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I'm in two minds about "Closer". Is it an accurate portrayal of modern
relationships? Or is merely a brilliant conceit, a filmed play with
clever dialogue that bears no resemblance to reality? Whatever the
case, the message of "Closer" seems to be that truth has very little to
do with relationships. Truth is something you hear only the moment your
relationship is about to end, not while the two of you are together.
Truth doesn't bring you closer. It only drives you apart.
There's a scene in "Closer" that involves a very racy exchange between two unlikely individuals in an Internet chat room. One of the two people chatting is merely adopting an online persona. He is not at all who or what he claims to be. The other is at least true to his nature as a sexual animal -- in his own words, a "caveman". Perhaps there is a message there too: that we are truest when we are true to ourselves.
The caveman in question is Larry, played with raw energy and passion by Clive Owens. Of the four protagonists, Larry is the most real and true. Alice (Natalie Portman) is hiding behind an assumed identity, though she is ironically a stripper who lays herself bare to strangers. Dan (Jude Law) projects an image of macho bravado, but is actually a sniveling, weepy, whiny little boy lost. As for Anna (Julia Roberts), she is an ice-cold maiden who sees genuine human emotion only as fodder for her artwork as a photographer.
All of these characters confuse wanting to be loved with wanting to be needed -- or to dominate and control. And they all confuse wanting to hear the truth with their real desire to be lulled by lies.
This film could have explored modern relationships even more deeply. There were hints of sexual tension between Dan and Larry, and between Anna and Alice. The movie would be longer, but the end result would be the same. It seems that, whether you're gay or straight, when it comes to love, nothing could be farther from the truth.
I should have realized it was a bad sign "Finding Neverland" began with
a red velvet curtain and a proscenium arch. Yes, I know, James Barrie
was a playwright, and "Peter Pan" began as a play. But that doesn't
mean that this movie should have adopted theatrical conventions. That
results in a film that is, well, over-dramatic.
That's one of the problems with "Finding Neverland". It tries too obviously and too hard to tug at our heartstrings. Instead of stirring deep, true emotions in its audience, it succeeds only in engendering a cloying and mawkish sentimentality. And, worse than that, it wrings tears from even its hard-hearted villain -- the grandmother (Julie Christie) of the boys James Barrie (Johnny Depp) befriends.
Another problem is that "Finding Neverland" almost completely sidesteps a key point in any examination of James Barrie's life: the nature of his fondness for the Llewellyn-Davies boys. Barrie was rumored, though never proved, to be a pedophile. Only once in "Finding Neverland" is this issue raised. As in "Alexander", our hero's sexuality is not honestly explored. At best, this version of Barrie might be labeled an oddball or an eccentric -- a rather superficial assessment.
The point is not to pander to prurient interests, or to dismiss Barrie as some sex-crazed monster. Rather, the film could have considered how he sublimated his desire and transmuted it into art -- in much the same way as homosexual Michelangelo was able to create Adam, David, and the muscle-bound Christ of the Sistine Chapel's "Last Judgment".
To be sure, in this depiction of Barrie, there are hints of a lost childhood, of growing up too soon. And there is philosophizing about how quickly youth and time pass, till the Grim Reaper claims us all. But "Finding Neverland" fails to capitalize on an idea suggested by its final scene: that our physical selves may be mortal, but the products of our imagination can live forever.
Finally, "Finding Neverland" is simply too staid, static, and stodgy. Except for the scenes where Barrie engages in imaginative play with the Llewellyn-Davies boys, the film lacks dynamism and energy.
I was looking forward to "Finding Neverland". But I didn't think I would be finding Neverland dull. For me, this Peter didn't pan out.
In the guise of an American evangelist preaching against the excesses
of Britain's high society, Stockard Channing delivers the line that
best sums up this film: "Beautiful young people, they call you. Well,
one out of three ain;'t bad."
Cynically, and quite in keeping with the tone of the film, it is left up to the audience to decide which of the three epithets appropriately applies.
In my view, we may at best describe these people as young. Beautiful they may be in face and form, but their souls are foul and besmirched by all manner of meanness and pettiness. As for whether we may call them people, they may be human, but not humane. (Indeed, one may argue that the "people" portrayed in this film have little or no depth at all -- that they are cardboard cutouts without any substance.)
"Bright Young Things" attempts to atone for being a silly little piece of fluff by tacking on a "moral" at the end. Late, far too late, in the film, we are given to understand the gravity of the situation that exists outside the boundaries of the glittery, glamorous world of British high society.
On September 1, 1939, Britain declares war on Germany, following the invasion of Poland. London is bombarded. Some of the bright young things find themselves on the battlefront.
But most of the film is devoted, not to the Blitz, but to images of beautiful young people getting blitzed. The overall impression is one of "Fool Britannia", fiddling while Rome burns.
Is there a message here for Britain in the 21st century? That may be. But Stephen Fry's adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's "Vile Bodies" delivers, not a message, but a mess. "Vile Bodies" has unfortunately resulted only in a vile film.
At the beginning of "Alexander", Ptolemy, Greek pharaoh of Egypt, tells
us that "Alexander was never defeated, except by Hephaistion's thighs".
(This line is no invention of Oliver Stone's, but a quote variously
attributed to Cynic philosophers or a poet named Claudius Aelianus.)
Alas, what was true of Alexander the hero proves to be equally true of "Alexander" the film, as well as its director, Oliver Stone, and its lead actor, Colin Farrell. Sad to relate, all three fall on the same stumbling-block: their inability to deal squarely with the importance of Hephaistion in Alexander's life.
One wonders what on earth possessed Stone to tackle this project, and to cast Farrell in the title role. Never were two men more ill-suited to the task. Both are fatally hampered by their own swaggering machismo -- and the homophobia that lingers in Hollywood and America at large -- from being able to understand, appreciate and convey, with any verisimilitude, the physical passion and emotional connection that Alexander and Hephaistion must have felt.
Stone and Farrell never allow the two historic lovers to do more than give each other a bear hug or, at best, a back rub. There is no on-screen kiss, let alone any nudity or lovemaking.
In an early scene, we see Alexander and Hephaistion as 12-year-old boys, wrestling at the gymnasium, chastely clad in loincloths. This is patently inaccurate, since Greek men and boys wore nothing more than olive oil -- and perhaps a laurel wreath -- when they engaged in athletic activities, including the Olympic Games. But in America's current climate of anti-sexual hysteria, it would of course be quite impossible to show the historical reality.
This is only one of many anachronisms in the film. For instance, we are told the extent of Alexander's empire in square miles -- an English measure of area, where the Greeks might have used hectares instead. But worst of all, most intrusive and annoying, is the plethora of Irish brogues heard from the male cast, primarily Colin Farrell himself, the young actor who plays Alexander as a boy, and Val Kilmer as his father, Philip of Macedonia. I am tempted to believe that this casting was a deliberate decision, based on Farrell's inability to neutralize his own native accent.
Some scenes seemed derivative, echos of other celebrated films. At one point, we see the ground strewn with wounded men, and the camera dollies back for a wide-angle shot. I half expected to see Scarlett O'Hara in her straw bonnet and faded calico dress, and the tattered Confederate flag waving in the breeze.
The score by Vangelis also struck me as derivative. One bar in particular sounds strangely familiar -- I'm almost positive it was lifted from an opera aria.
The ancient Greeks had a saying that "an army of lovers cannot fail". Oliver Stone's "Alexander" fails for precisely that reason: it does not allow Alexander and Hephaistion to be lovers, as they undoubtedly were in life and will always remain in history.
"All the world's a stage," wrote the Bard, "and all the men and women
merely players that strut and fret their hour upon the stage."
"Stage Beauty" is set in the world of seventeenth-century Restoration theatre, but the stage serves as a microcosm for life itself, and the roles played by the actors before the public mirror the roles they play in their private lives. The question is, do they create their roles, or do their roles create them?
Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is an actor who takes on women's roles, since real women are not permitted to do so. He has been thoroughly trained and schooled in the then highly stylized technique of portraying women -- to such an extent that any trace of masculinity seems to have been drummed out of him.
His dresser Maria (Clare Danes) yearns to be an actress herself, but is prevented from doing so by the narrow conventions of Puritan England -- until Charles II is restored to the throne and decrees that, henceforth, real women shall play women's roles on the stage. A whole new world opens up for Maria, but it looks like curtains for Ned.
What happens next is pure anachronism: Ned and Maria are able to rise above the limitations and constraints of their era. Not only do they transcend their gender or sex roles, but they overcome their classical training and, in effect, engage in Method acting, a technique still three hundred years away in the far-distant future. When he teaches Maria how to break the mold and play Othello's Desdemona in a whole new, natural way, Ned becomes a seventeenth-century Stanislavsky.
But, by George, it works. Their performance of the celebrated death scene from "Othello" sends shock waves through an audience accustomed to pantomime and exaggerated gestures -- and it electrifies us as well.
Not since Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love" have an actor and actress so shimmered and shone simultaneously on stage and screen. One hopes that Billy Crudup and Clare Danes will be remembered for their luminous performances at the 2005 Academy Awards.
I will no doubt be accused of being a Scrooge, but I'm afraid that, for
me, "The Polar Express" was no more than a snow job. Far from arousing
my Christmas spirit, the film merely reminded me how much the holiday
has been over-sentimentalized and over-commercialized.
The instrumental and song score alone was enough to have me muttering "Bah, humbug!" The music was so in your face that I could almost see the orchestra, especially the string section. It was bad enough having to endure Tom Hanks as the train conductor, without having to contend with the orchestra conductor into the bargain. And then there were all those snippets of classic Christmas carols, both as snatches of the instrumental score and as voiced by Judy Garland, Bing Crosby and the Andrews sisters. They may not have been roasting on an open fire, but they were chestnuts indeed.
If I had to sum up "The Polar Express" in one word, it would be "annoying". Instead of telling a story from beginning to end, it seems to go off in all directions, or at least constantly off on a tangent. The stage business of the train ticket carried hither and thither by the winter wind seems suspiciously like an excuse for the animators to show us how very clever they are ("Look, Ma, no hands!"). I was most definitely NOT impressed by the human figures. To my eye, they looked like nothing so much as wax dummies from Madame Tussaud's, and they moved jerkily as well. I might as well as have been watching the string puppets in "Team America: World Police".
There was, to be honest, only one moment when "The Polar Express" evoked any real emotion in this reviewer's breast, and that came almost at the very end, when the train conductor punches the children's tickets with a special message for each one.
"The Polar Express" takes a host of Christmas traditions and milks them for all their worth. But -- for this critic, at least -- the end result is as flat, warmed-over, and even sour-tasting as a glass of milk left standing overnight for a Santa who never comes.
I've never seen the original 1960s version of "Alfie", starring Michael
Caine, but if it's anything like the 2004 remake with Jude Law --
thanks, but no thanks.
One problem with the 21st-century "Alfie" is that it continually takes great pains to remind us of its predecessor. For one thing, Jude Law is as close a match physically to a young Michael Caine as you could hope to find among the current crop of Hollywood actors. For another thing, the 2004 film has a soundtrack strongly reminiscent of the Sixties. And just in case we missed the fact that this is a remake, we get to hear Joss Stone warble "What's is all about, Alfie?" over the closing credits -- which, by the way, are the most original aspect of the film.
Another problem with "Alfie" (2004) is precisely its soundtrack. If I wanted non-stop, wall-to-wall music blaring in my ears, I'd get myself an iPod. What's it all about? Offhand, I'd say it was about plugging the soundtrack for two hours.
Finally, Jude Law is a great actor -- not to mention easy on the eyes and quite fetching in a towel. But his character, Alfie, is a sorry excuse for a human being and (in my opinion) a complete waste of a moviegoer's time and money. If I'm going to plunk down $10 and spend two hours of my time, give me a character who is at least likable, if not necessarily admirable. More importantly, give me a hero who learns something along the way, instead of one like Alfie, who still doesn't get it by the final reel.
Okay, I knew going in that Alfie was the kind of guy who is afraid to commit to a relationship with a woman. But shouldn't the film have given us some idea of why this is so? There are hints that Alfie has learned everything he knows about life from his father: that you should "never depend on anyone". But didn't Alfie have a mother too? What did he learn from her? The 2004 film also suggests that Alfie has a soft spot in his heart for his erstwhile single-mom girlfriend's little boy. But again, we are given no rationale. A younger version of himself, perhaps?
As the house lights went up, the question in my mind wasn't "What's it all about?" Rather, it was, "What's it all for?"
What would happen if Superman hung up his cape, gave up his
superpowers, and settled down with Lois Lane (or his childhood
sweetheart Lana Lang) on the outskirts of Metropolis? For that matter,
what kind of life would Batman and Robin have as Bruce Wayne and Dick
Grayson, a plain, ordinary gay couple living la vida loca in Gotham
That's the kind of question "The Incredibles" sets out to answer -- and fails. This animated film could have been a truly funny satire of married, monogamous (monotonous?), suburban society. Instead, it aims for the lowest common denominator and settles for being a cartoon version of your average "guy movie" -- an action-packed adventure filled with chases and things blowing up all over the place, but no real heart and precious few brains.
The only saving grace in "The Incredibles" is Holly Hunter's spirited voicing of Helen Parr (a.k.a. Elastigirl). Craig T. Nelson, as Bob Parr (alias Mr. Incredible), shows potential but is not allowed to develop it to the fullest. The super-children in this little family -- Dash, Violet and baby Jack -- simply fly under the radar. That's a real shame, because Violet starts out as a teenager faced with the universal adolescent task of fitting in and being liked, especially by a cute boy at school. But her character development is as flat and one-dimensional as a Marvel comic book.
"The Incredibles" should have burned as brightly as Krypton's twin suns. Instead, for me at least, the film simply turned out to be as deadly as a fragment of Kryptonite.
"Saw" begins with an intriguing premise and, for most of the film, is a
taut, tight, suspenseful cat-and-mouse game. The promise of the title
is fulfilled -- as the old proverb says, if a gun is introduced in the
first act, it should go off by the fifth act. Indeed it does, and we
are not disappointed.
Where the film loses its sharpness and becomes blunted and dull, like an old rusty saw, is in the final reel. There are simply too many red herrings, undeveloped or underdeveloped characters, unlikely twists and turns, unanswered questions, and an ending that ultimately fails to satisfy.
Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell are, by and large, excellent as the trapped surgeon and darkroom photographer. In an interesting dynamic or dialectic, Dr. Lawrence Gordon initially approaches his dilemma with cool, calm logic, only to descend into a maelstrom of madness. Adam, his fellow prisoner, starts out as impulsive and unthinking, but grows increasingly cagier and slyer. The shift in the dynamic between them genuinely proves to be a see-saw battle (pun intended).
However, "Saw" woefully wastes the thespian talents of the likes of Danny Glover. The rest of the cast embody cardboard characters and simply go through the motions.
"Saw" should have been cutting-edge cinema. In the end, however, it should perhaps have been left on the cutting-room floor.
Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake" has generated a lot of Oscar buzz, and
there's no denying that Imelda Staunton plays an engaging character who
enlists and maintains our sympathy from beginning to end. Her Vera
Drake is a brisk and energetic woman, clearly concerned about others.
However, Vera is also a tad naive, thinking that the woes and cares of the world can be cured by a kind word and a nice cup of tea. She seems woefully unaware of the potential danger of her good intentions. By her actions, she endangers, not only the physical welfare of unwed mothers, but their psychological well-being too. Vera is even more oblivious to the moral import and legal consequences of "helping girls out" when they have "got themselves in trouble". Only when faced with prison, and the shame brought upon her family, does Vera show regret or remorse.
Director Mike Leigh valiantly tries to cover all the angles in the pro-life/pro-choice debate. Leigh's juxtaposition of characters and scenes argues that a woman's "right" is predicated on her socio-economic status and ability to pay for medical services. He invokes the argument of rape as a rationale for termination of a pregnancy. He also includes a subplot suggesting that only wanted children should be born.
But "Vera Drake" is obviously skewed and slanted in favor of a woman's right to choose. Only twice in the entire picture does anyone make any reference to the existence of another life in jeopardy -- that of the child in the womb. Only once does anyone suggest that a woman "in the family way" might want to carry her child to term.
Leigh is entitled to his point of view as a filmmaker and a human being. But abortion is a complex issue, and it is perhaps incumbent upon artists and intellectuals to present a more balanced portrayal of the women, men and children involved in the debate. "Vera Drake" succeeds brilliantly as cinema, but fails dismally as polemic.
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