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A face only Oscar could love: Kidman in The Hours.

Regrets,We’ve Had a Few

Metroland’s film critics look back at movies they got wrong—and, in one case, exactly right

The Hours

Originally reviewed Jan. 23, 2003

I’ve 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.

The 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.

—Shawn Stone


Oh, bother: (l, r) Hunter and Anna Paquin in The Piano.

The Piano

Originally reviewed Nov. 25, 1993

Seventeen 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 unceremoniously dumped.

To 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 stocking.

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.

—Laura Leon

Rock out with your . . . never mind: (l-r) Morgan and Willis in Cop Out.

Cop Out

Originally reviewed Feb. 25, 2010

“It just went south, right away. The whole thing went south.”

That’s 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, formless jabbering.

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 filmswould 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.

Cop 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 it twice.

—John Brodeur

. . . And a Film Management Misjudged

When 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.



Still cool: Reeves in The Matrix.

The Matrix

Originally reviewed April 8, 1999

More 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.”

—Ann Morrow

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