Sunday, November 19, 2006

Recent Movie Roundup 3

The fall doldrums are finally clearing away, and there's been a surprising number of interesting films at the movie theatre lately (on the other hand, The Prestige doesn't seem to have an Israeli release date yet, and I strongly suspect I'll have to wait for the DVD). Missing from the list below is Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, a film I liked well enough but have nothing to say about--which seems appropriate for a film that manages to be intelligently-made without being intelligent. Niall Harrison at Torque Control has a good review, as well as some links to others' thoughts.
  1. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) - Bog-standard family comedy masquerading as an indie flick. It's hard to decide what's most remarkable about this film: the deft way it integrates an utterly conventional premise--the dysfunctional family learning to work together and appreciate each other--with enough quirky idiosyncrasies--the Proust scholar uncle who tried to kill himself when his boyfriend left him for a lesser Proust scholar; the Rand-ian son who has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his goal of becoming a test pilot; the foul-mouthed, coke-snorting grandfather--to seem fresh and irreverent, or the fact that, however mild and ultimately inoffensive, these idiosyncrasies are enough to ensure that Little Miss Sunshine could never have been a product of the Hollywood studio system--not without having its individuality carefully filed away. There's absolutely nothing subversive or experimental about Little Miss Sunshine (even its pointed criticism of the children's beauty pageant circuit caters, I believe, to the majority opinion), but it is remarkable simply for being exceptionally well-made: smart, well-written, uproariously funny, and impeccably well-acted by every single member of its cast. We seem to have reached an absurd situation in which 'independent' has come to mean 'not made of plastic.'

  2. The Departed (2006) - A farce masquerading as a crime drama. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio are excellent as, respectively, a policeman in the pay of Jack Nicholson's crime boss and an undercover agent in that crime boss's organization. Unfortunately, Damon and DiCaprio's performances are about ten times as intelligent as the film containing them, which repeatedly reaches for a sombre, introspective tone and hopefully some meaningful discussion of the question of identity, only to fall back on increasingly ludicrous violence. Like a bad production of Hamlet, the film's ending, with its rapidly accumulating pile of bodies, elicits guffaws rather than the stunned silence I imagine it was aiming for, and only Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin, as the only two straight-talking characters in a film rife with lies and equivocation, manage to walk away from the story with pride--both figuratively and literally.

  3. Syriana (2005) - Non-fiction masquerading as fiction. I hadn't known that Stephen Gaghan was involved in this multi-threaded tale of lies and corruption in the Middle Eastern oil trade, but I certainly wasn't surprised to see his name pop up in the credits. Like Gaghan's Traffic, Syriana is nothing if not preachy. Also like Traffic, that preachiness targets the intellect rather than the emotion, which, although it by no means lessens the film's betrayal of its artistic integrity, is at the very least a refreshing change from all the other preachy films out there. And there's certainly a hell of a lot to be interested by in Gaghan's lecture, which travels back and forth between the U.S. and the Persian Gulf, charting the ways in which the short-sighted interests of a wealthy few on both continents create an environment in which moderates are brought down and fanatics of all stripes prosper. Matt Damon has a lot less to do here than he did in The Departed, but he's a breath of fresh air as the only character willing to speak truth to power, and Deep Space Nine's Alexander Siddig is a revelation as his boss, a progressive emir struggling to use his country's priceless natural resource wisely before it runs out. The plot is often confusing--it certainly doesn't help that so many of the characters mumble--but following it is interesting, which is really the best word to describe the entire film.

  4. Casino Royale (2006) - Standard spy film masquerading as a Bond flick, or perhaps vice versa. Over the course of four films, the modern incarnation of the Bond franchise struggled to translate to the age of irony a character so cool that he goes straight through cool and out the other end into campy. Casino Royale attempts to reboot the franchise by offering us an origin story, in which the character learns to develop the so-cool-I'm-laughable attitude. The result is a film constantly at war with itself--an entirely earnest story about the creation of an utterly ridiculous man, which segues from its kinetic opening scene, best described as James Bond vs. Spiderman, to a furious M chastising Bond for getting caught on camera killing an unarmed suspect and arousing the fury of the international press. During its first 2/3, the film coasts on its charm and style (neither quality, unfortunately, is apparent in Daniel Craig's blank performance, although this is probably due at least in part to the film's mandate), but then the necessities of getting Bond to where he needs to be force the introduction of what feels like an entirely new plotline, with the film taking so long to wrap up its story as to make The Return of the King's ending seem downright rushed. Still, this is by far the most intelligent Bond film I've ever seen, and the only one of the modern films that comes close to successfully examining what makes Bond tick. Also, Judi Dench's M is worth the price of admission all on her own--her character is finally given the chance to have a bit of fun, and walks away with the entire picture.
Finally, and on a slightly movie-related note, has anyone else noticed that The Leaky Cauldron seems to have gone entirely apeshit? I'd long ago resigned myself to the fact that the site had become a Harry Potter film news service, reporting primarily on the status of the various adaptations as well as on every public appearance, interview or sneeze by every actor or crewmember even tangentially related to them, but the hysteria surrounding the release of the teaser trailer for this summer's adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is moving into the realm of absurdity. Here's a report on which film the trailer is going to air with. Here's a recap of the trailer. Here's a screen capture from the trailer. Here's a high-definition version of that screen capture. Here's a 30-second commercial containing 2 seconds of material from the trailer. Here's a recap and some screen captures of that 2-second clip. Have we mentioned that the trailer is coming soon? Don't get me wrong. I'm going to watch the trailer and probably the film too, but for God's sake, people, have a little perspective.


pangloss said...

Best set ofreviews of these films I've seen in which you rather more cogently cover all the main comments I made, or wanted to make, myself.

Casino Royale is, weirdly for a mainstream franchise, perhaps the oddest of the lot - a more or less convincing portrait of a psychopath who is briefly humanised and then loses it again. It strikes me as having learnt lessons from The Bourne Identity but not knowing how to integrate them into the Bond mythos that has to be preserved. How are we meant to identify wit this character in the future sequels? And what on earth would drive someone as amoral and self-contained as this to withstand torture for the abstract benefit of the world? (And why on earth did Vesper lock herself into the lift cage to drwon herself - or am I missing some point entirely??)

Dotan said...

You are so wrong about Judy Dench "walking away with the entire picture". Yes, she is a perennial show-stealer, yeah, Casino Royale actually gives her some good lines and close-ups with which to ACT at us, but it's not her film, it's Bond's.
And I say "Bond" rather then Daniel Craig because watching the movie, I alternated between watching Craig and thinking he is totally Bond, and looking for Bond and seeing Craig standing in his place.

Alison said...

I liked Daniel Craig's performance a whole lot more than you did. I think he's a fine actor, though he tends to interpret roles as blank-faced and insane. I wonder what he was like as Ted Hughes?

The Departed is a remake of an excellent Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs (Mou gaan dou) which I recommend highly.

Nic White said...

Seen The Prestige yet?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

No word on a release date yes. The Illusionist is coming out next week (although it may be a bit longer before I get to see it), which gives me hope for an Israeli release for The Prestige.

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