Thursday, March 29, 2007

2 Listworthy Films -- and 2 Mediocre Ones

300 (2007): A movie that admittedly piqued great interest. I believed "300" had great potential especially because it is a movie adapted from Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name (a graphic novel is a high-echelon comic book, sort of like J. O'Barr's "The Crow"). I am generally in favor of Hollywood (or anyone else) making films from materials that aren't normally made into film. The movie was visually stunning -- for awhile. But after I accepted that the movie had a unique cinematographic style, I got the distinct impression that there wasn't much substantive material behind the muscle and mirrors.

The movie is a vague, bland, and partial retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., where the Greek city-states tried to repel an invasion by the Persians led by King Xerxes. Now most people know that the Greeks devised a plan to funnel the Persians into a narrow mountain pass so that the Persian army's vast size was neutralized. What was disappointing was that the Spartan plan was spelled out in the first few minutes of the film, while the rest of the movie seemed to offer very little else about the motivations of any of the characters.

Given that the movie chronicles the 300 Spartan soldiers who fought in this battle, I don't know if I'm surprised that the hundreds of soldiers from other Greek city-states were given very little attention. What I was surprised about, however, was how the Persian army was characterized as an army of slaves, though perhaps it might be important to mention that slaves fought on both sides. Given this information and the really one-dimensional characters, I felt like I was being manipulated into believing that one side stood for "freedom" while the other was pure evil. This made the tirades about freedom and whatnot seem all the more contrived.

What is most telling about this film is that if you look closely on several camera shots, especially closeups of King Leonidas, you'll see that the picture quality is quite poor and grainy. It looks as if the effects people digitally zoomed in on the shot to make the shot as close as possible, which significantly degrades picture quality similar to the way your digital camera looks grainy using digital (versus optical) zoom. What a letdown to see a mediocre film that lacks depth, subtlety and celebrates the relatively poor state of "gladiator"-genre films.

SherryBaby (2006): I only remember Maggie Gyllenhaal from "Donnie Darko," so seeing her in "SherryBaby" was a real treat for me. She plays an ex-con who is paroled and in the process of putting her life back together. This film, and Gyllenhaal's performance, are emotionally devastating as we see her good intentions continually crumble in moments of anger, despair, and weakness. Gyllenhaal plays Sherry Swanson, a heroin addict and a thief who has been in jail for a few years. We learn that she has a young daughter, Alexis, who, in Sherry's absence, was reared by her brother and his wife. Both of them treat Alexis like their own child and are--and rightly so--skeptical of Sherry's ability to be a parent. This conflict comes to the surface when Alexis doesn't call Sherry "mom," but "Sherry" instead.

The director Laurie Collyer deserves a lot of praise for her patience in allowing each of her characters to develop a personality and let that personality inform their actions. For example, we get a glimpse of what kind of childhood Sherry had when her father tries to console Sherry and, in the process, gropes her. Nothing is said and Sherry just wipes her eyes and leaves the room. A lesser film director would run with this storyline and change the movie's focus, giving us "the answer" of why Sherry is the way she is. But Collyer exercises restraint and gives us just a glimpse, which is all we really need.

What I love most about this film is the fact that the viewers feel the urgency of Sherry's journey. Every single day brings for Sherry temptation and fear. And although Sherry has moments where she endures, the director brings this film to another level because she acknowledges that Sherry can't do this on her own. Sherry makes a very difficult decision at the end of the film that I won't give away, but it is a truly satisfying ending because it is an ending that doesn't seem tacked on or contrived just to gain audience appeal. Instead, the ending is a clear extension of the story and the decisions Sherry makes are informed by what she experiences during her time out of prison.

Blood Diamond (2006): Director Edward Zwick has had some remarkable films like "Courage Under Fire" (1996) and "Legends of the Fall" (1994). He has taken some risks in films like "The Siege" (1998), which I thought was generally underrated. But where his other films have succeeded in their ability to shed light on complex relationships, Blood Diamond pales in comparison. It is a half-baked work. Bland and uninformative, and drained of its real power to persuade, it is a true Hollywood work.

Leonardo DiCaprio does a pretty decent job as Danny Archer, a self-proclaimed soldier of fortune who is in Africa to make some money at anyone's expense and also--of course--to ultimately learn a lesson about the value of human life. I could do without a lot of his pretty lame one-liners, but his accent didn't bother me as much as I thought it would. In fact, with his performance in "The Departed" (2006), DiCaprio is showing us that he's in top form.

Djimon Hounsou's character, although designed to evoke our empathy, is powerfully played. But the writing misfires and many of Hounsou's emotional outbursts seemed out of place given the exact moment in the film. This movie does't showcase just how good of an actor he is. If you want to see a masterful performance, see "In America" (2002). Jennifer Connelly, who I thought was brilliant in "Requiem for a Dream" (2000) and "A Beautiful Mind" (2001), was the biggest disappointment in the film. She seemed like she was just along for the ride; her character offered very little to the story and seemed like standard plot filler.

Although the film has a straightforward plot and showed some promise by putting together three main characters with different motivating forces--money, family, and journalism--the film really wanted to be an action movie and never got off the ground in terms of telling a story. By far the biggest flaw in the movie is that it gives absolutely no description of the CONTEXT of diamond smuggling in Sierra Leone. All we know is that there are "rebels" and there are government forces, both of which commit atrocities. But only one side is depicted as brainwashing children and "teaching" them lessons about taking a gun and shooting people.

And, well, that's exactly what these children do. We see rebels emerge from pickup trucks carrying automatic weapons and opening fire on defenseless civilians for apparently no reason at all. But that's the problem; there is absolutely no reason or motivating force given for any of their acts. A responsible film maker would realize this glaring oversight. I'm sure that the rebels have some reason they are fighting.

And I'm am NOT satisfied with an explanation that the killing is "senseless" and, therefore, no adequate reason can be given for why innocent people are being slaughtered. Please. There are plenty of reasons why people are driven to do things, and giving us some insight as to why this happens is not the same thing as endorsing that activity. In this film, the effect of not explaining WHY the two sides are fighting makes it seem like part of the scenery--that is--this American director just assumes that this is a fact of life in this African country. I wonder if the director was afraid that by explaining the conflict in any way, he'd be seen as sympathizing with the rebels. I suppose that's what makes this movie a true product of Hollywood--lacking in analysis and drained of its persuasive force. This movie could and should have been better.

Hotel Rwanda (2004): This has been on my list of movies to watch for three years now and I've never really gotten around to it. Director Terry George previously wrote "The Boxer" (1997) a film that takes place on another continent, but chronicles another country marred by a seemingly intractable conflict.

Don Cheadle plays a hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina. Early on, the film hits us over the head for a few minutes about how a-political Rusesabagina is. He's interested in pleasing his customers and making money. And he even tells one of his clients that he's not interested in politics. This seemed very out of place because the sentiment was so obvious anyway. Did the director really think that the audience wouldn't realize that he wasn't interested in the conflict between the two tribes? If they had not hit me over the head with this, perhaps Rusesabagina's realization--and transformation--would have been a bit more poignant.

But that is a pretty small criticism for an otherwise well-crafted film that builds momentum steadily. What made a strong impact on me was that I could identify with the characters and felt trapped by the same conflict; the characters were genuinely reacting to violence at the gates of the hotel. As usual Nick Nolte offers a great performance, but that's a given. His rather confused performance is an accurate reflection of the rather confused role U.N. peacekeepers play in this conflict.

The director's use of the "hotel" as a plot vehicle was remarkably well-executed. The hotel wasn't just a symbol or a setting, it was a critical part of the story and played many different roles in the lives of these refugees. It was not only a symbol of class division, it also functioned as an oasis where both communities lived together. Rusesabagina realizes that the demoralized guests and the workers need something to lift their spirits, and the hotel fits in beautifully here. Rusesabagina tells his staff that they need to keep working to maintain the standards of the hotel and issues bills to his guests.

Having seen this movie just days before "Blood Diamond," I can't help but make comparisons; simply put, this film is far better. I will say, however, that I wish there was more development within this film about the reason the Hutus and the Tutsi's continue to fight with one another. What exactly are they fighting over? Is it a cultural clash? A political clash? One over religion or resources? All of the above? I think this is part of the same criticism I had in "Blood Diamond," but here we at least get an idea that the reasons for the fighting are secondary because the primary focus is on citizens of both tribes caught in the crossfire.


Anonymous said...

300 was a huge letdown and i agree that most gladiator style movies recently have been bad, though Troy and Alexander were far worse than this.

Anonymous said...

just got sherrybaby off of netflix. it seemed boring for the first half, but it really got interesting in the second half when everything started coming together.

also, when i tried to download your movie list, neither sherrybaby nor hotel rwanda were on there. is that on purpose?

A.H. Rajani said...

my friend was hosting the file for my movie list, so i coudln't update it regularly. but since, i've gotten my own webspace, so you'll always be downloading my most up to date version. if you download it now, it should have sherrybaby and hotel rwanda on there.