Sunday, October 29, 2006

Marie Antoinette

Ok, I admit it -- this isn't a movie review. Two weeks post movie-attendance, this is what I have to say about Marie Antoinette:

In "Freakoutonomics," in the current issue of The New Republic, Jonathan Chait writes:

"Over the last quarter century, the portion of the national income accruing to the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled. The share going to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent has tripled, and the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled."

This is serious, serious stuff and I recommend the entire article. Income inequality in this country has grown steadily in the past few years, and the rate of increase has skyrocketed recently. Chait points out that one of the ways we see this is in the economic dissatisfactions of the middle class: despite the fine performance of the economy on paper, those gains have gone to the most privileged in our country. Meanwhile, the poor have gotten poorer, and the middle class have gotten nowhere at all, and prices have done what prices do in a roaring economy -- they've gone up.

In connection with this I recommend: Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. It's an interesting view of the woman and the time: the ferment in the streets of Paris is visible only on the margins, an occasional downbeat reference almost lost in the sybaritic consumption, opulence, and sheer silliness of Versailles. The opening scene says it all in shorthand: a servant tends to Marie's toes while she languorously drags a finger through the icing on a cake.

Marie knows that she is a woman whose primary function is as a symbol and a womb: she is there to cement a bit of realpolitik and to bear heirs for the Bourbons. In the meantime, she is free to enjoy herself within the rules of the Versailles court, which means that the only part of her that enjoys much freedom is her purse. Goodies insue, until the revolution comes and the party is over. The movie ends then, allowing the viewer to contemplate the situation without the distractions of the prison and the guillotine.

I've seen some interviews in which Coppola says that she was interested in the idea of the teen monarchs, able to do as they like. Maybe so, but the movie also stands for me as a warning to those of us who enjoy prosperity in days that are not prosperous for everyone.

Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake." The movie and several other accounts portray her as a nice party girl who did the charitable things expected of her, and who shopped and consumed for fun. She loved her family, was a good mother, and was not much sillier than anyone else around her. A generation earlier, we might not remember her at all. We remember her and her luckless family because they didn't realize that privileges can be revoked until it was too late.

In a country where "
the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled," we cannot afford to be so blinkered. Wake up, America: get your fingers out of the cake -- smell the republic burning.

[OK, OK: Thumb's up.]

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Prestige

There’s one problem with showing magic on a screen: who cares? We’re all convinced a magician can do anything on television or in the movies. After all, we want to believe in magic. We sure don’t want to see how it’s done.

But the magic in The Prestige isn’t really the point, thankfully, although you do get a nice, long look at some of the tricks they pull off with aplomb. They show you how it’s done for the simple tricks like the canary who disappears. But not all the tricks are revealed.

The story is all about the increasing rivalry of two magicians in turn-of-the-century London, a rivalry which leads to life-long obsessions on the part of both men. The men are Angiers, played with panache by Hugh Jackman, and Borden, played with brooding intensity by Christian Bale, and you watch their struggle to out-do, and undermine, the other, refereed by veteran actor Michael Caine, who is superb here as always. The two aren’t alike except in their love of the next greatest trick. Borden is the greater magician, but Angiers is the better showman. Both qualities seem to matter in this game.

The love stories within are intriguing and in the end spiraling, and if I told you any more, I’d be revealing too much. I wondered why a rising young star like Scarlett Johansson would even agree to be in this movie, as her part really isn’t that large. But Angier’s young stage assistant is key to the plot, especially in one rather revealing scene.

If I had a criticism at all of The Prestige, it’s that it’s too long. There are too many scenes to build up to the climax of the movie. I think discerning, intelligent moviegoers could make the journey without all the examples.

In the center of the movie is more than a rivalry between two men. It’s a question of giving all to your craft, your work. The supposition here is that there is a sacrifice to be made to be the best. Are you willing to make that sacrifice? Once you’ve taken that step, you can never go back, brilliantly illustrated in the film through another magician. It’s a fascinating question, one each faces in a different way.

The story is set up as a mystery, but in truth it is layer-upon-layer a gigantic magic trick. Or several. The title indicates the third part of every successful magic trick, the satisfactory ending to the trick where the canary, for instance, is brought back. The real question in a review of The Prestige is whether director Nolan successfully pulls off the trick. I think he does, magically.

Thumb’s up.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Lake House

This is a tough film to categorize, and must've been difficult to pitch to audiences: A sci film that's a romance. No, that pitch would scare off half the audience. Let's just call it a love story with a slight twist.

A lonely doctor (played by Sandra Bullock) who once occupied an unusual glass lakeside house in Chicago begins exchanging letters with its former resident, an architect, played by Keanu Reeves. The "twist" here is that Reeves lives in 2004, while Bullock inhabits 2006.

Let me flat-out say that this is one of the best films I've seen recently, and certainly the best-told love story in years. The movie is based on a Korean movie made in 2000, and has been updated for an American audience.

It's easy to say that this is Keanu Reeves' best work. Whoa. But it's also among Bullock's best pictures, although I've been a fan of hers for years. Two actors in their 40's actually make this work.

It's a thin premise, but it works because the lives of these two lonely people are revealed to us through scenes with their relatives and friends, and we get the feeling after awhile that we know them, empathize with them, feel with them. We see them develop, change, especially the Kate character played by Bullock. Kate settles for Dylan Walsh's Morgan in an effort to live in the here-and-now and change her life through assertion. The mistake reveals itself later when settling isn't enough and she still finds herself yearning for what cannot be.

Every scene brings a sense of wonder, of a sense that we really don't know what's going to happen. The inevitability of love lost, of yearning, builds and builds to an incredible degree, until the final scene.

It's beautifully filmed. I wasn't in love with Chicago, even though I visited once, until I saw this film. Funny that we don't see the Lake House much, supposedly the central piece of the movie. It's actually just a meeting place, the place of teleportation. It's not particularly beautiful, just unusual. But being glass, it's a great way to experience the seasons of Chicago pass you by.

This is a love story that gets it right, 'way beyond The Notebook. And it does it through shadings of personality, providing detail of their lives, good story telling, and truth.

Thumb's up.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Notebook

The movie starts with a scene at a nursing home, where James Garner's character is brought over to meet an old woman played by Gena Rowlands. He starts to read her a story, a story about two young lovers named Ally and Noah.

Ally and Noah meet at a carnival. She's rich and surrounded by would-be boyfriends, and he's dirt-poor. He breaks through her consciousness somehow and they spend a wonderful summer together. At the end of the summer, the parents break up the twosome, convinced that Noah's influence will change Ally's life for the worse. She goes off to college, and Noah writes her a letter a day for a year. When he doesn't hear from her after 365 letters, he goes off to live his own life.

He restores the 200-year-old home they spent time in together, and an article appears in the paper about it. Ally sees the paper and goes to visit him, telling her fiance' she'll be away just for awhile. The question here is, obviously, who will she choose? What life will she lead?

The Notebook is often cited as the "classic love story" by young and old, as it's developed a cult following out there among movie goers. I must, for the life of me, wonder why.

The actors are engaging enough. I saw and met 18-year-old Ryan Gosling in 1999. He had just played several episodes of the short-run Young Hercules series, and we were all wondering, I suspect, why skinny Ryan was chosen as the younger version of Kevin Sorbo, the bulked up Hercules. When we met him, we finally figured it out. The young man was engaging, bright, and a fine young actor. The producers and writers wisely decided to veer away from Hercules rescuing people with sheer power, featuring more character-driven dramas, but audiences didn't want to see that. After a year, Ryan went on to other things, and is having a successful movie career.

Rachel McAdams is simply stunning as Ally. I really don't know anything about her, but I'm sure I'll look for her in future endeavors.

However, two wonderful actors in roles they totally inhabit is not enough. The love story is terribly predictable and trite. The real "hook" here is the James Garner/Gena Rowlands story, and once you see them, you know the story. The sweetness of the hook, however, is wonderfully played out by two veteran actors. I understand that Gena Rowlands' son, Nick Cassavetes, directed the film.

I had hoped for more substance. I had hoped the movie would take me to different places, places I had never been. Thumb's down.

Friday, October 13, 2006


Adam Sandler's latest film, Click, almost put me to sleep. The only laughs in the first three-fourths of the film appeared in the trailer. They're cute, but you can't make a movie out of a few cute moments.

Sandler plays an architect with a killer job and stupidly egotistical boss. And he takes out his anger on his loving family. My God, Kate Beckinsale was the love interest for two men in "Pearl Harbor," Adam! But he continues to ignore her, ignore her protests, ignore her sexually. He ignores the kids, too, as all of his energy goes to a job that is totally unsatisfying and a boss who doesn't follow through on his promises. Most of the action here is inaction, and it's telegraphed. We see where it's leading. The only mystery here is that Kate doesn't leave him in the first 15 minutes.

Sandler's character gets a universal remote control from Christopher Walken, who's working out of the back warehouse of a Bed, Bath and Beyond. The clicker has the ability to speed up life, slow it down, even freeze it, just like your T.V. remote. You can even review certain parts of your life with it, and from another perspective. Imagine watching your parents as you're born... There are huge opportunities here to do wonderful things, and yet Sandler's character blows them on slowing down a woman jogger for the jiggle factor, or going into stop motion so that the next door neighbor kid gets walloped in the face.

We don't even like this guy. He's shallow. He has a mean streak longer than the Golden Gate. He says all the right words to his family about love but doesn't follow through by giving the greatest gift of all: his time and attention. The clicker in the movie allows us to see his shortcomings through a magnifying lens.

The best part of this film is when we realize, as he realizes, that he's fast-forwarding through the best parts of his life. Walken confronts him when Sandler tries to give up the remote by telling him he had been fast-forwarding through his life long before he got the remote. And we know it's true.

There are some great character actors in this film. Henry Winkler is wonderful as granddad. I didn't even recognize Julie Kavner as grandma until I heard that well-known nasal voice of hers. And David Hasselhoff, it appears, has made the best decision of his life by allowing others to poke fun of his macho image; he is hysterical here! Christopher Walken is always interesting, but even moreso in this role because we're not sure how ditsy or nice the guy really is.

The best part of this film is that this is a believable schmuck, in a situation that is as real as can be. Can he be redeemed? That's in the last fourth of the film. If you can wait long enough and wade through sophomoric humor to get there, you'll find out.

Thumb's up, barely.