28 January 2007

Review: Venus

Genre: Drama

It is needless for me to throw my meagre, ambitious, (late?) compliments into the pot, by now well-brimmed for Mr. O'Toole' s performance in his latest film Venus, so needless in fact, that I shall not attempt to throw anything there, with the exception of that his stiff, well-rehearsed character, constructed with the architectural precision of perhaps the Roman aqueducts, rose tower-like, fit, poised, and polished, from the scraggy landscape of the film.
Indeed, while he was strong and while the petulant gyrations of his co-star, the debutante Ms. Whittaker, were also admirable for their aspiration effected both within the film and without, the film's rest was more anesthetic than elegiac. Charm, it seems, was hidden away in small packets, rough seen only by the eager spectator from the outside. Veritably, the cinematography was awkward at best; recluding shots of the actors in various positions at various points to framed shots from the outside, shots in which the vision was refrained, reframed in almost pointless architectural obscurity and forced posture against walls and trinkets, consuming the entire other half of the frame. Why, I asked myself several times, were the filmmakers so intent on presenting such a distant, such an exceedingly and clearly intendedly objective, perspective on the characters within their play? And the lighting hardly helped either. Restricting their light to only natural light, often filtered from the oustide through windows and curtains into small and tight rooms, was very ambitious, yes, but the task they so set themselves, to effectuate the beauty they obviously intend in their fictional situation Venus by limited descriptive means, only, like the actual light, renders too many shadows, too many dull corners, too little information, and too few gems that sparkle, gems that need to be there for the film to work as it should. And the shadows also run in the screenplay; it was not free from blemish either. In the very same way too intent on growing though in limited descriptive means, the screenplay dodders along, to its detriment, like an old man, specifically the film's Ian, who too set in his vision and final ending ways utterly refuses to recognize or to allow to be recognized by the others around him (i. e., his spectators, if you will) some fuller explications of his own desires and intentions, that by which explications, by which more substantial communication, he and the others around might come to a more fulfilling for both parties fruition. In short, it could have well done with a greater level of exposition, a tider flow of ideas, and a venturesome spirit from the rigid base structure of the tale, that is the dichotomy of a setting sun from a rising one. Unite, crepuscular, if you be great!
(Mr. O'Toole already is - but you don't need me to tell you that.)

Grade: B-

27 January 2007

Review: Notes on a Scandal

Genre: Drama

Notes on a Scandal marks another severe acting triumph for each, Ms. Dench and Ms. Blanchett. A paean world constructed, much in the same way as As Good as It Gets (though hardly for subject matter), for to showcase extraordinary acting talents, the film unfortunately leaves little else than the daunting actresses to admire. Mr. Nighy is of course strong, and his character just askew enough, to make him seem aptly cuckold-able. And credit should also be due to the young Mr. Simpson, whose nerve for tackling quite literally the foxy Ms. Blanchett paid off (er) quite handsomely.
However, the rest of the film, while perhaps sufficient, failed to appear to me the transcendent magnificences so purported to be therein had by many other theater-goers. The screenplay, while proffering up every now and then in the voice-over narration tiny gems of acuity well elocuted by Ms. Dench, stumbled tragically toward the end, as the climax of the film failed to create a resonance transformative enough, for to affect the players and the story in such a significant way, that the details that follow it might exist as they did in a successful manner (i. e., without the otherwise necessary resolutive interconnectors). The attempted All about Eve-esque, cyclical epilogue lacked the power it needed, for to "forge" truly, as in flames and red sinewy chaos, the cast iron character that, I believe, Barbara Covett was supposed to be, the unrelenting Venus fly of age who will never give up her quest to find and ensnare "the one [she's] been waiting for." And the fall-out on Sheba Hart's end feels far less tremulous than one is lead to desire. As for the also much praised score, Phillip Glass does create a powerful emotional core in his notes but, I think, ultimately lacks the superlative finish that would refine the raw primitivistic nature of the piece into a adult force with which to reckon. The music therefore felt as if it were jejune, hungry, so intent on expressing the fury and frustration of its soul, but in the end unable to do so effectively clearly eloquently, for that it lamentably lacked the necessary acutifying intelligence of worked experience or age. (This critique is not in any way meant to reflect upon the overall capabilities of Mr. Glass, which I do consider great, but veritably meant to cite the possible improvements or opportunities for further growth evident for him as an artist by this score.) And all the other parts of the film shared a blur of similar problems, which lead them all to be sufficient for their intended purposes but ultimately unimpressive or unenduring in their effects.
So, while I will refrain for the wonderfully redeeming performances of Notes on a Scandal from declaring that I was disappointed by the film, I will declare that, despite the performances, the film did fall short of the incredible heights it lead me to believe in its previews that it would achieve. While it may have been perfectly adequate for addressing the moral questions it did and perfectly teleologically satisfying in that questioning, its effecutation of that questioning, the process of it, the whole skill and beauty that comprised its presentation, could have been perfect, for a bit more polish than it had.

Grade: B

24 January 2007

Review: Pan's Labyrinth

Genre: Drama / Fairy Tale

Pan's Labyrinth is of the type of film whose presence one doesn't often see in films mainly comprised of live-action shots. A fairy tale absolute, both in self-description and in wide defintion, the film ventures beyond what is traditionally precircumscribed as the sort of film that is handled so, with dark tones, a fair budget, and serious actors yet unfamiliar to the American public. It is even farther beyond for its not being in English. Perhaps these are exactly the elemental factors that have given it its general acclaim, appreciation, and honorification. Like the film itself can be, the previous statement can be interpreted in two different, yet possibly still related, ways.
What I mean of course is that, as with all fairy tales, there is a specific progression or conceit that unites the story in either a didactic or allegoric way. Usually this conceit is fairly predictable, often dealing with issues of perseverance or maturation, frequently sexual. Pan's Labyrinth is no exception from these concerns, dealing mostly with the incipience of sexual maturity and the historically and metaphorically linked incipience of death in its protagonist Ofelia (in a compelling and correct way, that causes those incipiences to bleed [at times quite literally] throughout the rest of the story - good writing). Yet, despite this conceptualy strong and classic pairing of fairy-tale topics, the screenplay, though indeed possessive of a clear, well-described creativity in its detail, lacks the clear, well-described fairy-tale trope in its effectuation - which it must have in order to be a successful member of the genre, regardless of however infrequently presented or realized in live-action film. So, while every component of the perfect fairy tale dealing with those topics was included in the final product, not every component was as well, or as precisely, elocuted or elaborated as it should have (and definitely could have) been. A key example of this blurred delivery is the nondescript transitions in the film from the storyline of Ofelia and her troubledly pregnant mother, which related a poignancy in passive death as in the case of the bloody 'death' of a virgin through first sexual intercourse, across to the storyline of the split father (see below for explanation), which related an urgency in active death as in the case of the bloody death of a sacrifice at the executioner's hand. As one can easily connect, these relations are clearly adjunct to one another, conceptually constructed to address excellently as art questions of death, sexuality, and awakening to both as part of the adolescent progress. Sacrifices are so often (female) virgins and the Elektral inherency in the split father (which, for all of you unaware ties, the split father inextricably to the pregnant mother as the daugther transitions in care, tutelage, and obsession from the latter across to the former) is impossible to miss. Yet for their chyrsalic unified perfection, the two halves must be identified as halves first and only subsequently joined together, or 'revealed' to be as one; such is the necessary climactic progression of storytelling, such the quite literal denouement, especially in the fairy tale genre. In a chronological plot, failing to do so only results in a premature manifestation, which ideologically for the adolescent child is disastrous. Therefore, I was very sorry to watch the film muddle its wonderful, almost physically affecting message for purely delivery-concerned unthinking.
Despite this shortcoming, the film nevertheless made a good showing. The actors were all nimble and compelling; the computer animations wonderfully descript; the cinematography admirable on the whole; the art direction clearly thoroughly rendered and beautiful; and the score almost terrifically exact - it, I believe, was the film's strongest component.
So, I too am blurred in my presentation, as I began saying above. Is it negatively the novelty of the tonal aspects of the film that has given it its widespread acclaim, negatively implying that its failings made it unworthy of such praise? Or was it positively so, implying that those aspects thankfully made its true quality noticeable enough for the general English-speaking public, that it deservedly has been honored? I must settle on a response somwhere in the middle. The screenplay was too muddled to allow the film to be considered truly great, but that muddling wasn't nearly bad enough to criticize it negatively, as in the former way. Pan's Labyrinth therefore was a energetic, thoughtful attempt at creating a great film, that unfortunately tripped along its way. Congratulations, Sr. de Toro; though it may be ambivalent, it's still way better than what most have garnered this year.

Grade: B

23 January 2007

Review: Dreamgirls

I feel I must post this review now, at long last, as I cannot stand one more comment about how the film was unduly and shockingly "snubbed" by the Academy earlier today.

Genre: Musical

Acclaimed director and writer's, Bill Condon's, most recent fare Dreamgirls looked like it had taken his natural talents to an absurdist plastic surgeon - and not just, because the film's glossy sheen reeked of artifice either. A cinematic artist in whose talents I do believe and have believed since his incredible showing Gods and Monsters, Mr. Condon simply did not show well this time around, suspectedly due to his being yolked by the studio or some pushy PR people representing the "talent" (namely the women Jennifer Hudson and Beyoncé Knowles). Why is this my suspicion? Let me count the ways.
Primarily, the utterly ridiculous length of time devoted to showcasing the (irritatingly platitudinous) original song by Beyoncé in the film utterly reeked of her own glam-bition and not a decided mistake on Mr. Condon's part. There is no way at all that he would make such an egregious error in judgement that, not only elevated the more supporting role to inappropriate leading-role heights, but also and moreover spun whatever sense of balance the film had had beforehand completely off its axis. I mean, come on: was the whole song really necessary, especially since it was neither a famous original from the Broadway production nor replete of lyrics necessary for the continuation of the story? I smell a pushy diva.
Secondly, I understand that a film about aspiring for fame in the inherently glamorous music industry obviously requires a certain (high) level of glitz and shimmer, but was it really necessary to polish that shine to stridency? The dance remix of the character's, Effie White's, heartfelt song "One Night Only" is tragic enough, without being so overblown in its presentation, that I was reminded of being surrounded by several glaring disco balls, covered in glitter, and blasted with extremely large-candela lighting. Also, who approved the set design in Beyoncé's 'success house,' that it featured huge, wall-size, fashion-esque photographs (that weren't even interesting as photographs - see above) of herself in various attitudes? Yes, I'm aware that by that point in the storyline she's supposed to have become somewhat self-involved and that her husband (blandly played by the ever flat Jamie Foxx) has pumped her up to a ludicrous degree in the public eye; but who convinced everyone that the character is such an exhibitionistic narcissist? Who does that and acts like it's normal? The costumes and make-up were at approximately the correct level of glamour (i. e., high) already; there was absolutely no need to electocute it to a scarringly neon zenith - or should I say nadir? - as was done. Since Mr. Condon has shown at least self-restraint in this area in his previous films, I cannot fathom it to be his fault.
Thirdly, the acting was at some times horrendous and at other times it levelled off to mediocrity. While some of this faltering may be attributed to an inadequacy in Mr. Condon's skill as an 'actor's director,' only so much of it can be explained away by this reasoning. The remaining rest, which I must say based on the efforts he has encouraged from the actors in his previous films is the majority, can only be shortcomings on behalf of the cast. While many people may love - and deservedly so - the very entertaining natures of the stars of this film, their entertainment does not good art make necessarily. While many may feel admiration for Mr. Foxx or may rally behind the efforts of Mr. Murphy, their performances lacked the certain spark or fire, the certain completeness of character, that more thorough actors might have brought into the roles. Mr. Foxx, as aforementioned, was static and unmoving, a veritable cardboard cutout of characterization whose appearances and lines were appropriately metronomically inserted at the correct beats. Mr. Murphy, while far better than Mr. Foxx and perhaps a noteworthy performer for his presence in the beginning of the film, just could not pull off the unholy descent that his character must endure in a believable way. He was too normal, too himself, to make the drugs and the aged scrapings on to fame real, at least for me. Regarding the women: why does Beyoncé think she can act? She cannot. She's an even worse performer, even duller, somehow even more (self-)unaware, than the character she was cast to play is supposed to be. And, for the record, her character's part in the story of Dreamgirls is most definitely not the leading part; the A plotline is about Effie White's struggles, not Deena's smaller domestic issues. The effected flip of their hierarchy in the story could only have been by gross collusion for glam-bition, by Beyoncé (who actually uttered the phrase "I want [an Oscar]" during an MTV interview), by the studio who most probably refused to finance such a big-budget production without an 'all-star cast,' and by Ms. Hudson's agent(s) who knew she would have a better chance at winning awards if her status were officially 'Supporting.' It's not that I think Ms. Hudson is wholly undeserving of the laud she has received - in my opinion, though forced and muddled at points, her performance was the best in the film - but rather that I think she's far less deserving than some other, more capable and better paced, actresses.
All those matters having been considered and editing, screenplay, and cinematography set aside as similarly abysmal, the film did have a few redeeming qualities. The costuming and the making-up were great, fantastically showy but restrained renditions of climbing late-60s-early-70s musical fame. The directing wasn't terrible, with what and whom Mr. Condon had to work being considered ; and the sound I'm sure was dead on. However, these few positive comments are about all that Dreamgirls can elicit from me. I was extremely disappointed. I thought Mr. Condon should have known better, than to have allowed his art and command to be passenger-driven, by people who clearly do not know quality in film.

Grade: C

So, for anyone who didn't quite catch that, Dreamgirls wasn't actually a good film; its not being nominated for Best Picture is not a snub by the Academy but rather a support of the Academy's credibility in its official aim. And, though this opinion may be decried since it is only promulgated widely now, after the fact of nomination, it most definitely nevertheless represents how I've always felt about the film, from the very instant I walked out of the theater. So, come Oscar night, with the exception of maybe sound-mixing I'll be rooting for the other nominees.

A Slim Year

Earlier this film year I posted an opinion short that bemoaned the ultra-slim pickings this year, as far as excellence in film goes, and, despite some rumblings as the season progressed and some cries of post post - hehe - dissent from other bloggers, whose opinions on the matter I believe were likely clouded by the intoxicating buzz I described just a short while ago, it looks to me as though I had been right. Nothing major has really shown this year, with the notable exceptions Little Children and the leading actresses - stiff competition there - of course. Though Sacha Baron Cohen did not ultimately garner himself a Best Actor nomination from the Academy, the lack of thoroughly awards-worthy fare is evident in the nominees. Consider that the Best Picture nominees share among them all a total of just six nominations in the 'smaller,' or more technical, categories, as MovieCityNews points out. Surely the fact that those films, destined to be remembered in pop culture as the 'best films of the year' for their Oscar nominations in that category, were not even good enough to garner the sufficient technical merits to support their ostensibly prominent statuses is evidence more than enough, to call to this film year "What is happening?"

Reviews to Come

So, I'm a little backed up on reviews; there are some few films I watched during reading period whose merits I haven't had a chance yet, for finals et cetera, to critique. So, to come very shortly are: Dreamgirls, Pan's Labyrinth, and Notes on a Scandal.
Also on the horizon look reviews for Venus, Babel, and Borat, all films that I have been meaning to see but haven't had the opportunity so far.
And, finally, as you may have noticed, I added a nominations section to the column on the right, which will also soon be completed with my personal credits toward the best of the film industry this year. (The winners of those nominations will be announced a time before the Oscars' awards' announcement.)

The Buzz and the Aftermath

I just wanted to interject, among the already arguably clogged at least pseudo-Oscar-centric universe, my thoughts on a few matters that lead up to the nominations' announcement (this morning) and subsequently the awards' ceremony. These matters are all to do with buzz, that mysterious little sprite Hype who flits about on people's tongues more promiscuously than a smarmy prostitute - yes, prostitute. For, it is buzz of course that entices people into theaters, buzz that registers all across the online blogs, and buzz that leads ultimately to what, for haphazard or naught, is considered to be the seminal award in film each year - a veritable trip into the notoriously kinky and occasionally S&M bedroom of the film industry's rocky marraige to glamour. And, born from the uncertain loins of those united, spawn and spring both do arise. Forest Whitaker little worry had that his extremely well-buzzed performance would elevate his work (not undeservedly so) from the gleaming but few eyes of film enthusiasts, but his co-actor James McAvoy (also not undeserving) wasn't meant to benefit from that trade. Peter O'Toole, a seven-time Oscar nominee and only honorary-Oscar winner, I'm sure, consulted his Las Vegas bookies, to acquire as accurately as can be the knowledge, auguring or fortitudinously grasped, of his chances at nomination and win; but buzz has been a tease for him many a time before. And it is not only the men who fall under her nearly Succubic charms; Annette Bening has been there - need I say more? What is it, then, of this mystiquified seductress who flits so ambly from pink to pink, that causes men and women to fawn prostrate over her, and why does she choose the partners she does? If only film would get itself a divorce, it would be much more independent of show and glitz (i. e., glamour's wheedling best friends of course), to make its own well-grounded decisions regarding what to pick up and what to lay down (with...).

The Oscar Nominations

I'd just like to say that I officially called both Mark Wahlberg and Monster House (as well as Alexandre Desplat's score of The Queen) and that I officially am disappointed by the lack of Little Children nominations - come on, people, come on. Also, no Volver in foreign language film??

OK, taking a more general look at what and whom they've nominated this year in the major categories, I'm tempted to say that they've gotten the nominations mostly accurate, with a few missteps for their schoolgirlish crushes on people like Clint Eastwood. We'll wait to see what the rest look like, to form a final opinion.

Having had a better look now, I think that their directions were still fairly accurate on the whole. I'm glad of that the work of Patricia Field costuming The Devil Wears Prada was nominated, that the difficult editing job for The Departed was rightfully acknowledged, that the Pan's Labyrinth score was recognized, and that Jackie Earle Haley was not insanely overlooked. As for my disappointments, well, you'll just have to wait, to see what my own nominations will hold - an announcement which I've reserved, passed the Oscar open, because I've been still waiting for the opportunity to see the last few films. Now, when my semester is finally over, it won't be long.