Monthly Archives: October 2005

PRIDE & PREJUDICE

I decided to take one for the team and audit the new Pride & Prejudice. I was expecting not to like it but despite myself actually found it a faithful adaptation of Austen’s novel.

Perhaps the most notable difference from previous versions is that the Bennet family is shown to be definitely lower-middle class, as they are in the book. Their clothes are on the dingy side and no one’s hair is perfectly combed, if not a bit greasy. In fact the first local ball they attend likewise seems more realistic than in most period pieces, full of average-looking people playing dress-up in clothes that might not be fresh from the cleaners.

Consequently, the Bennets’ house is just large enough for a family of seven, but not spacious, and it is even a bit shabby and unkempt. The house in fact is a reflection of the Bennet family: often indecorous yet completely oblivious of their appearance to others. The regular impropriety of the whole family, led by Mrs Bennet but sometimes including even Mr Bennet, is depicted throughout the movie in obvious as well as subtle ways, usually to the embarrassment of Lizzy but nevertheless accepted by her, sometimes too much so.

In the BBC adaptation the Bennet family’s unseemliness was portrayed too innocently and played for comic relief, making Darcy’s criticism of their faults seem a bit heartless rather than the accurate, if badly expressed, observation that it should be. But here, the foolishness of the Bennet girls and especially their mother, however well-intentioned, is absolutely pathetic, making you disgusted by them at the same time you pity them.

In stark contrast to the Bennets’ impropriety and the disorderliness of their home is the perfectly proportioned manor at Pemberley, whose architectural principles seem to reflect the moral stature of its proprietor. The structural order is appropriately translated by the cinematography, which introduces Pemberley House by at least four consecutive shots of Peter Greenaway-like symmetry.

The cinematography throughout the film is “quiet” but interesting, and there is a very effective long shot moving about a party that economically reveals great insights into the members of the Bennet family and their interactions with the other partygoers. Another memorable party scene shows Lizzy trying to juggle two conversations while dancing a minuet — all before her obligatory verbal jousting with Darcy (look, they’re dance-fighting!).

I went into it fully expecting to hate the originally-a-hottie-turned-professionally-haughty Keira Knightley, but I ended up liking her character or at least sympathizing with Lizzy in contrast to her ridiculous family. My only criticism of Knightley’s performance would be that she made Lizzy look too young. Admittedly I get the story confused with Little Women, but it was hard to believe Lizzy was the second oldest when one of her younger sisters claimed to be 27 [my bad, it was Lizzy’s friend Charlotte Lucas, not her sister].

Matthew MacFadyen plays Darcy a bit more straight faced than Colin Firth, but he didn’t have much choice, since any more facial expression on his part would seem too imitative of Firth’s aloof natural sneer. By the end of the first act I had totally accepted him as Darcy, if not displacing Firth outright in my mind. He never emerges from a pond or any other body of water, but for the final scene he does seem to materialize out of the fog (which I suppose is a kind of airborne body of water) with his shirt conspicuously unbuttoned.

Lady Catherine is somewhat too obviously played by Judi Dench, channelling her Lady Bracknell of three years ago. I wished that Knightley played Lizzy’s final confrontation with Lady Catherine a bit more passive-aggressively instead of letting it escalate so quickly to the raised-voice stage, but it is only a two-hour movie. The other climactic confrontation, Darcy’s first proposal, is handled fine.

Donald Sutherland was the biggest stumbling block originally, and even by the end he still stood out the most in a movie with mostly unknown faces, but his performance did not hinder the movie. The Bennet girls are made to look so average-looking that I didn’t even recognize Jena Malone (Donnie Darko) as Lydia. Brenda Blethyn deserves special mention as the intolerable yet pitiable Mrs. Bennet, and Tom Hollander invests Mr. Collins with an earnestness that never betrays the comic relief he provides. For such a well known story, it is a remarkable accomplishment that every character feels like a real person and never a caricature, something that can’t be said even for Polanski’s commendable adaptation of Dickens this year.

At the start of my review I thought I was going to say “it was a good adaptation but I probably won’t see it again soon.” But now, after thinking about it a bit more just while writing this review, I already want to see it again.

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CORPSE BRIDE

I thought it started out great but lost a little momentum around the time of the sub-par spider-worm duet.  It had the classic plot of a Shakespearean comedy but because of that you saw exactly where everything was going as soon as the corpse bride revealed her tragic origin (Mariana in Measure for Measure).  The rest of the movie was simply academic.

The first song underground sounded awfully like an Oompa-Loompa theme but it was no wonder once the credits rolled and I saw Deep Roy listed as one of the Dead Man’s Party-inspired singing skeletons.

Loved the animation and character designs (except for the corpse bride’s ugly collagen lips). However, I felt sorry for Peter Lorre who was caricatured as a worm not very flatteringly.

It also kind of turned into a one-joke skit that tried to cram in as many puns as possible.  Some of them would have been amusing if they slid by without acknowledgement (like a skeleton collapses behind somebody who then uses the phrase “picking up the pieces”) but when attention was drawn to them (then the skeleton says “speaking of PICKING UP the PIECES…”) it kind of ruined it (did they think it was too “subtle” or something?)

Again, the best bits were at the beginning and the non-pun humor, like Lord Everglot trying to smile. It’s the kind of movie that is undoubtedly fun to watch, but because the animation is the best part of the entire thing, it would be just as fun to watch again with the sound off as with it on. But for the most entertainment and originality, opt for Helena Bonham Carter’s other claymation movie this year, Wallace and Grommit.

PRIMER

Primer ate my brain.

Then spat it out and made me eat my own brain, already chewed up and stuff.

Well, at least I can say it cured me of ever again wishing I could travel back in time. Talk about taking all the fun out of it — time-travel is hard work! Sign me DOWN!

LORD OF WAR

Even if the rest of the movie were worthless, the title sequence alone is not only the best bullet’s-eye-view shot since Three Kings but a fully satisfying short film in itself.

Fortunately, the rest of the movie isn’t worthless and might even be one of my favorites of the year. Playing to his strengths, Cage’s arms dealer is a more sophisticated version of his con artist in Matchstick Men (itself a deserving film untimely overshadowed by Adaptation). They’re both natural salesmen but Yuri Orlov is smoother and slicker, the stakes are higher, and (unencumbered by OCD) there’s nothing to prevent his rise to the top.

The plot begs comparisons to Scarface thanks to a younger partner figure and cocaine, but the quick pace, first-person narrative, black humor, clever editing and visuals — a rifle making cash register noises in slow motion or a plane being dismantled overnight in fast motion — place it closer to Fight Club in the “rewatchability” category. Speaking of Fight Club, Jared Leto is also commendable as Cage’s brother and I’m glad to see Bridget Moynahan finally get in a good movie after The Recruit and I Robot, though she is still a bit underused here.

The non-stop voice-over is effective and appropriate to Cage’s salesman character. He is apparently honest in his narration about his dubious rationales and double life shown on screen but the supposed intimacy and honesty of his voice-over is itself a constant pitch to the audience: no matter how many atrocities we see on screen as a ridiculously direct result of his actions, his likeable personality keeps making him sympathetic, over and over.

British critics are championing it as being bravely un-American but it doesn’t seem targeted against any particular country as much as against the governments of pratically every country, and even the U.N. is shown being exploited by a genocidal dictator. The soundbite statistics and provocative statements about world leaders are too unspecific for the movie to be treated as an expose, and coming from the mouth of Cage’s character — as most of the movie is — they are inherently undermined.

Inexplicably, however, the effect of the ambiguious, subjective narrator — maintained consistently for two hours — is suddenly ruined at the very end by title cards with a couple more too-general-to-be-meaningfully-poignant statistics, whose disembodied objectivity cheaply reduces the whole movie to mere preachiness.

So, because of its political element, Lord of War might get disproportionately noticed next Oscar season, unless its unromanticised view of Africa is too much for Hollywood’s latest pet cause. I think the movie is good enough to be recognized regardless of any evangelistic intentions; the editing and in particular the transitions between scenes were always inventive but never flashy.And if it is nominated for anything, Lord of War will still be in the collective moviegoing consciousness in the summer to remind people, like Adaptation did, that Cage still “has it” as an actor, which I think will make it easier for critics to enjoy Ghost Rider for the movie it is without wondering if his career is in crisis.

REVOLVER

I was predisposed to enjoy Guy Ritchie’s latest, and indeed the first act seemed promising. The fun use of color, over-the-top acting from Ray Liotta, and surreal setting — there are no references to a real city or even country, and twelve-dollar bills are the currency — told me Ritchie wasn’t taking himself or his story too seriously, but I was soon proven wrong.

The second half of this one-hour-fifty-minute movie made it feel three hours and fifty minutes long. I guess epic was the feeling being sought, but when the story evolved from who’s-conning-who-game to profound-psychological-thriller, Ritchie lost his own mind and with it all editorial sense. He seems to have had no one handy in the editing room to give him a second opinion and the result is a few scenes of embarrassing self-indulgence that inspired me to start counting the LED safety lights along the aisle carpet.

Not that the who’s-conning-who mystery was very involving in the first place. Since I guessed the “answer” (no huge feat) as soon as Statham set up the mystery in a flashback sequence, the revelation itself was quite a disappointment. Ritchie fails his own screenplay’s incessant reminders about how to outsmart one’s opponents (or audience). He tries to trick you by piling together so many layers of doublecrossing and Fight Club/Keyser Soze rhetoric that you’re dazzled by the overload, but everything manages to feel derivative and cliched.There are even a few intercuts of Kill-Bill-evoking animation that is “cool” but used so randomly that you wonder why he bothered until you remember that no one was around to tell Ritchie he didn’t have to do everything he wants to try, all in the same movie.

The best thing about the movie is the underused Stanley Tucci Mark Strong who steals every scene he’s in, but it’s too little too late. Tragically, by the time Tucci Strong wins over the audience in his final scene, the movie is already perpendicular to the surface and it’s only a final glimpse of what could have been.

Ritchie should get a clue from his buddy Matthew Vaughn’s rookie success and rely on someone else’s script for his next project. Interesingly, Revolver is Ritchie’s first movie NOT produced by Vaughn… Hmm, makes you wonder how much of “Lock, Stock” and “Snatch” were Ritchie and how much they were Vaughn saving Ritchie from his own bad ideas.