This year's Oscars were a strange combination of contrasts: they honored, as an ensemble, the best set of movies in many years, yet a group of movies that has not hit a visceral nerve with filmgoers in the US; they were (or should have been) wide open, yet everyone knew pretty much who was going to win what, and why; and the show, which promised much, with the edgy Chris Rock at the helm, ended up being among the least interesting of awards' nights in living memory. The show rated badly in the US and Australia partly, we're told, because no-one had seen the nominated movies. Yet this was the first year in a while that I had seen all five Best Picture nominees and an overwhelming majority of other films featuring acting nominations (I drew the line at yet another Mike Leigh weep-a-thon, Vera Drake. Life's too short.) Of the five nominated films, I thought that Sideways and Finding Neverland were lucky to be on the list. Sideways is the sort of serious comedy that the Academy's geriatric voters find easy to like. It's not a bad movie, in its own way, even though it is pretty predictable and the protagonist is impossible to empathise with (see below for more details). In my view a more risky, and far less middle-of-the-roadtrip, movie like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind should have been on the list. It was, after all, funnier and more tightly written. As you could have guessed from last issue's reviews, I would have nominated The Incredibles before Finding Neverland. Nonetheless there were a number of fairly strong fields for the awards.
Turning to the awards themselves, I have no caveats about the acting prizes: Cate was great as Kate and Morgan Freeman won as much for his lifetime contribution as for the great turn as "Scrap"; Jamie Foxx I mentioned last month and his Ray is a definitive performance; Hilary Swank deserved her second Oscar in what seemed to be the weakest field of the night (and I'm glad that the Academy declined to reward Annette Bening for her bravery in marrying Shirley MacLaine's brother). The 'small' films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Sideways, were given script awards - more justified for the former than the latter - but missed out on further honors. Sideways had two good supporting performances, and Virginia Madsen might have won in a weaker year but she couldn't match Cate. It was in the realm of Best Picture and Best Director that I find myself at odds with the Academy. As you'll note below, it's not that I dislike Million Dollar Baby, which won both awards, but I believe that such awards should reward risk, as well as success within a movie's genre. Million Dollar Baby is a vast improvement over the plodding Mystic River, and is just about Clint Eastwood's best movie, but The Aviator is much better. It is as good any anything Martin Scorsese has made, and is as ambitious a project as Hollywood has tackled in some time, taking the biopic into some very murky waters, and, like Andy Dufresne, emerging clean on the other side. Eastwood made a very good, small movie; Scorsese survived a high wire act of surpassing risk. But the Academy has become more conservative in its liberalism and was, in my view, crowded into a corner by right-wing talk radio hosts who criticised the thematic element dominating the final third of the Eastwood movie. The Academy decided to buck that pressure and show they were their own people; and in doing so chose the wrong film. But by the time the ceremony came to giving out the big prizes I was so bored I hardly cared.
The Razzies were even more disappointing. The awards to Catwoman were apparently well-deserved but the decision to use the awards to further diss the Bushies for their appearances in Fahrenheit 9/11 didn't work. The Golden Raspberry Foundation (established to dishonor the worst in film-making) needed to take more notice of Alexander (which was at least nominated in a number of categories) and Troy and King Arthur (which weren't). After all it is dud pseudo-epics and blunderful superhero flicks that are the major drains on the movie dollar that might better be spent on something creative, like a script.
Maggie goes the distance
In his own sneaky way, veteran actor Clint Eastwood has become one of the best directors in Hollywood. And it hasn't always been for the sometime dreary pieces for which he has received Oscar nominations; films like The Unforgiven and Mystic River. Absolute Power, Bird and Space Cowboys all demonstrate what he can do with the right material. Million Dollar Baby gives him the best script of his directing career and he turns out what is probably his best movie. Here he is helped by the spare prose of the source material, one of a series of short stories about boxing, written at the end of his career by a cut-man who used the pseudo-plume, FX Toole. Toole's words can be found particularly in the narration of "Scrap-Iron" Dupris, a former fighter who works as the cleaner in Frankie Dunn's down-market gym. [If there's magic in boxing is the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance, beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys and detached retinas. It's the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.] Played by Morgan Freeman, in a weird, slightly derived echo of The Shawshank Redemption, Scrap leads us into Frankie's world, and the world of boxing at the base level. Frankie (Eastwood) trains and manages boxers but is afraid to over-commit them, a legacy of what happened when he was in Scrap's corner twenty-three years earlier. He loses his best boxer to a more edgy manager because his conservatism costs the fighter a shot at a title. Into this milieu comes Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a thirty-something waiter from the trailer parks of the south-east who is determined to box and wants to be trained. It is her training and her bouts that dominate the bulk of the film. The training lets Eastwood place moire FX Toole in Freeman's narration: [To make a fighter you gotta strip them down to bare wood. You can't just tell 'em to forget everything you know: if you gotta make 'em forget even their bones ... Make 'em so tired they only listen to you, only hear your voice, only do what you say and nothing else ... Show 'em how to keep their balance and take it away from the other guy ... How to generate momentum off their right toe and how to flex your knees when you fire a jab ... How to fly back and up so that the other guy doesn't want to come after you. Then you gotta show 'em all over again. Over and over and over ... 'till they think they're born that way.] The complex interplay between the three protagonists, each with their own background - Frankie's alienation from his daughter and guilt over Scrap's injury; Scrap's devotion to Frankie; Maggie's need to escape the poverty and deprivation of her background, leads to a great character study. This is well directed and the setting, mostly grungy gyms and fight clubs, beautifully realised by the production design of Henry Bumstead, an Art Director and Production Designer who's been a leading figure in Hollywood for over nigh on 60 years. Such artist/technicians are not noted nearly often enough, even when they have done films like Vertigo, To Kill a Mockingbird and Slaughterhouse Five. In the last third the movie makes a u-turn, moving out of the square circle into a more confronting examination of a major social issue. I will not spoil this plot development except to note that, while the pace slows, the acting continues to impress and the integrity of the characters is maintained. This is a quite old-fashioned movie, not that there is anything wrong with that. And a damned good one. All three leading actors are great, but it is Hilary Swank whose performance you'll remember. For someone who got her start in the fourth of the Karate Kid movies, she has come a long way and deservedly won Oscars for two outstanding performances. In Million Dollar Baby she is Maggie Fitzgerald: she looks the part; the lives the part; and she wins your sympathy and your empathy. If Eastwood and Freeman are not quite as good it's because Maggie is the central character and because the actors have played those parts before in other, maybe better, movies. Inevitably it is Scrap, using FX Toole's words, who sums it up: [All fighters are pig-headed some way or another. Some part of them always thinks they know better than you about something. Truth is: even if they're wrong, even if that one thing is going to be the ruin of them, if you can beat that last bad out of them ... They ain't fighters at all.] Swank's Maggie is a fighter and Million Dollar Baby is not a Rocky film. It transcends the boxing film cliches. It will move you and give you pause for thought. And you can't ask for much more for your ten bucks.
Leo's Howard; Cate's Kate
Before there was FX Toole to work with, Martin Scorsese made one of the better boxing films, Raging Bull, but is probably best known for his Mob films, like Goodfellas and Casino. And you can add two brilliant but confronting films like Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, the definitive rock concert film, The Last Waltz, an under-rated period piece, Age of Innocence, an original musical, New York, New York, and even a semi-documentary biopic of the Dalai Lama, Kundun. Scorsese is at the forefront of contemporary directors, in any metier, and is an avid student of film, as his television documentary series on American cinema demonstrates. The Aviator allows Scorsese to combine his fascination with the lives of the great against the background of movie business, which he finds equally fascinating. This time he selects one of the more interesting and turbulent Americans of the last century, Howard Hughes, as his study. Hughes' instability and increasingly erratic behavior, leading to his mental disintegration, is one of the great tragedies and it is risk-taking of the highest order even to attempt to chronicle this. The people with whom Hughes interacts, from the aviation business, films and politics, are real and still well-remembered, adding yet another layer of risk. The first thing to report, therefore, is that not only does Scorsese succeed in capturing the life and times of H Hughes from the late 1920s to the mid 1950s, he does so brilliantly and evocatively in a well-honed and nuanced movie about the pressures of greatness and fame. The film opens when Hughes is shooting Hell's Angels, a silent WWI flying epic, using the money he inherited from the Hughes Tool Company to bankroll his Hollywood adventure; a film he reshoots in sound soon after The Jazz Singer. The story arc then follows Hughes' twin obsessions, as he builds faster and bigger airplanes and makes even more daring films; and the contrast between his public persona as a Hollywood mogul and his increasingly demanding private demons. Leonardo DiCaprio shocked the hell out of me by the performance he gives in the lead. The one concern I had was that the incredibly boyish actor didn't quite age enough into the mature Hughes of the mid 1950s but that was a small caveat as Scorsese manages to eke out of an actor I normally find callow and uninteresting (his turn in Romeo+Juliet excepted until now). There are reasonably long periods when the actor has to hold the movie together, particularly the period when his obsessive-compulsive behavior leads to his self-imposed incarceration in a projection room in his studio. The support cast is equally outstanding, particularly Cate Blanchett, asked to play Katherine Hepburn, who slept with Hughes for a number of years between her marriage and her meeting with Spencer Tracy. Blanchett, as my readers will be aware, can do little wrong in my eyes but here she outdoes herself. It is undoubtedly her best work since Elizabeth and deserves all the accolades she is receiving. The film is at its best and most exciting when she is on screen. She is Hepburn in much the same way that Jude Law is not Errol Flynn and Kate Beckinsale is not Ava Gardner. Good acting jobs but they don't catch the people. There are four other performances of note. The reliable John C Reilly (so good in Chicago) is Hughes' accountant Noah Dietrich, Alec Baldwin his nemesis Juan Trippe, owner of Pan Am, Alan Alda is a particularly nasty senator and Ian Holm Hughes' pet meteorologist. Alda's performance is particularly of note because it shows the power, and the fallibility, of senatorial inquests - the use of historical records to indicate the way in which Hughes was able to turn the tables on his accuser is nicely done. So is the flight of the "Spruce Goose", Hughes' magnificent obsession that had but one flight, of limited duration. The script of The Aviator is good, the performances generally top quality and the historical background magnificently realised (Scorsese goes further than necessary by using in each time period the film color techniques that were extant at the time, so in the pre-Technicolor world of the 1930s when Hughes and Hepburn meet the greens are almost turquoise, as they were in those days of two-color processing). But my hat goes off to Scorsese in particular. While critics have insisted that his metier is the gangster film, I disagree. His best work has been in the intimate character studies of his period pieces (Gangs of New York excepted). So many people (including unfortunately the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) have overlooked the qualities of Age of Innocence and New York, New York, and many people have unfairly underestimated The Aviator. This is the film of 2004 and if you don't see during its cinema release you are a fool to yourself and a burden to your family.
Roadtrip goes ever on
There are some movies whose wavelength you don't get on. No matter how many well-meaning people tell you it's a great movie; no matter how many critics with whom you normally agree give it five stars; no matter how many awards it wins. Sometimes you react differently from the crowd - especially, in the case of critics, the rent-a-crowd. Sideways is such a movie. Intellectually I can perhaps see why so many have gone so overboard about it but ... I don't experience movies intellectually, I experience them viscerally, and viscerally Sideways didn't do it for me. It's not a bad movie or a dull movie or a waste of celluloid; it's not as over-rated as, say, Mystic River or Gangs of New York, to name recent movies by 2004's better directors. So, what was the problem? The film's script was neat enough: two mates (mismatched it must be admitted - college roommates who have somehow kept in touch) go for a week in the California wine country. Miles is a wine snob; Jack is a womaniser who's about to be married and this is his 'last fling'. During their peregrinations they hook up with two women, Maya, a waiter, and Stephanie, a wine pourer, have some adventures, split up, experience happiness and disasters, and return for the wedding. The story arc is simplicity itself: the essence of the modern buddy road movie. But it doesn't jell. Miles is a depressive, failed writer, filling his time as a middle school English teacher, still going through a divorce several years after it's all over, and tending to taste the wine to an extreme degree. Closer to alcoholic than oenophile. Paul Giamatti plays him much as he's played a number of other parts recently (ie well) but he is such a turn off that there was no identification or empathy. Jack is not drawn so sympathetically. He too is a failure, an actor eking out a marginal living doing voiceovers on ads, and failing in any attempt at monogamy. He has no trouble attracting women and vows to get Miles laid as well. Thomas Haden Church does a good job with this character, especially towards the end when the implications of his cheating start to become apparent to him. The women are played by Virginia Madsen, who is the best thing in the movie, displaying vulnerability and depth, and Sandra Oh, whose character isn't as well developed. The differences between the characters arises from the fact that Miles and Maya are the point of view and Jack and Stephanie are somewhat relegated for much of the movie. The comedy/drama plays out well enough. Alexander Payne's direction is strong enough to suggest that his talent is one which, with the right material, like he had in Election, will lead to many good, and mordant, movies. There are a number of good scenes, particularly the one where Miles and Maya use wine metaphors to distinguish their world views. Madsen is so good in this scene and others that you wonder why Maya would be caught slumming with Miles [Maya: I started to appreciate the life of wine, that it's a living thing, that it connects you more to life. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing. I like the think about how the sun was shining that summer and what the weather was like. I think about all those people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I love how wine continues to evolve, how if I open a bottle the wine will taste different than if I had uncorked it on any other day, or at any other moment. A bottle of wine is like life itself - it grows up, evolves and gains complexity. Then it tastes so fucking good]. It's great to see a good, but under-utilised, actor given a chance to shine in a movie that many will see but the movie needed many more good scenes than it had, and some sort better idea of where it wanted to go. It had worn out its welcome long before the long and largely unnecessary anti-climax that, in my view, derogates from whatever oomph the movie might have had. I wish I had liked this movie more.
Ambush from ten sides
And I felt much the same way about Zhang Yimon's Shi mian mai fu (House of Flying Daggers). I understand that the Chinese martial arts movie has about as many overlays, strictures, metaphors and traditions as the American western once had but, given the efforts made by Jackie Chan at one end and Ang Lee at the other, to bring these limitations within the scope of a greater universality, it is a pity that the latest of these epics has about the same bugfuck stupidity as Alexander or Troy. It is no longer good enough that a movie look good if it is silly in its story and makes no sense. We move inexorably towards the picture postcard version of the sfx movie: all sound and fury but signifying nothing. Zhang has undoubtedly created a movie of great beauty and his use of color, costume and scenery is lavish and exciting. But ... The movie starts very well with its three protagonists thrown together: Jin (Japan's Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Hong Kong's Andy Lau) are local police officers who suspect that the blind courtesan Mei (China's Zhang Ziyi) may be an agent of the House of Flying Daggers, a subversive organization opposed to the current central government. Jin goes undercover to the Peony Pavilion, the brothel where Mei works, to observe her. She dances for him; and then, for Leo, she takes part in an 'echo game' where she uses a weighted scarf to replicate the rhythm with which Leo hits a series of drums with dried beans. These early scenes are both inventive and well-constructed although one suspects that enough care won't be taken when after Leo throws a plethora of beans at the various drums and they fall to the floor, they disappear from the scene before the sword-fight between him and Mei. After she is arrested, Jin helps Mei escape from police custody in order that she will lead them to the baddies' headquarters. During the flight the two start to fall in love (there's a novel plot twist) and there are a series of confrontations between them and the troops pursuing them. This is climaxed by another tree-top fight scene, this time in a bamboo patch - and one not nearly as well done or as credible as the one staged in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In fact it was in this scene, particularly with its overly rapid production of bamboo daggers and disappearing ground traps, that my willing suspension of disbelief became unwilling. There are the usual myriad of plot twists, concerning identity, loyalty, love and betrayal, none of which will surprise anyone remotely connected to a century of movie-making or a millennium of folk tales, leading to a climactic fight scene involving the three protagonists - and a more important battle that is completely ignored. In the final confrontation the seasons literally change while the fight is going on - beautiful no doubt but further destroying any connection between the viewer and the action. I can see what the film-maker was trying to do in melding the action sequences of the martial arts movie with the intensity and high drama of operatic love and betrayal but the elements failed to jell, leaving the movie as an interesting failure bu t a failure nonetheless. One or two interesting scenes, and even the beauty and good acting of Zhang Ziyi, don't add up to a successful movie. The literal translation of the Chinese title is Ambush from Ten Sides. That's how I felt at the end of this film.
Tribes go to war
Much more successful as movie-making, and as a social document, is Hotel Rwanda, the low-budget sleeper of 2004. In its subject matter and handling, it breaks most of the rules, and is none the worse for that. It shines a light on the events in Rwanda in 1994, when the world stood idly by as over a million Tutsis were killed by their Hutu neighbours. At a time when a similar ethnic slaughter continues in the Darfur region of Sudan, it is obviously a lesson that the world still needs to learn from. Director Terry George and his co-writer have decided that the best way of getting our heads around the immensity of the Rwanda tragedy is to deal with the deaths obliquely. Thus he chooses as his protagonists, and points of view, a Hutu hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) and his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), a Tutsi. As the story develops we find out that the distinction between the two 'tribes' is one imposed by their former colonial masters, the Belgians, and not arising from some deep historical contretemps. And that the Hutus are now in charge of the government and military and are being urged by radical Hutu provacateurs, broadcasting on a local radio station to take action against the 'cockroaches'. The assassination of a leading Hutu politician being the spark used to inflame the situation. Paul Rusesabagina is not in charge of the hotel: the Belgian-owned four-star establishment is run by a white rep of the home company, but he is the senior African staff member and we are shown how he has built up a network of suppliers and how he keeps the senior military sweet. His imagination does not extend to the sort of violence that the radicals are stirring up so he is gradually led into a situation where he, and his hotel, becomes the guardians of a large number of Tutsis refugees. And, as he tries to feed and house, and preserve his charges, he gets an education - both in the futility of relying on international support and in the viciousness of the radicals in carrying out their ethnic cleansing. The UN peace-keepers, led by Nick Nolte's Canadian colonel, use the hotel as a place where they bring many seeking refuge. While Paul's primary concern remains the safety of his wife and children, he increasingly recognises that his skills are required for the survival of the 1200 Rwandans eventually housed in his establishment. The outside world is shown to be unprepared to intervene, except to ensure the evacuation of their own people. The peace-keepers are not allowed to be peace-makers; the diplomats of the US State Department make distinctions between 'genocide' and 'acts of genocide', a distinction without a difference still being employed in regard to Darfur. All of this would simply not work without good scripting, taut direction and top-class acting. Hotel Rwanda is blessed with all three. In particular Cheadle and Okonedo are brilliant as the married couple trying to come to terms with a situation beyond their comprehension. Nolte is an effective support, as is a number of African actors with whom I was previously unfamiliar, notably Desmond Dube and Fana Mokoena whose General Bizimungo captures the bravado, power and cowardice of the man. The Rwandan tragedy is a source of shame for the entire Western world that stood by as it happened. This movie brings home the human side of the tragedy - and by extension all such events - without preaching or didacticism. It tells us, in an entertaining, and sometimes even amusing, way that there are heroes in such situations and also that there is no limit on human evil. Thoroughly recommended.
Romance with a hitch
Hitch is romantic comedy. It is even occasionally amusing. And it demonstrates that Will Smith, whose start was in such light roles, has the persona to open and carry a movie, without the need for gratuitous sfx and monsters hither and yon (it's taken about $US150m in its first five weeks of release - the first 2005 movie over $US100m in box office gross). The eponymous character is an expert in the mating game who, for a fee, will train the feckless urban male in the minutiae of the battle of the sexes. His aim in this is not to train a group of male urban warriors who will take unfair advantage of the opposite sex but to give the romantically halt an even chance of getting to the first kiss and thereby winning the girl to true love. The film's main subplot deals with the attempts by Albert, an overweight and geeky accountant (played by television 'star' Kevin James), to win the love of an heiress, Allegra (Amber Valletta). Meanwhile gossip columnist Sara, who follows Allegra's movements intimately, meets cute with Hitch who pursues her - with exactly the sort of lack of cool you'd expect in a romantic comedy. Naturally there are complications, confusions and not a little humor in the parallel love affairs; and naturally there are resolutions to both affairs, after climactic scenes of confrontation. Such films rely largely on the personality of the leads and, to an extent, on the ability of the script to balance the various elements and not spoil the fun by overly complex or unbelievable plot developments. Hitch by and large manages these elements well. Smith is smooth in the lead and Valletta provides the spark required for the ingenue in the subplot. James is particularly effective and may make the transition to the big screen, in support roles if not the lead. The one questionable element is the casting of Eva Mendes as the gossip maeven. She doesn't have quite the lightish touch needed for the part; her romance with Smith never quite works. That was balanced in part by a very good cameo from Adam Arkin as her boss. Hitch is good lightweight fare and worth seeing.
Prime of Maggie Smith
That goes double for My House in Umbria, a pleasant romp in romantic Italy that allows a mature Maggie Smith to strut her stuff. The Sydney Morning Herald review talked disparagingly of 'Chianti-shire', what the reviewer saw as the English view of the Pom abroad in a beautifully realised Italian countryside. But that is an unfair knock on this film, and on a series of recent films set in a romantic version of Italy. This one starts with a bang and then goes on a different tack. Emily Delahunty is a writer of romances, living in the Italian outback, who is caught in a terrorist bombing of a train. She is one of four survivors of the compartment most badly affected - in fact the only one with fatalities. The other three are a retired English general whose daughter was killed; a German student who lost his girlfriend; and an twelve-year-old American girl whose parents died in the explosion. Maggie puts them up at her villa while the police sift through the evidence. Into this menage comes the girl's academic uncle who arrives to claim her for the family. Of them all Aimee, the girl (Emmy Clarke), is the one suffering most. She exhibits post-traumatic shock first through muteness and also through a series of confronting death paintings that she cannot recall making. The German's injuries are physical and he needs to recover from burns, while the General (Ronnie Barker) has lost his last blood relative and is in need of a substitute family. Emily becomes their surrogate mother, overseeing their recovery and readjustment. In this she is assisted by the major domo, Quinty (Timothy Spall in another of his increasing repertoire of eccentric roles), and by the sympathetic policeman (Giancarlo Giannini). The recovery is interrupted by the arrival of Uncle Tom (Chris Cooper), a taciturn and remote scientist who was alienated from his sister's family and guilt-ridden as a result. The scenario has some fun with a little role reversal: in this case it is the American who is reserved and overly formal and the Pom who is more emotional and out-going. Maggie gets a couple of delightful scenes where Emily is in her cups and misinterpreting all the signals given off by the resistant professor. The mystery of the bomb is resolved before the end and the more pressing problem of Aimee's future is also resolved, both in a very predictable way. But the cast has a lot of fun along the way, particularly Maggie Smith and Timothy Spall, who provide the portraits of a couple of aging Pom eccentrics abroad. The film was made for television in the US, by HBO, the home of a large number of excellent productions. It won awards for its acting at various TV award shows, deservedly. Add to that the beautiful scenery, provided by the Production Designer Luciana Arrighi, an Australian who's been working OS for about 40 years, including a lovely Umbrian hill-town and a visit to the delightful Siena and you have an unexpected bonus of a good looking movie well told.
Darcy's still a stick
It had to happen. Jane Austen has been adapted to all sorts of films and mini-series (Colin Firth played Darcy as a colorless, odorless and lifeless gentle in the most recent Pride and Prejudice miniseries) lately, from period pieces set in the right period through high school versions of Emma (Clueless), American college versions of Pride and Prejudice (wittily titled Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy, only it wasn't apparently) and self-deprecating overweight modern versions of P&P (Briget Jones in her various diaries, together with the inevitable Mr Darcy - still Colin Firth - still with a charisma-bypass). Could a musical be far behind? The answer is of course no. But not only have we a musical but Bride and Prejudice is a Bollywood musical, co-written and directed by the British-based Punjabi director, Gurinder Chadha, previously responsible for Bend it Like Beckham. It's all here: the grasping mother keen to marry off her marriageable daughters as wealthily as possible, the put-upon father stoically enduring all her schemes, four daughters (a slight discount for cash), and a parade of eligible (and some quite questionable) bachelors, and their sisters. The Bennetts are now the Bakshis; Elizabeth is Lalita; and Mr Darcy is Mr Darcy - although thankfully they didn't use Colin Firth. They found an American named Martin Henderson who makes Firth look like Mr Personality. Former Miss World Aishwarya Rai is Lalita and a former Miss Universe runner-up Namrata Shirodkar is her sister Jaya - so much for the eye-candy. They are also very good in their roles, bringing a great deal of verve to the parts, and demonstrating some ability to sing and to dance. Anupam Kher (the father in Beckham) is again the pater familias and Nadira Babbar makes a great Indian Mrs Bennett: she'll set your teeth on edge. The ability to sing and dance is important here because the Bollywood musical reintroduces into modern film the completely gratuitous production number - where entire streets full of people can burst into song and dance at the drop of a chapati. They also rely on gorgeous colors and costumes to fill out the screen. The big musical number in the streets of Amritsar is a joy to behold. If you get the idea that Bride and Prejudice is a very silly romp - that is exactly what it is. Taken at face value, without any attempt to analyse or justify the extravagance or reconcile the contradictions it is just plaint entertaining - more than entertaining enough for you to consider spending your hard earned on it. And if at the same time you can perve on some sub-continental eye candy and, also, contemplate why such joie-de-vivre has disappeared in much Western cinema, then you won't feel your time has been wasted. Just don't go expecting anything more than what it offers.
Neither drowning nor waving
I want to say exactly the same about Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou except that I am not sure what it is exactly that this movie offers and what you get from it. The movie is an attempt at an off-centre comedy, of the sort that Charlie Kaufmann and David Russell have attempted and occasionally perfected. It would be regarded more as whimsy than as thigh-slapping. And in essence it isn't that bad a movie; it just doesn't achieve whatever it is that it sets out to do. Director Wes Anderson has been in this territory before, in Rushmore, which I liked, and The Royal Tennebaums, which I didn't. The movie sets out to chart a voyage of a Cousteau-like oceanographer-film-maker but one who has passed his peak. The film opens with the shhowing of his latest documentary that chronicles the death of his long-time partner at the hands of an apparently new species of shark. He vows to exact revenge. Back by a crew of equally bizarre supporters, Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) then sets out to fulfil his mission. He is joined by a younger man who may be his natural son (Owen Wilson) and by a female British reporter (Cate Blanchett) who is to write a cover story on him. The voyage, like the film, is a series of events rather than a coherent narrative. Some of the incidents work; many do not. And that is the trouble with the film, the script, the acting and the direction. It's hit and miss. Murray is generally very good and Blanchett, as usual, make her character work, despite the handicaps presented by the writing and direction. There are a number of other good performances, including Willem Dafoe and Michael Gambon. I am not quite so sure about Jeff Goldblum or Angelica Huston, whose characters have less to work with. The ship also works: Anderson has created a set that allows his camera to follow the characters along decks and up gangways throughout the ship - a cutaway model. But, by the time, the crew have arrived at their destination and descend in their mini-sub - when the creative folk are able best to present their CGI marvels of the deep - I'd lost interest. A movie that might have been one of the truly original creations had lost its way. This is a movie that I cannot recommend you see; nor, however, would I warn you away from it. It is so strange and unusual that you might be the viewer whose wavelength it is on. I thought for a time that it was on mine but somewhere along the line we deviated and I cannot work out whether it was Anderson's fault or mine.
[Note: Information about the movies mentioned, including cast and crew lists and all sorts of trivia, is available at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).]
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Last updated: 10 June 2005