A New Year! Ten Moriarty Reviews! Kevin Spacey! Flying Daggers! Neverland! Sideways, Love Songs, Rwanda, And More!!
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Since Tuesday, I’ve seen about nine more films, and I’m starting to feel comfortable about actually writing a list now. Don't get confused, though... the ten reviews you'll read below are not any sort of "best of" list yet. I won't be able to write that for about a week or so still. I have a stack of about fifteen titles I'm still working my way through, like TARNATION and VANITY FAIR and CODE 46 and TAEGUKGI. Otherwise, I feel like I’ve pretty much seen everything I need to see, and everything I want to see, with a few exceptions. Right now, the films I haven’t seen that I don’t think I’m going to be able to see (barring any screeners showing up) are ALEXANDER, UNDERTOW, BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS, BIRTH, END OF THE CENTURY, A DIRTY SHAME, PAPER CLIPS, CRIMINAL, THE YES MEN, and P.S. If that’s it... all that I feel like I’ve missed... then I’m waaaaay the hell ahead of last year, when I didn’t see about a third of the films I wanted to for the year. I have no idea if any of the titles on that very short list would impact my final top ten or not, and there are some directors on there who I like quite a bit, like Jonathan Glazer, David Gordon Green, Oliver Stone, and Dylan Kidd. In the end, no one sees everything, and that’s just the way it is. Your list reflects the year you had at the movies, and any gaps in it, as long as you acknowledge them, are just part of the process. Having said that, I still love to catch up with everything I can. You never know what’s going to knock you out, and I like to give every possible film a chance. Just this week, I went to a sparsely attended screening of Jessica Yu’s documentary IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL, and sure enough, it blew me away. Some people saw it at Sundance, but the rest of us haven’t really had a chance to see it until now. It’s those small gems that make all the effort worthwhile at this time of the year. With that in mind, I’ve got another batch of reviews to share with you as the year counts down. Let’s count it down together, and review a few titles along the way...
BEYOND THE SEA
Awful. Just ungodly, painfully awful. Even worse, it’s the kind of awful that you can’t write about without imparting some degree of insult to the man who is the writer, director, producer, star, caterer, make-up artist, and fluffer for the film, Kevin Spacey. This is his show, no question about it, and to reject the film is to basically say to Spacey that this passion of his was misguided. If there’s one word to describe Spacey’s post-Oscar career, though, I think “misguided” would be it. K-PAX. PAY IT FORWARD. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF DAVID GALE. He’s racked up a list of painful memories that would send some people into therapy. Maybe that’s what BEYOND THE SEA was for him... something deeply personal that would allow him to indulge all of his most private desires in the most public of possible ways. If so, I hope he got it out of his system, because I don’t think he can survive another one of these. Technically, the film is well put-together. The cinematography by Eduardo Serra is really quite striking. He’s the guy who regularly shoots the films of Patrice Laconte and who shot FUNNY BONES and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. His work is great here, and if you were to take individual scenes from this film out of context, you might think you were looking at something really good. But it never comes to life. It never even comes close. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Spacey work harder to try and make a role work, but that’s part of the problem. You can see him trying. You can practically smell the flopsweat as he awkwardly sings and dances his way through some disastrously wrong-headed musical numbers and as he walks through the emotional high (and low) points of Darin’s life without ever really engaging us as an audience. Which leads me to my big question about the life story of Bobby Darin: who cares? I know this thing has been through about fifteen years of development hell (one look at the laundry list of 21 producers on the film should make that obvious), and at various points, people like Tom Cruise and Leonardo Di Caprio have been attached, but... why? What makes Darin interesting enough to have a film made about his life? Is it his music? Because I could have lived the rest of my life without hearing Spacey’s rendition of “Splish Splash” and been perfectly happy. Is his super-smarmy mangling of “Mack The Knife” some sort of cultural milestone I missed? Or are we supposed to learn something new from his marriage to another C-list celebrity, Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), best remembered at this point as a clever rhyme in a song from “Grease”? I like Spacey. I really do. One of my favorite interviews ever for the site was when I met him to talk about AMERICAN BEAUTY. He’s done some amazing work, and I’m confident that he’s got more in him. But this is one of those ego-fuelled Hollywood catastrophes that will make people shuffle uncomfortably when mentioned for years to come. There’s not one good performance in the thing. John Goodman plays Blustery Blowhard With A Heart of Gold #3485, Kate Bosworth never really seems to figure out how to make Dee any sort of character, and the subplot about Darin’s “sister” and “mother” is overacted with such zeal by Caroline Aaron and Brenda Blethyn that it becomes truly difficult to watch. BEYOND THE SEA is a musical without one good musical number, a biopic that illuminates nothing about its subject, and a star vehicle that makes its star look bad. If you are looking for the season’s most astonishing failure, check this one out, but for everyone else, avoid at all costs.
A nice film, especially from a first-time director. Dan Harris is best known to geeks as one of the writers of X2 and the upcoming SUPERMAN RETURNS. He managed to find a little time this year to sneak off and make a very small-scale family drama that bears more than a passing resemblance to such WASPS-in-pain dramas as ORDINARY PEOPLE and THE ICE STORM, and the results are fairly engaging, if ultimately too familiar. Emile Hirsch, star of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS, plays Tim Travis, the 17-year-old narrator of the film. He’s had to grow up in the shadow of his amazing older brother Matt (Kip Pardue), a champion swimmer who cracks one day under all the pressure. Matt kills himself, and the rest of the Travis family... his mother Sandy (Sigourney Weaver), his father Ben (Jeff Daniels), and his sister Penny (Michelle Williams)... all crumble as they try to deal with the emotional fall-out. What follows is a year in their lives, a year spent wrestling with their own hearts and also with each other’s affections. Matt leaves a hole in their family, and each of them is forced to step up in some way to fill it. There’s more going on, like their contentious relationship with a neighboring family, but that’s pretty much the whole film in a nutshell. Harris confidently directs his actors, and he gets some very good work out of Daniels and Weaver. Part of it is that he’s smart enough to have written each of them a few BIG scenes to play, where they get to really bat for the back of the stadium. Weaver, in particular, hasn’t seemed this engaged in a long time, and it’s a pleasure to see her this way. She’s a ferocious mama bear when she needs to be, and her misadventures with self-medication are pretty funny. Daniels withdraws, something that’s always harder to play, but Harris taps into that wall of sadness that seems to always hang around Daniels. The young cast is fine, including Williams, Hirsch, Ryan Donowho as their neighbor, and Jay Paulson as a guy who has the most fascinating pick-up approach I’ve seen in a film this year when he hits on Sigourney Weaver in one memorable moment. Things wrap up awfully easy after we’re set up for some genuinely difficult issues to solve, but it’s disappointing primarily because Harris does such nice work up to that point. This struck me the same way that BEAUTIFUL GIRLS did the first time I saw it... a modest movie that hits the mark, and one that you should definitely make time to catch up with at some point.
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
Boy, howdy, I love this film. Love, love, love it. I respect HERO, but I never really got all gooey about it. I think it’s a gorgeous movie that is devoid of narrative tension thanks to the structure, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with what is easily the most pro-Communist action film in recent memory. It’s great filmmaking, though, and this time out, Zhang Yimou came up with a home run, a hot-blooded romantic tragedy that plays out at fever pitch against one of the most beautiful backdrops I’ve ever seen. This is the fulfillment of the promise of classic Shaw Brothers films like COME DRINK WITH ME, and I found myself rewatching key sequences in it over and over the week I brought it home. The opening Echo Dance, the fight in the bamboo forest, the scene in the open field where Takeshi Kaneshiro and the-recently-renamed Ziyi Zhang first fight together for their lives... these are classic, rapturous movie moments. That last insane over the top operatic scene in the snow is milked for every last teardrop, and earns them all. If you haven’t seen it yet, then don’t make the mistake I did of watching it on DVD first, even if you find the import for sale. Instead, figure out a way to see it on the bigscreen. This is an exercise in pure cinema, so lush you can lose yourself in it. There’s an underground group of revolutionaries called the House Of Flying Daggers, and the police have been ordered to break the back of the group. They target a local dancer named Mei (Zhang), who they suspect may be the daughter of the recently deceased leader. She is, after all, blind, as is the daughter, who has disappeared. An elaborate trap is set, and a deputy named Jin (Kaneshiro) is assigned to help her escape, win her trust, then betray her. His relationship with the girl, as well as his relationship with his police commander, Leo (Andy Lau), becomes more and more complicated as lies become the truth, and the truth is revealed to be far different than he suspected. Predictably, Jin falls in love with Mei, but who can blame him? Ziyi Zhang is, in my opinion, the most beautiful woman in film right now. It’s like someone took Audrey Hepburn and had Bruce Lee teach her how to fight. She’s a delicate flower who unleashes torrents of unholy whup-ass at the drop of a hat. What more could a man want? Technically, the film’s a marvel. It’s hard to believe this is a debut film for a cinematographer, and when we first talked it over, Harry was convinced from seeing the trailer that Christopher Doyle must have shot this movie. Xiaoding Zhao has a hell of a future ahead of him if this is what he’s capable to his first time at bat. And, please, don’t take the title literally. You’re never going to actually see some building called the House Of Flying Daggers, although certainly, much cutlery ends up airborne. This film boils down to a love triangle after all the politics and all the intrigue are stripped away, and that’s what makes me love this movie in a way that I could never feel comfortable loving HERO. This is a film about people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, passionate people who are unable to subjugate their desires to their duties. This is the exact opposite of HERO in many ways, a film that values the individual and their wants and needs, and that subversion gives me hope that even though Zhang Yimou is working under strict governmental supervision in China, he hasn’t lost the ability to make films still filled with a dream of freedom.
Sometimes, it’s okay for a movie to be absolutely shameless, and this one is exactly that. Marc Forster is a confident filmmaker, he seems to work well with his casts, and he’s absolutely devoid of a single subtle impulse as a filmmaker. MONSTER’S BALL was the same way. This time out, he’s working from a play called THE MAN WHO WAS PETER PAN, a title that pretty much ruins one of the best moments in the film. Still, I wish they’d found a title without “Neverland” in it, because modern-day pervs like Michael Jackson have co-opted that word into something with some pretty heinous connotations now. Shake that off, and what you’ve got is a three-hankie tearjerker that knows exactly what it’s doing from frame one. Johnny Depp continues on his tireless campaign to become the single most likeable person on the planet, playing J.M. Barrie as a gentle eccentric with a heart of gold. After his latest play opens to less-than-enthusiastic response, he is looking for inspiration one day and happens to meet a group of boys in a park. One in particular, Michael (Luke Spill) immediately engages Barrie’s imagination, drawing him into their game. Barrie is charmed by the other boys, George (Nick Roud), Jack (Joe Prospero), and Peter (Freddie Highmore), and by their mother Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet), and can’t help but perform a bit for them. Quickly, he finds himself drawn into their lives. Sylvia’s recently widowed and is doing her best to raise the boys with only her pushy society-minded mother Mrs. Emma du Maurier (the still-radiant Julie Christie) to help her. Barrie feels for them, and does everything he can to help the family, drawing the ire and suspicion of his own wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell) in the process. There’s one scene where Barrie is approached by his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Ian Hart), who tells him how people have been gossiping about a possible romance with Sylvia or, even worse, a darker attraction to the boys. Barrie is outraged at the mere suggestion, and he scolds Doyle for even bringing it up. That’s about as dark as this film gets, even once death creeps into the lives of the Davies family once again. This film is ultimately meant to make you cry happy tears, particularly once Barrie premieres his new play, PETER PAN, drawn in large part from his experience with the Davies family. I’m not going to run this movie down. It’s easy to pick on sincerely good-natured movies like this, and it’s certainly not going to surprise you as you watch it. The first time Kate Winslet coughs midway through the film, my wife said, “Oh, so how long ‘till she dies?” We’ve seen these types of films before, and of course there’s a character-building tragedy that leaves everyone sadder but wiser, stronger for having gone through it. What makes this work is the strength of the performances. Depp just oozes this calm, peaceful quality, underlined with just a hint of silly, that explains completely why these boys would be drawn to him. Kate Winslet suffers quite well, and she looks great here, maternal and beautiful even as she wastes away. Of the boys, Highmore is the obvious star, and I can see why Depp immediately recommended him to Tim Burton for CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Nick Roud’s also quite good as George, the oldest, and there’s a really great scene between him and Depp late in the film that snuck up on me. Kelly McDonald, a fave ever since the days of TRAINSPOTTING, plays a distressingly sexy Peter Pan, and by the time Barrie stages a production of his play in the living room of the Davies house, it would take a hard-hearted Grinch not to have any reaction at all. You may hate yourself for it in the morning, but while you’re watching, you won’t be able to resist. David Magee’s script, the cinematography by Roberto Schaefer, the score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek... it all comes together in a powerful, if blunt, suckerpunch of a movie.
I’m curious to read the novel by Rex Pickett that inspired this screenplay by Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne. Payne and Taylor have excellent chops as adapters. I loved what they did with ELECTION, and I think I like ABOUT SCHMIDT more than many people. This time out, they’ve crafted one of those little gems that floors audiences because of how easy it seems, a comedy about two guys dealing with their personal disappointments and pressures in very different ways, and I can see why people are getting so passionate about it. In some ways, it’s the movie that Paul Giamatti’s been revving up for his whole career, and it may finally be the role that gets him all the attention he so richly deserves. I know I didn’t review the film when it first came out. I didn’t see it until just recently. Let’s just use the wine metaphor and say I was letting it breathe a bit first. After all, everyone was falling all over themselves when it came out to proclaim it a masterpiece and amazing and the year’s best film, and inevitably, that creates expectations for a film that are hard to live up to. I didn’t see it until I got back from Austin, and I just went one afternoon to see a couple of movies back to back, whatever was playing at the right times, and SIDEWAYS turned out to be one of them. Perfect way to see it, because it hit me just right. Miles is the sort of role that Giamatti seems to have perfected right now, a guy who has been kicked around by life a bit, and who is not doing the best job of dealing with it. He drinks too much, he can’t get over his ex-wife, and he’s letting the frustration over not being able to get his novel published get to him. His best friend Jack (Thomas Hayden Church in a role that just added 10 years to his career) seems to have it all by comparison. He’s about to get married to a beautiful woman. Miles wants to celebrate with Jack, so he proposes a week-long trip to wine country in northern California. He’s going to show Jack around, teach him how to appreciate wine, and the two of them are going to share Jack’s last week as a single man. Jack has his own plans, though, and from the moment they arrive, all he wants to do is get laid. Eventually, the two guys hook up with Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), and various lies and half-truths are told, and for a little while, everything’s great. Everything has to come crashing down eventually, though, and when it does, that’s when SIDEWAYS really becomes special. I think some of the strongest writing in the film comes in the last fifteen minutes. The way this film resolves is quite powerful and hopeful and even beautiful. Taylor and Payne have a mean streak a mile wide, and they love to tear their characters down in their other films. Here, they seem to have fallen in love with Miles, as imperfect as he is, and they manage to craft a conclusion that isn’t some impossible PRETTY WOMAN style “love conquers all” fairy tale ending, but which will still break your heart. It feels real... earned... plausible. And it’s all about hope and possibility. Miles goes through a profound change in this film, and Giamatti does such an credible job of making it feel natural that you might not even be aware that he’s acting. As I said, Church also does some very funny work here, and Virginia Madsen’s never seemed more alive in a film. She’s sexy precisely because of the age she wears so very well now. As a younger woman, she was beautiful but there wasn’t much substance to her performances. Now, she’s got an emotional heft to her that makes her a perfect sparring partner for Giamatti. Sandra Oh seems to be getting the least attention for the film, but she’s just as important as anyone else, and she displays the same strong comic chops that have kept her in such high demand the last few years. There are some moments in the film that feel like Payne and Taylor can’t resist the big joke, but that’s the broad comic side of them that has been firmly in place since CITIZEN RUTH. Phedon Papamichael shoots wine country beautifully, and the film should cause a huge influx of tourism for the area just because of how sensual it all seems. Overall, this is a movie that was meant to be shared in a theater with a huge audience, like a great bottle of wine over a dinner with friends, and the film is filled with some big laughs and some big heart. Don’t wait for this one on video. If you dragged your feet the way I did, make the time and check it out.
Ten years ago, when news of the Rwandan horrors that are depicted in Terry George’s ferocious new film HOTEL RWANDA first broke, I did what pretty much everyone in the western world did. I ignored it completely. I mean, I was aware in a general sense that there was something going on in Rwanda, there was some sort of violence involved, and it really didn’t have anything to do with “us.” I’m not going to pretend that I was shaken up back then or that I have any particular understanding of the events based on reading back then. Nope. I turned a blind eye, and I would have never thought of those events again if it weren’t for this film. And now... having seen the movie and having done some reading about the subject... now I think I’m having exactly the reaction that Terry George hoped to elicit when he first started to try and get this story told. I am deeply ashamed of myself. I have never felt more like a fat, pampered, spoiled American than I did at a particular moment that comes about midway through this film. Don Cheadle, who I’ve been a fan of since DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, gives one of the finest performances of his career here as Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a luxury hotel in Rwanda where diplomats and international celebrities stay when they visit the country. Paul’s learned the trick to being a great hotel manager: he can make any guest feel like they are the most important one in the entire place. He knows how to grease the wheels of commerce, he knows how to keep a secret, and he kisses ass like a champ. He’s built a good life for himself and for his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) and for their kids. He just keeps his head down, makes everyone happy, and trusts that things are going to keep working out. But there’s trouble brewing in his country, trouble between the Tutsis and the Hutus, trouble that was started by the occupying Belgians before they pulled out of the country. The film does a good job of explaining how arbitrary the difference is between a Tutsi and a Hutu, and I couldn’t help but flash on the Star-Bellied Sneetches of Dr. Seuss fame. The difference is that the story of the Sneetches didn’t end in genocide, and in this film, once the killing starts, it looks like it’s never going to stop. Paul is a Hutu, but his wife and children are all considered Tutsi, and he realizes he’s going to have to be more diplomatic than he’s ever been if he wants to save them. What he isn’t counting on is the way over a thousand other refugees will eventually come to depend on him for their survival as well in the face of a national madness that spills into every street and every home. We’ve seen social-minded dramas like this before, and HOTEL RWANDA doesn’t necessarily break new narrative ground. There’s a passion to the way the story is told, though, that is quite compelling. The script by Keir Pearson and Terry George is literate and smart, emotional without ever being overtly manipulative. And as a director, George has grown leaps and bounds since SOME MOTHER’S SON. He works hard to kindle a sense of outrage in the viewer and at the viewer at the same time, making you aware of just how badly the rest of the world let down the people who were dying in Rwanda. Nick Nolte and Joaquin Phoenix do nice supporting work, but ultimately, this is Cheadle’s show. He plays Paul with such an innate decency that you believe that all it would take to save these refugees... or, indeed, the world... is that men like this do what their hearts demand.
This one’s sort of mystifying. It seems to have angered some critics deeply, and I can understand why. Tea Leoni plays a fully-formed monster in this film, and she’s so profoundly unlikeable as Deborah Clasky that it’s hard to sit through her scenes. Writer/director James L. Brooks loves to craft these types of characters, and his last film, AS GOOD AS IT GETS, managed to make the deeply anti-social Melvin (Jack Nicholson) into a teddy bear that everyone loved. No such luck this time out. You’ll loathe Leoni the first time you see her, and you’ll still loathe her at the end of the movie. If she was supposed to have a redemption somewhere along the way, I must have missed it, and when the film rewards her and gives her a happily-ever-after ending, it seems wildly inappropriate. What keeps me from hating the movie is all of the material between John Clasky (Adam Sandler) and his family’s new housekeeper, Flor (Paz Vega in a truly adorable English-language debut). They have some great scenes together, and whenever it’s just them onscreen, there’s a good movie going on. Basically, these are both really smart, decent people, and Brooks creates a credible attraction between the two of them. In fact, in scene after scene, he piles on the details that show us exactly why these two should be together. But their decency is one of the things that defines them, and for that reason, they can’t decide to have an affair. It would be a dramatic betrayal. That tension is what kept me watching the film, and I found that I was genuinely caught up in whether or not they would step over that line. It’s easy to see why John would want to. Flor’s been written as a drop dead sexy saint, a beautiful woman with a good heart, and she sees in John a sensitivity that she’s never experienced in any of the Latin men she’s dated in the past. The two of them are also great parents, involved in the lives of their daughters, and that bond is just one more reason for them to be attracted to each other. When John learns something even more monstrous about Deborah than her normal behavior, he has every reason to run right into Flor’s arms, and the way Brooks pays off what he’s set up is probably a big part of the reason people find themselves rejecting the film. I’ll say this... I’ve been a James L. Brooks fan for as long as he’s been making movies. Before that, actually, since I loved his TV work. But this time out, it finally feels like he just didn’t know how to tie it all together, or how to say what he wanted to say. He’s also made the ugliest movie of his career, marred by truly awful process shots during driving scenes, obvious reshoots all over the place, and a sort of aimless structure that forces epiphanies it never earns. I also think he focused on the wrong character by having the entire film be narrated by Flor’s daughter. The moment Flor walks out of the Claskys’ lives, we never see them again, and that leaves too many key questions unanswered. It’s disconcerting to see a guy as brilliant as Brooks stumble, and SPANGLISH is one of the year’s most disappointing efforts as a result.
A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG
I had no idea what to expect from Shainee Gabel’s film when I popped it in the DVD player. I just knew that Lions Gate is pushing this one for Academy consideration, and that they’re particularly working to get John Travolta some end-of-the-year attention. This is a very small film, and it’s nice to see Travolta doing work like this. There’s no question that he took the role so that he could do some things he never gets to do in giant big-budget films, and the result is an actor’s showcase that never quite feels like an organic story. You can see the seams, and you know exactly what the film wants you to feel at every moment, and you can see how hard it’s working to make you react, but still... somehow... there’s a degree of charm to the thing. Scarlett Johansson plays Pursy Wills, a girl who has grown up without really knowing her mother or her father. When her mother dies, she travels to New Orleans to see where she was living. She learns that she’s inherited one-third of a house where Bobby Long (Travolta) and a young writer named Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht) are both living. As the owners of the other two-thirds of the house, they’re determined not to go anywhere, and Pursy has no choice but to move in with them. As uneasy roommates, all of them end up learning important lessons about life. Yep. It’s that kind of film. Having said that, it’s a pretty decent example of that kind of film, and all of the actors do nice work. Johansson is a beautiful young woman, and the film makes nice use of the way she’s struggling to get comfortable in this bombshell body that’s bloomed in the last few years. She’s still young in a lot of ways, but she’s in such a hurry to grow up and be an adult, and she pours all of that into Pursy to great effect. Travolta hams it up as Bobby Long, but it’s that kind of a role. Bobby Long is a ham, a windbag, a former literature professor who has declined into a sort of decadent drunken bard who regales all of his friends with constant stories and songs. He depends on his audiences, craves the attention, and in particular, he needs the validation he gets from his relationship with Lawson, who has been writing a novel for eight years while trapped in Bobby’s orbit. Pursy works to unravel the mystery of her own parentage, Bobby struggles to die with dignity, and Lawson tries to figure out if he’s really a writer, or if he’s just been wasting his time. And that’s pretty much it. The rest of the supporting cast is filled in with some colorful eccentricity, and Elliot Davis (who also shot THIRTEEN and OUT OF SIGHT, among others) makes New Orleans feel both seedy and inviting at the same time. I wouldn’t call A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG a great film, but I would say that it does exactly what it sets out to do. It knows what it is, and it embraces it, and I’m curious to see what writer/director Gabel does next as a result.
THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON
I really like the tag line for this film. “The mad story of a true man.” That accurately sums up the way Niels Mueller has approached telling the story of Sam Bicke, a guy who feels like life has become too complicated for the little guy, an invisible person who wants the world to notice him. This entire film is essentially a long slow burn, and you spend much of the running time wondering exactly how and where Bicke is finally going to explode. If I can offer two words to explain why you should make time to see this one in the theater, those two words would simply be “Sean Penn.” He’s one of the best actors in the world when he’s fully engaged by a role, and this is a great example of that. Mueller’s got a wicked dark streak as a filmmaker, and there’s a sort of perverse glee in the way he piles one hardship or slight onto Bicke right after another. Bicke’s struggling to win back the affections of his ex-wife Marie (Naomi Watts), but she can see right through him. She knows that there’s something deeply wrong with him, some self-destructive quality that is never going to change, and no matter how many stories he tells her about his life getting better and his career getting on-track, she never believes him. His best friend Bonny (Don Cheadle) tolerates him, but even he seems wary of Sam on some level. What Mueller does really well is establish just how Sam hatches his master plan to kill Richard Nixon and why he picks the target he does. It’s a great look inside the head of someone who feels the need to get the world’s attention somehow. Penn has a strange sort of loser charisma, and even when he’s at his most pathetic, you can’t look away. Overall, the film is beautifully made, and the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, SLEEPY HOLLOW, A LITTLE PRINCESS) is stunning. I’m not sure where Mueller came from as a filmmaker, or how he put this film together, but it is an announcement, and he’s definitely a filmmaker worth paying attention. Whatever he does next, I’m there.
And speaking of new young talents worth watching, who is this Scorsese kid? Wow! All kidding aside, there are certain filmmakers whose work is always difficult to discuss or debate because of the reverence we feel for their whole body of work. Every time I’ve written a negative review for a film by Martin Scorsese, I’ve gotten hammered for it. Never mind the fact that I am an enormous fan of most of what he’s made. When GANGS OF NEW YORK came out, there was a sense that everyone was supposed to hop onboard the “Give Scorsese his Oscar” bandwagon, but that’s a ridiculous way to think. That’s not how it should work. True, the Oscars are overtly political and are frequently given out based on mass sentiment, but giving someone an Oscar for a subpar film after ignoring masterpieces doesn’t balance the scales. Some of our best filmmakers go their whole careers without winning. Remember... I’m tied with Stanley Kubrick for Best Director Oscars at this point. I say all of this as preamble. It doesn’t matter to me if Martin Scorsese ever wins an Oscar. All I care about is whether or not he’s making great films. BRINGING OUT THE DEAD and GANGS both left me cold. I adore KUNDUN, but I acknowledge that it’s a difficult film to love. More than anything in recent years, I’ve enjoyed his digressions into film theory and history, like MY VOYAGE TO ITALY, an embarrassingly rich feast for a film fan. It’s been a while since I’ve loved one of his movies. For that reason, if for no other, THE AVIATOR is one of the best surprises for me this season. Hollywood’s been flirting with the Howard Hughes story for decades, and it’s frustrated any number of talented writers and directors and actors. Part of the problem has always been balancing the tragedy and the triumphs of his remarkable life. Together, John Logan and Martin Scorsese have finally done it, finally wrestled this story up onscreen, and it’s a reminder of just what it is that makes Scorsese so special. He makes fascinating films about unlikeable people, and he somehow manages to hold our attention rapt even when we don’t like what we’re looking at. TAXI DRIVER, THE KING OF COMEDY, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS... these aren’t feel-good films, and I can’t honestly say I like or respect or even want to meet Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, Jake La Motta, or Henry Hill. Still, these films draw us into these people’s lives and coax us into taking an unblinking look at something we can barely imagine. THE AVIATOR is a triumphant return to exactly that sort of filmmaking, with one significant difference: the life that Howard Hughes lived looked absolutely amazing from the outside. Who wouldn’t want to be a test pilot movie producer millionaire playboy? He defied Hollywood with the films he produced and directed. He defied his competitors in business. He dated some of the most dynamic and beautiful women in the world even as he maintained a harem of women on his payroll sequestered at love nests all over Los Angeles. He had a staggering appetite for life, and he seemed to draw people into his orbit easily. And underneath it all, coloring that confidence, he was wracked by doubts and deeply-seeded fears and phobias that would eventually cripple him. It’s no wonder so many of the biggest leading men in town would want a shot at playing the character, and Leonardo Di Caprio, in his second film with Scorsese, seems to have finally found the role of his lifetime. I’ve heard some people say that Leo seems awfully young to be playing Hughes, but I think there’s a beautiful subtextual point that is made by the casting of Di Caprio. Late in the film, there’s a quick flashback to Hughes in childhood, talking to his mother about his dreams. He’s about six or seven years old at the time, and he says, “I want to fly the fastest planes in the world and I want to make the best movies anyone’s ever seen and I want to be richer than anyone else alive.” These are little-boy ambitions, and it seems that Hughes never really grows past this point. He is always that same little boy, determined to live that same impossibly glamorous life, and he never grows into a mature person capable of any sort of adult inner life. Di Caprio shows the evolution of Hughes’s madness quite well, and when he practically collapses under the weight of his own obsessions, it’s impressive stuff. He’s not the only great actor here, though. Cate Blanchett deserves nothing but accolades for her work as Katherine Hepburn. She moves past mere impersonation to simply become Hepburn, embodying the fire and the particular beauty that made the actress such an icon in her time. Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin also make strong impressions as the villains of the piece, conspiring to destroy TWA before it can pose a serious threat to Pan-Am, the airline owned by Juan Trippe (Baldwin). What makes the film such a rich visual feast is the work by cinematographer Robert Richardson. If KILL BILL wasn’t enough to convince me that Richardson remains one of the best guys working anywhere in the world right now, his subtle recreation of the various steps in the development of Technicolor (helped in large part by FX wizard Rob Legato and the artists over at Technicolor) as various eras flash by in the film is a goddamn education. Scorsese’s always been a bit of a Technicolor fetishist... witness his worship of the films of Michael Powell, for example... and he’s finally crafted a love-letter to that lost art form that some viewers may never fully notice, even if it works on them in subtle ways. The flying scenes here are impossible, and that makes the work by Sony Imageworks even more impressive. You know you can’t be seeing what you’re seeing... but you’re seeing it. There’s a crash in Beverly Hills that is more exciting and horrifying than anything in any of the summer’s big action films, and it really drives home what a transformative moment that must have been for Hughes. Best of all, Scorsese and Logan seem to have figured out exactly how to end their film on a note of triumph tempered by dread. They give Hughes a moment of personal victory, and they follow it almost immediately with an indication of just how bad things are going to get in the future. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but THE AVIATOR does it, as it does everything, with absolute confidence. This is giant spectacle filmmaking at its very best, and it is a genuine pleasure to see a master craftsman working at the top of their form like this.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!
See you back here in 2005, everyone. Have a great and safe celebration until then.
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Jan. 1, 2005, 12:17 a.m. CST
by Judge Doom
WOOP BOBBBBA LOOBAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Jan. 1, 2005, 12:17 a.m. CST
yep, it sucks. Awful, horrible piece of crap. Haven't seen a worse performance in terms of utter hatred and annoyance in a movie than that of Tea Leoni's in this. Gross. Oh, and Happy New Year. I'm going out to have fun now.
Jan. 1, 2005, 12:25 a.m. CST
The film goes in circles. Telling the same story over and over. And yes, Leo did seem a little young the first half of the film at least. They did a good job of making him look older later in the film, but the movie just drags terribly.
Jan. 1, 2005, 12:36 a.m. CST
by The guy
I agree it was a HUGE disappointment. At the theater where I saw it there were quite a few walkouts. The movie dragged, the acting was over the top, especially Leo and Cate Blanchett. The cameos felt unnecessary. What a waste of a dream cast. I noticed it's not making a lot of money at the boxoffice. Not a big surprise. The word of mouth is gonna kill this movie. I predict no more than 50 million at the domestic b.o. making it a BUST, since it cost over 100 million to make.
Jan. 1, 2005, 12:47 a.m. CST
Everyone's talking about how great it was, and I think she's a good actress, but damn, what an over the top, grandstanding perforance it is. Does anyone think Kate Hepburn actually acted like that in real life? It's like watching Hepburn in Adam's Rib. Blanchett's seems like a frontrunner for an oscar, but geeze.
Jan. 1, 2005, 1:01 a.m. CST
by Darth Thoth
Thanks for the writeup Mori. I enjoyed Flying Daggers but not to the extent that I enjoyed Hero. HOFD was a technical marvel... I was awed... but I wasn't blown away nor was I completely wrapped up into the film. Maybe my expectations were too high. Still, a very good movie. And Hotel Rwanda was just awesome. Cheadle is just amazing. I really hope this movie gets play and people check it out. It's moving, funny, interesting, educational, but most importantly, it's real. It really happened. Let us learn and not repeat its mistakes. Ultimately, I felt it was a film that illustrated the responsibility we have to our fellow humans. We are all family. And it's so easy to lose sight of that because of our "differences." An important film.
Jan. 1, 2005, 2:39 a.m. CST
Jan. 1, 2005, 3:11 a.m. CST
I'll be quite honest with you, now ... NO doubt I'll cry a tear ... if they have a "Schumacher moment" by flashing Batman's REAR. -- Let's hope they somehow capture how Scarecrow instills much fear. And if Batman flees in the Batmobile, he panics but finds the right gear! -- I'll toss and turn with sleepless nights as the release date really gets near. Like many of you, I can hardly wait, 'til June 17th is ... finally ... here!
Jan. 1, 2005, 7:20 a.m. CST
by Jon E Cin
Other then that I'd pass. I shouldve..I'm not there yet.
Jan. 1, 2005, 9:18 a.m. CST
by Andy Travis
Sorry, but I find the point of Hero to be much too interesting to slap a simple communist label on it. Besides, the theory of ultimately saving and (possibly) bettering lives through the institution of a dictator (which is what I assume you make out to be pro-communist) isn't a communist one at all. But I won't toss a "pro-fascist" tag on Hero, either...it's a movie about one man's choice.
Jan. 1, 2005, 10:29 a.m. CST
by Barry Egan
Jan. 1, 2005, 10:36 a.m. CST
by Dickie Greenleaf
Nice batch of reviews, Moriarty - of the films I've seen myself listed there, I gotta say I agree with most of what you say. Certainly, having just seen THE AVIATOR a couple of days ago, I'm confidently going to state right now that its the best film of the year (though I have still to check out HOTEL RWANDA, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, CLOSER and A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT which could all challenge). Unlike Moriarty (and a lot of other people but not all), I like GANGS OF NEW YORK and have written quite passionately about it in the past. I'm not going to retread old ground talking about how at its best, the film scaled heights beyond the reach of any other mortal filmmaker though due to problems of pacing and flow, was unquestionably flawed. What I think should be made clear, however, that though THE AVIATOR is Scorsese's best work in over a decade (his best since THE AGE OF INNOCENCE), at no point has the director lost any of the fire and passion that has characterized A Martin Scorsese Picture for over thirty years, and whatever its deficiencies, the sheer wealth of ideas in GANGS were ample proof that this veteran will never be content to coast on past glories. Of course, many would argue that it was exactly the weight of too many clashing ideas that resulted in the rather schizophrenic nature of GANGS' final cut, but regardless, the film teemed with life. Where THE AVIATOR ultimately surpasses the last film is in the way Scorsese brings everything together so cohesively. Simply put, the film just sings. From the first frame to fade-out, the scale and scope of the setting and the story flows with supreme ease and a lightness of touch (perhaps the most significant departure from Scorsese's usual form) that has produced a grand entertainment of substance and grace. Couldn't agree more with Moriarty's assessment of the ending either. I was curious as to what exactly would be the appropriate way to conclude a picture that for the most part chooses to celebrate the ambition and idealism of Hughes, and to bow out on a note of simultaneous triumph and darkness was perfectly judged. And, for me, this is where DiCaprio's casting is crucial as I can't think of any other actor who is currently better at suggesting boyish exhuberance and all of the confidence, and indeed arrogance, that comes with throwing caution to the wind with such abandon ("We've gotta reshoot HELL'S ANGELS", "How much of it?", "All of it!") without ever completely casting off a seeming innate vulnerability. This is undoubtedly the best received performance by DiCaprio to date, but I really don't know why. After all, it's really not that much of a leap from CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, in which his rendition of con artist Frank Abagnale was in full possession of all of the characteristics discussed here - that same compelling blend of youthful zest brought crashing down to earth by the drag of reality. It may be argued that Leo's range is somewhat limited, but I think what these films indicate that he has reached a point where he knows what his strenths are and how best to use them, which at the end of the day is what all of the great movie stars share in common - including those so uncannily brought back to life in this film. Roger Ebert often quotes Howard Hawks' famous maxim that a great film must have three great scenes. Even after just one viewing, I would already suggest that THE AVIATOR has more than half a dozen instant classics; the thrilling staging of Hughes, in full dare-devil mode, shooting the celebrated aerial dogfight sequences of HELL'S ANGELS from his own cockpit with a handheld camera, the golf scene with Hughes and Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) at the beginning of their poignantly played relationship, the entrance of a drunken Errol Flynn (fantastic cameo by Jude Law) at the stunningly recreated Cocoanut Grove and his shamelessly grandstanding attempt to pull Hepburn from under Hughes' nose before starting a brawl with his fellow swingers for the sheer hell of it, Hughes' disastrous (and very funny) visit to the Hepburn compound in Connecticut - a sequence with enough material for a movie all of its own, the unexpected intensity of Hughes' truly terrifying and very bloody crash landing in Beverly Hills and hands down the best action sequence ever filmed by Marty, the striking contrast during the fuelled exchange between a naked and falling apart Hughes and the dapper Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) on opposite sides of Hughes' screening room door where he'd holed up in paranoid recluse which serves as a prelude to the fantastic Senate showdown with Trippe-owned Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda). These great moments are, once again, aided and supported by the very best craftspeople in the business - Robert Richardson's photography has already been justly celebrated, but making equally great contributions are production designer Dante Ferreti and composer Howard Shore (you'll be hard pressed to spot the seams between his score and the meticulously selected source music). All in all, the year's most complete film. Not all that far behind, however, is FINDING NEVERLAND. I don't know why Mori felt the need to begin his review in a virtually apologetic tone - exactly what is it about a film that plays to our most basic emotions that makes us restrain our praise and applause? It is, of course, a common trait among critics to cynically shy away from stories go straight for the heart, but I've always felt that, more than anything else, this stems from an inability to differentiate between brazen sentimentality and genuine sentiment. Granted, it's a thin line, but I think FINDING NEVERLAND is definitely a film imbued with the latter from start to finish. It's a simple tale, small and intimate, but with a big heart. Yes, it goes for tears, but it earns them. Enormous credit goes to the actors, who resist the obvious temptations to go for the typical big moments. I don't really know what I can say about Johnny Depp that everybody hasn't already said. There can be few modern actors who possess as much natural charisma, the ability to transfix their audience every time they appear to this degree. And what perhaps seperates Depp even further is the way he can do it in good and bad films alike. This is a really nice characterization, fully equipped with ample doses of the requisite Depp eccentrics, but most notable for the subtlety and sensitivity he plays it with throughout. His scenes with the young Davies boys, particularly the brilliant Freddie Highmore, have a lovely, easy-going charm, and the mutual need that subsequently develops between them never feels forced. In fact, nothing about the film feels forced. The plot may be telegraphed early on (though aren't all fairytales?), but its execution still moves. I don't think Forster has been given due credit here; as well as bringing his film to life with some truly inventive visuals and sets, especially during the sequences of make-believe, the tight focus on these people, whose basis may have been in standard archetypes, allows them by film's end to blossom into real people genuinely deserving of the audience's engagement. There may not have been a more ineveitable final scene in a movie all year as that between Depp and Highmore on that park bench, but I know I didn't see one more touching or more perfectly played nonetheless. A beautiful close to a beautiful film.
Jan. 1, 2005, 11:33 a.m. CST
Well, that would be because Zhao Xiaoding was working with Zhang Yimou, Moriarty. And Zhang Yimou, as anyone who's ever so slightly knowledgeable on the subject of Chinese films knows, is the greatest perfectionist out there, not to mention a former director of photography himself. He's the sort of director who knows exactly what he wants his films to look like and will explode when the cinematographers he works with deviate ever so slightly from what he had in mind. And because he used to be a pretty amazing director of photography himself, his films usually end up looking pretty damned astonishing, even when he's working with inexperienced directors of photography. It doesn't matter who shoots his films; as long as Zhang directs them, they're going to look good.
Jan. 1, 2005, 1:55 p.m. CST
by D. Allusion
That of Bush or the Chinese authorities Zhang Yimou is seeming to be sucking up to. If recognizing that is thinking with my ass, at least I'm thinking with something. You don't seem to be thinking at all.
Jan. 1, 2005, 2:23 p.m. CST
Was fantastic! I have to see it again to appreciate it fully, but I thought the performances, especially Leo's, were just amazing. Kudos to Mr. Scorsese and his talented cast for a job well done!
Jan. 1, 2005, 4:34 p.m. CST
As one poster above wisely pointed out, THE AVIATOR is only playing on half as many screens as FOCKERS, but I will add the fact that the 3 hour running time means fewer showings per day as well. Couple these two factors, and I'd say THE AVIATOR is doing quite well at the box office. I've seen it twice now, and both showings were close to sold out, and both audiences really seemed to love the movie. Not that it makes my opinion matter one whit more than any other talkbacker, but I'm the movie reviewer for our city paper and THE AVIATOR is my #1 film of the year; here's hoping it cleans up at the Oscars this year.
Jan. 1, 2005, 5:08 p.m. CST
by Barry Egan
I enjoyed reading your comments on "The Aviator" almost as much as I enjoyed watching the film. The movie was great. And we don't get enough intelligent commentary like that in the talkbacks.
Jan. 1, 2005, 5:22 p.m. CST
Thx for the first two catch-up reviews.
Jan. 1, 2005, 5:49 p.m. CST
...and doing a couple of short papers on it, I've come to the conclusion that Zhang Yimou isn't painting Qin Shi Huang (the emperor) in a very positive light. The film seems to be saying that you can have unity as long as you are willing to sacrifice individuality, romance and color. Even the film's structure represents this. The emperor would say 'Why have three different stories when one will do?' In the end, all the heroes, the cool people, are wiped out and all the colors are absorbed into black. (And he's a right bastard to kill Jet Li...) I think it would be extremely weird if Zhang Yimou suddenly did an about-face and became a commie shill. His movies before HERO are pretty critical of the Red Chinese gov't.
Jan. 1, 2005, 5:50 p.m. CST
by santos kauffman
But I found Dicaprio's performance remarkable, and I really hope dude gets the Oscar. Im really pumped for the Infernal Affairs remake now.
Jan. 1, 2005, 6:01 p.m. CST
by andrew coleman
HOFD was all images, just cool fights and they tried to have some meaning behind it, but if you sit down and actually try to piece everything in the script together, you fall into pot holes so big you'll never escape. I think Hero was really cool simply because I don't believe it is pro-communist but I do believe it is very politicaly powerful. It's actually very pro-Bush if you think about, that's why I laugh when extreme liberals love this movie
Jan. 1, 2005, 7:15 p.m. CST
twindaggerturkey, I am about one or two more arguments like yours away from according Hero the same status Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony has earned. After a few viewings, I'm starting to think that perhaps Hero isn't quite as pro chinese communism as I'd originally thought. Perhaps a more nuanced interpretation, like yours, would find that Hero is no more pro communist than Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony was. For those not in the know, Dmitri Shostakovich was a Soviet era Russian composer who lived, and worked, under Joseph Stalin. Depending on the political climate, he was alternately hailed as a hero of the Soviet Union, or decried as a bourgeois elitist. At one point he was reviled publicly in Pravda (most likely ghost written by Stalin). That was basically one step short of being sent to Siberia. After one such attack (there were multiple over the course of his career), Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony--subtitled "A Soviet Artist's Answer to Just Criticism"--which greatly pleased Stalin. Underneath the very populist skin of the music is a very dark sarcasm which completely negates the air of conformity he was attempting to convey. Luckily, the sarcasm was completely missed by the majority of listeners at the premier, and Shostakovich's public status was subsequently restored.
Jan. 1, 2005, 7:18 p.m. CST
"The Aviator has got legs". It'll pull in people for months to come at the box office, rather than the typical flash-and-dash of the standard Hollywood release these days. The movie producers and distributors in today's market are all too happy to pin their mark of success on a big opening weekend - which is ridiculous, considering the overwhelming pattern of these movies to drop an average of 60% in their second weekend and then quickly fade into "Oh, that's still at the first-run theaters?" by week three. "The Aviator" will have a similar audience effect to another Leo movie, "Titanic", where people will still be going to see it for the first time more than a month after it opens. No, it won't make a billion dollars like "Titanic", but it'll still bring bringing in dollars when movies like "Meet The Fockers" and "Ocean's Twelve" are all but forgotten.
Jan. 1, 2005, 9:11 p.m. CST
by Lazarus Long
Is there anyone else who's confused at why so many press reviews of Yimou's two-fer (in America, at least) mention how Crouching Tiger pales in comparison? And I'm talking to people who enjoyed all three films. I feel CTHD is miles above the Yimou films, if not for action than certainly for epic quality, and more importantly, depth of character. It's bizarre to see all these critics fawning over what are fairly shallow characters, especially in HOFD. At the end of Crouching, the death scene between Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh was one of the most moving things I've experienced in the cinema. The flashback story of Jen added a layer that the two more recent films couldn't get anywhere near. Perhaps it has something to do with critics wanting to take Ang Lee down, and while Yimou's entire career may be more impressive, I don't think he made better films in this case. Hero was probably the more interesting of the two due to its Rashomon-like storytelling, but as much as I loved HOFD I was expecting something more than a 90 minute chase scene. And while the photography was visually stunning, the fact that it was so digitally altered makes a little less impressive.
Jan. 2, 2005, 12:50 a.m. CST
by The guy
I agree that it's on half as many screens as Meet The Fockers, but how do you explain it's measly 2,000 per screen average? That's kinda low considering it's a $100 million dollar epic starring arguably the biggest movie star in the world. It's per screen average it's currently third behind Meet The Fockers and Phantom of The Opera. Let's see how this film plays next weekend, once the bad word out of mouth gets out. This film was a MAJOR disappointment. It was slow, redundant (the OCD stuff), and the acting was way over the top, but nobody wants to say it because it's Scorsese. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of his, but he's starting to lose it. His last truly great film was in 1990 (Goodfellas).
Jan. 2, 2005, 10:15 a.m. CST
I'm fairly incredulous that people are disappointed with this film. I'm not trying to disparage your tastes or sensibilities, because we are all obviously entitled to our opinions, but only once or twice a year (and sometimes not at all) so I see a film that just totally wows me, that I exit thinking "that was a great movie!" THE AVIATOR was definitely one of those, and the general buzz from other theate patrons was exremely positive. I went with an extremely picky friend on second viewing, whose normal comment upon leaving any movie running over 2 hours is "that film needed some editing," said that he thought THE AVIATOR was one of the best-flowing and best-edited long movies he's ever seen. I definitely feel that THE AVIATOR is Scorsese's best film since Goodfellas and one of the 3 or 4 best films that he's ever made. For what it's worth, my provisional top 5 list for the year (without having seen Sideways or Million Dollar Baby yet) is: 1. THE AVIATOR 2. RAY 3. COLLATERAL 4. KILL BILL 2 5. SPIDER-MAN 2
Jan. 2, 2005, 9:36 p.m. CST
Considering it's a near 3 hour epic it's doing very well. But I do agree with guy, it's a looong film that repeats itself over and over. I have no idea why so many people are calling it the best of the year.
Jan. 2, 2005, 9:55 p.m. CST
by Lou C.
I'm just wondering. and newpulp, Leo DID do pretty well with Spielberg and Catch Me If You Can. Yeah, Hanks was in it, but it was DiCaprio's show, so ....
Jan. 4, 2005, 9:36 a.m. CST
She actually smiles for once. And I don't mean smile in an evil, and now I will kick your ass, way. She smiles and damn if it doesn't make an already stunnning woman, pure radiation sunshine. Oh and the film's good too.
Jan. 4, 2005, 11:23 a.m. CST
You want to see more Zhang Ziyi smiles? Check out "The Road Home", her first film. She doesn't kick arse in it, but boy, is she enchanting. A hundred per cent radiant. The film itself is excellent, as well, although you won't enjoy it much if you actually expect her to fight in it. :-)
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