Monday, January 23, 2006

Movie Review: My Dinner with Andre

U.S. Release Date: 10/11/81
Running Time: 1:50
Rated: PG
Cast: Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, Jean Lenauer, Roy Butler

Director: Louis Malle
Producers: George George, Beverly Karp, Michael White
Screenplay: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory
Studio: New Yorker Films

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Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre is the grandfather of all conversation films. However, while this 1981 low-budget production successfully spawned several great conversation pieces (including Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Mindwalk), in this case, it is the offspring that outshine the inspiration. Even though My Dinner with Andre is original and unconventional in its approach, it is also – at times – unappetizing in nature. To call My Dinner with Andre a masterpiece (like so many other critics) would confirm the very principle (of falling victim to influence and routine) that the picture attempts to refute.

Throughout its 110 minute running-time, My Dinner with Andre solely depicts two men conversing over potato soup, French pâté, roasted quail, salad, and espresso respectively. These two men are Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, who play themselves in the film. Wallace is a struggling playwright/actor who is initially pessimistic of how he and Andre are going to keep each other’s interest during the course of an entire meal. Andre is an old friend of Wallace’s and a successful New York theater director, who has just returned from an emotional, soul-searching journey abroad.

After Wallace expresses, in his opening voiceover, that he “doesn’t feel like playing doctor to Andre” and has “problems of his own,” he decides to “play detective” and continue to ask questions of Andre’s voyage. However, once Andre begins to open up and provide Wallace with intriguingly vivid answers, Wallace really begins to listen. From there, the conversation ensues, and Wallace becomes decreasingly reticent.

While 60% of Wallace and Andre’s conversation drips with profundity, the other 40% (which mainly spews from the lips of Andre) seems more like deliberately inflammatory psycho-babble. This is why practical audiences have a better chance of relating to Wallace than Andre the nut-job. When Andre lectures on being in church as “a huge creature appeared with violets coming out of its eyelids and poppies growing out of its toenails,” Andre and the audience are a complete disconnect. Further, his strange chats on leading cult-like “beehive” activities, being buried alive on All Soul’s Eve, and spending time with a Japanese monk – who defies the laws of physics – in the Saharan Desert expunge any relation between the viewer and the lead. Yes, the majority of Andre’s comments on human beings living “in ludicrous ignorance of each other,” “in a trance – like zombies,” and “in a psychotic dream world,” are thought-provoking, but other films have gotten the same points across indirectly and with more success.

Wallace’s frenetic responses, concerning the neighboring cigar shop and the reasoning behind keeping his electric blanket among other things, keep the film rolling. His summation of Andre’s monologue in saying, “I don’t really know what you’re talking about,” is indeed the turning-point of the picture. Above-all, My Dinner with Andre effectively signifies the ability for a surrealist and a realist to agree to disagree, yet still be moved by one another’s near-incessant rants.

Beyond any shadow of a doubt, stimulating discourse is healthy for the soul; it’s just that, even though it is important to open up, avoid living mechanically, and really commit to being, sometimes the more-personal late-night conversations – that we have with our own friends, family members, or even strangers – strike a deeper chord within our psyches. Even if My Dinner with Andre doesn’t exactly nourish your cinematic stomach with sustenance in every way, shape, and form, the film does provide your mind with an ample supply of nutrients. And that is perhaps the film’s most redeeming quality. (**1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Movie Review: Brokeback Mountain

U.S. Release Date: 12/16/05 (limited)
Running Time: 2:15
Rated: R (Sexual situations, profanity, nudity)
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris

Director: Ang Lee
Producers: Diana Ossana, James Schamus
Screenplay: Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana, based on the short story by Annie Proulx
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Studio: Focus Features

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Much like The Bridges of Madison County, Brokeback Mountain is about longing for an illicit love. It’s about suppressing a soul-mate in fear of society’s non-conforming standards. In fact, the only key difference between the theses of Bridges and Brokeback is that Ang Lee’s love story stems from the hearts of two men.

Labeled ad infinitum as “that gay cowboy movie,” Brokeback Mountain is an honest, impervious romance spliced together with simplistic grace from a herd of hired hands. Despite a few sloppy scene transitions, the direction is admirable, the score is sensuous, and the acting is stellar.

In the summer of 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) share the task of tending sheep through the Wyoming countryside. After a few days of fending-off wolves, eating canned beans, and drinking whiskey, the two spontaneously and violently engage in intercourse. The next morning Ennis says to Jack, “This is a one-shot thing we got going on here; I ain’t queer.” Jack replies, “Me neither.”

Once the two cowboys deliver the sheep and descend Brokeback Mountain, they part their separate ways. While Ennis marries his longtime sweetheart, Alma (Michelle Williams), and has two children, Jack marries a feisty cowgirl named Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and fathers a son. Years pass, until Ennis and Jack finally reunite. Jack urges Ennis to flee his family, so they can start a life of their own, but Ennis reminds Jack, “This thing grabs hold of us at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and we’re dead.”

The invariable depiction of the intricate facets in Jack and Ennis’ relationship is a testament to master director Ang Lee’s knowledge of character development. Because of Lee’s unyielding focus, the film strolls along at the leisurely pace of tumbleweed—delicately rolling down a lonely stretch of dirt road. Yet, its progression is comforting, and in no way tiresome. In addition, Gustavo Santaolalla’s simplistic, yet infectious, score blends beautifully with the unhurried aura that Lee already accomplishes.

Heath Ledger turns his acting career on its ear, with his nominee-worthy role as the reserved and inertly-troubled Ennis Del Mar. However, more impressive is the generous support that Ledger receives. As Jack Twist, Jake Gyllenhaal dismisses any second-guessing that he is one of the most adaptable and talented actors in the game. Anne Hathaway proves that she is more than Disney’s Princess with her exquisite performance (especially during the telephone conversation). Michelle Williams (Heath Ledger’s real-life love interest) intensifies the feature with her emotional portrayal of the wife and victim. In addition, both Randy Quaid and Anna Farris leave their comedic characterizations at the door and place the very best they have to offer on display.

While conservative critics have publicly renounced the film because of its homosexual subject matter, liberal critics have saturated the film with more praise than it deserves for the very same reasons. Brokeback Mountain should not be judged solely on its inclusion of gay love. All politics aside, Brokeback Mountain is commendable for an honest portrayal of its romance and estimable for the passion exuded by all involved.

In a final appraisal, however, Brokeback Mountain is not the best feature of 2005. Even so, bet the farm that it takes home the “Best Picture” honor at the Oscars; after all, it has all the epic fixings that the voters have come to know and love. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Movie Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

U.S. Release Date: 4/3/68
Running Time: 2:19
Rated: PG (Mild violence, mild profanity)
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain (voice)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Producer: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke, based on "The Sentinel" by Arthur C. Clarke
Studio: MGM

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2001: A Space Odyssey is a lightning bolt of a film that imparts a ghost-like haunting long after the screen goes dark. Upon an initial viewing, its astonishing amalgamation of sight and sound singes itself deep within your consciousness; its effects are forever etched into your brain. The film is as thought-provoking and amazing as any other major motion-picture in existence. Even as its pacing may seem sluggish, the avant-garde approach that Kubrick takes makes 2001 a cosmic meditation for the mind and one of the most applaudable pictures of all-time.

2001 begins with “The Dawn of Man,” in which prehistoric man finds a mysterious black monolith and then learns to use a bone as a weapon. This scene then jettisons thousands of years into the future, where man has left the sandy soils of the earth for the starry Solar System. Spacecraft dance through the Milky Way, while a deeply lulling “Blue Danube Waltz” plays in the backdrop.

Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) travels to the moon to view an object that was deliberately buried beneath the surface four million years ago. To maintain absolute secrecy, the public is distracted by the cover story of an epidemic; however, Floyd knows the truth. Whatever it is, it is sending a signal to Jupiter.

Eighteen months later, aboard the spaceship Discovery, two crewmen, David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), three cryogenically frozen scientists, and the brain and central nervous system of the ship, the HAL 9000 computer (voice of Douglas Rain) venture towards Jupiter to investigate the receiving end of the signal. However, when HAL becomes unstable, the mission is jeopardized.

During the film’s final act of four, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” Bowman discovers yet another (and much larger) black monolith, and when it aligns with the moons of Jupiter, Bowman is catapulted through a collage of colors to another space and time. He ages in a matter minutes, witnesses a towering monolith watching over him as he dies in bed, and is reborn as the “star child.”

Perhaps, the most stunning aspect of 2001 is that even though its depiction of the future is way off the mark, its special-effects and cinematography appear as flawless as any modern-day CGI film. In fact, 2001 is so visually arresting that it unequivocally demands a pair of unflinching eyes, as well as, captivates its audience in the disbelief that it was filmed nearly 40 years ago. Kubrick’s camera tricks are as mind-boggling as a book of optical illusions.

Throughout the entire epoch of science-fiction, no other film has emoted such ecstasy in response to the questions of the Great Beyond and established such a mystical oneness with the universe in which we live. And, while its sequel, 2010, does provide some insights into the whys and hows of 2001, the effects of the original are better off left open to the viewer's perception. 2001 is a groundbreaking motion-picture that gets the gears of your brain rolling and animates your inner life-force. It is a visionary masterwork and one of the finest features ever crafted. (**** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Movie Review: Broken Flowers

U.S. Release Date: 8/5/05 (limited)
Running Time: 1:46
Rated: R (Language, some graphic nudity, and brief drug use)
Cast: Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Julie Delpy, Alexis Dziena, Christopher McDonald, Chloë Sevigny

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Producers: Jim Jarmusch, Jon Kilik, Stacey E. Smith
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Music: Mulatu Astatke
Studio: Focus Features

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With Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch has apparently graduated from making independent art-house films (like his anthology Coffee and Cigarettes) and has chosen to concentrate on a more mainstream approach with an exceptional actor. However, without Bill Murray as the lead (a role that Jarmusch wrote exclusively for him), it is hard to say what Broken Flowers would be. While Flowers is a solid script and a tightly-focused character study, it doesn’t accomplish too much of anything in the long run. Furthermore, the film unexpectedly leaves a bland, rather than an exceedingly saccharine, aftertaste. Perhaps this is precisely what Jim Jarmusch intended, but considering the story closes without a much-needed release or revelation, Broken Flowers comes off as more literary than cinematic.

Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is an over-the-hill Don Juan, who opens a mysterious pink letter—just after his girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), breaks up with him. The letter – unsigned and without a return address – informs Don that he has a 19-year-old son.

Once Don’s neighbor and wannabe detective, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), sees the letter, he immediately plans Don’s journey to find the four former flames who could potentially be the mother of his “hypothetical” son. Winston tells Don to search for clues, dress conservatively, and also bring flowers.

On this expedition to find the bearer of his son, Don first runs into full-time closet organizer, Laura (Sharon Stone), and her appropriately-named daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dzienza). After rekindling the flame with Laura, Don meets Dora (Frances Conroy), a former hippie who is now one-half of a prosperous real-estate couple. Next, Don visits Carmen (Jessica Lange), an animal communicator who has apparently switched from liking males to females. Lastly, Don sees poverty-stricken Penny (Tilda Swinton), who has nothing to offer but profanities and punches to the face.

While Jarmusch succeeds at showing an off-kilter trek across the nation, he fails to get the audience emotionally involved in his story. However, despite this disunion between the viewer and the main character, it is Murray who makes the picture watchable. And, even though he may be reason enough to see the motion-picture, he isn’t enough to love it.

Yes, Broken Flowers does have its merits in terms of both drama and comedy, and yes, Broken Flowers is Jarmusch’s most comprehensive and laudable film to date, but while fans of Jarmusch’s work will applaud, others will be frustrated with its open-endedness.

Before the film went into the post-production stages, Broken Flowers was entitled Dead Flowers. While “broken” is a better word to use in the title, it is also a viable adjective to use when describing the film. Unfortunately for Jarmusch, the film was not broken beyond repair. With a little fixing here and there, Broken Flowers could have been a deeply evocative and flourishing film. Too bad Jarmusch could not crawl out of the Punch Drunk Love mindset and make Broken Flowers the subtle, subdued, yet sublime feature that audiences pined for. (**1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006