure if I believe the claims that Moore made up a lot of this stuff... but it doesn't really matter. The finished product here is a convincing essay by one of America's boldest filmmakers/journalists/rabble-rousers. The only technical flaw is the way in which Moore develops his point; the film doesn't always proceed obviously and sometimes takes turns that don't seem too relevant. Of course it all ties together at the end. In the end, however, even if you hated the movie, you must admit that Moore did what he wanted to do: he got people to talk about it.
Reality Bites (1994) ***
This TV-ish comedy/drama about Generation X benefits from top-flight cast but ultimately falls short due to the script. Lelaina (Winona Ryder) is a young filmmaker just out of college who works for an idiotic talk-show host (John Mahoney) while living in an apartment with Troy (Ethan Hawke), a long-haired slacker musician; Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), a promiscuous free spirit and Sammy (Steve Zahn), who doesn't do much aside from being gay and stand in the background. When she's not working, Lelaina films her friends and compiles a documentary about them; she's not having much luck getting anyone to see it, however... that is, until she meets Michael (Ben Stiller, who also directed), an executive for an MTV-type station who really wants to get her stuff on the air. Of course, Lelaina falls in love with Michael but also with Troy, despite the fact that he's a slacker asshole. So, here's a quick rundown of the themes and plot elements of this film: confusion about the future, MTV, aids, homosexuality, grunge, coffee... yep, this movie IS 1994. The thing is, it's not very subtle at being 1994. It wants to be a portrait of a generation, and to a certain extent it is, but it's clumsily plotted. Case in point: Zahn's character has about ten lines in the first half of the movie. We're not really properly introduced to this guy; hell, it doesn't even look like he lives there. Then, in the second half of the film, we get this long cheesy sequence in which he reveals his homosexuality to his parents. And then nothing else after that. It seems to me like the writer was more concerned in adressing as many freakin' issues as possible as opposed to crafting fully rounded characters. The dialogue and performers here are funny; it's just a damn shame that it had to be a comedy/drama. I would've gotten rid of that slash.
Human Nature (2001) **1/2
Before there was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there was this other Gondry/Kaufman pairing, a little-seen comedy about sex, apes and table manners. Patricia Arquette is Lila Jute, a nature writer who secludes herself in the woods due to her obscenely hairy body. She begins to feel the need for affection, however, and comes back to the city where she meets Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), a scientist who devotes his entire life to teaching table manners to white mice. They fall in love and lead a comfortable existance until they find an ape-man (Rhys Ifans) while hiking. Naming him Puff (after Bronfman's assistant's dog... the assistant is played by LOTR's Miranda Otto), Bronfman takes it upon himself to take the ape-man and turn him into a gentleman. He proves to be successful... maybe too much so. The major resemblance in all of Kaufman's work is that all the stories feature real, believeable characters in surreal, ridiculous situations; Human Nature, however, features surreal, ridiculous characters in surreal, ridiculous situations. This doesn't gel too well with Kaufman's brand of humor; the characters become crude sketch-comedy denizens who serve only to further a plot that's flimsy enough as it is. The film gets its point across in broad strokes and then destroys it with an anticlimatic ending that might have been clever had the film not been so obvious. Granted, nothing Kaufman will ever do can be worthless. The dialogue is sharp and there ARE laughs; the actors do fairly well considering the state of the characters. But Human Nature too often feels like it's building up to something it never reaches; both Gondry and Kaufman are brilliant, but they're not making the same film here. Call it a conflict of talents.