Sunday, October 23, 2005

Pieces of a Movie: Pieces of April

There are some wonderful bits and moments in Peter Hedges' movie, Pieces of April. There are also two movies in there, one about an anxious punkette (played by Katie Holmes) trying to prepare her first Thanksgiving dinner, and another about her suburban family, crammed into a station wagon, driving in to New York to eat said dinner in her apartment. In a word, it's a mess, but a mess worth watching because of the same wonderful ear for odd characters and family dialogue that shaped About a Boy, for which Hedges wrote the screenplay.

My favorite moment in the film was a lovely bit of acting by Oliver Platt, as the father. He notices that his wife (played wonderfully well by Patricia Clarkson) has gotten quiet and still during the car ride. We watch him notice this, then watch his notice turn to fear: he loves his wife, who is very ill with breast cancer. The little moment of carefully controlled panic (lest he scare grandma and the children in the back seat) as he checks to see if she is asleep or dead is beautiful to watch. The moment is almost spoiled, though, by a clunky commentary from the know-it-all daughter in the back seat, who explains it to her brother -- my first thought was darnit, that moment was beautiful as it was -- and then a grin when I realized that that is precisely what that irritating child would have done in such a situation: provide commentary when none was needed or wanted. Bravo, Mr. Hedges.

The movie is full of interesting moments and bits that don't quite hang together, and it ends abruptly in a shower of saccharine. On balance, I have to give it a thumb's down, but with great reluctance. Did I enjoy watching it? Almost.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Constant Gardener

He didn't really know her. When she was found murdered, he wondered who could possibly do this to her. He became obsessed until he finally found himself.

This is an incredibly intense, intricate story of a British consular official in Kenya. He's happily married, and is convinced he's doing good work in Africa by helping to provide food and shoes to the natives. But he's always apart from the Africans with whom he lives. His wife, however, leads a different life. He doesn't want to delve too intently into her life, and argues with her about how much they can really do in such a poor country.

Ralph Fiennes is perfect as a stereotypical Brit, he with the easy smile and self-deprecating blush. He's a diplomat, not too high on the totem pole. He doesn't assume too much, doesn't think he can really change anything, including his wife. He had just met her when she challenges him to take her with hiim to Africa. She falls in love with the strange place, learns the language, at least able to communicate with the children, and immerses herself in its political problems. He would rather stand apart, forget its problems, and fiddle with his garden. When she's found murdered, he wonders why. He finds himself immersed in a puzzle of duplicity and falsehoods. Was she having an affair? Was she lying to him all the time? She was certainly living a different life, one he never knew.

In the end, this is a love affair, a haunting one, proof that you may never know the one you love but perhaps, after all, you can discover her, even after her death.

The cinematography is breathtaking, but even more than that, the handheld camera and the washed-out look puts you in the moment. The rushed scenes make us think paranoid thoughts, along with our diplomat, and we find ourselves neck-deep in the mystery. The blanched camera angles remind us that we're in a different land here. The third most important protagonist in this film is Africa; it cannot be ignored.

Ralph's character finds a way of discovering the wife he never knew, of uncovering the layers of lies surrounding her death. He redeems himself through this discovery, as he discovers he must take action with what he learns. And we join him emotionally in his journey and discovery.

Thumb's up for a brilliant film, brilliantly acted and filmed. The Constant Gardener is a revelation.

Johnny Depp -- the reply

Sometimes, Cat, I am reminded that we go to different movies, sometimes even when we go to the same movie!

What strikes me about your list are the performances that aren't on it. Some Depp performances I'd put on such a list:

-- Benny & Joon. Depp's Sam was a wonderful, mysterious character who had immersed himself in Buster Keaton. The main plot toddled along on very thin ice, but Sam was fascinating to watch, and the performance between Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson was amazing, so the movie wound up being watchable. Jonny Depp seems to be one of those actors with whom other actors sometimes really catch fire. That's part of what I liked about What's Eating Gilbert Grape -- the chemistry between him and the other actors with whom he worked on the film.

-- Blow. George Jung is about as unsympathetic a character as I can imagine, a big cocaine dealer back in the 1970's. Depp didn't make me like him -- both the screenplay and the performance have no excuses to make -- but he did make me care about him, and I really didn't want to care. And, again, there's that interesting synergy between actors: the interplay between Depp and Ray Liotta was moving.

-- Finding Neverland. Johnny Depp's range is remarkable: how could the same actor be utterly convincing as George Jung and as the demented agent in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and also as the naive genius, J.M. Barrie?

-- Donnie Brasco. This is my favorite Depp performance. He and Al Pacino do a slow tango through a tragedy: the movie is about friendship and betrayal. Depp plays "Donnie Brasco," a very complicated character, an FBI man who is working undercover to infiltrate the mob. Pacino is Lefty, a graying mobster who takes the young man under his mentorship. We watch Donny's struggle with his identity (both the fake one and his true identity as Joe, a guy with a wife and kids at home), as his friendship with Lefty deepens. It is a complex role, and Johnny Depp fills it with delicacy and grace.

Monday, October 10, 2005

My Favorite Johnny Depp Movies

Notice I didn't say, Johnny Depp's best movies. I haven't cared for many of his films. But he always takes a role and gives us a unique twist on it.

Depp is one of the most prolific actors of our day. He has no less than 5 films in production at this moment (if you count the newest Pirates as two, as they are filming two at once much like Lord of the Rings).

My favorite roles, in order of importance:

1. Once Upon a Time in Mexico. This film is on nobody's favorite movie list, but Johnny Depp creates a memorable character, all at once funny and rather tragic. The most watchable character in this movie.

2. Pirates of the Caribbean. Hate the movie, love Jack Sparrow.

3. Sleepy Hollow. A flawed movie, to be sure, but the cinematography alone sets this movie apart. And Depp's performance of a scared but determined man is the eyes through which we view the world.

4. Ed Wood. Does he capture Ed Wood or not? Damn!

5. Edward Scissorhands. Again, hated the film, but you can't look into those eyes and not see his pain.

6. What's Eating Gilbert Grape? His breakout performance.

So, Ruth.....whaddya think?

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Ice Princess (goes splat)

Oops, I gave it all away in the headline.

Joan Cusack and Kim Cattrall are fun to watch. And I like to watch ice skating. Those are my excuses for renting this film in the first place. I knew that it was a long shot.

Cusack and Cattrall didn't disappoint. Cusack is a wonderful actress, and despite a role that was written to be cartoonish, she invests the mother role with all the aches of wanting the best for a kid whose gifts are different from yours. Cattrall allowed herself to be shot in the most unflattering light and makeup imaginable, portraying an ice princess who has hardened into an ice queen: a stage mother with steel edges. Fun, nasty, surprising: she must have had fun with this one.

But that's it, folks. The rest of it is a soupy WB-ish tale about a nerd (best-dressed and best-coiffed nerd I ever saw) who becomes an ice champion courtesy of a science project. The message seems to be that it's ok to be a physics whiz, but much, much better to wear more eye makeup and use those physics for sports!


Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Corpse Bride

Tim Burton assembles the usual cast of characters, actors he’s worked with before several times (including his wife), and has produced another creepy film. Only this time it’s animated, has energetic if weird characters, and is, for the most part, worth watching.

Corpse Bride features the voices of Johnny Depp as our young, shy suitor, Victor, and Emily Watson as the equally shy Victoria whom he will marry only a day after meeting her, in a match arranged by their parents. But he keeps screwing up the vows. Going off to practice them, he unfortunately and unknowingly recites them to a woman who is dead. She accepts his offer, and, as any other enthusiastic bride, drags him into her world. This world happens to be underground.

Yes, it’s a strange movie but it’s got a lot of charm. The characters are definitely ghoulish but they have a terrific sense of rhythm. (Music is used sparingly but to great effect, lightening the heaviness of a rather ghoulish situation.) And our corpse bride is really sexy. Well, she’d be sexy if her right eye didn’t keep falling out. And there’s that wisecracking maggot that comes out of the socket from time to time. Oh, yes, and her wrist is severed and clanks off her arm at the worst times, an event which causes some anguish to the young groom. Still, he sees her charm. She has a personality, whereas his living bride-to-be is rather blank. She may have a personality – he doesn’t know enough about her at this point – but the sort-of-dead one is absolutely brimming with life.

In fact, the whole land beneath the surface has more life, more animation, and a lot more color than the land of the living. This is not lost on our young Victor. His parents seem the loving type, but are terribly misguided. And Victoria’s parents are already living a dead life, so absent of love and full of malice are they.

The Corpse Bride has a lot more going for it than Burton’s other Halloweenish try, The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was just plain boring and suffered from writer’s block. The animation is really marvelous in that these artists employ real puppets and backgrounds against a green screen, and move the puppets and their faces meticulously for full range of emotion.

But the Corpse Bride is not for everyone. It is much too intense and downright scary for young children. Or teenagers who are sensitive. Or adults who scare easily.

But if you can sit through a movie about creepy people and body parts who have more style than the living, go see it. Thumb's up.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Serenity AKA Firefly

Firefly was a not-so-successful T.V. show created by Joss Whedon, he of the much more successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel shows. Vampires are hot and hip, it seems. Not so with cowboys in outer space.

Serenity is the movie version of the T.V. show. Let me explain this again: Firefly was cancelled after about 15 shows aired. It did not go well even though it built up a small but devout core of fans. Still, Joss thought that the premise of this ne'er-do-well band of outlaws in space would fly better on the silver screen.

Yet he didn't introduce anything new to the movie. It's still the same people on the Serenity ship (Firefly class). You've got your captain, Mal Reynolds, who has a heart-of-gold but supposedly you'd never know that because he does stuff a hero shouldn't. There's your really rough-on-the-edges but with a heart-of-gold roughneck, Jayne, whose only real duty is firepower. (It sure ain't brains.). Add the very capable Gina Torres as Reynolds' lieutenant, who acts as the central moral point of the crew. And toss in an engineer and a pilot. The only unpredictable parts of the bunch include a brother and sister, but they were in the original T.V. show, so even they aren't original. The sister has her own secrets, however, and she is spectacular to watch.

The best part about the whole movie are these actors, or most of them. Nathan FIllion has a fine comic sense and is fun to watch. And as said earlier, Gina Torres holds the whole thing together, when and if she gets any screen time -- it's not enough. The others are thin characterizations, mostly stereotypes even though they're painted as odd heroes. But all in all, there's not enough plot here, not enough new here.

If you're a Firefly fan, I understand. If you're a Joss Whedon fan, however, and expect snappy dialogue and clever characters, pass on Serenity and go rent some Buffy DVDs.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Capote: A 20th Century Faust

A friend wrote to me: "Go see Capote. " She was right.

Yes, that's a thumb's up, WAY up. The movie is a beautiful assemblage of perfectly chosen parts, from the fine details of both Manhattan and Middle-American life in 1959, to the measured steps of the screenplay, the beautiful editing and cinematography, and the performance at the center of the film, Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote. There are also wonderful smaller performances that haven't gotten much attention from reviewers yet, perhaps because they are made in the shadow of Hoffman's achievement: Catherine Keener, as Nell Harper Lee, the conscience of the story; Clifton Collins, Jr., who protrays the killer Perry Smith with grace, charm, and flashes of utter evil; and Chris Cooper, who plays the upright Kansas lawman with contained ferocity.

When I was old enough to read In Cold Blood, Capote had already dissolved into a boozy caricature. I could never quite connect the man with his writing. Now I understand the connection between the glorious writing and the alcoholic wreck: "In Cold Blood" was the product of a Faustian deal, its title an apt description not only of the 1959 crime but of the process required to extract the raw material for the book from the criminals and their victims who lived it.

Go see it.