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The Trouble with Girls
by Greg Muskewitz

The standstill of summer has finally crippled to a kneel. Just a few weeks left until it’s time to wade through the fall’s offerings …

*****************************
The Trouble with Girls
What communicative compromise is there to go from personal, gritty and well-made films, to such a vapid commercial plea?

The standstill of summer has finally crippled to a kneel. Just a few weeks left until it’s time to wade through the fall’s offerings …

Judging from the poster of Stephen Frear’s Dirty Pretty Things, Audrey Tautou of Amélie is certainly of the look — dark, mysterious, gritty, intense. One would understandably be under the impression that she could fit into the bad girls division. It is interesting to note then, that said description is somewhat misleading in a tactic of marketing. Would plastering the face of Chiwetel Ejiofor help to sell the film? I think not. (Although, dreaming as it may be, it should in the future.) But that it is the first film in months that I can truly be excited for, excited about, excited to have seen, and excited to write about, should hopefully carry me over until next week. My tardiness in attending the last local screening does not begin to give me enough time to prepare anything worthwhile to say about it yet, other than the gloating can commence now.

Similarly, the girls of The Magdalene Sisters are not so much trouble themselves as it is trouble they’re in. Alas, again, the film remains on the slate to open within the next couple of weeks, so addressing it must wait until then. Impatience (and a slipping memory) may prepone a few words on its behalf for next week as well.

Freaky Friday. Disney remakes itself once again: Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan are a mother and daughter who don’t see eye-to-eye — and not just because of the separation in their height. As the flighty shrink, Curtis approaches closer to her second marriage (it’s obviously a Disney movie, not only does the fiancé not share a bed with her, they’re not even living together yet), she and her Avril Lavigne-inspired alterna-punk-girl daughter magically switch bodies, requiring them to live a little in the other’s shoes to better understand each other. Of course this provides a bounty of opportunities for both generations to poke ribs at one another (“I look like Stevie Nicks”/ “Who’s that?” or “I’m old! I look like the Crypt Keeper”), more often siding with the younger crowd. One of the things that works well within the context of the movie is the performances of Curtis and Lohan, adapting the psychology of Cage and Travolta in Face/Off, of initially setting up their inhabited character and then shifting/shuffling/switching roles to competently retain the internal characteristics. The duo works, with Lohan believably emanating what Curtis set up, and surreptitiously, Curtis actually improving on the ossature Lohan began with. (As well it should be; Curtis, the experienced pro, has a lot more range in which to use in either personality, but Lohan is surprising for better embracing Curtis’ personality than her own.) Aside from the awkwardness of having the Lohan-aged boy interest fall for her in Curtis’ appearance, Freaky Friday remains a squeaky-clean generic romp, pat and PC, with dull supporting characters, overly diplomatic resolutions and epiphanies, and bland pop-music. It’s a weird position with Disney trying to convince itself and cash in on Lavigne’s image, and how it chooses what to deem alternatively cool (Emily Strange, The Hives, a cover of “… Baby One More Time”) but then disses a band as individual and truly alternative as The White Stripes. (This also marks an interesting trend with Disney, hiring the director of The House of Yes, Mark Waters, and Trick’s Jim Fall for The Lizzie McGuire Movie — neither of whom have displayed much skill, but both whom started off with such decidedly adult features, only to graduate to the juvenile arena.)

Uptown Girls. As noted above, the same could be said for director Boaz Yakin, the once accomplished director of an adult’s kid-movie (Fresh) and then simply an adult’s movie (A Price Above Rubies), only to sell out (Remember the Titans), and with this, lose any remnant of respect as a filmmaker. (What communicative compromise is there to go from personal, gritty and well-made films, to such a vapid commercial plea?) A deplorable “fairytale”-sell out-kid flick, has orphaned adult-cum-free spirit Brittany Murphy hoodwinked out of her long-standing inheritance from her dead rock star daddy, and forced to fend in the real world (if only!). The saving grace, but not without saving needed herself, is in a neurotic, germophobe, pill-popping little Jewish girl (Dakota Fanning), whom Murphy is hired to nanny for, since the girl’s own mother is too busy elsewhere and the father is in a coma. If the movie wasn’t so preoccupied with the artificiality of its breezy fairytale (this has to be one of the worst on-screen presentations of New York City!), the whole debacle would have resulted more morbidly, which may have not been such a bad idea. The movie starts rather fast, never bothering to establish its cartoon-thin characters, never bothering to try and have the main character audience-friendly, never bothering to set a consistent tone, never bothering to be funny. That neither of the two lead characters ever gains much in the likability department speaks volumes about the filmmakers’ oblivion. There is no empathy to be shared, no connection to be made, and simply because one can say that despite the poor role, Fanning does a decent job (once again, as in I am Sam, but similarly stuck in a terrible surrounding), her role is no less unctuous, deprived, and one-dimensional. And nevermind how awful Murphy’s role is, she sees to it that there should not be any sign of effort — aside from the fact that she appears to be on heroin throughout, and even her physiognomy is ridiculously over-played, over-acted. The one line that managed to get a laugh out of me — as Murphy breaks up a fight between Fanning and another girl to ask what prompted it — “Her au pair said my nanny was a slutbag whore” (only for the next edit to show Murphy fighting with the au pair) illustrates how far I had to sink for a giggle. The moral is just as trite, just as selfish, as anything or anyone else in it, and though it is not a critic’s job to take into consideration a preview audience’s reaction, I am happy to report that the screening was met with complete silence (not even a cell phone ring) and unenthusiasm.

The Secret Lives of Dentists. Was the secret life of Steve Martin’s dentist in Novocaine not enough? Alan Rudolph’s dramedy of a harried family man/dentist who suspects his wife, a fellow dentist, of infidelity, has not much to say on any secrets of the dentistry profession, unless that was the point. But whatever the point was, it failed to come across as much more than dull. Campbell Scott, sporting a moustache that grants him a totally new personality, is quite good as the suspicious dentist, resulting from the eloquence he carries from role to role (equally as effective here as in Roger Dodger, but for completely different reasons), as well as having a good amount of space to work in. His character, much more so than Hope Davis’ wife counterpart, is a less judged and less biased character, but the potency is abrogated by Rudolph’s indulgent pretension of including Scott’s personified conscience in the form of an obstreperous patient (Denis Leary). The highly detracting gimmick explicates and acknowledges a side of one’s inner-workings that are best left undisplayed if they are going to be exposed so casually, so stick figure-like, and coupled with the tiresome fantasy sequences of Scott (imagining his wife in a threesome with her assistant and patient), he comes around to look rather loony. But considering the fluster of his daily family life (those scenes that are best played out, nicely using children to actually act like children and not precocious mouthpieces), that wouldn’t be such a far off concept.

Camp. A youth summer-stock musical/acting camp for a group of self-imposed freaks and geeks. The drama mostly centers around an all-around golden boy, the frumpy faghag who has a crush on him, and the cross-dressing Latino who also has a crush on him. Any plot is extremely scarce as Todd Graff’s comedy sees itself more as a banal message-movie (read: be who you are) and a miniscule showcase for revival numbers of Stephen Sondheim, whom they equate as a god (and makes a cameo appearance as well). Unfortunately, the showcase is rather truncated insofar as there is not much true talent on display. The one actress who caught my eye (and my ear) is the pintsized Anna Kendrick (her rendition of “Ladies who Lunch” or whatever, was a real show-stopper) and she packs a lot of wallop in the little meat she gets — cut out too early, if you ask me. And if not talented, then at least charismatic, are Joanna Chilcoat, Daniel Letterle, Robin de Jesus, and Tiffany Taylor. Still, for a movie about being yourself, Graff is sure quick to pick on the stereotypes and clichés.

Ten. The newest entry from revered filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami opens locally skipping ABC Africa, the second most recent falling after The Wind Will Carry Us. That film, apparently, was his first foray into the digital video realm, said to be the land of no return as Kiarostami prefers the convenience of the medium’s ease (to say nothing more of it). So his retirement to video is excuse enough for my retirement to watch the thing on video (it only plays a week), which perhaps unsurprisingly looks as though it was filmed on a home camcorder. Kiarostami’s continued obsessions with the blending of fictional film and documentary, not to ignore his pastime of following his protagonist(s) in the seat of a car, are all on display here as he documents ten separate conversations on the road with the same driver and a rotation of passengers. The driver is a divorced and re-married Iranian woman, and along for the rides are her young and bratty son, her sister, an old woman she offers transport for to a mausoleum, an unseen hooker, and another, younger woman, on trips from the mausoleum. Conversations vary in a range of presentation — content, length, focus, times (meaning this does not take place within a set day), etc. It is only to be expected that the quality, not of the filming itself, but its ingredients will alter on any given ride. Some of that is determined by the editing of the conversations — with the camera remaining on one character for the whole of the talk (or argument), or switching back-and-forth; on the personality of the characters (the son in particular being the most abrasive, the prostitute being so flippant, etc.); on the interest of passing-by motorists, and so on. Each person is given their own personality, the scenes have their differences in tone, and they all display different (and sometimes contradictory or even acquiescent) developments from the mother. The 93-minutes feel like more, the concept doesn’t always pan out, and overall, Ten isn’t constructed as much as a feature than it is as an over-extended short film. But sticking with it provides further insight into Kiarostami’s psychology and society (ostensibly through the revolving viewpoints) in addition to the occasional piece of humor that complicates the ability to pinpoint what is prepared as fiction and what isn’t. (As the mother drives along, her sister points out an oncoming obstacle. “There’s a hole. [The car dips and shimmies.] You found it.”)

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. Soporific adaptation from Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s performance of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” the movie is a 75-minute silent musical, predominantly in black-and-white, using two pieces by Gustav Mahler. The execution is rather as simple as it sounds, a filmed ballet, but complicated by director Guy Maddin’s technological tinkering — everything from a changing colorless color scheme (the black-and-white will morph to blue, or green, or blue, or purple), to the touched-up addition of red for blood, haphazard and incessant editing, telescopic lens shots, etc. Relying on the stage performance alone, regardless of the short running-time, there is little interesting about watching Dracula, Lucy, or Nina, pirouetting and prancing within their milieu. As soon as Maddin begins playing around with the technical aspect (which remains a traceable link back to theatre: the scrims, the gels), the baggage begins to weigh down and subtract away the attention-to-detail of other pieces of the production (the film stock, the look of the performers, the cheapness that this looks of being made in).

http://www.madstonetheaters.com/
http://www.landmarktheatres.com/


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=778
originally posted: 08/15/03 21:00:20
last updated: 01/08/04 13:01:13
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