Sunday, November 21, 2004

Short takes: a movie roundup

This time of year the films come fast and furious, and the cineplex swells as the summer&Christmas popcorn crowds rediscover the fun of movies. Meanwhile, the flood of DVD releases continues to yield treasures.

Sideways - Such an exquisitely crafted movie! It's about a wine connoisseur, his romantic prospects, his friendship and his passions, but its true focus is that crisis point when life's ambitions seem to be dying of failure, withering on the vine. As ever, Alexander Payne displays a real gift for putting characters under the microscope. The friendship between Paul Giamatti's down-on-his-luck, Frasier wannabe and Thomas Haden Church's maturity-challenged, third-tier TV actor could merely have been played as a standard Mutt and Jeff routine, but this is something much deeper and subtler. It's one thing to achieve mere mimicry, like Charlize Theron in Monster or Jamie Foxx (this year's Oscar fave) in Ray, but it's another again to create characters from scratch the way Giamatti & co. do here. It's astonishing. During a getting-to-know-you conversation that takes place at the climax of a touch and go date, when Virginia Madsen's Maya shares her thoughts on wine, it's the most magically romantic moment of seduction I've seen in a movie in ages. If the film's material is somewhat familiar overall, it's still polished to perfection. We've no right to expect hopefulness from an Alexander Payne film (and the more biting ending of Election still feels like proof that it remains his best film), but, despite our instinctive distrust of happy endings because they are all too often merely reflexive, this one feels necessary. Rating: 4 out of 4 stars.

The Forgotten - The Mommy Matrix. The mother-child bond is the obsessive focus of this far-out story which will have you asking, Is she insane? or are the writers? Effectively suspenseful--translation: it may make you jump in your seat a lot--and Julianne Moore always shines, but the story is kind of stupid. I was ultimately unsatisfied, because as a puzzle film it's too simple. Rating: 1 out of 4 stars.

Tarnation - Question: Who takes a video camera along when they puke into a toilet? While the family suffering documented here is no doubt real, the cynical side of me can't help suspecting that this film is on some level a stunt to land NY actor Caouette a film acting career. Instant backstory, instant persona. The story is almost as miserable as Capturing the Friedmans, but nowhere near as intelligently made. That film displayed an expert narrative ability (it adds layers delicately, each one showing us more depth of possibility), but this does little more than show off iMovie's graphic capabilities. Rating: 1 out of 4 stars.

The Trouble with Harry (1955) - A droll murder mystery that is at the same time highly abstract (the characters almost exist as on a blank stage, like a Beckett play) and unusually realistic, at least in terms of behavior (characters make plans, then change their minds and undo them, then redo parts of the plan, etc.; they act out of self-interest and other less-heroic motivations). The pace seems a tad slow by today's standards, and some of the acting could be sharper, but I was entertained by its clever playing with murder mystery formula and esp. with conventional murder mystery morality: most of the characters are shockingly unconcerned about the dead man, and a final exculpatory revelation is, intriguingly, anything but. Innocence and guilt are entwined like a trap. With its romance and comedy, the film appears to be giving us what we want, but anyone who falls for that simple reading will find themselves stuck in an amusing finger trap. Once again, Hitchcock produces a double-duty film, one that can merely entertain but that can also challenge as an intellectual work of art. Featuring the film debut of the amazing Shirley MacLaine. Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Elena and her Men (1956) - Do you know that Woody Guthrie song written for & about Ingrid Bergman? He wrote the lyrics (including "Ingrid Bergman, let's go make a picture") in 1950 and it was set to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco on Mermaid Avenue a few years ago. Well, Jean Renoir felt the same way about her. In an extra on the new DVD of the film, Renoir explained that the whole purpose of the film was to work with her. Her extraordinary charms are front and center, here. The story is about a Polish princess who, as a kind of hobby, takes an interest in men and, muse-like, sees them reach their potential. Her path crosses with a war hero general, who she (like his legions of fans) wants to see lead the French nation into better days, and this she in ensnared in politics, including the romantic kind. The filmmaking is graceful, colorful and charmingly old-fashioned. One sequence in particular, in which Elena and hundreds of others, are jostled around in a crowd to witness the spectacle of General Rollan in a parade, is especially magical, a comical cartoon of mix-ups put right again. By the end, an earthy gypsy woman is put forth as kind of foil to Bergman's character and there are ugly hints of trapping this free spirit through deception, and the ending sours what should have been a light, happy ending. It's as if the celebration of Bergman's magic has become threatening and her character must be punished. Alas, too much of the film falls flat, anyway, but it's so close to achieving the cinematic equivalent of champagne. Very disappointing. Some interesting scenes that evoke community as character, a French spin on the old Greek chorus and at times an almost Shakespearean style of comedy. Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

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