Written by movies  |  25. January 2002

by Ben Kenigsberg In the introduction to The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made, critic Janet Maslin writes, "Daily film reviews are written at the pace of daily journalism, which is not the ideal tempo for contemplating Grecian urns." The same should go for weekly reviews. It often takes time -- time for thinking, time for repeat viewings -- to appreciate a movie. I invoke Maslin now because I'm about to commit the gravest of critical sins: I'm about to alter my opinion of a movie. Convinced I must have missed something because of all the film's year-end praise, I went to see Mulholland Drive again. My problem with it the first time was, in a nutshell, that it didn't make much sense. The film seemed so random -- characters would appear at the beginning of the movie, never to appear again. I saw no way to justify the last third of the film, in which actors switch roles. Before my second viewing, I searched the Web for explanations of the picture. I found an extensive one at salon.com, "Everything You Wanted to Know about Mulholland Drive" by Bill Wyman, Max Garrone, and Andy Klein (the critic who gave us "Everything You Wanted to Know about Memento"). The article doesn't do an adequate job of explaining everything in the film, but it explains a heckuva lot, and most importantly, it explains almost everything I found confounding the first time. The writers support their ideas using minor details from the movie; now that I've seen it again, I'm convinced they are correct. Back in October, I admired the power of the film's individual scenes, but criticized the picture's lack of logic. Now that I had the logic -- at least, enough logic -- the scenes resonated more deeply. And so I must confess: the film got to me. It's important to note that the picture only works for me now that I can make sense of it. I don't concur with critical consensus on this film -- that its dreamy style is enough to justify its greatness, even if it doesn't make sense. I need to be sure that there's a rationale to the picture -- that it's not just director David Lynch throwing desultory stuff on screen and calling it a movie -- even if it isn't totally coherent. Just because I now feel I understand Mulholland Drive doesn't mean the film is great. The fact that I had to read an article in order to appreciate Lynch's ideas is proof enough; few could understand this movie merely on the basis of seeing it. The film's satirical notions about Hollywood are half-baked and obvious, and they don't come across clearly. I still can't shake the vibe that the lesbianism in the film -- even if it's sort of explained by the Salon article -- is merely there for exploitative purposes. I was correct about many things in October. I wrote, "There are no clues about where to position your attention," and I stand by that: even if you accept that the picture makes sense, you have to justify it using minutiae, not clues that the film presents to you directly. There's still plenty of stuff that doesn't make sense. Salon doesn't do an adequate job of elucidating the role of a character I referred to, probably correctly, as "a hobo covered in soot." Even the explainers admit that Lynch often throws red herrings into his films, and that's certainly not a plus. It's possible that Salon's analysis is not correct. Roger Ebert writes that he has received many explanations for the film in the mail, most of which are supported by the film's details. I happen to think Salon is correct, but what's really important is that the picture can be explained at all -- that it isn't arbitrary. Lynch asserts that Mulholland Drive makes sense, although he admits -- as reported by Christian Science Monitor critic David Sterritt -- that even he doesn't understand his Lost Highway. I hated Lost Highway because of how manipulative it was; it kept leading you to believe that it would explain everything, and then it went out of its way to obliterate any possible solution. I thought I hated Mulholland Drive for the same reason. I was wrong. I don't change my mind on movies often, but I firmly believe that I should have the right to. I've been working at this for nearly three years and this is the first major time I've changed my view. I feel bad about writing a revised review in the first place, but I feel especially bad about writing it at this late date -- after the film has come and gone. The picture is still playing in Manhattan, and it has a good shot at getting a pre-Oscar re-release. And I suppose that it's never really too late to write about a film. Mulholland Drive will one day be out on video; perhaps the ability to pause and rewind, especially with the clarity of DVD, will make the film easier to comprehend. Since he's produced Con Air, Armageddon and Gone in 60 Seconds, it's safe to say that Jerry Bruckheimer has made a career out of sating the public appetite for violence. Now, with Black Hawk Down, he wants to convince us that violence is hell -- by showing us more than an hour of non-stop combat. Imagine the D-Day invasion in Saving Private Ryan stretched to feature length. Sure, it's powerful for a while, but sooner or later, it becomes numbing. Because many critics and Academy members have short-term memories, even lousy films released at the end of the December invariably win awards. This one's received honors from the National Board of Review and nominations from the American Film Institute. If there were an award for Most Redundant Filmmaking, Black Hawk Down would be my pick. The movie is director Ridley Scott's third picture in two years. After the dismal Hannibal and the underwhelming Gladiator, saying that Black Hawk Down is the best of the trio isn't saying much. The film is an outstanding from a technical standpoint. Bullets haven't whooshed past my head so vividly since 1998's Thin Red Line, and considering how many guns there are in Hollywood films, having the best bullets in three years is a big deal. But you can't help but ask, "What's the point?" Why bother making a movie about U.S. involvement in Somalia if you don't have anything to say about the subject? Black Hawk Down refuses to tell us anything about the conflict that we don't already know. It opens with title cards, telling us why U.S. troops were in Somalia and what their objectives were. But after that, the movie could be set anywhere -- in Vietnam, Normandy, or Korea. When helicopters fly in over the ocean, there's an echo of Apocalypse Now. When a man reaches down to pick up his blown-off hand, we're reminded of the similar shot in Private Ryan. An impressively gory surgery scene is reminiscent of those in M*A*S*H. Before the bullets fly, there are a few compelling conversations among the soldiers. As they suit up for their mission, one soldier glances at a peer and exclaims, "He's putting his blood type on his boots -- that's bad luck!" "No," says another soldier, "that's smart." Ewan McGregor, playing Ranger Spec. Grimes, has a great scene where he talks about that most mundane of soldier's subjects -- why he joined the army. Sam Shepard gives an effective performance as Maj. Gen. William F. Garrsion, who, the closing titles inform us, accepted full responsibility for the failure of the mission depicted in the film. As usual, mournful trumpet music accompanies the "quiet" scenes. Josh Hartnett gets his second painfully drawn out parting-at-death scene of the year. (I won't say whether he's the dying man or the man who promises to tell the dying man's wife how he died bravely.) Heavy stuff, perhaps, back when King Vidor made the World War I epic The Big Parade (1925). But it's hard not to chuckle at a war film that seems as if it were based on other war pictures, rather than, as it is, on an actual event. "You know what's real?" Alicia Nash (Jennifer Connelly) asks her husband John (Russell Crowe). "This is real." (She puts her hand on his cheek.) "This is real." (She puts her hand on her cheek.) "This is real." (She puts her hand on her heart.) You know what's not real? Most of the details in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, a film about the life of John Forbes Nash Jr., a schizophrenic mathematician who ultimately won the Nobel Prize in economics, based on the biography by Sylvia Nasar. The film suggests that Alicia is the only person who ever loved John. Not so. A skim through Nasar's book indicates that John Nash had a mistress and a child out of wedlock. Nash was also, according to Nasar, "emotionally involved with at least three men." Rather than sticking together through hard times, as in the movie, John and Alicia divorced, although they maintained contact for years, then began living together and actually remarried in June. The film gives the impression that Nash's legitimate son is entirely successful; in fact, he too suffers from schizophrenia and lives with his parents. Nash did not, as the movie suggests, solve math problems by scribbling on windows; in Hollywood, geniuses are just too good for pen and paper. I don't mind that much of the film is fiction. I just mind the film's attempts to pass itself off as fact -- title cards that indicate dates that cannot possibly be accurate, for instance. Dramatizing scenes in the name of concision is one thing. I have no problem with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman consolidating all of Nash's professors into one character (Judd Hirsch) and simplifying Nash's delusions so that they are easy to understand. And I'll cede that it's virtually impossible to make a biographical film without fictionalizing scenes for impact. There's just no reason to whitewash Nash's life. Showing us the real, less perfect Nash would make the movie more dramatic. Then again, although a mostly-factual version of the film would be more challenging for audiences, I doubt that it would be as entertaining as the film that has been made. A Beautiful Mind is extraordinarily effective at putting you inside Nash's head. Right from the opening scene, we see how Nash (well, fiction Nash) discerns patterns in everyday objects: Nash looks at his peer's tie, then looks at a lemon, a drinking glass, and a table cloth. He extracts shapes from the latter three objects to form all the images in his friend's tie. Nash can picture any object in the stars; he can find codes hidden in any set of numbers, even when codes don't exist. Since we're immersed in Nash's world from the beginning, it isn't so jarring when we're plunged into the world of his schizophrenic visions. A Beautiful Mind is the most vivid film portrayal of madness that I can recall. In order to fully allow us to understand what Nash is going through, Goldsman turns his hallucinations into characters in the film. The film even provides a neat little illustration of Nash's equilibrium theory by applying it to dating politics. (Nash and his friends at Princeton want to figure out how to split up so that most of them will end up in bed.) It's an example as clear as any in the book. Russell Crowe gives a fantastic performance as Nash. At the end of the book, upon meeting Russell Crowe, the real Nash says, "You're going to have to go through all these transformations!" And Crowe goes through the transformations with aplomb -- from loner student to egotistical professor to mental patient to recovering old man. Jennifer Connelly does especially heartfelt work as Alicia. A more truthful but infinitely more muddled hagiography than A Beautiful Mind, Michael Mann's Ali tries to tell Ali's story in two and a half hours -- then tells almost no story at all. I suppose it's no surprise that a biography this ambitious would be unfocused, but why are there long stretches during which nothing seems to be happening? The movie spends its first 45 minutes chronicling Ali's friendship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles). But then it veers off course, showing us things like X at home with his wife and (slightly more relevant) X's assassination. X's story was already told on film in Spike Lee's biting, driving biopic, and why it's necessary to give it an anemic treatment here is unclear. The camera spends countless time roving nightclubs (to give us a sense of time and place?). A full five minutes are wasted on something as mundane as Ali's morning jog. We see Ali at home quite a bit, but the movie still feels strangely out of touch with what Ali was like outside of the ring; we only see Ali come alive when boxing or talking about boxing. Will Smith captures Ali's attitude well enough, but he strains credibility during quieter scenes. The movie also suffers from borderline incompetent storytelling. In a bizarre sequence, after being warned not to travel to Africa with X, Ali flies to Africa, argues with X, and flies back. Later, we see Ali meet the woman who will become his second wife (Nona Gaye). About two scenes after they meet, even though there's been no indication that much time has passed, the two are married and have a child. Drew "Bundini" Brown (Jamie Foxx), a live-wire member of Ali's entourage, disappears about halfway through the movie. He shows up later, apparently having struggled with alcohol for some time, although we've never been told about it. Although Ali's first draft-dodging trial is portrayed on screen, his appeals -- which went all the way to the Supreme Court -- are dealt with off-screen, and casually. (Howard Cosell, given an amusing impersonation by Jon Voight, phones Ali to tell him that the Supreme Court has decided in his favor.) The last part of the film deals with the Rumble in the Jungle, the much-touted 1974 fight in Zaire with George Foreman, which was given a more informative and more energetic treatment in the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. Those expecting to learn something Ali should seek that film as a source. Mann's film is too confusing to educate or to entertain. I Am Sam argues that a retarded Starbucks employee, Sam (Sean Penn), is a better parent to his young daughter than his deeply stressed lawyer, Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer), is to her son. The state wants to take custody of Sam's daughter (Dakota Fanning), arguing that the child, now seven, has the same mental age as her single father. I'm no parent, but I would think you'd have to have more than a mental age of seven to raise a child to that age. The movie could have proved me wrong, but it never shows Sam doing anything more complicated than changing a diaper. It also never explains why Rita doesn't just hire a sitter. The film asks us to assume that its message is correct, and that's particularly obnoxious. As are Sam's plugs for Starbucks drinks ("Vanilla grande no-foam latte -- that's a wonderful choice," he says to a customer). PLEASE NOTE: THOSE LOOKING FOR MY LIST OF THE BEST FILMS OF 2001 CAN FIND IT BY CLICKING ON "VIEW ARCHIVED ARTICLES" BELOW.

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