Saturday, February 11, 2006

I need to do some schoolwork now

Mysterious Skin
(Gregg Araki, 05) B [Compassionate, humanly funny and creepily exploitative all at once, this adaptation of Scott Heim's coming-of-age book is an assault on the senses (generally in a good way). Araki pushes the envelope with the disturbing subject matter, going to great lengths to depict harsh, gloomy situations (I am usually not squeamish and try to avoid censoring, but I admittedly had to forward through an excessively graphic rape scene). Yet he achieves just as many moments of tenderness while tracking the stories of two boys who share a history of abuse. Any person who has grown out of their teenage years can surely identify with the bittersweet, dreamy landscape of Araki's world. The usual themes of sexual self-discovery, family dysfunction, moving away and returning home are all present, but they are given a refreshingly novel treatment; these happenings come across as spontaneous and impulsive, as opposed to mechanically plot-driven. Overall, the film soars more often than it stumbles, and the closing moments are some of the most heartfelt I've witnessed in my years as a moviegoer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is absolutely stunning in the lead; the role of the wayward, destructive hustler has become something of a cliché in recent years, but here Levitt brings a new dimension to the figure, who actually seeks out tricks not for money, but to gain validation and love. Brady Corbet is equally good in his moments as the introspective, stunted Brian, while the rest of the talented cast members (Mary Lynn-Rajskub, Elizabeth Shue, Bill Sage, and Michelle Trachtenberg) make lasting impressions despite minimal screentime.]

Mrs. Henderson Presents (Stephen Frears, 05) C+ [The first half here may be cheeky and irreverent, but that's the pretty much the appeal (and it effectively tickles the funny bone). Dench is at her liveliest in years, every word out of her mouth resembling comic gold (if such a thing exists). Bob Hoskins provides able support, and much fun ensues watching these two dominant personalities (and "ack-tuhs") duke it out for power in running the Windmill theatre. Really, these are the only two worth caring about because the script is otherwise fairly slight on character development (although Christopher Guest is fun as the uptight chancellor). The film continues on this high until Frears decides to get heavy-handed, using the war to inject severity in the on-goings. One supporting character is even pathetically disposed of as a plot device to drive home the realities of WWII (poor Kelly Reilly). But the ultimate offense is Henderson's final speech, which basically underlines the film's subtext (which was obvious enough without having to point it out); it's wholly unconvincing and leaves a bad after-taste (although Dench almost makes it work).]

The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, 60) B- [Pointlessly telegraphed from beginning to end, this morality tale is an oppressive, obligatory experience. From the very start, Bergman provides a contrast between the two protagonist sisters: one a bitter, unwed mother (Ingeri) and the other a beaming, spoiled woman-child (Karin), setting up the inevitable act to come ("Only a virgin can ride to church"). Although the revenge sequence planned by Tore (the girls' father, played by Max von Sydow) in the final act provides a chilling angle and introduces some intricacy (as well as Ingeri's disturbing confession about witnessing her sister's grim end), the complacent ending leaves no room for questioning or dissent. The punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime, and Bergman refrains from pointing out the problems with this, Tore's final intentions and the bursting spring itself.]

Munich (Steven Spielberg, 05) B [It's impossible to talk about this murky exploration of terrorism and revenge without looking back on Spielberg's recent work. In that respect, Munich represents a rejuvenating success, which feels like nothing the director has done before (although there are the occasional groan-inducing repetitions - i.e. the innocent children are everywhere!). As well, the grayness of the proceedings (reinforced by the lyrical writing by Tony Kushner) paints the film another layer, elevating it beyond one-note retaliation polemic. It borders on greatness more times than few, and the first two acts represent some of the best work Spielberg and his regulars (Kaminski, Williams, etc) have done in years (A.I. excepted). Taut, suspenseful and complex, the film is riveting until it reaches a creaky third wind where Spielberg resorts to familiar manipulation tactics. I don't think I need to call attention to Spielberg's bizarre juxtaposing of sex and death; enough have mocked it well.]

Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 05) C [It is indeed heartening to see a message-conscious film like this break into the mainstream (although the pessimist in me suggests that it's more because of Felicity Huffman, the nature of her role and the hideous t.v. show she stars in than anything else), but it's unfortunate that the piece itself as a whole feels so stale, obvious and frustratingly gimmicky. Aside from recycling the clichés of the road-trip movie (they fight over the radio station, their car gets stolen, etc.), Duncan Tucker's screenplay always goes for the easy way out. Either hammering home societal ignorance ("Are you a boy or a girl?") or conveniently opening the door for familial reunion ("I'm going to go live with my dad"), the film is a vanilla, mediocre sitcom. More disturbing is the film's treatment of the peripheral characters; the other transsexual women portrayed are played up for laughs, while Bree's family members are cartoony in their intolerance (making their rushed character arcs all the more jarring). Oscar nominee Felicity Huffman seems to think she is playing an extra-terrestrial rather than a pre-op transsexual (and I'm not being glib - the approach is unintentionally bizarre). Although she is in earnest to bring this character to life (and the portrayal does has its winsome charms here and there), the effort sadly never feels natural. Her performance in the first half hour is appallingly ill-timed and then for the most part utterly see-through. The burden of keeping the film afloat then rests on Kevin Zegers's shoulders as Bree's druggie son, who veers between a hard-edged awareness about life and the raw vulnerability of a lost child looking for love.]

The White Diamond (Werner Herzog, 05) B- [It would be unfair to compare this to Grizzly Man, but it's really hard not to when the proceedings (and Herzog's unhelpful commentary) here mostly fail to stimulate or reach even a fraction of that prior film's genius. The first half here is strangely muted and the efforts to get the project up off the ground (flying an airship over the Guiana rainforest) are unappealing. Herzog's shaky, sloppy aesthetic is even more off-putting. As well, it's a shame that Mark Anthony Rhap (resident Guianan), the documentary's most interesting character, is sidelined to make room for scientist researcher Graham Dorrington's whiny, tedious monologues about his efforts in this project and his guilt about a colleague's death years ago. Yet the final few moments finally register as divinely inspired. Herzog earns points for not showing us the flight above from the perspective of the participants (best left to their privacy), instead inviting us to fly in the air, and immersing us in the natural landscape for ourselves in a stunning, breath-taking finale).]

La Promesse (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 96) A [What I love about the Dardenne Brothers' work is that at the end of the day, there are no simple solutions. No happy endings here, no ways out of the grim realities of death, abuse and poverty. But at the same time, their world view is not cynical in the least; their approach is wholly humanistic, filled with compassion for all their flawed characters (even the ones who perpetuate violence and exploitation). The director-duo often focus on characters on the sidelines of society, bringing into focus stories that are ignored by the dominant media (mainly about those who live with little means).The documentary-style of the frame further adds to the immediacy, urgency and profundity on the happenings. The narrative set-up here is similar to that of their recent L'Enfant; the main conflict is a difficult moral issue, where the categories of right and wrong become ambiguous. Jeremie Rainier plays Igor, an adolescent placed in a most pressing situation, requiring wisdom beyond his years. Yet his big heart and sense of conscience leads him to perform the most extraordinary acts to fulfill the promise he makes to a dying immigrant. As the film goes on, the tension becomes almost unbearable as Igor attempts to hide his actions lest he is found out by his father (and severely punished). Not a shot here is ill-conceived - it's a genuine masterpiece. I simply can't wait to catch up on Rosetta and The Son.]


jesse said...

Very nice review on MYSTERIOUS SKIN... I'm having a hard time putting my thoughts into words because I was really affected by it for some reason. But I was having that problem with C.R.A.Z.Y. too, and I finally got something up about that...

Good job on MRS. HENDERSON too, you did a better job than I did at explaining the good and bad of this fun, albeit slight film, same for TRANSAMERICA, then you are more critical than I initially was (my distaste didn't take long to emerge, however).

I'm still interested in VIRGIN SPRING though, despite your disappointment.

JavierAG said...

Wonderful reviews. Those are pretty much my thoughts on "The Virgin Spring" too. Bergman wasn't working from his own screenplay here which may explain the bizarre mixture of complexity/simplicity in the telling. (Course, the "complex" part is totally killed off at the end scene).

Very funny bit on Felicity Huffman, haha ;)

Nick M. said...

A capsule-filled update! In the war on laziness, you win. I suppose I should update soon, but you basically articulated my exact thoughts on TransAmerica (even if I appreciate Huffman's performance more than you do and am more disgusted by the film's turn into Mrs. Doubtfire/Meet the Parents horrendousness).

I wasn't a fan of Mysterious Skin when I saw it back in April, but I am more than willing to give it another shot. Although the material is handled with a shocking amount of grace (and the material isn't much dulled by it) I wasn't affected, and it felt a bit hollow to me (oh, and although the lead actors accomplished their job quite well, the supporting performances were pretty terrible).

Oh, and The Wayward Cloud just happened to fall into my possesion recently. Perhaps I'll abuse one of the many screening rooms on campus to watch it on the big screen (I just have the DVD, and I've been warned not to watch it on my 20" television).

Ali said...

Jesse - I can understand why you're having trouble trying to capture Mysterious Skin in words; it took me several edits before I got my capsule looking half-decent, and I'm still not happy with it. I'm not even sure what my reaction is - I'm still reeling from the experience.

I need to see C.R.A.Z.Y. soon, especially after reading your glowing review.

Skip Virgin Spring and get on Cries and Whispers immediately!

Javier - I didn't know that Bergman was using someone else's screenplay. That explains a lot indeed! I did sense that the ending wasn't typical of something he would posit.

Re: Felicity Huffman. I'm really serious, you have to see it to believe it. I can't believe how the industry fell for this performance... no wait, actually I can. I like her as an actor a lot, but this performance is a major miscalculation.

Nick - If someone walks in on you watching The Wayward Cloud, you'd better have a good excuse ready. The entire thing is basically a porno without depicting penetration (well, it's obscured... usually by watermelons). Well, I'm anxiously awaiting your thoughts - it's at the top of my 2006 list so far.

I don't know if you'll like Mysterious Skin on a second viewing, because it seems like the kind of film you either totally love or hate the first time around. Give it another spin nonetheless... but not before renting Hustle & Flow. I'm eager to hear your thoughts on Howard's performance.