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Respectfully, Yours – Part 4 : Seven Second Opinions from 2002

Regular readers should know the drill by now: While we get plenty of letters from readers who disagree with our assessments, in the end they are only one person’s opinion from a staff of 20. Every few months we open the doors for colleagues to take a few potshots at what they believe to be the most heinously wrong-headed reviews of the year. It’s the only time we cease to bite our tongues and let each other have it. So if you found yourself disagreeing with Rachel Gordon’s panning of About Schmidt (yes, we got your mail!), or you just think Sean O’Connell went berzerk in December (try decaf, Sean), then look no further.

For more fun, check out RY #1, RY#2, and RY#3.

Chicago (original review 4 stars, by Sean O’Connell)

Gaga critics (and Sean O’Connell is no exception) have proclaimed that Rob Marshall has ‘reinvented the musical’ with his filmed version of Chicago, in his directorial debut no less. And that’s true, if turning the musical into a nauseating mess counts as ‘reinventing’ it.

Marshall is so far out of his element here that it’s absolutely laughable. Marshall obviously saw the masterful Moulin Rouge and said, ‘Hey, I can make one of those!’ then took his beloved play and tried to film it. This alone is bad enough, but any semblance of entertainment value got thrown out when Marshall and his goons got loose in the editing room. Like a child with a new toy, Marshall chopped anything good in Chicago all to hell. One need look no further than the final musical number, wherein starlets Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger prance around, presumably showing off their biggest and baddest moves — after all, it’s the last number of the show. But no, Marshall can’t let the dance moves speak for themselves. He has to punctuate each beat with a new cut, jumping from long shot to close-up and back again. It’s a TV commercial, only louder and with less of a point, because you’ve already paid your money. Sorry Rob, it takes a lot more than super-fast cutting to make a masterpiece. I left with a headache.

The result? I have no idea if Zellweger and Zeta-Jones are good dancers, because you never see them dance. You think you do, but what you actually see is a bunch of 1/8th-second clips of them dancing, strung together from countless takes, rapid-fire. (The fact that the entire film is under-lighted and often out of focus is beside the point.) It’s a blur of motion that hides any flaws their might be under a veil of insane action.

Too bad it’s not a Van Damme movie.

Speaking of Van Damme, he might have been a better choice for Richard Gere’s part. Gere can’t sing and he can barely dance. His presence is baffling, as he tries terribly hard but looks like he ought to be using a walker. Oh, and have someone dub his singing. I hear Jean-Claude is available. –Christopher Null

25th Hour (original review 4 1/2 stars, by Amit Asaravala)

Spike Lee doesn’t deserve a pass because his latest joint addresses New York, post-Sept. 11. If anything, the longtime New Yorker should be placed under a microscope when confronting the hurt inflicted on his home city. It might have prevented him from producing this uneven, heavy-handed, preachy, and ultimately hollow misfire that inflicts more damage than homage.

Fellow film critic Amit Asaravala seems quick to praise the opinionated filmmaker for tackling the bruised Big Apple. And Amit’s correct. Hour does come to life whenever Lee confronts the anger and uncertainty New Yorkers currently feel. But why Spike didn’t fully commit to making that picture is beyond me. Instead, he shoehorns snippets of emotionally honest monologues into a conventional drama that was penned long before 9/11 and could’ve taken place just about anywhere outside of Manhattan’s city limits. And even then, he’s only borrowing from his previous incendiary works (see Do the Right Thing).

What Asaravala calls perfect casting I like to call lazy. Watching Hoffman play yet another loser who’s uncomfortable in his own skin isn’t revolutionary, it’s recycled. Even Ed Norton’s ‘pretty but tough’ persona seems borrowed. These half-baked caricatures are only made worse by David Benioff’s atrocious and inane dialogue, which Amit praises. I found almost every line to be excruciatingly artificial, and they’re delivered by actors who possess the chemistry of perfect strangers.

Ironically, it’s in the film’s own 25th hour that Lee finally ventures completely down the drain. Since Lee failed to establish a plot throughout Hour, it makes sense that he’d need a gimmicky ending for a bail out, and the ‘Last Temptation of Monty’ sequence is laughably false. Hour is Lee’s knee jerk reaction to the attack on his fair city. The odes to New York are distinctly Lee, the work of a violated artist expressing his emotions the only way he sees fit. The rest couldn’t have been more generic if it tried. –Sean O’Connell

About Schmidt (original review 2 1/2 stars, by Rachel Gordon)

I enjoyed Rachel Gordon’s review of Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, and feel that she got most of it right: the film is not the five-star masterpiece the rest of the country seems to believe it is; yes, it is a showpiece for Jack Nicholson; yes, it offers some exploration of the dimmer side of coping.

But About Schmidt is not deserving of Gordon’s negative smack. First, from my view, it’s apparent that Jack lives up to the Best Actor hype in this one. The man is an overconfident, cinematic icon, yet the character he plays has nary a moment of pride in the entire film. While actors are supposed to play the fools and wallow in shameless humility, it’s still impressive that an actor of Jack’s stature still chooses to do it and do it so well. Gordon shouldn’t blame Nicholson for Payne’s choice to highlight Jack and only Jack.

Secondly, I strongly disagree that Warren Schmidt’s ongoing voiceover is, as Gordon calls it, ‘lazy storytelling.’ As the film is a solo journey, Schmidt’s analyses of where he’s been and what he’s doing provide deeper understanding and humor — and when Schmidt finally arrives at his in-laws-to-be, making more constant contact with other folks, Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor nearly eliminate Warren’s voiceover. Not to mention the creative ‘Dear Ndugu’ framework within which the monologues work. Sure beats talking directly to the audience.

Gordon’s most telling statement is that she finds Schmidt’s weakness in falling for the ‘sponsor a child’ commercials ‘sadly pathetic’. While she sees this as a negative, I think it’s an on-the-mark positive — Warren Schmidt is sadly pathetic. The charm is in watching him discover that. –Norm Schrager

The Hours (original review 3 stars, by Sean O’Connell)

It is time for me yet again to pick on Sean O’Connell, to spar our tastes once more. Last time it was refuting his ill treatment of the superb The Truth About Charlie, and this time he missed the boat on the stomach-wrenching The Hours. Sometimes it’s strange to consider we work for the same chief, but that’s the beauty of, our variety of opinion.

While my worthy colleague gracefully admits to the fine acting of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman, he neglects to appreciate the basic thematic functions that make The Hours such a powerful experience. He brushes their character dilemmas aside as mere dysfunctional trifles, almost stereotypical snores. He fails to hear in the dialogue the poignancy of a stunningly compelling mingling of intellectual and emotional forces battling in each of the women as they discover the prisons inherent in being a woman, along with the glass ceilings they put into place without any assistance.

I would blame it on his gender, but I know too many men who have been blown away by The Hours to be sexist about his reaction. So I simply shrug at the lack of common sense, like I had to when he professed his love for Punch-Drunk Love. –Rachel Gordon

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (original review 3 1/2 stars, by Christopher Null)

When the Online Film Critics Society voted The Two Towers best picture over so many better film achievements released during 2003, I had to vent my anger at something. Unfortunately for my boss, he is a suitable target, even though he has undoubtedly received countless hate mails for his review of the film already.

I give Null credit for clearly addressing the film’s obvious flaws; too bad he didn’t address them strongly enough. I agree about the bad special effects; I consent to the lack of a beginning and end; I too think the movie is far too long and has become a product of expectation. However, despite his complaints, Null is looking forward to the next Lord of the Rings. Why?

Beyond a lengthy battle sequence, there isn’t nearly enough to justify 90 minutes, let along three painful hours of yapping. True, I am LOTR illiterate; I don’t know an ent from those little black bugs. However, a movie must uphold its medium, despite the inspiration. Jackson is making a movie, not a visualization of the books, and that’s his problem. These aren’t movies that stand alone – they are pages from the books, and he just can’t translate that much fiction into any amount of movie. Doesn’t anybody else see that?

Although I am counterstriking his opinion, Null should thank me. Now I will be the one to receive all the hate mail. –Blake French

Y Tu Mamá También (Original review 4 1/2 stars, by Norm Schrager)

In his description of Y Tu Mamá También as the best movie of 2002, Norm calls it ‘a buoyant combination of ferocious honesty and teenage boy fantasy.’ I’d say it’s a boring combination of tired cinematic tricks and shock tactics employed to obscure a flimsy story and a rather bland collection of characters.

My dislike of the movie does not stem from moral outrage over the film’s explicit sexual content (more on that later). In Norm’s beloved road-trip romp, sex is thrown about like a soapy mop on a filthy floor. Twenty minutes into the movie, we’ve already seen our film’s heroes have sex with their teenage girlfriends, masturbate, play around in the shower, and urinate. And there are more envelopes that have to be pushed (even more urinating, backseat sex, the almost uncomfortable presence of man panties, a threesome).

Director Alfonso Cuarón is so hell-bent on shocking the audience, that by the halfway point he uses up all of his tricks. When the sex becomes meaningful to the plot it’s a case of the boy who cried wolf. Who cares now, especially when there’s absolutely nothing interesting about these characters by themselves? Instead, sex is used to make the three leads worthy of our attention. They’re the polar opposites of Dylan Baker’s pedophile dad in Happiness, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s emotionally deprived Secretary, or the cast of Boogie Nights (a favorite of Norm’s and myself). In those cases, sex was used to illustrate human flaws. The most powerful scene in Boogie Nights is porn star Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) crying outside of a courthouse after losing custody of her son. Her hedonistic lifestyle comes with a price and she’s just beginning to pay it.

In case you’re wondering, she’s fully dressed in the scene.

Such emotional development doesn’t pop up often in Y Tu Mamá También, despite the feedback from the objective narrator, which comes across as gimmicky. Run Lola Run and Amelie, two other critical favorites from abroad, used it with more creativity. You felt in those movies, like the narrator could look into the characters’ souls. In Y Tu Mamá También that voice is used as a storytelling crutch (especially in the finale) or as a way to go into detail on characters that appear once and then vanish from relevance.

It’s that kind of overtly phony, maverick Tarantino/Solondz cool that makes Y Tu Mamá También the most overrated movie of 2002. –Pete Croatto

Antwone Fisher (original review 4 stars, by Sean O’Connell)

It only seems noble, until you realize that Antwone Fisher is a martyr’s grandiose testament — a portrait of suffering and redemption for its own sake. Wipe away the larger purpose of societal awakening employed by Charles Dickens and you’ve got Antwone Fisher (and the current adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, too, come to think of it!) Written by Antwone Fisher, the story follows an angry young man named Antwone Fisher who learns to love, accept, respect, and control Antwone Fisher.

In addition, Antwone Fisher turns his back on the mean spirited black women (looking for all the world like they stepped out of the satire-world of In Living Color into the supposed naturalism of Antwone Fisher) who abused him as a youth and called him ‘nigger.’ Antwone Fisher’s retribution: screaming in their faces, ‘I’m still standing! I’m still strong!’ and fleeing the scene as quickly as possible. This is the worst example of putting a band-aid solution over human conflict since Good Will Hunting‘s pep talk mantra of ‘It’s not your fault.’

This emasculated directorial debut from Denzel Washington shows no finesse or style. He even casts himself as the emasculated black man who learns important life lessons from — you guessed it –Antwone Fisher. Denzel’s psychiatrist practically gets down on his knees before our hero, Antwone Fisher, and kisses his feet. My colleague Sean O’Connell attests that this path to redemption is ‘slow, painful, inspirational, and satisfying f
or Fisher as well as the audience.’ I wholly agree with the first two points.

Recently, I claimed that The Hours’ set feminism, and probably several gay movements, back about 572 years (the death of martyrdom icon Joan of Arc). Should that ode to tedium and Antwone Fisher be praised for their own self-aggrandizement? It arouses shallow pity without consequence. ‘Would you take advice on how to drive a car from someone who has never gripped a steering wheel?’ O’Connell asks, speaking of the doctor-patient relationship between Denzel Washington and Derek Luke (as a jaw-jutting Antwone Fisher). It begs another question: Would you take life lessons from Hollywood, which has grown increasingly removed from anything emotionally accessible? — Jeremiah Kipp

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