Must... update... blog. Provide... useless... commentary.
Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992) A- [Compressing four hundred years of personal and national history into roughly one and a half hours, Potter's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel about androgyny, politics and love frequently flirts with text surface skimming. This is the biggest flaw in an otherwise glorious cinematic experience (the equivalent of Russian Ark as visual museum piece, but in a British context), brought to life by a uber-talented production team. The glimpses into Orlando's life story may be brief and light on detail, but what a fleeting, thrilling journey through time it is! Sandy Powell, perhaps the most gifted costume designer in the industry working today, and the art direction team have a blast fashioning the characters' environments from the Elizabethan period through to the early 60s. And leading the way into this celebration of life is Tilda Swinton's extraordinary realization of this alluring figure, never once accentuating the shifts in gender identity, but internalizing them to the point where they become candid and spontaneous. As Orlando says to him/herself, "Same person. No difference at all... just a different sex". It probably does not come close to doing justice to the book (I am ashamed to say that I have not proceeded beyond twenty pages or so), but perhaps that was never Potter's aim in the first place. The film is better off for her employing Woolf's story as a starting ground to extrapolate new dimensions of this figure.]
Jarhead (Sam Mendes, 2005) B [Both the general public and critics came down hard on this film version of ex-marine Anthony Swofford's memoirs about the first Gulf War. The complaints seemed to aim at, in the former case, of the "boring" nature of the proceedings, while the reviewers focused on the lack of a context, focus or political commentary on Mendes's part. While I can understand these issues, 1) I rather enjoy deviations from the rah-rah, heavily violent structure of most war films, and 2) I don't think Mendes needed to explicitly make his anti-war statement (it's there if you look for it). The subjective slant to the events is a pleasant surprise, perhaps because the genre seeks to put as many soldiers as possible on equal terms. The desert landscape becomes a stand-in for Swofford's hollowness within, and Roger Deakins's hazy, desolate environments provide a reflection of this. The comparison made between waiting for conflict and the need to "get off" was rather ingeneous in my eyes, as well as the juxtaposing of the erotically-charged and violence. It obviously will not work for all tastes, but it is rather unique in its aims as a methodical, imagery-rich anti-war film. Think of it as a Gulf-War version of Gus Van Sant's Gerry.]
Brothers (Susanne Bier, 2004) B+ [In theory, on paper, by all accounts: this film should not work. It has all the makings of a rather distasteful melodrama, not far from Michael Bay's outlandish Pearl Harbor soap-opera with dead husbands returning from the dead to complicate newly-made love affairs. In the initial moments, I thought I had this production all figured out, believing that there was only one direction the set-up could lead. Much to my pleasant surprise, Bier completely turns the formula on its head, offering instead a complex tale that is equal parts family drama and anti-war statement. The screenplay frequently keeps the audience on edge, straddling the line between the seemingly perfect appearances and the dark secrets of human behaviour. Just as David Cronenberg masterfully explored the family dynamic in A History of Violence, by the end it is clear that Bier has also reached profound levels of insight into this damaged unit. The ensemble is uniformally excellent, but Connie Nielsen is the standout here; from the moment I saw her in Gladiator, I knew she would be able to carry a film on her own if someone gave her the chance (I have not seen Assayas's demonlover, although I should).]
Rent (Chris Columbus, 2005) C [I have never seen the original off-Broadway/on-Broadway show, but sadly I can't say the film incarnation whet my appetite to seek it out one day. I understand that in order to enjoy Jonathan Larson's much-celebrated re-imagining of La Boheme, you have to buy into the world he creates, wholly and without reservation. But the way in which the work shamelessly and ludicrously yanks the viewers' heartstrings did not succeed in winning me over. The first act is engaging and amusing enough, introducing us to the diverse web of characters living in New York, struggling to make sense of their financial, romantic and professional lives. But what follows thereafter is a mess of irrational, unexplained conflicts based around misunderstandings and mistrust. Angel's sickness is employed to create a temporary rift between the friends, which feels weak and without basis. Proceedings feel elongated beyond necessity, and several musical numbers feel extraneous. The ending is a disaster in itself; perhaps on stage such cloying sentimentality works, but certainly not here. Overall, the music is effective enough, with only two stand-out numbers among the bunch - "Seasons of Love" and "La Vie Boheme" (both are easily the best sequences in the entire film). The cast is largely decent overall, although ironically, the two new additions (not having appeared in the original 1996 production) prove to be the standouts (particularly Rosario Dawson, who captures the spirit if not the look of a nineteen-year-old). The others' performances range from solid (Adam Rapp) to out-right appalling (Idina Menzel).]
Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005) B+ [An absolutely thrilling sports film, highly preferable to feel-good shlock like Remembering the Titans and Miracle. Directors Rubin and Shapiro make nary a ill-conceived step here, refusing to sentimentalize the lives of these athletes as triumph over adversity cliches. The film tracks a couple of years in the lives of these teammates as they train for various quad rugby tournaments, particularly those of Mark, Joe and Andy, although other peripheral characters are showcased. I especially felt for Joe's son Robert, who reminded me of myself at a young age (I hated sports and resented anyone who tried to push me into them). If there's a flaw, I felt the American-Canadian antagonism was a little too convenient to generate the film's thrust, but I'll be damned if it didn't work on me at the time. What is more admirable about the documentary is that it manages to be inspiring without a shred of manipulation. It also features, in this regard, possible the best closing sequence in any film released this year.]
Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, 2004) B [A sublimely rich emotional experience. The central character is Nora, yet the film is driven by the various conflicts and pressures created by the men in her life (father, fiancee, ex-husband, son). Even her dead husband makes an appearance, in what is one of the best scenes of the year (similar to the opening of John Madden's Proof). It would be difficult to classify this production as a comedy or tragedy, but this is the its greatest strength (a unique blend of melodrama and burlesque). Emmanuelle Devos is marvellous in the lead role, coming across as a real woman with palpable fears, desires and strengths. But the scene stealer here is the uproarious Mathieu Amalric, whose giddy and high-wire acting work as Nora's mentally unstable ex ranks among the best of the year. But unfortunately, Desplechin and his troop begin to wear out their welcome. The plot is refreshingly complex, but stretching it out to two-and-a-half hours is hubristically indulgent. Kings quickly goes from quirky to repetitive. This may seem like a small quibble, yet some more judicious editing would have made Kings and Queen a great film instead of a merely a good one with its moments. Deleting fifty minutes or more would have made a major difference.]
Sin City (Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, 2005) C [Cheap and soulless, watching Sin City was like listening to an audio commentary of characters narrating all of their actions on-screen. For example: "I look up at the bastard. He's smilin' at me with those dead, taunting eyes, and I think of Blondie. Who killed yuh Blondie? I'm bettin' it's this guy. I reach for my gun, but he's too quick for me. Before I know it, there's a bunch of guys kicking the crap out of me and all I can think of Blondie. I start laughin' at them and spit blood in their faces. Oh Blondie... I'll get 'em for yuh. And I'll rip 'em to shreds." Etcetera, Etcetera, please kill me and put an end to my misery. This is not visionary or daring work; it's just sick with no substance or subtext. Sure, the artistry behind the scenes is commendable, but it is in service of over-stylized and bombastic crap. Some have come to the defense of the film, seeing as it supposedly empowers women and is true to its gritty source material. Please. The only thing this film does is exploit its characters to get the audience off, be it for their flesh, blood or innocence.]