Starring: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Roger Rees, Geoffrey Rush, Edward Norton, Ashley Judd, Valeria Golino, and Antonio Banderas
Director: Julie Taymor
Writing Credits: Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas
Distributor: Miramax (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality/nudity and language

How does a flawless masterpiece end up flawed nonetheless? This is at once the theme of FRIDA, a sumptuous retelling of the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and the central question one is left with after seeing the film's execution. Although the many pieces of Julie Taymor's masterful biopic are, in and of themselves, little bits of film heaven, it can't be denied that as the end credits roll the sum impact of these small parts is considerably less than one feels it should be.

Perhaps the weakness is Salma Hayek as Kahlo, who nails the spirit but not the nuance of the artist's battles with passion and pain. Perhaps it is an overdependence on the talents of Alfred Molina, who imbues Kahlo's lover, the artist Diego Rivera, with enough rascally warmth to overcome even the most hardened soul. Perhaps it is the endless parade of star cameos. Or perhaps it is that Kahlo's paintings speak much more eloquently about her life than the actual story of it does.

I don't mean to be unduly negative -- warts and all, FRIDA is definitely worth seeing. Taymor is unique among young-career directors in her theatrical fearlessness, mixing painting and cinematic techniques and styles with awe-inspiring results. Elliot Goldenthal's dynamic native score and the impeccably detailed production and costume design make this museum-like homage an enjoyable excursion...even if it lacks the je ne sais quoi that made Kahlo such an original.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Starring: Cambell Scott, Jesse Eisenberg, Isabella Rossellini, Jennifer Beals, and Elizabeth Berkley
Director: Dylan Kidd
Writer: Dylan Kidd
Distributor: Artisan Entertainment (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content and language

A winner at the 2002 Venice Film Festival, ROGER DODGER, Dylan Kidd's debut film begins essentially as an acting exercise, just another of those movies that end up described by critics as a "tour-de-force" without much else to recommend it. But about fifteen minutes in, the viewer has a truly marvelous moment -- the appearance of a long-lost nephew -- and ROGER DODGER expands like a butterfly escaping its cocoon, beyond its acting-class roots into a provocative rumination on the state of the dating wars in post-millennial America. As a hotshot copywriter (Campbell Scott) tours Manhattan's seedy side to teach his nephew (Jesse Eisenberg) the art of attracting women, the Sorkin-esque verbal patter gives way to a hollow emptiness that any person who's ever tried a pick-up line (and failed) can understand.

The most uncomfortable I've-been-there moments are provided by Eisenberg, but the show really belongs to Scott, who gives the performance of his career as the titular lothario. The character is treacherous performance terrain for any actor: academic smarts matched with childlike fears of rejection, overanalyzed rituals that end up demolishing authentic interaction. This arthouse flick is perhaps too small to receive much critical attention, but Campbell definitely deserves to be on anyone's short list for awards consideration.

In fact, the ensemble of Scott, Eisenberg, Beals, Berkley, and (especially) Rossellini work so well together, it's often easy to forget that you're watching scripted dialogue. The moments are genuine movie magic, to borrow a cliche; they transport you to a place somewhere between eavesdropping voyeur and silent referee. The cinematography by Joaquín Baca-Asay is sometimes too arty for its own good, but nevertheless quite effective at creating an intimacy rarely seen in megaplexes today. Enter at your own risk, but ROGER DODGER is everyone's game.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Starring: The Funk Brothers, Meshell Ndegeocello, Chaka Khan, Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Montell Jordan, and Gerald Levert
Director: Paul Justman
Writer: Walter Dallas and Ntozake Shange
Distributor: Artisan Entertainment (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: PG for language and thematic elements

It's not easy being unknown geniuses for thirty years, but the glorious session band The Funk Brothers -- the musicians who played the sublime music for nearly every Motown hitmaker in the 60's and 70's -- seem to have taken it in stride. Celebrating their forgotten history with self-deprecating humor and a humbling lack of grandeur about their legacy, the musicians profiled in STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN achieve one last remarkable feat...filling in some of the gaps in America's vibrant musical evolution.

Little treasure troves of information appear everywhere in Paul Justman's tight, compact documentary: the prevalence of jazz influences on the Motown sound, the economic booms and busts of the Detroit music community, and anecdotes of touring with greats like Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. The recreated moments are pretty fabulous, too. A scene where the Funk Brothers show how they created the sounds of "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" is fascinating, while a reunion concert -- featuring a wide variety of contemporary singers leading the band's Motown hits -- is guaranteed to move anyone who ever shook, rattled, or rolled. (If you aren't moved to either tears or dancing by the rendition of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Chaka Khan and Montell Jordan, check your may not be breathing.)

Sure, there are no hard edges in this MOTOWN story; problems with money, drugs, alcohol, and even the Detroit Street Riots are glossed over with barely a glance. The goals of the filmmakers are clear, and it isn't verisimilitude. Thought this documentary, they are bringing a heretofore neglected portion of music history to light...and the best possible light, at that. Only the most jaded and grumpy audience member will begrudge these grand old men, who have brought happiness to so many, a last chance to bask in the spotlight.

-- 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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