Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Illusionist, Half Nelson, The Devil Wears Prada, Heading South, and Quinceanera

I took some vacation time in August and didn't touch a computer for two weeks. (Well, practically.) It was wonderful. But as a result I didn't get around to blogging about the movies I was watching until now.

The best film I saw all month, one of my favorites of the year so far, was The Illusionist, the tale (from a short story by Steven Millhauser) of a Viennese magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton) whose breathtaking show begins to challenge the authorities, most esp. the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell). The always-excellent Paul Giammatti plays the Chief Inspector who serves the Prince but finds himself wavering in his allegiance as he investigates a murder. The story is also a strong romance--Jessica Biel is excellent as romantic lead Sophie. (Looking her up, it turns out she debuted in a pedigreed film, Ulee's Gold, but went on to a string of work in mostly undistinguished films like Stealth and London.) Seeing this film not long after M. Night's latest disappointment (also starring Giammatti), I couldn't help thinking this is exactly the kind of film he should be making. Director Neil Burger has produced a hell of a calling card, though it didn't get much attention, buried as it was in the dog days of summer. I'll be shocked if the more ballyhooed magic movie this year--The Prestige--tops this feat. Rating: 4 out of 4 stars.

After Sundance buzz esp. for Ryan Gosling's performance, I was unreasonably excited to see Half Nelson, a quiet and organic drama about a left-wing young teacher working in a poor Brooklyn school who also happens to have a raging drug addiction. The story concerns his blooming friendship with a young girl in his class and on the basketball team he coaches (that much I knew). It's such a special, unique relationship, completely fresh, and it's told with utter integrity. But there's more--the film also concerns a drug dealer in the girl's neighborhood who is also trying to take her under his wing and is, therefore, a kind of rival for Gosling's coach character. The actors are allowed to fully inhabit their characters, warts and all, and the plot eventually reaches a crisis that's brilliantly conceived and executed. I also admired the way the story resists melodrama, given the combustible elements of its story (there could easily have been rants about addiction, racism, inappropriate teacher/student relationships, negligent parents, etc.). Edited in along with scenes set in the classroom (in which we see the the teacher struggling against the established curriculum to inculcate his students with a strong sense of history that's relevant to their lives) are moments of student reports on various chapters of American history (the Attica prison riots, the assassination of Harvey Milk, etc.) which are shot as direct address, the students gazing into our eyes as if we were their fellow students. All of this is great, so what's the problem? In the end, I found myself wishing more of the story had been about the girl (inhabited believably by newcomer Shareeka Epps). I also felt that in terms of plotting, the story rambles a bit too much--it lands on its feet, but good plotting should fully exploit and articulate its story's potential, and this plot left some strong material unmined, a common problem when storytellers strike out in fresh territory. Still, this is one of the films of the year and a recent landmark in American independent filmmaking. Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars.

The Devil Wears Prada is, as everyone has already said, much more effective, entertaining and moving than it has any right to be. Meryl Streep gives a top-notch performance as the ultimate boss from hell, a prima donna of fashion journalism whose power and authority have accustomed her to toss off her edicts and judgments without question. In one notable sequence, she commands the impossible (obtaining the new, as-yet-unpublished volume of Harry Potter for her bratty twin girls) and expects nothing less than success. Anne Hathaway is winning as the young journalist who knows nothing about fashion but manages to convince Miranda (the Old Scratch of the title) that a fresh, outsider's eye might be just what she needs in the office. Emily Blunt, so powerful in My Summer of Love, and the always-excellent Stanley Tucci give excellent supporting performances. It's just chick lit, right? Only somehow the film is Oscar calibre, a film comedy men can enjoy as much as women, one of those films like Nine to Five that amuse us but also seem to express something about our work lives. And it's directed by yet another newcomer (the third on this list), a Sex in the City veteran. The boyfriend storyline is the weakpoint but works reasonably well, justifiable for the changes it reveals in the main character. Unlikely as it may seem, it's a triumph. Rating: # ½ out of 4 stars.

Heading South (Vers le Sud) has an unusual premise. It's a look at North American female tourists in the habit of visiting Haiti (around the time of "Baby Doc" Duvalier's regime, I would guess) for a good time--surf, sun and handsome young men. Sex tourism, then. The film is well-enough acted, but the director is so careful to tell his story in a politically aware and responsible fashion that I was ultimately unhappy with the film. It's a presentation of lust in handcuffs, and I really didn't want either from this film. Each of the three women gets to deliver monologues about their lives, and there's some strong material about the character of Legba, the young man who has more or less obsessed two of them, Charlotte Rampling and Karen Young. Rampling gives yet another performance (following the recent Lemming) in which she is effectively steely and harsh, fairly one-note, and Karen Young's style was either powerfully naked or amateurishly out-of-place--I couldn't quite make up my mind. There's a character named Albert who is briefly dramatized at the beginning as being superior to the temptations faced by the women and who is shown mostly in the background of the rest of the film, a silent judge. It's a bit like having someone watch you while you watch the film. It's not that I particularly wanted some guilt-free titillation from the film, but when a story is so self-critical and self-judgmental, I tend to feel a bit extraneous as an audience member. A film that should make the politically correct smugly satisfied. Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

Quinceanera is a film that represents a rare cross-subcultural exchange in American indie filmmaking, as it brings together white gay men and a hispanic cast in a story of a gentrifying L.A. neighborhood (Echo Park). Mainly, it concerns a young girl who becomes pregnant before her quinceanera (a traditional party thrown at the age of 15, like a "sweet sixteen" event) and her cousin, a young man who is exploring his sexuality and becomes entangled in the relationship of two gay neighbors. The film is lively, a bit soapy and even outrageous (the details of the pregnancy and the affair), and its storylines are somewhat crude and unimaginative. It wears its concerns on its sleeves, but it doesn't pre-judge its characters or condemn them for their mistakes the way Heading South does (although, if anything, it may be too harsh on the gay male characters). Chalo González is touching as an older uncle who takes in the children when they've been abandoned by their own families--it's probably the only completely effective performance in the film. Still, for all its lack of polish and sophistication, I wish more American storytellers would try to break down the unnecessary borders of our cherished multiculturalism. When I saw it, the film had attracted a refreshingly diverse audience, most of whom seemed to take it as provocative if a bit silly, though entertaining. Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.



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