Wednesday, October 12, 2005

My Own Time-Out Film Guide

With all the family complications and struggles of late, I can't say it was the most vacation-like vacation or birthday-like birthday I ever experienced, though I'm still glad I got to spend the time at home. In order to seize a little pure-bred R&R out of my four-day weekend, y'all know what I did. After all, my bus trip did have a layover in NYC. Sorry to all NYC buddies I didn't call, but this was sort of a spur-of-the-moment, moment-of-solitude kind of thing.

Thanks to everyone who left messages, by the way... and if you sent flowers, not only to me but to my mother, and you know who you are, you are not only an immortal god-type person, but you'll be hearing from me soon!

Forty Shades of Blue B+
The first and easily the best of the three movies I saw, Forty Shades makes good enough on its Sundance victory even though it's got nothing that Junebug doesn't do better, and a bit more humbly. Still, this is moody, evocative work, and it's one of those European-feeling American indies like Birth or The Yards that work well throughout but really congeal at a few key sequences, more than earning the film's keep in those electric moments. One of these is the outdoor party for legendary music producer Alan (Rip Torn) that precipitates the whole film, carrying back to town his distant son Michael (Darren Burrows, once of Northern Exposure) and introducing Michael for the first time to Alan's beautiful, much-younger, and Russian bride, Laura (Dina Korzun). No, Laura is not a mail-order bride per se. Yes, Rip Torn boozes and objectifies her, but there are many more unexpected notes to his character. Yes, the film rather overdoes the chromatic conceit of its title, coming across as overly schematized whenever we, say, duck into a swimming pool for no narrative or even atmospheric reason. But there's some real charge to the acting, the sound-mixing, and many of the images, and the vibrantly miscegenated Memphis music scene—blending country, hip-hop, R&B, gospel, and orchestral influences—is as unexpected and piquant as the movie it undergirds.

Good Night, and Good Luck. C+
Speaking of overly schematized, George Clooney's glassy and handsome but disappointingly thin Good Night, and Good Luck. lapses into many of the sins that it purports to indict. Its view of human character is harshly one-dimensional: you'll have no trouble divvying out the good folks from the baddies, a chasm which the film further broadens by denying the villains an opportunity for real, flesh-and-blood characterization—i.e., it's even easier to hate Joe McCarthy when he's a flickering projection on a screen instead of a palpably present human being. The interpolated footage from Murrow's broadcasts and McCarthy's rebuttals are a valuable cultural repository, but they perform a lion's share of the film's argument on its own behalf, with amazingly little in the way of editorial embellishment, historical context, or psychological revelation. Production values like the shining black & white photography and the silken jazz numbers by Dianne Reeves can't be disputed from a technical standpoint, but their pertinence to the film's message is pretty arbitrary, and the whole thing looks like a souped-up memorial ad for Edward R. Murrow, burnished and tailored for knowing, self-congratulatory consumption by ticket-buyers who may not realize that we're not thinking any harder than Joe McCarthy did, that we're omitting human as well as political complexity. The alternative, compelling but quite dangerous, is that we simply don't care about the film's one-dimensionality, since it unabashedly provides images and liberal talking-points that recent cinema has sorely lacked. But, aside from its impressive aesthetic surface and some good moments from those actors who can handle period (pretty much everyone except Clooney and Downey), it's dismayingly dismissable.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio D+
And now, speaking of overly schematized and an uneven grasp of period, Prize Winner is guaranteed to outlive the affections of even those audiences who go in rooting for it. Who are basically fans of star Julianne Moore (duh) or writer-director Jane Anderson, whose ambiguously "feminist" work as a screenwriter and filmmaker I have often enjoyed for its casual irreverence (Normal, If These Walls Could Talk 2) or for its outright blinding and jubilant irreverence (The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom). This film, however, requires mere minutes to set up basic dichotomies from which it never strays or builds—Evelyn Ryan, a chipper mother of ten, was inventive and resilient, though you still wouldn't wish her life on anyone; Kelly Ryan, her alcoholic spendthrift of a husband, isn't a 100% villain, just a 120-proof sadsack and a 1-man pity-party. After 10 or 15 minutes of this, the film stalls amid a litany of commercial jingles which, I must say, seldom make the case for Evelyn's genius, and the interchangeable children and paper-thin production design do nothing to sustain or expand our interest. You can see what Julianne is doing—proving that she can smile and chuckle through almost an entire picture, though she seems most comfortable with her best and darkest lines, like "There isn't enough gas in the world to get me all the places I want to go," or "I don't need you to make me happy, Kelly, I just need you to leave me alone when I am." Brava, Julianne: anyone who's paying attention knew you could do it. And anyone who's alleging that Evelyn Ryan, Cathy Whitaker, or Laura Brown have all that much in common is not to be trusted. Still, like the movie, the performance exists to make a larger and fairly detachable point, not to compel our belief on its own terms. 'Tis pity she's mediocre. And I'm sad to say that mere toleration for what you're watching and hearing becomes an issue after a while.

P.S. I've gotta take my laptop to the shop to get the battery replaced and the CD/DVD drive repaired. Don't think I've forgotten about you if you don't see more posts right away. (I've no idea how long this will take.)

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Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@ the Angelino: Oh, no worries, I'm still under the extended warranty, so all this laptop hoo-hah shouldn't cost me a dime. Thanks for thinking of it, though (and for your recent e-mails, especially the Roberts headline!).

3:31 PM, October 12, 2005  

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