Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Movie thoughts going through my head today

I'm thinking of making this a regular (weekly? bi-monthly?) feature on the blog, if only to provide self-motivation for posting more often. What say? The first one I did (way back in January) can be found here, and I had a lot of fun writing it. It's a way to get out a lot of disparate opinions , ideas and reactions without feeling the need to prattle on for the length of an entire blog entry.

1. Ryan Gosling out, Mark Wahlberg in. The internet is abuzz with news that just a day before principal photography began on Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, Gosling left the project over creative differences. Wahlberg stepped in only a day after and arrived today in Pennsylvania, where he will be joining a cast comprising of Rachel Weisz, Saoirse Ronan (presently receiving Oscar buzz for Atonement), Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci. The news is all the more surprising considering the actor has spent months preparing for the part, presumably attempting to age himself (by gaining weight, growing a beard) in order to play a father of two young teenage girls. The headline particularly held my attention because I'm in the middle of the Alice Sebold novel right now. (BTW, it's quite good.) The casting change isn't altogether an unwelcome one for me, although I'll always wonder what Gosling would have done with the part. But Wahlberg looks to be on a career upswing right now, and this role presents a welcome change from the crusty police officers, bad ass vigilantes and all-around tough guys he's been channeling.

2. I've had this catchy, toe-tapping YouTube video on continuous repeat for the last day or so. It's a musical trailer for Aaja Nachle, the Madhuri Dixit vehicle opening next month. I figure that most readers of this blog are not very familiar with Bollywood trivia, so I'll try to give some background to bring you all up to speed. Simply put, this film arrives with a lot of hype precisely because of the presence of that woman in the lead role. Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, this actress reigned high over the industry - no one could match her in terms of popularity and acclaim. Aspiring starlets collectively sighed in relief when Dixit went into semi-retirement in 1999, deciding to settle down and raise a family with her husband Sriram Nene in Colorado. She has starred in only two films since - Lajja and Sanjay Leela Bhansali's remake of Devdas (for which she won buckets of Best Supporting Actress awards.) I was never a huge fan of the actress until I saw her performances in these last two films; unfortunately, this revelation occurred after she decided to leave the profession. It's sort of like what Nathaniel went through during the Pfeiffer dry spell, when she disappeared for a good five years.

Anyways, I will get my fix soon enough. Even if the movie stinks (which is probably will), Dixit still looks like she's having a ball dancing and emoting to the max, and that's good enough for me. Isn't she luminous? For past Dixit love on the blog, click here and scroll to the bottom-ish.

3. I caught Ang Lee's Lust, Caution a couple of days ago, and while my initial reaction was mixed at best, the film has really been appreciating in my mind since then. I'm thinking a second trip to the theatre is in order, although perhaps not until I've caught up on other titles first. What felt "off"? For starters, it's not the length that bothered me, but Lee's overly guarded and (forgive me) "cautious" direction. I suppose this approach is intentional, so that the bursts of gruesome violence and the infamously explicit sex scenes especially stand out, but they feel at odds with the material. I feel the same way about the gory Turkish bath throw down in Cronenberg's Eastern Promises; in both cases, the results are rather spectacular as standalone pieces of filmmaking, but feel like desperate shifts for shock value and attention nonetheless. Am I making sense?

Still, I've been mulling over the Lee movie nonstop ever since I walked out of the theatre. Whether it's the inconspicuous, delicate score by the always-dependable Alexandre Desplat or the spellbinding performance by Wei Tang (a star is born; someone cast her in something now, now NOW), I can't get Lust, Caution off the brain. A full review to follow (hopefully) after a second try. B- for now.

4. A question for you guys: do you take notes during screenings? Ever since I began writing reviews (first for personal reference, then for the blog), I've had inconsistent results with it. I can be dedicated for weeks at a time, and then stop altogether for months on end (even up to a year or beyond.) Do you find them helpful? To jog your memory while typing up thoughts, or even just for personal reference?

I made it a point to take notes throughout the festival, and I am glad that I did; the notes (illegible, small and barely comprehensible) came in handy when my sleep-deprived brain refused to retrieve certain threads of information. At the same time however, it's easy to become distracted - concentrating on what is happening on-screen while attempting to commit your last thought to paper is challenging, at least for this critic.

All in all, I suppose it's useful to have some tangible, accessible collection of data to use when writing reviews (formal or not.) But I also find that I must compose the entry while the film is fresh in my mind (so that the notes make sense and I can still make connections); once too much time has passed, they are more or less worthless. e.g. - "What did I mean there?", "What the hell is that word?", and so on...


Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Golden Age

It is hard to wrap my head around the fact that a near-decade has passed since Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998) won widespread art-house acclaim, grabbed seven Oscar nominations and catapulted Cate Blanchett to the A-list roster. Opulent, violent and arguably risky in the claims it made (many bristled at the suggestion that the Queen's self-conferred title of virginity was meant to be taken non-literally), the picture excited my senses as a fourteen-year-old, an impressionable and emerging cinephile and soon-to-be Oscar fanatic (yes, I spent the majority of the film open-mouthed and engaging in Cate worship like almost everyone else.) My love for the film has rightfully cooled in the years since, better able to appreciate some of the screenplay's hokey turns and spineless cultural depictions (for example, inviting the audience to share Elizabeth's ridicule of suitor Duke of Anjou for his cross dressing, orgy-participating antics - what a freak, right?!) Still, I felt immediately protective of the film from the moment I heard Kapur propose a seemingly-unecessary sequel, only a couple of years later. For one, how could one improve upon that glorious closing scene? ("Observe Lord Burghley: I am married. To England.") Blanchett too had the correct gut instinct; for years, she expressed reservations at revisiting the role that had made her a star. It's a shame Kapur and co-star Geoffrey Rush ultimately convinced her to return: not only does the sequel lack the bite of its predecessor, it resorts to the worst kind of preening Oscar-bait theatrics.

At the same time, I think that the communal dump critics are taking on The Golden Age is a smidgen over-the-top. This is not unwatchable costume-drama camp on the level of Memoirs of a Geisha for example, or even this year's demented 300, although everyone creatively involved here is undeniably guilty of preemptively buying into the film's hype (whether they are situated in front of the camera or behind it.) Kapur seems particularly stationed on cloud nine all the way through, pretty much repeating all his interesting ideas from the first installment. Not only has the man deliriously drunk the kool-aid of the queen's mythos, he's disturbingly bonkers about his lead actress, barely interested in exploring the talented actors supporting her. Meanwhile, screenwriters William Nicholson and Michael Hearst desperately milk all the religious and cultural tensions of the period all they can for the purposes of present-day commentary ("Which empire will fall and which one will rise?", Elizabeth ominously hints out loud, after being informed by a lame Nostradamus-like character that troubled times indeed lie ahead for England.) Yet in spite of all this, this critic found himself fairly tickled throughout, relishing the polished eye candy and having a laugh at Blanchett's ballsy gusto in this, her second stab at the part.

It's not at the level of what she accomplished in the first installment - not even close - but it's hardly the howling disaster some would have you believe it is. The actress rightly intuits there's room for shits and giggles at the figurehead's expense, but the part ultimately defeats her. Moreover, there isn't anything really meaty for her to explore here; Nicholson and Hearst ignore some of the most fascinating aspects of the regent (her love of the arts, her own writings, etc.) and instead resort to "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" temper tantrums and love triangle inanity. There are several scenes in which we are allowed to see the queen sans-wig and costume pomp, but these character reveals seem more forced than anything else. Even if one buys into the Elizabeth-as-drag-queen readings some are throwing about, I doubt that they are intentional on Kapur's part (how neat would that have been?) The director is obviously not interested in exploring the queen-as-performer, which would have resulted in a much more audacious and playful film than the one we have here. Moreover, Blanchett is much too young for the part. Taking place roughly thirty years or so following the first film's telling of her rise to power, the actress' porcelain visage just barely hints at the many years of bearing the weight of a crown. How neat would it have been to have Judi Dench (who acted circles around Blanchett last year in Notes on a Scandal) reprise her Oscar-winning turn from Shakespeare in Love as the troubled sovereign? Or if Kapur and company had waited at least until Blanchett had hit her early fifties before revisiting this personality? The "what ifs" in this regard are endless.

Even more frustrating than all of the above is the deterministic butt-kissing that Kapur/Nicholson/Hirst engage in, arrogantly suggesting that the Great Lord above is as smitten with this hysterical woman as everyone else is. Indeed, it is His will that seems to work through Elizabeth. In the film's outrageous climax, which depicts England's ships successfully blocking an invasion crafted by the Spain's Philip II (Jordi MollĂ , pitching it to the rafters), a gust of celestial wind descends and snuffs out the flame on his candle. For you see, earlier in the film, the king had proclaimed that he is light while Elizabeth is darkness (way to show 'im, God!) In another bizarre instance, Kapur seems to suggest that divine intercession is what saves Elizabeth from an assassination attempt. Coming face-to-face with a would-be murderer in a church, the queen lifts her hands toward heaven and all obviously ends up in her favour. Kapur & co. are more about falling into uncomplicated hero(ine) worship than really looking at the figurehead through a sharper lens. Furthermore, it is difficult to know who is being elevated in the director's eyes: the queen or the celebrated actress embodying her? One of the much talked-about scenes is perhaps the most revealing about director and his muse: a nightgown-clad Blanchett stands atop a cliff following England's victory over the Spanish Armada while a heaven-sent breeze cradles her. You can't make this stuff up, and the possible insinuations to be made (whether intentionally meant or not) are just priceless.

For all this, I found The Golden Age a hoot, even when I wanted to hold my head in my hands and sigh for the missed opportunities. And for all my misgivings above, I cannot take it seriously, finding Kapur's indulgences and Blanchett's floundering in the lead engrossing. As well, the film has its minor pluses here and there that I have not touched upon; even if the cinematography (Remi Adefarasin) and art direction are overly-precious (did Elizabeth really have a map of Europe conveniently etched on the floor of her throne room?), the look is simply scrumptious throughout. In addition to Adesfarasin, most of the first film's major contributors are back for another go: Oscar-winner Jenny Shircore misses the boat on properly aging Blanchett, but otherwise does fine work (Abbie Cornish is so fresh and appropriately youthful.) Comments on Alexandra Byrne's costumes will likely focus on Blanchett's elaborate fopperies; they are great fun to look at, but the real delights are in the peripheral characters' threads. Editor Jill Bilcock keeps things moving at a fine pace, although the third act is an utter mess with the final battle depicted in fragmented, unclear pieces. The fault is perhaps not hers, but one wonders why the final showdown - built up for so long - comes across as so terribly anti-climactic and confusing. The score (jointly written by Craig Armstrong and A.R. Rahman) is bonk-you-over-the-head obvious with shrieking choirs, but I suppose that's part of the appeal. With all other production elements operating at such heightened registers, it's only fitting that the music follows suit.

Since this is Blanchett's show through-and-through, not many of the cast members get to make much of an impression; still, some are given more to do than others. Following her remarkable work in Candy last year, Cornish (as Elizabeth's most trusted lady-in-waiting Bess) continues to hint at a star in the making, while Clive Owen is dependably dashing as Raleigh. Geoffrey Rush slinks around and is given his own subplot involving a wayward brother, but nothing really compelling comes out of it. Unsurprisingly, the true revelation here is a frazzled Samantha Morton as Elizabeth's cousin Mary, who outshines everyone else with just about fifteen minutes of screen time. How much more rewarding would it have been to see these events (so overly familiar when explored through Elizabeth's perspective, especially with the recent HBO mini-series starring Helen Mirren) in the eyes of the doomed Scottish queen? Or any other character other than the English monarch? When looking at the offerings on display here, one is left to assume that the thought never occurred to anyone involved with this vanity project.

As a film: D+
As a guilty pleasure, with goodwill carrying over from Elizabeth: B
Overall: C