Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The lights are dimming...

Walk on Water (Eytan Fox, 2004) C [This would make an interesting comparison piece to Spielberg's Munich (which I am hopefully going to see tomorrow night), as it also tells the story of a Mossad agent (the very talented Lior Ashkenazi from Late Marriage plays Eyal) on a quest to track down and exterminate an individual who has perpetuated violence against Israel and its people. I do like this film a lot more than my grade would indicate for the difficult questions that are raised and the finely-conceived characters that it explores, but it takes way too many cop-outs in its overall journey through these elements. In an attempt to be spoiler-free, I'll just say that the optimistic tone Fox finally takes in the epilogue can understandably seen as necessary for suggesting the possibility for healing, but it is nonetheless too jarring and convenient a solution to the complexity of the movie's first two acts. Still, where the film works is in the interaction between the three major characters and how the rifts and tensions are subtly showcased through great acting/writing. As previously stated, Ashkenazi is terrific as the pained and repressed agent who buries his feelings, while Knut Berger and Caroline Peters are superb as the loving brother and sister who provide Eyal the access to completing his mission. Well worth a look for a noble attempt.]

Casanova (Lasse Hallstrom, 2005) D [I don't want to waste any more time on this sloppy, poorly-made mess after having spent two hours of my life watching it, so I will try (unsuccessfully) to be brief. It would be difficult to believe that Hallstrom could make a film more soulless and empty than The Shipping News, but he has done it. Granted, he may not have been working with a solid screenplay, but his work behind the camera is utterly lacking in any distinction (well, why am I surprised really?). The story submits a typical "mistaken identities" gimmick to propell the narrative and serve as the major conflict, but the result is anything but engaging. More insulting is the flimsy script's conceit that everyone in town knows who the notorious Casanova is except a conveniently selected group of individuals (namely his love-interest(s) and their respective families... please). Faring worse is Miller's Francesca figure, who is portrayed as a rah-rah feminist type who argues for equality and such, but has no problem falling for a sexist pig womanizer and marrying him. All this leads to the film's biggest problem - it doesn't convince us of the love story in the slightest; Miller and Ledger share zero chemistry, and their characters' realizations of intense love don't register as anything more than plot devices. Heath Ledger may have given the performance of the year in Brokeback Mountain, but I'd have no qualms putting him on a Razzie "Worst Actor" shortlist for his efforts here. Utterly charmless and obviously making no attempt whatsoever to fashion a personality, Ledger mumbles and feigns through every scene, making him absolutely intolerable. Sienna Miller shows the potential for a more full-bodied characterization had she been working with something better - I hope she finds something worthy of her talent soon, before she is written off as Jude Law's sometimes-ex (or is it too late? Dump him for good Sienna!). As for Oliver Platt, he may be the film's only bright spot (Lena Olin and Jeremy Irons are merely picking up paychecks), but he's offensively saddled with fat joke after fat joke after fat joke. What a disservice to such a great character actor (although what was he thinking signing this film in the first place!?). Trying to recreate the magic of Shakespeare in Love, Casanova ultimately attains not even a tiny fraction of that film's enchanting brilliance. Skip this garbage.]

Happy Endings (Don Roos, 2005) B [I'm rather disappointed to see the indifference that greeted Roos's latest following The Opposite of Sex, because while it does have its share of flaws, I'd still rather see formula-free and sharply written satire like this than the crap masquerading as "comedy" today at the multiplexes. Lisa Kudrow is absolutely phenomenal ("Friends" was really bad for her, obviously not in a fiscal sense, but in a creative one - could Pheobe have been any more stale and unfunny after the first two seasons?) in what is arguably the lead role, reciting every line with incredible truth and playing every action with believable understatement. Her thread in the film may be the weakest of the three, but she is an absolute revelation - I've forgotten how good she can be. Maggie Gyllenhaal also lights up the screen in the most engaging track, manipulating a father-son combo into moving herself ahead in life. She recently received a FiLM BiTCH nomination (as well as other kudos from the ISA and GSA), and I have no qualms with the acknowledgments - see it for her as well. Wow, I'm really veering off track here into actor worship, aren't I? Well, Happy Endings is definitely worth your time, I promise you. It has too many tracks/characters/ideas to give full credit to here, so you can imagine the ambition and focus of this picture. It's an ensemble we're-all-connected film without falling into the manipulative antics of similarly-structured films like Magnolia, Crash and the like. To make the ride even more fun, Roos frequently throws out biting asides and quipps in the way of captions on the sides of the screen. What you waiting for? Rent it!]

Yesterday (Darrell Roodt, 2004) B+ [A message movie it may be, but damned if it isn't utterly effective in making you understand and invest in the struggles faced by people struggling with AIDS (especially in third-world countries, where health care is just an idea, not a reality). I don't know if anything I state here can do justice to the grim realities offered by this film, so I will just say: please, please seek it out. It doesn't feel like a chore, I promise you.]

The Family Stone (Thomas Bezucha, 2005) B- [Okay, so it's a bit messy and it isn't very believable in a lot of the pictures it leaves you with, particularly its last-minute pairing switcheroo (poor Dermot Mulroney and Claire Danes are not to blame for the screenplay's bizzare, uncomfortable coupling of their two characters). Still, I find myself defending this film from its detractors because it's a Christmas movie with teeth, unafraid of depicting all its characters in their least likable moments. You may hate them all, but that's the point. Every character here succeeds in embarrassing him or herself in a number of ways, including several members of the Stone family who pride themselves in being super tolerant and loving. Anyways, even if you do not find much to like in the plot trajectory, at least bask in the ensemble acting, which is absolutely stellar. From Diane Keaton's fiery outburst at the dinner table (I've never loved her more) to Dermot Mulroney's devastating breakdown at hearing his mother's words "I'm sick", I was in love with all of them. All I know is that I want the Stones at my house every holiday season, because in spite of their nastiness at times, I know that they have bullied their way into my heart.]

King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005) B- [Thinking back to sitting in Theatre 5 of the Varsity Cinema, I can vividly remember internally screaming at myself, alternating between the extremes "I love this movie!" and "I hate this movie!". I don't think I've felt so torn in so long (which is probably why I forced myself not to give this a C+ rating). Sure, I can understand that you must look past the "minor" flaws here to truly enjoy the grand scale of Jackson's vision and heart, but the problem is that these flaws are hardly "minor". Bloated to an insufferable length of about three hours, Kong is a little too full of itself, just as if Jackson was a little too spoiled by the Lord of the Rings hysteria. Juggling too many characters that I cared nothing about and banging me over the head with references to Heart of Darkness until they left scars on my head, Jackson left me rather indifferent to a lot of the film's first two-thirds. Sure, the dinosaur fight is spectacular, but too frequently the spectacle overshadows everything else. The only times where the film captured my soul were the sequences where Ann and Kong connected to each other (especially the incredible finale), but these moments were few and far between, interruped by long scenes of Kong going apeshit (excuse the pun) again and again. Sure, the film may grapple with themes regarding exploitation, inhumanity, showbiz, hardship, colonization, but these are sketchily treated. The acting is acceptable, although those praising Naomi Watts to the skies are overdoing it; sure, her interacting with Andy Serkis as Kong was very impressive, but how effective was she Kong-less? As Ann overall, it seemed like Watts doing her usual "acting" (although I blame the script more than her, I suppose). Andy Serkis was the most impressive here; Kong was truly a tremendous achievement (a full A+ for that). But above all else, what irked me considerably was Jackson's indulgent work, driving home the points several times in spite of the audience getting them the first time around. How many times do we need to see a slo-mo camera zoom into those oh-so-scary skulls and those oh-so-savage savages to understand that Skull Island is an oh-so-scary abode? How much longer do I need to see those bugs crawl and pulse and ooze and shake? How many times does Kong have to swipe at those planes to understand he's pissed and fighting back? While the package looks and sounds absolutely fantastic (with the exception of James Newton Howard's weak, ill-timed score), that's only half the battle done. Rather than feeling elated as I exited the theatre, I felt oddly detached, as if I had seen a first-cut needing thorough re-tooling. None of the moments approached the giddy highs of Jackson's previous films, at least to me: it all felt strangely like a tedious duty.]

Dosti (Satyen Bose, 1964) B+ [It may shamelessly tug at the heart-strings (usually a genre that does not usually find favour with me), but it has such conviction in its sentimentality and conventions that I didn't find much to take issue with at all. Part musical/entertainer and half social-message sermon, the film manages to give life to (albeit one-dimensional) characters and - most importantly - make us care about them. Any film to focus exclusively on people usually found on the fringes of society and routinely ignored by the dominant culture gets points with me, especially a production so commercial and popular in its day (it won six Filmfare Awards including Best Film). The story concerns two teenage boys living in poverty, devalued by society because of their "disabilities" (Mohan is blind, while Ramu cannot walk without assistance), but they soon discover that their musical talents enable them to make a living as street-performers. While watching it, I constantly thought of Rohinton Mistry's novel A Fine Balance, also about the suffering of the poor in India (although it takes a much bleaker view on the subject than this film does). The acting is phenomenal across the board, and while the songs do not stand on their own, at least they move forward the story instead of slowing it down. Overall, Dosti stands as a rare effort in terms of mainstream Hindi entertainment in the 60s: a story that does not centre exclusively on a love story between a man and woman (although the film has its moments of homoerotic undertones, I doubt it was the intention on part of even the actors, let alone the people behind the camera). Overall, it's hardely transcendent or subversive, but its simple, straight-forward perspective is one of its many charms.]

Hitch (Andy Tennant, 2005) D+ [It's the only thing the family agreed to watch together, so I will not take any responsibility for watching this (at least it was free). As a non-fan of Will Smith, it doesn't hurt me much to say that he is just as grating, ignorant and self-absorbed here as he is in everything else he does (probably even while screwing his equally off-putting wife). I'm sure none of you are awaiting with bated breath my reasons for hating this film, so I won't waste your time. In a nutshell: pain-stakingly obvious writing + subpar acting (excepting Kevin James, who's just about okay) + superficial insights on dating/gender behaviour + typical slapstick + homophobia mined for laughs (the two male leads kiss! Now you can recoil and shout out "Gross"!) + idiotic crisis moment + forced happy ending = nothing you should give a fuck about.]

3-Iron (Kim Ki-duk, 2004) A [Spoiler Warning. My second viewing was just as good as the first (almost a year and a half ago now). I wanted to pay close attention this time around because of Ed Gonzalez's review which I still find rather puzzling. His concern over the film's treatment of women and abuse doesn't really convince me, particularily because of that final shot (although I guess there are quite a number of ways to read it, which is what I love about this film). When they both step on the scale and it reads "0", I understood to mean that they both learned to disappear together, and she no longer needs to suffer her husband's abuse. Or even if it is a re-affirming of patriarchy and victimhood, doesn't that just drive home the fact about the reality of women's experiences around the world? It may not be a cozy view, but it seems rather accurate to me. Either way, I just know that very few films I've recently seen have left me this awe-struck at the potential for cinema to be so longing, playful and loving without being the least pit pandering or sentimental. Oscillating between raw, jarring violence and tender, quiet interaction, 3-Iron is one of 2005's few bright spots in terms of film.]


Re: BFCA - I have absolutely nothing to say on this matter. The only win which found favor with me was that of Amy Adams (and to a lesser degree Reese Witherspoon, although her speech was way too giggly for my taste). Everything else (the major Crash love, the continued dominance of Brokeback Mountain [a film I enjoy more for its influence on our backwards society than its greatness as a cinematic work], Freddie Highmore undeservedly repeating his win from last year, Dakota Fanning continuing to brainwash the industry/critics, Paul Giamatti getting a consolation victory when he has been both been better earlier and elsewhere, the incredible failure and smugness of Dennis Miller [and I thought Eric McCormack was annoying]) was just plain hideous. If this list is going to repeat all through the season and eventually (oh please no) on Oscar night, I think I might have to re-think my investment in future awards seasons.

Re: DGA - Miller getting into the DGA's preferred five was a mild surprise, but hardly a shocker. Can he take ride Capote surge of guild support to a nomination? It's looking more and more likely (especially if AMPAS decides to pass on Spielberg this year, but we'll see about that later)... unfortunately, also looking more and more likely is Paul Haggis. Crash seems to be the only threat to Brokeback for Best Picture, and that's not such a bizzare statement if you think about it (we still have two months to go until Oscar, and Brokeback seems prime for a backlash already).

Re: SAG - What terrible, uninspiring choices. The only nominee that made me sit up was Don Cheadle, who came out of nowhere with this nod. Why? This is hardly a performance worth acknowledging, especially with so many other deserving nominees needing precursor attention. But why am I talking about the words "deserve" and "award" in the same sentence? Silly me. Well, I did very poorly on my predictions, but at least some picks were chosen by SAG - I saw Catherine Keener's nod coming (although it just as easily could have been for The 40-Year-Old-Virgin), as well as Capote's Ensemble nod. As well, a lot of my alternates made it in, although that doesn't mean I'm all that happy about it (Russell Crowe). Unfortunately, that statement - "Theron and Zhang are dead, IMO (watch this statement come back to haunt me tomorrow, eh?)" - did indeed sting when reading the nominations. How on earth is anyone convinced that these two are worthy of such high praise? And if they want to give Zhang a shout-out for her breakthrough into the mainstream, why not acknowledge her for 2046? I mean, does the film even matter?

Let's hoping Oscar is a lot more discriminating in his picks. I don't think I can take watching a ceremony where I have little investment in any of the proceedings or films in contention. Down with Crash! Down with Memoirs! Down with Cinderella! Down with North Country!


JavierAG said...

I'm mad at your blog. I wrote a lengthy response to your "Kong" review and was erased. Okay so maybe it was my stupid computer. Okay so it WAS my stupid computer. But I'm still mad at your blog. Writing anything else would be morally devastating for this lazy soul here.

That said, great reviews.

(I am furious. I am. Damn computer).

Ali said...

I feel your pain, Javier. The same thing has happened to me many a-time. Here's what I do: write your long-ish entries in a word document first before pasting into the broswer page for comments, email, forums, etc.

... (But I must confess that I am secretly happy your defense was erased [yes, I'm an evil bastard] as now I don't have to offer a rebuttal. Haha!]

Thanks for the kind comments. I will re-read your Kong review today (I read it only once before watching the film). Maybe you will convert me, who knows?

Nick M. said...

"If this list is going to repeat all through the season and eventually (oh please no) on Oscar night, I think I might have to re-think my investment in future awards seasons."

I have the same feelings. It's astonishing how such vapid choices can make me question my whole two-month-long motivation in life (I realize that sounds pathetic, but I do not care one bit).

"Down with Crash! Down with Memoirs! Down with Cinderella! Down with North Country!"


JavierAG said...

I doubt that review would convert anyone (I'm not sure it convinces myself, actually), but I guess you love or hate this film based on just how much of the flaws you see as a homage to the folly of the blockbuster, or how much you view as Jackson's indulgence. I saw the stylistic choices as so deliberately *deliberate* that I just let myself go with the film.

Ali if you happen to see "The Constant Gardener" (which is on video now! no more excuses!) I would love to exchange thoughts on that one. Two magnificent points: genius cinematography that transports Meirelles' ideas to a whole other level, and Rachel Weisz' indelible fiery performance. I find it to be such a rich film to review, I just thought you should know. It's ambitious yes, and the questions regarding its merits could vary immensely: does its succeed? if so, in what level? romantic, emotional, social, political? It's an amazingly layered work, though flawed (read: incredibly ambitious). I will start working on a review soon; if you see the movie now, perhaps we could exchange some interesting ideas :)

Nick M. said...

So, uhhh, did 3-Iron usurp A History of Violence as your #1 of 2005?

::crosses fingers::

Oh, and please do see The Constant Gardner. Not a perfect film in many respects, but it's surely worth recommending.

Ali said...

Javier - I like what you're saying about how the flaws could be seen as intentional, as an homage to the epic blockbuster. I'll keep that in mind on a second viewing in the future.

Thankfully, The Constant Gardener is now on DVD, otherwise I don't think I would have been able to watch it in time. It was one of those screenings that just never worked out; every time I planned to see it, something would get in the way. Same thing happened with Jarhead.

Nick - Actually, I must confess that I am kind of rooting for Memoirs to get a Score nomination and win for John Williams. It's easily his most varied and interesting work in several years.

"So, uhhh, did 3-Iron usurp A History of Violence as your #1 of 2005?"

Uhhh... NO.