26 November 2007

Review: Enchanted

Genre: Comedy (Romantic) / Fairy Tale

The much gabbed-about Enchanted is the latest installment in the ontologically post-classic, experimental era of the seemingly magically arthritic Walt Disney Studios. Rather stymied up until this point by their draining reservoir of 'imagineering' and their protested inability to thrive, even subsist, in animation's computer-generated-baby-boomer period (despite wonderful products by other traditionalistic animative studios [e. g., Japan's Studio Ghibli, of which coincidentally Disney owns the American-distribution rights]), the Disney studios have thrown themselves at the mercy of their truly greatest rivals: themselves (of the past, that is). Their new premise for this ambitious project was quite self-reflective, and rather brave for that quality, as they in probably almost bereft reverence pored over their intimidatingly impressive achievements of yesteryear and, in certain eureka, proposed to challenge themselves and that skilled adversary, their histories, and to attempt to succeed once more by effect of a mirror. Turning the creative lens upon them so, the studio boiled hard at work to generate a storyline that, not only scrutinized and questioned the seemingly ridiculous serendipity upon which nearly all their great stories perch, but also could bear such scrutiny and questioning itself. In short, their project, whether they quite consciously established it as such or not, was for them to deeply explore and seek to answer in such exploration the who, the what, and - most importantly - the wherefore of their renowned genre forte.
And for a while, I was very happy to consider, they were en route to a successful accomplishment of that aim. The animated short that opened the action of the film spoke volumes about how their stories may be conceived, or represented, academically, clinically: a contrived series of events (and trials) that structurally fix two predetermined character types on a well-trodden path that inevitably leads to a foregone conclusion (i. e., the 'happily-ever-after' ending) with perhaps some few small instances of slap-stickery tossed in for that added touch of whimsy. And then, of course here, breaks the twist, the subterranean subversion that turns the hard-bodied 'fairy tale by Disney' onto its famous back and thereby exposes its potentially juicy underbelly, ripe for the squeezing: the confounding iteration of thesis, that "This is not that kind of story." The instigating act of villainy comes in the traditional prologue and things are all just generally ajumble from there on. The fair maiden or princess archetype to whom enchanted little children aspire is no longer belle of the safe and warm contexts that her archetype imbibes like a magical potion or otherwise charmed elixir; instead, she is ripped from those satisfying milieux and inserted deftly and abruptly into, as the film so proudly states itself, the modernity (and the cynicism) of reality, the 'real world,' concisely realized as the rough and cold concrete surfaces of contemporary Manhattan. And what to happen there? The discovery of the fact that her own unique and a-realistic brand of living does not quite align to the various natures of the world, the comical and musical instances that such exotic chemistry inspires, and ultimately - most importantly- the nicely developed existential questioning of her predetermined characteristics, practices, and attitudes brought on by the metaphysically significant combustions resultant of such inspired chemistry? Well, as perhaps the objective assessor of a traditional villain's accounts may offer to his employ post-schemes, "two out of three ain't bad, I guess." Indeed, while Enchanted does stand poised to delve, hands high, into the mystiqued primordial soup from which all its predecessors arise, it fails to deliver on its most fore quest(ion). Instead, it regresses back to the contrived and formulaic pattern of the 'fairy tale by Disney' that it had so bravely started out to improve, as if the intoxicating fumes of the safe and happy ending were lure enough to drown it in its own poison, and, in so doing, it simultaneously - and even worse for the Disney studios' reputation - abruptly switches fairy-tale structures mid-stream (for the film would have certainly, as I brought up earlier, born scrutiny itself as a fairy tale of adventure and self-discovery if it had stayed true on its initial path [and not switched to a fairy tale of romance and true destiny]). After the scene, in which it is clear that she has fallen in love with Mr. Dempsey's character, all the
compelling magic of the storyline just fades away. And for me personally that moment is all the more bitter because it comes directly after a bit of dialogue in which it seems clear that such a relinquishing move would not be made (i. e., when Ms. Adam's Giselle discovers that her very self has been fracturing, as she for the first time emotes anger).
Ah, well, I suppose, it is still a better effort that Disney's previous attempts. The film, on the positive side, does boast a tremendous performance by Ms. Adams, whose darling princess Giselle is as full and nuanced as the slightly closed open palm and the daintily postured arms she collects so fluidly, and the score and the original songs by long-time Disney collaborator and musical-great Alan Menken were chosenly spot-on delights to hear. Furthermore, the closing animation of the credits was an absolutely beautiful achievement, which much reminded me in both style and texture of the similarly well-done closing animated sequence of 2005's Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (which also featured Timothy Spall in a supporting role).
However, there, I believe, the praise-worthy aspects of the work stop and, though that is not to say that the rest of the aspects of the film that have heretofore gone unmentioned are anything worse than unremarkable, all that, I feel, is left for me to say about Enchanted is that I wish that they had given Susan Sarandon a song - o, that, and that that stodgy bid at the modernizing agent of feminism that was that brief sex-role-reversal near the end neither does, nor can, in any way this preposed fairy-tale revolution sustain - I mean, you did make Mulan, Disney; right?

Grade: B- / C+, a noble impetus, a foibled effort.

24 November 2007

Review: No Country for Old Men

Genre: Drama / Thriller

Many critics have taken to gushing lately over the Coen brothers' newest piece, the dry and placid thriller-Western lodged somewhat sardonically between the lenses of the camera and the lenses of our eyes, and, indeed, much of the appraisal has been merited, especially in the case of of Mr. Bardem's performance. However, there were, to my mind, too many odd clippings and too many solely mise-en-scene threads, for the film to construct as clean or as tight a story or argument as that which all the glowing reviews describe. No Country for Men may be certainly a great gesture in the world of filmmaking for the Coens, but it is not a miraculous heraldry for the world at large.
Primarily, I take issue with the unwaveringly fawning compliments given for Mr. Deakins' cinematography. Now, it is true that Mr. Deakins is an extremely experienced and acclaimed (not undeservedly so) director of photography and it is true that he in this latest effort accomplished some marvellous scenes and sequences, adding depth and feeling and strength to the story and to the action on screen; but it is not the case that his execution of the whole of this his latest effort was solidly impeccable. More than once did he awkwardly cut off already incomplete objects or parts of his actors' bodies, namely their feet, and his extreme distance at other instances pushed the audience too far away from the action and points of focus, to make clear interpretations of them, despite even the largest of theatrical formats. In addition, his muddled stance on perspective tended to dilute the thetical point of the film, quavering from its intended position as a reasoning, objective observer into the untenable realms of intersubjectivity and human probability. While powerful sequences such as that of the primary coin toss with the gas station owner and that of the car-collision finale resonated strongly for their almost painfully indifferent points of view as third-person observers, other sequences like that of the tense awaiting of Mr. Bardem's character in the hotel resonated strongly for their adaptation of the completely opposite standpoint, as an often first-person actor. Yet, I suppose, while such contrasting modes of work in the same film did lead to conflicture in overall argument, it is nevertheless meritorious that they, however contrasting, did still both resonate strongly emotionally or psychologically. Powerful imagery does make a powerful impression - I only wished it had also been a coherent one.
Secondarily, I take issue with the film's screenplay, which has also basked in its fair share of fawned glory. Though it too, like the cinematography, did eke out some premier moments, it was unfortunately less forthcoming on the general splendor or power, for No Country for Old Men did not seem to me to make any sort of palpable or consistent point or argument more than the tired reconstitution of "Greed can wear a man, breeding itself into his children, and, while good men can stand against it, none can truly overcome it but only bear its recognition in one's heart and try to kindle the same in others." OK, so worded in that way the topic may not seem to be endlessly popular, but just consider the long history of screenplays that have ridden the same one-trick pony: from It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol all the way to Wall Street, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even Blank Check. And the history of stories in this vein in general stretches centuries farther: Chaucer anyone? So, why why why should we be immensely captivated by and praising of yet another play to address it, especially as the play in question seeks to explore nothing new about its effects and instead somewhat feebly pushes out meditations about chance, fate, and happenstance? OK, it was succinct and inexiguous, thrifty and efficient, but a journey swiftly made to a middle-of-the-road location is still only a middle-of-the-road excursion. Why should we praise middle-of-the-road? I have no idea. And, furthermore, why should we even consider praising an unfocused, undecided style? The screenplay vacillates continuously in tradition, between full-fledged morality play and straightforward thriller. Its characteristic storylines only half introduced and scenarios abruptly begun and ended strongly align to the morality play's construction, in which background details and other practical issues of the plot are secondary to the execution of the overarching moral. But, its instances of first-person, limited-knowledge narration and its tendencies to closely follow the travails of Mr. Brolin's character strongly suggest a thriller's construction, in which the audience's identification with the protagonist is crucial and the major vehicle for achieving the conclusive point. Because the film must be a cohesive whole and directorial decisions can inform the work (even in retrospect), the emotional ties and aspirations of the film must ultimately side with its being a thriller, but the ambiguities still linger, as a further weakness of the play.
Finally, I just have to take minor issue with hair and make-up. While I, unlike many critics out there, have the greatest respect for the decision to style Mr. Bardem's hair as it was, for that cut to me seemed strangely right - perhaps as incongruous and abstracted as his character himself - I have to ask, why also the monster sideburns? I have no real higher reason for my question nor problem with them being on his character that I can clearly describe; they just felt odd to me.
Anyway, all things considered, No Country for Old Men was a very well done film, and Mr. Bardem's ghostly, almost unpresent performance the capstone of the entire piece; but, to be frank, the film's greatness was pre-capped by the shortcomings of its screenplay.

Grade: B