this be love? (l-r) Delpy and Hawke in Before Sunset.
& Jesse Go Boating
by Richard Linklater
Screen romance has been more or less dead for 40 years. I
wish this were an overstatement, but with a handful of exceptions,
it’s true. When was the last time you saw a film in which
the lovers aren’t uncomfortably wedged between bullets, disease
and death, or packaged by some smarty-pants Brit as part of
an elaborate, “clever” plot involving a dozen annoying characters?
If you were lucky, it was 1995 and the film was Before
Sunrise. Director Richard Linklater’s refreshingly simple
romance followed an American, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a Frenchwoman,
Celine (Julie Delpy), as they wandered the streets of Vienna
for a day and night. They met by chance on a train, and spent
their time talking—about art, philosophy, relationships and,
most pertinently, who they were and who they wanted to become.
Among other things, Before Sunrise was about love’s
seemingly endless possibilities; after all, what’s more hopeful
than two fresh-faced strangers on holiday who, with implausible
plausibility, meet and fall in love over 24 hours?
Linklater’s follow-up, Before Sunset, finds Jesse and
Celine nine-years older and a little bit wiser. They were
supposed to meet again six months after that one magical day
and night; guess what happened. They meet again in Paris,
where Celine lives and where Jesse is hustling the bestseller
he wrote based on their brief encounter. They have an hour
together before Jesse has to catch his flight back to New
The leisurely pace of the first film is gone, as Before
Sunset is presented in more-or-less real time. The two
lovers must say everything they need to say in an very short
period of time; the speed with which they transition from
bullshit small-talk about their lives to baring their souls
is almost comic. (The film is a taut 80 minutes long, which
is another blessing for which to be grateful.) With cinematic
elegance, Linklater dramatizes their plight by having the
two constantly in motion. They’re either walking and talking
or riding a tourist boat down the Seine, as time ticks relentlessly
Delpy and Hawke collaborated with the director on the screenplay,
and incorporated some of themselves into the characters. Like
Delpy, Celine is a singer-songwriter (and a pretty good one,
too); like Hawke, Jesse’s marriage is falling apart. It’s
actually kind of frightening how on-the-edge Jesse’s character
is. Hawke has always played anxious, eager-to-please characters
(Training Day being the best example), but Jesse seems
to be falling apart. It’s an emotionally raw performance.
Delpy’s work is more nuanced; when the full fury of her frustration
emerges, it’s with shocking force.
Still, the movie isn’t Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
It’s a romance, even if the romance is shaded with the desperation
of approaching middle age. Watching the lovers prolong every
moment, every final goodbye before he has to catch that flight
has a sweet poignancy.
And the ending? No spoilers here. Let’s just say it’s sexy,
witty and enormously charming. Frankly, the movies could stand
a little charm right now.
of the Nerds
by Jared Hess
Maybe it’s the sign-language interpretation of “Total Eclipse
of the Heart,” performed by dead-earnest girls in spangled
costumes as part of one girl’s campaign for class president.
Or seeing a wizened grandmother taking a header off her dirt
bike. Or hearing a teen’s response to that typical question,
how was your day? “Worst day of my life! Whaddya think?” Take
your pick, the movie Napoleon Dynamite is chock full
of priceless, deadpan moments that have you howling, even
while you’re rooting for its unlikely title protagonist.
Napoleon (Jon Heder) is a geek: a gangly, frizzy-haired fellow
whose routine hazing by school jocks merely serves to strengthen
and enhance his weird individuality. This is a guy who, with
a straight face, can tell people that he spent the summer
hunting wild boar in Alaska, or that his girlfriend (one of
those pictures that accompany a newly purchased frame) would
have accompanied him to the school dance, had she not gotten
an important modeling assignment. Napoleon lives with his
much older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), a Bermuda- shorted dweeb
whose reason for living seems to be to search online chat
rooms for his soulmate. When Granny (Sandy Martin) takes the
aforementioned spill, Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to baby-sit,
much to Napoleon’s disgust. Whereas Rico, who lives in the
glorious past of his high-school football career and only
enters the present to sell Tupperware and herbal breast enhancers
door-to-door, Napoleon looks to the future, specifically,
the upcoming school dance and the election for class president.
As for the former, he secretly favors Deb (Tina Majorino),
a shutterbug who sells “glamour shots” and fluorescent key
chains to pay for college. Regarding the latter, he personally
manages the unlikely candidacy of Mexican immigrant Pedro
(Efren Ramirez), whose idealism is represented by his impossibly
luxe date hopefuls—e.g., golden girl Summer Wheatley
As written by director Jared Hess and his wife Jerusha, Napoleon
Dynamite doesn’t so much have a straightforward plot as
deliver a series of whimsical episodes highlighting the life
of a complete nerd. Some work beautifully, as when Napoleon
wreaks his revenge on Rico, or when Kip finds true love, amazingly,
in the person of his online sweetie LaFawnduh (Shondrella
Avery), a towering black goddess. Others are less successful,
like Rico’s purchase of a time machine, or Napoleon’s one-day
job at a chicken factory. Throughout, however, Hess underlines
everything with an earnest deadpan approach that is heady
in and of itself. The movie’s climax, in which Napoleon breakdances
in front of the school, is glorious, at once terribly funny
and incredibly life-affirming.
is refreshingly iconoclastic. The difference between this
and so many other movies depicting such a character is that
the Hesses have an obvious soft spot for Napoleon, who is
masterfully played by newcomer Heder. This is a guy who doesn’t
ultimately become “cool,” but one who maintains his individuality
and wins the day, sort of.
can trust me: one of the title characters in I, Robot.
I Only Had a Brain
by Alex Proyas
It’s set in the year 2035 but I, Robot has nothing
to say that hasn’t been pondered in dozens of last-century
sci-fi movies. “Inspired by” Isaac Asimov’s 1950 collection
of robot stories, the film uses the author’s “three laws of
robotics” (robots shall not harm humans, etc.) as the basis
for an exploration of technological dependence that is superficially
clever and ultimately meaningless, winding down with an ambivalent
ending that dumps Asimov’s ongoing question in the audience’s
lap: Robots as menace, or robots as helpful, coexisting species?
For Del Spooner (Will Smith), a Chicago detective and raging
robophobe, there is no question. When Del is called to the
scene of a suicide, that of the brilliant robotics pioneer
Dr. Lanning (James Cromwell), he immediately deduces that
Lanning was murdered by a rogue bot. The idea of a robot being
capable of homicide is viewed as crackpot paranoia by everyone
from Del’s cynical superior (Chi McBride) to the CEO of the
robotics firm USR (Bruce Greenwood), who is preparing the
largest robot distribution in history. Undeterred, the wise-ass
cop enlists the assistance of USR’s beautiful, brainy, and
emotionally sterile Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynahan, even blander
than she was in The Recruit). Together, they are put
through the clichéd paces of a creaky police drama, punctuated
by Del’s obnoxious chops-busting.
Far more intriguing than the plot is the look of I, Robot.
Director Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City) has
a tendency to throw in the philosophical kitchen sink, but
he sure can art direct (he’s also a talented visual plagiarist).
It’s what’s going on around the characters that informs and
entertains, as when Del’s granny gets herself a robot domestic
who slices and dices at many times the speed of a food processor.
And this Chicago of the near future is completely convincing:
The Sears tower is dwarfed by larger skyscrapers while Lake
Michigan has been filled in with a massive robot factory.
And that’s a problem. USR’s new NS5 robot is so advanced,
it replicates without human supervision. Add to the possibility
of a robot revolution the knowledge that the CEO, whose ubiquitous
bots are plugged into a central USR mainframe, is in a position
of potentially ultimate power. Meanwhile the rebelliously
low-tech Del, who still “drives by hand” and wears 2004 Converse
All Stars (in one of several prominent product placements),
delves deeper into the notion of an independently evolving
artificial intelligence. Since Smith, who is beefed up to
astonishing proportions, plays Del as all attitude and no
character, there isn’t a driving personality behind the film’s
hodgepodge of sci-fi quandaries.
The solution, as it usually is in a summertime Will Smith
blockbuster, is newer, better, faster action sequences, and
the film does contain a few doozies, notably a prison-yard-style
brawl between the new robots and their outdated predecessors.
The neatest gimmick is “Sonny,” Lanning’s secret prototype.
Sonny is programmed with emotions, learning abilities, even
the capability to dream, and he is just as fond as A.I.’s
little boy ’droid of proclaiming his uniqueness. He’s no more
unique than the mechanical servants of times past, from Hal
to Ash to Rachael to A.I.’s David, but he certainly
looks a whole lot cooler. And looking cool, it seems, is the
film’s overriding directive.
Love the ’70s
The Legend of Ron
by Adam McKay
Too often in movies, comedians take a funny, one-note character,
and let him or her run amok in a way that gets boring long
before the first-hour’s eclipse. Former Saturday Night
Live top guy Will Ferrell has been a bit luckier, in part
because he seems more capable at drawing out the comic possibilities
not just of a sight gag or character trait, but integrating
them a bit more thoroughly into something bigger. Case in
point, of course, is the sweetly goofy Elf, but so,
too, the riotous, if sophomoric and oh-so-politically-incorrect,
Old School. This ability puts Ferrell, and writer/director
Adam McKay, in very good stead in Anchorman: The Legend
of Ron Burgundy.
Set in 1970s San Diego, at a time when a “lady news anchor”
was more a punch line than a reality, Anchorman narrowly
avoids the obvious comparisons to the Mary Tyler Moore
Show and, in particular, the character Ted Baxter. Burgundy
(Ferrell) is top dog at Channel 4, and with his news team
compadres—slick Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), cowboy Champ Kind
(David Koechner) and semi-retarded weatherman Brick (Steve
Carell)—they ride their wave of incredible popularity, winning
Emmys, ratings and countless babes at midnight pool parties
where the scotch flows free. Everything changes, of course,
when Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) is hired
to provide the diversity that the suits in New York say is
what audiences are coming to expect. Burgundy’s gang is aghast,
and seeks to embarrass, humiliate and, failing that, date
Veronica, but Ron himself is attracted to her. Only after
they’ve become an item does he tell her that he thought she
was joking when she said she wanted to become the first female
anchor. By then, however, their romance has hit the skids,
as Veronica proves she’s more than somebody to cover the latest
kitten fashion show. As her star ascends, Ron’s implodes.
Granted, about half way through the movie, the plot just sort
of stops, to the extent that we know what’s going to happen:
True love conquers all, happiness beats ratings, but happiness
plus ratings is better! The jokes about Ron’s egomania get
a little less funny and, at times, Ferrell seems to misplace
Ron’s peculiar TV-land intonations. Still, there are many
moments worth relishing, none better than the West Side
Story-type rumble, featuring weaponry as diverse as switchblades,
grenades and tridents, between the Channel 4 news team and
their would-be competitors, including a Spanish language channel
lead by Ben Stiller and a corduroy-wearing bunch from public
television. Later, reviewing the carnage, Ron and the guys
agree that things got a little out of hand pretty darn quick.
In a movie chockfull of celebrity cameos, Vince Vaughn, as
Ron’s number two rival, stands out; this is an actor who has
perfected playing the little bastards of society, and here
is no exception. Applegate ably goes toe to toe with Ferrell,
even if much of the time she has to play the sophisticate
to a bunch of hormonally charged yahoos. And Fred Willard
(oh, where, oh, where is Fernwood tonight?), as the station
manager, watches over it all with a bemused, been there, done