A charming if not overly simple children’s fable, A Little Princess marks the English language debut of the brilliant Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. The tale of a young British girl named Sara attending a girl’s school in New York during WWI combines a unique sense of dream-scape imagery with Hindi mysticism, both acting to offset the doubts and inadequacies of the Western Adult world. When Sara’s Officer father goes MIA in Europe, her holdings mysteriously disappear, subsequently forcing her to shift from student to maid. She must overcome the pressures of class structure to remind those around her why she remains such a special little girl. Moments of the brilliant mise-en-scene displayed in Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men can be found, most beautifully in the layered landscapes of turn of the century NYC. One can see the makings of a kindred and hopeful spirit and a devout lover of cinema in A Little Princess, both essential qualities Alfonso Curaron has taken to new heights with his later films.
Glory Road set the standard for the sports inspirational in 2006 and so it’s no surprise the often cliched and completely predictable Innvincible falls short. The failures of this Mark Wahlberg vehicle don’t rest with the acting (most one-note but still fun to watch) nor the material (a familiar but still potent theme concerning team sports as icons of hope). No, Invincible suffers from a lack of immediacy or quality in filmmaking, a bland and otherwise forgettable mixture of cheesy slow motion and heightened music which does little justice to the promising setup or indeed, the earned payoff.
Subtlety gets pushed under a bus in this melodramatic mess from director Richard Eyre. Notes on a Scandal, boasting multiple Oscar nominations and a slew of critical praise, surprisingly disappoints in almost every respect. Over-hype aside, the film cannot exceed on even the most tertiary level – it’s acting frightfully overcooked, it’s direction one note and banal, and Philip Glass’ score makes John Williams look sly. It’s baffling to think why this film has obtained almost universal praise, especially for the usually amazing Cate Blanchett, who’s whiney and insecure art teacher wretchedly and unbelievably overplays her cards, even in the face of sex scandal with a student. We’re supposed to see Judi Dench’s manipulator as the monster, but her Barbara comes across as the most with it of anyone. This somber and dull Scandal has many fooled with it’s high octane pedigree and high class buzz. In terms of thrillers, it only deserves a glancing kick to the shin.
Flushed with roving, calculated camera movement and amazing sound design, Magnolia aches with the past pains and doubts of the future. P.T. Anderson’s third feature goes places most American filmmakers avoid – into the haunting echoes of regret, difficult forgiveness, and the lowly personal lives of it’s characters. This has to be considered the Best American melodrama/musical in recent times, not only for it’s incredible filmmaking precision, but also it’s use of color. Like a Sirk masterpiece of the 50′s, Anderson wants to signify fate, adultery, passion, and pain through the use of vibrant hues and dark shadows. He does so in spades, but with a comic touch few can match. The performances are all first rate, but this time out, my third viewing, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman stand out especially – both kind, gentle men living in a world which rarely appreciates such qualities. The original songs by Aimee Mann (which feel as fresh as the moment I first heard them), compliment like no other soundtrack. Her compassionate and revelatory voice lead each character toward realization and reconciliation, enabling them to walk tall once again. Bruised and battered, P.T. Anderson’s players rise to the occasion, some more than others. But they all get the chance to sing. “And it is in the opinion of this narrator it can not be simply chance”, no not chance, that Magnolia still feels so transcendent.
Jia Zhang Ke has a way with words. The first two Jia features I’ve seen, first 2004′s The World and now Platform, show a maturity and layered complexity toward rightly naming the text, in turn displaying the stunning possibilities such usage can invoke when broken down to the barest essentials. In creating seemingly simple titles, Jia allows his material to explode with referential possibilities, his characters and regions specific to Chinese issues, but also strangely universal in their humanity. Both these films evolve meticulously, built equally around mise-en-scene and music. But The World, with it’s exceptional tracking shots, hypnotic score, and timely post modern mystique, feels more poignant.Platform, which follows a Chinese Theater Troupe as it tours the countryside during the 1980′s, remains deeply committed to similar themes The World addresses (communal transition, historiography). The film distances itself from the viewer almost completely through the use of long shot one takes, Jia (taking Ozu to the extreme) positioning the camera at medium height and letting his actors move within the locked frame. His blocking is brilliant and always has been. But for all his great technical spirit, Jia’s characters and their world feel just out of reach. Faces are obscured, groups mass together, and ellipses scale an epic amount of time almost seamlessly (the film covers the entire 1980′s). Jia’s style fits these themes, addressing the disconnect and seepage both Western and communist ideologies bring to the table. But his style overwhelms character in favor of a distancing effect. While a thought-provoking artistic decision, one must go back to The World as an contrary example of a masterful compromise between story and ontology. The film successfully mixes Jia’s art-film visual style and brilliant need to flesh out character, both in communities and individual situations. Here, Jia roams the urban landscape in search of something beautiful hidden in modern day popular culture. More amazing, his vision of the world respects and defines crucial human emotions like greed, pain, sorrow, and doubt, something with which we can never get enough.Jia’s autuerist traits, his attention to communities, landscapes (both city and countryside), calculated camera movement, all segue-way back into his one or two word titles. This might be Jia’s grandest coup; showing how beautifully the entire world can fit into such a tiny space.
As the military and civilian casualties pile up in Iraq, documentaries like The Ground Truth will gain even more resonance. Not entirely well made or stylistically impressive, director Patricia Foulkrod’s film does display a beautiful sensitivity toward America’s entrenched soldier, allowing survivors of the current war in Iraq to share views on guilt, fear, doubt, and most strikingly, shame. The Ground Truth fixes it’s sights on the issue of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and how the American Military Complex rarely addresses this disease with candor or compassion. As a devastating parallel to the first hand experiences in Iraq (needless killing, deaths of friends, questioning their roles in country), Foulkrod spends ample time with these men and women after their return home. We see everyday life like fishing trips, shopping, parks, beaches, all unsuccessfully masking the ingrained horrors bubbling inside these soldiers. Each subject has had traumatic experiences and there responses range from insightful to painful. The narrative constitutes a seamless push forward, characterizing the soldiers not in terms of Bush speak or liberal rebuttals, but instead focusing on the faces, the missing body parts, the smiles and frowns of the broken souls who bluntly and bravely address their inner demons. One hopes they can find some deserved solace in the process.
City of God looks more and more like a watershed film every time I watch one of these cheap and mindless rip-offs. Digital video has rarely looked worse.