I'm guessing this is funnier if you've seen more than two episodes of the original Star Trek. Still, there are pleasures to be found for the novitiate as well, particularly Tony Shalhoub's imperturbable mien during crisis updates ("just FYI") and Sam Rockwell's panic-stricken realization that he's the anonymous drone who always buys it before the first commercial break. Don't be too discouraged by the desultory first act -- it gets better. The year ends on a baffling note, however: why am I the only person who's noticed that the title is but one word?
FOOTBALL! MEN! TESTOSTERONE! COLLIDING BODIES! HIGH-DECIBEL PACINO! RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE! CUT! CUT! CUT! CUT! CUT! CUT! CUT! CASE MADE FOR PLAYERS AS MODERN-DAY GLADIATORS VIA CLIPS FROM BEN-HUR'S CHARIOT RACE! NO, SERIOUSLY! CRUNCH! URGH! RAMPANT PRO-SPORTS CYNICISM! MISTY-EYED GUTS = GLORY PONTIFICATION! NO ATTEMPT TO RECONCILE THE TWO! WHATSOFUCKINGEVER! CUT! CUT! CUT! CUT! CUT! CUT! CUT! MASSIVE MALE GENITALIA! CASTRATING AMBITIOUS-BY-PROXY WIFE! AARON ECKHART MYSTERIOUSLY DEVOID OF ALL PERSONALITY! OOMPH! THUD! HIGH-CLASS HOOKERS! TRUCK CUT IN HALF BY CHAINSAW OR SOMETHING! A PARALLEL UNIVERSE IN WHICH THE 'TRIPOD' APPARENTLY DOES NOT EXIST! CUT! CUT! CUT! CUT! CUT! CUT! CUT! MEN! FOOTBALL! OLIVER STONE! DESPERATE NEED FOR EXCEDRIN OR CLOSEST EQUIVALENT! AARRGGHH!!! AARRGGHH!!! AARRGGHH!!!
Further proof that the Chinese costume epic ought to be retired for a while; apart from some charismatic brooding by Zhang Fengyi (note to self: reluctant assassins make fine dramatic characters, allowing for suspenseful lassitude; cf. J-P Melville, Apocalypse Now, Hamlet) and the usual superb tech work, there's little here to engage and/or stimulate even die-hard 5thGen groupies. Most of it plays like an adaptation of an especially dry (and thick) history textbook; you can almost hear Ben Stein's droning monotone during certain scenes. Basically, everything I wrote in my review of Temptress Moon still applies -- pay attention this time, Chen.
Can I get you a cup of decaf, P.T.? Please? Hurtling headlong both physically and emotionally for three solid hours, Anderson's insanely ambitious third feature suffers from epiphany overload; virtually every scene is overwrought enough to serve as the dramatic climax of an "ordinary" movie, and around the beginning of reel four I was surprised to find myself actively longing for the quotidian and the mundane -- for a goddamn respite, basically. Nor does all the hullabaloo seem entirely justified; "this will all make sense in the end," promises narrator Ricky Jay in the film's (masterful) trailer, but its intertwined narratives, despite a lot of blatant thematic huffing and puffing, never really convincingly coalesce, and each individual story is surprisingly mundane when stripped to its core. As in Boogie Nights, Anderson nearly kills himself trying to disguise the essential thinness of his material, piling on feverish whip-pans and elaborate tracking shots that ultimately amount to little more than an advertisement for himself. Frankly, I'm positively itching to dismiss the guy as a no-account showoff, but in good conscience I can't do it -- partly because he's so skilled with actors (particular kudos here to John C. Reilly's hilariously officious lovelorn flatfoot), but mostly because every now and again one of his flamboyant gambles pays off so handsomely that it makes his other excesses seem like necessary evils. Gotta love that left-field meteorological phenomenon*, to be sure, but what I'll treasure for years to come is his decision to stop the picture cold while each of his protagonists in turn sings sorrowfully along with a non-diagetic Aimee Mann tune, a bold move that prompted derisive laughter from nearby hipsters but very nearly coaxed tears from yours truly. It's perhaps the only moment of ebb in a movie that's all about flow, and I get a bit giddy imagining what Anderson might accomplish one day if/when he finally calms the fuck down.
* (...which I'm not convinced is intended as a Biblical allusion, as several critics have suggested. Stanley's quite correct when he notes that the event in question does sometimes happen, albeit probably not quite as dramatically as depicted here; nobody really knows how or why, to the best of my knowledge, but there are several well-documented instances. Seriously.) [18 Dec: Bryant Frazer informs me that the film alludes visually to Exodus 8:2 on at least two occasions, so I guess it really is intended as a Biblical reference. Pity -- my own interpretation would have been both less pretentious and more in keeping with what passes for Magnolia's theme.]
Forgettable treacle, but with amusing marginalia: Dabney Coleman's thirty-second cameo; the zonked-out persona of one of the cats, maddeningly familiar until I finally recognized that his voice was courtesy Steve Zahn; a tale of accidental death -- two mice crushed by a pyramid of cans that toppled in a supermarket -- enlivened by ridiculously sober details ("Cream of mushroom. A very heavy soup"). Boy, didn't take Jonathan Lipnicki long to outgrow his adorableness, did it?
Figgis' career post-Leaving Las Vegas puts me in mind of that hilarious SNL mock commercial for Bad Idea jeans, in which various moronic comments are intercut with a title card that reads simply "Bad Idea."
"You know, seems to me the basic premise of Eszterhas' script isn't half bad. Just needs a little retooling, really."
"And then we could juxtapose all of that stuff with a retelling of the Adam and Eve story. And at the end, when they're ejected from Eden, they get assaulted by paparazzi!"
"Gee, it's been like maybe fifty years since somebody did a film of Strindberg's Miss Julie. Why not just get a couple of good actors and shoot them doing the play on handheld Super-16? We could do it all on one set. Saffron'd make a great Julie."
Geez, I hate stomping all over well-intentioned pictures like this one: strongly acted, ably photographed, made with obvious care and sensitivity. The truth is, there's really nothing much wrong with it apart from the niggling fact that there's no movie anywhere to be found during the course of its (ye gods) two-and-a-half-hour running time; I haven't read Frank McCourt's acclaimed memoirs, but as a general rule real people's lives don't tend to have much dramatic shape, and what's rich and compelling on the page is often merely picayune and discursive onscreen, especially when adapted as flatly and conventionally as in this instance. All together now: Books are not movies. Books are not movies. Books are not movies.
Some movies grab you by the throat from frame one -- establishing their presence with authority, to borrow a phrase from Ebby Calvin 'Nuke' LaLoosh -- and just never let go. Minghella, whose command of the medium gets stronger with each successive film, opens his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel (previously filmed by René Clément as Purple Noon) with an image so beautifully evocative that it effectively substitutes for twenty minutes' worth of potentially tedious 'backstory.' We never learn anything about Ripley's life prior to the event that sets the plot in motion, but it doesn't matter: everything we need to know about him is conveyed, masterfully and wordlessly, in the film's first sixty seconds. What follows is nearly as sharp and succinct, aided immeasurably by Matt Damon's disturbingly opaque work in the title role; he's often seemed too smugly self-satisfied to me in the past, but here his sunny-Jim grin and disingenuous ingenuousness [sic] are perfectly suited to the character, making Ripley's amorality that much more chilling. The supporting cast is equally fine (no, Philip Seymour Hoffman has no trouble pulling off an insolent wastrel; yes, Cate Blanchett is luminous, again), and Walter Murch's precise cutting certainly doesn't hurt any -- but the movie ultimately belongs to Minghella, whose choices are almost uniformly inspired ('almost' because the film does start to drag a bit after the two-hour mark -- too many loose ends to be tied up). He instinctively understands how to play against the material -- staging, for example, one of the most intimate and revelatory scenes at an outdoor festival, so that key dialogue winds up being shouted hoarsely over the din of the music, secrets bellowed rather than whispered. Having seen Purple Noon upon its rerelease a few years ago, I knew exactly what was going to happen at virtually every moment, and yet I was continually surprised; I could scarcely have asked for more.
Pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a movie with a completely redundant word in its title. (Seen for Time Out New York review.)
Not bad, as adaptations of great literature go, but I still wound up mentally turning pages (especially once the diary entries kicked in), and several conceits that may have been effective when yoked to Greene's fastidious prose style seem painfully contrived onscreen. That said, the plot is a corker (at least until the interminable denouement -- forget the end of the affair, I thought at one point, what happened to the end of the damn movie?); Jordan handles the complex chronology with consummate ease (borrowing a trick or two from recent Soderbergh, I fancy); and the entire cast is superb -- even if Fiennes and Moore are inevitably upstaged by Ian Hart's unfailingly courteous private dick ("if ashtrays could speak, sir").