Tuesday, August 30, 2005

La Bûche

1999, France, directed by Danièle Thompson

A rather slight affair, this is an unsurprisingly wordy Parisian film centered on a somewhat dysfunctional family (in particular three sisters) in the lead-in to Christmas, as they attempt to negotiate a minefield created by the need to accommodate both of their long-divorced parents at the same dinner table. The conceit of three very different sisters is rather overdone, particularly where one or more tends to be offscreen for lengthy periods since their lives rarely intersect. However, the impeccable cast does a generally good job, with Sabine Azéma outstanding. The older generation, in the form of Claude Rich and Françoise Fabian, is a delight: they have an especially good central sequence in a bar, in which they manage to cover both the events and the emotions of their tumultuous marriage; there's no hiding the delight that writer-director Danièle Thompson, a skilled wordsmith making her directorial debut here, had in writing this scene, as well as those in which her characters address the camera directly. It's tempting, in the face of such wit, to read more into the film than is really there, but, that said, there will undoubtedly be a few winces of recognition at the family oddities on display - Christmas tensions are universal, at least where the festival is celebrated, even in this Jewish Parisian household.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Finding Neverland

2004, US/GB, directed by Marc Forster

Perhaps director Marc Forster found Monster's Ball as exhausting as I did, for this is a startlingly different project, filled with whimsy, and the most chaste of interactions between the main couple. There's a poignant, even tragic, undercurrent, but the core of the film is bright and hopeful, like J.M. Barrie's own key creation, Peter Pan. The film introduces us to Barrie on the eve of his professional nadir, a play that flops badly, leaving him casting about for inspiration, and his main patron calling in financial favours. Into his life comes a ready-made family of fatherless young boys (and their mother, Kate Winslet), a distraction from his own unhappy home life, although his interactions with the boys are anything but conventional. The film briefly raises the spectre of a less pleasant side to Barrie's unusually playful relationship with the four boys, only to dismiss it absolutely (Michael Jackson may wish that he had been so lucky). There's much to like here, not least the acting: Depp is charming, with a light Scottish burr that never distracts, and while Winslet can do this kind of thing in her sleep, she's no less appealing for that. The standout among the children is Freddie Highmore, a startlingly self-possessed 10-year-old when the film was made. As Peter, a child wrapped up in grief for his dead father, he walks away with several difficult scenes (the film plays pretty loose with the historical record on this point, since Peter's father was alive and well when Peter Pan had its premiere). By contrast, there's a rather schematic relationship between reality and artistic inspiration - and certainly little sense of artistic struggle - but then this is fantasy rather than social realism.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

War of the Worlds

2005, US, directed by Steven Spielberg

Say what you will about Spielberg, but he's rarely ponderous, throwing the viewer into the heart of the story right from the starting gun. War of the Worlds is no exception: the opening segment of the movie is a tour de force of economic, cut-to-the-chase filmmaking, with an exceptional grasp of the mechanics of fear. The early scenes rapidly sketch in Ray Ferrier's (Tom Cruise) place in the world - a blue collar New Jersey worker with a divorce behind him and two kids who live the good life with their stepfather - but we've barely even absorbed this information before the skies darken and a terrifying lightning storm begins. Within minutes, it's clear that this is no ordinary weather event, and the pace ratchets up fast, panic filling the air as no-one can quite grasp what's happened to their city. The 9/11 echo is overt here: inexplicable terror on an otherwise ordinary day, with a devastated population unsure of how to respond (and transportation at a standstill). It's no surprise that the breakneck pace can't be sustained throughout - a dark basement and Tim Robbins slow things down considerably, without adding much to the story - but Ray's gradual ascent, along this journey, to something resembling (belated) adult responsibility is reasonably convincing. The terror outside remains almost entirely unexplained, ultimately unlike 9/11, but the sense of panic of those early post-attack days is both gripping and disturbing.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


1992, Hong Kong, directed by John Woo

I've come to the conclusion that John Woo made one great movie -- The Killer -- and a whole lot of pictures that don't live up to the hype generated by action-movie nerds. Hard-Boiled is a case in point, particularly given that the (now out-of-print) DVD was given the full Criterion Collection treatment. Like most high-profile Woo movies, Chow Yun-Fat is front and centre here, waving around more artillery than Rambo on a bad-hair day. He plays a trigger-happy cop -- and they say John Woo is original! -- who's usually as much of a danger to his own side as he is to the bad guys; he teams up with an undercover cop (Tony Leung) who works inside the Triads, to take down a gun-running operation. The plot is incredibly disjointed, as befits a film whose only raison d'être is the use of as many bullets as possible. In other Woo films, the action scenes advance the plot to some degree, whereas here they stop things in their tracks: many of the sequences are needlessly protracted and, even by HK standards, wildly over the top. The key scenes, such as a shootout in a hospital, dispense with ridiculous numbers of people (even with the requisite suspension of disbelief, it's impossible to accept that World War III could take place in a hospital without a more robust police/military response in colonial Hong Kong). The obligatory 'quiet moments' are pretty ham-fisted, too, with horribly soft-focus music and clichéd buddy material. Contrasted with a film like Infernal Affairs, this is pretty poor stuff to be getting excited about.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Wedding Crashers

2005, United States, directed by David Dobkin

Wedding Crashers was concocted to raise a laugh and more than a few dollars rather than to provide intellectual diversion, and, on those limited terms, it succeeds remarkably well - although it could have done with a more trigger-happy hand in the editing room, especially in its extended central segment. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play a pair of divorce mediators - so garrulous their clients usually reconcile to avoid the torrent of words - who entertain themselves over the summer by crashing as many weddings as they can, doing everything in their power to ensure a good time is had by all, and bedding as many women as possible (the notion that Owen Wilson has a job that requires him to wear a suit indicates the overall level of realism). At the society wedding of the year, featuring the daughter of Treasury Secretary Cleary, however, Wilson's character becomes enamored of one of the bride's sisters, who's sadly unavailable. He convinces his buddy that the two have to break the cardinal rules of wedding crashing, so that they can spend an extended weekend with the wedding party. While the comic misunderstandings are initially very amusing, the 'just one more day' rhythm becomes rather tired, and it's a relief when the action finally leaves the wealthy Cleary family's island home. Wilson and Vaughn are predictably amusing, the former further refining his unflappably stoned persona, with Vaughn's manic energy an effective foil. There's nothing very original about the hang-dog story, but the raucous humor keeps things lively.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States