Friday, October 20, 2006

Movies opening this week

Flags of Our Fathers (Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, dir. Clint Eastwood)
I've never been much for war movies, so something like this has to be really impressive to win me over, and it just wasn't. Not that it was awful - there's actually a really interesting true story behind it all, about the way the Iwo Jima photograph was taken and how the people in it were exploited after they came home. But the way it was presented crammed too much into one film, trying to tell that story as well as the story of the battle itself and a present-day framing sequence. All the flashbacks and flash-forwards made things way too confusing at times, and I had a really hard time keeping track of all the soldier characters (who are all the same age and build, basically, and have the same haircut and are wearing helmets) in the battle scenes, so that when someone died a dramatic death and other characters were wailing about it, I had no idea who it was or why I should care.

And, thanks to our friend Paul Haggis (who co-wrote the screenplay with William Broyles Jr.), there is lots of heavy-handed speechifying and thudding symbolism. To be fair, like he did with Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood elevates the screenplay with his assured, graceful direction, but it's still pretty clumsy and unfortunately tends to obscure the more complex and interesting points at the core of the story. There's also a huge expository voiceover at the end, as if they ran out of time and just decided to have one character tell you the rest of the story. So despite certain positive aspects, I thought this was a misfire overall, and I'd be surprised if it turned out to be the awards favorite it's been positioned as. Wide release

Keeping Mum (Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Rowan Atkinson, dir. Niall Johnson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Remember when The Full Monty came out and the antics of quirky but hard-working small-town Brits seemed so fresh and funny? Those were the days. Opened limited Sept. 15; in Las Vegas this week

Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Steve Coogan, dir. Sofia Coppola)
I really wanted to like this movie. I think Sofia Coppola is immensely talented and a strong, unique voice in American cinema. I really like the idea of according respect to people and institutions regarded by many as frivolous or inconsequential (see my enormous love for Bring It On). I think that Coppola also has a deep understanding of the pressures and expectations that young women of privilege deal with, and is able to express them with empathy. And I thought that her anachronistic approach to telling the story of Marie Antoinette - the idea of making her seem like a wealthy, spoiled modern teenager - was brilliant. The problem, to me, was that the film didn't go far enough, wasn't nearly as bold as it sounded from its early press. The buoyant '80s music shows up mostly in montages of Marie eating decadent pastries or picking out clothes; otherwise the score is a rather staid, standard period-piece-type affair. While Dunst speaks in a modern vernacular (and gives a wonderful performance), other characters speak more like the stilted figures of your typical period film. There's a languid quality to many of the scenes that, while it worked in Coppola's earlier films, falls flat here. What this movie needed was more exuberance, more daring, more excess. Wide release

The Prestige (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Having been disappointed with Batman Begins, and having read several less-than-enthusiastic early reviews of this, I came into this film with lowered expectations and was pleasantly surprised. The first hour is extremely slow, but as all the pieces start to come together, and the overly complex flashback-within-a-flashback structure irons itself out, everything works out beautifully. It's a puzzle movie, but the twists aren't cheats, and they make sense within the context of the story. Unlike Memento, there isn't much of a serious exploration of ideas beneath the twists and turns, but the theme of the cost of obsession is played out nicely if occasionally obviously. Even without much resonance beyond the plot mechanics, it's still a very satisfying film, with strong performances, a sumptuous look and a story that creeps up on you to become quite engaging by the time all is revealed. I still think Nolan has yet to live up to the great potential he showed with Memento, but if all he's going to do is make enjoyable, well-crafted genre films, there really isn't anything wrong with that. Wide release

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