Monday, October 30, 2006
According to Webster's New Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary, the word prestige "is a noun that means a delusion, an illusion, a juggler's trick, from praestinguere, to darken, to obscure."
Christopher Nolan's latest feature film certainly possesses those characteristics, but it is much, much more. THE PRESTIGE is a brilliantly conceived, beautifully executed character study concerning two rival magicians obsessed with outdoing one another in shadowy, gas lit, Victorian England. Clearly this is the kind of movie hack director M. Night Shyamalanadingdong wants to make but proves repeatedly incapable of doing due to his egregious lack of talent. However, in the deft hands of Mr. Nolan we get a motion picture masterpiece so rich in texture that it succeeds in being part murder mystery, part drama, part suspense, part fantasy and part science fiction all at once.
Abracadabra! Even Houdini couldn't have pulled this rabbit out of a hat.
Just as you would expect from a world-class magician, THE PRESTIGE is clever, tricky, and deceitful, but be advised that many of the magical moments are not unveiled in a straightforward chronology. This complexity is extremely rare, especially given the plethora of insipid sequels, prequels and remakes that dominate the nation's theater screens today. It is also risky to make today's audiences have to pay attention and to actually think. However, it is precisely this combination of rarity and risk that makes THE PRESTIGE so rewarding and why it is the kind of movie that is best enjoyed by not knowing too much going in. Accordingly, I will refrain from giving any additional information other than to reiterate that THE PRESTIGE is one of the best movies of the year and that I fully expect it will garner serious, well-deserved Oscar consideration.
One last thing -- I thought it would be fun to close with this quote from Mark Ramsey's review at Moviejuice.com:
"THE PRESTIGE is absolutely one of my favorite movies this year. It's original and engaging and most of the twists aren't nearly as obvious as Jodie Foster's reasons for choosing pants over a skirt."
(I kinda wish I had written that)
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
"Is that what we are? Misanthropes? Lord no, we're a family."
I don't think Howdy Doody would agree...
THE PROPOSITION is a film that Sam Peckenpah would call his own. From the very opening scene, a piercing gun battle that will make your ears bleed and your stomach cringe, this Aussie oat opus is a masterpiece of menance. Writer Nick Cave and Director John Hillcoat combine their talents to revitalize the Western genre and they do so with uncompromising, ferocious carnage that is as pitiless and primal as anything brought to the screen in recent years.
Needless to say, I loved this film.
Cave is best known as the controversial singer/songwriter who first shot to fame in the 1980's as head of a band called "The Birthday Party." He then climbed to greater prominence in the 1990's with "Nick Cage and the Bad Seeds." He's been quoted as saying, "I want to write songs that are so sad, the kind of sad where you take someone's little finger and break it in three places." While that may be true for his musical perspective, I can assure you his on-screen characters' trigger fingers are all in perfectly fine shape.
Guy Pearce (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, MEMENTO) gives a menacing and memorable performance as Charlie Burns, the middle aged of three brothers, who is given the choice of saving either the life of his younger brother or his older brother by the territorial head of police, Captain Stanley. Stanley is poignantly portrayed by Ray Winstone (COLD MOUNTAIN) whose own men are as ruthless and uncivil as any of the so-called bad guys except, perhaps, Arthur Burns, the oldest brother, who commands a cult-like gang of wild Irish outlaws who are intimidating enough to play for the University of Miami football team.
"What is an Irishman but a nigger turned inside out?" asks John Hurt, as Jellon Lamb, a bounty hunter also on the trail of the Burns gang. "I came to this beleagured land and the god in me evaporated."
Yes, 1880's Australia is a bleak, unforgiving Hell made even less appealing by the urine-drenched lens of Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, whose sickly yellow-tinted barren landscapes will do nothing for the tourist industry in Oz. Add in the ever-present flies and I think I'll pass on Quantas' Get-Away Bargain Fares. (Flies even sabotage the bonus segment interviews seen on the DVD -- hasn't anyone down under heard of Vapona pest strips?)
Danny Huston (THE AVIATOR, THE CONSTANT GARDENER), David Gulpili (RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, WALKABOUT) and Emily Watson (GOSFORD PARK, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS) round out the excellent cast -- especially Ms. Watson whose underplayed performance as Martha Stanley, the Captain's wife, is nothing short of remarkable.
The climatic Christmas Day dinner makes this one of my favorite films to re-screen during that harried holiday period. Accordingly, I can assure anyone whose family is a bit misanthropic (or considers themselves Compassionate Conservatives) that they will find THE PROPOSITION not only a worthy addition to the Western canon, but a fine stocking stuffer as well.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
HARD CANDY is a tasty, tantalizing treat that's so hard to swallow you'll find yourself wailing two octaves higher than Andy Devine during a bikini wax.
Let me try and explain...
To set the record straight, there's a lot to like about HARD CANDY (the title refers to the internet slang word for an under-aged girl). In fact, the underlying story was inspired by actual events in Japan where schoolgirls have banded together to ambush predatory men. It's an intriguing premise to say the least, and the first two-thirds of this low budget film is damn near a masterpiece. Reportedly shot in eighteen days for less than one million dollars, HARD CANDY sets itself up to be a cinematic classic.
Ellen Page (X-MEN: THE LAST STAND) plays fourteen year old Hayley Stark, a bright young lass who surfs the web and agrees to meet a much older internet pen pal at a local diner. Patrick Wilson (William Travis in THE ALAMO, RUNNING WITH SCISSORS) portrays thirty-two year old Jeff Kohlver, a successful, but lonely photographer. As the film progresses we are given conflicting information on whether or not Jeff is a pedophile. We also must question whether or not Hayley is pathologically insane. She's no Hayley Mills, that much is certain.
Both actors are absolutely outstanding. In fact, I cannot think of any other young actress who could convincingly pull off the frequently stilted dialogue penned by Screenwriter Brian Nelson. (Here's a classic example of an adult male not knowing how to write for a teenage girl). In any event, Ellen Page is both brilliant and mesmerizing; we can expect to see much more of this budding Canadian actress in the future.
So far, so good...
Unfortunately, the final act becomes so maddingly unbelievable and disappointing it defies description, although it does answer the question, "What is less satisfying than a fake orgasm?"
In the case of HARD CANDY the answer is, "A fake castration."
Brian Nelson and Director David Slade inexplicably opt for a POLLYANNA ending that might even gag Ms. Mills. In simplest terms, these guys lost their cojones. Instead of an uncompromising, unforgettable conclusion we get Little Red Riding Hood walking off into the sunset. And what about Jeff? Well, he's left hanging; the same is true for the audience.
If only Roman Polanski had directed...
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
"There's a chance you will find THE LAKE HOUSE laughingly awful, thanks to poorly written lines and Keanu's delivery of the world's least convincing sneeze." Matthew Turner, VIEWLONDON
Mr. Turner is being kind.
Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock purportedly fall in love with one another in what is undoubtedly one of the dumbest movies to come down the pike in years. The main connection between the two lead actors is that they both either live in or have previously lived in the same lake house -- a ghastly glass edifice of maybe 800 square feet that sits on stilts along the bank of a large pond somewhere outside of Chicago. What the art director attempts to pass off as an architectural gem is nothing more than a well-worn, waterfront collection of windows. Pass the Windex, please.
The major problem facing our protagonists is that Bullock is living in the year 2006 and Reeves is living in the year 2004. Thankfully, the U.S. Post Office is somehow able to deliver mail back and forth to one another at supersonic speed. In fact, each time a letter magically arrives the flag on the dilapidated mailbox gets an erection that Bob Dole would be proud of. This signals, of course, that yet another letter has found its way over two years of separation. It's truly amazing what our proud postal workers are able to achieve; take that, internet...
Of course, this doesn't make any sense whatsoever.
The primary culprit in this cinematic catastrophe is screenwriter David Auburn. Mr. Auburn is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "PROOF" which, among other accolades, also received the Tony Award for the "Best Play" on Broadway in 2001. Despite these impressive credentials, his adaptation of a South Korean film (SIWORAE) gets totally lost in the translation. My advice is for Mr. Auburn to stick to the Great White Way and never, ever attempt a screenplay again.
In the final analysis, THE LAKE HOUSE simply doesn't make any sense. In fact, the entire screenplay is full of more holes than a wino's Fruit-Of-The-Looms. And the intended touchy-feely existential romance between Reeves and Bullock never materializes; there is absoultely no chemistry or passion between them. Topo Gigo and Trish Putterman would be more engaging to watch.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Thanks to a fortuitous set of circumstances and the largess of some very good friends, Lynda and I were invited to attend a special preview screening of the latest feature film based on the life of Truman Capote.
Talk about deja vu...
Yes my fellow cineastes, this coming weekend writer/director Douglas McGrath's INFAMOUS will be released in several major cities. It's arrival in selected theaters comes approximately one year after Philip Seymour Hoffman's Academy Award winning portrayal was being projected on thousands of screens nationwide, and not only is the central character the same, both films cover precisely the same period in Capote's life albeit in considerably different fashion.
This, of course, begs the question: Is INFAMOUS worth seeing?
The answer is yes.
Like CAPOTE, INFAMOUS is also a compelling study of the complex and tortured relationship between the famous writer and Perry Smith, one of the two murderers convicted of the brutal slaughter of a well-to-do Kansas farm family. The overall tone, however, is lighter, with numerous scenes of Truman spending time with his "Gotham glitterati" and, especially, some very funny moments when Capote, accompanied by his closest friend, Nelle Harper Lee, first arrives in the Sunflower State. But make no mistake, the ending is a powerful one that draws the conclusion that the strong, emotional bond Truman formed in prison with Perry ultimately brought about not only the destruction of Capote's career, but the destruction of his soul as well. "I've come to feel with deep heart-sickness that there were three deaths on the gallows that night," says Lee, and one cannot help but believe this is true.
The cast is excellent. Toby Jones' portrayal of Truman Capote is riveting and is possibly a better imitation than Hoffman's more nuanced performance. For my money, they are both superb -- had INFAMOUS come along first, Toby Jones might have been nominated for an Oscar as well. Sandra Bullock, as Nelle Harper Lee, will surprise even her harshest critics. She certainly holds her own in comparison with the marvelous Catherine Keener. Sigourney Weaver, Isabella Rossellini, Peter Bogdanovich (as Bennett Cerf), Jeff Daniels and Daniel Craig (as Perry Smith) all deserve special mention as well.
Amazingly, Gwyneth Paltrow reportedly earned a staggering $3.6 million to play Peggy Lee singing a three minute rendition of "This Thing Called Love" in the opening scene. This makes Ms. Paltrow the highest paid actress ever for a cameo appearance. The scene is important, it establishes the concept that sadness often lurks beneath the spotlight, a theme which will increasingly pertain to Mr. Capote as the film proceeds. Still, this was money clearly wasted in a film possessing outstanding production values throughout given its relatively low budget.
True, the ground being covered is virtually the same as we've seen before. So what? I recall having traveled the same hiking trail more than once and I inevitably discovered something new and different on each trek. The same analogy holds for these two feature films; both are extremely well made and both provide interesting and enlightening insight into a fascinating and talented personality.
Monday, October 2, 2006
"Why is there no Halloween in India?
Because they took away all the Gandhi."
Albert Brooks is no Mel Brooks; nor is he the "West Coast Woody Allen." However, Albert Lawrence Einstein, the brother of Bob Einstein who is best known for his "Super Dave Osbourne" character, can be funny...sometimes.
Brooks' LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD is a brilliant premise for a movie. In fact, it is just as brilliant as any 2-carat diamond in the Wal-Mart jewelry case -- but, in the final analysis, it is just as flawed.
Brooks' deadpan delivery and hyper-worried persona is perfect for the lead character. It should be -- after all Albert Brooks plays himself. Chosen for a special assignment, Brooks is asked by the State Department to go to India and Pakistan to find out what makes Muslims laugh. Of course, the fact that India is only 13.4% Muslim (less than the gloabal average which is 20%) just highlights the ineptness of the entire mission. Not only is Brooks clearly the wrong guy going to the wrong country, once he's back he must turn in a 500-page report indicating what he has learned along the way.
Brooks ultimately learns nothing. Sadly, we as an audience learn nothing as well, unless it is the fact that any extended scene which goes nowhere can and will bring a film's narrative to a dead stop. In the case of LOOKING, it is a painfully boring and ill-advised audience-participation improvisation that seems to last for an eternity.
Yes, Brooks bombs, and often they aren't smart bombs either. I will, nonetheless, recommend LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD because it dares to take a chance and to clearly break the mold of traditional, predictable and brain-dead Hollywood fare. In fact, if all you watch is the opening scene with Penny Marshall it will be well worth the price of admission (or a DVD rental).
An aside --
Albert Brooks almost always appears in the films he writes. He does so because he quickly learned that once a screenplay is approved for production, there's no one lower on the totem pole than the writer. Hence, this famous quote from Mr. Brooks:
"Being a screenwriter in Hollywood is like being a eunich at an orgy. Worse, actually, at least the eunich is allowed to watch."