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SUNDANCE 2001: DAY THREE With MORIARTY

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

By the end of our second day here, Robie and I were convinced that we had picked nothing but winners, that our movie choices were bulletproof, and that we had it all figured out.

Ha. Ha freakin’ ha.

When we hit the wall, we hit it harder than we expected. On February 2nd, New Line’s releasing the new film INVISIBLE CIRCUS, written for the screen and directed by Adam Brooks. That name didn’t set off any bells for me before the screening, but I’ll certainly remember it now. He was one of the screenwriters of BELOVED, and he adapted PRACTICAL MAGIC as well. His one original I've seen is Larry Kasdan's limp FRENCH KISS. Brooks is a lousy screenwriter, and he’s continued that tradition with his work here. I don’t know Jennifer Egan’s original novel (they gave us copies of that and the soundtrack before the film), but it can’t be as horrific as the film itself.

Jordana Brewster (THE FACULTY) plays Phoebe, whose older sister Faith (Cameron Diaz) vanished in Europe, an ostensible suicide. Phoebe has grown up haunted by the postcards and letters she got from her sister, and she finally decides that she can’t live without getting certain answers for herself. She sets off for Europe on her own for a journey of self-discovery, hoping to lay her questions to rest. If that sounds at all interesting to you, you should still avoid this movie. It’s akin to having hot needles driven into your eyes slowly for two hours that feel more like four, and it features the absolute worst work of Cameron’s career to date.

One thing that baffles me is what a film like this is doing here. Yes, I know it was a last minute substitution for THE SECRET LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS, the Jodie Foster film that got pulled from the festival at the last moment due to post-production timing. Wouldn’t it make more sense to use the spot to screen something like THE BELIEVER or THE BLEEP BROTHERS or MIDDLE PASSAGE, something that isn’t currently set for any press screenings? Why dump this big-budget piece of crap in? And, no, I’m not sure how much it costs, but the thing was shot in a number of different countries and there seems to be an elaborate crane shot every ten minutes. It’s obviously not cheap.

The only other thing I’ve seen Jordanna Brewster in was THE FACULTY, and that’s a case where everyone was playing types more than they were playing characters. Here, she’s given the impossible job of bringing Phoebe to life. As written by Brooks, she’s a blank. She’s the passive observer who wanders through the film, asking questions that set us up for elaborate flashbacks. I’m still not sure what I think of her as an actress, since this is hardly a fair showcase to judge. Chris Eccleston, on the other hand, is someone I’m fed up with. He was great in SHALLOW GRAVE, but everything I’ve seen from him since has been terrible. He’s pretentious and mannered, and he plays "Wolf" in this film, the boyfriend who lured Cameron to Europe, only to lose her to her own wanderlust. He’s the one who helps Phoebe piece together Faith’s journey, and he ends up sleeping with Phoebe. He’s terrible in the role, and it’s a terrible role, a deadly combination. As a leading man, there’s something unnerving about Eccleston. I don’t trust him as a viewer, and I don’t like him. The phony intensity he projects seems to rub off on both Diaz and Brewster to disastrous effect.

I mean, it’s got to be someone else’s fault that Cameron is so awful in this film. She’s proven herself as not just a brave actress in films like BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, but also as a pretty shrewd manager of her own career. She’s alternated big films with smaller ones, taking roles that have forced her to work with actors that have pushed her to be better. I can’t imagine how this monumental misstep occurred, but it’s going to be a footnote in her filmography at best. She’s better than anything about this film, and the biggest drag is knowing that some of the blame for it will fall on her, whether it’s fair or not.

Robie and I staggered out of the theater, rocked by the film, and we went to grab some lunch, check our press mailbox, and walk it off. We had some time before our next film, and we ended up in a lounge at the Yarrow Hotel where we ended up in a fascinating conversation with Reid, the president of Magic Lantern, a PR film that’s representing several of the films here in town this week. He’s a good guy, and his stories about CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON from the past year kept us engaged until it was time to hustle over to the press screening room, where we slipped in just in time for the next film.

The short that opened the program is my favorite one that I’ve seen so far this week, an animated piece called REJECTED. Robie told me later that he actually saw the film at one of the Spike and Mike’s fests at the Sunset 5, and he thought it was the highlight of his evening then, too. I can understand why. It’s a simple premise. An animator was hired by The Family Learning Channel to produce a series of animated bumpers for between shows. All of them were rejected, and the short film collects them. The sense of humor is insane and had me gasping for air. On the other hand, there was stunned silence from some of the other people in the room. I’ll admit, the phrases "I am a banana!" or "My anus is bleeding!" don’t seem funny out of context, but this is a really funny filmmaker, and he pays off every joke beautifully.

I wish I could say the same about Patrick Stettner, the writer and director of THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS. The film he’s made is incomplete, frustrating. It’s magnificently shot by Teo Maniaci, who’s responsible for the hypnotic look of Lodge Kerrigan’s forgotten gem CLEAN, SHAVEN, and my advice to any filmmaker working with limited money who wants a powerful visual style is talk to Maniaci. This guy’s brilliant. He wraps BUSINESS in a sheet of ice that only gradually thaws around each character, his cinematography communicating as much about what we’re watching as anything that was on the page in the script. Stettner’s working with potent material here, too, telling the story of Julie Styron, an upper-level executive at a major corporation. What they do isn’t important. It’s enough to know that we’re talking about big money, big responsibility. Stockard Channing plays Julie with authority, and if for no other reason, the film deserves wider exposure for the work she does. There’s a particular type that Channing nails here, the woman who came of age at a time when women weren’t made management. These women subverted everything in their lives to the idea of success, to the concept of being the equal of any man in business. They’re the ones who paved the way, who made it possible for younger female executives who really are starting to play on even playing fields. From the very opening of the film, there’s a sadness to Channing that’s just heartbreaking, and I’d say this is at least the equal of her work in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION. She’s a phenomenal actress who seems to get a great role to dig into every few years, and even if this film isn’t up to what she’s doing, you should see it for her.

I’m no fan of the work I’ve seen from Julia Stiles so far, but a lot of that is because of the material she’s had to work with. I don’t think anyone would shine in the sort of leads she’s been playing. Part of my problem is that I don’t find her very likeable on film. There’s a coarse, hard quality to her that makes her seem unapproachable. BUSINESS gives her a role that allows her to play that up as Paula Murphy, hired as a temporary AV assistant for a presentation that Julie’s making. When she shows up 45 minutes late, Julie fires her on the spot. The two of them end up at the same airport hotel, though, and Julie tries to make amends. By inviting Paula to sit down, though, she opens herself up to a full night of mind games and power struggles. These are difficult films to pull off, because we as an audience have to believe the shifting dynamics over the course of the piece, and there’s plenty of moments in BUSINESS that are forced, false. The ending, in particular, can be seen coming down Broadway. It’s the worst kind of cop-out, anti-climactic and empty. The film acts like it’s about something, but it’s ultimately just an exercise in dialogue. I’ll give it credit for letting Stiles play deeply unlikable for the first time, and for giving Channing room to play wounded with flair, but it’s not a film I’d see again, nor is it one I would readily recommend to everyone.

Not that I think every film is for everyone, of course. For example, there’s the gangster genre, one I have a particular affinity for. I understand why people’s patience can wear thin with stories of men with guns and their codes of honor. Personally, I love the fact that each culture seems to generate its own particular riffs on the theme. Quentin Tarantino introduced me to the hard-edged madness of the ‘70s era Italian crime films of Fernando Di Leo and his peers. John Woo’s defining Hong Kong work led me back to Melville’s masterwork LE SAMURAI. There’s the American gangster films of the ‘30s, and the reinvention of the genre by artists like Scorsese and Coppola in the ‘70s. For the last several years, Takeshi Kitano has been staking his own claim on the genre as a director, and as an actor in the form of his alter ego Beat Takeshi. FIREWORKS is widely acknowledged as his best work, and other films like VIOLENT COP, BOILING POINT, and SONATINE have all built on his popularity. Now, with BROTHER, he’s made his first gangster film that’s primarily in English, and even if it’s not his best piece of work, it’s a strong film that casts a powerful spell.

When we meet Yamamoto, Takeshi’s character, he’s arriving in America, seemingly without any ability to speak English at all. For the first fifteen minutes or so, it’s impossible to imagine what Yamamoto’s up to as he wanders through Los Angeles. Right away, Takeshi does a great job of capturing an unfamiliar city on film, refusing to romanticize the city at all. As someone who lives in LA, I’m always amazed at how fake it looks on film. Directors and DPs slap on filters and wet down streets and do their best to pretty it up. Not Takeshi. He shoots it exactly as it is. I love the way the story gradually takes shape over the course of the film, and the way Takeshi weaves his tale with a hand that’s alternately gentle and shockingly violent. It’s not a story that breaks any new narrative ground, but this is a case where performance and style both manage to make up for any weakness in what’s being said. Omar Epps plays Denny, one of the men who ends up working for Yamamoto once he sets up a new Los Angeles style Yakuza family. Even though Yamamoto’s real brother Ken (Claude Maki) is part of the gang, it’s Denny who really seems to embrace the particular ethics that fuel Yamamoto as he moves through the world of organized crime in LA. The film has a moving, simple ending that could have been terrible if not for the trust that Takeshi shows in Epps, and if not for the fact that Epps rises to the occasion. It’s the most I’ve liked him on film so far, and this is one that I’m sure many of our readers are going to fall in love with.

After BROTHER, we found ourselves worn out from the first few days in Park City, and Robie and I headed back to the hotel, calling it a night. Good decision in retrospect considering the next day’s activity. More on that to come...

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback
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  • Jan. 25, 2001, 1:54 a.m. CST

    Spooky Title Coincedence

    by Meat Takeshi

    My favourite film of last year had Brother in the title too.

  • Jan. 25, 2001, 6:39 a.m. CST

    Eccleston is a great actor

    by Cafeman

    Anyone who has seen Elisabeth will agree thaat Eccleston is an excellent actor

  • Jan. 25, 2001, 9:06 a.m. CST

    Moriarty come here for your weekly slap....

    by reni

    Mori keep the faith. Chris Eccleston is fucking great actor. Go and watch episodes of Cracker, Hearts and Minds, or even Elizabeth. Don't get fed up with him taking shite Hollywood film roles. He's just taking the money and considering the amount of work he puts in with local youth projects near me, you can't blame him for that. He does plenty of quality work, believe me. Who cares if he's not leading man material. Look at the size of his fucking ears man..!

  • Jan. 25, 2001, 9:06 a.m. CST

    Moriarty come here for your weekly slap....

    by reni

    Mori keep the faith. Chris Eccleston is a fucking great actor. Go and watch episodes of Cracker, Hearts and Minds, or even Elizabeth. Don't get fed up with him taking shite Hollywood film roles. He's just taking the money and considering the amount of work he puts in with local youth projects near me, you can't blame him for that. He does plenty of quality work, believe me. Who cares if he's not leading man material. Look at the size of his fucking ears man..!

  • Jan. 25, 2001, 9:09 a.m. CST

    mouthy manc bastard

    by reni

    Jesus that annoyed me so much I posted it twice... And Takeshi speaking of Spooky Film Titles, my favourite of last year was 'Speared By Zulu Lovers.'

  • Jan. 25, 2001, 9:57 a.m. CST

    cameron diaz was bad in a movie?

    by HeywoodFloyd

    what a fucking surprise. i can't believe so many people have been brainwashed into confusing her looks with her acting ability. she is a horrible actress, she is painful to watch, she reached her peak with the mask, and it's all been downhill since. and don't give me that being john malkovich crap--she wasn't that great in that flick. everyone just misinterpreted the fact that she for once wasn't hot for a good performance. get over it.

  • Jan. 25, 2001, 11:52 a.m. CST

    Business of Strangers

    by All Thumbs

    The little I've heard about this film has interested me, particularly Stockard Channing's performance. I think she is one of those great actresses that usually gets stuck being the shining light in a movie that had potential but is poorly executed ("Where the Heart Is", "Practical Magic" just being two of those). I liked Julia Stiles in "Ten Things..." but I noticed that she seems to be playing a very similar character in her current film (haven't seen her in "Hamlet" yet). So, Moriarty, would you recommend this film solely for Channing's performace and the cinematography, or are you saying stay away? (Although, I would probably see it just the same if I ever get the chance.)

  • Jan. 25, 2001, 12:55 p.m. CST

    I guess Cameron didn't swirl her magical ass...

    by Fatal Discharge

    ...oh wait, that was from Harry's "boner" review of Charlie's Angels. Anyway, I like Cameron. Her bubbly personality shines through in The Mask, There's Something About Mary, and even in dreck like My Best Friend's Wedding. Not many "babes" would choose to look absolutely terrible either in Being John Malkovich while delivering a great performance too. Sounds like a lot of the Sundance films have been disappointments so it's scary to think that we'll be left with only the usual studio crap they inflict on us for most of the year.

  • Jan. 25, 2001, 3:30 p.m. CST

    Eccleston

    by Shrevie

    Is he the lead in Jude? He's not so bad. Hated that movie though. Believe it or not, I saw Save The Last Dance (for free) and along with Hamlet and State and Main, Julia Stiles is proving to be one of the most intelligent and real young actors around. I understand the hardness that's distanced Moriarty from her but it's one of the things I like most about her. It's refreshing to see someone her age with a sense of authority as opposed to the squeaking Barbie dolls the WB network is churning out. I think Stiles is pretty damn good. Too bad Last Dance was such a condescending clap-trap of dated racist cliches and adolescent wallowing. Maybe it's shocking box office'll give her some better scripts. And regarding L.A., I totally agree. I'm from New York but have been in Hollywood a few months (I'm not staying) and am amazed at how ugly it is compared to how it's portrayed on film. If anything, I kind of like it's seediness when seen in an honest, garish light. It's kind of like Andy Warhol threw up. I'd like to see that captured on film. Maybe Scorsese should do a film in L.A.

  • Though I will admit I find Christopher Eccleston a very talented performer, particularly in JUDE, which still stands as *the* definitive adaptation of Hardy on film (for better, or for worse. BTW, I have yet to see THE CLAIM, Winterbottom's take on THE MAYOR OF CASTORBRIDGE.) Onto Mr. Kitano..... loved HANA-BI and VIOLENT COP, but found KIKUJIRO a pretty significant misstep. Had it been an American film, I would've dismissed it faster than you can say DISNEY'S THE KID (which, admittedly, doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but you know what I mean. I hope.) That said, I can't remember the last time I paid to see a film with Omar Epps in it.