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Pride & Prejudice (2005)
n this "Pride & Prejudice," we can understand at a glance how much, or how little, money means to any given character: We can read anxiety or confidence in the cut of an overcoat, in the type of knickknacks that decorate a room, even in the set of a character's shoulders. In this "Pride & Prejudice," realism isn't a punishment, but a kind of music, a sound that cuts from Austen's day to ours with the clarity of a strong radio signal. There isn't a frame in the picture that doesn't feel alive and immediate, instead of merely faithful.
Austen's novel, written in 1797 but not published until 1813, is one of the most fiercely beloved books in the English language, and those of us who love it are ferociously protective of the characters at the center of it: Twenty-year-old Elizabeth Bennet (here played by Keira Knightley), whose intelligence is her greatest gift and whose cleverness is her greatest burden, and Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), a young man of privilege and breeding who unconsciously hides his sensitive, fine-grained character behind a scrim of snobbery. The casting here is more perfect than in any "Pride & Prejudice" adaptation I've seen (I confess I'm not a fan of the popular 1995 British miniseries, which I found so slow, proper and reverent that it seemed a direct inversion of the spirit of the book), and Wright is fearless in his handling of the characters, refusing to bow to their iconic stature. It's as if he's unraveled every golden thread we've spun around Elizabeth and Darcy over the years to reveal living, breathing people underneath. He's saved them from the mummification of our love.
"Pride & Prejudice" opens with a shot of the English countryside, but even then, it's not the generic assemblage of Kelly-green rolling hills we usually get, scenery for scenery's sake. This landscape is a misty blue-green, and it hasn't quite woken up yet, although the birds twittering on the soundtrack are beginning to nudge it toward consciousness -- an early promise that Wright is more interested in action than in tasteful, period lethargy. Knightley's Elizabeth Bennet (Lizzy to her family) is of a piece with this landscape. While Knightley has the kind of face that's universally considered beautiful, her beauty feels muted here -- it's deferential to her expressiveness. The alertness in her eyes, the way her smile seems to crack out of nowhere like a sliver of sunlight on a cloudy day: Everything about her speaks of serene, as opposed to brash, self-confidence and intellectual mischievousness.
The Family Stone (2005)
Here we go again...
It's a comedy with a dash of tragedy -- the kind of thing that usually makes me puke. But I fell for this one. The sublime Sarah Jessica Parker dares to be unlikable as the uptight careerist fiancée whom Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) brings home to meet his family for Christmas. Mom (Diane Keaton) and dad (Craig T. Nelson) are appalled. Sister Amy (Rachel McAdams, irresistible) thinks she's a bitch. Slacker brother Ben (Luke Wilson, giving the performance of his career) takes her to bed. Writer-director Thomas Bezucha lays it on thick, but he knows the mad-dog anarchy of family life and gives the laughs a sharp comic edge. Keaton, a sorceress at blending humor and heartbreak, honors the film with a grace that makes it stick in the memory.
Not my favorite by M. Night...
Gibson, whose salary probably represents a significant portion of Signs' budget, plays Father Graham Hess, a widower who is caring for his two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigain Breslin), on a Bucks County (Pennsylvania) farm. Following his wife's death six months ago, Graham has done his best to keep his family together. He is aided by his younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), who moved to the farm following the tragedy. But Graham has lost his faith in God and has renounced his vocation. Then, one morning, he awakens to an amazing discovery - crop circles in his fields. At first, he is inclined to believe it's all a hoax, but, as evidence mounts that this may not be the case, he and his family realize that what has happened in their fields may be the first signs that Earth is about to have a close encounter.
While much of Shyamalan's setup is familiar, the meat of the story has an exotic flavor. Taking a page from Steven Spielberg's Jaws, the director keeps the aliens hidden from our view. We catch occasional, brief glimpses - a leg in the corn field, a hand under a door, and a flash of green on a television screen. With today's special effects being so convincing, it's unusual for a filmmaker to fall back on the old, tried-and-true technique of "less is more". In the case of Signs, it creates a level of tension that a full revelation would have spoiled.
Then there's the added mystery of whether the aliens are benevolent or aggressive. Shyamalan obscures their intentions for most of the movie, concentrating instead upon the fears and concerns of the characters when they don't know the truth. Graham gives a speech in which he talks about how some humans will view first contact as a miracle that gives them hope, while others will see it as a cause for anxiety and uncertainty. In other words, is Earth about to be subjected to a Close Encounters or an Independence Day? For quite some time, Shyamalan doesn't tip his hand, and, when he does so, it isn't in a predictable manner.
Spellbinding, nail-biting Cult Classic
"Journey to the End of the Night" defies any instant classification. It touches on many genres and plays more like an amalgamation of films. The effect is wonderful and stirring and by the end of the movie you feel like you've been on an emotional roll-coaster.
The plot is plain. Brendan Fraser is in love with his father's wife. He wants to run away with her and start over in a new country. Brendan has no respect for the old man because he is essentially a pimp -- (Scot Glen owns a nightclub where girls sell themselves).
One night a man is "offed" in the club and leaves behind a bounty of drugs. Scot Glen and Brendan decide to sell the drugs rather than hand it over to the cops -- (Scot Glen has his own designs about starting over and getting out of the business).
They enlist the help of one of their lowly employees (Mos Def) whom they know very little about. Only that he is Nigerian and that he can speak the same language of their buyer.
Mos Def embarks on his mission which takes on a heroic, almost mythic resonance in one of the most humanistic, gentle roles I have ever observed. He progress is derailed by random violence which leaves him without his cell phone to call Scot Glen and Brendan Fraser (who now believe that Mos Def has absconded with the cash).
Scot Glen in an act of desperation visits an old Fortune Teller to try to enlist his powers in finding Mos Def. Brendan Fraser begins to panic because his plan on getting away is beginning to unravel.
Mos Def is rescued, as it were, by a beautiful young maiden (Alice Braga) who--because of a fight with her boyfriend--is lost in the world with no where to go.
Mos Def and Alice team up for a heartbreaking and tragic passage back to the city. We see that despite some affinities there love is not to be.
Meanwhile, back at the club Brendan Fraser stews over the missing drug mule, and begins to melt down. He confronts his father in brilliant "actorly" moment that redeems his character. We find through classic monologue why he is the way he is (And Fraser does some of his greatest work in this scene).
The ending of "Journey to the End of the Night" borders on the fantastical and is wildly ambitious. Perhaps overly so and perhaps not entirely convincing. But no less great.
The film is chocked filled with energy and passion, bloodshed, car chases, shoot outs, and moments of supreme gentleness. Not for the squeamish. This film is going to become a cult classic.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
While the Wachowski Brothers's The Matrix is one of my favorite movies, the sequels were not as inspiring. I watched them two years ago, and recently re-viewed them to ascertain why they were not as "whoa"-inducing as the first. (Since the sequels are one movie split in two, I'll treat them as one movie here.)
To recap: The original ended with Neo (Keanu Reeves) becoming the Kong-fu-master- messiah of the Matrix, a virtual reality network used by robots to imprison and harvest energy from post-apocalyptic humanity. Neo can stop bullets and kill Agents, the Matrix's super powered policemen.
The sequels begin with real-world robots tunneling toward the last human city, Zion. Morpheus, Neo's mentor, sends him into the Matrix to consult the Oracle. She, in turn, tells him to seek the "Source." Meanwhile, Neo and friends run into Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), whom Neo deleted in the last movie but has since found his way out of the recycling bin and become a self-replicating virus.
These and subsequent plot points punctuate four hours of vapid, pretentious dialog and gratuitous, prolonged action scenes (some entertaining, some confusing). All of which would have been more impressive if I had actually given a damn about anybody involved.
I had no reason to care about Neo: he has no idiosyncrasies, shows zero emotion--even while fighting--and more or less tells all his admirers in Zion to buzz off. The one thing that makes him a sympathetic character is his love for Trinity, which we know about only because he keeps mentioning it and because, whenever given an extra five seconds, they try to get horizontal (and they can't even do that very well: Shrek kisses more convincingly).
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
o, in Brokeback Mountainadapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from a plain but evocative story by Annie Proulxyou have two guys with slim hips and dungarees and cowboy hats pulled low. They lean against pickups, smoke cigarettes, and trade monosyllables (if that). They're suitable for framing. But in the course of an early 1960s summer herding sheep on an isolated Wyoming mountain, they find themselves growing closer and closer and yes, on Brokeback Mountain they make the beast with two broken backs.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger play the men. Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist is the more extroverted one, the rodeo rider, the cowboy who makes cow eyes. Ledger's Ennis Del Mar is the quintessential Westerner of few words, and the words he says are not always audible: He speaks with a Wild West lockjaw that's sometimes annoying but also weirdly hypnotic. Ledger's performance is prime Oscar bait: He's ostentatiously immobile, with uncanny low toneshis voice is 50 fathoms deep. The whole performance is sub textual.
Silent Hill (2006)
A great looking film...
As the film opens, young Sharon Da Silva (Jodelle Ferland) is in the grip of a bad dream that has taken her out of her house and to the edge of a cliff. Nightmares and sleepwalking have become a regular part of her nightly regimen, and her parents differ about what should be done. Christopher (Sean Bean), the practical one, believes that medicine and time in a hospital will cure Sharon. His wife, Rose (Radha Mitchell), disagrees. She decides to take Sharon to visit the mysterious locale in which her nightmares take place - the abandoned town of Silent Hill, which sits atop a mine that has been on fire for three decades.
Rose and Sharon's arrival in Silent Hill is brutal. They are involved in an automobile accident when Rose swerves to avoid a girl who dashes into the road. When Rose recovers consciousness, her daughter is gone. Rose tries to phone Christopher, but her cell phone won't function properly. Accompanied by Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden), a police officer who pursued her into Silent Hill, Rose sets off in search of Sharon. At its best, the town is an eerie place - a crumbling relic with the sun hidden by a fog created by falling ash. At its worst, during periods of inexplicable blackness, it becomes hell on earth, with demonic beings and zombies rising up from the ground.
I have never played the game Silent Hill, but that didn't stop me from appreciating some of what director Christophe Gans (who displayed a similar visual flair in Brotherhood of the Wolf) puts on the screen - although I suspect aficionados will have a better grasp of what is transpiring. Silent Hill looks great. The town is suitably eerie and the periods of darkness are ominous. The movie is all about visual appeal, feel, and tone, because the story underwhelms. The plot concerns Rose tracking down Sharon, going from place to place and following clues until she discovers the truth about her daughter and Silent Hill's dark past. Meanwhile, Sean Bean is wasted as Christopher. His subplot could have been excised. All he does is wander around, mostly in the rain, learning the town's history and trying to find out the fate of his wife and daughter. One expects a payoff from his activities, but there isn't one.
Art School Confidential (2006)
Much of the problem with Art School Confidential lies with the character of Jerome. Clowes writes graphic novels, and the main character he's written here is simply a cartoon figure with no depth to speak of. He falls much too fast from his ambition of becoming the world's greatest artist to someone willing to compromise his talent for the sake of coming in first in a college competition. Granted, he is pliable, aping whoever he happens to be with at the momentit's Bardo one moment, star alumnus Marvin Bushmiller (Adam Scott) the next and adopting the bitter, nihilistic rantings of failed artist Jimmy (Jim Broadbent) as if those beliefs were his own. This might all be interesting if Jerome was, say, the type of troubled, seeking boy that Minghella played in Bee Season. Sadly he is not, and though Minghella is a fine actor, there's not a lot he can do with what is essentially a stick figure.
That's not to say that Art School Confidential is completely worthless. Malkovich (who also produced) is very funny, and so is Broadbent, but mostly this feels like the type of comedy Jerome's roommate Vince might someday make: overly broad, obvious, and very self- conscious. It wants to be cool, it wants to be hip, but like Jerome in his quest to be the next Picasso, it's merely clueless.