Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, and Patricia Clarkson
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Todd Haynes
Distributor: USA Films (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, brief violence and language

As the Oscar race heats up, expect great things from FAR FROM HEAVEN, Todd Haynes' spectacular journey into sex, race, and America. Set in the 1950's and created as a loving homage to the melodramatic films of Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows), the film feels both timely and relevant in our (supposedly) advanced era. A superbly written story of a Connecticut housewife's emotional struggles to keep social standing and personal connection, FAR FROM HEAVEN is a minor miracle - exquisitely executed in almost every artistic and technical detail.

First on the honor list is Julianne Moore, whose portrayal of Cathy Whitaker has already won kudos at the Venice Film Festival. If there is a more expressive actress working today, I'd be hard pressed to name her; watching Moore effortlessly balance the precarious threads of Haynes' narrative, one can't help but be awed by her abundant talent. As her family begins to self-destruct, Moore vulnerable, passionate, decorous, and tormented, sometime all simultaneously. It can only be described as a riveting performance.

FAR FROM HEAVEN is not a solo tour-de-force, though. Moore is ably assisted by a trio of actors who contribute exceptional performances. Dennis Quaid, as Cathy's conflicted husband Frank, turns in the best work of his career, clearly relishing the complexities and contradictions in the couple's conflict. As their gardener, Dennis Haysbert exudes charm and warmth, while Patricia Clarkson, as Cathy's best friend Eleanor, plays deliciously against stereotype with unexpected rewards.

Haynes' recreation of Sirk and the period is flawless, even as he beguilingly plays with the conventions of the genre. Credit his design team for the assist, with impeccable art direction. Edward Lachman's cinematography is revitalized by the color scheme and camera work of the 50's, which (with any luck) will win him his first, long-deserved Oscar. I'll also pull for composer Elmer Bernstein and his dreamy, evocative score to win his first Oscar in thirty-five years.

It's a brave film for Haynes to make, in some ways...thematically uncommercial, fervently anachronistic, emotionally challenging, and a fitful journey. But these elements gel beautifully, and are responsible for the film's wealth of cinematic riches. Reward yourself.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Starring: Roger Moore, George W. Bush, Dick Clark, and Charlton Heston
Director: Roger Moore
Writer: Roger Moore
Distributor: MGM (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: R for some violent images and language

From the opening moments of the new documentary BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE - in which he opens an account at North Fork Bank to receive the complimentary rifle they offer - you know that you're visiting Michael Moore's America. Moore, famous to millions for his films and his television show TV Nation, is America's zhlubby political troubador, and his talent (if you will) is seeing our country in its most unsettling contexts, a land at once hilarious and terrifying, confusing and confused. It is where Moore flourishes.

BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE is Moore's exploration of gun control, American insularity, and the commercialization of fear; it is also his strongest work since Roger and Me. The closing scenes, in which Moore interviews NRA President Charlton Heston, is not the incendiary finale one might expect; instead, it is a sad, smoldering moment that lingers indelibly in the memory.

To be sure, Moore's cinematic flaws are still apparent: self-aggrandizing and self-congratulatory, Moore sometimes seems more interested in himself than in the issues. At times the narrative meanders, and his political points alternate between piercingly salient and questionably dubious. But BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE's strength isn't in its details, but in the larger picture it paints - of a culture in conflict with itself, with the thin veneer of nationalism that covers our deepest, media-soaked fears. It is the perfect antidote to these war-happy times, a piercing interrogation of America and its contradictory nationalistic impulses regarding fear and freedom.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi and Remo Girone
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Distributor: Miramax (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: R for a scene of sexuality

The final screenplay of noted film director Krysztof Kieslowski (Red/White/Blue, The Decameron), HEAVEN was planned to be the first film of a new trilogy by the master. After his untimely death in 1996, the screenplay made its way into the hands of German director Tom Tykwer, who made an enormous splash in 1998 with Run Lola Run. The marriage of the two directors, from different times and with such different styles, is likely to disappoint devotees of either one. But for those with a taste for imagination, HEAVEN is a fascinating combination on screen.

Led by the superb Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) in what may be her best screen performance to date, Kieslowski's screenplay details one woman's arrest for bombing an office building. Intended to kill only her dead husband's drug dealer, she inadvertantly murders four innocent people. HEAVEN emerges as a penitent, thoughtful meditation on guilt, revenge, sacrifice, and redemption, both for Blanchett and the young officer who falls in love with her, played with startling nuance by Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan).

The screenplay is dynamic, with characters more alive and developed than any movie released this year; if only every film could have this much depth. (Sigh.) Tykwer's assured and thoughful direction rachets up the colors and mood, but he is smart enough to foreground the film's quiet poignancy. (HEAVEN is much more akin to Tykwer's meditative drama The Princess and the Warrior than the frenetic Run Lola Run.)

-- Gabriel Shanks

Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Luis Guzman
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Distributor: New Line Pictures/Sony (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: R for strong language including a scene of sexual dialogue

Certain to be remembered as the Head-Scratcher of the Year, Paul Thomas Anderson's PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is a love story best described with words like "quirky" and "offbeat." To reduce it to such descriptive clichés, however, is to diminish it. It's Odd with a capital O, yes, but also suprising, whimsical, charming (and often frustrating). Despite a patchy screenplay and more than a few unworkable moment, Anderson is an artist of formidable prowess which, ultimately, overcomes the film's pitfalls. If it's not quite as satisfying as his previous efforts (Magnolia, Boogie Nights), it's still compelling, captivating, and - to use yet another cliché - heartwarming.

Take its leading man, for example: Adam Sandler, the former SNL'er and party boy who gained worldwide fame in idiotic comedies like The Waterboy and Big Daddy. Like fellow klutz comic Jim Carrey, Sandler yearns to be taken seriously; I'm not sure PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE will do that, but it's a start. As a geeky novelty salesman with communication issues, Sandler doesn't embarrass himself, even in romantic scenes with Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie), arguably one of the best actresses working in Hollywood today. The fact that his role is neither very difficult nor very different from Sandler himself only helps the film find its footing, as does a saucy subplot with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Utah phone-sex entrepreneur.

And ah, the direction: as glorious as you'll perhaps ever see on screen, inventive but never show-offy, dynamic but never overreaching. Likewise, Robert Elswit's vibrant cinematography is award-worthy, creating complex and satisfying visual tableaus. (Check out the poster for one of them.) And if that's not enough to entice you, try this: the love theme is originally from Robert Altman's Popeye.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2002 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

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