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Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006)

At the Empire World Exchange with Krystle and Sarah. Spur of the moment thing for me, they were originally going to see Happy Feet then I got invited and ended up ruining everyone's plans by saying that I didn't want to see it :) Fortunately they both agreed to watch Stranger than Fiction.

I hadn't planned on seeing this film at all. While I was a fan of Will Ferrell, the trailer didn't peek my interest. I felt pretty fed up with "quirky" films that didn't seem to offer very much else, which is what the trailer made the film out to look like. Then the reviews started pouring in. All of them seemed to not simply be positive but pretty glowing in describing the film as smart, philosophical, existentialist etc. So I figured let's give it a shot.

Despite what its title might imply, Stranger Than Fiction is, at heart, traditional fiction. A feel-good narrative film in which our sympathetic protagonist - to paraphrase Kelly Clarkson - takes a chance, makes a change, and breaks away (while improbably getting the girl and learning to play a little guitar along the way). Despite all the marketing efforts, not to mention the script itself, all this intellectual and philosophical narrative justification never manages to fully succeed in making us forget this, and thank goodness for that, because Stranger Than Fiction is one of the better uplifting stories with one of the best sweet-natured romances (both figuratively and literally!) to hit mainstream screens in quite awhile.

The film wastes no time in trying to fool us into thinking that its intellectual roots runs deeper than they actually do: quickly introducing us to our hero, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) and his wrist watch, the symbol of his mechanical day-to-day life, replete with some clever graphical overlays just to make sure that we don't miss this point. Later on we're introduced to Katherine Eiffel (Emma Thompson) and Dr. Hilburt (Dustin Hoffman) who round out the film's highbrow branches to philosophy and literature, respectively.

The film's admittedly clever and original premise - an author writing the story of a real person - never ends up being much more than that, a mere premise. Sure the wrist-watch is thrown in from time-to-time and made out to be a quirky (there's that word again) character in itself, but its appearances have more to do with the film reminding us that it's being clever and thought-provoking without actually being either. Likewise, there is very little meat to extract from Eiffel or Hilburt's scenes. Despite her numerous scenes, we learn nothing from Eiffel's character except that she is trying to find an ending. But this is no 8 1/2; we constantly hear Eiffel whining about her struggles but there are no insights into her struggle (and I don't even like 8 1/2!)

The good news is that these failed attempts don't hurt the film at all. The filmmakers haven't put all their eggs in one basket and relied on the original premise to get us through. Even when you strip away the philosophical mumbo-jumbo from the Eiffel and/or Hilburt scenes, the dialogue and the actors are enough to keep us entertained and occupied. And to be fair, I'm sure that much of the freshness of these scenes can be attributed to the film's original premise - although I wonder how well they would hold up under repated viewings. I say all this because I want to emphasize how good the rest of the film is, good enough to make us forget these other pedestrian scenes.

Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal are the heart & soul of this movie and their scenes alone could justify the film's existence. Credit needs to be given to director Marc Forster for at least recognizing when to be quirky and when to play it simple which is pretty how much how he plays all of Harold and Ana's scenes. Forster knows the value of silence. The milk & cookies scene is without a doubt the best in the entire movie. It brings a level of naive sincerity and is played so quietly, honestly and intimately that you'd have a hard time finding this sort of scene in any sort of film these days, mainstream or art. Forster directs the later "I want you" scenes the exact same way, at night, without any sound or distractions, completely relying on the actors and their words and the result pays off in spades. Despite all the self-consciousness of the film, Forster really buckles down when it comes to these romantic scenes, never once breaking with Harold's sincerity, even as he utters "I want you" over and over. The first time he says it, we laugh and so too does Ana, when he says it again we start thinking he might be serious, when he says it the third or fourth time we've been won over by his (and Forster's) utter sincerity.

I have to say too that I was completely bowled over by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I suppose I'm open to the possibility that it's simply because I found her adorable (which I never had before) but I'd like to think that a lot of it had to do with the little things her character did that serve to make her seem less static: Conscious decisions like giving the "anarchist's have a group?" speech with that sweet yet condescending smile. She doesn't just play it straight ("ok, I despise this guy, so everything I say or do must express this!). And when she finds herself on the bus with Harold and gets thrown into the seat beside him, she can't help but crack a smile about the situation, like finding yourself in an elevator alone with someone you hate, which certainly elicits less laughs than the typical evil-eye glare some other directors might have insisted their actresses perform, but builds a better sense of a complex character as a result. The script lets a lot of characters down but hers is not one of them.

It's a real testament to the good parts of the film that they manage to make us forget about the more numerous pedestrian or useless scenes. And even when we realize that a woman like Ana would likely never fall for a guy like Harold, we don't care anymore. Stranger Than Fiction's unbelievable romance works not simply because it doesn't try to justify it but precisely because of that. Hopefully the success of this film with audiences so far can be seen a reminder to Hollywood screenwriters (Stranger Than Fiction's own Zach Helm included) that they don't necessarily need to learn new tricks to make a very good movie, maybe they just need to learn the old ones better.



Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma, 2000)

At home all by myself, kicking back and relaxing on a Saturday night.

"It can be said with certainty that any reviewer who pans ["Mission to Mars"] does not understand movies, let alone like them". -Armond White, NY Press

"A critic who can't recognize the visual rhapsody of this movie (and I'm not talking about the special effects) is about as trustworthy as a blind dance critic." -Charles Taylor,

Anytime two well-respected professional film critics -- who don't have the luxury of shooting from the hip or hyperbole that we amateurs do -- are willing to make such published condescending statements towards their fellow colleagues based on their opinion of a single film, one has to take notice. Moreso when those critics are two of my favourites and self-admitted "Paulettes". Moreso when it's Brian De Palma, who might just be the source of more inspired disagreement than any other filmmaker in history (and that is not hyperbole!)

How could I afford not to see this film?

"One of the great things about movies is they can combine the energy of a popular art with the possibilities of a high art. [...] That's part of the excitement in a movie [...] you get a sense of the different forces at work on the director." -Pauline Kael, A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael

Having read just about everything related to Kael, this was a concept that I was not merely aware of but was well-versed in. I could quote certain passages on the subject verbatim and indeed it was one of the main points-of-view that endeared Kael to me as a critic. But in film, like in any other art, the difference between knowledge and understanding can be vast. And while I had certainly had many great experiences with films that would qualify for this category, it's something I feel that I understand much better after having watched Mission to Mars.

With this film, De Palma reminds us that film is primarily a visual art form. An obvious fact, right? You would think so. Even many critics seem to not get it. They talk about a film's visual beauty in terms of other mediums. When they say that Marie Antoinette is beautifully shot, what they really mean quite often is that the objects being shot are beautiful: castles, interiors, clothes etc. Certainly a lot of things in the film look nice, but few of those have to do with anything Sofia Coppola is doing as a director. If this is our criteria for judging a film then we might as well just make movie slideshows of the 10 most beautiful paintings and photographs of all-time.

This is the perfect film to illustrate the value of the Auteur theory. If you were to just look at the script, you might say that it's an interesting concept, but it's certainly a genre piece through and through, even the dialogue is pretty corny. But what ends up on the screen is anything but. Usually when a great director takes on a genre piece, quite often you can tell that he's given up some parts as being dead-on-arrival in exchange for the chance to do something signature and fantastic with a scene or two. That's not the impression you get from Mission to Mars. De Palma manages to squeeze something wondrous or beautiful or hypnotic into just about every scene.

Watching the scene with the killer vortex again, a sequence where any director would be justified in throwing in a bit of action for the sake of entertainment, De Palma instead plays it about as serene as one could play a scene like that. Even as it's sucking up the astronauts, the overall tone of the scene is less about kinetic energy or suspense, and more about a sense of wonderment. It's as if De Palma himself is oblivious to what is happening plot-wise and is just as curious as the astronauts are as to what this strangely beautiful thing is. Even in the midst of the suspenseful scene where the astronauts are desperately trying to fix the oxygen leak, De Palma is willing to spend just as much time on the "visual rhapsody" of the film that he's able to find in the graceful manner in which the astronauts move about in zero-g or even the soda spiralling out of the hole in the spaceship.

The funny thing is that observations about these sorts of visual tangents are usually brought up for castigating a director because a critic believes that they have ceased to serve the film and instead are looking to impress the audience (perhaps because they really have nothing to say or don't know what else to do). I think this is what so many critics misinterpreted in Mission to Mars, they are right that De Palma is not serving the plot with these tangents, but that's because the plot is not the focus of the film, but rather the tone. The best proof of De Palma's intentions with his visual sequences can probably be found in the scene where the shuttle blows up as the crew prepares to enter Mars' atmosphere. Surely if there were a scene were you would want to give the audience a thrill would be a spaceship being blown apart right? Well, De Palma passes up that opportunity definitively: there is no real build-up to the scene and the actual explosion is shown in only one shot that lasts for less time than that of the soda spiralling out of the ship.

In the film Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke's character asks the question of why is it that a dog sleeping in the sun is beautiful, but a guy trying to get money from a bank machine looks like an idiot? Take a director like Ingmar Bergman, there is no mistaking his films for anything else except Art, or mistaking him for anything but an Artiste, both with a capital A. His films look artsy, they sound artsy, and center around artsy themes. He, like just about every other Artiste, is starting with the sleeping dog in the sun, Mission to Mars is the guy getting money from the bank machine. From this point of view, who is really taking the bigger artistic risk? Who's film is the more ambitious? De Palma is willing to stick his neck out and be artistic, be sincere without the support of the artistic pretensions that we've come to expect to accompany artistic films. Just like the aliens of the movie codify a message within the radio static from Cydonia, De Palma has codified an artistic masterpiece within the constructs of seemingly pedestrian mainstream film. And this for me constitutes a greater, more beautiful and meaningful filmic accomplishment than any sort of interpretive symbolism you'll find in a Bergman or Fellini film. If their films fail they at least have the justifications of importance, meaning, and above all, Art! De Palma however is all-in, not only has he made his art harder to decode by giving none of the classical external clues, but his film has no back-up if you don't get it as the characters, plot or dialogue really hold little value in and of themselves.

I think of the space dancing sequence preceded by Connie Nielsen's character walking along the rotating portion of the ship. It plays like a direct homage to some of the most famous scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, except that instead of the Blue Danube Waltz, De Palma gives us Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away". Even as I was enraptured by this scene I couldn't help but chuckle as I imagined De Palma deliberately changing the music in order to separate the viewers who, as Armond White bluntly put it, "understood movies" from those who didn't (especially when you consider two other points: i) the entire score by Ennio Morricone is decidedly classical and ii) this is the one and only time a pop tune is played throughout the film).

De Palma hides his art underneath a very thin veneer of pop. Actually even that isn’t fair, he fully embraces it, he sees no contradiction. It’s funny how the elitists have managed to even get those who don't care about cinema as an art-form to buy into this idea that art can't also be fun it must be serious, or that it must be cynical rather than sincere. As Kael famously said, if movies aren’t entertainment, what are they? Work?

Fantastic reviews and insights on Mission to Mars:
  1. Charles Taylor's retrospective for
  2. Ray Sawhill's Review
  3. Armond White's interview with Senses of Cinema
  4. Armond White's interview with
  5. Brian De Palma's interview on M2M with

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The Corrs: All the Way Home (Rob O'Connor & Ciarán Tanham, 2005)

At home, mostly while on the mag trainer and the rest afterwards.

I've been a huge Corrs fan for a long time now and was excited by the idea that someone was finally making a full-length documentary on them.

Well, reviewing this doc seems a little odd but I figure I ought to since it was after all a full-length documentary. If I were to automatically treat it any differently right off-the-bat then that right there would go against everything I railed against in my Mission to Mars review about making judgments without giving each film a fair shake.

Having said that, their really isn't anything at all to say about this piece. Apart from showing a bit of rare and unseen footage from when The Corrs were young kids there really isn't all that much meat to this doc despite its length. The film has no real angle to speak of, it's essentially just a surface scratching biography pieced together with various music videos and performances by The Corrs intercut with what seems to be a single new interview with all the various members. If it was made for fans (like me) then I think it fails to really expose anything new or compelling, and if it was meant for the general public well then, I can't imagine they'd be anymore interested since there's really nothing sensational about The Corrs rise to fame, relative to any other performer that is.

Well, that's all folks.


Robert Altman (1925-2006)

Today, Robert Altman died at the ripe old age of 81.

Up to this point, I've only ever seen three of his films: Nashville, which I found utterly boring. The Player, which I thought was very good, but could have been better. And finally, Gosford Park, which is a masterpiece! So it's quite a mixed bag in terms of my opinion of his work. But today none of that really matters.

This should be a sad day for anyone who truly loves cinema. I still can't believe that he made Gosford Park when he was 76! Talk about mourning not just for a man who was once great, but was great right till the end. No doubt, had he lived a few years more he would of kept on making films because he loved it so much.

Whether or not you loved Altman's films or the man himself (as he always made sure to speak his mind), it's impossible to overstate what he contributed. As long as he was around everyone could be sure that there would be at least one true maverick filmmaker around in America. For anyone who loves interweaving storylines, ensemble pieces, overlapping dialogue, you can thank Altman. For anyone who loves the works of Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson --whom by no coincidence of course are considered two of America's best and brightest filmmakers -- you can thank Altman.

Being a huge follower of the late Pauline Kael, who was an early champion of Altman before all the other critics hopped on the bandwagon, I had to take notice of him. Statements such as not being able to be friends with anyone who didn't like his McCabe & Mrs. Miller were incredibly bold even for someone who made as many bold statements as she did. She talked about Altman being a filmmaker who could seamlessly blend pop & art into his films. I'm not sure I ever quite understood what that meant until I recently saw Mission to Mars by Brian De Palma -- whom of course was another favourite of Kael's whom she described as being able to accomplish that same mix -- and finally my understanding caught up to my knowledge. And now that I get it, I realize how incredibly difficult it is to pull this off and how incredibly brave one has to be to try it.

I guess if anything good can come of this, it's that when word of Altman's death starts spreading to people, that maybe a few of them might be persuaded to check out one of his films. Speaking of which, I'll have to be finding me a copy of McCabe & Mrs. Miller soon :)

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Essays & Reviews

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006)

Late night show at Silver City to a completely packed house. This is of course after trying to see it on Thursday and not being able to because it was literally sold out all across the entire city.

Looked hilarious. Been a huge fan of Sacha Baron Cohen since first year university when Greg introduced me to the wonderful world of Ali G. I never really got into his Borat character but the trailer looked hilarious and it's the same kind of deal either way.

After watching the film and finding it to be an almost complete letdown despite quite a few vintage Sacha Baron Cohen sketches (no, not Sasha Cohen) the thing that puzzled me most wasn't why the audiences loved it, that makes sense, but how this film managed to fool seemingly every single film critic out there who labelled it as a brilliant satire.

Borat (and Ali G) were both brilliant comedic ideas. I think they worked so well because there were 2 levels of comedy at work, on the one common level is of course that Sacha Baron Cohen's characters are extremely funny, but on the second level, his premise is based on reality. The ingenuity of his sketches was that second level, it was funny because we the audience were "in on the joke", we knew that Cohen was just playing a character but his unsuspecting - and most often, upper class erudite - guests did not and the joke was in watching them tread carefully and often carelessly with their words.

A major problem I had with the film that I never saw mentioned anywhere else strangely was Cohen's attempt to seemlessly mix in sketches that were clearly staged and pawn them off as reality. The comedy of his sketches as previously mentioned relies so much on the fact that these are real unsuspecting people. The second it becomes clear that the scenes have been staged, such as the Pamela Anderson "wedding" scene, the RV, the hooker, it loses all of its potency. It's a sort of reverse fourth wall rule. In fiction if you break that fourth wall in the middle it disrupts the viewer. Borat begins with a virtual pact that Cohen makes with the audience, that we will be "in the know", beyond the fourth wall. Does he think he can just shove us out of that at his convenience? (Incidentally this is the reason why I think reality TV sucks, because it tries to pawn off the fact that it is unstaged and raw when neither is truly the case)

The good part about the film is that it's essentially his more often than not brilliant sketches. The bad part about the film is the same thing. The film is really no more than a series of Cohen's sketches loosely thrown together with a plot that feels like it was created in about 5 minutes (the Pamela Anderson thread? Come on, you can do better than that). The film feels twice as long as its 84 minutes because of all the downtime we have to tolerate in-between the sketches. I'm sure even devoted fans of the film can't help but notice these bits as nothing but filler. I would have rather (and have in the past) sat through 2 hours of unrelated Ali G sketches.

The really crude stuff (i.e. the naked wrestling) I definitely could have done without and was surprised to see how much of it there was considering how smart the original shows were. I wonder if this was something Cohen always wanted to do or if he just threw in because he thought it would go down easy with the kiddies. What was more alarming was how easy the critics went on this stuff, many even praising it as hilarious. But I suppose there's nothing concrete to really say about that. As Siskel used to say, what is funny and what is sexy are two things that are not debatable.

If the aforementioned criticisms were the only problems then no doubt I would have still loved it, unfortunately though, the sketches themselves are even problematic. Not all the sketches I suppose, the ones with the driving instructor, the humour coach, the formal dinner, and the Jewish bed & breakfast are all vintage Borat, but it's those where he ventures into politics that bring the film down, and not so ironically, these are the scenes that have the critics raving.

Fortunately there is good old Armond White's review which I feel perfectly explains this otherwise unexplainable phenomenon of good reviews for such a crude comedy (which isn't to say crude comedy's are always bad, but that critics almost always rate them badly). Essentially what White says is happening is a sort of reverse "Fantasies of the Art-House Audience" except in this case it would be fantasies of the ultra-liberal audience.

Cohen's original TV sketches worked so well because first of all because he mocked his own ignorance and juxtaposed it with his refined guests. It was not at their expense. And this latter point is paramount because we are never meant to forget that these are real people. That is what makes it all the funnier. But what he doesn't realize is that when he decides to cross into the "serious" side of filmmaking, the rules are different.

Fictional comedy has very few boundaries, but satire is more than just comedy at something's expense, it is part documentary. As White says, the film can't be political in the same way as a fictional satire. Its satire must be of a documentary kind that relies on real responses, unfortunately these responses are completely manipulated. Kenneth Turan (another great reviewer) puts it more succinctly than I ever could: "...he ends up baiting the harmless and playing ordinary people for fools just because they are gullible and had the bad luck to run into him, and it's here that the laughter especially sticks in your throat. The car dealer who doesn't object when Borat makes anti-Gypsy remarks may not be a secret racist but simply someone who decided it was a mug's game to get further involved with an obvious lunatic. And the Southern dining society that gets mercilessly humiliated seems to have committed no sin worse than earnestness, credulity and hospitality."

The film is simply scoring cheap & easy points by making us feel good about how much better we are than these ignoramuses. The only thing political about this film as White says, is Cohen's calculated manipulation of our social confusion. His allusions to a Michael Moore-like approach seems appropriate. I've never even seen any of his works but most real critics would tell you that as a strict documentary filmmaker, he stinks. He is extremely narrow-minded, but is able to be popular because his thinking falls in line with majority of the media left-wingers and so they declare his films "insightful" when really they are expressing joy in finding a film that confirms something they have already made up their minds about. Regardless of whether or not this is really true of Moore, it certainly is true of Borat.

How else do you explain how some of these same critics thought too highly of themselves to "fall for" the satire of a much better and sentimental film like Forrest Gump? We laugh at Forrest because he knows nothing about shrimp fishing and yet goes ahead and does it anyways because he promised Bubba. We laugh but then we realize he's right, what else was the purpose of making a promise? To deceive and to pander? His lack of self-consciousness and social awareness is what allows him to treat black people the same as white people and not understand what the difference is, and in doing so it is both funny and insightful. But these supposedly highbrow critics don't go for that kind of "sentimental" thing, they resist it with every cynical bone in their body because these are "simple" messages for kids that they are above, and yet they lap up the dumb and dumberer moral relativism of Borat and wrap it up as a "satire".

The fact that Borat essentially plays its so-called satirical parts as documentary allows it to theoretically be more incisive (which is probably what is happening with many critics) but what Cohen forgets is that the second you venture into documentary territory, it comes with its own rules of propriety which Borat flaunts. In this sense it reminds me of what C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity regarding people who marry with the "death do us part" vows and yet feel free to divorce the second they are no longer feel in love or are simply tired of their marriage. Why get married in the first place with the vows? These people want all perks and respectability of marriage, with none of the responsibility. Similarly, Borat wants all the respectability of a biting satire and documentary without any of the filmmaking responsibility.


Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006)

Empire World Exchange cinema with Krystle. Spur of the moment decision after rock climbing didn't work out.

Krystle suggested it. I wanted to see the film but it certainly wasn't a must-see in my books given how I wasn't a big fan of Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides and was even less impressed with Lost in Translation. That said, the concept of the film was definitely intriguing and the fact that Marie Antoinette's being played by Kirsten Dunst didn't hurt.

This Film = Kirsten Dunst. I can't imagine anyone else playing this role. Something that Dunst does so well is emoting a sincere and convincing sense of naive childish giddiness. When I think about it, I think that's what allowed Bring It On to be great, since it required her to both be an archetypal cheerleader (i.e. irritatingly enthusiastic) while also being the sympathetic main character (i.e. not be irritatingly enthusiastic). Not an easy thing to do.

The many scenes which make use of this quality of Dunst's are the film's finest. Take the film's most memorable scene, the opera, at which Antoinette begins applauding all by herself. And even after being told that clapping breaches protocol, she simply replies, "but it was so wonderful!" Her giddiness works to remind us of how young and naive Antoinette truly was at the time in being so joyously overwhelmed that she barely acknowledges the breach, but it's Dunst's sincerity that wins us over and makes it so easy to empathize with her fellow audience members who become equally won over. They begin to clap slowly until it crescendoes into a loud standing ovation, to the point where we realize they are not merely clapping out of obedience, nor are they simply clapping for the performance, but for their newfound admiration for Antoinette. Mag-nificent!

Another fantastic bit was right off the beginning. Reading some critiques it seems that people had problems with the contemporary music or lack of accents or language that fits the period. Well they would have an argument if Coppola just threw that in somewhere in the middle, but as it is she prepares you for it right off the bat with the fantastic opening shot of Antoinette getting her toes done and turning to look directly into the camera as she licks some cake off her fingers, raises her eyebrow in a "what are you looking at?" manner and goes back to reclining, cut to black and cue the indie rock music.

The odd thing is, usually I'm pretty good with remembering plenty of details from any movie I see, even if it was crappy or forgettable. But immediately after watching the film I found that, besides the two scenes I mentioned, I really couldn't remember any scenes at all. I'm not sure if this is something that Coppola is doing (or not doing for that matter) since I realize that I remember next-to-nothing of what happens in The Virgin Suicides (in fact, I didn't even remember that Kirsten Dunst was in that movie until after writing this whole thing!) and little of Lost in Translation as well.

Maybe it falls into that category of "shallow masterpieces" that Kael talked about in explaining Citizen Kane ("It is difficult to explain what makes any great work, and particularly difficult with movies, and maybe more so with Citizen Kane than with other great movies, because it isn't a work of special depth or a work of subtle beauty.") The film is not built upon any sort of conventional plot, it's really built upon the shoulders of Kirsten Dunst and what Coppola can do with her. It's a character study that's pieced together with scenes that each hope to illuminate some aspect of Antoinette's contradictory life. And while many are beautiful, few of them stand out and they don't seem to progress.

A subtle and insightful scene can only be played out so many times before it too becomes as bland. And the film never does seem to build upon or progress beyond what Dunst can do (which is a lot). The plot doesn't present her with any new problems. It is beautiful and subtle, but it is static. Antoinette has her circumstances change but her character never really changes. Instead of clothes and hair, her interests change to her private getaway and her new boyfriend. And maybe that's the point, but even if it is that's still a flaw, you can make something seem boring without making the presentation in itself boring.

I'm sure Dunst will win a lot of accolades for this movie and I'm glad for her because they're all well-deserved. I'm especially glad that she was able to pull off such a feat without having to resort to the crappy external factor of simply playing a role that is atypical of her Hollywood persona (are you reading this Halle Berry?!) but that instead, builds upon her strengths as an actress. No one would argue that Marilyn Monroe was the most versatile actress ever, but can you imagine anyone else who could have played her in Some Like it Hot or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? No! Come to think of it, Dunst has made some pretty good decisions for herself as well, she's been fantastic and well-fitting for most roles I've seen her in (Bring it On, Spider-Man, The Cat's Meow, Dick).

I doubt this will be a film that burns itself into my mind, whose various scenes might linger and blossom. That said, I don't think it's a paradox to say that it's also an extremely - not just superficially - beautiful film with a great deal of subtlety, all of which is owed to Ms. Dunst and Ms. Coppola. I'll certainly enjoy watching various scenes from the movie over and over again.


Höllentour (Pepe Danquart & Werner Schweizer, 2004)

At home, watched half while - surprise, surprise - biking on the trainer and the other half afterwards like regular human beings watch movies.

Obsessed with cycling. Was looking for cycling & Tour de France DVDs on when I came across it and it looked fantastic, particularly given that I already knew a lot about the 2003 Tour and that it followed some of the riders I knew and was interested in (Kloeden and Vinokourov).

This documentary is made for people who already know and appreciate both professional cycling and the Tour de France. There is pretty much no exposition in this movie about the Tour itself or even any of the riders which we otherwise get to know intimately. I found this more surprising than anything else about the film and a quality that would make it perfect for the die-hard cycling fan (such as myself) looking for an in-depth look into the Tour and its riders... or so you would think.

For a documentary that focuses on such a niche event and doesn't feel the need to burden itself with the need to explain any of the basics or logistics of it or professional cycling, the film comes across as very unfocused and lacking any real objective. That's not to say there aren't some fantastic moments the camera captures that normally go unseen: the riders on their team bus away from the spotlight of the media, the unheralded roles of domestiques etc. In fact, it's the inclusion of these very moments which causes me to be confused as to why the directors decided to water down such strong content with an overwhelming number of other superficialities like time trial montages, landscape shots and most curious of all, multiple scenes of the Tour crew taking down and putting up barriers. It doesn't make any sense from both a logical or artistic point of view.

What little historical insight that does exist is brought to us via a single source, a french cycling historian, not exactly solid academic footing. What makes it even worse is how fanatical the man is in his love of the Tour, so any bits of insight that I found he made (e.g. compared to the World Cup or the Olympics, the uniqueness of the Tour in that it's free and the proximity of the fans to the stars etc.) felt less convincing coming from this "extremist".

The directors should have borrowed from the producers of the Ironman World Championships broadcast. There's a reason why these guys literally win an Emmy every single year for their coverage of the event, and that's because they realize that what makes these monumental endurance events so compelling are the people and their stories. They showcase the physically disabled athletes with iron wills that inspire and even manage to humanize the otherwise superhuman pro athletes in the race, all while including the obligatory vista shots (it is Hawaii after all) and plenty of narration and exposition.

It's a real shame because in many ways, I think the Tour is an equally compelling event despite the fact that it's only populated with professional cyclists. The examples may not be as immediately obvious to the casual viewer: after all, there are no amateurs in the Tour, none of them are missing any arms or legs like in the Ironman, but the stories are there.

The Tour presents so many situations that don't exist in any other sport in the world. 100m track specialists don't enter marathons and vice versa, and yet this is exactly what happens in the Tour. All athletes have a great degree of pride, and the world's best even moreso. And yet the Tour humbles everyone at one point or another. There's something so powerful seeing a man like Erik Zabel, a man who can out-sprint literally any given cyclist in the world, being left behind by the rest of the peloton in the mountains as he struggles up them all alone.

Another thoughtful bit was the behind-the-scenes bit on the tough life of the domestiques on a cycling team. In no other sport is there so much sacrifice by a team for the glory of a single man. It's so much more revealing to hear it from the lips of the domestiques, talking about how, for example, they could be struggling all day just to keep up with the peloton, but if the team leader suddenly needs water or nutrition, they have to drop all the way back to the team car, stuff 6 water bottles into their jerseys, claw their way back to the front in order to deliver them, and then still find the strength within themselves to finish the race.

This doc could have definitely been better as either as a truly "advanced" in-depth look into the lives of pro cyclists at the Tour or as an introductory documentary to the Tour de France. It's a shame that in the end it seems like it just straddles the line between the two.