Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Return to (Some) Reviews

Even though it hasn't been that long since my last capsule review rundown (September), I still feel pretty rusty. This post has been in editing-limbo for more than two weeks now, and in the time since, I just feel that each commentary gets progressively worse. Some of them have been reproduced and revised from other forums.

Tideland (Terry Gilliam, 2005) - Grainy, crude and pretty much always incomprehensible, I simply cannot understand why Gilliam thought this would be a good idea, or that audiences would even sit through it. Even an hour into my screening, I was at a loss to understand what was happening and more importantly why I should care when there was so much effort on his part to distance me from it. Of course, that is very well his purpose here, but it still counts as a failed experiment that should have never been realized as anything longer than a ten minute short. I can imagine it would have worked much better in that medium than stretched out to a feature-length film that cannot accommodate it. Although Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly receive high billing here, but they only appear for about fifteen minutes or so. The lead here then is young actress Jodelle Ferland, playing Jeliza-Rose, a chatty young girl who creates her own fantasy world out in the Prairies once she is abandoned by her junkie parents. She spends her days chatting with a host of finger puppets and befriending strange and disturbed townsfolk from the estate next door. One might expect something along the lines of a darker and more violent "Alice in Wonderland" or "The Wizard of Oz" re-visioning, but there is little such magic or mystery here (del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth accomplishes much more with a similar concept.) Even Ferland fails to make her character worth rooting for; she screams, giggles and feigns through every line of dialogue, making Jeliza-Rose one of the most excruciating movie characters in recent memory. Her diction certainly does not help, so her line readings simply play as high-pitched squawking. I suspect many will try to gather the clues here and decipher the film's garbled plot turns, but I will not be wasting my time. Although there are some interesting moments here and there (Brendan Fletcher and Janet McTeer are quite good as the creepy neighbors next door), overall the intent feels too flippant and insincere to be taken seriously. More murky than visionary. C-/D+

The Sun (Aleksander Sokurov, 2005) - I may not have seen the first two installments in Sokurov's "Power" trilogy, but I am confident in suggesting that The Sun stands completely on its own. This is a solemn, deeply unsettling film that takes its time in establishing a mood, immersing us minute by minute until we are just as lost and anxious as the characters that miserably glide across the screen. Set towards during the last days of World War II in Japan, Sokurov unobtrusively captures the final few hours of Emperor Hirohito's claim to power before victorious American forces enter and place him under house arrest. Sokurov begins with a meditative sequence in the Emperor's personal quarters, as his servants read out to him the day's itinerary. Everyone is aware that the enemy is due to descend at any moment, but the schedule is kept in place as per usual. He will first meet with his cabinet, have a few hours to dabble in biology research, take time for a nap and then enjoy some personal time (to perhaps write letters to his wife and son, who have been moved into safer territory.) Sokurov follows Hirohito's actions closely, studying the defeated leader bravely maintain a sense of regiment and ascendancy. Yet the Emperor begins to doubt his position as the hours pass, calling into question the "fact" that he is divine and the country's "sun" (much to the dismay of his assistants). This intimate portrait is never made redundant, but always revealing something to us (if one is willing to invest in the character here). The second half of the film focuses on his capture and interrogation by General Douglas MacArthur (who expects to see an Emperor and gets something of a Charlie Chaplin clone!). Issei Ogata in the lead helps considerably in allowing us to understand this neurotic mess of a disheartened leader. Always seeming to mumble or mouth his words before he gathers up the conviction to speak, Ogata is eerily convincing as a man questioning his identity and position hitherto so clear to him and his subjects. Sokurov hardly missteps here; the only flaw is how he endlessly keeps mining Japanese custom and etiquette for laughs. A-

Manderlay (Lars von Trier, 2005) - Ladies and gentlemen, forget everything negative you've heard about the second installment in Lars von Trier's exciting USA - Land of Opportunities trilogy. Personally, this is far from a disappointment - it only may seem that way when compared with Dogville, which was an admittedly stronger effort (especially in terms its lead performance.) But this is nonetheless a shocking and blistering study of establishing "democracy" in a community otherwise enslaved. There are obvious parallels to "Operation Iraqi Freedom", whereby von Trier critiques the United States' handling of this shattered country and its flimsy rhetoric of liberation. It also stands in for colonization of any "Third-World" or developing country. But the can also be viewed as a discourse about power and subjection, whether we are privileged or disenfranchised (in every sense of the word.) Here, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over for Nicole Kidman) is very much empowered and feels that she will teach the newly-freed population, once slaves, of the Manderlay plantation about emancipation. Her intentions are certainly noble, but ultimately she has surprises in store about how the new citizens react to their unfamiliar situation. In Manderlay, von Trier asks us: is democracy really the only way we can organize nation and community? Does freedom allow for the right to sell yourself into slavery if you wish it? Fundamentaly, what does freedom entail, and who has the right to practice it? Are you (and when are you) allowed to exercise your rights if the establishing, "fixing" power states that you are not ready? Perhaps most importantly, does one have the right to enforce one way of life and condemn another that is other? By the time we leave Manderlay (both the film and its titular setting), we are left in more doubt and disarray than when we first arrived. Lars von Trier has once again crafted a challenging moral dilemma about our notions of equality, justice and liberalism. It is certainly not a friendly or warm picture, but certainly offers a lot of welcome gray zone complexity. B+

The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006) - Really now. Who cares about Andy's alleged descent into assumed self-interest and the film's heavy-handed finger wagging when the performances and quips on display are this entertaining? This adaptation of Jessica Warner's book is essentially Mean Girls played out in New York's fashion magazine world (and certainly not as sharply written), but the true draws of Prada are clearly its upbeat soundtrack played over multiple montages, the designer porn and an excellent ensemble cast meticulously polished. To be sure, the conclusive moralizing is an unfortunate turn in the frivolity, but even at its most predictable, this picture is fluff cinema at its best. While Meryl Streep is a mortal Best Actress Oscar nominee lock for her refreshing take on the boss from hell, all the cast members here are on-key and deserving of praise in their own right. Anne Hathaway has received the most flack for her characterization, especially considering her apparent betrayal and abuse of morals are not quite reflected in her sweet and innocent face. But it must be stated she is also handed the least interesting role, for Prada's sideline figures are the real stars of the show with great material to work with. Take for instance Stanley Tucci's original and generous portrayal of Nigel, an overworked assistant editor who has sacrificed his personal life for a chance to one day assume a greater degree of professional power. Emily Blunt's elitist assistant is my personal hero of this film, taking an otherwise thankless part (the evil bitch who makes our heroine's life hell and then inevitably gets a comeuppance) and putting her own spin on it. Always snippy and condescending, the icy-cold Blunt is hysterical as she attempts to hold onto her position on the fashion hierarchy at any cost. Every line - even a mere throwaway line - is gold: "Okay, I am hearing this; and all I want to hear is *this*." Blunt plays the character completely straight; when she asides to Andrea, "I'm one stomach flu away from my goal weight", there's no winking at play. The character is at both a ludicrous and terrifying portrait because it is so convincing - this could be a real person. It is telling that despite having a fraction of the screentime that Hathaway and Streep enjoy, Blunt walks away as the film's star. It may be the best performance of the year. B- (up from a C+ on a second viewing.)

Stranger than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006) - As many critics of this film have pointed out, it plays much better in concept than in execution. Outside of the nifty Kafka-esque premise and one spot-on supporting performance, there is not much else operating here besides the gimmick stretched (woefully) thin. Zach Helm's overpraised screenplay is stitched together on a series of convenient plot turns, which make little sense when placed together in the end. For example, (plot spoiler here), the majority of Harold Crickman's life-altering decisions and risks are made directly because of the narration he hears in his head - it is the very reason he breaks his monotonous routine. If Kay Eiffel's novel accurately reflects what is happening in Harold's life, wouldn't she have written his predicament (specifically her own narration) into the story? This is a gaping plot hole the film cannot - nor does it attempt to - resolve. Helm is more interested in keeping the novelty going as far as he can, which becomes less convincing as Crick navigates the unfamiliar terrain over and over again. Given the likable talent assuming these characters, one would expect the cast members to fill in the dead space, but the results are uneven. Will Ferrell is asked to carry the film in this regard, but despite an earnest attempt to give his sad-sack character some shape, the figure as written is just not intriguing. Dustin Hoffman's downer reading of I Heart Huckabees' Bernard is cutting, but his character serves no purpose other than to open up the dilemma at the end. The usually-reliable Emma Thompson plays her manic novelist in so many different directions, one is left with little confidence as to who Eiffel is and what she is suffering from. Queen Latifah manages to steal a few scenes from her on-screen partner Thompson, but it's a negligible part. The best-in-show distinction then goes to Maggie Gyllenhaal as Crick's radical anarchist baker girlfriend, a character that makes absolutely no sense on paper, but is admirably filled in by the actor. Gyllenhaal also has two of the film's best line readings: the first is when she initially jeers Crick the "tax maaaan!", and second, a monologue about cookies that is utterly wacky but completely sold on her dedication to the project alone. C/C-


adam k. said...

Ouch, you haven't liked a lot of movies lately.

Your Prada review is much more generous to the film than your grade is. You make it out to be much better than a B-. I myself say B+ because it's just so endlessly rewatchable, quotable, and inexpicably enjoyable, even when at its worst moments. Probably more like a solid B, but what can I say, I just love it too much.

Right with you on the Dreamgirls grade, though.

Ali said...

Wow, that was fast! I just posted this entry a few minutes ago...

I wanted to focus more on Prada's pluses, as there has been a backlash lately (as Nathaniel has stated) against the film which is largely undeserved. But I do think that the screenplay isn't quite convincing painting Andy as losing her morals and turning her back on loved ones. It punishes her for basically actions and qualities that are never actually developed as selfish. And while I love Hathaway, she can't sell us on this accordingly. I think I'll stay at the grade I'm at, even though I will certainly be adding the film to my collection, rewatching regularly, etc.

Yeah, it's been a bad at the movies lately. I'll write reviews for those too in the coming week(s). Dreamgirls has not been aging well (I dropped the grade down not long after the screening.) I thought the opening moments were sensational, but got messy and increasingly one-note as it went along. I think its fading rep as a frontrunner is deserved - I'd much rather see The Departed pull off an upset (which I think it might.)

jesse said...

I know well that feeling that one's writing is inadequate... not that I ever stopped for an extended period of time, but lately I feel that the tap isn't flowing like it should...

Anyway. Your reviews are still insightful, whatever you may think--I may have to give Manderlay a shot, though I can't seem to muster up any enthusiasm for it, despite being a big fan of Dogville and liking Bryce Dallas Howard a lot. And you make me want to see The Devil Wears Prada again--it's nice to see somebody else touting Blunt's scene-stealing performance.

Brendon said...

Tideland really isn't hard to follow at all. I promise you, I've now taken six teenage film studies students to see it and each and every one managed to a) follow the plot b) have insight into the subtext and c) appreciated the rewards of watching it less passively than how something like The Devil Wears Prada can be engaged.

JavierAG said...

Wow, can't wait to see "The Sun". Very nice to see a different point of view concerning "Manderlay", too, though is it as cruelly funny as "Dogville"? I thought the dark comedic spin of that movie was one of its greatest achievements.

re: The Devil Wears Prada. When you have the monumentally insufferable Kris Tapley accusing such enjoyable trifle as being irresponsible and (wtf?) reprehensible work, a take like this one is to say the least enormously refreshing. And I agree with it.

Ali said...

Jesse - I find that the writing block has even affected my schoolwork. It's not uncommon to find me slapping together a paper only several hours before it is due. I'm kind of scared by this problem, but seeing that I made it through last semester relatively okay, I think I can muster enough commitment to make it to graduation.

As many people have shown, one can be a big fan of Dogville and detest its sequel, so beware. It's pretty vile and horrifying, but the way I see it, when isn't von Trier trying to provoke us in that way?

Brendon - How I regret putting up that Tideland review now, which seems more and more juvenile every time I look at it. The truth is, I wrote it a year ago following a festival screening and the only reason I included it was to get as many reviews for film released this year on the blog as possible. I'll agree that it isn't hard to follow the plot and I stayed with it through to the end (while pretty much half the audience walked out.)

I'd be willing to give the film a second try, although not entirely with open arms. The Devil Wears Prada, while perhaps less ambitious, at least held my interest as a viewer and has kept with me months after seeing it. Not so with this film, which I didn't find at all memorable or enriching.

Javier - Not as funny as Dogville, but just as potent and shocking in its critiques. I think the screenplay is definitely the main draw here; it certainly lacks the powerhouse ensemble of its predecessor, and the novelty of its style/setting is no longer there. If you stick to the allegorical reading, I think you'll like it just fine.

Kris Tapley, although I find his Oscar commentary excellent, just confuses me in this regard. Prada may have a lot of weaknesses, but it's far from a trainwreck.

Jose said...

Yay for your reevaluation of Prada!

Emma said...

I, like Adam also give Devil Wears Prada a B+. But maybe I adored it more 'cos of the fashion side, being a teenage girl and all. :)

Glad you like Emily's performance though. I worship that woman.