Saturday, December 04, 2004

"Gothika" and the Mind

Gothika. 2004. Dir. Mathieu Kassovitz. Perf. Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Dutton, John Carroll Lynch, Bernard Hill, Penélope Cruz, Dorian Harewood, Bronwen Mantel.

Miranda Grey (Berry) is a psychiatrist with a good, if draining, job; a loving and affectionate husband, and a lot of intelligence and compassion. Her job requires intelligence, discernment, and patience, and she usually succeeds. On one particularly trying day, however, she drives home in the rain, meets a shivering young girl, and wakes up the next morning locked in a cell in her own mental hospital. Miranda quickly learns that understanding her own mental state doesn't mean she can cure herself, but she plunges headfirst into self-analysis, tinged with flashbacks and visions, until she realizes that her case is far more serious than she imagined. The remainder of the film blends mystery and motive together in a confusing pattern, holding the denouement until the last few minutes of the movie.

The soundtrack to Gothika is well-orchestrated and carefully blended to add additional suspense to the film. Often, fairly mundane scenes are undercut with eerie music to maintain a consistent suspense throughout the movie. The film editing was also exceptionally well done. Several scenes use abrupt changes to startle the viewers and strengthen similarities between particular characters. The shots as a whole are fast-paced, and the film relies heavily on close-up or mid-range camera work to build a particular feel of inti,acy bot only between Miranda and the camera, but also between the characters in the movie, many of whom are carefully linked by past or present experiences.

The actors are very well-matched in skill, and they are directed so effectively that they blend into a strong body of characters with no one seizing the spotlight. This is an achievement worthy of high commendation, and it helps make the film surprisingly cohesive for a horror movie. Even the minor characters are strong.

The down side to the film is some brief sexuality, language, and nudity. Is is not a film for children by any stretch of the imagination, but it could provide mental stimulation and an interesting entertainment for adults who are fond of mysteries and suspense.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Not Great, but Almost as Expected

Great Expectations. 1934. Dir. Stuart Walker. Perf. Henry Hull, Phillips Holmes, Jane Wyatt, Florence Reed, Alan Hale, Rafaela Ottiano.

Great Expectations the film opens with little Pip (Holmes) sitting in a graveyard, staring glumly at the row of stones that mark the graves of his parents and a good number of siblings. Pip is scrawny enough that one almost wonders how he survived, given the unhappy fate of his kinsmen, although there is little enough time for pondering before the movie springs to action with the appearance of an unkempt stranger. From there, Walker's film proceeds along the same lines as Dickens' novel, if one forgives a great deal of simplification and moralization. The ending, in particular, is adapted to fit Hollywood ideals. Dickens was not a man of Hollywood ideals, and the film's ending does the novel an injustice here.

The cinematography is good for its time although simple in comparison with some more modern films. The sets are elaborate and elegant, although a little too contrived. Walker and his editors do a good job with their script, managing to give many of the minor characters personalities of their own while still allowing the story to focus on Pip's expectations. Estella (Wyatt) is surprisingly humane, and Walker adds a little intrigue to the story by giving Estella herself a little character development. In her early scenes, Estella is still a little girl struggling to learn her lessons; as the film progresses, she grows more flirtatious, although Wyatt never fully captures the icy haughtiness of Dickens' Estella. Pip himself, though a central character, shows very little development; Holmes, although interesting, fails to grow within his character so that Pip throughout the film remains constant yet dull.

Virginia Hammond presents a surprisingly strong performance, for all its simplicity, as Mr. Jaggers' maid Molly. In her few brief scenes, she manages to portray more passion than most of the other characters combined, and she beautifully portrays all the intricacies of Dickens' Molly, although her role in the film is featured more prominently than in the novel. On the contrary, Francis Sullivan gives a disappointingly weak performance as an overweight and rather flimsy Jaggers. Although the lawyer's great skills are highly touted in both book and film, Sullivan appears incapable of much more than sitting.

Overall, the film varies from the book often in plot but rarely in emotion, giving it a nice Dickens feel with taints of the 1930s. Ultimately an enjoyable film, it could provide a few hours of fun but would be a poor choice for anyone pursuing all the nuances of Dickens' work on film, as would most cinematographic versions. Go read the book before you watch this film.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Unmet Expectations

Great Expectations (1998). Dir. Alfonso Cuaron. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hank Azaria, Chris Cooper, Anne Bancroft, Robert De Niro, Josh Mostel, Kim Dickens.

In a this modernized form of Charles Dickens' literary masterpiece, the cast and crew of Great Expectations blend together the emotions of Dickens' protagonist with twentieth-century tale of lust, riches, and Mob influences. Though Dickens' own concepts are drawn out from time to time as the film progresses, young Finn (Hawke) moves through the movie set adrift without the comfort of many of the supporting literary chracters.

Cuaron focuses mainly on the relationship between Finn and Estella (Paltrow), beginning with their enforced acquaintance in a fancy house on the gulf coast of Florida and continuing on through their adolescence and early adulthood, when they find one another in New York city and continue their tagle of uncertainty, intrigue, temptation, and desire. Paltrow's Estella is seductive and not unlovely, but lacking some of the iciness commonly associated with her character.

Artistically, the film is sleek and polished. Its abrupt and rougher moments are intentional, and Cuaron obviously designed the scenes to parallel Finn's emotions. Although a little time is given to Uncle Joe (Cooper) and Ms. Dinsmoor (Bancroft), they serve as tangential characters, appearing only when necessary to Finn's story and with very little development. The suspense is well plotted, and the often lighthearted soundtrack paralleled the tones of the film very well. The unnecessary language and sexuality was unnecessary; although Estella's first nude scene was well crafted and sensually shot, a similar feel could have been accomplished far less crudely. Similarly, the swear words of the convict served to set him apart effectively only until all the other characters began to exhibit similar vocabulary and traits, at which point the use of language became meaningless.

Overall, the film is well written although it serves as a miserable excuse for the novel on which it was founded. Just enough of the original was kept to leave well-read viewers frustrated by the bastardizations. The high point of the film comes as Estella makes a surprisingly Dickens-esque speech to Finn, describing her upbringing and training to Finn as the Estella of the novel does to Dickens' Miss Havisham, but aside from this one scene and Finn's development as a whole, Cuaron's Great Expectations is a shoddy representation of a beautiful novel. He would have been far better off with an original and less-adapted script.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Orange you glad I didn't say "Oozhassny"?

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. London: Norton, 1967 (1963).

Alex is a young man of the streets in Anthony Burgess' futuristic world of violence and desecration. His nocturnal hobbies include theft, beatings, rape, and the occasional murder, and in the daytime he spends his hours cutting school to listen to the works of Beethoven, Bach, or Handel. A Clockwork Orange begins at a time when the Alex of the night is kept separate from the Alex of the music, and progresses onwards as Alex is arrested, imprisoned, and subsequently reformed into a model citizen, as his two sides suddenly collide in a cacophony of misery for Alex, to whom all that once seemed beautiful becomes abhorrent. At once, Alex finds himself hating those things he loves best.

Several editions of this novel, apparently, have been published without the final chapter, simply to make the book less optimistic. Burgess in his introduction explains that the story is worthless without its conclusion, which shows the power of the human's will to choose. Morality in A Clockwork Orange becomes meaningless unless it comes from one's will. The final chapter, then, exhibits Alex's choice in a way that gives purpose to the rest of the book, as once again the Alex of the night and the Alex of the music are separated, although in this second instance, Alex's two personae struggle to coexist in a way that one would not have expected in earlier chapters.

A Clockwork Orange is surprisingly self-aware of itself on multiple levels; both Alex in his narrations and Burgess in his coincidences seem determined to make the reader aware of the media as well as the story, perhaps because of their point. Burgess is correct; the book is pointless without its conclusion. Although it deals with some harsh subjects, A Clockwork Orange asks some fundamental human questions, and even takes a step towards answering a few of these, in bold and daring black and white.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Mr. Duncan's Fine Opus

Mr. Holland's Opus. 2005. Dir. Stephen Herek. Perf. Richard Dreyfuss, Glenne Headly, Jay Thomas, Olympia Dukakis , William H. Macy, Alicia Witt, Terrence Dashon Howard, Damon Whitaker, Jean Louisa Kelly.

Mr. Holland (Dreyfuss) is a musician who dreams of composing. His house is littered with staff paper and random musical scribbles, and his wife, pretty and relatively charming, fully intends to support him as best she can. Holland takes a job as a music teacher at a local high school, intending to save for a few years and then write full-time. Fate, however, intervenes. Soon, the young couple are moving into their first house and expecting a young son. Baby Cole is raised on music from conception until the day when he is pronounced dear. Holland withdraws into his school and his music, while his wife desperately struggles to balance the two egos in her household.

As might be expected, the film incorporates a great deal of music, both classical and popular, into its soundtrack, creating a charming blend of haunting melodies, familiar classical pieces, and rock standards. The cinematography is subtle, as the director apparently chose to focus more on the phenomenal story of a man learning to love his work, his family, and his life than on camera angles and cheap tricks, and the result is supremely satisfying. Duncan's story eases from sentimentality into humanity, bringing to the screen a strong script and the actors to carry it through, both verbally and in sign language.

The film is sentimental. It has a point to make, it tries to make the viewer feel Mr. Holland's struggles, and it occasionally takes sentiment or scenes a trifle too far past reality. Even without its emotional moments, however, it provides a clean, family film with some clear values and the theme of changing lives. Not bad for Hollywood.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Spider-Man Swings into Superficiality

Spider-Man 2. 2004. Dir. Sam Raimi. Perf. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J. K. Simmons, Donna Murphy, Danilel Gillies.

Although one never truly expects sequels to live up to their precursors, Spider-Man 2 was perhaps a bigger disappointment than most, helping continue the pitiful tradition of Matrix: Reloaded and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones by sloughing character development and plot depth off to the side in an effort to show fancy special effects and great film editing. Despite my fondness for brilliant and seamless CGI and other effects, I was sadly disapponted by the emphasis laid upon digital graphics in this film. The plot was predictable and flimsy, and the human side of the film was sadly lacking.

As Peter Parker (Maguire) juggles school, work, friends, money troubles, his dreams of a pretty girl (Dunst), and the immense responsibility laid upon him due to his superhero powers, he tries hard to find a balance between what he wants and what he should do. In the meantime, he meets Doctor Otto Octavius (Molina), a brilliant and amiable scientist experimenting with the properties of fusion. Molina carries out the responsibilities of his role with more fervor and depth than any other character in the film, and presents a far more sympathetic villain than I ever hoped to meet, breaking down slowly under the pressure of literal voices inside his head. As the film progresses, Parker is pitted against his former friend and idol with interesting results.

The crux of this film is supposed to be Parker's choice between life as the hero everyone badly needs and life as a real person, winning the girl he's always loved, accomplishing great things at school and work, and generally proving himself worthy of respect even when he's not wearing tights. However, Maguire's stilted performance is facilitated by a poor script, as Parker spends most of his ponderings feeling sorry for himself rather than debating or fighting his emotions. The pure idiocy of his attempts to court Mary Jane do little to improve his struggle, as any idiot should be able to read between the lines, though this film couple seems grossly incompetent in this regard.

Frankly, the only story worth watching is that of Doctor Octavius, and had it more than a few minutes of screen time, it would have made the film. Molina is a brilliant actor, well capable of handling the nuances of his role, and his performance alone gives the film its modicum of meaning and quality.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

"Growing Up" Features Blossoming Platitudes

Callaway, Phil. Growing Up on the Edge of the World. Harvest House, 2004.

In a lot of ways, Terry Anderson is just your typical twelve-year-old Christian boy. He's seeking answers, love, and money, generally found, respectively, in Sunday school, his best friend's older sister, and stray nickels he finds on the sidewalk. However, when Terry suddenly finds thousands of dollars of money hidden away, almost literally, just under his nose, he weighs the Christian response against the knowledge that his mother is very ill and his family could use the money. Soon Terry is busy keeping his family well fed, buying small gifts for himself and those he loves, and supplying his schoolmates with bubble gum.

Unfortunately, the rich setting and warm style of the story and characters do little to compensate for the shallow characters and platitudinous ending. As Terry proceeds through the story, battling guilt and pride, somehow everything miraculously comes together, leaving the book glowing with idealism and surreality as the story closes. Callaway's insistence on overwhelming grace and forgiveness overlooks the facts that actions have consequences and that we humans live in a sadly imperfect world. While Callaway's singlemindedness in these respects is admirable, it nonetheless detracts from the story as a whole.

Overall, fortunately, the book is an amusing and lighthearted read, filled with tender moments and humorous glimpses into life in a small town, where, as Terry complains, everyone on the street not only knows him, but asks about his mother. Perhaps the most vivid characters are Terry's two older brothers, striving, like Terry, to do what is right in the face of surprising adversity. Similarly, Terry's mother, gentle but rock solid in her convictions, proves a foundational element of the book when all is said and done.

As far as today's Christian fiction goes, this book is not bad, but this should not be a standard. Held up against the ranks of great fiction, this book is disappointing mediocre.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Don't Date with "50 First Dates"

50 First Dates. (2004). Dir. Peter Segal. Perf. Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Rob Schneider, Sean Astin.

Rarely has a film with so much potential proven to be quite so appalling. 50 First Dates tells the story of Henry Roth (Sandler),a promiscuous Hawaiian vet with a fear of commitment whose boat dies one morning, leaving him subject to the whims and beautiful Hawaiian eyes of a young lady named Lucy (Barrymore) whom he meets in a diner. Shortly thereafter he learns that looks aren't everything: the object of his adoration won't remember him from one day to the next, leaving Roth struggling for ways to win her affections afresh each morning. Add to this Lucy's narcissistic and addicted younger brother and Roth's perverse bisexual coworker, and the resulting blend of tasteless humor weeds out many of the subtler moments of the story.

Fans of Sandler's crude taste will appreciate this film, but otherwise the plot contains an abundance of holes, worthless moments, and excessive lack of taste. The ending is perhaps the only redeeming part of the story, fortunately enough, but doesn't quite balance out the preceding ninety minutes of crass humor and idiocy. Blake Clark also puts in an excellent performance as Lucy's father, and while he may be in some ways the stereotypical father, he's also a very genuine and loving one, played with grace and softness in a film that seems to thrive on stilted and cheesy moments.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

"Two Weeks" is Two Hours of Fluff

Two Weeks Notice. (2002). Dir. Marc Lawrence. Perf. Sandra Bullock, Hugh Grant, Alicia Witt, Dana Ivey, David Haig.

Two Weeks Notice follows nearly every traditional Hollywood quirk ever invented, from embarrassing confrontations in the men's bathroom to the typical tale of two enemies who work together and then fall in love. Bullock stars as herself, under the alias Lucy Kelson, and George Wade (Grant) portrays the role of a wild playboy caught in the middle of a divorce who suddenly beins to reform after he and Bullock cross paths.

Lawyer Kelson earns a job with Wade's corporation after Wade's elder brother, the CEO, asks for employees with Ivy League degrees. Kelson agrees only because of a deal Wade makes: if she'll take the position, he'll preserve a community center that his company planned to demolish. As Kelson learns that her job description includes far more than legal briefs, she becomes more and more frustrated, finally quitting (twice) with fervor after Wade calls her away from a wedding to help him pick out a suit. It is only when Kelson sees her soon-to-be ex-boss flirting with her replacement that she realizes just how attached she's become. After a striking company party and the requisite Cinderella scene, Kelson leaves, only to learn later that she made far more of an impact than did most of her predecessors.

The absence of depth and intrigue make this a great film for dates, in which more attention is paid to smooches than to the evening's media entertainment. There are a few interesting shots and Bullock looks better with a clown nose than I've ever seen her before, but otherwise the film is worth skipping.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

"Troy" Destroyed by Wooden Script

Troy. Warner Bros, 2004. Dir. Wolfgang Peterson. Perf. Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, Peter O'Toole, Diane Kruger.

Biting the thumb at traditional Homeric plot, language, and ideologies, Troy manages to present a cinematographically excellent film surrounded by a brilliant score that would have been brilliant as an early-twentieth-century silent film. Unfortunately, characters such as Achilles (Pitt) and Hector (Bana) are hampered by stilted dialogue and shallow motivations, while Paris (Bloom) and Helen (Kruger) manage to drown their scenes in stiff romantic mush. Any semblance of reality in the film stems from its three sex scenes, which have all the drama and intrigue of traditional Hollywood affairs.

The defining performance belongs to Bana, who manages to fill a poorly scripted role with unexpected strength and humanity. Unfortunately, in true epic style, the camera rarely gives viewers close glimpses into Hector's life or passions, so Bana's striking performance remains rough around its edges. Similarly, Hector's character is one of the few who meets a Homeric ending, as David Benioff manages to contort the Iliad nearly beyond recognition into a predictably ahistoric Hollywood ending.

End results? Fans of Homer will be frustrated by the script's extreme liberties, while viewers who have never read the Iliad will be confused by the rapid plot, poorly introduced characters, and generic themes. The cinematography, sound, and film editing are worth watching, but are among the only redeeming aspects of the film overall.