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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Short Takes: Recent Films

Running with Scissors
A valiant, uneven attempt to translate the bestselling memoir to the screen. It often ends up resembling a John Irving novel or the TV series Six Feet Under, with its absurd characters and plot twists that are allegedly all true. Director Murphy [Nip/Tuck] tries hard, possibly too hard, to find a visual and rhythmic style to match the material, and mostly fails. But his cast is always interesting and occasionally very fine, especially the three leads: Joseph Cross, touchingly vulnerable and funny as the narrator-protagonist, Augusten Burroughs; Brian Cox, startlingly convincing as the psychiatrist, loonier than most of his patients, who adopts Augusten; and above all, Annette Bening, superlative as Augusten’s astonishingly dysfunctional mother. Jill Clayburgh also has a good if not entirely convincing role as the psychiatrist’s wife, who becomes a second mother to Augusten.

The Science of Sleep
Michel Gondry’s last film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was skillful but, to me at least, irritating and smug. Its script by the heretofore excellent Charlie Kaufman seemed miscalculated and unsatisfying, and the two leads, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, were often all wrong for their roles (which didn’t prevent them from getting extravagant praise).

I’m happy to report that all the charm I found lacking in Sunshine is present in abundance in Gondry’s new The Science of Sleep, which he wrote himself. It reminds me of Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, but with loads of witty special effects. Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg are completely captivating as the two young lovers who keep missing each other’s signals and slipping between dreams and reality with alarming ease. One of the most entertaining and beautifully directed movies of the year.

Flags of Our Fathers
While it is never less than admirable, and its visuals are often remarkable (the muted color of the photography has certainly been used before, but rarely so effectively), this Clint Eastwood film, about the famous Iwo Jima photograph and its effects on the soldiers involved, never really takes off. Its confusing narrative structure, although one can see why it was used, is one problem. There is a curious lack of fire and passion, with one big exception: Adam Beach as the Native American Marine Ira Hayes is wonderful, totally riveting. Everything else seems a bit listless.

It’s no insult to say that Sacha Baron Cohen’s brilliant, subversive humor works best in small, concentrated doses. The Borat sketches on his Da Ali G Show on HBO are scathing, gasp-inducing wonders of ruthless satire, with the help of unwitting participants who believe they are making a documentary rather than serving as foils for a wicked put-on. There are several great moments in this feature-length collection of zingers, and lotsa laughs. But the narrative connecting the hilarious bits is not nearly as interesting as the bits themselves, and some of the jokes are just potty humor with little satirical point at all. It’s entertaining, and only occasionally really terrible, but I was hoping for some momentum, a cascade of shock and awe. Alas, no. Still, Baron Cohen’s improvisational comic acting as the lovably boorish Kazakh journalist is quite inspired throughout.

The Prestige
A splendid entertainment – basically a sophisticated and intelligent comic-book adventure. Christopher Nolan showed his talent for grounding outlandish plots to genuine emotion and superlative storytelling craft in Batman Begins. In this new film, not tied to the constricting expectations of a multibillion dollar DC Comics-Warner Bros. franchise, he is free to use a fuller range of his considerable talent. This tale of a deadly rivalry between two stage magicians a century ago has a literally tricky plot that will have you hanging on every quietly spoken line. Visually, it’s top of the line, with Nolan’s usual cinematographer, Wally Pfister, once again showing how extravagant adventures ought to be photographed. The cast is mostly excellent, with some oddities among the accents: Christian Bale speaks Cockney, Hugh Jackman disconcertingly speaks American, Scarlett Johansson disconcertingly speaks British, and David Bowie does a pretty good Serbian as Nikolai Tesla. Michael Caine speaks more or less in his own intonations and is wonderful. Only if you stop to think about the basically thin premise does the movie suffer. While you are watching, you’ll barely have time for such questions.


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