When it was released in 2003 it met with an abundance of negative reviews, quickly fell of the radar, and many claim it almost completely destroyed Meg Ryan’s career. I just don’t understand! Meg Ryan gives a pitch perfect performance – she is nothing short of a revelation and has never been better. When I watch this film I don’t see Meg Ryan. I see Frannie Avery – a teacher, a writer, a fully realized, living, breathing woman with a rich inner life. This is much more than just an actress venturing outside of her comfort zone – this is phenomenal work that quite honestly leaves me in awe. I cannot say enough positive things. Luckily, it speaks for itself.Jennifer Jason Leigh also does her (usual) fabulous thing, playing Frannie’s sister, Pauline. The relationship these two women share feels vitally, achingly, intimately real. The scenes in which it is just the two talking to each other are some of the best moments in the film.In the Cut is without a doubt one of the most uniquely photographed films I’ve ever seen – it is gorgeous and abstract and a marvel to behold. We are presented with a wholly unique and startling vision – images which create a language and a world of their own. Equally sinister and sensual, crystal clear and distorted. But it isn’t just pretty to gawk at – the look of the film is an essential component in a work which deals with varying themes of vision – what we see, how we see it, how we interpret it, how we are impacted by it.The film benefits from the participation of Susanna Moore (the author responsible for the equally splendid novel that inspired this film) who co-wrote the script with Jane Campion. When I first heard the ending of the novel had been discarded and deemed “unfilmable” I felt it was a major cop out and I was disappointed. The ending of the novel, in all of its bleak tragedy, was the only ending I could imagine to this story. Well, it turns out I do like the film’s ending. While one could surely complain that it is nothing buck a tacked on conventional Hollywood climax, they wouldn’t be exactly right. I don’t think the novel’s ending would have worked here. The ending we get instead is a beautifully skewered, off balance tweaking of conventional thrillers. This film knows the rules but skirts the line. It is an ending the film most certainly earns and it never feels trite or forced. Indeed it reminds us that this sort of climax can be pulled off when done properly. While this film does in some instances deviate greatly from the source material, it still FEELS like a faithful adaptation – they get so much right and while the two are in the end very different, they beat with the same heart. This the film most effectively succeeds in capturing – the heart, the spirit – of the story. I’ve rarely seen an adaptation that has done this so well.Many naysayers have derided the film for failing to follow the prototype of the standard police/serial killer procedural. I find that complaint petty and baseless. There are crime scenes, there is violence, there are continual threats and red herrings thrown at our heroine, there are bodies discovered, there is blood. The reason we are not fully immersed in the investigation is not because it is an inconsequential conceit, but because the main character is not a police officer – she is not working to solve the case – she is on the outside, and so this, too, is where we are. I think In the Cut does work as a thriller and one that is ultimately more tantalizing and intriguing because of the emotional investments. I didn’t want the film to be overtaken by the mechanics of the investigation. It isn’t necessary and it would not work.I think people were expecting this to be something it wasn’t. For some strange reason Jane Campion appears to be seen as a director who coddles, who soothes, who pacifies. In the Cut has none of that. Meg Ryan isn’t playing her usual perky romantic role and critics and audiences largely rejected her portrayal of a serious, intelligent woman. I’ve already said that I think she is quite amazing and I cannot imagine anyone who would have done better. The enticement of Meg Ryan appearing nude was a subject of major fixation before the film even made it into theatres. I can see that if one goes into this expecting something along the lines of Seven with a naked Meg Ryan frolicking about, that they would be blindsided.
The ravages of love, the cost of of it, what price we pay when we cannot love or choose not to – in this film these are things far more deadly than any murderer.One day Frannie returns home to her apartment to find a detective waiting for her. His name is Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) and he is canvassing the neighborhood. A woman was murdered and her head was found in the garden outside Frannie’s window. Malloy intrigues her. Is it because she thinks he is the same man she came upon in a dark downstairs room, when she was looking for the bathroom in a bar? She couldn’t see his face, but he definitely saw her. Malloy has the same tattoo on his wrist that Frannie noticed on that man. The murdered woman wasn’t just murdered, Malloy tells Frannie – she was “disarticulated.” An especially intriguing and horrifying notion for Frannie – she so in love with language, she who is writing a book on slang, some of which her students supply her with.
Frannie has a neurotic, obsessive lover (played by an uncredited Kevin Bacon) who is semi-stalking her – but is he dangerous or just not easily dissuaded?
Malloy finds out that Frannie was in the same bar that the murdered woman was at on the night she was killed. The same bar in fact, where Frannie believes she glimpsed Malloy. He asks Frannie to get a drink with him. Is he dangerous? Does he recognize her? Is he playing some sort of game?I appreciated the relationship between Malloy and his partner Rodriguez (Nick Damici) who carries a water pistol in lieu of a real gun. The interactions between these two men is an especially interesting flip side in contrast to the bond Pauline and Frannie share. The scene in which Frannie and Malloy meet for drinks and attempt to feel each other out is exceptionally well done. The way it turns from Malloy half questioning Frannie again about being at the bar, to him telling her that he can be whatever she wants him to be – a romantic who takes her to a nice restaurant, maybe a best friend who has sex with her – and that the only thing he won’t do is hit her. But as their relationship intensifies and more murders occur, Frannie begins to suspect he is capable of much worse.
Frannie is far from just a repressed old maid. She is strong and sympathetic and most of all, human. She is not stupid. Yes, she takes risks she should not, yes, she sometimes behaves recklessly, and yes, she is not always rational – but who among us isn’t guilty of acting similarly when burning blindly with passion?
Guest Review http://itallhappensinthedark.wordpress.com/
I am Sam (2001)
Before beginning with the review, it’s probably a good idea to repeat the basic plot of I Am Sam, directed by Jessie (Corrina, Corrina) Nelson. Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) is a mentally handicapped man with the mind of a 7-year-old. He also is a devoted single father to a little 7-year-old girl, Lucy (Dakota Fanning), who has just started school and is already beginning to intellectually surpass her father. The school and social services authorities soon become aware of the family’s situation, and Lucy is removed from Sam’s care. Assisted by his group of mentally-challenged friends, Sam approaches high-powered, workaholic attorney, Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) to defend his case in court. Initially dismissive of Sam, Rita is shamed by her co-workers into taking Sam’s case pro bono. In the course of Sam’s fight for Lucy, these two very different people learn a great deal from one another, as well as that when it comes to parenthood, love is the most important thing.
When talking about I Am Sam, there really is no escaping a discussion of performances. In fact, the best thing about I Am Sam is the performances.
With any film that has a mentally-handicapped character in a lead role, the success of the film as a whole depends on how successfully that character is played. Everyone has their own method of gauging these types of performances; for me it’s a case of whether or not I forget that I’m watching an actor on-screen. With Sean Penn, I did. I Am Sam is his film, and he does exceptionally well.Sam Dawson is a grown man with autistic tendencies and the mind of a 7-year old. His life is structured around routines and schedules, and whenever he becomes confused, he resorts to anecdotes to do with his favourite band, The Beatles. He also is a gentle, generous soul, who spends most of his time complimenting people and hugging strangers. Most importantly he adores his daughter, Lucy, who really is the centre of his life. I’ll say here that I Am Sam brought tears to my eyes only once and that was is when Sam is handed his newborn daughter for the first time. A few short scenes later Sam is examining Lucy’s tiny hands and feet with childlike wonder. It is one of Penn’s best scenes in the film, along with his courtroom testimony later on when Richard Schiff’s prosecutor systematically tears down Sam’s confidence in the notion that ‘all you need is love.’There are some critics who have complained that Penn provides nothing new with his portrayal, and I would tend to agree. However at the same time that seems to be the point. Penn hasn’t added anything; he has toned down and removed funny walks and numerous choreographed tics. Instead, his representation, sustained throughout the film, is powered by emotion. Granted, there are moments where Sam comes out with wisdom far beyond his mental abilities most of the time he’s just an incredibly devoted father and underdog struggling against the system, and through life in general. Penn’s portrayal generates feeling for Sam, while at the same time reminding the audience that Sam is a fallible parent.Young Dakota Fanning play’s Sam’s precocious daughter, Lucy, who is beginning to hold back at school so as not to pass her father. Fanning comes across as a very cute, very talented young actress. She is at her best in scenes where her facial expressions are all she has to convey her growing embarrassment towards Sam, such as at the Halloween party and in the restaurant. Then there are Lucy’s desperate, quite stubborn attempts to stay with Sam which Fanning also manages to pull off.
There are moments however, just as with the character of Sam where Lucy’s dialogue and reactions are way beyond what is expected of a seven-year old. This is especially true of Lucy’s court testimony where she is constantly trying to manipulate the adults present, and producing such wordly-wise statements as ‘kids lie all the time.’
This then takes us to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Rita Harrison. For pfans, I Am Sam has both its pros and its cons. On the positive side, it was a pleasure to see Michelle on-screen again after such a long absence. On the negative, this film came after What Lies Beneath, where pfans were spoilt by having Michelle on-screen in essentially every scene. Like I said before, I Am Sam is Sean Penn’s film, and it is through Sam’s consciousness that the story is told. As a result, Michelle is confined to much more of a supporting role than usual. It’s about 45 minutes before Rita even appears for the first time.All this said, I Am Sam’s Rita Harrison is a fun, pro-active role for Michelle. I’ve heard pfans draw comparisons between Rita and One Fine Day’s Melanie Parker, and they’re right. Rita is Melanie on speed. In fact some of Michelle’s best, most enjoyable scenes are early on when Rita is going about her day at its typically frenetic pace. What Michelle gives Rita here is a constant borderline hysteria. Sam and the viewer encounter Rita as a snappish ball-busting career-woman, yelling into her cellphone, cursing, lying, kicking tables, driving like a mad person, dishing out oblique threats, blowing people off and making her secretary cry. And all this doesn’t include a mention of Rita’s strained relationship with her son, and her obvious sweet-tooth- see I Am Sam if only to witness Michelle stuffing marshmallows into her mouth, and copious amounts of jelly beans into her pockets.Of course, this is basically a given, but I think it needs to be mentioned anyway: Michelle looks stunning throughout I Am Sam. After her softer suburban mom roles of the past 5 years or so, this film is a departure, requiring her beauty and glamour to be played up instead of being made to look more ‘ordinary.’ Rita runs around in tailored suits, boots and dark lipstick, and operates against such backdrops as a fancy office with all the techno toys, and a palatial home that stuns both Sam and the viewer when they first encounter it. Michelle looks great. Even in a scene where Rita has to rush to Sam’s defence at 3AM, Michelle’s her sexy tousled self.Some of my other favourite scenes of Michelle’s are typically short (very often too short) and which provide little bits of insight into her character. An example would be when Rita is trying to sweet-talk a response from her son, Willie, over the phone by telling him that she’s bought a bag of his favourite jelly beans. Meanwhile, the camera is focused on her hands as she picks random yellow beans out of a large bowl. Then there’s an amusing sequence where the viewer meets the type of clients Rita deals with on a regular basis- bitter divorcees, neither of whom want custody of their child. It’s an insane situation, and for much of I Am Sam, Rita is the straightman in the midst of insanity. The two best examples of this are of her interviewing Sam’s friends, and later on when dropping Sam’s agoraphobic neighbour Annie (Diane Weist) off at home while Sam is bouncing around on the back-seat of the Porsche.As for the screen relationship between Michelle and Sean Penn, they do work well together. Despite the removal of the love affair between Rita and Sam from the final cut of the film, there are still enough hints present to suggest that the relationship happens. Knowledge of it certainly helps to explain why Rita quite drastically mellows after Sam comforts her. One of my favourite scenes between them remains the court room cafeteria sequence, with Sam attempting to prove that he’s ‘normal’ enough to pay for lunch. The scene becomes increasingly uncomfortable, in fact painful to watch, as Sam struggles with basic arithmetic, and Rita can only look on in silence while the people behind her become increasingly impatient.It’s also with Sam that Rita has her big ‘breakdown’ moment, which means another big monologue for Michelle.Evidently Jessie Nelson, having already co-scripted The Story Of Us, gets a kick out of seeing Michelle do them. I found this one to be far more convincing than the one at the end of Us, although it could easily have been all the more powerful if Michelle’s lines had been halved and she could simply cry instead. For a second opinion of the monologue I turned to my mother, who watched I Am Sam with me. Her response to the breakdown was that it would have been better if Michelle squeezed out some actual tears, because without them she comes across as whiny.That then leaves one final issue to deal with and that is whether or not Michelle’s character is a stereotype. I can only think to say that if Rita Harrison qualifies as a stereotype, then so too does Annette Benning’s performance in American Beauty. In American film today, upper-middle class women, in particular those in the workplace are generally portrayed as being damaged and highly-strung. Granted that Rita is a throwback to those powerful corporate women of the late 1980s, but what is really more clichéd about her is not they way she is played; but rather how it takes an encounter with a mentally-challenged person to change her for the better. Now moving on to the rest of the cast, I Am Sam includes a surprising number of known faces in very small roles. Mary Steenburgen and Brett Spiner all pop up in basic cameos. With limited screen time, Diane Wiest gives a subdued performance as Sam’s neighbour Annie, who plays a large part in explaining how Lucy has emerged as such a intelligent, well-rounded little girl in Sam’s care. She does however inexplicably disappear halfway through the film to have her screen time filled by Laura Dern in the last 45 minutes of the film. Dern occupies the small but necessary role of Lucy’s caring foster mother. And it’s always nice to see her onscreen. Finally there’s Sam’s group of friends; 2 of whom are mentally-challenged in real life. Although Sam’s friends provide comic relief, it’s not simply a case of these people being present to be laughed at. They are chiefly presented as being a devoted support system for Sam, while at the same time striving for their own independence. All 4 turn in convincing performances.
Moving onto other aspects of the film as a whole:
Some people have been jarred by the film’s cinematography. With the exception of one point I didn’t have a problem with it; but then again I didn’t feel ill after seeing The Blair Watch Project. What I had more of a problem with was editing and pacing. Like the camera work the editing attempts to relate to the viewer the way that Sam experiences the world, which is apparently through a series of moments that impact on him. The result for the audience is very short and segmented scenes which often enough would probably work better if they were allowed to play out in their longer, natural state. I Am Sam has its pacing problems for this reason- its 132 minutes are divided uncomfortably between scenes that are way too brief and those that are too long and drawn-out.Another complaint levelled at I Am Sam is that it is manipulative. I personally did not feel any more manipulated than usual and this was two days after seeing Disney’s Snow Dogs. Music plays a big role in provoking emotions, and in I Am Sam the piano certainly wells up in the background during intentionally touching moments. Covers of Beatles songs are incorporated into the film very successfully for this same purpose. The original score however tends to be an annoying constant, with a clapping sound used to accompany the more fast-paced scenes. Many of these involve Rita and tend to drown out dialogue. Many scenes would have been much more powerful without background noise.Very few reviewers have managed to make it through their reviews without presenting their point as to whether a mentally handicapped single parent can or should raise a child. I was therefore expecting I Am Sam to skate over issues, and while it does to a certain degree, there are enough suggestions present for the audience to work with, such as how it really is Annie who gives the toddler Lucy all the developmental stimulation she needs. However, at the same time there are a number of contrived plot occurrences, such as why do the police still book Sam when they discover that he is mentally-challenged, and why on earth does the Starbucks manager let Sam finally make coffee on the same day of his big court appearance? But by the time that the film’s logical and satisfying ending arrives, everything tends to have been smoothed out.
Ultimately I Am Sam is a harmless, pleasant affair, that isn’t going to change the world. It’s generally light and entertaining, and surprisingly not as sugary-sweet as you would expect. Emotional types might still want to take a tissue along with them though, and if you jerk at the sight of product placements you might want to avoid this film altogether.
I Am Sam’s big draw-card is the film’s performances, from Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer and Dakota Fanning respectively. They’re the real reason to see the film, which I give 7 out of 10. Incidentally, my mother gave the film an 8 out of 10, mainly for Sean Penn’s performance.
Guest Review from Noelle