2003 – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World











Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – 2003

This was a movie that I had really been looking forward to seeing.  I saw it when it first came out, but didn’t really remember much about it.  Before re-watching it, I spoke to friends about it, and everybody would tell me that it was really good, that Russell Crowe was great, and that the depiction of a seafaring vessel in 1805 was incredibly realistic.  So I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

The movie was based on a popular series of books by English author, Patrick O’Brian, called the Aubrey-Maturin series.  There are twenty books in the series with one more that was unfinished, and the movie draws elements from thirteen of them to create its own unique story.  Director Peter Weir collaborated with screenwriter John Collee to create an awesome story with plenty of exciting action, great characters, and some captivating drama, making this a wonderfully refined and well-scripted film.  And lest I forget, I have to mention the wonderful score, which made good use of baroque and classical pieces like J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for Unaccompanied Cello, beautifully played by Yo-Yo Ma.

Russell Crowe played the lead, Captain Jack Aubrey.  Crowe was fantastic, but what I liked about the character he played was that most movies that take place on ocean vessels, usually create their drama by pitting the crew against an unlikable captain.  But Aubrey was just the opposite.  He was the perfect captain.  He was smart, tough, compassionate, and truly cared about the men under his command.  He was a great leader and his crew trusted him so completely that they were ready to follow his every order without question.  And I loved the clever deceptions he used to either evade or attack his foe.

By that description, you might think of him as a character that unnaturally saintly, too good to be realistic.  But to be sure, he had his flaws, bringing him down to earth and showing us that he was just as human as anyone.  Nowhere is this more evident than the main plot of the film, which takes place during the Napoleonic wars.  Aubrey receives orders to hunt down the French privateer vessel, the Acheron.  He is to either burn it, sink it, or take it as a prize.  But right at the beginning of the film, the Acheron surprises Aubrey and severely damages his ship, the HMS Surprise.  He barely escapes by fleeing into a fog bank.  Logic dictated that he return home or at least find a port in which to make repairs.  But he, almost like Captain Ahab in search of his whale, becomes dangerously obsessive in completing his mission, even going so far as to exceed the boundaries of the mission, pressing on, putting his ship and crew at risk.

The ship’s surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin, played by Paul Bettany, seems to be the voice of reason, urging Aubrey to turn back, to return to England before they are all killed by the Acheron, a massive, hulking ship that completely outmatches them.  But Aubrey’s obsession is too great to be denied.  Despite surviving the Acheron’s initial attack, a sea storm that nearly sinks them, a dead calm that leaves them motionless for days, and a restless crew, his pursuit continues.

The film explores Aubrey’s obsessive pursuit of his prey.  But it also paints a wonderful picture of what life on a sea vessel in the early 1800s must have been like.  The exciting battle sequences were amazingly realistic, and the movie actually won two Oscars, one for Cinematography, and the other for Sound Editing.  It was nominated for a total of ten Awards, but it was up against the juggernaut, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.  I mean, Master and Commander was an incredibly good movie, but let’s be honest.  It never stood a chance.

Now, of course, there were plenty of other interesting characters played by competent actors.  In fact, this film has the distinction of being one of only 120 films made since 1934 that have an entirely male cast.  James D’Arcy played First Lieutenant Thomas Pullings, who was given command of the Acheron after it was finally captured.  Son of famous Actress Maggie Smith, Chris Larkin played Captain Howard of the Royal Marines, the one who accidentally shot Dr. Maturin, an event which indirectly led to Aubrey’s victory over the Acheron.

Billy Boyd, the actor famous for playing Pippin in the Lord of the Rings films, played Barrett Bonden, the HMS Surprise’s Coxswain, the man controlling the vessel’s rudder with the big wheel.  Max Perkis, who was thirteen years old during filming, played Lord William Blakeney, the brave young boy who lost an arm during the first attack.  Perkis did a fantastic job for such a young actor.  Lee Ingleby played Midshipman Hollom, the tragic figure who the superstitious crew labeled a Jonah, and who committed suicide once he started to believe it himself.  I also liked Robert Pugh as Ship’s Master, John Allen.

But really, the star of the film was its true standout.   Russell Crowe was incredible as Captain Aubrey.  Despite his dangerous obsession which nearly got him and his entire crew killed, he was wonderfully likeable.  He laughed and joked with his shipmates, giving an air of levity to the perilous mission.  He walked among them to keep their spirits up when they were down.  He personally comforted the injured.  And yet, he dourly administered punishment when discipline was required.  And his most redeeming quality, I think, was that he was prepared to give up his chase when his closest friend’s life was in danger.  And Crowe played it all perfectly.  Well done Russell!

2003 – Lost In Translation











Lost in Translation – 2003

Have you ever wanted to get away from a life that isn’t the one that you want?  Have you ever felt depressed and lonely, in need of companionship?  I think we all have.  In fact, it sometimes seems like we are a generation of people who are going through some kind of social mid-life crisis.  We are all out of sync with ourselves, with our environments, and with each other.  Lost in Translation seems to embody all these things.  It is the story of two lonely people, one young, one old, who seem to be at a crossroad in their lives until they find each other.

Bill Murray played Bob Harris, an actor who has reached a mid-life crisis.  He is in Tokyo, Japan, filming a commercial for Suntory Whiskey.  Scarlet Johansson arrisH

played Charlotte, a woman who is disillusioned with a marriage in which she seems to find no happiness.  She is married to a celebrity photographer named John, played by Giovanni Ribisi, who is in Tokyo on assignment.  Neither Bob nor Charlotte want to be where they are.  Bob is going through a mid-life crisis and his marriage is showing obvious signs of weakness.  Charlotte fels neglected as her husband is constantly working.  She is bored and desperately needs companionship.

The two meet and they become fast friends.  There is a definite sexual tension between them, yet they both resist the urge to jump into bed.  It was a wonderful way to tell their story.  Too often, in modern film, romantic leads jump straight into bed without considering the consequences.  Lost in Translation is a story about the special kind of relationship that develops when that impulsive urge is resisted.  The two leads find comfort in each other as they try to stave off depression.

The title of the movie can be applied to the film in a number of different ways.  First, there is the obvious.  Neither Bob nor Charlotte spoke Japanese, and so there was an inherent language barrier.  There was a scene in which Bob was filming his commercial and the director was giving him a ton of direction in Japanese, but the translator would give him a short instruction.  Wikipedia provided the translation which was interesting enough to include here.  The director said, “Mr. Bob. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whisky on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words.  As if you are Bogie in Casablanca, saying, ‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’ – Suntory time!”  The translator tells him, “He wants you to turn, look in camera.  OK?”

But there are also the more subtle failures for Bob and Charlotte as they try to communicate with each other, often not being able to say what they really mean.  Does that mean I wanted them to overcome that hurdle and jump into bed?  No.  I liked that they didn’t.  The tension took its time building, and the ending was perfect.  They finally realized how much their companionship had meant to each other.  After an awkward and forced goodbye, Bob had the chance to do it properly.  He chased after her and gave her a properly affectionate embrace, whispered something in her ear that the audience never got to hear, but which made her smile, and gave her a lovely parting kiss. I spent the entire film wanting them to find a deeper connection with each other, and in the end, I felt that they had, all the while refraining from ruining it with sex.

Aside from that, the movie is also an interesting observation of the Japanese culture, a foreign culture that is often one of the strangest to our uneducated, western perspectives.  However, many Japanese critics took a certain amount of offense at the way the Japanese characters were portrayed in the film.  They said that they were mostly shown without dignity, little Japanese stereotypes, clowns to be laughed at.

But I have to wonder at this.  Were we only shown a few examples of a small fraction of their culture and people?  Yes.  But do those kinds of eccentric or silly caricatures of people really exist in Tokyo?  Most definitely.  Are those subsets of people really a part of Japanese culture and society?  Absolutely, yes.  It is significant to note that the film’s director, Sophia Coppola, wrote the screenplay based on her own experiences in Japan, not on the Japanese culture as a whole, with which she may not have had experience. If anything, the one character I really looked down on was John’s actress friend, Kelly, played by Anna Faris, who seemed to be a better match for him than his wife, Charlotte.  Also, I never once laughed at any of the Japanese characters in the film.

In fact, I didn’t laugh at anything in the film.  The film is listed as a romantic comedy, but I found it to be neither romantic nor funny.  There was virtually no comedy in the movie, and the little humor that was there was blunted with a poignant melancholy.  Not only that, but the whole thing was filmed in a very disjointed style, almost like a documentary, with a lot of hand-held camera work and abrupt jump cuts that moved the scenes along in a very stiff and hesitant way.  It was slow, dramatic, and bordering on depressing.  Still, I’ll give it credit for being a better movie than I remember it being when I first saw it in 2003.

2002 – The Pianist











The Pianist – 2002

This was a very intense movie.  How can it not be?  Anything having to do with the Holocaust in a realistic way is generally going to be difficult to watch.  This one is based on the true memoirs of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman.  It recounts his incredible story of survival during the horrific events that took place in Poland between late 1939 and early 1945.  This Holocaust film is a little different, at least from the few films that I have seen, because it is told from the perspective of a family of Polish Jews.

Adrien Brody played the famous pianist, Szpilman.  He lived in Warsaw with his parents, Samuel and Edwarda, played by Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman, his two sisters, Regina and Halina, played by Julia Rayner and Jessica Kate Meyer, and his brother, Henryk, played by Ed Stoppard.  At first, nobody seemed to be aware of the seriousness of the situation.  The atrocities seemed to start small and got worse and worse.  During the German occupation, the treatment of the Jews quickly escalated from bad to horrifying.

Wladyslaw did his best to keep his family together.  He earned a living playing piano for Polish radio until the Germans bombed the power station that kept the radio station running.  After that, Jews were not allowed to own their own businesses or have too much money.  Eventually, they were forced to wear the Star of David as a brand on their arms.  Not long after that, they were forced from their homes and into the ghetto.  There, they were walled in.  The conditions were so terrible that people without money were starving and dying in the streets.

Through all of it, Wladyslaw did what he could to help his family.  He even considered joining a resistance movement.  But when the overcrowded ghetto was cleared, and he and his family were being herded onto trains to be taken to an extermination camp, he alone was saved.  Before Wladylsaw boarded the train, he was grabbed by the collar and pulled out of the line by a friend, but he never saw his family again.

To make a long story short, he spent the remaining years of the war hiding in one place or another.  Sometimes he had help from the Polish Resistance.  Sometimes he was completely on his own.  At one point, he escapes the ghetto to hide in abandoned buildings.  But when the German soldiers began torching the buildings, he fled back into the destroyed and empty ghetto.  While there, he is discovered by a German Captain named Wilm Hosenfeld, played by Thomas Kretschmann.  For me, he was one of the noblest characters in the movie.  The scene where he finds Wladyslaw was really the climax of the movie.  Wladyslaw is living like a decrepit animal.  He is desperately trying to open a can of pickles, a rare treasure in the ruins of his once beautiful city.  If he cannot eat, he will die.  Captain Hosenfeld sees him, and my heart stopped.  He asks Wladyslaw what he did before the war.  When he answers, Hoesnfeld takes him to a piano and tells him to play.  Wladyslaw plays Chopin’s Ballad in G so beautifully that Hosenfled not only allows him to continue hiding, he supplies him with food until the Germans pulled out of Warsaw at the end of the war.

In doing my research about the true facts surrounding Szpilman’s amazing story, I became increasingly interested in Hosenfeld.  What I learned was both fascinating and tragic.  The movie never really explained why he helped Szpilman.  It implied that he was so moved by his beautiful music that he couldn’t bear to allow him to be destroyed.  But in reality, he was a Nazi who was against the inhumane treatment of Jews during the war.  He had helped to hide or rescue several Polish people during the war, not just Wladyslaw Szpilman.  The tragedy was that he was taken as a prisoner of war to Russia.  He was accused of war crimes because of his Nazi affiliation and was tortured by the Soviet secret services.  After seven years of torture, he died.  But eventually, in 2009, he was recognized in Israel’s Memorial to the victims of the Holocaust as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

The movie was powerful.  It is not as depressing as Schindler’s List, but that made it no less impactful.  Brody turned in an amazing performance.  Another stand-out in the cast was Emilia Fox, playing the part of Darota, a beautiful Polish woman who was not a Jew.  Had it not been for the war, the two might have fallen in love with each other.  As it was, she helped to hide him after he had escaped the ghetto.  I was also impressed with Stoppard and Lipman, Wladyslaw’s brother and mother.

The frightening realism that was portrayed in the movie was difficult to watch.  But it was a great movie about the triumph of the human spirit.  In it were shown acts of utter cruelty, supreme sacrifice, and great kindness.  The movie was incredibly well-made, and really deserved the Best Picture nomination it was given.  In fact, it was nominated for a total of seven Academy Awards, and took home three.  Brody won for Best Actor, Roman Polanski won for Best Director, and Ronald Harwood took home an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.  It was a wonderfully inspirational film.  Well done, everybody.

2002 – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers











The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – 2002

The second installment of the Lord of the rings trilogy was just as impressive as the first one. It had the same cast of wonderful actors:  Ian McKellan, Elijah Woods, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Christopher Lee, Liv Tyler, and Hugo Weaving.  The same high standard was maintained when it came to sets and costumes. The same spectacular cinematography was just as captivating as before. So what made this installment different?  What was it about the two towers that made it special?

For me, there were two things that made it particularly impressive. The first was a new member of the cast, Andy Serkis, playing the complex and fascinating role of Gollum. The second was the over-the-top battle sequences, the likes of which had never been seen before.  Each was a phenomenal combination of both live actors and CGI imagery.  So, as much as the live actors have to be commended, the digital graphics artist have to be given just as much credit.

Serkis, of course, wasn’t really a new member of the cast. He had been in the first movie, but his role had been so small that it was negligible. Here, in the two towers the character was really given life, and became an integral part of the plot. Serkis performed his part dressed in a motion capture suit, and he was rotoscoped.  His realistic facial expressions were all the product of manual animation.  This is saying something, because most CGI representations have a very stilted way of moving and stiff facial expressions. The result of this awesome technology, was one of the most incredibly realistic CGI characters I’ve ever seen.

And it wasn’t just his physical representation that was impressive. It was the way his character was written, something that goes back to the source material, written by J.R.R. Tolkien. There was both light and dark in him, forces that were constantly battling one another for control of the individual. The dark side, the evil, deceitful, and murderous side, was Gollum.  The other side, the timid and subservient side, was. Smeagol. They both lived in the same body, the same mind. Serkis was incredible as he portrayed each side, especially during the parts where he had to argue with himself.  The actor did a remarkably good job.

And then there were the battle sequences, or more specifically, the battle for Helms deep. Yes, many of the combatants, humans, elves, and orcs alike, were computer generated, especially for the wide shots. These were mixed in seamlessly with the live actors. In this way, Director Peter Jackson was able to show us the true enormity of the battle’s epic scale.  And the CGI artists really had their work cut out for them. The complexity of the battle and the realism that it portrayed, must’ve been a staggering task that was set before them, but they really stepped up to the plate and showed us something that we’ve never seen before.

Now, there were a few other newcomers to the cast you really did a fine job of holding the standard of acting set by the main cast of The Fellow ship of the Ring.  Bernard Hill played Theoden, King of the country of Rohan.  His niece, Eowin, played by Miranda Otto, and his nephew, Eomer, played by Karl Urban, were fantastic. In the great city of Gondor, we meet dead Boromir’s father, Denethor, played by John Noble, and his brother, Faramir, played by David Wenham. On the evil Sauron’s side, we met Grima Wormtonge, played by Brad Douriff.

As you can tell by the ever-growing list of characters, the story gets very complex. But it’s fairly easy to follow, as they each have a very unique and distinct look, making it easy to tell them and their stories apart.  And lest I forget, another important character in the story, is Treebeard. He is another CGI character, and his voice by the same actor who plays Gimli, the dwarf, John Rhyes Davies.  But I’ll be honest, I was less impressed with the CGI on him, and his fellow Ents.  Their movement often looks stiff and a mechanical. But I can forgive this because, after all, they were trees, with limbs that were not supposed to bend much.

And while I’m on the subject of things that I didn’t like about the film, which were few, I have to mention how the character of Gimli, always one of my favorites, had been turned into little more than comic relief for the film. This was unnecessary. While he still had his moments of coolness, he was also given a string of one liner jokes that didn’t really need to be there. It just made his character looks silly, while not adding much to the plot.

Another thing that fans of the films didn’t like was that there were more departures from the original books in the Two Towers than there were in The Fellowship of the Ring.  Theoden was not possessed by Saruman.  Aragorn never fell off a cliff to be presumed dead.  Elves did not come to Theoden’s aid at Helm’s Deep.  And Frodo and Sam never went to Osgiliath.  Jackson’s script actually gave a quick nod to that one when Sam exclaims, “By all rights, we shouldn’t even be here.”  But the changes were minor enough that it didn’t detract from the story telling much.  It was still an incredible and worthy episode of the saga, as a whole.

2002 – The Hours











The Hours – 2002

This was a well-made movie.  The drama was intense and deep.  The musical score was superb.  The casting and the acting was top-notch.  There is no denying any of that.  But the film was insufferable.  It was slow as a sloth, way too self-important, and didn’t have an iota of humor to make the difficult drama any more palatable or meaningful.  It was depressing and bleak, yet done to perfection.

The narrative seemed to be a work of art that only the overly-enlightened mind would claim to enjoy.  I keep picturing a snooty art critic in a gallery, staring at a giant canvas in an ornate frame painted entirely white.  As he stares at the avant-garde canvas, he remarks to his colleague, “Stunning, don’t you think?  Absolutely brilliant.  Its stark simplicity seems to encapsulate the emptiness of the universe while at the same time uniting humanity.  The artist is clearly a genius.”

The movie told three stories at the same time, each taking place in a different time period, each following a very different woman.  The first is set in 1941.  Nicole Kidman plays the famous tragic author, Virginia Woolf.  She struggles with her sanity as she writes her final novel, Mrs. Dalloway, even though in reality it wasn’t her final novel, having been written in 1925.  The second takes place in 1951, and stars Julianne Moore, playing the part of Laura Brown.  She is a suburban housewife in Los Angeles with the perfect husband, the perfect child, the perfect home, and who is becoming suicidal with the banality of it all.  The third story, which takes place in 2001, follows Clarissa Vaughan, played by Meryl Streep.  She is a book publisher who is trying to put on a party for her friend, Richard, played by Ed Harris, a poet with AIDS who has won a prestigious award.

The three stories are all linked with nearly invisible threads.  The suicidal housewife is reading the book Mrs. Dalloway, which Virginia Woolf is writing, in which a woman named Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party.  Her son, Richard, is later revealed to be Clarissa’s friend as an adult.  Clarissa, herself, seems to be the live embodiment of the character of Mrs. Dalloway.  Richard even calls her Mrs. Dalloway as a term of endearment.

The act of suicide is also a common theme in each of the stories being told.  In reality, Woolf committed suicide, Mrs. Brown nearly attempts suicide to escape a life she feels is killing her.  And Richard, a man with abandonment issues gained when his mother had left him and his father and newborn sister, commits suicide in front of Clarissa by throwing himself out of a high window.

Like I said, the acting was extraordinary.  How could it not be with such a phenomenal cast?  Even the supporting cast was incredible.  Stephen Dillane played Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s devoted husband, and Miranda Richardson played Vanessa Bell, her loving sister.  John C. Reilly played Mrs. Brown’s husband, Dan, and her son Richard was played by child actor Jack Rovello.  Also, Toni Collette turns in a very memorable performance as Mrs. Brown’s friend who apparently has cancer.  Allison Janney played Clarissa’s lesbian lover Sally Lester, and Claire Danes played her daughter Julia.  And lest I forget, Jeff Daniels played Richard’s former lover, Louis Waters.  With the exception of Jack Rovello, every one of them is known for their superior acting skills, as this film proves.

Now, one of the issues that people seem to have with the film is Nicole Kidman’s fake nose.  Most of what I have read says that people didn’t understand why she was wearing one.  But I can think of two possible reasons.  First, Kidman is a gorgeous Hollywood movie star.  Woolf was rather plain and homely, especially in her later years.  The nose made the actress less beautiful.  Second, Woolf was 59 years old when she drowned herself.  Kidman was 34 years old when the movie was filmed.  That’s a difference of 25 years.  The nose helped to age her.  Unfortunately, there were times when the nose actually looked fake.

Another important aspect of the film was the music.  Philip Glass wrote a haunting and depressing score that seemed to fit the morbid subject matter. Glass is known for his minimalist style of writing.  His music is very repetitive, rarely has a distinct melody, and relies heavily on arpeggiated chord patterns.  It gave the movie a very bleak feel.

According to film critic Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Director Stephen Daldry employs the wonderful things cinema can do in order to realize aspects of The Hours that Cunningham (the source material’s author) could only hint at or approximate on the page. The result is something rare, especially considering how fine the novel is, a film that’s fuller and deeper than the book.”  Really?  The movie is better than the book?  That’s a rare thing, indeed.  The acting was spot-on.  The movie was certainly a work of art.  The cinematography was masterfully done.  The story was remarkably well-crafted. But it was just too slow and depressing.  Watching it and appreciating its beauty is great, but only once.  There will never a need to see it a second time.

2002 – Gangs of New York











Gangs of New York – 2002

This was a good movie that I enjoyed watching.  There were some wonderful performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio.  Even Cameron Diaz had her moments, by which, I’ll admit, I’m a little surprised.  I’ve never considered her to be that good an actress, but she did just fine.  Other notable actors like Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Graham and even Liam Neeson in a smaller role, all did a great job.

The movie is a fictional story that took place around historical events, namely the New York Draft Riots of 1863.  Most of the film, from what I have read, remained pretty true to history, especially with the visuals like the costumes and sets.  Also, the dialects used by the actors were as accurate as director Martin Scorsese could make them.  However, because the central story was fictional, certain events were rearranged to fit it.  For example, according to Wikipedia, in the movie, Chinese Americans were fairly common, though significant Chinese immigration didn’t begin until 1869, and the prominently featured Chinese theatre wasn’t built until the 1890s.  Also, another building that was used was The Old Brewery, which had actually been demolished in 1852.  Minor things, in my book.

The film’s protagonist, played by DiCaprio, is Amsterdam, a young thief, apparently new to New York City.  But secretly, he is the long lost son of Priest Vallon, played by Neeson, who was killed during a previous gang war for control of the slum neighborhood of Five Points in Manhattan.  His murderer was Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, played by Day-Lewis.  Now, after spending his childhood years in an orphanage, Amsterdam is back for revenge.

Other characters like Happy Jack Mulraney, played by Reilly, Johnny Sirocco, played by Thomas, and McGloin, played by Gary Lewis, men who had fought along-side Priest Vallon but survived, are now in the employ, in one way or another, of The Butcher.  He is a hard and evil man who rules the Five Points with an iron fist, using violence and fear to control his territory.

Amsterdam’s plan is to murder the Butcher publicly on the anniversary of his father’s death.  To do this, he works his way into The Butcher’s inner circle and becomes a trusted friend, even going so far as to save his life from an assassination attempt.  Along the way, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful pick-pocket who was once the Butcher’s ward and mistress, Jenny Everdeane, played by Diaz.  But her role was almost superfluous to the main plot.  Sometimes there seemed little reason for her to be there at all.

As I said, the visuals were spot-on and very well depicted.  The costumes were especially notable for their authenticity.  This was the slums, the seedy underbelly of Manhattan in the 1860s.  Everything was dirty and grimy.  Sanitation was substandard, and cleanliness was never a priority.  And I can only imagine how it must have smelled.  I noticed that DiCaprio’s hair always looked unwashed and grimy.

If the movie had any failings, I would say that it was sometimes hard to follow.  Sometimes, especially in the beginning of the film, Scorsese spent very little time explaining who the characters were.  Some scene changes were a little abrupt and jarring.  And near the end, when the big Draft Riot scene began, I didn’t understand some of what was going on.  I didn’t actually know about the Draft Riots and was confused why the union soldiers were mowing down random mobs in the streets.  Also, it was happening at the same time as the gang war and they kept switching back and forth between the gang war and the riot, making things very confusing.

And then there was the music.  Most of it was just fine.  But the story took place in the 1860s.  It was a little jarring when, during the transitional scene between the young Amsterdam being dragged off to the orphanage, and the adult character first walking onto the screen, the music turned to a funky rock number, complete with a modern drum beat and electric guitars.  It didn’t fit the time period and took me out of the moment.  It also came back at the end of the movie where it shows how the Butcher was buried next to Priest Vallon, and the surviving Amsterdam tells of how the two men have been all but forgotten by history.  But then the music makes a little sense as we see New York evolve into the modern era, as the two headstones crumble, and are covered in grass.

The movie was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, but didn’t win any.  The only actor in the film to be nominated for an Oscar was Daniel Day-Lewis.  I thought his performance was very good, but as has become typical for him, it was a little over the top.  Fortunately, that very animated and intense style of acting lent itself very well to both the character and the action. DiCaprio is always good in whatever role he plays.  All in all, the movie was fairly well made, but it lost the top prize to Chicago.

2001 – Moulin Rouge!











Moulin Rouge! – 2001

This movie is pure sensory overload.  The music was over–the-top.  The visuals were crazy, colorful, and unique.  The story was fast-paced.  The narrative was intense, sometimes wildly comical, while at other times devastatingly tragic.  The characters were all ridiculous stereotypes, but the opulence of the production was enough to distract from it.  The special effects were bright sparkly.  The director, Baz Luhrmann, really seemed to have a specific vision that he brought to life.

The movie begins in the year 1900, and we are immediately told that we are about to be given a tragedy.  An obviously distraught man who looks to be caught between drunken tears and suicide, makes his way to his typewriter.  He sits down and begins to write.  He is Christian, played by Ewan McGregor.  His, and consequently, the entire movie’s, catchphrase is shown being typed on the paper: The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return, a line from the jazz number, Nature Boy, made famous by Nat King Cole.  He begins to tell the story of his love, Satine, played by Nicole Kidman.  Yes, a Christian has fallen in love with Satan… sorry, Satine.

Flashback to Christian’s arrival in Paris one year prior.  He falls into the company of a troupe of actors, led by John Leguizamo, playing the part of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  Among the group of actors is a narcoleptic Argentinian, played by Jacek Komen.  Together, they concoct a scheme to get a financial backer by going to the Moulin Rouge and pitching their Bohemian play, Spectacular, Spectacular to Harry Zidler, played by Jim Broadbent.  And to get to him, they decide to set up a meeting with Zidler’s star dancer and prostitute, Satine.

When they arrive at the famous night club, the dangerously exciting and dark underbelly of the city comes to life.  Here is where Luhrmann’s over-the-top vision kicked into overdrive.  The sets, the costumes, the dancers, lights, and the wild atmosphere is splashed onto the screen in quickly shown images, never letting you focus on  any one thing before some other fantastic visual is shoved in your face.

And then there was the music, because the movie, after all, is a musical.  But it had very little original music.  Instead, it unapologetically used modern pop songs, and nothing seemed to be off limits.  It was all mixed together, overlapped, and turned up-side-down.  Everything from The Sound of Music by Rogers and Hammerstein to Rhythm of the Night by DeBarge, from Lady Marmalade by Labelle to Material Girl by Madonna, from Your Song by Elton John to The Show Must Go On by Queen, was used, often in ways you have never imagined.  There is a love medley sung between Christian and Satine that winds its way through twelve love songs from various pop artists like the Beatles, Kiss, Phil Collins, U2, Wings, David Bowie, and Dolly Parton.  So much music was used that it took Luhrmann almost two years to acquire the rights to them all.

Of course, the real investor for the actors turns out to be the very wealthy but evil Duke of Monroth, played by Richard Roxburgh.  Since he has paid for the Moulin Rough to be converted from a dance hall into a theatre, he expects to get Satine as well.  However, Christian’s magical voice makes Satine fall in love with him, and the two begin a passionate affair.  But in the end, none of it matters.  Satine has tuberculosis.  There is tension when the moronic Duke continues to insist on Satine’s compliance and he threatens to have Christian murdered when she resists.  In order to save Christian’s life, she makes him believe she doesn’t love him.  The grand and opulent play, which, of course, mirrors the situation surrounding it, is performed.  The distraught Christian denounces Satine as a whore and turns to go.  But Satine’s love is too strong.  She calls him back just in time to die in his arms.  Christian’s open weeping is heartbreaking to watch.

But aside from the heavy-handed romance, there was, as I mentioned plenty of zany comedy.  The Spectacular, Spectacular sequence in which the play is pitched to the Duke was fun, as was the over-the-top Like a Virgin sequence in which Zidler tries to convince the Duke of how much Satine really wants him.  The comedy certainly left me smiling, just as the tragedy brought tears to my eyes.  And there was a certain amount of risqué sexiness to everything.  Roxanne, by the Police, was turned into a slow and sexually charged tango, in which the narcoleptic Argentinian tells Christian why he should have never loved with a prostitute in the first place.

Sure, the ending was a little predictable, but that made it no less enjoyable to watch.  If you are a fan of musicals, this one was a uniquely wild ride from beginning to end.  The casting was perfect.  McGregor was wonderful as the innocent young man who fell head-over-heels in love with the experienced courtesan.  Boradbent was wonderful, as was Leguizamo.  And I should also make note of one of the other dancers at the Moulin Rouge, whose character is listed as Nini Legs in the Air, Caroline O’Connor.  Sure, her character was annoying, but she was supposed to be, and the actress played it perfectly.   Great job everyone!