Quinceañera (2006, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer)- gah! Tradition vs. modernity strikes again! Which is not to say that this familiar off-Hollywood theme can't work, but when it's put to such obvious use as it is here, it quickly begins to grate on my nerves. Knew I was in trouble early on, when the film showed little to no curiosity about the title ceremony, a celebration of a Mexican-American girl's 15-year-old birthday, preferring mainly to cut between its traditional aspects (marriage-style processional, mariachi bands) and the modern trappings brought to it by its participants (Hummer™ limo, booty-shakin' at the reception). Interesting to a point, I suppose, as a look at the Echo Park neighborhood in LA, a Latino community recently beset by gentrification, but the mostly hamfisted storytelling- to say nothing of amateur-hour performances by the majority of the cast- much of the potential punch. Not all that hard to believe that this clumsy bit of cinema took top dramatic prizes at Sundance- both the jurors and the mountain-air-addled audiences must've found themselves getting all warm and happy over the film's nonviolent portrayal of Latin-American characters (not a gang member among them!). And you know what would be awesome? If movies like this would stop introducing saintly old folks just to have them die in the third act in order to bring the rest of the characters together again. Thanks a bunch. Rating: *1/2.
The Illusionist (2006, Neil Burger)- OK, this was more in my wheelhouse. This year will no doubt see better films about old-school magicians, but this was fairly entertaining while it lasted. One of the most striking aspects of the film was how spartan Eisenheim's stage act is, lacking in hocus-pocus or pyrotechnics, which in turn makes it more intriguing- incidental effects are, to an intelligent audience member, obvious ploys by the performer to divert the eye in order to enable him to perform the illusion. Eisenheim, the illusionist of the title, uses none of these tricks, understanding (a) the intrigue of an audience watching an illusion unfold seemingly without smoke and/or mirrors, and (b) the dramatic potency of an unadorned stage, where nearly anything could happen (the film's opening shot sets this up perfectly). The offstage scenes are more of a mixed bag, but they do allow for some quality tête-à-têtes between Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti. Norton gives Eisenheim an almost otherworldly serenity, while Giamatti tears into the role of the police inspector investigating the mysterious illusionist- the performances hardly seem to come from the same universe, which is pretty much the point. The film's wrap-up is too gimmicky to be satisfying- think THE USUAL SUSPECTS goes to Vienna- but the film is still worth seeing for the acting, as well as Burger's handsome visual style. Bring on THE PRESTIGE! Rating: **1/2.