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Boxing Day Round-up
by Stephen Groenewegen

Reviews of Vanilla Sky, Amelie, The Man Who Wasn't There, The Golden Bowl, Monsters Inc. and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

26 December 2001, Australia. It's unbearably humid, you've opened all your presents, had enough of the family to last you another 12 months, and someone's threatening to switch on the TV to watch the cricket. It's time to head to the movies. But what to see? There's a slew of major releases opening today, including some of the best films of 2001.

Vanilla Sky, originally scheduled for Boxing Day, opened on December 20 instead. But who - besides a critic - has time to see movies the week before Christmas? It suffers from being released in the year-end American rush of Oscar qualifying epics and biopics. The timing implies Vanilla Sky has pretensions of being more than an intriguing thriller and remake of Alejandro Amenabar's 1997 Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes).

I haven't seen the original (it never made it to Australian cinemas), but this "cover version", as music-mad director Cameron Crowe likes to think of it, is apparently very faithful. It's also a vanity project for Tom Cruise, who plays a fit, young,
unbelievably rich publishing mogul named David Aames. Aames has a hot car, a swanky New York apartment complete with the latest gadgets and a sleeping arrangement with Cameron Diaz that allows him to pursue Penelope Cruz. As his best mate (Jason Lee) puts it, when it comes to life and love, Aames has only tasted the sweet and not the sour.

The plot begins when Aames meets Sofia Serrano (Cruz) at his birthday party but, before he has a chance to sleep with her, the jealous Julie Gianni (Diaz) cons him into her car and drives them into a tree. The accident puts Aames into a coma, smashes his
arm and disfigures his face. Dreams increasingly interfere with his waking reality (or is it the other way round?) and we learn from flash forwards to interviews with a psychiatrist (Kurt Russell) that Aames will soon be charged with murder.

Cruise needs actors to spark off; for too much of this film, he's up against blanks. Cruz hasn't much of a character. She's playing an impossible ideal - a beautiful artist who draws, dances, and plays music and doesn't have any hang-ups or neuroses (instead, she's the last guileless woman in New York). Kurt Russell doesn't spark with Cruise either - his psychobabble routines are corny and banal. Usually reliable actors - Tilda Swinton, Noah Taylor and Timothy Spall - range from unconvincing to embarrassing in small roles.

Cameron Diaz impressed me most (again). She disguises Gianni's frailty with bluster when she's with Aames - she knows he forgets her as soon as he exits the room. There's an underlying menace to Gianni, but Diaz is careful not to spoil her big moments with caricature. Cruise is at his best opposite her - he has something solid to react against - and at his worst when he's moping in a nightclub or roaming the streets like some modern-day, whining elephant man.

In Jerry Maguire, also written and directed by Crowe, Cruise played a narcissist who learnt humility through love. Here, he's a narcissist who learns nothing much of anything. The film is nominally about accepting responsibility and recognising the consequences of your decisions, but Cruise feels nothing but self-pity at Gianni's death, which barely rates a mention. Later, he winds up killing a character (though of course it's a dream so he doesn't have to face up to anything). Aames reacts to each
new problem like a spoilt rich kid (the plot wouldn't function if he wasn't able to conveniently afford the latest in plastic surgery or cryogenic treatments). When he has to make a decision at the climax, it's presented like the finale to a game show.

The biggest miscalculation is the 20 minute exposition sequence that ends the film. Some sort of explanation is necessary - since there isn't enough information provided to piece it all together yourself - but these scenes are didactic and dull. Once it's over, there's no possible ambiguity about whether Aames' dream life could have begun earlier in the film, or why Cruz is heard whispering "abre los ojos" at the start (it's just a gimmick).

There are some memorable moments, including Cruise running through a deserted Times Square. And the "vanilla sky" of the title is employed effectively at key moments (it originates from a Monet painting in Aames' apartment). Maybe I'd appreciate Vanilla Sky more on a second viewing (I know a lot of people watch Crowe's films over for the pop culture references) but I was so irritated the first time around, I'd be a masochist to sit through it again.

I contemplated a return visit to the French hit Amelie almost as soon as it was over. Known variously as Amelie from Montmartre and Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, it is the story of a 23 year old waitress from Montmartre (the marvellously expressive Audrey Tautou) and her quest to improve the lives of those around her, according to her finely developed sense of justice. It is also about her unexpected romantic pursuit of Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), a man who works in a pornographic shop and collects discarded passport photos as a hobby.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet made Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children with Marc Caro, and the Hollywood sequel Alien: Resurrection. Each was largely studio-bound, with a distinctive look. When he took to the streets of Montmartre, Jeunet (who developed the story with screenwriter Guillaume Laurant) had a specific fairytale image of Paris in mind. He realised it with the assistance of digital effects - to erase unwanted people, and alter the weather, skyline and cityscape where it didn't conform to his vision. It may be Paris as you imagine it, not as you remember it, but it's also appropriate to Jeunet's romantic and optimistic conception of Amelie.

He employs an array of imaginative visual and narrative tricks to compel his story and convey the cast of colourful characters. Jeunet and Laurant compose the story like a puzzle; every element is neatly used and accounted for. With vital contributions from
designer Aline Bonetto, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, editor Hervé Schneid and Yann Tiersen (who composed the magical score), Jeunet's produced a feel-good triumph that's by turns funny and poignant. Thanks to the delightful Tautou and Kassovitz, Amelie is also - undoubtedly - the most romantic film of the year.

Amelie has attracted a snowballing critical backlash since it opened in France last May, but the criticisms of it as "too light" are nonsense. How can a film about love and romance and destiny and fate be inconsequential? The only niggling concern I
had while watching it was the apparent absence of non-Caucasians, which seemed at odds with Amelie's tolerance and inclusive charm. Was there insufficient room left in Jenuet's conception?

The Coen brothers are threatening to become as prolific and distinctive filmmakers as Woody Allen. Their latest, The Man Who Wasn't There, is deeply satisfying. Set in 1949, and shot by Roger Deakins in gloriously rich black and white (accentuating
every shadow), it's part crime film and part film noir homage. But it's really about the journey of one man, the titular Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton).

Crane is a barber in Santa Rosa, the setting Hitchcock chose for Shadow of a Doubt because its suburban banality made it an unlikely location for a thriller. His wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss (James Gandolfini), but Crane's anonymous attempt at blackmail has unforeseen and disastrous

Crane barely registers with the people around him. He doesn't talk much, so Thornton provides a laconic voiceover describing what's in his head. Thornton uses his body language to fade into the background, but he does it without making his face blank or
otherwise being dull. His relationship with a young music student (Scarlett Johansson leaves a strong impression) reveals what moves him, and helps rationalise the ending (when a resigned Crane meets his fate). McDormand is quirky as Doris, the closest the film has to a femme fatale, and Tony Shalhoub is marvellous as the fast-talking attorney, Freddy Riedenschneider ("I litigate - I don't capitulate").

The Man Who Wasn't There is full of Coen eccentricities (there's a character who doesn't blink, even when recounting a UFO experience) and frequently funny. The plotting is complicated, but secondary to the characters, dialogue and sumptuous look (production design and costumes courtesy of Dennis Gassner and Mary Zophres respectively). Carter Burwell contributes a sublime score.

The Man Who Wasn't There shared the directing prize at Cannes in 2001; Merchant Ivory's The Golden Bowl was in competition at Cannes in 2000. It's taken so long to reach these shores partly because original distributor Miramax wisely dropped it after director James Ivory refused to trim the length. The Golden Bowl - which was never edited, and runs two hours and fifteen minutes - could do with cutting.

It is based on Henry James' 1904 novel about a quartet of foreigners in England, beginning in 1903. Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) is an American billionaire and art collector. He and his daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale) have looked after each other
since the death of his wife. Maggie is about to marry an impoverished Italian prince, Amerigo (a heavily-accented Jeremy Northam). She is unaware that Amerigo had a romantic liaison with an American friend of hers - Charlotte (Uma Thurman) - prior
to their marriage. Maggie encourages Charlotte to spend time with her lonely father, and they soon marry. Father and daughter return to each other's side, unwittingly pushing their respective partners - Charlotte and Amerigo - back together.

The team of producer Ismail Merchant, director Ivory and adaptor Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (A Room With A View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day) have tackled James before - The Bostonians in 1984 - and they have no trouble replicating the complex character dynamic. But the film has the same difficulty as the novel; the characters are established early (within the first 40 minutes of the film) and fail to develop significantly over the course of the story. Nor does James add any significant secondary characters, besides Anjelica Huston's gossipy Fanny Assingham and her droll husband (a delightful James Fox).

The settings - a series of grand and stately English homes - are impeccably shot by cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, and supported by composer Richard Robbins, but quickly become monotonous when nothing much occurs in them. The filmmakers err by turning Charlotte into a villain (Thurman has some unnecessarily added and overplayed scenes of deviousness and hysteria) and over-explaining the novel's symbolism.

James was content with the golden bowl of the title as his chief metaphor. An expensive gift of apparently flawless beauty, it contains a crack - barely imperceptible to all but Amerigo - which considerably reduces its value. Ivory includes three scenes
where the significance of the bowl in relation to different characters is mentioned and explained, and proceeds to draw further parallels about Charlotte's infidelity using art, history and costume. It's tiresome and redundant padding, and gives the strong impression of filmmakers who have lost control of their material, or become unsure of what attracted them to it in the first place.

Monsters, Inc. is the latest computer generated animated feature from Disney and Pixar, following their previous hit collaborations on Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and A Bug's Life.

The monsters that nightly emerge from the closet to scare small children live in Monstropolis, a city fuelled by scream power. But as children become more sophisticated, it's harder to shock the screams out of them. Monsters Inc., a company devoted to collecting terrified shrieks for conversion into energy, is having trouble keeping up with demand.

Scaring children is a complicated business. Each scary monster has another monster as an assistant. Depending on where in the world it's night time, monsters are assigned doors on a massive conveyer belt system. Points are awarded according to the quantity of screams captured in bright yellow fuel cylinders. There are also safety procedures to ensure children don't enter Monstropolis through the doors - their effect on monsters is unknown; they could be toxic.

The top scarer at Monsters Inc. is Sulley (voiced by John Goodman), a purple and green carpeted bigfoot. Sulley's assistant is the fast-talking Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal), a fluorescent green pea on legs with one large eye. Sulley's chief
rival is a devious chameleon-like monster named Randall Boggs (voiced by Steve Buscemi). One night, after the rest of the monsters have gone home, Sulley discovers Boggs working late. When the clumsy Sulley investigates, he accidentally allows a
small girl (voiced by Mary Gibbs) to enter Monstropolis. All hell breaks loose.

Animated features are undergoing another epoch of change as computer generated films like Shrek and the Toy Story movies are established as the new standard bearers. Rival studio DreamWorks aimed Shrek at a slightly higher audience than Disney and reaped enormous commercial gains. Monsters, Inc. would have been too close to completion to be greatly influenced by Shrek, but it should have a similarly wide appeal.

The humour in Monsters, Inc. is sweeter and less satirical than Shrek, and the girl initially cutesy enough to turn off most adolescents. But the plotting is a lot more complicated than Toy Story 2, perhaps as a result of what the technology can now handle, and the animation signals an advance on Shrek (the characters' features are more expressive). If you enjoyed Pixar's previous output, Monsters, Inc. won't disappoint. Don't forget to stay for the traditional bloopers over the closing credits.

JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy (written between 1936 and 1949, but not published until 1954) provided a template for the modern fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is the first instalment of New Zealander Peter Jackson's ambitious cinematic adaptation.

It follows the events of the first book (also entitled The Fellowship of the Ring), adding some incidents from the beginning of the sequel (The Two Towers) for a more dramatic finish. If you're unfamiliar with the books, the backstory is explained in a prologue at the film's start - be sure to arrive on time and pay attention.

The Ring was forged by the dark lord Sauron. It has inadvertently fallen into the hands of the unassuming and peaceable hobbits, a race of happy-go-lucky agricultural folk about four feet tall, who mostly speak with an Irish lilt in the film. Sauron is
mustering the nine black riders to retrieve the ring so he can enslave all the kingdoms of Middle-Earth. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) guides Frodo the hobbit (Elijah Wood) on his quest to destroy the ring by dropping it in the fires of Mordor. Over the
course of the film, Frodo is accompanied on his quest by a fellowship consisting of Gandalf, three hobbits, a dwarf, an elf and two humans. As the dangers multiply, the fellowship is brought under increasing strain and threatens to disintegrate.

Jackson, and fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have cleverly trimmed from the first half of the story so that Frodo's journey to Rivendell, where he is joined by the rest of the fellowship, is swift and direct. It's also frightening, since
Sauron's black riders have a more immediate threatening presence than in the book. By cutting from the beginning, the second half of the film - the continuation of the quest - doesn't seem so long (the film runs just under three hours), although the last
hour is heavy with battle scenes.

The Fellowship of the Ring is visually awe-inspiring - the digital effects and New Zealand landscapes (shot by Andrew Lesnie) which bring Tolkien's mythical Middle-Earth to life are astonishing. But in the midst of the dazzling computer generated imagery and creations, Jackson does not lose sight of the characters and story. This is still a tale of bravery and courage in unexpected places. McKellen makes a magnificent Gandalf, alternately human and otherworldly, and Wood is touching as Frodo. Ian Holm as the elder hobbit Bilbo (who features in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit) has a lovely scene at Rivendell. Despite the string of hammy Hollywood villains to his credit, Sean Bean thankfully underplays the human weaknesses of his character, Boromir.

I don't think Jackson's attempts to add to the limited female presence of the book are successful - the film becomes unaccountably mystical when Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) appear on screen. Although The Fellowship of the
is predominantly boys' own adventure, the film adaptation boasts storytelling of the highest order and should stun all viewers, familiar with the book or not.

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originally posted: 12/24/01 12:21:00
last updated: 12/27/01 16:37:48
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