Friday, January 30, 2004

Final Catch-Up Article, I Promise (2003) 

Freaky Friday (Mark S. Waters, 2003) - First off, let's get it out of the way that the whole "Chinese restaurant" business with the "magic fortune cookie" curse with "Asian voodoo" is really fucking stupid. I mean, Jesus, dudes, are we still peddling this old stereotype in the year 2003? Come up with some better writers, etc. Anyway, that off my chest, I can also say that despite the lame/racist device used to set the body-switching plot in motion, Freaky Friday is a relatively good time after that, owing in no small part to the performances of Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, which make the formulaic Disney-channel script sound like inspired stuff. Total fluff otherwise, but it's certainly not the first time that great actors have rescued a film. (Oh, and did I mention the Asian voodoo thing sucked? Okay, good.) B-

The Lizzie McGuire Movie (Jim Fall, 2003) - Um, yeah. I watched it, I admit. It's mostly kinda okay, and this Jim Fall dude isn't a half-bad director, but unlike that of Freaky Friday the made-for-TV cast of Lizzie doesn't have the chops to rescue this thing from formula purgatory. C+

Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003) - It's a good thing we have old stories and tall tales to keep our dreams alive, which is something you'll learn when Big Fish contrasts the dullness of reality (starring Albert Finney and Billy Crudup) with the excitement of fantasy (starring Ewan McGregor). And you'll learn it again when the film does it the next seven times. And again when it trots out a character to explicitly state the theme in no uncertain terms. In other words, I'm a dead horse, and Tim Burton is beating me. There's plenty to admire about Big Fish, and it's actually kind of interesting as a Burton career retrospective (it seems like the director made a conscious effort to reference his own films as much as possible, making Big Fish a potential field day for auteurists) -- but the darkness and weirdness of Burton's vision feels unfortunately flattened and homogenized here (though not as much as in Planet of the Apes, thankfully). It's a little sad that the demented comedian of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice and the unabashed outcast who made Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood now feels content to make comfortable, homey Oscar bait like Big Fish, a film that pounds the pelican on its one point until all of middle America understands. A beautifully-crafted creation, but the heart underneath isn't beating as rapidly as it once did. C+

Girl With a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber, 2003) - It's a good thing Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth are such compulsively watchable screen presences, even when they're not doing much (and believe me, "not doing much" takes up an unfortunately large portion of Girl With a Pearl Earring), and it is a pretty impressive debut by Peter Webber, nicely designed and firmly controlled. Unfortunately, Webber's inexperience also seems to lead him down the road of controlling things too well, so much so that Girl With a Pearl Earring feels more than a little schematic -- you can see the gears turning behind the drama, knowing that all this unspoken passion between Vermeer (Firth) and his lovely maid (Johansson) is going to explode throughout the family at some point, and you're just counting the minutes until it finally happens. I suppose one could argue that this is the point, what with the painterly qualities of the film creating a world in which the characters are trapped by their social boundaries, and on into a great college term paper -- but, you know, the film shouldn't feel like such a term paper, is what I'm saying. B-

In America (Jim Sheridan, 2003) - In America is not without plot holes and logical gaps (for example, the central family is first shown entering the U.S. illegally, and that's the last we hear of that problem), and I probably could've done without the whole supernatural-influence angle described by the barely-needed narration. And I could keep harping on these problems until the cows come home, but that would make it seem like I didn't also find the film very moving. What Jim Sheridan lacks in "big picture" awareness he easily makes up for in "small picture" observation; the family portrayed in In America is one of the most believable movie families I've ever seen, thanks to the roundly terrific performances from Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, and especially the young Bolger sisters. Maybe I'm just a big softie, but it's nice to see a film that, when it looks for a touching/joyous moment, actually finds one. Manipulative? Yeah, but I don't really mind when the manipulation actually works. B

Monday, January 12, 2004

Annual End-of-Year Movie Blitz, Part 2 

The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003) - I'll say this for it -- The Triplets of Belleville is easily the most aggressively weird film I've seen all year. And while the visuals sometimes tend towards the overly-grotesque, the humorous invention and quality animation generally make up for any such problems. Major props to the music (including the terrific theme song, "Swinging Belleville Rendezvous") and the highly effective use of wordless storytelling, with the two of these things, naturally, going hand-in-hand. The film is entirely in French, and there were no subtitles provided for the American release -- because the film doesn't need them. It's propelled not by dialogue, but by a blissfully fanciful stream-of-consciousness story set to a driving jazz/swing soundtrack. Good fun. B+

Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella, 2003) - Cold Mountain starts off with a really great Civil War battle scene, with morally-ambiguous shadings galore, and the cinematography working well with the music to create just the right kind of it's beautiful/horrible dichotomy in the grand tradition of Apocalypse Now. Then the great film threatening to break out disappears under a series of drippy, sentimental scenes in which Jude Law and Nicole Kidman (obviously, totally Southern folk there) moon for each other in a generally passionless and austere environment (it's an award-winning book -- God forbid we infuse the film with any life of its own!). Flashy supporting players like Renee Zellweger and Philip Seymour Hoffman appear to rouse us from our glazed-over expressions, and while it seems Anthony Minghella wants to illustrate a pretty challenging idea -- that these two characters are more in love with an idea of love than they are with each other -- he can't resist playing up the sentiment far too often, letting Gabriel Yared's swooning score go to town and back again. There are some small pleasures to be had, though, particularly in the Southern folk songs that crop up here and there; they're the few times that the film's passion seems to have been placed in the right spot. C+

Peter Pan (P.J. Hogan, 2003) - Apparently Peter Pan had subtext. Who knew? P.J. Hogan certainly does -- his tacky/gorgeous adaptation of the classic children's book contains so much subtext that you're practically suffocating in it. There certainly is a limit to how often we can hear about how Pan remains emotionally stunted because he refuses to grow up, and one gets the feeling that Hogan found it a bit earlier than he wanted to, though it would help if young Jeremy Sumpter were more than simply adequate in the title role (he can hit the emotional notes well enough, just gotta work on bridging them). Still, the film has quite a bit going for it, including the appropriately gaudy production design and bright, lively cinematography (Donald McAlpine, of Moulin Rouge fame, strikes again), Jason Isaacs doing a terrific job as Captain Hook, and a very impressive debut by Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy -- she acts circles around the rest of her young co-stars, and the film finds its emotional core in her mature, grounded work. Despite some pacing and overstuffing problems, it is nice to see a Peter Pan film that doesn't avoid the dark shadings of the story, and indeed, actively seeks them out. B

Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2003) - Ah, here we go. This is the theme Cold Mountain waffled about for 2 1/2 hours, and Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress manages it more effectively in a brisk hour and a half. It's the story of an old Japanese actress, reminiscing about her career and how it was all driven by the attempt to re-connect with a man she once met briefly as a teenager. Gorgeous animation, lovable characters, kaleidoscopic storytelling, a breathless pace that still takes time out for contemplation, and above all, it's properly about the chase: Chiyoko, the titular actress, doesn't know her target any better than her infatuated interviewer knows her, and Kon knows that it doesn't really matter. This was the best animated film of the year and among the best, period. This anime thing is looking pretty bonafide, I think. A-

City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2003) - Once it gets past some of the flashy "Look at me, Ma" filmmaking that mars the first act, City of God is a pretty compelling story about the rise and fall of power within a Brazilian slum. There's a lot of violence, but the quality ensemble performances and touches of humanity make up for that, and the film is certainly never boring. I'd write more, but there's not much else one can say about a film that doesn't say much either, aside from: "All this stuff happened. Yep, it sure did." B

Shattered Glass (Billy Ray, 2003) - It's a serviceable biography of disgraced reporter Stephen Glass' descent into deceit, and for a feature directing debut, Billy Ray's work is remarkably sure-handed. The film knows what it's trying to say, where it's going, and doesn't let itself get muddled. Hayden Christensen is decent in the lead role, but the real revelation here is Peter Sarsgaard as the New Republic editor who is forced to deal with the difficult decision of what to do with Glass -- he steals the film right out from under Christensen's nose. I've heard complaints that Ray doesn't provide enough info on the specifics of Glass' story (such as, how does such blatant falsification slip through the editing process at a major newsmagazine?), but it seems to plainly be the point that the film is a character study, and nothing more. Better, I think, to complain about the cheap irony of the title, or the generally lame framing device that offers not a lick of surprise when its true purpose is "revealed". B

Friday, January 02, 2004

Annual End-of-Year Movie Blitz, Part 1 

'Tis the season to play catch-up with everything I've been seeing in late December/early January, from the glut of Oscar hopefuls to stuff I missed earlier and want to see before the Cinemarati awards deadline. Though I'd love to write about some of these films at length, I'm afraid there just isn't time -- if I waited to do so, I'd end up forgetting about what I'd seen. As you may have guessed by the "Part 1" in the title of this post, there will be more installments of this . . . how many, I can't be sure.

Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff, 2003) - Maybe having these indie directors take on mainstream Hollywood comedies isn't such a bad idea. First Richard Linklater delivered the terrific School of Rock, and now Terry Zwigoff serves up the wonderfully misanthropic, crass, and hilarious Bad Santa, a movie that says and does all the things you secretly wanted to do in your darkest Christmas moments. But what really holds the film together, as with Linklater's effort, is the performance of its lead actor. Billy Bob Thornton, who possesses perfect comic timing and the uncanny ability to disappear into any role, also carries into Bad Santa the thing that makes it more than a string of curse words and bathroom jokes (funny though many of them are): the quiet dignity that Zwigoff always affords his outsiders. If Thornton's thieving, potty-mouthed Santa is going to be dragged -- kicking and screaming -- into a happy Christmas ending, he's damn well going to do it on his terms. I've read a few reviews claiming that Zwigoff gives in to a banal crowd-pleasing ending, and frankly, I'm not sure what film they were watching, because the one I saw ended with a heartwarming scene of one kid kicking another kid in the crotch. And on this film's terms, it was heartwarming -- but only on those terms. B+

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) - Thank heavens for the Castro Theater, providing me with a one-night-only opportunity to catch this one on a big screen. And yes, it's still great, and what struck me while watching it was how subtle the whole thing is -- no one ever means what they say they mean, but because of Coppola's brilliant visual storytelling, everyone knows exactly what's going on. Though I'm still not sure how Don Vito knew that it was Barzini all along . . .

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003) - Well, it's finally done, and I can't say I was disappointed. The best thing about Jackson's work here is that even after so many hours of watching what is essentially the same film, he still manages to pull out moments of astonishing power, the kind of things that catch me up short in spite of my always-working critical mindset. Like when Pippin sings as Faramir rides to certain doom; or when Merry and Eowyn share a moment together before charging off to battle; or when the armies of the dead (fighting for the good guys, a little twist that says a lot) wash over the Orcs in the way you never thought they would but secretly believed they could; and finally, when Aragorn tells the Hobbits that they bow to no one, and the moment is totally earned and not the least bit sappy like it could've been -- in that moment, you know that all the time spent on this trilogy was worth it. Some may carp about the stuff from the book that was left out, or that it gets a little choppy towards the end as Jackson tries to tie things up as much as possible, but as far as I'm concerned, one look at the other dull, portentous epics trying to sweep their way into our hearts this month highlights how far and above Jackson's work is from the rest of the pack. I'm sure I'll like it even better when I see it again. A-

Paycheck (John Woo, 2003) - Good idea, bad execution. John Woo is clearly the wrong choice for this material, which needs a more low-key, detective-story approach with suspense sequences arising therein to fill out the short story into a feature film, and Woo's only solution to filling out the narrative is "car chases" and "pistols" (and even more ludicrously, "kendo stick"). In another context, I might've loved the action set-pieces, but in Paycheck, they only feel like so much spinning-of-wheels until we can get back to the sci-fi plot, which isn't handled very well either (the applications of the "20 items" our hero has to figure out are about as arbitrary as possible), but at least appears to be going somewhere. Ben Affleck is as ineffective as you'd expect in the lead, leaving Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, and Paul Giamatti to butt their heads against his all-powerful woodenness. I mean, imagine how good this movie could've been with, say, a young Harrison Ford, and I swear I wasn't looking for another Blade Runner, but now that you mention it . . . C-

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