Thursday, October 26, 2006

Drive-by reviews

MARIE-ANTOINETTE (2006, Sofia Coppola)- much to the dismay of some of this site's readers, I wasn't a fan of LOST IN TRANSLATION, and not surprisingly I wasn't looking forward to this. But I had no problem getting into Sofia's groove this time, largely because instead of making another film that follows a shallow, cocooned young woman of privilege, this is actually a movie ABOUT a shallow, cocooned young woman of privilege, as well as the environment that has created her. Without necessarily apologizing for Marie-Antoinette, Sofia manages to empathize with her by convincingly painting a portrait of the world in which she lives, heavy on age-old traditions but light on education for budding monarchs. In the end, Marie-Antoinette bore little resemblance to an actual leader because she didn't have the aptitude, training or inclination to lead the people of France, but given the nature of royal traditions, it's something of a miracle when a monarch (male or female) turns out to be a capable leader at all. Coppola, a daughter of privilege herself, sees her protagonist as both a silly girl and a victim of historical circumstance, who ended up paying with her life not merely for her own misdeeds but those of an entire ruling-class tradition. While MARIE-ANTOINETTE isn't perfect (I for one would have ended it about five minutes earlier), I think it's a mistake to take the film to task for its lack of explicit historical context- that Marie doesn't hear the rumblings of the French Revolution until it's practically banging at her door is the point. And I was pleased that Coppola's much-ballyhooed use of non-period music wasn't as pervasive as I'd feared- while not all her song choices work (moratorium on "I Want Candy," s'il vous plaît), her underscoring of the coronation scene to The Cure's "Plainsong" pays off beautifully. Rating: **1/2.

THE PRESTIGE (2006, Christopher Nolan)- it's clearer now than ever that Nolan's pet theme isn't mental illness but obsession, all-consuming and sometimes even violent in nature. What distinguishes THE PRESTIGE from many other films on that subject is how it's seen merely through the prism of performance, as for all the harm the rival magicians vest upon each other's lives, they mostly fixate on outdoing each other in the arena of illusion. What makes the pair so absorbing is how, for all their similar interests, they're opposites personality-wise, with Hugh Jackman playing Angier as a world-class showman, while Christian Bale's Borden lacks the polish of his colleague but is far more imaginative. Naturally, I would like to tread lightly for those who've yet to see it- after all, half the fun of this is the element of surprise- but for all Nolan's own stylistic bravado, his offhandedness at unveiling the plot's twists and turns puts him much closer in spirit to Borden than to Angier. The film has its problems (never has Scarlett Johansson felt more incidental to a film), and I'm not sure how much is going on on a subtextual level, but it's a heck of a ride with strong work from Bale and Jackman and a great supporting turn from David Bowie, who's as good here as he's been in three decades. Rating: ***.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (2006, Clint Eastwood)- after the triumphs of MYSTIC RIVER and MILLION DOLLAR BABY, a letdown was probably overdue, but while FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is a perfectly serviceable male weepie, it never quite succeeds at a higher level. Part of the problem is that the storytelling is so scattershot that no storyline, character or relationship emerges to bear the weight of the plot. MYSTIC RIVER had a similar trio of main characters, but whereas that film was dominated by the strength of their personalities, FLAGS' heroes are the pawns of the plot rather than its movers. What makes the strongest impression here is the contrast between the grim realities of the battlefield and the kitsch that's used to sell it on the homefront (all that's missing from the famed Iwo Jima snapshot is a "Mission Accomplished" banner). But while this is a compelling theme for a film, the rest of the movie is too caught up in Greatest Generation nostalgia and an unwieldy-yet-undercooked framing device to be more than a modest success. Rating: **1/2.

SHORTBUS (2006, John Cameron Mitchell)- pretty much exactly the kind of movie I was expecting it to be and little else, which is sort of deadly when you're talking about an allegedly envelope-pushing work. To cite a somewhat dissimilar counter-example, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN worked because it took a "gay love story" outside the settings in which homosexuals are generally found onscreen, situating it instead within the traditionally "masculine" world of the West. In contrast, SHORTBUS is a film about sexually-adventurous characters, set largely in the hip, bohemian world of New York City. Setting a story of this nature among this crowd is immensely flattering to exactly the kind of audience member who would be inclined to see a movie like this, the kind of creatively-inclined, idealistic lefty who envisions New York as a mecca for sex and art. Which is not a bad view per se, but for the fact that Mitchell's vision of this mecca is fairly Disneyfied- for a film that presumably espouses a democratic view of sex, nearly all the cast members are good-looking, sexually-attractive, and in the cases of the males, well-endowed. Of course, there are a handful of token fatties, but I'd venture to guess that even in a place like Shortbus most of the bodies would be somewhere between these two extremes. Perhaps most detrimental to the film is the fact that Mitchell and his cast didn't see much need to give the characters personalities- with the exceptions of Severin and maybe Sofia, there's little going on with these people aside from balling and whining about balling. And what kind of half-assed boho world is it where a character calls herself Severin and nobody even brings up "Venus in Furs"? Rating: *1/2.

1 comment:

Jason_Alley said...

Sorry you didn't dig "Shortbus", I thought it was pretty awesome.

Didn't like the stalker-across-the-street storyline and he goes a little heavy on the symbolism toward the end, but otherwise I loved it. The fantasy/symbolic elements even started to work for me toward the end because it reminded of the magic realism in "Hedwig..."

Dude, give me the e-mail address you use for Netflix so we can be Netflix friends - or just add me - the same e-mail I always use.