Saturday, March 24, 2007

Vienna Part II

One nice thing about 8+ hour international flights is that you often get to see multiple in-flight movies for free, usually from the recent past. The flights to and from Vienna allowed me to catch up on five films from 2006 that I didn’t get around to watching on my own dime. I’ll now review them here.

Rocky Balboa

Where to start? For beginners, watching this insipid movie made me feel just as bad as Stallone looked. The man distorts his face like a hideous clown drawn by Picasso and in so doing successfully conveys the idea that Rocky should not be allowed to return to the ring, for his own sake as much as for the audience. The Boxing Commission initially agrees, but is soon convinced to change their mind after Rocky threatens them in the most brutal possible way. No, no, not punching: cringe-inducing, pretentious, pseudo-patriotic speechifying.

If you are really into sappy monologues about “believing in yourself” then this movie is perfect for you. The sheer quantity of preachy clichés being sold as homespun profundity will more than sate those looking for a return to good, old-fashion American values. Perhaps more distressing then simple bad writing is the return to American values we’d rather leave behind, namely racism. Outdoing even the poorly coded racist undertones of the original “Rocky,” this sixth sequel has the aged, Italian boxer putting the cocky African-American Mason “The Line” Dixon in his place.

The rest of the badness found in this movie comes from fairly predictable areas: reignited romance, father-son arguments that end in love and healing, a scrappy dog named “Punchy” which might be the 2006’s worst obvious metaphor, a final fight that borrows its style straight from pay-per-view, a remixed “Eye of the Tiger” that takes out everything that was great about the original, etc. In the film’s defense, however, I did find the screening to be inadvertently hilarious and a source of ongoing in-jokes amongst my family.

Walrus Rating: 2/10

Marie Antoinette

Sofia Coppola’s third film continues her interesting pattern of taking unusual perspectives on familiar genres. Done as a period piece about the title princess from Austria who married the French prince Louis XVI, Coppola offers almost no history and initially seems to be making a sensitive comedy about the couple’s awkward sex life (or lack thereof).

The final product, however, is less about narrative and more about sensorial details like elaborate clothing, extraordinary cuisine and ornate architecture all caught in crisp cinematography and set to an excellent soundtrack by “Gang of Four,” “The Cure,” “Aphex Twin,” “New Order,” “Siouxsie and the Banshees” and “Air.” Kirsten Dunst’s appealing performance in the lead is both subtle and vulnerable enough to be believable and sufficiently supported by Jason Schwartzman and the rest of the cast (including many indie favorites).

Unfortunately, like all of Coppola’s films so far, it falls short of being as deep as it feigns and is too quickly forgotten. While aesthetically appealing from moment to moment the film is just too light and carefree to accomplish much. The two hour length is far too long and by the time the film decides to tell a story in the final 30 minutes, it seems rushed and a little trite.

Walrus Rating: 6.5/10

Dreamgirls

Bill Condon’s musical adaptation shares with “Marie Antoinette” the same indulgence in good-natured superficiality, but lacks the other film’s creativity or musical taste. As a story, “Dreamgirls” feels like a giant lumbering fusion of every “rise-and-fall” band/musician story since the dawn of time. Every stale montage, production number, plot twist, character type, betrayal and turn-around from the genre has been resurrected from the dead and sewn unto the lurching unstoppable box-office Frankenstein. This operation is handled by some of the best doctors and equipment money can by; each component is surgically grafted with steely precision and professional detachment. Viewers will be pleased with the impressive procedure, knowing that the patient is at all time perfectly safe and in practiced hands, while the technician breathe life into the dead assemblage. Sadly, however, the monster will forever lack a soul.

Therein lays the sin that condemns the beast. The whole point of the film, as it loudly announces in both shouting matches and piercing songs, is that soul, talent and authenticity are more important than outward appearances, popularity and good looks. The ironic paradox is that the film’s structure, marketing and presentation deny its purported beliefs at every turn. Emblematic of the problem is the casting of Beyonce Knowles (for her looks) and Eddie Murphy (for his fame) in major parts despite their embarrassing acting disabilities (although in fairness, Murphy puts in a career high).

The essential hypocrisy of the film isn’t the only paradox. “Dreamgirls” also turns its back almost completely on the genre of music it claims to depict (and borrows its plot loosely from). Most of the song and dance numbers are the type of all-out Broadway show-stoppers that guarantee big audiences but will alienate the hardcore and historically interested. The problem hits home hardest, and most ironically, when the film’s “talented” songwriter walks out of a recording session because the simplistic disco beats are given precedence over his “important” lyrics. At no point in the film up to then have we seen the man produce anything but catchy, refrain-heavy hooks with the same obvious themes and limited vocabulary every time.

Walrus Rating: 4.5/10

Stranger than Fiction

While I occasionally find Will Ferrell to be funny, his movies almost never are (for me) and so I came into “Stranger than Fiction” expecting very little despite the hype. I was pleasantly surprised to find my preconceptions to be shattered by this clever and unassuming film which deserves a place as a minor comedy gem.

Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a mild-mannered (in the extreme) IRS agent who has an obsession with counting and an emotionally empty life. He finds his clockwork habits interrupted one day by a female narrator who begins as a mild annoyance (repeating exactly what he’s doing and thinking) and soon becomes a ominous mental trauma (she predicts his imminent death). Crick’s author is Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a prestigious author who hasn’t published in more than ten years because writer’s block has prevented her from conceiving the exact manner of Crick’s death.

The delightful premise is executed quite well with instances of perfectly timed comedy, charm and insight. The writing is just the right blend of daily comedy and tragedy which Crick recognizes in his own life story. The direction is unobtrusive and has a couple nice touches like the CG calculations that externalize Crick’s mind and the morbid fantasies that externalize Eiffel’s. The ultimate ending is a disappointing sellout, ameliorated somewhat by being acknowledged as “merely OK” by the film itself.

The supporting cast of Dustin Hoffman, Tony Hale and Maggie Gyllenhaal all have their moments to shine although Gyllenhaal, as the romantic love interest, loses all believability in the second half of the film. She delivers a saccharine background story, shows no agency whatsoever (she gives in instantly to Crick’s archaically possessive declaration of “I want you.”) and ceases to develop further after serving her role as romantic object-goal.

Walrus Rating: 8/10

The Fountain

Easily the best film from the trip, Darren Aronofsky’s third film is a highly-original, existential, sci-fi dissertation that spans three stories spread across a thousand years. Hardly a recipe for box-office success, “The Fountain” had the guts to advertise itself for exactly what it was (room existed for some creative editing) and then to see its audacious premise to completion.

Edited together in an impressive non-linear web is the tale of a Spanish conquistador who journeys to South American (searching for the tree of life in the hopes of saving his besieged queen), a modern story about a medical scientist trying to find a cure for his wife’s terminal brain tumor, and a futuristic (and highly abstract) episode following a bald guru sailing towards a dying nebula on a space-tree-bubble. The lead man from each section is ostensibly the same (played by Hugh Jackman).

Switching styles once again (following “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream”), Aronofsky proves he is still a maverick visual poet. His film has a distinctive look, aglow with the ambiance of golden light and rippling with the echoes of his interwoven stories and brilliantly framed graphic matches. The camerawork compliments the ambiguous material, finding visual ways to evoke the themes of acceptance, abasement, eternity and hidden continuity.

If “The Fountain” has a flaw it is that the attractive leads (Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz) aren’t really up to the material. They have a lot of symbolic and artistic weight to carry and neither has the nuance and delicacy to sell the material with much realism or depth of personality. It isn’t a major fault given that their roles are at least as much symbolic as flesh-and-blood, but it would have the film just a little more divine.

Walrus Rating: 9/10

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