Saturday, November 04, 2006

Short Takes: Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Lassie, Russian Dolls, The Departed, On A Clear Day, and MOre

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles - A minor work from Zhang Yimou, but it's so good to see him working in this vein again after the bloated martial arts film House of Flying Daggers (and he's got another one lined up). The idea of having a Japanese character visit rural China is a progressive and interesting one. Unfortunately the film is a bit too low-key and heavily sentimental. Still it's worth it just as a window into a remote culture. Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

Lassie (2005) - Charming, short and sweet, an excellent film for all ages. I've actually never seen any of the earlier versions of the story, but this one surely does them proud. The acting is generally solid (including Peter O'Toole, 73 at the time of the film) and occasionally excellent (Kelly Macdonald is excellent in a small role). Aside from an unconvincing accent, Peter Dinklage is excellent as a wandering entertainer. The animal work is certainly excellent. I was convinced to see this when I heard that it captured an authentic period flavor of the U.K., and it certainly has. The episodic storyline is generally very good. Dog lovers, animal lovers will certainly enjoy. What are you waiting for? Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

Russian Dolls - A cusp-of-thirty coming of age film that credibly dramatizes matters of the heart with impressive energy and inventive style which it would be lazy and a bit unfair to characterize as MTVish. The film employs a large cast of attractive and interesting characters but mainly concerns Roman Duris as Xavier Rousseau, who gets to make love to some of the most beautiful actresses in Europe (including Kelly Reilly and the somewhat underutilized Audrey Tautou). There's just the subtlest note of (unconscious?) misogyny in its "Street of Ideal Proportions" sequence which left a bad taste in my mouth, but the film is generally very sweet and colorful and loving. Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.

The Departed - Do I have double standards? Why do I expect better from Scorsese than I do from Tarantino, esp. given how much I've (somewhat guiltily) enjoyed Tarantino? Maybe it's because Tarantino seems to be slowly improving and maturing while for Scorsese this is clearly a step down into juvenile machismo (with its disturbingly derogatory attitude and extreme, braltu violence). That aside, the film is riveting, made with an intense passion that has been all too rare on the big screen in recent years. The cast is an embarrassment of riches (esp. Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg and Ray Winstone). Some have bemoaned Nicholson's hamminess, but I enjoyed it (the story is essentially just a game, after all, a light entertainment) and was surprised to see him work so well in the role because I've associated him with comedies for a long time. Matt Damon is cast against type which was interesting, though I'm not sure how well it worked for him. He seemed a bit bland in the part. DiCaprio was back in excellent form, which is good news because it's been a while (Catch Me if You Can was 2002, but before that he hadn't excelled since his adventurous run-up to Titanic in the mid-90s). Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.

Inside Man - The most sexist Hollywood film of the year? What do people see in Denzel Washington? It would have been smarter to cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead instead of supporting (but then it couldn't have opened on so many screens and garnered Spike Lee his biggest box office hit to date). Clive Owen is always watchable, and it's actually kind of fun seeing Jodie Foster play a bitch, and Christopher Plummer gives another fine, professional performance, but the story is ridiculous and overlong. An utter waste of time. Rating: ½ out of 4 stars.

The White Countess - Ismail Merchant's final production (the DVD has a worthwhile tribute to him as an extra) is novelistic (naturally, since it was written by Kazuo Ishiguro) and subtle, completely unformulaic. This is anything but commercial, and it's honestly not the most exciting project I've ever seen from Merchant and Ivory, but the characters and setting are rich, and the story is interesting. I'm so thoroughly impressed with Ralph Fiennes (esp. after seeing him on Broadway this year in Faith Healer), and that's a major reason I rented this film. He doesn't disappoint. Fiennes has a public image as a pretty leading man because of The English Patient and I fear it's kept audiences from seeing what a committed and brilliant actor he is. Here he plays a blind ex-diplomat with utter conviction, creating genuine romance with Natasha Richardson. I don't know how he got such work made at such a high level of quality, but I'll definitely miss Mr. Merchant. I hope James Ivory can continue to direct without him. Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

Hollywoodland - An interesting idea that never yields fruit. Worse, the storytelling and direction seem deliberately designed to take as cynical and ugly view of everyone involved--indeed, of life itself--as possible. Ben Affleck has matured (more as a person than an actor), which is nice to see, and Adrien Brody is back in fine form in a thankless storyline that most people blame as being extraneous, a key fault of the script. The great Bob Hoskins looks, sadly, like he's near the end of his life, and the overvalued Diane Lane continues not to impress me. Molly Parker has much too small a role, and I hope the paycheck allows her to do something worth her time. Avoid at all costs. Rating: 0 out of 4 stars.

The Proposition - so dull! The film looks great, if you go for gritty, violent westerns, but the characters can't muster a surprise among the lot of them. The good ones are good and the bad ones are bad, and that's the way they stay. Winstone's fine, Pierce is okay, but Emily Watson gets stuck in a pitiful damsel in distress role. But if you really want a laugh, check out John Hurt's gothic-in-the-extreme performance as a drunken bounty hunter. Rating: 0 out of 4 stars.

On a Clear Day - It's never going to be mistaken for a great film, but with a cast including Peter Mullan (all hail), Brenda Blethyn and Billy Boyd, I couldn't resist. What I discovered is a solid foray in the inspirational drama genre. Mullan plays a shipbuilder who's laid off before he's ready to retire, though he's a grandfather who's rather alienated from his son (a handsome Jamie Sives). Deciding he needs a goal, he sets his sights on swimming the English Channel and recruits his mates to help him train. Many of the supporting characters are assigned simple struggles of their own (Blethyn is working on a career change of her own, son Rob is struggling with accepting his role as a primary caregiver to his children) and it's all a bit too neat and tidy. But the ending still delivers. Would you call this working class filmmaking? Unimaginative, but with its heart in the right place, it gets the job done. Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.



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