Thursday, November 02, 2006

Quinceanera, Ask the Dust and Half Nelson

[Quinceanera (Wash Westmoreland & Richard Glatzer, 2006): Quinceanera, or Echo Park L.A. as it was bafflingly re-named for Britain, plays like a lot of tv dramas do: a low-rent cast plays out predictable and pedestrian histrionics, occasionally hitting a true note but mostly succumbing to the familiar and unloved script. I suppose I should give it points for trying to tackle subjects like the gentrification of the Latino area of L.A. and teenage sexuality, but haven't we seen these things before? The pieces of the puzzle never really fit together: Magdalena (Emily Rios) is thrown out just before her quinceanera (fifteenth birthday) because, miraculously, she is a pregnant virgin; meanwhile her cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), thrown out of his home because his father discovered he was gay, starts sleeping with his new landlords. And their new guardian, kindly Uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez), gently tries to reconcile his breaking family and their ties to their religion. Magdalena is ostensibly the centre of the piece, which would explain why Carlos' thread is almost left in thin air; and is the depiction of his landlords as a promiscuous couple taking advantage of a hot young cholo exactly a positive message from these two gay filmmakers? The whole thing concludes itself obviously and perfunctorially, at least giving Garcia a short chance to impress, but Quinceanera's surface depiction of its themes ultimately leaves you feeling distant and disappointed. Grade: C]

[Ask the Dust (Robert Towne, 2006): Ask the Dust isn't just an adaptation of a book to screen, it's an adaptation of book about someone who writes books, and I'm not sure it's possible to get less cinematic than that. Luckily (or unluckily) most of it doesn't actually focus on the writing of a novel, more the inspirations that our central character, Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), tries to find for his writing. Arturo, by the way, is supposed to be an Italian living in L.A., which makes the casting of Farrell even more perplexing than his complete blankness in the role: an Irish man playing an Italian who sounds entirely American. Salma Hayek is more handily cast as a Mexican waitress named Camilla Lopez, whom the script tries to convince us has a turbulent relationship with Arturo. The early part of this relationship plays out in the restaurant where Camilla works, and where a down-hearted Arturo, down to his last nickel, comes to drown his sorrows in a cup of coffee. The bizarrities of these scenes are so strange that I'd suggest you see for yourself if I weren't of the strong mind that no one should ever see this film, so let us just say that they mostly involve shoes. There then follows an appaulingly lit sequence where both Hayek and Farrell strip off and frolick in the sea, playing out their tempestuous love-hate thing once again, only wet and without clothes. The major problem is that Towne becomes convinced of their intrinsic attraction almost before it's even started, and certainly far before his audience have been convinced, and instead the script just takes it as a given that these two's stars are entwined. So when the film abandons Camilla for a brief while, we are treated to an almost-as-bizarre interlude with Idina Menzel's physically scarred nutcase, who lives next to a fairground and serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Donald Sutherland serves even less purpose in his role as Arturo's slightly unbalanced and clearly unwashed neighbour, while Eileen Atkins is wasted in the background as Arturo's landlady. Ask the Dust is never horrifying awful, if just for the fact that it's so lifeless that even to get horrified would make it more worthwhile. Nothing inside it ever comes off, from the script to the set decoration, and the actors wonder around inside a hollow shell without even bumping into its sides, because, well, that'd actually be interesting. Grade: D-]

[Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006): Half Nelson has gathered attention mostly for the impressive performance of hot young thing Ryan Gosling in its central role; but Gosling is hardly the sort of actor who wants to be a star, and I highly doubt he took this role with that aim in mind. It's easy to see why it has gathered press, though: Gosling's performance is a precisely measured but never obvious one, perfectly portrayed but never portrayed as being portrayed. He's almost matched, though, by young Shakeera Epps, as the student who discovers his secret and finds herself stuck between two avenues of life. Half Nelson's emotional distance is occasionally too much, as Fleck and Anna Boden's script becomes too sparse for its own good, but Gosling and Epps keep everything grounded and compelling. Most impressively, the film is never judgmental, simply presenting the dark dilemmas of the two characters as fact and seeing how they deal with them. Sometimes, a matter-of-fact approach is more effective than a moralising one, and that's certainly the case here; the film is so far from trying to make a point that it its the viewer who makes one for themselves. Grade: B]

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