Thursday, March 29, 2007

Victim's Gold Stars: Under and Over

I haven't yet completed my run of 2006 viewings (I still have Days of Glory, The Good German, The Painted Veil and possibly Curse of the Golden Flower to catch at the cinema, as well as Requiem and possibly a few others, if I get them, on DVD), but I figured I should get the ball rolling as soon as possible, with all the free time I have at the moment (not that I have nothing to do, you understand, but it's hardly fun stuff)- and so, I bring you what I've cheesily called Victim's Gold Stars (mainly because, the more I thought about it, the VAMPs (Victim's Annual Movie Prizes) just sounded wrong), and, in their opening post, I'm going to name ten films, which were neither the best nor the worst of the year- they were, in fact, the most under- and over-appreciated films of 2006.

The Overappreciated

(Clockwise from top left) The Last King of Scotland was widely praised for its superb performances, from the towering figure of Forest Whitaker to the briefly-featured Gillian Anderson, but, despite them, the film descending into a delirious mess that assaults the viewer rather than getting under their skin. The film starts out well but totally loses control in the second half, every worst instinct possible being employed- worst of all, it decides that it must be a thriller, diluting the political dissections that were promisingly dangled before you. The Queen, meanwhile, was another film about a country's leader with praised performances, but a second viewing showed just how surface the enterprise was, how off-key Helen Mirren often was, and how, ultimately, the film never said much at all.

Pan's Labyrinth is a dazzling visual feast (although a few members of an audience found the faun hilarious) but its twin threads of reality and fantasy have serious problems twinning themselves together, existing as separate entities with no relation for most of the film and then never clearing their existance (or not) up. And most of the actors struggle to inject personality into their stereotypical and charged characters. Sacha Baron Cohen had no such trouble in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, but the film failed to say much about America or society, or anything, really, and for all Cohen's committed hijinks, the film barely raised a chuckle, at least in me (and the sparse audience I was part of). And finally, and worst of all, Dreamgirls, a superbly costumed but inert piece of musical drama, was most damned by its director, Bill Condon, whose repeated use of montage left the actors floundering, trying and mostly (with the exception of Eddie Murphy, of all people) failing to make anything at all of their characters.

The Underappreciated

(Clockwise from top left) Slither was simply a highly entertaining b-movie, a film that knew its own stupidity and deftly played up to it, mixing truly nasty sights with deliriously corny dialogue and charismatic, well-cast actors. And, unlike Snakes on a Plane, it was both well-produced and funny. Poseidon, that most slammed of remakes, may have had some silly dialogue, but it was simply amazing to watch (especially on an IMAX screen), thanks to the stunning production design, hued photography and crashing sounds.

Factory Girl, perhaps the very last release of the year, only got press because people thought Sienna Miller and Hayden Christensen were really doing it (they weren't, apparently), which is a shame, because this is a solid little movie, one that plays up to the characters' shallowness- it's a intentionally superficial movie about unintentionally superficial people, and, while that understandably limits it at points, the acting, particularly on the side of Guy Pearce (as Andy Warhol) and Miller herself, makes it a surprisingly poignant meditation on a life both barely lived and enjoyed to the full.

Wah-Wah never even seemed to surface of America, and enjoyed the briefest of appearances in Britain, but it's a sweet little movie, set in '60s Swaziland as the country is about to gain independance from Britain, and seen through the eyes of a teenager (Nicholas Hoult) as his parents (Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson) go through a divorce and his father remarries an American (Emily Watson)- and it's the latter figure who, mocking the British formality, provides the title. The film is hardly revelatory, but it's smartly acted and entertaining- which is a perfect description for the last mention in this category, and the best: Mission: Impossible III. Tom Cruise may have gone off-the-wall, but he's perfectly watchable here- however, what I loved about this was its emphasis on the team he gathers, from the genial Ving Rhames to the Irish Jonathan Rhys-Meyers to the sexy Maggie Q. J.J.Abrams directs with his usual sleek, shiny touch, providing expected but exciting pleasures with aplomb.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

David Lynch terrorizes Emma Peel?

I saw an episode of The Avengers a while ago (an awesome show, by the way, though only when Diana Rigg was in it), wherein Emma Peel (Rigg) was lured to a country mansion and then trapped within, constantly circling between normal rooms and physcadelically decked-out spaces, some bizarre mechanics meaning that she could not escape except when she finally punches her way through the wall. There were disorientating swirls painted on the walls, spiral staircases, and doors that she could not go back through. Anyway, to get to the point, I was reminded of this episode of The Avengers when thinking about INLAND EMPIRE (something I have been prone to do ever since I saw it), because, like Mrs. Peel, the audience is trapped within a circular world, where we constantly revisit the same places, see the same befuddling things, see no way out of this mad world. Like David Lynch's previous Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE sets up a conventional narrative only to shatter in into pieces, asking the question whether what you were watching was reality, or whether one of these new places is reality, or whether reality actually exists at all. Is the "real" (for of course ultimately it is all fiction) character of Laura Dern (giving a stunning, fragmentory, hysterically impactful performance which is surely one of the best I've ever seen) the one we are first presented with: that is faded actress Nikki Grace, offered a part in director Jeremy Irons' new film, controlled by a jealous, rich Polish husband? Or is it the character she seems to be playing in said film, one Susan Blue, who falls into an affair with Billy Side (Justin Theroux, also a character within a character)? Or is she a Polish prostitute? Or an American one? Or a twangy-voiced American housewife? INLAND EMPIRE is somewhat of an epic at three hours long, but, for a Lynch fan such as myself, it is never a chore, just an enigma: what the fuck is going on? Does the fact that two of the talking rabbits (taken from Lynch's website) are voiced by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring provide some unknowable link to Mulholland Drive? Like most of Lynch's films, what is important here is not narrative, but feeling; and, above all, INLAND EMPIRE is horrifically frightening: in the last half hour or so (I cannot be sure, because I lost all track of time completely), Lynch takes you to the delirious extreme of one nightmare only to pull you out of it and plunge you into another, even more horrifying nightmare. INLAND EMPIRE affects not just the mind but the body: at various points I was sweating profusely, my left arm went numb, and at one point I experienced the strange desire to curl up into the smallest ball possible and disappear into my seat, so terrified was I. I cannot pretend to explain everything in INLAND EMPIRE, and to know whether it all makes sense, but I do know that no other film from 2006 made me feel so intensely and memorably as this one, and, for that, it is clearly the best film of the year.

Monday, March 19, 2007

I suddenly feel the need to see everything Glenn Close has ever done.

Spoilers ahead for 'Heights'.

I mentioned a while ago how I'd impulsively ordered the as-yet-unreleased Heights from America- well, it turned out to be a disappointment after all my anticipation. It was finely acted, sure- I suddenly feel the need to see everything Glenn Close has ever made; and James Marsden has only gone up in my estimation- but it was little more than just another one of those multi-stranded New York narratives that didn't really go anywhere. There are some wonderful felicities- Close's enrapturing renditions of Shakespeare, George Segal's wizened yet decidedly un-hip rabbi, the enigmatic Andrew Howard- but it takes a long while to go practically nowhere, and, when the surprising revelation came, I felt not surprise but annoyance. Not because of the hidden relationship between Marsden and Jesse Bradford- both provided poignant reasoning behind that- but because I'd been lied to about the character of Elizabeth Banks. Suddenly she doesn't want to be with Marsden at all? Did I miss something? Banks gives a perfectly fine performance, but I struggled to comprehend this sudden change of heart- all the while she had been protesting against her mother's (Close) cautionings, carefully rebuffing interested parties, and then all of a sudden she doesn't want him at all. I suppose I'm supposed to surmise that she was lying to herself? I think Heights is one of those films I could easily sit through again and enjoy a perfectly reasonable amount, but it is not what I wished it had been and was certainly not worthy of my delirious anticipation of it.

Also: Lindsay Lohan and Jude Law? Creepy. I wasn't sure if Lindsay could corrupt herself any further, then she goes and does so. Please, Lindsay. I still have some respect for you. Clean yourself up and get yourself another gig with a top director like Robert Altman. Then there'd be hope. Just... stay away from Jude.

This afternoon I go INLAND EMPIRE.. aring. *chews knuckles* I'm sitting through Factory Girl first, though... hopefully that'll take my mind away from the anticipation of the impending mind-fuck.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Back in the day...

Films lately have been getting me down, either because they're badly made (Sleeping Dogs Lie, The Rules of Attraction), or just because they're so damned depressing (Cache, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). So it's exciting and refreshing to see something like Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which is, basically, a celebration of life- of music, of community, of comedy, of kindness. I'm not a particular fan of some of the music here (and, I must confess, my attention occasionally waned), but the artists here are all so full of life that it's hard to argue against them. I'd only heard of Kanye West (who does a storming performance of 'Jesus Walks') and The Fugees (woo!)- and Mos Def, but I didn't know he sang- but perhaps even better was my discovery of the fantastic Jill Scott and the gorgeous Erykah Badu. And Michel Gondry, who made such a mess of The Science of Sleep, directs with a light, assured hand, and we bounce between artists, public, and Dave Chappelle (hilarious, by the way) without ever feeling like the pace and feeling has been disrupted. Moments like the marching band exploding when they hear they're off to New York are just so wonderfully joyful- it's just great to see a film celebrating what the world can produce, and show that there is still joy in this depressing world.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Human Connection

Dark Horse has a touch of the surreal, and yet, ultimately, it's disarmingly easy to connect with, to understand, to empathize. It slides comfortably between clever comedy and deliberate poignancy, taking the unusual route of using comedy to set up and root the characters before smoothly underlaying their situation with drama. This is the kind of film where a parade of elephants suddenly walks past the window of a cafe, or the girl in the bakery is on mushrooms, but it's never so removed from humanity that it feels like a hollow 'indie' film. It balances the silly but astute comedy with observant pieces of real life, and creates characters that it's easy to like and to spend this time with. By the time the film had ended, it was in a totally different place to where it began, and I was ready for it to take me somewhere else, provided I could stay with these people. Grade: A-

I could say much the same thing about A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, though there is a lot less fun in it, and the characters are remarkably more volatile. But the principle remains: these are human, grounded characters, easy to empathize with, and the film leaves you wanting to spend more time with them. Writer-director Dito Montiel's autobiographical film juggles a dual narrative- him as a teenager (Shia LeBeouf) in Queens, and him grown up (Robert Downey Jr.) returning back home from L.A.- adeptly, focusing on the former narrative for the most part, where Dito struggles to keep a hold on his friends (Channing Tatum, Martin Compston...) and his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz; Rosario Dawson as an adult) as danger begins to escalate around them. Montiel's script is a direct, open one, both warm and precarious, and his direction adds an unexpected buoyancy to the film, slicing up dialogue and sound within scenes to add to the reflective element of the film. Dianne Wiest (where have you been?) and Chazz Palminteri are superb as Dito's parents, Palminteri especially as he tries to keep a handle on his exact relationship with his son. Grade: B

Friday, March 02, 2007

I only like Adrien Brody when he's a Polish piano player during the Second World War.

That is, I only like him in The Pianist.

I have no idea why Brody is so outstandingly brilliant in that Roman Polanski stunner (my best of 2002) and so ingratiatingly irritating in every other thing I've ever seen him in. I say this because I saw Allan Coulter's drab and sluggish Hollywoodland yesterday, and every moment that Brody's character, sardonic, small-time private investigator (is there another kind?) was on screen, I just wanted to punch him. Repeatedly. Not only only does poor George Reeves (here played rather boringly by the praised Ben Affleck) get sidelined even in his own life story, but he gets pushed aside by Brody's smug, holier-than-thou mug. It doesn't help that Brody's character is so smug and holier-than-thou in attitude either, although the script clearly wants you to sympathise with him as he spins into a Black Dahlia-lite obsession with the suicide/murder (???!!!) of the depressed Superman actor. It doesn't help either that the flashbacks to Reeves' life are infinitely more interesting (though still rather dull) and every time it switches back to Brody you can virtually hear the audience sighing as one. And it doesn't help that Brody is costumed so that it continually looks like he's suddenly appeared from the year 2000. If Quantum Leap was still on, I'd swear Brody was being inhabited by Sam Beckett.

Diane Lane is good though. So yeah. There's that.

I also watched the little-known stageplay adaptation The 24th Day, about a man (Scott Speedman) who takes hostage the man (James Marsden) who may have given him HIV five years ago when he strayed once from his marriage. The film is by no means perfect, and some of the dialogue is terribly risible, but the dissection of truth and trust is kind fascinating to watch play out, and the two actors are more than capable of holding the interest.

Especially James Marsden. Now I don't know where my recent obsession with Mr. Marsden has come from, but he's such a painfully underrated actor than maybe I'm compensating for the rest of the world's ignorance. I impulsively ordered Heights from the US (since it has not been, and shows no sign of being, released here) mostly because he's in it. He brought so much more pathos to the jilted-lover roles in X-Men and Superman Returns than most actors would have even bothered doing... but please, someone get him away from Bryan Singer! Singer obviously hates the man, because he's always being dumped for a superhero in his films. (Although Cyclops is so much cooler than Wolverine... am I alone there? Okay...) He looks like he might also be getting dumped by Amy Adams in Enchanted this year... although that's just conjecture on my part- but then his rival is McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey, so he's clearly doomed. Give this man some meaty roles, stat- he's more than capable.