a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Live and Direct From the 2006 Vaults

(Whenever I get a couple free minutes, etc.. You're welcome.)

Sherrybaby (Laurie Collyer)
A standard issue dress-down act from Maggie Gyllenhaal, which I suppose she had get around to sooner or later. (Please resist, La Zooey.) “Raw” and “non-judgmental” and “empathetic,” even when our protag -- an ex-junkie trying to regain custody of her son -- does the exact stupidest thing she could do at any juncture, which is a bit too often for my tastes. Should be needless to say that it doesn’t contrast well with Clean, with which it shares a near-exact premise (and a lead named Maggie!). Olivier Assayas did everything he could to dress up his film’s inherent silliness, and wound up cutting right to its heart. Collyer plays it completely straight and Sundance’ 93, and elicits little more than vaguely condescending head nods. Not to mention, in addition to getting trounced by Maggie C., Maggie G. loses out to a shockingly awesome Giancarlo Esposito. C+

Dreamgirls (Bill Condon)
[sound of finger nails on blackboard] The Supre...er, Dreams are a kickass budding soul girl group until an evil Berry Gordy type blands them up for white consumption, setting them up to become soulless peddlers of bombast. Meanwhile, this movie version is itself a soulless peddler of bombast. Thing is, it's not all Bill Condon's fault. A brainy type who relies too heavily on bombast and, worst of all, like to make a clean demarcation line between the song and the book (numbers are always clearly performances; no one ever bursts into song while, say, hanging out in a garage office), Condon wants nothing more than to kill the movie musical dead. Never seen the show, but it's not exactly like he trashed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The songs are a dire combination of weak and shrill -- nth-generation Motown ripoffs that are too Broadway and wear out their welcome halfway through a verse. The plot, meanwhile, is little more than one of those glib reductions that flatter the audience almost as often as it plainly explains it to them. Beyoncé’s ersatz Diana Ross is an empty vessel whose lack of sonic fireworks will translate over to the mainstream? Yeah, I figured that out two hours before Jamie Foxx’s ersatz Gordy put that in just about those same words. Speaking of which, the dead-on casting -- Beyoncé as an innocuous frontwoman; Eddie Murphy as a wild man forced to ditch his edge for commerce; Jennifer Hudson as a powerhouse singer left unappreciated and dissed -- just adds to the reams of nervous spoonfeeding. The acting’s generally good, but I’m torn over Hudson like I’ve rarely been torn before. Going in, I had read more than a couple reviews that remarked that Hudson may be a natural when speaking/singing, but freezes up whenever she’s not. (Burnsy memorably compared it to C-3PO being turned off.) And holy dear lord god were they right. I can’t wait to see her again and again, but can we perhaps wait till she learns how to react before declaring her any year’s Best Supporting Actress? I know -- it’s mostly too late. C-

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Stanley Nelson)
As noted elsewhere, it’s the opening half hour that makes this otherwise straightforward doc more than just that. Jim Jones & co. were, at least initially, major social progressives, and it’s easy to see how many were caught up in their wave. Nelson doesn’t just recreate the way cultists, not just these ones, get ensnared; he celebrates Jones’ more respectable policies, in turn showing how little has progressed three decades on. The adulation wisely ends there, and the doc gets harrowing even before the move to Guyana. Fascinating. B+

Notes on a Scandal (Richard Eyre)
Sloppy. Judi Dench veers from poison pen mordant to helpless and babyish whenever the script needs her to do so, and Cate Blanchett’s bohemian is thinly conceived and only slightly better played. (Her freeze-dried Dietrich turn in The Good German will be better judged by the future, methinks.) This either needed to be all-out nasty or thoughtful; annoyingly, it’s neither, but with elements of both. Patrick Marber: kindly go back to Alan Partridge. C+

Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood)
For reasons I still can’t figure out, part two of Eastwood’s IJ dyptych never entirely enveloped me. I “enjoyed” it and its quasi-clinical presentation of living death; it does just about just about everything right, it’s distinctly Japanese and always resists going for the jugular. (A much-needed reality check: Blood Work, which barely elicited apathetic groans, came out only four years ago.) Did it just need another element? Perhaps. I suspect Imamura would’ve hit this out of the park, even if he couldn’t bring to the production one of its strongest aspects: one of the American right’s heroes making a film that empathizes with the Japanese, at one point going so far as to make the Yanks look dread evil. By the by, another much-needed reality check: Unforgiven, still Eastwood’s most self-reflexive and thoughtful work, came out fourteen years ago. B+

Failure to Launch (Tom Dey)
md’a has been waging a one-critic war to re-evaluate this, not as some lost masterpiece, but as a solid rom-com. I don’t agree, but I can see where he’s coming from. The opening half hour, while not all there, has conscious elements of Screwball, i.e., ones that don’t feel second-hand, as with most rcs. Indeed, for a time, it even seemed like Sarah Jessica Parker might be doing a Kate Hepburn in Philadelphia Story: brainy and witty. It doesn’t last, basically because the film starts taking things way, way too seriously. (This PG-13 pic’s solitary use of the f-bomb is simply in the wrong movie.) Supporting cast strong, with La Zooey a memorable nut and Terry Bradshaw a low-key hoot [sic].* C+

The Good German (2006, Steven Soderbergh)

Believe me, no one’s more shocked that this one wound up needing defending as I am. Someone was saying on my dorky film newsgroup how it’s been awhile since Soderbergh gave himself fully to a project. The last several films have found him in restless experimental mode, bringing some of his powers to the production but not remotely all of them. Trouble is, I can’t remember when he did do that. Of his widely-agreed-upon masterstrokes (Sex, Lies, King of the Hill, Out of Sight and Traffic, let’s say), none are the same as the others. A more disparate bunch you’re not likely to see. Even when he’s firing on what appear to be all cylinders, he’s still trying on a different guise. Have there been an original and a sequel, at least as made by the same people, as violently different than the Oceans? (One is trying to be purely pleasurable; the other is even more aggressively a Hollywoof hall-of-mirrors than Full Frontal, while also working an obscure-‘70s-Eurothriller vibe.) The Good German ranks amongst his most experimental experiments, but it’s not merely a mimicry of Michael Curtiz WWII romances. If that’s what it is, then it’s a failure.

But that’s not what it is. Hovering somewhere between a Guy Maddin festish-fest and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, German reimagines Curtiz and company as they would have been without the Hays Code, as well as without the need to downplay certain aspects of geopolitics. And so Tobey Maguire drops the f-bomb every two words, Cate Blanchett from gets shtumped from behind, and the American army comes off in an unflattering light. It’s not that Soderbergh hates the films of the ‘40s, as some have suggested; anyone who’s spent any time reading his interviews knows that’s a ridiculous notion. (The Third Man pops up on a Top Ten Fave list printed in the Sex, Lies diaries.) He wants to reimagine what they would be like without the Code and with the suitable amount of political cynicism. It’s pure exercise, yes, but one well worth performing. But that’s not the end of it. Soderbergh baldly quotes Casablanca, The Third Man and, in the form of cutaway doc footage, Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair. But he completely downplays those film’s brooding, romantic streak. German is cold, cold, cold, and the homages to the aforementioned only feel like cruel jokes. (Thomas Newman’s over-spirited retro score stands in almost comic contrast to what’s on screen.)

A lot of the film’s critics (and its fans) claim that Soderbergh relies too heavily on dull plot mechanics. I agree...and yet I can’t help thinking that, cold technique or not, that’s part of the point -- that the characters are too mired in plot to pay attention to emotions, or even offer even a non-traditional payoff. As for the nigh-Dogme-ish stylistic restrictions, the most striking part is Blanchett’s face, rendered as white and clean as a Kabuki mask. B

* I’m totally fucking serious. Bradshaw’s presence was one of the things that kept me from this movie for so long, too. But let me just say that dude’s subtle even when nekkid.

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