Monday, September 05, 2005

Constantly Buggin'

9/4/05 1:15 at the Angelika – Junebug

Director Phil Morrison makes a strong and self-assured feature debut that has a very distinct personality unlike anything I’ve seen in recent memory. Junebug explores the dynamics of a dysfunctional family in North Carolina during the coinciding events of the last stages of the daughter-in-law’s pregnancy and the older brother’s return after 3 years of absence to introduce his South African new wife to the family. Morrison tells the story by blending realism and formalism into a peculiar concoction that feels fresh and unexpected at every turn. The South African wife, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), happens to also be in North Carolina on business, investigating a potential art client. The client is an elderly, mentally challenged southern painter who draws peculiar pictures of civil war reenactments with emphasis on racial injustice and enlarged genitalia. These scenes between him and Madeleine play out like a documentary peering into the mind of this confusing and intriguing character. But then there are flashy opening credits, obtrusive musical cues and fade outs that call attention to the structure yet somehow these contrasting approaches manage to coexist rather than combat each other.

Junebug has a languid pace that moves slowly and surely which unavoidably makes the 107 minute running time feel seat-shiftingly long. So while repeat viewing do not sound immediately irresistible, the characters are all so carefully constructed and vibrant with so many minute nuances that I still have a hankering to see it again with hope of uncovering more about these ambiguously complicated people.

The actors are all fit for the challenge of their richly sculpted characters and embody them fully, even Ben McKenzie of The OC fame as the younger brother. He perfectly uses his standard glaring-out-the-corner-of-his-eyes look during a pivotal scene where his eyes get to such a degree that we assume his iris must be facing the inner workings of his skull. Of course if anyone stands out, it’s the beautifully na├»ve and quietly observant Amy Adams in the role of the young wife in labor, Ashley.

9/4/05 7:10 at the Union Square United Artists – The Constant Gardener

I am one of about 15 people who still haven’t seen Fernando Meirelles’ City of God but get a sense that The Constant Gardener is very similar in its admirable quality of being a highly entertaining thriller while incorporating a global awareness to the background. Think the exotic and unfamiliar locales of The Bourne Identity/Supremacy movies with an added social and political commentary. In The Constant Gardener, Ralph Fiennes stars as Justin, a British diplomat whose wife is brutally murdered while working in Africa. Justin becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth behind the murder and embarks on a heedless journey to expose a conspiracy. Fiennes gives a brilliant performance and is more expressive with his eyes alone than most actors can convey with their whole performances. His reaction to learning about his wife’s murder in the beginning is both unforgettable and unexpected. The film manages to balance itself as both a satisfying Saturday night at the movies that can attract the younger audience with its stylish filmmaking as well as the older audience with its thought-provoking substance that never becomes too didactic to alienate the younger crowd.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

In the City of Blinding Headlights

So I’ve been back in New York for almost a week now and even more embarrassing than my blog writing sabbatical is that I’ve only been to the movies twice. Once for my first viewing of the 1958 French film noir, Elevator to the Gallows directed by Louis Malle. An exceedingly entertaining crime story which was very interesting in terms of its clear influence on Goddard’s future forays into the genre that began as an American product appropriating a French title and soon became fondly emulated by the French themselves.

Yesterday I made it to my first contemporary release which happened to be the crowd pleasing and surprisingly critic pleasing, Red Eye. While I might have benefited by seeing it without high expectations from its high rating on RottenTomatoes.com, I still managed to find it to be an entertaining, campy, thrill-ride not unlike the similarly gimmicky Cellular, although not quite as fun as that self-consciously goofy beat-the-clock thriller. It’s more than a bit difficult to talk about Red Eye without giving away the fun of the element of surprise aspect so integral to the film’s enjoyment, much applause to Dreamworks for its limited teaser trailer.

Wes Craven wisely under directs the film and creates a great claustrophobic feel using limited and restrained camera moves, relying more heavily on aural stings in the soundtrack to illicit the occasional cheap jump in the film’s first and second acts. When we get to the third act and the film ventures into more familiar Craven territory, he manages to keep things fresh by quietly commenting on this fact with a fun vocal nod to Scream and a sly time-of-day reversal during the standard genre climax.

It’s also nice how heavily the film relies on the actors’ performances with large portions of the film feeling like a stage play, both a good and bad thing. Rachel McAdams naturally conveys a balance between sensibility and charm and fear and helplessness. Cillian Murphy relishes his role and looks to be having a lot of fun, especially when he is “going through the motions” required of his character toward the end. The supporting passengers are nicely handled and understandingly appear no more obtrusive than they need to be in order to serve their plot purposes.

Wes Craven also deserves recognition for dealing with very touchy subject material and manages to gracefully sidestep unpleasantness in a story housing a myriad of landmines.

Hopefully I’ll be able to fit in more movie watching and blog writing but with classes starting I may have squandered fertile opportunity in these past two weeks of inactivity but I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the weeks to come. If not I have some poorly written Silent film papers to coast by on if things become really dire.