by Greg Muskewitz
For me, the last year of really exceptional films was 1997. There have been a number of excellent films since then (“Requiem for a Dream,” “Felicia’s Journey,” “The Straight Story,” “Pi,” and several others), but there has not been nearly as many on any type of regular or consistent basis. The supply has been watered-down and heavily filtered, but there are still some that make it our way. One of those very exceptional films from 1997 was the directorial debut of Kasi Lemmons, with “Eve’s Bayou.” Ever since that moment, I have been long-awaiting a follow-up film from her, and that has at last been delivered with “The Caveman’s Valentine,” an eerie, ambient murder-mystery.Samuel L. Jackson is Romulus Ledbetter, a genius on the piano, but long banished to the world of schizophrenia. Dubbed “The Caveman” (he’s not homeless -he lives in a cave in Central Park), Romulus is not only battling the moths in his head and a similar mental figment named “Stuyvesant,” but also the knowledge that he was not a good father to his daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis). But when he finds a dead, frozen body outside of his cave, perched atop a branch, he’s convinced that he can help solve this mystery, and prove himself to Lulu. (Romulus' ex-wife posits, “Lulu needs a father, not a Sherlock (dreadlock?) Holmes.”)
"Only a minor disappointment."
Romulus traces the victim's body, through the help of one of his “followers” on the street, to the famous photographer David (“Absolut”) Leppenraub (Colm Feore). Through some off-kilter, though humorous help from a Manhattan businessman, his piano skills, and an old buddy, Romulus is tossed head-first into a clever plot that is not so easily discernable, not to mention the constant mind games that he struggles with.
“The Caveman’s Valentine” is quite unique and decently potent, but there are two or three things that hold it back from high potency. To the least effect, Romulus’ schizophrenia is only rudimentarily examined, and although what we see is quite unusual as far as symptoms and such go, it leave us much more curious than satisfied. The paranoia angle of it was finely tuned, but especially the aspect with the Seraph dancers was too confounding and extreme. It placed itself in an escoteria, and did nothing, perhaps with the exception of some undecipherable metaphors, to make it readable or understandable.
At the very start of the film, when Romulus' schizophrenia has not been established yet, “The Caveman’s Valentine” is reminiscent of another one of my favorite films of 1997, Wim Wenders' “The End of Violence”; whereas the '97 film focused on people being watched via most security and other type of video cameras from a hidden observatory in Los Angeles, the current film, before emphasizing that Stuyvesant is not a real person and what we and Romulus see on his television is only through his eyes, it was almost as if his paranoia and visions were real. That, too, would have been an exciting and intriguing concept, granted however, that that facet would have turned it into a whole other movie altogether.
To avoid any spoilers, yet still to address a concern, the ending is swift, punctuated and clever, but not foreseeable. Only near the very end right before our stretta, is there any hint what direction it is going in, but the plot is careful not to openly hash out much foreshadowing. (A little overly rushed, the solution is like a player's hypothesis at the end of “Clue.”) The last bit of concern is of no relevance to the story, but the choices that Lemmons makes for the style of her film. It should come as no surprise to me that Lemmons used much of the current camera tricks with condensed-time shots, discoloration, singular coloration, black-and-white flashbacks, etc., but it is still to her credit that Lemmons used them in modicum and made sure never to overdo it at any one place, at any one time. However, the film is seamlessly edited, comfortably paced and stirringly creative.
Jackson, one of my favorite actors, is again given perfect opportunity to display why he is so good. It takes a lot of costume and hair to disguise him, but Jackson is one of the few actors today who still enables you to forget that it is him, and to transform into that character. (Only his voice ceases to disassociate itself as a typical Jackson trait.) I admire his choice and diversity in unusual and challenging roles, and hope that he will continue to do so. And this being his second outing with Lemmons, I hope they continue collaborating in the future. The usage of pretty much unknown actors here is another strong trait. The fact that George Dawes Green's story (based on his own novel) wants to remain very secretive and mysterious up until the end, helps by not having actors whose presences dominate too much of the attention. In a case like that, it is always possible to not bill the actor/actress in the opening credits, but like Gene Hackman's cameo in “The Mexican,” critics and friends are too quick to spout off about it. Ellis (“Men of Honor”) gives a nice performance without caricaturing her role or stereotyping it. And Feore (“Titus”) cultivates a chilly and recognizable presence, but is faded in and out of while Lemmons fashions her narrative and plot.
As for Lemmons, I think that she is not only one of the best female directors out there, but also one of the most talented new directors working. “The Caveman’s Valentine” is a disappointment in a very small extent, especially considering how she succumbs to many of the trendy monikers applied to this film. But Lemmons more than makes up for it with the choice of material and how she gets the most out of her actors. She shields the main message or exploration of her films with intriguing raiment, like voodoo in “Eve's Bayou,” or schizophrenia here, but then returns to her resurgence of values and worth -especially pertaining to that of the family. Lemmons ominously foretells of truths in places that aren't thought twice about looking at. I only hope that it is not another four years that I will have to wait until Lemmons makes her next film.Final Verdict: B+.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4867&reviewer=172
originally posted: 03/10/01 07:42:05