Wordcount 4030

November 2001 Reviews
Opinions by Ronald Bruce Meyer
-- Peculiar Views of Movies and the Arts --

my movie collection


= in cinema  = on DVD  = on videotape  = on TV  = book

Christopher Lambert as Vercingetorix...
and the infamous "do"

Druids (2001) star

Reviewed 2001-12-21
: I'm trying to find something good to say about Druids, which is marketed as Vercingétorix in Europe. (Yeah, that title will get them lining up at the cinema!) I don't think the film could have done worse. In fact, it went straight to video, where, if we are lucky, it will go straight to oblivion. It didn't have to be that way. This could have been Braveheart vs. Ancient Rome. But there are just too many problems with Druids to reclaim it for posterity.

First, the story -- and it's pretty exciting as Julius Caesar records it in his "Gallic Wars," which I studied years ago in Latin class. History is always recorded by the winners, so a lot of what went on in the Gallic camps is supposition, though JC was pretty generous: for an imperialist, he had good character. Vercingetorix, who died in 46 BCE, was a Gallic chieftain who dreamed of uniting the rival tribes of Gaul under his leadership. The acute accent in the foreign title (Vercingétorix) must be a modern French thing, since the Gauls were illiterate and Caesar did not write with this late invention (the name is pronounced vur.sin.JET.uh.rix). Anyway, nothing unites rivals like a common enemy, so when Caesar's legions attempt their Gallic conquest in 60 BCE, Vercingetorix is elected leader of the defenders and avoids battle at all costs! The strategy was brilliant, in fact: he avoids battle until the terrain and the timing are favorable, then hits and runs. These unfamiliar tactics frustrate Caesar and, combined with his enemy's scorched earth policy -- so the legionnaires can't live off the land as they pursue the Gauls -- nearly leads to victory.

But in 52 BCE Vercingetorix shuts himself inside the fortified town of Alesia, near present-day Dijon, and summons all his Gallic allies to attack the besieging Romans. But Caesar is experienced at the siege and not only builds siege works outside the walls, shutting off the Gauls from replenishing their month's supply of food, but builds siege works against the allies he knows are on their way. Vercingetorix is defeated and is forced to surrender. Everyone behaves quite nobly throughout, (Caesar writes these words from his enemy: "The Romans have not won by superior courage or in fair fight...but by their expert knowledge of siegecraft, a special technique that we were unacquainted with."), though in the postscript it is noted that Caesar had Vercingetorix publicly beheaded as part of his triumph five years later.

Now, the problems. The actor playing the role of Vercingetorix is Christopher Lambert, who has very modest talent to begin with, and hasn't been in a good film since the Highlander (1986). He does not redeem himself in this film: he is simply not strong enough to carry the character. One actor who is strong enough seems lost, and his talent wasted, in a role that added nothing to the story: Max von Sydow as Guttuart. The love interest, Epona (Inés Sastre), was easy on the eyes but pure window dressing. Maria Kavardjikova as the sword master Rhia at least added something to the plot; she distracted a guard by flashing her excellent breasts and served as some kind of adviser to Vercingetorix. The biggest disappointment, however, was Klaus Maria Brandauer as Julius Caesar. He was neither larger than life, nor really interesting to watch, and I know he has more talent than was on display in this film.

In fact, the film itself managed to make an exciting confrontation... boring. (Well, OK, it was fun to watch the village women flash the Roman soldiers from the walls!) I really fought with myself over this one: I give a movie a chance, and even if I think it's awful I watch it all the way through. But if you start right off giggling at the hero's hairdo, you're really not going to take the film seriously. Druids is a worthy story poorly told.

The Crimson Rivers (2001) starstar

Reviewed 2001-12-07
: Hey, Americaines! You don't like filmes français? You can't tell a Truffaut from a truffle? Well, here is Les Rivières pourpres for you! Regardez-vous! We can make grisly movies about serial killers, too!

OK, I saw the dubbed version instead of the subtitled one, and I know that's a faux pas majeur, but at least Jean Reno supplied his own voice. And, in fact, Jean Reno, as Commissaire Pièrre Niemans, the jaded Paris detective called in to investigate a series of torture-murders near a remote French university, is the one saving grace in this film. Released under the English title The Crimson Rivers (I couldn't guess what that refers to!), The film begins on a gruesome and totally gratuitous close inspection of a mutilated and decaying corpse. Director Mathieu Kassovitz, who co-wrote the screenplay from the novel by Jean-Christophe Grangé, spares the viewer no gory detail in his camera work. As for the details of the plot, it seems that two detectives, one older (Reno) and one younger (Vincent Cassel as Max Kerkerian), investigate separate crimes whose trails keep intersecting -- and pulling them back to this isolated and inbred university called Guernon, located in the snowy mountains.

So maybe this film is Hannibal meets Cliffhanger. Reno is fascinating to watch, showing us that even a man who has seen it all can still be moved, and never losing his principles while chasing perpetrators. Cassel cuts a dashing figure, but he doesn't dazzle. Nadia Farès as the mountain-scaling student at Guernon has a difficult role and pulls off half of it well -- the student part, that is. I even enjoyed the brief appearance of Dominique Sanda as Sister Andrée, who I remember primarily because her birthday is the same day and year as mine. The camera work in the mountains was impressive and was reminiscent not of an Alpine picture postcard but of a menacing place where you could disappear all too suddenly.

That's on the plus side. But I found the motive for the multiple murders unconvincing, and it was so hard to watch the few scenes in which corpses were displayed, some missing eyes and hands, that I think there is little reward for sitting through this film except for the strong presence of Jean Reno. The Crimson Rivers seems to delight in the disgusting.

Elisabeth and friend
on the set of
Save the Last Dance

Elisabeth Oas at Eisenhower Library (2001)

Reviewed 2001-12-03
: I got her picture! I shook hands with a movie star!

Ahem... OK, I'm calm now. But I did hear and see Elisabeth Oas talk about what a professional actress does to make herself a success on stage and screen. You may remember I reviewed her performance in the film Save the Last Dance (2001). Here she was, in person, telling a room-sized audience of mostly high-school students about her experiences. Where was she when I was starting out? Oh, right -- she wasn't born yet! But she gave great advice to the attentive young people who are just starting out in the biz. If I had known then what I know now, as Ms. Oas said, I'd be a lot further along in my career. I've said that many times myself.

Elisabeth Oas has some advantages: she's young and looks younger, she's pretty and "reads" well on screen, and -- did I mention she's also talented? I've worked with her before, too: on stage in the Chicago production of "Bettie Page Uncensored," about which I wrote an essay. Great talent is not a requirement for getting into movies, but it sure helps if you want to be successful in the long term. Elisabeth has been in a number of films, as you can read on her official website, but Save the last Dance, largely filmed in Chicago, is the biggest one you can see right now.

She showed us a clip from the film and talked a little about her experiences on the set. She took questions from the audience and signed autographs. Even one for me (see picture)! And she kept her audience spellbound. Even me. Ms. Oas is very "real" young woman. She doesn't sugar-coat the realities of showbiz -- the expense, the relentless ego bruising, the long gaps between well paying jobs, the need for back-up employment -- in fact, one piece of advice I've taken to heart is, "Learn to tend bar" -- but instead of being cynical, as she might have been, it is clear that Elisabeth Oas was born to the craft, is passionate about it, and would never do anything else.

A few words about my association with Elisabeth (yes, that's how she spells it): I met her early in 2000 when we started rehearsals for the second run of Michael Flores's stageplay "Bettie Page Uncensored." She had performed a successful run of the show -- indeed, she created the title role -- the preceding fall (1999), so she was a veteran and the only returning member of the original cast. Her confidence and competence in portraying the pin-up icon inspired me (well, OK, she was easy on the eyes, too!), and we performed about 10 shows together before she had to move on to another project. Elisabeth's take on the character stressed a different aspect of the enigmatic personality: not only could we see that Bettie was an accidental feminist pioneer who made that 1950s "man's world" her own world, but we get a hint -- only a hint, but a deftly played one -- of Bettie's slip into a mental unbalance that marked the end of her modeling career and her disappearance from public life. For an actress to accomplish this subtle personality disorder, and at the same time be thoroughly likable and easy to work with, is remarkable. But Elisabeth is remarkable!

America's sweethearts...
John Cusack (as Eddie)
Catherine Zeta-Jones (as Gwen)
Julia Roberts (as Kiki)

America's Sweethearts (2001) starstar

Reviewed 2001-12-01
: Gwen Harrison and Eddie Thomas are Hollywood's charmed couple. They co-star in popular films and are married to each other in their off-screen life... until Gwen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) takes up with a lisping Latino lover of modest magnitude (Hank Azaria). As a result, Eddie (John Cusack) goes off the deep end and tries to kill them with his motorcycle. Eddie gets institutionalized, under the care of a nonsensical wellness guru (Alan Arkin). Their estrangement turns the public against Gwen, who is ministered by her sister-assistant, Kiki (Julia Roberts), a wallflower recently transformed into a rose, who secretly adores Eddie. Now if Eddie and Gwen don't get back together, their latest film together may be a flop -- that is, if anyone can ever pry the unseen film out of megalomaniac director Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken), who is holed up editing it in the Unabomber's cabin! To avert disaster, studio head Dave Kingman (Stanley Tucci) begs recently fired publicist Lee Phillips (Billy Crystal) to arrange a press junket and bring America's sweethearts back together, at least for the show.

Just your normal week in Hollywood, right? I think America's Sweethearts is about expectations: we expect the impossibly beautiful Gwen (Zeta-Jones) to be a self-centered bitch; we expect Kiki (Roberts) to morph from ugly duckling to beautiful swan; we expect lovesick Eddie (Cusack) to eventually choose the right woman; we expect Lee to save the day. What we don't expect, at least from writer-producer-star Billy Crystal, is a disjointed comedy whose whimsical, satirical parts don't add up to a whimsical, satirical whole -- such as, say, The Player did. Hollywood movies about Hollywood movies aren't usually popular, even when they're well made, but America's Sweethearts is missing something.

I am more than a little troubled by the recurring Hollywood theme, applying especially to women, that all you need to get the man of your dreams, or success, or whatever it is you want -- is a make-over. That said, I can tell you I enjoyed parts of America's Sweethearts. The performances, individually, were excellent (including a brief moment when Larry King browbeats Gwen on his show). Julia Roberts was the best I've seen her since Pretty Woman (and that includes her Oscar-winning performance in Erin Brockovitch). Cusack and Zeta-Jones work well together -- and the opening film clips of the Gwen and Eddie films were a hoot, not only because of their absurdity but because Eddie is such a lousy kisser! But beyond saying that this film is occasionally funny, sometimes cute, and somewhat romantic -- and therefore worth a look -- America's Sweethearts looks like a dog.

At least the dog liked Billy Crystal!

Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.

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