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Respectfully, Yours – Part 3: Six Critics Review the Reviewers

Live and let live, we say. But with a staff as large as filmcritic.com’s, you’ve got to be prepared for some difference in opinion. The missiles went flying over Thirteen Days, and signals were crossed on Mulholland Drive (in fact, this polarized double-header review demanded a rematch). But usually, rather than allow things to get ugly every time one of us wrote a review, we created ‘Respectfully, Yours’ as a way for us to express some punch-drunk outrage over our colleagues’ boneheaded opinions. So there you have it! If this third edition of the feature leaves you wanting more, check out RY #1 and RY#2.


Punch-Drunk Love (original review 2 1/2 stars, by Rachel Gordon)

In a season of movies hiding behind generic titles, the name Punch-Drunk Love perfectly sums up Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant film. Anyone who’s experienced love, especially the ‘punch-drunk’ type, understands the gut-twistingly pure emotions driving this bus. In her original review, fellow film critic Rachel Gordon seeks purpose from a movie that shouldn’t have to provide it. What’s the purpose of falling in love?

Gordon argues that Lena’s (Emily Watson) desire to invest in ‘someone beneath your intellect and maturity’ such as Barry (Adam Sandler) is not established. Why then would Anderson set Barry’s spur-of-the-moment flight to Hawaii to the tune of ‘He Needs Me’? An Altman homage? Well, yes, but it also spells out their relationship with big bold letters. Like Barry, Lena benefits from companionship. She needs to care for someone as much as Barry needs to be cared for. Barry’s honesty and Lena’s yearning combine to form the most heartbreaking, dysfunctional, romantic onscreen connection this year.

If anything, I’ll agree with Gordon that Anderson wisely limited his delicate treat to 97 minutes. Magnolia choked on its own sprawl, and I feared Anderson was taking more cues from Michael Mann than from Altman. But I cannot agree that Watson’s desperate Lena is ‘so normal’ or that Sandler’s emotionally damaged Barry can be written off as a ‘buffoon.’

Certain scenes draw me back to Punch-Drunk again and again. Sandler’s tap-dance in the grocery store (as the always fantastic Luis Guzman loads pudding into a shopping cart) electrified me. Why? Because he’s also singing to himself, ‘I’m coming, Lena. I’m coming.’ His giddiness is contagious. And then, the capper: Barry’s confrontation with sex phone operator Dean (Philip Seymour Hoffman), where he finally draws positive potency from his anger and utters the immortal line, ‘I have so much strength inside of me, you have no idea.’ Behold the sheer power of punch-drunk love. –Sean O’Connell


The Truth About Charlie (original review 1 1/2 stars, by Sean O’Connell)

My poor, dear colleague Sean O’Connell seems to need everything explained to him. He should appreciate that The Truth About Charlie doesn’t spoon feed him the answers to character motivation and provide more obvious clues about where the plot is headed. Why couldn’t he allow the delicious, frenetic storytelling to take over and lead him to fun, amidst the gorgeous European architecture and contagious, flirting chemistry of Leading Lad Mark Wahlberg and Lass Thandie Newton?

Who cares about Tim Robbins’ accent? He’s an agent used to covering up his tracks so why should we be able to pinpoint his origins, especially when his deadpan delivery is so amusing? And what’s wrong with Mark Wahlberg, who has made such a stunning transition from music to acting, being obviously American? Without giving away the ending of this charming adventure, the last ten minutes throw an entirely different point of view on his character without losing an ounce of enjoyment. Not an easy feat.

As for the various visual tricks director Jonathan Demme employs throughout, that this almost-three-decade veteran of the industry is willing to experiment should be respected instead of condemned as a disguise. Though we critics can forget it from time to time, sitting in one screening room after another, movies can be about enjoyment without intellectual excess, and The Truth About Charlie is a shining gem that Demme deserves more credit for. — Rachel Gordon


The Good Girl (original review 1 1/2 stars, by Blake French)

If Blake French had awarded 2 1/2, or perhaps 3, stars to Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl, I’d leave him alone. But to sink this fine, dark comedy/drama to the level of a Rollerball or Slackers is inexcusable. It appears that a big reason French had trouble enjoying the film was because he believes that neither of Justine’s (Jennifer Aniston) life options has a silver lining. Does that mean a protagonist needs a happy ending in sight for audiences to enjoy the story? Seems a little Pollyanna to me.

French also criticizes The Good Girl because its characters ‘sleepwalk from scene to scene, deficient… of any will to live.’ That’s the point! Characters like Justine and Phil (John C. Reilly) live generally dead-end lives. They shuffle quietly and aimlessly through the film, so much so that their twists and turns are by no means heavy in cinematic terms, but mean a lot within their own existences. Does my colleague really believe that Justine is so concerned with having the television set fixed? I believe they call that ‘symbolic’… when the TV is broken, it gives her something to bitch about; when it works, it gives her an opportunity to ignore her husband.

Too often, these ‘life change’ movies focus on middle-aged folks — here, screenwriter Mike White instead offers a 30-year-old (a woman, no less) at a crossroads. The acting is solid, the tone is consistent, and the narrative is slightly offbeat. And Jennifer Aniston is more than capable of handling a role like Justine. –Norm Schrager


Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones (original review 3 1/2 stars, by Christopher Null)

Though I respect my esteemed colleague and editor-in-chief’s work, I don’t quite know what to think about his review of Episode II. He points out that the movie features a convoluted story, a sappy romantic plot, a whiny performance by Hayden Christensen and a not entirely justifiable running time.

I’m absolutely on board with Chris on what’s wrong with the movie, but I don’t see how that translates into such a respectable rating. Maybe it has something to do with Lucas’ influence on pop culture. A whole generation (including directors, writers, and film critics) has been weaned on Star Wars; we’ve played with the action figures, pretended we were battling Darth Vader. Lucas opened our imaginations and changed what a blockbuster offers. [Pete, I am your father. -Ed.]

But it’s time to p
ut away the notions of Lucas being a cinematic savior, hooking us up to our long-lost past. The last two movies in the Star Wars trilogy have been so boring, so full of lifeless performances that I’m finding myself dreading the release of another Star Wars movie. Lucas’ skills as a technical marvel and storyteller are unquestioned. But as a director and writer of dialogue, it’s a whole different ballgame. When you can make both Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor boring in the same movie, then it’s time to let step aside. When the most thrilling moment (in Episode II‘s case, the kick-ass Yoda light-saber scene) comes some two hours into the movie, maybe some help is needed.

It’s time to stop molly-coddling the legends, so let’s skip the mass exodus to the multiplex in 2005. – Pete Croatto


Femme Fatale (original review 1 1/2 stars, by Aaron Lazenby)

‘The only thing worse than a bad movie is a bad movie that takes itself seriously.’ So exclaims my colleague Aaron Lazenby in his contemptuous, off-the-cuff assessment of Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale. (This coming from a movie where the heroine says, ‘You don’t have to lick my ass; just fuck me.’ Judging from Lazenby’s review, he was the guy who got screwed.) I think he’s confusing bad movies with B-movies, which are able to incorporate elements of the radical within the trappings of genre.

From the opening image of a half-naked, glazy-eyed Rebecca Romijn-Stamos reflected on her television screen during a subtitled Double Indemnity, followed by a jewel robbery sequence set against the model runway version of red carpet Cannes (during a screening of East/West), De Palma provides an actively engaging reflection of sexuality within the artificial meta-world of movie watching, movie spectacle, and movie mystique. By taking this extended prologue seriously, it’s to say we take motion pictures seriously. De Palma artfully combines satire, sex, and the thrill of motion pictures. In a movie told largely without dialogue, he’s counting on an emotional response to the sheer power of images.

If we can’t appreciate that, we’re better off not going to the movies at all. What Lazenby took as an insult to his intelligence is really just a way of him not wanting to engage with De Palma’s audio-visual complexity — his choice of music, a seductive and sinuous orchestral theme, helps to arouse the senses and shake off the cobwebs of passive movie gazing. That’s the launching point for Femme Fatale‘s immoral bad girl Laure Ash (Romijn-Stamos) going through the crime movie motions of duplicity, betrayal, and rotten-to-the-core manipulations.

But De Palma is ever mindful of what crime movies have become: immorality as the last refuge of hipster slang (see any number of Tarantino knock offs to see how far we’ve degenerated). He allows for some directorial intervention at the end of Laure’s journey through cheap sex, identity-shifting charades with a patsy/victim paparazzi photographer (Antonio Banderas), and revenge killings. Lazenby cites De Palma’s radical shift as ‘one of the most terrible and artificial narrative devices in the history of storytelling,’ where Laure’s plunge into her darkest depths is interrupted by a mystical time-shift.

Submerged in water, naked, and defenseless, Laure goes through what can only be described as a metaphysical cleansing and a second chance. So does Femme Fatale, just when we presuppose that De Palma has mired us in cynicism and the dead-end trappings of the crime genre. He’s saying something needs to change in the way we look at these stories, even if that means a reminder that It’s a Wonderful Life. The artifice of this narrative (and visceral) device should cause us to question our expectations; to realize that screen violence is often a failure of the imagination. Femme Fatale takes a shift into the fantastic rather than the fatalistic. He’s opening the door to possibilities Lazenby seems to resent; that’s the price you pay for not opening your mind as well. — Jeremiah Kipp


Life or Something Like It (original review 3 1/2 stars, by Sean O’Connell)

I used to be like Sean O’Connell. I liked Mr. Holland’s Opus. I got caught up in the schmaltz and the blubbering weepiness (and I was in love with Alicia Witt, so that didn’t hurt).

But then I grew up. 101 Dalmatians: Crap. Holy Man: Crap. Rock Star: Better, but still crap. Life or Something Like It has director Stephen Herek, the director responsible for all of this garbage, once again trying to redeem himself while still falling on his face. (The biggest insult is that Herek and I share an alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin.)

Life has Herek trying to get us to sympathize with the least sympathetic actress this side of Courtney Love. Angelina Jolie’s hair-teased, bleach-blondified newscaster is pretty shallow to start with, and that’s Herek’s point. She’ll change her ways when a street prophet foretells her death in a week’s time, right? If getting drunk, listening to loud music, sleeping around, and tossing her objectivity aside as she joins a band of striking transit workers is what passes for character development and personal growth these days, then Jolie’s got karma coming at her in spades.

My biggest problem with Sean O’Connell’s 3 1/2 star review is not that he bought into the ridiculous story line (Jolie faces certain death while still trying to land a job at the network… huh?) but that he buys Jolie in this role. O’Connell believes she is performing ‘without the baggage of being ‘Angelina”, but Life is Angelina being Angelina being Angelina. Her performance is so hollow and full of movie star conceitedness that it’s hard to buy her as human being, much less a journalist.

That said, bleaching Jolie’s hair of all its color is the perfect allegory for what has happened to her personality since she burst on the scene in Foxfire. Now she’s a brash ‘star’ with a gossip-rag private life (Billy Bob; blood-around-neck), frightening family obligations (adopted Cambodian child; loves brother too intensely; won’t speak to dad Jon Voight), and she even has an undeserved Academy Award.

Well, she’s officially all Hollywood, or something like it. –Christopher Null

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