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Emperor's Club, 21 Grams, In America

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  • Noel Vera
    Three times the inspiration Noel Vera It never rains but it pours. Last few weeks we ve had Pelikula at Lipunan 2004, Cinema Paraiso 2004, and now three
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 27, 2004
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      Three times the inspiration

      Noel Vera

      It never rains but it pours. Last few weeks we've had "Pelikula at
      Lipunan 2004," "Cinema Paraiso 2004," and now three new pictures
      with serious themes, presumably meant to inspire the viewer, two of
      which are from filmmakers of talent.

      "The Emperor's Club"

      Michael Hoffman's "The Emperor's Club" has perhaps the most
      interesting storyline of the three, with Kevin Kline playing William
      Hundert, a longtime classics professor and bachelor teaching in St.
      Benedictus' School for Boys, an expensive prep school.

      You could almost see where this is going--"Dead Poet's Society"
      redux, with the students climbing on top of their desks, this time
      for Kline--only it doesn't quite go there. Hundert develops an
      interest in the academic career of Sedgewick (Emile Hirsch), an
      underperforming student who suddenly shows signs of diligence and
      interest, to the point of bending the rules to allow the boy to
      enter the Mr. Julius Cesar contest (a sort of prep-school version
      of "Jeopardy!"). When he finds out the true secret of Sedgewick's
      success (he cheats), Hundert quietly edges him out of the contest;
      years later Sedgewick as a rich man comes back to make an
      interesting proposalÂ…

      The movie's message is hardly fresh (the conflict between honesty
      and ingenuity and where to draw the line); its approach is too
      straightforward, with too few sides to the characters (Sedgewick is
      charming if caddish; Hundert all integrity yet inflexible; the rest
      of the students and cast are indistinguishable, except for Harris
      Yulin as the appalling Senator Bell). Its virtues are mainly
      negative--no heroic tribute to the departing teacher, no moments of
      high drama--while giving us little idea what else a teacher's movie
      can be (Come to think of it, what else can they be other than flatly
      earnest message flicks that earn Oscars? The only recent exception I
      can think of is Zhang Yimou's eloquently spare "Not One Less"--
      which, significantly, was never even nominated).

      Of the three films, "Emperor's Club" is also the most visually
      uninteresting; Hoffman probably adopted this non-style to better
      show the film's sincerity. Seems to me a little insincere
      showmanship would help this rather dry fare go down easier. Still,
      there is the plot, with its fairly interesting twists, its stubborn
      insistence on not doing the done thing; and there's Kline, with his
      equally stubborn insistence on giving a crisply textured
      performance, one that doesn't ask for easy sympathy.

      "21 Grams"

      Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "21 Grams" is basically "Amores Perros
      Goes To America"--multiple stories linked by a tragic car accident,
      shot mostly in gritty verite style with lots of handheld camera
      footage.

      Inarritu isn't exactly doing fresh work: car-accident-linking-
      stories was the engine that drove "Amores," only there he was on the
      familiar ground of Mexico City, where he knew the milieu and
      characters well enough to present them persuasively (perhaps only
      the homeless assassin was unbelievable). Here he seems far less
      confident, relying on flashbacks and flash-forwards to distract us
      from the fact that the story is basically absurd, needing yet
      another tragic accident to tie everything up. Apparently Inarritu,
      like Gaspar Noe with his emptily provocative "Irreversible,"
      realized he didn't have much of a movie if he didn't jumble up the
      time scheme.

      It's worth watching for Inarritu's signature filmmaking style (which
      can get tired quickly if you have low tolerance for this sort of
      thing; my limit just about covers this picture and that's it) and
      for the consistently excellent acting. Sean Penn as the heart
      transplant patient I find better and far more understated than as
      the grieving father in Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" (I suppose it
      helps that his character has a weak heart); Benicio del Toro as the
      hit-and-run driver blows Penn away without much effort (he just has
      to stand there and you forget all about Penn); and Naomi Watts as
      wife and mother of the accident victims pretty much holds the movie
      (and my interest) together with her emotional (and literal)
      nakedness. Of the supporting cast Melissa Leo as Penn's girlfriend
      and Charlotte Gainsbourg as del Toro's wife were especially good
      (and hot).

      "In America"

      Jim Sheridan's "In America," about a family of Irish immigrants who
      settle in New York, is more easily likeable than "21 Grams"--not so
      much because it's less violent or more uplifting, but because it has
      a linear story able to build and accumulate on what went on before
      (I thought "21 Gram's" narrative too jumbled to build much of
      anything).

      That said, a lot of the picture is sticky-sentimental and anything
      to do with Djimon Hounsou as Mateo, the artist-giant dying of AIDS
      is plain embarrassing. The opening sequence alone is problematic--
      the family waits to cross the United States border, the immigration
      officers sense something wrong, Johnny (Paddy Considine) mentions
      while answering questions that the family had lost a child some time
      back, the officers feel sorry, and let them pass. That was when I
      knew the movie was going to be pure malarkey--immigration officers
      never feel sorry for anyone. Well, maybe white people.

      This is another one you'll probably sit through for the visual
      texture (which I liked better than Inarritu's--more confident, less
      gimmicky) and performances. Considine's Johnny, the family
      patriarch, is an intriguing mix of Irish hothead and fatherly charm;
      Samantha Morton as Sarah, the mother, has an off-putting crewcut,
      but her warmth grows on you. Sarah Bolger as Christy, the elder
      daughter--yes she's terrific, but her statement ("I carried this
      family since Frankie died") threw me off: when did we see this
      happening? At what point in the movie did the whole family depend on
      her? If anyone carried the family it's Sarah; Christy only turns
      tragic and thoughtful towards the end. Sure, she does voiceover
      narration for most of the picture--but I've never liked voiceovers,
      especially not when they're meant to add "depth" and "meaning" to a
      movie.

      I know this is a personal project for Sheridan--he wrote this with
      his daughters, basing the character of the dead son on his real-life
      brother, who died in childhood. It's possible that he was too close
      to the picture to realize not everyone is going to fall instantly
      and hopelessly in love with his characters and story; it's possible
      that, for this picture at least, he lacked judgment, a fatal flaw
      for any artist.

      (First published in Businessworld, February 20, 2004)

      (Comment? Email me at noelbotevera@hotmail)
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