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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

The Best of Friends, Volumes 3 & 4

Again, it’s an end-of-month archival expansion here at Shared Darkness, ergo this DVD review of a Friends compilation set, originally published upon its release in 2001. To wit:

If you have no friends or just prefer the tremendously telegenic lookers of NBC’s eponymous hit sitcom over your own, fear not, for The Best of Friends, Volumes 3 and 4 features 10 more episodes from the series’ first six seasons. Billed as episodes voted the best by both fans and the series’ creators, this attractively packaged set nicely mixes installments that give each of the stars of Friends some time in the spotlight, with each episode including previously unaired footage. While the lack of strict adherence to chronology may irk some, this tack actually allows for the pleasure of watching haircuts change and characters develop without sitting through several entire seasons worth of shows.

At first a show built around simple types, obvious jokes and telegraphed conceits (albeit delivered in a very talented and good-looking way), Friends has really grown throughout its super-successful run. Even if its situations are still sometimes a bit transparent, its layered comedy has really enriched the characterizations. This DVD set includes a 40-minute behind-the-scenes documentary from 1999 that takes viewers all the way through the show, from writing, script development and set construction to shooting with a live studio audience. It does not, however, answer one crucial question. How many promotional photos have these six taken together? The world may never know. B (Shows) B (Discs)

The Golden Bowl

Again, it’s an end-of-month archival expansion here at Shared Darkness, ergo
this DVD review of The Golden Bowl, originally published upon its release in the wintry holiday months of 2001. To wit:

The
Golden Bowl is a sumptuously costumed, comfortably bloated and generally well-acted
affair that, curiously, doesn’t elicit much of a response. An intricately
plotted tale of thwarted love and betrayal set between 1903 and 1909, The Golden Bowl tells the story of
extravagantly wealthy American widower Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) and his
sheltered daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale). Adam spends most of his time
collecting precious works of art for his planned museum in what is always
referred to as only an “American city.” By chance — and perhaps something
more — they both marry at the same time, only to discover that their respective
spouses, a beautiful but clingy former friend of Maggie’s named Charlotte Stant
(Uma Thurman) and an impoverished Italian aristocrat named Prince Amerigo
(Jeremy Northam), are romantically entangled with one another.

It’s this
foursome, pairing off in all sorts of different and interesting ways, that
serves as the strength of The Golden Bowl.
Nolte delivers an intelligent, mannered performance, and Northam is a talented
actor and fine as rain here, though it remains a bit disconcerting throughout
the film’s running to watch him portray a born-and-bred Italian. Finally,
Beckinsale pokes through the emotional mutedness of both the times and the
script; we see her passion and desire, even if the character of Maggie is often
a puzzlingly reactive figure. So, to recap: decent screenplay, superb acting,
fantastic set design and photography — then why doesn’t this movie feel great?
Well, at two hours and 10
minutes, it is a bit long. But mainly it’s just that the metaphors deployed are
fairly obvious and the slow, played-out peacocks’ dance of romantic discovery
and recrimination that the film puts on display a bit tiresome
. Fans of the
actors involved may likely find this adaptation a Golden experience; others, however, may want to get to the bottom
of another Bowl. Still, the
widescreen DVD transfer, with both English 5.1 and French 2.0 audio, does a
fantastic job of capturing Tony Pierce-Roberts’ cinematography, particularly in
glorious establishing sequences at the Verger estate in Fawns and the Palazzo
Ugolini. Other air-quote extras are fairly sparse, with only scene selection, biographies,
subtitles and the movie’s theatrical trailer. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C (Movie) C- (Disc)

A Beautiful Mind

Again, it’s an end-of-month archival expansion here at Shared Darkness, ergo this review of 2001’s Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, originally published upon its theatrical release. To wit:

If genius presupposes the question, seeing the answer before the query or even the full diagnosis of the problem, we in movies rarely get a sense of that quicksilver interior monologue — the ambition, ideas and concepts that drive and motivate great inventors, scientists, mathematicians and writers. Most directors, after all, aren’t geniuses. Most studio execs aren’t geniuses. And certainly audiences aren’t comprised of geniuses — the grosses of Tomb Raider proved that.

Hence when films about genius are made, we’re usually fed cloying or melodramatic stories about compartmentalized brilliance — people with amazingly specialized knowledge but flagrantly miserable personal lives or relationships — the point of which, one assumes, is simply to reaffirm the humanity of those viewed as occupying the ivory tower. “See,” the filmmakers say, “this person isn’t really better than you — their talent comes at the expense of other desirable, mutually exclusive traits.”

Russell Crowe, the film is based on the life story of John Nash, a very real and very brilliant mathematician who battled schizophrenia and later triumphed, going on to win the Nobel Prize. Of course, his genius does comes at the expense of other qualities (talking to the opposite sex is an amusing weak point), but the grand point of the film is that it doesn’t necessarily have to, and Howard and Crowe convey this in a manner that is utterly lacking in condescension or vanity.

A West Virginia native who wins a prestigious scholarship to Princeton, Nash arrives on campus with the idea that there is a crystalline architecture to the universe that we all only briefly glimpse. He’s dogged in his pursuit of an original idea, and his theory of governing dynamics, refuting Adam Smith and centuries of philosophy, breaks bold new ground. Despite his BMOC reputation, Nash largely keeps to himself, socializing mainly with his English Lit major roommate Charles (Paul Bettany). After graduation, he accepts a teaching and research post at MIT, where he meets Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), a student who draws him out of his shell and provides a platform of continuity from which Nash can better relate to the outside world. While at MIT, Nash is contacted by William Parcher (Ed Harris) of the Department of Defense, and so also begins doing some secret code-breaking work for the Pentagon. But the stress and detail of his work proves too much, and Nash cracks. Without giving too much away, it suffices to say that the film’s advertising campaign involves a fair amount of ingenious misdirection, with the real arc of A Beautiful Mind simply being: genius, madness, Nobel Prize. Yet filmgoers are unlikely to feel ripped off or lied to, since Nash’s “diet of the mind,” in which he says he chooses simply not to indulge certain appetites, proves as exciting and interesting as any thriller plot element.

Akiva Goldsman’s script, adapted very loosely and liberally from Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nash, is by far his best writing that I can recall, and one of the best screenplays of the year. The dialogue crackles and Nash’s fellow students and later co-workers Sol and Bender (Road Trip’s Anthony Rapp and indie staple Adam Goldberg) are particularly clearly drawn and delightfully witty (“He’s your son,” mutters an exasperated Sol of Nash at one point). If some of the other characters are more cloak-and-dagger, it’s with good reason.

Of course, Goldsman also has the advantage of two top-shelf talents. Crowe delivers another Oscar-caliber performance of courage, intensity and wit, his ferocious intellectual curiosity shining through. Connelly, meanwhile, is equally remarkable. Opposite Crowe you need an actress who can emotionally take charge of scenes (hint: not Meg Ryan), whether from a position of power or not, and Connelly absolutely does. Their exceptional work, along with Howard’s sterling, even-handed direction make A Beautiful Mind a beautiful thing. For an interview/feature piece on the film, click here. (Universal, PG-13, 135 minutes)

Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee is an inspirational
drama powered by template familiarity and an abundance of earnestness. The
winner of the 2000 Nicholl Fellowship, a screenwriting competition sponsored by
the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, writer-director Doug
Atchison’s film pulls heartstrings effectively if frequently deliberately, but
locates genuine feeling with such sincerity
that it stands poised to catch fire
with early summer niche audiences open to emotive counter-programming in the
face of an onslaught of bigger-budget flash.

While a very different type of movie, one of the things last
summer’s documentary smash March of the
Penguins
proved was there is a market for heartfelt, broad-audience films
outside of the more traditional, big studio family fare. Though lacking that
film’s novelty, Akeelah and the Bee
could easily emerge as a low-lying, long-playing arthouse success, given proper
coddling and circumstance.

The film’s plot is a relatively straightforward and
chronological telling of personal triumph, charting the progression of Akeelah
Anderson (newcomer Keke Palmer, above), a bright but somewhat shy 11-year-old girl, through
a handful of city and regional contests to the national finals in Washington,
D.C.
An excellent student with spotty
attendance, Akeelah hails from one of the poorer school districts in Los
Angeles
, and is goaded into entering her class’
spelling bee by her principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), who’s desperate to
affect change and improve his school’s image.

Despite the objection of her mother Tanya (Angela Bassett),
Akeelah presses forward with the guidance and assistance of Mr. Welch’s friend,
forthright former college professor Dr. Josh Larabee (Laurence Fishburne). As she
meets and befriends fellow competitors that have in some cases been training
for years, Akeelah overcomes self-doubt and rallies the proud residents of her
community behind her, scoring a spot in the finals and competing for the
championship.

Some of the film is shot on location, helping give it a
rooted sense of place. While not gritty by any means, these passages help
highlight the difference between Akeelah’s world and the more privileged
upbringing of her fellow contestants. The film is likewise studded with
occasional, incisive dialogue that helps underline the racial and class divides
under the microscope
, such as when Akeelah says to her principal of Dr.
Larabee, “He lives in this neighborhood? I thought you said he was important.”

While the movie is less successful in its conveyance of the
passage of time (it ostensibly takes place over the course of a year), Atchison
succeeds in the savvy casting of the kids’ roles, and his work with them.
Palmer deserves special praise for her natural work as Akeelah; she brings a
real sympathy to a role that could be cloying if just played for precocity
.
It’s young JR Villarreal, though — as Javier, an outgoing fellow contestant who
develops a crush on Akeelah and helps root her onward in only the manner that a
peer can — who steals the show.

Fishburne and Bassett, reunited from What’s Love Got to Do With It, do not share many scenes together,
but each successfully fulfill their function within the narrative. As a
professor still emotionally damaged by the loss of his own child and wife,
Fishburne approximates mournful gravitas chiefly through equally clipped and
hushed tones, a technique he’s plied many times before. In the more difficult
but better sketched role, Bassett must show both a single mother’s tough love
as well as a yielding realization that Akeelah needs her unconditional support.
That the film doesn’t force a love connection between the two is appreciated. (Lions Gate, PG, 112 mins.)

The Net 2.0


I’m not quite sure what the point, per se, of a movie called The Net 2.0 is when none of the stars of the first film are back, it doesn’t continue the story through the same characters, and your two above-title leads are… Nikki DeLoach (television’s North Shore) and Demet Akbag (gesundheit!). And while the 1995 original grossed more abroad than it did Stateside ($59 million to $50 million), it’s not even like The Net was that big of a hit.

Still, more than any other studio, Sony has been aggressive in cranking out straight-to-video sequels of even relatively high-end flicks of every type of genre (Wild Things, Hollow Man, The Cutting Edge, The Sandlot), and now The Net 2.0 is up to bat, serving as a European film school for director Charles Winkler (son of Irwin, director of the first film) and others.

The plot centers on Hope Cassidy (DeLoach), a beautiful computer expert who travels to Istanbul (not Constantinople) for what appears to be a perfect gig. She instead ends up caught in a high-tech frame job, her bank account emptied, her name changed on official documentation and someone else having slid up her awaiting position. After having unsuccessfully attempted to convince boyfriend James (Neil Hopkins) to accompany her, she finds herself alone and in Turkish prison, something anyone even casually familiar with Midnight Run will tell you is bad news. Hope must then use brains and beauty — along with the assistance of a mysterious cab driver and a flight attendant — to unravel the mystery, uncover the truth about what’s happening to her and get her good name back.

The film opens with a fleet-footed chase sequence and then liberally indulges in a flashback structure that sets up everything I’ve just mentioned and shows Hope arguing her case with Dr. Kavak (Akbag). Filmed entirely on location in Istanbul (the first American movie to do so, its producers note), The Net 2.0 achieves a certain mad-dash production value, lensing at and around the Blue Mosque, Souzer Plaza and many other beautiful buildings. Unfortunately, its visual palette is still relatively cramped owing to its obviously breathless production schedule, and the story itself is of only moderate intrigue. The lack, too, of more even passably recognizable faces in supporting roles makes this a tough sell on this side of the Atlantic. DeLoach is attractive, but doesn’t radiate the same sort of sympathetic girl-next-door imperilment as Sandra Bullock in the original film, making The Net 2.0 a relatively senseless update.

Housed in a single-disc Amaray case, The Net 2.0 comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen that preserves its original aspect ratio, and the transfer is actually pretty solid, with nice differentiation in colors and an attendant lack in grain. While the film is at times a bit over-edited for my liking and duly over-reliant on close-ups and two-shots, cinematographer Steven Douglas Smith does a good job of capturing Istanbul exteriors with minimal or no lighting set-up. Only the movie’s dank interrogation scenes are awash in the murky inconsistencies of multiple-hued grey.

An English language 5.1 Dolby mix anchors The Net 2.0, and cleans up many of the audio problems you might expect from a budgeted film of this level with a good amount of outdoor shooting. Dialogue is clear and consistent, and the action incorporates just enough rear channel effects to give these scenes a significant depth. Dolby surround tracks in French and Spanish are also available, alongside a Portuguese 5.1 track. Subtitles are available in a wide variety of languages, including English, Chinese, French, Portuguese, Korean and Spanish.

With a buffet of bonus previews for other Sony releases, The Net 2.0‘s one supplemental extra is a lively, breathlessly paced feature-length audio commentary track with director Winkler and writer-producer Rob Cowan. Between the two they cover all manner of production minutiae on the 24-day shoot, and if the film were better it would possibly rate as worthy of a repeat listen.

If there’s a through-line here, it’s about the difficulty of the production and dealing with a variety of Turkish actors (only three American actors were brought over) and Russian stuntmen, many of whom speak no English. Winkler even lets slip that the line producer, production manager and rest of production team quit several days before the start of principal photography in a fit of pique over “lack of organization, or accusations of a lack of organization or whatever.” With a paucity of extras, too, Winkler and Cowan both pop up on screen, and virtually every other member of the production team seems to grab some background time as well. At one point, Winkler shares one story of a mental patient at a location shoot that grabbed him and licked his face, and another anecdote includes the art department botching a scene set-up that leads to an expensive post-production fix. This falls in with an overall frank discussion of cultural differences and loss of nuances in which dirty laundry is aired, but never in a particularly nasty manner.

Overall, The Net 2.0 is a mediocre film enlivened by a commentary track that is no-holds-barred but also not overly spiteful. Winkler and Cowan are both aware of the type of film they made, and cop to shortcomings when noticeable but also talk about several ingenious, on-the-fly fixes. That said, there’s little of note in the actual product itself to get excited about other than the locale. Techno-thriller fans or those looking for a Turkish travelogue may spark to The Net 2.0, but others will want to sidestep its latticework. C (Movie) C (Disc)