Archive for June, 2007|Monthly archive page

Introducing the Dwights

If Little Miss Sunshine grew up and moved to Australia, the result will probably be quite close to Introducing the Dwights. This Australian dramedy tells the story of a charming family whose members are odd not because they are dysfunctional, but precisely because they are functional despite having every reason not to be. Jean (Brenda Blethyn) is a stand-up comedian whose career once showed great promise, but hasn’t really gone places. Her life revolves around her day job at a fast food joint, her late night gigs at a local casino, and her two sons. Mark (Richard Wilson in an endearing and credible turn out) is mentally challenged. But it is her other son, Tim (Khan Chittenden) who is Jean’s biggest concern. For unlike his brother, Tim is growing up, adding further cracks to Jean’s already imperfect world.

Tim’s gorgeous sex-pot of a girlfriend, Jill (Emma Booth) forces his family to confront several issues that are long over due, and over the course of the movie they do so, with considerable drama, but also with great grace. The best things about this movie are Blethyn, at her best in this role that was written for her, and Keith Thompson’s writing. Thompson, whose mother used to be a club singer, draws on personal experience to create something that is as honest as it is warm and funny.

The pity is that as fine a performance as Blethyn creates, we’ve already attended the dress rehearsals. One has seen glimpses of this character all the way from Secrets and Lies, and Little Voice, to Pride and Prejudice. Like Infamous, another fine movie damned only by its timing, one hopes that all those other fine performances don’t take anything away from Blethyn’s latest.

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Ye Yan

Going into Ye Yan expecting a prettified action flick is like walking into a thirty course banquet hoping for some pizza and beer. And yes, there is also pizza and beer. Writers Gangjian Qiu and Heyu Sheng take Hamlet, cut out the bit parts, flesh out the principals and throw in some additional intrigue. Who knew that replacing the verse in Shakespeare with choreographed stunts and primary colors could work so well.

Empress Wan (Ziyi Zhang) is an awe-inspiring mixture of Gertrude and Lady Macbeth, without the weepy, ranting or guilty bits. She also happens to be Hamlet’s (Prince Wu Lian) ex-lover, step-mother, and aunt. “Sometimes soft and charming, sometimes frightening”, Empress Wan leaves you guessing till the very end.

The plot is just the icing. The real cake is the cinematography and the choreography. God as they say is in the detail – snow splashed with warm blood doesn’t just look pretty, it melts. But thanks to Xiaogang Feng you don’t end up feeling like a goose in the pre-pâté stage. The Empress’ bathroom (I cringe to call it that – English is so utilitarian about rooms) is bathed in golden light, but we see it through a dark doorway. All of this perfection comes at a price though – one is torn between watching the actors, admiring the stunts, reading the subtitles, and catching a fleeting glimpse of this or that beautiful, fascinating thing at the periphery. All in all, move over Zhang Yimou. There’s a new standard in town.

Death at a Funeral

Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral can teach a thing or two about humor to the plot-less, one-man, one-joke efforts that pass for comedy today. With its ensemble cast of delightfully odd characters and quirky subplots, it defies a one line summary. Suffice to say that there are dead bodies, hallucinogens, nutty uncles, insecure lovers, and oh yes, one little person.

Thanks to our ever shortening attention spans the most successful forms of humor today are ones that are episodic – short bursts of wit strung together with a piece of floss. Borat, Apatow, Kolbert and youtube are the current kings of comedy. However, it is worth while to remember that sometimes keeping track of a plot and a large cast of characters can yield rich dividends.

Death at a Funeral is not the funniest movie or even the best British comedy out there. What it is is ambitious. One can’t help but cheer that effort given the current draw. Once the pieces are set up, the gags that follow are endearing, possibly because you do see them coming. But just when you think you’re all settled into a typical Brit ensemble piece, writer Dean Craig yanks you into something you don’t expect from a sweet little story like this, and then quietly takes you back to where you were a few minutes ago. It is amazing how expressive American actors seem to get after they cross the ocean – drugged-to-the-gills Alan Tudyk and Peter Dinklage draw more laughs per minute than those stoners from Knocked Up do over the entire movie.

Irony is

a 648 page presentation on “lean transformation”.

Why?

I just got home from a preview of A Mighty Heart. All the way back, I kept asking myself why: why do I watch a movie like this? Why do they make such movies? Why do people act in such movies? This is my first movie “based on horrific recent event”. I did not watch the Oliver Stone movie, nor the Paul Greengrass movie. Don’t get me wrong, A Mighty Heart is a very god movie. Strong narration, good acting, solid cast, excellent score. It is also surprisingly dignified. And yes, it’s lovely to see Irfan in another movie. And no, Jolie doesn’t wreck the movie. 

But I believe there is no winning with such subjects or their treatment. The better they are, the worse they are, aren’t they? This question of whether such a movie is tasteful is so not the point. Is there a tasteful way to tell the story of a person who was beheaded and cut up into ten pieces? Is there a dignified way to watch such a movie? No. And yes, all of this ranting comes from a person who did indeed just watch this movie. Much of this anger is directed towards myself. I tried to defend myself to myself by recalling that a) I’d never seen one of these movies and b) I’d read good reviews. But come on! Seriously.  

At some point during the early part of the movie (before I was too caught up in the story), I felt like Edward Norton’s character from The Fight Club – when he visits all those support groups. These movies feel like the worst possible form of voyeurism. No one wants to be in Mrs. Pearl’s shoes. But clearly, at least some of us are curious to find out what it must’ve felt like. Since the incident was all over the news, you don’t walk into such a movie expecting an education. No, the real motivation is to find out what it feels like to get emotionally shafted, by watching someone else get shafted. 

The same accusation could be made of someone who read Joan Didion’s last book (guilty again). But at least with a book, you have the opportunity to get analytical. You react, and then you measure your reaction by comparing it with others from the past and so on. With a movie, such a luxury is absent. You only have enough time to react and then it’s time to react all over again. 

I thought about whether these movies would be any easier to watch if they waited for some time before they release them. They really can’t, can they? They have to get the movie out before people forget the incident. I understand that. But I still don’t understand why suddenly there are enough of such movies for them to warrant their own genre. Heck, there are enough variations on the stories for there to be subgenres. We’ve had The Queen, United 93, World Trade Center, Black Friday. But we return to my original question – why? Well, no more for me. Some of them are fine movies, and more power to them and all that. But I am through with them. 

PS: When I look at that list, I have to sheepishly admit that I’ve watched 2 of those movies (Queen & Friday). But they don’t really fall in the same class as A Mighty Heart. The Queen is dramatic, not traumatic. And Black Friday is a fine procedural. And yes, these are lame excuses. Gah!

La vie en rose: Bravo, mais pas encore!

This self-consciously gorgeous biopic rehashes the rags to riches to in and out of rehab formula one has had just about enough of. Director Olivier Dahan traces the life of France’s much beloved singer and icon Edith Piaf from her childhood to her last days. Apparently, French singers are no different from American ones – they start poor and miserable, get discovered, betrayed, married, lose loved ones, get addicted to substances legal and illegal, and die. Their music apart, the sequence of these events helps distinguish one singer from another. However, thanks to the chronological collage that passes for editing in this movie, you’re never quite sure when all of these events did happen in Piaf’s life.

This beautifully shot movie packs in a powerful performance from Marion Cotillard, as well as a first-rate soundtrack of French cabaret classics. But too many scenes feel as if created to show the world “And zis is ‘ow you make a biopic!”

The singer biopic has become the summer tentpole for Baby Boomers – story lines and performances to draw them to the theaters and a soundtrack smothered in enough nostalgia to get them to even buy a few records. What happens when we exhaust our supply of singers from the 50s and 60s? Some day, we will run out of singers no one is ashamed to own up to liking a year later. What will they come up with for this generation? Hit me baby one more time. Ouch.