Wednesday, October 04, 2006

World Trade Center, L'Enfant and The Shawshank Redemption

[World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, 2006): Stone's earnest attempt to portray specific events of the 9/11 terrorist attack stumbles almost before it starts, with the rather pathetic casting of the inexplicable superstar Nicolas Cage, whom I have no shame in saying is one of my most hated actors. Even crushed under rubble for most of the picture, he becomes no more tolerable. However, Stone has managed to gather some positive talent: Crash's Michael Pena, stalwart Maria Bello (with some alarmingly blue contacts) and the rising star Maggie Gyllenhaal round out the central quartet of characters, with some impressive character actors like Michael Shannon (to be seen in a lead role later this year in Bug) and Viola Davis flickering at the edges. Stone eschews the gripping realism of Paul Greengrass's acclaimed United 93 for a more sentimental and Hollywood-ized view of things, with surprisingly populist themes like religion (Jesus appears to Pena in visions) in full view. The main problem is that Stone makes the necessary (Cage and Pena trapped) quite boring, and the unnecessary (their wives anxiously awating news) the more interesting side of things- but it never escapes the feeling that this shouldn't be part of the film. As the two wives (who meet only briefly) are played by Gyllenhaal and Bello, the level of acting is very high, although neither are able to avoid the melodramatic script and direction. As a film it's very well designed- the recreation of the ensuing rubble, under which we spend much of our time, is exceptional, although Stone never really maximises the obvious feelings of claustrophobia we should be feeling. I wouldn't say it does the brave people of the actual event a disservice, it simply doesn't convince us that we're watching them. Grade: C+]

[L'Enfant (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2006): L'Enfant's central conceit is an obvious one, though somehow I felt perversely proud about figuring it out so quickly- the child of the title is ostentatiously the newborn baby of teenage couple Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and Sonia (Deborah Francois), but isn't it really referring to Bruno himself, whom we quickly realise is still a child, but a child in the body and position of an adult. Bruno is a thief who refuses to work, and lives off his dealings with shady characters and Sonia's welfare. The child-like status of both Bruno and Sonia is quickly established: as the film begins and Sonia returns with her newborn baby Jimmy, we witness the immature, playful rapport between the lovers, constantly play-fighting and sparring with each other. It is Bruno's immaturity that ultimately leads to his downfall: clearly not understanding the delicate importance of the baby to Sonia (or indeed to himself), he sells the baby, which makes Sonia collapse and the hospital call the police in. Even in his quest to regain the baby, and then make his way with his young, school-age apprentice (Jeremie Segard) to get some more money, Bruno's naiveity and inexperience is clear. The daring decision to not include any non-diagetic music (indeed, the only music heard is the soothing classical music that is the subject of a playful disagreement between Sonia and Bruno) by the Dardennes, right down to the credits, adds to the pounding, desperate realism of the film, almost completely devoid of humour: we are not here to laugh, we are here to be aghast. And aghast we are indeed. Grade: B]

[The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994): Exactly what made The Shawshank Redemption such an enormous hit escapes me. A third, unscheduled viewing with my new flatmates at university perhaps weilded some answers: those who had seen it before chuckled and gasped at all the designated moments, while the newly initiated were more emotionally overwhelmed. Indeed, my first viewing (a while ago now) left me reeling, shocked at the developments (admittedly well disguised, in the same kind of way that The Sixth Sense is) and loving it. But a second viewing revealed the cracks: Tim Robbins' Andy Dufresne is an empty vessel of earnestness, the idea that life outside prison is unbearable for those who've been inside for so long seems perverse, and the film is often overwhelming sentimental. Morgan Freeman started his wise narration schtick here, and it was perhaps never more successful, as Red becomes the far more interesting character and you start wishing we could watch his journey instead. The overbearing hamminess of prison warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) is rather painful; yet, despite all these problems, The Shawshank Redemption does actually work, though not as well as some may have you believe. It's 142 minutes are suprisingly speedy, and it makes you smile more than it makes your eyes roll. But don't go in expecting a masterpiece, if you happen to be one of the two people in the world yet to see this inexplicable phenomenon. Grade: B]

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