25 October 2008

Review: W.

Genre: Drama (Biopic) / Historical Fiction

Oliver Stone has for years now been inclined to present us with this kind of "searing 'Presidential' drama;" the kind that invariably seems to revolve between the stern close-up shots of its exasperated characters, frequently mid-argument, and the attemptingly explicatory Freudian backstories for those arguments in its tale-telling; you know, the kind of film that always presents in buzz before its release, because of its provocatively incendiary scenes and purportedly "behind-the-scenes" content, and then fizzles like released carbonation afterwards. No doubt, all that fervid shaking set loose the caught air. Now, for all this talk of fizzling and complexities in solution - which, I have no doubt, is an accurate metaphor for this, Mr. Stone's leader-bsed biographical work - there has been very little talk yet as to whether or not such pressurized bottles of films actually succeed, and this littleness is in major part, because there is little to no consistency in the thoroughness and oomph of the films in this biopic set. Just as it is difficult to predict how violently a shaken bottle of champagne will fire its cork and spurt its golden liquid, so it is a difficult matter to predict just how much power and lift the complete film of such intermingled incendiary and explosive argument-driven scenes will muster. For those films such as 1991's J. F. K. and 1995's Nixon, Mr. Stone has achived near geysers of appreciable pop; yet, equilaterally, for those films such as 2004's Alexander and 2008's W., the concomitant shudder is decidedly less impressive. Indeed, much like many of Mr. Stone's films of late, biographically or otherwise based, W. falls exceedingly short of the inital promises it pretended to us in its sneak-peeks, stolen scenes, and other trailer-esque matter. A film lacking sincerely in visual and textual cohesion and 'fillered' instead by the molass of tacky, skin-deep impersonations and political-pop-culture references, it is certainly one of the most disappointing fares of the season.
Now, I will not spend much more time dissecting and distinguishing, determining and decrying, deliberating and deciding the merits - or perhaps redemptions among the mire - of this odious film, but I will tackle in my greatest attempts at brevity three of the plural redresses I have made against it thus far in the review: those are, (1) the lack of visual cohesion, (2) the lack of textual cohesion, and (3) the skin-deep impersonations, all in order to paint a clearer, less subjective picture of what works and does not work in Mr. Stone's latest film. First, the lack of visual cohesion is primarily manifested by the awkwardness of the cinematography: It seemed, almost entirely, as if the film had no ocular legs on which to stand, so blunt, so unfigured, so unpremeditated, so static was the screen play. Fixing on those aforementioned close-up shots, lit by brash and often overpowering overheads that did noting to embellish the narrative, and utilizing one true-color, inflexible, in-focus lens and palette to capture both the fantasized and the realized sequences within the story, the given images failes to self-organize in any clear or competent structure; everything falls into one even and rankly boring plane, flat and true and overblown. In a story that seeks to investigate the alluring and vividly dramatic life of one of today's most notorious "celebrities," such perspectives are not only delimiting but moreover deleterious from the potential poignancy of the work; such a choice is bland. Second, the lack of textual cohesion further disorients and disarrays the tale from its viewer. Burdened by the fact that the subject of this biography (though fictional) is not only still alive but also still in residence in his celebritizing post, the screenplay was no doubt a taller order than were most of the director's earlier works. However, resting upon the fact that one is dealing with a life unfinished and a post undeparted and therefore discarding all sense of building control (but for the meager and consistenly present [aforementioned] Freudian ontology) are no ways to react. Instead of scrutinizing and exacerbating a strain on a relationship that may in fact be very little like what is envisioned here (i. e., in W.), one may have done better to play upon those many artifacts of the subject's life that are instead shuffled to the side (e. g., tensions with the surrounding players on his staff, domestic life with his wife and daughters, formative experiences as a child or even, later, at Yale), those little nuances and curves in personal history that were able to make those films like J. F. K. and Nixon so comparatively great. Eschewing them, the work reads like nothing more than its subject's "Greatest Hits," combined and compiled for easy access "for the first time ever!" [hyperbole injected]. Third, the skin-deep impersonations of the real identities portrayed did terribly little to advance the intentions of trajectory of the film, so little in fact that, though there were undoubtedly dedicately researched by those actors so griped to be playing them, they actively backpedal the legimatcy-reaching movement of the film in toto. Too briefly they were flitting upon the screen and too lightly touching the interwoven and intricate dynamics of the real relationships they simulate. Sufficing more to the beck and call of Saturday-Night-Live-like casual recreations than to the artistic demands of investigatory portraitism, they flounder and tip, to rend asunder the long battery of heavy-handed and by now stereotyped views their real-world personages in tow engender, and do so even under the minds of some of today's most promising performers. Ellen Burstyn, Josh Brolin, James Cromwell(!) all fumble, all start, all falter to gain their footings on that vague and inconsistent grounding and erect as results only crumbling effigies in shallow surroundings.
For all these flaws, W. proceeds with nary a single redeeming feature and so can only read 'awkward at best.'

Grade: D.

20 October 2008

Review: Rachel Getting Married

Genre: Drama (Biopic)

The sleeper-indie of this year-in-film, Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married is an unscrupulous little gem of a biography, that mixes the raw and rugged, hand-held cinematography that has become a bizarre sort of staple onto the makeshift "indie genre" unflinchingly with the blessed literacy of a finer, less "finders/keepers" cast and screenplay that tradition would find in the more "official" scenes of the stage/theater. Unshy about presenting the trying, moving, but still somehow stickingly contrived tragedy(es) of a family, as fractile as externally inspective, in the brash and determined style of the lingeringly up-close viewer (that plays hot and cold about 70-30 as also the semi-occluded, obtuse spectator), the film seeks to investigate the merits and demerits of lives lived under the burdens of a shared past. In so doing, it is not wholly successful, as its open ending feels just a bit out of place in such an otherwise meticulously appropriated screen-structure; but still it is remarkably adept at balancing and hitting on the dramatic and comedic high points of a comely, shapely rise-and-fall (without skimping on those equally important middle bits). And, aided by the ecelctic and dallyingly rambunctious musical soundtrack, the pin-tight editing - not one scene was exiguous - and the incredibly brilliant performance at its core - Ms. Hathaway, I knew you would realize your potential eventually! - Rachel Getting Married proves to be this year's most charming and engaging film to date.

Grade: A-; congratulations, Mr. Demme; if it be not too bold for me, let me say, welcome back.

15 October 2008

Review: Happy-Go-Lucky

Genre: Drama (Character Study)

Director Mike Leigh is perhaps best categorized by his œuvre to date as a portraitist, an extremely nuancing and intimately acquainting capturer of a person's or persons' lives, regardless of whether or not they be real or imagined, historically fictionalized or convivially contemporarily invented; and it is perhaps also worthwhile to note that the subjects of his detective, inspective portraits are consistently members of British society, people who dwell in shadowy little boxes and alcoves and seem almost imperceptibly on the verge of a chaotic expression but at all times, regardless of their inner states, retain at least a modicum of reserve and dispassion in their dearest endeavors. Consider as examples W. S. Gilbert (of 1999's breathtaking Topsy-Turvy), Vera Drake, and Cynthia Rose Pearly (of 1996's percolating Secrets & Lies); and now add a somewhat attitudinally distinct but nevertheless ontologically coherent Poppy Montgomery to their ranks, for she, a quirkily-hipster-esque, Zeitgeist-y personification of external resilience and optimism & kindergarten teacher, is the subject of Mr. Leigh's latest work, Happy-Go-Lucky. Troubled at heart by that same continuous thread of dissonance from her surroundings and simultaneous (though hardly admitted) internal yearning to be at resonance with them, Poppy flits around the screen in a revealing character study, the first of Mr. Leigh's films so purely intent upon its main character that it eschews almost any kind of greater structure or argument about society, its underpinning metaphysics, or even mere interpersonal emotion that would have otherwise achieved the same level of sophistication and exceptionality as have done his previous films, especially those aforementioned. Unclear as to whether or not such a direction might have been his intent in the making of this latest film, I have no choice but to go on my own assumptions, that it was somehow definitively not. The continual disparity of Poppy's quiet internal and domestic life as a single 30-something female living with her roommate of 10 years from her boisterous external and occupational life as a decidedly offbeat adult and eclectic kindergarten teacher, when coupled with the scenes of her driving lessons and her interactions with the troubled student in her class, speak all too readily of an ambition that would go beyond the narrowly defined "character study" and become then more a social investigation or even social critique as notably did his Vera Drake (2004), in which coincidentally Sally Hawkins who plays Poppy had a small rôle. I mean, why else then diagonose Poppy and her personal condition by social reflection in the first 15 minutes of the film? Her dismissal by the bookshop-keeper, her reaction to her bicycle's being theft, and especially her wild yet contained (i. e., eyes-closed, solitary) dancing amid the asynchronous crowd at the concert/rave all resound of an intrinsic social participation in the description of this film; and the later interactions, especially the one between Poppy and a random homeless man whom she meets late at night, urgently confirm the importance of this social participation. It seems injust then, that Mr. Leigh should deny the culmination of that to his audience and leave us as he brought us in: entirely mise-en-scene and without anything of building note ever happening. It's all just, "Here's Poppy doing this," and, "Here's Poppy doing that," without ever taking the time to confront Poppy sincerely and enduringly with a worldview or alchemical antidote that would cause her to change, if only in the slightest way, for the benefit of the 'reader' (of the film). But then perhaps such a confrontation would have been too cruel for the fragile hummingbird she is - would have seemed to be too cruel to her audience...balderdash! Really, balderdash! Clinging to unwavering optimism is the tragedy of this film, both diegetically, because having endured the trials of others that in our contemporary social climes rivet drama Poppy goes on expressively static, and non-diegetically, because a film about a character who doesn't change despite whatever the world throws at her can hardly be a captivating film or enduring film at all and must remain alternatively a momentary social tour in which various items of dramatic note are kept safely outside of the bubble of our transit car (i. e., main character), with the exception of perhaps a flick of the wrist in momentary discomfort after having seen one - but momentary only. In short, therefore, nothing of Happy-Go-Lucky really ever sticks and we - or, at least, I - leave the theater, the memories and effects of it evaporating as quickly as had those of the also now-in-theaters, execrable Igor. Needless to say, I was on the whole disappointed, Mr. Leigh, and fully expect more from you next time around.
However, before I close this little review of mine, I must extend my warmest commendations to Sally Hawkins, who as the focus of this petite character study brings a depth and a rhythm of life that grows her character to be large enough to support a whole film - a weighty feat indeed. Congratulations, well done.

Still, however, Grade: C.