Volume 4, Number 46
This Week's Reviews: Frida, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 8 Women.
This Week's Omissions: Comedian, Half Past Dead, Quitting, Waking Up in Reno, Welcome to Collinwood.
Capsule Reviews: Formula 51, White Oleander.
Cradle Will Rock
Y Tu Mamá También
House of Mirth
The Devil's Backbone
BY: DAVID PERRY
Salma Hayek has spent the last eight years trying to get a filmed biography on Frida Kahlo, the famed Mexican surrealist artist, into theatres. Staving off the advances of Madonna and Jennifer Lopez, who wanted desperately to get their hands on another Evita or Selena, and lived with the limited budget given by Miramax, Hayek was able to get a credible director (Julie Taymor) to work on the project, promising that it would be more than one of the stuffy, oft-regurgitated biopics that come out in relentless parades.
However, Taymor, evidently equally enamored with the Frida icon (she, like Evita Peron and Selena Quintanilla, has moved into the collection of female figures recognized by their first names), doesn't really find the insightfulness that would have been expected. Her previous film, Titus, was an expertly crafted re-imagining of Shakespeare's campiest work -- Taymor, joyously relishing the theatrical aspects of the story, was able to turn Titus Andronicus into a pop-art film of exasperating genius.
Taymor seems to want to, instead, bring to mind the idea of "heartbreaking genius" in Frida, which is a mistake. Kahlo worked off so many painful moments that any additional dramatics brought in seems extraneous. There are perfect moments in which Kahlo is treated with the respect allotted to Jackson Pollock in Ed Harris' quieter but far more commanding Pollock, but the screaming fits seem to not come from the heart, but from the fine-tuned script.
Kahlo (Hayek) did have much to scream about: a debilitating bus wreck and loss of her young lover (Luna) at 18, a series of 35 surgeries to save her body, failed pregnancy (the handlebar in the bus wreck punctured her vagina), and a philandering husband. Kahlo was, of course, the better half of Diego Rivera (Molina), but the film fails to really bring to the fore the fact that Kahlo was just as quick to bed someone else -- male or female -- as Diego. Her lovers were, for the most part, more famous -- Leon Trotsky, Josephine Baker -- but no less adulterous.
One of the most unfortunate by-products of this film -- which shines within its own place as a biography but rarely excels -- is that Rivera becomes more interesting a character to follow than Kahlo. This may be in part due to the abilities of the actors: the big lug Alfred Molina has more heart in his graces than the prickly tenderness of Salma Hayek.
Like Pollock, the film spends a great amount of time trying to make sense of the relationship at the artist's core. Nonetheless, Frida loses control of the rhyme and reason that Pollock was able to transcend. Why is it that he seems to be more interesting than the woman who gets most of the screen time? If Rivera is such a cad, how does Kahlo's extremely autobiographical paintings show this?
The one place where Taymor adds to the work comes in her occasional attempts to work directly with Kahlo's art. In many moments, the paintings come to life as the actors impose the palettes, establishing both the self-reflexivity of Kahlo's work (which should have been dealt with more than in just these scenes) and the surprising resemblance between Kahlo and Hayek. In the film's most exquisite set piece, Kahlo wakes in her hospital bed after the wreck and finds the doctor and nurses to be surrealist animation Day of the Dead skeletons (perfectly realized by the uncredited Brothers Quay).
These scenes serve as Taymor's greatest addition to the film. A visually inventive artist, her grasp of the imagery is amazing. For example, the bus wreck, a horrible moment in Kahlo's own life, is treated with such unbridled visual splendor that the final image of the bloody Kahlo lying in golden dust (which really happened) is as breathtaking as the ramifications are horrifying.
Frida establishes so much about Kahlo's life
that it is impossible to fault the film for failing to be complete. But it's too resolute
at being middle ground; those involved show so much love for their subject that they
cannot find any way to delve into her other than as a near godlike figure. They show her
vices, yes, but fail to make them seem soulful -- Kahlo's paintings were torturous, but at
least they seemed to come directly from a broken, real person.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Dr. Dolittle 2
|Harry Potter and the Chamber
BY: DAVID PERRY
Last year I commented that the biggest problem with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was that it seemed too willing to mollify the book's fans without any interest in the rest of the audience. This came in reaction to the film's stifling 153-minute length and the fact that the movie seemed resolute to throw in every extraneous element from the books since those who had read the novel would expect it.
The second film in the proposed seven-part franchise, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, lasts even longer at 161 minutes. The expository introductions may be done with, but there's still the problem that Chamber of Secrets is 40 pages longer than Sorcerer's Stone (312 pages vs. 352 pages), and you can bet that director Chris Columbus is not going to open himself to attacks of injudiciously editing Harry Potter.
Young Mr. Potter (Radcliffe) returns to Hogwarts School for his second year of training to become a master wizard. Of course, there are problems that cannot be missing in the place and only the boy wizard seems to have the know-how and mystic luck to save the day.
Ron Weasley (Grint) and Hermione Granger (Watson) have also returned, but their places in the story have been moved further into goofy accomplice and future love interest territory. Only the oh-so pertinent issues raised by making Hermione a mudblood (a mystic born to non-magical parents) seem to give reason for them to even be in the story.
Instead, this is all about Harry, with a little help from the rest of the cast. Like the last film, every element of the story is meant to be used later in the film (this is not saying that no element could have been removed -- on the contrary -- just that author J.K. Rowling makes sure that there is something pertinent to every sequence, regardless of whether or not it is truly needed). After Ron's magic wand is broken, nearly everyone in the audience begins to calculate how it will be used for chaos in the subsequent scenes; when Moaning Myrtle (Henderson) is introduced as the self-conscience ghost in the girl's bathroom, it doesn't take a rocket scientist (or, for that matter, a person above the age of 10) to recognize that her place in the story is for more than whining histrionics.
That said, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets does come off as a better film that its predecessor. Part of the reason is that the exposition that killed the first film is nonexistent (this is definitely not a film meant for those who had not seen or read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), leaving the excessive length more time to breathe under the editing of Peter Honess. Most thankfully, though, the film's quidditch match is about half as long -- this could be the greatest godsend of the year (please tell me that there's no quidditch in the next book).
Unfortuntely, during all the ascension of Harry, some of the film's finest actors are left to little use. As the film doddles through a never-ending sewer sequence that seems to last well more than 30 minutes but could have easily been finished in half the time, immensely talented actors like Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Gemma Jones, and John Cleese are given nothing to do. Only the late Richard Harris (delivering some of his best, gentlest moments in his final role) and Kenneth Branagh (as the Hogwart's bumbling celebrity professor) are given some respectable screentime. If the film is going to last 161 minutes, they might as well use it on people who can keep it running briskly.
The immaculate sets are just as gorgeous, even if the burden of special effects rarely allow the audience to see the extent of productions designer Stuart Craig's work. Craig should not fret, though, Columbus makes sure to start every scene with a wide shot to take in all the peripheral actions. The film is also a little darker than the previous film, which makes for a somewhat less tedious sojourn through Rawling's overblown story.
Columbus, try as he might, still remains the film's biggest problem. The director has yet to show that he can create anything more than handsomely detailed films with little elemental magic. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets should jump off the screen with a surge of excitement, not a hum of acceptable craftsmanship.
Columbus will not be behind the camera for the next two Harry
Potter films. In his place will be Alfonso Cuarón, the filmmaker behind the magical The
Little Princess and Great Expectations as well as this year's most
intelligent teen comedy (that teens will not see due to subtitles) Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Cuaron is sure to bring some grace and beauty to the series that has been lost on the more
cartoonishly-intent Columbus. And the change couldn't sooner: Harry Potter and the
Prisoner of Azkaban is 435 pages and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is
Under the Sand
The School of Flesh
BY: DAVID PERRY
The possibility of having a film starring Danielle Darrieux, Emmanuelle Béart, Virginie Ledoyen, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, and Catherine Deneuve is enough to make any Francophile film fan salivate. Throw in a couple talented unknowns (Ludivine Sagnier and Firmine Richard), a Cukor-Sirk melodramatic style, French pop tunes performed by the actresses, and director François Ozon, and every cineaste should be knocking down the theatre doors.
In just three years, Ozon has proven to be the best new director to come out of France. His previous works -- Sitcom, See the Sea, and Water Drops on Burning Rocks -- have such an intimate love for the camera's POV that he calls on the audience to attempt, at times in vain, to figure out why his style is such.
Last year's Under the Sand, his masterpiece, established him as one of the most mature contemporary filmmakers. Its involving depth and depressing resolve helped to bring back the career of Charlotte Rampling (who'd never looked or acted better) and gave the year's gravest example of unfettered psychological filmmaking.
But all this is a moot point when considering 8 Women, a film that seems to be more about Ozon's love for his film history than in his audience. This is not to say that 8 Women is a bad film, but it is one of those little films that fails to really involve the audience beyond a minor vicarious thrill -- that of, for example, seeing Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant in a hair-pulling catfight after Deneuve sings Sylvie Vartan's "Toi Jamais."
At the same time, it becomes impossible to hold it against Ozon for his sumptuous realization of said history. Though beguiling at best, his film is such a heady example of George Cukor's The Women and Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind by way of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that its novelty becomes part of the fun. The opening credits, with their pretty-in-pink typeface and diamond background, give the impression of a classic feminism that is partly garish and partly delectable.
The story itself seems like a side project -- a minor excuse for Ozon to have as much fun with his characters and his style without ever having to get too deep (this style would have most certainly ruined Under the Sand, but seems perfect for 8 Women). It follows eight women as they attempt to discover which one of them was responsible for the knife in the back of the only man in the house.
This unlucky chap was Marcel (Lamure), a man so whipped by the eight women in his life that he has lost most responsiveness in his own lifestyle. He may have made a fortune and spawned a couple cute kids, but this is not enough to make up for the lack of y-chromosomes running around the place.
With the phone and car dead and the snow engulfing their only way out, these women try to piece together the culprit behind Marcel's murder, meanwhile admitting their own skeletons which give merit to their own suspiciousness. The possible killers include his posh wife Gaby (Deneuve), his spinster sister-in-law Augustine (Huppert), his leach mother-in-law Mamy (Darrieux), his virginal older daughter Suzon (Ledoyen), his precocious younger daughter Catherine (Sagnier), his worldly sister Pierrette (Ardant), his whorish chambermaid Louise (Béart), and his jolly cook Chanel (Richard).
Even if the film had been a complete waste, there's nothing that cannot be saved by the chance to see Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert in the same frame. These actresses may be the main reason that this film ever came to screens, but the way Ozon relishes them (much the same way the audience does) helps to control the film's exploitive misgivings.
The common complaint has been the musical side of the
film, which consists of eight popular French songs from the '60s and '70s sung by each of
the actresses. As poor as their singing abilities may be, the joyousness shown in these
scenes serves as more than just a chance to further theatricize a stagy film; their
inclusion seems to be a chance to give the audience pause. How seamlessly and deliciously
artificial can one movie get?
(Dir: Ronny Yu, Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Carlyle, Emily Mortimer, Meat Loaf, Sean Pertwee, Ricky Tomlinson, and Rhys Ifans)
BY: DAVID PERRY
The only reaction a boring action film like Formula
51 can bring is worry over an actor like Samuel L. Jackson taking roles so
detrimental to his career. Not that anyone will see the film, but its place as Jackson's
follow-up to his subtly brilliant performance in Changing Lanes proves that there
really is one thing that drives the human being the most: money. Now, how this project
ever got enough money to bring an actor at Jackson's level into the cast -- well, that we
may never know.
(Dir: Peter Kosminsky, Starring Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Patrick Fugit, Robin Wright Penn, Renée Zellweger, Noah Wylie, and Svetlana Efremova)
BY: DAVID PERRY
White Oleander hilariously plods its way through
three years of some girl trying to make sense of her incarcerated mother's domineering
attitude towards the people who have tried to take care of her. The entire film screams
"Michelle Pfeiffer project" nearly as loud as it screams "movie of the
week!" The story remains akin to an Oprah Book Club entry, even as the terrific young
actress Alison Lohman tries desperately to save the film from its overburdened
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