face only Oscar could love: Kidman in The Hours.
Had a Few
film critics look back at movies they got wrong—and, in one
case, exactly right
reviewed Jan. 23, 2003
been reviewing cinema for 20 years for money, and have probably
made enough errors in judgment that I should give some of
it back. (But I won’t, of course.) I’d like to think, however,
that my biggest blunders are in the past, and you, dear reader,
can now trust me implicitly.
My first published film review was of John Schlesinger’s Pacific
Heights, which starred Michael Keaton as the tenant from
hell tormenting San Francisco yuppies Melanie Griffith and
Matthew Modine. It’s hard to imagine what Schlesinger was
thinking; who had, even then, sympathy for yuppies? I gave
it a positive review; it’s hard to imagine what I was
thinking. At least it was a short piece, published in a paper
that few remember.
The first review that I thought I was really happy
with, however, was of a 1990 German film titled Das schreckliche
Mädchen, released here in 1991 as The Nasty Girl.
The film was about a precocious young woman who starts digging
into her town’s past, expecting to find brave resistance fighters.
Instead, she finds Nazi collaborators and writes about it,
thus alienating her neighbors and putting herself in danger.
The review was pretty good right up until I misinterpreted
the ending. When this sunk in, I was more than mildly chagrined.
The biggest critical blunder I’ve yet made in print, however,
was a gushing review of Stephen Daldry’s The Hours.
Because, really, the movie sucks.
Hours makes Virginia Woolf, one of the great writers of
the 20th century, seem like a ninny. Nicole Kidman, fake nose
firmly glued on, does her best to invest Woolf with passionate
fury. But the film, with its mechanically complicated structure,
utterly fails to give viewers a hint of why we should be interested
in Woolf. At least I had an inkling of this at the time: “The
mathematical precision, however, seems a bit antithetical
to the spirit of Virginia Woolf. It has little in common with
the brilliant, intuitive flow of her novels. . . .”
I was taken in by this shallow gloss on love and “finding
yourself” thanks to the deft way Daldry handles the multiple-character
storyline. I’m a sucker for this kind of narrative ambition;
I’ve seen Nashville seven or eight times. (Really.)
It’s just that The Hours is only a fancy puzzle, set
in the 1920s, 1950s and 1990s. Each period is vividly brought
to life by a parade of fine actors including Kidman, Meryl
Streep, Ed Harris, Julianne Moore, Jeff Daniels, Miranda Richardson,
John C. Reilly, Stephen Dillane, Claire Danes and Toni Collette.
The problem is that most of these thespians overdo it. And
worse, the central conflict of the whole film can be reduced
to Collette’s one brilliant scene with Moore, which lasts
only a couple of minutes.
Sheesh. When I’m wrong, I’m wrong.
bother: (l, r) Hunter and Anna Paquin in The Piano.
reviewed Nov. 25, 1993
years ago I waxed rhapsodic about Jane Campion’s The Piano,
referring to it as an “astounding . . . reworking of a gothic
romance.” For those who haven’t seen it, Holly Hunter won
the Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Ada, a
mute mail-order bride who, upon arriving in New Zealand, finds
that her grim husband (Sam Neill) won’t do anything to get
her precious piano off the loamy beach where it was rather
be fair, he’s got a point: The near vertical path to their
home is wild and forbidding, and besides, Ada’s going to have
lots of work to do. Baines (Harvey Keitel), a Brit with a
penchant for the Maori lifestyle, strikes a bargain with Ada,
whereby she gets her instrument back, one key at a time, in
exchange for music lessons. The whole thing is supposed to
read like a liberating update on Kate Chopin, and at the time,
newly wed and pre-motherhood, I was swept up in Ada’s sexual
awakening, or maybe I was just hot for the lusty Keitel.
At any rate, as this movie has come up in conversation over
the years, I’ve found that my feelings toward it have taken
a sea turn. The painstaking route that Ada, and director Campion,
took to reach their fulmination could have been avoided had
the husband simply gotten the piano into the house. Problem
solved. Marital crisis averted, and no need for us to see
Keitel, under said piano, poke a finger in the hole of Ada’s
While trumpeting the value of feminist self-realization, The
Piano really just reiterated what most wives have known
and experienced all along: If you want to get something done,
and in a timely manner, do it yourself. My review ended this
way: “Ultimately, her eloquent silence embodies the mysterious
power of The Piano.” Looking back, I’d suggest that
her mute rebellion was self-serving and masochistic.
out with your . . . never mind: (l-r) Morgan and Willis
in Cop Out.
reviewed Feb. 25, 2010
just went south, right away. The whole thing went south.”
Detective James “Jimmy” Monroe (Bruce Willis), explaining
how he and partner Paul Hodges (Tracy Morgan) allowed a suspect
to escape in broad daylight early in Kevin Smith’s Cop
Out. It would also serve as a neat capsule review of the
film, which goes south from its very first scene. The purportedly
funny interrogation sequence that opens the film is rendered
largely unintelligible by Morgan’s, shall we say, untamed
enthusiasm. The picture devolves from there, with clumsily
shot action sequences bracketing stock plot devices and endless,
Thing is, I gave Smith’s film a passing grade back in February.
Based on a screening held at the ungodly hour of 8 AM on a
Sunday, I halfheartedly recommended it for being “efficiently
shot and edited,” citing the “surprisingly comfortable chemistry”
between Willis and Morgan, and ultimately declaring that Cop
Out “avoids living up to its title.” This is not effuse
praise by any stretch of the imagination, but hindsight—indubitably
shaded by the more recent, superior The Other Guys,
but also considering the canon of merely decent buddy-cop
films—would find me wrong on all counts. A second viewing
proved all the things I initially feared to be true but hesitantly
shrugged off at the time.
Out just stinks. None of the characters have any believable
chemistry, certainly not the leads. This complete lack of
a workable relationship, especially considering Smith’s past
work, was the most striking thing the second time around.
Smith practically invented the on-screen “bromance”; all those
Judd Apatow movies are merely finishing what started with
Dante and Randal in Clerks. But Smith brought out the
worst in his stars here: Willis walks through a minimum-effort
performance, and Morgan is just embarrassing. Kevin Pollak
and Adam Brody, this film’s “other guys,” are somehow both
mismatched and miscast. Guillermo Diaz is completely
detached (and also awfully miscast) in his scenes as fearsome
drug kingpin Poh Boy; Seann William Scott even seems tired
of his own sophomoric shtick. They all seem to be, or want
to be, in a different movie.
Despite his best efforts to direct a great film, Smith
has at least made a couple really funny ones along the way.
But Cop Out barely works as either action or comedy—it’s
a script-to- product failure. It’s as if everybody involved
knew how bad it was, but no one had the heart to say anything.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the takeaway:
During a stakeout, Morgan reflects at length, with typical
frothing-at-the-mouth bravado, on his fecal prowess. It’s
not the overtly scatological nature that makes this scene
such a downer; it’s the way in which it’s lobbed out there,
a break in a break in the action. In the context of an already
low-energy sequence, it just sits there like a pile of . .
. well, you know.
I’m not sure what went wrong (or right) that February morning
that put me in a thumbs-sorta-up mood—maybe they were pumping
cannabinoids through the air ducts of the Warner Bros. screening
room. Regardless, I’m sorry if anyone bothered with this film
based on my review. Hey, at least you didn’t have to watch
. . And a Film Management Misjudged
we originally published Ann Morrow’s review of The Matrix,
one of the most influential films of the last 20 years, it
wasn’t the lead review. It wasn’t the second, or even third
review in the section that week. It was number four, dead
last. (Of the other three films reviewed, the only one
you might remember is Ten Things I Hate About You.)
Rereading Ann’s review 11 years later, I am struck by two
things. First, how dead-on she was about the film’s strengths:
“The guessing game ‘what is reality?’ . . . is played with
sinister giddiness, riffing on the 20th century with the hit-or-miss
accuracy of a computer hacker on a Benzedrine bender.” Second,
how prescient she was about what ultimately led to the sequels’
undoing: “. . . by continually changing the rules of its own
reality, The Matrix is playing a game no film can ever
win.” Here’s her take on the film now.
cool: Reeves in The Matrix.
reviewed April 8, 1999
than a decade after its boffo box-office release, The Matrix
looks almost as groundbreakingly stylish and metaphysically
intriguing as it did in 1999. Though the sequels are strained
by filmmaker hubris, the original continues to fulfill many
of the prophecies made about it during its initial theatrical
run, and in some aspects—mostly technical—it has exceeded
them. A year before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
(with which it shares a Buddhist bent and a choreographer,
the then little-known chop-socky artiste Yuen Woo Ping), The
Matrix brought wire-flying action stunts and slow-motion
captures to dizzying new heights of astonishment and precision.
The future arrived almost instantly, as “bullet time,”—the
film’s signature special effect created with wires, blue screens,
hundreds of circling cameras and actors intensely trained
in martial arts—would forever alter perceptions of what action-adventure
movies could look like.
Written and directed by indie upstarts Andy and Larry Wachowski,
who had been scripting it for many years before their breakout
neo-noir debut, Bound, The Matrix synthesized
their obsessive interests in philosophy, comic books, and
cyberpunk, while using Alice in Wonderland and previous
mind-freak sci-fi films (from The Terminator to Strange
Days) as a framework to mythologize contemporaneous fears
about the Internet and an increasingly remote-controlled society.
Or as one film-crew commentator put it, “It’s robots versus
Kung Fu.” It outdid even Dark City and eXistenZ
in its realization of a fully dimensional and forbiddingly
convincing virtual world that requires not just infiltration—an
act of sabotage already achieved by rebel guru Morpheus (Laurence
Fishburne) and his kick-ass acolyte, Trinity (Carrie-Anne
Moss), but also a quasi-spiritual ability to overcome the
immutable laws of a post-apocalyptic cyberspace—the Matrix.
The unlikely hero, “Mr. Anderson” (Keanu Reeves), begins as
an Everyman representative of cubicle angst in the new technological
economy, and finds his true self in the guise of a Zen warrior-hacker
called Neo. Like most of the film’s hugely influential stylistic
touches, the rebels’ edgy black wardrobe and sunglasses indicate
more than an appreciation for Helmut Newton and alternative-club
culture: They also signal shifts in reality, with the cleverest
bit being the use of rotary phones as analog escape routes,
at a time when even technophiles may not have been aware of
the eventual world domination of cellular communication.
Though the film retains its cool with now-iconic images, such
as Trinity (an admirably female version of a lethal weapon)
hovering midair in a crouching-crab position, or Neo bending
over backward in gravity-defying evasion of bullets whizzing
visibly by with time-warping velocity, the film’s most chillingly
memorable scene, in hindsight, may be the one in which Agent
Smith (Hugo Weaving) explains to Morpheus that the Matrix
was designed to replicate human society in the year 1999,
“the peak of your civilization.” A time, we now know, of almost
unrecorded economic expansion and teetering peacefulness that
was not to last. “I say your civilization,” the robot-program
continues, “because as soon as we started thinking for you,
it became our civilization.”