After the Fact 2002

Capsule reviews for movies released in 2002 viewed after 2002.

13 Conversations About One Thing
Director: Jill Sprecher
Rating: 6/10
I kind of want to blame Magnolia for the current continuing emergence of movies about groups of loosely interconnected miserable characters, most of whom barely interact with each other, all of whom together represent some sad slice of society. Sometimes these movies work, and sometimes they don't. This one only halfway does -- its characters focus quite literally on the search for happiness, only to become more bitter as the film goes on. As they get more depressed, the story gets more tiresome, especially as it continues to mount a conspicuous effort to be profound. But at least it ends on a strong note of encouragement, as if it's daring its viewers to take small, simple steps toward battling human alienation.

About a Boy
Director: Chris and Paul Weitz
Rating: 9/10
How nice it is to see a movie about characters and their relationships as opposed to plot devices and situation set-ups. But I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised since the source for the film was a book by Nick Hornby, who also wrote the book High Fidelity, which itself was the basis of another good movie about people struggling to overcome their weaknesses in dealing with human relationships. What was a surprise, and a pleasant one at that, was Hugh Grant's performance as a smooth 38-year-old who is quite content living his leisurely shallow life until his unlikely bonding with a 12-year-old boy (Nicholas Hoult) reveals to him how much he's missing from the realm of personal contact. Both Grant and Hoult carry the movie because they are believable as people -- flawed, assured of the wrong things, and scared to admit how much they may really need the company of others. The movie mis-steps in the end, trying to tie up everything up too neatly, but the way there makes for a fresh and funny journey.

Blade II
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Rating: 7/10
In the battle of the Guillermo del Toro superheroes, the feeling I get is that more people prefer Wesley Snipes's Blade to Ron Perlman's Hellboy. Del Toro directed the sequel to Blade (the original was directed by Stephen Norrington) only a couple of years before tackling Hellboy, and both are fun, myth-loving affairs, but I'll have to confess that I prefer Hellboy, mainly because he's a more interesting character. Blade just doesn't really have much personality -- he does his job singlemindedly and is incredibly skilled at it; frankly, I don't think he even really has any weaknesses. The character suits Snipes perfectly, and so the joy in Blade II simply comes from watching Snipes as Blade doing his thing -- destroying vampires and whipping out martial arts on whomever gets too close. Del Toro's depiction of this latest adventure is one of visceral momentum, and he certainly indulges in this world of combat-ready vampires and their new adversaries, the grotesque reapers. It doesn't quite bear the director's trademark of stunning imaginative visuals (save for, perhaps, the very look of the reapers) and color palette, but it does revel in his fascination with secret worlds, supernatural creatures, and the all the life that awakens after it's dark. (added 11/21/2008)

Dark Water
Director: Hideo Nakata
Rating: 7/10
Nakata revisits the work of Kji Suzuki, author of Ring (or Ringu, in Japanese). This time, the adaptation is of Dark Water, and it suffers a bit from feeling like the younger sister of Ringu. Many of the same ideas are revisited -- single mother protagonist, young child in danger, and hauntings from a little girl's ghost -- but this time the scares are dialed down and the creepiness is content to bubble beneath the surface. Nakata has opted to make a more traditional ghost story and, for the most part, succeeds. He's still an expert at creating atmosphere and is patient in setting it up. The movie, which explores the trauma associated with abandonment, benefits from having an undercurrent of sadness, which makes it feel quite similar to the ghost stories in Kwaidan. Actually, with a bit of selective editing, Dark Water might have fit pretty comfortably in Masaki Kobayashi's 1964 anthology. By itself, it feels a bit slight, albeit effective in all the right places. Curiously, the movie seems to have been remade for U.S. audiences twice -- Nakata re-explores Dark Water elements, with much less success, in his own The Ring Two; and Walter Salles puts his slant on things with the direct remake, Dark Water. (added 7/7/2005)

Devdas
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Rating: 8/10
It's a big soap opera, although a gorgeous one. Devdas has the distinction of being the highest-costing Bollywood movie of its time, and this is lavishly evident on the screen, from the set/art decoration and costumes to the choreography. The source material earns this treatment through its reputation as one of the most famous romances of Indian literature, likened to Romeo and Juliet or Gone with the Wind out west (and, naturally, this isn't the first time this book was filmed). Overall, it's a story about pride coming before a fall, and the universality of this theme is a main drawing power for the movie. Well, ok, that and the fact that three of current Bollywood's biggest stars are front and center: Shahrukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, and Aishwarya Rai. Rai's natural beauty anchors the film's three best musical numbers, which balance out the slower and heavier melodramatic parts. All in all, a classy production. (added 7/22/2004)

Frida
Director: Julie Taymor
Rating: 6/10
The appealing idea asking to be noticed in Frida is the notion that Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek), 1920-to-30's Mexican painter and wife of artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), was really more or less an ordinary woman who went through an inordinate amount of pain and suffering and was blessedly able to effectively express that pain on the canvas throughout her life. Such expression, in and of itself, is a wonderful thing. Much of the time, however, that theme is lost among bullet-point-biography exposition and various actors taking their turns dramatically speechifying about politics, art, and fidelity. For as much as it delights us by using inventive "Pageant of the Masters"-style moments to illustrate Frida's visualizing, it lapses into somnambulistic tedium as it dutifully marches on from one life-affecting event to the next. Less worrying about covering all the drama in Frida's life and more time spent exploring her process of turning pain into art would have made this a superior movie.

The Good Girl
Director: Miguel Arteta
Rating: 5/10
An unremarkable film about a woman who shakes up her humdrum existence by having an affair. The movie wraps itself in the guise of a dark and quirky comedy, but it isn't as quirky as it thinks it is and its comedy is generally mean-spirited, using largely stereotypical two-dimensional side characters to emphasize (with a capital "E") the lameness of the Texas boondocks world the protagonist (Jennifer Aniston) is trapped in. The trajectory of the story is straightforward and predictable -- woman has affair, affair leads to all the usual complications, woman needs to find resolution. Points must be awarded for the movie's latter-half reality checks -- the young boy she has the affair with (Jake Gyllenhaal) is in no way an ideal man, the cuckold (John C. Reilly) is actually a sweet guy, and the fantasy of escaping is seen for what it is. However, I get the idea that if such a big deal wasn't made of Aniston's "breakout" dramatic performance in an indie movie, The Good Girl would have been considered nothing special to take notice of.

Huamn Nature (2001; 2002 U.S. release)
Director: Michel Gondry
Rating: 9/10
Human Nature may ostensibly comedically contrast the mores of civilization against the freedoms of nature, but it appears to me that it's really mainly about one thing: sex. That most primal of urges thwarts every column of decent society we erect, and it's just plain damn silly the rings we run around our own rules to satisfy that desire. The sexual urge is the one thing that makes the most and the least sense about us -- of course it's natural, but it also makes us hypocritical idiots. Yes, civilization gets skewered, but Human Nature is more clever about it that that -- it is both seen as a hindrance and used as a tool to get to sex, its place secondary to the all-consuming urge. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (his sophomore credit) and director Michel Gondry (his feature film debut; together, their first collaboration) dive right into the subject to lay bare the pain of it, and to have us laugh at it, as a hirsute nature lover (Patricia Arquette), an uptight table manners-obsessed scientist (Tim Robbins), a feral man introduced to civility (Rhys Ifans), and a sexually single-minded lab assistant (Miranda Otto) all do everything against their self-believed natures to satify their nature. Kaufman gives the need for love its sobering, mechanical honesty -- the characters' desires are mostly stated outright, and the whole plot feels like a science experiment -- while Gondry gives the need its emotional desperation, as all the actors play their parts as if they can all barely control themselves (in the case of Ifans, he pretty much can't). Human Nature is almost as reckless and funny as the pair's next team effort -- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- is deeply painful; as both of them explore the same field -- "love" is the main driver of everything we do -- I only marvel at their versatility. (added 9/8/2009)

Russian Ark
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Rating: 10/10
I honestly can't think of a better way of expressing the appeal of Russian Ark than how Roger Ebert puts it in his review: "If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening." He's referring to the movie's dreamlike quality, initially instigated by its premise (wherein we take the p.o.v. of a narrator -- voiced by director Aleksandr Sokurov -- who finds himself inexplicably at the Russian Hermitage Museum and tries to gain his bearings) but then fully reinforced by its much-discussed one-take technique. The movie contains no edits, and that's how the dream state takes hold, helped along by the surreal device of having our protagonist, along with a spiritual "guide" of sorts (Sergei Dreiden), run into different figures of Russian history, past to present, as they wander from room to room. There are a purpose and theme to this "story" -- its mainly an appreciation of the Hermitage as a literal ark of Russian art and culture, with Dreiden playing a historic French marquis famous for criticizing Russian culture thus being convinced, as the story progresses, of its value. But both the vastness of the project, utilizing a gigantic cast of extras with precise choreography, and its subtle sense of displacement (the museum feels like a maze, some characters interact with the protagonists and others go about their business -- it feels a bit like a Disneyland ride) lend greatly to this work, characterizing history as a large rush of information so huge, alive, and easy to get lost in that it would feel a shame if there existed nothing to give us a conduit to it. (added 3/31/2009)

The Scorpion King
Director: Chuck Russell
Rating: 4/10
This goofy ode to mythic swashbucklers is playful, but lacks imagination. It doesn't have anything of its own to offer, content to just go through the motions of a dopey action/adventure. Here, The Rock, who would prove to be so naturally charismatic in his next movie, The Rundown, is as shackled as the movie's many prisoner characters, forced to recite dumb dialogue, react to corny villains and sidekicks, and otherwise be muscular. The movie isn't horrible because it's so obviously non-serious, but just being wink-wink silly isn't enough to breathe life into it, especially when the special effects are bad and the writing is on auto-pilot, leading to one of the worst climaxes in filmdom. Showcasing Kelly Hu's beauty may be one of the only things this flick can brag about. (added 9/27/2003)

Secretary
Director: Steven Shainberg
Rating: 8/10
A sly female empowerment movie, although not in a way anyone would expect. A young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal, in a standout performance) has a history of dealing with stress through self-mutilation, until she discovers love through her job as a lawyer's (James Spader) secretary and finds being dominated via light S&M a much preferable form of emotional outlet. This doesn't sound feminist until you realize the man is actually the one who is uncomfortable with his fetish and the woman becomes the one who takes action, learning to seek contentment on her own terms. It's a movie that believes people should be allowed to find their own happiness, no matter how marginalized their activities may be to "normal" society, just as long as they aren't destructive. Lightly humorous in tone overall; includes a charming score by David Lynch's composer of choice, Angelo Badalamenti.

Spider
Director: David Cronenberg
Rating: 7/10
Portrait of a schizophrenic. Call it the "tails" to A Beautiful Mind's "heads" -- instead of being about a protagonist who identifies his illness and takes steps to conquer it, it's about someone who is a complete victim of it. "Spider" (Ralph Fiennes) is therefore a tragic figure -- his delusions are played out on the screen, earning our pity. The movie is quiet, subtly haunting, and presented as a puzzle, shifting from the present to several parts of the past without warning, while offering a mystery for the viewers to solve. However, the film's minimalism and fractured nature create a distant atmosphere -- I felt like I was invited to a house, but when I got there the door was open, so I walked in and the host just went about his business and ignored me. Consequently, I didn't feel strongly affected by the events, nor did I feel the urge to consider them more deeply. Fiennes's performance is both good and a little grating -- he doesn't do much but mumble -- but Miranda Richardson is superbly chameleonlike.

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Rating: 6/10
Not quite as charming as the first one -- this one doesn't have its predecessor's plot inventiveness nor novelty, which was a major bonus at the time. It is, however, decidedly on crack. Rodriguez makes the movie feel as if he's making it up as he's going. Some good laughs are had along the way, and I liked the nods to monster-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. However, its thin plot and a noticeably stuttering, stop-and-go rhythm hurt its energy and ability to involve. It also has a Disney Channel movie feel, which gets old rather quickly for me. (added 7/13/2003)

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
Directors: Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook
Rating: 5/10
A horse is a horse, of course, unless that horse's personality traits render it indistinguishable from a human being. I don't understand why they didn't just let Spirit talk -- unlike the other horses in the movie who more or less just react to things, Spirit acts, thinks, and logically reasons like a college student. He's even smart enough to put on a ruse to escape captors. We hear his thoughts in the form of a voiceover by Matt Damon, which is just one step away from him talking, so why not just make him talk? The movie itself is sappy and manipulative; it's further weighed down by an overloaded, over-politically-correct script -- the frontier era U.S. government and military settlers become Spirit's natural enemies, and at one point we're even encouraged to cheer as a train engine slides down a hill and destroys the camp of railroad construction workers. Perhaps I would have been goaded into cheering if I didn't personally find Spirit's frequent displays of pride and righteousness so off-putting. In any case, at least the colorful animation is pretty enjoyable to watch.

Star Trek: Nemesis
Director: Stuart Baird
Rating: 4/10
Around the time the J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek came out, I decided to watch all the other Star Trek movies, finally. Previous to this, I had only seen parts 4 (great) and 5 (terrible), and had never watched any of the TV shows. Well, having watched (and, for the most part, enjoyed) the movies in order, it had to end, of course, with the tenth movie in the series, Star Trek: Nemesis. It's the movie that supposedly broke the odd-even rule of Trek films -- the even-numbered ones are better than the odd-numbered ones -- and it lived down to its reputation. The plot is wobbly and appears to have been written specifically to culminate in a Wrath of Khan-like showdown between two starships, ending with the sacrifice of one of our heroes, but it's paced badly so that the first half is just set-up and the last half is one slow-moving battle. The main villain (Tom Hardy) is a clone, a young version of Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart), but he barely looks like him and, worse, has a voice that sounds nothing like Stewart's distinctive, authoritative tones. Philosophically it has an intriguing hook -- just how big is the gap between nature vs. nurture? But the question is never convincingly explored outside of dialogue and canned situations (more than once, Picard outwits his nemesis, explaining, "That's what I would do"), and by the tail end of the movie thoughtfulness gives way to madness. On top of everything, Nemesis is a decidedly dreary outing -- there just isn't much to enjoy, to savor in the movie; in fact, it's quite a bummer. It's no wonder the franchise stalled after this one, though I feel, after getting to know them only through four movies, it's a shame The Next Generation crew went out on this flat note. They did deserve better. Well, who knows what the future has in store, now that Star Trek has found new life again? (added 5/21/2009)

Unfaithful
Director: Adrian Lyne
Rating: 4/10
Adrian Lyne's movie about a housewife's adultery and its consequences would play better as a study of the human predisposition toward infidelity were its characters not so illogically single-minded and its atmosphere not so cheap-romance-novel trashy. One can believe Diane Lane's character, subconsciously bored by routine suburban life, would flirt with the idea of an affair -- even act out such a whim in a singular rush of the moment -- but her premeditated visits to her lover (Olivier Martinez) continue with neither strong evidence of her dissatisfaction with her family life nor any sign of a debilitating struggle to stop doing what she knows would hurt her loved ones if they found out. Credibility is further stretched when Martinez is presented more as a plot device than as a character, laughably whirling his prize away to the land of cheesy sensuality (watch him guide her hand across a page of Braille) before moving on to low-impact S&M ("Hit me!") and bathroom quickies. In a sudden tonal shift, the film's latter half focuses on the husband's (Richard Gere) reaction, which makes his wife's motivations seem all the more insignificant to the movie -- less as central theme, more as plot-driver. The film is watchable due to high potential for audience participation -- yelling at the characters on the screen is fun and seems to be common during viewings.

©Jeffrey Chen, 2003

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