Tuesday, November 28, 2006

NYC movie report

By any standard I had a great Thanksgiving holiday, hanging out with my family in the big city, and I hope everyone else did too. This space, however, is about movies, and by that one, I'd say it breaks down thusly: 2 great, 1 good and 1 pretty darn awful. Which in my book is a pretty good stretch.

Here are reviews of the first two, and a brief word about the latter ones:

The Last King of Scotland

Because all of the (very well-deserved) hype going into this one was about Forest Whitaker's performance as Idi Amin, I wasn't prepared for just how good the rest of the movie is too. Count it as a very pleasant surprise.

Whitaker is electric, but what really drives this flick is the way in which we view his descent into dangerous madness through the eyes of a young Scottish doctor played by James McAvoy. The real drama hinges on whether, after being annointed as Amin's personal physician, he is simply oblivious to the genicide going on around him or worse, tacitly part of its execution.

Viewing - or often ignoring - the bloody reign of Amin through the eyes of McAvoy's Dr. Garrigan, who as often as working just wants to have fun, can be very uncomfortable viewing. And when director Kevin McDonald finally unleashes what should have been obvious to the young doc all along, it's a gut punch that will linger with you for a long time.

But this is really Mr. Whitaker's show, and he lives up to all the hype. His Amin is largely a big kid, and it's easy to see how his enthusiasm was contagious. I think they may have darkened his skin for the role, but this is about much more than the look. From the outset you can see the madness in his eyes, and he lets it out with a deceptively slow but sinister delivery. Believe it: You will be hearing a speech from Mr. Whitaker at the Oscars.

After watching this compelling flick, I thought of two (albeit very different) movies that pale in comparison. The climax of "Last King," in its sheer horror, made me think of "Hostel," and how much more scary Mr. Whitaker's Amin was than anything that comes from the minds of the gorehounds that pose as today's horror directors.

And, though I concede this may be unfair to Sofia Coppola, I couldn't help but think of the failings of "Marie Antionette" as well. Director McDonald, who also made the great documentary "One Day in September," put great care into constructing the Uganda of the early 70s, just as Sofia did in projecting her own vision onto 18th century France. But whereas Sofia sidestepped the famous quote that hovers over the ghost of Marie Antionette, this superior flick embraces the one that inspired its title, and shows us in bright colors just how Amin reached the point where he would declare himself "The Last King of Scotland."

I have no idea if Africa, or anything for that matter, is "in" right now, but I do know I highly recommend this movie.


Going into the weekend, this one was on the top of my must-see list, and it didn't disappoint.

What director Pedro Almodovar has created is, to put it simply, a world without men, and the mystery about how his leading ladies landed in this situation.

At the outset, however, something just felt out of sync with this one. We begin with Raimunda (a radiant Penelope Cruz) and her young daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), living with a man (Antonio de la Torre) who has inappropriate eyes and hands for young Paula. Almodovar shows how they handle this situation as he often does, with humor, but it just doesn't gel with what we're seeing on screen.

The movie hits its groove, however, with the return of Raimunda's mother Irene (the truly great Carmen Maura), who had disappeared in a fire. Maura is, from her arrival, everywoman. Much like Bruno Ganz in "Wings of Desire," she just eats up the screen everytime she peeks out from underneath a bed or from around a corner.

And her presence gives the movie a needed emotional core, taking Cruz's Raimunda from cartoon anguish back to the magicly real world around her and letting her really shine. Her Raimunda is tough but very vulnerable, and she works the full range of emotions with skill and style. And no Almodovar ensemble movie would be complete without more colorful women, led by Lola DueƱas, who as Raimunda's sister Sole delivers welcome comic relief as she hides Maura's Irene in her house as "la Russe," a Russian refugee who helps out in her makeshift hair salon.

But as with any great mystery, "Volver" really excels in its reveal. As Maura and Cruz finally come face-to-face and lay down all their burdens, it's clear just how much Almodovar loves these two women, and he makes us love them too.

This Filthy World

I would have skipped this flick, essentially a tape of John Waters doing his standup schtick, if the director himself weren't in attendance. He gave a brief introduction at Cinema Village, and then answered questions for about 15 minutes afterward.

The movie itself, which is already out on DVD, I believe, is much like Waters himself: Funny, often thoroughly disgusting, but charming nonetheless. It's at its best when he's talking about the early days running around Charm City with the late Divine, just filming whatever they thought would be the most shocking. But in the last 20 minutes, it just devolves into an annotated filmography, with Waters just listing his flicks wtih a running commentary.

Still, if you like John Waters, and I often do, this is well worth a rental.

The History Boys

Maybe I just didn't get this one. The play about a group of eight English lads in their final term of prep for admission into one of the country's big two - Oxford or Cambridge - won like a gazillion Tonys on Broadway.

On screen, however, its just eight competely vacuous twits who revel in their rather sheltered existence as they discuss the vagaries of literature and history. If this sounds painful, it often is. The movie just failed, for me, to deliver any connection to any of these brats, and therefore no reason to care if they succeeded or not.

The best moment, which we admittedly had to run out on to make our dinner reservations, came when Rufus Wainwright crooned "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" over the closing credits. Though I was occasionally bewitched by "The History Boys," it definitely more often left me scratching my head in bewilderment. If there was something I missed, please feel free to let me know.

And there you have it. A weekend of movies, two great, one good and one pretty darn awful. And now, if you'll excuse me, my punishment for this respite from reality is a long day of catchup at work.


Anonymous said...

I caught Volver this weekend, too, and was pretty disappointed. I mean, its pretty and there's mystery and women and all the melodrama that I associate w/ Almaldovar, but I found myself checking my watch, which is never a good sign (I didn't even have dinner reservations to make). I think I'm just tired of him as a brand--and this flick in particular is heavily branded. I understand his cinematic shorthand--Sirk, Hitchcock, to some extent Pasolini, but all of his referential treatment of the medium bypasses any connection to character which is a real shame b/c Maura what's-her-face turns in a great performance. Where are the men, everyone seems to ask--my answer is, behind the camera deploying every trick to undermine the drama.
I wish he'd just get angrier and remember what it was like to be a homo in Franco Spain and put out work on par w/ say, Matador. (And please stop w/ the damn talk shows!)

Reel Fanatic said...

I can see what you mean, Jeremy, but I just had a different reaction, I guess ... I don't think he could ever again make a film as deliciously wicked as Matador, but I enjoy where he is now much more often than not

sanchapanzo said...

the king of scotland..
Movie yet to get released in India, but going by all the promos that I got to see in youtube, I think maybe this movie is trying to glorify Idi Amin :-(

Did you see Meera Nair's 'Mississippi Masala' ?
I thought that movie was very good. It had a different take on Idi's influence on Asian community in Uganda and of course all the problems one hits cause of migration, resettlement in a foreign place etc.,

Anonymous said...

I'm very much looking forward to seeing The Last King of Scotland myself. Forrest Whitaker doesn't get enough work, in my opinion. By the way, your list of favorite movies is an interesting and eclectic mix of films. I too especially liked Stranger Than Paradise, The Snapper, The General, and The Limey.

Reel Fanatic said...

I wouldn't say it glorifies Amin, Sanchapanzo ... It does show that he was charismatic, but that is undeniable ... It doesn't shy away from the fact that he was responsible for the deaths of many people .. And I just loved Mississippi Masala

The Misanthrope said...

I am going following your reviews and see if I can actually take myself away from the books to go to the movies and see Volver. I suspect The Last King of Scotland will be out on DVD sometime soon.

Reel Fanatic said...

I think it (Last King) may be out on DVD soon, misanthrope ... even in New York, it was down to just one screen, though it was still packing the house

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review of The Last King of Scotland. We were actually in Scotland when it came out in theaters in the Tampa Bay area and it was gone before we returned. Now I'm waiting for Netflix to send us the DVD.

Miss Carnivorous said...

I loved Yaphet Kotto as Idi. He's just too hard of an act to follow, even after all these years.

Reel Fanatic said...

I loved Yaphet Kotto in Homicide and many other works, Miss C, but I have to admit I don't know when he played Amin .. what movie was that in?

Anonymous said...

i think i am generally afraid of forrest whittaker. he just did a couple of guest stars on 'ER', and then the scotland movie, he's just scary.

Reel Fanatic said...

Scary? Absolutely ... But I don't think they were going for a cuddly Amin, which he certainly didn't deliver!