Sunday, October 05, 2008

Recent Movie Roundup 8

It's fall, which means that it'll be some time before I feel the urge to write a full-length film review again, mainly because I haven't been inside a movie theater since the middle of the summer. Nevertheless, I have been watching films on DVD, and here are some thoughts.
  1. Waitress (2007) - An underdone romantic comedy with a somewhat misleading title, as the main character not only waitresses at a diner but also bakes the pies which are its chief draw and whose preparation frequently punctuates the film's action, to mouth-watering effect. Waitress starts out from a rather bleak premise--Keri Russell's Jenna is trapped in a (chillingly portrayed) abusive marriage, a dead-end job, a pregnancy that she is at best ambivalent towards, and, worst of all, a bitterness about her life that rejects any hope that things might get better. Comedies have been built on grimmer foundations than this, but where Waitress falters is its inability to decide just where on the spectrum between realism and fairy-tale it wants to fall. On the one hand, Jenna's slow and hesitant blossoming, sparked by an affair with her married gynecologist (Nathan Fillion) which is no less tender and affectionate for both its partners' realization that a happy ending is not on the cards, feels complex and true to life. On the other hand, the subplots involving her fellow waitresses, her horrible husband, and the diner's patrons, are almost cartoonishly over the top, and the film's ending feels pat and too good to be true. Either of these tones would suit the movie, but the combination of the two is jarring. Still, Russell and Fillion are good and have good chemistry with each other, and the film, however uneven, is enjoyable and sweet.

  2. Enchanted (2007) - Six years on, Disney tries to make Shrek with only a fraction of its humor and sarcasm. Amy Adams is great, and James Marsden, though under-utilized, is also a lot of fun, but whenever they're on-screen it's impossible not to think of what they could have done with a smarter, funnier script (and what Adams could have done with a leading man who, unlike Patrick Dempsey, had a personality or even a pulse). Instead, it turns out that the film's trailer contained just about all of its good jokes (and that a few of them are a great deal less funny in expanded form), and what little wit the film directs at Disney's standard template is tepid and hesitant. I remember a lot of complaints, around the time the film came out, at Adams's character's empowerment-through-shopping, but surely the bigger problem is the ending the film gives to Dempsey's character's girlfriend (played by the criminally underused Broadway superstar Idina Menzel), who selflessly gives him up (OK), falls in love at first sight with Marsden's character (still OK) and walks away from her flourishing New York life and career to be his fairy-tale princess (facepalm).

  3. United 93 (2006) - When I wrote about The Bourne Supremacy, also directed by Paul Greengrass, last year, I complained about his penchant for jittery, faux-documentary camera work. Was this, I wondered, a deliberate attempt to wring all the fun out of the action genre? As I suspected at the time, it's a style that suits a story like United 93 much better. This is not a film that's supposed to fun, and you can see Greengrass, even as he emphasizes their courage and determination, straining against the urge to glorify the doomed passengers and crew of United flight 93 and contort their story to fit the standard action flick template (most blatantly, the phrase 'let's roll,' which became a slogan after September 11th, is uttered as an aside). The film alternates between the plane and military and civilian authorities on the ground, juxtaposing the latter's incomprehension of what was happening with the abductees' dawning realization of their situation and growing determination to take action, and the disjointed camerawork serves to emphasize both of these situations.

    United 93 is a tense, riveting film, and an uncomfortable trip back in time to that terrible day seven years ago, but it is precisely its obsession with realism (right down to casting some of its on-the-ground roles with the actual people who performed those roles on the day in question) and its dogged determination to resist the lure of narrative that leads one to wonder why the whole exercise was attempted in the first place. Why bother to make a feature film if everything that characterizes such films--plot, character arcs, themes--has been left out? And isn't the insistence on realism hypocritical given that so much of the film is speculation, right down to the hijackers' target and the question of whether the revolting passengers breached the cockpit? As affecting as I found United 93, I can't help but wonder whether it isn't another artifact of the popular obsession with 'reality'--which is to say, a story no more real than any other, but with pretensions to realism--and whether, in the mad scramble to avoid being disrespectful, the film ended up being something far more unwholesome, which lays claim to, and borrows significance from, a realism it doesn't actually possess.

  4. The Fall (2006) - Director Tarsem's follow-up to the visually stunning but emotionally hollow The Cell is, unsurprisingly, visually stunning and emotionally hollow. Still, it's a step in the right direction in that it is, impossible though this might seem, even more beautiful to behold than The Cell and, more importantly, because Tarsem has cast people who can actually act--Lee Pace as a 1920s Hollywood stuntman with a broken back and heart, and child actress Catinca Untaru as Alexandria, a precocious migrant worker hospitalized after breaking her arm while picking oranges (whether Untaru can actually act is yet to be seen, but Tarsem made the brilliant choice of casting an actress who, like her character, didn't speak English, so that her conversations with Pace's character, Roy, have an authenticity to them, sounding very much like the disjointed, scattershot conversations one has with young children who only understand a fraction of what they're hearing). Bored and curious, Alexandria discovers Roy while exploring the hospital, and is drawn into a story he concocts about a group of bandits eager to take revenge on an evil count.

    Though gorgeous, The Fall is unmistakably a film directed by a designer. Its emphasis is on creating stunning tableaux (and occasionally, though less often than one might expect considering Tarsem's career as a video clip director, on beautiful kinetic scenes), while letting the characters and the actors get lost in the shuffle (a similar problem afflicted Dave McKean's MirrorMask, which got so lost in admiring its sets that it completely forgot to show us its actors' faces). In addition, the story Roy spins is thin and nonsensical, clearly not much more than an excuse to film in as many exotic and beautiful locations as possible. The result is that The Fall only comes to life in the hospital segments, in which Pace and Untaru get a chance to interact and show emotion, but for a story about the importance of stories and the effect they can have on reality, this imbalance is a fatal flaw. The crux of the film is that Roy and Alexandria are bound together by the story they create, but, having failed to create a fantasy world worth immersing oneself in, the film becomes unconvincing, not an ode to the power of the imagination but an example of what happens when it fails.

2 comments:

Therem said...

For anyone who hasn't seen "The Fall", I feel obliged to note that there are...

** Spoilers Ahead **

I had a different reaction to "The Fall". I don't think it's about the effect of stories on reality as much as the effect of reality on stories. Roy's tale begins as a generic good vs. evil story because he thinks that's what a little kid would like and he doesn't have enough energy to get creative. It's only later, as he gets more upset at his failed quest for suicide, that he starts killing all the characters off and letting his despair permeate the narrative. Meanwhile, the child tries to pull the story in the direction she wants it to go: toward a happy ending where she is protected and loved by a new father figure. Their goals aren't compatible, which is why they have the long weepy confrontation near the end.

It's certainly not subtle, but I found it wrenching rather than emotionally hollow. Maybe that's because I've lost my father (like the little girl) and struggled with depression (like Roy) in the fairly recent past, so their increasingly raw expressions of longing and pain pushed my buttons. I certainly don't think the director was fully in control of his material. But that doesn't much matter to me.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I agree with this (though at the same time it seems a little disingenuous to argue that the fantasy segments of The Fall aren't intended to be its primary draw), but that just strengthens my argument that the film only comes alive in its real-world segments. Yes, the story is a means to an end, but if those means are flawed, the end is undermined no matter how good Pace and Untaru are.

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